Sunday 21 February 2016

Devon and Cornwall - why they are also mostly awful

I've had some rare time off work at the same time as my wife, so we've been doing daytrips and generally larking about like you can only do when your kids are grown up and moved out. Sadly, I married a teacher, so we can only have time off together in school holidays, which in turn means that everywhere nice is full to the brim of arseholes, no way round that I'm afraid. As a consequence of this I realised a sequel to my last piece about London was in order. We shall make a travel writer of me yet.

(The hordes of twats have all been photoshopped out of this picture)

In the last week we have been all over the South-West peninsula that we call home. To places as diverse as Totnes, Plymouth, Exeter, Boscastle and St Ives. I am choosing not to make a load of jokes about how dreadful I find Plymouth, since that would be like shooting fish in a barrel (incidentally, my friend Joe insists that Plymouth has the romantic air of a southwestern Vladivostock, given its watery border with Cornwall, but then he is more able to see beauty in shitholes than I). In a very similar way, I am not mentioning my safari trip round Primark, Nandos and Greggs in Exeter. I learned a lot of things there, I was in turns terrified, enthralled and mind-numbingly bored, but some targets are too easy, and however well-intentioned and inclusive I may be, making jokes about chav-pants in primark is not going to help the cause any. So I won't. Also, the very noticeable increase in the homeless population of Exeter makes me unwilling to be mean about anyone less fortunate than I. Go here, do something nice about it.

So I shall attack my own people instead, and when it comes to class based humour, Totnes is an easy target, though perhaps for less obvious reasons than you'd think. My Father-in-law always tells us we should fit right in there as it is 'full of flipping hippies and weirdos'. He is, on the surface, probably correct. It is our addiction to charity shops that first led us to go to Totnes for the day, suspecting that we could get plenty of crazy, colourful and outlandish clothing in its charity shops. This was a misunderstanding. On entering the charity shops there, one is confronted by a sea of beige, grey and conformity, which may well be the key to understanding the place.

Small confession here, I come from the middle-middle classes (one day I will write my treatise on why nobody admits being from the very middle of the middle class, but that day is not today) from the days when this strange tribe of people insisted on calling their children Saffron, River, Lichen, Depressed Cupboard Cheesecake or some unpronounceable, re-appropriated mystical Indian thing or another (I was lucky my parents avoided drugs in the 60s, thus myself, my brother and sister got away with terribly ordinary names, phew). Now this generation are parents ourselves, we have (not me, I hasten to add) unaccountably decided to name our own children after our great-grandparents, Myrtles and Berties and Alfreds and Gerties are in abundance, running feral around the once smoke-filled and sweary pubs of this great nation. God help you if you dare to suggest that they are in any way similar to little Dwayn and Chelsee (sic) from the council estate over the road. Myrtle and Bertie are just expressing themselves creatively when they knock your drink over and pull your dog's tail.

People move to Totnes to escape the drudgery of the middle-middle classes. Tarquin and Jacinta have made enough in accountancy or whichever beige occupation they have toiled at, and are now ready to flog artisanal ipad holders in the countryside instead. They sell their south-east mansion (small terrace, two up, two down) and buy a lowly Devon farmhouse instead (6 bedroom, two acres, half the price of the old place) for little Beryl and Algy to grow up in. They set up their own business knitting organic crosswords, throw all their grey suits and smart-casual, pastel-shaded shite into the local British Heart Foundation Shop and spend their new lives in alpaca fleece trousers and home whittled sandals (of which you can find a plethora of independent dealers in town). Maybe they can't quite throw off their roots, since even Totnes voted Tory, but they all seem nice enough, and it is wondrous to go somewhere where nobody gives us a second glance, however eccentrically we have decided to dress that day.
(Normal evening wear for me and the missus)
Cornwall in February seemed an enticing prospect, although our attempt to visit the witch museum in Boscastle was scuppered by its being closed, no reason given, just not open, one of the many things I enjoy about the pace of life down here (no, genuinely, I do, the relentless march of commerce is not a thing I subscribe to, I like places that keep erratic hours). A very lovely independent artist in the old forge and breakfast at the farm shop ensured that the visit was not an entire waste of time, however, and I enjoyed watching several families clad head to toe in waterproofs and wellies dragging themselves towards the North shore of the South west coast path, possibly fooled into a false impression of the Cornish weather from a long lost summer memory. Elspeth and Monty will almost certainly be crying at you as the February wind peels the skin from their faces, if they haven't been blown over the edge of a cliff (not unlike one of my favourite hats once memorably did during a performance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead at the Minack Theatre) you should have stayed at home.

(This is neither me, nor my hat)

Having been lulled into a false sense of security by a near empty Plymouth City Centre the day before, we headed on down the coast for St Ives, hoping for some space as over the summer months it is more crowded than the streets of London, though with the added advantage of having no pavements, and angry city dwellers trying to drive their 4x4s through alleyways full of pissed up teenagers in flip flops. No chance, it was full, not of quaint and lovely fishing village charm, but arseholes, arseholes and twats mostly (and their children screaming loudly for ice cream, though blissfully unaware of Eddie Murphy).

The main shopping street (which being with my wife, I was obliged to walk down) is not filled with lovely independent shops selling locally produced wonders (unlike Totnes for example) but is jam packed with Super Salty Fat Dry Sea Face, or whatever the hell the latest trendy shop is called. It does have many lovely independent art galleries, and some proper crazy independents as well, in its defence. It's charity shops, however, tell a tale of holiday makers abandoning their optimistic shorts and swimsuits after a rainsoaked fortnight in an overpriced cottage.

