The Shoe Leather Express

Writing and Comedy from James Harris

New shorts

‘When Daddy Punched the Bear’

I remember the day like it were yesterday; myself, my sister, and my brother Engelbert or as we knew him, Angelic Bert. There we sat on the picnic cloth in the grounds of our stately home, which Daddy had recently purchased on eBay. The only sounds were Englbert peeling a pork pie – it was a weird habit of his, to denude and then suck apart the residual pork filling – and my sister quietly turning the pages of her book. Mummy and Daddy, still deeply in love in this, their eighth year of marriage, looked at each other adoringly above the eggs and the coffee.

Suddenly, the bear emerged from the woods, roaring and growling and being generally bear-like. For some reason its neck had been bound with a red handkerchief, almost cowboyesque in its tying, and perhaps that had contributed to its aggrieved air. The bear was going fucking nuts, and quite soon it was right next to our family, stomping and rasping and coming perilously close to knocking over a pot of gherkins.

As you can imagine, we children reacted with terror, leaping into each other’s arms in a small cluster of fear and, in Bert’s case, masticated pork. We shot troubled, frightened eyes to Mummybuns and Daddykins, imploring them to rescue us from the savage beast which had now intruded upon our lunch.

But we had reckoned without Daddy. There he rose, drawing himself up to his full height of five-foot ten, courageous and comfortable-looking in chinos and an M&S checked shirt, to punch that bear right in its fucking face. ‘Take that, you cunt!’ he yelled. It was the first time I had heard the word.

Stunned, the bear bellowed and cantered back to the woods, its head and back bending as it leapt into the thicket. Gradually the weeping and sobbing faded and we children made our way apart from each other once again. Mummy moved to Daddy with a devotion bordering on erotic mania, and Daddy spoke. ‘Now,’ he said, regaining his composure and the mustard knife, ‘We are all going to enjoy our picnic.’

800px-Flemish_Flag_(8610710241)

‘I Am a Flemish Nationalist’

I am a Flemish nationalist. I believe in the independence of Flanders, the need of the Flems to liberate themselves from the Wallonian yoke, and the supremacy of Flemish business and cultural practice. If the world were more like Flanders, it would be a measurably better place – but as it is, the part of the world which is most Flanderian, Flanders, should be allowed to exult in its own sheer Flemishness, and so doing prove a beacon amongst the nations.

The walls of my house are coloured gold and black, and decorated with hand-carved lions. I begin each morning with a chorus of De Vlaamse Leeuw, our national hymn, before a breakfast heap of the finest Ghent chocolates. I read exclusively Flemish nationalist authors of the early 20th century, and my daily diet consists entirely of pure beer and fries, although I am careful to consume only potatoes sourced from Flemish soil, though I do like French mustard. Over my buttocks spreads a tattoo of Eddie Merckx, five times Tour de France winner, and on my wall a framed photograph of myself with Jan Jambon, the Belgian Interior Minister. His name in English is Jan Ham – but such trivialities do not amuse me.

My children, Jan and Agnes, have also been reared as strident Flemish nationalists. It was on only his fifth birthday that Jan brought an entire room of assembled relatives to tears with his recital of the 19th-century nationalist poet K. L. Ledeganck’s ‘Zegepraal van’s Lands onafhankelijkheid’ (‘Our country’s triumphant independence’), all 150 lines learnt by heart. How we wept! Then my beloved Agnes sang us a medley of dEUS songs, accompanying herself on the electric viola; really, how could we fail to cry further? Sadly I was forced to leave my wife as, during the recent World Cup, she began supporting the country of Belgium, a nation I do not recognize. I had no choice but to remove both her and a six-metre Belgian flag from my apartment, and I have no idea as to her current whereabouts.

I must mention, of course, I have never lived in, been to or even intend to visit Flanders. In fact I live quite happily in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My neighbours by now know to leave me well alone, and I am able to stay fully in touch with Flemish culture via a variety of online streaming services. Not that, of course, I pay for them: I may be a diehard Flemish nationalist, but I’m not a fool.

Saussure_Signifie-Signifiant

There was a problem with a word

The phone rang.

‘Major?’

‘Yes?’

‘Can you hear me? It’s Collins sir, Sergeant Collins.’

