How Not To Die On a Bike in London

Here is a piece I wrote for the New Statesman‘s transport-themed week, A to B. Ever since I wrote it I feel like I’ve jinxed myself. I put my helmet on in the morning and I wonder if it’s a prelude to my death. I think: “Will the mortician get my eyebrows right?”

****

I’ve been a cyclist in central London for almost two years and I am not yet dead.

This is probably statistically rare given I am 20-something and female, and when thinking back over my first year it certainly feels like an unlikely outcome. Look at me typing on the internet. I could be dead instead of doing this but somehow I’m not. Either I’m invincible or I have learned how not to die. Since I burn myself every single time I make toast, I can assume the invincibility theory is bogus, so it must be the latter.

I feel I should share my discoveries. If you’re going to jump on a bike and head out into London, these are the things you need to know that you won’t find in any guidebook:

1. The most dangerous person on the road is the suit on a Boris bike. Avoid him. He is the first move in every Rube Goldberg-esque pile-up. The last time the suit on a Boris bike was on a bike he was eight and he fell off. Now he’s loose on the open road and has no idea where he’s going but he’s a businessman and he gets stuff done so he’s going to do it anyway. You know what these people are like, you’ve seen The Apprentice. Grade A bullshitters. He goes the wrong way down one-way streets, he goes straight down the centre of a two-lane bike path. When correcting him you are summarily told to “fuck off” and reminded that he earns more than you do. (NB. This could also be straight up “Boris Johnson on a Boris bike”. Political.)

2. The second most dangerous person on the road is probably HGVs but really it’s a toss-up between the bone-crushing huge vehicles that glide over steel bike frames/fleshy humans and “the lady with the billowing skirt who obviously has not seen that documentary about Isadora Duncan”. Avoid both. The lady with the skirt will crash because she is i. attempting to tuck her skirt between her legs instead of looking where she’s going, or ii. her skirt will become entwined in the chain and she will fall over exactly sideways and become inextricable from her bicycle. She will take down everyone in a 20-foot radius and will blame everyone but herself.

3. The new cyclist about London will learn that there is a lot of buttcrack in this city. Miles of buttcrack hang out of London trousers every day of the year. Even February.

4. The new cyclist will learn (eventually, emphatically) that “bicycle maintenance” is not just a thing for other people. If something is going weird on your bike – wobbling or making a strange noise – investigate. This might involve taking it to a person who knows better and just coming clean, ignorance-wise. Do not think “it’ll probably be fine” because it definitely won’t be, and do not under any circumstances “MacGyver” a solution. If you do not sort this out properly your bike will collapse beneath you after something important snaps off (for instance) and you will smash your face in on an Islington footpath (for instance) and leave a blood-based Jackson Pollock street-painting behind when the ambulance come to take your concussed ass to hospital (for instance). Buy a book or do a google. Buy a tool or two.

5. Cherish your teeth and eat crunchy food while you still can. Avoid soup and porridge so that when you have to spend six months eating only soup and porridge you can handle it without turning to suicide. For instance.

6. Think about your crash position now before it happens. When it does happen, don’t scream. Teeth are surprisingly durable but only when covered by lips, and dental work is more expensive than you can possibly imagine. To put it in the terms that hit home for me: dental work is “two overdrafts and you have to phone your parents” expensive.

7. Find a dentist who is endlessly weird-looking so you don’t get bored of seeing his face twice a week for half a year.

8. You can never have enough locks. Two, minimum. London bikes work like umbrellas in that you never actually own one, you just occupy it briefly in a time-share scenario. Love your bike but know it will eventually leave you just like everything else.

9. People in cars have no idea how long their car’s nose is and will stick that nose right out into the middle of your bike lane. Or whatever that thing at the front of a car is called. I don’t know, I don’t drive, I have a bike.

10. You will find yourself hating one of the finest inventions of all time: the wheelie suitcase. Dragged behind tourists in Bloomsbury, this suitcase is always left in the middle of the cycle lane long after the tourist itself has leapt out of the way. Tourists do not see it as an extension of themselves. The tourist believes they are not defined by their tour/carry-on.

11. Just because someone is wearing more Lycra that you does not mean they’re a more experienced rider, it just means they bought more Lycra than you. See also: artists with better tools, leather portfolios; writers with Moleskines. Do not follow this person’s lead on the road, they are lost.

12. Nurses treat you better if you were wearing a helmet when it all went wrong. Even if the helmet actively made your injuries worse, the nurse is slightly less likely to badmouth you to the doctor inspecting your face/remains of your mouth. Wear a helmet but know it’s for nurses, not your own head.

13. Black cab drivers want you dead. Once a year a black cab driver will scream out of a passing window a sentence along the lines of “I HOPE YOU FUCKING DIE YOU CUNT” just to remind you of their feelings. The last time I was in a black cab I actually sat in a puddle of cold human semen, so: black cabs, the feeling is pretty mutual.

14. Related: There is a man in London with “FUCK” tattooed down one calf and “TAXIS” down the other. He wears shorts all winter and even Criswell can predict how he is going to die.

15. Nobody likes the guy on the fixie bike who balances at the lights. Put your foot down. We’re grown-ups. We’re not playing that game where the ground is lava.

16. On any given ride you will invariably encounter two women cycling side by side, chatting, taking up the entire road with their slow-moving floral basket machines. If you hang back for a minute you can catch one slapping the other in the face when they both indicate right.

17. Pedestrians never look where they’re going. Like, never. You will spend your first year marvelling at the confidence with which they stride into the road looking at their phones or run right out into intersections unexpectedly. You will spend the rest of your life dodging them and wondering when they’ll notice how close to death they just came. They won’t. My mum once gave me a piece of advice: “Assume everyone else is an idiot”. I can’t remember what it was for or about (maybe dudes, condoms) but I’ve repurposed it for cycling in London.

19. Your first year on a bike is terrifying but brilliant. You learn how London fits together. You realise you can propel your feeble human body from one end of it to the other for no money and get less fat doing it. A day of errands becomes an hour of errands. There are reasons bike couriers exist: it takes them a fraction of the time it takes someone in a car to do it, or someone on legs or in a bus or tube. Being on a bike in London is one of the most liberating things in the world: it’s as close to wings or a jetpack as we’re going to get until those scientists stop mooching about and make us some cooler stuff.

But at the end of your first year you will wear this expression almost permanently. Shocked and appalled, over and over and over and over.

Unless you’re dead or your face is broken and you can’t make any expressions at all. All of which are possible.

——

(Originally published here. They changed Criswell to Michael Fish because no one at the New Statesman knows who Criswell is. I changed it back because obviously.)

ALSO! I was on the New Statesman podcast talking about bikes and dying. You can hear my fucky-weird accent on Episode 18.

Posted in New Statesman

I Blame Myselves

I’m not gonna lie to you here: I am a person on the Internet, and unless you’re trying to fool future employers or put your dick in something you’re not supposed to I see no reason to lie on Internet. And so:

I google myself on a pretty regular basis.

We’re talking once a day at most, a number scaled down from the original when I discovered “the Google alert” some years ago. Now there is less need. Not no need. Less. Before I discovered the Google alert I was googling myself somewhere in the double digits. Now I just google my name with various misspellings to catch anything the Google alert might have missed, although I have alerts for those too (belts and braces). I search my name on Twitter to see how many of my real life friends are following other Hayley Campbells without noticing and I am horrified. Do I have a problem? I don’t reckon so. You people do this too. It’s just you don’t put it on the Internet.