I realise that if I wish to remain tranquil and happy I should never leave my house, where it is lovely. Or I should not have married a teacher and thus have to go away at the same time as every family in the country. I also realise that it is not just London that is awful, a lot of the South West is also filled with awful, I am probably part of the problem. At least it is both nicer to look at, and much easier to find an empty bit. Drive, walk or cycle (even I'm not stupid enough to suggest you try and use public transport down here) for fewer than 10 miles in any direction from any town and you will more than likely find yourself on something that barely constitutes a road, surrounded by trees and greenery, and almost certainly in fear for your life from either the weather, some kind of wildlife or the wheels of your own vehicle cheerfully waving goodbye from a ditch. Which is actually a rather wonderful thing, slow down and make the best of it.

 (That's my Stepson in the chair showing how we do it in the South West when the wheels come off)

Monday 8 February 2016

London - Why I am Glad I Don't Live There

Sometimes you need to get out of your comfort zone, and remind yourself why you live on the edge of Dartmoor where people are still occasionally scared by horseless carriages and elastic-trickery or whatever it is called. Last month, I did just that and went to that hive of scum and villainy they call London for three days. I found the place more absurd than ever, and came home to discover that I had made notes about it. Some of them were still legible, after all, when cider costs a fiver a pint, your handwriting stays that little bit more legible than usual.

The first two delicious slices of irony hit me as soon as we checked into our reasonably priced Premier Inn room in Waterloo. The windows were sealed, so no fresh air (or naughty cigarettes) allowed in this room. The air conditioning, however, was permanently on, so in the event of a power outage, everyone would probably suffocate. Maybe it is more economical to circulate air in a room this way than by simply opening a window? Maybe it was actually an aeroplane rather than a hotel? I was glad, however, that this room actually had a window, and enough floor space to walk around the bed, unlike the terrifying scifi nightmare hotel we stayed at in Peckham back in June. I'm pretty sure the breakfast we had there, in a dimly lit cellar, was mainly composed of Soylent Green.

The second of these ironic slices was that once I turned the data on on my phone, I was hit by a 4G signal, not a thing I have come across before (I know, get with the times grandpa) suddenly my phone was faster than it is on my wifi at home. In fact it was faster than the free wifi at the hotel was. Isn't technology marvellous? I know this paragraph is superfluous to you city dwellers out there who get it every day, but to me it was fucking witchcraft ok?

We hit the galleries, and the differences between London people and normality (for a given level of normal that includes me) began to open up immediately. In the Tate Britain I was amused to see a small boy (though not so small that what followed was necessary) being manhandled by his mother into the disabled toilets after his abortive attempt to go to the gents on his own. There may have been a genuine reason for it, maybe he had a pocket full of cherry bombs? Maybe his mother felt the gents was not safe for the kid on his own, after all, a sketchy looking bloke in a tricorn hat had just come out, and was now leaning against the wall, looking furtively at them while scribbling in a notebook.

Then I saw another mother, telling her 4 year old (probably 4, I didn't actually check) all about the app on her phone that they could use while they went around the gallery. Awesome, a day out staring at a screen rather than having to talk to your kid about art, well done you, and I think the phone belonged to the 4 year old rather than the mum. Modern parenting baffles me, and it is only a decade since I dragged my own kids around every art gallery in London until they wanted to kill me. We had no apps, I like to think they remember it fondly, and none of us can remember which bits I made up and which bits are true.

Lunch in the National Gallery cafe is always entertaining, and quite apart from the couple necking in the corner like it was a teenage party (which my wife assured me was actually a good thing, despite my natural English reserve finding it rather exhibitionist, I mean I'm all for a public display of affection, but they didn't come up for air for very nearly half an hour) there was a group of what can only be termed as media wankers sitting next to us. I don't know if they actually worked in media, but they certainly spoke in slogans, one of them assuring another that you only get one shot at life, and all of them talking about how quickly they actioned the emails on their phones. Yep, they used action as a verb, out loud, in public and without shame, and all held their phones in front of their faces as they conversed. As I said, wankers. Again, you city types might be used to this, and you may even use action as a verb regularly, I apologise to you, a bit, but you are wrong, and this is not right.

Then back into the National itself (where incidentally, the Viking looking booby lady just inside the main entrance seems to have disappeared, which makes me sad) where any attempt to look at the Van Goghs would require one to fight through a crowd of arseholes waving their phones around (maybe they too had an app?) Luckily, I've seen them before, and I don't like Van Gogh, so I could have a leisurely view of the opposite wall, which had a very interesting George Bellows I had never seen before. Along with some far superior Cezannes.

Then, after chuckling at a really tiny dragon in a painting of St George, who seems rather less heroic when fighting an oversized Gecko (I can't remember the artist, but I fear Smaug the Magnificent has ruined me for other dragons) I wandered into a dark room claiming it had a Leonardo cartoon in it, and was saddened to find a rather dull black and white drawing of Jesus and John the Baptist, nary a turtle in sight.

A small confession here, while I'm talking about Art (and bear in mind I will never let the truth get in the way of a cheap gag before you accuse me of philistinery) I like my Art to pass what I call the Richard Scarry Test, which my wife resoundingly disapproves of. I like there to be a lot of different things to see, and plenty of smaller stories going on, for example, Canaletto, who put lots of different little groups of people here and there, allowing me to make up who they might be, and what might be going on. If you don't know Richard Scarry, then google him, and you may see why I call it that.

I also realised that I am part of a long tradition that will never end, that of the long-suffering chap being dragged around art galleries by a girl (insert the partner of your choice/sexual persuasion here). I am currently in the middle-aged section of this tribe, and can recognise those in the same position, the shambling walk, as they try to keep up with their partner (probably a teacher, almost certainly wearing a scarf of some description, and faintly bohemian) while trying to gather enthusiasm for pictures which have been dulled by familiarity. I can see the younger versions, still pretending to care, or even genuinely enthused by their new partner's passion, as they are dragged unrelentingly by the hand by some absurdly beautiful art student, who this season will almost certainly be wearing a faux-fur coat, an absurdly large floppy hat, and full thigh high fuck-me-harder boots. And then I can see the ghost of gallery-visits-future, in his long coat and trilby, resignedly sitting on a bench, waiting patiently for the Psychedelically dressed granny who is squinting through bottle thick glasses at an explanation of a pile of bricks and nodding sagely. He seems to be happy, the future looks bright.

