Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Must Try Harder To Write Right Proper

I did some thinking today. Okay, I know that opens me up to lines like "You? Did some thinking???"

Well, yeah. Ha ha ha. It's the classic response to anyone saying "I was thinking...", and it's something I've said in amusement enough times to buy a Mars Bar or maybe a mansion in Hertfordshire. Somewhere in between, certainly. But the point is... well... I did do some thinking.

I've been blogging for nearly five years now. I've never intended it to be anything more than a personal collection of ideas and beliefs that I felt were appropriate to be shared with friends and interested miscellany. I think it largely stems from being a massive fan of the Adrian Mole diaries and having done a diary (in response) myself as a young teenager. Okay, I largely avoid my own personal life apart from occasions when I'm at my lowest and reaching out for a bit of support or admonishment, but a blog's a blog. It's a diary of your thoughts, your actions, and your well-being. Right?

Oh I dunno...

I discovered Adrian Mole, age 12 (as he was 13 ¾) and immediately had empathy with him. I was inspired to write down my own thoughts as a result. A few years later, having been an avid fan of The Young Ones, I was bought the age-inappropriate How To Be A Complete Bastard for my birthday. It was a revelation!

I discovered, at the age of about 14 ¾ that it was quite easy to combine the altruism of a diary like that of Mr Mole with the purely ficticious extreme violence and debauchery of Adrian Edmondson's chucklesome toilet-reading. Thus was born "Ed's Best Selling Novel" which was a schoolbook collection of cartoons, skits, poems and short stories centred around personal fantasies, observations of friends, caricatures of teachers, celebrities and politicians, and the violent deaths of people I didn't like, in amusing ways.

My friends loved it. So did other people who it got circulated around, sometimes excepting those it was aimed at. Not that I cared. I was 14 ¾!

As a result, I came to my O-Level years (that's the worthwhile GCSE grades, these days) safe in the knowledge that I could write things that make people laugh. I was a skinny, geeky kid with a defined agenda that was centred on a goal that I felt school couldn't give me a genuine shot at. I wanted to be an engineer in the RAF. Being in the Air Training Corps gave me that shot, and school didn't. So Best Selling Novel II was followed by BSN III, IV, and so on...

One day, bored in an English lesson I wasn't enjoying, I scribbled something that had come to mind in one of my schoolbook-sized parodies of the life I knew. So rapt in it was I, that my teacher caught me and confiscated it. I was mortified. How much trouble could I be in? I was already the archetypal "must try harder" student, and being in this position just meant I was in a lot of trouble with my folks who constantly considered the best grades an expectation rather than a reason for praise. I mean... there was stuff about teachers in there, and a teacher had hold of it!

The next English class:

"Ian. This is really good. It is funny and well written. If you edited out the swearing and the pictures you could enter this as coursework and you'd get a very good grade!"

The Ian back then said "Yeah? If I edited out the swearing and pictures it'd only be a page long."

Yeah. Well, it's Ed now. I may be Ian by birth name, but I am Ed, and Ed looks back and thinks what a genuinely petulant and ignorant kid Ian was at that time. I wish I still had that book knocking around, to prove my teacher was right. I had a talent for mocking those around me, often in a manner that didn't offend them. I could write scripts. I could caption cartoons. I was no Stephen Fry, any more than I was a Carl Giles, but I got a largely favourable response, and none of my work was so offensive to people that they felt the need to either destroy it or beat the shit out of me.

So here I am. Forty-one years old, with three full length unpublished novels, and around fifty short stories (some online), wondering to myself whether I have the confidence to actually do anything about it. Whether "on-line" is more important than the beauty of the printed word or not, no one has a word I have said or written in four decades as something that could survive the nuclear war we all feared when I first put physical pen to physical paper. Here I am. All these years later, writing diaries of my opinions, feelings, and barely suppressed rage, diverting from even thinking that something I've written purely for fun or therapy might actually be good enough to reach out to people who might enjoy it enough to stump up a bit of cash for it. You know, like a job in the real world. If Steven King can do it, I sure can.

Ahhh, there ya go. "If Steven King...". I still retain a little of the attitude had in my youth. The world hasn't beaten it all out of me. Oh, hang on, I don't mean attitude, I mean petulance. I think.

It's funny, thinking back to those school lessons, that I probably learnt more about how life can really go when I was doodling in an English class, writing stories in Art, and daydreaming fantasy worlds in Social Studies. Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life? All I ever did was imitate the adult world, and on reflection I was way off the mark in a multitude of ways, but right on the ball in ways that have led me to where I am now, that you can judge for yourself in reading this far into the nowhere I am going with this.

