Monday 2 May 2016

I've Been Out Walking – I Don't Do Too Much Walking These Days

A man in a pub - who had just had this blog recommended to him by a friend of mine - asked me what it's about. I would like to say that I replied with 'about 3000 words a couple of years ago, but I can generally pull it in at about 1000 these days, if I don't go off on a stupid tangent about people I spoke to in the pub,' rather than shrugging, taking a slurp of my pint, muttering, 'I dunno, cats? Pop culture stuff? Inappropriate over-sharing of my personal life?' and wandering out for a cigarette I didn't really want as I hadn't yet hit that magic third pint where I stop being a miserable misanthropic twat and become the witty raconteur you know and love.

Sadly, this lack of an overarching theme is continued in this latest instalment, which was already mapped out in my mind way back on Thursday night, and would have been written and perfect by lunchtime on Friday, if it weren't for two minor problems. I am a slave to my circadian rhythm (my favourite Grace Jones B side) and modern working hours conventions. Inspiration generally hits me just as I am going to bed, or as I am walking to work in the morning. Sadly, I am not in the position to be able to sit up all night writing whenever the muse hits, as I have to work for a living, which is why I can't then sit and write it all up in the day time either. Like most people, I have to remember it all in the evening, when I'm knackered and have forgotten almost all of it. I am writing this on a Sunday, it's been nearly three days since I came up with the original theme for this piece, and I've mostly been drinking in the intervening time (I was out dancing til 2 in the morning last night, like I haven't done for over ten years. Netty has finally relented her ban on my dancing where other people can see me).

Walking has been my favourite source of inspiration for as long as I can remember, and I don't do as much as I used to. Writers are always told to keep a notebook on them at all times, to write stuff down as it strikes, which is all very well, but can any other writers please tell me how they manage not to lose their fucking pen every time they step out of the front door? I now use a notebook app on my phone, which is slightly more reliable, though prone to run out of battery, and autocorrect leaves much of it as incomprehensible as my Doctor-worthy handwriting is. My walking these days is mostly confined to walking in and out of work four times a day along a road with no pavements. Trying to type in a note as the rain lashes down on my screen while jumping into a hedge to avoid being crushed by a tractor brings home the terrifyingly brutal nature of being a 21st century rural not-quite-writer (but is more legible than my wet, inky handwriting on papier mache would be in similar circumstances). If there is one thing I miss about living in a town it is pavements.

This is the view from next to my house, I have been walking past it four times a day, every day for the last three years, and I still never fail to stop and be impressed by it, these sheep think I am their King, or that I have food, I am not sure which. This is not the best angle and the view normally looks better than this, it is the best picture of the sheep though, and I felt that was more important, despite the text making the opposite plainly true.

Dartmoor is always in view in my bit of Devon (a fact I usually celebrate by muttering 'Hello Dartmoor you magnificent big green bastard' as it hoves into view on the horizon as I drive home) so the wife and I have been doing some walking on it recently. I downloaded an app to help us. Technology is brilliant, and to those who say I should just use a map and compass, I say to you that in order to navigate by map and compass you need to know where you are in the first place, and I'm not so good at that. To the smug, outdoorsy people who say to me 'well, what did you do before you had a smartphone then?' I am forced to reply, 'I got lost, all the time, it was shit, I have a smartphone now, it is better, now fuck off.' I have a similar argument prepared for my excessive use of satnav in the car.

Walking on the moor (which we are doing a lot of at the moment because Netty is doing a charity walk in the middle of the night with my mother next weekend please sponsor her here, thanks) is proving rather more emotional for us than we expected. I've always been deeply suspicious of people who go out for walks and don't own a dog, and it does feel particularly odd being one of them. In case you are new here, or you didn't know, my beloved dog Rizla had a massive heart attack and died in my arms the day before David Bowie died in January. Much as 2016's death roll-call has been taking its toll, this is still the one I have most trouble getting over. I have tried and failed to write about it lots of times since, but ended up changing the subject (like I did here) or turning off the computer and doing something else instead. With unnerving prescience I managed to write the best tribute to her three months before she died and haven't been able to top it since.

