Saturday 10 June 2017

Election 2017 – Sometimes it's just nice to be asked

The dust has settled on the general election, and it is clear that absolutely nobody has got what they wanted out of it. There's a lot not to like about the whole thing, despite the sense of hope it engendered in those of us who lean a little bit left. Make no mistake, this election was not about Brexit. It was about disenfranchised angry young people who finally had something to vote for, giving hope to a generation beaten down by being told 'Labour can't possibly win here, vote tactically' by another generation frightened of losing their houses and identity. It is with great sadness that I see the politically engaged youth painted as greedy students responding to bribery by the right. The bribery of cutting inheritance tax for wealthy, triple-locked pensioners with guaranteed winter fuel allowance in past manifestos was absolutely fine though.

The rise of UKIP, and the surprise Tory majority in the 2015 election (because Cameron promised a referendum) were down to people wanting to be asked about Europe – they weren't all that bothered either way generally (bar the frothing masses at the extreme ends) but successive governments refusing a referendum meant that the people felt they weren't being listened to. Now they have been, and it's been settled that we're off out of Europe (however massive a disaster I think it might be. Can somebody please provide me with examples of real world, tangible benefits that it will bring, other than some vague bollocks about sovereignty, imagined amounts of saved money and xenophobic posturing about immigration? Oh shit, I'm a frothing mass aren't I?) most of the electorate assume that bit is done and dusted and no longer an issue. So they voted for policies other than Europe for once. A great deal of them felt that the Labour manifesto had the domestic policies they wanted, not enough obviously, but then a great deal of them have spent their lives being told by their parents that a progressive socialist program of reform can't work here. Maybe they will be a little bolder next time.

One happy side effect of all of this is that UKIP have been made redundant.
Fuck off now you irrelevant pair of dickheads

The Scottish drift back toward the Tories and Labour from the SNP implies a negativity towards a second Independence referendum. Rather cementing my view that the last SNP landslide there was more about their progressive manifesto than independence, after all, it was straight off the back of a resounding vote to stay in the UK, and there was no other viable party with a left-leaning agenda at the time. Similarly the reduced Plaid Cymru vote may have been down to having a genuine left alternative that wasn't covert nationalism at last. Or their commitment, alongside the Greens, to a progressive coalition – openly inviting tactical voting for other parties.

The Liberal Democrats have now received their second spanking for the sins of the coalition, although Tim 'who?' Farron is not half the charismatic leader 'I agree with' Nick Clegg was, and that's saying something. On the other hand, their previous manifestos being more progressive than Labour's may have been what attracted their earlier higher vote shares. I personally think that a viable leftist manifesto being proposed – along with the belief that voting tactically for Lib Dems no longer works – changed the landscape completely. The confusing joy from Labour supporters at losing was more down to the excitement of being able to vote for the party you have always wanted to support, knowing it is for a manifesto you believe in and not having to tactically vote for a slightly less bastardy shower of twats.

Of course we still have a completely incompetent, unwilling, Tory government. I can't help thinking that Theresa May called the whole thing, and ran the shoddiest campaign since Ed Milliband ate a bacon sandwich on a gravestone, in order to try and get out of having to do the Brexit negotiations – like my kids used to do with the washing up. Instead she's made her position laughable, and at time of writing is hoping to have her position propped up by homophobic, anti-abortionist creationists. Imagine if Labour had proposed a coalition with Sinn Féin actually taking up their seats for once? All hell would break loose.

Here's my cousin's, actually very sensible, plan for the future. It's not often I agree with him, but here it is.

He's right, I don't like it, but pragmatically, it makes sense for the utter fucking shambles that the referendum, and Theresa May's handling of the fall out from it, have caused. Thus, it gets my support, and before you go all Remoanery over it, I believe he was a Leave voter last year.

There's a lot of people working excessively long hours, while a lot of other people can't get the hours they need to live on. I don't wish to boil this down to a simplistic solution, but it is right there in front of you. Education for all, in a pragmatic way for all abilities, free at the point of use right up to degree level could solve a lot of these problems. Yes, this is a more complicated issue than I have just suggested, but it's a conversation worth having. Keynes, and Tomorrow's World, predicted that we'd all be working a lot less and having more leisure time by now. Universal basic income is another nice idea you can throw in to the mix here. The maths is complicated, but the savings on sniffing out fraud, and all the paperwork for claim-checking might be a start for the budget. Clock-punching culture in made up jobs to create never-ending economic growth for 'hard-working' families is not healthy.

