Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Personable Hygiene

Nice moment with Tom yesterday.

I had him sitting snugly on my lap while he happily munched his way through a chocolate coin or three.

Now any parent will know that a toddler + chocolate = C3 (Complete Chocolate Chaos). In layman's terms this means an end result that can be likened to an explosion in a chocolate factory. Willy Wonka hit by Jihadi terrorists. Cadbury's merging with Chernobyl. That kind of thing.

So being a wise boy-scout-like father I had a secret weapon stashed behind me: the wet wipe.

The wet wipe is surely the greatest invention of the Twentieth Century (after man-flu). Soft, moist and damned hard to perforate, their uses are multifarious and manifold but let's not go into all that right now.

Seeing that Tom was wearing the equivalent of chocolate gloves I reached sagely for my wet wipe with the speed of a sharpshooter...

Only to find that his hands were suddenly clean and spotless.

I was gobsmacked.

Smart kid. Maybe he'd learnt the art of licking his own fingers - thus cleaning himself and gaining maximum chocolate consumption pleasure?

Hey. I've produced a genius!

And then I saw my trousers...

Chocolate Covered Trousers
Like I said. Genius.

Although he didn't say it I'm sure his eyes were mouthing the words: thanks for being there, dad.

*Sigh* No problem, son. No Problem.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Ghost Of Christmas Post

Lego Father ChristmasYou may (those of you who have not indulged too much in the warm liquid pleasures of mulled wine) recall that before Christmas I was performing a mull of a different sort - no, not Kintyre - but musing on the chances of Tom being ill over Christmas due to the effects of his second MMR vaccination.

Well, true to form Tom became very grouchy over Christmas Eve and steadily worsened as the evening drew on. Nothing too serious I'm relieved to say but it did mean Karen and I were extremely lucky if we managed 3 hours sleep that night... which made for a very blurry eyed, barely human Christmas day the morning after.

I must admit I was a zombie for much of the day and seemed to spend much of it trying to distract Tom with all the new toys that he wasn't at all in the mood to enjoy. Ho hum. Despite that though it was a good day. I suspect that when I look back on it the stress and worry over Tom will magically disappear and instead all will be basked in a tinsel glow of chicken cooked in goose fat and marvellous giftage of the superlative sort. Selective memory is a grand thing.

Thankfully Tom's reaction only lasted 24 hours and after a good night's sleep for us all on the 25th Boxing Day dawned bright and sunny and it felt like Christmas had finally arrived - a day late but no matter. Tom had a few presents left unwrapped and piled into them with gusto. That's the spirit!

The rest of managed a good haul too. Ben received a Nintendo DS - and has virtually had his nose pushed into it's shiny smooth screen since unwrapping it 2 days ago. The silence is a real novelty.

I showered my wife (steady, boys!) with gifts a-plenty including a fabulous peredot necklace, choice DVDs and books to entertain, educate and delight.

And as for yours truly... well... Some of you may recall a post from earlier this year. Namely this one.

Yup. You guessed it. I got it.

The term "happy bunny" springs to mind.

My wife is simply the best. And I'll fight any man, woman or reindeer who says otherwise.

God I love Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Turn Back Your Christmas Siege Engines

God knows I’ve never encouraged an “open door” ethos at the best of times but there is something about Christmas which makes me want to bolt and triple lock the front door with even more fervour than I do on the other 364 days of the year.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not being curmudgeonly just for the heaven of it – it’s just that there is something about Christmas which makes me want to “shut up shop” socially and just hibernate with my loved ones in the back of the cave... a nice roaring fire on the go, presents around the tree and good food all around. Peace and goodwill to everyone else undoubtedly and very generously... but preferably over there away from me and mine and no I don’t want to come out wassailing or drop in on people for a Christmas drink or (even worse) be dropped in on by guests that I have to crowbar out of the front door several hours later several hundred mince pies the poorer.

Am I being unreasonable? Inhumane? Has the spirit of Christmas turned white at the sight of my soul and fled across the county border in search of a host more warm and receptive?

Possibly. But I believe I am motivated by the best of reasons. A desire to savour my family in a fashion unadulterated by even the most feather light of touches from the outside world.

I mean, I have to deal with the world for every other day of the year and the world has to deal with me. Isn’t a break for us both at Christmas the ideal Christmas gift?

And it’s not like I’m wishing anyone ill. Sure, there are a few people who deserve to have their Christmas puddings laced with semtex and their Christmas stockings lined with poison tipped barbed wire but... not at Christmas, eh? Tis the season to be jolly. Peace and goodwill to all men, etc. Plenty of time in the New Year for pre-emptive strikes.

For now I just want to listen to the sounds of little hands ripping wrapping paper and the “Wows” and cries of “Oh I’ve always wanted this” as my wife opens her new frying pan and matching non-stick oven gloves (only joking, dear) and know that my defensive walls and moat aren’t being misconstrued by the other members of my species with whom I share this wonderful planet.

Cos I love you all. I really do.

And so what can I add but - God bless you all and hope you all have a very Merry Christmas!

And please don’t step on the front lawn. It’s mined.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

When Heroes Grow Old

The ever gorgeous Wendy and LisaHeroes Unmasked was of double interest to me last night as not only did it preview the season finale of Heroes (due for UK broadcast next week) but also focused on Wendy and Lisa, the delicious duo who long ago were musical compadres of Prince and now score all of the incidental and theme music for Heroes.

I’ve long been a fan – from the early Revolution days, through Purple Rain and Prince’s purple patches and finally during their last incarnation as independent pop duo “Wendy & Lisa”. If I’m honest I still play their solo (duo?) albums on my MP3 player but then I’ve always been an eighties head at heart anyway.

But enough about my confused biology...

As the narrator introduced the theme for the night’s analysis they kindly cut to a clip of Wendy and Lisa grooving their funk-thang on TOTP – early nineties by my reckoning – all gorgeously teased hair, cheekbones, curvy hips and tight bouncing tops... how they enticed the eye even as they pleasured the ear... my excitement was mounting.

And then we were presented with the lovely ladies as they are today.

I feel down-right mean for saying this but they looked old.

I mean they looked “old” – not just older. Maybe it was the appalling light in their studio but they didn’t appear to have aged well.

I apologise. I don’t know why. I just feel the need to. For making such an uncharitable observation. I feel I’m being somehow mean spirited and disloyal. And I’m being grossly unfair. Their heyday was 20 years ago for God’s sake – what did I expect? I ought to be proud that they’ve spurned the cosmetic surgery route and have decided to stay au naturale. To stay real. They always were “real women” – it was part of the attraction.

And – let’s be honest – I’m no spring chicken myself. More like a leathery turkey. Old age is already digging its gnarled claws into my once plump and youthful flesh. I’m getting white hair all over the place these days (but enough about my bizarre biology)... Minor cuts are taking longer to heal... I’m grinding my teeth when I sleep... I go all sentimental when I hear Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”...

It’s surely a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

And despite the wrinkles, despite the jowls, Wendy and Lisa have still got it for me. The old (no pun intended) spark is still there. So we wouldn’t go out partying anymore – what does it matter? So Wendy wouldn’t tease my bod with her quirky guitar licks – so what? There’s nothing wrong with a nice frappuccino in a quiet, downtown coffee house. And bowls, so I’ve been led to believe, is a fabulous sport. Hell, I may even enjoy a bus tour to an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical...!

Sigh. So it’s come to this: Wendy and Lisa have mutated in my mind from teen-hood fantasy girlfriends into imaginary aunties...

*Shrugs*

But if that’s how the cookies crumble, I guess I’ve just got to embrace it and move with the times... (now where did I put my pension book?)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

MMR

People’s attitudes to vaccinations never fail to amaze me.

Tom went for his second MMR jab yesterday and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t overtaken with feelings of trepidation and anxiety for most of the day. Although the benefits hugely outweigh the risk this is nevertheless my own flesh and blood I’m talking about – not a faceless statistic – and the fears, no matter how small, become magnified by emotion.

The nurse told us that he could become “grouchy” over the next 72 hours (give him Calpol), he may develop a measles rash in 5 days time (give him Calpol) and in ten days time he may develop a rubella rash (great, just in time for Christmas – give him Calpol). Or he may have no reaction at all.

Hmm. On the whole it’s not a great prospect for the Christmas holidays but so much better than the alternative.

I had measles when I was 7 and it knocked me off my feet – quite literally – for 3 weeks. I couldn’t stand up unaided. I spent 7 days unconscious. It’s a truly horrible disease and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone let alone my 14 month old son. If I can beef up his resistance to such a nasty disease I’ll do it and very gladly.

But weirdly one of Karen’s friends is dead set against giving her kids any kind of immunization and has already said that she’d prefer her son to catch the actual measles disease and develop immunity the “natural way”. She thinks that, if properly managed, measles is easy to cope with and easy to nurse.

Karen and I were, if we’re honest, horrified.

People seem to forget or just be in pure ignorance of the fact that measles is a killer. They seem to be unaware of just how much infant mortality rates have dropped in the West because of immunization programmes over the last 100 years. Our kids enjoy the luxury – and it is a luxury – of good health and a relatively disease free existence because of organized inoculations. Fact. Without them I dread to think how may of our kids wouldn’t make it all the way to adulthood.

