Camping In England by Steve Wheeler

I was driving around England on sulphate. Everyone was doing it. Housewives, carpenters, people who worked in the London Zoo and the parks. Everyone I knew. Everyone was into it. My other major concern was the horses. Yes, I was hooked on the ponies.

One Scottish woman made a pointed remark about her friend, “the bookie’s boy” when she obliquely criticized my obvious weakness for gambling on the races. To me there was nothing like going down to Ladbroke’s on Saturday mornings and placing a few small wagers on combinations and parlays then walking home to eat breakfast while watching the races on tv. Leisurely gratification. Not many winners but many hangovers were nursed that way. I know it happened in England and Scotland and I suspect it’s still the same in Ireland and Wales.

To be able to afford the life I was living on my two weeks onshore and in preparation for the upcoming two weeks offshore on a drilling rig, I started sleeping in the white Ford van I bought. Not a big van, a small one. An Escort I think. With Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Bruce Cockburn’s Stealing Fire on my tape deck, I drove around to different races.

The sound of horse’s hooves on cobblestones as I parked and the sight of the sleek hind end of a thoroughbred disappearing around a corner as I ducked into a pub in Newmarket or Cheltenham stuck in my subconscious. Those memories didn’t help much with the feelings of disappointment as I tore up the last of my losing bets at the end of another day, but as I followed the happy bookies into the parking lot while they carried their signs and platforms and bulging briefcases, I realized that I was certainly doing something different. If I was at home I wouldn’t be doing this.

Sulphate was called “poor man’s coke”. It had an energetic buzz and, like coke, it enabled you to drink all night without getting sleepy. It was probably crushed up speed of some kind. It came in aluminum paper and everyone was doing it.

Two guys in Aberdeen, a Dutchman and a South African, quit their roustabout jobs on a drilling rig because they could make much more money selling sulphate to the welders who worked long shifts for big money on pipe laying barges. They had a connection in Amsterdam and captive customers.

For North Americans in England learning how to drive on the opposite side of the road than the side you’re used to is easy once you’ve negotiated the first stop sign and then the first stoplight then the first roundabout. After that it’s easy. Once you begin to drive in England or Scotland, you are convinced that Monty Python is alive and well and exists every day, all around you. It is like a weight lifted off your shoulders. There is less pressure to be perfect.

It was probably a race which drew me to the south of England but it could have been an escape from the urge to spend uncontrollably when I got to London from Aberdeen and the North Sea. Robert, a Swedish derrickman I had worked with, lived somewhere in the south. He wasn’t home when I called so I gave the tip I had for him to the woman I talked to and he later got a job out of it.

I was savvy enough by this time to find a campground near the Newton Abbott track and set up my one man tent before I found the nearest pub. I had entered Scrumpyland. That part of the country was known for its Scrumpy cider and I vaguely remember one pub which had seatbelts on the barstools for the customers’ safety. Naturally I overindulged in the Scrumpy and when I was too drunk to care, asked a few of the shadier looking characters if they knew where I could score some sulphate even though I still had some. I was lucky: everyone ignored me.

I later heard the saying “Beer on cider makes a good rider but cider on beer will make you feel queer’. It’s true. Queer meaning ill. Somehow I drove to the campsite when the pub closed and prepared to read Aleister Crowley’s Moonchild by the light of several candles in my pup tent.

I woke up with a headache and burped up the smell of Scrumpy cider. It had defeated the sulphate in my system and knocked me out. When I opened my eyes I was looking at the sky. Then the bent aluminum tent pole appeared. I looked upward down by my feet. Another tent pole arching over me. The skeleton of my tent.

I sat up when I realized that only charred pieces of fabric hung from the poles. The candles were pools of wax. Somehow the candles had lighted the tent around me, burnt it up and died out as I slept. There was not even a burn on my sleeping bag. Just wisps of smoke around me in the grey dawn.

I staggered to the Escort and drove away feeling a little embarrassed and ashamed. To stay and try to explain seemed impossible. I drove North, glad of a hangover for a change. If I hadn’t seen it for myself, I wouldn’t believe it. This wasn’t what camping in England was supposed to be like. Fuck the races. I knew a sign when I saw one.