These long working hours (see it wasn't a totally unnecessary tangent) also make voting on a Thursday between 7am and 10pm a bit harder than it needs to be. Do it over a weekend, two days, compulsory attendance – spoiled ballots okay – and everyone can probably make it. Hell, make it a public holiday, people will be more than happy to drag themselves to the polls for a day off work. The 68.7% turnout this year may be higher than usual, but wouldn't 100% be better? Not for those trying to keep the Status Quo I suspect, otherwise there would have been more than a few nods and an apathetic referendum for a slightly less shit AV voting system given towards electoral reform.

Whatever the next year or two bring, it is clear now that something needs to change, and there's a real appetite for it once more. Thank you millenials, you are giving hope to Generation X, and we're a bunch of miserable nihilists that needed it. Here's to the next election (probably not too far away).

Wednesday 24 May 2017

I woke up this morning...

I woke up this morning and remembered that I am not by nature very empathetic. I have to work at it, as my wife constantly reminds me. I am a little below Donald Trump on the narcissistic sociopath scale, though probably not as far below as I would like. Sixteen years ago I gasped in horror at the planes hitting the World Trade Centre, ten years ago I cried with London as the tube trains exploded, all through this century I have watched in desperation as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria all crumble under never-ending wars.

I woke up this morning to a resigned sadness that this is just how things are now, and maybe I will just shrug off the next atrocity.

I woke up this morning and went to work, where a colleague complained that they had been 'banging on about this Manchester thing' all day on the radio. He then reflected that at least it made a change from the fucking election.

I woke up this morning glad that I live in a place that will almost certainly never be targeted. I know that that is selfish, but the chances of being in a terror attack are significantly reduced when you live in a town that should really be called a village in the middle of nowhere.

I woke up this morning and before I had heard the details I was terrified that there had been an attack in either Bangkok or Barcelona, where my children are currently residing. I later discovered that there had been a bomb in Bangkok, but it had not been reported loudly here. I felt a little sick that what could have been the most devastating news I ever heard had been buried in a story that continued rolling for hours with no real change in its detail. Nobody I know was hurt in Bangkok either, but I still feel just as strongly for the strangers injured there as those in the UK.

I woke up this morning sickened by the ghoulish nature of the media as they harassed grieving relatives in relentless pursuit of a 'human' angle that they would clearly know nothing about. Lunchtime news brought a roundabout of faces that will never smile again, this can all wait. Let families grieve, let them come to you, stop the tear-inducing grief fest, and admit that you are trying to entertain and get better ratings rather than inform. I cannot help but feel that if these events were given less airtime, there would be less incentive to carry them out. Westminster should have been reported more like a traffic accident, today's awfulness could have been reported in a smaller less sensational way. Announce the news, move on, don't spend all day on it, you are giving them what they want.
'I have no words,' has been a theme, maybe you should take something from that.

I woke up this morning and, due to being a writer of tall tales and the over-politicised nature of my current thinking, began constructing my own fictitious Reichstag Fire/False flag story, whereby Theresa May's conservative party plotted the Manchester Arena attack in order to get past the total shit show they are making of what seemed to be an open goal election; putting us on the first steps towards a military dictatorship with the army on the streets and then cancelling said election. I considered making a joke about it on social media, before realising that it would be insensitive, and give the tin-foil hat brigade ideas. Please don't get ideas from this tin-foil hat brigade – it was a hypothetical fictional construct, and remains that way.
(It is later now, I see that somebody else took this idea and actually ran with it, I am glad it is not my fault.)

I woke up this morning to find friends posting divisive, fear-mongering bullshit on social media in search of revenge. The wave of right-wing, anti-islamic sentiment will never end. Despite the slaughter of innocents being an unforgivable sin in the eyes of Allah, not a single attack being carried out by a refugee and IS having as much in common with Islam as the KKK do to Christianity.

I woke up this morning and I realised that I was no more sad at this mass slaughter than I found myself a year ago at the cold-blooded murder of Jo Cox in the name of another ideology that I do not, and cannot understand. This does not diminish my sadness at today's events. I cried for Jo Cox, as I cried for those kids in Manchester when it all began to sink in and I kicked my empathy into gear.

I woke up this morning still convinced that I will continue to like and trust every single person I meet until they give me a reason not to. I would rather run the miniscule risk of dying in a terror attack (still less likely than my dying of traffic fumes, eating too much processed meat, or just all the booze and fags) than live behind barriers of fear, hatred and ignorance.

I woke up this morning and realised how difficult it is not to politicise such an overtly political act as a terror attack.

I woke up this morning determined to remember that we still have more in common than that which divides us.

Friday 12 May 2017

Cliffhangers, Crossovers and Comics

I recently fell deeply in love with the TV show This Is Us, which had the most captivating first episode of anything I have ever watched, featuring the best use of a cigarette in motion picture history. Without spoilers, the whole series was leading up to a moment that should definitely have happened in the last episode and left me weeping like a toddler with a splinter. Instead, they filled it with almosts, and then, while not technically leaving it on a cliffhanger, they left the ending unended and my tissues unneeded (stop it).