The next morning I had to navigate my wife across the city (4G is genuine fucking witchcraft) who was on a course near the Barbican centre for the day. This meant that we could either get on the tube at rush hour, or take an early morning stroll through the bankers. We opted for the latter (obviously, tube at rush hour? Not if I don't have to thank you, and I haven't done it since the 90s, I hear it might have become busier) and nothing has made me appreciate my own usual walk to work along an empty, pavementless country lane more. The cyclists looked suicidal, the traffic barely moved, the hordes of people in shoes that probably cost more than my car looked anguished, and rushing. No more the bowler hat, umbrella and briefcase of my father's daily commute, everyone has a rucksack now, some of them are jogging to work in lycra, none of them seem to have ties on. I did not envy any of them, not their casually ruffled designer suits, their heart rate measuring watches, or their almost certainly cocaine-fuelled, shallow, self-hating, loveless, paranoid, early stress related heart disease expecting lifestyles. Though some of them had quite nice coats...

After dropping Netty off, I wandered the city aimlessly, and if you ignore its inhabitants, it is a beautiful place really. Among other wanderings I went all round the river path from St Pauls down to the Tower and back (I do not like the bits where you have to go inland) and eventually found myself having a pint of eye-wateringly expensive cider in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese just off of Fleet Street, either because it had been recommended to my by one of my cousins, or because I read about it in a book somewhere, I forget which (if you are that errant cousin, do come forward and tell me I didn't imagine it). I sat there, drawing inspiration from the supposed history of a pub that had been there since just after the great fire, that can count Charles Dickens (definitely) and Samuel Johnson (probably, as his house is just around the corner) among its former patrons.

At least I would have had there not been a very loud voiced American gentleman sat in the next room from me (I was in the cellar, as it felt more romantically Dickensian to me than the snug bar, which was filled with arseholes, even on a Monday afternoon) who was talking endlessly about himself to some poor woman who could barely get a word in. I found it almost impossible to stifle a laugh as he told of his amazement at there being no wifi on a train from Paris to Switzerland, meaning he couldn't do any work for four hours. Apparently this was unacceptable. As a chap who was aimlessly, and quite deliberately, whiling away a whole day with no plans whatsoever, I found it very hard to sympathise with him. I do realise that your priorities may differ from mine, and I (almost) mean no disrespect. It takes all sorts to make a world, apparently.

Eventually I realised that despite its having been there for so long, and with so many distinguished former regulars, the Cheese was just a rather overpriced tourist trap (almost a literal trap, those steps would probably be lethal after a few more pints) although quite fun. Ironically, my local pub, I am assured by an archaeologist friend of mine, is probably three or four hundred years older than the Cheese, and thus has seen a lot more history. Less important history certainly, but more of it. While I can seek inspiration sitting in places where far greater minds than mine have discussed it in depth, I am much more likely to find it in a much older (and more pleasant) establishment, where I will more than likely find people I like. People who don't action anything (unless Agadoo comes on the jukebox) are unconcerned with wifi signals on trains, don't feel the need to spend their weekends running past human statues and buskers in lycra, and, most importantly, do not bat an eyelid at a man doffing his hat to sheep, cows and chickens and bidding them good morning on his way to work.

Thursday 14 January 2016

David Bowie and the Empathic Grief Wave

Allow me to be frank from the start, I quite liked David Bowie. I'm not a die-hard crazed fan, equally, I don't hate everything he did, I quite like some of his work, but I really shouldn't have shed a tear on Monday when his death was announced, and, in my defence, I didn't, initially. I saw it on the news at about 7am when it was announced, and thought 'Oh dear, another one, how very sad, and he's only just released that new album,' and thought not much more about it until I got to work and put the radio on.

Once I heard the crack in the voices of my constant companions (the radio 6 music presenters) I began to feel quite sad about it. Then I logged on to twitter and facebook, and could see the genuine hurt of my friends and acquaintances, and the odd writer, musician and comedian I follow. Which is when the empathic nature of these things begins to kick in (admittedly, I am still quite susceptible to anything sad at the moment, having only recently lost my dog). It was said that there wasn't even this big a general outpouring of grief for John Lennon in 1980. I would suggest that this is because the mechanisms for such huge waves of grief to take hold were not in place in 1980. Had Lennon been shot in the age of instant messages and social media then the wave of empathy would have been equal to or (almost certainly) greater than the scenes we saw in Brixton on Monday.

There was a similar effect when Michael Jackson died a few years ago. Again, I wasn't a massive fan, but I found myself caught up in the snowball of grief along with everybody else. Bad had been my favourite album for a good fortnight when I was ten years old. But then you change what music you like more often than your socks when you are ten years old. By the end of the day's radio coverage, I was almost believing that HIStory hadn't been a massive load of egocentric tosh, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The people on the radio are your friends though, if, like me, you listen to it all day long at work. Hearing the genuine catch in the voices of Shaun Keaveny, Lauren Laverne, Mark Radcliffe and all the six music presenters on Monday morning made me feel as sad for them as I would had a real life friend been telling me about a dead family member. Considering that it was, in fact, people I have never met telling me about a person I have never met (and neither had they I believe) dying this is an impressive trick, and it just goes to show how much more interconnected we are now than we were in 1980. The 'backstage' insight that one gains from the twitter feeds of radio presenters makes you feel even more like their actual friends (I realise that sounds stalky, please don't worry if I am following you on twitter, I am not that way inclined).

