Jerusalem artichokes: a short story

Recently, during my weekly shop in Streatham Sainsbury’s, I was searching for the Jerusalem artichokes. When I found them, I noticed there was only one bag left. As I reached to get them, a small Muslim lady elbowed me out of the way and grabbed them for herself.

“Hey!” I said. “Give those back, you vicious, uncivilised Muslim.”

“Who are you calling vicious, you big-nosed Jew,” she said, insulting me without any provocation whatsoever.

I didn’t rise to the bait and very politely said, “Would you please give me them back?”

I knew what the answer would be, so I grabbed the artichokes from her basket before she had chance to reply. Unfortunately, she was quicker than she looked and we both had a strong grip of them when the store manager, and my golf partner, Theodore Yankee, appeared at my side.

“What’s the problem, Richard?” Mr Yankee asked.

“Nothing at all,” I replied. “This lady wanted the last bag of Jerusalem artichokes and, despite me having them first, I was just giving them to her.”

“That’s very decent of you.”

“Yes,” I said. “But I would like one small thing in return. I’d like the lady to cook me a meal, using the Jerusalems, then we’ll say no more about it.”

“What a wonderful idea,” said Mr Yankee. “That should even things out.”

After no little encouragement, the lady agreed. I went back to her house in Streatham Vale, and watched TV while she prepared a Jamie Oliver recipe, using the Jerusalems.

The meal was delicious, but at the end of it, I still didn’t feel as if I had been fully compensated for my loss. That being the case, I decided to stay in her house, keeping the lady under house arrest while she catered to my every need. Things were going quite smoothly when, after 10 days, she told me that all the food in the house had run out.

“Why don’t you let me go out and get some supplies?” she asked.

I thought the question impertinent, so I tied the woman up and set her house on fire, before heading off to Sainsbury’s myself.

When I got there, I bumped into my old friend, Theodore Yankee. I explained what had happened and he agreed that while my actions were firm, they were totally fair, given the provocation I had endured.

I thanked him for his understanding my position. I added that, on reflection, it was only reasonable for me to receive suitable compensation from Sainsbury’s itself. Mr Yankee agreed, and said I could have free Jerusalems delivered to my door each week, for life.

I was disgusted at this derisory offer and told him so.

“Theodore,” I said, “your offer is all very well for myself, but what about my children, and my children’s children? Do they have to come to Sainsbury’s and suffer cruel insults at the hands of Muslims? Do you think it is right that innocent children should be punished in this way?”

Theodore saw that my point was a fair one and ensured that my family would get free Jerusalem artichokes and free delivery of their weekly shopping in perpetuity.

We shook hands and I walked home feeling that, after a long, hard struggle, justice had finally been done.

A much-coveted vegetable: the Jerusalem artichoke
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Michael Beard: a poem

Michael Beard
Mike Beard
Michael Beard
Mike Beard
Michael Beard
Mike Beard
Michael Beard
Mick Beard
Don’t call him that

Mike Beard
wears cuff-links and tie-clips
Mike Beard
runs the tightest of tight ships
Mike Beard
is not having any
‘this story can’t be written the way that I imagined it’
bullshit

Michael Beard
a local newspaper editor as he lives and breathes
if you sliced Mike Beard open
he would bleed the finest newsprint ink
the kind reserved only for front page leads

Mike Beard
newspaper executives are impressed by his boundless
enthusiasm for sacking staff and driving down expenses
just as hairdressers are by his insistence
that he still has need of their services

Mike Beard
hates the needless use of long words and phrases.
Why, he asks, with an uncomprehending shake of the head,
would a reporter use the word dictatorial,
when they could use decisive
multicultural, when they could use foreign
or person affected by Down’s Syndrome
when they could simply say mong?

Like a particularly excitable pyromaniac
Mike Beard is delighted every time he hears
reports of arson. He marches into the heart
of the newsroom and demands to know who
will be covering. The reporters, all of a sudden,
become obsessed with the carpet; apart,
on this occasion, from me. Without the slightest
awareness of personal space he gets up in my face
and demands to know the questions I’ll be asking.

Before I have a chance to answer, he’s reeling
off questions like an insane hostage-taker
makes demands. He wants to know the precise
height of the flames, the top temperature of the blaze,
the true nature and scale of the victim family’s pain.
While I frantically make notes I know
his main interest is not in me accurately
reporting this petty tragedy, but in ensuring
every success I have looks like I have failed.
And I wish, instead of smiling compliantly,
I had the guts to say

Mike

Mike

Mike

I can feel the great, frightening vacuity
of your existence. In every blundering
assertion of your authority, lies a desperate,
haunted fear of redundancy. That day which you
picture so clearly,  when you are forced out
of your high-backed black leather editor’s chair,
pack up your framed motivational quote
by Steve Redgrave, hand back the keys to your
executive saloon, so you have to take a cab back
to your four-bedroom home in Cooden
in which you will live out your days, on your own,
sitting on your leather recliner, incandescent
with rage at the shoddy quality of TV journalism,
which you would never, have never put up with
before switching off, to take solace in Bruce
Springsteen’s tales of hardbitten working men,
blubbing like a child as you listen to Born To Run’s
saxophone solo, wishing that you’d had, just once,
a pretty young secretary you could fuck.

michael Beard

My favourite writer got crushed by an Israeli bulldozer

A true hero – Rachel Corrie

It’s easy to hate the Israeli state. They do bad stuff and don’t even give enough of a shit to  create coherent excuses.

