CJ Stone has been writing for Tangentopoli and has been involved in the coverage of our particular brand of free party culture since its inception as a free magazine for the party people of Kent in 1993. CJ made his first appearance in issue 7 on November 20th 1993 with an article entitled 'Notes From the Other Side by The Id' which covered a tVC Barn Party for 500 on the 21st August that year in Blean near Canterbury, Kent .
CJ went on to write his Housing Benefit Hill articles for the Guardian Weekend for two years. He has also written a regular column called 'The Free Party Chronicles' for Mixmag Magazine, has contributed to The Big Issue, The New Statesman and many other publications. Most of which are reprinted in the Tangentopoli e-zine. He has also performed two spoken word tours, worked as a car park attendant at Sainsburys in Canterbury and is currently a contributor to The Independant newspaper. He is now researching material for his new book.
His first book, called 'Fierce Dancing: Adventures in the Underground', was published by Faber and Faber on 1st May 1996. Price £6.99. CJ Stone's new book, 'The Last of the Hippies', was published by Faber and Faber on May 7th 1999. Price: £9.99 ISBN 0-571-19313-7
CJ Stone writes:
Don't bother to read these stories on-line. Save them to disk, and read them at your leisure later. I hope you enjoy them. I'll make up another collection of early Guardian columns at a later date, in case any one is interested.
This is an expanded version of a story I wrote for the Independent on Sunday. It's how I wrote it, rather than how it was published. It's about my son.
Joseph was born sometime in the early hours of the morning, September 15th 1980. It was one-thirty in the morning. Or at least I think it was. I have a clear visual recollection of the clock on the delivery room wall - one of those standard, circular hospital clocks with clean black figures and hands - and it reads just after one-thirty. I can even see the slim, red second-hand ticking round. It's just that I can't be sure whether it's a real clock or not. I may have made it up.
That's the trouble with memories. You never really know where they're coming from.
I have other memories too. I can see the flushed effort on his mother's face as she forces down and down to the cheer-leader chants of the nursing staff. "That's it dear: push, push." I remember thinking that it looked like mighty hard work, that's why they call it labour. And one funny incident. One of the nurses handed me a glass of water. "Thanks," I said, taking a sip and setting it down on the side. The nurse gave me a curt, disbelieving look. It was only later that I realised that the water was meant for the woman on the bed, not for me.
Later I remember the surrealistic image of his head pooping out from between her legs, poised in a moment of Monty Python silliness, before the rest of his body slithered out like a blood-flecked snake from its red lair. And I remember the look on his face too, like one of those Buddhist demons, all crimson fury, as if he was fuming with indignation that we had dared exorcise him to this place, when he was perfectly happy where he was.
Mostly I remember the moment when he was laid upon his mother's breast, and how she glanced from him to me. There was something indescribable in her eyes, like some glint from another star; something warm but wise, elemental but kind, strange but friendly. All-embracing. Call it love. There is no other word.
There were only three people in the world in that moment. No one else mattered.
And then, when it was all over, and his mum was taking a well-earned rest, I was cast into the neon emptiness of a Scunthorpe night, and I felt strangely bereft, strangely choked. Why Scunthorpe of all places? Because that's where we lived at the time. Or rather, we lived in Barton-on-Humber, about 15 miles away in what was then South Humberside. So Joe has "Scunthorpe" as his place of birth, both on his birth certificate and on his passport. Poor Joe. Of all the legacies of an itinerant life, this one must be the most peculiar for him, the most difficult to comprehend. Because that's all it is to him, a mystical place-name on his birth-certificate. He's only ever been there once.
I rang up my parents from a telephone box and told them the news. They congratulated me. It didn't help. I felt very alone. Later I slept on a wooden bench in Scunthorpe bus station, and awoke in the grey dawn to the sight of oil-stained concrete and scattered crisp-packets.
Well I may have got the details wrong here. I may be romanticising. But one thing I am sure of. One thing I know for certain. I know how it felt for me. It was as if, in being born, Joseph had changed the world forever. I remember thinking exactly that: that this one, small, bright new life had breathed new light into the world; a new perception, a new thought. It was a spiritual thing. He was like Jesus to me. I was absolutely certain about this, that the whole world had changed because of the birth of this one child.
Which it had, of course. But only for me and his mum.
After that they came home, and there were several weeks - months maybe - in which I had a pang in my chest like a hot dagger. It was difficult to know what this meant. It was a very corporeal kind of a feeling. Not mystical or emotional. Of the body. Maybe the body is the soul in another form. Maybe what hurts is what is real. But a baby is a very demanding creature. All tongue and arse and lungs. An innocent dictator, he stands over everything, a little Hitler making raucous, unintelligible speeches about the Motherland. Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer. Gimme, gimme, gimme. I want, I want, I want. Sometimes it became very hard to bear. Sometimes, I'm afraid, I even resented him.
But there were compensations too. There were the Arabesque swirls of a black, wrought-iron candle-stick holder hanging on a hook on the back of the bedroom door, and Joe's reaction: how he would look at it and point and laugh, as if this was the best joke in the world, as if this mundane object held some immense secret and he was trying to impart it to us. And the song I used to sing, rawly and croakingly, into his ear, as he lay with his head on my shoulder, as I danced about trying to get him to sleep:
"Wouldn't you agree, baby you and me,
We've got a groovy kind of love?"
It was a song I'd loved as a child.
We moved around a lot in Joe's early years. From Barton-on-Humber to Bristol. From there to Whitstable in Kent. From estuary to estuary, for some reason. It's because I'm a Brummie. Brummies always have a fascination for the sea.
And, despite the moves, life developed a routine. It was one of those things. Always, "who's going to look after Joe today? It's your turn to get him up." "No, it's your turn." And in the following years his mum and I drifted apart. We no longer knew whether we were together because of each other, or only because of him. I became sullen and depressed. She was much younger than me. She'd had Joe at a very early age. Maybe she longed to have her own young life back. Eventually we split up.
This is a very ordinary kind of a story, of course, and I'm sorry if you've heard it before. It is the story of the late-twentieth century. Where it is maybe a little different in our case is in the situation we found ourselves in when we split. We were living in a commune. I'd had enough residual hippiedom in me to have been able to engineer this situation. So, while his mum continued her college course in London, Joe stayed with me. And - being sullen hippies, all of us - child rearing was a shared occupation. Later, again, I moved out of the commune, but the shared child-care continued. So that was how Joe was brought up, shuffling between a shared house in one part of Whitstable, my council-owned maisonette in another, and his mum's flat in London.
It's a surprise he isn't completely mad. He told me he's been counting the times he's moved. Thirteen times, he reckons, in only a few more years.
Where we can thank that commune is that Joe never felt the split like a schism in himself. He never felt like he was forced to choose between the two adults. Because there were many more adults in his life. I was only one of them. His mum was only another. So: no problem really. He could navigate his way between the emotional reefs with a certain grace. He had other people to refer to.
As for his relationship to me: there was always a fierce loyalty there.
I became wild after the break-up with his mum. I was a gad-about. I took drugs. I had a lot of relationships. I think I probably broke many more than one heart. I got drunk and loud and - occasionally - unpleasant. I was head-strong and indifferent to the opinions of others. I lost a lot of friends.
And at first I resented Joe too. I kind of blamed him for the loss of the great love of my life. If only he hadn't been around, I thought, maybe we'd have been happy. Maybe we could still be together. A vain hope, of course. But, when you're in turmoil it's easy to clutch at straws.
All that began to change when we took a holiday in Tenerife. He was about six-and-a-half years old by now. This was about a year after the break-up. Joe and I shared a room. We went to bed at the same time and got up at the same time. We discussed what we'd like for lunch, and discovered we had the same tastes. Tinned octopus and other savouries. Crunchy bread and olives. We'd go to a bar in the evening and stay up late. I drank beer while he drank ginger beer. He discovered he liked staying up late, a habit which he has never quite got out of. It made him feel like one of the adults. And, before we went to sleep at night, we'd discuss our favourite things on TV. He liked cartoons, of course. I told him my favourite cartoon character was Bugs Bunny, and he agreed. "What's up, Doc?" we'd say, and break into fits of giggles.
Suddenly I came to know how lucky I was. How beautiful this boy was, and how much he loved me. How much I loved him. How important he was in my life. Motherhood, I thought, was a natural thing, ordained by hormonal nature. Fatherhood, on the other hand, is a rational thing. It has to be decided.
Things came into focus. I remembered a certain look he'd given me more than once, fleeting and bashful and full of surprised admiration, and how he would run towards me with his arms open, like I was his great big teddy bear, burying himself in my beard. I've been as cuddly as any teddy bear.
After that he would watch me. He's seen me in all my turmoil. He's seen me in tears as I fall in love, and tears as I fall out of it again. He's seen me sober and practical, drunk and emotional, domesticated, wild, and absurd by turns. He's seen it all. And never once has he lost his faith in me. Never once has he allowed my madness to get in the way of our friendship.
There was a lot of criticism over the way I chose to lead my life. Joe never listened to any of it. And the only criticism I've ever listened to is Joe's. Once he told me that I was a nasty, spiteful old man. I guess I was going through a hard time again, and was taking it out on him. But those words seared into me like the kind of truth you could only get from God. You can be sure I listened to him, and that I was never nasty, spiteful or old again.
Which kind of brings us up to date. Joe is 18 years old now, and he lives with me. We share a rented house in Whitstable. He's just passed his driving test, and is currently doing his A-levels. The other people in the commune have moved away, though he keeps in contact with them. His mum still lives in London, where she pursues a successful photography career. She's married, to another photographer. I still love her, though not as a lover any more. As the mother of my son. We all seem to get along.
And Joe is a typical young man. Smart-casual, with a citrus-gel quiff, and a habit of wearing after-shave though he hardly needs to shave, he drives his car - a Citroen AX - with a kind of controlled insouciance, changing up the gears and accelerating at an alarming rate. He's not at all like me. He's not at all like his mum. He's not at all like the other people in the commune, though he's learnt a lot from all of us. In my case, what I've had to teach him has been mainly negative. How not to live your life. How not to fuck up your relationships. He's learnt his lessons well, being self-possessed and extraordinarily loyal. It's like he has learned the courage to be ordinary.
A credit to his Old Man.
This is an unpublished section from my book, The Last of the Hippies. I'm not sure why I excluded it now. It's about the Bridgewater Carnival, a spectacle I would highly recommend.
Within a couple of days of arriving in the town I went to the Glastonbury Carnival.
Actually it's not really Glastonbury Carnival at all. It starts in nearby Bridgewater around November the 5th, and then worms and snakes and shimmies its way through all the local towns over a succession of weekends. This weekend was Glastonbury's turn.
Jude was going to a party. She said, "when you get bored of all the mad drunks you can come up for a few drinks." I never did make it to the party.
I found myself a nice spot, just outside a pub where I knew the barmaid. There was a waste bin, on which I could balance my drink. And then I waited. There were thousands of people about. Many of them had selected their spots hours before. There were deckchairs lined up on the pavement up and down the High St. You could feel the excitement building up in the crowd. Some people were already line-dancing in the street.
I didn't know what to expect. I mean, I'd been given all the statistics. It's the largest illuminated parade in Europe, I was told. Each major float is 100ft long by 11ft wide by 17 and a 1/2ft high, with between 15,000 to 20,000 light bulbs, powered by megawatt generators. I wasn't sure if that was 15,000 to 20,000 light bulbs per float, or 15,000 to 20,000 light bulbs altogether. I tried counting them. I always got lost after about a hundred and fifty.
There were 130 entries this year, including 70 floats. The whole procession is three miles long.
It's all very well being told that sort of thing. But you have to see it to believe it.
I was starting to get nicely drunk by now, waiting for the Carnival to appear. I kept slipping back into the pub for another one. The bar staff were doing a magnificent job. I don't think they had a moment's rest in six or seven hours or more.