The radio relationship has always been an odd one, and when I catch the odd bit of Jeremy Vine, Ken Bruce and Steve Wright on Radio 2, it feels a bit like one of those awkward moments when you run into an old friend with whom you no longer have anything in common at a party and shuffle awkwardly while pretending to be interested in what they are saying, all the while wanting to move on to find newer, more interesting friends. It is only natural to feel empathy with these people that I spend my entire working day with. And it is empathy that drives us to cry over things that do not affect us directly, I have been known to cry over a sad bit in a TV show I have never seen before if they get the soundtrack right and it tweaks a heartstring.

Had I been a little older, then perhaps I too would be feeling genuine grief over Bowie's death, but in truth, his work had no real direct impact on me. Had I been a gender confused teenager in the seventies then I would have seen him as the messiah-like figure he was for many, a rallying point for oddball outsider teenagers, and I understand that, and it is them that I am crying for when I hear the opening of Life on Mars (although it is one of those songs that'll do that anyway, am I right?). I was an oddball outsider teenager, certainly, but it was the 90s, Bowie was doing Tin Machine and irrelevant, and we had Nirvana by then, though I was utterly unmoved by Kurt Cobain's death, possibly because I was an arrogant gobshite 17 year old with no regard for anybody else, and all those who did care had taken the day off school in heartbroken grief (some of them did the same thing when Take That broke up later on that decade, only it was work they were skiving off from by then).

I have no Bowie-like figure really, Lemmy meant more to me than Bowie ever will, but I did not shed any tears for his passing. The ever mounting radio, TV and online grief show brings out our humanity, and reinforces the fact that when a huge amount of people are feeling something, all those brought into contact begin to feel it too, as part of the hive mind. Much as I complain about the regular outpourings of RIPs on my social media feeds, I have to admit it's a good thing. It shows we do actually care, even if it is just to be seen to care while riding the trendwave. It works at Christmas as well, and if we could harness its power properly (admittedly, this is how religion spreads, and fascism) we could do a lot of good, and we could maybe all start to get on as a single species.

Thursday 7 January 2016

Is my cat sad because he is grieving the loss of a friend?

We had a tragedy in the house on Sunday morning, my beloved dog, Rizla, suffered a massive heart attack and died in my arms, just after breakfast. As my initial cry of 'Bear! No!' rang through the house, my two newest cats fled, probably assuming I was going to shout at them for eating the dog's leftover breakfast, which would be unlikely, as Rizla was more than capable of defending her food against cats. A fact that Kahlo, my one year old fluffy black and white cat should remember all too well, having found her head inside a mouthful of teeth and dog food once before, after straying too close to the bowl. She was scared and sticky, yet unharmed from the experience, Rizla was something of a pacifist, and would tell me off for hurting sticks when chopping firewood. However, as I sobbed into my dying dog's beautiful fluffy neck, knowing that I would never again experience my favourite smell of just-woken-up-dog, my only companion was the most enigmatic and underestimated member of the household. My ageing tabby cat, Duchamp, I think he may have been trying to help.

To set the scene, since we moved to this house two years ago, there has been a kind of pet armageddon going on, Duchamp is the only pet left of the seven we brought with us, and several who knew no other home are dead already. I have already made this sound worse than it really is, pets die, all the time, and when you fill your house with them like we do, it is inevitable that there are always some on the way out. See this previous post for just some of the losses we have had over the years. The current tally of the lost at this house is 1 dog, 3 cats, 2 guinea pigs, 3 chickens, at least 5 ducks (I lost count) and a fuckload of fish (I do not like fish, so that's fine). Only one of those was due to the road outside, all the rest were down to unexpected illness, or old age.
Duchamp is the only surviving pet from this picture now, and it is only three years old

Duchamp has been there through all of this (and the two cats and a dog we lost back at the old house) these have been his constant house mates, companions, friends, and in one case, his actual sister (although they never got on, it's a family tradition round here). He has seen some dark shit, and known sorrows that would make you soil yourself. For as long as I have known him, he has fled from the house at the first sign of anyone who doesn't live here. Sadly, the two young cats he now lives with think that this is normal cat behaviour, and both vacated the house over Christmas when the kids came back to visit, since they no longer actually live here (they have only been gone for about a month, and both cats lived with them for their entire lives up until then, the new cats are morons).

Uncategorically Duchamp is now the alpha cat, the top of the heap, head pet of the household, he is fifteen years old (probably, nobody can remember exactly when they got him, best guess, around the millennium) and has lived with us longer than any other pet. However, for some reason he sits back to let George Orwell, who is not even one yet, step in and steal his food (unless it is raw chicken). It might be because he is significantly smaller than the other two, much younger cats, or just because he doesn't want the top cat gig, shunning the responsibilities of command for other, more power hungry felines. He is now often to be found cuddled up with Kahlo or George Orwell, whereas he steadfastly refused to have anything to do with any Cat other than Dali (his sister) and Carty (the original top cat of the house) unless he was very cold. Possibly all this loss is making him appreciate the companions he has?

It is telling that his occasional eye infection that makes him appear to be crying came on again, just for the one day, on the day that Rizla died. Duchamp was also trying very hard to sit by me as much as he could all day, attempting to offer solace in the only way he knows, merely by allowing you to be in his presence. Or possibly, just possibly, he shared in my sorrow, and was hoping that I could offer him some comfort, after all, he had spent more time with Rizla than I had, he didn't have to go to work every day.

