My first thought on hearing Santa Claus didn’t exist, was how to break the devastating news to Mum and Dad. It would come as such a disappointment, as they spent so much time and money getting ready for Christmas. Surely it couldn’t be true. I felt like crying, so desperately did I not want believe it.
That morning was one of the bleakest ever for we tiny tots at Burton on the Wolds Parochial Infants’ School, the terrible knowledge having spread across the playground like wildfire. There’s always one spoilsport who delights in delivering bad news.
I hadn’t known what to answer when Timmy Brattlesnot asked if I believed in Father Christmas. My whole world shattered by the existence of Santa merely being questioned, let alone brazenly challenged, I stood dumbfounded. Hadn’t I seen him with my own two eyes in his grotto at Lewis’s store in Leicester, and sat on his knee? Even if his beard was a bit lopsided and his breath smelt of sherry. But my inability to answer straightaway was answer enough for Timmy. He had sown the seeds of doubt. The little devil skipped off, chanting with undisguised glee to, all and sundry: “Bryan believes in Santa Claus! Bryan believes in Santa Claus!” I felt a terrible sense of betrayal by all those I knew had also believed in Santa Claus up till that moment. We had been discussing his annual descent down our chimmneys for weeks. Now, some of them were even pretending to laugh at me, while others turned glum and shameful expressions towards the wall.
The instant loss of innocence was followed by an onset of guilt with the realisation I was torn between selfish thoughts of who was going to deliver my presents that year, and having to inform Mum and Dad of the terrible tidings. You can understand my quandary, I’d only just learned to count to 10, and was hardly able recite the alphabet up to ‘F’ without getting tongue-tied. Philosophy and existentialism weren’t on the curriculum at Burton Infants’. Trying to explain the non-existence of Santa to my poor parents would be an impossible task. I could only picture the tears rolling down their cheeks as I destroyed their illusion.
The concept of something ceasing to exist because I stopped believing in it was way beyond me. If I’d stopped believing in Santa, would it follow I’d lose belief in the sackfuls of toys he brought each Christmas? And that would lead to them no longer existing? Was the whole shebang just a matter of belief? I even began wondering if the ones left from last Christmas would still be there when I got home. Albeit in the rather battered state I’d left them that morning. Or would they have vanished into thin air along with my former unquestioning belief? All were worries I hadn’t had to think of before Timmy Brattlesnot’s mortifying revelation. As if the prospect of a giftless Christmas wasn’t enough already.
Like most children of five, I’d invested a lot of time reciting long lists to my older sister to write to Santa at the North Pole on my behalf. And then some smart Alec had to go and ask whether I believed in him. It was such a shock. I hadn’t thought of anything quite so radical before. Could it actually be possible Santa didn’t exist? It was hard to take in. To have answered Timmy’s question with: “Of course not” would’ve been like denying the birth of little, baby Jesus in the manger. That would come soon enough, when I became confused by the knowledge Jesus wasn’t actually Christian, but of the Jewish faith. He wasn’t even English. And, as someone once told me when I got to art college, many years later, move one letter two places, and Santa becomes Satan. I think he was on LSD at the time. I told him that Claus can become Lucas by employing a similar method. His answer to that was that life isn’t always game of Scrabble, which is true enough. Amazing what wisdom can be generated under the influence of strong narcotics.
To get back to the point. I felt as though I’d bitten into the serpent’s apple. Without belief in Santa, life would be full of disappoinment from that moment on. And so it turned out to be.
But all was not quite lost. Three decades later, I learned Santa had existed, albeit far from the North Pole or Lapland. I even passed his birthplace. Far from being filled with fir trees, snow and reindeer, a scorching Mediterranean sun ripens bananas on the trees surrounding Demre on the Lycian coast of Southern Turkey. I was on a bus to Antalya as row upon row of huge greenhouses flashed by, and someone said: “That’s where the story of the real Father Christmas started. He lived there.” And then it was gone. Wish Timmy Brattlesnot had been on that bus, I can tell you.
At the time Santa Claus (Nikolaos of Myra) lived in Demre, during the 4th century, it was known as Myra. A Roman town populated mainly by Greeks it was one of the most important places in the province of Lycia. Which only goes to make things even more complicated if you think of the saying: ”Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”
Because Santa was born in Turkey might explain why we eat turkeys at Christmas. And talking of saints, Greeks, who lived in Turkey, and England, turns out St George, patron saint of England, wasn’t English either. Just like Santa Claus, he was a Greek, who lived in Turkey. Funny that.
