Saturday 16 December 2017

Tis the season to be shopping, fa la la la la, la la la la

Tis the season to be shopping, fa la la la la, la la la la.
I fucking hate Christmas Shopping, fa la la la la, la la la la.
To be honest, I hate all shopping, fa la la, fa la la, fa laa laa.
I'm a grumpy middle-aged bastard, fa la la la la, la la la la.

This is the Christmas tree in the town where I live this year
presented without comment

My earliest memories of going Christmas shopping involve getting the train up to London from Guildford, going round Hamleys (which was very much like a fantasy dream sequence from a movie at the time, all trains and tinsel and elves and magic) and then going to watch ET at the pictures. I'm pretty sure this memory is utterly garbled with a whole load of others, particularly since we lived in Cranleigh when ET came out. I was only five, so I think I'm allowed to misremember this stuff.

Once we were safely relocated to Devon, the Christmas tradition became a family car ride to Barnstaple (seriously, we lived in Bideford, and if you couldn't get it in Woolworths or Jimbos you probably couldn't get it in Bideford) where we would all split off to buy gifts, before meeting up outside Marks and Spencers in time to go home: where my mother would berate me for having bought nothing but Transformers and comics. Gifts are hard.

By the 90s, I was taking my Christmas shopping trips to Barnstaple on the bus, without parental assistance. This meant that my mother was unable to berate me for spending the whole afternoon in Second Spin and coming home with nothing other than Black Sabbath records (original first pressing Vertigo) because she didn't know. Thus began my 90s tradition of running round Gateways on Christmas eve and buying everyone shit biscuits.

Come the millennium everything changed. I don't mean the advent of online shopping, I mean I began my future of working in jobs that are relentless all day every day slog right up until Christmas Day itself. I was a postman then, and on reflection it was much easier than being in the personalised tat industry where I find myself now. The bus to Barnstaple continued to be ridden – though in more of a rush, and usually on a Thursday afternoon – I got an 180g Vinyl repressing of Meet The Residents, and everybody else got biscuits from Somerfield.

Then I moved to the middle of nowhere, the bus to Barnstaple (or anywhere really) only went once a month, if the moon was fat and the wolves were running, and the job in the tat industry began. Thank you internet shopping. In all honesty, once I had moved in with my now wife, then girlfriend, my Christmas shopping became more a matter of handing over money since I could now inhabit an ages old male stereotype and leave the shopping to the missus. She is still not happy about this arrangement, I still use the job as an excuse. I can only get away on Sunday afternoons at best. I still forget that shops open on Sundays now. I am old.

If you go googling for images to illustrate Christmas Shopping
all you get is smug wankers with shiny bags like this
This is nobody's reality

I do still have to buy gifts for the wonderful woman who does the hard work of real christmas shopping, so I am glad of the internet. Working long hours at a computer screen in November/December means you can have a window open on amazon and shop while you work. This used to be the perfect solution. Sadly, Ebay/Google/Facebook/Twitter etc. now log everything you have looked at, and blast it into the pop-up ads of every page you see. I now have to cradle my laptop away from my wife for the whole of December in case it flashes up ads for every single thing I have idly browsed in consideration of gift buying. I think I'm getting away with it by alternately telling her she wouldn't like the German Scheizer porn I'm watching and that I'm looking for her replacement on Guardian Soulmates.

When it comes to receiving gifts, I am a relatively well off forty year old man. I genuinely have everything I need/want except for a whole bunch of records and books, and the only way to find out which ones I would like would be for me to put together some kind of fucking wedding list for you, like a total prick might. The entire point of buying gifts is to show how well you know someone, give them a thing you think that they will like. I don't like things, give your money to Amnesty or chuck it in a homeless guy's coffee cup (as long as it's not the one he's drinking out of). That's the Christmas spirit, not some novelty plastic tat that I will rewrap and give to some other person I want to pretend to care about next year.

I like seeing the people I care about, I like sitting around having drinks with them, I like Christmas movies, I will always cry like a girl watching It's a Wonderful Life, every year. I like family Christmas Cocktail hour (it's never just an hour) and I like Christmas. I still hate the fucking gifts though, don't get me any. Humbug to all of you.

Here is my dog Sky in a Christmas hat
She hates Christmas too

And yes, that is The Box of Delights on in the background

Monday 13 November 2017

How To Throw Off My Entrenched Male Privilege And Stop Being A Dickhead

As a heterosexual, white, cis-gendered, public school educated bloke it is a difficult thing to write progressive and, dare I say it, feminist literature in the 21st century without being called a patronising wanker. Nevertheless, I try – because I am a patronising wanker. There are a million excuses of history and upbringing and conditioning that #allmen can use to try and get out of behaving like total bastards, and, if I'm totally honest, it takes serious effort to break your programming and not be a default mansplaining, bum-groping, calm-down-dearing cunt of a man.

This is absolutely no excuse to be one though.

Not even to use a historic female genitalia based insult to make a point.

I still did though.


There's really no good excuse to use pictures of Dave Lee Roth
and a load of girls in bikinis either, but I thought it would illustrate the kind of thing 
I thought was cool when I was twelve.
Which is kind of where the problems start right?

I am not writing to excuse the behaviour of Weinstein, Spacey, Fallon, Green and all the other blokes being rightfully called out for their behaviour. I am not even trying to do a #notallmen type right-on liberal mansplain. But since all this misogyny went centre stage I've been thinking a lot, about my own behaviour, about the behaviour of people I know, my family, my friends, my colleagues. And whether it is more to do with society than being an actual twat. And if I too am awful, or if we're all just twats. #NotAllTwats.