It is difficult to sum up this most enigmatic of my cats, he is often overlooked for his flashier, more excitable housemates, and it is easy to think of him as aloof, but he has been through some shit. I am still the only person who he will regularly sit on (despite his being a fully grown cat living with my wife and her children when I first met him 14 years ago) and if I stroke him the wrong way, move my leg slightly or, god forbid, attempt a cuddle, he will leave me as well. As a kitten, he was fed a sausage that was too hot, and taken for a walk on a skipping rope by a small girl, these betrayals, which he still feels keenly (you can ask the small girl if she has been forgiven, a decade and a half on) have led him not to trust easily, if at all.

His initial hurt at our bringing another tabby, George Orwell, into the house quickly dissipated, as it became obvious that this extroverted, over cuddly, eager to please idiot was about as far from being a replacement for him as you could get. There is none of Duchamp's quiet dignity to be found in the sprawling moron who is currently sitting on my arm, playfully hitting the delete button as I try to write this.

Duchamp sits  (always incredibly neatly, none of the sprawling uncouth lying around of the other two idiots) watching, in silent judgement of us, the only sounds he ever makes sound like a cat being loudly murdered very far away, as if he is a ventriloquist, and you'll only ever hear them if you are holding raw chicken that he might be about to get a bit of. Or, ironically, if he is actually in another room, and needs the door opened. He is not a creature to waste words.
"If you're not bringing me raw chicken, you can fuck off back in the kitchen until you've got some"

As I wallowed in my misery on Sunday night, sniffing the furniture, and refusing to hoover up all the fur in the living room, I dared to suggest to Duchamp that he didn't understand. He looked at me with a look of such withering sarcasm I almost thought my father was in the room. How could I dare to suggest to this most empathic of cats that he did not know. He has been with us for all the bad times, he has watched his comrades fall alongside him, I have never known him indulge in the casual murder that his compatriots so seem to enjoy, and despite his penchant for hiding his turds in the hardest to find places (possibly because he feels he will lose gravitas if it is known that he defecates) he is very much one of us. Possibly the best of us, and like some mythical fairy, even if you have been to our house, you have probably never met him, and you probably never will.

Sunday 8 November 2015

A totally unnecessary love-letter to books

Don't judge me for this, but I spent the last hour sitting in my summer house reading W.B. Yeats' Wanderings of Oisin. Okay, have you got all the shouts of 'posh twat!' out of your system yet? Good, then lets carry on. While I was happily glugging cider and wondering what the fuck Yeats was on about, I realised that it didn't matter, because I could flip back and forth at my leisure, without pressing rewind buttons, and having people look at me like some kind of cretin who doesn't understand that Oisin spends three hundred years dicking about in Faerie because he saw a pretty girl, while Ireland converts to Christianity behind his back and then instantly feels his age and falls off his horse on his return (saved you a read there, thank me later).

My cat, Kahlo thinks that the wheel of time was way too long, and
 hopes that a song of ice and fire gets to the point soon before it goes the same way. 
She quite likes Ian Fleming though, these are her books obviously, 
mine are all far more worthy.

I know it's obvious, but I really like books. They are the best of all the entertainment media available. I always used to think I liked books best because they were convenient, because I couldn't watch telly or listen to records when I was stoned off my tits in the middle of the woods. But then walkmans (walkmen? I don't know) did exist back then, and I still preferred to read a book (at the same time as listening to records is best if you can though). Nowadays, you can watch telly right off your phone, so I could sit in the middle of nowhere and watch anything I like. However, I like books, so I do that instead, if I'm not staring vacantly at the view, wondering where the dog's gone and if there's another can of cider hidden in my coat.

I like the medium of reading much more than watching stuff, largely because I get easily distracted by my own brain. One stray thought and I'm off thinking down a rabbit hole of something else, and by the time I get back I have no idea what's going on. This has become a much bigger problem with age, as a kid I could be riveted to any movie easily, never once thinking 'I wonder what it would be like if you actually were a baby deer being raised by a street-wise rabbit' and coming up with a gritty alternative version that focuses on Thumper's troubled past as a child prostitute. Decent, plot-driven TV and film of the kind I like, will slap you for not paying attention. You will have to rewind, or just look bemused for an hour or so while you figure out what has happened. Luckily, there is plenty of TV that you can just watch and not need to know what's happening, or two minute videos of people falling over on youtube. I'm not a fan of those though.

The book allows you to look up, and think about what you have just read, look at the view, and contemplate things a bit before diving back in to the story. Theoretically, these days you can pause TV and movies to do the same thing, but when did you last do that? Never, obviously, nobody does that. In the same way as nobody rewinds back to the start because they've forgotten the hero's sister's name, or where the whole thing is supposed to be set. Although this could also be because we are usually watching in company, who will shout at you for pausing it and staring wistfully out of the window with thoughts of wonder over Ross Poldark's terrible scything technique. Also, if you are a mum it is perfectly acceptable to keep bombarding the rest of your family with questions about the bits you have missed/slept through/didn't understand. However we all riffle back through the pages to remind ourselves of what we supposedly already know (which is the one thing I really hate about my kindle, flicking backwards and forwards is damn near impossible). Particularly if we have made the mistake of reading half a book while utterly shitfaced, and discover we can't remember a word of it the next night, resulting in having to riffle back through half the book before finding anything recognisable (or is that just me?)

It could just be because my parents had cases and cases full of books, all pretty good ones as well, next to their utterly forgettable record collection, in an age where nobody really had video collections, and there were only 4 channels of TV that stopped at night-time. So books were the only things I could grab in my lengthy insomniac nights, and certainly the only entertainment-on-demand in existence when I was a kid. Okay, sometimes the insomnia was caused by the fact that the Secret Seven were engaged in some particularly difficult case, or that I was worried what would happen to Moley in the wild wood (are you calling me a posh twat again?) but with a torch, and some very quiet page turning, I could get back into that other world easily. Right up until my mum caught me.