So you can see why I’ve been inspired to start my KROOC – Keep Religion Out Of Christmas – campaign. It’s a movement to return the old pagan tradition of celebrating Yuletide with a massive guilt-free binge, instead of Christmas and its long series guilt-ridden hangovers leading into the New Year.
To my mind, replacing the ancient mid-winter kneesup of unbridled over-indulgence and mass consumerism with a Christian festival amounts to sacrilege, if you get my drift. Religious zealots, who want to bring religion into everything, have been trying to ruin it for more than two thousand years. Well, practically since Jesus was born
It’s the one time of year these do-gooders should give charity and kindness a rest and allow all hard-drinking materialists to stuff themselves silly and drink themselves into a stupor. A time to exchange garish pullovers, silly socks and soppy cards with relatives and other people you don’t really like anymore. A time to get into debauchery and even greater debt.
Being drunk for days on end is a right nobody should deny pagans. Okay, I like a good Christmas carol to weep over just as much as any other sozzled drunk. But then again, if you fill my horn with plenty enough, I’ll sob my eyes out over Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and The Pogues’ Fairy tale of New York too. It’s all the preaching against blatant consumerism that goes with it that gets up my nose.
I bet Jesus was more than partial to a tipple around Christmas, what with it being his birthday and all. Well, wouldn’t you be if you could turn ordinary tap water into wine? With a talent like that, he’s the sort of bloke who would get no end of invitations to parties around this time of year, and it’s very hard to refuse a few refills once you get going, take it from someone who knows.
So, vicar, Christmas is really a time to give the bible-thumping a rest. Take some advice from a pagan, let your hair down, knock back a brandy or four, have a good old snog under the mistletoe before raising your cassock and prancing about in front of the yule log three sheets to the wind.
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming
A seasonal tip for everyone. Staring downward, instead of eyes front, when out walking can lead to a lot worse than bruising your head on a lamppost, and feeling very stupid. Even worse than being chortled at by unsympathetic passers-by. Take it from an expert.
Cat’s bottoms, for a start. The more you look downwards, the more you keep seeing them. They lift up their tails just as soon as they get in front of you, which they always manage to do somehow, however fast you try to walk. I can’t help thinking it’s their way of mooning at every human being on the planet. And, as anyone who has emptied a cat litter can testify, cat’s bottoms, though often extremely productive, are one of the least appealing aspects of cats. Partly because it’s so runny, cat shit is the most disgusting substance in the entire universe. And beyond.
In the 1980s I had several friends who kept cats’ litters in the their kitchens. I could never get my head round the idea. In the same way they would’ve never been able to get their heads round one of their visitors shitting on a copy of The Times covered with gravel in a plastic tray next to the cooker in the kitchen. In the kitchen! On The Times, maybe. But in the kitchen, never. For health reasons. Though I suppose it could’ve been some sort of fashion statement.
Once I popped round two a couple I knew when they were cooking beef stroganoff on a stove next to the cat litter while the cat was crouched over doing its business. The smell of the combination was so overwhelming I vomited all over the sherry trifle. It wasn’t completely wasted, as they fed it to the cat. The cat got so pissed on the sherry it got stuck in the cat flap. Oh, how we laughed that night.
So why is watching cats lick their bottoms so hypnotic? While deeply disgusting, at the same time, the sheer elegance with which they carry out the unhygenic and unseemly practice is breathtaking. If humans could do it like that, it’d become an Olympic sport, like formation swimming, or that jumping about on a big mat thing they do with hoops round their ankles.
Cats’ bottoms definitely have something very unsavoury about them considering they’re so little. But then, examined at the closest of quarters, I suppose most bottoms are a bit on the unsavoury side. Not that I’ve done anything like that, of course. I wouldn’t. Except in the cause of journalistic research. Getting close to camels’ bums is very inadvisable. So, a friend told me. He had a friend who knew someone. Not that close a friend. More like someone I once met. It was long time ago. I can hardly remember anything about it now.
Almost completely forgot what I ranting on about then. Bumholes, that was it. They aren’t so different so as you can recognise people you know from them. At least, I wouldn’t think. I mean you’d have to be exceedingly familiar with the people you know for that to be the case. Though I suspect the police might be able to recognise criminals from their bumholes. For no other reason than each one leaves its own unique print like a finger print, but not so finger lickin’ good. Mind you, when you think of where some fingers have been…probably best not to. Especially, if you’re just about to tuck into your dinner.
