Sunday 16 November 2014

How To Have Your Generation X midlife Crisis In The 21st Century

The time has come to stop pretending my jokes about impending middle age are ironic, or in fact that middle age is still merely impending. I am thirty seven years old. And while to me, and to most of my contemporaries that is not middle aged, it is veritably young and sprightly, if I were to jump in my time machine, and go and ask my 19 year old self what he thinks about it, he will call me an old man, laugh at my grey beard, tell me I sold out years ago and assure me that I am very much middle-aged now. He has a point, on pretty much all counts (except the selling out, I have never received any money for my terrible decisions). He will also say that 37 is half way to 74, and that that is a pretty optimistic forecast for a life lived as I have lived mine.

So that means I get to have a mid-life crisis now, which is nice, and I have yet to decide what form my crisis should take. The men of my father's generation all bought sports cars, and traded their wives in for younger models. Not my father though, the most mid-life crisis thing I remember him doing was buying a shiny red ride on lawnmower, but he very quickly left me and my brother to do the actual operating of it. We did stunt shows on it, and the lawns were not mown well, I think he regrets it. I am still waiting for him to do something truly awesomely mid-life crisisish, but given that he has recently turned 65, I suspect he will disappoint me on that count, and remain sensible, dependable, but still just that tiny bit awesome.

My problem, is that having been playing in loud rock and roll bands (many of them run by actual mid-life crisis types, who started the bands to recapture their lost youth, or some such) since I was about 12, I now look a bit like the tragic middle aged guy in a band. Ironically, as the age starts to kick in, I have recently quit every single band I ever played in, and am currently between gigs. It is surprisingly pleasant, and I am considering staying that way. I am writing this sitting in front of the fire with a beer on a friday evening with an empty weekend ahead of me, brilliant, how many of my musician friends can say that very often? None, that's how many. So it would seem that my mid-life crisis may manifest itself as a sudden desire to act like a proper grown up instead. I quit smoking, I don't do any drugs anymore, and I find I enjoy the odd gin and tonic more and more rather than gallons of cider/lager/ale followed by inadvisable shots. I suspect my early middle age may also have been brought on by having married a slightly older woman, and now being a step-parent to people in their twenties, most of my friends have actual kid kids now, ranging from a few months old to teenagers, this makes me feel a great deal older than I am. Just so you know, 12 years of bringing up a prefabricated family will do that to you, a lot of people look at me and Netty and assume the age gap is the other way round, and I am older.

The mid-life crisis curse of my generation has branded itself on society in one shape. That of the bicycle. And I have got one, and I am really starting to enjoy getting out on the thing. Perhaps it is because of the recession, those of us born after 1960 simply can't afford the sports cars and motorbikes that you need to leave your wife and pull a blonde bit half your age. So we just find the cheapest way to find something with gears and wheels we can brag about to our mates in the pub (sorry, at dinner parties/school fundraisers, we are middle aged now, no pubs anymore, at least, not on saturday nights). Maybe it is because we are generation X, we were punks, indie kids and ravers, conspicuous consumption of anything other than class As was not in the prescription, a bike is more authentic than a maserati.

And I get it, I really do now, if we want to live to get old, we can't just shut ourselves in the smoky pubs of the 1990s and drink ourselves happy. They don't exist anymore. Drugs will kill you, alcohol must now be drunk in moderation, cigarettes are no longer socially acceptable, so if you want to get out of your head and lose your breath on the cheap, ride up a proper devon hill on a bike, and then roll down the other side, I defy you not to shout 'wheeeeeee!' the first time you try it. There is a reason most of the former alcoholics and drug addicts (what? I hear you say, a musician who knows such morally awkward types? I am shocked) have taken to exercise instead. Endorphins are endorphins, and they are great anyway you get them. Even as my knees are screaming in agony at me as I struggle up a hill, my brain thinks it is at a 1993 free party utterly mindfucked on a big E, and is telling me it loves me, and everything is great.

It appeals to the addictive side of your personality as well, the further you make it, the further you want to make it. You want to push yourself up steeper hills, and to more exciting, and further away places. And to reward yourself with a pint at the end, in a pub you have only ever driven to. Sometimes they have closed down, and that makes me sad. Though I have solved that problem now. Also, we now have apps to tell us how fast and how far we have gone, so we can indulge in that age old male habit of metaphorical dick-measuring in an all new technological way by sharing how well we have done on facebook. Ironically, I failed to take photos of loads of really great things I saw on a recent bike ride because the app was using all my phone's processing power, and I was worried it would run out of battery. Shame, as the view towards appledore shipyard from the bit of wall I was drinking cider on was pretty amazing in the autumn sunshine. But I'm sure it's better that everyone knows I went a very long way in a very long time instead of getting that beautiful picture.