I realize there’s been lots of bad press and misinformation regarding the MMR jab but, really, the right information is all around and easy to come across if you look for it. It’s not difficult to make an informed decision.

But there’s the rub. This person thinks they are making an informed decision. And at the end of the day the decision is hers to make. I must add that this person is a fantastic mother – very forward thinking and not at all locked into an idea of mediaeval parenthood – but her stance regarding vaccination puzzles and troubles me.

If you have a choice between giving your kid a mild, carefully controlled dose of a disease to build up their immune system or giving them the full-blown, potentially fatal version of the disease to do the same isn’t it logical and far saner to go for the mild version? The end result is identical if all goes well but the two journeys could be vastly different.

You also, of course, run the risk of infecting other children by letting them develop the full blown version of measles – a factor that is completely eliminated with the jab. Another plus in its favour.

So surely there’s no real decision to make?

Sometimes it’s right that science interferes with and combats nature. The glamour of being a Luddite must surely fade when you’ve got a priest standing above you reading the last rites...

Friday, December 12, 2008

Double Acts

Two workmen engaged on a job will get it completed in half the time, right?

Wrong.

I know this for a fact because, in my normal line of duty, I have had copious experience of dealing with both the lone contractor and the contractor who brings his mate along to help.

The lone contractor is your friend. Fact. He’s on his own, he wants to get the job done as quickly as possible and get out of your hair with the minimum of fuss and mess. Which is exactly what you want too. Perfect. I feel an inordinate sense of relief when a lone contractor turns up.

Not so when “the comedy duo” turn up.

You see a workman and a workman’s mate will always see themselves as a comedy double act. A Bit Of Fry And Laurie. Baddiel and Skinner. Morecombe and Wise if they’re both of the older generation. Never French and Saunders for some reason – but maybe that’s a gender thing.

And they will see it as their sole purpose in life to entertain you and whoever is hanging around in the office for the duration of their visit. The job will take twice as long to complete because they will inevitably distract each other. They can’t help it.

The main workman will be the guy actually doing the job while his mate will merely sit nearby, pass the occasional adjustable spanner and be the fall-guy for all the comedy gold that his partner is endlessly spouting.

And they’ll have a pre-prepared script. Little stock phrases that they’ll wheel out for the benefit of those who are in ear-shot. I guarantee that their performance will include some if not all of the following:

“See what I have to put up with?”

“You should see him on a bad day.”

“You can’t get the staff these days.

“It keeps him out of trouble / off the streets.”

“Feel this if you don’t believe me.”

“Swings and roundabouts, mate, swings and roundabouts.”

“His mother dropped him on his head as a baby.”

“I could do it but I can’t guarantee it’ll be a permanent fix.”

“I won’t bore you with all the technical details.”

“You don’t have to be mad to do this job [pause for a single heartbeat] but you do.”

They’ll also employ a fine selection of sharp intakes of breath that range dramatically in length, pitch and sibilance and thus allow you to gauge the cost of the repair accordingly.

Their banter is invariably worse (i.e. more intense and infinitely louder) if women with breasts are in the vicinity. A little cleavage will see their body posture attempt to emulate that of freshly waxed 1970’s muscle men whilst paradoxically deepening the amount of darkly furry bum crack that they have on show. They will also lie about in strangely contorted positions as they attempt to reach the necessary bit of pipe work / electrical conduit and allow their beer guts to roll around on the carpet like separate legless animals made out of tripe. This is naturally a vastly effective mating display and inevitably has the heavily breasted ladies of the office positively drooling into their Tipp-ex. Or possibly gagging. One of the two.

They will also trick you into making them a free cup of tea by employing a gag straight out of On The Buses or some other down-at-heel British comedy film of yore.

“What’s the name of that little thing that you put golf balls on?”

“A tee?”

“Ooh lovely, milk and two sugars in mine, please.”

Doh. How can I possibly defend myself against such forceful rapier like wit?

It strikes me that life must be fine indeed for the workman with a workman’s mate. You swan around all day thinking you’re Ronnie Barker. Curvy office ladies adore you. You get to handle the odd spanner or three and you sup all the free tea you can slosh into your voluminous belly. And you get paid vast amounts of money for taking 2 hours to do a 10 minute job.

Fantastic.

Hmm. I need to get me a beer gut and a comedy partner all of my very own...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

TV In A Coma (I Know, I Know It’s Serious)

As any cable subscriber will tell you television reception can be, at times, akin to a half shaken Etch A Sketch – a frozen mosaic of tiny squares with accompanying aural effects that sound remarkably close to Colonel Bogey being played under water by an asthmatic tuba lover.

Not so much oompah oompah as plain old bah.

This doesn’t happen often (t’otherwise nobody would pay for a cable service, would they?) but round where I live one sudden shock of cold weather is enough to make Virgin Media’s cable technology huddle up in a foetal position and refuse to play technological ball.

I’m sure Mr Branson would blame other adverse catalysts such as high tech mismatches of information packets and misdirected routings of fibre optic data but between you and me: it’s the cold. A bit of frost and News 24 resembles a kid’s finger painting. I’m so glad I invested in a widescreen TV.

Such a denial of service occurred on Sunday. No kid’s telly. No Dave. No UKLiving. No Catchup TV. Nothing.

Things looked glum for all of ten minutes.

And then we rediscovered the various and multifarious delights of (a) silence (b) music and (c) books.

It was amazing. Without the TV cracking its whip the day opened up into vast pastures of possibility. Suddenly time itself seemed to expand and cast off the shackles of enforced half hour slots of no-brainer entertainment. The day was pregnant with opportunity.

It made me realize how television – for all it can be a marvellous educational aid – also prevents you from thinking ‘outside the box’ (if you’ll pardon the pun). As soon as it is switched on the day seems to be mapped out and segmented according to what the various TV channels are broadcasting. You totally forget the many other home comforts that are available to enhance your living experience.

For most of Sunday we enjoyed a little quiet island of TV-less bliss.

Thanks to the efforts of the Virgin Media engineers the TV returned to life at the end of the day all mended and functioning normally... but, I have to say, looking a little bit nervous. A little bit insecure around the edges.

You see, we hadn’t missed it. We’d coped. We’d realized we could survive without it.

There was a New World Order.

The seeds of a comfortable rebellion have been sown...

Monday, December 08, 2008

Hello I’m A Recorded Message

We’ve all received these calls.

They usually ring at the weekend, mostly at meal times or when you are feeling stressed (how do they know?), trying to juggle preparing a meal for the kids, finalizing household paperwork and doing the hoovering – and I have never yet stayed on the line long enough to hear what they are actually offering me or what I have supposedly “won”.

Even before you hear the voice you can tell that it’s a recorded message. I’m not sure what it is – a slight buzz of white noise, a breeze of tinny static, the complete absence of real 3D background atmosphere... and then that first formal “hello” pierces the unreal silence. Devoid of all emotion – no warmth, no enthusiasm – all the personality of a 1980’s chess computer.

You just know that the poor sap paid to record the message was forced to do so in a darkened room. Cut off from all human contact, not even a copy of Heat magazine to keep him company and remind him that he was part of the human race, he forgot that he was flesh and blood, that he had a heart. And he was forced to say the words over and over again until he was word perfect. Over and over again until the words lost their meaning and became abstract sounds. A series of yowls and glottal stops. Dark noise.

Which is why I find such calls not just annoying but also deeply insulting.

They can’t even be bothered to pay for a real human being to talk to me – to interact with me. To sit there politely while I tell them to eff off because I don’t want to change my mobile phone or buy some central heating or even install new conservatory windows into my home. Instead they let a faceless, soulless computer that has vampirically absorbed a man’s voice do the talking.

Now I don’t as a rule make a habit out of talking to machines. Well. That’s not strictly true. I do sometimes talk to my computer and very occasionally I’m even polite but, given a choice, if I have to talk to someone or something I wouldn’t choose a machine that is incapable of registering a vocal response.

You see, you can’t even tell these recorded messages to sod off with any degree of satisfaction because the machine is so beyond caring it won’t even shrug, it won’t flush brightly with embarrassment – it won’t feel hurt or ashamed at having to do such a crappy, utterly pointless job – a job that can only provoke loathing and hatred in its target recipients.

All you can do is put the phone down. You don’t even slam it. There’s no point. There’s no one there to feel the heat of your anger. You’re denied that one essential outlet.

How dare they!

At least have the decency to face the music! At least have the courage to take the verbal assault that has been aroused.

I know, I know. There are lists you can join, opt-out databases that will remove your phone number from any possibility of junk / spam infiltration but it’s a fag and why the hell should I?

One last thing: what kind of business man even thinks that cold calling people with a recorded message is going to be a successful marketing campaign anyway? I don’t know of one person that listens for longer than 3 seconds. There’s always that fear in the back of your mind that the call is a scam and you are being charged £150 a second just to listen to some nasally goon bluster his way through a shoddy, independent radio station sales script.

They cannot possibly make a single sale or a single penny.

What is the point?