In high school computer lessons (in the ‘90s, with our beige Hewlett Packards) we all googled ourselves for the first time. It was an all-girls Catholic school and our computer teacher was an enormous toad-like variation on Dame Edna: wide mouth, wider arse, purple rinse. Like something out of the 1960s typing pool she once swam in when thinner, she taught us how to touch-type with hankies over our fingers and schooled us in the correct way to sit at the computer. “Tits out, ladies. If you have ‘em, flaunt ‘em, if you don’t, lie. Tits out, ladies. Miss Campbell, I can’t see you sticking your titties out. Tits out, ladies, tits out.”

Mantra.

(As a consequence of these lessons I occasionally type too fast for my computer and have to sit back and let it catch up – the words scrolling across the screen without me like a Player Piano. I am also frequently complimented on my excellent computer posture unlike my standing posture, which is the trademark stoop of the giant lady with soft-spoken friends. Imagine a shy polar bear.)

But in this computer class during the embryonic Genesis period of The Internet we googled our names for the very first time. “I’m a politician in Canada!” someone would cry.

“I’m a famous Olympic swimmer!”

“I got arrested for getting my cock out in a city I’ve never heard of!” said someone with a non-gender specific name.

All around the classroom were girls finding out what identically named humans were up to. And then I googled myself.

“I’m a – uh.”

Silence. Expectation. Was Hayley Campbell a seal trainer at Sea World in America? Did she get dragged into the pool and eaten by an orca? Was she a heart surgeon who travelled to Malawi and saved a tiny baby, pro bono?

No. According to Google, Hayley Campbell was a 13-year-old girl living in Brisbane, Australia, with a dad who drew autobiographical comics and sometimes put her in them. It was me. I googled myself and I got: myself. I was top Hayley Campbell on the Internet and summarily uninvited from the Google game. It continued without me and my stuck-out tits.

From then on, I googled myself in private. Now all it does is remind me that instead of saving the planet like the ecologist Hayley Campbell, I am the Hayley Campbell who wrote about getting my vagina plastercasted and hung on a wall. Instead of the Hayley Campbell with a high-paid career in make-up artistry, I am the Hayley Campbell who, at 7, wrote an entire book about ways humans can die. Instead of the pretty blonde actress Hayley Campbell, I am the one who told the internet that I keep a stock of dead animals in my freezer, the one who did crimes to a pigeon and plead guilty. I am the Hayley Campbell who told the outside world about rangas.

According to my blog stats, other people google me too. But because of my history, they find me through search terms like “putting things in the anus” and “buttstuff”.

But the Hayley Campbell I worry about most is the one who writes love poems and doesn’t include anything in her short author bio (“writer”) that might help differentiate her from me, the other Hayley Campbell (“writer”), even though the closest I ever got to writing about love was that time I compared Lord of the Rings to buttsex. What if people think I wrote a love poem? The worst thing. The worst thing. I do not write love poetry. I write about catastrophic cartwheels and sad fish and chips and putting things in anuses.

Google “Hayley prostitute” and you get me. This is thanks to a Louis Theroux documentary about a brothel in which the leading lady was called Hayley. People wanted to know what happened to her. Did she dye her hair and move to London, get a job in a comic shop and write about anuses?

If you got here wondering that exact question: No. She’s probably still in the brothel or married with kids, I have no idea. I am not her. Although she’s probably got loads of stuff to say about putting things up buttholes.

Other Hayley Campbells google themselves. I have ten Facebook friend requests from other Hayley Campbells. Now, I do not think this is an innocent Dave Gorman-like experiment. If mental instability and a competitive nature are the hallmarks of a Hayley Campbell, my theory is that they are rounding us up in order to keep tabs on ourselves. Specifically, what I mean is that I, as the heretofore crowned “Number One Internet Hayley Campbell”, am the one to beat. Top dog. Alpha Papa.

Are these other Hayley Campbells plotting to kill me, to overthrow my google reign? Will the make-up artist plunge cotton-tips into my ear-holes and poke holes in my brain like that episode of Girls? Will the Hayley Campbell dairy farmer try to milk me to death? Will the actress Hayley Campbell “do voices” at me until I die because it’s preferable to listening? This Hayley Campbell-centric version of The Ladykillers won’t stop playing in my head.

Um. So: if any of you insecure self-googlers are reading this, please disregard the above paragraphs. Lies. I am definitely the Hayley Campbell on StarNow, the blonde one who enjoys ballroom dancing and claims to be able to do a Bangladeshi accent. Honest. Kill her not me. Google it.

Posted in Essays

The Almost Literal Elephant In The Room

I am a tall lady. Absolutely massive. When I was wee and my Mum read me Bill Peet’s Huge Harold she would point at the rabbit who grew so enormous he had to leave town and sleep in a barn, his ears poking out the windows and his feet hanging out the doors and she would say: “Look! It’s you!” I am Huge Harold and I’m going to tell you what it’s like for those of us on the verge of hanging half out of a barn.

As a tall lady you stand there in any given room all gangly and huge, jeans about an inch too short, the length discrepancy and resultant ankle nakidity hidden by boots worn over the jeans. Sleeves bunched or rolled up because long sleeves become ¾ length and ¾ lengths become weird T-shirts. Or maybe you’re wearing no sleeves whatsoever, just letting those mile-long tubes of bendy flesh protrude from the edges of some manly broad shoulders, afraid to take up swimming lest they get bigger. Awkward and built like Xena and probably about to knock something over. At 6’1 this is me. And I am lumping every female over 5’10 in this with me because solidarity and sisterhood and something.

Things are hard for my people. Those of average height should check their privilege when sailing through a doorway with ease and little head trauma. At 6’1, many doorways in the UK (and colonial listed buildings in Australia ie. all those ones I worked in) do not give adequate clearance for a head so far off the ground. Add shoes to this and you are banging your eyebrow/s into shop awnings all around town.

The shoes available to us in our freakish above-average sizes are always hideous. Even if the design is passable, nothing stretched to canoe-like proportions will ever be anything other than terrible. Nice lady shoes for big units like me are like shoes in front of a funhouse mirror. 60% of my mid-teens were spent crying on the floors of shoe shops because the only shoes available were a selection from the men’s side of the shop or those beige lounge shoes that old ladies have grafted to their feet at 75. Many of my people give up and live a life in Dr Martens. We get them in various colours to suit the occasion.

(If it’s an especially dressy occasion there are always those shops in Soho where the drag queens go although these occasions need to be strictly evening-only because outside of RuPaul’s Drag Race sequins in the daytime are probably a faux pas although I’ll have to check with Willem.)

All of which is to say that once we get into the room in which we are going to stand around being awkwardly dressed elephants among men, the following comments are neither welcome nor new to us – my people, my homies, who we will for the time being imagine to look uniformly like so:

amazon

These things are said either immediately or blurted out just at the end after everybody’s silently congratulated themselves for not saying anything to the tall girl who knocked over the lamp with her butt or accidentally mocking the person with the speech impediment or asking the person with the weird scar on their face how they got the weird scar on their face:

1. “You’re tall!”

Am I? The most common Pokemon of all the things said to tall girls seems to imply that the tall person doesn’t realise they’re tall, that they must have just assumed shopping for jeans was as painful and fruitless for everyone else in the world.

A note on jeans:

Aside from a brief period in 2006 when Urban Outfitters – the place that takes current trends and exaggerates them so comically you have a breakdown in the changeroom while hanging mostly outside of an item of clothing you don’t even know the name for, like a barn, like my Mum was right – there seemed to be a thing for rolled-up cuffs. Generally, as jeans sizes go up they get wider, not longer, because according to jeans manufacturers everybody is 5’2 and the only variant is the width of ass. Anyway, all this cuff thing meant to me and my 37” legs is that I could have jeans that were, to me, “slightly too long” which really just meant that actually they grazed my ankles for the first time in my 6’1 life and were probably the right length, although I still hid them in my boots because I didn’t have any other shoes (see above).

