Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Slave to the Blog

It occurred to me today that I am in fact a slave to the blog as surely as I have been a slave to my career in the past.



After a half a week of not posting a small vein starts twitching in my neck. The tiny twitch becomes a thump, thump, thump in Starbucks and I am like the fellow in the Edgar Alan Poe novel for whom the beating of the heart of the old man he has murdered becomes so pronounced he has to give himself up.

There I am, out in public, ripping up the floorboards, metaphorically speaking and revealing the corpse to all who care to see it in all it's grisly details - ladies and gentlemen I have neglected by blog. Now lock me up.

Well to be fair I have been busy. I have been winding my way around in small circles of insignificance - wondering why I have taken on assignments that involve asking dumb questions to random people in steamy subdivisions in the middle of the day, and vaguely thinking I have spent half of my life asking futile questions of people who don't care.

But the futility has taken over my life as my old life has slipped back for a couple of days - nothing for it but to call all the people on the list and thus to fuel the futility. Mornings slip by and before I know it I am deftly crafting the futility into the wee small hours.

I start to see why I have people I follow who went on a "blogging break" and never came back. I picture them now in dark caves on a windswept island, muttering about the weather and the messy sea gulls and the perils of falling coconuts - anything as long as they never have to talk about their now defunct blogs.




But some of us stick with it for sure. We are dutiful plodders who put one step in front of another as we head to an indistinct and hilly horizon.

Which is a cue to wimp out and post some pictures of the mountains, but definitely not to go on a blogging break that is a one way ticket to oblivion.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The damning verdict on Kristen Stewart by Twilight's biggest fan

I'm not sure if I've ever been a real fan of anyone or anything in particular. Real fans are scary. They are borderline stalkers, probably. Real fans are people like Emma Clark who act like they are part of their idol's lives.

Clarke goes by the name of Nutty Madam. When you watch this video, you'll see she's 120 percent macadamia. She's apparently one of the world's biggest fans of Twilight. And when you're watching a video that starts with the immortal words "I said I wasn't going to make a video about this," you know you are about to watch a road wreck.





I have no idea what Twilight is. It's a generational thing. I can tell you a fair bit about Doctor Who. Anyway Twilight appears to be something to do with vampires and it features Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, who are apparently photogenic young people who were also dating and were as compatible as Tom and Katie and Hugh and Liz etc. until Kristen was caught getting steamy with married director Rupert Sanders.

This is clearly the biggest scandal of the moment but I'm having problems getting scandalized because

A - I have no idea who Stewart is but I don't think she's related to Rod.

B - Sanders is a Brit. What do you expect.


Except Nutty Madam hasn't taken it well at all in her latest YouTube rant. "Why would you cheat on Robert Pattinson, she wails on the edge of tears.

Then Nutty Madame gets even more scary in warning people to leave them alone.

She just wants everyone to back off.

“You wouldn’t walk into a shop and ask the sales assistant ‘Hey, when is the last time you crapped?’ because it’s inappropriate, that’s someone’s personal information,” says Clark.

Clark is plain old bonkers frightening and she's already been featured in the Daily Mail and threatens to go viral. In a funny way she's got what she wanted. She's already a part of the lives of those she obsesses about.

There's something else that scares me about her. She sounds like she's English. In fact she could have been at my high school. Never turning in her essays and flunking everything she tried her hand at. Until a video camera made her more famous than everybody else. Look out for her on Big Brother #567

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Dreaming of the bosses from hell

One of the main advantages of being self employed is that I don't have a boss, although I work for people.




In the words of Bob Dylan you "Gotta serve somebody," whether it's the Lord or the Devil and, as most of us come to realize, it's usually the latter.

The main problem I have found with bosses, is that most of them have been universally terrible. This may be a particular problem in the newspaper industry with its macho culture, a culture that incidentally means female bosses feel they have to overcompensate and be more macho than than the men.

I still have nightmares about one female boss who had a habit of marching around the office, throwing around phone books and yelling "fuckwits, fuckwits, fuckwits."

Which was a nice prelude to another day in the paradise we call the office.

Talking of the office, when we think of bad bosses we think of David Brent in the Office - a cringeworthy and embarrassing boss who is, nevertheless, entertaining. I have had bosses who I would willingly exchange for Brent.



Perhaps the most infamous newspaper boss of modern times was Kelvin McKenzie, the editor of the Sun, whose verbal tongue lashings of reporters in the middle of the newsroom were the stuff of legend.

McKenzie famously printed the direct phone number of Stuart Higgins, a subordinate, without his initial knowledge, billed him as the "Human Sponge" and asked readers to call him to "get things off their chest".

The newspaper industry probably exacerbates the bad boss culture because people are being laid off all the time. This gives bosses the power of economic life or death over employees. I recall the many times we were called into a conference room to be told of a restructuring that represented an "exciting new era," although it would mean the strategic removal of 20 jobs.

Then one day Boss called everybody into the conference room to announce he had been laid off  - by his own boss presumably.

More commonly the bad boss stuff goes on behind closed doors and in offices dubbed with phrases such as the "ice room," the "death suite" and the "bollocking room."

At one previous newspaper when a reporter was dragged into the "bollocking room" we would take bets on whether he would emerge with a job. I say "he" because if it was "she" the reporter would be taken into the room to be given a promotion, particularly if she had long legs and a short skirt.

