The neighbour’s cat masturbates behind me. Trembling fluffy white legs, quivering tail, its front paws kneading the blanket beneath which my mother-in-law slept for six nights of Christmas. Previously, I’ve tried distracting it, stroking its head or mewing at it and clicking my fingers. But the cat ignores me, sometimes turning around to continue self-pleasure, its back to my gaze. I like the cat, but I hate this. It comes to my house to do this, to escape its sister and nephew, and the large black and white neutered Tom, the overweight dribbling Ginger, the pair of squirrels in the fig tree. It stops purring, too. I wonder when it learned, I think, I wonder how it came across this. Could I be jealous of the cat? Its ability to pursue its desires frankly and straightforwardly.

Two emails tell it all. One from the head of a North American NGO that is looking for a “local” to run its “programme” in Angola. They’ve decided to stop depending on Westerners who never get visas and have tricky pay requirements and need to learn “the language”. Can I help? Do I know any Angolans who fit the bill? I ponder this and think of highly possibly over qualified people, and respond in kind. But they will expect to be paid what the foreigners are paid, I write. That ‘but’, so revealing. Why did I write it? What was I thinking? Delete the ‘but’ woman! Later, it strikes me that perhaps the NGO has stopped using “foreigners” because they need to save money. Plus it improves their profile. A few minutes later, another email. This one from Portugal. Would I like to write an article for a Portuguese academic journal? On Angola. It will not be paid, but I can write what I like. Anything. Could I write 4,500 words about anything? Really? I write back, suggesting that they should contact some Angolans to write some stuff too. “We need Angolans who write good English,” the following email states. Immediately, most Angolans are ruled out. Why can’t the journal pay for translations of the material? I’ll help, I say. So many barriers. So many walls to climb and bash down to get anywhere. You have no electricity, you don’t speak English even though you do speak one European language and two autochtonous Angolan languages, you’ve had no water since 23rd December, you can’t afford to buy any petrol even though your country is Africa’s top producer, you can’t get your child into the school in South Africa you’d set your heart on, it’s too expensive. And the one thing you could write about in depth, with great fluency and knowledge, you can’t do because you don’t write fluent English.

The cat kneads on.

I go to the gym. Run off the turkey fat. Run off the nerves piled up over those six days of Christmas. Back on the running machine, walking up hill, gradient 12 which is almost the highest, gazing at Carry On Screaming and a Walt Disney film about two tigers that are almost forced to kill each other until they recognise each other as the baby brothers they once were. The gym’s turned off the subtitles. But I can follow the story with ease. My eyes flick between the two screens. Carry On. Baby tigers. Carry On. Baby tigers. White men have had their faces painted brown, and wear turbans. They poke the tigers. A pretty white woman and her son rescue the tigers. The tigers look lovingly and longingly at pretty woman and son. The coloured-in men snarl and crack their whips. Sid James is snarling, his top lip quivering, at the blonde in pink feathers and pink tights and pink shoes. There’s the only man in the gym who smiles. In his grey track suit. On the step-climb in front of me. There’s the man who makes the most noise when he lifts the weights, shouting and crying, clawing for strength and attention in front of the mirror. There’s the Polish man with the waxy ears who introduced me to the machines. The tigers have escaped.

My knees buckle beneath me, I’m sliding backwards, dizzy, lost, grabbing at black plastic boards on either side, but too late, too late. I’m pushed back to the carpet, clawing at the running rubber infront of me, my chest bumping beneath as the rubber rolls round and across and down and under and back up and round and across. Let go let go. I’m in the gym. I’ve come off the running machine. I’m on the floor. All around me people puffing and running and cross country skiing and climbing steps to nowhere and the tigers are running for freedom and the boy’s crying, his mother comforting him. I bend my knees, push my body up, get to my feet. The machine’s still going. I look around me. No one is noticing. No one has seen my accident. No one saw me drift away and fall. I’m here to run. I’m here to run. I jump back onto the circulating rubber, immediately breaking into a run. Turn the speed up, increase the gradient. Don’t watch the television. Concentrate. Don’t drift off. Don’t daydream. Punishment: I run for 25 minutes, ignoring my achilles tendon. I row for 15. I lift 30kg fifty times. Punishment to keep me awake, to stop me day-dreaming, side-stepping, falling. Falling in the gym. Because it’s not real. That’s the problem with the gym, and the tellies. My mother-in-law says she’ll “never” call me by my real name. I must have her surname, the surname of her son. I mustn’t think about this in the gym, or I will have another accident and blame it on her.