But the point was that I knew.

A note on jeans specifically for tall girls:

No. Don’t even talk to me about Long Tall Sally. I do not know why they are designing their products to fill the “dowdy transvestite” niche because even the transvestites I know are not dowdy. I don’t want to look like Mrs Doubtfire and neither do my legs.

2. “What’s the weather like up there? Ha ha.”

Ha ha. I can see your bald spot from here.

At a book launch some years ago across a sea of actual bald heads I saw one blonde lady with some crazy glasses on. Sarah McIntyre and I waded towards each other, two sized-up-in-Photoshop heads bobbing above a crowd, and now we’re pals because that’s what happens when you stick two tall women in a room for some reason. Even passing a tall stranger in the street, I will eye her up and check her feet for heels and if she’s wearing flats we nod at each other. (No one ever said we had to do this but we do. Do tiny people do this? I have no idea.) In a party situation this extends to i. inquiring where she buys her jeans, ii. upon noticing she is wearing tights, not jeans, inquiring as to the state of the “thigh webbing” and asking where she got those tights, and iii. Are her feet encased in something other than Dr Martens? Where did she get those shoes? And so on and so forth. All we want to do is find things big enough to put ourselves in.

At Sarah’s own book launch years later I was the only non-children’s-book-industry fraud on the guest list. When asked what I was doing there I replied, quite truthfully, that it was my job to make Sarah look human-sized in photographs.

3. “Statuesque.”

The italics on this one are audible and always said by what turns out to be the biggest asshole at the party. All they are saying is: YOU ARE COLOSSAL. LIKE EVERYTHING IN THE GREEK BIT OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM. HUGE AND COLD AND PROBABLY PACKING A TINY PENIS.

Which brings me to my next point.

For two (very) brief periods in 1999 when Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo was in the cinema and then again in 2000 when it was new on DVD, people used to shout out car windows a la “that scene in Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” (pictured below) “THASSA HUGE BITCH”.

huge

That’s not a nice thing to say to a lady who lies awake at 3am thinking: “Iggy Pop wears a dress better than I wear a dress.” But nobody remembers your movie anymore, Rob Schneider. No one remembers that guy having to pick up cigar ash with his anus. No one remembers every line to your stupid movie but me.

But it’s not all terrible.

I have won arguments simply by standing up.

At gigs I can always see better than everybody else providing nobody sticks their skanky girlfriend on their shoulders (although there was that one time I was so nice I let enough short girls go in front of me that I backed myself into the fire escape and fell ass-backwards out of the venue).

And you get to meet a lot of tiny old ladies in Sainsburys which means you learn new expressions. “Excuse me dear, could you give me a fist of garlic? I want a nice big fist.”

And you learn other things, too. You learn that will never find a fist big enough to please an old lady.

Posted in Essays

Open Letter To Hot English People

If you are somewhere that is not England right now, perhaps in an igloo or a submarine or even another country, then you are likely to be unaware that London and its surrounding area (“England”) is in the sweaty death-grip of a heatwave right now. It’s been a week. Maybe more. It’s been long enough for people who are only comfortable when every part of their body is covered by a cardigan to panic.

According to the news it is TOO HOT TO WORK but they put a question mark after the headline – TOO HOT TO WORK? – so as not to be the ones to encourage you to stay home and drain the economy while looking at other English people and their teeth on Jeremy Kyle. But if you did, hypothetically, choose to stay home instead of venture out onto the surface of the hot planet the news tells you to DRAW YOUR CURTAINS, WEAR FEWER CLOTHES, and DRINK WATER FOR THE LOVE OF GOD KEEP HYDRATED DON’T DIE OR PUT STRAIN ON THE NHS. People are actually off sick with heat-stroke despite the question mark in that headline. People are literally dying on their sweaty, sweaty asses. The newspapers are telling us we need to put our pillows in the fridge before bedtime and haul our mattresses into our gardens if at all possible. The fans have sold out all over the city. The restocks cannot come fast enough.

According to a concerned man in a suit we are at “orange” – just one alert level below “red”, a national emergency which I and my fellow nerd compatriots read as code for “a Charlton Heston movie scenario”.

To which I say: Bitch, please.

32 degrees (Celsius, Americans, we do Celsius) is in the grand scheme of worldly stuff not that hot. But because you, The News, won’t shut up about it and how we are going to die, collapsed and sweaty in our half-constructed backyard paddling pool, I think I should impart some wisdom. The wisdom collected by a person who spent 20 years in the tropical part of Australia before deciding that it’s not actually supposed to contain humans in it and moved to London instead. (Hello.)

A Failed Australian’s Guide To Dealing With This Goddamn Heat

Step One: Take your jeans off. I say this as a person who was a chubby teenage goth and refused to. I know both sides of this ridiculous argument and I know what it’s like in those jeans. Take those jeans off.

Instead of jeans I offer you some sartorial advice straight out of ‘90s Queensland:

Wear a huge maxi-skirt but pull it way up to under your armpits thus making “a dress”. This is the airy fashion of mums picking their kids up from school circa 1992. If the mum is a short mum this is fine, if the mum is a tall one you’re going to see a whole lot of ass. Know this, make your decision accordingly. Pair with thongs. (Read: “flip-flops”.)

NB. The skirt doesn’t have to go all the way up to the armpits – “above the nipple” is generally fine. If you have exceptionally saggy ones (known in Australia as “’rangas”, ie. The breasts of a female orangutan) then you can leave your skirt as it is and just tuck them in the waistband.

Wear a backless dress that has your bra hanging way out the back if you can be bothered to strap your tits into something, if not: let them swing (although you might end up with ‘rangas, see above). If you truly want to go Australian about this – by “Australian” I mean “specifically Queensland” – tuck the long skirt into your undies at the sides. “Why not just buy a short skirt?” I don’t know man, ask someone in Queensland with their long dress tucked into their undies. I’m just telling you what I know.

Most importantly: Blind everybody in Soho with your lime green calves like I did two days running and just calm the fuck down. I saw a man in some orange hotpants and they were terrible and near pornographic. He had half a bollock poking out the left leg-hole, and looked an absolute douchebag in his straw hat. But he had a Twister ice cream and he did not care. (In 90s Queensland we would swap “Twister ice cream” for “a Golden Gaytime”.)

gaytime

Step Two: If you’re squinting at this on an iPhone in a park, get out of the park.

Don’t be so English. It is The Sun – that great big burning thing in the sky – that makes you feel hot, so why are you sitting right in it. When it (the burning sun) makes an unlikely appearance it is not actually a law that you have to get immediately, grossly naked and lie in it like a suicidal whale. You don’t have to be that pantsless woman on Clapham Common who flashes the Full English to everyone who passes sweatily by. We live in an era of choice. I know you don’t see it (the burning sun) all that often and in February you flirt with the idea of killing yourself it’s so dark, BUT. Take it from someone who grew up right beneath the hole in the Ozone layer: that shit is evil. Ask the moles of anyone.

(In Queensland – again, Queensland, the backward 1980s bit on the right-hand side of the map where there are nice beaches and countless things in those beaches that eat you or sting you or generally do not want you there – our main political dude in the 2000s gave pretty much every major speech of his career with white bandages all over his face thanks to various pieces of him having to be hacked out because he’s a pale-ass man living in on the surface of the sun. He became the worst kind of thing you can become: A Cautionary Tale For Australian Mums To Use Every Day While Applying Suncream.)

Related: If you lie naked and oiled up in Australia we will be able to tell that you are a time-traveller from the 1970s or “just English” from miles away. English people in Australia turn a special kind of non-standard-Crayola red that you never see on anyone who actually lives there. It’s a bit like how you can tell an Australian in England because of the haircuts.

