Monday, January 28, 2013

Halo

Prince HarrySo Prince Harry’s in trouble again.

He kept his butt-cheeks under wraps but was a might loose with an insensitive tongue. I haven’t read any of the offended write-ups or seen any of the worthy TV interviews with the usual round of for-hire-experts. I’ve caught a few newspaper headlines, caught the odd sound-bite and therefore deem myself as well equipped to offer an opinion as any UK tabloid journalist (with the advantage that I won’t hack your mobile phone – Lord knows I can barely get into my own).

From what I can glean Harry’s been taken to task for talking about how he, along with his army chums, have taken a few Taliban fighters “out of the game” and even compared the action he’d seen to playing video games.

Right-on righteous people the world over are up in arms (ironic) over his gross insensitivity and callous, off-hand dismissal of taking another human being’s life.

And they’re right. Of course they are. I can remember feeling outraged at hearing stories of American helicopter crews listening to loud rock music as they shot at insurgents and again, made comparisons to playing computer games. It was as if they were treating modern warfare as some kind of leisure pursuit which totally devalued human life until the people they were fighting impinged on their consciences no more than a pixellated sprite on a computer screen.

That is plainly wrong. Dreadfully wrong.

But who is at fault here?

Let’s look at it another way. We train our armed forces to do many different tasks – but no matter how you dress these tasks up politically, they are trained to kill. Their goal is always to kill more of the enemy than the enemy kills of them. They are trained to do it without thinking. Without breaking down and needing counselling five minutes into a fire fight or even five weeks. As horrible as it sounds conscience doesn’t come into it. And yes it is desensitizing. I imagine when you’re in a battle zone the last thing you want is to be feeling a bit sensitive. You would not be able to function and as such would be liable to get yourself and your colleagues killed.

We expect our soldiers to go out and kill. To kill with honour, yes. To kill “viable targets” (what a horrid expression), yes. To not kill children or innocents. To not kill for pleasure or needlessly. But ultimately, when the need calls for it, to kill. It’s a big part of soldiering in the modern world, alas.

I daresay the soul searching, the emotional breakdowns and psychological payback comes later. But at the time, when you’re in the theatre of war, you keep all that touchy-feely stuff as far away from you as possible and by using whatever means necessary.

That’s what I imagine Prince Harry is doing.

And then we have the video game thing. Heaven knows I have complained myself about computer games which purport to replicate the “real war experience”. My granddad fought in WWII, I don’t imagine he’d have thought much of his experiences being the basis for a living room based computer game which involves the participant sitting on their backside twiddling a few buttons on a handheld controller and staring at a TV screen.

But these games are out there and proliferating in huge numbers. Our kids, siblings, partners are playing them. They play them for entertainment. They play them for fun. The realism element is a selling point, a way of benchmarking the quality of the game.

This is highly questionable.

This desensitizes us all. Cheapens us all.

As a society we condemn warfare while at the same time making it a significant element of most of our entertainment choices – computer games, movies, literature. It has become enmeshed with fashion, rock music soundtracks and the way we gauge our own status.

Not all of us, I know. But enough that in any high street in any town you can go into a Game store (for example) and immerse yourself in the war of your choice.

Who is at fault here? The individual soldier or the society that equates war with play and then sends that soldier out to play for real?

Just think for a minute of all those people who help design and create those ultra-realistic computer war games... how much blood is on their hands?

Real, not salaciously imagined.

Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Use It Up And Wear It Out

I had a refreshing encounter with a plumber dude this morning.

Refreshing because (a) he was amenable to doing some work without the sharp intake of breath which normally accompanies a contractor’s commencement of laborious activity but mostly because (b) he whipped out an iPhone which quite frankly looked like it had been used to detonate a landmine.

The screen was cracked and fissured so much that activating any of the apps must have felt akin to caressing Bernard Cribbins’ whiskery jowls. There were paint spatters. There were oily skid marks. There were questionable potholes that may or may not have been caused by high impacts on the quantum scale. Of course, the allusion to Bernard Cribbins breaks down completely at this point.

It was a well used, possibly well loved, definitely not well looked after device.

And that pleased me.

