The Most Important Photos From My Recent Trip To America (AKA: The Pajiba Staff Retreat)
In one of his maddeningly brilliant Game of Thrones deep (deep, deep, fucking DEEP!) dives, the unforgiving slayer of page loading times that is Lord Castleton relayed a little story about the Pajiba writers’ retreat that took place a few weeks ago. It was a colourful little detour on a flawless narrative journey. A drop in the proverbial ocean, the purpose of which was simply to provide a little extra human flavour to that already fragrant cocktail. A harmless and fun anecdote in other words.
An anecdote that requires a merciless correction of historical record.
You see, I’ve been writing for this site for over three years now, but because of an affliction called ‘Being On The Other Side Of An Ocean’ I’ve never actually gotten to meet the vast majority of the mad folk I call colleagues here. Meet them in person, anyway. We do have an endlessly buzzing Slack channel that creaks at the seams with their uncontainable personalities, so I have for some time had a pretty good idea of what kind of characters they all are. But no matter how much written interaction you have with someone, the image is never quite fully 3D until you actually share a room with them. Until you meet someone in the flesh and you hear how they sound and see how they move. You can read volumes of someone’s words and you can get a rich estimation of their character that way, but (in my humble opinion anyway) you can’t really know a person until you see how they laugh. Despite that limitation, I’d basically fallen madly in love with every single one of these lunatics over the past three-and-change years. So suffice it to say I was quite excited to be diving into this comic book splash page of personalities. I couldn’t wait to see what the full picture looked like.
What’s the strongest, most extreme opposite of ‘let down’.
When it comes to online communications, the image people project can often differ quite a bit from the in-person reality. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It can happen for all sorts of reasons, and it can happen unconsciously as well as as a result of a deliberate effort. Nevertheless, I can happily report that when it comes to my fellow Pajibans, the opposite turned out to be very much the case. Their 3D reality aligned with their 2D projection to an astonishing degree, and it was just abso-fucking-lutely delightful to experience. These were pretty much exactly the people I expected—and hoped—them to be. Except, that is, for the voices. I had no fucking idea what to expect there. I mean, I know where they’re all from, and I should’ve at least have a handle on the expected accent. But whenever I would read their messages in Slack it was always just slightly different variations of my own voice sounding in my head. I’ve never thought about that until the flight home after the trip. Did that make me a narcissist? Some sort of quasi-solipsist? Or does that happen to everyone? Whatever the case, now I hear them as they actually sound when they type. It’s great.
But back to the point at hand. Castleton’s brief detour. At one point in his deep dive, he details his and my first encounter. For the most part, it happened exactly as he tells it. As he says, he arrived late on Friday. The rest of us had been drinking and getting to know each other for a good few hours by then. That much is certainly true. And, yes, just as he says, in the moment of his arrival I fired a volley of insults at him and then instinctively and without warning, spear tackled him and a fight to the death briefly ensued. BUT. The man is a storyteller. Narrative momentum is his trade. And while he hewed 99.9% close to the truth, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t correct one egregious detail in his account. This is his telling of a part of our duel. See if you can spot the fantasy:
He wobbles to his feet, overcome with a primal rage and pulls a switchblade out of one of the many zippered pockets of his matching tracksuit, and curses at me in Czech. I pick up a discarded t-shirt from one of Dustin’s children off the back of a dining room chair and quickly spin it into a rat tail. I’m going to weave it around his knife arm and John Wick his ass.
‘Matching tracksuit’ he calls it. Ha! Matching! Anyone with half a functioning brain can clearly see that the bottom half of that ‘matching’ tracksuit is rosso corsa red; the upper is alizarin crimson red!
As we say back home (in a thick Eastern European accent of course):
The man is, how you say, soft in head, yes?
Who knows what kinds of Yankee imperialist lies he may be spreading elsewhere about that Bretton-Woods 2.0.
In light of such obloquy, and because history is a never-ending clash between different voices screaming their truths out into the ether, I thought I’d comb through my records and see what evidence I had brought back from across the ocean.
This then is the actual account. An exercise in true record codification. The real story that the mainstream media doesn’t want you to see.
Here you will see only the most important photos, and hear only the most vital and true stories. There aren’t many. Because I was too drunk for most of the trip to take pictures. But they are all Very Important.
It all began, obviously, with my flying over to America. For only the second time ever. America. This place that exists for me in a constantly fluctuating state between producer of honeyed dreams and malicious projector of violence. A whiplash contradiction as turbulent as the human spirit itself. A place composed of images taken from movies and self-created myths.