Step Three: Don’t be a goddamn drama queen (or, a “prima donna” as my mum would say, which I always thought was “the thing that Madonna was before she was Madonna”) (“a hairy dancer”).

YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IT’S LIKE WHEN IT ACTUALLY GETS HOT. In Australia they start thinking about maybe closing the schools for the day if it looks like it’s going to get to 40 degrees. Even at 38 you’re still not allowed to unbutton any buttons on your purely polyester school uniform and they can prematurely arrest you Minority Report-style if you look like the kind of person who might think briefly about maybe possibly loosening your tie hideous polyester tie. I keep saying polyester in order for you to understand the sweat that is happening on any given student within any given Australian school and thus perhaps also, by extrapolation, you might also understand the general olfactory situation of any PE class therein.

If it does get to 40 degrees, which tends to happen around Christmas Day/Boxing Day or The Entirety of February, Australian people do not flock to the park (see Step Two). Australian people get in their huge air-conditioned cars and go to the movies. When they get to the movies they find that the air-conditioner there has packed up and died and the whole place smells of other peoples’ armpits and death. So they get back in their cars and drive around in the air-conditioning for ten hours until it gets dark and they go home, where they find that the candles have melted in their holders and leaned against the wall. They eat ice cubes for dinner and go to bed naked and drunk on terrible Australian beer. Fans blow away the armpit miasma and the cat sleeps looped around the toilet bowl.

~ fin ~

P.S. I wrote this in my underpants.

Posted in Essays

Eat Your Makeup

eyebrows

People often ask me what I do to my eyebrows in a (if you’re my Dad) “what have you done to your eyebrows” way, or a “so tell me how you do your amazing eyebrows” way if I am drunk and have basically forced them to say it.

Well, Dad, frightened strangers at the bar –

It wasn’t always this way. I haven’t always had the best eyebrows in town, just there on my face for all to see (you’re welcome). These hairy lines – whose use I long thought to be linked to the appendix or some other vestigial piece of us until I did a sweaty yoga and realised these things do have a point – were only unearthed for your viewing pleasure relatively recently (in the great scheme of things, dinosaurs, etc).

Up until the age of 15 when a shiny-faced woman with some wax strips gave them a shape identifiable as “eyebrow (L)” and “eyebrow (R)” they were just some cloud cover above my eyeballs. They were a couple of undefined blurs in the middle of my pasty white face that matched the charcoal thumbprints on the walls of the school art room almost exactly. They were smudges, a shady blotch on the inside that gradiated to a blonde nothing as it reached the temples. Unlike the sculpted arches that I now frequently raise just one of (I perfected this move in the mirror in my teenage years instead of having a boyfriend, you are welcome) they were useless to me. Facially, they revealed nothing. They would have made a bad gif. We haven’t got time to figure out people’s emotions. We need instant, cartoon recognition. The internet has broken us.

(Me.)

But merely pulling out a bunch of hairs in a painful and unnecessary process under a bright light does not great eyebrows make. That shit needs work and upkeep and careful construction or you end up looking like a crazy person. I have gone through countless brands of eyebrow pencil to get it right and at age 23 I settled on MAC’s self-propelling eyebrow pencil in Velvetone until they rudely discontinued it because maybe people with jetblack eyebrows look weird, and now I use the less severe Stud with an eyeshadow called Mystery over the top using a small angle bru – is uh, is this weirdly specific? Have I lost you?

Man, I hope so.

If not, I can’t keep saying that the only person who truly understands me is John Waters.

Let me read to you for a moment from The Good Book, Role Models, by John Waters, which I spent forever looking for in the biography/memoir section of the bookshop only to be told that it’s in the GAY BIOGRAPHY section way at the back because I forgot that gayness has to be quarantined.

Here Waters is talking about how in 1970, in a misguided attempt to steal Little Richard’s identity, he grew a pencil-thin moustache:

‘At first it didn’t work right. It’s tough for a white man who isn’t that hairy to grow one. Sure, I shaved with a razor on top and trimmed the bottom with cuticle scissors, just like I do every day now, but it still looked kind of pitiful. Then “Sick”, the friend of mine from the Provincetown tree fort who had moved to Santa Barbara and changed her name to “Sique”, gave me some fashion advice when I was staying with her. “Just use a little eyebrow pencil and it will work better,” she advised, and then showed me how. Presto! An “iconic” look: a ridiculous fashion joke that I still wear forty years later. Surprised? Don’t be! It is called a “pencil moustache,” isn’t it?’

He drew it on. You knew that. This isn’t the good bit. This isn’t the bit that stole my heart forever. That’s this bit:

‘And there is only one pencil that does the trick – Maybelline Expert Eyes in Velvet Black. My entire identity depends on this magic little wand of sleaze. It has to be sharpened every time it’s applied, too – which in my case is twice a day or so. More if you’re been making out. Believe me, I’ve tried expensive, smearproof eyebrow pencils but they’re too thick, too penetrating, too indelible. There’s only one eyebrow pencil for me – and that’s Maybelline!’

Oh, John. Can we talk eyebrow pencils? Can I fly to Baltimore and sit in your house and talk about eyebrow pencils until we get old and die? I could be there for weeks. I’ll bring spares in case you don’t live near a MAC. We can talk about brand loyalty, about discontinued lines and how long-lost eyebrow pencils turn up at the shop again with an All New Design and you recognise them like a kidnapped infant returned as an eight-year-old. You remember that weird mole on their thigh or the fact that they’re circumsized or whatever.  We’ll wind up talking about dicks some way, no doubt. I found you in the GAY BIOGRAPHY section. That section is all about dicks.

‘I always carry one in my pocket, keep another in my car, and have backups in each of my homes. Once I was in the hospital after being mugged and I guess because of my concussion I had forgotten to bring my Maybelline. I was so panicked that I would limp over to the mirror and try to gouge it on with a regular number two lead pencil used for writing. It didn’t work.’

Hey, John? Once when I smashed my face in on a pavement I sat next to a mirror in A&E. As I leaned over to see what I had become, fearing – like any person who watched Jack Nicholson in Batman too many times – that I would be rendered forever hideous and would have to embark on a whole new cosmetic safari or career as a comic book baddie, I discovered that the bottom half of my face was bloodied, smashed, gross. But: I distinctly remember thinking in my concussion haze just before they wheeled me in for my MRI, “My eyebrows are okay. So there is that.” So there is that, John. There is that.

‘I’ve forgotten to put on my moustache some days and I have to lurk around like Clark Kent looking for a phone booth until I find a car mirror or uncrowded street (not easy in Manhattan!) or a public restroom where I can, unobserved, repair the damage to my image. I remember once starting out the day with a visit to Mary Boone’s midtown art gallery. Mary came out of her office, took one look at me, and blurted out in a horrified voice, “What happened to your moustache?!” Instantly feeling nude in public, I realized the problem, mumbled some excuse about the lighting, and left immediately. I raced home in the privacy of a cab, drew it in, blended it, and started the day all over again.’

Oh, John. Let me come over. I’ll tell you about that time I left my whole make-up bag in the bathroom of Chipotle (in the bathroom of Chipotle) and had to sneak into central London with deep purple make-shift eyebrows because without them I look like some key part of me has been amputated, like I should have a special toilet of my own and ramp access to buildings.

I’ll even put off asking you about Divine and dogshit if we can just talk eyebrow pencils until we’ve run out of stuff to say.

Can I?