The image of the tent skeleton and the perfect pile of ashes circling the spot where my sleeping bag had lain kept recurring as Dancing in the Dark and If I Had A Rocket Launcher played on my tape deck and I headed for Scotland.

Weather in London by Mikael Covey

Got home today, gone a week. Lovely day, or terrible, depending on your viewpoint – sunny, hot, muggy. I’ll go with terrible. Nothing much to come back to, but good to be home, I suppose. The cat’s happy to see me, that’s something anyway. Apparently she’s in heat, so I guess she’d be delighted to see anybody or anything. Shouldn’t disclose such personal items about kitty, respect her privacy and all. Then again, it might have some bearing later on in the story (writer tricks, horseshit they teach you in creative writing). Yeah, you know what I mean – use those tricks and there’re so painfully obvious, it’s painful.

The house is a wreck. Shoulda cleaned it before I left, but so much to do to get ready, no time really to clean the place so it’d look nice and inviting when you return. Too bad – the little cracker box hotel room looking more inviting than your own home. Such is life. At least it was neat and clean there. And it was London, not South Dakota. I’ve nothing against South Dakota, rather be here than someplace else. But it’s nice to get away. Odd to spend a whole week without once thinking of work. So that’s sort of a vacation in itself.

And London is nice. A different perspective on things – so many people you see from all over the world. Hate to break the news to New Yorkers and Los Angelenos, but London is actually the epicenter of this little blue planet. And all those people, see them for a fleeting moment on the subway, then never again in your whole lifetime. Understanding that, to a writer, each of them is a book unto themselves. Some perhaps a slim volume, others a great large book. You can see it in their faces. A glimse at a time, then vanished forever. Which is all any of us are. Continue reading

Dirty White Collar by David LaBounty

Tire salesman. That’s what I am. A tire salesman store manager writer novelist poet husband father American dreamer.And no, when I was a kid, I didn’t want to grow up and sell tires. I was a bright-eyed boy with good grades who asked a lot of questions and read a lot (okay, I was really a know-it-all but that doesn’t matter). I wanted to be a lawyer or a stuntman. In fifth grade I decided I was going to go to Harvard and go to law school just like this TV show called the Paper Chase that I watched with devotion every week.

I made it to Harvard once, when I was in my mid-twenties, I walked through the campus with no money in my pockets and the dream long extinguished.

Anyway, my parents divorced and there were second marriages and the family moved. Michigan, Illinois and small-town Minnesota. In Minnesota I decided to become a writer, a journalist maybe and I had a path set but that path changed when I left my mom and step-dad and moved back to Michigan to live with my father in suburban Detroit before my junior year in high school. I had to make a new set of friends and adjust to big city living. In Minnesota I was the kid with a big mouth who played basketball and argued with the teachers and got elected to student council. In Detroit I was just a kid with messy hair and thick glasses who was too shy to try out for the basketball team and became nothing special at all. I had to make a new set of friends. I discovered beer and pot and rock and roll and MTV. My grades went in the shitter, college wasn’t an option, not with a 1.9 GPA and my father didn’t offer to pay for any further education.

I still wanted to be a writer, so I joined the navy, you know, for the travel and experience and then I was going to go to college on the G.I. Bill and become a journalist and then a novelist and then I would become rich and famous and bang beautiful women.

And the navy did give me experience. I made a few road trips across the eastern seaboard because of the navy and wound up being stationed in Scotland for about half of my enlistment. I lived off base in a seaside village called Montrose. I had a Fiat. I drank in pubs and lifted weights and read Anna Karenina and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Life was fun and I had a plan. I left the navy after four years and moved back to Detroit with my father and step-mother and got a job at a car wash and enrolled in the local community college and the plan was in action. Continue reading

Never Cross a Picket Line by Zack Wilson

I found myself manning a picket line this week. Not a picket line outside a mine or crumbling mill, but outside one of the many office buildings of Sheffield City Council.

