The crap menagerie

There’s an urban myth about a snake. It’s pretty common – I heard it twice before I took in Hex and at least three times since. “So – there’s this bloke, right, and he’s got a snake. Like a pet snake, but not one of those venomous ones it’s like a – you know a constrictor type snake.” “A python?” “Yeah like a python. He’s got a python, and he loves it. You know, he has it round his neck, it even sleeps with him.” (Here’s where it goes off-piste a bit. The guy would have to live in a hermetically sealed box or the first thing a python would do is get under the carpet and get stepped on, get into the boiler and get burnt, get into the pipes and drown, get into the hinges and crush, get onto the windowsill and be picked up by a crow.) “It sleeps next to him in the bed, right. And he loves it. But it starts going off its food.” (This is familiar. I never thought it would be such a delicate thing to feed a predatory reptile, but Hex is not the best eater.)

“So this snake, yeah, it’s been off its food for like ages. But the guy is kind of not that worried because like snakes often don’t eat for a while or something. No so yeah the snake isn’t eating, but that’s not the problem. The problem is what the snake’s doing at night, right. Because it sleeps next to him in bed, right, but when he wakes up it’s like *demonstrate* stretched out really long – like all the way down the bed, ok. Really long and straight. *Demonstrate more* So the guy, yeah he’s worried so he takes it to, like, I dunno, a snake psychologist type expert guy.” (Yep. Snake psychology is a growing field. Why are these people always men?)

“So the snake psychologist knows exactly what’s going on. Get this: the snake – what it was doing was like stretching itself as long as possible so it could actually eat the guy, right? Yeah it was starving itself and stretching itself.. If he hadn’t taken it to get checked then one day… The only thing you can do in that situation is to kill the snake. It’s like it’s become like a killer snake, yeah?”

Hex could probably fit three of my fingers in his mouth if he dislocated his jaw. If you’re on your own and an anaconda drops on you then it’s a problem. An anaconda could kill you even if it couldn’t get past your shoulders while ingesting. And anyway, even if it could probably kill a person, nobody in recorded history has actually died to one. So … this story sounds even fishier. If I wanted to eat an elephant I could stretch myself every night and not eat for weeks and I’d merely end up hungry and hurting. I wouldn’t turn into a nephilim.

Hex is just a friendly crap predator. My downstairs neighbour is absolutely terrified of him. And Mao has become deeply curious about him now. There doesn’t seem to be any antagonism between them, but they look at each other through the glass for ages. And until just now, Hex has been off his food. I worried it was connected.

“There’s a thing in here!”

“Maybe he’s not eating because he’s got his eye on Mao,” I found myself thinking in the bit of my brain that thinks dumb things before the other bit looks at them and dismisses them as rubbish.

No. He’s not eating because he’s half blind and mostly asleep plus I’m not being patient enough puppeting his mouse – I’m snatching moments to do it while the cat is asleep next door. Hex needs more attention I’ve realised. He’s lonely. I’ve been focusing on the other crap predator who just wants cuddles and the destruction of all furniture. So I had a bit of quality time with Hex, then I cleaned out and changed the aquarium water then I did a good puppet show that resulted in a strike and now I’m lying in bed next to Mao burning frankincense and listening to Beethoven’s pastoral. All the crap animals in my home are taken care of apart from this naked ape. I’ll clean out his house tomorrow.

Bicycle day

It’s the 1940’s. Switzerland. Albert Hofmann has been working for some time with plants while his neighbours have been squabbling. He’s been trying to isolate and synthesise active plant ingredients for potential use in medicine. He’s an interesting man, Albert. He’s willing to get stuck in. His lab has been working on analeptics, and he’s been synthesising a lysergic acid commonly found in ergot – a fungus mostly on rye.

A thousand years before him, the monks of St. Anthony made it their business to try to cure people who had been exposed to this ergot in the flour. It was known to cause psychosis and vascular problems leading to gangrene. You have bad bread, you go nuts and your foot goes rotten. Forged in the fire of The Crusades, you were better off in their hands than anybody else’s if you ended up with ergotism. They’d have your leg off, and they just might not kill you doing it. If they kill you at least you’re with monks so the devil won’t get you.

