Wednesday, 27 September 2023

New short story - October




It was the last birthday card he ever bought for his wife.

He wasn’t to know it, wasn’t to know any of the things that could happen in the next twelve months. Who amongst us truly sees the future? The card had been selected against a number of criteria. Firstly, that it was not in any way sentimental. Secondly, that it did not feature the word “wife” in any way on the front of the card. Third, it did not feature teddy bears or kittens. Fourth, it looked like some actual decision had been made to choose this card and of course, finally, it had to come in at around the small amount of coins in his battered wallet.

There was a small amount of shame to be had in taking the plastic bag with the shop’s name to hold the card. But the card might get crumpled in the inside pocket of his jacket and those looked like rain clouds up ahead. The bag felt flimsy, cheap and reminded the man of his current economic status.

They had once been madly in love and got married without either of them really considering what it might take to shake the foundations of that madness. Within a year of the confetti each had cheated on the other without the other finding out. Things like that happen in life. A Christmas party, too much alcohol, a feeling of wanting to try something different, feeling dangerous. That was her story. His was another kind of boredom. An email from an ex. Then another. Then phone calls and lies. And a hotel room that he had let the ex pay for on her card, not his. There was no chivalry that day, how could there be. There was only a brief feeling of excitement, and no little shame after.

He was thinking of that afternoon now in the autumn wind. The bag in his hand blew weakly. The man imagined a scenario where he’d already written the birthday message and the words were being blown across the card, leaving streaks of biro and no words of congratulation or love in their inky wake.

I only met that man the one time. He was sat next to me on the red seat at the bus stop outside Boots. He didn’t share any of that stuff with me, I just made it all up for this story. He had only glanced at me for a second, nodded at the same thin bag in my hand from the same card shop as mine and smiled in a way that unsettled me. Not then, but much later.

Tuesday, 27 June 2023

Red Converse

Any amateur psychologist would trace the start of this collection to the death of your mother. Walking home from the funeral, you came across a real find. A giant Perspex letter H, fallen from the side of a closed down factory. They made plumbing supplies there. The H was Impact font. You dragged it down the alleyways, crossed into the lane that your house backed onto. It was an effort, heaving the little rugby posts through the back gate, but you still went back to see if other letters had jumped.

In the winter you trained yourself to see these things before others. Lone gloves, lost scarves, a bus pass, a Madness cassette. Nothing as large as that H, but everything just as precious.

Sometimes the finds felt wrong, but only for a second. An engagement ring in an open swimming pool locker, a walking stick against a graveyard gate. The shed became a museum. You bought a padlock with a fiver you saw fall from a paper boy’s pocket on Christmas Eve.

You hadn’t told anyone about your collection. It was sacred to you, a secret from the world. When the first item appeared outside your back gate that January morning, you thought it a coincidence. A bucket and spade, the castle turrets still flecked with old sand.

Soon, other items appeared – a skipping rope, a stuffed guinea pig, two bibles.

Then the knife.

Now you don’t want to go out. But the urge is so strong. What will be outside today?

You pull on your tattered red Converse, the hole in the right sole getting bigger. You pull at the gate and as you do so something tells you it is already too late.

Monday, 19 June 2023

To the tune of Cool for Cats

 (with all apologies to Difford and Tillbrook)


The jingles and the mingles that were promised in the card

Will all go undetected by the boys from Scotland Yard

The wankers at the party, they might get an OBE

And nothing will be done about the fast track PPE

Boris laughed at all the nurses and he laughed at you and me

And we haven’t even started on the parties in his flat

And everybody knows it’s cos we’re run by Tory twats

It's Tory twats (Tory twats)


Nadine is on the lagers 'cause she’s got the word to go

She’s been promised a sweet peerage by a fat Lothario

But Rishi’s put the kybosh on the changes to her name

And Boris shoved some new young blonde into the honours frame

It's funny how his missus always look the bleeding same

And meanwhile in the video there's a couple of likely lads

Who are breaking their own lockdown cos they’re evil Tory twats

They're Tory twats (Tory twats)


To change the mood a little I've been going down the pub

Cos until the next election, I’ll be feeling in the dumps

I fancy clothes, I fancy heat, I can’t afford the gas

I get a little food in but I spend a load of cash

And all I feel is bitter and I end up on the lash

And by the time I'm sober I've forgotten why I’m sad

And then I turn the news on and I see the Tory twats

The tory twats (Tory twats)


Shape up at the foodbank and there’s nurses in the queue

The morgues are full of corpses and the river’s full of poo

Rishi’s in his chopper cos he wants to miss a vote

Suella’s on the telly and she’s yelling stop the boats

I go to scream myself but it just sticks inside my throat

The media lead the way in distorting all the facts

Cos All you see on telly is a bunch of Tory twats

The tory twats.....