Man and Dog, out walking, as it is supposed to be, Rizla's long-suffering look is not coincidence, I had been trying out jokes on her all morning by this point

The thing I have found intriguing is the immediacy with which people will say to me 'are you going to get another dog?' And while I accept that this is standard when someone loses a pet, I am forced to question it. If, god forbid, my wife were to die, would your first question be 'are you thinking of getting married again?' if one of the kids died would you ask me 'are you thinking of getting some more kids then?' I suppose you might, but you probably wouldn't, right? Last time I was without a dog I ummed and ahhed about getting another one until some friends of mine told me they had free puppies and offered me one (and Netty insisted, see here for more details). Another friend in the pub last night (while I was still in the heady daze that only comes with a solid fusion of scrumpy and James Brown) gave me a similar story, and I may have once again been talked into getting a puppy. However, neither he nor I are sure if the puppies will even exist yet, so nothing is set in stone.

The cats do try and fill the big dog-shaped hole in my life. Duchamp regularly takes a massive dump on the living room floor, Bitey insists on coming for walks with me, and George Orwell stretches out over the entire sofa revelling in his spectacular flatulence. I didn't realise quite the extent to which Rizla was keeping them all in check until spring burst forth recently. The glorious spectacle of life bursting out in all the hedgerows and moorland by my house is transformed into a macabre carnival of death and horror. Every morning, without fail, I have to scrub the blood off the walls, pick up the carefully arranged intestines (I'm sure they spelled out 'you're next' this morning), hoover up the feathers and try to locate any survivors for relocation to somewhere far away - where doubtless some other evil murderous feline will finish the job, but I will feel better about it. I always thought the dog was being a dick when she used to bark at the cats and send them straight back out of the catflap again. I suspect it was just because she had magic dog ears and could hear the terrified cheeping and squeaking of the victims they were carrying. So far this year we have had rabbits, moles, all types of bird, and most impressively, a squirrel. I am still convinced that there will be a sheep one day, or even a cow, if they can get it through the catflap. It's not their fault, they don't realise that my gift preference is for French Disco records, not corpses.

Yes, we took a photo of Bitey with the squirrel, (it was far too late to save it at this point) at least it still had it's head on, George Orwell and she both have two bells on their collars now, short of attaching one of those supersonically-high-pitched electronic rodent repellers to them, or some kind of siren, I am at a loss as to how to stop the murder. And yes, I am old enough to rock those slippers now.

The reality of all pet ownership is spending hours of your life elbow deep in offal, vomit and faeces, but for some reason we keep doing it. Today I realised the extent of the dog-shaped hole in my life, as I had to force myself to walk away from a hamster in a pet shop that I had formed an unshakeable bond with. He was ginger, and trying ever-so-slightly too hard to get on with me, and I had already called him Ron Weasley and planned our long and exciting friendship before I realised he was a hamster, and I live in a house filled with evil, plotting murderous bastards who need to be stopped (they already tear baby rabbits limb from limb in front of our guinea pigs and rabbits, in some kind of 'look what we're going to do to you if we get in there' display of power). The only way to do that is probably to get another dog, let's hope my friend's puppies are real, and not a funk and cider inspired hallucination.

Thursday 14 April 2016

The Millenial Generation Has No Imagination

Q: When can a new, exciting, dangerous art movement be said to have truly lost its edge?

A: When a group of middle-aged, middle class people holding umbrellas are dragging their children around Bristol on a guided walk of it by a wildly enthusiastic, fiftyish (sorry if you are reading this and younger than that, I assume a lifetime of the lifestyle has taken its toll) chap in a sensible lightweight waterproof jacket.