There's also the joy of the stolen 5 minutes, quickly reading a chapter with a cup of tea. You can't do that with a film or a TV show, well you could, but do you know anyone who does? The fact that you commence on a book, safe in the knowledge that it will take you a lot longer than an hour or two to get through is comforting. The surprise you get when you reach the end in the first session will always lead you to believe it was a good book. Although in many cases it isn't, as a second reading will confirm. Phantom Menace syndrome* applies to books as well.

I know people that don't read for pleasure. I don't understand them at all, but I know them, they don't seem happy. I know people who can spend over a month reading one relatively slim book. I don't understand them either, but they seem a little happier, although they do watch a lot of telly. It took me two months to get through Les Miserables, but Les Miserables is enormously long, wildly tangential, and requires a good deal of backward page riffling to remember properly. Worse than that, it inspires a lot of those staring off contemplating what you've just read moments. It's hard going, but by golly it's worth it. Unlike the musical, which reduces it to a bunch of catchy songs and two-dimensional characters. That's a couple of hours of my life I'm not getting back any time soon.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not one of those awful twats who don't own a TV (how do you possibly find out who these people are? Don't worry, they'll tell you) I have several, I spend a great deal of my life lying on sofas and watching movies. TV is great, movies are great, I can lose days just listening to records and looking at the ceiling. I'm not even arguing that books are more improving than TV is, breaking bad was a TV show, and Dan Brown is still writing very popular novels, case closed. There's a lot of shit out there in every media.

I made these for books, they got a bit filled with my records, so I built more, 
they don't look as good as these though.

We bought a bigger house so it would fit all of our books in, we don't regret it. I spend a lot of my time building new shelves to fit all our books on. My wife and I buy enormous amounts of books, she prefers huge weighty non-fiction books on art and photography, which take up an entire wall of our living room, while I have filled the rest of the house with sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks, classic literature, and stuff that just looked like it might be interesting from the cover, along with the poetry collection begun by my Grandfather, that I promised I'd increase and pass on to another generation, I'm doing okay with the first bit of that, and have tremendous optimism over the second. Of course I throw a lot of them back into the world via charity shops, and occasionally leaving them on buses, but the piles get bigger, never smaller, which is great, because books are great, even the ones you never get round to reading.

I have devoted most of my life to pure escapism, sometimes via transcendental music, sometimes via hallucinogens and narcotics, sometimes via the cinema screen, sometimes via the simple, beautiful method of cider. But the only one that works best, and can take me to where I want to be, be it Ankh-Morpork, 19th century Paris, the Shire or Toad Hall, is just some bits of paper with ink on. I would not want it any other way.
George Orwell also likes books

*as an impressionable 22 year old, I left Barnstaple Cinema having seen the Phantom Menace, a film I had waited more than half my life to see, convinced that it was the best film of the entire Star Wars saga.

After seeing it again, I quickly realised how wrong I was. How very, very wrong.

Sunday 18 October 2015

My dog is sad because she is facing her own mortality

My dog is sad because she is facing her own mortality (cue a bunch of @mysadcat parody photos later) which makes me sad as well, I read this in the Guardian the other morning and it made me even sadder. Once again I discovered that my traditional testosterone-fuelled manliness (already pretty low anyway) is disappearing as I get older, and very nearly cried openly at my desk. It was lucky nobody came into my print room as I read it, for it is difficult to explain why you are upset by the news that a dog you had not even previously heard of has died, especially when the act of speaking about it would almost certainly ensure you burst into real tears. Having realised my own sad dog is old, I am already not sure if I want another one afterwards, I have never actually decided to get a dog myself, despite having always had a dog since I was 20 years old (see here for details). She has told me she is sad through the medium of emptying my kitchen bin all over the living room floor and chewing up the contents. At least I assume that's the message.

When my first dog Rambo died 11 years ago, I spent so long dithering about whether or not I wanted to get another dog that when my friends phoned up asking if we wanted one of the puppies they were having, my wife said yes, despite only having met them once, briefly, at a wedding. Even as we stood, looking at the pen full of puppies, and I dithered about which one I might like, she picked up the dopey looking one with poo on her back and said that that was the one for us. We called her Rizla, because she was always rolling in shit.

Of course Rizla might just be sad because I constantly compare her to Rambo, who, I like to tell her, was the best dog ever, and that she cannot possibly live up to the standards that he set. But then, I have been doing that for the last ten and a half years, and she hasn't ever minded before. And she knows that he was a proper tosser really, and that if there is another dog after her, then it will be told the same things about her. And again, she is a dog, her deepest thoughts are generally concerned with whether I am holding chicken, and if she can have some.

Rizla is ten years old now, and her heart problems (she has an enlarged heart, and will be on medication for the rest of her life, this was revealed when her occasionally fluttery heart beat got properly murmury) mean that we can no longer go for endlessly long yomps over the moor. This is why we are sad, because that is our raison d'etre. That is why I have a dog, I like long walks, and I am inherently suspicious of anybody who goes for long walks without a dog, it seems weird. How will I be able to wander all over the moors next to my house without a dog, I'll look like one of those fucking ramblers.

Just like Rambo did, she has rapidly gone from wonderfully healthy, happy brilliant dog to doddery old twat almost overnight once she turned ten years old. The joy being that no insurance company will insure a pet over ten years old, and your existing policy will triple its premiums when your dog turns ten, safe in the knowledge that you can't move it to one of their competitors. Rambo made it to fourteen with a lot of medication, so there's plenty of hope for the bear yet (Rizla has been known as the bear since we got her, as she looked like a teddy bear, and Rizla Bear sounds a bit like Grizzly bear, in fact my niece still thinks she's called Grizzler, which might have been a better name. I am currently calling her Wheezler, because of her breathing problems, which require more medication). Just before we got the heart diagnosis, we managed to confirm that she is also going blind in one eye, so that's her three things all completed. Heart, lungs and eyes, so I should probably call her sausage now.