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

50 Years of Dark Side of the Moon

Danny Baker likes this album. Jeremy Clarkson does too. And that should be enough to dismiss it as utter toss shouldn't it? That two of the biggest egotistical buffoons on British television should share a common appreciation of this megalith of progressive rock. Circumstantial evidence sure but damning, nonetheless.

Here's some more.

A few years back, two public school boys found themselves in hot water when they decided to help themselves to some gratis souvenirs from Auschwitz. Maybe there isn't a gift shop there. Maybe it's one of the few places on earth except from the sound of ringing tills ( more of those later ) and wanton commercial last because this was a factory of human destruction, perhaps even the worst place that has ever been on earth. And these lads thought, well we'll just have to take a memento then. These two boys went to the same school as Pink Floyd.

So, this is it then. The album that finally links Clarkson with the Holocaust. It sold 8 billion copies. It's not about the moon. It's got a cover by a man called Storm. It's still absolute fucking rubbish.

It starts, as any fule kno, with the sound of a beating heart. Instantly, the discerning ear should have their bullshit detector at full blast. Eventually, after what feels like an eternity, some singing occurs. This song is called “Breathe” - Prodigy covered it later and had the idea of removing all the 6th form lyrics and adding on much needed attitude, drugs and a tune. Then Pink Floyd decide to invent electronica and somehow it's boring. A song about mental illness called “On The Run” by a band who kicked a founding member out because of their mental illness and it's still dull.

Because that's what Dark Side of the Moon is, an album so geared to capturing the futility of reconciling our humanity with the psychological demands of modern life, that it actually feels like going to work.

Then a song called “Time”. Time starts with the sound of clocks. All that expensive education and the world's most state-of-the-art recording equipment at your disposal and you write a song called Time and stick the sounds of clocks on it. No doubt if they turned out the Britney Spears classic “Baby hit me one more time” it would have started with the sound of someone being slapped and whimpering “Again”.

Dark Side of the Moon doesn't have anything as thrilling or vital as those three piano notes at the start at Britney’s classic. It's just hour upon hour of competently played tedium with lyrics that even Pete Doherty would blanch at. Continuing their use of subtle sound effects, Money has the sound of tills on it. Sadly, “Brain Damage” proves not to be as tasteless as well might have hoped.

If you play this album at the same time as watching the Wizard of Oz, apparently what happens is you get old and get a golf dinner celebrating your 20 years in charge of business loans at the Chingford branch of The Bank of Suddenly Reactionary Middle-Aged Bastards. This is an album awash with such mythology, a legendary status which it simply doesn't deserve. People tell me that it's an album you need to wash over you, presumably with some suitably bohemian soft furnishings and a “doobie”.

Such is the enduring nature of that particular lie that Pink Floyd, not content with selling 45,000 trillion copies of this record, re-released it as in immersion edition. The Venn diagram of people who bought the immersion edition of dark side of the moon and idiots has no overlap it is just a fucking plain white circle, a dull and empty moon.

Thursday, 10 November 2022

The End of an Era

Today marks a personal milestone.

Today is November 10th, 2022. Tomorrow my daughter will turn eighteen. Which means that today is the last day since August 2nd 1991 that I will be father to an actual child.

August 1991. Bryan Adams is top of the charts with “Everything I Do (I Do Because Kevin Costner Is A Power Ballad Bastard).” John Major is Prime Minister. The world has not yet heard of Harry Potter, Brexit or the Beckhams. Not to say that Britain is a glorious place at this point, it isn’t. Twelve years into a cold-hearted Tory government, the country is gripped by unemployment, fucked off with the Poll Tax and occasionally bombed by the IRA. And Right Said Fred have appeared. Britain, as ever, is far from Great.

But none of this really matters to me on a sweltering August evening as my then girlfriend goes into labour. We are young and this wasn’t planned but we’re giving Being Responsible Adults an overdue go because well, when you’re young and you’re in love, you do, don’t you? 

I think so, it was a long time ago.

And since my son came crashing into the world, all eight pounds and thirteen ounces of him, I’ve had a child in my life. And I know that, even after they turn eighteen, they’re still technically your children, it’s just they’re not actually children themselves. 

And suddenly that seems to mean something. I was 20 when I became a dad and now I’m 51. 31 years of worrying about them sleeping, worried about their first steps, their speech, their school, their eating, their growing, their health, their sickness, their friends, their enemies, their new school, their opinions, their noise, their silences, their sleeping, their diet, their new friends, their choices. Where they are. When they are coming back. Why they’re late.

