23 June 2017

The House on Victoria Road

March 2014

What can I say about the house on Victoria Road that I haven't already said. I've told the story again and again of landing here in Harborne, in the middle of the British winter. The girls were sleeping somewhere outside of Milton Keynes, and I came up here alone to find a place to live. I rented this house — it was sufficient, that's really all you could say about it. It was dirty, but sufficient, which seems like a metaphor as I think about it. I'm not sure what analogy I would like to draw though, as I think about it. Compared to the house in Malaysia, it was damper, with no tile. Parts of it were rotting. The linoleum, the walls in the cupboard where the washing machine has been kept.

All that has been pulled up and out now. The whole place is cleaner and after a year or two, it started to feel like home and then now, after three years and half, after a scare with my visa this spring, and a visit from a builder and conversations with all the British people I know who make money on properties, I decided we would buy it. I say I because I mean I. Yoko has felt strongly about the house for a long time, wanting to stay here, close to St Peters Church where she climbs the hill three or four times a week towards the ringing bells. But I needed to decide, to make the machinery actually work. So with more white hair, and sitting with a man who is putting numbers into a computer, I start the process. We talk and we talk and we talk and then at one point, I finally give a credit card number. There it is. It has started, hasn't it. I look at him for some sort of assurance, like I have done. You're almost old enough to be my father, I want to say. Tell me it's okay. Tell me this is the right thing to do.

To decide while at the same time not having an opinion: these two opposing things are, I feel, expected of me the older I get and the more ensconced I am in the apparatus of a family. I am a kind of necessary internal organ that one thinks about only when it is causing problems. The father who appreciates a bottle of whisky added to the trolley, that he still must buy, but must buy for himself as a gift to himself — one must also provide for gestures of kindness to oneself. And one must not draw attention to this. You think about Foucault in this situation, speaking French and seeing the whole of the system perpetuating itself. You want to point to him; Foucault can explain this.
I will judge you according to your conduct
and repay you for all your detestable practices.
I will not look on you with pity;
I will not spare you.
You don't unchain yourself from ideology. The talk about letting the horse out on the lead and letting it run without feeling the pull of the lead. It is still on the lead, even when it doesn't feel the pull. I am the horse always at the end of the lead, always it digging in my neck and telling everyone else, There is a lead here, don't you see it. And everyone shrugs to remind me that if you don't pull on it, you can't feel it. That's not the point, I want to say.

I sign a couple of papers and there it is. It's started, like you have pushed off from the shore now in your own little boat. You orient yourself towards the deeper water. I'll be 35 on Tuesday — I started late, I think. I'll catch up though. Don't worry. It's worked out better than we all imagined.

07 June 2017

I'm hardcore, but I'm not that hardcore

There was a kind of false summer a few weeks ago, right before half term, giving us the sort of evenings that seem to go on and on, and you can sit in the park, while the kids play, watching the trees and thinking that there is nothing you should really want. This, of course, will end, everyone said to each other — we must make the most of it while can. Open the windows, let the light and air in before it starts raining again. And a day later, of course, the heat is on and you think to yourself, wasn't I just walking outside yesterday in shirt sleeves?

To make the most of the two days of summer, we took the kids hiking up to Lickey Hills on the edge of Birmingham on Saturday. Naomi wanted to stay home and rest, but I pushed the point and we all headed out, Naomi and Mia dragging their feet and cross that we didn't stop for sweeties, into the forest and hills. I've been caught up in meditation recently, which has made me want to just stand places, natural places particularly, and look at things. At Lickey Hills, we went on the Woodpecker Trail and headed out over the road and up Beacon Hill overlooking the city and a golf course. At the top of the hill, we all sat down and ate jelly beans that the girls had brought — there were sweeties after all, it turned out. They discussed the ones they liked and passed them back and forth. I had the sensation of not wanting to move or push things forward, but to just be there, with them, for that moment. Naomi, 10 and strong-willed and still happy to hold my hand. There might be rain coming, I thought.

Meditation has been an antidote to my Evangelical Christian-induced anxiety, where my fundamental badness could only be soothed by God, but if God was going to soothe it was anyone's guess really. You needed to worry — if you didn't worry then you ran the risk of falling away. You were also not supposed to worry, and these two contradictory weights held you down and let strong, confident sounding men control you. You prayed as a kind of casting out, trying to catch something to come back to you. Peace or forgiveness or faith, because you couldn't make the faith yourself. It didn't come from inside of you — it only came from God, who was always beyond the horizon and loved you unconditionally, on the condition that you loved Him back.