I have, however, refused to get drawn into the ever-spiralling money trap of the male hobbyist. I have never been the type to think that I need a better version of something to make me better at it. I know I have a lot of guitars, but none of them were ever bought because I thought the old ones weren't good enough, and I am aware that I don't actually need more than one, I would probably be very happy with just the mashed up old Stratocaster I was given in 1989, it's still number 1 (not actual number 1, that will always belong to Stevie Ray Vaughan, whichever bank vault it is in now, google it if you don't know what I am talking about). Pretty much all of my instruments are cheap, and highly customised, by myself, on the cheap with a chisel and a soldering iron. I have taken the same approach with my bicycle.

A year ago, Netty said she wanted a bike for her birthday, so I bought her one. I then realised it would be good to have one as well, so we could go out together. So I bought one too. They were less than £100 each, and they work just fine. As I began to enjoy the bicycling a bit more, the consumerist inside me began to want a different bike. So I hit the internet and saw all the shiny things I could buy, I was very tempted, but then I remembered that many years ago I spent a lot of money on lots of different basses to try and get the bass sound I was after. I then spent very little money and a bit of time sorting out my first bass that I got for £30 back in the 90s, and found it had the sound I wanted, and played just like I wanted it to. I realised that this was the way forward.

I bought a comfy big saddle, it was better, I bought some swept back handlebars so I could sit up straight, it was better, I realised I needed somewhere to put my coat when I got hot, and put a bottle of cider in, for when the pub I was heading for had closed (problem solved) and got a shopping basket to go on the front of the beast. It was better. So far it has STILL cost me less than a hundred quid, and my very cheap Halfords mountain bike is pretty much what I need. I live in Devon, so the roads are often not really roads, and you can't go anywhere where there isn't a hill, so you need gears, and suspension, and big tyres whether you like it or not. My cushiony sprung saddle on top of a dual suspension mountain bike is now very comfy, and not having to do that mental thing where you bend right over to go super fast is much comfier. I am in no hurry, I like getting out in the fresh air, and I have walked as far as you can in most directions now. The so-called granny cog is my friend.

Equally, the lycra and helmet brigade scare me, I don't want to go that fast, you can hear the squeal of my brakes as I go down steepish hills, if I ever go fast enough to need a helmet, I think I may be doing it wrong. I have found that the tricorn hat, beloved of 18th century sailors is the best cycling headgear, being a hat that is very hard to dislodge by wind, and is big enough to keep the rain off your face, it does mean that when I finally fall through the door of whichever pub I have cycled to, I am greeted with cries of “Arrrrr, Cap'n Sparrow!” but it is a small price to pay for a decent hat, that does not look like a mutilated phallus. A stout tweed or corduroy is a perfectly decent jacket for keeping the weather away, and my flip flops are ideal cycling footwear to prevent the build up of sweat and unpleasantness around the feet. Plus they are easier to kick off when I find a decent field to stop in and drink the cider in my basket and bare feet on grass is the still the best thing in the world.
I figure that the lycra and helmet full speed types, are kind of like the guys who buy the custom built 5 figure pricetag guitars and amps and rarely play outside the house, while I am still the chap with the £50 crack converters guitar who takes it out and busks the shit out of it every weekend (metaphorically speaking, I've not busked in years). There is nothing wrong with either of our attitudes, we are just different. I am lucky if I manage to get out on my bike more than once a month, but I enjoy it when I do. Whereas, I turn down a gig pretty much every weekend at the moment, and could still be out two or three times a week, every week if I wanted to, which I don't. I could justify an expensive instrument as a thing that would make me more money (I wouldn't buy one though, that £30 bass has made me more cash than any other instrument I own) but not a bike. It's just a thing that is a bit of fun, I am sure as time goes by I may want something better than my sit up and beg mountain bike. But I am fond of it, and it may end up like my £30 bass, or my shitty old stratocaster (which I got for nothing) a thing that I could never sell, and feels like one of my limbs.

 Stuff is stuff, no matter what it costs, if it makes you happy it is priceless, but don't think that just because it cost you more financially that it is better. My cheap nasty instruments have made me a decent amount of money over the years, and blown a lot of more expensive ones off of some quite big stages. My cheap nasty bike will only go as fast as my rapidly ageing, mostly drunken, legs can pedal them. An expensive one would have the same handicap. I have no desire to have an actual midlife crisis, but as I get older, it is fairly obvious that my hobbies need to be a little more healthy than harmful, so bicycling wins over narcotics and hookers. Besides, I like being married to my wife, we have fun together, I don't want to trade her in for a younger model, and I don't want to die young, because I want to spend more time with her. I kind of get why my generation has taken to bicycling rather than fast cars and easy women, we want to live longer with the people we love, rather than die young with a pretty fuckwit in the passenger seat of an inefficient pollution-belching machine. Well done us.