Oh the worry. Where are they right this second?

And now there is the regret. All the things I wanted to do with them but didn’t because of money or time or some other seemingly more pressing bullshit. Work, tiredness. The very occasional "just couldn’t be arsed."

I’d give anything to go to a fucking softplay centre with those younger versions of them now. Or a park. Or some other activity that tore a hole in my Saturday afternoon when really what I wanted was maybe 2 hours of sitting down drinking tea and doing literally fuck all. But we took them didn’t we, to the park, to the piss-sodden softplay centre, to the dreadful friends birthday party at the fucking furthest possible point from our house. Because we loved them and we wanted them to be happy. In hungover sunshine, in post-domestic argument row, on crowded bus and with almost empty wallets, we took them. And we secretly resented it and now that secret resentment, amassed over the years in the bank of shame like a regret-trousered ISA, is ready to be cashed out.

All the times I have sat and read books about tigers and fairies and bees and witches through eyes screamed dry with tiredness at 1am, watched dreadful, cheap, thoughtlessly put together franchise films in cinemas full of kids fluent only in E-numbered hysteria, taken them swimming, oh god not fucking swimming, they’re in that Suddenly Blissful Era too.

Every 3am dose of Calpol, every hospital visit, every grazed knee and tummy ache, presented to me now by the Ghosts of Parenting Past, kind and welcoming, pointing at me with wrinkled fingers and saying Shame like that mad nun does in Game of Thrones. I want it all back, can I have it all back please? Come on, just one more story, one more sleepless night walking up and down with vomit on my back, one more push on the swing. Please. Just one more. Just one more.

But of course, none of this can happen. And though I feel I’ve done my best and feel that I haven’t fucked them up too badly, there is regret. The wanting to have done so much more and spent so much more time with them. School can fuck off. All that worry about them and that time with other people you don’t really know. All that hanging about in the playground afterwards making small talk with parents, seemingly about fuck all but really swapping notes, checking out the competition. Is your kid better than mine? Fuck off. Your kid’s a twat.

Parents evenings. Christ. The homework projects. The sudden rush to Tesco at 10pm because they’re doing Cookery tomorrow and you’re a shit parent with no actual vanilla essence in the house rather than a decent parent who probably should have been told much earlier about said cookery lesson. Ah fuck it, school can stay too. Let me somehow write a convincing 14 year old’s version of a critique on a play I haven’t read before and have got to have at least thoroughly Wikipediad before 8am tomorrow otherwise Child will have some sort of colossal mental breakdown. And they won’t be grateful either. Bloody teenagers. Let me feel that peculiar misery just one more time. I’m sorry I was grumpy the first time. I forgot that all of this is a privilege.

All of this is the most wonderful privilege.

When my son was born I rang my parents to tell them the good news. It was about 3 in the morning. And my dad asked me how I was and I said I was tired. And he laughed and said I’d never sleep again. I thought he was joking.

11,424 nights of worry later, I concur.

11,424 days of bliss. Peppa Pig-scented, Pixar-flavoured, nappy coloured bliss. And today’s the last one of them. So tonight I’m off to the offie to buy a couple of bottles, one for me tonight and the past that has ended, and one for them tomorrow and the future to come.

So, what have I learnt? What parental wisdom can I, a man who once let a 10-year-old girl watch The Dead Zone, a man who once asked his son what he had put under “H” in the Illustrated Dictionary of Swearing I’d just discovered he’d made*, pass on these many years into the game.

Not a lot. Don’t read parenting books. It’s like checking your symptoms on Google. Go with your gut instincts. Take more photos. You will never have enough. Fruit and veg. Fresh air. Teach them to be kind. Be kind to them even when it’s hard. Encourage them, nurture them, protect them. Spoil them, not too much, but spoil them a little. Have secrets with them, have a language with them that nobody else does. Read to them, read with them. Let them discover that other world.

Don’t over protect them if you can help it and I’m sorry kids that I failed in this regard on an infinite number of occasions. Oh Christ, the worry you little sods have caused me. ANSWER YOUR BLOODY MOBILE FOR FUCKS SAKE!!

Don’t say “when I was your age”.

Kiss your kids goodnight as often as you can. Tell them you love them always. Forgive them when they fuck up and move on quickly. Never let them doubt for one second that they are the centre of your universe and that being their parent really is the greatest privilege.

But don’t take them to Pokemon The Movie. That really was a pile of shit.

Now, if you'll forgive me, I have something in my eye to attend to.

*It’s Horsefucker. Honestly, I’ve never been so conflicted. That horrified/secretly proud thing, they should bottle that.