I was talking about Albert though. He was looking for things that have an effect on the circulation, and this took in ergot. He synthesised a lysergic acid in the late 1930’s, and on April 16th 1943 he got a little bit of it on his fingers. The effect was not unpleasant to him, as he experienced a kaleidoscope of colours as he tried to rest at home after work. This was just a tiny amount absorbed through his fingers, and it had a strong effect. He must have been aware of the history of ergot, tangled up back then in superstition around magic and witchcraft. He must have suspected that he’d found the ingredient that made whole villages go completely mental. As recently as 1951 in the French town of Pont Saint-Esprit, 250 people went nuts after ergot exposure. A kid strangled his own mum. Some guy thought he could fly and jumped off a building. It’s strong stuff.

On April 19th 1943, Albert decided to deliberately ingest 250 micrograms of this refined acid while he was at work – just so he could see what it did. That’s a lot. Your standard tab of acid has between 50 – 150 micrograms, tops. It takes a certain type of personality to do that sort of thing on purpose without knowing what the effect will be. He very quickly realised he was going to need help getting home, and enlisted his lab assistant. As the world around him grew less and less ordinary and his doors of perception opened, he somehow managed to take his bicycle back through the Spring evening to his home. This must have been an extremely difficult trip. I expect it took a long time and involved lots of walking and strange observations and a baffled lab assistant.

“I had great difficulty in speaking clearly and my field of vision fluctuated and swam like an image in a distorted mirror,” he later said. He was frightened he was poisoned and it was only when he had his mind put at rest that he began to find interest and peace within this intense and pretty long experience.

It is this first deliberate acid trip that is now memorialised by fans of Hofmann’s legacy of psychedelics the world over as “bicycle day”. I’ve been thinking about it as I’ve gone about my business. What a remarkable and odd legacy. Just last night I was talking with a man who is experimenting with creating chaos algorithms to feed into the AIs that he’s developing for the government in order to give them a psychedelic experience. He thinks it will improve them as AIs.

The availability of something so completely different from our day to day – I guess that’s our legacy from Hofmann. Nobody could live their lives with that stuff. I can’t imagine it’s addictive as it’s just too intense. But maybe everybody could benefit from a single exposure – like my friend was positing for his AIs. Anyway. That’s what I was thinking about this evening.. Happy bicycle day.

Seagulls and company

This is the summer. When you can stand atop a building in a vintage kimono surrounded by seagull poo and and point at the sea.

I love this item of clothing. It has just come into my possession and it fits me brilliantly, just stopping on top of my feet. Perfect for all my past life feelings of being an ancient Japanese warmonger and so forth. It was originally purchased by a dear friend of Lou’s for a man who turned out to be a wrong’un. His wrong is my right. Apparently all the symbols have meaning and it’s reasonably old, so I’ll have to find out more, but eventually I’ll be able to sit in front of my gorgeous antique butsudan and chant to the gohonzon in a tidy flat while wearing my kimono – and all of these things came to me by chance and circumstance. I’ve never even been to Japan. It seems it’s calling to me from across the broken world. One day soon… Perhaps I should go be Bill Murray, or make that movie on Sado Island.

Post seagull crap, I put on some less interesting clothes and we went for a quick walk on the beach before a speedy schlep back to London to check on the cat. He met me halfway down the stairs and then got lavished with attention. Maybe it’s the sea air, maybe I just synchronised with the cat, because I had only been lavishing him for about twenty minutes before I collapsed into a happy warm afternoon nap with him. I woke up as it was shifting to evening, and drove across London to meet five other people in the beer garden of an actual pub in Hampstead. We had a late roast dinner at about 5pm in North London. I had a little happy lambykins. We talked and laughed and remembered how easy it is to have a conversation dominated by the loudest voice, and when I left I was full of endorphins that are unfamiliar to me after all this time. The buzz of having been in human company, in proximity, in a social exchange. And the words were not the subject. There was a dominant voice, but the communication was happening in tiny movements of the head and glances, shared amusements and noticings. A lot of the time we could have been saying anything at all. The only subject was that people were together. It was like a sensory overload. A gluttony of contact. Something once commonplace has been new-forged in the fire of Covid. I won’t be taking human company for granted so much going forward. It took decades for people to start shaking hands again after the Spanish flu. Everything goes round and round and round. I’m glad we did it – that such a thing was finally possible.