If such a business man is out there reading this then the old adage definitely holds true:

Don’t call me. I’ll call you...

“Hello. This is a recorded message. You are most definitely being charged for this call.“

Friday, December 05, 2008

Christmas Hare

I’ve been caught napping yet again.

Like something out of one of Aesop’s legendary fables I commenced Christmas Shopping in late October with the speed of the Hare: off from the blocks at 90 mph, kicking up enough dust and tinsel to give the elf’s in Santa’s workshop chronic asthma and with a cast iron certainty that this year I would win the race well ahead of the pack for sure.

But you know how it goes.

Online shopping is so easy. One morning of pulverizing the plastic and it’s practically all done. Got the wife sorted. Got the kids mostly sorted. Just a few items leftover that you actually have to go outside and proper shop for.

But there’s plenty of time. Christmas is months away. I’m tired now. I’ll just take a quick nap underneath this tree and then I’ll be off again in no time. Relax. That tape is as good as breasted.

And then you wake up and Christmas is just 19 days away. Mere weeks. And all the Tortoises who have been plodding away slowly but constantly are now well ahead of you. They’ve already bought and written all their Christmas cards. They’ve already got their wrapping paper bought and their presents already wrapped. They’ve already posted all their stuff well ahead of the rush for the post boxes and the last Christmas delivery slots. They’ve already cleared the shelves of all the good stuff before you even set foot inside the store.

So now the panic is setting in. Every year I do this – end up playing Christmas chicken and doing everything at the last minute – and always swear that next year I’ll be more organized and get it all finished well ahead of time.

Yeah right. And maybe next year I’ll get this sheep’s clothing to fit me as well...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

But For The Grace

I’ve been suffering from bear-with-a-sore-head syndrome for the last few weeks.

Not without cause I hasten to add: illness (still got a dodgy tummy), essays due in at Uni, the mad pre-Christmas rush to get loose ends tied up at work, my novel’s ground to a temporary standstill as other priorities take over, Tom has had a permanent head cold since starting at nursery which often leads to broken sleep for all of us, money worries, Christmas stress...

I believe the phrase is “at low ebb”.

But there are times when I am reminded of how damned lucky I am. My best mate’s youngest son is constantly in and out of hospital – some kind of chromosome defect has left him with poor eyesight, poor hearing, an inability to retain his balance and a host of other problems. He’s going to be in and out of hospital for the rest of his life I suspect. He’s only 5 and has already had it tougher than most.

Then there was the news item on TV this morning. Something like 10% of children in the UK are now thought to be subject to some kind of abuse – most of it carried out at home by family members.

I looked at Tom, sitting in his feeding chair, munching on a Malted Milk biscuit as yet another green line of snot wormed its way down to his biscuit encrusted top lip and I gave him a big hug. I got a “yum” back but this was probably a comment on the biscuit rather than the hug.

Life ain’t so bad.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Words Or Music?

I’m not sure where this post has come from but whilst pottering around the house over the weekend I had a sudden flashback to a Manic Street Preachers' gig I attended about a decade ago. Back when I was cool ‘n’ hip ‘n’ energized enough to actually go out in the evening and pay to watch live music being performed.

I was at the bar soaking up the pre-gig atmosphere, feeling a bit like I was too old (already) to be patronizing this kind of gig-going malarkey when my annoyance with my fellow gig-goers reached an all time high.

Now, you don’t need to know much about the Manic Street Preachers – just that that one of their songs (Design For Life) featured the refrain “We don’t talk about love / We only want to get drunk”.

It’s a painful, sorrowful protestation of working class chauvinism – an expression of the tragedy of men whose emotions have been stunted by class ethics and their upbringing. It’s a truly sad song.

And this synopsis is pretty evident from the lyrics, I think.

And yet.

And yet there were a little gang of meatheads at the bar – tanked up on cheap cider served in plastic tumblers – who were swaying arm-in-arm football terrace style singing the above lyrics like it was a glorious celebration.

“We don’t talk about love / We only want to get drunk!”

The sneer on my face held back an avalanche of bile. I didn’t order a drink. I turned around and left them to it. It spoiled the night for me. And the song. I can’t listen to it now without being reminded of the utter stupidity of those buffoons at the bar. So stupid that they couldn’t even see that they were the ones the tragedy of the song was addressing.

But maybe my problem is one of snobbery? I love words – poetry, lyrics, prose. I’m happy to analyse and mull it all over; make connections, be inspired. For me the words are easily as important – if not more important sometimes – than the music. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good tune, a beautiful melody. But I like it to mean something. I like the lyrics to speak to me, to connect with me.

Not everybody is like that. For some people the lyrics to a song are just a handy way to commit the tune to memory; a way to get a handle on the song’s internal timing so that it can be sung along to. A bit of nut and boltery. A few la-la-la’s strung together to augment the chord changes of the guitars or the synths. The last thing they want to do is to have to think about the issues the song might be exploring. To feel challenged and have their consciences prodded.

I guess everybody is different and I need to accept that. I need to stifle the grimaces when some idiot misinterprets, or worse, dismisses the lyrics of songs that I love. As long as my life is enriched why should I care about theirs? It’s not my responsibility.

But what about you? Do you like the lyrics to be pregnant with meaning or are you happy just be-bopping yourself into oblivion on the disco floor?

Confess. I promise not to judge.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Bye Bye To Woolies

Woolworth's PLCSo Woolworth’s has finally gone into administration. Another Great British High Street institution bites the dust.

It’s been written about (far more expertly and feelingly) by other bloggers but I feel the need to add my twopenneth-worth to the debate (as opposed to adding it to the purchase fund).

I shall miss Woolies greatly even though I hardly ever shopped there (yes, blame me, Mr Woolworth, for your lack of sales). The Woolworth shop sign has been a pillar of the Leamington town centre for generations (Leamington is full of dodgy architecture) and was my gran’s favourite shop.

I shall miss its deep red Ariel-like typeface. It’s creaky hand-winched escalator (Leamington store only). The gaudy aisles. The Pick ‘n’ Mix. The unhelpfully spotty sales assistants. Especially the one with spiky hair (like Rod Stewart) who would effetely stand to one side and chew his fingernails rather than risk breaking them by ringing up a single sale on the antiquated cash register (blame him, Mr Woolworth, for your lack of sales).

I loved Woolworth’s far more as a kid. And it was never “Woolworth” – singular (as is correct) but always “Woolworth’s” which for some reason now strikes me a strange. The school holidays were always made complete by a trip to Woolworth – we’d inevitably have Christmas money or Easter money to spend and after Toytown, Woolworth was the store to spend it in. For me this usually entailed purchasing an A4 writing pad (narrow, ruled feint, margin) and some Woolworth felt tip pens with which I would construct bizarre stories inspired by my fevered pre-adolescent brain.

As I got older I fell out of love with Woolworth. I became a store snob and, may the gods of the High Street forgive me, Woolworth just seemed a little down-at-heel. A glorified pound shop almost. A white elephant store. It lost its identity. You were never quite sure what exactly Woolworth was trying to be. A little bit of everything it seemed but never anything definite.

In later years I merely used Woolworth as a short cut to get from the main shopping road (The Parade) to the road behind it that runs parallel. This seems an awful thing to admit to... like going into a pub merely to use the toilet without buying a single drink. But about 12 months ago they reorganized the store and sealed off the back exits (except for cases of fire) thus condemning this glorious cut-through to the stuff of myth and legend. Now I use the local branch of the HSBC instead but it’s not quite the same.

My most recent visit to Woolworth – a couple of weeks ago – was motivated by mercenary tendencies. On its last legs, blood oozing from its severed jugular, Woolworth were offering a 3 for 2 deal on all their toys. Christmas was (and is) getting nearer. They have a fine selection of Lego which I love. It seemed too good an offer to miss. So I made sure I didn’t. I pounced like a screaming hyena and got myself some bargains. I blew a lot of money that day – possibly gave Woolworth a temporary stay of execution (thank me later, Mr Woolworth, when I toss you my loose change) – but ultimately I came away in the knowledge that my selective purchases had saved me a good £60 and therefore cost Woolworth the same.

I did, I admit, feel a little cruel. Like I’d just snuck round the back and looted a burning building while the fire brigade were busy at the front. But hey, they invited me in. They were ripped and torn and desperate. They were selling the shirt off their back and throwing in the underpants for free.

It was sad to see.

*Sigh*

Sometimes a bullet through the crust is the kindest thing.

Ka-blam!

At ease, soldier. At ease.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

One Day All This Will Be Yours

Last SurvivorKaren and I greatly enjoyed the first part of “Survivors” broadcast here in the UK on Sunday night. The premise is an old one – most of the population wiped out by disease / catastrophe; only a handful of people come through the initial disaster; we vicariously follow their struggle to survive in a world that has regressed without technology to something akin to the Dark Ages.

It’s a school boy “what if” adventure yarn – and I don’t categorize it thus to denigrate it. I love stories like this. Being a child of the cold war I seem to recall reading loads of post apocalyptic stories like this as a teen – there was a real trend for them at one time. My favourite was always “Empty World” by John Christopher, the basic premise of which is identical to “Survivors”: a deadly virus wipes out nearly all of the population in a matter of weeks. Buildings, green spaces, wildlife are all left unharmed and untouched.