Monday, 24 October 2022

Football - my part in it's downfall

There's a scene in an episode of The IT Crowd, "The Work Outing", that I keep thinking about lately. Roy is about to use a disabled toilet. After briefly discussing it with Moss, he tells himself that it's ok to use it, he says "It's ok. I think."

And I think about this scene whenever I think about my nonsense opinions around football and my opinions about those nonsense opinions.

But lately, I've realised I hate football.

But before I get into why, l need to remember how I got into it. It was when I was seven and lost in grief and bewildered by bereavement.

Hating football is a pretty easy position to take right now as an Aston Villa fan. The club are in yet another tailspin of a season, have yet again wasted hundreds of millions on players who probably aren’t good enough and are now looking for someone/anyone to pick them out of the shit imposed on them by the latest failure namely the fairly dislikeable Steven Gerrard.*

That’s not the only reason why I hate football.

There’s the Premier League. Which is essentially a race between three or four super powerful clubs to dominate the trophies and European places, an almost closed shop, the romance of the game I loved as a child finally smashed into the ground, buried with the amount of love a Trump would show for an ex-wife. Two clubs owned by corrupt Petro-wanker states, intent on cleaning their PR up by building up previously unsuccessful sides with superstar players. Other clubs openly playing the moral relativity card by pointing out the horror of this but still prepared to walk out on the game as we know it and join a ultra-bastard Super League with those evil oil teams because they wanted to. That, as we know, didn’t happen in the end but it will eventually. Money talks loudest. It did with Murdoch. It did with the Champions League and it did with Qatar. Football isn't so much coming home as it is breaking in to it; it’s already nicked the telly and the silverware and now it’s turning your nan’s mattress over for her savings.

Oh, but there’s more.

So, Qatar. Fairly well publicised what a fucking awful decision that was by FIFA but, having awarded the previous tournament to that other beacon of progressiveness and tolerance Russia, I guess they felt obliged to go the whole hog and let an absolute toilet host the World Cup next time around. The hundreds of millions of donations definitely helped, mind you.

So, my favourite sporting event of all, the one I look forward to more than any other, is one I either must choose not to watch, or watch as an unwilling approver of all the dead slave workers, oppressed women, imprisoned gay people and disappeared pro-democracy protestors.

Friends of mine are going out there because Wales haven’t qualified before and they’re determined not to miss it. Part of me gets that and part of me is disappointed in them.

Even these horrors aren’t even the main reason I hate it.

I think it's lads.

It’s lads, isn’t it? Lads have been the one constant fucking thing I’ve hated about this game for forty years and more.

First of all, I played the game for over thirty-five years. Wasn’t very good at it but that’s fine. Neither is anybody else at the level I played in. That won’t stop the lad from screaming at you for making a mistake in a crunch game against The Fox and Grapes in the 3rd division of the West Humberland Sunday League. He believes, as do so many hundreds of thousands of idiots across the country, that it wasn’t a lack of talent that meant he would not be gracing Sky Sports on a Sunday afternoon, it was just not being spotted, or being injured, or something else completely unrelated to a lack of talent. 

I don’t know how many times I’ve told teammates that we’re all essentially toddlers on glue at this level but it never seems to stick. You’re only going to get into a fight. I once quit a game, just walked off. Once a teammate calls you a cunt because you missed an open goal in a match you are already losing 9-1, where else is there to go?

Fight or flight. I’m not getting into a fight for a game in the Cardiff and District Idiots Conference, Div. 5. I quit the team there and then. 

You only have to make the mistake of walking past any kids game on a weekend morning to see where all this starts. The dad at the touchline acting as if his child, let’s call him Cuthbert, is being held back from an incredibly successful footballing career by one of three things.

If Cuthbert is lucky, thing a) is his teammates. The reason this team is losing this apparently vital six pointer is that little Cuthbert is being forced to play on the wing instead of his preferred playmaker role in the pocket, because the middle of the park is dominated by kids just blindly chasing the ball in fun. As seven-year-olds will do. Because it’s fun.

If Cuthbert is not quite as lucky then its thing b) which is because the referee, chances are a well-meaning volunteer trying to give something back to society, is in fact a clueless sexcase hellbent on destroying little Cuthbert’s chances of being spotted by An Academy and therefore not giving any decisions to Atletico Bedford Falls under 8s.

Incidentally why would anyone referee? The chance to be hurled abuse at, the chance to be hated by strangers for the crime of trying to perform a key task vital to the functioning of a game of football. Referees were actually murdered in Canada and El Salvador this year. Hundreds more were assaulted in this country. Can you guess what representatives of which gender did it?

Back to Cuthbert. If this hypothetical child’s luck is truly absent, it’s thing c). The parent screaming at his child to play better, get stuck in, hurt another child if needs be. Probably behaviour learnt from the Dad’s own childhood and all the more toxic for it.

