A thing I wrote for Boxing News about the legendary British boxer Kirkland Laing. Was very honoured when this was reprinted in the Boxing News annual.
A thing I wrote for Boxing News about the legendary British boxer Kirkland Laing. Was very honoured when this was reprinted in the Boxing News annual.
I know what a cup is.
I know that it’s cylindrical in shape (It follows, therefore, that I know what a cylinder is (also a cube, a sphere, a torus, a tetrahedron, etc.)). I know that a cup is made from kiln-fired clay and usually has a ceramic glaze. With effort I can even remember some of the chemical constituents of the glaze from my college days, although I can’t actually remember the name or location of the college I attended. I know that a cup has a handle. One is able to drink from a cup. Obviously one is.
I know that Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated JKF in 1963, who was then murdered by Jack Ruby, who, himself, then died – I believe – of lung cancer.
If I concentrate I can name all of the planets: the two gas giants, the inferno that is Venus. I am also aware that Earth has an atmosphere composed of oxygen, nitrogen and argon. The boiling point of argon is -185.8˚C. I know these facts and lots of others. They are ingrained in my mind. Less esoterically, I know what a toothbrush is, which means, therefore, that I haven’t forgotten what teeth are. A comb. A car. I know what trousers are. I’m not a complete idiot.
What I don’t know, however, is who I am. How old I am. Whether I am married. If I have children. If I have brothers and sisters. Whether my parents are alive or dead. Whether I have a job (although I have an inkling that I must have, and that it is some way concerned with the creation of some kind of object. My mind is, therefore, not completely anaesthetised.
My senses are mainly intact, I think. With some effort I can smell: although the odours that surround me are unfamiliar. I can see: not completely see, just lights and pixilated shapes. Sometimes these shapes are moving; ghostly figures of indeterminate composition. I can also hear: muffled, indistinct sounds, like someone has hung a wet towel over a speaker, but sounds nevertheless. And I can feel pain. I can certainly feel pain.
If I try to move my head, for example – even the slightest of movement – I feel pain; pain that would force me to scream if only I were able to scream. Pain unimaginable in its scope, its magnitude. I experience similar pain when I try to move my arms, my legs, my shoulders, my hips; if I try to move anything. I am immersed in pain. Suffocating in pain. Trussed and bound like an animal in pain. The pain overwhelms me; it transports me to another place, another universe, another dimension.
I am lying in bed. I know what a bed is. Most of the time I am on my back. Less frequently I am lying on my side. Above me is a row of soft lights: four in total. A constellation of circular lights. Never moving, never changing. Sometimes there are voices.
Most of the time the voices are female in nature: whispering female voices, soft, gentle, unintelligible, comprised not of words but of muffled arpeggios. Occasionally I hear a man’s voice: deep and unconcerned.
This my life: no day and no night. No weeks. No months. No years. Just pain and more pain.
God I’m getting old. I know this because I’ve met people recently who a/ Can’t name any of the Beatles except for Ringo; b/ Have never seen The Jungle Book; and c/ Ruin my wonderfully amusing anecdote about meeting Joe Stummer in The French House by not having a clue who Joe Strummer is. Yes I’m getting old. We all are. And as the days tick by I’m more and more aware of the fate that awaits all but the very lucky ones: WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE SCREAMING IN AGONY.
I’ll say it again in italics: We’re all going to die screaming in agony.
‘The human species is the only one which knows it will die, and it knows this through experience…’ Wrote Voltaire in his Dictionaire Philosophique in 1764. This statement, with very few provisos, is a distinctly inarguable truism. But what that eminent brain box failed to point out was the sheer, abject misery that destiny has in store for us. The fact is, death is an unequivocally unpleasant experience. It is full of pain and agony and torture and all of us have it waiting for us. We can’t avoid it any more than we can avoid inhaling oxygen. And yet we know this and still carry blissfully on.
But I lie a little. Because actually there are more pleasant ways to die. Well not pleasant. What can be pleasant about shuffling off your mortal coil? What I mean to say is, less unpleasant. You could, for example, ‘die peacefully’ in your sleep. Or be hit by a bus. Or get blown up in a plane. All of these are events that tend to evoke universal sadness from friends, relatives and tabloid headlines. But it could be said that the only one not to suffer is the person who actually died. One second you’re alive and kicking, thinking about what’s for dinner or about having sex another alive (or dead) person. The next, absolute nothingness. Zilch. The final countdown. Totality. But the complete unexpectedness of death could actually be a godsend. That’s if you believe in God, which, it has to be said, is a fairly important if somewhat moot issue when you’ve just died.