Before all of this began, I was (and still am) up to my ears writing my third novel, which I think of as an exploration of modern gender identities, a look at what it is to be a man – with all the historic baggage that goes with it – interacting with LGBTQ characters and modern women in the 21st century, told through the eyes of a teenager and his dad. Anybody actually reading it will almost certainly think of it as a string of dirty jokes, some comic deaths and a disappointing conclusion (am fixing that though), but underneath all the bollocks there is a study of how to wield a pair in modern Britain.

I may have mentioned that I am a heterosexual, white, cis-gendered, public school educated bloke once or twice. Yet I have still been a victim of misogyny. Not in any way as seriously as genuine victims, the closest I came to being assaulted was when a bloke bought me a rum and coke and then shoved his tongue down my throat. Had I been that way inclined I probably wouldn't have minded, I was more surprised than upset if I recall correctly, but we're not all so hedonistic and other people would be traumatised by it (a fact that Julia Hartley-Brewer seems incapable of understanding). However, as a skinny geeky kid with no interest in sports, an inexplicable obsession with his sister's doll house (which I am still thoroughly envious of to this day, it had more rooms than Castle Greyskull, and a garage) who preferred to hang out with girls, I was called a few choice names and beaten up in the changing rooms enough. As a long-haired man with a penchant for dressing flamboyantly (and not averse to wearing dresses sometimes) I still get similar treatment from proper blokes. Though I don't get beaten up in changing rooms anymore.

Despite all that, I have almost certainly been a dick to women without even realising it. We are conditioned by society to see them as lesser, as decorative, as either mothers or whores. This is not a healthy state of affairs. We are bombarded on all sides with movies, books and songs where the stalker eventually gets the girl. She said no, don't stand on her lawn playing Peter Gabriel on your wet boom box you creepy dickhead, move on to one that does like you.

Conditioning happens on both sides, and neither version is healthy. Girls are brought up to not seem easy, not be tarts, not take control of their own sexuality. While blokes are encouraged to sow their wild oats, set out on a quest, drag them back to the cave by their hair, faint heart never won fair maiden, etc. etc. Having been brought up to respect their decisions, my teenage self walked away from girls who said no. Feeling like a right-on progressive 90s dude. Occasionally, a few nights later the same girls would ask me why I had left them alone, and that they didn't mean no, they just didn't want to seem easy. A different type of bloke could easily have taken this to mean that no doesn't always mean no. I didn't want to take the risk thanks, so I kept leaving them alone. Regrets, I've had a few...

This is not putting the blame on the girls, the anti-teases, the exact opposite of the ones that kept saying yes right up until they said no. Who I also left alone, and walked away from (and on one memorably friend-zoned night, sat next to, stroked the hair of and read Shelley to). They are completely within their rights to act so. I changed my mind on enough occasions and could happily walk away without being grabbed and made to carry on (except for that one time, and it turned out she was right). Most girls I know didn't get that choice. I genuinely do not know any women who have never been assaulted in one way or another. Up until the #MeToo hashtag started trending I assumed the scale of this shit was no secret. The surprise expressed over it was the most surprising thing about it for me.

I do not think I have ever been guilty of it, but I don't remember a lot of the 90s, I was drinking a lot, I was the lead guitar player, and I was living in the aggressively macho-culture of the 'New Lad'. This meant that we could neck pints of lager and shout 'Wahey! Look at the tits on that!' ironically. It was a pretty fucking thin veneer. I do recall once grabbing the bottom of a girl that I thought was the same girl whose bottom I had been grabbing totally consensually a few nights before only to look round and see somebody else's face. Mortified, I left before either she or her friends pulled me up for it with no more explanation than 'oops, sorry'. In retrospect I may have come off more aggressive than coward, whatever the truth of it. I'm sorry if it was you. So yeah, #MeToo and #YesAllMen I suppose.

The toxic legacy of outdated attitudes will take a long time to dissipate. I am still shocked every time a co-worker refers to an occasional tech-engineer that visits as 'that he-she thing'. More often than not it's those I would least expect it from: just because you're educated it doesn't make you enlightened. She is a woman now, and deserves to at least be referred to as such. I am more shocked though, at my own inability to stand up for her in her absence. Inside I am clearly still a twelve year old boy, scared of being called a gaylord by the rugby team if he sticks up for the girl they're calling Tucgoals (the ugly cow who gets on at Locky's stop) on the bus. I got buried in bags for that. I need to realise that isn't going to happen now, man up (fucking awful expression) and tell the dickheads to stop being dickheads. It is no longer acceptable to be a misogynistic dickhead just because you are scared of having the piss ripped out of you by the other misogynistic dickheads for not being a misogynistic dickhead. It might turn out that all of you are secret feminists and are filled with self-loathing at your behaviour.

Break your conditioning, and don't be a dick.

Sunday 15 October 2017

The Perils of Getting Selfies with a Massive Murderous Monster on the Moors

Aside from the first six years which, in my failing memory, have become a gritty urban life on the wrong side of the A3 in Guildford, where a toddler can fall into a snowdrift on a footbridge and not be discovered for weeks, during which time he learns to fend for himself, ultimately running a gang of sentient snowmen on the mean streets of Stoughton (my parents assure me I was not in there for more than thirty seconds and I should stop moaning about it and telling massive great lies) I have lived most of my life in beautiful Devon, and have lived with a dog for more of it than I haven't (I would say I've owned dogs, but that would imply that I have some kind of control over the stubborn furry wankers). This is why it is surprising that for most of my life, I have shown little to no interest in the bits of Devon that aren't pubs.

