Out Now!

Friday, 25 February 2011

A hot day in Texas

Wednesday 4th

Houston was hot, hot, hot! We toured NASA and to my shame, I couldn’t have cared less. I was poaching in my own juices, basting in sweat. I was hung-over and jaded. Apollo’s could have been launching in rapid succession, like a flight of expensive darts, John Glenn could have been dancing Bojangles, and I’d have exchanged it all for a beer and a cold shower.

The whole complex gleamed white in the sun; it was beautifully landscaped and so monotonous. All I can really remember are three primary colours, white, blue and green geometrically aligned. But I walked, even kept up, and noted all there was to see.

To illustrate the full effects of a dehydrated brain, that evening I passed the chance to go to Gilley’s ‘The World’s Biggest Bar’ as it was then.* Shows you the state I was in. Dehydration clouds judgement. Another interpretation might be my Guardian Angel was concerned for my health. The bar had mechanical bulls that guaranteed a ‘Rodeo Experience’. I can’t think of anything worse, six or seven pints down and riding one of those things: vomit and broken bones, maybe both. But one thing for sure, I’d have been daft enough to give it a go.

Instead I stayed at the camp with Daphne and Laura.

And my Guardian Angel came up trumps again.

A travelling blues man set up in camp and made everything worthwhile. His caravan opened out down one entire side, and revealed an ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ interior. His name was Abner Jay, and it was only much later I discovered how privileged I was to have seen him. He was brilliant. The night was brilliant, sitting under Texan stars in an audience of the largely unemployed, the so called ‘white trash’ you read about in glossy magazines. They were friendly and generous to strangers. We drank beer and sang with Abner Jay, and the night went by.

Someone called Matt chatted up Daphne and Laura – as though having trouble which one he liked best. I could have advised him but instead went to bed.

(The second link best illustrated Abner Jay's style. He does, eventually break into song.' Don't mess with me, baby'. Imagine it with a cold beer on a Texan campsite)

*Austin Chronicle

In its prime, however, way before John Travolta uttered "up ya nose witta rubba hose," Gilley's had a reputation as the mother of all Texas honky-tonks. The Gilley's logo adorned everything from cans of beer (brewed by the same Spoetzl brewery that brings us Shiner Bock) and belt buckles to women's silk panties. Texans and tourists alike would cram in by the thousands to see top country music stars like Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, and George Jones, while a hardy, colorful crew of regulars (known locally as "Gilleyrats") showed up every night to drink, dance, fight, flirt, make out, bullshit, shoot pool, and see who got their nuts cracked on El Toro, the club's famed mechanical bull.

Friday, 18 February 2011

The Jitterbug in San Antonio, and one angry moment

Wednesday August 4th.

That evening we went to a club alongside the river that runs through the city. Enflamed by drink and unaccountable recklessness, I unleashed my dancing daemon. Well, actually Kim unleashed it. She persuaded me to jitter-bug. It seemed simple enough. She persuaded me it was. Luckily there was plenty of space.

Soon I was jitting and bugging with the best of them: Kim’s hand sometimes attached to mine, my other arm around her waist, occasionally in the air pulling imaginary bows. I pulled her from this side to that, once or twice between my legs. I imagined I had rhythm: hips swaying, knees bending, fingers trembling, tickling the spirits gathered around us. I was in heaven.

It was over too soon – or perhaps not soon enough for those close to us.

Later, back in the camp, another Aventours coach pulled up. At first I thought it was on fire. The door opened and more smoke came out, and I heard military style music, anthemic. You could sing to it; march, but not jitterbug. From the smoke emerged the first of the Israelis.

They proved an unpleasant bunch, intolerant and racist, and just so bloody certain they were right. And yes, they were young and might now be benevolence itself. But I had only the one Israeli in our group to go by, Doritaa. She was young too, but generous and absent minded and easy-going.

I listened to them talk and thought of Einstein, Maimonides, and had I known about him then, the wonderful Howard Jacobson. Okay so all these are high falutin exceptions. I thought of Dr Rosenthal who brought me into the world, who pressed my head into shape and was the touchstone of all that was good in Walton Vale, his partner Dr Young who brought be Beatrix Potter books when I was hospitalised with rheumatic fever.

In fact the only time I ever doubted a Jew could be fun was when I was forced to watch a BBC production of St Paul of Tarsus as a child. A Sunday treat. On a small black and white TV. I watched men haranguing each other in small rooms, men with long beards, furrowed brows and long stripy robes; earnest coves the lot of them. But then my mum explained they were the Christians.

These Israelis didn’t wear long stripy robes but they knew how to harangue. They harangued me. One of them had made a series of racist remarks about Arabs and I went to walk away. They must have seen my face. Two of them followed me. Like Mormons but fiercer.