They are the lucky ones. The ones who meet their maker completely out of the blue, without forewarning, sans advance notice, are the ones to be envied. For the rest of us the grim assassin is set to creep upon us in a predictably attritional manner. One moment you’ll have that dull ache, followed by a frisson of blood, followed by a period of denial, followed by a trip to the doctor, followed by those inevitable tests that are surely designed purely to humiliate, followed by that grim diagnosis (we’re all destined to experience that dark conversation with a doctor which begins ‘I’m very sorry, I have some bad news for you…’), followed by a period of fruitless drug consumption that is nearly always going to be a total waste of time, followed by a period spent in your bed, followed by a return to infancy in which your wife or husband or a complete stranger becomes your mother, feeding you and cleaning up the shit, followed by pain, more pain, pain and agony.
If I seem depressed it’s because I am depressed. Any doctor reading this would immediately dole out the Citalopram and hope that I go away and start smiling at people. But I’m not really depressed because if I am I’ve been so since I exited the womb screaming in agony. This, I believe, is what may separate someone like me from a lot of other people. We’re all dying, folks. And some of us are more dying than others.
Another day. Another chapter of the aborted ‘Waterlow Park’. Interestingly, someone seems to be reading this. Had an email from a small indie publisher in America yesterday who wants to see more. Well here’s the more:
“What’s wrong with you?” says the kid called Smitty, whom I don’t even know.
“Nothing,” I reply.
“Well why’d you keep looking around everywhere? What are you scared of?”
I don’t know Smitty’s real name. I don’t even know if he has a real name although I suppose he must have. In fact, I don’t know much at all about Smitty. Except that he isn’t a giant like all the other boys at the new school seem to be.
“Well something’s wrong. I can tell something’s wrong.”
It’s been two whole days since I found the bag of money and Smitty’s started following me home. He’s in the same class as me – 7W – and it turns out he lives just around the corner from me. I don’t know how he found this out, and I certainly didn’t invite him to start walking home with me. But here he is – walking home with me for the second day in a row. What an idiot.
“I’m telling you… Nothing’s wrong at all.”
“Well you’ve hardly said a word since we got into the park.”
“I’ve got nothing to say…”
Smitty doesn’t know the reason why I’ve got nothing to say but I obviously do and it’s freaking me out quite a lot. It’s because we’re walking through Waterlow Park and I can see the bushes where I found the bag of money. Standing only a couple of feet away from that spot is a man. A really big man dressed completely in black. And he’s looking right at me.
He wasn’t there yesterday. And he wasn’t there the day before. In fact, nobody was there yesterday or the day before when I walked home from school. Just when I was beginning to think that whoever the money belongs to had forgotten all about it.
I turn away. And then I wait a few moments and try and get a sneaky look at the man. He’s still staring at me. I quickly turn away again.
“Look at the size of that bloke,” says Smitty.
Another sneaky look. He’s still watching me.
“What bloke?” I say.
“That bloke’ says Smitty pointing right at the man.
“Stop it!” I say, grabbing hold of Smitty’s arm and pulling it to his side. “Stop pointing at him – it’s… It’s… Stupid…”
Smitty looks at me with a puzzled expression on his face. From the corner of my eye I can see the man still staring right at me. He also has a puzzled expression. I think.
Without realising it, I increase my walking pace. Smitty, who is really fat and really unfit is soon out of breath and struggling to keep up with me. We get closer and closer to the man. So close that I can see his grey eyes. He’s old and craggy and sunburned like he’s been under the grill for too long. He has grey bristles growing out of his chin. He’s wearing a woollen hat and a black jacket. He looks really weird, although actually to other people he probably looks quite normal. He’s so close that he can hear us talk. Except we’re not talking.
“So anyway,” I say, attempting to remedy the situation, “School’s really boring, isn’t it…”
“Huh?” says Smitty.
I try to wink at Smitty but I’m not getting any better at winking. “I said: school’s really rubbish, isn’t it?”
