Monday, April 29, 2013

Tawdry Telly

It struck me the other day how little television my boys watch. Their TV time seems to be confined to meal times; times when, by necessity, their hands are too full of cutlery to be able to manipulate a joypad or a game controller. And even then, half the time, they’re not soaking up some faceless TV scheduler’s entertainment menu but are watching a DVD or something we’ve pre-recorded and stored on the set-top box.

How different things were when I was a kid.

There was no choice other than ITV and BBC. By the time I was on the scene the Beeb was for old traditionalists (my grandparents were big BBC-ers) and ITV was for young thrusting hip-young things (which enticed my parents into its viewing fold).

Hence I never watched Doctor Who as a child because it was on the BBC and we rarely watched the BBC. The BBC seemed glamorous to me, simply because it was forbidden fruit. Or seemed that way. I seem to remember watching Bod and the Mr Men as a child and they were definitely BBC. I suspect my parent’s ITV leanings were abandoned temporarily when the BBC’s kid’s hour was on as a tactic to keep me and my sisters quiet and malleable for a little while longer.

My overriding memory of my pre-teen telly though is that on the whole it felt rather tawdry. But maybe that was just the seventies? Sure, I have fond memories of Daktari, Tarzan and Robinson Crusoe on a Saturday morning and, of course, the magnificent Tiswas… but overshadowing all these is the over-arching memory of how utterly awful weekend telly was for kids in the seventies.

My trouble was I never really “played out” as a kid. I wasn’t a street kid. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until my twenties. I was stuck indoors. My window on the world, on reality, was via the TV. Via ITV.

And on a weekend ITV delivered The Grumbleweeds. It coughed up Russ Abbott’s Madhouse. It vomited out 3-2-1. Recalling Bullseye and Family Fortunes – the latter even fronted by the great Bob Monkhouse – make me depressed in equal measure. I sometimes think that no telly at all would have been better.

For some reason, when I think of all these shows they appear in my mind as if nicotine stained. As if dyed brown with tobacco juice. I think tank-tops and brown plaid. And orange shirts. And carbuncly men with faces like blighted potatoes and working men’s club accents holding microphones topped with full-sized afros. I recall the subconscious despair that I lived with before the obvious question finally formed itself in my burgeoning little brain: is this it? Is this all that life has to offer?

The answer, of course, was no. There was the BBC. And the multi-coloured Swapshop revolution of the eighties. And then Channel 4. And satellite television. And cable. And eventually digital. And HD. And iPlayer. And choice.

Glorious, glorious choice.

How far we have come since Ted Rogers and Dusty Bin. For me, the mid-eighties is when television began to come good. When the new TV choices that became available began to heal some of the deep-seated wounds of the drab seventies.

I’m not sure what TV memories my boys will have when they are older. I don’t think it is possible for computer games to impinge on the memory in quite the same the way that a TV show does (yeah, I remember pressing LEFT RIGHT RIGHT and the X button on that particular day doesn’t cut the same mustard as remembering when Stu-pot and his mates finally faced down Gripper Stebson in Grange Hill) and I sometimes worry that they’re missing out on the shared peer experience of watching a truly great TV show at the exact same time that your mates are in their own houses.

But on the whole, if they’re being spared 3-2-1 and The Grumbleweeds, I am reconciled that the good effects of progress outweigh the bad. And it does seem to be that, these days, what you play is far more important than what you watch.

As for me though, I think I’ll pass up on Halo and get Daktari on DVD. I’m sure old wine in a new wine skin will taste just as good. But if my boys would rather play outside than watch it with me, I’ll be inclined to let them.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Bookkeeper's Husband Writes...

Some of you will know of the illness that has plagued my wife off-and-on for the last few years. After Karen endured a second hospital stay earlier this year which resulted in her being signed off from work longterm we both realized we had to instigate a major rethink into how we go out to work, finance ourselves, keep the roof over our head, food on the table and the wolves from our door.

Plans are now afoot - for us both. Ideas are being swirled around in the wine glass of opportunity. Most of them are them are still at the very faint bouquet stage. Most of them might not mature into anything very palatable at all. But some just might; some may have legs enough to actually go somewhere pretty decent.

If I could be paid to mix-metaphors all day I'd make a small fortune but until then my wife has taken the brave decision to resign from the accountant's where she has worked for the last 7 years and start up a work-from-home bookkeeping business. Provided we get some regular work it will be an ideal solution for her: she's highly qualified, very knowledgeable but needs to work at her own pace in a relatively stress-free environment. Working for herself is definitely the way to go.

To that end we have spent the last few days placing advertising, printing business cards and designing a web site:

By our reckoning we've got 12 months to make this venture work - and then it's a return to the drawing board if it all goes pear-shaped. Hopefully, we're onto a winner, albeit a slow grower... but slow and steady wins the race.

So, cutting to the chase, I am temporarily hijacking this blog to sling a bit of free, totally partisan, completely biased advertising out into the electronic ether.