It’s just the people that are gone.

The stuff of nightmares really and yet even as a teen I found myself indulging in what can only be described as dark fantasies that revolved around this single premise with a discomforting sense of glee. What if it really happened? What would I do? How would I cope?

Watching “Survivors” on Sunday has regurgitated all these boyhood what-ifs and I’ve been musing over them for the last few days. What if? What if?

If I was a survivor what would I do?

So far I have come up with this 12 point plan to ensure my continued survival:

1) Acquire muscular transport. Something that can hold loads of supplies and is strong enough to plough through the barricades of any rogue survivors I may encounter who have turned feral. A juggernaut should do it. There’s going to be no traffic on the roads so no one is going to complain about my appalling driving.

2) Loot the supermarkets. Tinned food, bottled water, toilet paper, manual household appliances – tin openers, knives, etc. Will need as much of this kind of stuff as possible until I can learn how to milk a cow / hunt for fresh meat.

3) Loot the chemist. Basic pain killers, bandages, antiseptic creams, needles, scalpels – whatever might be useful in times of dire emergency. You don’t want to be on your own with a man-cold.

4) Loot the mountaineering / extreme sports shops. Lots of goodies to be got here. Outdoor clothing, shoes, camping equipment, compasses, maps, gas cylinders, candles, torches, batteries. Survivalist heaven. Some of these new water purifying gizmos would be damned useful too for when the bottled water runs out.

5) Loot the Library. A much underestimated resource. The internet is down and dead due to power failures – it’s back to the printed page. DIY books – electrics, plumbing, woodworking, metal working, anything by
Ray Mears and the Penguin Guide to Basic Farming will all be going into the back of my juggernaut. I’ve got a steep learning curve ahead of me.

6) Fuel. Need to stockpile as much of this as I can while the remaining stocks last. There’s going to be no fresh deliveries at the petrol stations for a while remember!

7) Animals. This might sound crazy but I’d round up a few stray dogs and keep them with me. Useful hunting companions and excellent guard dogs / early warning systems. In a few year's time all the strays will have reverted to wild – choose your pooches now while they are still house trained and retain a memory of man as the master. A man’s best friend and a friend for life – not just for a post-disaster Christmas.

8) Weaponry. Ostensibly for hunting but you just never know... again specialist shops should furnish you with a decent arsenal but I’d also be going to the local archery club and lifting a good bow or two. To hunt without announcing your presence is useful and may also guarantee your continued survival. Rogue gangs will be after your water and cigarette lighters remember!

9) Head for the hills. Once the juggernaut is loaded I’d be heading as far from the towns and cities as I could before the dead and the rotting engender an epidemic of typhoid and dysentery. Time to head for cleaner air and fertile farm land. Wales I reckon. Somewhere high up, defensible and remote enough to not be bothered by rabid hoodies who, as we all know, have an aversion to hill walking.

10) Make my new dwelling a home. Fortify the place. Barricade the doors and windows. Tinsel it about with weapons of minor destruction. No hoodie is going to tag his artless graffiti on my gaffe. Bury stockpiles of food and equipment just in case you run into trouble / thieves – always good to have a back-up supply hidden close by. Reconnoitre your immediate environment. Know what’s out there. Know the lie of the land. I’d gather some livestock too if possible – a few sheep and a few cows. The odd pig and chicken. Cool. That’s breakfast sorted out.

11) Acquire suitable company. Naturally my most dearest wish is that my wife and children survive with me but I’d also be on the look out for fellow survivors who are (a) not hoodies, (b) not escaped mental patients with a history of violence and (c) not Russell Brand. I would gather like minded individuals to my flag and steer my new commune onto even greater success and self sufficiency.

12) Set myself up as King and father a new dynasty for the new age. Hey, this survivalist malarkey ain’t half bad!

There. Simple. I don’t think I’ve missed anything out. Or have I?

What would you do if you were the lone survivor of a global disaster or plague?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mer Maid

The gorgeous Katie McGrathI’m not quite sure why I like the BBC’s “Merlin”.

It’s just as anachronistic as the Beeb’s “Robin Hood” ever was but somehow it has managed to annoy me far less. It just doesn’t jar or set my teeth on edge the way that RH did. Admittedly the “Merlin” costume dept. hasn’t seen fit to deck the Knights of Camelot out in Clint Eastwood style duster coats (as worn by the Merry Men in one famous RH episode) or dragged the invention of gunpowder across a few continents and up a few centuries.

I also suspect that there is something “looser” about the King Arthur legend. It’s not as tightly pinned down historically as Robin Hood. It is rife with magic and magic gives a writer carte blanche to take a few liberties and bend the facts a little… It’s to be expected and acceptable. And at the end of the day the “facts” around King Arthur have all been bent out of true anyway. Our present day take on the legend is a hundred miles away from that of the original (?) Welsh legend. Sir Thomas Mallory, lawd bless ‘im, was the Barbara Cartland of his day.

“Merlin” is also perfect Saturday night teatime family viewing. It knows its place and is happy to settle in there like a Phoenix plumping its nest. It’s got legs aplenty and I’m sure it will run and run whereas I feel that the “Robin Hood” production team rather shot their bolt prematurely with the last series of RH and have left themselves nowhere worthwhile to go.

The effects in “Merlin” are a little on the dodgy / cheap side but acceptable – i.e. they’re good BBC standard but would be laughed off the big screen. The castle is suitably grand and whimsical – far too European to be British, of course – and occasionally borders on the Walt Disney but I can overlook that. I’m also prepared to overlook the chain-mail armour which I’m sure wasn’t around for a hundred years or so after Arthur’s existence and the fact that even the poorest of peasants seem to live in substantial stone walled dwellings that would fetch a fair price on the modern day property market.

This largesse from one so normally picky and pedantic is due in some small part to the actors. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no performance here that is going to win someone a Bafta or an OBE – the script just doesn’t have that kind of range – but it’s all very well done and the actors are obviously committed. The tongue-in-cheek-ness that so ruined RH and made it a virtual pantomime is gratifyingly absent and instead we have full-on “BBC costume drama earnestness”.

And that is not a complaint.

I suspect “Merlin” is going to be a jumping board for a new batch of British TV stars who will go on to bigger and better things. Colin Morgan and Bradley James give good value as Merlin and Arthur respectively – they’re kind of an Arthurian version of Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte only without the man hugs and Aloysius the teddy bear. Anthony Head is pretty good as Uther though I can’t take his moments of gravitas seriously at all. I don’t know what it is – God knows I was never a Buffy fan – but whenever Mr Head talks I just feel like I’m listening to him present a voice-over to Heroes Unmasked or a Channel 5 documentary about the pervy religious rites of the Mayans.

And then there’s Richard Wilson as Gaius. What can I say? He’s so damned good I’d actually stopped making “I don’t believe it” jokes by the end of the second episode. Nuff said.

For me though the biggest pull (as if you haven’t guessed) is Katie McGrath as the poised and lofty Morgana. Hey, she’s a brunette, OK? And she steps neatly into the Saturday night TV totty void created when Lucy Griffiths’ Marion was insanely killed off in the last series of RH. Karen gave me a raised eyebrow when I purred my approval of Morgana and suggested that Gwen (Guinevere), played by Angel Coulby, seemed a far more fiery and passionate a prospect for a young man’s desire than Morgana who was plainly much too much of a “lady”. “Lady” said with a haughty, hoity-toity down-the-nose sneer.

And I have to agree. Gwen is far more of a wench than a lady and, yes, she’s comely enough (sire) but, in my (sadly) limited experience, wenches tend to be mere ladies in bed while ladies are definitely, most definitely wenches…

Friday, November 21, 2008

Oh-Oh

Tom is positively skipping along the road of self determined communication at the moment.

Our days are fragranced by that special toddler music that everybody – from the hard hearted swine to the soft hearted sap – would consider “cute”.

Karen and I have been elevated in Tom’s eyes to food bringing servants who answer to the names of “Mamamamama” and “Dadadadada” respectively (I’m wondering if it’s too late to change Tom’s name to Pavlov). Ben has been christened “Bububububu” which I guess could be a baby-talk version of “Ben” or “brother”.

Obviously, being his dad and having a gushingly sentimental bias I find Tom’s every utterance an absolute delight. Though of course that sense of delight is mediated somewhat when his vocal acrobatics perforate the airways before 6.0am in the morning,

However, there is as yet only one word which I can say, hand on heart, Tom has been actively taught to say...

Tom is a fine mimic. A little story to prove this: we’ve all be coughing so much of late that Tom has taken to producing little pretend coughs at various points in our interactions obviously thinking they are some kind of normal conversational device. Anyway, whilst playing with the fridge magnets the other day (a very serious occupation) one happened to drop out of his hand onto the floor with quite a loud thud. He gave me a look of shock and surprise. Without thinking I responded with a comedic “Oh-oh”.

Tom’s eyes met mine and I swear I could see a look of recognition or cognizance sweep across his little face as his brain interpreted this response and related it to the world around him.