The Israeli state is like the little brother in year seven whose bigger brother is in year eleven and is Mike Tyson. They aren’t that hard, but they can do whatever they like and get away with it.

It’s such an obvious, acknowledged truth that very few people bother to point it out, or pay attention.

I rarely pay attention. I’m too busy being incredibly witty and ironic to worry about Israel. And in any case, the kind of people who worry about Israel have nothing better to do than worry about stuff they can’t change.

I certainly wasn’t paying attention when Rachel Corrie was crushed to death in 2003 at the age of 23 by an Israeli bulldozer when she tried to stop it destroying a Palestinian home.

I wouldn’t have paid attention at all, but it turned out that Rachel Corrie, in writings which amout to a few diary notes and emails home to her parents in Washington state, was one of the most brilliant, funny, honest and idealistic writers I have ever come across.

Her story was told in a play produced by the Royal Court theatre, which I had the privilege to see a few years back. Remarkably, it was almost entirely produced from her own writing.

Here is a sample:

When we graduated fifth grade we had a list of questions for our yearbook. One of them was, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Everyone wrote something like ‘doctor’ or ‘astronaut’ or ‘Spiderman’ and then you turned the page and there was my five-page manifesto on the million things I wanted to be, from wandering poet to first woman president. That was real cute in fifth grade but when it’s ten years later, I’m a junior in college, and I still don’t have the conviction to cross Spiderman off my list – well, you can imagine it gets a little nerve-wracking.

This is a woman who was so aware of her own ridiculousness that she could inherently spot the ridiculousness in others, such as the Israeli state. So when she learnt, with horror, about the type of stuff that was going on in Gaza and the West Bank at the turn of the century, she didn’t just sit back and take comfort in her small-town environment in the US. She tried to raise awareness locally; and, when that wasn’t enough for her, she went over there to bear witness. And when she does so in her writing it is with the same humanity and candour as Vasily Grossman at the Battle of Stalingrad.

Diary entry:

7th February 2003

I have been in Palestine for two weeks and one hour now, and I still have very few words to describe what I see. I don’t know if many of the children here have ever existed without tank-shell holes in their walls. I think that even the smallest of these children understand that life is not like this everywhere.

They love to get me to practice my limited Arabic. Today I tried to learn to say ‘Bush is a tool’, but I don’t think it translated quite right. But, anyway, there are eight-year-olds here more aware of the workings of the global power structure than I was just a few years ago – at least regarding Israel.

A month later, her somewhat jolly descriptions have turned inescapably darker. The place has changed her and, perhaps, she foresees an endgame.

An email from March:

Mom.

I have bad nightmares about tanks and bulldozers outside our house, and you and me inside. Sometimes the adrenaline acts as an anaesthetic for weeks – and then at night it just hits me again a little bit of the reality of the situation.

I am really scared for the people here. Yesterday I watched a father lead his two tiny children holding his hand out into the sight of tanks and a sniper tower and bulldozers because he thought his house was going to be exploded.

Of course, that endgame was played out and Rachel Corrie was killed. And then it was the role of her parents – those parents who she had bullied and cajoled into becoming more aware – to take up her fight.

Her writings were shared and turned into a show – a  show that was sold out night after night. And beyond this, they set up a foundation in their daughter’s name to carry on her work.

Today, Rachel’s parents were in an Israel court where – surprise, surprise – it was found that the Israeli state was in no way responsible for her death.

In their public statements, Cindy and Craig expressed their dismay that all of their carefully compiled evidence had come to nothing. But perhaps, just like their daughter, they were aware enough to understand that this was the only possible result considering who was making the judgement. And, knowing this, they thought it was still worth it to claim some headlines and raise awareness of the injustices of the Israeli state, and to wake up a few self-satisfied people out of their slumber.

The Joy of Hair: how England got over Beckham

The perestroika era arrives for England’s players

We all saw it. The goal had more than a touch of luck about it, with Steven Gerrard’s cross deflected off of the Ukrainian defender’s ballbags, past the keeper for Wayne Rooney to nod home from six inches.

But it was the celebration that caught the eye. Because it was in Rooney’s celebration that we saw an England team usher in a new age and finally move on from the tyrrany of the Beckham era.

