Sunday, February 26, 2012

Starting the great unfinshed novel with a game of squash

Giving up my job after more than 20 years on newspapers, with just the occasional interruption, felt surreal. It still does.

But I had to do something to counter the increasing feeling that the world was passing me by. I had to counter the growing feeling of being a stranger in my own life. My consignment back to the night shift may have been the last straw, but I have watched enough straws to fill a barn drifting past me.

So, in many ways, I felt blessed to be back making those late night calls to dispatchers who would never tell me anything or to be back standing on a dark and beaten up street corner looking at the yellow ribbon of a shooting scene. It was what I did when I first started. It brought it home to me how irrelevant I had become and how utterly dispensable I was in the grand scheme of things.

There were subtle other signs such as the fact I could scroll through my twitter feed and read about the incident I was rushing back to get into tomorrow's paper, on a TV station website or some fly-by-night blog.

In the past I had viewed the idea of selling out to marketing or public relations as if it was some kind of betrayal but increasingly I found myself twisting in my own irrelevancy. For a while I deluded myself into thinking I could be Woodward and Bernstein rolled into one glorious package but it soon became clear a newspaper is as much as privately owned operation as a firm of accountants and there were always a myriad of political pressures and considerations going on behind the scenes.

Increasingly the idea of working for myself became attractive and when I secured a part-time legal marketing job it was the impetus to take the plunge. In my mind's eye I saw myself chasing the big story on my off days and finally seeing the bigger picture instead of being dragged down by the daily grind. But in reality I'll probably end up taking on too much and half killing myself for half a dozen masters or mistresses.

One unforeseen consequence of giving up the day job was an invitation to join a writer's group.

I worried then that I had overstated what I had achieved on my great unfinished novel when a group email was send out about my half finished book. In fact I wrote two chapters and appear to have lost them both in the murky netherworld of my computer. Still the writer's group is unbending and serious. Members send each other their latest chapters before meetings. In the down time this weekend between setting up the blog site for David L Macaulay Media and Marketing and Veritas Legal Media - sorry Blogger, I have so divorced you for WordPress, with the exception of Brits - I have fretted about starting the great unfinished.

So here's the deal. The great unfinished starts with extracts on Brits and goes from here. Enjoy - or tell me it's a load of bollocks. Whatever.


I can remember almost to the minute the first time I met Paul Moriaty. And that's unusual for me. Some days I won't just forget what I had for breakfast; I'll forget if I ever had breakfast at all.

I'm not sure why Moriaty was different but from the beginning there was an air that set him apart. It wasn't something he had, more like something that was missing and the aura about him that he had it once.

The time was just before 7 p.m. on June 3, 1995 and the place was Squash Court #3 at the Southgate Sports and Social Club.  I don't profess to remember all of the details without paper props. The squash club had a list of times and places for the scheduled rendezvous otherwise known as squash games and Mildred, the secretary with the iron bound hair clips and severe blue rinse, was a stickler for players keeping their appointments.

I'm not sure how I first became drawn down the arcane halls of the sports club that smelled vaguely of rubber and boiled cabbage, although I had never seen a cabbage anywhere in their vicinity. But London is a city of more than seven million strangers who find themselves in odd suburbs of turn of the century homes and quiet trees, because they want to avoid ghettos like Edmonton. Then they find themselves staring out over chimney pots after dark, vaguely thinking about what happened to their dreams of streets paved with gold. So they eventually make a half hearted attempt to take action. They join squash clubs generally. Or do drugs.

Not earning enough to do drugs I found myself joining the squash club. I had always showed promise with the small racquet at school and had rather liked the thwack of the compact little rubber ball on the walls of the court and the mark it made if you hit it really hard. Mr. Rivas had told me I had good technique and had suggested coaching me after school. In the light of the later pedophilia charges brought, which I hasten to point out had nothing to do with me, I have since wondered whether his observation had anything to do with my progress as a player. But to this day I like to cling onto the notion it was a reflection of my ability as a player.