In a way it's a shame that teachers don't remember unremarkable "could do better" pupils like me, because there have been times when I would like to sit down with ol' Pete Smith - the English teacher who said my adolescent procrastination was worthy of an Examination Board judgement - and show him what I've done, and ask "So. What d'you think of this?" I think on the whole he would just sigh and say "Why couldn't you have had the aptitude to push yourself into the publishing world years ago?" or maybe "If you'd listened to me in class instead of writing your childish nonsense, you might be a professional by now".

Either way would be fine. Either way would be just great, because as I've looked back over the twenty-five years since we had that brief exchange I can safely say no other adult has ever said something that affected me so profoundly in my attitude to writing. I know I have the capacity.

I must try harder.



Sunday, 26 February 2012

You Cannot Beat A Slight Dose of Massive Overreaction

So some Americans burnt the Koran. Big deal.

What with all the excitement of the News Of The World being re-published (albeit under the not-fooling-anybody name Sun On Sunday) I almost missed this massively (un)important news item this week, and I think any of you reading this will know this is just the sort of internationally mindless nonsense that I love to write about.

All over the internet, and presumably the TV (I've not watched any TV at all this weekend) there have been pictures and videos of angry Muslims getting their beards off about the fact that some confiscated copies of the Koran got thrown into an incinerator. And whatever the reason this actually happened, be it deliberate or accidental, the Muslim world is stamping its collective feet, shouting, burning, wailing, and probably at the less palatable end of the scale plotting "revenge".

But that's nothing compared to the reaction I've seen from some Westerners, be they Christians, Jews, or normal people. You see, that guy that's the figurehead of America, whatshisname, has publicly apologised for the burning. This, believe it or not, seems to have fired up quite a lot of Americans of all religious and political persuasions. You'll note I use "religious" and "political" here, without ever mentioning the word "rational". I imagine rational thinking Americans are quite impressed that Barracks Ossama took the time to apologise.

It mystifies me that there are people that think it's outrageous that the leader of the world's leading plutocracy would do something like apologise for the burning of an article of faith and pride. We're talking largely about the same Americans that get a bee in their bonnet when they see an American flag being burned. "Oh no! Someone's burning our flag! Quick! Carpet bomb them! Yesterday!" How would they feel if the figurehead of the people that did the burning came out on international TV and said "Woah. We're really sorry. Some of our guys were really pissed off when Ordu Kabul FC beat Seremiasht FC and they burnt what they thought was the club flag. It turned out to be the Star-splangled banner."?

Seriously, America: how do you feel when someone burns your flag? How do you feel when someone attacks your sovereign soil? Do you have the capacity to forgive them their sin, or do you respond in kind, with actions of violence, hatred, rage, and intolerance? You love your flag, and you love what it stands for. Is it so hard to believe that there are people out there that feel exactly the same way about a book? Wouldn't you like to see some repentance and forgiveness?

Personally speaking, if I didn't have children to protect, and friends and family to consider, I would like to appear on international TV with a copy of the Bible, the Koran, and the Torah wrapped in the United Nations flag, setting fire to it while chanting "Death to the working and middle classes!" at the top of my voice in order to try and offend absolutely everyone in whole world. I may even extend the chant to encompass raciallly and socially abusive language, just in case not doing so leaves anyone out.

How many of you would forgive me?

If I were in Obama's position I would have apologised too. Likewise, if I were a reasonable man of Islamic, Jewish, or Christian persuasion (yeah, yeah, I know that's probably an oxymoron) leading a group likely to get antsy about any kind of perceived slur against my faith I would still discourage my brethren from instigating protest with violence against the protagonists. Why? Because I think in this day and age you have the opportunity to prove to the world at large that forgiveness, understanding, tolerance, and virtue are much more important to the future of humanity than revenge, ignorance, intolerance, and rage. An idealistic, hippy notion? Probably.

I'd rather be an idealist than an extremist.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Best Days Of Your Life?

I took my son to school for the first time in an age, yesterday. Normally his mum takes him, and I pick him up after school. The thing that first struck me, as we made our steady way down the main road to the school was just how much dogshit there was everywhere. I know I probably shouldn't count houndmines (my own term for piles of crap - I don't think you can even find it in the Urban Dictionary) but when you've steered around one, and then shortly afterwards you've done the same again, it's easy to get into the habit. I'd say ten, in total. Three our four already obviously now partially attached to some poor kid's school shoe.

