Going to Ground

So that’s it: I am now officially a resident of the United States of America, having returned last week to London and acquired my permanent (well, until November 2003 at least) visa. That was an experience in itself, making my way through the bunker-like security round the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, which must be the ugliest building in London – imagine a multi-storey car-park with an F-sized golden eagle tacked on the front. And the ugliness seems to rub off on the staff, who redefine the terms “taciturn” and “unhelpful”. Oddly, they seemed to be mostly British, so they were possibly miffed to be faced on a daily basis by people going to a more hospitable climate.

Just to welcome me to London, it snowed, and remained largely dank and miserable for my week there. It’s amazing how rapidly a place ceases to feel like home, especially when, as in my case, you no longer have any possessions there [the latest word is that they are currently clearing US Customs in San Diego – reports of cases of popcorn and beer being delivered to their offices in preparation for an all-night video session are as yet unverified]. In addition, my room in Perran Road had been redecorated, removing the final traces of my personality from it – Steve and Abigail had done a very nice job on it, to be sure, but it did leave me feeling even more like a guest in my own home.

So I was doubly glad to return to Phoenix, even if I almost immediately came straight down with the nastiest bout of ‘flu I’ve bumped into for quite some time – most likely picked up in the all-you-can-eat bacterial buffet which is British Airways World Traveller Class. I’m not quite over it yet, but am certainly feeling a good bit better than I was: for someone whose constitution is usually horse-like, it’s a bit of a shock to find yourself crawling to the bathroom on hands and knees, in order to cough up a lungful of green, tenticular slime.

Still, this did allow me to become acquainted with American daytime television, which proved beyond all doubt that more channels is not necessarily better. Indeed, it may be that the reverse is true, because it dilutes the audience for each, reducing the advertising revenue and leaving the programme makers desperate to find the cheapest way to fill the afternoon hours (when, after all, no-one whom advertisers want to appeal to is going to be watching anyway). On the plus side, I can thoroughly recommend high-school basketball as a sedative; much-needed sleep rapidly followed.

At least spring is on the way – or may be, because that decision rests in the hands of a burrowing rodent called Phil. Yes, tomorrow is Groundhog Day, another of those American traditions like Prom Night, only familiar to us Brits through the medium of Hollywood – as an a homage, I did toy with the idea of just repeating last week’s editorial and seeing if anyone got the joke. But in case you’ve not seen the Bill Murray movie, the idea is that the behaviour of said critter determines whether winter is over or not: if he can see his shadow, it means six more weeks before spring. [I have to confess to suppressing a snigger on learning that the whole thing takes place on a hill called “Gobbler’s Knob” – scarcely more sensible is the town name, which is the Scrabble-icious “Punxsutawney”.]

It’s apparently based on an old proverb: “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.” How this got converted into something involving a furry sundial is less clear, but the critter in question is now a celebrity, possessing an electrically-heated burrow. One wonders why the animal-rights activists haven’t stopped this heinous and vicious experiment, involving as it does evicting a poor animal from its house. Such disruption permitting, tomorrow morning’s ceremony will no doubt be a staple of much of daytime television. At least it’s not high-school basketball.

Rage in the Cage XX

Rodeo Nights, Phoenix AZ: 6th December 2000

“Well, I’ve thinked we’ve cleaned most of the blood out of the cage…”

The first rule of Fight Club is: you don’t talk about Fight Club. However, this didn’t quite apply to Rage in the Cage, which is how we came to hear about it, since it was promoted on a local radio station, on the Internet and in the press. The venue was a night-club on the West Side of Phoenix, and the audience were largely white, blue-collar and overwhelmingly male, but trouble-free – perhaps in part due to the promoter threatening to throw anyone who caused bother, into the cage. This loomed large in the middle of proceedings, a chain-link octagon, some ten feet tall, raised above the ground. A couple more feet would have been welcome – even our ‘ringside’ seats (six or seven rows back in actuality) had problems following the fight once the combatants went to the deck; next time, we’ll probably just go for the regular seating.