While I was waiting I had this monologue going through my head. These are the straights, I was thinking. These are the ones the hippies despise. But who are they? They're everyone. And there's some rogues here and some religious types, and some good people and some bad people and - yes - maybe even a saint or two. And there's clever people and dumb people, and ordinary people and weird people, and - yes - even a wise person or two. And there's sad people and happy people and lonely people and gregarious people. And kind people, and scheming people, and shucktsers and charlatans, and honest people and some who'd sell their own grandmother for a drink. Just like the hippies I'd met, only more of them. It's just the people, that's all, milling about here, there and everywhere, excited, demented, argumentative, rollicking drunk or stoned, getting on with their ordinary lives.
Some bloke slipped in by the waste bin next to me. He was using the waste bin to skin up. He offered me a dab of speed, which I took. Then I bought him a drink, and then he bought me a drink. He was from Essex.
The first figure to come up the road was a man dressed in a hooded cowl with a skull mask dragging a pair of coffins. That's when I knew that this whole thing was pagan. A festival of lights in the dark part of the year. Paganism simply refers to the beliefs and practices of the people. No need for Archdruids or High Priestesses. It's democratic. It has nothing whatsoever to do with religion.
After that it was a brass band, all dressed in Batman costumes. And that's when I started to laugh. It was a bunch of middle-aged men in Batman costumes, with their spectacles stuck on the outside of their masks, deliciously ridiculous. I never stopped laughing after that. And then the floats came. They were, as the statistics had told me, illuminated. But no amount of statistics can describe the effect.
It was like that feeling you had when you were a child and went to your first fair. All the moving lights, the bustle, the rides. The excitement is in the very air around you, like sizzling electricity. It was like the Carnival Floats had got hold of that special kind of electricity, and that's what they were running on.
They were pulled by giant tractors, with the megawatt generators trailing along behind.
The images were crass: kitsch nonsense. But that didn't matter. It was all the usual stuff: scenes from Star Wars and Disney. The Black-and-White Minstrels. The Telly-Tubbies. There were a couple of Egyptian style floats, with pyramids and hieroglyphs and dog-headed deities. One Chinese float with ideograms. One Japanese, with Samurai. One or two Red Indian scenes, one Christmas scene. I was listing them all as they went by to my friend from Essex. "Look. That's the third Shamanistic float. There's another Egyptian one." But the images didn't matter. The point was, they were fantasies made real.
The people on the floats were either dancing or standing perfectly still, in a frieze. The dancing people looked the happiest.
One float went by and there was an adolescent girl in a skimpy Red Indian costume jiggling about for all she was worth.
My Essex friend said, "look at the tits on that."
"She's not a that," I said. "She's a person."
"Oooo. PC," he said.
But I knew what he meant, nevertheless. My eyes were drawn to her too. And I realised that she loved it, that she was enjoying the attention, and that it was a sexual thing. Sexual but innocent. Sexy. I realised that it was liberating for her. And then I realised it was liberating for everyone else too. It wasn't just girls in skimpy costumes. There were middle aged men and women and adolescent boys, all feeling sexy too, all enjoying the attention, the make-up, the costumes, the lights, living out a fantasy-world before our eyes, gloriously expressive, radiating energy. "It's so human," I kept saying. "It's so liberating."
The Essex bloke had brought his partner over to talk to me. She said, "what path are you on?
"I'm not sure. The footpath, I think. Why? What path are you on?"
"I'm a hedge witch and a pagan Priestess," she said.
The funniest bit came when I found myself dancing to "Ra Ra Rasputin" by Boney M. The float was a frieze of Russian Imperial life before the revolution. Rasputin was being brutally murdered before our very eyes. It was like a still from a bad B-Movie or a scene from a melodrama. I'd been dancing and laughing through the entire procession, jiggling away non-stop. But I was jiggling away even more now, with the sheer absurdity of the moment. No matter how crass the music, no matter how idiotic the floats, it was all so funny. There was a young woman dancing on the pavement in front of me. Everyone was dancing. I said, "you realise what we're dancing to, don't you?"
"Yeah," she said, "Boney M."
"Ra Ra Rasputin, Russia's greatest love-machine," I sang. "Great lyrics."
This is a story I wrote for the London Review of Books last year. It's about my time as a car-park attendant. Who said being a car-park attendant isn't interesting?
NOTES FROM THE CAR-PARK.
I've become a Fascist in my old age. That's right, I'm a car-park attendant.
My proper title is "Patrol Officer", a much more grandiose name. I am Il Duce of the Supermarket car-park, Der Fuhrer with a ticket-book and pen. The car-park is my domain.
The "Patrol" part of the title is clear enough. I patrol the car-park, several times a day. As for the "Officer" part: well I don't have men under my command, nor do I issue orders, nor am I a government official. But I do issue tickets, and this is the source of my power, of my office. I have the power to fine people. The fine is for £25, £15 if paid within 14 days.
I can fine people if they stay in the car-park for more time than they are allowed. I can fine people if they park in a disabled bay without an orange badge displayed. I can fine people if I catch them parking in the parent and toddler bays without an infant in the car. I can fine people for bad parking, for parking at an angle, or for using up more space than is normally required. I can fine people for parking in the staff car-park without an official permit. Occasionally I've even fined people for not shopping in the supermarket. This is a fine power to have, the power to fine. I can strut about with the best of them, with my little ticket-book in my pocket, ready to whip it out with a flourish whenever I catch someone up to no good. I can whip it out and flip up the cover and, licking my pen (a dramatic rather than a functional gesture), write out a ticket in bold, emphatic letters, like a hanging judge passing sentence of death. People may plead. They may wheedle. They may cry. They may beg forgiveness, promising never, ever to do the terrible deed again. But nothing can permeate my steely exterior. I am Patrol Officer Dredd of Mega Car-Park One, judge, jury and executioner, coldly dispensing car-park justice wherever car-parking misdeeds are to be found.
No. Not really. I'm quite a nice car-park attendant. I whistle through my round, telling myself jokes. Anyone can get round me if they talk to me nicely enough. The old ladies really like me. Sometimes they even get a bit fruity. It must be the uniform. I've never worn a uniform before.
I have a crisp, white shirt with epaulettes, a navy blue police-style pullover with epaulettes, an electric blue tie with diagonal darts of yellow script, a fluorescent yellow waistcoat with the name of the car-park company emblazoned across the back, a fluorescent yellow all-weather jacket (also with epaulettes) and a pair of navy-blue Sta-pressed Polyester trousers with creases like the neat edges of a piece of plastic casing, sharp and precise. The creases are fixed into the very material of the trousers, as if they came out of a mold. No need to iron. They were made like this.
My only regret is that I don't have a peaked cap. I would have liked to have worn a peaked cap. I would have saluted myself every time I saw myself in the mirror. Only I'd look more like Benny Hill than Mussolini I suspect.
I work for a well-known car-park company in the car-park of a well-known supermarket chain. I won't tell you the names, in case it gets me into trouble. But it could be in Muswell Hill, or Lewisham, or Greenwich or Hackney. Or it could be in Belfast or Birmingham or Burton-on-Trent, for that matter. It makes no difference. It could be anywhere in these Great British Isles. The same set of car-park companies, and the same supermarket chains, dominating the cultural landscape everywhere you go. The same set of car-park attendants wearing the same uniforms. The same supermarket assistants in the same livery. Whatever happened to regional differences?
But at least the accents vary.
What I do is: I walk around the car-park punching numbers into my hand-held computer. The computer is made by Psion, the same company that popularised the computer note-book. But it's a much more sturdy object than one of those. It is shaped like a blunted T, wider at the top where the screen flashes, and palm-sized about the body, where the rubber buttons are planted. It has a stretchy rubber strap along the back which fits around the hand so that the whole object sits comfortably in your palm, as if wedded to it. There's a kind of satisfaction in holding it. Hand-sized and hand-shaped, warmly rounded: a bit like a gun, I imagine. Maybe I should get a holster to practice my draw.
The job is entirely dependant upon the technology. Thirty years ago it would have taken a computer the size of half a house to accomplish the same task. How things have changed. A few years ago, I remember, people were talking about the bright new future we were moving into: the Information Age. People were wondering how this fierce, cutting-edge technology would be used. We imagined all sorts of possible humanitarian and beneficial uses for it. Instead of which it's used for managing car-parking spaces.
So there are letters and there are numbers. The letters are in alphabetical order, and the numbers are in numerical order. So we punch in the letters and we punch in the numbers, and there you have it: a registration number.
It doesn't take a lot of brains.
We start at the beginning of the car-park (although where a car-park actually "begins" is a matter of debate), and we take all the numbers. And then, when we get to the "end", we start all over again.
There's a time-limit for how long a car can stay. Two hours. Once you have passed that time limit - and having put the number into the computer for the second or third time - the computer lets out a high-pitched bleep and flashes up a screen. "Issue Leaflet" it says. So we issue a warning leaflet. It tells the owner of the car that he or she is parked illegally and that next time he or she will be liable to a fine. And if the car is still parking illegally the next day (or the next week or the next month: the computer remembers for up to a year) then the computer bleeps irritably, twice in quick succession, and flashes up another screen. "Issue Ticket" it says. So we issue a ticket. This is the £25 fine which is the source of our power. And if the car is still parked illegally on the third day (or the third week or the third month) then the computer bleeps three times - sounding quite hysterical by now - and flashes up yet another screen. "Issue Ticket And Notify Office" it says. So that's what we do. We issue another ticket, and then make a note, and then, when we send off our paper-work at the end of the week, we write down that car's make and colour and registration number on a special form, and we send it off to the office to deal with in whatever way they do. I'm not really sure. Send out the death-squads I expect.
When I say "we", I mean Harry and I. Harry is the other car-park attendant in charge of our domain. We're co-dictators of our Car-Park Third Reich. He runs it one half of the week, and I run it the rest. He's in his fifties, retired. I hardly ever see him, since when he's working, I'm not, and when I'm working he's not. We ring each other up instead, to discuss strategy. He has a habit of saying, "I'm not being funny or anything," whenever he wants to complain. And he's right. Whenever he says that, he's not funny.
But we have a good relationship. He tells me what has been going on in his half of the week, and I tell him what has been going on in my half of the week. We have a co-ordinated response. And we both suffer the same kind of abuse.
One day he gave someone a ticket, and the person left him a note. This is what the note said: "Fuck you, you thirty pound a day piece of shit."
It was the "thirty pound a day" which was meant to be the most insulting. Well neither of us would mind, except that we don't even earn thirty pounds a day.
So this is how our days are spent, wandering around a car-park punching registration numbers into a hand-held computer and handing out the occasional ticket. You develop a sort of rhythm in your head, since most registration numbers contain the same number of letters and the same number of numbers. Dit dit dit. Dot dot dot. Dash. Like that. Over and over and over again. You start to go strangely loopy. You start reading words into the registration numbers. It's as if the mind has to find something to hang on to amidst all the abstraction. So anything with an 'F' and a 'K' in it (in that order) necessarily spells 'Fuck'. 'FKL' spells 'Fuck All.' 'FKU' spells 'Fuck You.' For some reason it's the Anglo-Saxon words which register. It's as if the mind is in rebellion against the restriction of registration numbers, against the arbitrary concatenation of letters in the DVLC format. It's as if the mind has to make sense out of things, even when there's no sense to be had.
But this is odd since, of all the letter-combinations which can occur in the DVLC format, the letters F, U and C, and the letters F, U and K - in that order - never occur. Why is this? Because the DVLC won't allow them. It seems that the DVLC has the same kind of mind as I have, reading Fuck into everything.
Once a month the Patrol Officers get a newsletter. "Patrol Officer Bulletin". It contains regular features, such as "Man of the Month" where satisfied customers write in to tell of their favourite Patrol Officer, and a poetry section, where Patrol Officers submit their poetry. Yes, Patrol Officers are poets too. It's full of quaint little homilies.
Here is an example, called "Pause For Thought".