Lads. It’s just a fucking game. And in my time I’ve been as guilty as anyone of screaming abuse at the telly when a ref or player makes what I, an idiot with no real understanding of what is happening on the pitch, no relatable experience to the split-second decision-making process necessary for any professional footballer to succeed in any given moment, see what appears to be a monumental cock up.

I can't prove the following yet I suspect it's true. One of the key reasons England have failed at so many tournaments for so many decades is, I think, the culture around the national game. The toxic masculinity still present, at every game, at every level. The tolerance of violence. The celebration of the hard man, the veneration of the thug. On and off the pitch. Hooliganism celebrated in literature as a necessary stress valve for the under pressure, under paid working-class man. A bit of sociological porn for the prurient Fight Club wannabe.* * 

I have no idea what I mean by this last sentence, I’m quite tired and could probably do with a shag truth be told.

I was in the pub last weekend to watch the Liverpool v Man City match. I find the rivalry between these two teams compelling but nonetheless it triggers parts of me I wish not to think about. These are the two best sides in the country, no doubt about it. Both teams are managed by charismatic, obsessive, driven men. Klopp seems forever on the edge of violence, Guardiola on the precipice of complete emotional collapse. Liverpool play with pace, controlled aggression, guile and verve, City are ruthless, sly, exciting and brilliant. Like the great United-Arsenal rivalry before them, this is a fixture that splits the country. I always wanted Wenger to triumph over Fergie, now I must admit to wanting Pep to beat Klopp. And why?

City are all the things I should despise, a massively expensive team funded by a Middle East dictatorship. Liverpool are a team with a traditionally strong working class local support, an aversion to Murdoch, a team that still play in their regular strip, in a stadium that hasn’t changed it’s name or location. 

But I grew up in the 80s, a time Liverpool dominated England and Europe and, like a lot of kids at the time bored with their relentless but undoubtedly deserved success, became an ABL before I even knew what one was. This isn't an excuse, is it? It's laughable, childish bullshit.

However, I am pleased for my Liverpool-supporting friends when they win trophies because I like my friends to be happy. It is nice to see people you care for being happy. I am also pleased when they lose because I am mildly traumatised by memories of Ian Rush regularly scoring hat-tricks past a hapless Nigel Spink in the 1980s. 

A quick mental poll of my friends. By far the most common clubs they support are Liverpool and Manchester United. I chose Villa because my uncle supported them, my immediate family hating all sport, and that was it. But there was also a thing of not wanting to be like Them, one of the fucking lads. Lads being any group of men. I don’t like groups of men as a whole. This is probably due to being bullied as a child by groups of lads. To this day, I see a group of men coming and, wrongly I know, instantly presume the worst of them. I don’t attribute such negativity to any group of men that I might find myself among because, as with the City thing above, I am a massive fucking hypocrite.

Anyway, back to the pub. There’s an advert on one of the tellies as the girl tries to get the big screen on the right channel. It’s the Virgin Airlines advert with the gender-fluid steward(ess) and the female pilot. There’s nothing wrong with the advert, it’s nice and if it makes one bigoted wanker make one less air-polluting flight down to a fear of other people's sexuality/gender identity then it’s a success. The advert is greeted predictably with a couple of “poofs” and “fuck offs” from the throng that has gathered to watch this game. The atmosphere is set for the afternoon. It is vile but I stay.

This is a pub in a very affluent town. We’re hundreds of miles from Liverpool or Manchester. It is still the year 2022. It’s still just a football game. But this pub is now a pit of “lads.” Tables of grown men in replica shirts seething into their lagers. Every tackle is met with cheers, jeers, boos and hoorahs. 

Maybe not hoorahs, it’s not that affluent.

Every missed pass, every slipped tackle is screamed at and celebrated. The noise increases with the amount drunk. It feels like the pub could actually go insane if a team scores. That a riot could break out for no reason other than a millionaire has kicked a football past another millionaire hundreds of miles away. It’s exciting but at the same time it frightens me.

City score and the air is thick with disgust. A man in a Liverpool top puts dowh his pint and moves to scream abuse at the screen and returns to his chair next to a girlfriend who now looks mildly concerned as to what she should do next in terms of her personal safety. The goal is disallowed. Across from me, a man in a City top instantly turns red with rage and storms out the pub moaning about “Hillsboroughs”. This is what it is like watching a Premier League football match in a pub in 2022. And I don’t doubt it is like this in every pub across the country. Men losing their minds next to terrified girlfriends. Others slandering the dead with vile insults. No one seems to enjoy it.