‘Oh right. How can I help sergeant?’

‘Well sir, we have a bit of a problem.’

‘Of course; as your commanding officer, I’m always here to listen. Even at this ungodly hour.’

‘I must say sir that’s very reassuring. It’s about a word sir.’

‘Yes?’

‘A word sir. It appears to have stopped working.’

‘What does that mean sergeant?’

‘Well – there’s no easy way to explain it. I mean, that’s the problem. Sir, you know the liquid you drink.’

‘What?’

‘The liquid that you drink to survive.’

‘Water?’

‘Yes, that’s exactly it Major, exactly that. Well – it’s the word sir. It’s stopped working. I mean, the concept is still understood. But when you just say the word sir, it doesn’t mean anything to the men anymore. The – uh – signifier has become detached from the signified.’

‘Speak English, Collins!’

‘I’m trying to sir but the men no longer seem to understand it. At least that one word. And a few others too, actually. Like – lace curtains. That’s not so important down here, not an item coming up so much in conversation, just like Twister, marsupial and pail, which are also all not working. But it’s really the word water which is causing all the problems.’

‘Well – alright… What on earth do you expect me to do about it?’

‘I don’t know sir. I thought you might have some advice.’

‘Advice. You want advice. Have you tried, ah, pointing at things?’

‘That’s what we’re doing sir. But that’s not always practical. You can’t do that in the middle of an engagement with the enemy sir, you might get your bloody arm off!’

‘Then what about using a verb? To drink or even as a noun phrase, can I have a drink?’

‘Sure sir but a drink could be anything. I mean, you could ask for a drink and be given a coffee, when actually what you wanted is – you know. That clear, essential liquid.’

‘I see. I can well imagine how this is something of a problem.’ There was a long pause. ‘How about – well, how about a new word?’

‘New word sir?’

‘Yes, yes, a new word. It’d have to be one which no-one has used before. Like – let’s see – snupup.’

‘Snupap sir?’

‘I said snupup sergeant. Snup-up.’

‘And what does that mean?’

‘It means – well, it means that vital clear liquid all drink to survive. And which our bodies are composed of up to about 60%.’

‘Right. Snapup.’

‘Yes, snapup, snupup, whatever.’

‘Right you are sir. I’ll take that back to the men and we’ll give it a go. Snupap! Thank you so much sir. I knew you’d help.’

‘It’s late, sergeant. Is there anything else?’

‘Yes sir – there is one more thing.’

‘Yes?’

‘We appear to be running out of snupup.’

 

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Proposal For The Second English Civil War

Angus Kirk Fight

Photo from Angus Kirk. Licenced under CC by 2.0.

What a tremendous pickle this country has got itself into. Eighteen months on from that referendum the UK remains hopelessly divided, between young and old, north and south, university graduates and people who hate them. Our lamentable political class are circling each other like ducks with bread up their bumholes and as for our press – well, those guys are currently exploring the previously unheralded territory between fascism and music hall. Our country is going to the dogs who we will be shortly forced to eat.

In this context, please allow me – a balding 35-year old from Nottingham and frequently-rejected supplicant to the metropolitan elite – to propose my own solution. In my view, there’s nothing about our current collective national imbroglio that a good old-fashioned English Civil War wouldn’t fix.

It seems so obvious when you think about it. After all, in such matters, England has always been ahead of the continent. We got to our own previous Civil War as early as the 1640s, a full three hundred years before our Spanish neighbours. Typical Spanish idleness! Plus we already have all the conditions in place for our society-destroying reboot. We have two bitterly opposed camps, one of which advocates parliamentary sovereignty regardless of its human cost, and another of disorganized loyalists to a recently-toppled regime. Just like the Royalists of old, with their sympathies to continental ‘Popery’, the Remain masses are seen as open to foreign ideas to a suspicious degree, all in good contrast with the stout, bitter-drinking Roundheads of Brexit. And just like Cromwell’s lot, the Brexit bunch seem to have no qualms about threatening the actual really-existing Parliament when it disobeys them.