What if I bring Chinese food?

waters

Posted in Essays

Romantic Misadventure

[Here is a thing I read to a room full of drunk people in London. It is about: the Internet.]

blackheart

So I’ve been to a whole bunch of these Romantic Misadventure nights and what I’ve discovered is everyone’s had more romantic misadventures than me. Listening to Kit go on about his infinite dates, and Nell Frizzell – who despite looking like (she says) Meat Loaf at the time – being kissed by Cheese & Onion mouths on teenage summer holidays, has all made me a bit jealous. I did none of these things. In my late teens it was probably because I was huge and wide and wore far too much black lace and had big hair and thought Robert Smith was some kind of fashion icon. But before I turned into a looming black mass with some white patches indicating where my face and arms should be, I was just some lanky teenager with basically no friends who might have wanted a boyfriend if the opportunity ever arose, which it didn’t. I don’t know what you’re supposed to take away from these nights other than a hangover but it might be a newly discovered reason for your own failings. It might be that. That is what I have taken away from them, anyway. I had no boyfriends when you people were busy having boyfriends and all these Romantic Misadventures have got me wondering: the fuck was wrong with me? I’ve thought about it I think the things that were wrong with me can be be read through something we all did on that big, horrifying mirror: the internet.

I registered some email addresses in the late ’90s/early 2000s.

I registered a whole bunch of email addresses in the late ’90s/early 2000s.

(To save you the mental maths: I am 27 now and yes, I am panicking about my station in life which currently is one of those bleak ones that you only end up at if you fall asleep on the Northern Line. Moving on:)

A BRIEF HISTORY OF WHY I NEVER HAD A BOYFRIEND IN MY TEENS
AS EXPLAINED THROUGH MY OLD EMAIL ADDRESSES

Looneychick007@yahoo.com didn’t even like James Bond. I was 12, freakishly tall, hugely unsure of myself and brand new on the internet. I had only just upgraded from not using the Campbell family email address, all Netscape and sadness, because I discovered these things are free, you can have your own, and why would anyone share an email address in this day and age? “This day and age” being 1998 and our computer being a box-fresh Hewlett Packard soon to be introduced to the world of computer viruses and porn pop-ups by yours truly.

[SIDEBAR: I stand by this observation I made 15 years ago, and will never be able to get behind the husband/wife email address, nor the husband/wife Facebook account with the profile picture that is a fat-faced child with some ice cream on it. Does this make me unromantic? I like my shit compartmentalised. I have worked in retail.]

Looneychick007@yahoo.com wasn’t even sure how to spell “loony” and asked her mum whether it had an “e” in it or not. When her mum asked “what do you want to know how to spell loony for” this 12-year-old person was too embarrassed to say so, perhaps feeling a brief glimmer of her future self’s embarrassment at this stupid email address (WHAT IS WRONG WITH JUST USING YOUR NAME, I shout at her from the future where I was so late in registering that I’ve had to stick a “y” on the end thus becoming hayleycampbelly, as in “a bit like Hayley Campbell”, as in hayleycampbellish.).

“I just like to know how things are spelled,” I said, because this was true, although branding myself as loony was completely not. Perhaps I knew that if I didn’t know how things were spelled I was unlikely to win all those fights on the internet in my 20s because a misplaced apostrophe or superfluous “e” would render my point invalid. Anyway, mum said it did have an “e” and it doesn’t, but by the time I found that out it was too late. looneychick007@yahoo.com was already using her new email address to sign into Yahoo! chatrooms where her username was, inventively, looneychick007. A girl who was neither loony nor liked James Bond and would never use the word “chick” in her actual life.

“Why are you loony?” chatroom people would ask, after I lied in reply to their a/s/l opener and told them I was completely 16 years old and totally female and definitely living somewhere cooler than the suburbs of Brisbane, Australia. “Cos I just am, I am just so loony,” I would say, all unspecific and crazy, just a machine gun smattering of vague mental illness aiming for some kind of Zooey Dechanel kookiness without actually knowing who Zooey Dechanel was because where the hell was she in 1998. They would be all, “are you loony enough to put my cock in your mouth?” and there would be a pause, the cursor blinking expectantly, because this was the first time I’d ever heard of this thing where people put other peoples’ cocks in their mouths. I’d heard of cocks going up butts (I had recently seen the Stephen Fry film Wilde) but not in mouths. Why would you put something you pee out of into someone’s face? Isn’t that what butts and vaginas are for? It sounded impolite. I figured they covered that in a sex-ed class I missed while feigning illness, Ferris Bueller-style.

“Yes,” I replied, pulling a face. “I would totally put your cock in my mouth.”

“Do you swallow?”

Swallow? Gross. Was he going to pee in my mouth? 12-year-old me wondered what dicks tasted like. I decided that no, I probably would not swallow this person on the internet’s whatever even though he was 18/male/Sydney and worked as “an underpants model”. He said I wasn’t very good at “cybering” and left the room. I had no idea what he was talking about. No boyfriend.

The next email address happened because I hung out with the kind of fellow virgins who would make no moves toward nakedness or sloppy kisses and would instead use their mouths to quote lines in Hackers while watching the Jonny Lee Miller/Angelina Jolie film Hackers. They would do the same for every Kevin Smith film also: Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, although the fact that I have no idea what the other one is called means that we all parted company circa 2002. In that time I watched them try to be mini-disc DJs and do a lot of “British people in Ibiza” dancing, because they had seen Kevin and Perry Go Large and thought “big fish little fish” was unironically cool. So anyway, as a result I got snoochieboochies_@hotmail.com. It even came with an underscore, implying that some other loser had already bagged the coveted email address snoochieboochies@hotmail.com. I hope it made him happy. I chose to stick with “snoochieboochies” rather than try some other Jay and Silent Bob catchphrase, like snoogans@hotmail.com, or maybe doobiesnax@hotmail.com or the slightly less appropriate clitcommander@hotmail.com. The fact that I was the kind of person who went straight for a movie catchphrase rather than something horrifying and sexy like glitterlips69@hotmail.com, or luvmexoxo69@hotmail.com, or sugarlips69@hotmail.com like all the other girls at school meant that I was immediately disqualified and was in no way girlfriend material for anybody. Apparently. Plus also it was really annoying to spell.

In 2002 I saw myself in an episode of South Park. It was the one where the boys’ future selves come back in time and everyone’s kind of pissed off about what they’ve become, especially Butters whose future self does nothing but sit at home all day watching Becker. If you’ve never seen the TV show Becker, allow me to explain: in this late ‘90s sitcom Ted Danson wore a terrible wig in his role as a misanthropic GP somewhere in The Bronx. The show revolved around Becker and the things that annoyed him which tended to be everything that wasn’t Becker. At 16 I was doing nothing but sitting at home highlighting the TV guide and watching Becker.

I was Butters’ future self.

In one life-changing (to me) episode, Becker’s receptionist mispronounced the syndrome “Asperger’s”. Several times. Over and over. Unrelentingly, in this one episode she mispronounced a syndrome that some guy in the waiting room had until the joke flailed and died for everyone but me. Ten minutes after that episode aired I was notifying everybody I knew to change their address books because I was no longer snoochieboochies_@hotmail.com, I was now assburgers_with_fries@hotmail.com and still resolutely unfuckable.

Posted in Essays

Is This Too Soon? Probably.

In these post-Yewtree days I like to think I’m not the only one taking stock of my childhood and the moments in which it is entirely possible I could have been bummed but wasn’t. Is this too soon? Am I alone here? I might be alone here. Probably everybody else out there who had a brilliant childhood with no bummings is simply thinking: “This news is truly awful, all these people off the telly being nonces and that.” This is the correct thought. But I am having another one as well. If everybody fancies children, why was I not bummed?

