Friday, November 28, 2014

Black Friday

Black Friday mankini bitch fightI rarely indulge in “reality shopping” these days – if I can call it that – preferring instead the one-click delights of the virtual shopping basket that allows me to specifically search for a desired item without being distracted by other items on the shelf and without having to immerse myself in the body odour zone of the other shoppers at the check-out till. In truth I’ve become so conditioned to armchair shopping that I have forgotten how to physically browse for goods. I doubt I could even orientate myself around an alphabetized DVD display these days so used am I to typing in the first four letters of a movie title and then choosing the correct one from a drop-down menu.

But at this time of year I break with my usual habits and find myself wandering aimlessly through shopping malls at lunchtime looking for that flash of inspiration that will transmogrify into the perfect present for Auntie Doreen or Uncle Engelbert – basically forcing myself to think outside the tick-box.

I’m happy to report that my fellow shoppers have been polite and courteous to the point of not obstructing me or fighting me for the goods. I’d go so far as to say they’ve largely ignored me, so engrossed are they in their own lives and their own retail forays. This is how it should be,

Today, of course, is Black Friday. Yet another American tradition that has crossed the Atlantic to infect these shores with its salacious money-grubbing ways. Apparently it has something to do with Thanksgiving*, something we Brits don’t as yet celebrate but let’s give our American brethren time (*and not a reference to the way the Ferguson Police Department celebrate the commencement of the weekend). The excuse, of course, is that we are all immersed in the global market these days so ‘special shopping days’ like Black Friday are no longer confined to their country of origin. Whatever. I must confess I have partaken of some Black Friday deals online but the thought of queuing up for real outside a store akin to a rehearsal for the Boxing Day Sales does not float my mercantile boat. I just don’t want to be jostled by a crowd. It’s never enjoyable. And it’s worse when you are fuelled with the stress of trying to beat your fellow shoppers to the last turkey in the butcher’s shop window.

Apparently the police have had to be called out today to various supermarkets up and down the UK to exercise calming measures on the ferociously competitive crowds and there have even been injuries and some arrests. People have been knocked to the floor and trampled for the sake of a Terry’s Chocolate Orange and others have been kneecapped for the prize of the last Frozen sing-a-long robotic doll. That’s not strictly true but although the details are fiction the overall picture is fact.

I can’t help feeling a sneering sense of despair that we – us normal, everyday, average consumers – can resort to such bestial behaviour for the sake of a few bargains. How quickly the thin veneer of social order is scraped away when someone waves a cheap box of mince pies our way. The pictures of the various online debacles resemble wildebeest fighting over the best place at the watering hole, not caring if their neighbour is spilled into the mouth of a patiently waiting crocodile.

It is appalling behaviour. But sadly not uncommon. I can recall a friend of mine once telling me of a furniture warehouse that was closing down in town. On the last day they gave away the remaining stock for free. A great opportunity, you’d think, for poorer families to benefit from some rare business largesse. Not so. The poor families were elbowed – literally – out of the way to enable entrepreneurs with vans to load up as many freebies as they could to resell at a later date at 100% profit. My friend was so disgusted by the behaviour of those around him he walked away empty handed by choice.

It’s the same kind of mind-set at play at these Black Friday riots. Screw thy neighbour in the manner you suspect he is going to screw you.

I’ve heard people theorize that shopping is a modern extension of the hunter / gatherer skills that are deeply imbedded within our psyche. I think this kind of behaviour disproves that theory. Hunter / gatherers were successful only because the activity was cooperative. Kicking an old lady to the floor for a tin of spam is uncooperative to the point of psychopathic behaviour.

At least when I shop on-line and buy the last item in stock I’m only being antisocial and unknowingly selfish.

Positive virtues by comparison.

Monday, October 20, 2014

In The Firing Line

Alan gimme some brown SugarAs a rule I don’t do reality TV shows.

As a rule I don’t – if I have any choice about it – do reality though being a hyper-cautious moral wuss my flights of escapism are normally fuelled by books and cinema rather than Charlie or H. My highs might only be literary or cinematic but at least they don’t involve kidney failure or brain damage. That said I have got the Withnail & I boxed set on order and there’s always the possibility of playing the traditional 'Withnail & I drinking game' whilst watching it.