Full of the joys of it, I’m now back in my bed. Mao is curled up at my feet occasionally peeking to make sure I’m still here. I feel deeply rested after a varied and happy weekend. The next week has nothing once more – this recovery process is slow. But something is coming to make sense of all the disappointments and knocks. I’m not yet sure what it will be, but I’m looking forward to it.

The one garden

While everybody has been under house arrest, the gardeners at Stanmer Park have been busy. Near the 1722 manor house built of Portland Stone for the Pelham family, Brighton Council, who run the place now, cooked up a plan to make use of a walled garden that has mostly been ignored for decades. They’ve been demolishing bits, constructing other bits, sorting out turf and – most importantly – they’ve been planting. There’s a horticultural college campus here, so they’ve got the minds and the hands from the faculty. They’ve called it The One Garden. We went there in the glorious sunshine. It’s great considering it was just a barely used space. Only about a year ago we walked through it unimpressed.

It’s not small – this is as big as the walled garden I came to know at Ripley Castle – much the same era and much the same stone. Bigger than a football field. Around the walls they have strung lines to run creepers, and they’ve dug beds. This spring they are encouraging the plants they have placed there to take hold even as they encourage the daytrippers to come with their litter and their noise. There’ll be roses there come the summer perhaps. For now a colourful clutch of young Spring flowers. It’s the bones of something beautiful, where the good people of Brighton can get a sausage roll and some accidental nature. Children were running around the beehive laughing, probably because nobody had told them it was full of bees, but better they learn early how unlikely they are to get stung so they don’t fuck everything up with a panic at a picnic aged 30. Another child was bending a sapling as hard as possible. It didn’t snap but Lou almost did. “Stop doing that!” I had a sausage roll and an apple juice from Juicy Simon’s stall. Our visit had come at the end of a long walk in the woods around the edge.

It was perfect. This clement day, and they’ve provided a distraction for all the people with that garden. It meant we could walk in the woods and believe that we were alone with the spring. The middle part of the season, as the daffodils die, the tulips triumph and the bluebells begin. A week from now the wood will be a carpet of blue. A beautiful moment if you find the right place to be.

We ended up on a green slope, near a stand of thornbushes, lying on our backs. For a moment we drifted off, but were pulled back sharply by the drifting conversation of a group of fellow walkers. Neither of us had water so we returned to the throng.

A lazy sunny day. Remember those? There’s a whole lot to come. Imagine – you’ll be pissed off at home because you’re too damn hot. I can’t wait for that. Today flashed in the memory of proper heat even if I still had a scarf and jacket. Even if the wind still blows with ice, the sun is showing up.

Before too long I’ll have my t-shirt in my hand and sea salt in my hair. Tickety boo.

Dead birdy

With the sweet zephyrs of April playing in the streets and alleys of a city beginning to awaken from slumber, I thought it was time to attempt an amateur butchery of a dead pheasant. I had stocked up on information from YouTube. A very practical woman had repeatedly gutted an animal with her signet ring still on, narrating the process. A jolly young man had played with a range of knives and shown us all the contents of the crop and pulled and sliced for us. I had my anatomy lesson. I had noticed that both videos cut large parts of the plucking. I was expecting a good few hours labour. I knew a bit more than I did before. Time to put my new found knowledge to work?

I went out to the fire escape. There it had been hanging, maturing gently like a dissipated actor in his forties. Or so I hoped. I had set up a tripod for stupid video-making purposes. I brought it in. Suspicious whiff, but surely that’s just the gamey smell? I wanted it not to be a disaster. I was willing it not to be.

Laid on chart paper on the worktop, my array of knives ready for purpose, bin propped open beside me and bag for the feathers, I finally really got acquainted with the thing.

I have something to admit. I have a squeamishness about dead birds. I call it that instead of a phobia because I believe these things are there to be overcome, not beholden to. I don’t like touching raw chicken so I do it all the time. I grab the turkey and get my arm in it just because my instinctive brain is screaming at me and I’m showing my own brain that it has faulty protection mechanisms. I have a similar squeamishness about mushrooms that I can trace back to Babar the elephant. Knowing this might help you understand how I deal with things I am slightly phobic of. I expose myself as fully as I can and try to force my reward mechanisms and curiosity to outweigh my distaste and fear.

