Thursday 19 February 2015

The reason that TV and Adverts are both much better, and at the same time infinitely worse now

Many years ago, I used to get guitars thrust at me at house parties, and be asked to play a song. Now, being an arse as I am, rather than doing some beautiful, meaningful, self-penned love song in order to win the hearts of every girl in the room, or even some popular hit of the day, that would get me the approval of my peers, I would invariably sing some tv theme tune, or advert, in order to get a cheap laugh. It turned into its own bizarre kind of routine, and in a way, I am still doing it twenty five years since I began.

Now this is all well and good, but since there is now an entire generation of punters, all old enough to be in licensed premises where I may be playing my amusing, not-quite-comedy songs for small and faintly insulting sums of money, that have no idea why I am singing about shake and vac, I am encountering a problem. Modern adverts are just not funny enough. Whereas in 1996, Lean Against the Washing Machine could play a huge heavy metal intro before launching into 'I feel like Chicken Tonight' I feel that if we were to do the same trick now with 'We buy any car, dot com' it would not be as funny.

It could be that it wasn't actually that funny in the first place, I am getting old, and the puerile jokes that my 18 year old self made don't work on thirty seven year olds. Some of that is undoubtedly true, it is equally true that I don't bother watching much commercial TV now, thus the songs from adverts might be passing me by. I don't think so though. I think that the current swathe of adverts now try to be funny, and as a result, really aren't. You have the terribly ironic, knowing, ukulele tinged bollocks of Hive is busy controlling your heating at home, or that dick on the train platform, also with a ukulele, or the twats in the second hand shop that don't seem to believe that the Godfather part 3 is a godawful load of shite that should be purged from cinematic history. Um Bongo, Um Bongo they drink it in the Congo it is not.

I could maybe have a try at those, but I have a feeling that launching into 'wooooooaaaaaah, bodyfo-orm' will still get the bigger laugh. At least from those in the room that are old enough to know what the hell I am on about. Same with TV theme tunes, you could happily do the Rainbow theme tune, get a few giggles, then drag them across to the A-team theme, do a quick chorus of 'He Used To Bring Me Roses' (theme tune to Prisoner Cell Block H) and the Minder theme tune and finish them off with the snooker theme. Sadly, nobody under thirty is going to get any of that now. Not even the snooker, and that's still on, but you're less likely to be stuck watching it on a sunday afternoon with your Gran now, because you'll have satellite TV with a million choices, or an iPad full of movies and youtube clips to watch instead (which is a good thing for you kids, I am just jealous).

There are a lot fewer cultural references that everyone can get now, like the snooker, or the A-team. I mean, everyone has seen Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones, or whatever the new must see TV show is. Even those 'oh no, I don't have a television' holier than thou guardian reading tossers. Because they all have iPads, and they all watch endless TV boxsets on them anyway. Smug twats, but that's a whole different rant. But I doubt they will evoke the same misty eyed nostalgia as 'I ain't getting on no plane fool'. And none of us are watching them all at the same time, you have to wait until your friends have finished before telling them that you are the one who knocks (and lots of people don't get it, as it is mostly just a subsection of twats who watch this shit).

TV theme tunes are now more knowing, or just songs from proper bands, who give them away for peanuts, 'for exposure' and it works. The songs you hear on adverts, and on TV shows stick in your head, and people like them now, and they go and buy a copy, or download it for nothing. And the exposure that they have given their music away for has given them a hit single. Sadly, it's usually just the one, as the song being on an advert has made most people utterly sick of them, and they never want to hear them again (see Stiltskin, Babylon Zoo, and whoever wrote that godawful Hey Ho thing recently). So it's technically a good thing, as adverts and TV are less crap, and bands get the exposure that radio and TV no longer bother giving them.

