Cracker by Damian Christie

The envelope, please

Okay, time’s up. Pens down please.

Thanks for your votes. I can now announce the winners from the three rounds.

Round one: When Christmas Parades Go Bad. Also winner of most overall votes. I’m not reading too much into that because voter turnout dropped over the three rounds, and I suspect it had more to do with general apathy than the standard of the entries.

Special mention (and second in overall votes): Claws.

Round two: A narrow win to Chily Willy. Greg, I wish one of the prizes was a book on the merits of sub-editing, but alas, you’ll have to choose from those on offer.

Best descriptor goes to David for Early Bird Gets the Worm: “It sounded like a fish being hit against the bench.”

Round three: Henry, Henry & I. Scotland Yard have also offered a free trip to the UK if you’re interested Barry?

All of the stories mentioned above get a book. Take your pick(s) from those below. There are limited numbers of each, so if you don’t sort it out nicely, priority goes to the story with the most votes. Democratic, see.

As previously discussed, the books on offer are:

The critically acclaimed (and actually very interesting) Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories,

A great little book called The Meaning of Tingo

For the more edu-ma-cated amongst you, Noam Chomsky's Imperial Ambitions – conversations with Noam on the post 9-11 world.

Loner: Inside a Labor Tragedy by Bernard Lagan (all about Mark Latham's rise and fall, and again supposed to be a Cracker read).

And as I’m too full of methampethamine and eggnog Christmas Cheer to name anyone's the worst story, Hitler Was a British Agent by Greg Hallet and the Spymaster is also up for grabs. If no-one chooses it, I will randomly include it in someone’s prize package.

Again, thanks to everyone who entered and who voted. What a great way to end the year here at Cracker HQ.

Finally, a couple more stories. Since you all liked the Christmas Parades story so much, here’s a tale from overseas, and I'll finish up with a yarn from my mate Bob that I reckon is worth a read.

Merry etc everyone. E haere ana koe me ena kakahu? (Google it if you're stuck)

By Bob

There are very few skyscrapers in LA. The terra is far from firm. Downtown has a few brave towers stretching through the smog but this city was designed with earthquakes in mind. The latent force of the San Andreas Fault lingers under the surface of everything.

From my taxi I watched film images come to life – mustard-yellow school buses, smudged baseball fields, police weighed down with weapons. My cab drove me through the labyrinth of urban blocks sliced by endless roads streaming tonnes of traffic through the electric city.

I felt like a fragment in the kinetic wash, enjoying the drifting monotony of the freeway, until something snapped and everything stopped – everything except the two cars ahead of us, which collided and rolled heavily down the road.

Through the fog of jetlag my eyes worked in slow motion: two Jeeps slid across the road like it was ice; glass spewed into the air; one Jeep crunched into a wall, the other rolled in the distance; tired locked and screamed; someone got out and jumped off the freeway; a Reebok was left in the middle of the road; people were lifted out of the passenger window; a petrol tank added smoke rings to the smog.

My fellow passengers reacted diversely: one chanted – “Oh-my-God”; the other calmly pointed his mobile phone at the wreckage and took a photograph. I felt I should have been traumatised but, like everything in LA – it looked fake, it felt like a film. In true LA style everyone moved to the left lane and kept on driving. LA never stops; stasis is unacceptable in this city of speeding electrons.

The city moved on and the taxi drove me from a nightmare to a beautiful dream – a night at the Playboy Mansion. LA is a flat scrubland except for one road that rises out of Hollywood Boulevard like a lavish airstrip and lands you in the opulence of Bel Air. Poor hopefuls eek out a living below: rich untouchables cavort above. Besides taxis, all the cars in Bel Air are sumptuous symbols of wealth. Only the obnoxiously rich frolic in these manicured hills.

My cab dropped me at UCLA where big men with clipboards and walkie-talkies confirmed my identity and I was branded with a bunny rabbit stamp and put in a shuttle bus with the other guests. Taxis are not allowed to go directly to Hugh’s mansion; the celebrity cocoon has to be protected. Surrounded by paranoid-looking bodyguards whispering into walkie-talkies it felt more like we were off to see the president of the United States. Although I guess in the city of sex the man who publishes the porn is King. And so we drove further into the lush hills to Hugh’s castle.

We were greeted by women wearing only smiles and body paint. They treated me like God and I indulged, briefly, in Hugh’s porn-tinted life. They were paid to be pleasant – pleasant is not an unpaid guest in LA – but nevertheless I bask in the bright artifice of it all, watching bronzed women flash their Da Vinci Veneers for leering lenses.

My magnetism was obviously working because when I sat down three Playmates immediately joined me – they were all dowsed in perfumes, all wearing silk clothes and all very, very old. They introduced themselves as: Playmate 1954, 1964 and 1973. Soft makeup and violent surgery created chronological confusion: 1954 looked younger than 1973, and 1964 looked like a man. They were women from a different era, golden girls, displaying their wares before I was even a twinkle.