Nevertheless, from picking up the carcass to hanging it to today the one thing I had avoided until now was a close inspection. I was galvanised to get in there though. I was going to pull the feathers off and burn the ends on the gas ring and cut through various unsightly bits and crunch crunch tear rip AHA. But a closer inspection was definitely needed.

It was a lot more badly hit than I had let myself believe, this bird. And it was not a fatty. The wound was open and reeky. My gorge rose. Perhaps in company I would have gone deeper and even found parts to make a pie, but it was pretty clear to me that the end result would have been botulism. So I binned it, feathers and all. I’ll go to the butcher and buy one some time and pretend it’s the same one and I’ll never tell anybody I bailed and I certainly won’t write a blog about it.

I am not 100% sure – genuinely – if the damage was insurmountable or if I just decided there were things I’d rather be doing that didn’t involve tearing apart the wreck of what was once a noble creature. It’s strange with me that one – on some basic level I believe I should know how to do it. I don’t know why. Maybe it’ll serve me well in twenty years time when the Apocalypse has happened and we are all foraging and hiding from the rednecks with guns.

Anyway, I know how to do it in theory now. Maybe the third one will be the charm. Or maybe that’s why butchers exist and I’m an idiot.

Bent wheel gets the cheese

“The wheel’s bent mate. You’ll feel it judder at high speed. I’ll swap it to the back of the car, but you should probably change it out completely sometime.”

I shouldn’t have gone to kwik-fit. They charged me eighty quid for a tyre and a wheel swap. Would’ve been better at Halfords booked in advance. But it at least guarantees that I’ll be able to get up and down to Brighton on the weekend. I have a very demanding and affectionate cat here now as well you know, so the more generous demands of Lou are getting swamped by his constant desire for cuddles. Perhaps some time I can take him in the car, the little fluffster. He’s so genial and relaxed – he’d probably just roll with it. But for now I’m still settling him in to his life here. He’s a creature of habit. He’s an old man. He rations his own food efficiently though so I’m told he’s good for a night away from time to time. I’m going to take myself to Brighton early on Saturday for a beautiful day and night with lovely Lou. Something to look forward to. A break from London in the car.

I have no idea how the wheel got bent. I was driving over Vauxhall Bridge and something went B-Gunk. I stopped at the lights and went round to look and I could hear air coming out at quite a rate. By the time I was home it was flat but I still haven’t the slightest clue what was in the road. A huge nail driven into the tarmac? There was a chunk right out of the tyre. Messy.

My car has been nothing but a lifesaver for the whole of this pandemic. I love having one anyway. But the transport of weird items, the little bits of work here and there, the ability to just pop to Brighton without having to go to a station and get on a train? Priceless. And I’ve been lucky. The camera that flashed me? No letter. Too late now. And I even had a fine overturned by Hammersmith and Fulham after a fair amount of back and forth.

“Me me me me”. This is it these days. Sorry. Stuck in my flat and my head with weird animals and somehow constantly tired out despite not being as busy as I need to be. Filming didn’t work out. Onwards, onwards ever onwards. For glory.

Balls

I sat at a table. It was sunny and we were outdoors. The turf was bright and healthy. Sprinklers were running funded in part by the £6.00 I gave the man in order for him to let me hit a bunch of golf balls.

Before I sat at that table, I spent a while remembering why my dear deceased dad despaired of me as a young man. He sent me to Murray the golf pro. He really wanted me to be good at golf. Back then I didn’t understand my body at all. Murray couldn’t stop me chopping the thing haphazardly all over the place when driving. My putting is excellent, precise and accurate. Put a driver in my hand and I’m like the axe murderer in a cheap slasher movie. The ball goes somewhere, but it’s not in the air and it’s not where I want it to go.

“You might get a last minute job on set tomorrow – is that ok?” This from my agent’s assistant. She’s worried I might be driving or somesuch and I have to explain the scale of priority in my existence. 1: Acting Work. 2: Breathing. 3: Everything Else apart from 4: Whatever random stuff I’m doing to earn money while I wait for #1 to come in. This is why I select things that can be done in my own time. You never need to check if I want the work before you pitch me for it. I want the work. Especially right now when it feels like most of the people I know are on set. “That’s confirmation bias,” says Kaffe on the phone and he’s right of course. But it feels like it.