In my defence, my first dog, Rambo, was more than happy to just walk round the corner to the Portobello, where the barmaids would feed him kit-kats and Guinness. He was very much a town dog, since we lived in Bideford at the time, and his favourite walks were on weekend mornings – hoovering up leftover takeaways from the pavements – he only needed a lead for the look of the thing and very rarely moved more than a couple of feet from my ankle. By the time we moved out here to the countryside his arthritis was so bad that it was all he could do to get to the pub for a saucer of Guinness and a bag of pork scratchings without me having to carry him most of the way back.

Rambo and I, when we were young and pretty

Rizla, my second dog, was fond of big walks up on the moors, but since she was so easy to walk on the not-Dartmoor-moors near home – since she was terrified of sheep and cows, and could run around off lead wherever we went – I didn't often get out to the real Dartmoor-moors with her. My cat, Kahlo (sometimes referred to as Bitey) also got sulky if she didn't come out for walks with us, and we couldn't take her in the car, so nearby was where we went. Rizla was also far too easily tempted by the lure of pork scratchings in the pub, and was friendly enough that that was what we did.

Rizla was every bit as upset about the cat muscling in on her walks as she looks here
There used to be two cat-dogs running about with her until Heisenberg died

But since I got Sky a year ago, it's all been a bit different. She's an Alaskan Malamute, which, if you've never owned one, is a bit like having a pet cow. She is enormous, stubborn, needs rubbing down, brushing and drying as soon as you get in from a walk if you don't want her to get a million different weird skin infections (so maybe it's more like having a horse than a cow?) and seems a lot less murdery than she really is (not cow-like at all, poor choice of simile, I apologise – wolf seemed too obvious). My step-daughter doesn't believe me that Sky is quite so murdery, but then she hasn't witnessed it firsthand since she doesn't live with us anymore. She just sees the big cute fluffy doggy and can't believe it is actually mostly wolf, with all the prey instincts that that entails. Her view of the animal kingdom has been warped by a weakness for Disney films, and she tends to anthropomorphise dogs. Also she has never seen Sky throwing a rabbit around the garden prior to ripping it to pieces, or dragging a mole from its hole, or ripping the tail feather off a pheasant. I have, and I am getting a lot better at stopping her now.

My wife now works nearly every Saturday morning, so I resolved, about a year ago, to go up a different tor every weekend and get a selfie with the big dog. Thus getting out and about on the moors, and getting valuable instagram likes at the same time. Sadly, as with everything, there have been mitigating circumstances: Devon weather (such as the weekend we went up there last year and I couldn't see Sky if she went to the end of her lead – I have never been so glad of having a navigation app on my phone); laziness – it is all too easy to just hop out of the door and have a quick run over the not-Dartmoor-moors by the house – especially since there's usually a bit where Sky can get off the lead for a bit there: I'm relatively confident that she can't take out a cow; Sky's current reluctance to just get in the fucking picture – which is leading to me getting covered in crap trying to hold on to a wolf that has just rolled in everything awful while waving a phone in its face; and hangovers – which joyfully continue to affect most aspects of my weekends.

Sky refused to even turn around, I am making all the effort in this relationship

Despite Dartmoor's reputation as a huge, bleak, lonely place – which I can see from my garden: Yes Tor, looming like Mount Doom in the distance – it is in fact almost impossible to find a weekend when the moors are not covered in school kids doing Ten Tors training. It's not just the kids with massive rucksacks though, it's as crowded as Oxford Street out there on a nice day, hikers of all ages with all the gear, crushing themselves into awkward positions on the ground trying to get the perfect angle for their selfie – ensuring they get the sheep, the pile of rocks, their artfully made sandwich, travel coffee mug and all their expensive hiking gear in shot to maximise those all-important instragram likes.

I can be as withering about them as I like, bouncing around the moors in my cheap wellies and battered straw hat, but I am no better. Since I started writing books, and thus having to have a marketable online presence (apparently) I too now have to rack up those all-important instagram likes. Which means getting those selfies perfect, this is where the photogenic doggy becomes indispensable. Just this morning I was lying in a muddy pit atop East Mill Tor, holding on to the sheep-poo-covered neck of my filthy Malamute and begging her to stay in shot so that we could get that perfect picture.

This was a lot more painful than it looks
Neither of us are actually happy
Instagram is a lie

A couple of weeks ago I was in a similar position on top of High Willhays when my hat blew away in the relentless Devon wind. I let it go just to get the picture (then gave chase, and got it in the end) which makes me question my judgement. I never took photos before this. I still forget to most of the time, I find memories better than photos, since they can be fuzzier, blurrier and paint a more flattering picture of you when you look back on them later.

This picture serves no purpose and I very nearly lost a perfectly good hat to get it

Sad to say, I do spend a lot of my walks with Sky wishing I had done them with Rizla – who as I have said, was very well behaved off a lead. She would run off, but come back as soon as I whistled the Superman theme to her (much of this may have been tempered by nostalgia, she rolled in fox shit as much as any other collie). Whereas this is Sky's idea of recall.

Never let it be said that dogs don't have a sense of humour

Added to which, the most aggressive thing Rizla ever did to another animal was lick a kitten's head slightly too aggressively (by which I mean she put Bitey's entire head in her mouth when she tried to steal her dinner) whereas Sky will try and eat anything that looks edible, especially if it's moving, so she is not ever allowed off her lead. This makes short cuts across moorland rather more treacherous than expected, since those ever so handy not-quite-paths are easy enough to pick your way across on your own, but when you are being dragged by a 30 kilo wolf trying to get at a sheep that looked at her funny, they are a little more tricky, and I spend an inordinate amount of time digging my boots into the mud, trying and failing to haul her back in and praying I don't smash my head in on the rocks as I slide ever further downwards on my heels. I fell over once (I say once, it happens a lot these days), she just got to the end of her lead and looked back at me with a shrug, didn't even come back to check I wasn't dead.