Clearly the New English Civil War will be a little different from the first. For example this time around, executing our monarch is unlikely to resolve many issues and may even complicate them. Also, unlike last time, Scotland and London are firmly in the hands of loyalists to the ancien regime, stocked as they are by an unholy alliance of freelance creatives, German IT consultants, and Polish people who can fix things. Just like back then though the Parliamentarians base their success on extraordinary victories in places no-one has ever heard of: What, for example, is Spalding? To communicate this blend of historical similarity and difference, I suggest supporters of the EU retain the previous term Cavaliers, while Brexit puritans are from now known as Blockheads. After all we are currently being told Brexit will allow us to diverge and harmonize at the same time.

How the war will go is anyone’s guess. On one hand, the New Cavaliers have youth on the side; on the other they, with their hipster beards, need to caffeinate constantly and inability to commit to long-term relationships, look far from battle ready. In contrast the Blockheads are clearly an older army – but one brief clip from Question Time tells you they’re one more than ready to kill. Indeed are actively looking for an excuse to do so. As battle is joined, can we see really the cosseted denizens of Richmond Park or Cambridge putting up much resistance to pitchfork-wielding northern pensioners? On the other hands – if the New Cavaliers destroy Grimsby, how will we be able to tell?

In keeping with modern sensibilities I suggest the war be pacific in nature. Instead of guns, each side will be armed with symbolic weaponry. On the pro-EU side, soldiers will carry yards of ‘Brussels Red Tape’, used to baffle and tether their foes (until the need for a response creates the even more nightmarish British Red Tape, able to induce migraines from over two years away). For their part, the Leave hordes will drench enemies of the people from water guns mounted on white vans filled with lashings and lashings of weak English lager supplied by General JD Wetherspoon. Fighting will be intense, but bloodless; the clash of croissant on powerful non-EU regulated vacuum cleaner, the battlefield ringing with the ‘God Save the Queen’ against the pinging of the Duolingo app. War is no reason to neglect your language learning! Once a soldier is fallen, either a Cavalier from exhaustion at making the same two repeated arguments over a period of many years without any response or, in the case of the Blockheads, chlorinated-chicken poisoning, they are to be daubed with a symbol of their hated foe. This will either be a tiny Euro sign or a pound sterling symbol, with the total of such currency symbols then counted at the end of the battle to determine the overall winner. However before said counting, 18% of pound sterling’s value will be deleted, and this will be subject to further depreciation over the course of the war. To counter this, Leave commanders will deny that it is even happening.

Having a good old-fashioned internecine conflict is simply the honourable British thing to do. To this end I plan to raise the New Cavalier standard on March 30 at London’s Old Street roundabout, after which we will have a rare vinyl auction followed by a live DJ set from Gina Miller. The same day, a similar Blockhead ceremony will take place at Barnsley Town Hall, after which there’ll be ham sandwiches and a public execution. As I look out of the rows of boyish man-buns and Chinese-character tats I’ll be better able to assess the chances of those who wear the Blue and Gold. And if we Cavaliers are to lose again we can always console ourselves that the last time parliamentary sovereignty became a moral absolute in English politics its advocates only held onto power eleven years before everyone got thoroughly sick of them and their joyless bullshit. Victory or no, we Cavaliers can march on regardless to 2027 when a delegation to Brussels will be dispatched to solicit our re-entry to the bloc, and the most tremendous piss-up held for the UK’s ecstatic EU Restoration. The bonfires of blue passports will burn all night.

Two politicians talk about God

This poem was written in 2012.

 

Cameron and Clegg at Downing street,

Last meeting before Christmas done.

Nick puts on his coat to leave

And Cameron stops him with ‘Nick.’

‘Hmm?’ ‘Just one thing, chum, a question –

Do you believe in God?’

A pause, and Clegg answers hesitantly,

‘Actually I don’t. Since my youth I’ve been an atheist

I’ve never had much use

For bells and smells and promises

Which life itself can’t keep. I read

The works of Samuel Beckett, who would’ve

Prayed to God but -’

‘He doesn’t exist,’ says Cameron.

Then Clegg: ‘Surprised you know the quote.

I don’t believe in God, but

In the interests of full disclosure I should state

My sons are being raised Catholic.’

Nick goes further into his coat, then farther

To the door; at which point he turns, seeing

David stood in the room’s middle

Blowing his cheeks out,

Face puffy and red-eyed

From tiredness and overwork.