My comrades weren’t donkey jacketed steel workers, clustered round a burning brazier, seeking warmth under rain soaked flat caps. They were administration clerks and social workers. At other sites they were librarians and street cleaners, teaching assistants and care home workers, those of us who work in the unfashionable and generally poorly rewarded jobs in the public sector. ‘Municipal’ workers is probably the American term. In other words, the people who help to make the streets safer and cleaner, who look after children, care for the elderly, cut the grass in the park, provide counselling and guidance for the desperate or marginalised, who help to keep things running smoothly in the community. The people who you don’t notice until they’re not there.

Not violent, militant or dangerous extremists then, but decent working people whose reward for helping local councils in England and Wales make £1 billion of so called ‘efficiency savings’ last year is an offer of a 2.45% pay increase.

When you take into account the fact that the rate of inflation in the UK currently stands at 4.3% then you can see it’s a pathetically inadequate offer. When you also take into account that food prices are up 9%, energy bills 15% and petrol (gasoline) up 22% then you can see it’s not merely inadequate but actually insulting. The insult becomes unbearable when you realise that these workers are some of the lowest paid people in the United Kingdom, many earning under £15,000 per year.

Which is why picket lines sprang up all over the UK. From Belfast to Norwich, Newcastle-on-Tyne to Portsmouth, Unison members were making their voices heard. Continue reading

…we asked our friends Mira and AJ to tell us something about Poland…

One day in Po(et)land by Mira Horvich and AJ Kaufman

MH 09.00 am (office poet)

‘Welcome to Floo Net Travel. Please, choose the extension or wait for the next available consultant’

I wait for the beep and then dial 1-4-5-2, targeting the glowing keypads with an index finger. There is a certain Miss Anna working in Floo Net Travel, and each time I call her to book some flight for my boss, my thoughts line up in the same way. First, I wonder whether the name of the company is related somehow to our scar-marked, bespectacled hero of the recent years. Judging by the year the company was established it very probably is. Then I wonder whether Miss Anna knows that she has an extension that is the date of the great geographic discoveries. These two thoughts together usually take up the space of one long beep. The receiver still pressed to my ear, my musings turn to the world of great discoverers and ships with scarlet sails and wizards in black robes and pointed hats – do they have discoverers in the wizarding world? – and all that. The last image I reach before Miss Anna picks up the phone is usually that of a towering old wizard, standing erect on the deck of a ghost ship, long streaks of his gray hair and beard dancing madly on the breeze.

‘Good Morning, Floo Net Travel, Anna Lys, how can I help you?’

I shake the image and introduce myself, shifting to the brisk business matter which is supposed to show how confident and competent I feel in my little office environment. From the ghost ship of my imagination, the tall wizard shoots me a disdainful look. Well, fuck off, sugar. Business is business.

I write down the connections Miss Anna has found for me, thank her and put the receiver down. My fingers lingering on the smooth curvaceous shape, as if it were a fucking portkey, my only link with the outside world. Now it’s only office and me. How long can you NOT look at something you should be doing when it’s right before your eyes? I last three minutes. Right then. The mail. The mail would go first, then the coffee for the boss, then the current matters, then the report from yesterday’s meeting. The barren plane of my desk fills up with papers, the ship and the sails and tall pointed hat sinking inexorably beneath the white mess.

On the little shelf to my right, a small destapler sits quietly, its metallic jaws parted slightly in a grin. To be a good office worker, you have to really hate your work. Only sheer fury can take one through the day. Or is the source of my anger really in the fact that I am constantly hurled from one world to another? Taking turns between an evening rambling poet and a morning office girl, I have lost my soul somewhere in between. I take the destapler from the shelf and press it to my mouth. When the metal jaws close on the lower lip, it hurts, and I love the feeling. Continue reading

three reviews by Aleathia Drehmer

The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

This book is about two Cuban brothers who come to America in the time before Castro took over. When they came over it was not about “a better life”, but about new adventure and music and opportunity. These brothers were great musicians playing mambo, cha-cha-cha, boleros and any other form of Latin music of its time. We are talking 1940’s NYC Latin music scene. One brother is a macho….a man’s man, a ladies man and full of life and excitement. The other is a gallego which is reference to a man that would come from Spain, but also one with a great melancholy about him. So they were opposites.