The word “oh-oh” came right back out at me followed by a very large giggle.

Now I’d like to think this was a reference to the dropped magnet and not as I secretly fear a reaction to the bespectacled gentleman that Tom now easily recognizes as his dadadadada...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bleurgh

Apologies for the lack of posting this week – though I’m sure you didn’t miss me – but me and the brood were all struck down by the lurgy.

Not a “cold” lurgy. That’s simple enough and to be expected at this time of year (or indeed any time of the year in the UK). I could have coped with that. No problemo.

Instead our immune systems were introduced to an unwelcome guest in the shape of a disease who I’m sure was the bizarre offspring of an unholy marriage between typhoid and dysentery.

He was a thorough little soul. I imagine him as a rather pale, round faced fellow, with metal-rimmed glasses perched daintily on the end of his nose and a penchant for wearing rubber gloves. Akin to an auditor of bodily functions, he got his feet under the table distressingly quickly and made it his business to go through every little process that related to the ingestion and the expulsion of food. His computations were constant, his calculator buttons hot and we’ve all been heavily taxed as a consequence.

To put it simply: we’ve had both ends on the go at once. We had a run on the family bank, so to speak, and the vaults are now empty.

I’m sure you get my meaning.

This is the first day I’ve felt human again.

This is the first day I’ve not been perched above the toilet or propped, face down, gazing despondently into its Loch Ness depths.

This is the first day I’ve felt in control of my body again.

The auditor has finally left the building.

But be warned, however, folks: he’s looking for lodgings elsewhere. I’m sure of it. I’d keep your account books clean if I were you…

Double entry book keeping isn’t for everyone.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Costumes

Because it’s Children In Need day today we’ve had to send our two boys off into the world dressed for the stage.

The youngest, Tom, has had to go to nursery dressed as a pirate. This has meant attiring him in a stripy top, a sword belt, a little waistcoat and some trousers that have been theatrically shredded at the bottom to give him that “Mutiny On The Bounty” look.

He looks frighteningly like Mr Smee from Walt Disney’s Peter Pan.

The costume has been finished off with a little foam hook that he can wave around. It’s very blunt and soft and I suspect the only danger to life and limb will be a transference of snot from Tom’s extremely runny nose to the face of whoever gets too close to him.

I wish I was clever enough to make a joke about Mutiny On The Bogey but I’m not so I won’t.

Our eldest, Ben, has in his own opinion been rather short changed in the dressing up stakes. His school, for some possibly pacific reason, has demanded that the children attend today dressed as “dancers”.

Hmm. It’s not an idea to inspire a rough-and-tumble 7 year old.

Ben spent the entire journey to school this morning eyeing up Tom’s hook with unmasked envy and I must admit I feel a little sympathy towards him (although I expressed this by making sundry jokes about ballet tutus and suggesting that he tell his mates that he’s come to school today dressed as Wayne Sleep). While it’s laudable that the school are promoting the idea of non aggressive interaction and trans-gender activities I can’t help feeling that most of the kids – boy and girl – would have been far happier with a “Kings and Queens” theme, say, or a monsters theme or, yes, even pirates. And if some of the girls wanted to dress as a King rather than a Queen and some of the boys wanted to be a princess for the day I’m sure it would have been fine.

But at the end of the day you can’t stop boys being boys and girls being girls.

Ben owns a fine collection of toy swords but even if Karen and I hadn’t tooled him up with the best that Toys R Us had to offer I guarantee he would have gone out on a walk and found himself a stick or a branch and fashioned his own. My motto is: better a cheaply manufactured foam sword than a piece of lead pipe lifted off a building site. Especially when you’re on the receiving end.

But back to the “dancers” theme. I can only assume that someone at Ben’s school is a fan of Strictly Come Dancing and I now feel that we’ve regrettably missed a great trick:

With the addition of a grey wig, some wobbly jowls and a paunch made of several sofa cushions Ben could have gone dressed as John Sergeant.

I’m sure that would have made him feel a lot better.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

There Are Bigger Fish To Fry

Delivering a worthwhile complaint in an effective manner is an art and one we should all learn.

Because no matter who you are, having to listen and act upon complaints that are not worthwhile is a right royal pain in the arse.

I know, because my job seems to entail me being the all-welcoming receptacle of such complaints for about 90% of my working day. Now, most of the time, the complaints are what I’d call “fairly” valid – malfunctioning doors, broken urinals, electronic glitches, etc. Not world disasters by any stretch of the imagination but they need to be dealt with and all I have to do is receive them with a beatific smile and a Buddhist Monk’s composure and see that they are forwarded to the right people...

Simple.

Unfortunately, despite my very best efforts, the odds of me achieving Nirvana under the officious auspices of my benevolent employer are becoming longer and longer. My smile is beginning to slip so far off my face my toes are starting to poke through it.

I am becoming sick of complaints.

Ill. Diseased.

And not just complaints directed at me but those that are directed at other people too.

Now I’m not talking about the big complaints – world poverty, fuel prices, the frightening number of children who are being abused and killed despite social services being “aware” of them, etc. No. No. These are big worthwhile complaints which deserve to be heard and should be amplified by as many people as possible so that they can be used as iron rods to give those in a position to do something about them a hard time.

But little inconsequential complaints are beginning to irritate me greatly. Possibly because they divert people away from the biggies.

Take the Russell Brand and Jonathon Ross debacle a couple of weeks ago. It was daft. It was silly. They were punished. Did it really warrant the sheer number of complaints that hit the BBC like a tidal wave? Didn’t these people who complained have other, far more weightier grievances that they could have spent their time and money complaining about?

The war in Iraq? The crumbling NHS service? No?

And now Jeremy Clarkson is facing a barrage of media boosted complaints for his gag about lorry drivers murdering prostitutes and for apparently giving an American cop the finger in last week’s episode of Top Gear.

Oh calamity! Let’s forget about the appalling number of youngsters who are dying in our towns and cities – victims of domestic physical abuse – and complain about Jeremy Clarkson for being good humouredly provocative instead. Far more worthwhile. Far more worthy of media coverage. Hold the front page! Call an emergency session of Parliament!

Don’t get me wrong. On the whole, complaints are good things. Having the confidence and the voice to complain is a valuable asset in the modern world. We need to teach our kids to complain about injustice and wrong doing in an attempt to stamp out such things in the future.

But let’s not squander this asset on trivia. Life is just too short. And for some poor souls – like 17 month old “Baby P”, horrifically beaten to death despite 60 separate visits from UK Social Services – it’s never going to be long enough.

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a complaint.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Fawke Off List

No.1) Dizzy whatever his name is talking to Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight yesterday evening attributing Obama’s recent Presidential success solely to the far reaching, world harmonizing effects of “hip-hop music”.

Yeah right, cos like it was his fly rappin’ what won the election for ‘im, innit?

Now, I don’t doubt that having a young, black role model has encouraged young Americans (black and white) to get off their backsides and vote – contributing to one of the best voting turn outs America has seen for a long time – but I don’t recall hip-hop having much of a role in this.

Personally I put it down to worthy policies, intelligent strategies, uplifting rhetoric and the promise of much needed change from the top down after the long stagnation of the Bush (mis)administration. Not a predilection for a lickle bit of drum and bass.

Besides which Obama looks more like a Nat King Cole man than Dr. Dre.

Paxman just looked bemused by Dizzy’s stuttering schoolyard outpourings and I couldn’t help thinking that the show’s producers had merely asked Dizzy to take part simply because he was black and had street cred and not because he had anything intelligent to say.

Sorry to dis you, old chap, but that’s just how it is.

No.2) Fireworks. I hate them.

Call me a killjoy. Accuse me of not being down with the kids (what’s wrong with a lickle bit of Nat King Cole, eh bruv?) but if ever I got into a position of power I would ensure the nationwide ban of all firework sales to individuals.

Now I’m not saying they should be banned altogether. Properly organized displays are fine. They’re safer. Less damaging to the environment. And less damaging to the social well-being of local citizens.

But in the hands of individuals they are lethal.

I’m sick to death of being woken by idiots detonating atomic explosions at 1, 2 and 3 in the morning. I’m sick to death of seeing teen Neanderthals launching fireworks down roads towards occupied vehicles coming the other way.

Most of all I’m sick to death of hearing every year of some poor kid or animal that has been badly burnt by (a) rogue fireworks that have detonated by mistake (b) mindless individuals who use fireworks as novelty weapons or (c) hospitalized by makeshift bonfires that haven’t been properly tended or constructed or have been tampered with by local yobs.

One injury is one injury too many. End of.

Selling fireworks is selling gunpowder without a license to people who, with the best will in the world, don’t always have a brain.

OK. The soapbox is now put away.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Most Embarrassing Record

Cliff Richard
In a move that will probably prove to be as unwise as John McCain choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate and simultaneously start the blog world’s most shortest lived meme I hereby pose the challenge:

Name your most embarrassing record / CD ever!

You know the kind of thing.