I asked Dolores De Monte, Playmate 1954, if Hugh still lived in the Mansion and she laughed at me – “No honey, Hugh lives up the hill”. Which means two things: he does, in fact, live up the hill but, more importantly, in a fairly tale way, the further up the hill you live the richer you are. Altitude equals affluence.

My misspent youth revealed itself when I recognised one of the ladies on the sofa. She had acted in a classic 1960’s boobyilicious cult movie called Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

When I said, “Are you Cynthia Myer?” she said, in a rather pleased tone – “I surely am, darlin’”. We talked about cult moviemaker, Russ Meyer, focusing mainly on Meyer’s – and, in an unspoken way, my own – interest in voluptuous women. Cynthia was a woman who had lived and learned: “I hate LA – too many guns! Too many schmucks! I live out in the sticks with my horse. In the low lands.” Once again: the American obsession with gradients.

As I wandered through the party the friend I was travelling with had yet another American Psycho experience, a moment of mistaken identity. A man came up to him, pointed at him, smiled and said, “Hey Johnny – looking good, my man. Didn’t know you were back in town, dude.” The first few times it happened my friend tried to correct them, “I think you are mistaken. Actually my name is Ollie…” but he soon realised that people in LA don’t care, they don’t have time to listen, it eats into their talking time; they are too busy pitching their personalities, shouting, trying to be outrageous, trying to be discovered to actually listen. Before Ollie could finish his sentence the man had vanished behind a wall of flesh and was shouting, “Call me, man, we must catch up.”

After the party, the paint peeling a little, the digital memory cards brimming with breasts, we were all herded back on the shuttle bus. On the bus home there was a clash of another sort – a generation clash between Playmate 1966 and Playmate 2005. The argument was into its final round and, although they were sitting at different ends of the bus, the two women craned their necks so their insults travelled, before calmly continuing their conversation with their friends.

When I sat down beside Playmate 1966 she said suspiciously, “Where you from?” I told her and she handed me a card with a picture of a young girl, naked, bar a web link across her belly. It took me a moment to realise the sweet girl in the photo was the same nicotine-yellow woman who sat beside me but before I could say anything she was lobbing another attack down the bus at Playmate 2005.

Playmate 1966: “What do these new girls know? Not a pick on her. We had political reasons for doing what we did in our day; we had style!”

Playmate 2005: “Get a Zimmer frame for your dangling tits, granma!”

1966: “Have some respect, young lady!”

2005: “Ah, go blow yourself!”

They were both from different generations but they shared a delight in public shit slinging. Don’t let porn’s Vaseline lens delude you, boys – these are tough women; galvanised in the kiln of exploitation, hardened by years of being over-viewed.

I was dropped off and got lost in the UCLA campus – so expansive and sterile that it looks like a space station. I wandered into the UCLA police station to ask where I was and, behind the metal mesh, a cop was polishing a revolver – it may have been a Magnum .45 but that could just have been too many Dirty Harry movies fuelling my imagination. Stunned, I mumbled something like – “Where am… Um… Taxi?” – avoiding looking at his gun as though his fly was gaping open.

I retreated to my homicidally hip hotel – The Standard. The proprietor is the disco loon that owned Studio 54 and it shows. Inexplicably a woman in white underpants and bra lounged in a glass cube above the reception area. All day she listened to her iPod and all day she was ignored by everyone – everyone was far too busy paying attention to themselves to notice her. LA is at war, a war of attention: big breasts battling it out with massive cars overshadowed by towering billboards drowned out by loud voices and endless egos.

As I waited for my room key I looked around the hotel and saw a flock of beautiful people drift across the lobby past a gaggle of bored teenagers draped over Philippe Starck sofas. I also noticed the frosted glass of The Standard lobby. It clouded when I looked directly at it but granted me transparent slithers when I walked by and looked at it askance. Of course, walking forward, while looking to my right, resulted in me bashing into a wall. That is LA: an illusion that ends in a slap.

Talking to the moody concierge I once again felt the gap between this man’s hopes of becoming an actor and the reality of him remaining a bellboy. In LA that gap divides the young and hopeful from the old and bitter. It may partly be because as a tourist I was a slave to the service industry and all of its faux-formality, but the citizens of LA struck me as being robotic, servants of the fast currents that powered this city – all squeezing quixotic dreams into servile lives.

This city of angels is only for the fallen variety and – though entertainingly superficial for a fleeting voyeur – it is a desert-city where faint lines divide entertainment from exploitation, clothes from paint, waiters from actors, and fabulous success from atrocious failure. I was finally handed my room key, or room card, and exhausted from a day of crashes, guns and porn stars, I turned to Ollie and said goodnight, he told me he needed a drink so I left him at the bar. As I waited for the lift I saw a tall, chisel-jawed man sit beside Ollie and say, “Hey. Johnny, good to see you man. You look great!” Ollie said, “Hi, yeah I’m great, you look great too.”