This book is about the journey of Cuban music in NYC through the 1940’s to the 1960’s. It is about love and loss and great, heartbreaking longing. This story is filled with images of pastoral Cuba, of rich foods, and thick with Cuban terms and language that surprisingly does not take away from the book, because the author explains it all to you without detracting from the story. It is as if the brothers were telling you a tale of their lives. It is sensual with many scenes of lovemaking and the pure passion men and women have for each other without it being a trashy romance novel.

I found it to be enriching in Latin culture and I desired listening to the Afro-Cuban All Stars a lot while reading this book, because it felt good. I found myself wanting to eat rice and beans and thick pork chops and fried plantains. I wanted to dance about the room. I wanted to make passionate love to someone. I wanted to play the congas and sing at the top of my lungs. I wanted feel the sunshine on my face, but mostly, it made me long for my family. I want that feeling of having my clan together while eating and laughing and remembering the tales of our lives.

Sometimes it is hard to find a book with all of these things that is masterfully written so that the pages fly by until you have come to the end, weeping and clutching the book to your chest, wanting just a little bit more. This book takes you to another place and the joyousness of music and of life. Continue reading

Clockers versus The Wire by Steve Finbow

I don’t have a television. That’s not a boast or a way around paying the license. I just don’t have one. Spend a year in Japan and you’ll come away loathing your sixteen-foot by eight-foot flat-screen. Japanese television shows are dreadful – like Swapshop and Tiswas for adults. But I do have a MacBook, and on it I watch DVDs. The latest – after The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer – is The Wire.

I’m one episode away from the conclusion to season two (don’t tell me, don’t tell me) and while watching season one I was reading Richard Price’s Clockers (not at the same time – I mean, I was reading when I wasn’t watching – oh, you figure it out). Pure coincidence. And there are similarities. The Wire’s D’Angelo Barksdale conducts his drug business in the low rises from a sofa, Ronald Dunham (Strike) deals from a bench under the towers. Buddha Hat is similar to Omar Little. Dempsy, New Jersey, could be Baltimore.

Both The Wire and Clockers are neo-realist, tough, and, like McNulty and Rocco Klein, they grab you by the balls and twist. Richard Price wrote episodes of The Wire for seasons three and four, joining other crime writers such as George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, and Rafael Alvarez, all of whom write about inner-city neighbourhoods and are as gritty and hard-boiled as writers get.

But which did I prefer? The Wire is up there with the best – The Sopranos, Buffy, Twin Peaks – it’s violent, funny, and has well-crafted characters. Clockers is Price’s best work – as involved as any DeLillo, well written, driven. And here’s my problem. The inherent passivity of television, of cinema (don’t get me started), means I cannot fully involve myself. I have to stand back, watch; the implied voyeurism makes it impossible for me to enjoy the thing for the thing itself. I’m always looking for stage props, for lighting, the reality is never real enough, it can’t be.

Yet in the novel, I slip easily between the sheets, go down on the characters, insert my inky digits into the folds, the crevices, come up with a little grime under my nails, a little blood, a smidgen of shit, a dusting of frass. I’m gay for Rocco Klein but can’t get it out of my head that Dominic West (Jimmy McNulty) is English. I can taste the Yoo-hoo Strike swigs from but don’t understand why Kima Greggs insists on wearing her hair up.

Both The Wire and Clockers are post-Zolaesque (that’s Émile not Gianfranco) studies of urban desolation, crime, and corruption – both are true-to-life portrayals of human weakness, bravery, greed, and stupidity; but I prefer the word to the view, the book to the DVD. Television, the cinema, the theatre are passive art forms; the novel, the short story, the poem are active… I wear my red handkerchief in my left hip pocket. Where do you wear yours?


Dreams in Black and Green by Malcolm Hoover

I am on my way home from Memphis, Tennessee where I was part of the Dream Reborn conference, a gathering of people dedicated to uniting the Civil Rights Movement of my parents age, with the Green Movement of today.