To recap, Rooney celebrated his goal in unique fashion, by pretending to apply hairspray.

It emerged afterwards that Rooney, hugely enjoying the versatility of his hair implants, has been sharing product with Andy Carroll.

This was a simple act of hair-kinship between two strikers which would have been unthinkable during Beckham’s decade or so in the England team.

While Beckham was an excellent player, there can be no doubt that he would never allow anyone else to show creativity when it came to hair, and this hampered the team’s performances. With his lucrative contracts with both Gillette and Brylcreem, Beckham stamped out any meek, honest expression of grooming from any other England player.*

Even two years ago, Beckham was at the 2010 World Cup simply  as ‘player liaison’, a made-up role which ensured the subjugation of our players to ensure none of them made an attempt to, as they say in the rap game, ‘shine on his shit.’ And what happened? It was England’s most miserable tournament performance in living memory, perhaps ever.

It is only now, with Beckham occupied growing his luxuriant moustache in preparation for the Olympics – where, incidentally, it can be presumed Great Britain will perform atrociously – that this England Euro 2012 squad are beginning to express themselves hair-wise.

Rooney appears to be developing a quiff of which Elvis Presley would approve; Andy Carroll is there, ponytail full and in effect, flourishing the full mane towards the end of games; Ashley Cole, who has never showed any signs of freedom of hair expression previously, is now attempting a junior mohawk; even Jermain Defoe, while rarely seen on the pitch, is showing his support with his subtly effective peroxide dye job.

Clearly, this is a team just beginning to express itself. The dark days of the Beckham autocracy are still a very recent memory for many of these players and their confidence is, for some, including Gerrard, fragile at best.

It is true that England may not yet have enough style, team spirit and hair-quality to pull off a tournament win, or even a final appearance. However, this is already the most promising England performance since Euro 96 – the last major tournament over which Beckham’s malign influence did not loom.

Going into the quarter-final against Italy, when faced with Balotelli’s dazzling blond mohican, and Andrea Pirlo’s Steven Tyleresque layer and flow, England remain underdogs.

But what we do have is a group of players unafraid to openly experiment with different hairstyles with the full support of their team-mates. The choice of Krakow as base for England has been questioned by many, but perhaps being in the land where the Perestroika movement rose and eventually crushed the tyrannical Soviet regime, is exactly the sort of historical influence our lads need right now.

We are becoming a team of which England hair greats such as Kevin Keegan and Chris Waddle can be rightly proud. However far we eventually progress in this tournament our lads are doing it together and I, with my twin loves of football and hair, am immensely proud.

*Bar Glen Johnson who effectively acted as a foil for Beckham’s hairstyles down the right flank, giving him something to work off, and David James, whose constant pratfalls nullified his threat.

Have I become a boring, middle aged fool?

Why can’t I keep on hating you, Norah?

I have recently had an experience which has seriously made me question whether I am becoming middle-aged. Boring. Satisfied. Mellow. Less the angry person I used to be, and more a person my younger self would have bitterly, ironically, and derisively disliked.

For, this weekend, after listening to her new Little Broken Hearts album, I have become a Norah Jones fan.

Norah Jones. Norah fucking Jones. The one who did Come Away With Me. An album which might as well have been sponsored by Chill FM, in association with the Dignitas Clinic. An album which I couldn’t get past the first 20 seconds of, so filled with horror was I of its sheer, ‘let’s snuggle up, take sedatives and abandon all thought-ness’.

When she first released her ‘music to have an organic picnic to’ album in the early part of this century, I was a big fan of the Libertines. And Biggie Smalls. If I listened to a female artist it was PJ Harvey. I had a lot of anger and a short attention span.

So maybe I didn’t give Norah the chance she deserved.

But fuck that. Her album was a sweetly smelling pile of shite. Pitiful bollocks which John Peel would have said something about with a casual wit of which I am not capable.

I hated Norah Jones, her music and everything she represented. (You may have inferred this already, but I like to underline a point.)

And the good thing is, after the abortion that was her first album, it seems that a lot of people hated Norah, too. It appears that her nearest and dearest have undergone a concerted campaign to be as nasty as possible to the pretty girl with the pretty voice.

Because her new album is so full of malevolence, hate, and cruelty that it makes you wonder if the thing has been penned by Nick Cave.

Exhibit A is the song Miriam. The choice lyric here is:

“Miriam, you know you done me wrong, I’m gonna smile when I take your life.”

She sings it sweetly enough, which makes the murderous threat all the more twisted. http://youtu.be/bnBnzP_nQ3g

On She’s 22, she sings, “She’s 22, and she’s loving you, and you’ll never know how it makes me blue. Does it make you happy?” A very simple lyric, but delivered with a bittersweet attitude which is not far from Billie Holiday. http://youtu.be/W6O1xQMv6o8

Norah Jones has gone from being background music of the worst sort, to music, if it were played at a dinner party, I’d tell people to shut up and listen (this is perhaps why I rarely get invited to dinner parties).