‘And you?’ after a moment Nick asks.

‘Oh it comes and goes.

I like to read the Bible…

I’m a cultural Christian…

But I wouldn’t say I believe.

Increasingly I find in meetings

My mind hovers above the fray,

In our interminable monetary discussions

I end up somewhere else.

The scene I see is seashores

And families playing there;

Ice cream on children’s faces,

Wasps in the orange juice.

I believe, I think I realize,

In a very British God –

A kind of aquatic protector

Who keeps this island safe.

I operate in a basic wavering

Position of vague belief;

You could say I’m a coalition

Of certainty and doubt.’

Nick nods and turns back to the door,

Then holds just another tick.

‘We should talk about these things more often,

It might help us win the day.’

Cameron gives a half-smile then says, at last

‘Give my love to your family

And enjoy the Christmas break.’

Cameron Clegg

Image Credit: The Cabinet Office.

Registers

Doctor. So, Fred, what seems to be the problem?

Patient. It’s my knee doctor, it’s gone all creaky-weaky.

Pause.

Doctor. You’re having mobility issues?

Patient. Yes, when I go bendy-wendy my knee goes poppy-pop-pop.

Doctor. I see, ah. Perhaps you would like to demonstrate for me.

Pause.

Demonstrate?

Patient. Oh, right, demonstrate.

The patient does.

Doctor. Ah yes, I do see what you mean.

Patient. You

can hear it?                        Doctor. I can hear it.

Patient. Poppy-pop.

Doctor. Yes, exactly, popp-itsy-pop. And tell me – do you have to miturcate more?

Patient. What?

Doctor. Do you have to go more widdly-diddly?

Patient. Widdly… diddly?

Doctor. Er… Piddly… widdly?

Patient. Oh yes, I have to go piddly-widdly in the nighty-wighty. Sometimes more than three times!

Doctor. And what about flatulence?

Patient. Flat-u-lens?

Doctor. Bum pops?

Patient. Oh yes Doctor, lots of bum pops. Pfff! Bwf! Bfff.

Doctor. Bum pops, right, frequent, and bum drops? What about those?

Patient. Yes Doctor. Very big bum pops. Big stinky! Poooo! Bummmm!

Doctor. Well, you’ve given me a lot of clues. You’ve got a creaky-weaky knee that goes pop-pop when you bendy-wendy, you need to go piddly-widdly in the nighty-wighty, you’ve bum pops and big stinky bum drops, and also marked cognitive degeneration. Yes, it’s quite clear what’s happening here. You’re getting older.

Patient. Doctor is it serious?

Doctor. In the sense that anything is. Pretty soon you you’ll be deady-weddy, Freddy. Deady-weddy-forevs-no-teddy-Freddy. No more bum pops or piddle-dee-diddle for you; you friend are going to die.

 

An absurd election

The best analogy I could make for this British election is that it is like a patient who has received a diagnosis. They have a terminal disease, but it is not yet visible, so they begin to make up a vast series of plans which they will in all probability never be able to realize, or indeed afford; at other times they are defiant and resolved to beat the illness. In reality their later death – evident for now in only the odd palpable niggle – is inevitable, but the patient, and those who love it, cannot bring themselves to spoil this period, perhaps its last one before reality bites, by mentioning the fact.

So the central absurdity of calling an election because of Brexit but never discussing Brexit, or if doing so, employing only the most vapid terms, such as our Prime Minister’s claim that if we only believe in Brexit enough everything will be alright. Presumably we have to click our heels together three times while doing so. Post-Brexit Britain may indeed be like Oz, only this time Scarecrows lose even more brains and the Yellow Brick Road is made of horseshit. Such fantastical stories are now, to the extent that it can be said to have anything so rigid, the backbone of British politics. The parties and their supporters seemed locked in curious reveries of historical revival, either 19th-century nationalism, or the protective huddle of the post-war settlement; presumably these latter are people for whom the 1950s were a glamorous time. It seems to me sometimes that there is no period of British history sufficently dreary to not at some point give birth to a nostalgia industry.

