Thursday 26 March 2015

Clarkson, Cats, Cars and C***s, where’s the connection?

I get around, round, round, round, I get around, as Brian Wilson once said. And in a whole load of different ways, I like to walk a lot, I have a bicycle that I am not averse to taking out on a nice day, and I have a car. We’ve got 2 cars in fact, and if you take us as a household, we have four of the bloody things. I am not an anti-car protesting freak, and I do watch top gear, as it makes me laugh, just so we understand each other. I live in the middle of nowhere, so without a car I would be totally buggered.
I have discovered though, after much soul searching, and a very strange week, that I am very much at my worst, most self-entitled, smug and angry (not to mention impatient and stupid) when behind the wheel of my car. And I suspect it is not just me. I am beginning to think that there might be something in the engines. Of course, it could all be the fault of the voice of the people, Jeremy Clarkson. I am still very much all in favour of free speech, and letting him say what he wants, for if people are not allowed to say awful things, we will never know that they are awful people, or be able to challenge them over it.

I will just chuck my hat in the ring briefly and say that what is often referred to as ‘political correctness’ I tend to call ‘manners’, and what the Clarkson petition signers call ‘banter’ I will probably denounce as ‘offensive bullshit’. I will also admit that this blog is not really about the Clarkson thing, I am just using him as click bait, thanks for clicking. There have been more than enough column inches wasted on repeating that if anybody else hospitalised a workmate and called their bosses ‘fucking bastards’ in public, they would have gone a lot sooner, and with much less support from the masses.
It does all seem to me to a bit like advertising for whatever he is going to do next. I quite like Top Gear actually, but then I quite liked Jim’ll fix it and Rolf’s cartoon club but I am not clamouring to ensure Saville and Harris remain on TV via petitions. I do realise that this is intentionally sarcastic exaggeration to make a point as well. The caricature that Clarkson plays on TV is the acceptable face of the motorist as over-entitled, smug, pompous arse, and allows people to think that their aggressive driving is ok. It is not (and that’s without even going into the legitimisation of casual racism as a bit of harmless fun) but as long as you take the on-screen twattery with the pinch of salt that I hope they intend, it is all a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun, and some people will always find something to be offended by. I have no problem with offending people by the way, I like all dialogues open, all the time, as I have said before, if the racists are silenced, they are no less racist, just not challenged over it, or noticed.
Back to the point then, as I walk up and down the road from my house to the town where I live (no pavements, no white line, but a relatively short stretch of road, and national speed limit all the way, just wide enough for two cars, but no more) I find myself feeling guilty for slowing down the cars that are driving past me. Same if I am cycling up it (quite a bit slower than I can walk it). Where on earth did I get the idea from that a small country road, and THE ONLY WAY you can get from the town to my house (and not just mine, there are others further up. Some of which have small kids living in them, won’t somebody think of the children? They cannot drive) is the property and preserve of those who choose to drive along it and nobody else. It is not my fault it has no pavements or walkways, we should all be able to share it with a cheery good humour surely? I should not be feeling as if I have to drive into town when I much prefer walking or cycling? Particularly since it is part of national cycle route 27 and is a constant stream of sweaty Lycra between May and September.
Well, no, because if I am driving up that same stretch of road I too get angry and impatient when stuck behind a cyclist, or if two cars are trying to pass each other while some small child has the temerity to walk along a road with his mum. Is there something about driving that turns us all into Clarksons? Maybe if the flying cars of Back to the Future 2 had actually come into being then the world would be a calmer nicer place to get around in? Maybe we need to build pavements along all the country roads in the UK just to stop drivers getting angry? Maybe something like the Green Lanes in Jersey would help us all get along a little better in what should really be a shared space, not a bit of concrete reserved for cars and cars alone. By the way, it is also often flooded with sheep as they are herded from one field to the next. The drivers really hate that, the cats seem to enjoy it though. Might be worth remembering that the speed limit is just that, an upper limit, not a suggested cruising speed, particularly relevant on little narrow country lanes, in case you’re ever visiting down my way and don’t want to die.
Maybe it is as a consequence of being warmly cocooned inside a big suit of armour/little tank that we feel invincible and entitled in our cars. I don’t feel as vulnerable when I am driving up the narrow country lane past a big truck as I do when I am walking past it. Which is odd, since were it to career out of control and hit my car, I would be just as mangled as if I were walking (with the added benefit of bits of twisted metal to get stuck through me, and plenty of glass) although I would have a better chance of jumping over the hedge to escape without the car. However, it must be said that we do all exude much more of a sense of bravado when we are in our shells. Now it might be just because I have skipped jauntily away from every car accident I have ever been in that makes me feel safest of all (see Gary Numan for reference please) and in a couple of cases just turned the key, restarted the engine and driven away. Despite the fact I have lost plenty of good friends in car accidents, and am fully aware of how deadly they are. Mind you, it took me a long time to give up smoking while being fully aware of the consequences, must be human nature.