Ever since Friends used that Rembrandts song, and changed the face of sitcoms forever (for better, or worse? You decide) my life has been a sadder place. I liked Dennis Waterman writing and singing the theme tune, plus, if I did a version, it got a laugh. I was much happier when a show like the Fall Guy had it's utterly straight faced and marvellous Unknown Stuntman theme tune, but I am running out of punters that recognise it, along with the Good ol' boys from Dukes of hazzard. The last advert that I managed to do an amusing version of was the 'everybody get into a big canoe, and row on down to phones for you' one. And that was funny without me helping, sadly.

I do hope that it's just that I am not seeing the adverts and Tv shows that don't know they're funny, and it is just that I am old, and my references are out of date. But I have a feeling that the modern world, with all it's very knowing irony, and slickly produced, excessively expensive adverts leave no room for a piss-taking git like myself. It is much easier to grab a recording of an unknown band and stick it on your advert than to pay some poor failed musician a small amount of money to write a classic like Waffley Versatile, and yes you end up with a classier product. But you lose valuable laughs in the process, and nobody will remember the words to your advert a quarter of a century later.

Sunday 1 February 2015

Fixed favourite things are for foolish fellows (except for alliteration)

The other day I heard Bruce Springsteen's Jungleland on the radio. I hate that song, sorry, but I do, it's too long, it's very dull, and I don't like Springsteen anyway. However, I did sing along to the main lyric as 'Down in Fabuland', which made me chuckle. So I thought I might write a terribly funny song and call it 'When we lived in Fabuland'. It was going to be epic. In preparation, I googled Fabuland, and discovered that as a reference, it is right next to Snarf, Orko and Godzuki as something you will only get if you are a very specific age.

Yes kids, Fabuland was only manufactured between 1979 and 1989, which for me was between the ages of 2 and 12, so you know, the kind of age where you might play with such a thing. The idea that it didn't exist before or after my own childhood was something that hadn't previously occurred to me, and I only thought about it (hence the googling) after watching the Lego movie with my wife, and wondering why it only got a passing reference. By the way, if you have got this far and still don't know what I am talking about, google it, this is an internet blog, you can open another tab and search it, I have no intention of doing the research for you.

Long and the short of that is that while I am probably still going to write the song (in case you were thinking of stealing the idea) I no longer think it is such a great reference point for writing comedy songs. Nobody over 45 or under 25 is going to get it, which is a bit shit really. Just like Thundercats, Superted, Bananaman (all of which were my favourite TV show for a month or two) MASK toys (which were my favourites, and way cooler than Transformers) Action Force and the ability to sing all the words to Star Trekkin' or the Chicken Song. Although my Mum can do those as well.

Now back when I was a kid playing with Fabuland, my favourite movie was Star Wars (except for that month when Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, when I saw it 5 times in one week at the Strand Cinema in Bideford, I loved the Ewoks, because I was 5) and I wanted to be Luke Skywalker. A few years on, and it was still Star Wars, but now I wanted to be Han Solo, as he is infinitely cooler on every level. By the time I got to 18, I had realised that the Empire Strikes Back was my favourite movie, and I wanted to be Darth Vader, as he is the coolest. Sadly, I have only ever managed to be either the Emperor or Chewbacca, depending on the state of my health.

I am now toddling slowly down the hill into middle age (you can do the maths, I told you how old I was in 1979 earlier) and my favourite movies are now black and white, or sometimes very early technicolour. Casablanca has been near the top of my list for ages, as a pretty excellent bit of film-making, and sadly, the utterly schmaltzy It's a Wonderful Life gets me every time I see it now. I watched it again this Christmas, with my stepdaughter, who hates old movies, she was not impressed. I cried like a little girl, same as always, I can't resist a happy ending (and am able to ignore the casual racism as a product of its time). I still cry every time I see that R2D2 is okay at the end of Star Wars as well. She then made me watch Frozen, which failed to engage me on any level (except perhaps making me wish I was deaf in both ears) so I suppose we all like different things. And no Rudi, if you're reading this, I do not want to build a snowman.

