Monthly Archives: June 2012

Off the top of me head………….

I have had, pretty much, the same haircut since I was knee high to a space hopper and have always thought that my hair was, well, just a bit shit. There is the natural tin-tin quiff, the double crown and the colour, brown. At the back I grow a convergence of locks which congregate at my nape like a duck’s arse – not so much a mullett as a mallard. If I fall asleep on the train, I wake up with stalks perpendicular to my head which then refuse to go back down despite the desperate ministrations of my licked hand. No matter how I try to subtly smooth it into place, it just won’t go – so I stop: lest I look like one of the cat people. It is St Trinian’s unruly so I use “fudge” to tame it into some semblance of normality. No hair product is sticky enough – I use actual fudge. If the authorities ever saw my hair without “product” in it, I could well be sectioned. I wash it every night; my secret pleasure is when I run out of my own shampoo and can use either my wife’s horrendously expensive australian one (y’know – the one that smells of bubble gum) or even better, the kid’s “No more tears” one which has the clean innocent smell of towel wrapped childhood.

At the hairdressers I have tried asking for different styles, I really have, but they look at me as if to say “You do know, there is only so much you can polish a turd” before giving me the “usual” – think pre-pubescent SS officer. Immediately after a hair cut, there is a period where I look like I may have just lost my virginity in a remand centre. Y’know, slightly shellshocked.
“You look like you’ve been done and left” as my dear mother often says to me. After a week or so I venture back out into the public eye, knowing that it will be at least another week before I enter the Goldilocks period – not too short, not yet too long: just right. For years it has been like this. And now of course there are the occasional Gandalfian strands, hairs so unbelievably white and weirdly kinked, hairs that fill me with so much shock and awe that I suspect they may well be God’s pubes that have somehow landed on my head. Don’t look at me like that, God is universally accepted as being the hairiest deity ever invented. Whatever they are, they glow with mortality. Or pro-vitamin B5 – it could be that.

Recently though, there have been two incidents which have made me see my hair in a different light.
Watching Wayne Rooney (the most highly polished turd ever to drag his knuckles across the earth) I was struck that he is genuinely pleased with his new hair implants. No, I’ll go further – he is thrilled. It is weirdly heart warming to see such pleasure on what passes for a face. That we all think it looks like somebody has thrown a wig at a placenta is irrelevant. Which must mean that pre-weave he must’ve been terribly sad; vanity is not always to do with one’s reflection.

The other incident happened only a few days ago.

Tenterden High St was bustling on a sunny Saturday morning and a stately traffic jam had developed either side of the pelican crossing. An old convertible mercedes glided to a stop, creamy leather interior beaming with well upholstered pride. The driver had the top down and was playing it cool: elbow on door frame, fingers tapping in time to Marvin Gaye, smiling at his passenger, a young blonde women. The car was impressive, like a four poster bed on wheels, it purred, and here he was, being admired by passers by as he swapped pillow talk with a beautiful woman. You could read the well earned smugness in the slow nod of his head, in the volume of the music, that benevolent smile as he drank in the silent applause of jealous glances. And then someone shouted “BALDIE”.

Perhaps I should’ve mentioned that first, he was a baldie. Not the Duncan Goodhew school of baldness, the mannequin depilation which, in the adult world, is largely immune from abusers for all the obvious reasons. No, he was one of those guys that was going bald but had swept what was left across his head in a classic baldie comb-over. Of course, the soft top automobile is the natural enemy of the baldie comb-over and so, blissfully unaware that his hair-blanket had flown off of his head and was now dangling limply he checked himself in the mirror and hastily began reconstructing the “do”. Clearly this sort of reaction is rather provocative to bored teenagers and so they shouted “BALDIE” again. Slightly louder and with a hint of triumph – like they’d won at bingo. “BALDIE!”
Lots of people laughed – myself included.
“BALDIE!”

That was it, there’s no more to the story, his moment of glory had disappeared, gone for ever like his hair. Presumably Marvin Gaye hit 10,000 RPM in his grave. Presumably Baldie comb-over went about his business, driving his beautiful car along country lanes with his hair flapping like a wind sock behind him. It probably didn’t even keep him up at night. But for me it reconfigured the shit hair scale, and my place within it.

I ran my hands through my full head of luxuriantly thick hair and thought “could be worse Conmy, could be much much worse”.

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Lionel Asbo

 

Social mobility rent massive as eponymous anti-hero wins a 9 figure lotto jackpot whilst behind bars…………………. 
 
 
Amis doesn’t write about the middle classes, he writes for the middle classes; be it the comical or desperate grotesquerie of low England or the ridiculous, glacial privilege of the social elite, he is most comfortable describing the ends of the spectrum from the smugly plump middle.    
In Lionel Asbo he manages to make these ends meet, although here he has replaced the double-barrelled Eton Bolly guzzler with the ubiquitous tabloid celebrity. Refreshing about this exercise is that it never dreams of boring you with a trite rags to riches story, in fact, the gold-plated vulgarity of both social extremes’ need to flaunt make this a sort of anti-Pygmalion.
 
