Monday 24 April 2017

Too many Georges – how to avoid a mid-life crisis on the eve of your fortieth birthday.

Despite my 40th birthday coming up in June, I have managed to avoid midlife crisis by not having stopped playing in rock and roll bands since I was 12. I suppose I could cut off all my hair and take up accountancy at the weekends, but I don't have time. George from my book, Weekend Rockstars, had quite a big crisis so I didn't have to. George Orwell (the novelist, not my cat) dealt with it definitively in his classic Coming Up For Air in which George 'Fatty' Bowling tries to go back to his youth, discovers it isn't there anymore and moves on (ambiguously). Which is how we should all deal with it: quickly.

This is not the George Orwell who wrote the book
This one is my cat – the one who likes Eastenders

40 is not a big deal at all for me. I'm the youngest of three, and have already attended both siblings' 40th parties, and my wife's. Getting older doesn't bother me in the least. I am still affected by the usual mid-life worries though, what haven't I done? Why is my life nothing like the one I expected when I was 13? Why didn't I start getting my shit together earlier? Why does Alan Moore stare at me in the mirror every morning?

This is not me, but he does haunt my mirror
(and wrote Watchmen and V for Vendetta)

The answer to many of those questions is because my younger self was convinced he would be a rock star and die at 27 (despite writing utterly dreadful songs) and a fucking dickhead. I'm allowed to say that, because I am me. You're not, by the way, unless you're my mum, in which case you wouldn't use that kind of language. I am only now at the sort of stage in my literary career that I would have liked to be in about twenty years ago.

The thing is though, as an angry young man with a promising future I couldn't think of a good enough plot to hide everything I wanted to say inside as well as I can as a bitter, middle-aged git with a disappointing past. My 20 year old self would not be able to admit that he was writing terrible songs, or that the novels he unfailingly failed to finish were fucking frightful. I had not lived enough to write anything worth writing at the time. What little of it survives is mostly Pratchett/Rankin ripped off humour that lacks the charm and cleverness of its source material. That which isn't is hugely high-concept bollocks that I had neither the wit, nor the vocabulary to pull off. The North Devon music fanzine I did was pretty funny though, so not all bad.

The Award-winning third issue of These Were...
It wasn't a real award, Matt the Hat and I thought it would be funny
It was

The thing is though, back then, writing was really hard. Much harder than it is now. I don't just mean the act of thinking up words and writing them down. I mean that I did all my drafts with a pen, like most people. I had no computer. Those first drafts are now illegibly drenched with ink as I edited, and edited, and edited. I was lucky enough to 'borrow' my sister's electric typewriter in order to make some of those masterpieces legible (sorry Kate, I really have no idea where it's gone now). But if I went through it and decided to shuffle a bit of punctuation about then I would have to retype the whole thing again. Clearly that wasn't going to happen, so my writing career was put on hold in an endless chant of 'Mervyn Peake didn't write Titus Groan until he was 35, Mervyn Peake didn't write Titus Groan until he was 35, Mervyn Peake didn't write Titus Groan until he was 35, Mervyn Peake didn't write Titus Groan until he was 35, Mervyn Peake didn't write Titus Groan until he was 35, Mervyn Peake didn't write Titus Groan until he was 35.' Until I turned 35.

If only I could have highlighted, deleted and rewritten all this with the swish of a mouse back then

For my first novel writing attempt at 17 I would sit, in the middle of the night, at my enormous desk in the wide open bay window (so that the smoke would go outside, sorry Mum) next to the huge gothic fireplace of the downstairs reception room my parents let me live in, a bottle of whiskey on the side, imagining myself a Hemingway or Orwell, suffering in the cold for my art (although nipping out every half an hour for a cigarette break and keeping the window closed would have been much better. I know this now, age is good). Now I sit with a laptop, wherever I like (usually either on the sofa by the fire in my slippers, or in the garden in my flip-flops, depending on the season) and I know to leave the booze until after I've got my wordcount up enough.

It took me a long time to realise the importance of notebooks, and scrawling down every idea you have. It took me even longer to realise that my handwriting leaves the pages of those notebooks looking like a rorschach test and I am incapable of not losing pens. I have a notebook app on my phone now. But I still don't write everything down, mostly because I get those ideas when I have the dog lead in one hand and a bag of shopping in the other, a mouth full of toothbrush or both arms up to their elbows in a sink full of dishes.

Why not use voice notes Dave? Well, despite the fact that my inner monologue has never remained inner and I constantly narrate my life out loud like a shit sitcom (I am a street mutterer, sorry, the fact that the older I get the more tramp-like I look does not help) I don't want to look crazy by talking into my phone in public. So I never do – I know, it's a phone, that is literally what they are for, I would look less crazy if I did that. Also, I cannot organise my thoughts into useable sentences without thinking them through and writing them down, so, on the rare occasions I have made voice notes to myself (or used my old dictaphone) they are so rambling and full of 'hang on, wait... maybe... oh that's better..' and suchlike that I can't listen back to them.