My point is though, that your tastes should change as you grow, if you still have the same favourite film when you're 65 that you did when you were 6 then something is probably wrong with you. I think it was Terry Pratchett who, when asked whether he thought that Tolkien was the greatest ever writer, said 'You can think that at thirteen. If you still think it at fifty-three, something has gone wrong with your life.' And I think that applies to everything, your tastes should grow and change as you do. Equally, if you get upset and angry defending your tastes in music and film, and you have left school, you may need to rethink your life, but I think I have already covered that here.

When I was 12 I loved The Wall, by Pink Floyd, though I had written my own plot for it as I only had it on a taped copy, and had not yet seen the movie. My version was better as it was about an oppressive political regime straight out of Orwell's 1984 that I had just read (which has been my favourite book on and off over the years). I recently listened to it again, and the irony of Roger Waters writing the most self-indulgent navel-gazing 'oh woe is me for I am a very wealthy rock star' album ever, after realising he was becoming a self-important prick of a rockstar, was impressed upon me more than the sweeping misery of his fretless bass performance.

In all honesty, these days I don't do favourite anything, I have a few stock answers I will throw out if asked, very few of them apply anymore. If I am asked what my favourite band is, I will always say the Residents, as, if you have heard of them, we will be kindred spirits and get on, and if you haven't, I will look clever, and a bit hipstery. I don't listen to them much these days though, and I haven't bought a record of theirs since Animal Lovers ten years ago. It was disappointing.

If I am asked which is my favourite stepchild, I will always answer the other one, depending on which of them is asking me. Ask me which is my favourite of my many pets, and I will usually say the Dog, because she is a dog, despite having something of a weak spot for the big, bitey, fluffy cat, and the naughty one, and the weird one that looks like we have already buried it a few times like in pet semetary, and the neurotic one that hates everyone except me and people think I have made up as he never come into the house if we have visitors, oh, and the ducks, and the rabbit, and, oh, you get the picture.

Rating everything you consume is much overrated, and thus I try to avoid it. I like a lot of stuff I used to hate, and I hate a lot of stuff I used to like. I also know a lot of people who when asked about things they like will rigidly stick to the one thing that has always been their favourite. They either lack imagination, don't get out enough, or haven't really thought about it recently. Perhaps this is why I don't follow football anymore, because you are expected to stick to one team, even though all the members have changed, and they aren't as good as they used to be. A bit like Dr Feelgood or the Yardbirds (they are bands kids, google them).

UPDATE: Since writing this yesterday, I have written the song 'When we live in Fabuland', while trying to explain it to my wife in song, it became much funnier, so I did that. It is not on this album that I released into the wild yesterday (and is as bad as it sounds) but here's a link anyway, in some shameless cross-promotional opportunism.

Thursday 22 January 2015

Happy Anniversary Dave Doesn't Write Anything Ever

Well, first blog of the year, and so many exciting things have happened that would fit right in with the sort of things I have mainly been writing about here. Freedom of speech, terrorism, the shouty twatness coming from both left and right, and even the moderate types are getting shouty etc. etc. ad nauseum. I felt that along with freedom of speech comes the freedom not to speak about it, something a lot more of the internet maybe should have thought of, never has Voltaire been misquoted by so many people simultaneously.

Je suis silencieuse. 

However, I remembered why I started this blog in the first place. So, if you are hoping for angry politics, utterly hysterical jokes and some outrageous statement of intent then go back and read some of last years stuff. However, if you are hoping for some terribly dull, navel gazing, self important whining then read on, this is very much for you.
A year ago, in a fit of new years motivation, I sat down and wrote this and thus began this here blog. It was intended as a record of just how badly I was doing at writing a novel, a week by week account of my ability to do anything other than actually sit down and write the bloody thing. A hysterically funny compendium of Arnold Rimmer style ways of avoiding doing the thing you wish to do. I intended to update it at least once a fortnight, if not exactly weekly, as had always been the original conception of it. It was supposed to shame me into doing some actual work. Looking at the control page for the blog, it says I have 30 entries. This means I managed to update it more often than I didn't. Which surprises me, clearly my early enthusiasm for it just about beat my later apathy.