"Think of an alarm clock," it says, "with its alarm ringing out frantically to attract your attention. Now look at the face of the clock, you will see that the thinnest arm takes just about five seconds to move from one number to another, whilst the tallest arm takes three hundred seconds to cover the same distance. In the same way the third arm takes three thousand six hundred seconds for it to cover the distance...."
And he goes on to say that no matter how fast or how slow you work, everyone has a function.
This is a startling image, and very accurate when it comes to car-park management. It's what we do. We go round and round and round the car-park at regular intervals, just like the hands of a clock. The technology may be digital, but the human beings are clockwork. Clockwork dictators in the case of Harry and I.
But we're not quite absolute dictators. There's a small fleet of about four or five taxis who are employed by the supermarket to take customers home. And the taxi-drivers are a law unto themselves. They sit around in their taxis reading newspapers for hours on end and drinking tea out of flasks, and we're not allowed to give them tickets. We're not even allowed to issue warning leaflets. Sometimes they park at a diagonal, or take up two spaces instead of one. And all we can do is shrug, and say, "how're y' doin' mate?"
Whenever they see me issuing a ticket they say (every time): "Book 'im Dano. Murder One."
I've been listening to that joke for over five months now.
The other task we perform (which is only slightly less interesting than punching numbers into a hand-held computer) is counting the available car-parking spaces. We do this every hour. We count every disabled space and every parent and toddler space, and then every other space in the car-park, and note them all down in a little book. And then, at the end of our shift, we transfer all this data into our "Space Availability Analysis Book", copies of which go to the office once a week.
It passes the time.
One of the taxis-drivers has made it his special quest to disrupt me in this task. Whenever I pass his taxi, counting away in my head - "ninety seven, ninety eight, ninety nine, one hundred..." - he'll shout out a series of made-up numbers to confuse me. "Twenty seven. Two hundred and fifty four. Nine hundred and nineteen. Sixty one." Etc. etc. Usually I can ignore him. But one day he caught me. He was outside the taxi. He'd been to the shop. He launched himself at me and grabbed hold of me. I could see his intentions in his eyes as he approached. He marched me around the car-park barking numbers into my ear, and I forgot what number I'd got to and had to start again. Afterwards I developed a sort of neurosis about this. Whenever I see him I panic. I know he's going to start shouting numbers at me and that I may get confused and have to start all over again. None of which is very good for my dignity. Mussolini would never have stood for such a flagrant disregard of his authority.
Judge Dredd would have shot him.
"Take that, Perp. I am the Law!"
I ran a column in the Big Issue in Wales for about a year (while I was a car-park attendant, in fact). Here's one of my stories from that time. It's about reading other people's mail.
A letter came through addressed to a previous tenant. On the envelope it said, in bold, red letters, with a great deal of underlining, lots of capital letters and several exclamation marks: "Private & Confidential! Only to be opened by the Person Named! WARNING! Under NO circumstances should the Uninitiated or Unbeliever read the Enclosed!" So, of course, I opened it.
I always do. That previous tenant gets a lot of stuff sent to him through the post. Various offers. Brochures, magazines, catalogues. Once a copy of an English Language Malaysian newspaper (not very interesting) and, on a few occasions, various catalogues of sexy underwear, thongs and the like. Slightly more interesting. Not that I would ever be seen dead in a thong. But it made good reading. I asked my landlady if she knew where he lived now, but she didn't. He was from Malaysia, apparently, over here to do a Ph.D., and has since returned. So I have no compunction about reading his mail.
It's one of the advantages of living in private rented accommodation, that you get to read previous tenant's mail. I'm sure I've left a similar trail of pointless literature behind me in my travels. Not so many thong-catalogues, though. Or that many Malaysian newspapers.
The letter in this case was from an organisation called The Centre For European Personal Research Development Ltd. Inside it continued the trend on the envelope:
"Is it True that a Famous Research Centre - specialised in paranormal phenomena - has discovered how A Powerful Secret can let you obtain from others exactly what you want in under five days. AMAZING FREE TRIAL OFFER LETS YOU TRY WITHOUT ANY OBLIGATION and entirely free of charge. You can learn to control and secretly influence the thoughts and actions of others...." etc. etc.
Well you get the drift. The Big Sell. The text is full of double and triple underlinings, brackets (sometimes double brackets) and arrows to emphasise certain points, much of it in what appears to be pen-and-ink, as if someone has scrawled annotations all over the pages which make up the letter. It's only when you look at it more closely that you realise that the hand-written parts are printed too.
It addresses the reader as "Dear power seeker" and promises that it will teach you how to win "five thousand pounds, fifty thousand pounds or even one hundred thousand pounds" (triple underlined with exclamation marks.) It also promises to teach you how to "control and influence any man or woman to value, admire and love you" (double brackets, arrows, further exclamation marks). It goes on like this for a total of four, crazed, hungry, hysterical double sided pages. Secret influence. Power. Money. Compulsion. Sex.
So what is the secret this letter promises to divulge? Well it is something called TELE-FORCE PSY (like that, in capital letters): "a secret dating back 6,000 years, which comes to us from the science of the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt and passed on by secret societies, known only to the initiated, to rich individuals, business men, politicians, film celebrities, television presenters, heads of state, barristers, solicitors, the heads of companies, investors, millionaires..."
Which makes a fascinating list. As if television presenters and film celebrities come into the same category as heads of state: as if General Pinochet and Noel Edmunds were playing the same game. Which they might be, who knows? Noel Edmunds gunges his victims, while Pinochet only murdered his. And which was the kinder? And, meanwhile Noel's House Party is off the air, while General Pinochet awaits in some gilded, stately prison for a decision about his extradition to Spain. Obviously neither of these particular individuals knew enough about TELE-FORCE PSY to make their secret influence felt beyond the confines of their immediate circle. Or maybe they're working on it right now...
Get ready for The Return Of Noel's House Party, then. And by the time this is published, you should know whether Pinochet is going to Spain or not, or only back to Chile.
TELE-FORCE PSY. It sounds kind of semi-scientific, doesn't it? A bit like "sub-space anomalies" in Star Trek. I've always wondered what a sub-space anomaly is, especially when it is usually so integral to the story-line. How would Captain Picard and all the others ever survive from week to week without a sub-space anomaly or two to keep the plot turning over? Or fluctuations in the graviton field.
I'm sure it was TELE-FORCE PSY that Mr Spock used for his famous Vulcan Mind-Meld. He used to say, "live-long and prosper," didn't he? That proves it. This is precisely what the letter promises. Live long, prosper, and get anyone to give you a shag.
Mind you, it makes you wonder doesn't it? What if such a power really did exist? And what would we use it for if it did? And I must admit I'd be fairly inclined to use my influence on one or two notable and lovely women who currently don't even give me a second look. But money? What would you need money for?
Think about it. You go into a shop and all you need is to exert your TELE-FORCE PSY and the shop-keeper will give you what you want. Or you want to travel? Well get on the plane, and the pilot will take you there. The customs officers will guide you through customs, the baggage handlers will personally carry your bags on board, the stewardesses will give you free drinks... You have power over everyone you come into contact with. Why would you even consider using money?
The only problem might arise if more than one person had TELE-FORCE PSY at the same time, if more than one person were trying to exert his influence on the same hapless victim at the same time. Or, worse still, if one person with TELE-FORCE PSY was trying to influence another person with TELE-FORCE PSY. What would happen then?
It doesn't bear thinking about.
This is one of my favourite stories from last year, originally published in the Big Issue. It's about tobacco smugglers.
It was 5.30 on a cool but bright Monday morning. The sun was just nuzzling over the horizon sending sprays of orange light into the milky air. I met Louie at a pre-arranged spot outside the pub. He was carrying a black briefcase, dressed for the part in a flared pin-striped suit, with a stripy shirt underneath. He looked like some psychotic dentist out on emergency call. We were going tobacco smuggling.
We'd made the arrangements the night before. I'd met him down the pub where he told me the deal. I was to bring fifty quid with me to buy 25 packets of Golden Virginia, which I'd hand on to him, and then, two days later, he'd give me my fifty quid back, plus £16 extra. He made it sound like it was a big deal.
"Hang on, Louie," I said, "sixteen quid. It's not a lot for a day's work is it?"
"No, think about it," he said, tapping his temple wisely, and giving me this arch, knowing, business-like look: "a free trip on a boat, a day out, a couple of pints, and then you come back with 16 quid in your pocket. You can't argue with that can you?"
Well I could argue with that. It was the least convincing argument for an illegal deal I'd ever heard. Sixteen pounds to put my liberty on the line. Fortunately I knew that it would also be an immeasurably entertaining day, and worth all the discomfort just for that.
"Game on?" I said.
"Game on," said Louie, blinking from behind his milk-bottle bottom glasses.
So here we were, speeding down the motorway, heading for the ferry port at 5.45 in the morning, Louie rolling endless cigarettes, and explaining that, actually, he didn't need my fifty quid after all. He'd managed to get Big Ted to lend him the money. Which was a relief, really. I didn't want to get involved in any smuggling operations. I particularly didn't want to get involved in any smuggling operations with Louie, who is the least likely tobacco smuggler on the planet. Which is probably no bad thing. No one can take Louie seriously, not even the Customs Officials, who would be looking for some hard-nosed types, out to make a few hundred, rather than a demented dentist, satisfied with sixteen quid and a day out on a boat.
You've probably guessed by now that Louie isn't a proper tobacco smuggler. I mean, he's been on a few trips, and been caught once or twice, but he's hardly likely to make his fortune in the trade. His regular partner is Big Ted, who is just as unlikely in his own way, but at least has the advantage that he's been in the game for a few years. Originally I'd set out to do the trip with the two of them. This was several weeks before. I'd got as far as the ferry port before it occurred to me that I might actually need to bring my passport with me. So it was two unconvincing smugglers, and one unconvincing journalist, all just as unlikely to succeed in our own chosen trades.
Anyway, Louie and I had arrived at the port by now, and I'd parked the car. It was 6.10 am. Louie had gone in to get the tickets, which are called Flyers. There were a few dead-eyed young men about, gathered in knots in the carpark, or sitting in cars with the windows open, smoking cigarettes with a faint air of desperation, as if they were waiting for more than just the ferry to arrive. "Want any Baccy mate? Marlboro? Superkings?" They say the same thing to everyone.
The trip takes two hours. You arrive on the Continent, pass through Customs, walk across the road and straight into one of the many tobacco-shops lined up by the dock-side waiting to take your English money. The shops are full of English 'Runners': that is, the people who transport the tobacco, day in and day out, across the channel. They make this trip two or three times a day. It's like a job to them. They buy maybe two or three hundred packets of tobacco at a time (at £1.80 for a 50g packet) talking in English to the English-speaking assistant, who answers through a microphone from behind his bullet-proof glass. The exchange is mono-syllabic and brief. The money is slipped across, counted, and then the tobacco slid beneath the counter through a flap, with a shove of the foot, in boxes of a hundred.
The shop Louie and I went into was clearly set up precisely for this smuggling trade, and nothing else. There's a skip in there. The Runners grab their tobacco and then set about stripping off the packaging and loading the separate pouches into the hold-alls they're carrying. All the packaging is then dumped into the skip, which is already overflowing from the debris of numerous journeys. Usually they buy a few cans of strong lager too, to help with the journey back. And that's it. Two hours one way, the briefest breath of foreign air, and then back on the boat for the return journey. They call it 'the Turn-Around'. No wonder the tickets are called Flyers. It's a flying visit. Then it's a two hour journey back, when they drop the tobacco off with the men in the car-park, pick up their money, turn around and start again. They go on like this until the van is full, and then drive off to whatever part of the country they come from. And that, in brief, is the illegal tobacco trade. Every port is Britain is bustling with it.
On the way back Louie was telling me about the times he's been caught.