The only reality show I do do is The Apprentice. And paradoxically it probably appeals so much because it is so not real.

The premise is real. The tasks are real(ish). The prize is real (though I imagine it to be something of a poisoned chalice).

The applicants are not. They are without fail the biggest bunch of fakers and self-deluded charlatans ever to dissemble across the face of the earth. And they get more fake each year.

Overblown. Pompous. Constantly self-centredly orgasming over their own self-directed, egocentric hyperbole. Totally blind to the way they willingly sacrifice what little shred of dignity they may possess on the televised altar of their own mistaken self-belief that they are “the one”. I utterly loathe them.

But I utterly love loathing them.

And that’s why I watch.

In a real sense The Apprentice is educational. This is how you do not do business. This is how you do not succeed. The dinosaurs and the outmoded concepts that still abound in this grubby little mercantile world are both amazing and appalling. In the first week the leader of the girl’s team urged her female associates to wear heels and a short skirt as it would help them all sell more product. A woman. A woman said this to other women. And could not understand why they objected. I would have loved her to suggest a shorter skirt to Karen Brady. Actually, sod that, I would have loved her to suggest it to Nick Hewer.

Nick is great. His expression couldn't look more sour if he was sucking a Haribo’s Tangfastic that had been soaked in vinegar from Craig Revel Horwood’s left armpit.

Ultimately though the true draw of the show is Sir Alan Sugar. I won’t pretend to like him. But compared to the applicants he’s the lesser of two evils. My enemy’s enemy is my friend, etc. And Sir Alan is certainly no friend to the contestants.

They’ve introduced a new schtick into this current series. Nearly twice the number of combatants but the potential for multiple firings in each show. It sounds like something out of a hard-core porn movie - e.g. last week Sir Alan dispatched 2 twats in one go. One before he'd even made it to the final boardroom stand-off. It’s beautiful; seeing all these plastically confident god-complexes crumble with the sudden realization that Sir Alan could finger them all out of the running at any possible moment.

And it’s good for them too. It humanises them. It strips away their self-erected fa├žade of impervious eternally-ensured victory. Seeing them tramp away dejectedly with their Gucci luggage trolleys we finally get to see the disappointed (and disappointing) little children at heart that, without fail, they all secretly are.

But Sir Alan doesn’t go far enough. I want to see them tortured mercilessly with a constant weight of stress... I want to see them weeping snottily beneath a tonne-heavy sword of Damoclesiastic anxiety suspended by the merest spider’s web of Sir Alan's diminutive mercy... Psychologically waterboarded with the spectre of Sir Alan suddenly appearing at any given moment to kick them off the show with his career-ending fingerpoint of shame. When the telephone rings at the delegate's house at the start of the show to tell them where the next task is to take place I want Sir Alan to suddenly come onto the line and randomly fire whatever pole-greaser has got to the phone first to answer it. When they’re in the middle of Camden Town selling moody spuds from an Amstrad owned market stall I want Sir Alan to appear in the queue in a cloth cap and a Frank Spencer overcoat to hurl their Maris Piper’s back into their faces and tell them they’ve had their chips and the taxi is waiting in the gutter to take them back home to Crapchester. And most delicious of all, I want the boardroom showdown survivors to stagger back to the house at the end of the show, full of anecdotal PTSD and the lone survivor’s raconteur spirit only to have Sir Alan leap out of the wardrobe before they can get their hands on a conciliatory glass of Prosecco and say, ”Ha! Fooled you, worm! You have no right to your smarmy sense of relief! Get out – you’re fired! Fired just because I can do it and the all-sucking vacuum at the heart of my demonic and blackened soul is bigger and far mightier than yours!”

Boom. The ghost in the machine morphs into Frankenstein’s monster. Or a smaller, hairier, coconut headed Godzilla.

Now that, my friends, would be a show.

And true reality.

Because as we all know, that is how real life works.

It tests whether you’ve got balls. And then it kicks you in them.

Welcome to my world.

Now get out. You’re fired.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Long Kiss Hello

Kate Bush Before The DawnThe last time Kate Bush performed a live concert was 1979. I was too young to go and anyway, record buying and gig going were something totally beyond my boyhood consciousness at the time. A few years later when I’d finally 'got my groove on' the chances of Kate Bush ever performing a live gig again were about as likely as Labour freeing the country from the interminable yolk of Maggie Thatcher. And then, subsequent to that event, as likely as Rolf Harris being imprisoned for sex crimes. 

