Year 2, Week 84: He’s Considering a Move to LA

LA is a great big freeway, a famous song once said, and northern California was a place you went to escape its smog-filled alleys and valleys. The idea of this city – and I have been there before – to a non-driver such as myself was anathema to my very ideals. It was just too big (and this coming from a Londoner), too sprawling, too unfocused, too reliant on the dreaded automobile, too balkanised between violent ghettos and super-wealthy media-types (again, this from a Londoner). A terrible public transport system you’d only take if you were too criminally insane to be allowed behind the wheels of a car. A city that would swallow you alive. I’m glad I went down there for a visit by myself, because I think that finally my perceptions have shifted, just a bit.

Of course, the experience of getting from LAX to Disneyland didn’t help much. Stuck on a mile-wide freeway in a small shuttle bus in a vast densely populated plain south of the yellow-tinged hills and the tall towers of downtown LA that looked like so many tombstones. Lookng at the map, I was passing through areas of legend – Inglewood, Compton, South Central, Watts – it may as well have been, if popular imagination is anything to go by, Beirut, Gaza, Baghdad, Darfur. The freeway couldn’t get us away quickly enough. The only part of these areas I actually got to see however was a Taco Bell parking lot, while the bus driver was taking a leak, and to my surprise it wasn’t filled with boyz in the hood shooting each other on sight. I remembered when I first heard of drive-by shootings, and imained people going up to a little booth, winding down the car window, a gun coming out and shooting, then being handed a drink and some fries. Well they don’t do fries at Taco Bell, so no chance of that here.

I came back this way on the way from Anaheim to Santa Monica, where I was basing my little solo excursion to LA. I’d heard it was nice, one of the nicer parts of California, and being by the Ocean there was less chance of me getting lost. I got a public bus, through Marina Del Ray and Venice, and there was a guy on there I thought I recognised, conversing loudly with a couple of tourists about the hidden beauties of the area. after he got off, the other passengers excitedly said that he was from TV, he’d been in that show Deadwood (it wasn’t the Lovejoy guy, though), and that you get that sort of thing all the time. I, however, thought I’d recognised him because he looked a bit like my uncle Eddie when he was younger, so kept quiet. Anyway, at only a dollar, the public bus was perfect and finally got me away from the insulated reality of cars and freeways, taking me to the streets. I instantly felt a little bit at home – apart from the golden sunshine and the abundance of palm trees, I could have been in London – except people were friendlier.

Santa Monica hit me instantly. I see the world in pen and paint and every sight I saw I wanted to draw, every house, every tree, every shop. My motel, while still in Santa Monica, was probably more correctly located in Ocean Park, on a vibrant little stretch of Main Street, a couple of blocks from the immense perfect sandy beach, Venice to the south, Malibu to the north, and Japan many leagues to the West. Everybody I met was friendly and local, and yet I still got that big city feeling I’ve missed. I had a slice of one of the best New York style pizzas I’ve ever had from a little place where I overheard conversations between animators and designers, before going to a little cafe I’d seen where a small and seriously talented jazz band played incredibly soothing music to me while I ate a day-old croissant. I was the only customer – it was true don’t-get-too-popular jazz (and the guitarist had almost the same Ibanez as me). I followed this with a walk to the tourist-and-light-filled pier, before strolling back to try some of the Main St pubs recommended by locals. The only thing I could say agianst this place at the end of the day was that the beers in the pubs were too expensive. It’s probably an LA thing.