The first time this bloke had came up to him. Hair down to his shoulders, looking like it hadn't been combed in a month. Leather jacket. He said, "I want to look in your bag." "Hang on mate, I want to see an official," said Louie. "I am an official," he said, and pointed to his official-looking badge. So Louie showed him what was in the bag. Three hundred and fifty mixed packets of tobacco. Golden Virginia, Drum, Old Holborn. And the scruffy customs official laid it all across the counter. "It's a fair cop," said Louie.
"And then he started putting it all back in the bag," Louie told me. "I said, 'excuse me, but that bag is my personal property. You can have the tobacco, but I want the bag back.'"
"That's all right, mate," the customs official had said. "I'm not going to confiscate it this time. But next time: be warned." And he passed the bag back over the counter.
So Louie had got away with it. But he wasn't so lucky the next time: he lost the lot. There's Louie, all 4'11 of him, struggling through customs with this giant-sized hold-all. You couldn't see Louie, only his legs, tottering away beneath the weight. "Like a hold-all on legs," as Louie described it. And he was pulled.
"Excuse me, can I look in your bag?" Same thing. 350 packets of mixed tobacco. "I don't believe this is for your personal consumption," said the official.
"Yes it is," said Louie. "I don't like any one brand, so I mix it all together. And then I freeze it."
"Freeze it!" said the customs official in laughing disbelief. "You can't freeze tobacco."
"You can freeze anything," said Louie.
But they didn't buy his story that time, and he had the whole lot confiscated, about £600 worth. "The first time it's a warning. The next time they confiscate the tobacco. After that it's a fine, and if you're caught four times it's a prison sentence," Louie told me.
"Let's hope you don't get caught this time," I said.
Anyway, the return journey over, we were passing through the customs hall on our way back to the safety of English soil. All the Runners were there, with their giant hold-alls packed to the brim with tobacco, mingling with the tourists; Louie with his psychotic dentist's brief case bulging with contraband. The Customs Officers were lounging about looking bored, glancing at passports, but very little else. We passed through without incident, except that outside there was one cool-looking dude with mirror-shades and a green shirt, carrying a mobile phone and looking suitably obvious.
"He's Customs," said Louie, sounding nervous.
"You don't say," I said. And we got back in the car and drove home.
Here's another Independent on Sunday article. Once more it is the complete version.
Driving used to be a pleasure. Right now I'm inching forward in first gear, watching the tail lights of the car in front flicker on and off, tasting the traffic fumes like bitter porridge, steaming in this damp, heavy heat, seeing yet another red light up ahead, yet another set of road works, waiting, waiting - moving - waiting. Where's the pleasure now?And then the motorbikes are skimming by, dodging through the traffic, weaving in and out with uncanny agility, and I'm watching them with a combination of resignation and faint resentment, watching them move up to the front of the jam. And then they're off when the lights change - like that! - with a snarl or a growl, off into the distance. That's when it strikes me. Driving to them - or riding, rather - is still a pleasure.
I'm on my way to the Ace Cafe on the old North Circular Road, just off Hangar Lane in Stonebridge, London. Back in the '50s and '60s the Ace was the archetypal biker caff. On a Saturday evening thousands would turn up here, from all over. They'd sit around in the steamy cafe and drink tea and smoke fags. Or they'd be hanging around in the car-park, "shooting the breeze", talking about bikes usually, offering advice, asking questions, bragging, joshing, having fun. And then there were the races. West to Hangar Lane and back. Or East to what was then the Neasden roundabout (it's an underpass now), doing the ton along the S-bends through the iron bridges. A lot of bikers were killed. Only they weren't called bikers then. They weren't even called Rockers in the early days. They were "the Lads".
The Ace closed down in 1969. It was the end of an era. Young people could afford cars now. Why ride around on a dirty old bike, when you can sit in comfort and listen to music? Or if you wanted a bike it was more likely to be Japanese. You don't wear black leather on a Japanese bike. You wear an all-in-one jump-suit, bright like an ice-cream sundae. The demise of the Ace cafe reflects the loss of interest in motorbikes as a means of transport and the decline of the British Motorcycle Industry. The few bikers left on the road, the old-fashioned sort - the die-hards - were seen as an anachronism, as faintly ludicrous somehow. Most of the Lads had settled down. They had jobs, wives, mortgages. They drove whatever cars they could afford, to work and back. After that the cafe building had a variety of other uses. Recently it was a tyre place. It still is a tyre place in the week. But since December 1997, and for the weekends at least, it's the Ace Cafe again, once more a hangout for bikers.1998 saw the highest motorcycle sales for 12 years. In all, 120,416 bikes were sold, a 36% rise over the previous year. Biking is back, and in a big way. More teenagers are riding bikes. More women. More young men. And - surprisingly perhaps - more older men too, men in their forties or fifties, greying, balding, going back to biking after all these years, or taking to bikes for the first time, looking for something "out-there" they no longer find in their ordinary lives. These are the "born-again" bikers. A phenomenon.
I pull into the side road next door to the Ace. I don't want to risk trying to park up in the car-park. Too many bikes. Rows and rows of them, gleaming in the sunlight. Every kind of bike. Old British bikes - Nortons, Triumphs, BSAs - lovingly restored, gorgeously polished. BMWs, all growling efficiency. Trikes. These are customised monsters, really cut-down cars with handlebars instead of a steering wheel. Harley-Davidsons, with their distinctive, low-slung shape, the epitome of American cool. Japanese bikes. The other riders call these "plastic rockets" or "plastic missiles". The British bike owners call them "Jap Scrap". Which is ironical given that these bikes always were more efficient - faster and more reliable - than their British equivalents. Hence the demise of the British Motorcycle Industry.I must admit I'm intimidated at first. What am I doing here, pulling up in a Mini? I know nothing about bikes. And bikers always had a certain reputation. Well they just look hard in all that black leather. I quickly get out and cross the forecourt to get a cup of tea. Then I sit down outside hoping that as few of them as possible have seen the connection. I'm trying to deny all responsibility for that little yellow Mini parked up over there.
There's a middle aged couple just arrived. The woman sits down and pulls off her jacket, but she's still got her leather trousers on. It's blazing hot and you can almost see her legs melting.
Later I'm sitting indoors cooling off, when an kind-faced old chap comes in to pick up his leathers. He's talking about his bike. He's saying it's no good on the motorway. "It was designed for the North Circular," he says. "It only wants to go at fifty-five. I can push it up to eighty, for overtaking. But then I have to keep listening to it to make sure nothing has broken."I say, "do you come here every week?""Yes," he said, "of course. The wife knows, it's my drug. Luckily I've done a lot of work this week, putting up shelves, so she didn't mind me coming out. But she knows I couldn't live without it."And then he's wrapping the white silk scarf around his neck and pulling on his helmet, pressing in all the studs on his heavy-weight jacket up to his neck, slipping the goggles over his eyes. Anonymous. From a kindly old chap to a deadly-looking biker with the aid of a few studs.
Outside the bikers are posing about. It's part of the scene. There's a couple of young Rockers with their Triumphs. They can't be much more than twenty years old, but they've got the Rocker style off to a tee. Slicked back hair with a quiff. White tee shirt. Key chain hanging from their belts, and the obligatory handkerchief tucked into the back pocket. Most of the Rocker style has a practical basis. The handkerchief is there so you can wipe your hands after fiddling with your bike.
Later I'm talking to Colin. He's in his forties, perhaps, with close cropped, thinning hair. Without his leathers he doesn't look at all like a biker. He looks like a shop keeper. Which is what he is, in fact. He owns a shoe shop.
He rides a Harley-Davidson. He's been riding for about a year now, which makes him a true born-again. I say, "so what is it about bikes?""That's easy," he says, with a certain sparkle. "Got rid of the wife. Bought a bike."I want to know why he rides a Harley. "It's the old posing thing," he says. "The louder the better. People turn round with a Harley. And women like 'em too. Loads of birds."There's a couple of trikes pulling in. One of them is a cut-down Reliant Robin driven by an old geezer with a pony-tail, wearing a camouflage jump suit. No helmet. You don't have to wear a helmet with a trike. He's in his fifties at least. Bikers can get away with anything, it seems, and it doesn't matter how old you are.
Meanwhile the young Rockers are set to go. They've got their girls with them, also dressed in fifties style, but with added '90s accoutrements, like nose-studs. They're pulling on their helmets, fastening their jackets. Part of the ritual. And then they kick start the bikes and there's a juddering roar. The girls climb up on pillion (some things don't change) and they're off. Now I understand where the expression "just for kicks" comes from. Kick starting the bike is the prelude to the fun.
And then I speak to Womble. He's a proper old biker, shaved head and shades, leather jerkin and grease-stained jeans. "Third generation biker," he says. "My Dad was a Rocker. Mind you, I can't get him down here. I even offered to drive. He won't leave the East End anymore."Mark, the proprietor comes up, collecting empty cups. Mark is a Rocker, with all the gear. Slicked back hair and sleeveless jacket. He says, "I'm doing my waitressing bit.""So where's your pinnie?" asks Womble."I save that for the bedroom.""Yes. That's what I'd heard," quips Womble, archly.And they both laugh.
David Taylor is Sam Taylor Wood's dad. She's one of the new Brit-Art pack, an associate of Damien Hurst. Actually, I didn't meet David in the Ace Cafe. He came to visit me at my house, pulling up in his customised trike, a cut-down VW Beetle. It's a work-of-art, electric blue with glistening chrome. And the sound! A nasal grumble, like a deep-hearted growl in the bowels of the Earth.
He's the laid-back sort of biker. Easy-rider rather than the Wild One, with a neat goatee and grey hair. Very calm and clear-eyed.
I said, "what do you call yourself? Are you a biker?"
"Not by profession," he said.
Said he'd been a biker in his youth. Started in '59 or '60, but sold his last bike in '65. After that it was the mortgage thing. Wife, kids, job. (He's a surveyor). But then he'd taken to bikes again ten years ago. So he's not-quite born-again anymore. I asked him what it was about biking."It's the camaraderie," he said. "You meet some really nice people on a bike. If you're anywhere on the side of the road and a bike goes by, nine times out of ten he'll stop to see if you're all right. You don't get that with car drivers. It's also a cowboy thing. Like you're an outcast, riding off into the sunset."He's a member of the Nightriders Motorcycle Club. Most bikers belong to one club or another. (Womble is a Celtic Warrior.) And that's maybe where the strongest appeal lies. Riding off in a pack to some long weekend, hundreds and hundreds of bikes. The roar of the engines. The hiss of the road. David was talking about a cafe he used to go to. "There was a dip in the road, so you'd hear this roar before you saw the bikes. And then it was like the Ghengis Khan hordes coming out of the East. And you could be part of that."Earlier I'd spoken to his daughter on the phone, trying to get her dad's phone number. I said, "I hear you're embarrassed about the fact he's a biker.""Not at all," she said. "I'm proud of him.""And I'm proud of her too," David said, when I told him that story.
Anyway, back to the Ace Cafe and the conversation with Womble. He tells me a story about his 8 year old daughter, how they were at a rally, and she was sitting up by the fire. It was very late, and someone came up to talk to her."Does your dad know your up this late?" he said. "Only if you was my daughter I'd be worried about you.""But these are all bikers," she said, indicating around. "I'm safe with bikers. They'll look after me.""I nearly cried when I heard that," says Womble.
Here's one I wrote for the Sunday Herald in Scotland. I hope it doesn't shatter too many illusions.
GRAND CROSS ECLIPSE, 11/11/99.
I found this on the Internet:"Munedancer - July 23rd 1999 - 17.12: what do you think? so called harmageddon be upon us. the bible fortells the sun being darkened and the stars falling from the sky. do you think it is connected in any way to the coming eclipse Aug 11 99?" At the same time I heard a story about someone else who believes that the eclipse is the same one predicted in the Book of Revelations, and who is so convinced that this is the End-of-the-World that he is preparing to return to his home town to die. He was being interviewed on the radio and the tone of resignation in his voice was painful to listen to, a kind of sad shrug of despair. You almost wanted to put your arm around him to comfort him. "Come on mate, it can't be as bad as all that. Let's go to the pub." And if it really was the End-of-the-World, of course, that's precisely what I'd do.