Liverpool score. Roles are reversed. A man who has clearly placed a lot of money on this game is now numb with pain at a nearby table, staring into his phone with the expression of someone for whom the fun has well and truly stopped. Who here is having any fun?

Social media has, as with just about everything else it touches, made something already awful a thousand times worse. Now you can racially abuse a footballer from the comfort of whatever padded cell you’re currently in, flinging your metaphorical shite for all to see. The club account will condemn it, an arrest might be made. The offending tweet will be deleted, the user banned, but the message will have been seen, retweeted, amplified and the hurt caused to the player at the same time will be exponentially multiplied. As if the pressures of succeeding in the cauldron of professional football are not immense enough, now the modern player must deal with the knowledge that he dare not look at his phone after a match should he fail to play to the best of his ability.

And it’s lads, it’s always lads.

Occasionally one will try to take the moral high ground. Much as I’m failing to do here, I suppose.

A hypothetical situation. Footballer A is charged with a crime. Fans of Footballer A take to social media to call this accusation bullshit and unfair and finally unleash all those unenlightened opinions which seemed so unlikely of them before. Fans of rival clubs will call Footballer A’s club a disgrace for not having instantly sacked Footballer A, because there’s no way their own beloved club would employ someone charged with rape/murder/kidnapping. The victim of the crime is not even an afterthought. Loyalties and rivalries mean more than understanding, empathy and truth.

An actual situation. Club B is taken over by a despotic regime. The regime fills the club’s coffers with cash, top players are recruited, success is assured. Fans of rivals of Club B will then say that this success is tainted with blood, undeserved etc. I should have a great deal of sympathy with this view. Except I am wildly inconsistent on this. I treat Man City in my mind differently to how I treat Newcastle because I don't particularly care for Newcastle. Again, this is nonsense. Why do I do this?

I wrestle briefly with my own conscience, like a sitcom character created by a now disgraced transphobe wondering if having a piss in a disabled toilet is conscionable behaviour. No, I don’t think it is.

I try to tell myself partly because this is a league started by Rupert Murdoch’s money, the cash cow of one of the very worst people on this planet. That in an organisation funded and initiated by an Absolute Bastard like Rupert there is no place for Moral Purity.

I say to myself it's also partly because once the PL had allowed Roman Abramovich to buy Chelsea then this was always going to be the end result. If the House of Saud had bought BIG CLUB instead, would BIG CLUB fans desert their club en masse? I don't think so. But I don't know for sure. 

It would cause the ones I know some anguish certainly, but the emotional link to these teams is set now, there’s nothing else we can do etc, money talks yada yada. We will go to the fridge, pick out a can, order a pizza and sit down to watch the game. The World Cup is on, and I know all those slaves died, but what can we do? Football has poisoned us all to some extent.

In the coming weeks, England will be knocked out of the World Cup, most probably by some seemingly unprecedented stroke of official incompetence. Or we'll miss a penalty shootout as usual. Tens of thousands of lads will get out their phones in that moment. Players will receive death threats. No doubt about it, incidents of domestic violence will increase significantly. Cars will be wrecked. A loss of rationale and perspective will cloud the following days for far too many people. 

As for myself, I will probably lose interest in the tournament at that point, mutter something about it being a corrupt death-splattered feast of evil that I shouldn’t be watching in the first place. I will recall the tearful joy I felt watching Chloe Kelly win the Euros for England in the summer. Momentarily I will feel good about myself, the moral high ground conquered at last. The feeling is brief.

I will finally realise what it is I hate most about football. 

It’s me. 

*Typically, Villa sacked Gerrard not long after I wrote this paragraph. They then won 4-0 playing exciting, confident, vibrant football. The bastards.

**Interjection here. Much as I have enjoyed the show Welcome to Wrexham, the episode on "Hooliganism" wasn't nearly harsh enough on those wankers. Labels such as Stone Island know the kind of wanker who buys their ridiculously over priced shit. They never condemn it. 

Friday, 30 September 2022

Short Story Special - Guest Writer @psychonaut99

 Introducing a new series in which friends who write send me stuff they've written and I host it because they aren't sad enough to be blogging this late in the holocene era. This week - it's twitter and real life chum of mine @psychonaut99 who you should follow. This story reminds me of both Alan Moore and Terry Pratchett. So, you know, it's fucking great.


Snow was falling in soft, wet clumps, and Fat Angus was talking bollocks again. Banjo had heard it before a hundred times, but he kept half-listening whilst fussing with his mattress. The snow had started twenty minutes ago and now the cardboard was sodden. He was worried moving it too much would make the whole thing would fall apart. 