The Car has freed us all from having to work within a sensible distance of where we live, with the unintended effect that almost none of us do anymore, and we all spend a ridiculous amount of time travelling between work and home. Except me, I can still walk to work, and it is much nicer. This also means that every single second counts, so we all have to drive as fast as is humanly possible all the time. I had a little experiment the other night, driving back from a band rehearsal in Exeter, I tend not to bother going terribly fast unless I am in a dreadful hurry, and obviously I don’t usually have the sat nav on as I know where I am going. So I set it going (for its estimated arrival time, to see what effect it would have) and drove home like an utter tit, stupidly fast and taking more risks than I usually would. I gained 90 seconds of time on the sat nav’s prediction, over an hour or so’s journey.
Now if you’re driving a few hundred miles, then yes, going faster will get you there rather quicker (maybe a whole 15 minutes, how useful, you can watch half an episode of EastEnders when you get there, or more than likely make up for the time you had to spend putting extra fuel in the car because of how fast you were driving) but for most of the silly fast driving I see every day on a regular basis, you are gaining seconds, not even minutes, is it worth killing (or indeed dying) for? No, calm down, it seems my gran was right, you won’t get there any faster, and unless you have blue flashing lights on your vehicle, it is unlikely to be a matter of life and death if you are a bit late.
I’m not entirely sure which came first, the car or the self-entitled prick taking up the whole road, I know Clarkson wasn’t the first, but he has given legitimacy to the outdated views of a vast swathe of society that it is ok for them to keep driving the biggest fastest cars they can whatever damage it does to the environment. I don’t doubt that there used to be some mediaeval cock on a big horse making the peasants push their handcarts into the ditch by the road so that they could get past a bit quicker, and not get dirt on their horses new shoes, twats are sadly eternal, and always with us, but at least the shit that spewed out of the horse helped the flowers grow by the roadside.

 I realise that I sound bitter, but then one of my cats got run over outside my house this week, probably as a result of the bridge being closed on the main road through town, and our little road becoming host to quite a lengthy diversion encouraging all drivers (especially those in lorries and trucks on tight delivery schedules, hey look, I can blame free market capitalism again, excellent) to fly up and down it more often, and much faster than usual. The irony of our home made slow down sign (a mannequin wearing a bear mask holding a sign) being hit by a car going too fast this morning and shattering all over the road was not lost on me. Slow down, life is too short and infinitely breakable to be in such a rush, next time it might be me, or one of my kids, not a mannequin in a bear mask. 

It was, sadly, my cat Heisenberg, named after an uncertainty principle, and shockingly stubborn, the less fluffy of the two nine month old cats who star in this stupid video I made a week ago, in happier times that was the victim this time. Sorry for the sentimental ending here, but the fluffy one (Kahlo) is sat on my lap looking around sadly for her brother and trying to get one of the old cats to play with her, it is not going well.

Friday 13 March 2015

Me and Terry Pratchett, a personal Epitaph

Normally, the proliferation of narcissistic grief that proliferates over the internet makes me die a little more inside. It was epitomised not so long ago when Leonard Nimoy died, and after commenting on somebody's sincere epitaph to him as Dr Spock that Spock was definitely a Mr, not the child raising expert Dr Benjamin Spock, the writer of the epitaph admitted that they didn't even like Star Trek. Which made me wonder why on earth you would write a sincere RIP message to somebody who you do not know, and whose body of work you do not even admire. Unless the ballad of Bilbo Baggins really did mean that much to him. I am sure in this case that his RIP came from the best of intentions and a good place. However, the proliferation of RIP posts about every vaguely famous person who dies makes one's social media feeds incredibly tiresome whenever somebody dies.