I took a bus to the posh Westwood, home of UCLA and on the cusp of Beverly Hills and Bel Air, from where I took another public bus up to the Getty Center. I had worried that my accent would be misunderstood when I got on and that I would end up in the centre of the Ghetto, but thankfully that didn’t happen. The Getty was incredible, overlooking Los Angeles like an acropolis. I saw only a small part of the actual collection – it was the building and the grounds that held my interest, especially the labyrinthine gardens. I took the bus back, and for a moment I was in north London, on the 210 going through Highgate across Hampstead Heath. It was a little jarring. The rest of my time, though I’d planned to venture inland again, was spent clinging to the Ocean. Santa Monica’s sunday morning farmer’s market was right opposite my motel, and while so many of these markets have disapponted me with their smugness, this one felt happy, sunny, with its aging Mamas-and-Papas type band, and though it sounds incredibly corny, I felt as though at last I’d found the mythical place called ‘California’. The place made me feel like a friendlier person – I started to let people watch me sketch (which I never ever do), and even realised I was singing aloud to my headphones as I was walking down the street, but it didn’t matter – it seemed like everybody else was, too. I only saw a tiny glimpse of LA as an auto-less traveller, but it was enough to dispel a few myths (and to be fair, a few realities), and while we won’t be moving to LA any time soon, at least now I see it as a place to consider.

Year 2, week 82: No Picnic

It’s the big event of the year for Davis, the one local event when everybody says, yes I should get myself down there for that. Picnic Day has been a feature of the UC Davis spring calendar for about ninety years. It is the largest student-organised open house event in the US, when the departments swing open their doors and put on all sorts of fun events, often involving animals (the university began as an agricultural school, and still has many resident cows, some of whom apparently have windows in their stomachs, which must be a pane in the arse). I had to miss last year’s Picnic Day due to working – I still got to see the parade as it marched past the bookstore though – so I was really looking forward to this year’s event. I particularly wanted to see the famous Battle of the Bands event, a band-off between marching bands that is apparently lots of fun. I never got to find out, though, because this year it pissed down, so we just said sod it, and went home.

We did see the parade, though, marching past the bookshop – a surprising number of people took part, either covered up beneath layers of plastic, or braving the elements dressed up in whatever their department represents (the Classics dept, for example, were all robed in skimpy Roman togas). The legendary “California Aggie Marching Band-uh!” led the way (silly name, I know, but highly beloved and very popular – click here for a ridiculously long and detailed history of the organization), followed by all manner of madness, tractors and the like. My favourite paraders (apart from the giant cow) are the quirky wheeled contraptions invented by eccentric Davisites – you often see these guys around town, bobbing up and down on two great tires and the like. I should write a blog entry all about these guys, but other than the wierd spectacle and the odd sight downtown, I know nothing at all about them – they are as mysterious to me as a golf club to a pelican. Don’t ask where that phrase just came from.

We attempted to leave downtown Davis and cross the bollard divide into the land of the UC, where the real fun was to begin. I was interested in seeing the band-off, and the doxy derby (sausage dogs racing each other, I’m told), but the rain got the better of us. We tasted some brand new UC Davis olive oil, got some free vines at the viticulture and enology department (look the word up if you don’t know what it means; I went for an interview with them once, and I thought it was something to do with insects), but couldn’t bear to keep going. Some picnic. Still, I heard that it continued, albeit with most events cancelled. A few days later, I read a letter in the college newspaper from a rain-disgruntled student saying that Picnic Day should be moved to May. Despite the fact we’ve had hardly any rain this year, and that that it is usually very warm and sunny in mid April. Please. I was bummed it rained, but you know, these things sometimes happen. Honestly, this guy should be grateful – in England, if there’s a picnic or a parade or a holiday of any kind, you expect it to rain. Sure, getting drenched was a downer, but it did kind of remind me of home.

Year 2, Week 80: Antiques Roadshow

I hated Sundays when I was a kid, for many reasons. There was none of the sense of hope you got on a Saturday. Saturday’s were brilliant, weren’t they? Getting up and watching the cartoons and the loud and colourful morning shows, with the likes of Timmy Mallett, Michaela Strachan and Noel Edmonds, then later on there’d be the A-Team and football down the park, followed by the final scores (back when Spurs were great and Arsenal were shite); Sunday morning meant Grange hill repeats and being dragged around car-boot sales. And there was that awful dead period of TV on a sunday, from about 5pm (by when any possible footy that might have been on was over) until about 10, when Spitting Image would start. This dead period would be punctuated by such shows as Highway, Songs of Praise, Credo, Last of the Summer Wine, and – as if the car-boot sale experience wasn’t enough – Antiques flipping Roadshow.