“OMG. I said: school’s rubbish! It’s rubbish, isn’t it?”
“If you say so,” shrugs Smitty, looking at me really oddly.
We walk past the man. He smells of some sort of weird perfume or aftershave. As we pass, his head swivels around to follow us. Quite blatantly. He doesn’t even pretend to be looking at something else. I’m wondering if I even saw him smile a little. A really evil little smile. It had to be.
I eventually shake off Smitty and hurry home. I’m covered in sweat, partly because of the walk and partly because of the man. Sofia’s waiting for me. Her school’s closer than mine and she always gets home before I do.
“I just saw someone,” I pant, hardly able to get the words out.
“Congratulations,’ says Sofia. “I saw at least… Let’s see… Probably about a hundred people today.”
“No – idiot! I mean I saw someone in the park.”
“Really? Shall I call the newspapers?”
“Shall I call the newspapers and tell them that you saw someone in the park? Do you think it will make the front page?”
As well as using big words and constantly finishing people’s sentences, Sofia can be very sarcastic.
“Somebody standing near the bushes…”
“…The bushes where I found the you-know-what.”
Sofia goes white and quiet for a moment as the penny drops. She reduces her voice to a whisper. “You mean the money?” she asks.
“Yes! The money!” I reply. “He was standing right next to where I found the money. And he was watching me.”
I describe the man’s appearance to my sister. And as I do so I remember more detail. “He had sharp pointed shoes. He had a leather leash wrapped around one of his hands.”
“Do you mean a dog lead?”
“I dunno. A leather leash. He kept looking at me and Smitty.”
“I told you yesterday. He’s a stupid fat boy in my class. He wants to be my friend. He keeps walking home with me.”
“Oh… Well maybe you should speak to him.”
“I do speak to him. I keep telling him to go away.”
“No. Not Smitty. The man in the park. If he’s there on Monday speak to him.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Because it might be his you-know-what. It might belong to him. He might give you a reward.”
I was wrong: yesterday’s response was even more underwhelming than the day before. All I got were a couple of likes and a typo pointed out to me. Still, out of sheer bloody-mindedness more than anything else, here’s chapter 03 of Waterlow Park.
PS I’m writing this on a Logitech iPad Pro keyboard, which is very swish but takes some getting used to. Mistakes are likely.
“Money!” yells dad. “The whole world is trying to take your money!”
Dad’s in a shouty mood. He’s just come back from work and he needs to get things out of his system. He’s always in a shouty mood.
“Do you know I got out of the tube and five people asked me for money?” he continues, although everyone in the room is pretending not to hear him. “There was an idiot selling the Big Issue, an idiot playing an accordion, some idiot woman who looked like a zombie smoking a cigarette, an idiot standing at the bus stop and some idiot who tried to sell me a poxy idiot flower. What’s the world coming to?”
In dad’s world everyone’s an idiot except him. People on the telly are all idiots. All pop singers are idiots. All politicians are idiots. Me and Sofia are definitely idiots. Everyone.
“Calm down Tony,’ says mum. ‘Think of your blood pressure.”
Mum’s a nurse. You can tell by the way she’s always talking about health. Dad teaches people how to use computers for a living. He hates his job. He hates the people he teaches. He says they’re all idiots.
“I am calm Janie!” shouts dad. “It’s just that I’m surrounded by…”
“…Idiots?” says Sofia.
“Yes… That’s right, Sofia,” says dad like he’s never heard the word before. ‘IDIOTS who want your money!”
Mum and dad don’t often have a lot of money. This is probably because whenever they do they go out and get rid of it as quickly as they can. Mum spends it clothes for us but dad mostly drinks and smokes it. Don’t get me wrong – we never go hungry. We both have mobiles and proper clothes and trainers and things. Well not proper – not with proper names like the ones that the kids at school wear. But we’re always aware that the we have to be careful. The last week of the month is always a bit of a struggle for everyone.
“How was school today?” Now mum’s talking, she trying to get dad to stop going on about idiots. “Anything interesting happen?”
Sofia and I look at one another, probably guiltily. There is a silence, which forces both mum and dad to stop talking and stare at us suspiciously.
“I got put in the golden book for spelling,” says Sofia, breaking that silence.
“Very clever darling,’ says mum. “And what about you Stephen?”
“I had a nondescript day.”