It pleased me because the thought occurred that too often these days we lavish such love and status onto our electronic gadgetry that the merest hairline scratch on a touchscreen, the merest infinitesimal microdot of grit under a plasticoating and we have to head straight out to the vendor to buy a new one. A brand new one because the old one has now been sullied and besmirched. Part of the joy of having it and showing it off is showing it off in prime brand spanking new condition. The tiniest chip will render it second-rate and give it the appearance of being second-hand and, worse still, make it appear as if the device is nose-diving already off the cliff of contemporality and pitching itself useless-face first into the pit of obsolescence.

It was plain that what mattered to the plumber chappy was not the appearance of the device and, therefore not the status the device could confer onto him... but that the device still worked. It was functional. The touchscreen still worked. He could make still calls. Access his apps. Troll on Twitter. Download dodgy films from the internet.

In his own small way he was doing his bit for the environment (if not for the economy). He was, if not mending and making do, then at the very least just making do.

And this to me seems a good way to go. How many of us as we pass through life cast sneering glances and sneerier comments towards battered vehicles we see out and about on the roads? Battered computers being used? Battered bags carried around? Battered clothes being worn?

If they still work and are fit for purpose we should use them. They’ve gobbled up God knows how many of Earth’s resources just by being made. Let’s get our money’s worth before we buy yet more gadgetry and add to the resource debt that is currently mounting up against us.

Let’s use things up and wear them out. It is the highest honour we can afford anything that we create. To use a tool until it cannot be used anymore.

To this end then, despite the holes in the back of my underpants I am going to continue to wash and wear them. The front bit is fine. The hammock effect is uncompromised. I’m going to maintain their functional status for the long haul.

We shall go on together until the end. Or at least until my dangly bits go into freefall.

And I defy any of you to tell me I’m wrong.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

No Risk Natalie Portman

Natalie PortmanWhat does that even mean? No risk Natalie Portman? As a subject line for a spam email, I have to say, it has tempted me several times now to click on its innocent looking little icon to see what it’s all about – even at the risk of finding a huge viral payload thrusting itself into my computer’s unsuspecting orifice. But then again it does say “no risk” so maybe the senders are being genuinely open-handed and there is no virus...? Just a take-it or leave-it sales pitch which I can take advantage of or bin as I see fit.

As a hook it certainly works better than the other emails I get, the ones whose subject line is “Dear ,”. Yes, you read that right. They can’t even be arsed to extrapolate my real actual name which is probably invisibly appended to all my email data somehow anyway without me knowing. They just address me as Dear comma. How insulting. Such emails get maliciously deleted without my interest being pricked even in the slightest.

But no risk Natalie Portman...

Now that is tempting.

But what does it mean?

Are they offering me unfettered access to Natalie Portman without danger of her security gurus ventilating me with their full metal jacket slugs or tasering my testicles to the point where I ejaculate DC current? And if that is indeed the case what are the precise parameters of the access? Am I being permitted access to her undoubtedly beautiful mind and intellect or just her naked, ripe, physically-pulsing-with-vitality body?

Because much as a platonic discussion about the acting profession over a Costa latte would undoubtedly be edifying for us both I’ll take the body.

I’m a red blooded male after all. What do you expect?

And apparently it’s no risk. So I’m presuming she’s going to handle the contraception side of things and is also as clean as a whistle down there at the interactive, fully immersive, game playing end. And I take it there’ll be no unpleasant comeback either (no, that isn’t a euphemism – dirty!) – no public criticisms of my performance or selling my bedroom secrets to some scurrilous tabloid. We’re going to have a contract and everything; be nice to each other and then be nice to each other in the post-coital niceness stage as well. No mugging each other in the press. No exposés. The wife need never know. Nor my mother. Nor you. Just me and Nat sitting in a tree k-i-s-s-i-n-g.

All safe as houses.

Except there must be some risk, mustn’t there? If you stop and think about it. I can’t be the only person getting this scintillating offer of unbridled passionate access to Natalie Portman. I bet they’ve sent hundreds of those emails out. Thousands. God. It’s no wonder we haven’t seen Ms Portman in a film for ages – she’s permanently entertaining email recipients who want to enjoy no risk adult fun with her. Well, all that no risk adult fun greatly increases the chances of risk, doesn’t it? It’s like a pyramid scheme of jeopardy. Stands to reason. Even if she showered after every rendezvous that’s a lot of, you know, bacterial risk build-up.