Well guess what – they have it here too. But it’s not on Sundays, it’s on weekdays – it just feels like Sunday when it’s on. Oh, now don’t get me wrong – I actually do like the show. Really. The American version is very much like the British version, it’s not a glitzy win-fabulous-prizes in-your-face copy, and it’s on PBS, which means it has some dignity and no commercials. It doesn’t have Hugh Scully, but it does have Mark Walberg, and it’s not the guy from Planet of the Apes. I’ll tell you what I like about it though. While the British show ambles about the country from village hall to community centre, parading sensibly embarassed old folks trying their best not to show their elation / disappointment at the valuation of their old coronation teapots, the American one is a true roadshow, which really does get about – this is a big country, and yokel Americans can be really, really funny.

Last night’s one was in Mobile, Alabama (the place namechecked by a stuck Dylan on Blonde on Blonde), and you gotta love the Deep South, their colourful stories and their rocking-chair-on-the-verandah accents. One old fellow was talking about some event that happened back in his own history that was only vaguely connected to the rug or whatever that he was showing, saying how “we hadda rootin-tootin-good-tahm, yes sir!” They show such genuine love for their old family junk, especially such traditional Americana as blankets, and they really do practically fall off their chairs when told that the lampshade they picked up in a junk store in 1957 is worth ten thousand dollars. More than the human side though is the sense of American culture and history that, as an outsider, it’s often difficult to find otherwise. An old ‘Duke’ football, means nothing to me, but it turns out it’s from the ‘golden age of football’ (their football, not ours), which again doesn’t mean anything to me, but at least I could understand the warmth with which they spoke about it.

One of the more interesting historical artefacts that was evaluated was an old Confederate Army belt buckle. This guy, whose accent had such a twang you could play the fiddle with it, dug this belt up in his cotton field and was going around wearing it for many years. It turns out it’s a highly desirable item and, with it’s deep-rooted southern history, could easily pick up twenty grand at an auction, much to the evaluator’s excitement and old Zeke’s astonishment. What they never brought up, but I’ll bet they both thought it, is that this very same belt may well have been used to beat poor black slaves in that very same cotton field; it’s hard to escape that sinister image of the south. When you start to imagine the hidden history in such a seemingly innocent item as a belt buckle, well, it kind of puts complaining about Last of the Summer Wine on a Sunday evening in Burnt Oak into a little perspective.

Year 2, Week 76: What’s Up, Doc

I went to the doctor’s a few weeks ago. I’d never been to the doctor’s in America before – well, I was hardly a regular at the docs in England either (I knew the routine though – go there with a broken leg, they tell you it’s a virus, that sort of thing). Nothing serious, I’d just been having a few pains and wanted an actual certified medic to check me out. The problem with having a few pains here and there is that if you tell anybody (and this is a universal truth, especially in your place of work), you come away thinking you’ve only got weeks to live. People would say “it’s appendicitis!”, even though the pain I’d be describing would be closer to the answer’s page than the appendix. And I’d believe it all, too; I’m not one of nature’s hypochondriacs, but I’m certainly one of nature’s worriers. So I thought I should get a doctor to have a look.

I’m lucky – I have health insurance, one of the benefits of my job. Millions in America don’t. It’s not like in the UK, where we have the NHS – love it or hate it (depending on which tabloid you read), it’s the most valuable thing Britain has, and America would do well to look after its population as a whole with universal healthcare. Richest country in the world and all that. So I went to the doctor’s, and was surprised I still had to pay to see the man – a small amount, ‘co-pay’, but still. They made me wait around, too, in a room full of people with either nosiy children or noisy illnesses. Noisier still was the sound of the cash register. I couldn’t help but think how impossible it must be for people with either no job or really badly paid jobs who cannot afford health insurance, but get sick. How do they cope? Truth is, they do not cope – getting ill is one of (if not the) largest cause of bankrupcy in the US. However, eventually I got to see the nurse, who performed a series of mysterious tests, such as clipping something to my finger and saying ‘ok’ – I still can’t work out what it’s for, perhaps it measures fingernails or something. I can’t put my finger on it. anyway, I was told to take off my shirt and wait for the doctor, who came 25 minutes later (in the meantime, I caught a cold).