This is not me either
Probably won't be long though

Maybe if I had stayed at the posh school and gone to university I would have had a more conventional career, and be happily writing for a living now. Though I would probably be joylessly writing what somebody else told me to for money and abandoning creativity (see my paid musical output for evidence). Despite every single facet of the writing process being uncannily like pulling your own teeth out with pliers, I do still enjoy it. I must really, why else would I do it? It is not even paying my alcohol bills, and I don't drink much these days.

Thursday 23 March 2017

In Praise of Awesome Aunties.

My mother, who my cousins assure me does some work on the side as an auntie, admonished me this week. Once again she reminded me that at no point in the pages of my novel (Weekend Rockstars – still very much available from Amazon kids, don't forget to buy it) did I thank my wonderful auntie who did an awful lot of work on it for nothing. I pointed out to her that I had thanked her in this blog and on my facebook author page. She gave me a proper mum look indicating that this was not good enough – I had not written my thank you letters. If you know me well enough, then you know exactly who my auntie Jenny is, and why I might be slightly reticent to recklessly attach her name to a self-published book that I only wrote as an experiment to see if I could get to the end and which was turned down by no less than thirteen literary agents.

Almira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn't mean that you have the power to run the rest of us. 
For twenty-three years, I've been dying to tell you what I thought of you! 
And now... well, being a Christian woman, I can't say it!

In fact, due to my own insecurities over self-publishing, I did not include any acknowledgements at all. This was not because I am not grateful to all those who helped me get from vague idea to finished book, but because I read a lot of self-published crap* (it is most likely to be free to read on a kindle when I am bored, skint and have nothing to read). The worst part of all of them is the self-indulgent ego-trippery of the author's note and acknowledgements. I cannot stop myself reading the endless wankery of how they wrote their mediocre tale of an obvious stereotype (or thinly veiled version of the author) enjoying a standard plot twist (or blatant wish-fulfilment fantasy) and the infinite listing of all their relatives and friends who didn't try to stop them even though they really should have – all underneath a massive gurning black-and-white selfie of the author looking 'thoughtful'. In the interests of fairness I must point out that a lot of this stuff is produced by 'reputable' publishing houses as well.

It never fails to remind me of someone delivering an imaginary award acceptance speech in the bath, like Jimmy Rabbitte in The Commitments. I felt egotistical enough including a dedication to my three sadly deceased friends (who could not object to their inclusion) and my wife (who was surprisingly pleased by it). I have never read an author's note or list of acknowledgements in any works by Orwell, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Dickens, and J.R.R. Tolkien never added such a thing until his publishers asked him to for the collected edition of Lord of the Rings. I have this blog to indulge myself in the mistaken belief that anybody actually gives a shit about anything I might have to say, so why sully my book with it?

This pair of bastards are nothing like my aunts

I think I tried to explain this to Auntie Jenny herself at her daughter's wedding in September, and I'm sure she said it was fine to attach her to it – despite my rewriting loads of it after her brilliant editing and probably undoing all her fine work. But I am British, and am utterly convinced that people are just being polite and no praise is real. So I didn't. Also I was fairly drunk and may have imagined the entire conversation – in which case I can never bring it up again.

I was lucky enough to grow up with two awesome aunties – along with matching excellent uncles – to forget to write my thank you letters to. While I did not, at the time, fully appreciate all the books they gave me enough to want to write thank you letters (what six year old actually wants to write thank you letters?). I did, eventually, realise that Robert Louis Stevenson, C.S. Lewis and – more importantly – The Wind in the Willows and Tales of Robin Hood were completely pivotal to my development as a human being. Their indulgence of their nephew and combined literary bent has undoubtedly influenced me. I would also like to clear up the scurrilous suggestion that it was either of them that showed me the best places to hide cigarette ends in my mother's garden. That kind of information was – and indeed still is – of no use to either me or them.

When she's not accidentally killing you, Aunt May is the epitome of the aunt you want on your side

Aunts aren't gentlemen, as P.G. Wodehouse so neatly observed, and neither are they mothers. Which is why they are fucking brilliant. There were times, as a wee lad, when I thought it would be better to be one of my cousins as their mums were so much more indulgent than mine, I realise now that my cousins were almost certainly thinking exactly the same thing about my mum. Because when they're not your own kids you don't have to worry about spoiling them. I've seen my friends and family doing exactly the same thing now we are all parents – giving the nephews sweets while taking their own children's sweets away from them. Your kids aren't supposed to be your friends until they're grown up, but your siblings' kids can be – this is why aunts (and uncles) have more fun.

Was she even really an aunt? Was she Worzel's aunt? What the hell was going on there?

I have just received my latest manuscript back from my aunt. As always I have to temper my feelings about her cutting out so many words that I have over-invested myself in, accept the criticism of my excessive wordiness (good job she doesn't edit this rambling, sesquipedalian orgy of a blog isn't it?) and grudgingly admit that she is right, as always, and I can never adequately express my thanks towards her for it. My mum is right as well (mums generally are, so's your mum and everyone else's) I should have written a few lines of thanks in that book, it's not ego-driven madness, it's just polite. The next one will have more manners – and should be available quite soon.

*Not all self-published fiction is dreadful, I've read some really great stuff, and I'm not just saying that in defence of my own work. I really liked this one I found on amazon. There's good stuff if you hunt for it.