Jayne had long legs and a short skirt. Boss would send emails to me about readers moaning and to Jayne about how he would have to take her to lunch to introduce her to contacts. One day Jayne approached me. All the blood appeared to have run from her face.

"He wants me to attend x conference,"

"OK,"

"He's booked me a room at a hotel,"

"OK."

"It's the same room as his."

"Not so OK."

At another newspaper, news conferences would become increasingly tense when Boss was in one of those moods.

"So what have you got Macca," (examining his slip on shoes because he hadn't worked out how to tie his laces."

"Blah, blah, blah."

"Is that it?"

"Yes."

"You don't have more for me."

"No."

Long sigh that signified my failure as a human being.

At another paper I got into design. One day I designed a page that was a bit different. Creative use of space. Like the Louvre. Sort of.

I arrived in the office the next morning and Boss is glaring at me, holding up my page.

"Good morning C..."

"You are taking the f... piss."

I started to get the impression he didn't like my design.

In America bosses tended to be less 'in your face' but that doesn't make them any cuddlier. There's a rule book for US bosses and it's called The Guide to Passive Aggression. A superficially friendly conversation on the stairwell will often be followed up by a terse email about an issue they could easily have addressed face to face.

I'm not sure why I went on this bosses rant but I think it was due to last night's dream. In it I dreamed of a former boss who had rather skillfully ignored my existence for six months or so really loved me and she was being distant to cloak her true feelings. The final scene as I departed for another job was like a vintage movie as the train pulled away and she sought to drag me to her in a last corporate embrace.

I woke up feeling frankly queasy.

Being my own boss can be illuminating but sometimes the spirits of bosses past creep into my soul and I beat myself up. Will I ever escape from those bad bosses?







Friday, July 20, 2012

The Scream - A Portrait of America


I wonder if an artist has ever taken the time to sit down and paint a portrait of American life. If he or she did it might look something like this.



But oddly enough Edvard Munch was Norwegian, not American. And there hasn't been a lot to scream about in Norway since the Vikings.

Then last year some maniac went on the rampage killing teens on a tranquil island.

It was like a scene from somewhere else; America maybe.

Needless to say the latest massacre was a cue for my more right wing Facebook friends to post a William Burroughs quote about liberals always wanting to take guns away from people who didn't do it after a shooting spree.

And, to be fair, after a while in America you give up on the boring old argument that gun restrictions may prevent a few utter maniacs from killing lots of innocent people, because folks look at you as if you have just raised a red flag outside your house and declared your intention to impose the 'dictatorship of the proletariat.'

Virginia was the scene of one of the worse massacres in living memory at Virginia Tech. It now has some kind of rule that you can only walk in off the street and randomly purchase one gun a day, although hardliners at the Capitol were looking at changing that.

This is a very familiar story and as the rules on guns are never going to change, it's probably more worthwhile to muse on the inspiration behind "The Scream."

"One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below," said Munch. "I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream."

The figure in "The Scream" looks like a corpse. Or maybe as Munch would have looked in 1994 when someone sneaked into the museum that bears his name and stole "The Scream" along with "The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies."

Munch's comments raise the interesting question whether there's a tension inherent in nature or the tension comes from the manmade world. That's not to say I am absorbed by this question on an hourly basis. Far more pressing is the question about whether to go for Chilean Chardonnay or Italian Pinot Grigot and how if I can find a cart big enough to fit in the box of wine I need.

After this week there is a clearly a need to wine down because things have had a habit of occurring that illustrate the maddening chaos of American life.

For instance the kid cuts his hand on an unknown object, the kid is taken to ER - the bill of $200 will arrive shortly, the kid gets a hospital acquired infection from the ER. This necessitates a visit to the doctors' surgery that costs $25, hand lotion that costs $50 a tube, not to mention the cost of follow up visits.

For instance 2 - in the spirit of being half decent landlords we get the rental property power washed - $200. The power wash does something to the electrics $X and apparently the lock $X. This leaves me facing the prospect of rekeying the locks myself, except the car is being serviced for $500 and the power wash guy is not responding anymore and the laptop guy says the hard drive has gone - $500 and now the financial stress means a group trip to the lunatic asylum = $20,000.

So all good fun, really. But such issues pale into insignificance compared to people losing their lives in a movie theater. There is such a thing as perspective, a quality every artist ignores at their peril.

Oddly all of this makes me think of Henry David Thoreau - well that and emigration.

Thoreau was a transcendentalist - well aren't we all after a couple of beers? He decided to live a simple life in a cabin in the edge of town and the woods which he later wrote about in the book Walden. There are various reports to the effect that Thoreau was a big lying woos and his mother brought him apple pies all the time. Whatever the truth of it, Thoreau strived for a simple life that did not involve car repair or laptop repair bills - although neither existed in the mid 1850s anyhow.



Thoreau described it thus: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

I'm not sure what I get out of this but it probably leads me to the conclusion I'd rather hang out with Thoreau than Munch. But then I'd probably rather hang out with the mag old bag lady who tries to get quarters from me outside Zippy Mart than with Munch on a downer.

I'm finding the idea of a simple life at the edge of a lake somewhat appealing right now, although you have to ask if it was so fab, why did Thoreau only hang out at Walden for two years. It actually took him longer to write the book.

Either way there's much to be said for escape and I'm counting the days to the Sea of Cortez.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Twilight by the creek

The waterways round these ways can be unremarkable and yet evocative at the same time. I meandered in lazy circles trying to find somewhere to try out my new camera lens and ended up in Bennett's Creek Park, a small suburban park with a dock and piers that fall away into a river that I assume is called Bennett's Creek.