Dr King was murdered 40 years ago in Memphis. They say that his blood stained the concrete so badly that the concrete had to be cut out of the balcony and replaced. His blood could not be washed away. Death was strong back then for us, very strong. It was strengthened by the blood of countless lynched and martyred Black men, women, and children. But we returned to Memphis to celebrate the rebirth of the Dream.

To be honest with you, I have not been a great follower of the Dreamer. I could never understand why he was so in love with white people, why he didn’t use his power to tell our people to fight back. That kind of love was beyond me. Surely our freedom, our liberation from white tyranny was worth fighting for, dying for, even worth killing for. I was named after Malcolm X who popularized the philosophy of Direct Action. Malcolm understood the violent nature of America. He never thought to appeal to the good nature of white people because he saw that the nature of America was a violent one. “You have to speak their language” said Malcolm.

The Dreamer’s vision was quite different. And I do believe that his vision was a real vision, not something pretty he said for the cameras. The Dream was something I saw in some small way this weekend. If we can, on a broad scale begin to implement the genius that I witnessed during that weekend, the Dream will be realized – we will live in an America where neither our skin color nor our birth circumstances will automatically determine our future. If we can marry ourselves to this movement, then there is a clear pathway to parity, to prosperity, for anyone who is brave enough to follow it. It won’t be easy, but for those brave enough to claim their own liberation, the path is clear. Continue reading

Expectations by Tom Sullivan

When I was thirteen my family took a trip to Yellowstone . We loaded into a station wagon and drove west from our home in suburban Connecticut . The trip was partly intended for my father to get out of the office and travel. It was also a way to visit prospective colleges for my sister who, like the two sisters before her, would soon be attending college. This next step in her life was a given. In our family it was just what you did. No one ever considered not attending college.

Once we entered the plains states, my father shifted from driving on interstates to meandering down secondary roads. The “good” colleges had been visited and everyone was ready for different scenery. As we stopped along these backroads to stretch, refuel, and grab various sundries, I started to notice a strange pattern developing. Standing outside a small market or gas station, my father would strike up a conversation with fellow travelers. This in itself was not unusual; my father was an amiable person who took warmly to everyone, including strangers. What struck me as odd was the mono-topic and one-sided nature of these conversations. During each, some random person would stand nodding as my father related where his daughters were currently enrolled.

Standing off to the side I was confused, wondering why my father thought that his listener was interested in this information. It had little if any relation to their lives. They just stood there and listened, unwilling to break some unspoken travelers etiquette. Some probably had kids in prison and really didn’t walk to talk about children. The listener would eventually mutter some pleasantry, wish my father a good journey, and amble off to his car. Continue reading

Crisis in the Classics by Gary Beck

There is a great theatrical need for readable and performable drama for students, scholars and theatergoers. The standard translations of the classics, first read in Classics 101, were derived from great Victorian and Edwardian scholars, who represented a very different audience and language from post-Vietnam America. Their scholarship was vast and may have intimidated subsequent scholars, some of whom were eager to present American styles. But they were uncertain how to disassemble the Homeric but ponderous literary forms that were beginning to alienate modern readers.

Translators concerned with the theatre reacted to the traditional sonorous renderings of Aeschylus and Sophocles with enthusiastic updatings, that frequently located gods and heroes in the Okefenokee swamps, a bar, or an inner city ghetto. This patronizing innovation of arbitrarily updating for modern audiences reduced the soaring greatness of the Greek drama. Fewer and fewer people were moved by the works that had thrilled western man, from the 5th century B.C., until 21st century ‘easy access’. Since it is much more demanding to attend a theater performance than to read the book, theater must make greater efforts to reach audiences already disillusioned with the classics.

Today, by its very nature, there is an elitism inherent in the classics, since the normal venues are the classroom and theater. This will expose the privileged class to the great ethical, intellectual and cultural issues of the classics, but not make them readily available to the vast majority of highly intelligent, but not so well educated American audiences. The classics should never be exclusionary. They can light creative fires in anyone. They should be available to everyone who can appreciate the scope of their grandeur, passion, nobility, arrogance, stubbornness and pettiness. Continue reading