Thursday 23 February 2017

Are You Not Entertained?

I've written before about my conviction that boredom is the most important factor in inspiration. After taking an extra day off work on Monday – filled with plans for amazing things – I decided to revisit the subject. I woke up to find Dartmoor hiding inside a wall of fog and decided not to go yomping with the dog as in the original morning plan. Then I felt a bit tired after a smaller yomp on the moor behind the house, so decided not to go out to the studio and attempt to clean up the dreadful audio mix on the never-finished-but-released-anyway-for-some-reason Dave Not The Cat EP as per the afternoon itinerary. Instead I sat on the sofa with the cats and watched all three Millennium (Stieg Larsson's Girl With The Dragon Tattoo etc. etc.) films. I really enjoyed it, and I don't regret it one bit, but then I once took a week off work to do nothing more than watch a Red Dwarf box set and drink cider, I have never regretted that either.

I am convinced that had I grown up in a world where you can watch cartoons 24 hours a day I would never have bothered to pick up a guitar, or try and string words together in an amusing fashion. The only thing that used to force me off the sofa in the school holidays was Why Don't You? A programme about all the things you could be doing rather than watching telly, I hope it was aware of its own irony.

As an adult I have experienced the joy of re-enacting the boot through the screen of the opening titles.
 It is less satisfying and a good deal more painful than I had expected it to be.

There is nothing more guaranteed to get you doing something other than watching TV than the only thing on being a bunch of Scottish (always Scottish for some reason) kids talking unintelligibly (to a kid from Surrey who couldn't understand any accent north of Letchworth Garden City or west of Swindon – I still can't understand the Devon accent and I've lived here since 1983) about how to make some strange – and ultimately disappointing – contraption from everyday objects. 

It was this very lethargy that finally forced me to take an interest in things other than He-man and Thundercats. Eventually there is a point when there is nothing on telly but news and documentaries (at least there used to be in the days of four channels) and only the very lazy indeed will continue to lie, unblinkingly, in front of the television. I count my teenage self among those venerated, level eight mages of the gogglebox. Given a choice though, I would have put on another episode of Transformers and kept on watching – over the top of the book I was 'revising' from, with the telly as 'background'. At some point I accidentally learned stuff about history, and got angry enough about the Tory government of the 90s to become politically aware. This, in a nutshell, is where the problem with getting things done now lies. Infinite choice is now stifling innovation.

Had I been able to put whatever I wanted on the telly on demand, I would have. I occasionally do now that it exists, though my nearly-40-year-old self has a tiny bit more self-control, and refuses to re-watch Thundercats in case it is not as awesome as I remember (like Battlestar Galactica and The Box of Delights proved to be). The near infinite choice of entertainment on offer now ensures that we all remain in a soma-induced trance, uncaring of what is happening in the wider world as long as we get our next hit of Strictly Come Lion-Taming Love Island On Ice With The Stars: Bread and Circuses all over again. In fact the very dramatisation of everything leads even the most cynical and world-weary of us to have to remember that Trump is not a TV show, and Brexit is not a movie. News is treated like drama, ratings, ratings, ratings, and so it is no surprise that it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the difference. I noticed this phenomenon when my stepdaughter asked me who the baddies were while I was watching election footage many many years ago – I told her to listen to Michael Howard speak for a bit, then it would be obvious.

Infinite choice breeds infinite choice, and another way of keeping our minds occupied, and not on more important things, is to ensure it takes at least half an hour to work out which particular cup of coffee you want, while having to constantly compare energy suppliers, regularly switch mortgages and weep openly every time you have to decide whether it is polyunsaturated fats or mono-resaturated fats, or analogue dehydrated vacuum tube fats which are good/bad for you this week while deciding what kind of not-actually-butter-because-that's-definitely-bad-isn't-it? you want to buy. Einstein famously (though perhaps not truthfully) had a wardrobe full of identical suits so that he wouldn't waste any of his time on unnecessary decisions – I think he probably had a point.

Back in the long, distant, undistracted past (which is almost certainly a fictional construct of mine) human endeavours were aimed at making life better for everyone (told you it was fictional). Self-reliance was key, you couldn't just google what to do, you needed to find someone who knew how to do it, or learn to do it yourself. Unfortunately, once most of the big problems, like not being eaten by lions (entertainment purposes excepted obviously), freezing to death or poisoning yourself with the wrong type of berries have been solved, all human ingenuity and innovation becomes focused entirely on parting fools from their money (I accept that this is an oversimplification, and if you are new to this blog then hi: I regularly take huge liberties with history by not bothering to do any research, most of prehistory was probably creatures somewhere between monkeys and people hitting each other with rocks in order to have sex with the prettiest monkey-person, chill the fuck out).

Sadly, there is no money in beauty, be it in the form of the written word, graven image or musical notes (at least there won't be soon – given most people's aversion to paying for it). There is money in cake though, and coffee – since you can't illegally download that – and if you make it seem virtuous and ethical you can charge fifteen quid for it: especially if you serve it in a wheelbarrow with a moustache on it. Just as you can sell the same completely unnecessary gadget in various different sizes and colours while changing the all-important charger socket every two months and have people continue to buy all of them somehow.