In my own defence, the terribly quiet patch over November and December was, as always, the result of my job, which gets horrendously busy at the end of the year, and thus I have no time to write anything (I tend to find myself at work for 16 hours a day, 7 days a week for those two months). I also discovered, while researching this blog post, which is ironically, terribly late for a new years round up of events, that I had not written much of the actual novel over the last 12 months either. In fact, since this realisation about 3 weeks ago, I have doubled it's length, and am now about half way through the word count, and 3 quarters of the way through the plot (I have a fairly odd writing process, do not question it). I intend to have my first draft finished in time to spend the summer drunk, and waiting for feedback from helpful holidaying readers who own kindles.
Again, I can defend my lack of productivity, I never set myself very high targets for ploughing through the work last year, assuming every few words to be a victory against my procrastination and general idleness. Also, I was terribly punctual in writing this blog for a long time, assuming it to be the 'writer's shop front' that works as a show room, and gets you noticed, and brings offers of other writing work. At the same time, I took a couple of fairly long online courses, which ate into my free time, and used them all as excuses to not write the fucking novel.

In February, I wrote this which has turned out to be quite prophetic, since at the end of the year, I did quit everything else, and I am now more productive. I am in no gigging bands, and all the people I have said no to for dep gigs over the last 6 months or so have stopped calling. Which is a shame, as I would probably say yes now. Sadly the pub that was mentioned in it as reopening, closed a few short months later, and will now never be a pub again. And the last song for the Plastic Squirrel EP that was mentioned didn't get finished until December. I have an excuse for that as well thanks, and the results will be coming out soon(ish).

It turned out that having this blog here did manage to get me noticed, as I was asked to scrawl some stuff for a money making venture, that has as yet produced no money. So I knocked out about 4 times as many words as I had then managed to put into my book for that in about a month. And then a great deal of knocking it into useable shape, and putting together some clever advertising blurb and suchlike for it took another big chunk of time, and before I knew it the summer had waved a little 'no swimming here' flag and gone away.

The other thing about the summer, is that it is festival season, and last year, I was very much still in a band, and we did quite a few festival gigs, which required a fair bit of rehearsal (particularly as we had to keep borrowing extra musicians for gigs that regular members couldn't make it to) and a great deal of driving all over the country and getting rained on. My visions of sitting in my garden happily writing away at my book never happened. Mainly because you can't see a laptop screen in the sun, but also because any time I managed to find during which I was neither gigging, working, or rehearsing and it was sunny, I would use it to sit in the sunshine with cider, and my wife. Which is far more pleasant than trying to wrangle my characters into doing what they are supposed to when they really want to do something else. I also have a pile of wood that will eventually be a bike shed which bears testament to just how much time I spent not doing things that needed to be done over the summer.

Anyhow, it has been an interesting year, and this blog failed to be a document of how not to write a novel, it did, ironically, become an instrument of procrastination all of its own and ever so occasionally was well received. I may be a little less prolific this year, on the grounds that I now have a word count to hit every week before I am allowed to do anything that isn't writing the novel (and yes I hit this weeks target about an hour ago, and I am letting the characters do what they want rather than what I originally intended them to do, which requires an awful lot of retrospective dicking about) as it is the only way I can get it done before the weather turns nice again. Because once the sun is out, I am in it, and I have cider.

 By the way, I am sorry that this blog is neither serves any useful function, informs you of anything you need to know, or makes you laugh. I had to write something, and this was what spewed out of my head. Sorry.

Sunday 21 December 2014

In Defence of Evil Stepfathers Everywhere

I rarely like to tackle the thorny subject of step-parenthood, even in conversation, despite it being a fairly massive part of my life and who I am. Because it is a minefield of a subject to get into, thanks to all those fairy stories filled with evil stepmothers, and B-movies filled with rapey stepfathers and the general second-class status we are afforded. I have just accepted my lot and let the actual smug-faced breeders get on with telling me that I can't possibly understand what it's like for them (disclaimer, most of those smug-faced breeders are actually very lovely people, and without them the human race would die out, I am exaggerating for comic effect, please don't get angry). However, I am tired of being taken for a feckless shirker and thus I am here to state my case for all those of us who decided to bring up somebody else's kids instead of just making new ones of our own. After all, nobody tells couples that adopt that they don't understand what it's like to be an actual parent do they? Exactly. And they haven't even got the added problem of living with an actual parent telling them they're doing it wrong all the time.