But maybe that’s the marketing scam behind the email? Some commercial deal with an industrial condom manufacturer? Or penicillin?

Hmm. Suddenly my pleasant evening in a love hotel with the brunette starlet is looking less attractive. The odds are suddenly stacking up away from no risk and into considerable risk. And that’s before we get into the increased chances of bumping into one or two of the other no-risk-love-jockeys either on their way to or on their way from their own private Natalie Portman assignation. That would be awkward. What if one of them was your dad? Or your boss? Your excuse of being off work with flu would hardly be validated by that experience. So now, not only are you risking an STD but also the sack. Great. Cheers, Nat. You’d have to be out of this bloody world to risk all that.

You know what? The more I think about all this the more I think this whole offer is a load of absolute rubbish. No risk? They can’t possibly substantiate that.

I think I’ll stick with the wife.

I’m not even going to think about the No Risk Oprah Winfrey email.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Large Print

Even those who view eBooks and Kindles with suspicion, hostility and derision will, one day, come to see them as having an invaluable saving grace. Though this brave proclamation does very much depend on the vanity of the Kindle-hater in order for it to come to pass.

See, time was, many moons ago I worked in a nursing home for the elderly. It was without doubt or the word of a lie the happiest time of my life career-wise. Even the many sad departures of the inmates did little to dent my blind, arrogant comfort in my own youth and immortality. I was young and untouchable (sadly a rare condition in this day and age).

But one thing did give me a little wobble at the cellular spiritual level.

Large print books.

The home had its own collection which was augmented by a travelling library. Awful abridged Catherine Cookson-esque tomes with print the size of the shop sign outside Specsavers. Stories of days gone by, stories of balls, horses, steam boats, emigration to the Americas and the redemption of cross-class love during the futility of war. And Wooster-ish men with nicknames like Chippy or Tiddler.

One day, that little voice in my head used to say, you’ll be reading books like that. You won’t want to but you’ll have no choice but to ‘cos there’s no way they’ll have large print sci-fi or large print fantasy. All you’ll have is ladies in ball gowns and men in tweed jackets with shrapnel in their left leg called Rupert. The men are called Rupert, by the way, not the shrapnel.

And you won’t die of old age but of shame. There’ll be no way to hide it. The books are so big and the print so large everybody will know. Everybody will know that you are reading large print OAP “period” romance and quite probably re-reading the same sentence over and over again due to the onset of dementia. And that will be worse because it means the shame will be forever fresh and you’ll never ever get acclimatized to it, instead you will discover it anew each time you re-read that single sentence. Over and over again. God, this print is a bit big. And who the hell is Tiddler? Oh God. Please tell me I’m not... oh God, I am... I am... I... ooh this looks an interesting book. I may as well give it a go to relieve the boredom. Here we go, chapter one, page one. Tiddler? That’s a funny name for a hero... Is it a kid’s book?

And so on.

Enter Kindle and its ilk stage right.

You can now set the text size to positively cinematic and only you need to know. You can read whatever you want, however you want. Pot boilers, Pentecostal treaties or porn. Nobody can tell what the hell you’re reading and you look cool. You’re own little private reading world. And best of all Kindle always knows which page you’re on so even if you don’t know that you’ve already read page 43 Kindle does which gives you some hope of eventually getting to the end before you, er, get to the end.

Marvellous.

And sales of Catherine Cookson may even very well go up as the younger generation decides to bite the bullet early without fear of discovery and ridicule...

It’s a win-win situation.

Sorry. I said: it’s a win-win situation!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Hand Prints

Chauvet hand printNot for the first time in the comparatively short history of this blog my reasons for writing have yet again been called into question by a third party.

Why do I write? What need does it satisfy? What good does it do? Who the hell do I think cares enough, is interested enough to even want to read it all in the first place?

Needless to say such questions weren't posed in an emotionless psycho-scientific vacuum but were given a hefty wallop of negative spin that created a curve-ball with enough thrust to smash through even my superdense cranium.

Well if you've got this far I guess you've just answered the fourth question.