There is enough uncertainty, isn't it. The city centre is full of police with guns, and we all seem to be waiting for Birmingham to be hit. Surely it will, people say, it's only a matter of time. The IRA bombed Birmingham — people remember this now, we all imagine some disenchanted kid who can't keep up and can be convinced that he can make himself famous, and earn God's favour. That's the point after all, I say, to a few White British people looking at me with blank expressions. They've somehow stumbled into asking me what I thought about all of this, as a way of finding a way to tell me what they think. But I don't say whatever they expected and block out their contributions like I do when I talk to Christians who tell me about their own sad, begrudging vote for Trump and lower taxes and a supreme court justice — I'm trying to be better at listening, to not just wait to talk, but not on this point. It's my area, I say: I study this. My next book is about this exactly; I'm waving my hands.

I ride by the Edgbaston Cricket Grounds and Pakistan is playing so there are people everywhere with Pakistani flags. As I come into Moseley, a cab has a woman in the back with the window open, the green and white flag hanging out and people cheering. Is this where it happens, I wonder, as I ride my bike past the police barriers, past the police and all the people walking up the road. Of course, it doesn't; of course nothing happens. Yoko meets me at the coffee shop after having been in the city centre and I breathe a sigh of relief. Of course not, of course she's safe. I am not afraid, I say again and again and again, and tell the kids to say to it themselves: Be afraid of the right things. They know about moments of silence and suicide bombers and we all just sit there together.

When you meditate, you don't judge yourself or your thoughts. You confront them and you admit that they are your own thoughts. There is no stuffing down and away. There is no casting off, or trying to get something else. It's already there. Sit with it, with yourself, it's okay. You can have your feelings, the woman says, feel whatever you feel. This poem she reads.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
       love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Fuck, I think, yes, exactly. I want to open my eyes and announce it — You don't have to be good. You don't have to do anything.

26 May 2017

Before the bombing

On Sunday, the end of Christian Aid week, there was a bake sale at the church and Yoko made rice crispy treats with dark chocolate so that Mei could eat them and they could be sold with cupcakes during the time after the service. The church is on the hill above Victoria Road and the bells ring at 9:30, when I am walking Mei up to the choir practice before the service, and then back down in the sun as summer, British summer, is taunting us. We sing our way through the service and then communion and the processional and I get caught up talking to the old academics at the church hall afterwards, the men that I look at and think have lived the dream, teaching and working well into their seventies and only stopping because they can’t physically do it anymore.

I walked up to the university, Mei and Mia at a friends house, to pick up a book I had ordered then sit and read it a bit before walking back into town to buy a some pale ale in a can and walk up the high street, everything closed because it was after five on a Sunday, but the afternoon seeming to go and on as it does at the end of May.

I came past the takeaways at the end of the High Street, and the barber that I used to go to until Brexit and I started getting my hair cut at the Turkish barber shop. I turned the corner, and then was struck suddenly, like in the sort of pathetic manic way I am at times, by the beauty of the road, leafy as they would say here, and sun streaming through the trees that had been there forever. Yoko and I once found a picture of the church and the pub next to it from a newspaper in the early-1900s. It looked the same, the same huge trees coming up around it. Do you see this, I wanted to say to the guy passing in the tracksuit, headed somewhere – do you see where we are. This is where Virginia Woolf was. This is where it all happens.

I slowed down, thinking about when I first came to this country in 2002, when I had just cut my hair. I spent 18 hours in London, wandering around and making my way to Hyde Park. It was what I thought it would be – massive and grand and British, the way you want Britain to be. I don’t remember much of anything really. I remember sitting on a bench and thinking, naively and foolishly, Well, what comes next then. What comes next.

20 May 2017

Spirit of my silence, I can hear you

Pangkor Island Trip, March 2013

In Malaysia, I remember wanting summer to end. We arrived in summer even though it was December and the Christmas tree was still up in the hotel and summer continued on and on, through January, February, on through the real summer and on until autumn. It was summer, only summer. You would wake up to summer and go to sleep to summer. I waited two months for a man to come deliver the aircon, but he never came. We escaped the British winter and returned to the British winter, like it was some wardrobe to Narnia.