And we don't get the head-start that those cheating genetic parents get, the immediate, instinctive and unconditional love that you get with your parents. We have to earn any kind of relationship that we get, and are usually greeted with outright hostility from the outset. There's plenty of ways to get round this, you can try to buy them (never works in the long run) you can ignore them and hope they go away (also doesn't work so well) you can be amazingly enthusiastic and interested in every little thing they do (which may well also backfire) or you can cheat, and be the owner of the world's most adorable dog that you take everywhere with you (works like a charm it turns out).

When I first met my wife, I had to give it a lot of thought before I decided to go into a relationship with a single mother. Largely because Jerry Maguire was one of my favourite movies at the time, and you can't go adding more troubles to kids lives than they've already had. I had, at one point, thought that I might have kids myself one day, because that's what people do right? However when it came down to it, I realised I was far too selfish and self absorbed to be any kind of actual parent, and thus figured that at least these children would be grown up and sorted and away by the time I hit 35 (btw, I am 37 now, and still worrying about them, turns out Dad was right when he said it never ends) I intended to endure it rather than embrace it initially. Never quite managed that though, for it turns out that I am not actually made of stone.

I started seeing my wife when her children were 8 and 10 years old, and not long after the youngest turned 10, I had moved in permanently. So no, I wasn't there for all the sticky bits, but equally, I missed out on the bit where they are cute and nice, and don't tell you that you “don't understand” all the time. I have spent the last 13 or so years of my life bringing them up with her. They have cost me no less heartache, worry, or indeed actual money than they would have were they the actual fruit of my trouser garden. And yes, you get pretty close and attached to them whether you want to or not. You can't help it when you live in close proximity to two ever-changing, ever-growing, ever-asking-stupid-fucking-questions creatures. And in a massive coup for nurture over nature, those two have picked up some fairly obvious mannerisms of mine, not the good ones either, just sarcasm, withering looks, and a fondness for heavy drinking mainly.

I didn't expect this either, back when I signed up for this, I entered the relationship because I loved the mother, and was prepared to put up with the kids. but when I decided to move in, it was because of all the stuff I heard about when I spoke to her at night on the phone, amusing kid stuff, I felt I was missing out, and just staying at the weekends wasn't enough. So we became a family, and we're pretty good at it compared to some “traditional” families I know. We stick up for each other, we do things together, and we make snide jokes about other families who aren't as fun as we are. We even invented a new Christmas tradition, family cocktail hour, which lasted for 12 hours last year somehow.

It got weirder, because as they got older I felt more parenty. I was not prepared for my reaction when I met my stepdaughter's first boyfriend, obviously I wanted to punch him in the face, but I relented, and we got on fine. Equally, I was terrified watching the boy taking his first skateboard over the little plastic ramp we bought him for Christmas. Though it may have been fear that he'd ask me to show him how to get over it properly, having not ridden a deck in anger since the late 80s, it was a daunting prospect. But that's what parents do right? Overcome your personal fears to help your kids get on. Luckily he didn't make me have a go, or break his neck, so none of my fears were justified.

And same as every other parent, when we left the girl at her first university digs there were tears, and some of them were mine. And when I first saw my boy riding a fire engine in his full uniform (it's ok, he is a real fireman, not a stripper). So yeah, I feel parenty things, do not doubt it. My heart is in my mouth every bit as much as my wife's when the phone rings in the middle of the night, and not so long ago I did some fairly long stints of waiting up all night to make sure they had got home safe from wherever they had been. Along with involuntary drives to pick up those who had missed buses, lost bus passes, or just run out of money. The alternatives were not good. I am glad they have their own cars now (although no less worried when they don't get back when they said they would, and still occasionally making those long night time drives to get them, but usually with a can of petrol in the boot now).