“Hark at him and his big words,” says dad.
After dinner mum and dad have a row. Sofia and I are not sure what starts it because any little thing is enough to get dad and mum arguing. We go upstairs and put our fingers in our ears as mum screams at dad and dad shouts at mum. Their voices are loud but muffled enough to hide what they are yelling about. We hear the sound of breaking glass and Sofia starts to shake so I get her to clean her teeth and put her to bed. Then I get into my pyjamas and go to bed myself. I hide under the sheets and read an Avengers comic by torchlight. Later, mum comes into the room and kisses me on the forehead and I pretend to be asleep. She’s been crying. She’s always crying.
On Friday 16 October I’m going to be reading excerpts from my kids book ‘Johnny Nothing’ to a press-ganged group of children as part of the annual Archway With Words Festival. Do come along if you want to be deafened by a horde of screaming ten and eleven-year-olds.
It’s also worth mentioning that there are still tickets available for most of the other acts and personalities appearing.
ArchWay With Words Part Three – a 9 day odyssey of fiction, science, comedy, history, poetry, puppets and singing!
ArchWay With Words 2015 has an illustrious line up of ‘superstar authors and spellbinding speakers’. There’s headliners galore with National Treasures Joan Bakewell and Phill Jupitus, Booker winner Ben Okri and the hugely popular and cool historical novelists Jake Arnott and Tracy Chevalier.
Esther Freud, Joanna Briscoe and Matt Baylis lead the literati and there’s another terrific showing for science featuring Simon Singh returning with his original Enigma Machine, Professor Peck of the Antarctic Survey talking about polar biology and the Professor and stand-up comic Sophie Scott on the ‘Science of Laughter’.
As usual AWWW will be showcasing the prodigious local talent with writers Penny Hancock, Callum Jacobs, Heather Reyes and Caitlin Davies all speaking on the first day, but the programming net is thrown very far this year with the finale headed by New York performance artist and recent Fringe First winner Penny Arcade, in a session with punk pioneer Viv Albertine.
This year’s Spoken Word offer features the hottest London talent and is spectacularly headlined with a rare performance from Linton Kwesi Johnson. Biography is well represented too with talks on Alexander McQueen and John Peel, and special interest subjects are clue-cracking with a Times cryptic crossword setter, recordings from the urban hubbub with the London Sound Survey, ‘Hot Feminism’ and experts on the history of protest in the Capital, and London’s best swimming spots including the Thames.
We hear from playwrights Tanika Gupta and Diane Samuels, with the latter undertaking a huge creative writing project that will culminate on the 2nd weekend at Archway Market, on a day of fun with storytelling from Spud & Yam, a performance from a sitar maestro and three booksellers on hand to assist with your reading needs. With 35 events in all, this is another spectacular feast for your mind from AWWW.
AWWW2015 takes place from October 10th – 18th in Archway Methodist Church, Hargrave Hall, the new ‘Bomb Factory’, the nightclub above the Tavern and the Library. Tickets are available at archwaywithwords.com and this year Archway Library will be the very conveniently located box office. Brochures can be found in shops, restaurants and venues.
Back in the early nineties when ecstasy really was ecstasy not the tepid shit that they sell to the kids these days I smuggled a couple of tabs into Zante. Only two tabs: one for me and one for Marie – enough for her to fall in love with me for a night and me with her. Although I’d lost count of the number of times I’d been carrying I always got a little nervous when I went through customs. However, I prided myself on my originality when it came to hiding things. I’d never needed to swallow anything or shove it up my arse, I was too subtle for that. So on this occasion I individually wrapped the tabs in clingfilm and dropped them into a bottle of thick gloopy yellow shampoo. Then I wiped the top and put a smudge of PVA around the thread. This would add a little authentic stiffness to the lid on the off-chance that an overenthusiastic customs guard should decide to open it. I shook the bottle and held it up to the light. There was no way you could tell it was concealing anything.
Even so, I was sweating a bit when I went through; that musty, under-the-arms kind of sweat that always smells bad. Stupidly, I was wearing a biker’s jacket, a personal statement which guaranteed that I would be stopped and searched at customs. On this occasion they went one step further and pulled me into a little room and got me to empty my suitcase. If I say so myself I showed a great deal of panache as I did so, affecting the resigned but amused air of somebody who was obviously put out by what was happening to him but apparently viewing the experience in a post-modernist existential kind of way. In a display of unfeasible braggadocio I even handed the shampoo to the plump matronly uniformed woman whose job it was to go through my socks and underwear. But she wasn’t interested and eventually waved me away with mock embarrassed shrugging.
