The Shoe Leather Express

Writing and Comedy from James Harris

Category: Prose

A memory

At times like this I comfort myself with the time I played a tiger in a Lana Del Rey video. Oh, I remember – the way we filmed the long takes, the heaviness of the tiger suit, Lana’s preternatural calm. I remember most of all though the breaks, when they’d winch the head off me, and I’d have a brief few minutes to prowl about. One day my walks took me to the back of the studios where I met, all alone, Lana. She was standing there smoking in that beautifully-sculpted, slightly-taller than you might think hipster way. And I remember approaching her, stooped, my paws raised, and going ‘Ra!’ And Lana saying ‘God – you scared me!’ And me saying, ‘Sorry.’ And then her, ‘Are you a real tiger?’ And me replying ‘No, I’m a translator from Nottingham.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘Lower your paws.’ And so I did and stood before my idol; she was so radiant I had to look at my feet. And Lana said, ‘It’s so stressful all this, don’t you think?’ ‘And the lights are hot – especially for me.’ ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I have to search really hard to find a moment for myself. You won’t tell anyone I’m here will you?’ ‘Nottingham men,’ I said, ‘are famously taciturn.’ And she laughed at that, and I really felt that it was going well – who knows where the conversation could have gone from there. Maybe she liked men dressed as big cats. But next moment one of her people had found her and could be seen approaching with a coffee and an ashtray for her cigarette and also an arm leading her back to the set. She was gone.

That was nine years ago. I’m still a translator from Nottingham, and she’s more famous and respected than ever. But I’ll always have the time I played a tiger in her video. Often as the nights draw in I find myself looking at photos; look, that’s me on the left. The other guy’s a tiger.

Video to ‘Born to Die’ (2013), directed by Woodkid.

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.


Recently I was in Europe waiting for a bus, in one of the lengthy journeys which have punctuated my thirties. I was in Lille, the bus was very late, and I noticed that waiting with me – in the tiny waiting area, no more than a dias above an elevator – was a French family. They were a grandmother, a granddad and two kids, a boy and a girl. As other buses came and went, it gradually became clear that we were all waiting for the same bus to London.

Eventually, the bus did arrive, and even late we had to change onto another bus at Calais. Once the disarray of relocation had settled, I found myself sat next to the boy from that family, who, I deduced by his grandmother’s frequent address, was called Gaspard. First of all Gaspard was sat near the window, but after we went through customs twice, I ended up there. I asked the returning young man, ‘Vous voulez à la fenêtre?’ and Gaspard said it was no problem, which disposed me to him no end.

We made it through that tunnel. Occasionally, the grandmother would ask Gaspard if he was alright, and he would say he was; an hour passed, and when I looked over next Gaspard was sleeping. I looked down on him, this well-dressed and exhausted figure, and wrote him a poem.


Gaspard, tu dors.

Le monde est grand

Et tu sais bien que

Tu auras beaucoup à faire.

Gaspard, tu dors.

Tu as bien raison.


Doing this amused me. And with the poem being so simple, I decided to have another go at it in German.


Kaspar, du schläfst.

Die Welt ist ja groß und

Du weiß schon, dass

Du viel tun wirst.

Kaspar, du schläfst.

Du hast wohl recht.


And, as I was still amusing myself, I tried it in English.


Cuthbert, you sleep.

The world’s so big and

You’re well aware

You’ll have a lot to do.

Cuthbert, you sleep.

That’s probably right.


That was enough for now. But perhaps others might want to try translating the poem into their languages? It’s called ‘Gaspard’.

Approaching London 0n 26.02.2017.

Entering London 0n 26.02.2017.


Later we approached London in a storm. The night was vast and no ideas counted; I saw pubs dashed by rain and blistered neon. I thought, I want nothing more than to be here, seeing this, and in some way this child’s presence is part of my feeling. For his part, of course, it is unlikely he will ever read this tribute or indeed even know of its or remember my existence. Still he was cool guy. When we finally arrived I wished him ‘un beau temps a Londres.’ ‘À vous aussi’, he replied, to you too.


In a delightful addendum to the story, my friend Elo Zobel has now provided an Estonian version. Tänan väga, Elo.

Kaspar, sa magad

Maailm on suur

Ja sa tead et sa pead


Kaspar, sa magad

Ja nii ongi hea.

City snapshots


A friend wants to move to London.
‘Do you like talking about property?’
‘Well – it’s OK, I guess.’
‘No, but I mean – do you like it?’
‘I suppose.’
‘Do you love it though?’
‘I guess –‘
‘Do you love it above all things? Do you dream of it? Do you burn for it? Do you want to wake up in the night crying property, property, property? Do you want it to haunt your every waking move? Well?’
‘You’re scaring me man…’
‘Do you? Do you? Do you?’
‘Leave me alone!’
‘Come back here! You come back!’


Terry Robinson/Creative Commons/Geograph. Click images to access sources.


After the reading us writers were talking. The successful one spoke.
‘So I’ve been watching all the classics of the genre. Texas Chainsaw, Night of the…’
‘Human Centipede.’
‘Haven’t seen it. It’s the one where they sew people’s faces to each other’s bums, right? Sounds awful. What about you?’
They turned to me.
‘What about me?’
‘Well…’ I thought. ‘I guess my favourite horror film is a movie called Suspiria…’
‘Oh, is it? God, really?’
The successful writer literally arched an eyebrow.
‘Yeah – it is. It’s got my favourite scene in any horror film in it, where the heroine is fleeing an assailant and jumps through a window into a room of barbed wire. Heh.’
‘So,’ another writer said, ‘I’m really excited about the new Star Wars film…’


Nicobobinus/Creative Commons/Photoree.

Nicobobinus/Creative Commons/Photoree.

On the way home I tried to think why the successful writer had reacted like that to my favourite horror film. But I couldn’t, except for imagining that the writer had some idea that a writer had to be catty, had to belittle, to denigrate. But I was too old to be anything other than loving, and knew the only way to approach life was with a big smile and my arms wide open, ready to take it all on. My door had always to be open; I had less time.


Kamal Hamid/Creative Commons/Flickr.

Kamal Hamid/Creative Commons/Flickr.

Yeah, she was at the gig.
The girl?
The one I went on a date with.
Who ghosted you afterwards.
Who ghosted me afterwards, right.
And I think that’s what got into me. You know, I was just determined to be really funny, because she was watching. So I just really launched myself into it, you know; I think I might have overdone it a bit actually, I was a bit frenetic.
Anyway, she just won a competition. Well – she came second actually. So now I’m going to have to win a competition.
Because she did?
But you can’t dedicate your whole career to keeping up with her. I mean, just because she turned you down once.
Why not…
… I mean, just because she ghosted you.
Why not?
I mean it’s not as if you want marriage and children is it.
(A pause).
No, I don’t. Not really.
Then what are you making a fuss about? If you don’t want marriage and children, you’re just messing around.
Yeah. You are right.
I know I’m right.
But she’s really pretty –
So, when are you next performing?

The border guard

I fell in love at the border crossing, which slowed down my passage somewhat. I lingered there for a few days, writing down my impressions, imagining our future. I had it all pictured – the suburban house, the cherubic kids, your face being told the news of my death. Somehow this was the most romantic moment. But the reality was the corridor, and men in khakis whose voices dropped as I passed, and gazing lengthily over empty offices. Where were you? Not at the compound, and not beyond, not in the fields where I walked – until the dirt caked my best shoes, and I decided suddenly one night to move out, through the fences, back onto that long new country road.