It gets more difficult for us though, because we have a real parent there as well, who is even more proprietary and worrisome than we are. So we have to roll it back a bit, if my wife is criticising them, I cannot join in in too strong a manner, as the protective instinct will kick in, and she will defend them to the hilt over me, every time, as she should. And interestingly, I do it as well now, if I have a little moan about them in the pub, and somebody joins in and criticises either of them, I get surprisingly defensive over them. Just another thing I did not expect back when I started on this journey (I certainly didn't expect to ever use the word journey metaphorically, but I can't think of a better one, please forgive me).

When my stepson had just left for his gap year travelling, and we still hadn't had a message from him 3 hours after he should have arrived, it was me who had to keep saying, “I'm sure he's ok, he's probably got no signal” and “he's probably in some greek bar with a load of cheerleaders from California on a backpacking trip and has forgotten all about us” over and over again, while pushing down any fears I may have had about plane crashes, train accidents, abductions, etc. etc. Luckily it turned out that he had just caught the wrong train from the airport, and spent hours going round greece with no phone signal on the trains. But as the step-parent, I had to reassure my wife and act the uncaring, callous git, to keep her calm, while internally panicking and worrying every bit as much as her.

I have given them my last fiver so they can go out, I have frantically searched the town during a busy carnival night in the rain for a teenage boy whose phone has run out of charge, I have picked a screaming girl out of a stinging nettle patch and told awful jokes until she smiled again, I have hunted the entire of Eurodisney for a lost memory card that turned up in a shopping bag later on, hell, I spent 2 whole days IN Eurofuckingdisney, where you cannot get a decent drink for love nor money. I spent hours explaining algebra and various forms of poetry, and am currently enjoying proofreading a rip-roaringly exciting fine art dissertation, and checking a sponsorship contract from some skateboarding company for hidden “we will eat your first born child” clauses. I have screamed, laughed and cried with them for the last decade, and yes, I am proud of who they have become, even if I do moan about them. And I'm pretty sure that's what real parents do, and I'm pretty sure that the key word in step-parent, is parent, not step.

I still don't want to have any children of my own the usual way, because as far as I am concerned, I already have two, and I think I did quite well, and the world has enough mumbling socialist drunken hippies in it already. I don't love the cats I have had from kittens anymore than the two that my wife already had when I met her, nor my Dog who I have had from a puppy anymore than the one I adopted at 7 years old, so I doubt I would feel more strongly about a child I had had from the beginning than I do over those two, even with the genetic crap thrown in. Again, ask any adoptive parent the same question, you'll get the same answer. My dearest and oldest friend was adopted, and he has plenty of mannerisms from his mum and dad, and regards them as his parents, no two ways about it.

I am not saying that all step-parents are wonderful people, or that everyone's experiences are the same. Watch the news, you'll find plenty of evil murderous genetic mothers, and rapey genetic fathers as well. I just wanted to tell my experience of it to someone, because, well, it's Christmas, and I am still a public school educated chap from Guildford, and thus incapable of actually talking about proper feelings and emotions and shit. So I wrote this instead. And if you also happen to be a step-parent who does care, and worries about telling people that, then next time somebody tells you that you don't have kids and you don't understand, tell them that yes you do, and yes you do. I really should myself, but will probably continue to shrug it off, and mumble something incomprehensible back. My kids have four parents, who love them, and I reckon that makes them pretty damn lucky.

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.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Faith is no bad thing to have, unshakeable certainty should never be trusted though

I worry about a lot of stuff, mostly because it is the 21st century, and we have plenty to worry about, or so we are told, ebola, Isis (not the goddess, or the Bob Dylan song, or even this unfortunate post-metal band) and the ever present threat of global meltdown from an unruly oil based economy. There's a much longer list, but those 3 will do for now. Today I am worrying about people who take allegory literally. Those who believe that the Bible (or whichever holy book of choice they have) is a literal account, written by God, and thus infallibly true, gospel, if you will. Even Jesus gives us a few hints that you might not have to take it literally, with his parables, which are not actual truth, but nice little stories, which help us to live better lives. It is a shame that he doesn't go so far as to explain that Genesis is most probably an allegory as well.