To be perfectly honest – though, for the life of me, I don’t know how you can be imperfectly honest – off-hand I can’t think of an example of a crime being solved on the evidence of a bum print. But I’m sure there must be one. At the very least. You can look it up on Wikipedia, and leave a comment. There’s little doubt in my mind, even if our children don’t, our children’s children may be lucky enough to see the time when bum print technology is as widely known as DNA for solving crimes of the future people haven’t even invented yet. I bet you the NSA are gathering information on bumholes wherever they can. Their files are probably full of pictures of people’s bumholes. The crimes of the future are the profits of tomorrow, so why not commit them today? As a banker might say.
Thinking about it, perhaps the most unsavoury bottoms of all are old chimps’ bottoms, which look as though they’ve been turned inside out and left in the sun to dry. Baboon’s bottoms can turn my stomach too. And looking at elephant’s bums even from a distance is like having old men’s bums pushed in your face. Well, like one could imagine it might be to have one pushed in one’s face.
Have you noticed how many wild life documentaries spend a hell of a lot of time focussing on animals’ bums? Or is it just me? Well, I haven’t noticed, in fact. So you might want to think about that. It could say a lot about you.
Anyway, that’s my tip for today. Remember, when out walking make sure it’s eyes front each time and every time. Toodle-pip till Boxing Day.
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming
Back in the old days, poke a nose through the door of the Puchurichi and you might’ve got the impression the fight of all fights was about to break out. The sight of sinewy arms stabbing gnarled fingers into the nicotine-enriched air was enough to send your average holidaymaker scuttling back to the safety of Conil’s town centre.
I got to know it through el Loro – the Parrot – and Nene, my fisherman friends, not long after moving to Andalusia.
Sadly, like many bar owners in the barrio, José closed the Puchurichi to retire over five years ago. Seeing how swiflty the clientele was dwindling, his children had eschewed the business for other careers.
In days gone by, come each spring, Conileños flocked in droves for the bowls of caracoles, small snails stewed in a broth of herbs and spices, José’s wife used to serve. Hers had the reputation as being the best in the pueblo. Her deep fried chunks of fish were the most delicious I’ve ever tasted.
Few foreigners used to stray as far as the lanes of Conil de la Frontera’s fishermen’s quarter. As for poking noses into the Puchurichi, the noise and commotion spilling onto the street smacked too much of the Andalusia of their worst nightmares. Yet, if they understood the broad accents, they’d realise the fishermen were merely discussing the previous night’s game between Barcelona and Real Madrid, or tomorrow’s weather. Conileños are just that bit keener for their opinions to be heard.
Viewed from the expansive beach the barrio looks like an untidy pile of shoeboxes piled up for a clearout sale. Higgledy-piggledy and any old how, scores of white houses cling precariously to a hill overlooking the sea. Barely separated by the maze of narrow alleys running between, the dwellings are stacked so close, thrusting an arm out of a window risks a hand landing in a next door neighbour’s hot soup. So thin are the walls, you could believe a snippet of gossip whispered at one end of the barrio, could be heard being repeated by a neighbour at the farthest end, having travelled from house to house in the time it took to run the distance.
On a clear day Morocco stands as a blue smudge on the horizon viewed from Nene’s rooftop terrace. An interesting reminder Andalusia was ruled by Moors for over 700 years. The last Moorish king to leave was Muhammad XII of the Emirate of Granada, known to the Spanish as King Boabdil. After surrendering the city of and famed Alhambra palace to Spanish Christian forces on January 2nd 1492, he is said to have departed with a chest full of gold and a promise that the Muslims and Jews, who had lived peacefully side by side with the Christians for centuries under Moorish rule, would not be persecuted. Though the chest had been full, the promise was empty. The Spanish inquistion led to a Royal decree ordering Muslims and Jews to convert or leave a few months after Boabdil’s departure. One of the darkest eras in Spanish history was to follow. And as if by perverse coincidence, that same year Colombus sailed to America, heralding the beginning of a new Spanish Empire and yet further persecution, torture, and massacre of peoples regarded as pagan sub-humans by Christians.
Over the following century, Cádiz, just north of Conil became the richest city in the world when tons of gold looted from the indigenous populations of the New World was landed at the port.
At the Straits of Gibraltar, where Europe almost touches Africa and the warmer waters of the Mediterranean mingle with the chill Atlantic Ocean, conditions get very interesting, to say the least. Nene can often be seen scanning the seas from his terrace. It pays a good fisherman to keep a wary eye on the weather.