This is quite problematic for a writer, since we spend a lot of time while walking desperately trying to scrawl down notes for the amazing idea we just had. This is simple when your dog happily jumps about not trying to kill everything in sight, and lets you get on with it. Not so much when she is attached to one of your arms by a rope and doesn't want to stop – ever. This is why I have started falling over more often, and have no record of my amazing ideas. It also leads to long cuts through bogs and marshes as we have to leave the nice, flat, easy-to-walk-on-with-a-big-dog-on-a-lead path because some other, smaller, better-behaved dogs have turned up.

Ultimately, I am very lucky to live where I live, and be able to go walking on Dartmoor within ten minutes of leaving my house. Admittedly, the nearest bit we can get to is also an army firing range, so it does present a few unique dangers in that respect, but what's life without a little danger. I am also very lucky to share my life with a very beautiful (also time-consuming, annoying, badly behaved and stubborn) animal, that listens to all my crap, inspires me to write, gets me out of the house, melts my heart every time she looks at me and will continue to earn me those all-important instagram likes (along with those few accounts that automatically retweet anything hashtagged as #Dartmoor and #Devon). Long live our never ending Tor Tour.

Tuesday 10 October 2017

How did Australia go from being super-mega-bonzer to Channel 5?

Back in the mid-80s when I was a kid, TV was a grey miserable place, filled with bad-cockernee-accented kids wearing big coats and taking heroin, drowning in swimming pools or dying of an aneurysm in the back of teacher's cars. The psychedelic joy of the Magic Roundabout, Jamie and the Magic Torch and the Clangers were long gone. Yet inexplicably Blue fucking Peter survived to make you get up and do something less boring instead. Well, it was either that or American cartoons filled with rippling muscles, inexplicably sexualised cats and thinly veiled toy advertising. Welcome to Thatcher's TV Times. Then, with almost no warning, the sunshine from down under started to peek through and before you knew it the playground was filled with the sound of 'G'Day mate,' 'Bonzer,' 'you drongo,' and people being 'dobbed in.' Australian TV had hit the UK.

First we were warmed up by the Young Doctors, then came Paul Hogan and Crocodile Dundee (which was on this weekend, I still really want his boots) then came the soap operas, millions of us rushed home from school so as not to miss our fix of Neighbours and Home and Away, (other than my wife, I have never loved another woman as much as I loved Stephanie Scully off of Neighbours – right up until she cheated on Toady with Rivers out of Heartbreak High) insomniacs became irrationally attached to the covert lesbianism of Prisoner Cell Block H. Eventually the Doctors were flying, but still pretty young. It all came to a head in the early 90s, with Round The Twist, when surely it couldn't get any better, the pinnacle of inventive Aussie brilliance. Nay, the pinnacle of televisual entertainment itself.

It could. The greatest television program ever made nearly slid by unnoticed in the summer holiday mornings – Pugwall. He had a dream, he was going to make it. So did I, and Peter Unwin George Wall made it come true for me.

Seriously, I was unhealthily obsessed with this show, I still am

A lot of people believe the Charlene and Scott wedding from Neighbours is the high point of late twentieth century Aussie culture, but they weren't lying in front of the TV on a sunny summer morning just waiting to see if the Orange Organics got a gig, and if Pugwall could get to snog Jenny, so they were wrong. Don't misunderstand me, the Neighbours wedding gave us Angry Anderson and the best power-ballad of the year - Suddenly, without which I would never have found out about Rose Tattoo, who are fucking awesome.

Yeah, I know, but he did this as well

There was a point when you could have been forgiven for thinking the UK was Australia, the charts were filled with Kylie, Jason, Craig McLaughlin, INXS, Midnight Oil, Crowded House, The Birthday Party, Cosmic Psychos (alright, maybe not the charts at this point) Peter fucking Andre even. And then it all went to shit, Jet, Delta Goodrem, Savage Garden? Anybody remember them? No, of course not. Those days are gone now, and the only big names from down under are hiding their roots as Canadian super-heroes and Norse gods.

What can have brought about the collapse though? Neighbours and Home and Away both relegated to Channel Five, where nobody is going to bother, Paul Hogan reduced to an obscure reference on Family Guy, and Prisoner but a distant memory of a badly produced mushroom scene. What do we get from modern Australia? A love of xenophobic immigration controls? The joy of casual racism? An indifferent response to claims of historic genocide? Some unhelpful stereotypes involving domestic abuse and dangerous blood alcohol levels. Pretty much, but then we already had them. Before my Australian friends get all up in arms about this, remember I am British, we are not merely nonchalant about historic genocide, most of us seem pretty fucking proud of it most of the time. Or remarkably blinkered about how you get an empire that the sun never sets on.

I am at a loss to explain how Aussie culture nose-dived as it did, from the giddy highs of Dame Edna Everage and Stefan Dennis's pop career down to that girl you don't recognise now who used to be in Neighbours being Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad (I google this shit so you don't have to). Did it begin with Kylie (Minogue, the original one, not Jenner, whoever she is, and why is she above Minogue on google autocomplete?) losing the plot and deciding to sell bedding rather than be the queen of the disco? Or does it go further back to poor old Michael Hutchence (star of the greatest motion picture ever made – Dogs In Space) succumbing to a cheeky stranglewank in a hotel room?