Insightful and poisonous, Lionel is a dominating sketch in vicious pride, a product of a ghetto culture where 45 is old age and 3 generations are squeezed into every 2. There is lots to play with here but if it’s a character study then only Lionel and Desmond are brought out of farce and into focus. The supporting cast feel a lot like a Daily Mail pasquinade: the Jordanian pin-up girl made good and the assorted rathole villainy of London are straight from casting house. Better realised and sadly familiar are Lionel’s tabloid manipulations, the staged relationship, break-up, reconciliation, pregnancy, faked miscarriage and eventual split: there is no wisp of sympathy for the self made “panopticon” of celebrity here. Better still is the convincingly well drawn nephew, Desmond; kind, gentle, desperate to improve himself, he is one of only two sympathetic characters and, as our link to this world, he quickly shares with us a terrible secret, one which could prove fatal if his Uncle ever found out. It is this slow reveal that drives the story on, providing the backbone of cryogenic menace, the dark heart of sink-estate propinquity – does Lionel know? And if he does what won’t Lionel do?

The symbolism is effective, though not particularly subtle: the lift in the flats doesn’t work anymore, the tail-wagging puppies are abused into viciousness and the mansion is knowingly named “WormWood Scrubs”, despite this, the components never feel less than integral. Glorious literary flourishes pepper his descriptions of the highlife (being lived by a lowlife) and are shockingly offset by Lionel’s occasional cruelties, the jolt acting like a daylight mugging.

Any right minded person knows that Zoroastrianism, social meritocracy and karma all get kicked in the teeth by the national lottery twice a week but Amis doesn’t forget his Guardian reading audience, so this is not a hopeless book. The tender moments are not just there to provide light relief from the consequence-free Bullingdon style vandalism or the white noise of threat, as the well built denouement nears you realise just how delicate the threads of happiness are in forgotten England.

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Open or Wrapped up in family?

It’s your birthday. Looking out on the sparkling city nightscape you bite your lip in indecision, will it be the delicate gluttony of foie gras?, the opulent smoulder of wasabi-kissed sashimi?, or perhaps the soft littoral tang of ceviche? Waiters appear: silent as smoke, attentive as a courtesan, they bustle softly, ready to translate your wishes into the toil of hidden scullions – your pleasure …is paramount, is everything. The restaurant is full but it’s just the two of you, eyes darkly complicit, knowing. The lighting is peach soft and yet exquisite moats of shadow make your pool of light intimate. Murmurs of pleasure trickle through the room like champagne bubbles, this isn’t a meal – this is foreplay.

And we know what that leads to.

Which is why, yesterday, my birthday, walking in to the same restaurant at mid-afternoon with a screaming baby, a harassed wife and a mischievous 3 year old was a rather different restaurant experience………….

“Hello, we’ve not eaten here for a while, do you cater for children?”

“Of course Sir, we have a Michelin starred organic vegetarian a la carte children’s menu or we can provide smaller portions of everything on the main menu, except, of course, the Chateaubriand”

“Do you have crayons?”

“Sir?”

“We cannot eat here if you don’t have crayons”

“I can check……..?”

We leave and walk into the next Gastro Pub, it doesn’t have a Michelin star but it does have free crayons and fishfingers – no contest. The restaurant is busy, we are shown to a corner table with a garden view; alongside, a canoodling couple are sharing a dessert, flaunting their young love by feeding each other and y’know – smiling ‘n’ shit. I am fairly sure my wife doesn’t spot their special moment as she moves cutlery aside and starts to change my daughter’s nappy. The waitress is surprised at seeing a pair of tiny al fresco buttocks next to the “specials” and I use her social paralysis to scan the children’s menu. As she gathers herself to leave I stop her with the children’s order, “IT IS VITALLY IMPORTANT YOU BRING THEIR FOOD AS SOON AS POSSIBLE” I add in a half jokey – half desperately serious way. She pulls my hand from hers and hurries away, either she understands the urgency of the situation or, more likely, she wants to put some distance between her nostrils and the contents of my daughter’s nappy. It must be bad: on the next table the lovers stop eating their dessert and ask for the bill; I look at their abandoned profiteroles and think how cruel fate can be. Without looking up, my wife passes me the full nappy but I am so used to this kind of olfactory Hiroshima that I barely notice anything but the heat, it reminds me of walking back from the fish ‘n’ chip shop as a boy – although “open or wrapped” is not a choice a nappy changer ever has to make. God I’m hungry. I wander past scores of gagging diners and eventually find the toilets and a bin with that all important lid. Whilst washing my hands I notice a vending machine that that sells flavoured condoms – this is, after all, a gastro pub. The only flavours are sweet though, which is a shame because I’m so hungry at £3 a pack they might’ve made a nice starter. I return to our table and find everyone is settled. My wife is cleaning the high chair and my daughter is eating off the menu. By that, I don’t mean “a la carte”, I mean she is happily licking the remains of a satsuma from the menu, which has served as a sort of impromptu plate. We settle in. Our waitress arrives with the food and looks surprised again, the area is barely recognisable: we have already used all the napkins in a four table radius and the table decorations and cutlery have been stacked up out of reach of chubby fingers. Our pre-meal detritus litters the surrounding tables which are now all empty. There is satsuma peel on the window sill. My son has drawn a picture of a “pregnant skeleton robot” on the specials menu with the one crayon that hasn’t been broken and crumbled and is now loudly singing “Hakuna Matata” with his eyes closed. Which, nowadays, is very much our philosophy when dining out.

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Real Adventure

“Excuse me Sir, you do know you just went through a red light and it has taken our fastest car and best driver to catch you?”

“Listen pigwheels, I gotta pregnant lady here and if I don’t get her to hospital in the next 5 minutes she’s gonna give birth in this car. Do you really want to risk that happening? Huh? Do ya?”

“Sorry Sir, we had no idea”

“Hey don’t sweat it flatfoot – you’re not paid to think.”

“Would you like a police escort to to the hospital Sir?”

“Do you really think you could keep up with me?”

“Not even our helicopter could keep up with you Sir! You’re just too fast. And slim.”

 

I zoom off, leaving the police shrinking in my mirrors, foot to the floor I’m weaving between honking articulated lorries on mountainside roads, a sheer drop on one side flirting with my wheels; at a railway crossing we skid under the closing gates and out the other side, a beautiful passer-by faints because she is so bloody impressed. A traffic jam ahead takes me on to the pavement and smashing my way through a wall of cardboard boxes which have been stacked there for no apparent reason. A fruit stall collapses humourously as we speed past and a Frenchman waggles his fist at us in a comical fashion before falling over. My wife looks at me with sexy adoration “Thank God you are so bloody ruddy brilliant,” she says “and slim”. 

I handbrake turn into the hospital car park, lift my wife effortlessly out of the car and run in to the maternity ward with her in my arms. ”Oh James” she says…………………….

 

“Oh James”

“….”

“James,  wake up, WAKE UP YOU PIG!!!”

“Wha?”

“I think I’m in labour”

I try to talk but my cheek is stuck to the pillow with spit. It’s just after 1am.

 

 

I take the pre-packed bags down to the car and then spend 5 minutes trying to quietly fit the giant birthing ball into the boot. The night is hushed, expectant – like it’s holding it’s breath. My wife waddles out of the front door and eases herself in to the passenger seat, already on the phone to the maternity unit, describing contractions – she is very composed. I ignore the odd curtain twitches: they signify that our ancient neighbours know it’s begun. “It” being the end of their quiet street, forever. Well, not forever, but certainly longer than they’ll live, which is effectively the same thing. 

 

“They want to know how long we’ll be?” my wife whispers.

“ETA 5 minutes” I say confidently, slamming the boot and racing round to the driver’s seat, already regretting the use of “ETA” – not as much as that time I used the word “beverage”, but regret nonetheless.

My wife translates “We’ll be about 25 minutes”.

The car starts, there is plenty of petrol, there are no flat tyres. The drive to the hospital is misty but uneventful, there is nothing on the road, all the lights are green. There are no diversions, no surprises. We are in control and organised. We are in control and organised. We actually are in control and organised – maybe I am growing up? Maybe it’s just happened, mere hours before I become a father? Well thank fuck for that. 

 

“So you’ve finally grown up, on the way to have your first child – that’s cutting it a bit fine.” says my brain.

“Shut up Brain!” I reply.

 

I have 8 pound coins for the parking. Actually I have 10, but 2 are spare in case of RCDT – when they go through the machine without stopping. I hate it when that happens – there is no reason for it. Then you have to open-mouth-breathe on it and re-try. Because that’ll work won’t it? Or try and “spin” it down the chute? Or worse still, just “examine” the coin and try again? Well not anymore: the new “grown up James” has appropriate spare coinage – in your face random-coin-dissatisfaction-technology, you won’t bother me tonight. I have also recently made peace with the sheer expensiveness of parking at a hospital, reasoning that this must be how the NHS is actually funded. 

We walk past the entrance to A & E where 2 brothers are crying and smoking, mechanically. They have the same eyes and the same tattoos, sharing a cigarette and the same bad news. And it strikes me then that this is the building where life stops as well as starts, where dreams and hopes begin and end. One day I will be them, trying to come to terms with the shock of never seeing someone again, never speaking to them. But not tonight. Tonight is about beginnings not endings. There is somebody I am desperate to meet. 

 

As a man on a maternity ward, your official title is “in the way” so you keep to a corner until the midwives have left. There is a cultural sexism based on experience here, a self fulfilling prophecy of gender bias so, like the posters say, the best you can do is to “keep calm and carry everything”. Before labour really kicks in you may be left alone for long stretches of time, watching your other half ride out the wave machine of ache that is contractions. Offer water and try to be useful, arrange the room, locate the toilets and the vending machine – DO NOT MAKE JOKES UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. These are the rules. Later you’ll need to hold her hand and apologise for everything. And I do mean everything. But not yet. I spend my time massaging her back, digging my thumbs into the bottom of her spine, I have read that this interferes with the pain receptors – which might be true, then again I have read that there is a pregnant man in America, I’ve even seen pictures, which can’t be right- so who knows. Astride her birthing ball for 3 hours, time bleeds away. Eventually my wife asks if she can have a go and reluctantly I get off. People come and go. We present a birthing plan and the head midwife raises a formidable eyebrow.

 

“It says here you’d prefer no pain relief?”

“Just gas and air – I’m fine” my wife replies. 

The midwife looks at me as if I might be behind this – I’m not and I attempt to convey my innocence with a grimace and shrug. Sadly my shoulders never went to RADA and I look like I’m doing an inappropriate Robert De Niro impression. 

 

“Okay well you’ll be with Nilminie then, she won’t offer you anything”

 

And then she’s gone and a tiny woman is with us; together we move my wife on to the bed. The midwife is silent, efficient and lifts my wife with no apparent effort, her brown arms are wiry levers, they hint she is capable of lifting many times her own body weight – like an ant. Her face is dark and wrinkled – she has the comforting look of a shaman about her, an aura of mystic capability. The room is stifling and yellow, just how yellow is not yet apparent because the lights are dimmed and the dawn is a long way off. There is some dried blood on the floor, it’s a long long way from the bed. I hold my wife’s hand. The squaw nods her approval.

 

People will tell you that waiting is the worst part, they are talking bollocks – it’s crowning, crowning is the worst part by miles. I, of course, am speaking as an observer, but holding hands with someone can give you some insight in to how they feel. Listening to their screams and pleads can provide a good indicator as well. I can assure you that whilst “waiting” my hand was absolutely dandy, a little clammy perhaps but overall it was fine, delightfully uncrushed. Between contractions we even had conversations, don’t ask me to remember what they were, but conversations nonetheless. There is a marked difference with crowning. You don’t have conversations during crowning. There may be accusations, maybe some swearing, a little name calling, a fair amount of blame allocation, but nothing you could describe as a conversation. And how could you? When you’re stretching and burning and the brain can’t quite conceive of how you’ll survive what’s happening to you, how physiology could betray you like this, the suffering enormity of slow expulsion. Another deep deep breath, holding it, forcing it down, deep down, knowing that’s it’s the only thing that is going to push this thing out, that to stop it hurting you’ve got to hurt some more. Opening your eyes and realising that it has not ended, not knowing when it will end, if it will end. The panic of disorientation, being lost in pain, a stranger now telling you not to push any more, forcing you to pant through agony, to linger here – drowning in pain with someone holding you down, never being able to reach the surface. What? Yeah, you’re right I don’t know, all I can do is try to imagine, the best description my wife gave me went

 

“LIKE GOD GIVING YOUR FANNY A CHINESE BURN”

 

She’s eloquent like that. Anyway that’s crowning.

 

Our midwife, I never get her name, is a woman of few words; whether it’s a language barrier or just the distillation of a lifetime’s experience, she only says two things throughout the birth.

 

“Go poo poo” and “blow candles”. 

 

She says “go poo poo” a thousand times that night, not “push” which I suppose could be a little ambiguous or “bear down” which is downright puzzling, but “go poo poo”. After a while I even join in, chanting at my wife to “go poo poo” and really getting into it, it becomes an incantation, an ancient baby summoning spell. I stop after I am accidentally kneed in the groin and looking back I can completely see how it might’ve been annoying at the time.

 

And then the rules of physics change, reality bends and allows something very big to come out of something very small. It is a mind-boggling trompe l’oeil, literally a second after the baby is born I cannot be convinced that it has just happened. I look up and there are now 4 midwives in the room – I have no idea when they got here. I don’t really care. I can’t take my eyes off of the baby: purple, slimy, perfect. Laying there like he’s just been washed up on the beach of life. They scoop him up, clean him off and tell us we’ve got a son. A son. Our Son. My son. I cut the chord, which feels a bit like I’m a minor celebrity opening a new supermarket, and holding our baby, kiss my wife. 

 

“Oh James” she says and this time I am not dreaming.

 

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