This is the pinnacle of modern innovation, marketing. Selling remakes of old movies to nostalgic idiots who have lost all ability to concentrate on a new original plot. Though that may be doing them a disservice, who wants to spend thirty-odd quid on a movie you don't know if you'll like? Nobody, thus we perpetuate the prequel/sequel/remake/franchise bag of awful that is modern cinema. I wanted to see a new, original movie that came out last week (Prevenge, if you're interested, and can prove my next point wrong) but not one of the cinemas in Devon wanted to show it, certainly not in half-term when they could cram in as many screenings of Lego Batman (double franchise, boom, everything is bat-awesome motherfuckers) as they could – guaranteeing kiddies screaming for more sweets and popcorn, along with single comic geeks (although everybody loves superheroes now I'm old enough not to get my head flushed down the school bog for it don't they?) who don't need to scream for more sweets and popcorn, but will certainly buy a great deal of it.

I know there are people out there doing new, exciting, beautiful art. I also know that most of them are either starving, begging on crowdfunders or spending most of their time working dayjobs to fund the art in a way that Dan fucking Brown and Coldplay will never have to. I know that more thought is being put into how to wring as much money from oil, coal and gas before they run out than developing cheap, sustainable alternatives, and that the reason for that is always given as it not being profitable/economically viable. I'm sure that the history books of the future would not judge us well for choosing small pieces of green paper over the big green things we need to make more of them. Luckily there will be no history books in the future since we are all almost certainly going to die in a nuclear apocalypse at some point (optimistically) in the next few years – I consider that quite the consolation. Happy apocalypse everybody.

Thursday 16 February 2017

Cork Sniffing Wankery – Vinyl is Crap and Kindles are better than books

Just a quick note for regular readers to start off with, sorry for the complete radio silence recently. I have been working very hard on book number two, and you'll be pleased to know that it has gone off to my small but select group of alpha readers to tell me how awful it is, so that I can spend the rest of the year rewriting it.

With that out of the way, I noticed at the start of the year that there were an awful lot of news reports about the resurgence of vinyl records and print books again in defiance of downloads. I think, in fact, it might actually be a rise in cork-sniffing wankery. (I know, there have been a lot more important things in the news to get angry about and knock off a quick couple of thousand words on the subject, but that's been covered extensively by everybody else, and I thought it might be nicer to have some light relief by writing about something completely unimportant and frivolous instead.)

Let me be clear, I love vinyl records and print books and the largest room in my house is dedicated to them and full to the brim with both; and I could accurately be described as a cork-sniffing wanker where music and literature (and wine come to that) are concerned. So much so that having to use the term 'print books' rather than just 'books' is setting my teeth on edge, and I have a special place in hell reserved for people who refer to LPs as 'Vinyls'.

Seriously, this is just a fraction of what we've got in the house
and the photo is from that brief moment when it was organised nicely and not overflowing.

But I love vinyl for its flaws and imperfections, and am painfully aware that CDs and full-fat digital flac files are better, in every way. They are portable, they can be backed up, and they don't need endless fiddling with the weights on your stylus arm to play correctly. I like the sleeve notes, but you can read all you want to about the band and how they recorded the record on the internet now – without having to squint at the bits that have been obscured by cider stains and mysterious burns (as far as my mum knows, I have no idea what those burns might be). I like the ritual of pouring a drink, rolling a cigarette and sitting down in a big comfy chair in front of my record player to listen to the whole album from start to finish. But I can do all of that with a CD or even something I downloaded – and the bass can be as big and deep and panned wherever you like when there is no needle to bounce out of the groove. There are those who will tell you that vinyl sounds intrinsically better, and they may or may not be right. Unfortunately, to find out you need to spend well over 2000 quid on a turntable that looks like a set of kitchen scales from Babylon 5, followed by an awful lot more money acoustically treating your listening environment (and ensuring that a good engineer has mixed and mastered the same recordings for both vinyl and digital release) to find out: and I have neither the time, nor the money, nor the inclination to find out. Above all, you definitely need two decent ears, rather than being completely deaf on one side with acute tinnitus in your remaining ear, like me.

I was so decided on there being no difference between the two that I replaced my old, played-to-death and damn-near-unlistenable-to copy of Brewer and Shipley's Greatest Hits with a nice new CD copy, and blow me, it didn't sound as good. (But then that's because it's a digital transfer of an album that was mixed and mastered entirely for the vinyl delivery system that nobody bothered to remaster correctly. That's where the myth of the soulless CD came from – a lack of care when transferring old tech onto new. Interestingly the last time I was disappointed by sound quality like this was when I bought a proper copy of Metallica's ...and Justice for All and discovered that it hadn't sounded shit because it was a tape of a tape of a tape, but because they forgot to mix it properly in the first place.) Neither of them sound as good as the last EP I downloaded from Candythief, which sounds enormous and lovely through my ancient NAD 3020 amp and Wharfedale XP2s, whether I play it through my computer, my mp3 player or using the CD copy (in an old DVD player no less) that Diana sent me for paying into her kickstarter campaign. Admittedly, the record probably did, twenty years ago before it had been played to death – but I didn't own it then.