The last time I was there, everything felt appropriately unreal, as if I was floating through a dream, or walking through a movie—those marketable fables America dreams of itself. Granted, that may well have been partly due to the nature of occasion itself—a week-long drunken marathon that cloaked itself in the veneer of a wedding—but it wasn’t a state that could be entirely put down to the booze. No, for me, a lifetime of rabidly consuming American culture has given the place an intoxicating air in and of itself. The world gets drunk on America, on its myths. It’s potent stuff too. If you could bottle that shit and sell it you’d make a killing on the UK binge drinking scene (AKA the UK).
For me, it means that encountering anything American in real life immediately invests reality itself with a heightened air. I’ve met a few Americans over the years, often while out drinking somewhere, and whenever I have, it always felt as if I’d slipped into A Plot. I’d interact with that accent (yeah yeah, there are many; but pretty much any will do) for just like a minute and straight away I’d be looking for the tell-tale signs of a movie unfolding around me. I know, I know. I’m ten years old. I don’t care. It’s great. Let the banal become transformed, however you can.
That egghead Sartre once said:
This is what I thought: for the most banal even to become an adventure, you must (and this is enough) begin to recount it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story. But you have to choose: live or tell.
All that is such unnecessary effort. What he could’ve said was, ‘Just hang around with a Yank for a night. You’ll feel like you’re in a film.’
But, the Pajiba Writers Retreat.
We were in and around Portland, Maine. Stephen King country. On every drive you could feel that vibe all around you. Just arcane horror and cryptic magic hiding and creeping among the trees. Men called ‘Dustin’ peeking round corners at twilight. At one point, the hungover morning after the Castleton/Knava deathmatch, we drove to a town called Freeport. There were a lot of shops there. You needed something to hang the American flags on after all. One of the biggest shops there was the flagship LL Bean. I didn’t know what LL Bean was. I’d heard the name in the past. It had osmosed into me at some point, but I’d never sought further knowledge because I like staying ignorant of some things. We carry the sum of human knowledge around in our pockets. It takes less time to find the answer to pretty much any question imaginable than it does to take a piss. Yet despite that—or maybe because of it—it’s fun sometimes to not pursue a thread. To not DuckDuckGo (yeah, that’s right) every new thing you come across. It’s nice to find out things the old fashioned way sometimes (or not find out them at all!). There’s a liberty to that.
Take Michelin for example. I’ve always known it was a tire maker, and that it was also the name of the restaurant rating people. But until fellow Overlord Genevieve confirmed it for me the other day, I’d never once even questioned whether or not they were the same company. It just seemed like a strange little quirk of the universe, that a company specialising in rubber wheels would share a name with a bunch of poshos going around and stamping eateries with a mark of unbesmirchable prestige. I was content to live in a permanent state of shrug. But then Genevieve collapsed the wavefunction. And I blinked in the light of new knowledge, uncertainties waved away like smoke.
And so it was with LL Bean. I knew it was a shop.
Sorry, a ‘store’.
When in Rome, after all.
But I’d never looked into what kind of store.
Well, this was the time and the place to find out. America. The flagship store. So we went. It felt sacred, walking into a store in America. Like I was partaking of the local sacrament. Enter the temple. This is where it all happens.
The sign on the door said, ‘Please check all firearms at the entrance, thank you.’
My senses tingled. Part giddy, part terrified, part smug. All European. (There’s nothing Europeans like more than feeling smug about our lack of gun violence as compared to yours. That and our apparently lower rates of racism—a fantastically delusional viewpoint contradicted by literally half a second’s worth of observation, but hey, we all gotta feel better than someone right? That’s how you get by.)
I wanted to take a picture of the firearms sign, but felt loath to hold up the people entering behind me. I didn’t want to cause a fuss. All English. I carried on promptly. But I was sad. What if that had been the Most American Photo I could’ve taken on this trip. And now it was gone forever.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried, as a few steps into the
shop store the country leapt at the chance to display itself for me:
That sight right there was my first experience of what LL Bean might mean, and if I had been giddy before at the sight of a sign mentioning firearms, well, this was something else. Racks of guns. Just fucking racks of ‘em! And lots of old white dudes with trousers hitched up way too high just idly browsing the guns. ‘So this is LL Bean?’ The others assured me that wasn’t the case. It was a clothing store! We must’ve entered through the back. Through the hunting section. The hunting section of the clothing store. I relished the phrase and swilled it around my mouth to fully savour the Americanness. Mmm.