A short walk from the fishermen’s barrio, along calle Cádiz, one of the many pretty lanes in the old quarter of the pueblo, an Austrian potter, used to run a little gallery. Charlotte first introduced me to Nene and el Loro after hearing I’d fished in Norway. The four of us sat drinking fino in the cramped El Ligero, another fishermen’s haunt before it became a tourist attraction. The two fishermen still recall the early morning fishing trip that followed that initial encounter.
All of us a little the worst for wear, Nene made the mistake of telling me el Loro and he were setting out to sea early next morning. I invited myself along. By the looks on their faces, the notion of losing some foreign landlubber to the Atlantic waves wasn’t their idea of a good lark. Another round of fino, helped reassure them, along with my tale of cod fishing exploits off the coast of northern Norway. Though it sounded quite impressive, the midsummer Arctic waters had been as still as a millpond most times I went out. They agreed to take me along on the condition I promise not to fall overboard, unless it was completely unavoidable. You can’t argue with such sound advice.
As any serious boozer knows, the best advice for mixing alcohol with anything but the tiniest drop water is don’t. For entirely different reasons, most sailors would agree. But as they don’t always follow it, some end up in the drink. On this occasion my two new friends thought a tour of a few late night disco bars for a top-up or two, before we set out, might be just the job. By the time we drove out to the harbour, two more drunks had joined the crew. In the days Antonio still hung about Conil, it was not uncommon to see him with a joint hanging from his mouth. His tag-along companion of that night had a reputation as a scoundrel and a bit of a thief. I suspect they thought it might be fun watching a sozzled foreigner fall off a boat and drown.
By the time we reached the harbour it’s just getting light.
The fishing boats in Conil harbour are moored in rows, one to the other. A good reason for keeping away from water, when the wheelhouse is full of grog, is the obstinate nature of the stuff. With a brain suspended in alcohol, simple manouvres like boarding one boat from another become as complex as switching trapezes mid-air.
After a lot of grabbing, a bit of grappling, some leg floundering, and feet slipping, with one deck going down, only for another to go up, we tumbled aboard the right one. Only to find it wasn’t. But el Loro had had enough. Though taking and sailing without the owner’s consent is probably an act of piracy, it’s the way things sometimes used to be done down here.
Five sozzled pirates puttered out on a sparkling sea against a magnificent backdrop of pink, lilac and turquoise skies so commonplace they went almost unnoticed. Despite a slight swell the sea was calm enough. El Loro at the wheel, Nene sat at his side while Antonio, the scoundrel, and I, huddled in an open hold before the wheelhouse. Our boat wasn’t the only one heading out that morning; others hailed as they overhauled us. One old salt yelled out he was going to kill el Loro for taking his boat. A smiling el Loro called back he couldn’t even kill a finless sardine. It soon became obvious Antonio and the scoundrel weren’t exactly old hands at sea, when both of them began to turn very pale to end up heaving over the boat’s side
Fishing for choco, or squid, doesn’t offer much opportunity for serious sport. There’s no great Hemingway battle between fisherman and fish. A dangling line is all that’s required. The squid suck gently at the hooks, rather than bite into them. As their method of propulsion makes them almost weightless in the water, it takes the lightest of touches to recognise when you have a suck. Unlike barracuda, those that don’t slip off, surrender without a fight. For that reason it’s easy to find yourself nodding off to the rocking of the waves.
The morning sun scorched towards its zenith without any of us having so much as a suck, when a baby octopus pecked its beak at el Loro’s line. Though it was as big as I’d like an octopus on the end of a fishing line to be, when I’m in the boat, he tossed it back, judging it too small.
Though Nene had told us to not to walk about, by my estimation the sea was calm enough for me to handle. Even if I did fall overboard I would be able to keep afloat much longer than it would take for them to pick me up. But they weren’t so impressed when resting a foot on the boat’s side I dangled the line from my big toe as a joke. After a couple of hours, fishing for squid can get very boring. In the end, as beginner’s luck would have it, I managed to catch the most, which wasn’t that many.
I only hope the other boats got more sucks than we did, five hours at sea and our catch wouldn’t have filled a carrier bag. With nothing for Nene and el Loro to sell, we arranged to meet at my house that evening for a squid feast.