As soon as I left the car the heat rushed out to envelop me, and the perspiration started to prick my face. Summers can be brutal round these parts. Summer has been brutal for some time. I find it hard to imagine the great Bayous around New Orleans, the festering swamps that team with all that bites, scratches and scrapes and the sheer oppressive humidity. Is it to surprising the guys who hunt gators seem to have parted company with their brain cells as surely as they have lose their teeth? The heat leaves no room to think, no space to breathe.



Yet at Bennett's Creek they defied the bugs to form a long line of fisherfolk, the lines flaccid in the mud that teemed with tiny crabs, looking for all the world like lice that infest the tidal marshes.

I didn't walk far. The sunset was disappointing as if the sun had too been mugged by the heat but there was a luminous quality to the water and the marshes that offered hope that my pictures wouldn't be flat.



And I took a short path to the trees to the high earth lookout point above the water where the river fell away on three sides and a house twinkled across the shallows. We had been here before. The place had history. Kids were smaller and the days we had visited the play park seemed curiously distant. The swings were now silent in the heavy, mosquito laden air and the half light. The earth bank afforded a wide panorama of the river, but was too expansive for the camera lens. I spied the sandy bank I had climbed down two years ago to be greeted by a tall snake rising from the stubbly beach.

This was not a beautiful place but it has a curious sallow charm. It reminded me of the BBQ here long ago when the darkness crept it and only the car headlights saved us from food poisoning.



Flarford Mill is more beautiful but I have only been there once. I have a picture of a boat under the pollarded willows by the old houses.  There were no bugs and no need for a change of shirt, although the clouds moved fast across the meadows in anticipation of the arrival of rain.

Perhaps I was homesick but I couldn't be sure. That would involve thinking and I haven't got round to doing that for some time.




Friday, July 13, 2012

Becoming more like John Lennon

Checking out some  old vids the other day it struck me there was a time when everybody seemed to want to shamelessly ape John Lennon.



Lennon, of course, was always the coolest Beatle and while his death at the hands of a deranged fan in 1980 was a terrible tragedy that robbed the music world of one of its greatest talents, there is nothing like a premature death to ensure you are forever young in the hearts of the public.

Would Marlyn Monroe be the iconic and flawlessly beautiful figure she is today if she had been allowed to grown old ungracefully like Bardot? And would James Dean be forever be the Rebel Without A Cause had he ended up wearing old man's golf slacks?

Princess Diana is forever beautiful because she was beautiful the night she died. John Lennon is forever cool.

There was always something of a Lennon v McCartney rivalry in the Beatles. They were both geniuses but nobody wants to emulate McCartney - and that's not just because he wrote the Frog Chorus and married a scary woman with one leg.

In the 1990s it seemed as if just about every young act, and some not so young ones wanted to be John Lennon. Liam Gallagher from Oasis is the most well known example. In his prime Liam was like a badass, juvenile Lennon with ADD.




Then there was Paul Weller, the so-called Modfather who revived his Jam glory days in 1995 with his solo album Stanley Road, that sounds Beatlesque in the Abbey Road genre but it actually the name of the road he grew up in, in Woking. You Do Something To Me was one of his biggest hits. He seems tio want to emulate Lennon with those specs. Or maybe he wants to emulate Liam.


Even the bloke from Ocean Colour Scene looks like he's trying to do a John Lennon. Badly. I liked The Day We Caught the Train when it came out. Not so much now.


There were quite a few other acts that could also do a passable John Lennon. But the best John Lennon impression was given by this guy in tracks such as Jealous Guy where he does a great impression of Bryan Ferry.



Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Her name was Brenda - It really suited her

Her name was Brenda and it suited her. I saw her chins marching ahead of her before she showed up and she peered at me through thick murky spectacles that made her eyes look like small black holes in the snow. I don't think she got out much.



"Yes. How can I help, you?" she said tersely.

I explained I was the delinquent person whose offspring's after school check had been returned because my bank changed from the woeful Royal Bank of Canada to the abysmal PNC.

She grunted and escorted me to her cubicle in the scruffy bowels of the treasurer's office. You have to love local government. Just 15 minutes earlier I had been in the hall waiting for a cashier. There were nine positions. Eight of them were closed. One of them had a human being of some description behind it but her closed sign was up and she appeared to be busy updating her Facebook status.

The only available cashier was engaged in a conversation with two colleagues and told me to go back and wait until I was called - a process that entailed a discordant mutter into a microphone.

When I explained I wanted to pay an outstanding bill she looked at me as if I had just emerged from a flying saucer from the Planet Zob and declared: "Eathlings - give me your brains."

Which would not have involved a great deal of gathering on behalf of the aliens, at the treasurer's department.

"You want to what?" she said. Frustrated I felt I was back at a drive-through where a metallic voice screams about how it can't understand me and a Big Mac becomes a kid's happy meal with chicken nuggets. I have taken to moronically calling out the number on the menu.

Fortunately I had written Brenda's name on a piece of paper and I was sent back to the office.

I had spoken to Brenda earlier on the telephone when I had foolishly tried to pay the outstanding bill on a debit or a credit card.

"Cash or banker's draft," she declared tersely

"What about a personal check?"

"No"

"A stone tablet from ancient Mesopotamia."

"Ideal."