So I went and hit a ball and then I sat at a table. What a lovely life. The summer approaches and the light is holding on until after eight o’clock now. Oh the glorious days of summer, bring them to me, let me clutch them.

I had coffee at the table. Tristan had a Heineken 0%. Neither of us have drunk since last summer. The need has left me now and I reckon I could get back to occasional wine without immediately turning into a wild eyed maniac junkie once more. I’m not going to though.

People around us were also sitting at tables. I’d forgotten about that, how people talk loudly and you hear their shitty conversations. Tristan had to quieten me down as the guys hitting balls around us were getting the contents of my head on how Astrazeneca had to involve the UK government in order to resist being acquired by Pfizer a few years ago and all sorts of other gubbins about my frustrated need to ply my craft and how easy it is to blow a car tyre on the streets of London – I had to swap mine out for the spare again this morning. I’m not used to being in company or in public. None of us are. But there we are. I went to a place. To Duke’s Meadows.

Oh the things, the things. They are coming back, the things. All of them. I find it exhausting at the moment, venturing out into the world. Bed. I shall go to bed. Tomorrow is another day. You’re in it. I shall be too.

Thoughts of the next move

I’ve been needing to go to Jersey for over a year now, but this whole situation has made it impossible. After the 26th there might be a window of opportunity before more shit hits the fan. A chance to do the things I need to do before everything probably stops again. I’ve been making a few calls and touching base with people I know out there in advance. It’s not so far away but it’s surrounded by water and these times make it hard for anybody to go anywhere. Jersey has always been pretty insular, and right now that tendency has been amped up as we are all encouraged to sneak deeper into our little boxes. If I go, people will glare at me for my English car and my grockley ways, coming over and breathing their air and probably giving everybody that dirty Covid thing from filthy London town.

I never plan anything this far ahead. I usually don’t really know where I’ll be going in twenty four hours and then I suddenly find out it’s Bognor. With The Cove in the equation everything has to be put into place so early. I have to be much more organised than I like to be. Booking travel, working out what I’ll have to do, contingency planning…

I’ll even have to find somebody who’s happy to take custody of the friendly snake and of our glorious fluffy communist leader. He’s camped out on the freshly made bed at my feet, snoring like my dad. All he’s done all day is sleep. He’s an easy thing to look after for a week or two. You watch him sleep, then you have an intensive evening snuggle and groom, then more sleep. I’d take him in the car on the ferry as he’s extremely mild and unfazed, but he’s just settling here now and a new human will be enough disruption despite his nature. If I took him I’d have to take the snake and the fishies too. Rather than turn into Doctor Doolittle I’ll stay here. Animals make a home. They also bind you to that home.

I had a good potter to the Chelsea Physic Garden, enjoying the spring blossoms. The café is open again and as a result everybody was just sitting there. I could walk around relatively uncrowded avenues. I don’t quite get that. Surrounded by all these beautiful organisms in this fertile protected soil near the river, with the bulbs yielding up their tulips to the kiss of the sun in cold air, people sit under a plastic awning sipping expensive tea and talking about how cold they are. I guess it’s the novelty of it now. We haven’t been able to do it for months. If I was drinking it would’ve been a different matter I guess. I’d have seen the opportunity and would now be writing this to you a good fifteen pounds poorer and half cut.

I hope you’re enjoying the things you missed that you can do again. I’m sure I’ll find those pleasures again in time, but at the moment I’m happy to stay in semi torpor like all the animals in my home.

But not going out

It’s me and the cat and a chamomile tea again. If you came here for the ill advised pissed up ranting, you’re way out of date. It’s been a long time since I’ve had three bottles of wine and drooled out my insecurities for all to marvel at. I’ve done so well in the past at being drunk angry blogman. I’ve got some people who got insulted by drunk Al in print once upon a time and are generally ill disposed to me as a result. The problem with this momentary thought is that you can Google it a year from now. On the whole it’s no big deal. But this record long outlasts the moment in which it was written. I frequently have to remind myself of that.

