Friday 13 March 2015

Me and Terry Pratchett, a personal Epitaph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.