There was a year or two in the 90s when I watched this film at least once a week

Maybe there was a brief moment in the late 80s and early 90s when Australia laid off the booze just long enough to capture the zeitgeist in a flash of exciting youth tv. Maybe this is how it is, Aussies were just the fidget spinners of their day? Is Australia even still there? Who can say? It might just be covfefe. But given that during my (very minimal) research for this piece I found a page of Australian Celebrities that described Rolf Harris as a beloved Australian personality, I can only assume they took their eye off the ball, and went down with Rolf.

 How the hell do you go from this to this and expect nobody to notice?

It could just be the death of all originality, as we get spin-off after spin-off of things we have seen before until they become as unrecognisable as the Twist family were by series three of Round the Twist. I wish I had the answers, but I don't. Just a hope that some day soon, my clothes will be referred to as daggy again by someone with ludicrously sunbleached hair wearing lovebeads, a day-glo vest, board shorts, sunnies (sunglasses to you and me) and thongs (flip-flops). Or I could just listen to Courtney Barnett make Australia sound as cool as it once was.

N.B. In the interests of taste and decency this piece has blithely ignored the careers of both Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe, I think it's for the best.

Friday 15 September 2017

When the four minute warning comes a knocking.

When the four minute warning comes a knocking, will I greet it with a sigh, a shrug of the shoulders and a quiet sense of English resignation? Will I pour myself a drink, light myself a cigarette, and wish I still had a stash of something stronger from the bad old days – I miss big Es from the 90s, will I go on a mad hunt through my old coats to find some before remembering it would take the best part of an hour to kick in anyway?

When the four minute warning comes a knocking, will I waste those four minutes trying to google who actually pressed the button, trying to get to the bottom of the story, moaning, complaining about it and desperately finding someone to blame? Will I go out ranting and raving or with what little remains of my dignity? Will it matter whose fault it is?

When the four minute warning comes a knocking, will I run outside, gather all my pets together and try and get the whole family on some kind of multi-skype that may not even be possible on an already crashed communications network? Will you be there? Will you be working? Will you be held up by someone talking to you in the Spar? (I don't care where I live, or what the local convenience shop is called there, they are all Spar in my world, I haven't got time to remember which bastard multinational is running it at the moment, we're all about to die.) Will you even know that there has been a four minute warning? What delicious irony to have missed each other for want of a decent radio in your car.

When the four minute warning comes a knocking, will I desperately compose a farewell message to my scattered loved ones across the world, editing it to perfection only for it to die along with them, a gesture of little use, or point, at best solace for some seconds or, more likely, submerged in similar messages that nobody will have time to read.
When the four minute warning comes a knocking, will I be frantically moving my face around for the best light, flicking my hair and pouting my duck face trying to get that final, perfect, fear-ridden selfie for an instagram post that will only exist for seconds, and will never be remembered by the atomised brains or melted RAM cards of the surprisingly near future?

When the four minute warning comes a knocking, will I regret not spending enough time hunched over a laptop, agonising over these words that are briefly looked at, and possibly thought about, before the beholder maybe clicks like, perhaps writes a kindly comment or suggests I am an utter fuckwit with no idea what I am talking about, and then moves on, never to think of them again? Or the hours I didn't spend endlessly reworking plot points, and character details of mildly amusing novels that languish on bookshelves both tangible and digital, being saved for later? Or will I wish I had spent more evenings in pubs I hate, playing music I don't enjoy to people I don't respect? Will I regret the nights off in the pubs I do like when I stayed too long, and had too many with the people I like most, or the mornings I woke up clear headed from a sensible good night's sleep after a healthy night in? For a good night's sleep and a healthy body will be of no use to me now, and all work and no play makes Dave a dull boy.

When the four minute warning comes a knocking, will I miss the hours of walking, with dogs, with you, with complaining children, with explaining parents, with drunken friends, with misguided cats or with just the stars, a can of cider and a cigarette for company? Will it be the down times, sitting, doing nothing, thinking by fires – indoors and out, with books, with pets, with the kids, with friends, with family, but always with you, watching movies, reading books, listening to music, listening to you tell me about your day – maybe even paying attention to you telling me about your day?

When the four minute warning comes a knocking, which memories will I have time to replay? How much editing will I need to do? I hope it's true that it all goes by again, and I can see you singing to Miss Dynamite-ee-ee and forcing me to buy you vodka, laugh as you sing Firework in the kitchen before falling off your chair, see your face, in the Summer churchyard rain, glowing with excitement. Watch you and your dad approaching down the longest aisle in wedded history, see cute little kittens and puppies become old cantankerous, flatulent bastards and die in the wink of an eye, push the boy over his first skateboard ramp to rid him of the fear, leave the girl at uni for the first time, all of us fighting back the tears we did not expect to have, pretend not to worry – in the hopes that you would be less worried – over their first solo flights across the world all over again. The four of us will never again laugh like drains over some joke that wasn't that funny, but has rendered you unable to breath for minutes and damned the rest of us to the same fate. What if all I have time to remember is sitting in front of a screen, trying to think of the next word? What if there isn't time to remember the good bits? Why must the mundane take up so much more time than the magical?

When the four minute warning comes a knocking, what if you're at work, where you have no phone signal, and I never hear your voice again?

Inspired by Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un and this most excellent Culture Shock song.

Thursday 24 August 2017

Two and a half books in and I have learned nothing

Nearly four years into this blog, ostensibly about writing, the creative process, and what an utter ballache the whole thing is, I am back writing about writing here again – as opposed to pets, politics and unhappy travels. This blog has fulfilled its original purpose twice over now and taught me one very valuable lesson. Stop thinking about it and just write, every day, whenever and wherever you can. Obviously I don't, but at least now I know I should, and admitting you have a problem is always the most important step, right?