Electing himself cook, Antonio proceeded to the kitchen as soon as he arrived. El Loro, Nene and I sat in my garden imbibing the heavy scent of honeysuckle, drinking Manzanilla, and chatting of our adventure. To a background of clinking plates and clanking pans, a choir of crickets struck up a refrain, while a lone mutt howled from somewhere in the night.
Before long, a pot of steaming sqid appeared, swimming in a mixture of olive oil and blue-black ink garnished with herbs and garlic. Blackened tongues and lips quickly followed and, in my case, a blackened T-shirt.
That night, I learned how to tell when el Loro is more than amply refreshed. Inclining his head towards mine he began singing flamenco laments in the softest and sweetest of voices. More like a lark than a parrot. No sooner had he started than a flamenco duel ensued between his dulcet tones and the deep rasp of Antonio. The party lasted till not a drop of drink remained and yet another dawn had begun to redden the eastern skies.
It wasn’t long before the tale of my catch had circled all the entire fishermens’ barrio, earning me the nickname of ‘El Noruego’, the Norwegian. I had passed the initiation ceremony to earn my place propping up the Pucherichi bar with the rest of the fishermen.
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming
Apart from being the title of one of the all time greats, Purple Haze was also the name of an acid tab sold around London in the late 1960s. Both the song and the LSD inspired my short story, originally published as part of an analogy entitled Creature in the Rose by BeWrite Books in 2004, which is fast becoming almost as rare as it was when first released. Slghtly – to very – soiled copies still appear to be availabe on Amazon. as well as other sites. Occasionally, at incredibly inflated prices to someone, who has yet to receive one damned cent. You can read Purple Haze, the short story, for free on my blog, by clicking onto the illustration. Congratulations to those who may have read it before, or even have bought a copy.
Artwork by Bryan Hemming
Couldn’t resist linking to this because Russell Brand makes such a lot of sense. Agree with him or not, for a refreshing change, he doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.
Update: Just went to the Worpress politics tagged section, it’s really awful. Full of bigotry and hatred from both left and right in the US. A lot worse from the right at the moment because of their recent humiliation. Don’t think I’ll use the politics tag anymore.
Franc Roddam, probably best known as the director of the cult film Quadrophenia, expressed a lot of interest in the manuscript of At the End of Tobago Street during the 1990s and requested I work on it some more. Due to a series of complications I wasn’t able to make the changes he wanted at that time. But I have made changes over the last few months and am publishing chapters as I complete them in the hope of generating the same sort of interest again.
Though not the pervading theme, the novel takes place against a background of Thatcher’s Britain. Inner city riots, miners strikes, the Falklands War; it was as though old lines were being drawn once again and Britain was becoming more divided than it had been in decades.
In 1983 the Act that came to be known as Care in the Community was introduced as a measure to release physically and mentally disabled people from hospitals and other institutions into the community. The effects were devastating for some, particularly schizophrenics, who often ended up on the streets with severe drink and drug problems.
At the End of Tobago Street is the story of a schizophrenic whose condition is not recognised by those closest to him. He ends up in a downward spiral of increasing paranoia exacerbated by heavy drug consumption. There follows the opening paragraph with a direct link to the first chapter.
“He needed to see her. Desperately. Yes, he did remember they’d promised not to contact each other, but this was different. They were following him again. Of course, he was sure. He was in a phone box at that very moment and could see a man standing at the corner of the street. The man was pretending to read a newspaper and kept glancing up the road towards him. Was she calling him a liar? No, it wasn’t the same man as last time. He hadn’t seen this one before. He would tell her more when she came. He had to be quick, they were closing in on him. She should take the address down before his money ran out. Tobago Street, number forty-seven. The tall house at the end. It was easy to get to, just across the river, New Cross. She could be there in less than half an hour. Okay, okay, it could wait till she finished work that evening. But she would have to promise. No, promise.” Link: At the End of Tobago Street
Across the pale green landscape of a dying summer’s day,
My lengthening shadow, grows impatient to be free,
Looking over my shoulder, and there’s nobody,
And there’s nobody,
Doesn’t quite scan as a poem, but these were the opening words of a song I began in my early 20s. Not through want of trying, I never appeared able to finish it.
Although this photo was taken at sunrise instead of sunset, the colours seem appropriate. The beautiful sunflowers that grew in the field next to where I live in Andalucia, have shrivelled and been harvested for their seeds. They may even end up in a bottle on a shelf near you.
Earlier this year I took a few shots of the field in full flower, and wrote the short story The Most Beautiful Flower, which was posted in July. Some of you may have already read it. Back then the field looked like this: