Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On Thunderstorms

For me tonight's storm wasn't so real. Just a series of low, menacing rumbles and flashes that turn the grass into a sheet of suddenly sodden and ghastly whiteness.

There are heavy clouds, rolling like ironclads over the estuary where the ironclads first fired in anger. I never really got used to American storms that can bring devastating winds and tornadoes that can rip apart lives.

Storm at home were more of a rarity. When I grew up they were a form of entertainment. We'd huddle by the window and watch them turn the sky purple and count the seconds between the flash and the rumble. Although there were tales of lightening strikes just as there were craggy old trees in the forest, bereft of all life, that bore testimony to the ferocity of the storm, it was all so distant from our window.

Here it's not so predictable. Two years ago a twister touched down near the house ripping down trees and power lines across the street and wiping out the village choked with antique shops a mile down the road. And I have a recurring dream that I toil across a landscape of beaten down cornfields, unremittingly flat and terrible where a black sky is painted over the drifting blue air.

Then I see it, the evil shaped funnel cloud, marching across the margins of a field, tearing aside trees like matchstick soldiers. Like the all seeing eye of Mordor it is wrapped up in its wicked intent and spies me isolated in a field. I usually wake as it veers in my direction.

This sense of foreboding is unfortunate because there's something exhilarating about storms, about the way they make the trees dance and suck the heaviness from the lead infused air. One night back in Wales when we were younger and more foolish we went out on a night of high winds when the sky was a screaming symphony full of razor edged clouds. Richard, Mark, Brian and myself walked along the banks of the Taff as the waters rose and trees snapped around us and the moon slipped in and out of the clouds like a reveller at a jig.

The howling wind and the falling trees infused us with a sense of delirium and and excitement. If we could duck and dive and dodge fast falling death and the fleet flowing river there was surely nothing we couldn't do. We were alone in the chaotic wilderness but we mastered the stormy night and walked into the early hours until we saw the shuttered tower of Llandaff Cathedral wrapped in the pale strands of dawn.

We could do anything but did we? Did we really write? Did any of us write? Instead we forgot about the storm and committed our lives to interminable meetings in airless offices, compliant executioners in the death of the human soul.

A Thunderstorm by Archibald Lampman

A moment the wild swallows like a flight
Of withered gust-caught leaves, serenely high,
Toss in the windrack up the muttering sky.
The leaves hang still. Above the weird twilight,
The hurrying centres of the storm unite
And spreading with huge trunk and rolling fringe,
Each wheeled upon its own tremendous hinge,
Tower darkening on. And now from heaven's height,
With the long roar of elm-trees swept and swayed,
And pelted waters, on the vanished plain
Plunges the blast. Behind the wild white flash
That splits abroad the pealing thunder-crash,
Over bleared fields and gardens disarrayed,
Column on column comes the drenching rain.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Drowning in Information in the era of Twitter and Facebook

There’s a song by the Police with the lyrics: “Too much information running through my brain. Too much information driving me insane.”

It’s not a particularly good song but I have a passing attachment to it because it was on the first album I ever bought. I say passing attachment because, like the first person we ever kissed, we may not want to think too much about it; scarlet hair with black roots, an anarchy tattoo on her arms and a pair over oversized Doc Martens etc.

The strange thing is these lyrics were penned in the 1980s when there wasn’t so much information, when there were four channels on TV and my weird friend Mark used to freak out my mother by hanging out in outlandish shirts and pretending the TV set was a synthesizer.

These days there are a lot more distractions. Even as I write this I am hearing bleeping noises from someone else’s smart phone and picking up my BlackBerry, mistakenly thinking someone may have commented on my latest idiot status update on Facebook.

Why do we do this anyhow? Recently I read a story about a wedding that was halted because the groom had to update his Facebook status. To “married” from “it’s complicated,” I’m assuming.

Maybe we do it because we are starved of attention in this frantic world, or we want to make ourselves look clever, or we do it because everybody else seems to.

Back in the day people met up to speak or imparted information at press conferences. Now they tweet; if they are politicians they might even tweet their underpants in a state of excitement.

I have these random thoughts as I am on the highway, checking Facebook postings and trying not to hit a truck as I read an article about distracted driving. I’m starting to wonder if we are all distracted. I am wondering why Americans call lorries trucks and if I can get to 250 points on Word Mole before the lights change and I get rear ended.

I am half interested in a story about a cat who has been caught barking. I’m assuming it’s not the same cat caught moonlighting as a cat burglar. I’m marginally interested in a study that says women who have sex before they reach 16 are more likely to be divorced. Maybe they get bored with sex because they’ve been doing it for too long.

Somebody is wondering on an obscure website if the woman’s team can capture the imagination of the country like the 1999 World Cup Winning squad did but I don’t care in the slightest about this because I have no conception about the 1999 concept and don’t even know what sport it is.

But I am starting to feel the information overload is leading to a collective attention deficit. I read a number of mentions of Peter Falk before it suddenly hit me – he’s Columbo. I loved that guy. He was part of my childhood.

An obscure bar I followed because it prompted me has invited me to an event I’ll never go to and somebody I once had a five minute conversation with in 2001 is posting lots of pictures of their kids. It now occurs to me that people I hardly know may be saying the same things about me.

Now a friend is telling the world her daughter stepped on a classmate’s “willy,” Liverpool FC have a new kit, the Hampton Coliseum has tickets for Chaka Khan (who must look awful now), Kelly from the Office is shopping, The History Channel informs me King Philip’s War began today, Moby is asking me to advise him on what single to release next and Jennifer Fabulous has a new blog posting – finally something worth actually reading.

But seriously this is enough to make me breathless and my efforts to sit down and read War and Peace, are disrupted by the bleeping of my BlackBerry.

In less distracted moments my mind turns to a rock temple I have heard about in Sri Lanka where you can sit in silent meditation for days or my favorite abbey Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.

I think of a time when there was no internet or buzzing communications channels, when news could wait and when life moved with the quiet ebb and flow of the seasons.

In these quiet cloistered places where the sun drifts slowly from the sun dial, and spreads across the hallowed spaces between the arches, marking out the afternoon; where water fell into cool stone fonts, was there once a reprieve from the world? Was there a time when mankind was free from these distractions, when we could complete our lives and find out who we were?

The answer to this question, as contained in A World Lit only by Fire, a brief history of the Middle Ages by William Manchester, which has a Facebook page,  is a rather resounding no. According to Manchester, a large number of those devout monks were up to no good and nunneries doubled up as brothels. If you were unfortunately enough to venture into a typical medieval village you would find rampant incest before you were swiftly cannibalized.

Distractions, it seems, are nothing new.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Missing Michael Caine

See there's a funny thing and not a lot of people that, but when you are an exile from your homeland you start to get nostalgic about all sorts of obscure things and people, even folks you may have thought were a bit annoying when you were back at home.

So today when the conversation turned to celebs in compromising positions, I happened to mention a time when I had seen Paul Young the worse for wear in a nightclub. It wasn't a glamorous worse for wear thing because it was 10 years after Young ceased to be big and he was on one of those dinosaur '80s tours - the type of thing you sometimes see Tears for Fears and Billy Idol doing at Virginia Beach.

"You mean Paul Young - everything must change, Paul Young," said a colleague.

"The very same," I replied and for the rest of the day Paul Young songs were circling around my head.

Now tonight I am feeling nostaglic for Michael Caine, even though there were times when I thought he was a Thatcherite w****r back in Blighty.

Now Michael Caine is older than my dad and he's been in some lemons.

But in saying that I'd defy anyone to watch Alfie with Caine in and then watch the more recent version starring Jude Law, to say Law was better. Because Caine does cocky and charming, ruthless and polished much more effectely than Law.

In fact, Caine cut a blonde and chiselled presence through my childhood, not quite good looking enough to be perfect he epitomised Anglo Saxon England with his estuary tones, that bordered on the pitch of a second hand car salesman, before skitting off to a slightly higher place.

He was great in The Man who Would be King, masterful in Educating Rita and rediscovered his talent more recently in Little Voice.

But for Caine aficionados his performance in the 1971 film Get Carter was his finest moment. Get Carter was more cult than mainstream. Like the Wicker Man, it's the kind of movie that needs to be appreciated with the passage of time.

It's also unremittingly bleak, set in a Newcastle with bad brown floral wallpaper, that's without pity and redemption. There's only one way this movie can go and it's downhill to a place where coal trundles by the muddy sea. Extremes bring out the best in characters and Caine is no exception. Forget the stuck up English officer in Zulu, or some of the less memorable roles. Caine is chillingly badass in Get Carter. You can't watch Carter and go away without feeling someone has given you a good kicking behind a warehouse in the drizzle.

Distance makes me miss Caine all the more. I can't say the same about Phil Collins.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Father's Day and All That

Today was my last Saturday shift I am glad to say. I'm not so glad that a lot of people died on my watch, though. A guy was shot dead by his girlfriend, a guy was shot dead by the police, a guy died rafting in Montana, a guy died in a road crash and, most sadly of all, an infant died when she fell off a hotel balcony in Virginia Beach.

With Father's Day on the horizon it's hard to think of this small girl, although all of the people who died had fathers and I'm sure some of them were fathers.

There's a guy in my office who hasn't seen his father for most of the decade due to the fact he's an uber jerk. I told him he should call his father out of the blue, for the hell of it. The suggestion was met with derision and it was partly in jest but when I thought about it; why not? What is there to lose?

What's the point of Father's Day if you can't call up your jerk father and say, I don't know....

"Dad. Happy Father's Day. Are you still a big jerk?"

Still it saddens me when I hear from people whose fathers treat them in such a way because being a father is an honor of sorts, albeit a confounding one.

I'm not saying I should mount some pedestal and beat my chest while I receive a father of the year award. In a post last year called the art of being a crap dad, I described just that.

I try to live up to these expectations. There's a teacher at Jackson's daycare who has a special expression for me. It doesn't build up my self esteem in the mornings because it includes a rather quizzically raised eyebrow - or rather monobrow in this case - she lives in the country.

The expression will be used in tandem with a question that is as much an accusation such as: "Got his diapers?" or "Where's his bottle?"

These questions will be met with incoherent muttering normally as I make a sharp exit through the nearest window. Recently I was able to counter one of these accusations because I had at least two bottles in backup. Sadly it threw me off accusation number two and I completely forgot about my promise to get his other shoe from the car and drove off.

The daycare staff will then spend most of the day compiling a damning dossier of my crapness to hit my wife with when she picks him up.

"dressed like a hobo/droopy pants/ top missing from bottle/mismatched socks" etc.

Zara's more self sufficient these days but she's been asking me for the last six months if I can do lunch with her because parents can apparently show up in a group sympathy exercise in which they share the unspeakable gruel that is school dinners.

"Err, um, maybe next week," is my normal retort. That was until I realized this week that there was no next week.

"OK. I'll be there today." I said. It was just like that out of the blue. Decisive. Like when Hitler said: "Let's invade Poland."

And I showed up Monday. When I saw Zara by the cafeteria she looked a little wild eyed and alarmed.

"Is this a surprise?" asked her teacher.

"Yes." said Zara.

"Hey. I told you earlier I was coming," I said.

"I assumed you'd forget."

Well this was flattering.

"It was student awards this morning and all the parents were there," she added.

"Um. well we weren't." Obviously.

Although the food verged on the inedible at least I got mine free on account of whipping out a $10 note that they had no change for. And I think it was a bonding experience, of sorts. A way of saying 'I may be crap, but at least I was there.'

So - you know. Father's Day's coming up and crap dads deserve presents too.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A pink slip for the BBC graphics department

There's a BBC graphic artist who may well have been called in for an uncomfortable meeting with his boss this week after this classic appeared on air.

Needless to say it's not the first time a TV graphics department has screwed up. There's nothing funny about the disappearance of Molly Bish but it's hard not to suppress a giggle at the appearance of the suspect in this local news footage.

And it's back to the Beeb for one of the funniest unscripted moments in the history of children's TV. I suppose the Blue Peter team were asking for trouble when they decided to bring an elephant onto a live show. "Oh dear. I've trod right in it," says John Noakes. The same could be said for the whole team.