I am still unable to stop listening to this song, they also happen to have done the best version of
All Along the Watchtower ever, bar none, do look it up if you've never heard it

But enough of the technicalities, they are by the by. People are buying records and NEVER PLAYING THEM. They have become prestige objects for the type of contrary pricks who put 1959 Gibson Les Pauls in bank vaults. The same tossers who buy bottles of wine they have no intention of drinking – the skewers of market forces. I saw, in FOPP in Bristol today, Queen's Greatest Hits, for £27. You can get this in any car boot sale in the country, any weekend you like for 50p, and it will still be shit whatever you listen to it on (mostly because it will be on nasty flimsy 80s vinyl but also because Queen's singles are rubbish, go and listen to the pre-1980 album tracks, that's why I love them). The worst part of this is that those people that actually do play them are mostly doing so on modern equivalents of the old Dansette record players that are responsible for the most scratchy trebley ugly playback ever, and destroying most of the records I bought in my youth. So they will sound worse than listening through cheap, crap earbuds on your phone anyway, sorry – it's lucky almost nobody's actually playing them.

Unbelievably these things are selling for well over £500 now.
I have two of them for comedy drunken DJ nights with a big box
of worthless singles in the kitchen, they're still shit though.

As to kindles versus actual books, I am afraid there is no competition, because they are essentially the same thing. I can't speak for everybody, but my kindle (which is ancient) looks like a printed page, it is not a backlit screen of awful like the seven I spend my working days having my retinas burned out by, it is a page of happy writing. With the added bonus of not breaking my wrist when I hold it up all night one-handed while my wife sleeps soundly on my other arm, and the pages turning easily with a quick thumb click – which makes me feel the years I spent learning to flip pages one-handed and silently were a total waste of time. It also fits in a pocket, with hundreds of books on, unlike the massive bag of paperbacks I used to take away on holiday with me, which were not backed up to a cloud if I got drunk and dropped them somewhere sticky. It seems to me – if I were feeling like a conspiracy theorist – that somebody would rather we spent our time arguing about how we read, rather than actually reading, or, god help us, arguing about what we have read. It is not the medium that matters, merely that people are still reading and listening.

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, but it makes fuckwits of us all. I bought records when I was a kid because I could not afford CDs or tapes, and you could get a bagful of vinyl at the market for less than a fiver. I've written enough times about how that led to my strange tastes in old music with pretty record covers, but it's true. I often claim to be a fan of bands I have never heard because I have forgotten that I had only ever read about them in the pages of Kerrang! and Metal Hammer. Back in the 80s and 90s you could only hear them if you could afford to buy their records (nope), they were played on the radio (double nope), your mates could afford to buy their records (sometimes) or they were featured in a rare free tape on the front of the magazine (lots more nope).

Because of this phenomenon if anybody mentions Sabbat, Die Toten Hosen, Thee Hypnotics, Flotsam and Jetsam and a whole host of other turn of the decade Metal I will immediately say 'Yeah, I love them,' despite never having heard any of their music. Obviously now I could go and look them all up online and hear them immediately, but I don't. Because I am nearly 40 and I don't care anymore. 25 years ago I would have though, I would have given my right leg to be able to (not my arm obviously, I can't yet get a record out of its sleeve one-handed). I would not have saved what little money I had to buy a wax cylinder of their music for four times the price of a tape though, because it was an ancient, clunky and useless format. Rather like vinyl is now.

Don't get me wrong, I like old, musty second hand books, and records, I like the mysterious stains on their pages, the cryptic dedications in the front from long-dead lovers (particularly in my Grandad's old books, I wish I'd read them when he was alive to ask about them). I once happened across a post-it note in my copy of Sideways, that said 'This is shit and boring', which I showed to my wife as an example of the fun things you find in old books only for her to tell me she had put it there in revenge for me making her watch the movie a week beforehand. She was right about the movie as it happens, but the book is a marvellous study into toxic masculinity and middle age – probably, it's been a while, and I think I donated it to a charity shop with my wife's hand-written warning left intact. But that's just being a nosy twat, not much different from reading public-toilet graffiti.

I can't help but think it's all just middle-aged men harking back to what they see as a simpler time (which it wasn't) and turning it into marketing (which it is). There is no simpler time, but life was simpler for you, me and everybody else when we were 20 years old and listened to records (that had become mysteriously glued inside their sleeves by the damp in the only flat we could afford to rent) and read print books (whose pages were all curled up from the same damp – and occasionally being dropped in the bath). Somehow they've managed to capitalise all of this and are selling prestige bullshit to today's 20 year old kids who have immediate access to more culture than they could ever possibly consume in a lifetime for the grand sum of absolutely fuck all. I think that's what scares them (whoever they are).

So charge up your electronic Meerschaum pipe replica, pour a glass of hand-extracted-monkey-semen-infused artisan gin, put a £30 reissue of Tubular Bells (available from all good charity shops for 10p) on your hand-cranked gramophone-a-like turntable and read your limited edition, wrist-snappingly heavy vellum-printed War and Peace (available from Project Gutenberg for fuck all) and let the bastards win again.