Saturday 1 November 2014

Frodo in the Trenches

First a small confession, I am a massive Lord of the Rings fan, I realise this is hardly a confession, pretty much anyone who actually knows me, even if we only met online, knows this. Especially since a lot of the people I only know from the web, know me from a Tolkien Forum I used to moderate 10 years ago. And my house is called Moordoor (quality pun). I make no apologies for the fact that I have read the Lord of the Rings every year since I first read it, and am still finding new stuff in it now, on probably the twentieth read through. A second confession would be to those other Tolkien obsessives I know out there, and admit I liked the movies as well. Although the Hobbit ones are stretching my patience a bit at times. I own 4 different editions of Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, and the Silmarillion, and pretty much all of the History of Middle Earth series, and have read all of them, more than once. So there, there's your background for this dear-god-is-he-going-to-go-on-about-war-again rant.

In the two towers (second book/movie of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) Gimli and Legolas have a little competition to see who manages to kill the most Orcs, they continually shout head counts at each other as the battle of Helms Deep rages around them. A friend of mine, who I went to see the first movie with, said it was his favourite bit of the books, and I agreed that it was a pretty good device, and shows how the two of them go from being bitter enemies to the very best of friends, in the finest literary traditions, and gives a bleak part of the book some necessary giggles. So far so, yawny right?

Now when I first read these books, it was vaguely in the back of my mind that old JRR fought in world war one, but I probably put it to the back of my mind, and left it there for a long time. Obviously, Tolkien's real life experience in both world wars would inspire all the struggles of good and evil that he wrote about, but I didn't think so much about specifics, despite the fact that I know full well that the dead marshes on the borders of Mordor were directly inspired by the shell holes filled with floating bodies of the Somme in autumn rain. However, while inflicting the movies on my wife (again) it occurred to me that the counting game might have been something that Tolkien picked up from real life, while he was serving at the Somme, actual soldiers, keeping score of the Germans they had killed and making a game of it. Which takes a lot of the comedy out of the scene. I realise that it would have been used as a way of coping with the sheer awfulness of what was happening, and to help with dehumanising the enemy, but after all these years, it took me a bit by surprise to consider it had been a reality. I am clearly still incredibly naïve about these things.

In fact, you can take pretty much all of Tolkien's work as a way to cope with the awfulness of war, and a way to help you carry on killing. He dehumanises his enemies and ensures they remain proper evil, which makes it easier to hate them. Orcs and goblins are manufactured by Morgoth and Sauron, and thus can be slain like machines without any pang of conscience. I realise that Tolkien also throws in some wildcards, and shows that not all enemies are enemies, and not all friends are friends, with Gollum and Boromir (although they are both merely affected by the Ring, which is a lump of pure evil, twisting all around it). But mostly, his bad guys are proper bad guys, and you can slice them up with no guilt whatsoever. The very thing that George RR Martin (who's very pen name betrays him as a fan) is trying to stop with his Song of Ice and Fire series (I am not calling it Game of Thrones, that was just the first book, ok?) and his one day good, one day bad, suddenly sympathetic, suddenly murderously evil cast of characters (Jaime Lannister being a fine example of this). Tolkien's Saruman is supposedly a fallen good guy, but he is depicted as being filled with pride and his own cleverness before this, and thus ripe for the falling anyway.

Of course it is perfectly well known that the themes of modern machinery taking over from the old green world of nature that run through Tolkien's works are directly inspired by his experiences of the industrialisation of war. The new and deadlier killing machines of World War one would lead to flying Nazgul, Fire Belching Balrogs and Morgul Blades that leave a deadly poison behind to kill you slowly. Equally, Frodo's inability to stay in the shire is a clear allegory for shell shock, despite Tolkien's many protestations to “cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations” he certainly employs it whether consciously or subconsciously. And I suspect he protested too much at those who read things into his fantasy, as he wanted to keep his influences and personal life just that, personal. Which is no bad thing.

It is hard to look at art such as Otto Dix's (which is supposedly a fairly true depiction of how an ordinary soldier would have seen the trenches, and not imagine Nazgul swooping through it, while the Hobbits hide terrified under their cloaks. This paticular picture makes me think of Sam and Frodo hiding there way through Mordor to Mount Doom.

Since it is once again the season of conspicuous grief and respect for fallen soldiers, I thought this might be worth looking at, and bringing our attention to bear on. The most important fantasy epic ever written was directly inspired by one of the most terrible chapters in human history. When I embark upon this years journey through middle earth, I will be drawing every parallel I can find, hopefully I won't feel the need to write an endless and dull blog on the subject every time I find one, but if I do, I apologise in advance. I will leave my usual anti-war pacifist rhetoric for another time, continue to wonder whether I should wear a poppy or not, and try and find a sensible way to remember the fallen without glorifying the awful machinations and pointless land grabbing that they were murdered for.

If you wanted some of my pacifist ramblings, here's a couple I did earlier.