Well, he squeezed me a bit here and poked about a bit there, and asked what was wrong and if I’d had these sypmtoms or those symptoms, none of which I had, which evidently must have been a good thing. He told me to take a few tests (urine, blood; personally I’d have preferred geography or music), and basically I came away thinking that my diagnosis was, well, Mr Scully, you’re 31, you see. I’ve not had any mysterious pains since, and I got my test results back today, too. Lots of ‘negatives’ (it reminded me of when Del Boy Trotter got a similar letter and panicked because he thought ‘negative’ meant ‘curtains’). But it seems I’m fine. which is good news, because we’re on the verge of pollen season, and it’s only a metter of time before my hay fever explodes in a mess of streaming eyes, itchy nose and lots and lots of tissue. Buy your Kleenex shares now, folks.

Year 2, Week 75: The Vinyl Frontier

After living here for nearly a year an a half, I’ve finally found something about my neighbour metropolis of Sacramento that I like. I know I’ve never really given that sprawling urban splat much of a chance, the way it just squats in the distance across a vast flat swamp, thick with suffocating Valley air and the sound of gunfire on every news broadcast, utterly lacking the grand charm of New York or the dramatic slopes and vistas of San Francisco. Getting the bus through West Sacramento is hardly inspiring, miles of rotten industrial grounds, trailer parks and the sort of motels you only ever see in films with a high death count. I warmed to grubby old Charleroi, years ago, but I think you’d have to be pretty cold to find anything to warm to here.

But recently I’ve been going up to Midtown, where the leafy boulevards are lined with charming old wooden houses, and there are shops and cafes and people walking because they want to, and yet because it’s still Sacramento there’s still some grit, and none of the urban snobbery you find in the more affluent areas. I guess that’s why it’s called Midtown, because it’s between downtown and Uptown, I’d not really thought of it like that. But that’s not what brings me there. There’s this really cool record shop called The Beat, and it’s my new favourite place. My wife first took me up there in January, after I got my new record player, so I could buy my first vinyl LP in many years and add to the ones I’d just lugged back from London (you know, vinyl’s a lot heavier than you think, isn’t it). I was so impressed – the place was so well-stocked, but still airy and spacious, not crazy like Amoeba Records, and they had a phenomenal collection of Beatles stuff, both British and American versions, most of which I have, some of which I salivated over but couldn’t really justify spending on. I spent most of my time in the Who section, trawling through rare European imports, but finally settling on the old compilation favorite Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, because it was the first Who record I ever heard back at my uncle Billy’s years ago, and because if you are going to listen to the old stuff, you can’t do it on CD, it has to be vinyl. I went home, put the needle in the groove, and rocked out; it was like being thirteen again.

I’ve gone back up there a few times to trawl through their CDs, new and used, and have been generally impressed with the large stock, particularly as I seem to find a lot of British stuff you’d never expect to see in a shop deep in Sacramento. No David Devant, however, but you can’t have it all. Nearby though there is a British pub called the Streets of London, which I’d known about since we moved here but have always resisted going to for the following reasons: it’s in Sacramento, it has a name which indicates it’s probably nothing like a London pub, and because we met a slightly weird couple once that said they go out there and I had no inclination of bumping into them. Well I finally decided to pop in and check it out (and to find a table to add some paints to the sketches I’d made around town), after all they might be showing Spurs on the TV. They weren’t, but I bought a pint of London Pride and had an utterly new sensation. It was actually cold, and tasted really good. I like Pride, I used to drink it a lot, but back at the Haverstock in Belsize Park it would always be edging room temperature. Here it was damn cold, and damn good. I didn’t want to get ahead of myself, so I left, passing by The Beat on the way back to the bus-stop. Or I would have passed by if I’d not heard them playing ‘Boredom’ by the Buzzcocks, one of my all-time favourite tracks (and one I never hear blaring from a shop doorway). I popped back in and sure enough they had the Spiral Scratch EP. I’d never even seen it before! But I resisted, for now, giving myself an excuse to come back down, and I will too. I don’t yet like Sacramento, and I’m not about to move there or anything, but after all this time I’ve found I don’t hate crossing the Causeway quite as much.