You were young / old. You were feeling impetuous / temporarily insane. You had the money spare and you just thought, “What the hell, Shakin’ Stevens has never looked so good...” and before you knew what you were doing you’d done the deed; you’d bought IT – the single or album that for a short while was a guilty pleasure and then with the passing of time just became a source of unpleasurable guilt. The record that you store secretly in a separate place from the rest of your collection just in case visiting hands chance upon it in the midst of your other far cooler musical acquisitions.

The record that will lose you friends, family, hairdressers and influence people in a bad way.

Ahem. OK. Deep breath.

Mine is “Wired For Sound” by Cliff Richard.

I know. I know. I feel like upping the challenge a bit more and yelling, “Yeah! Beat that!”

Let’s get one thing straight. I hate Cliff Richard. I loathe the man. And I am at pains to point this out to absolutely everyone that I meet. Every time I see his sanctimonious, tea-stained leather face staring up at me from a magazine or newspaper I just want to vomit. And as for his singing voice... that “Oh I’m so sincere” warble makes me want to gouge a hole in space and time and chuck him into it.

But “Wired For Sound” in my opinion is a great record. What can I say? It’s a really catchy melody. It’s got great hooks littered all over the place. It wasn’t written by Cliff. Maybe this explains it?

And can I just add that liking the record does not mean I enjoy watching the video. The video – Cliff gliding around on sparkly roller-skates like a terrified geriatric tied to a conveyor belt of death is not the stuff that great music videos are made of. I hoot with vicious laughter every time I see it.

But I do have the song on my MP3 player. And I have been known to listen to it whilst pootling my way around town.

OK. It’s done. Hate me if you must. Revile me if you can but the gauntlet is thrown down.

I now challenge Inchy, Rol, Tris, Reluctant Blogger, Brother Tobias and The Sagitarian to name their most embarrassing record of all time. Usual meme rules apply: pass it on, let other victims know they’ve been tagged and then wash your dirty musical laundry in public.

Go on. You know you want to.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Quantum Physics

Craig Daniels as James BondKaren and I reintroduced ourselves to cinema life last night by calling in our trusty babysitter, T, and heading off to see the new Bond movie "Quantum Of Solace".

"Casino Royale" had impressed us hugely – Craig’s taciturn but intelligent thug at last restoring the Bond franchise to something approximating its glory years when Connery was at the helm / trigger. Craig didn’t so much as hold the screen as pin it down in a head-lock, bloody its nose and then pour an expensive but rejuventating cocktail down its throat.

Viewers choked in ecstacy. Had Bond ever been this good?

But that was then. This is now. The question last night was: could Craig do it again?

Cut to the nodding dog from the Churchill adverts. Oh yes.

Craig has brought a good old fashioned physicality to the role that Bond had been missing for years. Since Connery in fact. Timothy Dalton did his best to give Bond a raw edge but he was too stiff, too stilted – the scripts didn’t allow for any depth or humanity in Bond’s psychological make-up. Dalton’s bond buckled under the pressure.

Not so with Craig. There’s a living, breathing human being behind the suit, behind the gun sights. One that is damaged, finding it difficult to process his emotions. His taciturnity is due to emotional trauma rather than robotic detachment. It speaks volumes as opposed to obscuring any sense of the man.

But it’s not overdone. Bond isn’t a soap and never should be. Bond’s inner feeling are very deftly, very lightly touched upon but never exploited for a quick bit of meaningless shmaltz. We see a flash of emotion but then it is masked – an action that in itself hints at a profound inner vulnerability – and then Bond (over) compensates with some breath-taking, "horribly efficient" violence. Bond hides behind his suit, behind his job. Behind his duty. His depths have complicated shadows and I’d much rather see those as Bond’s 'schtick' than Moore’s wetly debonair tailor’s dummy quips and eyebrow jerks.

I like the fact that there are fewer gadgets in this incarnation of Bond. The opening car chase is a case in point. No bullet proof glass. No missile launchers hidden behind the headlights. No oil jet hidden beneath the exhaust.

Just hard-crunching steering wheel action, lethal slivers of glass peppering the lens and a quick grab for the machine gun lying on the passenger seat. Bang bang. You’re dead. Eff you.

There’s a continuity to the plot that works too. It has the effect of widening the scope of the Bond world, fleshing it out. Gives it a much needed integrity. Nothing is happening in isolation. Some of the characters – both heroes and villains – reprise their roles from "Casino Royale". This both hints at and creates a sense of history, a sense of place. There’s a bigger story unfolding in the Bond world that isn’t going to be snappily concluded in the destruction of the bad guy’s base.

Because behind this bad guy is a bigger bad guy. Or in this case a whole group of them and there isn’t a white pussy cat to be stroked between them. Bond’s new arena of espionage and spy chasing owes much to the Bourne films, I feel. This world is muddy grey not black and white. There’s a tacit acknowledgment of double dealings by the UK government, paying off bad guys where necessary, funding coups, allies screwing each other over out of self interest that would have been unthinkable in early Bond movies. But these murky waters allow Bond to embody an amoral purity. He doesn’t do deals. He doesn’t care about the money. He hasn’t got a retirement plan. His methods are direct, irreverible and (cinematically) just.

He’s a rogue agent. But he’s our rogue agent and that makes everything alright. He’s both the underdog and the superior overlord.

Nobody can touch him.

But the impact can be felt from miles away.

Welcome back Mr Bond.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Old Soldiers

Arthur OlorenshawOne good thing to come out of my aunt’s funeral was that it put me in touch with an old relative – one of my aunt’s cousins. Despite living in the same town all our lives our paths have rarely crossed. Or so we thought. It turned out that his window cleaning company cleans the windows at the building where I work and I’ve been signing off his monthly invoices for the last 7 years without even realizing who he was. The world is small.

I wonder if I have to declare this family connection now? Would there be a case against me for backdated nepotism? Ignorance is no excuse or so I am told.

Anyway, I filled him (Alan) in on the birth of Tom – or “Thomas Arthur” as my granddad calls him: the Arthur named for my granddad’s favourite elder brother… And it turned out that through other convoluted family connections Alan had long been in possession of some of Arthur’s old effects. His old army spurs, a combination lock and a cigarette case, etc. He very generously thought that as I was a closer relative than he was himself they ought to all belong to me.

This was very generous and a bright moment during a bleak occasion. We swapped telephone numbers and in all honesty I didn’t expect to hear from him again. Not because I thought he would welch on the offer but because, well, life happens and the first thing that usually gets swept accidentally under the carpet is a good intention.

But, to prove me gratefully wrong, Alan came good.

He rang me up last week, arranged to meet and placed these previously unknown family treasures – plus some wonderful old black and white photos of Arthur – into my care.

The items themselves are very humbling and I’m deeply indebted to Alan for parting with them so generously.

The spurs still go round though the leather is now very age worn and the silver is tarnished somewhat. The cigarette case – although only silver plated – is still a wonderful thing to own. It’s engraved with Arthur’s name and his batallion – the 271st - and contains a number of small knick-knacks. A gold crucifix, a medallion again engraved with his name and batallion number. And weirdly a Sacred Heart of Jesus pendant. My granddad is as nonplussed by this as I am as none of the family are or have ever been Catholic. I’d love to know how it came to be in Arthur’s possession.

And lastly the lock. The lock – I assume some sort of bike lock – is both magnificent and deeply touching. It’s rusted and I doubt it would lock anything securely now. But the combination still works after well over 75 years. Just put in my gran’s name – ROSE – and it releases very sweetly indeed. The fact it has so long carried my gran’s name, I find very moving.

Such details speak volumes for a family closeness that came to a sad end when Arthur was only 48. He died of a stroke and it apparently took my granddad a long while to come to terms with it. I can still remember my gran telling me (many, many years later – Arthur had been long dead before I was born) about the first time my granddad went into the local pub that he and his brother used to frequent without Arthur by his side.

He simply collapsed with the grief of it.

You can see why then, “Thomas Arthur” has extra-special meaning for my granddad. The rest of us refer to him as just “Tom” but for my granddad it’s always been and always will be I suspect “Thomas Arthur”.

I shall safeguard these small family treasures for Thomas Arthur until he is old enough to appreciate their full meaning and care for them himself. In the meantime I’m merely passing them on very slowly, waiting for time to finish marching by.

Shoulders back. Head held high. It’s a form of salute.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Just A Laugh

Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand
Having been on the nasty end of a stupid prank recently the news that Jonathan Ross and the bandy-legged Russell Brand are currently immersed up to their designer hips in hot water has struck a chord with me far more than perhaps it normally would.

Apparently, on Brand’s Radio 2 show, the pair left “sexually offensive” phone messages to old thesp, Andrew Sachs, claiming that Brand had slept with the actor’s granddaughter, Georgina Baillie (23), and that Sachs might kill himself upon hearing the news.

Hmm. As pranks go it’s pretty pathetic and the kind of thing that any half-baked sixth former could come up with in their wet-dreamed sleep.

Now I’ve done my own fair share of ringing up pubs and asking for “Mike Hunt” in my time but public humiliation on a national scale is something that – even in my selfish “the world owes me” teens – I would have steered well clear of. Forget the swing of a moral compass, surely your own common sense would tell you that this was a bad idea?