That's me on the far left, don't let my feigned cynicism put you off, it's a really interesting walk

This was my realisation last weekend as my wife and I trudged the pavements of Stokes Croft on a tour of Bristol street art. Street Art, Graffiti, or whatever you want to refer to it as, has been defanged; it is now as dangerous as the pre-raphaelites, pointillism, cubism and pop-art. We were on the walk to see if it would be appropriate for my wife's private school GCSE class to go on, that's how edgy the spray can brigade are now (they have their own specialist paint marketed at them by big corporations and everything). I think a few of the other participants were a little miffed that we only saw two Banksys, and that the very enthused guide was far more excited by newer work, and Graffiti's inherently transient nature. I liked him, I learned stuff, although I agreed with the guy who had sprayed 'Fuck Banksy' on the side of a wheelie bin in silver paint. Banksy is to Graffiti what Mumford and Sons are to folk music (I accept that that might be a bit strong, nobody deserves to be compared to Mumford and Sons plc).

This is not in silver paint, or on the side of a wheelie bin. I didn't take any photos.

Art, by its very nature, is an ever changing, ever evolving thing, and so it is only natural that big, colourful, barely readable letters on the side of trains would become accepted and boring. Of course, Graff/Rave culture is all well over thirty years old now, and by rights should be as dead as the hep cats and Daddios of the beat generation were when it sprang up. But it's not, perplexingly. Millenials (I think that's what we've decided to call them yeah?) appear to just be running a continuation of the culture that we generation Xers handed down to them. Spray your name on a wall, eat a disco biscuit and chew your face off to some seriously dirty beats, just like 1989 (except they spell it dutty now).

Not so very different, apart from the hair, obviously

A young chap in Bristol city centre on Saturday was singing DJ Luck and MC Neat's 1999 garage classic 'With a Little Bit of Luck' to me as he handed out flyers to a dance weekender. It is possible that he recognised it as something an old git like me might recognise, but it is still akin to me handing out flyers to a free party in 1992 (when we were still allowed to meet up in fields and dance to repetitive beats) while singing 'I Wanna Dance Wit' Choo' by Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes. Which, I must confess, I may well have actually done, but I am special.

It worries me though, my Grandparent's generation had Jazz, modernism, berets, trench-coats and sneaky reefers. They went on to ask their kids what that god awful noise was and why on earth those blokes had such long hair. My parent's generation got Rock and Roll (which in my very broad definition includes Psychedelia, Heavy Metal and Punk) Pop art, loon pants, winklepickers and LSD. They wanted to know why the music we listened to had no discernible tune, and invented the rap-with-a-silent-C joke for everyone to enjoy. My generation got huge, phat (with an emphatic PH) electronic bleeps and beats, Hip-hop, Graffiti, massive trainers, flowerpot hats and Ecstasy. We are still young enough to believe we like current music (luckily for us it is not radically different yet).

This is not my mate Tom, looks a bit like him though

The next generation seem to be content to drink over-priced coffee and grow over-long beards while listening to the same tired old trance anthems and munching on the same horse tranquilisers that the hippies were messing around with in the 70s. In their defence, we are doing the same thing, generation X is nothing if not greedy, we hung on to the coat tails of rock and roll, we can latch on to the hipsters flannel shirts if we want to. Of course, the big difference is how well it is all classified into sub-genres nowadays, it can't even be narrowed down to one type of glitch hop for fuck's sake (it's possible that critics just need to do something to justify their existence, so why not new genre names. I'm still a big fan of Post-Womble-Deathcore-Hoedown).

It might be because they have the new frontier that we never did, the world wide web, interconnectedness with everyone all the time, a platform to broadcast your every thought and whim upon, and consume all the culture that ever was. There's a lot of it out there already, maybe now it's all so accessible there's no need to invent anymore. Or possibly the next mass change has already happened and I am just too old to realise that it is not just vandalism/noise.