Year 2, week 73: Le Tour de Californie

While I was busy playing mini-golf (that’s crazy golf to you) in Santa Rosa on Monday afternoon, about a hundred and forty cyclists in tight bright lycra were whizzing up the coast of California from the San Francisco Bay. It was the first leg of only the second annual Tour of California, our very own Tour de France (but without the whole France bit). Funnily enough, I don’t remember it happening last year, but they assure me that it did. Anyway, it was going to be finishing in Santa Rosa, and I considered going downtown to watch them come in, but the thought of standing beside forty thousand people watching a load of people I’ve never heard of in a sport I’m not interested in didn’t really appeal (I might as well watch the England cricket team, for example). I’m a bit bummed that I didn’t, though, because right at the end there was a crash, a load of cyclists toppling over one another in a mangle of metal, fibreglass and lycra. Yes, yes it’s sadistic I know, but that’s the only reason a lot of people watch such sports, for the crashes. England in the World Cup, for example, they always crash out.

When I lived in Belgium it was the turn of the millennium, a time for Belgians to reflect on their home-grown heroes of the last century. Crooner Jacques Brel was up there, of course, along with the Smurfs, but the one who topped the most polls in that bike-mad country was Eddy Merckx, the ‘Cannibal’. There was always drama around that guy, from serious and lethal crashes, and being punched by Frenchmen incensed about a Belgian dominating their Tour, to breaking all the cycling records anybody could throw at him. Anyway, apart from Lance Armstrong and that kid in ET, he’s the only other cyclist I’ve ever heard of. No chance of them showing up in their yellow jerseys. But when I heard that the second stage of the Tour of California would pass through Davis on its way to Sacramento, well I had to go and have a look.

I’d been ill that morning, but decided to cycle downtown on the way to work to see what the fuss was all about. People were starting to line the streets with bright things to wave at the cyclists (would that not put the poor sods off?), while news crews constantly checked gear, touched up make-up and downed decaf cappucinos. Well, they had to cover the event in Davis, it is ‘Biketown USA’ after all. Occasionally word would get around – ‘they’re twenty minutes away!’ – ‘they’re fifteen minutes away!’ – but in reality they were much further, held up by the wind. A lot of people stood patiently with cameras at the ready, but still no sign of the racers. There was a general feeling of having been stood up, but nobody wanted to leave before the date called to cancel.

And then, a distant cheer, an advancing motorcade, and there they were, the three frontrunners who had broken away from the main group. They were gone in an instant, followed by a couple more pacers on Harleys. “Well those guys are cheating,” I said of the following motorcyclists, my public joke for the day. “No, they’re not actually in the race,” a woman pointed out helpfully and utterly without irony. A couple of minutes later came the main crowd, tightly packed together, zooming down 2nd Street like a herd of wild antelope in plastic helmets. The battle of the digital cameras began and ended before excitement could reach fever pitch, but I have to admit, being there while that pack of cyclists flew by in a blur was slightly trippy, and reminded me of standing hypnotised by those shimmering shoals of fish in the huge tanks at Monterey Bay Aquarium. And then they were gone, leaving nothing but dust, and the crowds dissolved into thin air. And that was the Tour of California. They’re heading south now, towards Big Sur and onto LA. I still won’t follow cycling as a sport, and I still won’t learn any of these world-renowned cyclists’ names, but I’m glad I saw it all the same.