But the End-of-the-World is not a new thing. There's been any number of them recently. Remember the group who committed mass suicide when comet Haille-Bop was bumping into Jupiter? It seemed the oddest thing to me at the time. The End-of-the-World means we're all going to die anyway, so why commit suicide? Personally I like to keep my options open.
Then there was Nostrodamus' famous prediction of a giant asteroid hitting the Earth in July 1999. That's two End-of-the-World's in only just over a month, if you count the coming eclipse. Whatever spiritual agency it is organising these exercises in mass-hysteria, they seem to have been especially busy recently. And the Millennium (a source of further predictions) is less than five months away. Where will it all end?
One of the explanations I've heard for why Nostrodamus' prediction didn't come true, by the way, is that he wasn't actually predicting the End-of-the-World at all. He was predicting the movie, Deep Impact!
And now we have another End-of-the-World in sight, the total eclipse of the sun, due to take place in South Western parts of the British Isles at 11:11 on the morning of 11th August 1999. 11:11 on the 11th. Spooky, hey? It's this sort of coincidence which is fuelling the current rash of eclipse-mania.
Actually there are two schools of thought about this one. One - the one we've already heard, influenced by the Book of Revelations - takes it to be the literal End-of-the-World. And if that's the case, there's not a lot we can do about it. The other view is more optimistic, suggesting, merely, that it is the End-of-the-World-as-we-know-it. Governments will fall. Hidden things will be revealed. Powers of greed and corruption will be exposed. We will be made free to explore our spiritual potential.
This second school of thought is based around Astrological considerations which are far too deep, too complex and too evolved to go into here. No, I'm lying to you. The truth is I hardly understand a word of it.
Here's a sample passage from an Astrological interpretation taken from one of the numerous websites dedicated to this event. I've chosen at random. Almost every passage is equally dense, equally arcane and incomprehensible. If I was being generous I'd say that the authors of this difficult text are writing for a knowledgeable audience. If I was less generous I might say they're talking drivel. See what you think:"The Water/Soul Grand trine manifests the creative, life-giving, soul-nurturing energy and Divine Grace expressed through the Goddess aspect of Ceres in Cancer (sidereal zodiac) at the apex of the triangle. This is grounded through the transformative and healing energies of Pluto and Charon in Scorpio releasing attachments to negative soul patterns (karma) thereby allowing the raising of the Kundalini to heal the chakras and the soul to move into its unique creative expression of Universal Truth through Mercury in Pisces, exactly conjunct Vulcan (between the orbit of Mercury and the Sun)."And in another part of this same website I read these words: "Rhombic Enneacontrahedron Metatronic system."Don't these people know how to talk English? What does it all mean?
I was in Glastonbury in Somerset when I first heard about this. Glastonbury, of course, is "the heart-chakra of the British Isles". You don't know what a heart-chakra is? Then you're not a higher spiritual being. (I don't know what a heart-chakra is either.)
I was talking to a couple of friends of mine. Chris is an Astrologer. Willow is a practising Witch. You see, although I take a sceptical view on these matters - and my friends, generous New Agers as they are, are indulgent of my wilful doubts - I also like to keep my options open. You never know. Some of this might even turn out to be true.
I said, "tell me about the Eclipse."Chris said, "it will be when the ever-present now will implode on people's consciousness.""After that can we go to the pub?" I asked."It might even happen in the pub."Willow said, "I prefer the expression 'Imploding Synchronicity' myself.""What's that mean?" I asked."Dunno," she said. "But it sounds good doesn't it?"Apparently the moment of the eclipse coincides with a very rare Astrological configuration, called "the Grand Cross", which only occurs once in every few thousand years. The fact that these two events are occurring at the same time is the reason people are getting so excited. I tried understanding Chris's explanations about what the Grand Cross actually is, but didn't get very far, I'm afraid. These are all the words I caught before I got lost in the contemplation of my shoe. It seemed a very meaningful shoe at that moment." The Grand Cross is the fixed signs in a choreographing of energy.... perfect squares, oppositions and conjunctions...." he said.
The important point to remember is that this marks the moment when we enter the New Age, the much vaunted Age of Aquarius we've been hearing about since the sixties. After which we'll all be wearing Kaftans, sandles and sporting flowers in our hair.I asked Willow what she thought I should do when the moment arrives."Don't be driving a car or doing anything that takes concentration on the outside world," she said. "Stay centred. Stay open. Just listen to what is happening inside you."Which sounded like good advice to me. It would be a pity to miss the New Age because I was too busy making tea and toast or something.
But this whole eclipse phenomena is reaching epidemic proportions. New Agers and Eclipse-watchers alike will be descending on Cornwall and Devon in their millions in August. Almost every home will be opening its doors to meet the expected demand: for a price, of course. Roads will be clogged. Guest Houses and campsites will be full. Beds will be at a premium. The economy will benefit hugely of course, and for once I expect, the locals will be less distrustful of the "grockles" in their midst; or on the surface at least. It's a pity they can't engineer a permanent eclipse over the region. It might even offer much needed work to all those unemployed tin-miners.
Eclipse-watchers, by the way, are a similar but unrelated sect to the New Agers. You could call them Twitchers. These are people who - like Brian May, ex of Queen - spend their lives "collecting" eclipses. Like bird-watchers in search of new and rare breeds to tick off in their collecting-book, they will travel anywhere to get a glimpse of this phenomenon, descending in their hoards on various parts of the world, cameras and camcorders balanced on rickety tri-pods, special eclipse shades bristling upon a multitude of expectant noses, heaving, breathless with anticipation of the sacred moment. And then, when the moment arrives, there will be a collective in-take of breath, a shiver of excitement, a hushed awe descending like the dove-of-revelation upon the crowd. Unlike the rest of us, the twitchers will have seen many, many eclipses before. Which only goes to show what a regular and predictable occurrence this is. It's just the moon getting in the way of the sun for a minute or two, that's all. Very interesting from a scientific point of view. Not really worth writing home about.
But - assuming you won't be satisfied with the 97% eclipse we'll see in the rest of Britain, and you want to go down to Cornwall or Devon to view it, there will be plenty to do. Two that I know of will be an Oak Dragon Camp, and a Dream Lodge. What's an Oak Dragon Camp? I have no idea. A Dream Lodge involves dreaming, I guess, something I do a lot of anyway. There's also the Lizard Festival, a ten day music festival, taking place.
The same people who brought you the "Rhombic Enneacontrahedron Metatronic system" are also running a camp. Make sure you have your New Age/English Dictionary handy.
Here's what you can expect."It will be focused on creating a totally cohesive centre of openness, strength, joy and love, calling in all the spirits of light and love to help ground the energy of these times. Each of us will bring our unique energy and talents to share in a circle connecting heart to heart and to the heart of out beloved Mother Earth."The main focus of the camp will be a Sun Lodge (a tipi) and a Moon Lodge with fires burning continually. Also Sweat Lodges "for prayer and purification." Sweat Lodges are a peculiarly New Age pastime. They involve taking your clothes off and getting "nekkid" with a bunch of New Age people while chanting and drumming in the dark. According to the website, people should also bring "musical instruments, dancing feet, voices and a sense of celebration and fun."In other words, you will be expected to entertain yourself.
There will be a marquee for meetings and cooking, and an evening communal meal is provided in the ticket price of £100. Vegan, no doubt.
I can hardly wait.
Websites: http://www.ping.bethe-dba/eclip/index2.html.Also, look up Grand Cross Eclipse, August 11 1999 on your search engine.
Here's one I wrote as a trial piece for a possible column in heat magazine. It was never published, and the heat editor decided he didn't want the column after all. Pity. I would have liked to have continued with this, not least because they'd promised me £200 a week to do it. Who says I'm not mercenary?
Once upon a time in a Galaxy far, far away....Well Wembley, actually. I was there for the Star Wars Experience being held at the Wembley Exhibition Centre next door to the stadium. And maybe there is something mildly futuristic about Wembley. The stadium looms over the area like some Interstellar Star-craft ready to lift off into Outer Space in a thunderous rumble of unimaginable power. And did I think of aliens as I wandered along the sweeping concourses like runways? No. I saw them.
Darth Vadar was there, taking a photo-call, along with a couple of stormtroopers, and two children dressed as Darth Maul, complete with light-sabres and red-devil make-up. Poor old Darth Vadar. It kind of lessens the impact of his sinister demeanour to see him posing in front of Wembley stadium like an out-of-work actor, at the mercy of the media. "That's it, Darth darling, try look a little more evil will you?"Later I heard that one of the two miniature Darth Maul look-alikes was a girl, though you couldn't tell beneath the mounds of make-up. "I'm a girl," she kept telling everyone. "People think I'm a boy, but I'm not. I'm a girl."Inside, the Exhibition Hall is a cavernous hangar of a building, with steel girders holding up the roof, and mysterious pipe-like structures leading from nowhere to nowhere else. I was handed my press-pass, which was one of those sticky-back, circular badges which are supposed to adhere to your clothes. Only the protective backing wouldn't come off. I was trying to get my nail under it to peel away the paper, but it just wouldn't come away. I handed it to one of the security guards. "I can't get it off," I said. So he tried. He couldn't get it off either. "You've got a dud one there, mate," he said."Oh well. It's all part of the Star Wars experience," I said, and stuck it in my pocket.
I looked around the queue. Of the hundred or so people there, there were probably 75 men, with just a smattering of women and kids. It was definitely Anorak's day-out.
The Exhibition is being run in conjunction with Kellogg's, who are currently doing a Star Wars promotion with their products. Star Wars give-aways. Star Wars plastic miniatures, free with selected packets of Kellogg’s cereals. Star Wars statuettes and Star Wars games. The Queen Amilada Collection - "with cut-outs and a palace scene to help you re-live the film". Something for all the family.
The title of the exhibition is "Star Wars - The Power Of The Myth". The exhibition area is curtained off into a number of self-contained units. The first unit tries to explain the title. Star Wars is based on ancient myths of the trial of the hero, apparently. On film an over-blown actor dressed as a monk declaims mightily about the twelve-part structure of the hero myth. Around the walls are depictions of ancient European hero-figures, including King Arthur. But there is something shallow about the explanation, something pat and off-hand, like an excuse made up after the event. It's no wonder the exhibition is being run by Kellogg's, I thought. A lot of packaging. Not much content.
I met a smiling Sikh. "Are you a fan?" I asked."Yes," he said, still smiling. But then he seemed to want to qualify his response. "Well I'm researching, actually," he said, "for a magazine." And he went on to tell me that the Star Wars trilogy contains a lot of references to the Sikh religion. Altogether there are six possible references in the film, he told me, and he wondered if perhaps George Lucas had met any Sikhs in his days as a hippie drop-out.
At the heart of the exhibition is a space devoted to Star Wars memorabilia. Costumes, props, effects, clips from the movies (including one or two from the new one), large photographs of the characters, and an Animatronic life-size Darth Vadar who moves when you press a button and makes sinister sounding threats. Not that I was in the slightest bit scared. I'd seen through his nasty, hate-ridden persona earlier. Darth Vadar is just another media whore, more like Dale Winton than the embodiment of evil. Later another Darth Vadar, along with his two stormtrooper cohorts, did a choreographed entrance on a small stage, which only served to confirm my impressions. You kept expecting them to break out into a dance routine to some Boney-M soundtrack.
I met a young couple in there. The woman was wearing a Yoda back-pack. I said, "have you got the Force yet?""Not yet," she said. "I'm still trying."I spoke to them later. Their names were Glen and Lisa Willis. They were newly-weds. They'd spent the last two weeks on a Star Wars honeymoon, which involved going round comic shops collecting Star Wars memorabilia. They were real fans. Even their wedding had a Star Wars theme, and they watch at least one of the movies at least once a week. "You always see something new," said Lisa. They'd driven down from Northampton that morning especially for the exhibition.