On the eve of the publication of my second novel, The Craft Room, I still don't feel qualified to refer to myself as an author. Probably for good reason, my first was a surprising success, but both have been published using Amazon's createspace – self-publishing, which makes you self-conscious, fills you with self-loathing and boosts your self-doubt. I am assured by people I know in the industry that this is how it actually works now. You self-publish until someone notices you and picks up on it unless you're already a name, and a safe bet. I don't know if this is true or just people being kind to me about my terrible writing. It seems plausible though. As does the kindness theory.

I have not given myself a break on completion of The Craft Room, and am currently trying to hack an illegible first draft of a third novel that I scrawled down feverishly during May and June into shape. None of it makes sense, and I am surgically removing what was a key character who no longer works in order to get on with it and start adding descriptions and jokes. I learned very early on in the editing process first time round not to add detail in a first draft, it will change, characters grow as you write them and you might not spot that they are no longer bald until just before publication if you're not careful (I wasn't, but I did find it before rather than afterwards at least).

Before I actually hit upon a decent writing ethic, I spent years plotting, replotting, going back and reworking stuff I had already written and hoping it would come good in the end only to abandon the whole idea while waiting for inspiration. See early editions of this blog for my struggles with it. The illegible first draft I am currently fighting with was knocked out in fifteen minute stints before work over two months, with no idea where I was going with the story at any point until the end. This method works, I accept it doesn't work for everyone, but the 'vomit draft' theory is working well for me so far. Once you've got a story you can tickle the details into shape later on, but if you've plotted everything down to the smallest detail before beginning, then be prepared for your characters to change their minds and do something else.

Sylvia, the main protagonist of The Craft Room, kept shouting at me that I wasn't doing her right. She began as a slightly frumpy housewife – like something from the 50s – and was always supposed to change as the story continued. But just a couple of chapters in she started emancipating herself and I began to realise she had to change even more than I had intended. Rather than being shaped by her circumstances, she started to shape her circumstances around herself – ultimately going much too far – with me not having anything to do with it. I wanted a woman discovering hidden strength and she turned out to have a lot more of it than I expected.

Similarly, her story became almost secondary to the effect it has on her son, who leaped up from his supporting character role into a main protagonist. Every character I have ever dreamed up has needed a complete rewrite at least twice after telling me what they want to be, and every story I have ever written has been completely different from what I wanted to write. It is quite upsetting since every finished idea comes from what I considered a killer opening line/paragraph/chapter which has, without exception, always ended up being deleted forever as no longer appropriate (like the original opening to this piece). I am still clinging to the killer opening of book number three, but Sean – whose line it is – tells me it sounds nothing like him anymore, and it's going to have to go.

I accept that this blog is wildly self-indulgent, and a thinly veiled advert for the new book, and would apologise were it not the way the world works now. Thank you for reading this all the way to the end, I realise that I know nothing about the right way to write, because there is no right way to write. You can waste days reading about it on the internet, but ultimately you just need to read a lot (actual books, not articles about how to write online), and then write a lot. If it sounds like I am telling you how to write, ignore me, I have no idea how to write, I just stumble along.

Sadly I need to spam your eyeballs with these cheap jokes, while subliminally linking to my amazon sales page, otherwise it's not getting out there. Facebook promotions get you likes from people who probably don't exist, promoted tweets just annoy people, I have no idea how to work instagram and I cannot afford to advertise on the side of a bus. Writing still doesn't make me enough money to even be a useful second income, I still have to spend my weekends playing music I don't like to people I don't respect in venues I would never choose to visit to fund my writing habit while the day job pays the bills, just.

This (surprisingly popular) blog is my best outlet for promotions. I need you guys, tell your friends I'm funny, buy my book and leave it on a bus, give it to a relative. Do whatever you need to do in order for me to one day have a moment like John Cusack in 2012, when he meets a stranger who has read and genuinely enjoyed his book. It's really all I'm in this for.

Saturday 12 August 2017

Travels in an Unremarkable Hat

My summer hat this year has been getting an undue amount of attention. I got it from a charity shop in Exeter for two quid with the intention of tricorning it. I've always wanted a straw tricorn, and never yet found a straw hat with a wide enough brim. I did not tricorn it in the end, I liked it as it was – apart from the USA stars and stripes band it had round it. That was swiftly dealt with by Rob and Rupert when they drunkenly ripped it off in the pub and commandeered it as a Bruce Springsteen headband. For the sake of its integrity I tied the only scarf I own that is long enough around it to keep it on my head. It's an orangey Jimi Hendrix print that was on the wall in my old flat. It has the obligatory magpie feather (provided to me by my youngest cat, Richard Parker – still attached to its previous owner) in it, and is otherwise a fairly unremarkable straw hat.

This is the Hat in Question – Nice, though unremarkable

My dad immediately called it a Morris dancing hat. He may have had a point. The man at the Eden project who insisted on photographing me in it was a little more odd. I'm used to being photographed when I'm in full pirate, but when I'm not even dressed up it seems a little more disturbing. As is the trend of impossibly young women telling me they like my shirts – Netty is okay with it, as long as it is one of the shirts she has bought me. It happened again at breakfast in Weymouth, on our recent jaunt across the country when the waitress expressed her deep love for my pink checked shirt. Maybe the Weymouth Seafront (technically correct, but you do have to stand up and look over a wall – and round some houses – to see the sea from the beer garden) Premier Inn doesn't get a lot of colour in it?