Please take a look at my wife's web site. Please bear us in mind should you be in a position to require a first class bookkeeper. Please pass our details on to your family and friends and work associates should they be in that same position. Web sites and business cards are all very nice but it is word of mouth that reaps the biggest rewards and we'd appreciate your help.

Here ends the Pearl & Dean advertising. Your feature film will follow shortly.

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Tale Of Two Toilets

Not sure why these two separate memories should have pushed themselves to the forefront of my thoughts today but rather than fight it I am going to do as all the best plumbers do and just go with the flow.

Back at the tail end of 1999 I realized an ambition I’d had since my teens and went to Egypt. Although the whole thing was an organized tour I went on my own which was a big thing for me at the time. The furthest place I’d been to on my own to before then was Weston-super-Mare and, believe me, despite the sand and the dodgy food, there is little comparison.

My one all-abiding memory of Egypt isn’t the pyramids, or Saqqara, or The Valley of the Kings, or even the limbless beggars that lined the streets of Aswan.

It is of the toilets in the Cairo Museum.

After a weeklong Nile cruise I had three days in Cairo. The Museum was a must and it didn’t disappoint though I will admit that by this point of the holiday I was mummied out. I had also succumbed to ‘gypy’ tummy. The first spell had hit me at the Son Et Lumiere show at the Philae Temple a few days before but a quick necking down of a couple of Imodium tablets had set the potential avalanche like concrete.

Unfortunately, all this did was ensure the infection stayed within my gut where it wore away at the halting effects of the Imodium until, days later, at the Cairo museum, that particular train of matter decided it was going to make a break for it no matter what chemical cocktail I attempted to throw at it.

Thankfully, the Cairo Museum toilets were near at hand. I recall at knee-clenched wait in the inevitable queue before the cubicle became free. I dived in, already sweating uncomfortably with the effort of holding back both time and tide and was immediately faced with the single desolating sight of my life.

No toilet paper. Nothing. Not even a newspaper.

I must have staggered out of the cubicle looking like a very unsuccessfully desiccated mummy. And instantly met my saviour: a young Egyptian toilet attendant who without a single word but an understanding nod handed me an entire roll of toilet paper all to myself.

When I was done I gave him the most money I’d given to any of the locals on the entire holiday. Money well spent. Wherever he is now I hope his gods are smiling on him.

My second toilet memory is the ridiculous to the above’s sublime.

‘Twas a day visit to Dover. Part of a weeklong family holiday to Canterbury and environs. I’m not sure why we elected to have a day in Dover as my memory of the town was that it was rather drab, rather dirty and rather smelly. I was possibly not seeing it in its best light.

Part of the trip saw us at some kind of terminal. I’m not sure now whether it was for ferries or boats or whether it was just some kind of all-purpose visitor centre. I do know it was as far South-East as you could go without dipping yourself into the sea and we had a decent view of the coast. As with all visits to places new – and the undeniable thread to this post – a trip to the lavatory was necessitated by a can of coke.

In the cubicle there, on the edge of England, the very cusp of Europe, I came to face to face with the most astounding example of human organic graffiti that I’ve ever seen.

Picture if you will an entire toilet roll wedged down the bottom of the toilet. Packed so tightly that the softening effects of total submersion in cold water had been unable to destroy the toilet roll’s shape. Now, picture if you will, the kind of poo that a horse would have been shaken to produce harpooning the cardboard centre of the loo roll down its entire length with a good four inches to spare emerging from the top and indeed from the very surface of the water. It looked like a postmodern representation of Thor’s hammer.

My overriding thought at the moment of confrontation was simply: how?

How had somebody physically achieved this singular feat of faecal protest? Did they poo first and then fit the loo roll snugly over the top like some kind of grommet? Or did they install the toilet roll first and then ease the poo out inch by agonizingly slow inch, micro-managing and fine adjusting the angle of approach, ensuring the nose cone was lined up perfectly before fully opening the bomb bay doors and letting her loose?

As with my adventure in Egypt, philosophizing ultimately had to be put aside: I had a burning desire to “go”. Thankfully this time it was merely a number one and, after a quick hosing, I left the sculpture all but intact. There was no point flushing, believe me. That monster was going absolutely nowhere.

I often wonder about it even now and for all I know it’s still there… pinning this country to the Eurasian plate like a tin tack through a giant post-it note.

It would be a fitting addition to the Natural History Museum’s permanent collection should they ever be scouting for one.

Toilets, eh? What amazing adventures one can have in them. It’s often the best penny you’ll ever spend...

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Sympathy For The Devil's Relatives

I loathe all that Thatcher stood for. I loathe all that she did from fucking over the Unions to dismantling the NHS. I'm old enough to have lived through her entire time in office from barely being politically aware when she first gained power to finding myself steeped in the very British cynicism with which we tend to view those we elect to govern over us.

Because of Thatcher I have an innate, unthinking distrust of the Conservative Party. This is not a good thing. A political choice should be a cerebral, logical, thinking process not a knee-jerk reaction whose root is in negative gut instinct. But it's there. I cannot, will not ever vote Tory.

Because of Thatcher.

She left an indelible stain on British society. Her legacies are still insinuating themselves within the contemporary political process and the very fabric of our society. None of it, in my opinion, in a good way.