So I withdrew the money from an ATM that charged me $2.50 for the dubious pleasure of being in 7-Eleven only to find an ATM that only charged $2 for the pleasure of withdrawing one's own money inside the treasurer's department.

Brenda's cubicle scared me somewhat. It wasn't even interesting enough to be gray and was instead a faded brown color. I got the impression Brenda had worked here since the days when Vikings came ashore and declared: "We are here to pillage your homes and womanfolk," and yet the cubicle was somewhat sad. There were a few desultory family photos including a daughter in a school team who would look like Brenda one day.

There were a few boxes of Kleenex, a calender and nothing much of note besides. I found myself thinking if I was unlucky to work from a cubicle again I would certainly put up a few pictures of the Duomo in Florence, Tuscan poppy fields and Picasso's Guernica.

But Brenda's cubicle was a curious hybrid of being not messy or clean. It was a void, and a void full of voided checks at that.

I pulled out my cash and was curious to see a $100 note bears the face of Benjamin Franklin. I had never realized but wasn't particularly impressed given that I have never seen the big deal with Franklin.

If we're talking founding fathers I've always been more keen on Alexander Hamilton, who died in a dual on July 11, 1804 surprisingly enough.

Brenda seemed slightly more friendly when she realized I had the means to pay and I resisted the urge to rifle through her filing cabinets as she "obtained authorization from a superior."

I didn't ask if the superior also wore a vast floral top and pink pants, although I assumed it was de rigour around these parts.

I don't think my existence has been embellished much by my visit to the treasurer's department. I should also take this opportunity to point out I don't have a downer on women called Brenda per se. But you wouldn't call a newborn Brenda now would you, any more than you would call her Doris or Gladys.

The treasurer's department may not have prompted me to think outside the box but it certainly made me glad of a life outside the cubicle.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

King of Pain

I confess I can get rather grouchy about inconsequential things at times. The screen on the laptop that was broken by a wayward child, the fact that some weird boot disk gizmo then went wrong, placing thousands of words of my novel in jeopardy, the thousands of dollars that have vanished from the bank account after an online holiday transaction that backfired, without a hint of a beach in sight.


       
And there are then the things I have lived with for longer, like looking as if I'm 9 months pregnant despite stepping up the exercise regime to three times a week and living on a lentil a day, two if I'm feeling greedy.

And I haven't even got to word verification, pingbacks, the cat box, the guy who talks about leaking parts in an A/C system in a form of Mandarin Chinese I don't understand.

Sometimes I have to take a deep breath and remind myself I still wouldn't be happy if I had all the money and success in the world - I'm talking about serious Tom Cruse, John Travolta, Whitney Houston happiness.

But sometimes my Facebook feed helps me put things in perspective and stops me being such a great big whiskery sour puss.

"Another day, another probe up the penis," states one former colleague in his status update. In another he talks of excruciating pain not to mention the pain of the wife who walked out etc. And there's a real anger that shines through the pain. What if he ends up doing something desperate and dangerous? He has nothing to lose. Apart from pain.                            

Someone once told me she thought people were fundamentally good. I asked her how that explained the Holocaust, the Borgias and Joseph Stalin.

Then there's the 10-year-old kid whose group I follow. The kid attended my daughter's school and she took in a bag full of notes and coins one day to raise money for him. He recently had a liver transplant. At times his parents probably go overboard on Facebook but you can't be too critical about parents waxing lyrical about their sick kid.

Then tonight I read an update suggesting the liver was being rejected and the poor kid is struggling.

Perhaps I'm not good at feeling other people's pain at times but there are also occasions when I feel it quite starkly.

Because I appear to have a minuscule shard of glass in my foot and I'm hopping round the room, moaning about it. Because I've felt real pain when I broke a wrist and on another occasion the pain was so bad I was throwing up.

And more than anything I was so relieved when the pain was over that I can't imagine it, day in and day out.

So I feel your pain, while a part of me is selfish it isn't me - although I know it will be one day.

This post is heavy. Maybe I should stick to writing about snogging and heavy duty lager.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Booze, snogging and car wrecks

A recent well observed posting by my good friend Abi at Happy Frog, brought back memories I thought I had left behind somewhere, and not in the French Quarter either.

I find sometimes Americans have a rather skewed view of school days in England as a jolly hockeysticks kind of jape in which we all wore caps, sang the National Anthem every morning and looked fresh faced like Harry Potter.



Image by ''Atelier Joly''

Not when you attended a blue collar comprehensive in a third tier cathedral city like Gloucester. Those parties that Abi so graphically described in which you end up supping beer full of cigarette butts and various unsavory goings-on were taking place, were my parties.

And while I swear I didn't partake in the trashing of Dominic's house while his parents are away, I may well have woken up next morning clutching his True album by Spandau Ballet which I may or may not have returned. "Listening to Marvin all night long," the sound of my soul was drowned out by cheap Thunderbird wine, always the last thing to go at a party.

Sixth form parties took place at the Bristol Hotel, a tall and ramshackle ediface on the crumbling outskirts of the city center - the area dubbed the Zone of Transition in Weber's classic model.

We were certainly in transition, although less from boys to men than from four legged apes to apes who could stand on two feet. I recall Pashley in the urine stinking toilets of the Bristol. A grammar school reject in his sharp paisley scarf and long coat, a dangerous and edgy little version of David Bowie who was his hero.

"I'm going to f.... kill him," he said, as we tried to restrain him.