On the other hand, Terry Pratchett was incredibly important to me, and as I read all the poignant little discworld quotes on my facebook feed last night, I will admit to shedding a few tears. Which seems crazy, since I possibly only met Terry once, and I am still not sure if even that is true. But having spent the last twenty years reading every book he wrote at least twice, and many more times over in most cases, I kind of felt I knew him. The only other time I have felt a little teary over a famous person's death was Douglas Adams 14 years ago, which probably tells you a lot about where my priorities lie. So, apologies for the preamble, there now follows a heartfelt tribute to the man whose writing certainly changed my life, and possibly even saved it a couple of times.

To backtrack to about 1991, I was walking through Barnstaple high street with a friend from school, we met a man with a big hat and a beard who my friend clearly knew. The man gave my friend a copy of his new book, signed of course, we were introduced, and I shook his hand. I thought no more about my friend's Dad's mate Terry for another 5 years or so until I read a book called Witches Abroad and recognised the cover. In the interests of accuracy, it must be stated that this story may be entirely untrue and created by my overactive imagination, thus I am not stating the friend's name in case he is reading this and shatters my illusions. I may not have ever met Terry Pratchett, but in my hazy happy memories, I did, and I am happy that way. I did definitely meet a friend of my friend's father, who did give him a book, but he could have been anyone really I'd imagine.

However, five or so years later, I was not (for reasons I am not going to go into thanks) in a terribly good place mentally speaking. But while round at a friend's house, I was introduced to a playstation game called Discworld, in which the jokes and characters were utterly entrancing and hysterically funny. Now I am not a fan of computer games, so when I was told that they were actually based on a series of books, I went in search of them. I found a copy of Soul Music in the second hand record shop I spent most of my time in, and read it in an afternoon. Somewhere in my teens I had stopped reading so much for fun, and had become a little faux-earnest and mostly just read poetry and classic literature. This meant I did not read anything like as much as I had when I was a kid and utterly obsessed with Douglas Adams, and Doctor Who.

I went to the library in search of reading material, as that was where all my happy memories of reading came from. I had, in my very formative years, borrowed every single Doctor Who novelisation, Wind in the willows spin off and god knows what other strange books to read until I got the coveted Gold book track badge, and beyond. Sadly, the local library only managed to turn up 3 discworld books, including the aforementioned Witches Abroad, and my (admittedly completely scrambled at the time) brain made the connection with the chap I met in Barnstaple high street five years previously.

This led to the situation in which I find myself now, where my house is mostly made of shelves to keep all the books I have had to buy because of library disappointment. It might not be that between the late 80s and the mid 90s libraries went so far downhill as to make them worse than they really are. It is just possible that as an adult I went in looking for specific books, whereas as a child I had gone in just looking for something to read. Also, the librarian of the specific library I am speaking of might be reading this, and she is terribly good, as is her library, and would have ordered any book in I wanted, I was just too impatient to wait for them to come in. Which is ironic considering that I now have to buy most books via the internet, which ensures a lengthy waiting period (or did until my wonderful wife got me a kindle, thank you honey). Also, I live nowhere near a library anymore, so I have had to stop trying to find a way into L-Space.

I then went on a reading frenzy for a couple of years, buying up the entire Discworld series until I had finally read all the existing titles. Which was a sad day, as now I had to wait for Terry to write more before I could read anymore (I have spent the last 6 or 7 years in a similarly annoyed situation with George R R Martin, although given the state of Dance with Dragons, I might abandon the song of ice and fire series now). And so, ever since the fifth elephant, I have awaited the release of a new Discworld book like a 6 year old awaits their seventh birthday. I am tearing up a little now with the realisation that at most I will only ever experience this again once more. That's how much these books have meant to me. In between new releases I reread each and every title, in order, which is how come I have read a lot of them about 7 times now, and some still only once, life is more busy in your thirties than your late teens unfortunately, and there are a lot of other books out there to be read as well. One's priorities do change with age sadly.