I’d accepted that it was just never going to happen. Never. I would never (for)ever get to see her live. I accepted it with the same life-weary recognition that I would also never marry any of Charlie’s Angels, never be a crime-fighting superhero or be in any way, shape or form, cool and one of the in-crowd. Sometimes you don’t make your bed, you just accept you need to lie in the one that life has given you.

And then suddenly life presents you with a brand new bed - a four poster with satin sheets, vibrating pillows and gold thread in the tassels. In short, life throws you a miracle.

Earlier this year Kate Bush announced a series of live shows (my quest to acquire tickets is well documented elsewhere). For a Kate Bush fan such a happening is a life changer, a dream maker and a soul lifter of extraordinary proportions. Those tickets were the most desirable entities in the entire universe. I was damned lucky to get 2 of them – even if it meant paying through the nose for hospitality tickets. But really, as a fan, I would have done anything to guarantee my presence at one of her gigs. Eaten broken glass. Voted Conservative. Accepted the new U2 album on whatever device the-powers-that-be cared to hijack it onto.

It’s interesting to note here that rehearsals for the shows had been going on for 18 months… the whole thing must have been one of the best kept secrets in the music world for at least a year. God, but Kate Bush is a canny lady.

Last Saturday, after much waiting, after much imagining and speculation, Karen and I finally attended Before The Dawn at the Hammersmith Eventim (Apollo). Neither of us had been to a gig for at least a decade. Neither of us had been anywhere major without the kids for probably about the same length of time. In fact, being without the kids for a night was a source of considerable and most perplexing anxiety and I won’t bore you with our efforts to secure 2 ultra-trustworthy babysitters (who, as it happens, did amazing jobs to keep our boys happy and safe while mummy and daddy partied the night away). But before the gig we did end up (almost subconsciously) sitting in a park near a kiddie’s playground, almost as if we couldn’t quite function out in the real world without the shouts and calls of youngsters surrounding us.

Having obtained hospitality tickets, our first port of call was St. Mark’s Church, across the road from the Eventim where, at 5.30pm, we had a champagne reception and luxury hamper awaiting our arrival. Although for me this was a buy product of acquiring tickets it proved to be rather special in itself and it was nice to be amongst 200 other guests who were all feeling the specialness of the occasion as we were. It was also nice to have early access to a good selection of the official merchandise without having to fight our way through rampaging throngs eager to buy extra programmes that they could sell later on eBay. I must admit I stretched my credit card as far as it would go and bought a gig t-shirt, hoody, poster, keyring, a Hounds of Love mug and a Rescue Tin which had been compiled to compliment the first part of Kate’s set – a performance of The Ninth Wave (the concept piece from her Hounds Of Love album). It was expensive but I figured this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I didn’t want to leave with regrets or that feeling of “I should have done this and I should have done that…”

The food was superb but I confess I was much too excited to eat properly and, seriously, I would have been happy with a bag of chips – I was just glad to be there. The couple next to us had come all the way from Norway and the people we sat next to in the theatre itself sounded distinctly Australian. A reminder that out trek from Leamington Spa was but a small hop compared to the journeys that some of the other attendees had undertaken.

It was lovely to be able to eat and then wander back across the road to the Eventim in our own good time, enter through the VIP entrance without queuing and find out seats without having to panic about anything. In fact the whole trip had flowed smoothly – a good journey down and we even managed to get parked a mere 50 yards from the theatre entrance. It made us realise that we should and indeed ought to do this kind of thing far more often.

And the gig itself?

Amazing. Truly amazing. I'm having trouble holding back the hyperbole. I couldn’t quite believe I was actually there. In fact I spent the first half of the show trying to reign my thoughts in and focus on being present in the moment. The show was as full and as mind-blowing as all the reports had led us to believe. Best of all, Kate’s voice soared. My worry had been that after weeks of performing it would be showing signs of strain by the time my gig came around but I needn’t have worried. Kate seemed to combine power and delicacy in equal measure and for me that was the main triumph of the night. Her voice is incredible and has lost none of its potency.