Year 2: Weeks 67-68: California Cold Rush

Huge destructive storms, big bruvver racism, what’s going on back in the uk? Over here we’re still in deep freeze – there’s no snow, not even a cloud, in California’s central valley, but there is frost on the fruit, and the price of oranges and other citrus is going to rise dramatically as a result. Yes, yes I know that the storms in Europe are trashing coastlines and blowing trees all over the place, and yes I know that enormous ice storms across the rest of the US have brought states of emergency, but here in (still sunny) California we’re having record low temperatures overnight. It’s still nice in the daytime, but first thing in the morning it’s a bit nippy, brrrr. And blimey, I don’t know how I’ll cope with having to pay a bit more for my tangerines.

Seriously though, it’s even made the BBC world service news, the citrus crop could be utterly destroyed, as well as other crops – avocadoes, for example – and this has a knock-on effect on the state’s economy. California is one of the most important agricultural bread-baskets of the US, and we just aint used to this sort of weather. Even in southern California they have been getting flurries of snow in the hills above Malibu. They’re making snowmen in LA. But it’s been so dry in most of California that there is the additional risk of wildfire, especially with the high cold winds.

So, since I’ve come here, we’ve had the heaviest rain on record, the hottest summer on record, and now the coldest winter on record. Bloody hell. And this sort of thing is going on all over the planet. I heard that in Russia they are having one of the warmest winters they’ve ever had. Last year at the same time was one of the coldest. Tornadoes in Kensal Rise. Yesterday Stephen Hawking said that the threat of global warming and its knock-on effects has brought humanity that little bit closer to doomsday. I think it’s about time we took this climate change thing a little bit more seriously, or I might have to give up eating oranges altogether.

Year 2, Week 66: A Rainy Night In Soho

I’m too much of a city person, I’m afraid. I finally went down into Central London, and darted around the narrow afternoon streets with my sketchbook and my memories, in and out of shops, picking up cds and dvds on sale like super mario or something. I even met up with my brother, who happened to be in town, and he drove me around in a similar fashion disguised as white-van-man with the missions of black-cab-man. Soon I met my oldest friend, with whom I spent many evenings as an early-twenty-thing in the Wardour Street area. He was off to Korea the next day for a new life, with his Japanese wife, neither of them had ever been to Korea before, so the adventure begins for them. Bit later, met up with my best man plus another anonymous creativist (not creationist), and then another, and then the drinks did overflow. I was drinking strongbow cider, because I’d had this dream a couple of weeks back, and there was someone who’d turned into a turkey and was attacked by giant crows outside the British Museum… I’m not explaining my dreams right now.

The evening ended up in the Intrepid Fox – but not the one I know. The one in Wardour Street, one of my favourite pubs about a decade or so ago, a rockers haunt (and I was a bit of a rocker, without the boring rocker clothes and hair) (or music, mostly) (basically I play the guitar, that’s good enough for me). I was saddened to see that this historic Soho mainstay had closed, boarded up and empty, possibly to become another loud corporate-style bar, where toilet attendants try to spray you with perfume while you piss (let’s just say the bogs at the Fox were not like that at all… ). However, it has actually moved, to a space on St.Giles High st, behind New Oxford Street, much closer to the guitar paradise of Denmark Street, and now it is open until 2am and you can actually move around there without spilling some huge biker’s snakebite. And I remember when that place used to be a trendy over-priced bar! The reverse has happened – it has become the rock-pub, though the nearby former Hellfire Club has long since disappeared. So this is London in my absence.

I woke up next morning, and Saddam Hussein had been hanged. I had a pretty big hangover myself. New Year’s Eve came and went, a couple of glasses of wine in Burnt Oak, while Big Ben struck and the London Eye erupted on the telly. I’m back in America now – we got back on New Year’s Day, tired and dreading work, and San Francisco was sunny when we landed. we drove on to the Valley, past the strip malls and big-box outlets and the flat brown land that stretched all the way to the now-snow-capped Sierras (an awesome distant sight). I really enjoyed being Home though. I feel like when Superman flies up above the clouds and reinvigorates himself in Earth’s yellow Sunlight (guess what I watched on the plane). But now it’s back to Davis, back to work, back to wide roads and cars-big-as-bars, and I have to think up some New Year’s Resolutions, which will have to start this weekend I’m afraid. Happy 2007, I hope it’s full of peace and love.