Of course, when I got Rizla, I was very much a dog person who just happened to have cats that he put up with. Since then however, I have become more and more fond of my cats, and might be becoming a cat person who also has a dog. Although it is perfectly normal to be both a cat and a dog person, so I am probably now bi-petual (which is definitely a word).

But you can't yomp far with a cat can you? Which is yet another reason for Rizla's current melon collie (I thank you). One of my cats, Kahlo (also known as Bitey) insists on coming for walks with us. This means that the one bit of the day that was just for me and her has now been hijacked by the cats that have overrun every other aspect of her life. We can't go any further than round in a circle on the bit of moor right behind the house, as we can't take the cat on the road, and if we lose her any further away than that first field she can't find her way home (we found that out the hard way, and had to go and pick her up the next day, where she was waiting in exactly the same place we had last seen her).

The other cats are normal, they stay at home, and do cat things. But Kahlo thinks I'm her mum, really, I've done the research, it might be a problem. But this doesn't help my dog, who is now stuck with a life where she does the same, mildly disappointing walk every day, with a cat who doesn't know how to walk properly, and is slowly trying to steal her person away from her. All the cats seem to be trying to make her life more and more difficult, I have stopped her stealing their food and they stretch out to make sure that there is no space on the sofa for her either.

None of them are quite as bad as Moses, the big black cat we nearly adopted earlier this year. He was a very affectionate, very large cat, who loved all of us. But not the dog, or the other cats, he would lie in wait on the edge of the sofa by the door and ambush them. Rizla would not walk past him, and the other cats hid, shivering in the garden refusing to come inside. It is not often we admit defeat with a rescue animal, but with a heavy heart we sent him back (he was enormous and huggy and purry and lovely to people). It turns out he might not have been as homeless as we thought anyway, and there is a small chance we very nearly stole somebody's cat, though that's another story, and not relevant, but it was another reason why Rizla was once sad about cats.

She is very different from the tiny, sad, lonely puppy who I found, crying so quietly I couldn't hear her from upstairs, in the opposite corner of the kitchen from where I had put her bed on her first night with us. After cleaning up the ocean of wee she had left on the floor, and rearranging the whole kitchen so she could sleep in the corner that she had chosen, I then stayed up with her for three hours sharing the cold chicken that I had come down for, and playing monkey boxing with her (she inherited a squeaky monkey toy from Rambo that he was scared of, we played boxing with it, she eventually ripped it to pieces as she is much braver than Rambo, which considering she is scared of sheep, mirrors, hoovers, thunder, slightly crackly pieces of paper and cows, among myriad other things, is impressive. You could add squeaky toys, cats, fruit and Joni Mitchell's voice for Rambo's list).

I remember stepping on her almost constantly wherever we went, as she had to be as close to my feet as possible, and was slightly smaller than my boots back then. I remember how she used to tear into the room and run around in circles as fast as she could until she either fell over or ran into something. She has to stay calm now, and not get over excited, which is difficult, as she is excited by so many things. If I am cleaning out the wood burner she is excited to help me, running around in circles, if I am chopping wood she has to bark loudly at me and run around in circles (possibly because she is a dreadful hippy and doesn't like me hurting the wood) if the phone rings, or if anybody is using a phone to talk to somebody else, she must be involved, barking and running around in circles, despite her fear of lawnmowers, she will run after ours (in circles obviously) and bark at it to protect me from it (as well as any other power-tools I own) if there are people visiting, she must give them tennis balls to throw, and bark at them to remind them that that is why they are there, she once destroyed a catflap trying to get into the garden to save me and my friends Sam and James from a chainsaw we were using, if one of the cats is doing something they shouldn't she must be the police dog and intervene, if... oh you get the gist. This is not a calm dog, and yet to keep her alive, I must keep her calm.

We seem to have come full circle, once again I am finding myself sitting up at night, comforting my beloved dog in a kitchen that once again smells faintly of dog wee and bleach (her medication makes it difficult for her to control her bladder) and it is heartbreaking. Me and my dog are sad because we both know how quickly the last ten years have flown by, and that she cannot possibly last another ten, and while she will not have to consider what to do afterwards, I am so overly bloody practical that I am already trying to figure out what to do, rather than enjoying the time the two of us have left together. Of course, being a dog, the only things that genuinely make Rizla sad are not getting any of my toast, my occasional failure to throw balls I have been given, bad weather, or any of the myriad things on that list of things she is scared of (which now includes Freddie Mercury's microphone feedback solo on Queen's Sheer Heart Attack).

Sunday 4 October 2015

Did My Home Taping Actually Kill Music?

When I was a kid, getting hold of interesting new music was hard. Not least because I lived in what I believed to be the middle of nowhere (I have since moved to the actual middle of nowhere through choice, and have reappraised my youthful moaning as innate twattiness) and had no access to proper gigs. We went to see Wishbone Ash in Barnstaple in 1990, it was the first band that anyone had heard of to play there since Dumpys Rusty Nuts some time in the 80s. Admittedly, I had never heard of Wishbone Ash either, but my friend Ian had, so they must be good, right? (Spoiler, they were, but the support band who's name I have forgotten were much better).

Getting hold of any music was hard in fact, I read about bands in magazines like Raw, Kerrang and Metal Hammer (because I was cool, not like those weirdos reading the NME and Melody Maker) but did not have the funds to go and buy records by them. I read about the bands that influenced awesome bands like Skid Row, Motley Crue and Poison, exotic, ancient bands like Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Black Sabbath and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and wondered what they sounded like, there was no radio station playing them, and the old grey whistle test had long gone. You now read about how people are influenced by their parents record collections, but the only worthwhile things in amongst all my parents Gilbert and Sullivan cast recordings were two Beatles records (not even the good later stuff) and a best of the Rolling Stones, and by the time I was thirteen I was sick of them.