The hat continued to get noticed (as did the pink shirt) as we headed into Dorset. Personally I feel it something of a risk to put the Tank Museum so close to Monkey World, but then I've recently watched War for the Planet of the Apes. The Tank Museum itself brought conflicting emotions, on the one hand, the display of anthropomorphised horses who were glad to do their patriotic duty by getting mown down by machine guns and tanks in the first world war made my adult, pacifist, animal righty self incredibly angry. On the other, there were massive tanks and the kid who watched every war film ever made, read commando comics, and played army in the woods with his brother whenever possible who still lives inside me was wildly excited. I would have been running around as much as the two kids who ignored the tired reprimands of their parent only to run into a big old ex-military type that scared them into stopping with the quietest of rebukes, but my new flip-flops were rubbing, and you can't run in flip-flops.

The best monkeys at monkey world were, as ever, the hairless apes that stare at the world through their phone screen. As I overheard one excitedly noticing a facebook app update notification, I shared a look with an Orang-Utan who had fashioned his blanket into a hat against the never-ending British rain. I think we were both thinking the same thing – although I was suddenly suffering from hat envy.

I've met a lot of apes, this guy is my favourite
If you do go to monkey world, read their stories,
it is simultaneously the best and the worst of human treatment of animals

From Dorset to Brighton. City of flamboyance, excess and joy. Surely my unremarkable hat could fade into the background here? Nope. While trying to get a table at a very nice fully booked restaurant for the second night in a row, the waiter recognised my hat, and squeezed us in. Sometimes it pays to dress like an idiot. As we sat and watched the sad, soggy hen nights trek past in the rain I heard the unmistakeable sound of a Frenchman lighting a Gitane. I had not planned to have a cigarette at this point, I was trying to be good and have a day off, but suddenly I wanted to look cool in front of the French people, so I had one. It was nice. I did not feel guilty, I think subconsciously I needed one having just paid twelve quid for two pints of Cider.

From Brighton we headed east, to Canterbury, city of Thomas, a bucket (really niche, really in joke, sorry). There's not much of comic value to report, I caught up with my cousin who I been unable to talk to all day at her wedding last year. It was sunny, it was great, I got to properly talk to her new husband finally. He's lovely, the pub by their new house is lovely, their new house will be lovely when it's not a building site anymore. There are no jokes in this paragraph, sorry.

My lovely cousin and I, and one of her crazy daughters

I did find myself in a Lebanese/Italian restaurant in the evening, which is an odd thing. But it meant I could have lovely spicy lamb, and Netty could have rather less exciting pasta, so we were both happy, though she did point out that what I was eating was basically a posh kebab and chips. I failed to see what the problem was. A couple on the next table tried to make conversation with me. I didn't even have the hat on. I think they need to stay in more. I am naturally suspicious of the outgoing and friendly and in my head all I can think is 'Fuck you restaurant conversation starters, we are not swingers, go about your business and leave us alone.' I realise this is probably more my problem than theirs.

Then we did London.

Seriously, I drove this legendary piece of shit car right up to County Hall
It even went into valet parking

As always, we did the art galleries. Watching the security guards doing their bag searches I discovered that in order to get your bomb in, you should put it in the nappy bag under your pushchair – they do look in them (brave men) but they don't get their heads in as close. As I walked there I realised that nowadays, in any big city, I flinch every time a white van driver starts to drive like a cunt. This is particularly inconvenient since in this country – and probably most others – all white van drivers drive like cunts. It doesn't mean they are terrorists – just wankers. On a more positive note, I like art galleries, they are an excuse to look at boobies without feeling at all guilty.

You can stare at this as long as you like, and nobody calls you a dirty old man

I walked past some amazingly beautiful art drawn in chalk on the pavements for a few pennies chucked into an empty coffee cup to go and see some eyewateringly expensive athena prints – also known as the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition. Yay capitalism. This is an over-simplification. Some of the stuff in the show was innovative, brilliant and exciting. All of it was for sale. The things that were selling in the highest numbers were really dull. Monochrome prints of a blurred figure through a window, a photograph of ripples in water. For thousands and thousands of pounds each. A print, not the original, a print. So that some couple with considerably more money than you can put it in the downstairs toilet and tell all their friends they got it from the Royal Academy.

This was not in the show, but the one with the most orange dots to indicate a sale was not that dissimilar

I like art, and art is not the problem. But I could have bankrupted myself over the week I was away throwing change into cups for the homeless. It isn't the change they need though (right on, Dave, right on). I did chuck a lot their way regardless, but in a country where it is apparently acceptable to spend five figure sums on a fucking poster for the hallway we really shouldn't have people sleeping on the streets.

On a lighter note (phew) in the Tate Modern, a small girl pointed at me and said 'Mummy what's that man dressed as?' (probably because of my hat again) causing my wife to crease up and thus fail to hear the answer. I was busy being saddened by noticing the only faces not lit by the glow of their phone screens outside the actual galleries were asleep. Those faces being overwhelmingly white and middle class, unless they had a tell-tale lanyard that meant you could buy coffee from them, watch them mop the floor, ask them for directions or be told off for taking photos where you shouldn't by them. Netty takes photos of all the pictures – because she is an art teacher. I am convinced she has thousands of images of the same paintings on her hard drive, and can't fathom why. I then realised this is probably how she felt at the time I owned five near identical fender stratocasters. Vive la difference.

Sitting in Trafalgar Square and nearing the end of our jaunt,
I suddenly realised with extreme clarity that it is a massive cock and balls.
It was hard to explain my laughter

And then we were done, I drove off through Knightsbridge towards Heathrow, and a little stop off there, followed by a sojourn in Godalming (heralded by a near crash as the A3 took me right past the bottom of the road I used to live in in Guildford and I got over-excited) with some very dear friends ended in a drizzly drive back to Devon – the car is still creaking.