And then something in me snapped. I don’t like to be badgered and bossed or harangued. I told them that they should know better than to force people into ghettoes. They argued back, one of them referred to Arabs as animals, and I became angrier still. Blame it on the Boogie…the whisky… the jitterbug. People gathered round and we were eased gently apart.

Muttering continued over the campfire, but I was in my tent. Early next day their coach pulled away, blue smoke spilling from its windows.

Me and Kim in recovery mode.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Remember the Alamo - but don't push your luck

Tuesday 3rd

On Tuesday, August 3rd, I walked to the Alamo with two Australians, Mark and Bret. We were 140 years late, but I was still excited to be there, having been brought up on tales of Davy Crockett and gone cat hunting as a kid because Liverpool had no raccoons.

The over-heated patriotism I found a little disturbing - like the Women’s Institute in Britain recounting Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain to tourists; a tale where British pluck and German villainy remained pickled in aspic. It would be bizarre when you consider The Battle of Britain was over seventy years ago – even more bizarre considering The Alamo took place over 140 years before we got there.

Almost as bizarre as John Wayne playing Davy Crockett. I found that a bitter pill to swallow.

We were shown round by a white-haired woman with a face like rawhide and a voice to match. Her scorn could wither at ten paces, and much of it she reserved for Moses Roses, a much maligned Frenchman. A very much maligned Frenchman when you consider his ‘cowardice’ was still being invoked during the recent Iraq war. He was the original ‘cheese-eating surrender monkey’.

As the story goes, Jim Bowie offered everyone in the doomed fort a chance to escape before they were completely surrounded. No one availed themselves of the offer except one man: Moses Roses. He took one look at the forces arrayed against them and made an instant decision.

My heart went out to him. Moses Roses was the most experienced soldier there. He was a veteran of Napoleon’s Grand Armée that had conquered most of Europe and a good chunk of Russia before things went terribly wrong.

This man had survived the Battle of Borodino – the largest and bloodiest single day of action in the Napoleonic wars. 250,000 men died in that one battle, and then there were the 70,000 casualties. Moses Roses must have thought himself a very lucky man as September 12 1812 drew to a close.

He would also have counted himself lucky to have survived the retreat from Moscow when almost half a million French soldiers perished along with 200,000 horses.

What a sensible decision it must have seemed: retirement in the American sun-belt, away from the blood and glamour of European wars.

God has a wonderful sense of humour, and why Moses Roses decided to enlist in the Texas militia, God only knows. But one thing for sure, Roses knew bad odds when he saw them, knew that even his luck couldn’t hold out on this one: fewer than 300 men against over 2,000 Mexicans? He mightn’t have been big on Thermopylae, but no way was he going to be one of those 300 Spartans.

I’m glad I didn’t know all this at the time. That Texan woman looked the kind that could detect dissent. She’d have fixed me with her squinty eyes, bull-whipped me with her rawhide tongue.

In the Museum, I discovered a fair number of English and Irish had died in the battle; also one Welshman: Lewis Johnson – but like Welsh consonants, things are not always what they seem. He was in fact Virginian. The Welsh hero was a pretender, an inaccuracy.

On the way to the museum we saw a battalion of Twirlers – earnest seven year olds practising their twirls beneath a baking sun. Santa Anna would have minced them. Time for a drink. To night we were hitting the night life of San Antonio.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Ciudad Acuna

Monday 2nd August

The night before we’d camped at Lake Amistad on the border between Texas and Mexico. We dove from low cliffs into deep blue water, paddled about and played pirates on air-beds. In the evening we partied on Lone Star beer and other stuff. Tomorrow we’d be in Mexico – only a day – but Mexico.

Walking across the International Bridge – about a mile long – felt like walking through a furnace. Below the Rio Grande looked narrow, shallow and completely unimpressive. I noticed it cost only a dime to walk into Mexico and there was no passport check. No hassle then – except when you hit the streets of Acuna. There the shopkeepers accosted you in the streets and within minutes I was the proud owner of three puppets and an inscrutable Aztec mask.

There was only one answer to this. A bar. There I drank an ice cold beer and then felt guilty. I had to see more of Mexico. I walked about for another half hour and when suitably baked returned to the Toltec Bar. What a name. There, an equally hot engineer from Madrid was slowly cooling down after being out for much the same time. We compared notes. Ramon from Madrid said he was used to the heat.

Everything changes. Acuna has become a little more dangerous since.

Coming back into the US we were subject to stringent examination by border officals. My inscrutable Aztec mask stared back at them blankly, and then it was off to San Antonio and bliss in a cold camp pool. Later we played some strange game that involved hitting a bag of sweets from a tree whilst blindfolded, either that or we’d been drinking too much beer.