Before the first fight, promoter Roland Sarria introduced the event, and thanked his supporters, such as Dr. Haggard, the “official chiropractor of Rage in the Cage“. This seemed a potential conflict of interests (I wondered if we would see him shouting “twist his neck some more!” at the fighters), but I have to say that the medical aspects were taken very seriously and covered every bit as well as at any boxing event I’ve attended. As a novice here, an explanation of the rules would have been welcome: there obviously were some, as the referee more than once stepped in to warn one or other fighter about an illegal tactic, but we were left to work out for ourselves what was and was not permitted. I was also curious as to whether the contestants were paid for their efforts, or if this was purely an amateur sport; hard to work out which was more likely, but I imagine any rewards would probably be of the token variety.

Following a rendition of the National Anthem (a concept which this Limey still finds a little strange, but then, the British National Anthem tends only to be heard after the odd Grand Prix), we got into the first of the evening’s seventeen bouts. That might seem like a lot to get through, but most were over quickly — even with two-minute rounds, only one match got beyond the first, and that one was so dull that the round girl probably put in more effort than either fighter. Happily, that was an exception; most of the rest were fast, furious and over in anything from 24 seconds. To the untrained eye (which includes mine), it might seem like no more than brawling, but over the course of the evening, the skill factor became more apparent. Submission holds, in particular arm-bars in which the arm gets levered back against itself at the elbow, proved most popular, and often it was the person who appeared to be being pinned, who managed to put the lock on and force his opponent to tap-out.

Match-ups seemed to be done largely on the basis of weight, which meant there were some uneven bouts, where a veteran who’d won eight of his nine bouts, was pitted against a debutant; unsurprisingly, it soon became nine out of ten. Most of the fighters had picked a nickname befitting their style, such as Ragin’ Rhino or The Crippler – though one poor guy had gone for the somewhat lame The Bastard, which provoked the MC into commenting laconically, “Hey, they write ’em, I just read ’em”. This provoked some thought about the name I’d choose: I quite like the idea of being Jim The Flying Scotsman McLennan. And, indeed, I could, quite literally, have been a contender. At the middle of the event, Sarria issued an open invitation to anyone who fancied trying their arm at a future event to come and sign up. For a brief second, I almost contemplated it (we were a couple of beers down the line by now – I imagine the response generally might have been somewhat fuelled by alcohol), but I suspect it would have been one of those things that didn’t seem such a good idea the next morning. Reality delivered a sharp tap on the shoulder in this regard, with one bout during which they stopped to mop the blood out of the ring with towels. Okay…I think some training is in order before The Flying Scotsman makes his debut.

I generally prefer my violence well-choreographed and fictional, rather than in-my-face and real, but have to confess that by the end of the evening, I was beginning to get into the swing of things. What looked initially like two guys rolling around on the floor is certainly more complex, and my fears of a mindless punch-fest turned out to be totally unfounded. I left with a great deal of respect for all those who took part, and while I don’t think I’m going to become a regular – either as a spectator or a participant – but I think that the occasional visit to future events is certainly not out of the question.

The Truth About Cats & Dogs

I am a cat person. However, I find myself sharing a house with three dogs – partly because Chris has an unfortunate reaction to cats which involves hospital visits and anaphylactic shock, rather than a warm glow of affection. This is a new experience for me: I grew up in a house where there was always a cat around, and grew to admire their independent spirit, ruthless hunting skills and ability to lick their own genitals while maintaining a dignified expression. Our last cat – named Chicle, for reasons that I don’t think anyone ever explained to him or me – was a fine hunter, with his greatest trophy being a cleanly-severed pheasant’s head, though we always suspected the presence of a butcher’s shop nearby might have had more to do with that particular success.