"Everyone together.." Fat Angus went on. He was a dozen or so  places upline and Banjo couldn't see hm through the crowd but he could picture the expansive gestures he'd be making with his old Irn Bru bottle half-full of cloudy poitin. "Brought everyone together, you see…" 

Banjo tried gently squeezing his mattress. A few drops oozed out from between the corrugations, but were immediately replaced as new snow melted into the card. He pressed again, harder, aware all the while that it was pointless. He'd had it for over a year, which was good run for a mattress made from a flattened fridge box. They always fell apart in the end and all the careful drying and optimism in the world couldn't stop it. This one though…his mum had found it, summer before last, when, over the course of three days, their place in the queue had shuffled past the stinking entranceway to an alley next to a Budgens. "Hold my place!" she had suddenly hissed, and scampered into the alleyway with that spryness that had never left her, even at the very end. She'd emerged five minutes later, hauling the huge box out of the darkness, its side already stained green with the cabbage juice that even now Banjo could see on the board between his fingers.

For an autumn, a winter, a spring, a summer and now another autumn that box had separated Banjo from the greasy pavements and broken tarmacs of London, three centimetres of insulating cardboard between his bones and the stones that sucked the warmth, the strength and eventually the life out of you. Just as they'd done to his mum, not three months after she'd liberated his bed from that yawning alley. He'd woken one November morning and seen her next to him, blue, still and somehow smaller than she'd been the night before, as if the stones had stolen some of her flesh as well as her life.

"I met Her once, you know." Fat Angus was still going, as he always would unless he passed out or someone smacked him one. "Proudest moment of my life, it was." 

This was always the crescendo of Fat Angus' bullshit soliloquy, but Banjo turned towards it anyway, willing himself to be distracted by it. He couldn't see Angus admidst the upline crowd, but occasionally glimpsed his bottle when he waved it with particular enthusiasm.

The claim was transparently untrue. Even if Angus' skin hadn't been tattooed with the patina of the queue-born - a worked-in layer of soot and grime, fixed permanently by a lifetime of weather-beating - Banjo's mum had once told him she remembered Fat Angus being born when she was a kid herself. His mum had occupied the same spot that Angus now did, just as Banjo had inherited his own mum's spot when she died. And Banjo's mum had been brought to the queue as a baby by her mum and dad, which meant that Fat Angus hadn't been born until years after the queue started. So Fat Angus could never have met Her. She must had been years dead by the time Fat Angus's mum had squirted him into the world in a flowerbed outside Serpentine Park. God alone knew why Angus always claimed to have met Her, but he'd been claiming it for as long as Banjo could remember.

"When you were in Her presence, it was like nothing else, y'know. As if She was more than human."

It wasn't entirely clear who Fat Angus was even saying all this stuff too. All his adjacents in the queue had stopped listening years ago. There was always Screwface, Banjo supposed. He'd been sat next to Fat Angus since forever.  He might be Fat Angus's dad, but no one knew. Some people even said he wasn't queue-born, that he'd been here since the start. But if either of those things were the case, Screwface wasn't saying. Largely because Screwface never said anything. For Banjo's whole life, Screwface had sat in the queue a dozen or so places upline, keeping Fat Angus's place when he went scavenging for poitin, smoking a pipe which he filled with God-knows-what and listening to Fat Angus's endless bullshitting, his face as tanned and motionless as a mahogany carving, all of it in complete silence. 

Noises downline drew Banjo's attention in the other direction. Voices, indistinct at first, but growing louder as they got closer. 

"Jump tickets! Jump tickets! Hundred! Five hundred! Thousand! Jump tickets!"

It was Alice's kids, on the return leg of their annual trek. They'd passed by heading downline back in March or April, now they were heading back upline to wherever it was Alice herself was holding their place.

Banjo scanned them as they approached, counting six. Down two from the outgoing trip. He felt a stab of sympathy. The missing two could have paired up, but it was unlikely. People didn't pair up downline, as a rule, because then the upline half of the couple lost their place. More likely they'd run into trouble.

"Jump tickets! Hundred! Five hundred! Thousand!"

The kids weren't carrying much either, a lot less than Banjo had seen them hauling in previous years. It looked like it had been a tough pilgrimage this time round. 

They did it every year, walking almost the whole length of the queue, trading jump tickets for whatever they could get. Bedding, food, lamps, tools. The barter-currency of the queue. The tickets were official documents, each one signed by the Prime Minister themselves, and entitled the bearer to advance a hundred, five hundred or even a thousand places upline, depending on the value stated on the ticket.

Banjo had nearly got one himself, 7 or 8 years back. He had it in his hand and was in the process of handing his knife over to the kid when he felt his mum's hand on his wrist. She'd snatched the card out of his hand, read it, then thrown it into the kid's face with a snarl.