Nonetheless there are still some of us living on this island who care deeply about Brexit. There are people for whom a Britain outside the EU presents a fundamental challenge to their identity. Of course, Brexit fans, ever reliable in their delivery of their three or four arguments, will say that Europe and the EU are two different things. This is true. But to my particular tribe, the EU is first of all a tool to allow us to easily live our lives as Europeans; to travel, study, and work, across Europe’s countries, to deepen our understanding of the continent.

When I say my tribe, which one do I mean? My tribe is perhaps defined as being that of the people who are not particularly keen on the idea of tribes. Who cross between cultures, who exchange, who are proud citizens of the world. We are, by dint of the complexity of such identities, small in number, but we do nonetheless have the right to represent ourselves and be represented. We have a shared knowledge of Europe which binds us and breeds our closeness, and to us, this British election and its language seems more foreign than living abroad. We have more in common with Emmanuel Macron than Theresa May. We find the language of being ‘pro-Europe’ very strange, because Europe is just the place we live in, with all its drawbacks and positives. How can you be ‘pro’ or ‘con’ a geographical region?

I admit freely that my tribe’s cosmopolitan identity is an elitist one. I myself was only able to move to Germany as a young man thanks to subsidies from my parents for language courses and rent. Clearly, not enough people in this country enjoyed similar opportunities, or they would never have voted to squander ones so precious. If the EU is an attempt to create transnational solidarity between European citizens, it has not, for most people in the UK, worked. But still – our elitist identity is still an identity, and an identity is how you make sense of the world. And what I am asking myself at this election is, as no one else is going to, What is the future of this, my tribe, in the UK?

In the recent Dutch election there was a party called ‘Denk’, formed to represent immigrants and their rights by immigrants themselves. If ‘Denk’ were running in the UK it would have my vote in a flash, not just because any party which translates as ‘Think’ would be a welcome addition to the British political scene. At a basic level, I want my country to start being kinder to immigrants, to stop demonizing them, to become more welcoming again. Even more than being in or out of the EU, I realize, I want to live in a country which welcomes foreigners, and certainly not one that seems to believe it has nothing to learn from them. I want to live somewhere open to the world.

On offer is the contrary. The immigration crackdown the Tories propose is predictably draconian but nowhere more so than in its proposal to raise income thresholds for marriage spousal visas for non-EU citizens from their current, ridiculous level of 18.6 thousand a year, a sum that is to be earned solely by the party who is a British national. The idea that only by earning more than a particular amount am I allowed to marry the person I want is both absurd and cruel. The undermining of the right to marriage alone deserves to lose the Tories the election; conversely, Labour, which proposes to abolish the thresholds, deserves to win on that basis. Such harsh immigration laws are a calculated insult to my tribe: ‘How dare you fuck foreign!’, they say. They make many of my us, I am sure, desperate to take our business elsewhere; our taxes, our children, and our expertise.

Meanwhile, the absurd election continues. Some promise vast sums of public money the coming economic contraction will render impossible; others boast of a crackdown on the workers that the new country will desperately need to even just stay afloat. Hard facts are scant, and as for serious thinking; well, let’s just say that there’s never been a better time in England to be an utter bonehead. Hard, seeing this, not to feel profoundly alienated, and to feel little love for a country threatening to become both the only country in Europe my tribe would never want to live in, and the only place we will be allowed to. If we do indeed leave our country, as the online Brexit army frequently request of us, it’s hard not to see British life in our absence becoming even more insular and adrift, more snug in its monolingualism, hostility and ignorance. Many of us feel this to be precisely the reason we should stay. But that means accepting that the country we want to live in, Britain in the EU, is not going to exist anymore.

Europe goes on. Recently I was in Brussels when I saw a shop selling EU memorabilia. I went inside and bought a small EU bracelet, and a flag. I was thinking that as I ordered the flag, using the French which I taught myself and practiced by working across the continent this gesture was, for a middle-class bloke from Nottingham, an act of resistance of sorts. Of course, what it in fact was identity politics, albeit the identity politics of an elite. It was an elite that a great many people and not quite enough of them had been offered the chance to enter. In Britain our elite identity, in its complexity, has been rejected. But once you had joined this elite, there was no going back. It was who you were.

Union_Jack_and_the_european_flag

Photo by Dave Kellman on a Creative Commons License 2.0.