Sachs has taken it badly. His granddaughter has taken it worse and who can blame her? Personally I’d rather people think I’d shagged Jonathan Ross than Russell Brand but the poor girl has had little say in the matter.

What is interesting is that the prank was pre-recorded and approved by the show’s producers. The BBC initially defended it… but now that the media tsunami is hitting their sun loungers they are grovelling apologies in every shade of yellow imaginable.

There are calls for Ross and Brand to be removed from air.

I feel surprisingly ambivalent about it.

Should the pair be sacked? I don’t think so. As much as I dislike Brand (and have waxed vile about his shenanigans before) both of them have been very quick to publicly and vociferously apologize to the public and to Sachs and to his granddaughter for the joke.

Personal accountability goes a long way towards forgiveness in my book.

The gag was ill thought out and the producers – or somebody – should have had the brains to say no. “Sorry lads, this one is (a) just not funny and (b) is just going to result in a lot of adverse feedback – lets just stick to making adolescent innuendoes about the birds we fancy from the telly…”

The producers are just as – if not more – culpable. Maybe they are the ones who should be sacked?

A slap on the wrist, though ineffective and hardly a deterrent to Ross and Brand and not likely to satisfy Sach’s sense of justice is at the end of the day the only sensible course of action. Sacking them will solve nothing. Some other channel will only snap them up and make gold with the furore that they bring along with them.

The deed is done. They’ve owned up and apologized. Time to forget it and move on. It is the only wise way forward.

Hidden messages?

Who? Me?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Addendum

I apologise for the lengthy nature of my previous post as I don't usually indulge in great long tirades that last for days at a time but the event that sparked it was a little out of the ordinary. Thank you to those kind and supportive bloggers who have read it and responded so positively. It has, I must admit, kept my hand firmly on the rudder when the otherwise choppy seas were beginning to persuade me to drop this blogging malarkey once and for all.

Right now I'm taking in a big gulp of sea air and I ain't going nowhere.

There have been further developments though. The mystery hoaxer has stained my phone once more with another text this morning that simply reads: "Hi Steve, just to let you know that you have been blogged."

I'm assuming this means the anonymous jokester has composed his own blog post in response to mine. It also seems to suggest that, whoever they are, they think I read their blog regularly and will find it.

Well sorry to disappoint you, "old chum", but I've no idea where or what you're blog is until you have the decency to tell me. I wonder if you'll have the courage to own up and identify yourself rather than keep plaguing me with unwanted texts. Because to tell you the truth I'd really not rather hear from you again.

The worst of it is that by not owning up this little scrote is trying to encourage the finger of suspicion to fall on absolutely everyone - Is it a fellow blogger? Is it a friend? Is it a work colleague?

As tactics go they are cowardly and nasty and have nothing to recommend them.

Maybe this person has published an apology on their blog? I don't know until I am able to read it. Maybe they've merely ranted at my lack of humour over their jolly little jape? If so I'd rather, to be honest, just not bother at all.

I'm now having to consider changing my mobile number which is a pain and an expense I can ill afford right now. The whole situation is grotesque and comes at the end of what has been a very difficult time for my family.

I've tried ringing this person's number several times now to see if I can at last put an identity to the idiot and bring this situation to an end but the phone is either switched off or rings out forever.

Whoever you are, you're a coward.

But that's for you to live and deal with.

As for me, I have a lovely family and some wonderful friends. I've wasted enough of my life on you, mystery hoaxer, as it is.

Either own up or disappear.

Friday, October 24, 2008

No Friend Of Mine

There’s somebody out there reading this blog who thinks they are my friend.

They know my name, my mobile telephone number and, more significantly, where I work.

Yesterday afternoon they thought it would be funny to send me a text message purporting to be from the Chief Executive of the Authority that employs me. It invited me to attend a meeting with the Chief Exec to discuss “blogging tactics used by me against” the authority that employs me.

Serious stuff. The stuff that, if proven, can lose people their jobs.

My first reaction was shock. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything on this blog that would count as “cyber terrorism” or “cyber sabotage”. I was on my way to University at the time to attend a lecture and so the feeling of displacement compounded my sense of confusion. There was no way I could sit calmly through a lecture with this hanging over me so I caught the bus straight back into town and to work.

So – a waste of bus fare and an important lecture lost to me forever.

Maybe at this point this mystery person who thinks they are my friend is chuckling away to him/herself (though I rather fancy it’s a him). Disruption caused. Panic initiated. Target hit.

I returned to work and the first thing I did was to ring my wife who was lovely and calming and supportive. But nevertheless the worry was very real. This could see me out of a job with two young children right before Christmas and with the country sliding into recession. Worst case scenario, perhaps, but it had to be faced.

Are you laughing openly now, mystery friend? Now that you know that your little joke ruined not only my afternoon but that of my wife? It must be hilarious to put someone through that sense of dread while you sit smugly at home in your armchair, proud of yourself. Such a consummate joker you are. Jeremy Beadle must be spinning in his box with sheer jealousy.

I had a couple of hours before the proposed meeting. Ample time to calm down a little and think it all through. Things weren’t quite right, you see. Things were – the more I thought about it – decidedly fishy. The Chief Exec hadn’t spelt his own name correctly. The originating mobile number didn’t match that on the work’s contact list. The grammar and punctuation was appalling, little better than that of a child (I know you’re not a child, friend, but this is meant to be insulting). And why would the Chief Exec use something as crass as a text when he could ring or send an email?

Of course, it is human nature to rationalize things. Although I was filled with doubts and suspicions – and these were gathering pace – they were not enough to completely eradicate the feeling that I still had to take the summons seriously and attend. Maybe he was a bad texter? Maybe the contact list was out of date? Maybe by sending a text he was making an effort to keep things “informal”?

At the appointed time I went to the Authority HQ and reported to the reception desk.

Friend, you are no doubt thinking at this point, “Success!” You got me there, mouth dry, ready for a showdown with the big boss that could see me potentially out of a job. Would I erase my blog? Would I remove the offending posts? No. I’d already talked this over with Karen. I believe in the things I have written here. I’m committed to them. I believe in them and my opinions. Let the worst happen but my writing stays.

This eleventh hour, friend, is the hour when you could have redeemed yourself a little. This was the moment when you could have rung and launched into your “Ha! Fooled you!” speech. I would have sworn at you. Called you an irresponsible little turd and worse. But that would have been the end of it.

But you didn’t ring. You let it all go ahead.

Do you consider it bravery, this allowing the joke to run on to its natural conclusion? Do you think in some way it proves that you too have the courage of your convictions?

Thankfully I had enough about me and enough suspicions to not drop myself in the poo. I pleaded ignorance as to the reason for the meeting, explaining that I’d just had a weird text summoning me here at this time. They confirmed my suspicions very quickly. The Chief Exec had not sent any text (he wouldn’t send texts anyway) and was in fact in Coventry this afternoon. I explained my suspicions that I’d been the victim of a hoax. They were very supportive. It’s amazing how supportive real friends and even casual acquaintances can be.

Did I still have the number that sent me the text?

I was tempted to give it. So tempted. But in the end I said that I’d foolishly deleted it. Better to nip this in the bud right here, I thought. Too many questions and I could be under close scrutiny for real...

So you got away with it, friend. But I did that for me – not for you.

Of course, now all is calm again I can see that I had nothing really to worry about. Blogging is not illegal. I haven’t written anything I believe that is damaging to my employers. Indeed I have never named them or the people I work with. And as Karen later pointed out, this is England not Zimbabwe. I am allowed to have and voice an opinion. It is not a sackable offence.

I’m proud that when it came down to it my opinion meant more to me than my job. But perhaps this is more foolishness on my part – a backward priority – but then there’s a lot of that about, isn’t there? It’s rather akin to putting an opinion or an idea – or a joke even – before a friendship. People do it.

I returned to work after apologizing to the receptionists for wasting their time. The few work colleagues I’d confided in were pleased to see me back and more pleased to hear how it had all panned out. The census of opinion was the same. Who would do such a thing? As jokes go it wasn’t even funny and given the current economic climate it was actually very nasty. Did I have any idea of who it could be who was behind it?

Oh yes, I said. I had a few ideas. A few inklings.

Has your laughter now finally abated, friend? Are you rubbing your hands with glee and carving another notch into the arm of your chair?

You’re probably outraged that I’m making such a big deal of this. You’re probably thinking me a drama queen and asking why I don’t see the funny side. Well, that’s easy to answer, friend: there isn’t one.

Most of all, you are probably thinking that you are still my friend.

But you’d be wrong.

I don’t have time, energy or the inclination to keep friends like you.

This is truly where the joke ends.

See you. Wouldn’t want to be you.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Meme-ories Are Made Of This

I haven’t responded to a meme for a long time but today I’m making an exception by answering one sent to me by lovely Lucy Fishwife.

Basically I have to list 6 random things about myself – preferably things that you don’t already know – and then pass the meme on to 6 other lucky-lucky bloggers. While I think about who to infect with the meme disease here are 6 interesting (I hope) but little known facts about yours truly.