Fundamentalism is rarely pleasant, and usually practised by those who refuse to see that at best, the words of any holy book are the words of God as interpreted by man (and this includes the recent spate of Atheist fundamentalists who treat the God Delusion as a holy text). And the amount of time that passed between the events written of and the actual writing down of them is more than enough to have changed the original by some considerable amount. This is not blasphemy, this is simple logic. At best, the first gospel was written down in 70AD, a good 40 years after Jesus' death. It is now nearly 40 years since the Sex Pistols played the Manchester Free Trade Hall and if all the people who said they were there actually were, it would have needed to be a much bigger hall. Exaggeration happens over time, think of the amusing stories your Grandad told you, and how they would become more embellished and better every time, and further from the truth. Think of the even more unlikely version of the tale that you now tell to your children. Now multiply that by lots (the oldest KNOWN copy of the Bible (the Codex Sinaiticus) dates from 350 AD, the 70AD date came from a bible-proving source, for balance, and relates to a Gnostic Gospel left out of the final edit) and imagine how the details have changed as they are handed down from generation to generation before being written down.

Now at this point, I have to admit my atheism, it is a well studied atheism, and I do not deny people their right to have any gods they wish. I was brought up in the wishy-washy anglican tradition by eminently sensible Christian parents. At any time when I questioned the madder parts of the Bible, like Adam and Eve, or Jonah and the Whale, my Dad would tell me it was an allegory, and not meant to be taken literally. Which is true, any way you slice it. Once I had realised the whole thing was not for me, I wondered why a sensible man like my Father would continue to attend Church every Sunday against all reasonable evidence. It is a conversation I am still not brave enough to have with him, however, once I had presented a cogent and reasonable argument for my own lack of belief, they stopped making me go to Church every week. As I said, eminently sensible, and reasonable Christians, and I thought they were all like that for a long time.

I have since met many others, who try and convince me that Genesis is literal, and not allegorical at all. They will not even enter into a debate about the problems with oral tradition and the fact that God has dubious biographers, and a fairly crappy publishing approach. As far as they are concerned, every thing in that book is the word of God himself (not withstanding the fact it has been written by men, a fact that cannot ever be debated, it is very much true) and I don't know how to argue against that without resorting to belittling sarcasm. Faith is an intransigent thing, and if I'm honest I am faintly envious of those who still have it, it is comforting. But I cannot disprove it, any more than I can disprove Russell's teapot. So I have stopped trying.

I can still remember the euphoria I experienced at enormous Christian gatherings, where we all sang the same songs as one voice to a higher power, and felt the tremendous power of the spirit come over us all. Unfortunately, I then experienced exactly the same thing at Donington Park in 1991 watching AC/DC, as we all sang with one voice to the higher power (or high voltage if you like a good pun) of Angus Young's cherry red Gibson SG. It was the same feeling and I find it unlikely that the Holy Spirit was endorsing Highway to Hell by blessing us all. Not to detract from the experience of the religious, but it is the act of people coming together and sharing in the same thing that brings the rush and joy, in my experience, rather than any holy spirit. This is not a bad thing, humanity together can achieve wonderful things, and it is good to know that when we all come together as one then euphoria ensues with or without chemical enhancement. Maybe we should try it more often as a species.

I have no problem with those who have a God, whatever brings you comfort is good for you, personally I prefer the waily guitar stylings of Steve Hillage for my religious experience

You're welcome, sorry if you were hoping for AC/DC.

But I know that plenty of other people don't, and that is okay. What happened to the wishy washy allegorical Christians, who agreed with Darwin and God? Evolution was all part of the great plan they said, and I liked the way they altered their perception of the world and their God to fit in with the new information. Ironically, some of the greatest scientists the world has ever seen were part of the original Islamic Caliphate, and their scientific discoveries were celebrated as proof of God's benevolence. I am not sure at what point religion stopped trying to understand the world that we have been given (which after all is exactly how religions begin, as a way to understand the world we live in) and decided to stop, in case it found out more than it wanted to inside Pandora's box. Why do otherwise reasonable and intelligent people scoff at the Norse model of the Yggdrasil world tree, and yet fully accept the garden of eden, snake and all?