I went to Catholic school from the age of 5, which everybody knows is prime bumming grounds. Our priest was a nice Irish dude who we would see every morning as we neared the school, wearing all his priestly garb while jumping up and down in the skip, trying to flatten the rubbish. Our school was later shut down due to lack of funds, so this was undoubtedly another penny-pinching device, this thing where our priest was used his own personal body to flatten the school’s rubbish in the manner cartoon Greeks made wine, attempting with all his bodily weight to compact our discarded fingerpaintings and pipe-cleaner artwork into something as heavy as lead with his cassock bunched under his armpits. In order to get out of sports I volunteered to help polish the chalices in the vestry, and once we got to help the priest get dressed, all while not being remotely bummed. I did 12 years of Catholic school a bum-virgin.

Ages 7 through 12 were mostly spent sliding down hills on things with wheels. Skateboards mostly, but we diversified. My friend had made herself a go-kart with planks of wood, a bit of rope, and some wheels off her little sister’s pram. She had painted it black and added white skull-and-crossbones which meant it would be a better, more dangerous ride, obviously. The fashion of the time – the Hayley Campbell fashion of the time – was tiny black bike-shorts with a T-shirt over the top so huge that I could, at parties, stick my knees up under it and pretend to have massive tits. This meant that when I went down the biggest hill in town and decided half-way down that actually it was too big and I was going to die, that when I tried to turn a corner and only I ended up turning the corner while the go-kart careened person-less down the hill towards the intersection, that while I skidded butt-wise across the hot bitumen, that I was essentially bare-assed. I left the top few layers of my ass on that street and bled down the backs of my legs all the way home to my friend’s house where I was then bent pants-less over the kitchen table while her dad fashioned a Frankenstein’s monster of a bandage out of five of his wife’s sanitary pads and dabbed Dettol on my buttcheeks. I was not bummed then either, and the level of mutual embarrassment in that room in 1996 has never been surpassed in any room since.

I have long thought that the cherry on top of the traditional McDonald’s birthday party was this one particular thing I recently mentioned to a group of people who also had a McDonald’s birthday party feature prominently in their sub-10 life. “AND WHAT ABOUT THE BIT WHERE –” I had begun, expecting this to be a shared experience in our group reminiscence, which it wasn’t. We all had our “friends” (“the whole class”) invited, by order of our mums and some envelopes we had to hand out the previous week, to come and have a Happy Meal and a party bag in this tiled room in the basement of the restaurant where there were facemasks and some poor bastard being paid to entertain us. We abandoned this sad Equity member in favour of the jungle gym outside. But between that bit and the fries there was another bit that nobody else got but me.

“Remember when the guy came and took you for a tour of the freezer? That was amazing.”

“….”

“Sure you do! Remember he came and took you away from the party into the backroom with all the frozen chicken nuggets and the mesh fencing and stuff?”

“…”

“And you got to climb up on the ladder and get your ice cream birthday cake down from the shelf? And the guy held your legs so you didn’t fall off?”

“…”

“How were you not bummed?”

“…”

Well, exactly.

Posted in Essays

Every Day I Am Coming

I am still a regular, sweaty face at the gym and it is now June. This means I have reached and breached the point of New Years resolution dissolution; I am still lifting things up, still putting them down, still doing ridiculous things on the butt machine in the corner that only ladies use and wondering why I don’t look like Beyoncé yet. I have lost all shame and now wonder why I don’t look like Beyoncé yet while standing in front of the mirrored wall, lifting one disappointing buttcheek up and letting it drop again, looking angry and disappointed at my butt, the butts in my immediate area, butts in general. Having tentatively gone for the four-month membership bracket instead of commitment unphobically launching into a 12-month direct debit that may or may not have resulted in my still being fat, I have now signed my semi-buff soul on for a whole ‘nother year. As such, I have some suggestions for how this place could be improved. Or one. I have one suggestion. It is this:

Instead of the infinite shopping channel with a bunch of men with terrible hair telling you how to get what is obviously a toupee and in no way achievable with a two-step shampoo system 

Instead of the men in collared T-shirts hitting balls into sandpits with sticks 

Instead of that DVD of Minder that inexplicably plays on that TV in the corner until that one personal trainer gets fired 

Instead of that: play Pumping Iron on a loop. Play Pumping Iron on a goddamn loop.

I think Pumping Iron – and I don’t think I’m alone here – is one of the greatest films you can watch in nine parts on YouTube. For starters there’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, all smiles and absurd accent, being genuinely charming but mostly weird in tiny underpants.

AN IMPORTANT ASIDE: If I was in a room with both both ‘70s Arnie and ‘70s cartoonist and sex weirdo Robert Crumb and you said “Hey Hayley Campbell, who would you like to get a piggyback off?” I would be torn for a moment before insisting on both because I’m difficult and female and also 6’1 so you’d be unlikely to stop me and neither would Crumb. Having met 2013 Crumb I feel that our bodies have now reached a point wherein if the smaller haggard one were to bear the weight of the larger, chunkier one that the larger one would be exiled from the world for breaking R. Crumb.
(Although to be fair I cannot think of a more fitting way for R. Crumb to go than to be crushed beneath a giant lady so if he would like to give me a call when the time comes I will happily serve as some kind of Dignitas.)

 

Then there’s Lou Ferrigno in his pre-Incredible Hulk, pre-comic convention circuit, pre-losing his shit on Celebrity Apprentice days, living at home with his parents in Brooklyn and being told “Awh, Loo” by his sweet old pa and looking sad a lot because he can’t beat Arnie, who is busy walking around with some women literally hanging off his ridiculous body. There are the once-bullied, now beef-cake men in leopard print pants, walking around backstage looking for lost T-shirts and trying not to cry. There is literally no part of this film that you can skip to make tea.

Gym, if you play Pumping Iron on a goddamn loop you can take down those posters with stretching tips and instructions on how to use machines. We won’t need them. There’ll be big guys doing push ups with little oily guys sitting on their shoulders in a minimum of: one afternoon. Your members will benefit from Arnie’s motivational speeches. He will tell your wee guys not to hide away: he will tell them to bunch up their wee-guy muscles, spread out, be strong, pretend they’re just very far away. And your members will not disappear in February like they usually do, for we will know why it is that we go to this place, why we are making a big show of wiping butt-shaped sweat off machines like we’re not embarrassed about our phenomenally sweaty asses, why it is we are running on the spot, mindlessly, pointlessly, wondering if that guy’s hair is for real.

It is this:

“The greatest feeling you can get in the gym or the most satisfying feeling you can get in the gym is the pump,” says Arnie reclining by a pot plant (see below).

arnie

“Let’s say you train your biceps, blood is rushing into your moscles and dat’s what we call da pump. Your moscles get really tight feeling like your skin is going to explode any minute, it’s really tight, it’s like somebody blowing ear [IT’S WHAT HE SAID – Ed.] into it. It just blows up and it feels different, it feels fantastic.”

Gym, I can see you’re not convinced. But Arnie – he’s not finished.

“It’s as satisfying to me as coming is, you know. As having sex with a woman and coming. Can you believe how much I am in heaven?”

Can you believe how much he is in heaven?

“I am, like, getting the feeling of coming in the gym, I am getting the feeling of coming at home, I am getting the feeling of coming backstage when I pump up, when I pose out in front of 5000 viewers, I get the same feeling. So I am coming day and night. I mean, it’s terrific, right? So, you know, I am in heaven.”

Every day we are going to the gym and we are coming all over your machines. You are welcome, Fitness First. You are most fucking welcome.

NB. Unsure if this applies to Pumping Iron II: The Women.