I also seem to recall another Blue Peter classic where fellow presenter Peter Purvis stood at the ornate door of a cathedral and exclaimed: "What a lovely pair of knockers."

Or maybe I'm imagining that one.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Who's been a silly Weiner then?

When I recently blogged about some of the problems politicians have with keeping their pants up never in my wildest imagination did I imagine some guy called Weiner would end up in a scandal that involved tweeting his bits and bobs.

There are many remarkable facets to the Weiner scandal but it says much about the low standards in politics these days that Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, took well over a week to resign and only then because of the “distraction” he created.

Weiner obviously didn’t seem to believe the action itself of sending images of his excitable underpants out there into cyberspace, was grounds enough alone to call it a day.

If I had been this politician, the shame alone would have me revoking my oath, or whatever politicians do, faster than it would take Hugh Hefner to rip his erstwhile prospective Missis off the cover of Playboy.

Because even by the recent low standards set by politicians this plumbs the depths on the Dumbometer. Clinton and Edwards may have thought there was a good chance they wouldn’t be caught. Even the governor who took the Appalachian Trail via Argentina may have thought it an ‘unorthodox but plausible excuse.’

But if you post your body parts over the Internet for the world to see, there’s very little wriggle room, if you’ll excuse the pun, to declare: “Not me guv.”

Apparently this scandal may derail Weiner’s attempt to become New York’s Mayor for a couple of years but he’ll probably be back. His website promised how he would ensure “all New Yorkers get a shot at a good life.”

Instead they got shots of his pants in a state of excitement and a good laugh.

But at least it’s been entertaining.

The whole Weiner saga has been a farce. Even the press conference where Weiner said he would resign was disrupted by a heckler who shouted "pervert" and later yelled insulting questions as Weiner spoke.

“The heckler turned out to be a writer for shock jock Howard Stern who goes by the name Benjy Bronk, and he offered little explanation for why he taunted Weiner,” CNN reported.

This could spell further bad news for Weiner. Benjy Bronk sounds like a Swedish gentleman. Is he perhaps a relative of Elin Nordegren, the estranged wife of Tiger Woods? We are told Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin is returning home from the Middle East.

It’s unclear if she’s stopped off at Sweden to pick up some tips, not to mention a couple of golf clubs, from Elin.

In the words of my son, in fact the only words he seems to be grasping right, now: “Uh oh.”

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Casey Anthony - what the hell

I really think I'm missing something here.

Why is at least one TV channel devoting 24 hour coverage to the case of the Florida mother Casey Anthony, who's accused of killing her daughter Caylee and many others devoting large chucks of time to the case?

I really don't understand why sharp tongued lawyers in even sharper suits are being flown in by the dozen to talk on air about this case, why it's worthy of the attention of the TV quacks and even folks like the normally level headed Joy Behar.

Is this case meant to be a metaphor for a rotten society, because Casey and her family are certainly from one spit of tobacco away from the trailer park?

Are there really people out there who can stand watching this all night? Who can stand listening to that human cheese grater Nancy Grace banging on about 'tot mom' this 'tot mom' that.

Since when was the English language boiled down to such lazy short forms and sound bites? I can't remember a case attracting as much media interest as this since OJ Simpson but at least OJ was a famous person.

Sadly about 700 parents kill their children every year in the United States, yet none of these awful cases receive a second of the publicity given to Casey Anthony.

Yet here's Nancy devoting 30 minutes of a show to the fact Casey glared at her mother when she said: "I love you."

Are we really meant to care? Are we meant to be shocked that someone who may be capable of killing her own child is capable of being rude to her own mother?

I assume Casey will go down for something, although probably not the death sentence, given the lack of evidence against her.

And she'll continue to sit there and stare into space with their air of someone a few bricks short of a load, a bit like all the people who've decided to give this case so much air time.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sports Day Without the Winning

It was Sports Day at Zara's school and I was rather excited about it.

"Knock 'em dead; knock em out of the ball park, knock 'em over," I said struggling to come up with some kind of Anglo American cliche that wasn't totally lame, and leaving her with a big knuckly high five as I scraped a couple of first graders I hadn't noticed off my fender.