And then they told me a really romantic story. They'd been going out together for a few weeks before he popped the question. "What's your favourite film?" he asked."Star Wars, of course," she said, as if it was perfectly natural."Me too," said Glen."It was a real relief," Glen told me in the coffee shop after the event. "It was like I could come-out at last.""You make it sound like a sexual confession," I remarked.
But then they discovered that they'd met previously, at a Star Wars convention, when he was four years old and she was seven, at a shopping centre in Northampton. He asked her if she'd been there. "Yes," she told him. "I was frightened by Darth Vadar and I screamed.""I remember you," he said. "I was standing right next to you!"It's a small Universe.
All the following stories are from my early column in the Guardian Weekend. It was called Housing Benefit Hill, and was about the underbelly of British society. Not much has changed.
1. Mickey Mouse At The Interactive Diner's Club.
Somebody asked me the other day what I wanted from life. Didn't I have any ambitions? Wasn't there something I would've liked to have done? "Like what?" I asked. Like having invented the telephone, say, like Alexander Graham Bell. Didn't I want to be remembered for something that had set its mark on History and with it my name? "Not really," I answered. "Not any more." You see I don't think it matters whether Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone or not. What matters now is that they make telephones that look like Mickey Mouse.
Poor old Alexander Graham Bell. To have left his mark on history for something that can be made to look like Mickey Mouse. Luckily he's too dead to notice. So there's a point to death after all. It's so you don't get to know the consequence of your actions.
Imagine. You wake up one afternoon after a heavy session to find that the house is burning down. The kids are upstairs screaming, and the stairs are a wall of flame. You rush into the hall to dial 999. And there it is, this inane, three fingered idiot, grinning at you absurdly. And for half a second, while you wait for the telephonist to answer, while your whole life and everything you love is crashing down in flames around your ears and blistering smoke billows around the hall in vicious eddies, it just pops into your head, this high-pitched, squeaky voice singing the Mickey Mouse theme song: "M-I-C... K-E-Y... M-O-U-S-E".
As it happens I was wearing my Mickey Mouse tee-shirt when I went to the Interactive Diner's Club. I wear it as often as possible these days. It's my comment on the state of the world. We were to discuss the recent intervention of the SWP in the campaign against the Criminal Justice Bill. Being Stormtroopers of the Revolution, the Marxist hordes seem to have trodden on a few toes. This has to be particularly painful as many of the environmental activists eschew footwear, while the leftists favour Doc Martins. Luckily the SWP weren't invited.
What's an "Interactive Diner's Club" you ask? To be honest, I don't know. I suppose it's that we interacted for an afternoon and -in the end- we ate. Waiting in the courtyard for the proceedings to begin there was one young woman ostentatiously meditating. She was cross-legged on a mat in the midst of all this coming and going, not so much oblivious as obvious. People didn't shake hands, they hugged. All of which I found a little too Californian for my liking. Personally I'm a great believer in good old British reserve.
Upstairs at the meeting we sat a circle on the floor and introduced ourselves. The M11 campaign, Solsbury Hill, The Freedom Network, Charter 88, Squall, the Rainbow Tribe, The Advance Party, Exodus, DIY, even the Revolutionary Communist Party in one of their numerous disguises (as The Campaign Against Militarism in this case), as well as assorted dossers, nutters, and freelance writers posing as cool, together dudes in Mickey Mouse tee-shirts. I don't suppose anyone was fooled. About the RCP, I mean.
Formalities over we divided into four smaller circles. This was so we could see each other's faces. And then someone suggested we needed a facilitator. "What's a facilitator?" I asked. It's someone who holds the meeting together, makes sure people don't talk amongst themselves. "Like a chair?" I suggested. But I suppose that, as we were sitting on the floor, chairs were superfluous.
As the afternoon wore on three apparently unrelated little letters were bandied about with alarming regularity, like a chant. "SWP", I heard, from every corner of the room, "SWP, SWP, SWP." It was like the Mickey Mouse theme tune all over again. How could three such simple letters assume such an ominous ring? I puzzled at all the hysteria. What were they afraid of? Someone told me they found them intimidating. But in my experience the SWP, despite their aggressive rhetoric, are little more than lambs. "All mouth and no trousers," as I described them. Were they afraid they might find themselves being converted? But I think raving on a Saturday night is far more fun than selling papers on a Saturday morning, and that we were much more likely to convert them. And anyway, weren't they human beings like the rest of us? Didn't they have brains, hearts, genitals too? To hear the way people were speaking you'd imagine them the Devil Incarnate.
The organizer from the SWP is a little, pudgy black geezer from a North London council estate. Or it might be South London. Both compass points in relation to London mean the same thing: dismal, cut-off, marginalised. A less likely devil you'd be hard pressed to find. He really seems to want to please everyone, which is actually his greatest sin. And it is probably only through the rhetoric of the Far Left that someone as disadvantaged as this could ever have found any self-confidence. In the end I found the tone of the meeting insulting, especially as the vast majority of the Interactive Diners were from very comfortable backgrounds. The whole thing smacked of Us and Them. I wondered why the SWP weren't invited, especially as the presence of the RCP gave a lie to any worries about the Left. Perhaps it's that the RCP consist almost exclusively of professionals and Law students and that their idea of a revolution is to hold a seminar on the subject.
Anyway, we soldiered on, if that's not too militaristic a term. The facilitator facilitated, while someone else wrote buzz-words on a huge piece of paper, which she then circled, like bubbles. All the little bubbles were joined up by lines. There were lines connecting bubbles connecting bubbles, cut across by lines. I couldn't make head nor tail of it. Everyone seemed to take everything very seriously. Speeches at the rally were apparently to be exactly three minutes long, and every group were to have a say, 35 groups in all, no matter how small. This was in the name of equal access for all. Arthur Scargill is the same as Joe Bloggs. I couldn't see it myself. To me public speaking is an art, and some people quite simply have more to say than others. It's like composing a newsletter by committee. Everyone gets a sentence each in the name of equal access. I'm all in favour of equality, but I'm also in favour of respect for the hard experience of a lifetime's struggle.
Finally we'd all finished filling out our big bits of paper, and dinner was announced. But before it we had to reform ourselves into the large circle and hold hands and envisage a nice, peaceful march. I didn't mind this. But I began to baulk when the circle stayed trapped in sweaty, hand-locked meditation for several minutes. And when people began chanting I was ready to cry out. After that we had to sit facing each other's backs and give the person in front a back massage. I wouldn't be surprised if my poor victim isn't suffering the strain still. Luckily my dog -bemused by the whole, strange exercise- came to rescue me. She stuck her nose in my face and demanded some of that petting too.
Mickey Mouse again. Massage against the Criminal Justice Bill. I think I'll buy a Mickey Mouse telephone after all, and when the Criminal Justice Bill is enacted at last, and we all have to stay indoors for the rest of our lives watching Neighbours, for fear of breaking the new breathing laws, I'll ring up the Interactive Diner's Club and sing, in a high squeaky voice: "M-I-C... K-E-Y... M-O-U-S-E..."
2. An Atheist's Prayer.
So I'm driving along with this voice in my head. So it rattles on like the rattle of the engine. General babble mainly, pretending that it's sorting out the world for me. Except it's not. It says this and it says that. Sometimes I'm interested, sometimes I'm not. It makes no difference. The voice goes on, following the line of the road, like the constant hum of traffic. I wonder where it comes from -I wonder with this voice in my head where it comes from- and that makes no difference either. Is it me or is it someone else? Who cares? It's me that has to listen to it. So I wonder what I'm supposed to do with this voice. Do I simply let it ramble, or do I direct it somewhere? Is there someone I can address it to?
I'd pray. Only I don't believe in God.
I stopped to give this guy a lift, anything to distract me from the voice. I was travelling from Teeside home, and he was on his way to Portsmouth. And it was already six in the evening and getting dark.
He was unusual for a hitch-hiker, dressed in a light-weight, powder blue suit, with a neat tie and a nice little carry-all in his hand. A Lecturer, as it turned out, working in Portsmouth but living in Teeside. He'd told me this within the first five minutes as we slid through the darkening evening, watching the intersection lights flicker on in cool, amber splashes over the tarmac. I noticed he was clutching his bag with suspicious intensity. He did this journey every week, he told me, there and back: which was almost as incomprehensible to me as why God made the Universe. Why didn't he just move to Portsmouth, I asked?
"I like Teeside," he said. "And my wife does too. It's quieter up here, and the house prices are cheaper."
"Wouldn't it be better to travel by train then? Or get a car?"
"No," he said. "I like to hitch-hike. I like meeting people."
I was getting more and more puzzled. The whole thing just didn't add up. He was not the sort of person you normally see on the road, and with a job like his there were all sorts of options available to him. The replies he was giving were simply ludicrous. He said he'd been doing this for a number of years.
"Aren't you ever worried you might not make it? It's a hell of a long way."
"No," he replied, with this self-satisfied glance in my direction. "I just say a little prayer and God arranges a lift for me."
It was completely dark by now. There I was in that tiny, rattling, metal box of a world, watching the tail-lights in criss-cross trails ahead of me, like swarms of incandescent insects, and nothing between me and the next town but this ravelling, black ribbon of road, and I was stuck next to a madman. Someone who had the gall to believe that the Universal God -the one I didn't believe in- a Being who could measure the unfathomable depths of space, where huge structures of multiple galaxies span in endless profusion, where incomprehensible forces buckled Time in the eerie darkness, where matter and energy danced the waltz of Eternity: and some little chap in a powder blue suit on one insignificant planet at the back end of nowhere says, "Oi, God, me ol' mate, get us a lift will you?" And He does.
It turned out he was a Mormon. Hence the suit. Hence the mad optimism.
"You really believe that? You really believe that God listens to you while ignoring the cries of people dying all over the world? What makes you think you're so important?"
"I'm doing His work," he said.
"Oh: and what might that be?"
"Telling people the Good News," he said, definitely with those capitals in his voice.
That's when the carry all became unzipped, and all of these pamphlets revealed themselves, like a furtive bag of high-grade porn. He was like a salvation salesman, selling me the good news in nice, prewrapped packages, like yoghurt. He was lucky. I was so angry I almost dropped him off there and then. I had an almost overwhelming urge to sweep up the next turn-off and, kicking him out by the lightless roadside, say, "tell your fucking God to get you a lift now." I didn't. It wasn't God that saved him: just my own sense of decency learned from years of hitch-hiking. I couldn't do it to him. Not even to a Mormon.
But I continued to argue with him. What astounded me, what appalled me more than anything else was the sheer vanity of the man. To believe that some Universal being should worry about his pathetic trip to Portsmouth while ignoring the screams of agony of a child mutilated in Sarejevo, or gasping with the horrible pangs of Cholera on the borders of Rwanda: it was beyond comprehension. And I realised simultaneously that all prayer is vanity, invoking the most ludicrous concept of the Universe.
There's a famous set of prints by William Blake based on the Book of Job. In the first print you see the pious, self-righteous Job sitting beneath a tree with all his family around him, the very picture of a comfortable bourgeois. In the second you see God in Heaven addressing Satan. "Hast thou considered my servant Job," says God, while Job sits reading the scriptures on the Earth below. And the funny thing is that Job and God have the same face. Job's God is the same as Job: comfortable, bourgeois, self-righteous.
So you can imagine that Mormon's God can't you? In a powder blue suit with a set of pamphlets in his carry-all. You can imagine Him in His divine slippers at the Weekend being waited on by his loyal wife, full of homilies and pious truisms, reading a thoroughly wholesome newspaper and sipping a cup of tea, until the message come through on the prayer-phone, that His favourite Mormon needs a lift. But at least He has a sense of humour, else why would He have picked me?
I dropped the guy off at a service station just before my turn-off where he was bound to get a lift. His God was still with him, then. But I found that he'd slipped a couple of those pamphlets into my glove compartment. I wound down the window, as I slid back into the lines of traffic, and cast them into the night-air, certain that they'd find an eager readership amongst the passing wheels of all those indifferent cars.