But I am genuinely offended by the furore surrounding the "Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead" track which is - quite naturally perhaps - storming up the music chart.

I am disappointed that the BBC hasn't made a definite clear decision regarding the idea of playing it on its own chart show.

Either play it or completely ban it. But don't go all wishy-washy and say you'll "only play 5 seconds within a journalistic context". That's a cop out. That's not even an attempt to please everybody. It's an attempt not to offend anyone too much.

Show some balls for god's sake.

Don't get me wrong. I get the humour behind the record (is it even a record?). I get the desire to cock-a-snoop at the ludicrously patriotic outpouring of verbal laurels that various public figures are heaping onto Thatcher's memory. I get - feel part of - the sense of satisfaction that someone who was so largely reviled is no longer among us.

But to me that reaction should be a relatively private thing. It is my own private response. Great if other people feel the same but should it really be ramped up into some kind of public movement?

Because the simple fact is - regardless of how we feel about them - someone has died. They're not here anymore. All these outpourings of admiration and revulsion are not going to make a blind bit of difference to them.

But it is something that is going to deeply affect the relatives who are left behind and those who had a personal relationship with Thatcher. Are they to be held accountable for her actions? Do they deserve to have to wade through and deal with this public outpouring of hate when they are mourning someone close to them? When they are about as vulnerable as it is possible for a human being to be?

It seems to me to be a very un-British thing to spite someone who is grieving. It is not decent. It is not admirable. It is, I am sure, not something we want attributed to the traditional idea of what it means to be British. It does not sit well: stiff upper lip, nice cup of tea, head down and soldier on, make the best of a bad thing, oh and sneer and heap misery on those that are grieving.

Thatcher, in her political lifetime, dismantled much of what was great about being British. Let us not sell our souls on top of this just to revel in a victory that, when you think about it, is not even really ours.

There is much still to be angry about. Thatcher's / The Tory Party's on-going socio-political legacy. The stupidly lavish funeral arrangements and the inevitable cost to the Great British tax payer at a time of stringent national austerity. But the death itself?

There is no place for anger or prideful victory in death.

Let us make our snide jokes quietly amongst ourselves. Let's play the stupid "Ding Dong" record in private.

But for God's sake let us let those who have a genuine right to grieve, grieve in peace.

Their shoulders should not have to carry the weight of a modern democracy that is kicking itself in anger for making a bad choice three decades ago.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Google Predictive Death

Predictions are nearly always gloomy. They are rarely about good or happy things. It doesn’t matter whether the source is Nostradamus or your local TV weather presenter the forecast will always contain more grey skies and depressing precipitation than sunny weather and good times. Let’s face it, most predictions are synonymous with the end of the world anyway – and this is only backed up by modern science going one step further and predicting the eventual death of the entire universe according to their current theoretical model.

In short, if anyone can see the future it is always so dark you might as well forget about acquiring a pair of shades and go in for that heavy duty Maglite instead.

So why, with that in mind, do people and corporations persist in their thinking that predictive activity of any sort is a desirable thing?

Because I know to my cost that it isn’t.

Take Google predictive search.

Trying to guess what somebody is searching for is only ever going to be deeply annoying to the person doing the searching. It’s like going into a warehouse full of junk to search for a specific object only to be met by a doorman who holds up every single item contained within and who continually asks “Is it this? Is it this? Is it this?”

No. It effing isn’t. Just shut the eff up and I will tell you what I am searching for!

There are other problems too.

I’m currently 5 books into a 14 book serialised story. The first book was published over 20 years ago and the final instalment was only published last year. I have purposely – possibly insanely – not read the last 6 books. I got to a point and thought, “I’ll wait until they are all published and then start from the very beginning and read through them all, properly indulging myself.”

In an idle moment on Monday – it’s never good to be idle with the Google search box open in front of you; it only ever leads to trouble – I thought I’d type in the names of some of the main characters from the story just to see some fan art, just to see whether other people’s perceptions of what these characters looked like matched my own.

It should have been a harmless activity. I just wanted some pictures. Some casual art work.

Thanks to Google predictive text though, I’d no sooner typed in a particular character’s name when Google very kindly proffered the suggestion “[character’s name] dies in last book”.

I refused to follow the link. I even tried to unsee it. I tried to not remember it. Tried to wipe it out of my mind but I knew that would be an impossible task (see, another negative prediction).

I know how Google works. That suggestion was there because lots of other people have searched for it. And they’ve searched for it because it is a fact. So-and-so dies in the last book.


So I now know that this character is going to die. For all I’m trying not to let it, the knowledge is hanging over me now as I continue to make my way through book 5. And I know it’ll be there through book 6 and 7 and all the flaming rest.

Thank you, Google. Thanks a lot.

If I type in the word “butler” will you append the words “did it” to the end?

So. If anybody still wants a prediction allow me to provide one:

All predictions, whether by psychic or computer, are always, always going to lead to deep dissatisfaction.

And unlike Nostradamus’ my prediction is going to come true and come true very soon indeed.

I 100% guarantee it.