Home » Backpacking in Thailand » The price of nothing #2

The price of nothing #2

I had to go to the Post Office in the High Street, the splendidly named Great Darkgate Street, this morning, to register a letter. I hoped it contained sufficient non-incriminating ‘evidence’ to bring about some desperately needed financial support from the Department of Work, Pensions and Deep Suspicions.

I pictured the castle wall, a great dark gate, the rat-infested oubliette reserved for benefit cheats, and shuddered. All those crenellations to vacuum, middens to slop out, keeps to… er, keep. The cost of heating didn’t bear thinking about.

As the assistant was stamping the envelope, it occurred to me that they might know where I could get hold of a large amount of corrugated cardboard. I was going to ask, but the stamping was over so quickly that I changed my mind. Why would they necessarily know where someone could find lots of cardboard, just because they sell stamps and parcel tape and padded envelopes and bubble-wrap?

Heading back to the car, I decided to go the other way. A hundred yards up the road, passing the Game store, where they sell… er, games, I saw they had put out with the garbage, three or four big cardboard boxes full of… cardboard! Collapsed boxes, with just the right thickness of corrugation, and good sizes, discarded packages I guessed from bulk deliveries of games.

It was just in case anyone wanted to buy one of my guitars, and I had to send it to them, it would need safe packaging. The cupboard-full of little cardboard envelopes I had kept over from Amazon deliveries seemed less than adequate for wrapping a big object like a guitar case. Especially my ‘New Yorker’, a big 17″ archtop that lives in a big black case the size of Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus. This stuff was Heaven-sent, folded-down boxes easy to carry, that would open-up to make big wraparound sheets.

I went in.

There was a knot of young men hanging around the cash register, discussing the finer points of games and X-Box 360s versus Playstation 3 with the experts behind the counter. They paid the nervous old man no attention, but I identified a wandering floor assistant by his green Game shirt. He was busy attending to a youngish woman whose off-the-shoulder decolletage revealed a back almost entirely covered by a tattoo depicting a wild forest scene by night, and flying over it a witch with a pointy hat on a broomstick, and in Gothic script the legend ‘Not all witches are ugly’. This one was no oil painting.

As we stood there, she and the young man in earnest conversation, me hovering nervously behind, awaiting my opportunity to pounce with my strange request for free cardboard, I heard her say, yes, he’s eight years old.  The assistant pointed to various boxes arranged in racks on the wall, for her perusal.

They were false boxes, I saw, advertising bundles of games for the X-Box at prices starting at £149, going up into the two hundreds. You bought the box, but inside was just a card with a code on it, that you put in to the machine and it would probably persuade a giant server array located in some rutted feudal demesne or drought-stricken Californian nut orchard to download the requested programs to the infant in question. We have long grown out of the era of mini-discs, I think.

And she was telling the young man, no, he’s got all them ones, and them… yeah, and them too… and with an expressive sweep of one tattooed arm, took in the entire wall labelled ‘Chart’, which I took to mean the current crop of 20 best-selling games, hundreds and hundreds of pounds-worth of superficial distraction for gibbering little square-eyed idiots.

And I proudly recalled bringing up our eight-year-old son on our Welsh hillfarm, where we made our own electricity and pumped our own well-water; and how, when he wanted toys to play with, even on his birthday when we couldn’t afford anything, he would go out to the garage and take apart some mechanism or seemingly no-longer useful object he had found in a barn, and deftly reconstruct it as a crossbow, a starship battlecruiser or a flak-jacket – he once made a flak-jacket, snipping up some metal roofing sheets into three-inch platelets, drilling them, wiring them together and then stitching them into a jerkin he made from bits of cloth and leather – offcuts of wood and sawdust and metal shavings and screws stuck in hardset puddles of glue and my rusting, blunted tools left all over the workbench and the floor…

And I remembered doing much the same to my poor, exasperated grandfather when I was a kid, parked for the summer holidays on my grandparents and commandeering the toolshed, even though I had plenty of Airfix models to assemble and a gramophone with some records and a plastic Bren-gun on a tripod, with realistic recoil and muzzle flash. (I used to love setting fire to my Airfix models and throwing them out of my bedroom window to watch them crash and burn in the garden. You probably guessed that already.)

And I remember too, after he had finally acquired his own X-Box through the well-intentioned offices of some temporarily wealthy aunt, having to sit there nodding wisely and paternally patient as he spent hours excitedly summarising the labyrinthine plots of the latest, seemingly bonkers games of Halo and Assassin’s Creed, Empires – Dawn of the Modern World, in agonising detail.

And there he is, twenty-one years old, setting up his X-Box and screen in the corner of his student digs for he and his mates and their globally distributed rivals to play with together, all night long. Developing all the skills they need to conduct the computer-game-based real warfare their leaders are stumbling into blindly, even as I write. It may make more sense than studying for pointless degrees.

I should perhaps be thankful then, that that eight-year-old ‘son of a witch’ is coming along behind them to fight the next generation’s wars on our behalf. It’s not the world I live in, sometimes I think that my early addiction to Science Fiction has led me to create this increasingly dystopian hell (I have always had the apprehension that everything wrong with the world is probably my fault), in which a gentler, more innocent past is receding at a vertiginous rate.

Unreality is the new reality, you might say. I couldn’t possibly comment. But if someone does want to buy my guitars, I’m ready for them.



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