Over the course of what felt like a week but might’ve been just a few days we passed through the rest of the flagship LL Bean.
It was bigger than some city blocks back home.
It was so big there was a pond inside. With fish. And an old man fishing. Inside the store.
The hunting section. It made sense, I guess.
But I stood there, stock still for a few minutes, gaping like a small-minded simpleton at this jarring tableaux. At discount Sam Elliott up there, corralled and dressed up in fisherman’s garb, forced to perform this macabre play. I couldn’t make out the ankle bracelet that bound him to a maximum 10-foot diameter prison but I knew it must be there. And, you know, the fish! Their prison was at least readily apparent. There must have been a maximum of seven or so fish in that pond. Were they trout? I didn’t know. Did they? They lived in a fake pond in LL Bean underneath fluorescent skies, did it matter? All that mattered was The Show. Sam Elliott would catch one, reel it in to inspect it and show it off to the people gathered closest to him, and then he’d release it again. On and on it went. I hoped the fish were unionised at least.
This purgatory wasn’t the only instance of fish in LL Bean.
There was also THE FISH VIEWING DOME.
Whereas Purgatory Pond was a depressing and downbeat kinda experience, the Dome was something closer to pure joy. You crawled underneath a fish tank and you stuck your head into a dome embedded into the tank. Suddenly, you were in a world not our own, surrounded by water, and the fish whose home it is. You gaped at the fish and they gaped back. A good number of the Pajiba writers took a turn. Each one had different reactions to the experience.
The fish had different reactions to experiencing the writers too.
Our own Kate Hudson, for example, was incredibly suspicious of the fish. The fish were suspicious right back. They held their distance, hovering en masse. There’s safety in numbers.
As for me, well I’m a gawper. I gawped moronically. The fish came close, probably feeling similar pity to what I felt for their Purgatory Pond comrades.
So in retrospect, with all things wonder, I should’ve been prepared for the sight to come. But nothing could prepare me for the cataclysmic conceptual collision that was…
The Big Boot.
My tiny socialist European brain, capable of only grasping one topic at a time (and only during moments of careful consideration in an unmoving queue for stale state bread) lay shattered on the floor in the face of The Big Boot. I was also intensely hungover and bleeding internally from my grappling match the night before with silverback Castleton. So this was all, as they say, A Lot.
The Big Boot marked the entrance to the Big Store. People waited to take pictures with it. Here in America, the Boot seemed to say, we queue not for bread. We queue for Boot. Big Boot. Big Boot, which is just like a normal boot, but Big. Boot normally means small. Foot sized. Boot sized. But Big Boot was not that size. It was Big. I grappled with the contradiction.
Which is why the picture.
And that stupid face. That stupid face which spoke of an existential storm raging within, manifesting as a demented glee.
But that wasn’t all the yanks had in
shop store for me.
Not by a long shot.
‘Knava. Come here. Get a load of this,’ the phalanx giggled in glee. I slipped off the Big Boot, thumbing my nose at the ‘Do Not Climb The Boot’, the coda of ‘Killing in the Name’ playing in my head, and I followed the trail of breadcrumbs, gazing with anticipation at the corner they were leading me towards. If the Big Boot had shattered my mind into pieces, the sight that lay behind the corner trampled the pieces into…
Well, even smaller pieces I guess.
Friends, if I thought that the boot that was Big was the pinnacle of the conceptual summit I was climbing, I learned then that I was sorely mistaken. Here was something else entirely. Not just a Big Boot. But a Big Boot That Was Also A Car.
That right there is the moment, captured by my friend and colleague Genevieve Burgess, when a fragile mind imploded in on itself.
There really was no limit here. In America. Freeport, Maine. A boy had come a long way from London, England. There people glide forever hungover through a logic-less warren of streets choked with pollution. Our minds are small. Cars are cars and boots are boots. And small. But here, in Freeport.
A Big Boot Car.
It was a lot. I reeled. Clawed at my face. Begged for mercy.
I didn’t receive it.
What I got instead was a sight that reduced me to tears.
Tears of laughter, but still.
It was a weird sight. It shouldn’t have had any effect at all, really. But as we wandered away from the Big Boot That Was Also A Car I found myself lagging behind the rest of the group, mind and body both weakened by my encounter with the utilitarian chimera. So when I found myself face to face with this—
—I must say, I just fucking lost it.