Broadly speaking I can drop modern, popular musical movements into 3 stages (I'm a musician, my wife's the artist, if I keep up the art talk I'm going to get found out as a bluffer pretty quickly) the Jazz age, the Rock age and the Electronic age. The first half of the 20th century was dominated by big bands, crooners and swinging good times, and then Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black turn up and turn everything upside down (Rock Around The Clock is Big band Swing, I don't care what anybody else says, it is NOT Rock and Roll). After that it's all guitars and rock (be it 'n' roll, -abilly, prog or punk) until Giorgio Moroder buries everything in synths, Run DMC sample all the beats and old men with guitars and trumpets harrumph and say it isn't music and anyone can do it (it is and they really can't). Of course there is a seam of pop music running through the whole thing from Irving Berlin to Justin Bieber whose only concern is creating earworms to get your foot-tapping and your granny humming along.

Small confession, I think Love Yourself is a fucking top tune, and I am not sorry

Of course people get upset that their idols get old and continue to play, shaking their heads at grey-haired, arthritic rock and rollers still strutting about the stage, not remembering that the old swingers, jazzers and bluesmen played and sang until they dropped (some of them have not dropped yet, nobody is telling Tony Bennett he should stop now). I remember Phil Cool doing a routine about the Stones still playing in the 80s – I can't get no... Sanatogen - he thought they should have stopped then...
These people are more upset at the very visible evidence that they are no longer young, virile or relevant, rock is dead, get over it. I'm sure sometime back in the late 16th century some ludicrously hatted Italian noble lamented the fact that Giovanni the Madrigal guy was still trying to to fit into his minstrel's tights at his age.

I was told these guys were past it when I saw them 25 years ago

After the walk, my wife and I laughed at the idea of the old people's homes of the future having an afternoon rave rather than a tea dance, or a sing song. But Ebeneezer Goode is the new Knees Up Mother Brown, make way for the next thing. The original rockers probably never expected to be grey haired and supervised either, but eventually the day room will be filled with black lights and glow sticks and the disco biscuits will be rich teas (predunked so as not to hurt your teeth).

Anybody got any Veras? Lovely

Thursday 31 March 2016

Too Much TV You Can't Talk About (Spoilers)

Back in 1985, my family got its first video recorder, my mother used it to record a dramatisation of Dickens' Little Dorrit and to the best of my knowledge she still hasn't had the time to watch it. I believe that the only reason my parents still own a VHS player is the mistaken belief that one day they will have both time and inclination to watch this disappointingly dated Dickensian drama.

This is Charles Frere, not Charles Dickens

I myself have always had an unhealthy - bordering on the abusive - relationship with television; badmouthing it behind its back while it emotionally blackmails me so that I can never leave it (every time I threaten to throw it out over a bad episode of Doctor Who it promises me exciting Sunday Night dramas but almost never delivers - the Night Manager was good though wasn't it?) Back when my parents were relentlessly recording every episode of Howards' Way, Dynasty and Poldark (at one point my father had three seperate video recorders to avoid clashes and briefly considered a fourth) I used to laugh at them stacking up hours and hours of material that their incredibly busy lives would never allow them time to watch (I suspect they may have invented binge-watching while we were out, a good twenty years before anybody else had thought of it). At the time, I would keep an eye out for any new series of Red Dwarf, and that was about it. The rest of the time I was content to watch whatever happened to be on when I was in a TV mood.

Mum and Dad never used to understand my ability to watch any old shit, just as I considered them to be in thrall to the schedulers and could not understand their need to find time to watch the many things they wanted to watch. I did briefly start using a video because by the time I got in from a gig and wanted to watch some TV there was only Ceefax on, but then TV went digital and a million new channels appeared and they all went on all night. Suddenly everything was a lot more confusing and it was impossible to follow a series because every time you put a show on it turned out to be an old episode from a year ago, unless you ignored it, in which case it was the last one that for some reason was the only one that would never be repeated (I have still never seen the last episode of Quantum Leap, I hear it's good though). So, despite trying to watch the big series like Lost and Heroes I mostly missed them and just watched movies, cartoons, old Star Trek episodes, and DVD box sets; not all at once, but the odd episode now and then, like a normal human. Also, by this time I was living with two teenagers, so I mostly had to watch whatever they wanted to and, as a result, can no longer watch the Simpsons.