If cats have a short-coming, it’s falling short on the personality front, once they get past the age where balls of wool are the greatest thing in the world. There was a point in Chicle’s life where we’d play a game of throw and fetch – I’d hurl him across the room onto the sofa, and he’d come running back to the fire for more – but he grew out of that. Adult cats all do pretty much the same things, purring, curling up by the fire and acting as the pet equivalent of the average stripper, their affection being in direct proportion to their needs.

There’s no denying, however, that the TC canines have their own distinct personalities. The senior citizen is Max, who in doggie years is older than the Queen Mother, and possesses both much the same gravitas, and agility. He is the Victor Meldrew of the household, answering only to Chris in her role as alpha-dog – when I attempt to command him, he suddenly turns his back and pretends to be deaf. This is actually entirely plausible given the loudness of his bark, which belies his years, and is only surpassed by the creaking of his joints when he rises in the morning. He also snores. I confess that, for a dog, Max is pretty cool.

The other two, Cody and Cleo, are both young enough to know worse, and their major role in life appears to be to inform everyone in the world to the fact that someone is at our front door – as if the noise of the bell hadn’t already alerted us. True, occasionally, they leap into action before the person reaches that point, but these are greatly outnumbered by the times they leap into action when a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian rain-forest, or some such non-event. Their failure to appreciate the difference between a gang of drug-crazed psychos bent on some home invasion and, say, the mail-lady, is somewhat unfortunate. Cody’s main attribute is a startlingly wet and cold nose – I think she must stick it in the freezer or something. Many’s the occasion on which I have been lost in thought at the computer, only to find my armpit being nuzzled by said proboscis. It’s a bit of a wake-up call, to say the least.

Cleo was an enforced gift from Chris’s ex-husband, who threatened to have her put down if we didn’t take her. Mind you, this is a man whom I have spoken to twice on the phone since getting here, and he has mistaken a 34-year old Briton for his 16-year old American son on both occasions. That tells you all you need to know about his parenting skills. I suspect Cleo may not have got off unscathed, since she doesn’t seem to have realised she no longer needs to rummage through the garbage for food. We dare not leave any form of consumable organic matter within reach and out of our sight, or its container will be shredded in a manner which leaves us wondering one thing: why the hell she didn’t do that to her previous master’s throat?

Indeed, on odd occasions, I have found her looking at me with an expression best summed-up as, “I could tear your face off”. This is Robert Downey Jr. in canine form, bringing a lot of baggage, in need of special handling, and voted “Most Likely to be Found in a Canal Tied To Bricks”. The only thing that has saved her skin so far is the fact that we can’t find a body of water big enough to drown her in all of Arizona – but we’re praying for rain…

Radical Desire

Radical Desire
by Housk Randall and Mark Ramsden
Published by Serpent’s Tail, £16.99

Got to give Serpent’s Tail big kudos for this one. Sub-titled Exploring The Cutting Edge of Western Sexual Experience, this baby rocks! The biggest clue to the fact that Radical Desire will be a worthwhile “experience” are the names of the book’s compilers, Housk Randall and Mark Ramsden. Ramsden is the author of two novels (one of which, The Dungeon Master’s Apprentice, I’ve read and really enjoyed), plays the sax and is justly proud of his tattoos and piercings. Randall spends his days working as a sex counsellor, but is better known for his award-winning erotic photography – he’s also the man behind the very well-received books, Rituals of Love and the stunning The Customised Body. So, it really goes without saying that putting these two together is going to produce something pretty special.

Radical Desire is a large-sized, 106 page paperback that just oozes high-class production. Combining the vision and genius of Housk Randall’s photos with the wit and wisdom of Mark Ramsden’s illuminating and lucid text, it delivers a rich and gripping journey through a rich seam of extreme sexual expression. The trip – magic mushrooms, anybody? – comprehensively covers a number of so-call radical desires, including tantric sex, sex magic, fetishism, occult practices, bondage and erotic piercing and performance art. Cynics might thing, “Oh, the usual subjects then?”…maybe so, but it’s the way that the authors approach their subject matter that makes this volume so interesting. The main point being that they both know the score; they’re on “the inside” looking out, which is of great benefit when trying to present their case.