Look I don’t really know why. As I said, I was in a totally ruined state. Hungover, transitioning into day drinking but with only the first (strange American) beer in me, and devastated by fantastical sights. But even that doesn’t really explain it. I could say, ‘You had to be there.’ But that wouldn’t cover it either, I don’t think. Lord Castleton was there to see it, as was Dan. Both had been at the rear end of the group up ahead, and had reacted to me losing my shit behind them by turning around, only to be greeted with the sight of me struggling to walk through the laughter.
Smirking, anticipating something gut-bustingly hilarious, they looked around to see what could have caused it.
All I could do was point at it.
At this, the centerpiece of it all:
And they did laugh. But mostly at me laughing at that, I suspect.
My sense of humour can above all else probably be characterised as ‘simple’. I mean, I’ve done all the fancy book learnin’ and stuff and yeah, a multilayered season-long metatextual gag in Arrested Development or Community can have me chuckling along heartily as much as the next nerd. But if you want me to really lose my shit—and I mean really just full-on nearly explode from the rapid exhalation of noise and air—then all it’ll take is something in the boneheaded ballpark of ‘someone falling over’. That’s the level we’re talking about. That’ll get me more than anything else. Gimme a well-timed pratfall and I’m an instant mess. It’s why, despite all his objective horribleness were he to be a real human, Ross is by far the funniest character on Friends.
Even as it rapidly deteriorated in Season 5 and later Friends was a showpiece for David Schwimmer’s physical comedy. In fact, in the latter seasons that became one of the few reliable sources of laughs. It made me realise this about myself. That camera operator on Gabbo’s show in The Simpsons, he gets it.
‘Hey, boyo, what’s so funny?’ - Cameraman
‘Well, it’s … nah, you wouldn’t be interested. It’s too lowbrow.- - Bart
‘No, I’m quite lowbrow.’ - Cameraman
I just couldn’t help it. That damn cone. In that puddle. The magic. The majesty.
It just attacked me. I started picturing exactly how this all came to be.
‘How long had it been?’, Chaos asked itself.
How long since it had brought its wrath to bear down on Freeport, Maine, specifically.
It wasn’t easy being Chaos. It was fun, but it wasn’t easy. Not anymore. After thousands of years humanity had developed ways of dealing with it. Once, a little spark could light a wildfire of panic and madness. Now, the humans had developed systems and algorithms. Methods of managing their inbuilt proclivity for panic. They had made it a lot harder for Chaos to thrive.
But Chaos was Chaos, and no matter what, it would always find a way to be
And now it was Freeport’s turn. It had been a while. It deserved something big.
In surveying the landscape, in searching for the canvas upon which it would paint its masterpiece, Chaos had found something. A little imperfection in Freeport’s armour. Here is where it would focus its energies. It was a little trough in the floor, a gentle sloping, unnoticeable by the human eye, but one that a liquid like water, left unchecked, would certainly pay a healthy amount of attention to.
So Chaos began to direct the water. Slowly but surely it gathered and pooled, right in the heart of this conglomeration of businesses, directly in the centre of a human thoroughfare. The pooling would be so gradual, the invasion so quasistatic, they would never know what hit it. And when they did, why, by then it would be too lat-…
‘Well what’s wrong, Al?’
‘Well, uh. It looks like we got ourselves a little puddle going on right here.’
‘Oh, yeah. I suppose you’re right.’
‘Well, uh. I mean, I know we were on our way to that there Calvin Klein store to pick out some new underwear, but I’m thinking we better do something about this first.’
‘You’re not wrong there, Al. But what could simple small town folk like you and me do about something like that?’
‘I’ll be dammed if I know, Bill…’
‘Say, uh, Bill. Do you still have that cone in the back of your truck?’
‘Of course. Never leave home without the cone, I always say.’
‘I’ve got an idea.’
Quite frankly, after that cone, everything else appeared as if in shades of grey, drained of vitality and life.
Even the miraculous sights and strange demented wonders like the fact that your coffee comes in boxes.
That your airport margaritas come in pints.
That your hot things come in frozen.
That your seafood needs this distinction.
That your goats are both regal and chill.
That your (incredible, perfect, seriously wonderful) dive bars are decorated like this:
And finally, and most importantly—and I did basically journey three thousand goddamn miles just to verify and experience this—that your bread comes in cans.
Image sources (in order of posting): Petr Knava, Fox
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