The only trouble was the "him" was Mr. Peters the science teacher. Pashley casually proceeded out of the toilers, crossed the capets stained with beer and crisps and the cracked concrete dance floor and punched Mr Peters on the nose.

The Bristol was the scene of much soft core debauchery. A bad night was a night when you went home having not snogged the face off a couple of almost strangers under the influence of a few pints of Tennents Extra lager and not even recalling the girls' names in the morning.

But the most memorable of sixth form parties was in another venue, a squat little place in the park. Mr. H, the music teacher, showed up with his retro disco and his latest girlfriend who had left school a week prior.

Mr D. the P.E teacher was muttering "wanker" under his breath but loud enough for Mr. H, whose hairy belly was sticking out under a yellow string top that was in vogue then, to hear.

We all got horrendously drunk and then as the party wound down, came to grips with the pressing problem of how we would get home. A taxi was the obvious answer but we had spent all of our money on lager. Gary - another spontaneous red head - offered to give me a ride home. I hesitated for a moment. He had drank more lager than me and was swaying around.

But then I thought of the alternative; walking home for miles on end and probably giving another midnight call to Kirk in which his parents would be right royally miffed when they were woken up at midnight to the sight of my friend Dean throwing up in their flower bed.

I climbed into the back of Gary's new car with another kid whose identity I can't now recall. Rob squeezed into the middle between us and Gary's friend Martin was in the front.

Even through my happy haze I started to become concerned by Gary's driving. When we dropped off Rob, Gary decided to drive his car onto his lawn and perform a couple of circles on the erstwhile manicured grass, decapitating a couple of his parents' prized gnomes in the process.

Then when someone tried to overtake him Gary decided to "give the fucker a race." The other car sped ahead and suddenly applied his brakes. Gary's car smashed into the back of him, turning his shiny green bonnet into a steaming concertina.

There was the horrid and dreadful silence you get when you are marooned past midnight in a hostile environment, before Gary climbed out to confront the other driver as we tried to dig ourselves out of the seats in front. Suddenly the other guy sped off.

Bizarrely Gary went crazy. He toped around cursing, found a phone box and called the police. The police showed up, made him blow in a bag, he tested positive and was taken down the station. By a stoke of luck he managed to test negative by the time he was given a follow up blood test at the police station.

It was the craziest end to any sixth form party, I have attended, more crazy even than snogging a girl with braces like the Hoover dam. The police spent a lot of time around my house taking witness statements in which I glossed over the fact Gary was drunk and had given the other driver a race.

I'm not proud to recall those sixth form parties but you certainly could not call them uneventful.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Helvellyn or Hell

I never thought I'd finish a novel. A couple of previous attempts led nowhere. There were the few ragged pars I send to a guy called Ian McEwan who stole them and called the end result "Atonement".

I am a lousy liar as you can tell.



But over the last few weeks the words have kept flowing. The words have been flowing more freely than the brandy, although the brandy helps. And you know you are getting closer to becoming a writer when you forget about the world around you and you wonder if it's still 90 degrees outside when, in fact, there's a dusting of snow on the lawn.

I have a way to go but apparently 70,000 words is a respectable length for a novel. And I do believe I have reached the 30,000 mark. Of course this could be nonsense as I read the 70,000 word thing on the Internet somewhere. Maybe I'll stumble toward the finishing line only to see a leering redneck in a pickup truck driving off with the checkered flag, giving me the bird and telling me I can't quit until I'm Leo Bleeding Tolstoy.

Anyhow since Philip met Miranda's father he became estranged from her in Greece - a rather familiar theme when it comes to men and women in the novel, not helped by the fact he has seen her hazy outline with a married man on the lawn (never a surefire recipe for longlasting love I'm told but who knows?). He later partied ways with Miranda but still held a torch for her - just not the kind the ancients paraded at Olympia.

And Moriarty was back to his stride on the squash court, except he wasn't. He broke down, said he had only six months to live and wondered if Philip would write his narrative. Of course, Philip agrees because his job generally sucks, his boss resembles a horse and my narrative would die if he refused.

So they decamp to a cutting edge cancer center in Arizona and Moriarty starts to tell his tale and Philip faithfully writes it down. Except Moriarty and his friend Michael got expelled from their school for fighting the school bully at the age of 14, so they decided to skip school and climb Helvellyn. As one does. Confused yet?

Helvellyn or Hell?

(And if I climbed all the way up Hevellyn and saw someone dressed like this I'd wonder what I had smoked)

I stared hard at the muffin because it was the only soft object in the dining room. The light was relentless and harsh even at this time in the morning and the water a designer slab of brittle blue glass against the blood red frame of the hills.


The light did Moriarty few favors playing up and down unforgivingly on his greying features, emphasizing what used to be there as much as what was there now. I saw him falter briefly and hesitate before rallying again, chafing at the thought of being just another cancer patient.

“I feel better talking about this in the room,” he said. We got up carefully, ignored by all the white coats and the few cancer patients who had made breakfast. We left the muffin in splendid isolation.

“Those mountains are so unlike the Lakes,” Moriarty said with a nod to the sandy crags outside the window. Moriarty was in a position to know. During his last week at Cockermouth he had decided to immerse himself in the wilderness around him.

His father was not in an apparent hurry to pick him up after the fight and studies were useless in the last week. Michael Bellows had taken to pacing around Moriarty’s room, spewing out hapless and random thoughts about his future.