But maybe it is me. Maybe I have changed. I have been on the live performance scene for a couple of years now. I’ve witnessed performances which have made me cringe in horror (some, on reflection, by myself). I know what a revelation it is when you hear someone with talent, up close. If Norah Jones was in a small venue with an acoustic guitar, she would blow me away, saccharine lyrics or not.

I can now appreciate talent for what it is, rather than instantly seeking to denounce something which is not to my specific taste, however enjoyable that might be. I am, without doubt, more tolerant.

So, it seems, we’ve both changed. And from my new, slightly more mature standpoint I am happy to say Norah Jones’s new album is brilliant. However, just to balance things out, I also downloaded the new Killer Mike album, which hopefully will assuage my old self that I haven’t changed too much.

The Ivy League professor and his bodybuilder son

Disappoint parent: Paul ‘not pumping iron’ Fussell

The obituary section in the 24 May edition of the Guardian featured a write-up for Paul Fussell, who has died aged 88. He was an historian who wrote a ground-breaking study of the First World War, for which he won the National Book Award in the US. He was also an ex-military man, having fought with distinction in the Second World War.

At the bottom of the obit it said that he was survived by two children, both listed as writers.

Well, yes, that is true. However, as with many an obit, it doesn’t actually get to the nub of the matter. His son, Sam Fussell, was a writer. But rather than penning a weighty intellectual tome which may have pleased his father, he wrote a memoir called Muscle. This book recounted how, in a matter of months, he went from being a gifted, yet skinny, Oxford and Harvard graduate to a hypertrophied muscle man posing on a dais while wearing nothing more than a thick layer of fake tan and a posing pouch.

So how did this unlikely change come about?

In the early 1980s, Sam Fussell was a young man long on brains but short on physique, who feared for his personal safety living in New York. He was also struggling to deal with his parents’ divorce. These circumstances, and a chance discovery of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, led him to the local gym, where he took to the weights with all the zeal of the convert.

It was not long before Sam quit his job and took up bodybuilding full-time; possibly not the career path his Ivy League professor father imagined for his son when he sent him off to Harvard.

He explains his desire to change his physique thus:

I wanted to get as big as possible as fast as possible. The bigger, the better – that boded best for personal protection. So it was the most massive bodybuilders who caught my eye. Builders whose flexed arms were actually larger than their heads. Builders who could balance a glass of milk on top of their chests. Builders like Cuban expatriate Sergio Oliva, Bertil “Beef It” Fox and Geoff “Neck” King.

Pre-iron: the pale and wan Sam Fussell

He details his four years as a bodybuilder from the point of view of an insider, but also with the distance and wit of the intellectual.

So he describes that:

During my reps, I resorted to what Schwarzenegger likes to call “The Arnold Mental Visualisation Principle,” more commonly known as the imagination, and saw my chest growing to such gargantuan proportions that no shirt on earth could contain it.”

His transformation from intellectual to muscle man didn’t simply change his physique. It transformed the way he walked (to the bodybuilder’s waddle) and he began using phrases such as “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

As he explains,

It was an expression I’d picked up in the weight room. I found myself frequently using it as a substitute for, “Have a nice day.”

When he told his father he was spending his inheritance from his grandfather on a cheap apartment so he could bodybuild full-time, Paul Fussell called him a psychotic.

Sam Fussell eventually moved to LA to train, where he became best friends with bodybuilders called Vinnie, Bamm Bamm and Nimrod. He started taking steroids. He even, briefly, dated a female bodybuilder, called G-spot. He describes fumbling with her on the sofa in hilarious detail:

When, finally, I reached below her gold dumbbell pendant for her breast, I found it harder than my own.

In order to gain the necessary muscle definition in preparation for his first bodybuilding contest, he went on what was called the ‘shrink-wrap’ diet, losing 12 pounds in just six days: equivalent, perhaps, to what those Wedding Boot Camps put women through before their first marriage.

His father rarely wrote to him in LA. On one occasion he simply sent him a “heavily underlined Frost poem, The Road Not Taken, and the University of Pennsylvania Law School application.” Paul and Sam Fussell eventually stopped speaking entirely.

The memoir ends in 1988, with Sam Fussell tiring of bodybuilding. Looking on Wikipedia, it appears that he never went back to the intellectual life. He is currenly listed as working as a hunter in Montana.

The obituary does not make it clear if father and son were reconciled before Paul Fussell’s death. All I know is I am going to read his World War One history, The Great War and Modern Memory, and I encourage every single person who has reached the end of this blog to read Muscle. Just like Sam’s headlong pursuit of bulk, you won’t regret it for a moment.

Making the most of that Harvard education: a built Sam Fussell