Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Our reporter makes his excuses

Paige seems a very nice girl. I'm a bit drunker than she is, but she doesn't seem to mind. Even though we've only just met, we're getting along famously, talking about this and that, including her home town of Fremantle, just outside Perth in Western Australia. I'm one of the few people she's met in London who has even heard of the place, and suddenly there's a real moment of human contact between us. She spots the danger quickly and offers to take her clothes off.

How did I get here? Well, we had been saying goodbye, adieu and dobradyn to two colleagues, drinking wine and watching the drizzly haze descend on London from the balcony of the almost secret Pan Peninsula cocktail bar, where you're eye to eye with the top of Canary Wharf and your fag butts have burned out before they reach the ground.

We leave while still sober enough to operate a lift and then perform the delicate "left-right-left-right" footwork required to get ourselves to the next destination. A colleague, who for the sake of modesty I shall call Rafael, fancies some 'afters', and knows "a place". "Oh, that place," I think as he leads the way up the steps.

Admittedly, six hours on red wine have blunted my acumen slightly, but I get the idea: several very attractive and very scantily clad young women, plus a small dancing area with a pole. The clientèle is exclusively male, most dressed in business suits and none under 30. If they are drunker than us, they don't show it. This is the moment of truth.

I have always said (when the subject comes up, which admittedly it doesn't very often) that I'm not interested in lap-dancing or strip clubs. I don't get it. But Raf has paid for the entrance and the drinks, so it would be churlish to walk out. This might be my only chance to find out what the fuss is about. So I stay.

I tried to find a pic that was antiseptic rather than sordid
The drinks arrive with two free (up to a point) girls. As our drinks land on the table, Andrea lands on my thigh, her left arm round my shoulder, the fingers of her right hand in my open collar and her smile all over me. And I don't care what you think about the situation; there is not a straight man alive who will not enjoy this. Probably a few gay ones too, but they can speak for themselves.

Andrea has curly, dark hair and dark brown eyes, and comes from a town in northern Mexico, near the US border. She works in what the Americans call "real estate" and is spending three months in the UK while business back home recovers. She enjoys what she does here (not that she'd say otherwise to a customer) but admits that she hasn't told her parents what she's up to and she's sure they wouldn't approve.

I'm enjoying this conversation, but fine words butter no parsnips and, what with a recession and a drugs war, Andrea's parsnips need buttering and quick. Raf already seems to have disappeared with his partner. "Would you like a …?" she asks. I'm not sure what a "…" is (either she said it quietly or left it to my imagination), but I'm here to learn, sooo…

She leads me along the bar to a partitioned area, which is not exactly sealed off but is safe from the gaze of those who haven't paid to see what goes on there. It's a bit like the family dining area of a small pub, only here you won't get fish fingers and there'll definitely be no mayonnaise.

And this is it. One of those life-defining moments: your first kiss, the first time you slept with someone you loved, the first time you slept with someone and hated yourself, the first time you got distracted by an irrelevant hyperlink, your first striptease.

I'm pushed gently into an armchair and Andrea steps backwards. She waves her finger at me. "No touch." Cheeky, for someone who was playing with my chest hair before she'd even told me her name. I wonder if she remembers mine. The she starts dancing. It's the sort of gyrating groove you'd expect, as her already meagre clothing is dispatched while she pushes the more interesting parts of her body as close to me as she can without contact. It takes about a minute for the Full Monty before she offers me a trip to the "consulting room". Here my spirit of adventure wilts (the only part of me that was in a position to do so). The music stops and she gathers up her clothes, pausing only to add my credit card to her bundle. Now she knows my name. The card is returned £20 lighter as part of a smooth and efficient operation. She's pleasant, professional and moves well, but this remains the most sexless public performance I've seen since I last sat through a junior nativity play.

We stay till they close at 3.30. By then I've declined Paige's offer but I still get dragged up at the end for another 'dance' by a Polish girl who won't give me her name but who I think says she comes from Szczecin. She succeeds largely because I have probably been asleep for an hour or more and am in the chair before I really know what's happening. It's the same deal, of course. And then we're out of the door, cards intact apart from the voluntary spending because this is a 'classy place', once you accept the dodgy premise of the whole business. And now, how to get home?

I've got a bit of time to think about this, since I'm not joining Raf's negotiations to get a cab for under £50. I walk to Island Gardens but the Thames Tunnel is shut, so I have to get a night bus back to Trafalgar Square and then another night bus out to Orpington. I get home at 6am, but it was all included in the £9 Travelcard I'd bought 22 hours before. Time to reflect.

It's not that Andrea does it badly; I find this entire operation fundamentally sexless. It seeks to flick as many random switches of male desire as it can without, of course, engaging any of the deeper feelings that make love and sex so wonderful. Effectively, it's live pornography while denying the observer the conclusion that is the only purpose of pornography.

I looked at another blog, The Male Brain at Work, and although I don't agree with it all I can't disagree with the assertion that this lowers a man's self-esteem. It's as if my emotions and urges are so shallow that my reactions can be controlled and manipulated in the most humiliatingly perfunctory ways. It reduces us all to the level of satyrs and whores, without teaching me anything. It will never turn me into the former, but nor will it make me any better at spotting the latter next time she shows up.