“It’s a strange sensation,” he would say. “Freedom feels … unfreeing, perhaps.”

“Your pacing is making me nervous,” Moriarty told him. “I have this idea.”

Moriarty felt the sense of adventure come over him as he unfurled a giant map he had borrowed from the school library and stored under his bed for a couple of months. At first glance it seemed to be a whirl of swirling lines that revealed themselves as contours on the sides of mountains and fells. The closer and more jumbled the lines, the more Moriarty felt the electric excitement coursing through his hands.

“It’s 28 miles from here to Helvellyn and we have just under a week before our parents show. Who will miss us?” he said.

“Arkwright for one. I hear he’s preparing quite the send off,” said Michael.

“More the reason to get out of here.”

The specter of a rematch with Arkwright and his henchmen was enough to persuade Michael to get his coat and to follow the crazy line Moriarty had drawn on the map. They left a note with the words “gone climbing” on Moriarty’s table and slipped across the quad and through the churchyard. Before long they were climbing over barbed wire and setting a fast pace through the dew of the field flecked with bleating sheep. The mountains rose up before them, a maze of sunlit crags and mysterious gullies still swathed in mist.

“Aren’t people supposed to wear boots and proper gear for this sort of thing?” said Michael who was wearing his school brogues and uniform.

“Ideally yes,” said Moriarty. “You may want to lose the tie.”

The morning marched on and the sun rose high. They walked for four hours until they found themselves in a deep forest of evergreens beside Bassenthwaite Lake. The air smelled sharp of pine and the afternoon was getting warm and sultry. Moriarty was starting to reflect that an expedition is improved with planning. Their water was running low and the two small chocolate bars had failed to survive the sheep field.

“I’m starving,” said Michael. “This is probably the most half assed expedition I have ever heard of.”

Moriarty motioned him to be quiet. Something moved in the corner of his vision. Below the path they could hear splashes and yelps. Some walkers had left their packs beside the path and were swimming 50 yards below in the water. The water was clearly cold but refreshing after a long climb. Moriarty was staring intently at their packs and the distance to the walkers on their narrow beach. Michael caught on to Moriarty’s thinking.

“No. You can’t.”

“Shsssh … just casually.”

The moved lightly but purposefully. Michael hauled up a sizable backpack in one flowing movement and they continued casually marching down the path, looking for all the world as if they had walked with the pack for the last four hours. The splashes and yells continued below them, muffled by the pine trees. It would be some time before the walkers realized they were missing their belongings by which time Moriarty and Michael would have vanished down a little used trail. Half an hour later in the depths of Whinlatter Forest Park they checked their haul. Chocolate bars and sandwiches came tumbling out of the pack, along with a small tin.

“This looks like aunt Mable’s fruit cake,” said Moriarty.

“Don’t you feel just a bit bad.”

“It’s survival - right.”

“But this isn’t the Amazon rain forest.”

Another 20 minutes later the overgrown path kinked to the north and came out on a road. In the interests of survival and the preservation of Michael’s swollen feet, the boys decided to try to thumb a lift the rest of the way to the mountain, although few drivers appeared to be keen to pick up two muddy school boys.

After half-an-hour without success Michael started to worry the walkers would see them and recognize the stolen pack. He almost gave up when the truck passed, but raised his thumb feebly in the air. To his amazement the truck slowed down, came to a halt and backed up. A ruddy faced man of an agricultural appearance with an unkempt moustache peered out of the cab at the boys.

“Where are you going boys?”

“Helvellyn,” said Moriarty.

“Very good,” said the man in a thick Welsh accent.

“Are you from Wales?” asked Michael, just seconds after clambering into the big cab.

“Yes.”

“Good. My father had a man servant from Wales.”

“Now did he? I see.”

The truck rumbled off down the mountain road, beneath peaks that had a deeper cloud cover as the afternoon became overcast. The sense of adventure was draining from the boys as the sun beat its watery retreat. The Welshman adjusted his flat cap and his eyes fixed at some vanishing point on the craggy horizon.

“And what would two fresh faced young boys be doing alone on this road?”

“Picking blackberries and stuff,” said Michael before receiving a swift blow in the ribs from his companion.

“Hard job that as they aren’t out yet,” said the Welshman. “You boys running from the law?”

“No,” said the boys in unison.

“No matter said the Welshman. Your little secret’s safe with me. He shifted his big saggy body in his bucket seat and wiped his hands on his filthy dungarees. His finger twitched on the zebra print steering wheel. He started to say something, thought better of it and started to say it again.

There may be something you can do for me, though eh boys. Just a little favor like.” He was reaching for a rope coiled behind the driver’s seat.

“According to my map this isn’t the way to Helvellyn,” said Moriarty in the best grown up voice he could muster. The Welshman said nothing but gave Moriarty a lingering look that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. There was a foul intent in the Welshman’s disposition that was even more nauseating than his breath.

“These are lonely parts out here, boys.”

He wasn’t wrong. The truck had climbed up a deep defile in the hills and when he peered back Moriarty could make out the black smudge of the forest miles below and beneath him. All around him the hills rose up bleak and darkening and the dry stone walls hemmed in empty enclosures.

“This is closer to our destination. We can get out here,” said Moriarty.

The driver said nothing and still the truck rumbled on, its growling engine and sounding more menacing with every mile of the remote road. The further they went the more remote and desperate the hills seemed.