Year 2, Weeks 64-65: Back In The UK

It’s overwhelming, being Back.

We flew into a thick duvet of fog at Heathrow, leaving behind a foggy rainstorm in San Francisco; we didn’t know we were near the ground until the wheels suddenly bounced against the tarmac on the runway. Then the excitement of seeing the family, coupled with the terror of being in a small car laden with people, packages and presents on narrow north-west London streets; I had forgotten how much people here have little or no regard for their lives when crossing the road (and yet I grew up as one of these people). And then the getting up early and marching around Sainsburys marvelling at all the food I’ve missed since being in the US, and popping into WHSmiths and encountering a grumpy old woman (standing sour-facedly in the way of the sketchbooks I’d come 5000 miles to buy) who reminded me that the quick-snarling Brits are definitely not the friendly Americans. And after witnessing the final closure of an old bookshop where I used to work, going to Belgo for some it-didn’t-seem-this-expensive-before moules-frites, and on to Camden for many many drinks with many very excellent and very much-missed friends, followed by the obligatory journey across London in my sleep (courtesy of the N5; it’s almost like I do it on purpose). Yep, I’m Home, and while my head heart and soul feel like the musical build up in A Day In The Life, I’m not yearning for a return to the US just yet.

Christmas Day came and went, I didn’t eat or drink anywhere near as much as had been put in front of me. But there was trifle, there were mince pies, there was Pepsi Max; pete’s happy. The Eastenders Christmas death was Pauline Fowler, who was herself upstaged by the demise of legendary misogynistic groper James Brown (he doesn’t feel good now). Boxing Day began with me crawling out of bed at 5.30 am with a bad back, and enjoying the solace of the wee quiet hours, sketching the tree and listening to Pulp: the Peel Sessions. Later there was Doctor Who, Little Britain, ET, lots more food, lots more drink, lots more cheese and conversation. I’ve barely ventured out to see how much the UK has changed in my latest absence, whether the asbo generation and the massive influx of Poles that everybody keeps harping on about has really made much of a difference. Burnt Oak looks like the same old Burnt Oak to me, grey, run-down, a rusty tin-can being blown about in the breeze. I’ve not yet gone to see my old amour, the streets of central London, to be about the mad throngs I used to ignore like I’d ignore the drizzle. I’ve not yet had a curry, or a pint of London Pride. But I’ve been travelling with my mind through my life: I learnt to shave in this room, I wrote sad forgettable songs on this guitar in this very corner, I used to sit on this step and dream about living far far away.

Yeah, it’s nice being back in a past life. It’s where I’m from, what I know, and what’s more, it knows me – and there’s no bugger asking for my ID.

Year 2, weeks 62-63: Christmas Crackpots

thought it was the season to be jolly. In the state of Georgia (as in, “look at the state of Georgia!” ) there is a woman, a very Christian mother of four, who has been campaigning tirelessly to have all Harry Potter books removed from public school and library bookshelves. The authorities rejected her case, but there has been an appeal, and a decision will be made this week. Her claim is that the books “promote witchcraft” and was concerned that children who read them would suddenly perform satanic acts, calling the books, whose stories focus primarily on the struggle of love and friendship against hatred, intolerance and ignorance, “not educationally suitable”. She enlisted the help of a young girl who said that she had been so affected by the message of evil in Harry Potter that she had decided to kill herself (voici). Never mind that Harry Potter has managed to get the gameboy generation into books again. The message of hope was totally overlooked by people who went looking for a message of hate. Have these people got nothing better to do? Is having four children not enough work that you have to go out and try to deny other children great stories (and I’ll bet she’s not campaigning for real things such as gun control and junk food in schools)? Is she going to spend as much energy going through every other work of children’s literature in which someone uses magic and have every copy sent to the local Bible-Belt Book-Burning? After all, the crux of their argument is that any use of magic is a turn towards the way of the devil. Better to teach children to burn books than to read them. Bloody right-wing religious nutcases – I’m glad I don’t live anywhere like that.