Marie was waiting for me by the MacDonald’s with that dumb face of hers sitting blankly atop a body that she appeared unaware of, although this couldn’t possibly be true. She asked me what had happened, which seemed a completely senseless question but for the time being I was content to indulge her innocence and her stupidity. If everything went according to plan I would soon have my hands on that body of hers, which seemed adequate compensation for such admirable patience.
But things started to go wrong.
Inevitably the hotel was a shit-hole. It was damp and smelled of piss. Whatever colour it had once been had been bleached away by the sun. Nothing like the picture in the brochure. And there were two single beds, which fucked me off no end. Worse still when I poured the pills out of their hiding place they had somehow reacted with the shampoo and more than doubled in size. They had become soggy, clingfilmed pouches of shampooey dust that were no good to anyone. I resolved to let them dry out in the sun for a while and curtail my nefarious plans until later. This turned out to be a bad idea because as soon as we hit the bars Marie was immediately surrounded by panting admirers who were oblivious to my presence. And before I knew what was happening she was sitting on the lap of one of them, a seven foot Devonian cavemen who really was Neanderthal, not in the pejorative sense but an actual, living breathing Neanderthal, complete with bone jutting brow, undersized eyes and oversized hands and feet capable of crushing my puny Public School digits. And then he took Marie home with him and presumably had sex with her, leaving me alone to wank away my frustrations back in that shit-hole of a hotel room. That was Day One – surely things could only get better?
On Day Two we did the beaches. Marie in a bikini, inevitably already bronzed. Me in shorts and a t-shirt that made not even a cursory attempt to hide the rolls of fat beneath. I didn’t mention the events of the previous night to Marie in the hope that they never actually happened. The Plan was back on and I was once more Dick Dastardly. We had lunch and then lay together on the sand listening to a radio. I took off my shirt, sucked in my belly and allowed the hot sunshine access to my flabby white torso as I fell into a dream. When I awoke four hours later that torso was still flabby but now it was pink and radiated its own heat source, moreover I was shivering like it was the middle of winter. I spent that second night alone again, trying to keep warm under the flea-ridden bedsheets in the shitty hotel room as everyone else on the island broiled in the Mediterranean heat. Marie was nowhere to be seen.
The next morning hit me with dehydrated agony, every part of my body blistered, my taut skin ready to crack. Unable even to turn my head. Unable to leave the hotel room for fear of the cruel burning sun. Round about six Marie finally rolled in. She had bite marks on her neck and her eyeliner had run to form black tears. She refused to speak and slumped on to her bed, immediately falling into a deep coma. I lay in the next bed listening to her grind her teeth, my balls aching and the rest of me slow cooking, too sore to sleep.
I lost track of time: Marie disappeared and I spent days and days on my own prowling the island. Staying in the shadows like a vampire, avoiding direct sunlight. Sometimes I caught a glimpse of Marie in the distance with her various companions. As well as the tall Neanderthal one, there was a black one, and a white one, and what looked like twins. One time she saw me looking at her and waved at me happily. Not a trace of concern for my well-being on her beautiful face or any regret for abandoning me. As the days trundled by I got drunker and drunker and stumbled blindly into women, desperate for attention, for companionship. Even the ugly ones swatted me away as you might do an irritating tick. However, one woman spent the afternoon with me, drinking my drinks and telling me tales of woe, of unwanted children, of beatings. She was attractive in a proletarian way and my standards had dipped so down below the bar that I would have happily have clambered on top of her. Finally, she asked to borrow money and I gratefully obliged. She said she would go back to her hotel to retrieve her forgotten purse and pay me back straight away. It would only take five minutes, she said. Then we’d get drunk together. I never saw her again.