1) I’m a “published” poet. Kind of. I’ve had about 30 poems published over the years in various poetry journals and anthologies. Sadly I’ve never had a collection published or won any major poetry competitions which would have blasted my name before the addled sight of the UK literati. Out of the 30 published I was only ever properly paid for one: £10 for a poem called “Love” that was published in top-notch poetry mag The Rialto. I briefly considered framing the cheque but the law of economics took over and I cashed it.

2) I was at school for much of my younger life with fellow blogger Tris and we still maintain regular contact. He is quite simply and quite honestly my oldest friend. An initial acquaintance and then a friendship which dates back approximately 30 years. I’m very proud of this.

3) I had a childhood crush on Charlie’s Angels. All of them. But primarily it was Cheryl Ladd who floated my boyhood prepubescent boat. This is odd as she is blonde and with very few exceptions I go for brunettes. I have a wonderful wife (brunette) who thankfully feels unthreatened by this early blonde obsession and bought me the boxed set of Charlie’s Angels for my birthday last year. It’s crass, it’s dated, it’s so unbelievably 1970’s (even though it was filmed in the 80’s) but Cheryl Ladd has still got “it”. Though she has now been usurped in my affections by Keeley Hawes. Gotta move with the times, right? (Yes my search to find something previously unknown and interesting to say about myself is becoming desperate.)

4) One of my most vivid school memories is of the school playing field being covered in daddy-long-legs at the end of September / beginning of October (back when the seasons worked properly). One kid in a year below me made the mistake of charging towards the seething mass screaming out loud. One disoriented daddy-long-legs – evidently its bearings lost or fancying a kamikaze-style last act – promptly flew into the boy’s open mouth. Folks, it really is possible for a human being to turn bright green.

5) I have never in my entire life eaten steak. I don’t know why. I don’t have anything against red meat (though I’d hate to see my own going underneath Gordon Ramsay’s knife). I’ve just never ordered or desired a steak. Does this mean I am not a real man?

6) I used to write stories as a young boy where I was a superhero called Donny Osmond (look, I saw an Osmond cartoon once and it made an impression, OK?) and I had a gang of superhero friends who ranged (unsurprisingly) from the lovely ladies of Charlie’s Angels, the good guys from Star Wars, Logan and Jessica from Logan’s Run and for some weird reason Abba. I still have the stories – all hand written in little exercise books – beneath the bed. One memorable scene features my grandparents flying X-Wing fighters to blow up a humungous enemy star ship piloted by the evil Witchy Woo Hoo. It is my life’s ambition to make it available in all good books shops.


OK. Now for the tagging part. With apologies I’m tagging Tris, Inchy, Kaz, Brother Tobias, Kate and Amanda though please don’t feel you have to.

And lastly – the rules:

1. Link to the person who tagged you
2. Post the rules on your blog
3. Write six random things about yourself
4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them
5. Let each person know they've been tagged and leave a comment on their blog
6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

Good luck and God speed.

Monday, October 20, 2008

To Cap It All

Foggy from Last Of The Summer WineThe discussion turned to hat wear in the office today. I’m not sure why but it sure beat the usual chatter of who’s nobbing who and sundry plots to bring down the management (P.S. thanks for reading, dear work colleagues).

I don’t wear a hat but like most non-hat-wearers I’d secretly like to.

Or rather I’d like to have the style and panache to get away with wearing a hat without looking like a complete dick.

Over the years I’ve tried several in my vain attempts to find some skull-wear that actually suits me: panamas, trilbies, the ubiquitous baseball cap, even at one time a Goth cowboy hat courtesy of a brief dalliance with The Field Of The Nephilim.

And I’ve looked an idiot in all of them.

Of course it may be that I look an idiot out of them too but nevertheless I have persevered faithfully in my search.

Until finally, last year, during a wet week in Wales, I came at last across my bonnet paramour in a tacky climbing / souvenir shop in Betws-y-Coed.

The good old fashioned Great British cloth-cap.

I think Karen was as stunned as I was. My God. Here it is. A hat that actually suits me.

I didn’t buy it.

Why?

I have a penchant for wearing proper waterproof hill-walking jackets having given up on the efficacy of umbrellas years ago (they’re just mini money pits). Couple such a jacket with such a hat and you have...

...Foggy from Last Of The Summer Wine.

Need I say more? I may not have much choice when it comes to fashionable head gear but credit me with some sartorial sense.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Smells Like Teen Spirit

I’m getting old.

I can tell.

Not from the fact that my hair is going grey at the sides (though this is a definite indication of approaching decrepitude). Not from the fact it takes very little these days to give me a bad back. And not even from the fact that if I have to run anywhere I no longer take any pleasure in the sensation of getting there quicker.

I can tell I’m getting old because ‘young people’ annoy the living hell out of me.

Young adults. Youngsters. Teens... OK, OK. To be more exact: students.

I’m now into my last academic year of a part-time English degree that has taken me well over a decade to complete. When I started it back in the nineties I felt I had far more in common with the young full-time students who shared the seminars than the grouchy semi-retired mature part-timers. I felt I was still young and hip and wore my spring chicken-ness with pride along with my indie band t-shirts and my waist-length hair (oh yes, it’s all true).

Now I have short hair, wear sensible boots, clothes that don’t endorse anyone or anything at all and regularly armour myself with an unfashionable waterproof hill-walking jacket (hey, you just never know, right?) – and my trips to Uni make me so grouchy I must surely be walking around with a snarl big enough to make any student’s union rep wet their baggy-arsed trousers through to the gusset.

I can’t help it. They slouch around like they’ve got the whole effing day to waste (which they probably do) – while I’m having to rush around like a maniac to get to my seminars and then high-tail it back to work so that I don’t lose too many hours and therefore too much money. They punctuate every third word with “yeah?” and start every sentence with “Ok right...” They seem proud of the fact that they haven’t done the preparatory reading that I’ve slaved over for the last two days or attended the lecture that I panicked about getting to.

But most, most of all one of them actually complained the other day about getting up “early”. “Yeah, like, I woke up this morning at 8.30, yeah? And it was like, way too early, and I just thought, right, that I only had to be on campus for the New Lits lecture at 11, yeah? And I just thought, right, oh man, I just can’t be bothered, right? 8.30 is way, way too early so, like, I went back to sleep cos, like, I’d had about 7 pints the night before, right, at the union bar and I was totally wasted, it was too much...

For the last week I’ve been regularly woken up at 5.20am by my eldest boy. I haven’t had a lie-in (i.e. slept past 7.0am) since 2003. Neither Karen nor I stop from the moment we get up until the moment the kids are both in bed in the evening. And we do it day after day after day. It’s no big thing really. It’s just life.

Now I realize I’m probably being unfair and knee-jerk and reactionary and an old fuddy-duddy but I just can’t deny my feelings. And if it makes it sound any better I can honestly say that – hand-on-heart – I didn’t particularly like other teenagers when I was a teenager. They annoyed me then and they annoy me now.

So maybe I’ve always been old?

Or maybe I’m not getting any older at all – I’m just staying the same while the world gets younger?

Who knows? But if these young whipper-snappers don’t learn to get out of my way when I’m walking about in a hurry I shall tan the backs of their hairless little legs with the rough end of my walking stick and no mistake! Harrumph!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Butter Wouldn’t Melt

John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten
I can’t profess to ever having been a huge fan of punk, preferring myself the hippy undertones of Kate Bush or the soft pop synth sound of New Wave but I knew who John Lydon was and held a grudging respect – even amusement – for the man and his outrageous anarchist antics.

I still have fond memories of him flicking his V’s at the camera nearly a decade later on Saturday Superstore or Going Live or whatever woolly-jumpered guff the BBC was putting out on a Saturday morning back then. Cue pouts of outrage from Mike Read and Sarah Greene – how dare he besmirch our jolly kid’s show with his dirty punk fingers!

Meanwhile my sister and I were laughing ourselves silly like a couple of drains. It was almost as good as the legendary Five Star phone-in where an enterprising little potty mouth managed to slip through the BBC’s “real teen” censors and introduced kid’s telly to some rather choice four letter words. It was a remarkably succinct music review that has never ever been bettered in my opinion.

But I digress. John Lydon / Johnny Rotten was a somebody. He stood for something. He was spiky, dangerous and uncompromising. Values held in high esteem by any burgeoning teen / young adult.

So it’s depressing to note then that dear ol’ John has sold his anti-establishment ethos down the river in order to endorse / sell / promote Country Life Butter on our televisions. John loves Country Life Butter, you see, because “it’s British”. Cue clips of red buses, Morris Dancers and John himself in a nice tweed jacket sinking a large brandy in an old fart’s gentleman’s club. For a minute I thought I was watching the trailer for the next Austin Powers movie (John Lydon as Austin Powers: now there’s an interesting concept).

I realize Country Life are hoping to get themselves a bit of an edge by employing our John to hawk their wares in the Corrie ad breaks but to my mind it doesn’t really work. It doesn’t make me want to go out and buy a slab of Country Life Butter. It makes me want to hurl abuse at the TV screen. It makes me want to flick my V’s right into John Lydon’s pasty lily-white face.

John what the hell are you doing? Surely your mortgage is paid by now? Why?

It’s one thing to be a national character...

Quite another thing entirely to be a national caricature.