So anyway that voice of mine clicks back on now that I no longer have anyone to talk to, and I find myself offering up a little prayer. For the children of Rwanda and Sarejevo. For the countless millions living in poverty or despair. For a little Mormon in a powder blue suit, alone with his God. And for me: that I'll be home in time for last orders.
3. Why Do Fools Fall In Love?
The God Squad came to visit me, as they often do. Jehovah's Witnesses. And I'm in the kitchen making tea when I overhear Brendan saying: "You know, they're even targeting married men in America, trying to take them away from their wives." I realise he's talking about Homosexuals, and I ask what their Book has to say on the subject. I'm not at all surprised by what I hear. 1 Corinthians 6/9: "Do you not know that unrighteous persons will not inherit God's Kingdom?... Nor fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men kept for unnatural purposes, nor men who lie with men." And he adds, "Homosexuality is a sin." "Then your book must be wrong," I say. "There's a lot of terrible things in this world. But love is never a sin in my book."
I tell them about my friend Robert, a warm, kind, generous human being -and as self-evidently Gay as you can get. Are they saying they would condemn him to a life of loneliness? Bernard says that it's to do with his upbringing. He can change. That's a joke. Robert is one of seven brothers. Bernard's thesis would make them all Gay. As it is, the other six are hunky, gruff, manly men, and as unlike Robert in this respect as you can imagine.
Robert's life gives the lie to everything that Christianity says on the subject. He really didn't want to be Gay. He says he began to realise when he was 12 or 13 that what he was feeling was not the norm, though he had no word to describe it. He only knew that it made him feel guilty, and that it seemed to him like he was the only person in the world who felt like this. And this is the story of his adolescence: just isolation and private torture. One night some schoolfriends and he shared a caravan together, and one of them came up to him and asked if he wanted to hold his willy. "I might have wanted to," Robert says, laughing now, "but I was riddled with guilt and I remember I ended up crying and saying no."
This is a small town, close-knit and with all the attendant prejudices. He got out as soon as he could. He became an apprentice in Saville Row, where he spent the next few years playing the part of the English gentleman, in his smart three-piece suit, with his polite, cultured air. He was just very, very lonely, very, very unfulfilled. "Anyone who showed any awareness of what I might be, or who made any remark... it just caused me a lot of pain." He says he cried a lot. He read in some magazine that Electric Shock Therapy could "cure" some people, and he even considered having it done, so distressed was he.
His first sexual encounter came when he was 24. He was on holiday in Minorca where he met an Italian Aristocrat who invited him back to his villa. A cultured older man, very sophisticated, very wise. Robert was in the kitchen looking up at some tiles when the man came up behind him and kissed his neck. "And in that one moment my whole body exploded. Before I knew it he'd undressed me and carried me upstairs to his bedroom. And that was it!" It wasn't his mind that reacted, it was his body. He spent the next two weeks in carnal bliss, bathed in the exquisite sensuality of mutual pleasure. And that's as romantic a story as I've ever heard. The man wanted to take him to Berlin, and to show him around Europe. Only Robert was too scared. One minute he was a confused, lonely, pretend-heterosexual, and the next he was being asked to share his life with an Italian Aristocrat. It was too much. He chose to return to London.
Robert is not promiscuous. He never went to Gay Clubs, nor took part in the Gay scene. He wanted a stable, loving relationship, like the one shared by his own Mother and Father. It was not until his early thirties that he started mixing with other Gay people. However, he never felt easy. "The Gay scene is promiscuous," he says. "To meet other Gay people you have to go to Gay clubs, Gay pubs. Personally I don't think those environments are entirely healthy. As a Gay person I want to meet Gay people in any environment. I want to mix with all sorts of people, I want to be accepted." So after 28 years of living in London, and now in his mid-forties, he has returned to his home town.
This was very hard. He had to be open with his family. Many of them never knew, and one or two of his brothers were openly homophobic. "But because they've had to confront it they've changed," he says. "Now if any one gives me aggravation, they are willing to come in and protect me, even to the point of they will go in and sort them out." And he laughs at the craziness of his macho brothers "sorting people out" in the name of their camp, soft, non-violent older brother.
So he's won over his family. And he's in the process of winning over the town. "It's easy to be Gay and living in London," he says. "People leave you alone. To come back here it is an everyday occurrence that somebody will ask the question: excuse me, are you Gay? People can be aggressive, people can be abusive. It can be hard work. But some people have changed. Some people are now my friends, so there are benefits."
Robert's experience is one shared by a lot of Gay people. He wants to be treated normally. "I am what I am," he says. "I'm a human being first, and my sexuality is a secondary thing. I've chosen to confront the issue only because these small town people need to go through their human revolution; it's more beneficial that more Gay people move to small town England and change all these attitudes. 'Cos I can't live a wholesome life until people in places like this accept me for who I am. My feelings are exactly the same as them. I fall in love. I cry. I write love-letters to the people I fall in love with. I express that, it's just the same, and it has to be respected as the same."
Well Robert has become a Buddhist now. There's no way that the Jehovah's Witnesses, with all their biblical certainties, could convert him. Buddhist teachings make no reference to homosexuality. They simply state that anyone can reach enlightenment. "Within Buddhism as it's practised within many European countries there's a large Gay contingent, who have rejected Christianity precisely because of the Christian outlook," he says. There may be a number of sincere Christians who would do well to learn from this.
As for Robert's success in "outing" himself: he wants to open a sandwich bar in the town -"The Oasis, a place of peace and tranquillity"- only he hasn't the money. So he asked all his friends to make donations. He raised œ850. It's a measure of how much he is loved.
4. Ice Age.
On my way home from Mid-Wales I stopped off in Cardiff briefly, to meet an old friend. His name is Steven Andrews, and I've known him for nearly 24 years, though in the past 15 years or so I've seen him barely 3 times. We used to hang around together in the '70s. This was when I was a hippy. So what's changed?
Steve lives on a huge, sprawling council estate on the outskirts of Cardiff, with his 15 year old son, 250 separate houseplants, and a hissing cockroach. He is the estate's only hippy. He is also the hairiest man I know. He has hair everywhere: on his legs and on his arms, on his shoulders and on his back, and on his neck and on his face and almost up to his eyebrows. Both of these facts are a supreme embarrassment to his son. The fact that his Dad wears beads, braids, bangles and patchouli oil, in a land of back-to-front baseball caps and baggy jeans. And the fact that both of them are hairy. Steve's son blames Steve for this inherited misfortune. He can't stand to see his Dad in shorts. And he wears his own sleeves rolled down and his collar buttoned up to the neck.
Steve was always notable for his dress sense. He used to wear Tartan as I recalled. Tartan jacket, Tartan trousers, Tartan shoes. Tartan everything in fact. I reminded him of this.
"I've still got the Tartan loons," he told me. "I won a competition about a year ago for the best '70s gear."
Roy Wood of Wizzard used to have a pair of Tartan loons too, and Steve was once mistaken for Roy Wood. Some bloke kept on calling him "Roy" in the Student's Union bar in Cardiff. It took a few minutes for Steve to realize what he was on about. Roy Wood was supposed to have been playing there, but he'd cancelled at the last minute. Steve was flattered. Roy Wood was one of his heroes.
He had these huge platform boots, too: knee length, in metallic blue. And crimson satin trousers with yellow stars. And a purple tee shirt with black stars. And a satin jacket. It was a complete ensemble.
"I thought I looked great," he said. "I still do wear a lot of strange clothes and think that I look great. So nothing much has changed really."
When I knew him Steve was always broken-hearted over some girl or another, and he took a lot of downers. This was due as much to his inability to cope with psycho-active drugs as it was to the fact that he was perennially crossed in love. He told me a story to illustrate both of these points. He was in love with a girl. Her name was Philippa. He was devoted to her, and would do anything to please her. She was concerned at the amount of bad drugs he was taking and the amount of booze he was pouring down his neck. She told him that he should try smoking dope. So he did. He took a toke on a cannabis oil spliff that was being passed around at a party they were both at. Just one toke. All of a sudden he was overtaken by the munchies. He had to have something to eat. He went into the kitchen where he found a box of cornflakes, which he started shovelling into his mouth by the handful. He was cramming raw cornflakes into his mouth, and the cornflakes were falling from his lips and into his beard and onto his chest, where they lodged in the hair.
"I started to think -the idea was- if there was another Ice Age, all this fur on my body was to store food in, like a hamster stores food in its cheek pouches."
He tried explaining this to everyone standing nearby, while rubbing cornflakes into his chest to demonstrate his point. Everyone just looked at him, gobsmacked. He was chewing cornflakes and talking at the same time -cornflakes flying from his mouth in crumbled amber sprays- while rubbing cornflakes into his chest and talking about storing food in his fur during the next Ice Age. People started edging from the room, or backing away quietly. Soon Steve found himself on his own.
He skulked off and found himself somewhere to sleep: under a hedge, in a park about two miles away. The following day he was making his way home, when he met Philippa. She was with some other bloke.
"Oh my God, Steve," she said: "it's you. Oh, I was wrong, I was wrong. What can I say? I told you to smoke dope cos its good for you, and it wasn't good for you at all. And if you're ever going to take acid, give me warning, cos I don't even want to be in the same town as you."
"I just felt this small," Steve told me, indicating with the fingers of one hand. But he was still snorting with laughter as he told me the story.
He continued taking the downers, to such a degree that he became addicted to them. Seconol, Tuenol, that sort of thing. His parents found out. This was because he threw a fit one time when he'd run out. He was sent to a doctor who referred him to a specialist. "A shrink," in Steve's words.
"And that didn't do me much good either, cos basically he used to disagree with everything I was on about, and I used to disagree with him. Just used to have arguments. I used to think it was a waste of time, and he put me on Valium. And that definitely didn't do me any good, cos I got addicted to Valium then."
He remembers one time in particular. They were talking for over an hour, during which time they chainsmoked cigarettes. The specialist was so heated he was banging on the table. "And then, at the end of all this, he was under stress, and I was under stress, and I was going there because I was under stress, and I was leaving there feeling as if I'd had even more stress. And he appeared to be quite crazy. And all he said was, 'we've got to make an appointment, Steve, and keep taking the tablets.'"
He was on Valium for years. He says this is the worst drug ever.
"You can't put your finger on it. You just don't feel right a lot of the time. You don't realize that the Valium is causing you to feel like that. Valium actually deepens your depression. You are more anxious, more unable to cope, more paranoid. It distorts everything, tones it all down. You feel like you need something. So you take some more. You think you feel alright, but you're not really alright."
It took him years to wean himself off. He did it by periodically cutting it down while upping the alcohol. It's not a recommended method, but it worked for Steve. He made notes daily.
"That was complete hell, and I wouldn't recommend Valium to anybody. It's a bad deal all round."
Anyway, that's all in the past now. Steve drinks cider -which he calls druid fluid- and is even stable enough to take mushrooms occasionally. Only organic drugs. No pharmaceuticals. He's an expert on natural plant highs, and is planning to write a book about them. What they are, where to find them, how to grow them, and what to do with them once you've got them. He's also a follower of King Arthur, the famous ex-biker turned Once-And-Future King. Arthur has named Steve as Quest Knight and Bard of the Loyal Arthurian Warband. Steve thinks this is alright because, actually he does feel he is on a quest, and he does write songs. But he draws the line at being called a warrior. He's the least likely warrior on the planet, being a constitutional coward.
Arthur hinted that Steve might be the re-incarnation of Taleisin. Steve says that there is a definite resemblance to a print of the bard which he has on his living room wall. He says: "If that's what you want to call me Arthur that's your business..." But he prefers the name Steven Andrews. It's the one he's used to. He tells me that several of the original Round Table have turned up to join Arthur in recent years. I wonder if he still needs a Merlin? I think I'd be perfect for the part.