I cancelled Sky a few years ago (hoping to encourage the kids to move out, it worked eventually) and gave up watching Game of Thrones (I might not even bother buying the next book, since the last two made it abundantly clear that George RR Martin has no clue what he is doing anymore) I felt free, there was less TV making me try to watch it all the time. But then, last year, I bought a youview box and became my parents (they have sky plus now, I suspect they have a couple of other recording devices as well, but haven't checked). The irresistible allure of the green button, combined with my overly eclectic taste, is my achilles heel. Every new series that looks even faintly interesting I have now got on series record. Every movie I quite like the look of is sat on the hard drive, tapping its foot, looking at its watch, tutting and waiting, and the piles and piles of DVD box sets that I'll get round to one day are still there. All staring accusingly at me, wondering why I bought them if I wasn't even going to watch them. And there is still more than enough TV to watch live anyway, when the fuck am I going to find the time to watch all this? And how on earth is it going to help me? This new golden age of television is not relaxing in the least.

Back when we only had four channels, you could count the number of 'must-see' TV shows on your hands (probably just one of them) and I honestly can't remember any of them now. Sure, there was Star Trek, Red Dwarf, Quantum Leap, Battlestar Galactica and so on, but you could miss as many episodes of those as you liked and still be able to follow the plot. Try doing that with Breaking Bad, Madmen or even my favourite daytime guilty pleasure, Doctors (which used to be perfect for not having to keep up with before it decided it needed running plots).

I blame these two for ruining a perfectly good show

I tried it with Happy Valley, series one was on before I had a recordy-box-thing, on a band practice night, so I didn't see it. I thought I'd have a go at series 2, and immediately had no idea what the hell was going on. It seemed to me that the amazing twist on the detective-with-difficult-personal-life-who-doesn't-play-by-the-rules trope was just that she was a lady, and northern, hardly a twist, and quite unnecessary. After a couple of episodes I realised that that was actually necessary, and stopped being an accidental mansplaining chauvinist southern-centric dickhead about it. Anyhow, thanks to my wife having seen series one, I found out the back story without having to watch another six hours of 'must-see' TV (or regret it as much as asking my stepdaughter a brief 'what the hell is going on here?' question about Hollyoaks which led to the longest and most unnecessary roundabout explanation I have ever heard).

I know who these people are, but it gets a bit hazy after that

Over the years I have learned to live with my always-threatening-to-topple-over-and-flood-the-living-room pile of books to read, and it's digital equivalent on my kindle. I have even gotten to grips with the seemingly infinite amount of DVDs I have spilling out from every place in the house that isn't already filled with books or records. Having the added stress of the long blue list with 'unwatched' flashing at me every time I idly flick into the recorded section of my tellybox and no clue as to which will be the thing you will have to have seen to understand twitter that week is no laughing matter (who am I kidding, of course it's a laughing matter, it's hysterical).

Sadly, the truth is that now, if you want to keep up with all the many things that you are supposed to have seen, you will probably need to watch at least 4 hours of TV a day and then not talk to anybody about it for fear of spoilers (fuck spoilers, if you are surprised that Walter White dies at the end of Breaking Bad you are an idiot, and if you didn't want to know that Han Solo gets killed by his son you should have just paid to go to the cinema before now you tight-fisted chimpknuckle).

I did say there were spoilers didn't I?

I have, in the last couple of weeks, deliberately not started watching at least four new series that I thought I might like, I didn't even record them 'just-in-case' and I am not going to even look at iPlayer. I realise now that the reason I wrote more songs, read more books, heard more music and did more things when I was younger is because I could watch a whole week's worth of good telly in a couple of hours. I would like to say I can go back there (unlike the famous 'we don't own a telly' types and their netflix-laden tablets, lying twats) but I doubt it, I like telly, and becoming my father is really no bad thing (apart from the voting tory bit).

This is not my Dad, but if he was I wouldn't skewer him with a lightsaber

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.