Sunday 29 January 2017

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there

After umming and ahhing over a decent setting for my recent novel – Weekend Rockstars – I eventually settled on a fictionalised unnamed westcountry town that was unnervingly close to the Bideford I left over a decade ago. As I found myself lovingly describing pubs long gone and struggling to remember the names of streets I had walked down a thousand times I began to wonder why I ever left; and then I remembered, that Bideford only exists in my mind now.

To make it clear, I love Bideford, I moved there with my family at the age of five in 1983 and didn't leave until 2004 – my parents still live there so I still visit regularly. A lot of people I know left Bideford forever in their twenties because it was too small, rural and constrictive – and had I left five or six years earlier than I did it would almost certainly have been for the same reason.

But I didn't, and it wasn't. Eventually I realised I am a yokel and my life is an everyday tale of country folk. Despite my teenage swagger and insistence that I was going to get out of there and do something, I had always loved the small town life: I could walk into almost any pub and the staff would greet me by name and have my usual drink ready before I had even reached the bar (I don't know if that says more about me than Bideford in the 90s, but it feels relevant) and I was only ever a short walk from somewhere big and green, where the air didn't choke.

Some time at the beginning of the new millennium all that started to change, the pubs began to close in the wake of Bideford's first superpub – The Tavern In The Port, cheap prices, no soul and a disorientingly fast staff turnover rate (see any modern Wetherspoons for reference). I was having to walk farther and farther out of town to achieve solitude and my then-dog had developed arthritis in protest – restricting us to Victoria Park perambulations that had to be so early that they would encroach on the middle of the night if we wanted the quiet. The once recession-bitten streets of boarded-up shop fronts began to be tarted up, new shiny modern buildings began to replace the crumbling edifices I had romanticised beyond their almost-certainly-dangerously-rotten reality. I didn't like it, longing for the return of Scudder's Emporium.

The famous New Year's Eve celebrations had become massive, highly organised affairs, rather than the spontaneous outbreak of fancy dress and crazy it had always been before all the publicity. Plastic glasses everywhere and no space on the bridge at midnight (though the latter was always the case). While New Year's is now undoubtedly a lot safer than back when we used to do the 21 Newcastle Brown bottle salute at midnight – it's not for me anymore.

I have since realised that it wasn't Bideford's fault, it was me (it would have been a real cliché of a breakup letter I would have had to write were Bideford a lady). The ever-growing nature of all towns is perpetual, a middle-aged Bidefordian from the 1890s would undoubtedly have complained about all the horses on the Quay compared to when he was a lad. No town in the world is ever the same town it was ten years previously. I ignored London for ten years as well, and didn't recognise the city I eventually overcame my hatred of crowds to visit again (for clarification, it is a good deal nicer than it was back in the late 80s/early 90s).

I found another place (an undisclosed small town in the middle of Devon. I would tell you where it is, but if you all knew then you'd all come here, and I'd be back where I started). The barstaff know everybody's name and what they drink, if an event is put on, then the whole town turns up to see it (oh look! A thing! We must go, we must go...) though if there is nothing on, then the streets are curiously empty, and any person encountered therein will greet you as a long lost friend whether you have ever set eyes on them before or not – city-dwellers beware!

You are never more than five minutes walk from a completely empty, bleak, barren and utterly wonderful bit of moorland. Although at certain times of day it is full of fellow dog-walkers, unless you know the empty places and how to get to them (I do, it is glorious). At our annual Chilli festival last weekend, the entire town had turned up – along with a smattering of newcomers, all of whom were being interrogated with smiles and enthusiasm. I was in a happy chatting group ranging from 80 something to 2 years old. None of us were related to each other (alright, the two year old's Dad was with us).

When the Chilli chow-down (don't ask, it is hellish) began, several of the contestants were pretty new to the town, including the winner. They got as big a cheer as the local institutions who were sat, sweating and crying until they dropped out. One of the newcomers is a skinny, odd, twenty something musician with a funny haircut. Just like I was 12 years ago when I came here, escaping the sprawling metropolis of Bideford, that I had once found so small and constricting.

(Originally published in the Bideford Buzz newsletter - October 2016)

Sunday 1 January 2017

Farewell to a sadly misunderstood year – 2016 I shall miss you

2016 eh? Started really badly and got worse yeah? Bowie was the glue that held the universe together and all that shit?

No, not the case here I'm afraid – while 2016 did very much start with the worst thing ever, nothing worse happened after that. I speak not of Bowie, I speak of my beloved dog Rizla's untimely death from her dicky heart as I cried into her neck on the living room rug. Nothing has quite lived up to that utterly desperate moment on the first Sunday morning of the year, or the day that followed when – in an utter daze – I completely forgot that I had given up smoking 2 and a half years previously and turned my lungs into barbed wire and sandpaper.

My sadly missed and beautiful dog

Obviously, after that, everything was pretty much uphill. I accept that a lot of people I never actually met have died for perfectly reasonable reasons, and a lot of people have voted for things I did not agree with – often for less reasonable reasons, but given that nobody yet knows the real outcome of those events, we will have to wait and see. Either way, 2016 was not the year to lament the outcome of The United States of Trumperica and Brexit (which I do hope will be red, white and blue – like the french flag is) as those things have not yet actually happened.