Mark Ramsden makes a very valid point of stating that as fetishism (for example) becomes more mainstream, at the same time, tolerance towards people classes as “sexual outlaws” continues to decline. A strange paradox indeed! The media, of course, is a two-edged sword. Positive press is far outweighed by the attention given to the pathetic sensation-seeking so-(self)christened moral guardians. This basically is the drive and motivation behind the book; as a healthy dose of very welcome encouragement to those people out there with the courage to defy convention. The photos depict some of these people in all their proud glory, black and white masterpieces of graphic and sensitive design which are a pleasure to absorb.

Read this book, enjoy this book – at least you’ll discover what the magic mushroom reference is all about – for it deserves your utmost attention. Over 40? Fat? The style gurus say you’re not sexy, not horny – this book says “Bollocks!” An essential reference work…and bloody good fun too.

Whispering John Carter

We’re #1…We’re #1…

As mentioned in passing last time, it’s only through living in America that you come to realise just how insignificant an item Britain is, and how little most people care about what goes on there. The dearth of information appearing in the local newspaper here is striking, be it politics, sport (and I don’t just mean cricket) or any other area of affairs. It’s not just the newspapers, but all the other media too, and this approach may be generally common to Americans, perhaps resulting from a large chunk of the population being thousands of miles from any other country. Unless it happens to Americans, it really doesn’t happen, or so it seems – thank heavens for BBC America (though I’m not sure what Father Ted, a C4 programme is doing on there) and the Internet, which helps me to remain a citizen of the global community – as well as acquire dodgy bootlegs on Ebay and access a vast range of interesting…er, material.

I digress. The point is, that one British news item did make it into The Arizona Republic this past week: the report into serial-killer Harold Shipman, which discovered that he might have been responsible for the deaths of over 300 people. That’s quite some feat, and there was a grudging sense of pique in the reports, given that this figure would surpass anything any American serial-killer has ever done. Even Henry Lee Lucas only claimed three hundred or so, and he was a compulsive and habitual liar, who confessed to murders in Spain and Japan, despite never having left the good ol’ US of A. Sure, there may have been bigger murderers in the third world – the Colombian, Pedro Alonso Lopez, comes to mind here – but they don’t really count, since their victims don’t wear Nikes, and would quite probably have starved to death anyway.

On that score, in serial-killer chart terms, Shipman probably ranks a bit lower than his tally would indicate, since his victims were unlikely to have survived for all that much longer. Some would say, all that separates him from the other “Dr. Death”, Jack Kevorkian, is the relatively trivial matter of how much pain their patient-victims were in. And nor can Shipman claim to be the originator of this technique: in Boston just before the turn of the 20th century, Jane Toppan offed some 30 or more elderly patients with morphine, to become America’s biggest female murderess. And now, in similarly style, at the turn of the 21st century Harold Shipman did the same, only on a much bigger and millennial scale.

It does make me wonder how many other serial killers are lurking, unseen, out there in the medical profession. It’s an excellent cover, for in what other job are you expected to have people die when you take care of them. It is a salutory lesson for any wannabes, that it was only when Shipman changed his modus operandi and tried to profit from a victim’s death through being a beneficiary in her will, that he was caught. God alone knows how many more he might have killed if he hadn’t got greedy. He seemed to be going at about 12-13 a year, and probably had at least another decade or so before retirement. You do the maths.

Thinking back to my time at university, I do have to say that quite a high percentage of the “characters” to be found on campus, seemed to come out of the medical faculty. At the time, I tended to put this down to high spirits, or over-indulgence in alcohol – but the case of Harold Shipman should make anyone with the slightest sniffle look nervously over their shoulder before informing their GP. Hell, there are already enough statistics to suggest that hospital is a desperately unhealthy place to be if you are ill – I just never thought the reason was all the local sociopaths queuing up to mis-administer lethal injections…