Because for me Sports Day was a gut churningly big day. There would be qualifiers when the wheat would be separated from the chaff, as the teachers decided to find out who would qualify for the flat race, which comprised of running. Needless to say I seldom made it to the big one but a variety of other delights awaited such as the egg and spoon race, the obstacle race, the three-legged race and the sack race.

My primary school was a scary kind of place run by war veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Winning was everything because we had beat the Germans. Who do you think you are kidding Mr. Hitler and all that.

We'd beat Jerry at his own game and on his own ball park. But Lord did we pay the price. I still remember the contorted features of Mr Clutson as he twisted Witts' ears around his head.

"Witts," he growled. "I'm going to turn you off at the mains. Witts. When you get home your mother won't recognise you. Witts - she'll say 'how come your head is facing backwards?"

We don't really know what happened to Witts, although there's a rumor he was jailed for trying to blow up his high school caretaker by igniting his tractor.

So at the age of nine or thereabouts I was honorably admitted to the sack race which involved jumping to the finishing line in an old flour sack. I still remember the butterflies that kicked off in my stomach; and we were off and remarkably a great distance opened up between me and the other competitors.

In fact I romped home - I won the sack race by a mile.

I'd like to say this unexpected victory set me up for a lifetime of glittering achievements but the reality was I usually ended up in second place, although I had to pinch myself when a somewhat ordinary picture of Clifford's Tower in York wound up winning the junior photo competition at my father's place of work.

In later sports days I attained the dizzy heights of the flat race but I was always resoundingly beaten by a guy called Whitmore.

Then at high school when I made the team Whitmore was always there to beat me again. One night I spiked his coke with vodka, but he still beat me the next day, although it was a close one. The strange thing is Whitmore took up smoking later in life. If I tracked him down now I'd probably beat him over 100 meters.

The only drawback is the fact it would seem rather strange for me to track him down and challenge him to a race after all of these years, particularly as he's probably forgotten who I am. And what if he's in a wheelchair or has an oxygen cylinder? I'd feel like a bad person.

So, in the absence of Whitmore, I funneled my competitive spirit into Pookie. The empire, I told her was forged on the dank and formidable rugby fields of England in the winter when the blood and iron entered our souls.

In the summer cricket gave us a backbone and made us great.  I omitted to tell her I was appalling at cricket - cue that moment when the ball is falling towards me; it's a key catch of the game. Everyone is hollering "catch" before the collective sigh as it bounces off my hand and onto the grass. Truth is the empire was long gone by the '70s and few people at my school knew half of the world had ever been pink.

When Zara asked what empire I was talking about I was somewhat stumped. I suppose we still have dominion over a couple of sheep in the Falkland Islands.

I was upbeat when I picked her up after school.

"So did you beat them? Did you win any prizes?"

"No. Nobody actually won, but we got prizes for taking part."

I was so disillusioned and deflated to hear this ideological politically correct claptrap, I had to get a larger bottle of wine than normal from FarmFresh.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Blog neglect

Milord I am guilty as charged. I stand accused of blog neglect and I have no alibi. I was there at the scene of the crime and my knife was bloody to behold.

Unless one includes continuous work and aggravation from public figures who take themselves far too seriously.

Two postings in the whole of June is, what we refer to back home as "utter pants," although Americans don't get this as it refers to trousers, a commodity I found myself selling in my first job stateside. I still don't understand who would buy those green golf pants.

Yup the American Dream has taken some time to kick in but a cunning plan is presenting itself.

In the interim I am seeking to address my woeful blogging neglect but it isn't easy. I still have lots of comments to respond to as well as a few new followers after a period of moribund stagnation.

And here's a funny thing; my blog hasn't missed me at all. In my period away from posting daily visits have risen from the mid 100s to top 300. It's like there are strange cyber crawlers out there hitting on old postings who don't even know I have gone. Ah you would celebrate and cyber crawl over my grave without even realizing who I am.

This week has seen something of an existential crisis but there's light at the end of the dark tunnel. Strangely a rather forced effort for us to meet the folks in advertising seems to have given me that sense of perspective I have been lacking.