Suddenly there was a lull in the relentless engine. The Welshman cursed and slammed on the brakes at the sight of fast bobbling wooly backs as a farmer with his lean sheep dog herded his flock over a tiny bridge over a stream. Michael, who was sitting on the right flung open the door as soon as the truck stopped, and half fell onto the ground before running across the mud in the direction of the farmer who had stopped and was looking suspiciously at him from down the lane.

The Welshman hastily got out of the truck to give chase to Michael. “Now come back her boyo. I didn’t...” His words were swallowed up in the bleating of sheep.

The Welshman had little time to realize the chase was beyond his sagging middle aged frame. He heard a rumble from behind and turned round to see his truck moving towards him. It came forward in jerky movements before there was a louder growl from the accelerator and it shot forward. The Welshman leapt into a waterlogged ditch to avoid being hit by his own truck.

The right door was still hanging open. Michael clambered in, astonished to see Moriarty driving the big farm truck. With an ear splitting crunch of the gears they were lurching forward again. The last of the sheep cleared the bridge and they were over it.

Michael was running his hands through his wispy hair.

“We are really in the shit now.”

“Perhaps but that chap was a pervert.”

“How can you drive this thing?”

“I can’t but I’ve tried it back home a few times.”

They had little idea where they were going but Michael retrieved the map and found the tiny lane led over a mountain pass and hit the main road to the eastern Lakes.

They got to Helvellyn under the cover of the night. The next day they woke up with the first light and made it up Striding Ridge, a place where the world fell away like an hour glass to their left and right, where the primrose covered fells had given way to hard granite and lakes glistened silver in the morning under drifting clouds. Moriarty was later to say it was one of the best days of his life, although he had few good days to rival it over the next few years.

By the time they returned to the truck, a couple of police officers were inspecting it and scrawling notes. They were surprised to see a 14-year-old boy holding the key. Moriarty and Michael were too exhausted to invent a story by this time having spent a fitful night sleeping in the cab before scrambling up Striding Edge in unsuitable foot wear.

The officers became even more interested in the boys when they uncovered knives, ropes and pulleys in the back of the truck, as well as a blood soaked towel.


“A Welshman you say,” said one of the officers. “Hmm.”

It turned out the Welshman who was picked up worse for wear on a remove hillside was wanted for a series of sex attacks on young boys and girls and had terrorized the cities of northern England for three years. Moriarty and Michael became accidental heroes for a while and their faces and the story of their escape appeared in newspapers as far away as Boston and Bejing.

A young man who owned the back pack even turned up at their door back at Cockermouth and said he was pleased his supplies had helped sustain two young heroes as they had foiled the most wanted sex offender in northern England, before requesting the return of the backpack.

Even Arkwright and his cronies postponed the unpleasant send off they had proposed for Moriarty and Michael, who had become the most popular boys at Cockermouth on the eve of their expulsion.

Only Hector Moriarty refused to be impressed by his son’s antics.

Moriarty heard his artificial leg banging on the flag stones for what seemed like an age before he arrived in the room. His father had refused to be helped to a seat and was delivering a lecture seconds after he sat down.

“I sent you to an unremarkable private school, a long way away because I didn’t want you to make waves. I wanted it to be all quiet on the Western front see. So we have a fight in a cemetery that leads to your expulsion, an unscheduled expedition that caused a major funk at the school when you disappeared, theft of a backpack and this episode with a criminal. Not. And, if I will take the liberty of repeating. Not all quiet on the Western front.”

Faced with the facts in such stark terms Moriarty had to admit his short time at Cockermouth had been eventful.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The disturbing popularity of Benny Hill

Sometimes in my dreams I have an odd vision of a rotund man being chased around by scantily clad girls at double speed. Policemen and vicars appear and disappear from the margins, people brandish umbrellas and canes. People are slapped and they fall over.  I wake up in a cold sweat.



This vision haunted me during my childhood and it has a habit of popping into my mind every time I expound the superiority of British comedy to Americans.

"Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Alan Partridge, Blackadder...oh and The Office with Ricky Gervais."

And someone will inevitably conjure up those two words that will bring me crashing down to earth.

"Benny Hill?"

I'll stammer and try to find a way of proving he wasn't British. I'm like Donald Trump floundering around looking for Barack Obama's Kenyan birth certificate.



Benny Hill died in 1992 and while a new climate of political correctness had sidelined his show he remained immensely popular.

While other popular British entertainer such as Morcambe and Wise failed to make it big in America, Hill succeeded spectacularly while not even marketing himself at the United States.

The Telegraph reported in his obituary: "By 1985 not a single day would pass without The Benny Hill Show being screened somewhere in America, and many stations would broadcast the programme twice a night. At San Jose penitentiary the prisoners threatened mayhem unless they were allowed to watch him."

Although I'd like to pass him off as American it appears he was born in Southampton - the city in which the right wing and rightly annoying former Sun columnist Gary Bushell attempted to erect a statute of Hill in.

Hill did some stage work and radio before finding the ideal medium for his slapstick brand of humor, TV.



By the 1970s he had a huge following in countries as diverse as Cuba, France and China. Perhaps slapstick manages to cross the language barrier, thus explaining the huge popularity of Norman Wisdom in Albania.

Apparently the Russians pointed their television aerials towards Finland to pick Benny Hill's show- until, under the freedoms of glasnost, they were allowed to receive the programme on their own network.  By the time of his death Hill had taken Britain's obsession with bottoms and boobs and made it into a global phenomenon becoming the world's most popular comedian in the process.