So one autumn night I found myself ducking in and out of the sharp gusts of winds that blasted leaves at me between the sycamores to the squat little building at the bottom of the park and signing up for the squash league. I wasn't the best player but I wasn't the worst. I had a competitive streak but also a natural modesty about winning. My will to win was cancelled out by my lack of a killer instinct.

While I came to know a lot of the players, Moriaty was just a name on the chart before the night he walked into Court #3. He was not much more than a name on the chart when he left, having beaten me with little discernible relish.

At 7 p.m. sharp the small door swung open and there he was in my court, a man of large if not immense frame who was probably a good decade older than me in his mid '40s.

"Moriaty," he grunted under dark brows and gave my hand a firm shake. In that single word I detected some breeding, the cadence perhaps of the parade ground or a second tier English public school.

But Moriaty showed no further interest in conversation. With an abruptness that would seem rude had he showed any interest in me, he tossed up the ball and served. Like a machine he progressed through a couple of sets. He won a close tie break but showed no outward signs of triumph. On a number of occasions I attempted to draw him in with banalities only to receive no response.

For a man 10 years older than me Moriaty had a strong serve and considerable upper body strength. He could also move effectively around the court even though his left leg had a knee support and there was a white streak like the stubborn hint of a scar from days gone by. There was something curious about this scar. It was like discovering a machine could bleed, I thought as he went through the production process of defeating me.

I didn't dwell on it. I normally find it to be bad squash etiquette to remark on a player's scar during the first game.

We seemed evenly matched but every now and then a disconcerting feeling would come over me that Moriaty was not playing at the top of his ability while I was stretching every sinew to keep up with his game.

I was conscious of the dampness of my hand and the dryness of his when we shook hands at the end of the game.

"Good game,"I said.

"Yes." And for a second a caught I caught a glimpse of his eyes. Curious. Green like emerald pools, a touch of the Irish perhaps. And then the small door snapped shut like a spring and he was gone.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Eighties in retrospect

The Eighties can seem inconsequential in retrospect. My memories of the decade of bad taste are condensed into a montage of boldly stripy shirts, the Rubik’s cubes and late night trolley fights with our rickety chariots stolen from the Tesco’s parking lot after a night of drinking vodka.

But I only need to set one foot on Inconsequential Street to get lost in sentimentality down Memory Lane. The Eighties spawned The Smiths for goodness sake. But the lyrics that keep going round my head are from Tears for Fears, whose version of Mad World was inevitably better than the more well known cover by Gary Jules.

“All around me are familiar faces, worn out places.”

And it’s true in these last few days of journalism as I contemplate my descent into the morality free world of marketing, that the words of Tears for Fears ring true. There are corridors here with photographs of early 20th century war ships that have changed little in decades. There are people who walk and talk and function but they do it out of habit. They are living by reflex – and the reflex is an only child. He’s waiting by the park.

Perhaps this is not just our threadbare industry but life in general. We walk and talk and say things in a certain way and manner because we have always done so. We are without direction because nobody has given us one.

And if you encounter somebody who tells you they know what direction they are going because God has given them one, cross the road fast.

The video for Mad World isn’t very clever and does no justice to the track. Curt looks unhappily out of a window while Roland dances awkwardly in the garden. The video is poor quality and some kid from New York who has hacked Mad World for a school project in which he stalks a girl, hasachieved almost 2 million hits, far more than Curt and Roland achieved themselves.

Incidentally Americans have sought to wean me off the use of the word garden. But I prefer it to yard and have singularly failed to give it up. I always liked the line “I will walk and talk in gardens all wet with rain” which I thought was Yeats but turns out to be Van Morrison.

There is a place for gardens and a time and a place for the Eighties. In these years of winding down it may be now. The Iron Lady is playing at the movies and while I hated her while I lived through her and mounted the barricades, I feel a tad sentimental about her in retrospect. Perhaps it was that time I was talking to a man in the tea room and I turned to the next table where a frail old woman was talking in tones that caught and scraped on something familiar in my consciousness. It took me a moment to realize it was her – Margaret Thatcher - and while her bearing was weak there was still a steeliness in her glance.