It's May now, late May even, and the heater is still on in the house on Victoria Road, the damp one where the sun rises at four thirty. On this side of world, there isn't any feeling of false abundance like there is in Malaysia, cab drivers reminding you again and again that they can. Can what, you ask, and they can anything. In Britain, everything is cannot from the beginning. It is the first thing you say in the morning to each other, that you are tired and miserable and everything has gone a bit pear-shaped. No one is fine, no one is feeling good today. We're all just holding on, aren't we, in quiet desperation, like the song said, you with your smiles and fake American optimism. Look where it's gotten you.

Yoko showed me a picture of a nicer house near us, down the road, with three bedrooms and well-presented. It was £1395 pcm: well over half my take home salary. I was marking something when she showed me and I felt the sort of panic that you mask with anger when you realise you're just pretending, that you can't actually afford to live the life you want to, can you, not in this place, not in Harborne. What are we doing here, who are we kidding. I looked at another house on Hartledon Road, just down from Victoria Road, perfect in location and size, and owned, the realtor told me in the way you tell someone about a black friend, that the house was owned by two men, a fantastic couple who were moving into their other home. I had my three kids with me — Yoko was at church, and we traipsed through it, me thinking, yes, I could afford this thing I need if perhaps I was a gay man with a working partner and three fewer kids. Instead, I gave my card to the realtor, lied about making an offer perhaps, and held Mia's hand as we crossed the road.

All this pretending about competency, telling the kids to clean their bedrooms, and reading pointers online for healthier relationships. Nietzsche blames Jesus, but Jung says we need our myths. I'm far less reasonable, shouting in my mind at my father for fucking this whole thing up, for electing Trump and this crushing shame of unrighteousness. I bought Naomi a book for her 10th birthday, a book that had won some awards in the States and is about this family of three black sisters living in the 60s. Yoko laughed, American, of course. America like I feel about it — foreign and strange and wrong. We've been reading it to each other, Naomi and I — I read a chapter outloud and then she does. Mei is at church and Mia is upstairs doing something and I drink a £1.19 Carling Premier that I bought at the War Lane Cellar. I look out the window into the garden and that huge tree behind the Victoria Road house, listening to my daughter's British accent read African American English. I think about the forty or fifty years I probably have left, and how, when I'm an old man, I hope Naomi will read outloud to me again. I remember when I first held her, as a baby, pretending as you do when you hold your first child that you have any idea what you're doing.

07 May 2017

Dollar signs and Amy Grant


It’s funny the things you remember. I remember singing a praise song that included the lines ‘Holy Ghost, we appreciate you’ when I was a child and my parents had Bible studies. This was the end of the song, the last verse, after you had appreciated all the members of the godhead, one-by-one, eyes closed and hands raised up. ‘We love you, adore you, we bow down before you.’ I never thought much about this, but I was a child. Now I’m judgemental everyone who wasn’t, but still sang and didn’t think about it.

The last two months have passed with little to comment on. I wanted to write about death and dying for most of April, particularly after I came back from Japan and the kids’ guinea pig died, the blondish one they called ‘Pilly’. Pilly had gone through his life with people always asking, clarifying that his name was in fact ‘Pilly’ and Naomi saying the name again to them like they were stupid for mishearing, Pilly. The day after I came back from Japan, he was suddenly ill and laid in the cage. His brother, the ginger one, crouched down next to him, and then he was dead. Everyone cried and I did too. Ricky, his brother, spent the night with the body and then we buried Pilly with flowers in the garden, before I went to work.

Japan, it turned out, was a kind of trip in a time machine. I walked around feeling like I was 24 again, particularly in Shinjuku when I walked past the Keio Plaza where my family stayed when they came for the wedding and I stayed with them. My parents had money then and I remembered one night going out of the hotel to this plaza that I walked through last month, and talking to Yoko on my phone. I don’t remember what we talked about. I don’t remember anything specific. And I remember one other time, my dad staying there at that same hotel and he and I going to Roppongi to eat and argue about Jesus and the church and George W. Bush and war. I don’t remember the specifics.

Now, some ten years later, there I was again in the heat and walking up towards that park in the shadow of the metropolitan government offices, seeing the families and thinking about some parallel universe in which I live there and we are happy and Yoko doesn’t have to learn English. There is no Brexit and no Life in the UK test. No house on Victoria Road that is too small and lacks sufficient shelf space. None of it.
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