As for the others I'm pleased to report that it didn't take much brain searching to come up with a few answers.

The way I see it (and that statement alone is the fundamental starting point for any blog, letter, email, newspaper column, book, film or play) blogging of itself it a pretty pointless activity. It's not going to stop world poverty, end human trafficking or child abuse or even get The X Factor axed from our television screens. It's not really within its narrow remit.

But what it could do is flag up to the powers-that-be that enough people want these issues sorted out with enough urgency and passion that the powers-that-be actually plough some energy and money into sorting them.

Yeah. That's a naive argument but I live in hope.

In all honesty I personally see blogging in its entirety the world over as a wonderful ever-expanding social-history document. Kind of like the Bayeux Tapestry but this time mostly about mundane stuff and one where everybody gets to voice their opinion - not just the winners. Taken as a whole it represents lots of truths (some of them conflicting) about human nature, human society and how we all, as a species, interact - not just on a local scale but also globally because the great thing about the online community is that geography as an obstacle is completely and utterly removed.

In fact there was an experiment a year or so ago where everybody (not just regular blog writers) was invited to submit a blog post on the same day so that a group of curators somewhere could have a digital snapshot of what the 20th century world was doing on 25th July 2010 (or whenever it was - I just made that date up so that the sentence would feel like it was going somewhere). Blogging in general is like that. Our descendents 300 years from now will look back at all this online verbiage and feel that they know us a lot more intimately that we can currently say we know the population of Restoration Britain, or the Elizabethans or Stone Age Man.

Which brings me onto a neat conceit.

Whenever anyone asks me why I blog (and no, it isn't just about my ego) I always think of the hand prints our ancient ancestors left on the walls of caves all those millennia ago.

Why did they bother? What need did it satisfy? What good did it do them? Who the hell did they think would ever be interested enough to look at them and care about them?

I mean those hand prints by themselves don't tell us very much at all apart from the date they were made (like most blog posts in fact) and what colour paint they had available. They don't in themselves tell us what these people ate, what they wore, how they spoke or what kind of relationships and hierarchy their society was composed of.

Apart from the aesthetics and the wonderment of how old they are those hand prints don't add to the total sum of human knowledge a great deal at all. They were made by simple folk, in a nascent civilization with nothing very big or world shattering to say at all.

And yet they are invaluable. They are important.

Those hand prints say quite simply but nevertheless very fundamentally, "I was human. I was here."

And actually, on a cosmic scale, that is quite world shattering.

For me, blogging is a bit like that.

I am human and I am here.

And quite honestly if you don't like the shape my hand makes against the wall feel free to drag yourself onto the next cave. There's some "horsies" in that one.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

No Man’s Land

When we first bought out kittens (now young cats) Karen and I were smug. We were smug and self-congratulatory.

Because, you see, they came pre-litter-tray-trained. They knew how and where to do their biz. No having to squish our way through warm wet carpet patches (or worse: cold wet carpet patches). No having to play Hunt For Brown October by smell alone.

We figured that we were set up for life. When the move came to allow them out into the big outdoors we had this plan whereby the litter tray would move out with them, placed under a secluded tree for a day or two to spell out to them that here – here in this shady, balmy spot – they could continue to carry out their motions al fresco without compromising the kid-safe, disease-free element of our back garden.

And then, due to inclement weather, the change of season, too much going on elsewhere to maintain a watchful eye on the garden we forgot about them. We left them to it. The cats came and went as they pleased. They looked neither constipated nor pathologically obsessed with their toilet activities. Apart from the odd fur-ball or grainy brown pool of cat sick (catnip OD) the house was clear of feline anal produce. 

They were happy. We were happy. We all enjoyed the cleaner indoor air and life continued.

They’ve got it, Karen and I thought. They’re digging holes and disposing of their own soil either in our garden or (more likely) in someone else’s garden. Fantastic.

And then I had occasion to venture out into the garden during daylight hours over Christmas.

26.

26 cat poos were dotted around one side of our lawn. Oddly the other side was perfectly cat poo clear. Not sure why this is. Maybe some odd natural occurrence along the lines of moss only growing on one side of a tree thus enabling you to work out magnetic North... maybe cats only poo on the south-west portion of any given lawn? Hey – I may have just discovered the manner in which pigeons navigate their way around the globe: cat-nav.