The paradigm is shifting so fast in times of COVID that it’s impossible to keep up. All the opposing theories and judgements are running up against each other and suddenly we are allowed to go to the pub so long as the wind is southerly and there are three people whose name begins with a vowel in your group. “Pubs and streets here are overflowing,” says Lou. They’re all out – all the people. Some clueless blonde moptop stuck a pin in the calendar and that’s going to protect us all from invisible pathogens or lizards or whatever the fuck you’re going to tell me is going on right now.

Everybody went to the shop in order to pretend they were normal and the last year didn’t happen. They bought pants.

I went for an exploratory stroll around my local streets, expecting to find at least one pub overspilling with laughing grown ups drinking sugary fun. This part of town is still pretty buttoned up though. A few small tables outside Gordon Ramsey, having their steak and wine despite the bitter cold that gives the lie to the spring. Everything else still boarded. Not yet for Chelsea it seems. Not yet.

So I went home and bought a Tiffany uplighter on eBay, and a cat scratching board that I’m hoping will draw the attention of Mao before he gets through the rest of my furniture. I’m not holding out much hope. I treated him to some gourmet cat food, and he responded by ignoring it and puking in the doorway. I got him a can of tuna and he was immediately happy again. He’s a temperamental creature. Good for the stroking. Generally affectionate. Leaves hair everywhere.

We had a half hour long hairball removal session just now and he’s patient and eloquent with the process. He wants them out as much as I do and he’s willing to work with me on it. I’ve never come across such a stoic little beast. As different from Pickle as night from day, but still undeniably a cat.

So here we are, having not gone out to welcome another attempt to bring back the familiar. I’ll get around to it. For now I’m gonna sleep and dream just as soon as I’ve finished this two litre pot of chamomile.

A bit too much time to think on a Sunday

I’m sad, despite having a very affectionate fluff dispenser. It comes in waves, doesn’t it? As we endlessly wait for nothing to happen it’s easy to start to hear the inside of our head screaming at us that something is wrong. Because something is wrong.

From the earliest times, we have gathered together in groups. We have shared the invisible comforts of touch and breath. Mao will frequently come up to me and put his catface in my face. I will feel his little huffy breaths on my stubble, he will filter my big sighs through his whiskers. It’s an instinctive connection thing for him, breathing on his friend. He does it without thought and it’s a moment of connection on a different level from the more obvious dynamic of “You stroke me and I purr”. Because it’s important. We need to be close to others, to share their germs as well as their pheromones. Midwives know this and advocate skin to skin contact as soon as possible. The more we retreat from each other, the less we share, the weaker we become. We need to be in touch. To touch. To be close to each other.

How can it have been a year and more? This hiatus. A pause on life. I’m like a teenager again. I had a Sunday lie in until noon and then I stroked a cat, cooked a steak and fannied about. At one point I moved the pheasant that is still hanging on the fire escape. I was momentarily worried when I opened the door because the sun looked bright until I realised it was basically sub-zero out there. Still, it’s in a shadier spot. Despite Tristan’s reservations, I think I’m going to get away with hanging the thing outside if the weather stays unseasonably cold like this. I hope so, as I’ll be going to all the bother of plucking the poor thing and if it’s no good when I’m done it’ll be a huge load of bother and mess for no reward but the learning and the feathers.

I want very much to be surrounded by people again. I want to be in a rehearsal room or on a set where you always end up so close to each other – even if you’ve just met. The beginning of summer is coming at the end of this natural pheasant-hanging week of cold. Normally there’d be a superabundance of parties and fun and humans and laughter. Nope. Just us in whatever home environment we’ve cooked up for ourselves. I like my home very much thankfully. And there’s still loads to do in here. I’m comfortable and happy and warm here, and it’s mine, unlike Hampstead with the six months notice and the acrimony and the huge amounts of rent spent over decades heading towards a dead stop.

There are some things that will change for the better, and some for the worse. We’ve already become so conditioned to distance – to the policing of touch. I wonder when we’ll be able to put a hand on a stranger’s shoulder to gently let them know we’re behind them with a full pint. Sure we will be able to have meetings without leaving the house. But the less we move the smaller our frame becomes, the narrower and bitterer and less kind we get. Travel broadens the mind. Community blunts the ego. We have to go places and see things or we turn into little selfish piggies who think we are oh so very clever. I don’t want any more piggies. This place was full of them before Covexit. It’s getting unmanageable…