I remember now that just before I fell, I was floating.

bs johnson

… he was also the victim of his own dogmas, the most tendentious of which was his belief that ‘telling stories is telling lies’, so that novelists should in effect confine themselves to providing accurate recreations of their own personal experience. This theory was not at all well thought out. Joyce, for instance, who was one of Johnston’s great idols, never did anything of the sort, neither did Beckett, another mentor. Eva Figes argued the point with him a number of times and provides all that we need by way of counter-argument:

By concentrating too much on form,
on literal truth, I think Bryan lost touch
with an essential, great truth,
that the only way to tell the truth is
by lying,
and that is the real
starting point of meaningful fiction.

(I’ve obsessed over this since I read it a few weeks ago, and I’ve reread it about thirty times. You can read more here if you so wish. This bit comes from the 1991 review in The Spectator by Jonathan Coe. I don’t want those two words together on my blog, but it’s to help you find more.)

over the fire

I managed to grab a shovel quickly, which I lifted high above my head before letting it drop back down, pushing with all the force my arms and back could offer, and sliced it into the top of beetle’s head. The shell cracked a little and a dark pool steadily spread inside, tracing a moving black shape across the flat surface above the brain. I counted to 43 before the first of plenty viscous red blood rose and rolled freely out over the smooth brown shell, pushing a thickening stream back towards the wings. The beetle was now completely still. I pushed the shovel beneath it, taking care not to tear off the end of a feathered leg, and moved the flat metal surface carefully about, just lifting the beetle a centimetre or two from the ground to check it was balanced properly before picking it right up and walking back to the fire. The creature was heavy and I groaned and held my breath in bursts as I stepped through the grass. And then I tipped it back into the metal pan, still bubbling and spitting. I knelt down and watched the flames, and followed the movements of the beetle’s blood as it blackened and hardened in the oil. I’d lost so many of the other insects, I felt sad and angry and confused. Huge slugs had escaped and were lumbering across the garden to the neighbour’s fence. A stick insect was watching me from the branches of the plum tree above, waiting, I felt sure, to hurl its long green body onto mine, clasping me closed and breathless forever. The roach I had carried home so carefully, (so many hours of travelling, so many airports and checkpoints, we had passed through together from Saurimo to Malange to Luanda to Johannesburg to London) had also managed to escape the pan and would surely die in the damp cold winter this city offers up. I could only imagine how my face looked, lit up by the orange flames and the heavy clouds reflecting the halogen lights of the northern region.

And still behind me, the slender man (who had arrived with three women who were all wearing thick red lipstick and whispering) was playing the guitar poorly, and singing the same indulgent song. Everyone else had gone inside. I could hear their laughter, the sounds of men and women who like each other and want to be together. It was at that point that I was overcome with an urgent regret, and wished I hadn’t killed the beetle.

Africa’s salvation?

“Duncan Clarke is quite right: thanks to impressive oil deposits there exists today “an Afrique utile”. African oil comprises 12.5 per cent of global output – significantly less than the Middle East’s 30 per cent – but a glance at recent statistics demonstrates how the author of Crude Continent can insist Africa has become “the world’s greatest frontier in oil exploration”. The United States, for example, wants a quarter of its crude imports to come from Africa within the next six years; already, Algeria, Angola and Nigeria combined supply almost 20 per cent. In 2007, almost a third of Chinese oil imports came from Africa, with Angola overtaking Saudi Arabia as the Asian giant’s number one supplier. A wide array of other countries, including some you probably never knew existed such as the Republic of Tatarstan, are investing in African oil. Add to that the flood of 500 companies from around the globe currently scrambling for Africa’s dark sticky stuff, and you start to get an idea of what “useful” means…”

My latest book review will earn me another enemy, I fear.


An obsession with the activity of the Local Gym followed me to Mother Goose at the Hackney Empire on Saturday, accompanied by my entire family (two parents, two siblings, two in-laws, six nephews and nieces). Uncle Bonkers referenced Jeremy Kyle and I got the joke because I’ve gazed at Kyle sitting at the feet of a pale-faced crack-cocaine-addicted-prostitute while rowing 1500 metres to nowhere. I was always against Local Gyms until I strained my achilles tendon so badly, I was advised not to run for three months. The correlation between physical well-being and mental approach is something I can no longer ignore, so I joined the gym while said tendon is allowed to heal. And I’ve started to love the gym in ways I might never have imagined: including getting the jokes at the local panto thanks to King’s Hall’s four screens.

Yes. Four flat screens for one small Local Gym. Why? you ask. So did I. Not satisfied with giving customers (for that is surely what we are?) visual excess, Capital Breakfast Show “with Johnny and Lisa” hurls from several pairs of speakers fixed to the ceiling above the rowing machine, the bicycles, the weights, the cross-country ski machine, the mountain step machine, every machine there is in the room. I’ve tried using ear plugs but Johnny and Lisa are too loud. So I’ve taken the decision to accept the environment and engage. Initial embarrassement about flab and stiffness and a general weakness that leaves me pulling 5kg out of metal sockets beside the 73 year-old grandad who lifts 45kg whilst doing sit-ups (“You can look like me, luv, if you work at it,” was his introduction to our first conversation). I’ve thought of doing a survey and asking all gym-goers whether they hate the noise and the general sense-onslaught at 7am every morning. But I’ve still not managed to not care about the vanity of certain people who come in each morning and stare at their bodies moving for at least an hour – even when they’re talking to someone else between exercise, they manage to look in the mirror. Only slightly more weird is the amount of time I spend staring at them, all the hate created by Johnny’s 1980s-style domination of Lisa (which she dutifully accepts – No! Relishes, the cow! – with syrupy laughs and coos to call-in customers) channelled and focused at these slim, hard, young people. One woman – the most slender of all – carries two small weights all the way to the opposite end of the gym simply to have a larger mirror to look in for a little longer. I really do think to myself how much I’d like to drop a weight on her when she lies down for toning and sit-ups at the end, her hair still in an impressively chaotic-but-still-really-sexy thrown-up-this-took-ten-seconds-this-morning-with-a-pencil hair-do. If she knew how much I loathe her, would she change her exercise times to avoid that bat in the grey T-shirt who’s clearly got a bit of a problem? Envy? Don’t be kidding me. Still, there was great delight when the toughest of the men winked at me while I was skiing through Grade 8 snow last week. He was looking in the mirror for 2 hours, but he must have noticed me looking at him. And mistaken that look for lust.

People with mental problems go to the gym and sit on the bicycle machines without moving. Their legs occasionally re-balance the pedals, but mostly they stare at their grey faces, the purple shadows that sag beneath their eyes, and let their head drop to one side. A young girl, perhaps she’s 20, darts about between these often elderly or confused beings, suggesting they try counting whilst they are re-balancing the pedals to help them push the wheel around. They gaze up at Kyle while she speaks, then turn to Sky News and blink at the subtitles, and then the glance drops back to their own reflection in the vast mirrors. You feel you are here because you are outside of the norms. You, like them, like Kyle’s guests, have a problem. You are all here to row nowhere, to ski in snow-less tarmac Hackney, to march on circulating black rubber, and pull weights with no purpose.

I think of the old woman in Luanda, who’d travelled 500 km from Malange with me. She walked through the city with 50kg of something she wouldn’t show me on her head. I offered to carry one of her bags, but couldn’t pick it up. She said, “It’s easier on your head” and then shook hers, muttering about the brancas who don’t know how to carry stuff on their head. Mine was hung in shame. The gym encompasses everything we have become, everything we are not. Like the credit crash, the deep hole bottoming out of our economies, it’s the inevitable end of our progress to which, like credit, we have somehow become obsessed to save ourselves from total misery. In the cacophony of Johnny and Lisa, I chat to the large lady pushing 30kg through her knees at my side. Light material floats around her face and waist and feet, covered from top to toe. We laugh and smile and point at the fatter bits of our bodies that we’d like to lose but rarely is a word exchanged. Only nods and smiles that carry us both far away to somewhere that offers comfort. Neither of us need the mirror, for we see ourselves looking back from the black and grey machinery with red numbers flashing, demanding to know what we weigh in order to accurately calculate how much we are losing and how often our heart is beating.

I laughed so much at Mother Goose, tears were often streaming down my face until I was no longer laughing but weeping for something I couldn’t understand. Something lost. Something I never had. Some part of instinct that has gone for good. That was never there. Often, I remember people and faces from Angola I no longer remember. Always in public. Always laughing. Never understood.

And I’ve just discovered that Lisa and I share a birthday. What the hell could that mean?

here all along

‘So there are these two Irish blokes, Paddy and Murphy. And they’re in the jungle. And they see a crocodile with a man’s head sticking out of its mouth. And Paddy says to Murphy, So who’s the flash bastard in the Lacoste sleeping-bag?

Two quid, that joke cost. A man outside Shoreditch church with a can of Strongbow squeezed into his back pocket. Red cheeks, orange hair, a roll-up.

‘That way we’re all happy. You don’t mind if I join you, do you? The idea is, I tell a joke and you give me something for it if I make you laugh.’

Which made me laugh.

‘Enjoy the concert then? Any good?’

The pews were half-full with mainly men with matted hair. They came alone, or in pairs. They sat very still throughout the concert. Even when the lights went off, and the church was briefly very dark while our eyes adjusted, they did not move. Even when the tape of Telemusik was played, there was not a shuffle. I wanted to laugh but a man put his finger to his mouth and signalled that I should shush. And I wondered what was wrong with laughing, or just smiling: the music made me want to laugh. But I didn’t. I sat still and listened to the series of strange sounds: “a music for the whole Earth”… “technical processes, formal relationships, pictures of notation, of human relationships etc – all at once and in a network too tangled up to be unravelled into one process”.

There was a short interval. People stood up and stretched, as if between machines in the gym. Some of the men put their coats back on, some went outside for a quick smoke. Back to blackness, apart from the lights over the musicians. Running loo-rolls up and down the tam-tam, plucking at piano strings, fiddling with the short-wave receivers, a flautist and a slim-man called Vlad & his viola. High agitated notes, moments of familiar harmony, voices from far away to which the flute responded with chirps. A man in front of a mixer twiddled and twirled his fingers around faders and vol, as if touching a lady he loved I thought. Sometimes his fingers would rise up in pairs, gently erect, a signal to the musicians I couldn’t decode. The sheets in front of the ensemble said very little: just rows of black circles, blank spaces and thin lines. More secret code. A conversation me and all the men could enjoy but couldn’t fully understand. And yet, all our senses were enchanted and flooded full. Fully content. Fully surprised. It was called Kurzwellen which means Shortwaves. Someone said, you might hear yourself. Someone else said, it’s a waste of time, it sounds like a Joe-90 sound track. I said: where have I been all my life?

And a funny thing it was later to look at the websites. The woman on the tam-tam photographed with a pair of sticks only. The instrument most curiously absent. Just her smiling face and pretty body in sleek clothes. All that poise and attention and art and rhythm vacuumed away for a silky top.