And so Christmas is almost here, but you better not say so – people might get offended. That whole annual argument about saying “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” seemed to get so many people in a knot last year, when I first experienced Christmas in California, that I was surprised anyone found anything Happy or Merry about it at all. It’s started already, and I can feel myself getting irritated by the pointlessness of it all already. People being offended when you wish them a “Merry Christmas”. There was a guy on the radio yesterday who was incensed at the fact that there are Christmas trees decorating Denver airport, and the host whole-heartedly agreed, saying that this showed the public was having Christianity rammed down their throats. Never mind that Christmas trees have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity or the story of Christ’s birth. Nor do most things that Americans associate with Christmas – Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (don’t remember any reindeer in the stable at Bethlehem), Candy Canes, Commercialism, Gluttony, crap films. Never mind that most of these things, like the decorated tree which has ancient Germanic origins (cf, the Irminsul of the Saxons), are a cultural inheritance that pre-dates Christianity (even crap films; has a druid ever won an Oscar? Didn’t think so). No, some people would rather take away anything that even reminds them of religion – it’s separation of church and state, you know, guv. Never mind that the official alternative to having a Merry Christmas, ‘Happy Holiday’, quite literally means ‘have a Happy Holy Day’. I mean, how overtly religious can you get? It certainly doesn’t mean holiday as the British use the word, as there are fewer holidays in the American so-called Holiday Season than in other countries (they don’t have any Boxing Day, for one thing). Personally, I’m offended when people say we shouldn’t say “Merry Christmas”. I’m not a Christian; I’ve travelled from one end of this world to the other and I’ve never seen anything to make me believe in one all-powerful God controlling everything (it’s all a load of burning books and nonsense). I celebrate Christmas however as a cultural event – it’s an ingrained part of my culture, it’s been around for longer than the Church, and hell, it’s just fun. If someone wishes me a Happy Hannukah, or Merry Divali, or even a Jolly Green Giant Day, I will be pleased, not offended. It’s the bit about someone wishing me a happy time that I’m interested in.

It’s so much easier in other languages, where you can just say Joyeux Noël or Gud Jul. After much grinding of the teeth, I have decided that I will not let these foolish issues bother me any longer. I can’t change them, so I’m going to join them. Yes, that’s right. I’m going to write to that woman in Georgia, and tell her that I’m all for banning that little cunt Potter (whose name literally means “one who deals drugs”!), and give her a long list of other things she should consider banning, in the name of our children’s spiritual health. Star Wars (all that worshipping of The Force, Luke Skywalker is just so evil he should be called Lucifer Skywalker), Cinderella (fairy godmothers using magic to twist the minds of innocent young girls), Bewitched (evil and sorcery on daytime TV!), Crazy Frog (I’ll take any chance of banning that bloody thing I can get), to name but a few. Oh yes, I can feel the zealousness in me now. Can you feel it! Can you feeeel it! And then I’m going to write to that easily-offended Ebenezer on the radio and tell him I have started my own campaign to not only get rid of all Christmas trees in my local community, but to chop down as many pine forests as possible, so we are never reminded of the Tannenbaum ever again. I’m going to see if he wants to set up a movement to protect the poor delicate public from all reminders of religion , and provide him with a long list of words that have to go from the English language, because of their religious etymologies. Words such as ‘holiday’, or ‘goodbye’, or ‘Wednesday’, or ‘Fuck’ (who was a demon I think, you always hear of that guy in Hell). Honestly, I really will do this; I’m going to have some fun.

Or I could just spend my efforts having a very Merry Christmas, and whatever you celebrate at this time of year, I hope you do too.