I'm nearly done with cities if I'm honest. Not quite, but nearly. The thing that most took my breath away, and made me happiest was the view of Dartmoor from my garden. After such a busy holiday, I said to Netty, 'maybe next year we rent a nice cottage, somewhere rural, take the dog and relax.' She pointed out to me that we could save an awful lot of money that way, since we already live there.

Seriously, this is the view from where I live,

why do I go to other places?

Thursday 20 July 2017

One month in - a few thoughts on being forty

I may have been a bit hasty when I claimed that turning forty would make no difference to my life. Not entirely, I mean I haven't joined the circus, faked my own death or gone to live on a boat. But when the big number actually flashed by I did some introspecting – like any self-respecting middle-aged man drinking cider alone in his garden on a Thursday afternoon might. It occurred to me that the only wedding I have been invited to this year is my friend's daughter, and the future will be filled with the next generation's weddings (along with the usual slew of second/third/fourth marriages) rather than watching my peers launch into a new – probably ultimately doomed – life. Hello halfway point. In Muppet terms, I'm Robin, singing that fucking terrible song. I am a shit frog that leaves you wishing for Kermit, and waiting for a punchline.

Happy Birthday to me – I got everything I wanted

It's true that the nature of the midlife crisis has completely changed over the years (as I have previously noted here) from trying to recapture your lost youth with fast cars, loud guitars and replacing your wife with a teenager – to trying to stop yourself dying by wrapping yourself up in lycra, and holding up my fucking car (which almost certainly cost less than your bike – and that includes all the music gear in the boot) by riding three abreast on country roads every bastard Tuesday night.

I'm sure the health kick crisis is a better thing than the old-fashioned boozy, drug-fuelled sex orgy crisis, but it doesn't look as much fun. I am grateful to you all though, since there are a lot less terrible bands full of old blokes who don't need the money undercutting the rest of us than there once were, and you have not put me out of a gig by running past my window sweating like an inappropriate simile, so thanks for that.

I've also come to the conclusion that one does not naturally become more right wing with age. There's a chance that you get more right wing with income, that makes more sense, but then I am personally wealthier than I have ever been, and not one iota less of a leftie git. I guess you could try and call me a champagne socialist, though I still can't afford champagne, and I don't see that as an insult anyway. It sounds to me like someone who wants to use their privilege to help those without it, that's probably a good thing right? I'm pretty sure that whatever views you already hold mostly get more entrenched with age, and your ability to see the other side of the argument vanishes. I'll let you know when my generation get to our seventies.

I don't have a generation with a catchy name, those of us born in the late 70s/early 80s are called X/Y cuspers, or sometimes 'Thatcher's Children' but that sounds creepy, and depressing. We're not Generation X, all edgy and dark and gothy, and we're not millenials, all hipstery and awkward. We're somewhere between the two, which means I get to simultaneously own my own home and know how to work an iPhone (spoiler: I don't have an iPhone, and I only own my own home through blind luck – also the bank own more of it than I do). We got Edd the Duck, Thundercats and The Raccoons, but get lumped in with the same muppets who go on about Tiswas all the time, or the Spongebob loving simpletons. Maybe that makes us a bit awkward, and unable to really enjoy the mainstream nostalgia that the world is currently drowning in.

Seriously – this was what we got

Transformers, School Discos, The Crystal Maze experience and now they're making a real-life Pat Sharpe's Fun House. Did previous generations do the same? I haven't caught my dad watching Muffin the Mule DVD boxsets, or daydreaming over tripe fritters. Nobody ever opened a rationing themed restaurant, or an air-raid shelter theme hotel either. So why the fuck do we get all crazy over Spangles, and big Curly-Wurlys? Are we a generation unable (or just unwilling) to escape childhood? Almost certainly. Apparently we are willing to pay ridiculous amounts of money to watch mediocre musical acts with one almost-original member left, or go round a reconstruction of a TV game show from 25 years ago that was actually pretty shit in the first place.

I'm halfway through, if we're calling this mid-life, which I suppose we are. It turns out that if you think about it, that can cut either way. On the one hand, I'm running out of time, what of all the things I haven't done? We've swapped old-fashioned buying stuff for buying experiences instead. So instead of getting a massive dick-swinging car, you go on a more expensive holiday, take a balloon trip, spend the weekend driving all the cars, get photos, put it on your instagram and swing your dick that way. It's still bullshit, and it costs even more. Somehow it gets re-invented as a non-materialist lifestyle, with £30 coasters proclaiming, 'Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer,' and suchlike. I'm calling that out for bollocks, I can no longer afford your coasters now I've shelled out for hotel rooms and new car tyres for my upcoming holiday, you smug sunset-meming twats.

On the other hand, I am only half way through and I'm bored already. From a purely intellectual level I can completely understand why men of my age are such high suicide risks. It's important to note how lucky I am really. Just to be here, with no long term medical problems, not having suffered any serious trauma, on top of my particular brand of crazy at the moment, unlike so many of my peers – plenty of whom haven't made it this far. You don't get to be a middle-aged muso without losing a few mates along the way (and not just by stealing their girlfriends).

Market Disco – Dance like everyone's watching and you are awesome

It's not all bad though, the shedding of inhibitions that comes with age is wonderful. I no longer give even half a fuck what people think. I was sad to note, on Friday, at a disco in a cow shed (recently revived from those held there in the 80s, nostalgia-police), that the entire dancefloor was mostly full of young, beautiful people, almost entirely stationary. I, and my fellow middle-aged companions on the other hand, were dancing like nobody was watching (as the wankers would put it) to the Venga boys, behind the speakers where it's a bit quieter and there's space. Here's to the wisdom that only comes with age.