The games with bananas on strings, needless to say were embarrassing and crushingly unnecessary, but this office event actually included wine and we were forced to mingle with the advertising types. I hadn't realized how far away I had been trapped at my chair and in my shell until I started to talk to complete strangers.

There's a song by the Pogues, Christie Brown and all that and the kindness of strangers, although in the long term I need a new novel or an old one half remembered. I won't say it was even kindness but I gained perspective and it helped me beat my way out of the cardboard box that had been trapping me.

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Newsprint, door knockers and Angelina Jolie

I have been out of circulation for some time now, doing my penance to earn days for my passage to England.

For some reason I have found since arriving in the US, I received about half the number of paid days off work that I was entitled to in Britain. I had not appreciated this at first but learned the hard way. When I asked my first American line manager if there were any restrictions on when I could take my five weeks, he looked at me as if I had just popped out of a pod at Roswell.

So I worked Memorial Day and am working on Saturdays to earn my passage which brings me firmly back into the world of strange unpredictable news and people being shot as opposed to the world of politicians sending moaning text messages on my BlackBerry.

There would be something almost cathartic and refreshing about a drowning search if it wasn't quite so tragic. If, for example, the missing people always turned up alive at some beach side restaurant, wiped a strand of sea weed from their hair and ordered the beers.

But Saturdays are strange. Seemingly for years now at various times I have sat in silent offices and worked away in solitude. At first there's almost a pleasant sense of mission because you realize how much you can get done without distractions.

You also get to wander with abandon around other people's desks. You see post it notes on groceries to order, you wonder why Mike has strange plastic coins by his baseballs and, more crucially, why he's stolen your Eat Chikin cow.

But then later on you get a curiously displaced feeling that the world is going on somewhere else and you are trapped in an airless environment. That your whole life will be a long litany of waiting for press releases before you are waiting for God.

Being a journalist isn't the loneliest profession in the world but it can be more lonely than a lot of people think. I'm sure it's less lonely than being one of those people who sit in the semi darkness in banks that nobody seems to frequent.

But often you can feel alone, a figure apart with a notepad, cutting a strange shadow on the sidewalk. Today I was at an apartment complex to ask people about a cell tower application. So often people squint at you and can't quite comprehend. Or they think you're trying to sell then a subscription or you are really a Mormon and you have a stack of encyclopedias in the back of your car.

But, believe me, asking people about a cell tower isn't the worse thing you can do by a long chalk. People are a lot more willing to talk than down in the ghetto when you ask people if they saw a homicide. Even in crowded streets nobody saw a thing.

I can't recall my worst assignment but it was probably being asked many years ago by a news editor to 'door knock' the wife of an airman who had died after dousing himself with gasoline, setting himself on fire and walking two miles.

Strangely enough the aforementioned wife didn't invite me in for tea and a chat and who can blame her?

Fortunately American publications aren't so big on door knocks, maybe because more people here own guns. It's ironic in a way because I'd probably be better at it now than I was all those years ago because the older you become the more in touch you become with your own mortality and the more glimpses you start to get of the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.

Lots of journalists say that one day they'll get a real job and some actually do. But when you are in a communications office selling some faceless corporation or bureaucracy I'm sure they must miss the occasional adrenalin buzz we still get, when we uncover something rather exciting.

Yet I can't help feeling news rooms are not what they used to be. That the days of characters and infamous drinking sessions and smoky rooms and intrigue are now just a distant memory.

And even the jobs that sound glamorous to others weren't really so amazing. Take for instance - press conference with Angelina Jolie at the Dorchester. Sounds glam doesn't it?

The reality. Hanging around for 40 minutes in a stuffy suite. Diminutive woman in a T-shirt arrives, answers a few sycophantic questions about B-movie; leaves us in a stuffy room to chew on canapes.

But come on, what am I talking about? It's got to be better than hanging out here on a Saturday waiting to hear about someone being shot on the scanner.

It's not all bad - my piece is slated to be in the L.A. Times tomorrow.

Lost by the Sea

 A tiny tragedy in an ocean of sadness makes barely a ripple. Still, I was taken aback to receive an email from a former wife (the one I nev...