Posted in Essays, Ridiculous

On Why Our Author Finds Herself In Her Pajamas at 3pm Awaiting The Delivery of Two Frozen Squirrels

“I don’t want to cause a weird fight or anything,” I said, “But someone’s shoved a frozen pizza on top of my rook. Obviously I can’t bring this up without alerting house to presence of dead rook in freezer.”

“Sweetums. Treacle,” came the reply: “You cannot put a dead rook in the freezer and then not tell people it’s there.”

Previous to this conversation I had rearranged the frozen pizzas, the ancient half-price steaks, and the ice cubes with the breadcrumb dusting, and I had placed in the freezer the following items: two pigeons, one rook (dead). They nestled there wrapped in foil and orange Sainsbury’s bags next to the peas, and would stay there until some day when I would have time to stuff them with woodwool and cotton balls and replace their dead eyes with beads because shitty amateur taxidermists like me do not actually purchase proper glass eyes. We cut corners. We get tired and rush the bit at the end. We make tiny monsters that we keep in our bedrooms that ensure we will never get laid again.

You are forgiven for asking the question I have been asked many times over my life: how did you get this way? Underlying yet completely obvious sub-Q. What went wrong?

I was a kid obsessed with skeletons, so it was only a natural progression to taxidermy given it’s the other fusty old museum bi-product to a life. I’ve liked it ever since I veered off the dinosaur path at the museum into the wing of glass-cased birds. All I wanted to know what what was inside them and where did the guts go. And who did this stuff? Or more crucially: could I do this stuff?

atwork

I grew up and I took a course in bird taxidermy. I stuffed a duck: a proper handsome dude with a green head and white eyeliner and a long elegant neck that I accidentally tore in half at some point in the class. It currently hangs from a bent coat-hanger protruding from a high cupboard, forever looking like it was about to land but then got a fright and didn’t know what to do with its wings. It looks like it’s screaming while preparing to land on my bed. Technically it turned out okay, in that I mean yes, okay, the wings wrenched high above his head don’t actually mirror the way duck wings move in real life, but: despite it being my first go, it looked exactly like a duck. It was identifiable as something you would throw the stale ends of loaves to in the park, like a thing that used to say “quack”, like an animal whose unfeasibly long penis you have Google image-searched long after your bedtime. You could tell this just by looking at him. You didn’t even have to get very close (which is a thing you wouldn’t want to do anyway on account of him smelling funky) (initially) (this goes away). There was no need to ask what it was, or what it used to be, or what happened to its face. Unlike my second attempt.

AkelyCarl Akeley, a taxidermist who was better than me and once wrestled a leopard to death.

Buoyed by the success of my very first venture I went – in hindsight – very prematurely solo. With a box full of stuff I bought off eBay (dental implements, tanning liquid, woodwool, &c.) I laid out a former pigeon on the table in my houseshare’s front room, having patiently waited for everyone to go out. In order to fully explain what went wrong, in stages, I would have to look up the thesaurus entry for “inexpertly” and then deploy every word listed and that would getting boring, so let’s just say: I did some crimes. Big, inexpert, terrible things happened to that bird while the taxidermy L-plates hung askew on my personal buttocks. Before I had even started I did a crime. Instead of persevering with the scalpel blade I was unable to slide onto a freshly purchased Swann-Morton handle, I panicked. I left the house and returned with a fantastically blunt “craft knife” which was just looking out from that plastic window waiting to ruin my day.

pigeon1

Armed thus defectively, I made the first incision (frantic tear with an inappropriate non-medical tool) down the bird’s ribcage. I separated the skin from the meat as taught, and stubbornly carried on with the useless metal thing that I’m pretty sure I saw Neil Buchanan with on Art Attack at some point, until a moment of wild frustration/stabbing resulted in the bird’s stomach contents showering all over me/my housemate’s DVDs. I won’t go into any specific dietary details of the splayed pigeon but I will say I have no eaten sweetcorn since that day. I will say that.

A digressional note on the subject of giblets: A friend of mine once worked in a chicken factory in Wales where they produced the kind of clingfilmed chickens for roasting that you find heaped in a chest freezer in Sainsbury’s. His job on the factory line was to take a bag of giblets — the heart and other visceral organs separated from the animal during butchering — and insert it into the headless, plucked bird before it went off on its conveyor belt to be wrapped. New chicken, new bag, repeat. Once the chicken has been bought at the shop and brought home you can do what you like with the bag of edible offal, but did you ever stop to think on this: that statistically and practically, no chicken will house its own giblets? I think about this at least three times a week. Probably more.

 

A brief explanation of how it’s all done (and considering there are whole books written on the subject, only an idiot would attempt it in two paragraphs) (hi): With the body and meat removed, what you’re left with is the skin, some leg bones picked clean, and a skull. You then force the surprisingly yoghurty brain out of its cavity by tweezing cotton wool into the base of the skull until the pressure becomes too great and the brain has nowhere to go except to explode out of the eye sockets. This step is by far the goriest and stomach-testing of the whole operation on account of brains smell terrible (who knew?) — it’s also the most satisfying and perhaps my favourite of all, matched only by the bit where you pry the whole tongue out of the mouth backwards and lay it out on the newspaper beside you, strategically placed on the face of Alan Davies.

After hours of picking and cleaning and regretting you started you end up with what is essentially a cardigan, and you have to make a body out of woodwool and twine with which to fill it. You model it on the body you’ve not yet thrown out or fed to your culinarily adventurous housemate from Devon, and theoretically the whole thing should fit together properly and look vaguely like what it was before it died on that farm up in Dronfield. And then you wire the limbs, prop the thing up to set, and spend the next two days fretting about the positioning. You have roughly two days to make changes. After that, things start to crack.

From there it (the delicate process of the pigeon, post-stabbing) spiraled into further depths of horrendous stench and despair, and the end result was a clump of damp feathers, split skin, and a face not even a truly demented mother would grow accustomed to. I even accidentally cooked him with a hairdryer. Had I persevered enough to put some eyes in I wouldn’t know where they were supposed to go. I busted both my thumbs doing it and bled all over the carpet. Here is a picture of the monster I made that day:

pigeon2

“Strive to put your mounted animals in easy natural poses

unless you are making a grotesque,

in which case go the length.”

- Albert B. Farnham

Home Taxidermy for Pleasure and Profit, published 1916.

pigeon3No, really.

pigeon4

Anyone who has not made these clumsy forays into DIY taxidermy has probably never wondered where the dead things come from. As self-appointed (in)expert I will lift the veil. You’re welcome.

THIS IS HOW A PERSON WHO LIVES IN THE CITY AND HAS NO PLANS TO KILL ANY ONE-LEGGED MANKY LONDON PIGEONS ENDS UP WITH A MORE OR LESS PERMANENT AVIAN COFFIN AND A SET OF PERTURBED HOUSEMATES WHO PROBABLY WON’T USE THOSE ICE CUBES AFTER ALL, ACTUALLY, NO DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT, REALLY:

The Internet. You discover that can buy a mole for a tenner on eBay. Three crows might cost you twenty. A badly photographed job lot of grim spoils from a game hunt spilled out onto a wet bathroom floor go for thirty. Merely searching for these things changes eBay’s profile on you and they start suggesting sheep thigh bones, dental picks and disembodied hawk feet. You stare at birds in the park like an unknown bearded man watches children through a primary school fence. You watch how their legs fit together, how their wings don’t go like how you made them go like when you got all excited while stuffing that duck. One day you might notice one of them dead on the grass. In real life. And the fact that you don’t have to put a bid on this thing or pay for postage makes your brain start thinking strange new thoughts. These are some of them that you have while standing completely still on Clapham High Street next to a dead crow while everybody else is not standing next to dead crows:

(We could pretend this is hypothetical but obviously that would be lying.)