Anyway, the worst of it was (a) they weren’t even buried but lay there glistening on the surface in the early morning dew like freshly fried sausages and (b) I knew they were from out cats because I swear to God, after months of cleaning out the litter tray, I recognized them.

So. We were hit with the horrible truth at last.

All that training had fallen at the final hurdle. All that conditioning had unravelled at their first taste of freedom.

Once out in the field they’d gone feral. They’d cut off ties with HQ and gone completely rogue.

And now my garden is not my own anymore and I’m at a loss as to how to claim it back...

...other than to follow their example and mark out my own territory in the language that they best understand.

The trouble is the little buggers have nabbed all the best spots...

Monday, January 07, 2013

Stamp

Previous readers (and I am grateful that I can still use the plural) of this blog will know that I suffer a negative knee-jerk reaction when confronted televisually by comedian Ross Noble.

With the help of karmic breathing exercises, Valium and copious amount of chloroform I am now finally able to resist the traditional overpowering urge to launch my foot into the TV screen whenever Ross Noble appears and follow through with an uppercut of Street Fighter proportions. 

Because it isn’t him, it’s me. I am the problem.

I totally get and accept that.

He’s a nice bloke. He’s an ordinary bloke made good and it’s great that he’s made a name for himself. And everyone says what a nice chap he is. And a lot of people find him funny and warm and just nicely hilarious and off-the-wall without being offensive.

But his style of delivery winds me up something chronic and after just 30 seconds of one of his crazy Geordie monologues I have bitten my own teeth down to the gums and am chewing on my own tongue in frustration that I cannot do violence unto the true object of my wrath.

As I said, it’s not Ross’s fault. It’s nothing he’s done. It’s a genetico-biologico-social thing to do with me. He just doesn’t tick any of my comedy boxes whilst ticking all of my irritability boxes.

He makes me go grrrr!

There, I’ve said it.

Sorry Ross, I don’t find you funny. I’m sure you couldn’t give a hoot ‘cos lots of other people plainly do.

But your DVD did make me laugh out loud the other day...

...though not for any reason you can take credit for.

Ross Noble
I’m assuming that the mystery shop assistant who applied the price tag and I are of a like mind.

Friday, January 04, 2013

The Power Of Nerd

David MitchellI’m reading David Mitchell’s Back Story at the moment – one of my Christmas presents from Karen. I like David Mitchell. I like his sarcastic rants and his double sided logical approach to the many stupidities of life. His book makes for a thought provoking, enlightening read and both confirms and debunks many of the general perceptions that we probably all harbour regarding David Mitchell’s true self.

One of the things I found interesting was his discovery of comedy and theatre and how it completely shunted him off traditional academe and into the realm of Footlights and fame and performance... so much so that his academic studies were all but abandoned in favour of sketch and play writing.

Believe it or not I too had dreams of writing comedy when I was in my teens.

Indeed I dabbled quite extensively. I wrote scripts that myself and my sisters performed via rudimentary microphones onto C90 tape – I even performed my own foley work. I drew cartoons. Once I had improved my recording equipment my mate Dave and I ad libbed our way through many a Saturday night in the early 1990’s coming up with enough sketches, impressions and jokey songs to make our own radio programme.

Most of it was excruciatingly bad, of course. Teenage toilet humour, puerile sex jokes and brickbats of buffoonery that targeted the most obvious of social stereotypes. Hardly high comedy. But in amongst the swamp of post school-boy, clod-hopping satire there were a few nuggets of genuine comedy. Material that would actually make an outsider laugh and laugh for all the right reasons, i.e. laughing with us not at us (though technically laughing at us). Because we had done something deliberately funny and not just because we had made complete arses of ourselves.

What frustrates me the most now (aside from Katie McGrath not returning my emails) is how little I did with it. All that material I produced, all that energy I invested... and then I just let it all sit and mildew. My God, why didn’t I send it into the BBC or some farty little local radio station? They might have hated it. They might have hated it but nevertheless given us advice to improve it.

They might have loved it.