Hill himself acknowledge his universal appeal saying: "I can get my face slapped in six different languages".

Hill was originally inspired by Charlie Chaplin and it turns out Chaplin was later revealed to be a Hill fan. Michael Jackson was another fan.

"I just love your Benny Hill!" the singer, and future best pal of the chimp Bubbles,  told the British press during a 1970s tour. "He's so funny!".

I could never understand the appeal of Hill but grew up with kids who were addicted to the show. Yet I was also aware there was a class thing going on here. Hill's fans were primarily blue collar. They were more likely to rate a game of darts as a good night out and probably less likely to exclaim: "Gosh. Let's go out and see Madame Butterfly tonight."

Increasingly, intellectuals started sneering. Comedian and left wing activist Ben Elton, who co-authored Blackadder, famous claimed The Benny Hill Show was single-handedly responsible for a number of incidences of rape in England.

Elton later claimed he had been taken out of context. He later appeared in a parody on Harry Enfield and Chums, Benny Elton, where he was chased by angry women, accompanied by the "Yakety Sax" theme, after trying to force them to be more feminist rather than letting them make their own decisions.


Whatever the claims and counterclaims the accusations that Hill's comedy was offensive to women stuck, notwithstanding the explanation of his friend and producer Dennis Kirkland  that the women  chased Hill in anger for undressing them, all of which was done accidentally by some ridiculous means.
Hmmmm.

Hill's show was cancelled in the late 1980s after Thames TV chiefs claimed, rather unconvincingly, that audiences were falling and Hill was looking tired. He never recovered from the shock.



Hill who said he had a mental age of 17, never married. Reports later emerged that Benny Hill wasn't very funny in real life, or at least at all funny. Reports surfaced suggesting he was odd and controlling.

He showed a particular attraction for young working-class girls - "I get a kick out of taking them to places they would not normally visit," he explained.

The comedian avoided educated and intellectual women, and matrimony held no appeal.

He said he proposed once at the age of 23, but was turned down.

"Secretly I was relieved", he said. "It was like watching your mother-in-law driving your new car over the cliff edge. You have mixed feelings about it."

OTHER BRITISH HOWLERS

Brits may get uppity about comedy but we have certainly produced some bad ones as well as gems. Some of the worst were.

TERRY AND JUNE - Flabbily unfunny suburban sitcom about a middle aged couple who play golf, garden and do other middle aged suburban stuff in sensible pullovers.



BIRDS OF A FEATHER - Spikily unfunny suburban sitcom about two criminals' wives

KENNY EVERETT - Like Benny Hill on crack, although he had some funny moments.

HARRY HILL - No relation but too off the wall to be funny.

LAST OF THE SUMMER WINE - Sitcom about three elderly men who wander round a Yorkshire village. The only joke in this show seemed to revolve around a woman with wrinkly stockings and the fact she had wrinkly stockings.

ALLO ALLO - You wouldn't think the work of the French resistance in Nazi occupied Germany would make for good comedy and for the most part it didn't.

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT - Sitcom about the family of a property developer. A veritable yawnathon.

SORRY - This one lived up to its name. There's only so far you can stretch the joke of a 41-year-old man called Timothy who still lives with his mother.

FREDDIE STARR - He may not have eaten any hamsters but the infamous headline is about all he's famous for these days.

ARE YOU BEEN SERVED? This Seventies department store sitcom still appears Stateside at times. Laughs revolved around Mr. Humphries' exaggerated homosexuality and Mrs. Slocombe's "pussy."












Monday, July 2, 2012

More mental East Coast weather - time to move to Spain

These are feverish times on the East Coast. Each day the temperatures rack up into three figures, mugging anyone brave enough to venture outdoors. Then at night the storms rumble up and stalk the neighborhood carrying an oblique threat of killer winds and tornadoes.



Thousands are without power, a handful have died and a major hurricane hasn't even arrived yet. On occasions it's hard to know why so many Europeans made the exodus to this wild and savage land. Perhaps had they had an apocalyptic  vision of standing for three quarters of an hour in a sweaty and sagging line at Wal-Mart they would have concluded: "Sod it. Religious persecution isn't so bad."

These days are like Russian roulette. If you pick up the kids at the wrong time, as I did last week when I decided to take Blackberry pictures of the storm instead of beating it, you end up running through deep puddles with psychotic hail crashing into your skull.

In saying all this the summer weather in Britain isn't so inspiring either. Weeks of rain that have led to flooding and cool temperatures have left Brits feeling cheated out of summer. Given that grumbling about the weather is a British pastime, the conditions have given Brits something to cheerfully moan about all summer.

The answer to all of this is surely to relocate to Spain where the food's fantastic, the people are vivacious and good looking, the football team is is doing more winning than Charlie Sheen and the weather is great. Indeed this was the British dream for so long, with the unfortunate consequence that there are some parts of Spain that are full of pasty people with dubious pasts in Blighty who are lapping up the grease on the full English breakfasts at the many British owned establishments on the waterfront.

The word is "ex-pats" which always makes me think of the film White Mischief  about rich Brits misbehaving in Kenya.

The downside of Spain is the economy has tanked and, like almost everywhere else in Europe, it's being bailed out by Germany.

But if that means crazy Brits are no longer paying millions for ruins in Andalucia  and polluting the place with their English breakfast grease, it's not all bad.