I could go to Iceland over the road and buy some stuff and they would give me some plastic bags! I could take him home in said bags! All I’d have to do is ditch the choc ices! BUT WHAT IF SOMEBODY STEALS HIM FIRST OH F—

And then your old sane self will pipe up on the other shoulder and bring these words to the table:

What about those people at the bus stop watching me interfering with a dead bird in the dark? What if it’s crowded on the Tube and what if the bus is crowded too, with me standing there with what was clearly a dead crow encased in one single sheath of low-grade plastic bag? And then what if I get home and my housemates are in the kitchen, and they ask me as I open the freezer drawer and shift their bags of bread and peas out of the way: “What’s in the bag?”

I left it in the park. Which is good, because I had just had some major dental work and my slackened face was drooling out one side and I was on the verge becoming some Val Lewton horror sidekick even without the dead crow under my arm.

I took another taxidermy course: a rabbit. Over the course of the next three months as that rabbit sat atop my bookshelf it rotted away to nothing (I live in a mothy house and those moths are seemingly immune to the preservatives with which we drenched this thing plus also and obviously my skills are totally lacking). I didn’t notice it happening and looked up one day to find that its little furry face had disappeared, its ears had shrunk and puckered, and all that remained above the threadbare torso was a dusty skull with some beads shoved in it, a jaw full of cotton balls and a bleak aura of (what would prove to be largely permanent) hairy death shadow creeping outwards from the rabbit and up my walls (hi, My Estate Agent, keeper of the deposit). It ended up in the bin. Here is where it once stood:

deathshadow

But in those initial heady days of rabbit success, before I undoubtedly inhaled unthinkable microscopic rabbit things, I was, again, pretty confident of my own genius. I thought that I would like to try a squirrel next. Another small furry mammal. “I can do small furry mammals,” I said to myself, similarly chuffed as I was, post-duck. I ordered some off an old man in the North who I also found on the Internet. Pete Staines. P Staines, he writes on the back of the parcel. A pest control man with a big freezer whose wife has just left him after 38 years. He had, at the time I phoned him, 300 crows, 50 rooks, a dozen jackdaws, three squirrels in his neighbour’s freezer, and one big broken heart. He asked me if I wanted any of the above.

And this is why I found myself locked in a house, in parcel purgatory. I was unable to shower, to go out and buy food, unable to do any of the things I planned to do until a man in a uniform rang my doorbell and handed me two frozen squirrels. I sat in my candy-striped pajamas (size XXL and a gift from my mum, the size alone caused all manner of trauma and self-doubt) staring at a door that was never knocked, losing tiny pieces of my mind the longer he remained AWOL.

potterWalter Potter, another taxidermist who was better than me whilst simultaneously not being all that great either. Disappointingly, his biography is not subtitled A Life Spent Waiting For The UPS Truck.

The Royal Mail tracking system said WE HAVE YOUR ITEM and nothing more. I phoned them. The robot lady was no help. “If your item is listed as PROGRESSING THROUGH OUR NETWORK FOR DELIVERY we do not know exactly where it is,” she said, the pre-programmed polite version of ‘FUCK KNOWS.’ A non-robot lady said that if my question that I was about to ask was about STAMPS then she would not be able to answer, plus also not to bother her until my parcel had been missing for a full 15 days.

15 days.

I wanted to explain but I was too embarrassed. I used words like “time sensitive delivery” and “awkward” and “no really”. I envisioned a pair of mouldering squirrels in a bloated parcel in the Post Office depot with my name on them. Literally with my name on them. I further envisioned myself marching back to the Post Office with the unopened package and returning to sender. “DEAR P STAINES,” began the letter in my head. “UMM.”

They turned up the next day and they were still chilly and I put them in the freezer and everything was totally fine and thus concludes this anti-climactic story. But taxidermy is anti-climactic, because all you get – even if you’re very good – is a slightly worse version of the thing that existed before you fucked with it.

Illustrations by Eddie Campbell.

Posted in Essays, Ridiculous

Open Letter To My Obituarist

Dear person who is going to tidy my life into one succinct paragraph (or maybe more if you have to make a word count),

In the event of my inevitable death you will be required to write a thing about me and I can only apologise that I have not given you more to go on. As I am not dead yet I will do everything in my power to give you enough for a small column in a tiny local newspaper that nobody will ever read – not that I’m saying your own personal career path is pointless, I’m sure you contribute to local news sections and such also. But in case I don’t, I would like the piece to include/not include the following things:

First and foremost: in the event it transpires I had a fling with the ‘90s actor Dean Cain best known for being Clark in The Adventures of Lois and Clark and then wearing weird turtle-neck sweaters and suede jackets on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and making men squirt milk in record-breaking distances from their tear ducts please do not make that the main hook in this life story. I have seen this happen. That shit is bleak. Do not mention my possible future romance with the ‘90s actor Dean Cain.

Instead you should focus on my future inventions (of which the patents are not even filed let alone pending, see first paragraph for apology). I suggest you hone in on the one piece for which I imagine I will be well known at the time of my death providing that doesn’t happen in the next five to twenty years. The Completo Deleto (obviously a working title) monitors the beat of your heart from afar and immediately wipes your harddrive should that beat stop, thus rendering the In-Case-Of-Death-Please-Delete-My-Porn Friend a thing of the past. It also deletes your Facebook account so it doesn’t become a sappy memorial space or place of annual embarrassment for birthday well-wishers who missed a memo, nixes your Twitter so undue gravity is not lent to the last thing you tweeted about Pauly Shore, and kills that Angelfire website you made when you were 13 where you wrote an essay about blocking a toilet in California and called it I Left My Turd In San Francisco. (It’s still there on page 10 of the Google results. You have forgotten this, but the machine will not. It’s all in my mental blue-print.)

How many words have we got? Do I get a 5,000-word tribute in the New York Times or am I relegated to the 30-word “Flowers no, charity yes” bin? If I died young and if you have a spare paragraph, I want you to focus on my potential. Hark back to those school report cards where I fulfilled none of it because of apathy rather than death (the latter being the new reason for why I didn’t do all the stuff I said I was going to do instead of the actual reason which is I was too busy stalking people on page 10 of Google). Those report cards made me sound like an aloof genius who never had to ask questions because she knew all the answers. Was I a person who knew all the answers? You tell me. Or tell your readers. Hell, I don’t know. I’m just throwing ideas out here. By the time you write this I will be dead and will no longer be required to present proof of knowing answers to anything. You can basically just freewheel this, is what I’m saying.

If my life trajectory continued in the way it’s currently going before I died in a horrific/freak incident involving a tree branch or torso murder or whatever then focus on my interesting death/torso. Do not go for the “true Southern gentlemen like to eat grits and cornbread” approach if I have done nothing notable but die. I don’t want everyone to know that I was living on a strange diet of quinoa because I watched a David Lynch cookery video on YouTube that one time and then got really into quinoa for some reason, spending all my time looking up quinoa recipes instead of writing that novel I always had the potential to write (for example). Tell them I died in pain. Did I get a Wikipedia entry in the end?

If my invention for the self-destructing HD et al. does pan out then chances are you have no photos to run with this thing. I’m sorry. You could get some off my parents but they would be out of date or my parents might be dead and to be honest I’m not sure I want that facial mistake printed in an actual newspaper. Perhaps you could get Charles Burns to rehash a picture of Janeane Garofolo or something. But ibid. my ability to deliver on potentials and actually carry out genius ideas: I predict you are going to be okay. You are going to have plenty of Photobooth pouts to choose from. You are going to have countless photos of me in questionable outfits because, like Cher in Clueless, I do not trust mirrors.

Yours,

imminently deceased,

Hayley Campbell

Posted in Essays