There is much to be said for the Eighties in retrospect, not least the fact that Fade to Grey still sounds freaking awsome.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Whitney - diva, girl next door, junkie

The 1992 movie The Bodyguard starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner wasn't a particularly clever or good movie. The plot was predictable and the blockbuster hit a little too mawkish.

But it was a powerful movie in that it showcased two stars at the top of their ascendancy. Houston could do little wrong and Costner was one of the biggest names on silver screen. The film moved effortlessly from Miami beachfront to a Hollywood mansion. It showed the America we saw a lot of in the movies back in Britain, the America that you don't see much of in America.

Still reality bites and it bit today.

Although its politics and barely concealed sexism can be nauseating, I can usually rely on the Daily Mail to capture America stories often better than the U.S. media and so it proved with the tragic death of Houston at the age of 48.

There seems to have been a lot of high profile deaths lately, but this one still hit me in the solar plexus, because Whitney was just a bit older than my generation and she was a mega star in the early 90s, a time when I was comparatively young. I still have memories of the dance floor clearing to the strains of "I Will Always Love You."

I'm told Houston was even bigger in America than in Britain. She had the voice of an angel and the clean cut looks of the girl next door. She had appeal in those cookie cutter subdivisions where Madonna was seen as a deviant.

The trouble was Houston was always something of a marketing creation. When she took up with Bobby Brown, an unreconstructed badass, the people in the cul-de-sacs were shocked and reacted as if she had been kidnapped. Yet, according to a documentary I saw while ago, Houston was a lot more like Brown than polite society would like to believe.

Not that we liked to believe it just as we don't like to believe diet Coke will kill us. When someone looks and sounds as good as Houston does, we find it hard to believe she could be the biggest junkie since Major Tom. At least until she started to look like a junkie.

Still, in the words of REM the fame thing - I don't get it. You'd think having the looks and the voice and the wealth and the rest would be a recipe for happiness but it seldom is. Does anyone really believe Brad and Angelina spend all their days floating round on a happy cloud any more than anyone seriously believed Ashton and Demi were the perfect couple?

There are many manifestations of the hollowness of mega stardom but the most powerful image that sticks in my mind is from Martin Bashir's seminal documentary on Michael Jackson. At the Venetian Hotel in Vegas, Jacko took a break from dangling kids from balconies, to go shopping. He whined like a child about the things he didn't have and went away armed with the most gaudy vases and other artifacts $200,000 can buy from an overpriced retail boutique.

It made me think consumerism is not all it's cracked up to be because Jacko didn't look like a much happier bunny once his vase craving was met. I imagine it would be cool to have a swimming pool in the back garden but probably only because I don't have one.

The whole Whitney Houston thing says much about the nature of the American dream. I'm not sure exactly what but nor am I convinced it's a dream worth aspiring to.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The House of the Aunts and Uncles

Sometimes when I watch the kids I wonder what experiences they will remember as adults and which ones will pass them by. Why is memory so selective? Why do I remember the day I jumped from the Mountain Ash tree into the neighbor’s garden only to be yelled at so vividly and yet a whole year at elementary school passed by in a blur?

But some memories are vivid down to the smells and sounds. They tinkle like the first time we hear church bells on a sunny morning deep in the countryside. So it was with the House of Aunts and Uncles. Somewhere in the Midlands, somewhere in a time warp we’d visit, although I don’t think my parents had much in common with the white haired folks inside; less so my sister and I for whom the House of the Aunts and Uncles was like stepping into Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop.

I remember it as a rambling place of fading red bricks, down a lane under wide boughed trees, sycamores with their winged seeds rotting quietly into the autumnal loam, yellows and greens that were fading to brown, behind foreboding privet hedges the house loomed large, although if I revisited today it would probably seem small and insignificant. The House of Aunts and Uncles was in reality two houses that were interconnected. Dorothy and her brother Stan lived in one and Mabel and Charlie the other.