All the many celebrity deaths led to me listening to a lot of records, watching a lot of movies, and reading a lot of books I had forgotten all about, so in a purely selfish sense, they were quite positive. I accept that in the middle of the year – around my 39th birthday in fact – not a friday went past that I didn't feel utterly overwhelmed and found myself crying at every song on the radio. Prince's death, though very sad – particularly since he was one of those rare artists that was still putting out new and exciting material right up to the end – did lead to my favourite moment of the entire year. One spontaneous decision to go to Brighton for May bank holiday weekend, and a text from a friend suggesting I visit the Fortune of War all coincided gloriously with them having a Prince tribute night there with some excellent DJs and my wife and I dancing all night long on Brighton beach dressed in full Pirate garb. That would not have happened had he still been alive.

This night will take a lot of beating

The other terrible beginning to the year was the announcement that I would be getting no pay rise or Christmas bonus from the real job (which was a bit awkward since I had already spent it on wine, woman – just the one: reader, I married her – and song over the preceding twelve months). This led to me abandoning my retirement from cover bands and quickly jumping back in – which in turn meant that I got to spend a lot of time with three of my oldest and best friends in Jealousy and the Cat (which has also helped to sharpen up my terribly lazy guitar playing skills) and met up with some new, exciting and different musicians in Super 8 while shredding my terribly-out-of-practice bass playing fingers (along with a joyous reunion with Pete, my former Spaced Invader bandmate). Dagobah continued to bound along nicely, I did quite a lot of dep gigs with some other old friends and new acquaintances, and, at the end of the year, three of the best musicians I know and I put together yet another new and awesome musical adventure which we might be able to show you in 2017 – if we pull our fingers out, since, like most musicians, we are terribly badly organised.

I even managed to squeeze in a couple of 'last ever' Rob and Dave gigs

Some projects that have been hanging around my neck for years and years like fat, knotty albatrosses (what is the plural of such a solitary bird as the albatross? Albatri? Albatross? Fuck knows, maybe I should google it?) were finally completed, despite all the other stuff going on. Having expected to just give my debut novel – Weekend Rockstars – a quick once over in January before chucking it out there to the public, I quickly realised it would need a bit of work first, and, 8 months of constant rewriting, name changes and punctuation decisions later, it was finally done. It has been received far better than I could ever have hoped for – do check the amazon reviews if you don't believe me – and been a marvellous ego boost.

In May, I finally stopped umming and ahhing about it and hired a man to rebuild my studio shed after it was flooded out and revealed as useless three years ago. This resulted in my finally finishing the first Dave Not The Cat EP which – while it shows up my mixing abilities as needing some work – is not too bad at all (expect yet another remix sometime this year). Finishing the studio, the book and the record topped off the summer, and left me feeling I'd actually achieved something for once.

The end of the summer also coincided with two marvellous events that reminded me I should be less of a miserable hermit-like git. We put on a huge party for our tenth wedding anniversary in August, and a field filled with almost all of my favourite people in the world (some couldn't make it, but we had such a good time we barely missed them – ha ha, your loss Steve) on a beautiful, sunny, cider-fuelled day was a gentle reminder that life needs to be shared and enjoyed a little more often – rather than locking myself in a succession of sheds to write and record stuff.

A very good time was had by all

The second reminder came at my cousin's wedding in Canterbury, where I caught up with a whole lot of family I have not seen in a very long time – though it didn't take very long for it not to feel like it as we spent a long day and night standing by the bins, smoking sneaky cigarettes and yapping endlessly about music, books, movies and good times. I do not catch up with my family enough (it's the mad hermit thing again) and am now trying to rectify that.

My beautiful wife with my beautiful cousin – in a car park

The menagerie has changed a bit as well this year, along with losing Rizla, we also lost Da Vinci the rabbit and one of Bitey Cat's legs. But we gained Richard Parker (kitten, possibly pregnant at the moment, bugger), Gaugin (Rabbit, has a knackered floppy ear at the moment), Sky (6 year old, rescue Alaskan Malamute, utterly unsociable and overly fond of excrement) and a credit account at the vet. We think the happy has managed to outweigh the sad on this side as well.

Of all the big events this year the only one that left me feeling utterly hopeless was the political assassination of a sitting MP for daring to suggest that we human beings are all generally quite similar and should maybe try being nicer to each other. Jo Cox, pretty much the same age as I am and paying a completely unnecessary price. I may fear that the worst is still yet to come, but this year, on a personal level, has been pretty good. I've been to some good places, got drunk with some good people – some new, some old, all excellent – created some good things and not sunk under the weight of the things that the media seem to insist we must all sink under.

So, hello 2017, I expect you to be much worse – through the media lens anyway – than 2016. However, the wife, the pets, the kids and I are going to continue to have a good time, all the time. You shall not break us.

Most of this year has felt like this - I expect more of it next year

I would like to apologise unreservedly for the overly personal nature of this blog, and the obvious advertising for my own products. Also, if it reads a bit like those bloody awful Christmas round-robin letters that people you have stopped seeing regularly (almost certainly for good reasons) insist on sending you every year, I am incredibly sorry and will never do it again.