I could rant on about how disgusting it is that people don't clear up after their dogs, and in a discussion yesterday I came to the conclusion that a lot of people that walk their dogs in the daytime clean up because they can be seen, but don't at night because either they can't see the poo or can't be seen not cleaning it up. It's probably just an inconsistency in owners, and from a legal point of view is there really a difference between not picking up a turd at night and doing 34 in a 30 zone after the schools kick out? We could debate...

Yeah, dog poo. And then into a playground packed with kids running everywhere while parents mill around either chatting idly or staring vacantly into space until the bell rings and they hand the bags to their no-longer-so-enthusiastic offspring. The children line up ready for the next step in their education, and the parents pour towards the gates like oil through a funnel. Backing up, backing up, backing up, and getting in the way of the latecomers; now later.

The best days of your life, they told us. Christ, I even remember saying to my daughter that school is the best time of your life and you just don't realise it until it's behind you. But is it? Is it really?

It would be easy of me to say I hated school. But that would be a lie. I would say, on the whole, if I had to pick an adjective I'd choose 'indifferent'. When I started school I went to a tiny primary in the village of Breaston, and for the most part of the journey I walked there by myself. If I remember correctly (and I probably don't) my Mum walked us to the crossing of the main road and the rest of the journey was with friends. I don't remember parents crowding around the playground at all. It was no different when we moved to Belper. Now on a busy main road I'm pretty sure (at least at first) Mum walked me part of the way. Then it was the other way down the busy A6 to Strutts' imposing Victorian prison-style middle school, where I don't remember seeing a parent in attendance at all. By high school, I know for a fact that if you were in the presence of a parent at all you were either in trouble or a Mummy's Boy. Either way, what you were more than anything else was embarrassed.

What was great about school was seeing my mates. What was almost as great, but not so much because I was always one of the smallest in my year, was playing British Bulldog in the playground. What was great later was the girls who started to sprout boobs at around the same time we were beginning to realise it was not girls who were smelly and annoying, but, soon, it was us. I also enjoyed English classes, so that was great. But everything else? I could take or leave it. R.E was like torture. Maths, I still struggle with. The sciences? Well it just wasn't explosive or gory enough. P.E? Like I said, I was a small kid. As much as I loved football, I sucked at it. Rugby was Hell on mud. Thankfully the last years of school were the advent of computing as an option in school, so I turned to the combination of pissing about on them and listening to rock music. This is a combination that still serves me well today, as you can see.

Like anything else I've experienced through life, school had its ups and downs. I got bullied a bit. I did a bit of bullying. I was good at some things, I was terrible at others. I had days when I laughed so hard tears streamed down my face, just as I had days when I wished tears could stream down my face but that's not what boys do. If anything, school is just an adolescent version of the average adult life but without having to pay tax, or even earn a wage.

What it's like for kids today can't be much different. Yesterday my son wanted me to join him in the playground in the morning, which is something I hate doing. He stood by me until the bell rang and then hugged me before sauntering off to join the line. I knew something was troubling him, but when I picked him up later he wouldn't say what even though he was still subdued. Yet today he couldn't wait to get rid of me at the school gates and charged in there like they were giving away pizza. Something, of course, modern schools would never do because it's unhealthy and something no school could budget for.

So he had a down day. Then, depending on his mood when I pick him up, an up day.

It's always been interesting to watch him grow, and understand how his learning is developing. Usually in a morning his conversational topics are Forza-this and COD-that. This morning he explained in great detail where the Marathon comes from, including names and details I don't think I ever learnt. Mind you, the origins are rooted deeply in warfare, so it doesn't surprise me he's interested really! The point is, he's clearly enjoying what he's doing there at the moment.

The best days of your life...

I think it's probably your late teens to early twenties. If you're now in your thirties to forties, that is. I remember driving like a lunatic. I remember drinking heavily without a lot of hassle. I remember shagging quite a lot. I remember having a kickaround on the park. I remember lots of good things, and I've probably forgotten a lot too. But you can't drive like a lunatic now because there's speed cameras everywhere, and you have to take out a mortgage for a year's car insurance on something so weedy and uncool that it's impossible to not be overtaken by a pensioner on a motorway. Drinking apparently leads to teen alcoholism and perpetual violence and injury. Shagging apparently either kills you or gets you on the Jeremy Kyle show. Kickarounds are done online. And it seems everything that could be done cheaply in my youth is now insanely expensive. Apart from buying drink. Unless you look under 25.

After your twenties, that's when you apparently have to start being a sensible adult. You have taxes and bills to pay. You have to have a job. You have to have a pension, and life insurance, and a mortgage, and children, and a car, and then road tax, car insurance, a valid MOT certificate, and a holiday overseas every year. So you need a passport, and travel insurance, and so on and so on and on. And some of it will all be great, and some of it you will be told ensures you a brighter future and a happier life. But, hang on...