I am in no way denigrating religions, and the religious experience, spirituality is a fine thing, and there are indeed more things in heaven and earth than science can currently explain. That doesn't mean it won't though, and the good thing about the scientific method, is that it admits it is wrong. In fact, it goes out of its way to disprove itself whenever possible. The misunderstanding of the word theory has led to far too many religious dinner table arguments about the theory of evolution being just a theory. Not so many about relativity though.

As I mentioned earlier, I was brought up in a very Christian household, and it was a lovely place to grow up. We had friends we knew through church, many of my oldest friends are people I met in sunday school. The community aspect of the Church is the thing I like about it best, a place where you can go and be welcomed, and from what I know of it mosques and temples are the same, though living in the middle of nowhere as I do, my experience is limited. I was probably much older than expected when I realised that very few of my school friends went to Church every sunday, and I was actually in the minority, whether that had any bearing on my eventual loss of faith or not I cannot say. But very probably. They are nice places, like Pubs, but without all the drinking and fighting. Though there is wine (and tea and coffee afterwards) and a good old singalong every week, which is nice.

I do not want any of this shared and quoted by the “lets all laugh at the stupid religious people and their primitive beliefs” brigade, as they are no better than the religious fundamentalists who refuse to believe in dinosaurs. Dawkins has gone too far in his crusade, and before you tell me about all the wars waged in the name of religion, I can stop you by pointing out that religion was the excuse, territory is pretty much always the reason. God is often a convenient excuse for psychopaths. Even if we had no religion, we would still be dreaming up exciting reasons to kill each other in new and innovative ways. Kids fight over their favourite music, let alone anything important (mods and rockers, ravers and rockers, goths and pretty much everyone else) why blame the one thing that actually tells you not to kill people? Interpretations are everything, and usually miss the point.

I spent much too much time in my youth trying to argue with people of faith, using logic, science reasoning, occams razor, anything you like to change their minds. This was misguided, and as bad as the religious types who were trying to convert me. Once I had stopped (though I still invite the jehovah's witnesses in for a chat, I don't argue as much now though) I realised that tolerance is really the key to everything. Live and let live, if their beliefs bring them comfort, then let them keep them. Plus faith, by its very nature, is often unshakeable, stop trying to shake other peoples, and check your own instead.

Those who are defining atheism as a movement with Richard Dawkins at its head are really missing the point, an absence of belief is not a belief system. They are probably the same people who take the wonderful, tolerant, inclusive texts of the Koran, and twist it into the awfulness that is ISIS, and militant Islam. It bears no resemblance to the teachings of Mohammed, any more than the Westboro Baptist Church represent the teachings of Jesus. Underneath this article in the guardian which manages to miss the point by a fairly wide mark, a commenter called unretrofied wrote:

Atheist movement? Thats your problem right there. I just don't believe in God or gods, I'm not joining a fucking club about it.”

Which kind of summed the whole thing up nicely for me.

Enjoy your God, enjoy your faith, but accept the failings of it's prophets, who wrote in the context of the world they lived in. Adapt to a changing world, the World tree can not possibly exist in the universe we now know of (although maybe it does in a parallel dimension, as we have to accept those now as well, if we want to understand string theory, and we do want to understand string theory) but maybe, just maybe, the guy who wrote down the world tree theory meant well, but was not listening to what his God had told him properly. Man is fallible, and we only know of God through the words of men. I for one think this is proof that there is no God, as surely he/she could clear all of this up without too many problems without all of this “do not test the lord your god” and “have faith” stuff. But that's just my opinion, and I am allowed it, as you are allowed yours. But maybe just accept (like my Dad did) that Evolution was part of God's great plan for the universe, rather than wasting so much energy trying to disprove it.

“Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one's own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”