5. Extracting The Latex From A Rubber Ducky.
I have it on good authority that Steven Andrews and his friends have got up a petition demanding that the Guardian prints a story about him every week. The good authority is Steven himself. I typed up the petition. Well I'm not sure I could manage a story about him every week, or even every month, but I'm certain that he deserves at least one more mention.
Steven Andrews -in case you've forgotten- is that old hippy friend of mine who had such a spectacular line in sartorial lunacy back in the '70s. He used to wear red satin trousers with yellow stars and a purple tee-shirt with black stars and a satin jacket and knee-length, metallic-blue platform boots, amongst other things. So if you imagine him dressed like that now, it should give you the flavour of the rest of the story.
Steve is quite tall and has a certain stoop. When his hair was long he used to wear it like a curtain to hide his face. He was often depressed. But even in the moments of the worst depression Steve was incapable of taking himself seriously. I used to say that he was a parody of himself. Whenever he speaks it is with a huge sense of the ridiculous, and he punctuates his conversations with snorts and guffaws, as if he's on the point of choking on his own absurdity. It's as if he's watching his life on TV, like an ITV sit-com, and providing his own canned laughter.
"I always wanted to be a rock star," he told me. "I suppose I wanted to be a protest singer, kind of Bob Dylan type. I used to think that somehow or another it would all come to me and I didn't have to do that much about it. But -well it didn't- it never did come to me.
"I used to do these crazy songs which I didn't really like doing. There was one called 'Extracting The Latex From A Rubber Ducky' which was just ridiculous. The whole concept was insane. It was inspired by a friend of mine who was schizophrenic. He used to often mutter to himself 'rubber ducky, rubber ducky, rubber ducky.' And one night we'd been smoking Durban Poison and it just came into my head. I said: 'Paul, I could write a song called Extracting The Latex From A Rubber Ducky.' And he said: 'Yeah, well -you know- go for it!'
"So I went home, I wrote this stuff down. And I put a few chords to it and I thought, 'well, I've got my song, Extracting The Latex From A Rubber Ducky.' And I started playing it in Chapter Arts Centre. And people loved it and it was really stupid.
"It was a two chord song. It had crazy lines in it like, 'extracting the latex from a rubber ducky, gets you in a mess, yes, very mucky, will give you all a try if you're very lucky, extracting the latex from a rubber ducky.' That's the first verse of it. It carries on like that. It's just rubbish."
And then one night he was doing a performance at the Arts Centre: Extracting The Latex From A Rubber Ducky, and a few other songs, including one or two cover versions. He was half way through A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan, when two of the strings on his guitar broke. He wasn't all that good a guitarist anyway, and now he couldn't even get a tune out of it. So he put on this voice. "Well actually this is the Bryan Ferry version," he said, and then he hammed it up like crazy to cover up for the jangling cacophony of his strangulated guitar.
"And then I got stuck with doing Bryan Ferry versions of everything. So I was doing this stupid Rubber Ducky song, and Bryan Ferry voices for covers of other things, and all this rubbish people seemed to be, like, really into."
One time he was at the Windsor Free Festival, off his head on Mogadon, with a couple of people he knew. Hawkwind were playing. And he just decided that he wanted to play. He borrowed a guitar from someone, and he started hassling the organizers to go on stage. He was probably drawling, and almost certainly incapable of listening to reason. In the end the organizers agreed, just to get rid of him. This was on the main stage, after Hawkwind. So he was headlining for Hawkwind. And Steve had a little yellow rubber duck with him, and him and his two friends got up there before this massive crowd, with a beat up old guitar and a kazoo, and a rubber duck, and started playing the Rubber Ducky song. The crowd loved it.
"I had an encore for it. I just couldn't relate to it, cos there were all these thousands and thousands of hippy people out there in the field all going wild about this rubbish.
"I suppose -looking at it from where I am now, in the future- I can say, yeah, it's things like that you want. I mean, I'd be delighted to be on the main stage at a festival with thousands of people going wild about me and giving me an encore. I'd think: 'Great! I've really got it made here.' But then I just thought: 'God, these people are mad, they're just going wild about this rubbish, this Rubber Ducky junk.'
"I did some other songs. I did one called He Left His Head In Acapulco, which is also totally stupid. And a song called Pippin The Pigeon. And this was the kind of stuff they wanted. All the songs the people seemed to go for was all this rubbish. Any songs about -you know- the trials and tribulations of life, and my love life, or lack of it -things like that- people weren't into. But then again, if you were a big star writing songs about failed romance, then that's fine: people would all be into that. But if you're not a big star then they don't want that. They want to listen to a load of junk."
Some months later he was in London on his way to a Van Morrison concert. Van Morrison was one of his heroes (at least Van Morrison didn't have to do stupid songs about rubber ducks). And before the gig he went to a pub to get himself a drink. This was in Finsbury Park, an ordinary little pub at the end of a terraced street. So he's at the bar, relaxing with his drink and looking forward to the concert, when this stranger comes up to him. "Oh man!" the bloke says, bubbling with enthusiasm. "Oh man! You're the guy that does the song about the rubber ducky, you're from Wales, oh, this is too much, there's all these people over here who've heard all about you. Oh, you've got to come and meet all my friends."
And Steve thought: "Right! Well! I've just come in the bar and there's all these people heard all about me, and they wanna meet me, and this guy here knows all about me, and this is all about this fucking rubber ducky again!"
So he went over to talk to them. They were treating him like a big star, asking him all sorts of questions, plying him with drinks and being generally enthusiastic. And all about a song that made no sense.
"I played that song so much that one day I had to kill the rubber ducky. One night at the Chapter Bar in Cardiff, I rearranged some of the song lyrics to include the death of the duck, and with some help I stabbed and stamped it into its shoe-box coffin. We even had a guy dressed up as an Undertaker. Of course, that wasn't the end of the bloody duck. I got calls to do the re-incarnation of the duck. I did it a couple of times, I'm sorry to say. But that time we killed the duck was wild. There were people in the crowd actually crying!"
Such is life. People crying over an imaginary rubber duck. But it strikes me that the image has masturbatory implications. Extracting the latex from a rubber ducky: think about it. Perhaps that's why the song was so popular.
6. Appearances Are Deceptive.
"You still a lorry driver Stan?" I ask.
"No. I hate lorries. I just drive the bloody things."
The thing is, the first time I met Stan I thought he looked like a lorry driver. This was on a road protest I was visiting at the time. Stan was lying on his side feeding sticks into the fire, surrounded by a half a dozen young acolytes. You could tell they looked up to him. But he has a scrunched-up face, and feather-cut hair, and a stud in one ear, and on one arm there's a tattoo of a matchstick man saint, and on the other a matchstick man devil. And the giveaway: a tattoo of a naked woman, all breasts and hips, all curves and lines, like some crude scrawl on a toilet wall. A lorry driver's tattoo.
Later I bumped into him at a pub. Almost the first thing he said was, "I'm a misogynist." It was like a philosophical statement. Then he described himself as a warrior-monk and told me he'd been in a prize-fight that morning but had lost because he'd got all swoony over a woman and it had drained his strength. I liked that story. It was only later that I realized that is probably wasn't true. He's a lorry driver. It's a perk of the trade, meeting strangers and then embellishing your life with baroque fantasies.
I went to see him at his home: a caravan on a farm, overlooking a scrubby hillside. It was a sunny Winter's morning, sharp and clear. Stan came out dressed in tracksuit bottoms and flip-flops, and closed the gate as I parked the car. There was a pony grazing in the compound, and a few dogs roaming about. We went indoors and Stan put on a tape. It was Owner Of A Lonely Heart by Yes, and I thought, "right! So I'm into the story already." It seemed apt. Stan went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, while I looked around. Typical bachelors pad, tidy but austere.
"Stan," I called out, "what did you mean when you called yourself a misogynist?"
"Marriage is not a good idea when Women are involved," he said, grinning. And then, in another well-practised aphorism: "Misogyny is not a crime, it just pisses Women off."
He was married at 19, he told me. Twenty years of marriage. He was in the army for a lot of that time, which is where he'd learned to drive heavy vehicles. When he came out it was natural enough that he should take to the road. "Instant earner. People like people who will drive lorries for a long time. London to Istanbul in 14 days: 10 days if I'm on Wizz. I get there. I turn round and come back."
Then one day he got a kicking in Istanbul. He was badly beaten up. When he got home he was in an unaccountable rage. He lifted up his wife and deposited her outside the front door. Then he "totalled the house". And that was the end of his marriage.
Two years later he met this girl. "Lovely jubbly, smells good too," he said, and made a face. He has two expressions which utilize all of his wrinkles: one for sex and the other for aggression, and they're similar. "She got pregnant -hence my daughter. Moved in with her, she got pregnant again -hence my son." And for a while he was happy, living a normal life. They had a bungalow, and Stan got a good job, as a Community Care Practitioner, dealing with behaviourally challenging adolescents. His marshall-arts training came in useful for this. "They didn't get hurt, I didn't get hurt." And then, after eight years, it all came crashing around his ears.
It was at a training session. The tutor was showing them restraining techniques. He picked Stan from out of the group and said, "come at me." So Stan did. The tutor caught him in an armlock. Suddenly Stan heard this click, and a jolt of pain went through his shoulder and down his arm. "Ow! That hurts." The tutor let go, but Stan's arm wouldn't move.
He was on the sick for about a year. But he says it had a psychological effect too. Nothing seemed right any more. All his dignity was gone. And coming home from work and seeing his partner and his kids for those last few hours of the day was an entirely different experience than having to live with them, day-in, day-out. He was tetchy and bad-tempered. He had this terrible anger all the while, like something clawing at his guts. He was never physically violent, but he felt screwed-up inside. In the end she told him to leave.
"Karma," he says in that off-hand way of his: "what goes around comes around. Life has a neat way of paying debts. Everything's great until you involve sex and emotion." And then he adds, as a kind of footnote to his experiments with marriage: "These days I get on with Women like a house on fire. Celibacy, mate: it's fuckin' wonderful."
So now he's back on the lorries. Drives a Volvo F10 tractor unit, pulling three-axle trailers, delivering carpet-rolls all over the country.
"Most people I know on the lorries are head-fucked," he says. "All lorry drivers are on their second or third marriage and having problems with their current relationship. Stress attacks. Irrational anger. Poor sleep pattern. Climbing into the lorry with your arse hanging out, kipping in the same clothes..."
Lorry driving acts as a focus for lonely people, he told me. It's a socially acceptable way of being a loner. Lorry drivers have this macho reputation, of having all the confidence in the world, driving the biggest things on the road. But really they're just messed up.
"Go into any truck stop anywhere and you'll see them. Twenty trucks, twenty lorry drivers, one driver at each table, sitting alone with his pint."
Stan remembers one occasion, on the M62: Whitwood services. There's a bar and a restaurant. Stan was sitting by himself, drinking his pint and trying to ignore the TV. Some bloke came up to him.
"Alright mate?" he said, by way of introduction. "Ever been International?"
And then it all came out. The loneliness. The boredom. The lost dreams. The man spent the whole night working out his problems, going through it all in his head, using Stan as a sounding board. In the end he didn't want to let go.
"I'll never see you again, will I?" he said, and looked lost.
"Happens all the time," says Stan.
But Stan has plans. He wants to get out of the business and retire. A bit of livestock, a garden, a nice motorbike.
"There's no way I'm going to end up like my Father," he says: "to work like a dog, and then one day in your late fifties you're walking down the High Street and -boomph!- hit the pavement. Work like a dog and then die. I wanna be a lazy bastard before I die. I wanna live."
Just before I left I asked if he had any photos of himself. So he started to go through his pictures. There were plenty of his ex-partner and his kids. A motorbike or two. But hardly any of himself. And then he handed me one. I had to blink to recognize him. His hair was a different colour, and even his face seemed a different shape somehow. He was clean-shaven, dressed in smart casual clothes, with his arms around his children outside that bungalow of theirs, smiling confidently. He looked like a social worker.