"That silly cow hasn't been Prime Minister for twenty years you little shit. Now fuck off, and if I see you talking to my boy again, I'll cut you from your face your balls."

Banjo missed his mum. All his life, it had been the two of them. He'd never met his dad. Mum said he'd been an upliner, who came wandering down on a foraging trip. They'd tumbled one night, and then he'd buggered off back up the line to where his wife and kids were holding his place. Since then it had been Banjo and his mum, looking after each other, each holding their place when the other went off scavenging. A smiling face in the morning when the sun rose, a soothing word when night fell.

But now she was gone. Banjo was on his own. He'd never paired up himself. He had no one to hold his place, so he couldn't go foraging. He'd been feeding himself by trading what he had, and now he had almost nothing left. His mattress was dissolving. His last possession was his knife, tucked under his jumper, the same one his mum had stopped him from giving to that Alice kid.

"Jump tickets! Hundred! Five hundred! Thousand!"

Alice's kids trudged passed, their faces and their meagre haul both rimed with snow. They chanted mechanically, not expecting an answer and not receiving one. Banjo stared at their faces - pinched, hardened with weariness and sorrow. They confirmed his suspicions. The gaps in their ranks weren't through downline pair-ups. They'd suffered loss. A barter gone awry, or a run-in the prastermengros, or maybe just the endless damp chill of the stones themselves. A lonely death, a long way from home, and for those left, a long walk upline with winter coming on, to a patch of shining pavement and whatever welcome Alice had to offer.

But for them there was at least that. Each other, and a home to go to. For Banjo now there was nothing, and no one. He was never going to make it to the front of the queue. He'd be lucky to make it the next half mile. 

The kids passed by, shuffling among the queue, still calling with no response.

 "Jump tickets! Hundred! Five hun-" 

"No point." 

The reply came suddenly enough for Banjo to snap his head round and peer through the tumbling snowflakes and the gathering dusk to see the speaker. The tone had been conversational but the voice was wholly unfamiliar. 

The queue had parted slightly to allow Alice's kids a way through, and between the huddled bodies, he saw a solitary kid paused, stooped over the interlocutor.

A hunched, wizened figure, sitting cross legged, wrapped in a blanket from which a fleshless brown head poked like a sun-dried tortoise.

It was Screwface.

The kid didn't know him, of course, so she leaned in, wholly clueless as to why everyone round was craning their necks in astonishment.

 "No point? Why of course there's a point! Any one of these reasonably priced tickets brings you that much closer to Her…" The kid slipped into back into her rote patter.

 "No point at all. She gone."

There was a pause during which Banjo could almost hear the kid's mind clicking through her options. Screwface chose to fill the silence himself.

 "Crystal box empty. Old girl been in the ground long time now. Nothin' up front 'cept ghosts."

 "Th…then why are you still here?" The kid finally found her voice, but Screwface's only reply was to withdraw his head and light his pipe. He puffed deeply then expelled a cloud of greasy smoke which drifted listlessly over his gawping neighbours. He plainly considered the conversation, his first in living memory, to be at an end.

 The kid pressed for a bit, but meeting nothing but the resumption of Screwface's implacable silence, she trudged off to catch up with her siblings.

Banjo watched her go, then turned to find Screwface again, but the queue had closed in around him and he was gone from sight.

Snow settled on him, and the night drew round like a shroud. The cold seeped in, and even just sitting there he felt the stones beneath him stealing his life, just as they'd stolen his mum's, and Fat Angus' mum's, and the trekking kids'. His mum had sat in the queue her whole life and never made it to the front. Her hope towards the end was that he would make it her place, but he'd made it less than a year and there were still more places between him and the front than there were stars in the sky. There was no one he could leave his place to, no one to reach the front for him. He'd never see the front.

He gripped his knife, his last possession, the only thing he had to trade, and opened his mouth to call the kids back. He knew the jump tickets were a worthless thimblerig. His mum had told him, all those years back. But what if they weren't? What if his knife could buy him another thousand places up the queue? Or even just a hundred? Would that get him close enough before the stones took him?

But what if his mum had been right, as she'd always been? He'd lose his place, and his knife, for nothing.

Indecision silenced him. His call to the kids died in his throat.

But his fingers remained wrapped round the smooth plastic handle under his jumper. A new idea was forming. For a moment it's components drifted unconnnected round his mind in an unsettling Brownian motion, then suddenly coalesced. An idea, whole and gleaming. A way to move up the queue without losing his place, without trading away what little he had left. A way to make it to the front, to see for himself whether She was still there, and to gaze upon Her if she was.

Silently, he stood up. His fingers clenched tight under his jumper, and he pulled out his knife.