Of course, she could have sung dressed in a bin bag and the audience would have lapped it up but it was lovely to be present at an event that was so worth the 30 year wait, that was everything a fan could have ever dreamt of. I won’t go through the set list as that will be available elsewhere online but highlights for me were Running Up That Hill, King Of The Mountain and, of course, the entire Ninth Wave movement. The sets were incredible and Kate managed to weave theatre, film and song into one cohesive, emotionally-full whole. Working the plaintive peep-peep of the lifebelt distress signal into And Dream Of Sheep was inspired and really worked (also reminding me of the click-click of the rifle used so effectively in Army Dreamers). It was wonderful to see The Ninth Wave performed so satisfyingly – I’ve spent years of my life letting my mind wander when listening to it; trying to imagine it turned into a visual spectacle. So gratifying that Kate’s own interpretation was not a disappointment but instead added even more depth and meaning. For me Watching You Without Me and Hello Earth are still the central masterpieces to this entire movement.

The second half of the show was based around the second half of the Ariel album and though quieter and calmer than The Ninth Wave was nevertheless not without its shockwaves – the puppet boy killing the gull, tree trunks dropping down from on high and smashing through Kate’s piano – but the overriding sense of joy that these tracks evoke was what stayed most in my mind. A definite highlight for me was the pulsing throb of the opening of Prologue which is so perfectly redolent of the whirring of bird’s wings in flight. The biggest highlight of the night though was the encore. Just Kate alone at the piano performing Among Angels without any other accompaniment and reminding everybody that as great as all the stage effects and stage direction were, the most perfect, unassailably wondrous thing of all is Kate and her voice and her piano composition. Among Angels is such a delicate stirring piece it really didn’t need anything else at all. For anyone doubting if Kate Bush still had it, they had their resounding answer. A rousing rendition of Cloudbusting finished off the night and was surmounted by Kate yet again thanking us all for being such a brilliant audience (as she had done throughout the evening), thanking us for coming and just thanking us all for being. So many thank you’s from the one person in the theatre who everybody else there wanted to thank with all their hearts. No, Kate, thank you!

It was an uplifting, euphoric evening. I was glad to be even the smallest, tiniest part of it. Number one item on the very top of my secret bucket list totally ticked off.

Kate Bush Before The Dawn

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Calling All Game Developers

Alternative computer gamesIt seems to me that the more the world goes to pot – WWIII threatening in Ukraine, another holocaust threatening in Iraq, Cloud storage going up in smoke – the more the masses are going to want to escape from the unending media misery by diving into digital worlds of their own making. And being an opportunist kind of chap I figure I could make a fast buck or two and thus escape the impending Western Armageddon for real by cashing in on this virtual life-hacking industry by coming up with my own digital games.

Having little or no hard programming skills I see myself more as the conceptual engine behind the venture and will be looking for a few code monkeys to actually copy and paste all the binary gubbins into a working software platform. Or whatever it is these Visual Basic nerds do when they’re not checking their emails on their Androids.

I’ve already come up with some amazing games concepts which I am convinced will effortlessly fly off the shelves at Steam or Game. Or even Argos.

Moancraft – people are randomly spawned into a world where they have to dig for the resources to survive by moaning and complaining themselves into ever deepening holes and pits of despair. The more they moan about their lives the deeper they drop until they either reach the Epiphany Layer or plough on through the bedrock of misery and drop completely out of the world to the sounds of cheers from the other inhabitants.

Grand Theft Otto – this is a World War II simulation game. Sort of. You play Otto, a blond despot who goes on a violent retail spree across Europe and much of the world (kind of shopping with menaces) and accrues as many of the world’s treasures and artefacts as possible. This is a sandbox game where you can drive the vehicle of your choice (a tank is a good option) and do pretty much whatever the hell you like, destroy what you like and kill whom you like. Imagine a pre-United Nations world unfettered by any kind of global moral compass. Or if you can’t imagine that read the newspapers and imagine it’s the real post-United Nations world. There is very little difference. On the bright side your tank is very shiny. With the blood of countless innocents. And you can give your avatar a very severe moustache. Older version of the game may also be available: Grand Theft Ottoman.