I still maintain that if I had not had my spirits constantly lifted by Terry's endlessly inventive and amusing prose, then I may never have pulled myself back together enough to be a fully functioning member of society today. This is probably a huge exaggeration, but I maintain that it is true. It also turned out that Discworld is a gateway drug to hardcore fantasy, it led me to Tolkien, and the Lord of the Rings, which I fully admit I had tried and been bored to tears by at the age of 9. Along with Dune, and a bunch of other proper, worthy sci-fi and fantasy novels, which were not as good as Doctor Who novelisations to my pre-teen brain. I have since rinsed my way through the lot of them, and then applied them to Discworld, and got a lot more of the jokes than I would have done otherwise (a bit like kids who laugh at Family Guy and the Simpsons without understanding any of the pop culture references in them, and then see them again after watching the Star Wars trilogy).

Equally, my interest in writing had foundered at this point. I had previously attempted to write a huge epic of the type that only an endlessly nerdy and righteous eighteen year old can. It was to be about the second coming of Christ, only he would come back as a disabled girl, and be scorned and shunned by the church, and shit. Somewhere I still have the outline and first two chapters, though I should probably burn them in case somebody reads it. Luckily, Pratchett reminded me that you can actually chuck gags in and write things that make you laugh, and I immediately began writing a laugh a minute adventure in which the four horsemen of the apocalypse are replaced by five biker lobsters, who accidentally turn off the gravity. It was hopelessly derivative, and was also abandoned when it became apparent that I had no attention span for plot in my late teens and early twenties. Also, that writing with a pen and paper, and then typing it up on a typewriter is very hard. Particularly if, like me, you cannot read your own handwriting. Writing got abandoned again until I found a computer a few years later. But it is thanks to Terry Pratchett that I realised I could be any good at it, and make cheap jokes wherever possible.

It is with great sadness that I come to terms with the fact that I will never again be pulled into a new adventure on the streets of Ankh Morpork, or the Valleys of Lancre. I will never know how Young Sam Vimes grows up, or if Magrat ever really gets the hang of being a Queen. I have, this last week, been reading the Science of Discworld part 4. If you haven't read any of this series, I strongly recommend it, it is not like those “science of” books that pretend everything is real in the fiction. In it, a couple of scientists explain proper science in a way that non-scientists can understand, against the backdrop of a silly story about wizards. It just occurred to me this morning that there won't be a part 5 now, and I will have to start reading Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart's proper science books now, and hoping they still put gags in them.

By the way, if anybody is thinking of taking up the mantle, and writing new Discworld books without Terry, please don't, it will not work. We should have learned this from Brian Herbert's attempts at Dune, any James Bond books that aren't by Ian Fleming, etc. etc. Brandon Sanderson only got away with finishing the Wheel of Time by having all Robert Jordan's notes (and in his defence, he probably managed it in half the pages it would have taken Jordan, since Jordan seemed unable to start a book in the series without introducing 5 new characters and 2 new sub plots. If you're reading this Mr Sanderson, please have a go at the rest of New Spring, that had promise). Nobody else has quite the same way with words, or such an ability to hold up a wonky mirror to Roundworld and show us up for what we are. The analagous subtext of the Discworld may have become less subtle over the course of the series, but it never failed to make me laugh, and occasionally realise the ridiculousness of the real world by using a dwarf and a troll, and I don't think anybody else could pull that off, and more importantly, I don't want them to try, I will leave the denizens of my favourite fictional universe to stay as they are. Although I am sure CMOT Dibbler would love to be able to sell a few more books, genuine Terry, found in the back of his desk, honest guv, only a fiver, I'm cutting my own throat here....

 The english language sadly has not words enough to express my infinite sadness that my inspiration, my favourite author (although I am sure Terry himself would tell me that if he is still my favourite author at 37 years old, there is probably something wrong with me, he would be right, but it was once very much the truth) and person I may have actually met once is now gone forever, however much happier he probably is for not having to deal with the embuggerance of his mind leaving him. I thank him for restoring mine to me twenty years ago, offer him a banana, and simply say 'ook'.