Wednesday 23 November 2016

All I want for Christmas is an enormous amount of debt and some novelty tat - honest

Ho ho ho, tis the season to be stressed out, screaming and utterly devoid of ideas for exciting and thoughtful gifts. Why not buy your loved ones some completely useless shite that they will never use? It will keep me in a job, and the country will thank you for contributing to the economy. (I don't mention it much, but I do work in the useless-personalised-gift-that-your-uncle-who-you-hate-buys-you-for-christmas-and-that-you-immediately-throw-away industry. Sorry, please don't hate me.)

I have just finished getting myself into the festive spirit with an early Christmas movie, Jingle All The Way a masterwork of acting genius from a Terminator T-800 and a young Darth Vader. I don't know if such a plot will ever have relevance again, surely if it were made now, every parent would immediately have pre-ordered a Turbo Man doll on amazon, and Sinbad off of the Cosby Show would have probably nicked one for his kid while out on his post round, saving all that shopping hilarity from ever happening. A 2016 Jingle All The Way would probably feature those smug, laughing shop workers crying into their unemployment benefits as they are replaced by electronic drone delivery.

Actual Still from Jingle all the Way

The trouble is, that my personal favourite standby for last minute presents – DVD boxsets, CDs etc – are now being rendered completely obsolete by Netflix, Spotify, Apple Music, good-old-fashioned online piracy and a sea change in the way we consume media. I for one am quite happy to give up on the idea of gift-giving entirely and just have a nice day with my loved ones getting pissed and eating food. This is why I prefer New Year to Christmas.

Personalised tat is seriously big business now (for two months of the year) because the only way to show somebody you care in the 21st century is to spend all the money you earned having to work extra hours in the run up to Christmas (which seems like a lot, because you only get 2 hours a week on your zero hours minimum – not fucking living, calling it a living wage doesn't make it one you tory bastards – wage contract the rest of the year) on a Macaroni and lentil portrait of them from some smarmy fucking art student on Etsy.

 This one is ok actually

I fear for the future, I fear that soon my stepchildren will reproduce, and I will join the legions of people who receive a calendar of ugly baby pictures every year, and are forced to display it proudly in the house for all to see. I like to think that when that Christmas day comes I will either feel differently about shitty personalised calendars when they're my own grandkids, or have the kind of relationship with the kids that will enable me to say proudly, “Take this fucking crap back, and buy me some biscuits you ungrateful wankers.”

Of course, the genius of marketing personalised gifts to all and sundry ensures the survival of capitalism as a concept (It is often explained that without the yearly phenomenon of Christmas over-indulgence, the economy would collapse to nothing, the company I work for would certainly collapse without the boost we get in December from twats with too much money buying useless shit for other twats.) as you can't just re-wrap it and pass it on to some other poor sap a year later. Of course, I have never ever rewrapped a shit present from somebody and passed it on to somebody else. Honest, never, I certainly haven't ever been caught out by giving it back to the same person who gave it to me, ever, right? However, we anti-capitalist anarchist types could start bringing the state to its knees by not buying each other new shiny things (or experiences, hot air balloon rides and wine tasting are just as show off and wanky as a golden bog seat) once a year, and just passing the same crap round and round between us (bottles of Grappa and Olde Englishe Cyder are a good gift for this kind of game, nobody is ever brave enough to open it (apologies for throwing in a private joke there)).

So throw off your Grinchy Faces, buy everybody charitable donations to something you actually give a shit about (or a copy of my book – you didn't think I was going to write something about Christmas shopping without throwing a little plug in did you?) or go to local places and get people something they might actually enjoy – cheese, booze, stuff that won't clutter the place up and they won't have to dig out of the cupboard and proudly display as if they love it more than life itself every fucking time you go round to see them. Ask them if they're having trouble with anything, make your own vet vouchers for people with expensive pet problems*, garage vouchers for people with old cars that constantly break down (yeah, I know it's just cash, but people spend so much on other people at Christmas they screw their own finances up in a total reversal of sense) they will appreciate it more. I hope.

Of course, I'm probably wrong, and you actually do all want a 3 foot high bamboo cat that holds two non-standard sized bottles of wine while simultaneously removing the last few square feet of empty real estate from your dining room, so go ahead, do what you want.

Me and Bitey wish you a stress free shopping experience

*this is not a plea for money in any way, but in a follow up to my last blog about my cat, those of you who are interested might like to know that after a lot of vet visits we finally ascertained that her kneecap had become detached. There was an operation offered to us that would cost nearly £3000 and probably wouldn't work, we declined and have had her back leg amputated instead for a lot less. She is doing well, and might be allowed outside again soon, not soon enough in her opinion, which is how I know she's alright. The dog is ok again now as well after her utterly disgusting skin infection next to her ear, the fur is growing back on her face and everything. The vets (who I may have mentioned before are utterly brilliant) have sorted us out with an account to ensure we can pay for it all easily, and all is fine and dandy. Please ignore all of this if you don't give a flying fuck about my pets, like most people, especially the wanker that hit her with a car and detached her kneecap (incidentally, if you're reading this, please leave the vet expenses money in a brown envelope in the egg money box, thanks).