You're doing all this to ensure you have a happier life when? I'm not that old and already I find myself moaning like nobody's business every day about something or other! I look at my parents, older work colleagues, older friends, and listen to older customers, and all I seem to hear is how crap everything is, how much dogshit there still is on the streets, how this country's going down the drain, and how it's never, ever, ever going to get better.

Well shit.

Maybe being at school was the best days of our life.

Monday, 13 February 2012

There We Were Now, Entertainers...

Isn't it a special moment in this digital age, when a celebrity is snatched away from us "prematurely"?

One of the things that gets me about celebrity culture in the time of twitter and facebook is how quickly news can be shared, be it true or spurious, relevant or personal. Take Jon Bon Jovi's reported death. Oh, how I excited was I? All those potential jokes! All the possibilities for photoshopping. This singer, this songwriter, who I have despised for having one good song from a career of 10+ albums...

...but it's not the point.

It's how you're remembered. Take Whitney Houston and the news of her death, at 48. She was a defining voice of the 80s and 90s. She was an inspiration for soul, gospel, r&b and pop singers that came after her that even those that preceded her will readily testify her as a benchmark of... well... of manufactured chart-based productivity with a side order of clinically washed unit-shifter salad with dressing, followed by a Class-A pudding, finished off with not biscuits but very specific scooby snacks.

I'm sorry, but as a fan of largely rock and metal I can pick out dozens of survivors to match those that fell along the wayside. And they did fall along the wayside. Whether it was a condition that meant their life was going to be cut short because of genes or because of lifestyle, the fact you don't live the prescribed three-score-years-and-ten means, in the public eye, you haven't achieved what is to be expected.

Which is basically living to the point of wig-wearing, ridiculous plastic surgery, doing funeral insurance adverts, and appearing on chat shows to plug biography after autobiography after biography. Living a lengthy celebrity life is not always the best way to go.

What amuses me these days (and Gods know I was heartbroken when Kurt Cobain and Bill Hicks died, for my sins) is the reaction you get from some people that goes something like this:

"[Insert Celebrity Name Here] died today and millions of people said how sad they were on the internet. But at the same time a soldier died in Afghanistan and no one knows who he is and his death didn't even make the evening news."

Well, you know what? Seventy years ago, the daily soldier-to-celebrity death ratio was a significantly higher proportion to what it is now, and none of those soldiers had their names read out on the news even when the news sources knew who they were, if they knew at all. Soldiering is quite a bit different from being a sportsman, an actor, a musician, or a television personality. I can't imagine there's a soldier alive who thinks "When I go into combat, I hope my name ends up getting read out on the evening news" in the same way I don't think there's a single celebrity who thinks they'll be more valuable as a cultural icon, dead rather than alive.

The important thing is that certain people play a part in your life in some defining way that you think at some level only you truly understand. Until the advent of the "reality show" you couldn't really become famous without actually putting something into the world, no matter how vacuous it may have seemed, or how fleeting that effort was. Whether you were a one-hit wonder in the music charts, a sportsman with one extraordinary performance in an otherwise unremarkable career, or an actor whose career will be defined by a single role, we all have that special someone. For me, it's the hockey goalie, Steve Penney, who is still with us. Few but the hardcore hockey fans will even know what I mean, but... Steve... Wow! You got me hooked, man!

As for soldiers... Well, we live in an age of precision strikes and distance-targeting. The battlefields of Le Somme and Normandy are long, long gone. Where once we lost soldiers by the hundreds at a time, losing a handful in a week is seen as a shocking, newsworthy event. And it is. But being a soldier is not about celebrity. They're such different roles in life I can't really understand why people feel inclined to post the "a soldier died today..." type comment unless they've been personally affected by the loss of a loved one at the same time as a celebrity died.

We all lose people we love. The roles people described as celebrities play in our lives are, in the big scheme of things, not that different to the roles family members or friends can play. We've all got a favourite song that means something to us. Sports fans: a favourite sporting moment. Film/TV fans: likewise. It can be applied to pretty much everything, if the impact the deceased made on your life causes you upset.

The important things is remembrance. Keeping that person's memory alive keeps them alive. What Doug Stanhope said in the video I linked above (and you did click on it, right? If not, do it now) is true. It really is probably best that Jimi died when he did. I'm bloody sure Doug's career will be testament to whether Bill Hicks died when he should have.

"Life is like animal porn. It's not for everybody."