Dorothy’s place was low and dark and a fire seemed to burn in all weathers. While my memories of the furniture are vague I recall the lines in the brown rug and the wide portraits of Cavaliers and their dogs, down the features of their faces. A dark work by a Dutch master, a Rembrandt, perhaps.

The saving grace and sanctuary from the mundane adult talk in the low, stuffy dark room was the large glass conservatory, a playground of work benches, tumbled porcelain pots and climbing plants and the bright fountains of daisies that rose up to greet us in the back garden, festooned with dew and the veils of cobwebs.

Mabel’s place was another matter. From Dot’s living room a passage would lead to a home stripped bare of all darkness. Bare boards and cold blue wood and stairs almost too steep to climb. But we’d ascend, a sharp sun insufficiently diffused by a tall stained glass window, edges of diamond and ship-shaped navy blue. The scullery would open up, a cold cubicle with a deep stone sink and a bar of roughly hewn Carbolic hanging on a string.

Mabel herself always seemed to be upstairs in a high and airy parlor, a big boned woman with a shock of white hair. I don’t remember much about Charlie, apart from his thick circular spectacles and a vaguely condescending air. But I recall a faltering conversation about how the skies were filled with shrapnel, whirring planes and pieces of men and how the mud and the blood thumped against him as he wove across the battlefield with a rickety stretcher, walking low to avoid the monstrous anger of the guns.

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme on June 1, 1916 more than 58,000 British troops were killed. The generals told them the artillery barrage had torn down the wire but the wire was still in place and men were blown apart even as the barbs pierced their skin. Charlie wove his way through this lunar landscape of shell holes, blood and human limbs, patching up the wounded where it wasn’t too late and lived to tell the tale.

But he didn’t talk about it much. In the House of Aunts and Uncles people spoke about the weather and their ailments. And that was about it.

Years later I went back there with my father in a Ford Transit van. He had failed to get the measure of the thing and kept bouncing off the kerbs. We had to pick up a few pieces of furniture that Dorothy had left in her will but the house was already receding. Dorothy had left it to a couple of carpetbaggers called the Simpsons who had forced her hand on her death bed. I remember them now, awkward and wringing their hands, impatient for us to pick up out battered items and to be gone.

Sure enough the house seemed smaller now and the sycamores no longer the majestic specimens of my childhood. There was no Charlie or Stan, no Dorothy or Mable. The House of the Aunts and Uncles was bare and meaningless. The memories had left with them. We left never to return.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Man pulls dubious rodent out of a hole on Groundhog Day

Well I was going to write a post about Groundhog Day today. Then I  thought of being lazy and reposting last year's post about Groundhog day. Groundhog Day - WTF.

But I figured going back to the same old ground again and again would be; a bit like groundhog day, really.

Not that the 42 people who checked out my 2011 article today - yes I work the night shift and I have zero life beyond going to the Fritos machine - seemed to give an over stuffed rat's that this was an old post.

So the interesting news here is that Punxsutawney Phil apparently popped out of Gobbler's Knob, got all alarmed by his shadow and predicted six more weeks of winter which is rather odd considering it was almost 70 degrees today.

Apparently he has a brother in DC called Potomac Phil who is long dead and stuffed but this didn't stop him also making a prediction of six more weeks of winter. I don't understand this whole thing. I don't understand why guys in a top hat have to pull out the rodent and parade him for a bit off off the cuff meteorology.

So it's six more weeks of winter then. And this parrot isn't dead either.

"No no he's not dead, he's, he's restin'! Remarkable bird, the Norwegian Blue, idn'it, ay? Beautiful plumage!"

I Don't Queue : Does That Make Me Unpatriotic?

I'm bemused by the scenes from Westminster today. People are queuing for 24 hours to see a wooden box. OK, it's a fancy box surround...