It's ok, he can come back from this, I've seen him before

Despite it having been my favourite TV series of the last few years (I spent the whole series trying to work out where I'd seen one of the actors before and then realised he just looks exactly like my friend Mitch), I would immediately veto a second series for that shameless display of desperation were it up to me - although it has already been commissioned through to the end of series three now. I could see how the original script almost certainly played out, and how it had been mercilessly hacked about by some studio bastard who wanted to make sure they got viewers for that second series. I blame the 2002 petitions for Firefly and Farscape that led to them getting concluded (though not well). Fanbases wanting to know what happened are grounds for U-turns, and everybody wants to be Family Guy.

The best franchises were all spawned from beautiful perfect little things that left you wanting more without leaving unanswered questions. The biggest, most famous franchise of all – Star Wars – has wrapped itself up neatly on no less then four occasions now. It is also responsible for the most gut-wrenching cliffhanger ever, but the third movie was already guaranteed before they made it.

Of course once Star Wars became Episode IV: A New Hope, it managed to generate demand for a prequel, before that was even a thing (nobody ever called The Silmarillion a prequel right?). This had happened before I ever saw it, and I waited my entire young life to see Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which explains my lengthy state of denial about its shitness. I cannot hold Lucasfilm up as a bastion of non-bastardness for this alone.

It's ok Jar-Jar, not everybody hated you immediately

The Lord Of The Rings would not have existed were it not for fans of The Hobbit clamouring for more Middle Earth based stories from J.R.R. Tolkien. If he had submitted his 450,000 word sequel that bore no more than a passing resemblance to its predecessor now, explaining it wouldn't be ready for another eighteen years, I don't think anyone would bite. Although George R.R. Martin should really have considered finishing off his whole story (or at least plotting it out fully) before publishing the first part of the Song of Ice and Fire (alright, Game of Thrones) epic twenty years ago. I was so disappointed by the last two books that I probably won't read the rest of it if he ever gets round to finishing it before he does a Robert Jordan.

It isn't just Mr Martin who embarks on an epic journey and gets completely lost in the middle though. The Wheel of Time saga takes enough material for a really great trilogy and spins it out into fourteen books that Robert Jordan died before finishing. I regret fighting my way through the whole thing, (though Brandon Sanderson pulled it back masterfully by not adding endless new subplots) but mourn the single prequel novel that showed so much promise and will never be developed into a much better series.

Ironically, the reverse of this is also dreadful. The really great thing about a comic book series is that it is a neverending story (ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah). Peter Parker, Clark Kent and I have been friends for my whole life. The story keeps going, it comes to natural pauses now and then, and sometimes has to repeat its origins in flashback, but you can jump in wherever you like and enjoy it. Whereas, for some reason, if you want to make movies of it you have to reboot the whole thing every few years. I have lost count of the number of onscreen Spidermen I have fallen out of love with now, and nobody seems to know how to put Superman (the only superhero that matters) onto film anymore. I do, you remember that he is a big boy scout and stop trying to make him all dark and conflicted – he isn't Batman, that's the point, and neither is Ben fucking Affleck. The Simpsons, Family Guy, and James Bond all manage to keep running for decades without constant reboots (alright, so Bond kind of reboots, but he doesn't keep continually being bitten by a spider, discovering his powers and crying over his dead uncle in some kind of Morbius loop (high five if you got the joke)). Why can't Spidey, Batty and Big Blue?

Visual reference for excellent pun above – you're welcome

I stopped buying comic books again a few years ago for the same reason I stopped buying them in the nineties: because of all the crossover storylines forcing you to buy every single title out there to keep up. I've very nearly stopped watching comic book movies now, for the same reason. The last Spiderman movie I saw had Tobey Maguire in, and was proper shit. I have no intention of sitting through something as dreadful as Batman vs Superman ever again so the Justice League trailer I just saw left me bereft of hope for my once favourite title.

Maybe it's my hatred of the enforced open ending that has led to my trouble sticking to one genre of music, one kind of writing or even just one overarching theme on this blog. Maybe I'm like Charlton Heston insisting on the Planet of the Apes being blown to hell at the end of the first sequel in order to avoid having to be in the 5th – spoiler, it didn't work. Sequels work though, and TV series can be spread out for years, decades even, long fantasy epics can work (though only Stephen King has succesfully pulled this off) but not everything has to be a fucking franchise. One-off (or sometimes two) beautiful things are rare and wonderful, and I thank Peter Kay that a few people still recognise this.

Phoenix Car Share Nights the Musical – coming to a screen near you the second Peter Kay dies

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.