Skyeram – set on a sprawling but illogically tiny Scottish island you play a male sheep who battles dragons, runs around through vast underground burial cairns fighting the undead and who frequently dies by jumping off massive cliffs whose height you have totally miscalculated. You can either join the Blue Coat faction and fight for independence or join the Old Empire and fight to keep the masses under the unthinking yolk of traditional oppression. Or you could just kill everybody and mess up every quest contained within the game as you say no to life both real and virtual and submit yourself to solipsistic armchair autocracy.

Other games currently in mental development are:

Assassin’s Crud – an assassin with OCD cleans all his weapons daily and collects all the resultant smeg, blood and gristle and stores it in a jar that he keeps on permanent show on top of his highly desirable Venetian sideboard.
BO Shock – a man who hasn’t bathed for 17 years shuts down a chemical weapons plant by wandering through the front doors by accident and rubbing himself off against an air conditioning vent.
Unreal Tourniquet – you have to invent the most unlikely and useless bandages possible. The player with the most resultant deaths (frags) wins. Ingredients will include Blue-tack, a fax machine, a nude photo of Jennifer Lawrence and a Muller Crunch Corner.

Super Mario Bros (Real Life Edition) – 2 normal plumbers come round to your house, overcharge you for fixing your blocked pipes and then freak out when you show them your pet terrapin.

Now don’t worry guys, there’s plenty more where they came from – I’ve hit a rich seam – there’s more than enough to go round. If anyone is interested in coding these up just PM me on Facebook. Or Pinterest. Or Twitter. Or some other social networking platform that I am currently not allowing to connect me to the outside world.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Urological Graffiti

Urinating in UK caves.It’s possible that my youngest picked up some American slang from some TV show or other, or possibly one of the computer games he plays and made the connection with John and toilet.

I’m theorizing wildly in the hope of justifying my part in an act of gross geological vandalism.

We’d gone to the Peak District at the beginning of our summer holiday and despite the weather being surprisingly good we’d elected to spend part of our trip underground away from the benevolence of the British sun investigating one of the many cave systems that honeycomb the area.

We were spoilt for choice but in the end Treak Cliff Cavern lured us in with reports of it being the last working Blue John mine in the world. It was suitably impressive and we had the usual local-lad-come-good-vacationing-Uni-student tour guide to see to our geological interpretative needs as we were sashayed past stalactites, stalagmites and amorphous rock formations that resembled everything from a witch on a broomstick to a huge melted breast. In fact melted breasts appeared everywhere to my mind but I’m working through that with the help of a counsellor and a colourful set of Rorschach test cards.

About half way round I was assailed by my youngest who, by way of Brian Blessed whispered tones that shattered the sonic receptors of any bats in a 5 mile radius, announced that he needed the toilet. Urgently. Urgently to the point where a sudden deluge was imminent and the chances of reaching either the entrance or the exit were posited as nil. This was further emphasized by the mini River Dance that he then enacted out to the backdrop of a million years of ball-achingly slow phantasmagorical rock formation.

I admit, I thought I’d pulled a flanker. I thought I’d got away with it. I guessed / hoped that the tour guide had not picked up on the urinary distress calls and when he moved the group on to the next interesting lump of ever moistening rock I kept me and my youngest back. Once it was sufficiently dark and quiet I bade him let loose with his little cup that forever runneth over and kept enough distance to avoid splash-back but remained sufficiently close to ensure he didn’t disappear body and anorak down a hidden pot hole.

Shoes shaken adequately dry we then re-joined the tour group further into the cave system whistling a tuneless song of complete innocence.

Nobody was none the wiser.

Or so I thought.

My wife later told me that while we were busy with business elsewhere the tour guide had alluded to our absence in almost dramatic tones along the lines of “oh gosh, we seem to be missing a couple of people, I do wonder if they’ll be along soon… cough, cough…”

I’m just thankful that my boy managed to spread his jet relatively quietly and the group weren’t treated to the sounds of a sudden waterfall thundering out of nowhere in the neighbouring cave. That would have been much harder to deny.

As it is, if you are a visitor to Treak Cliff Cavern in about 2000 years’ time and one of the stalactites has a distinct yellowish cast to it… I hereby apologize profusely for vandalizing in 30 seconds what nature took eons to create.

But jewellers take note: it’ll make somebody a smashing wee pendant.