None cooler than this - ever

Which brings me back to my friend Ian, the first in a long line of friends who had better record collections than I did (honorable later mentions go to Jim (lofty), Kev, and Top Hat Matt). He knew about Free and Lynyrd Skynyrd and Fleetwood Mac (the early good Peter Green stuff, not Tango in the bloody night) and I kept badgering him to sing their stuff to me on the school bus so I could decide whether or not to part with some of my hard earned pocket money to buy their tapes (or more often than not, to buy some TDK C-90 blank tapes and copy them from Ian). He wisely brought his walkman in and played them to me with one earphone each, rather then singing them, and so I spent all my pocket money on blank tapes.

I have not been good at supporting artists (though this argument didn't used to come up quite so much about taping as it does now about downloading, probably because somebody had to pay for it at least once before anyone could copy it back then) over the years. If I wasn't taping stuff (many a happy hour was spent wearing headphones and sitting in front of my Dad's record player, which even now is more of a plant stand than a device for listening to music, praying that the needle wouldn't skip and make me have to start again) then I was at Bideford Pannier market in the 50p boxes buying records that had pretty covers. This meant that I could get ten albums for the price of one new one, and also that I spent my teenage years listening to Roy Harper, Lindisfarne and Procul Harum rather than New Kids on the Block and Two Unlimited like the cool kids did. It also meant that not one penny of it went to the artist or the record company.

I have not changed one bit, most of my music collection still comes from second hand shops and car boot sales. And the same goes for books, which I buy in massive stacks from charity shops on my rare excursions into places that have actual shops, and then take them back the next time. Authors, song writers and creative types receive not one penny from me usually (unlike the charities which appease my occasionally guilty conscience). As somebody who still strives to try and make money from these kind of pursuits, irony is my constant mocking companion, laughing over my shoulder as I painstakingly craft amusing folk songs and agonise over plot twists that nobody will ever read. If I won't pay for it, why the hell should anybody else right?

All this came to a head recently when I decided I wanted to read some books by Tom Cox (the man behind @mysadcat on twitter) and saw the heady price of six pounds for his first cat-related tome and balked at it, hoping to find it at a boot sale. This is a man verging on middle age, who lives on the edge of dartmoor, has a fondness for eccentric clothes and 70s prog rock and owns more cats than is good for him. We are essentially the same person, and I am begrudging him his means of making a living (possibly out of jealousy, or a strange manifestation of a sub-conscious self loathing I was unaware of) for the sake of less money than I spent on cider yesterday lunchtime when I took Rizla to the pub.

I am sad to say that when he announced it was on special offer at amazon for 1.99 on a kindle edition, I bought it. Despite amazon being the devil, and this meaning I only saved the price of a posh pint of cider on it. I began to re-evaluate my priorities as a consumer of culture and notorious skinflint. While I have always tried to save money by not buying thousands of records (unless they are Grateful Dead albums I do not yet own) or books, I have never not had the price of a pint in my pocket (excuse the double negative, it just sounds nicer). I have walked away from mint condition copies of Eskimo by the Residents for only ten pounds because I wouldn't have had enough money for a drink afterwards (I do still regret that one) which implies that I am some kind of alcoholic. I'm not, true I do enjoy a drink, possibly more than most, but I proved last year that it is not a problem. I just prioritise things badly.

Since I gave up smoking two years ago, technically I have about thirty quid a month going begging. It seems to have been taken up by my Cider/Strange Food/Awesome hat budget, but theoretically it exists. I may be spending it on posh cat food for my elderly and notoriously fussy cat Duchamp, but he will learn to like the cheap stuff. I resolved this week to start buying books properly to support authors, and buy music from bandcamp and other artist owned places. I will then make myself slightly happier by spending a couple of afternoons a month reading and listening to my new-found spoils in my summerhouse, which is probably my favourite thing in the world to do (there I admitted it, I feel better now).

I have begun well, this month I ordered another Tom Cox book from the utterly brilliant Hive (perfect if you like local bookshops, but not going into towns) and something else by somebody I've never heard of that looked good, but then rather than support new artists and emerging talent I bought a wildly over-priced copy of Penguin Eggs by Nic Jones which I've been meaning to buy for years. I regret nothing, it is a great album, and Nic Jones deserves all the help he can get, I am a bit sad that I have been able to listen to it as many times as I like online now, rather than it being a hazy memory from a smoke filled room in the 90s, so it is unlikely to surprise me, but these are the times we live in. It did blow the budget somewhat though, so next month I will hit bandcamp, and probably buy some Gaz Brookfield stuff as I have been enjoying his work since he was on the same bill as Maz Totterdell a few years ago when I was still playing bass in her backing group.

With the amazing availability of music, books, art and whatever your heart desires on the internet these days, it is all too easy to overlook the fact that somebody had to pay for it in the first place. Not to mention the fact that the sheer amount of choice often leaves me just not bothering to buy anything and going back to things I already own (I wrote a thing about modern record collecting here on my old blog). I know from first hand experience that trying to write books and songs and be in bands while holding down a job that pays enough to fund all of this for free is exhausting, and takes its toll on my mental and physical health. While I say, along with many others, that I would continue to do it no matter what, I suspect that at the back of my mind, if I truly felt that there would never be any income derived from it I would give up and just sit in my summerhouse listening to other people's music and reading their books.

Today we are on the verge of going back to throwing some money in the hat of the wandering story-tellers and minstrels. And this is actually no bad thing, as the digital hat provided now is infinitely big, while the group gathered round the metaphorical fire to listen can access any minstrel they like, and throw as much money in as they want without looking like showoffs. Now if I can only get some of them to throw a bit my way.