Gangs of youths in Gazza t-shirts marched the dusty streets squeezing wobbly plastic glasses of expensive cheap flat beer between their brutish fingers. Their yells made no sense to me as I submerged myself in a bottomless lake of alcohol. I swam in that lake and through a heat haze found myself talking to one of these pink-faced youths. The words refused to emerge but I still managed to say something that this person took exception to. He was smiling like an indulgent father as he smacked me hard in the mouth and I jinked to the floor like a cow in a slaughterhouse, blood squirting from somewhere within the roof of my mouth. ‘Fucking cunt!’ he said, the first time anybody had spoken to me in what seemed like a lifetime.
In blood and pain I somehow made my way back to the room. Marie was there applying the evening’s make-up. She looked at me in confusion. ‘Are you having a nice time?’ she asked, frowning at the blood and covering her love bites with a silk scarf.
And then it was suddenly the last day. If I was ever going to enact The Plan it had to be now. The sun had turned the soggy ecstasy into a fine dry powder and I took a shower and dressed myself in clean clothing. I put on aftershave. I cleaned my teeth. My flesh was peeling like a snake shedding its skin but I felt clean for the first time since we had arrived in Greece. Marie looked even more beautiful as she sat across me at the dinner table later that evening. For the first time in close to a week we were actually alone and I was able to put my Oxbridge charm into play, pretending not to talk about money and watching the effect it had on her. I fed Marie glass after glass of gin and her words began to slur as I produced the powered ecstasy and slipped it into her drink. Then I poured the other tab into mine and downed the mixture in one. I grinned.
Marie looked puzzled. Then she looked worried. And then she nervously asked about the powder in her drink. When I told her what it was she didn’t want to know. She had never taken ecstasy, she explained, and nothing I could say or do would make her swallow the contents of her glass. ‘But I’ve just taken it…” I protested in slow motion. I’d just taken the powdered ecstasy and was about to embark on a trip that would last the whole night.
We argued for a while. I tried to make her see sense. But it was a waste of time. And so I did what any sane person in my position would do: I picked up Marie’s glass and drained it too.
I find myself standing on a beach. The biggest sun ever seen by the human eye sinks slowly beneath the waves as I’m overcome by a feeling of profound overwhelming absolute love for the world and its entire contents. I wander up to strangers and engage them in the deepest conversations that they will ever be party to. My mind travels at the speed of light. The people around me shrink to the size of pinheads. There is nothing around me but love. Love. Love. Love.
The seconds last minutes. The minutes last hours. Love. Love. Love.
I’m sucked into the midst of a crowd. Every one of them my best friend. Every one of them a stranger and an intimate. We drink and we and we drink and we drink until there is nothing left to drink on the island. But it has no effect on me. I could drink the entire world if I wanted to. I am Jesus. I am God. I am love. Love. Love. Love.
There was a loud bang and I woke up on the pavement with a cut on my shin and two pairs of eyes inches from my own. Beside me was a buckled motorbike with its engine smoking, wheels still spinning. The owners of the eyes were shouting at me angrily in Greek. They wore police uniforms. In my MDMA haze I tried to make sense of where I was and what was happening. It is only much later that I realise that I had somehow stolen the bike and been hurtling through the Zante town centre at top speed, lucky not to kill anyone. To kill myself. The shouting continued and quickly escalated. A pair of handcuffs were produced. I was about to be arrested and put in a Greek prison cell.
It was then that a miracle happened.
‘There he is!’ shouted a female voice. ‘He’s always doing this. Give the stupid sod to me and I’ll take him home.’
Four Greek eyes and two English eyes turned in surprise towards the source of the voice. She was in her late twenties, mousey blonde, Essex accent, nothing much to look at.
‘Come on,” she continued. “You two boys can leave him to me… He’s going to get it when I get him home!’
And this was the miracle: I’d never met this person before but she’d been passing by and noticed that I was in trouble. And even more of a miracle: the two Greek policeman put away the handcuffs and did as they were told. As they walked away I picked myself up and thanked my saviour. ‘You all right then, mate?’ she said, moving away from me. ‘See you around…’
And see her around I did. Because lo and behold who isn’t sitting right behind Marie and me on the flight home? And strangely enough, her name is also Marie.
By the end of the flight I was sitting next to the other Marie. And when the plane landed she did indeed take me home, as she had promised the Greek police. And I’ve never left. I even married the girl.
She’s in her late-forties now, mousey blonde, Essex accent, still nothing much to look at. And when dinner is eaten and coffee has been poured we never tire of telling our friends about the the day that we met.