This laziness and lack of motivation even in the face of achieving your wildest dreams is not uncommon in teenagers. Even David Mitchell refers to interest he received from an agent very early in his nascent career but that he didn’t really follow through on or capitalize on. The agent merely asked David to keep in touch but David didn’t. And in the end the agent dropped his interest.

Of course in the end, it worked out for David. He continued with the dream, pursued it, lived it. Trod the boards so to speak.

Have I continued to tread the boards or did I give up on it? I’m really not sure how to answer that. I certainly don’t write sketches or plays anymore or sing comedy songs. But I have been known to inject my novels and even my blog posts with the odd heroin hit of humour.

But it’s not the same is it?

I often wonder what would have happened if I’d joined a theatre group or gone to university in my teens "when I was supposed to" rather than in my late twenties when I’d finally summoned up the nerve.

And that I think is the difference between me and Mr Mitchell. We’re both nerds – I’m sure he won’t object to me saying that – but he had more guts than I did and a hell of a lot more nerve. More nerve to turn his back on his academic studies and pursue a crazy dream despite the huge risk of failure.

My trouble is I’ve always played it safe.

And you’ll never play to a full house playing like that.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Private Review Club

Well, it’s that time of year yet again when we pull up a chair, swill a bucket sized glass of brandy around in our hand, enjoy the burlesque dancing girls and reflect meaningfully on the year that was and the year that is to be.

And what a year it has been. 2012, for all it had some magnificent personal highs (solely comprised of family holidays and time away from work, funny that), felt very often like it was the straw determined to break the donkey’s back. A straw made of kryptonite, as locatable as the Higgs Boson and as irritating as John Sessions on QI. An itch that just couldn’t be scratched but was nevertheless going to follow you around for the entire year and make everything hard work and dreadfully miserable.

I confess, I have come close to giving up on the dream.

After the highs of completing what I would consider to be my first ever proper, publishable novel I found myself tumbling into the slough of despond. The mental Slough of Berkshire in fact. It was that bad. Agents and publishers were not fighting themselves to rip the manuscript out of my hand. The rejection letter pile was swelling like an infected bladder. I began to wonder what the point was.

And then the ol’ blog began to fail as well. What was the point of that, I began to wonder? My sacred, little platform for free speech and opinion expressing (as is my inalienable rights as an Englishman) had been compromised and curtailed. It’s proud borders had been eaten away and annexed by the Nazis of censorship, suppression and bowdlerization. Lord knows I had tried to go on with the fight. To keep the flags of satire and sarcasm flying aloft.

I maintained a sly campaign of guerrilla warfare for years but in the end I was beaten by a war of attrition.

Those who objected to my writing made life outside of the electronic ether difficult and miserable and in the end concessions were wrung out of me.

If I am honest my soul felt compromised and sullied.

I tried to move on. I tried other tacks.

I tried to court the blogging audience I had found for myself. Tried to style and cater my output for their eyes. I don’t regret this. It was a good writing exercise. But such exercises can only be good in the short term. If you sell too much of yourself to others you end up with little left over for yourself.

So it was that I came close to chucking it all in, literary speaking. Censorship and self-editing were not what this blog was supposed to be about after all.

Grand visions.

I now realize that, actually, any kind of writer has a responsibility to the words they write which is a little more subtle that simply “it’s my opinion, therefore I have a right to express it”. None of us exist in a vacuum. Sometimes the most honest and effective expression is that that expresses an idea without seeming to express anything at all. Like that last sentence in fact.

And I found I couldn’t quite turn my back on writing.

I need to do it. It keeps me sane.

But there has to be a purpose to it. An end in itself is not enough for me. So that means reclaiming some of my old joie de vivre...

To that end then, not a Resolution but a resolution. My aims for the coming year are to commence writing a new novel whilst continuing to push the previous one onto an unwilling public and to blog a little more the way I want to. I make no apology that forthwith some of my posts are going to be self indulgent, minority interest, selfish exercises in self expression.

I’m not going to advertise or review products and services for material reward. I’m not going to court attention or approval. Audience participation would be lovely but I’m not begging for it or chasing it. I’m going to write about the things that matter to me, no matter how trivial and inconsequential they might be to the outside world.

I’m reclaiming this blog and my writing for me.

Everybody is invited but the party is mine.