Will I go to another "gentleman's club", or whatever the euphemism is? Never. It's degrading to everyone involved and I want no part of it. But the business world being what it is, you sometimes have to entertain or be entertained by the MD of Iron Ore or the Senior Vice President of Coal or the Global Executive of Tiny Pellets Made From Ocelot Droppings. If I go again, it will be with gritted teeth under the most extreme duress. I'd rather take them to Love Never Dies*.

My 18-year-old, who stayed out till the trains started running, was back at seven in the morning, for which I duly chided her. As a single father of teenage girls, you've got to set an example, haven't you?

* You didn't seriously think I'd link to Andrew Lloyd Webber, did you?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pulping fiction: Franzen's London nightmare

Novelist Jonathan Franzen has had about the worst trip to Europe of any American artist since Frank Zappa in 1971. Zappa, you might or might not remember, had a nightmare. He lost all his equipment in a fire in Switzerland (although the incident did inspire Deep Purple's Smoke On The Water, which can't be a bad thing); then, when he got to London, an audience member who thought Zappa was eyeing up his girlfriend pushed him off the stage and broke his leg.

Franzen seems to have survived physically unscathed, but he must be wondering what he's done to offend his muse for so much misfortune to have befallen him in just a few days. He was late for a BBC interview because his taxi failed to show up, and then his glasses were stolen from under his very nose – well, actually on his very nose – at a literary party on Monday night. A ransom of $100,000 was demanded (but not paid, because the miscreants were caught), which might have delayed his next novel for longer than the nine years it's taken for the present one, Freedom, to come out. The prankster, caught after the police deployed a helicopter (no, really) quickly confessed all to GQ magazine.

But that wasn't the worst of it. During a reading of Freedom on TV last Thursday for the BBC's Newsnight, Franzen suddenly stopped and said, “Sorry, I'm realising to my horror that there's a mistake here that was corrected early in the galleys and it's still in the fucking hard cover of the book.” Yes, the publisher had printed an early draft of the book instead of the final version. And not just any book. This is possibly the greatest novel of the decade so far. Hands up who would have wanted to be an employee of publisher HarperCollins on Friday morning…

Now, I have to confess that I have some friends who work on the Fulham Palace Road so I can't betray any confidences, except to say that the publisher deserves less blame than you might think (and none of that blame goes to Franzen, in case you're wondering). Using the wrong version of a file is an easy mistake to make and we've all done it, but not in a way that forces a major publisher to pulp tens of thousands of copies of the greatest novel of the decade. I totally sympathise with Franzen, who reportedly will spend months agonising over a comma and the quality of whose work justifies that care, but my heart goes out to the more modestly paid people at the publisher who will carry the can for this.

But there are two wider issues that are worth considering: the difference between digital and print publishing and the nasty little business of marketing.

If physical books were dead, as many predict they soon will be, then this would hardly be a story. Download the updated version on your iPad or Kindle, and away you go. It costs the publisher next to nothing. The Franzen calamity was a big issue because the digital future isn't with us yet, and HarperCollins is now facing a monstrous bill to recall, pulp and re-issue the novel; not to mention the blow to its prestige. But it also raises questions about the permanence of the work itself. Luigi Pirandello famously did about six versions of his classic post-modernist play Six Characters In Search Of An Author (and others have tinkered with it since: I highly recommend Rupert Goold and Ben Power's new version, which even adds a new fourth act). Monet kept painting the same scenes over and over again without any being considered the definitive version. I myself write reviews on Amazon and occasional blogs on Blogger, and I can't resist going back and fiddling with them. But once a novel is published, it is considered definitive. Will this hold true in the digital age if, as many predict, the printed novel becomes extinct?

An interesting side issue is the way that novels don't change from edition to edition even when they should. In the Booker-winning Remains Of The Day, our hero Stevens sits on Weymouth pier and watches the sun set over the sea. As anyone who has been there, or has access to a map of southern England or even Google Earth can soon find out, this is impossible; just as impossible as looking to your left at the sea as you drive into Dover (Birdsong) or taking the M3 from Chichester to Cornwall (One Day). I read The Great Gatsby and The Enchanted April recently and found grammatical mistakes in both texts, and both these books were published in the early 1920s but still haven't been corrected. I'd still recommend all five of these wonderful books, by the way.

But HarperCollins is sitting on a publicity goldmine, it seems to me. Once it accepts that this is the sort of mistake that happens in every organisation from time to time, then it needs to swallow its pride and publicise its mistake to the entire world. Get the footage of Franzen discovering the mistake, add a bit of in-house content (the editors discussing 'how we fouled up", perhaps) and get it going viral. No reader cares about HarperCollins or its reputation. Can you seriously imagine yourself refusing to buy another book from the same publisher, just because you remember this snafu? Will authors remember this calamity and snub HC, or will they follow the example from How To Win Friends And Influence People – the one where a pilot who almost crashed because of a maintenance foul-up appointed the same technician for his next flight, because he of all people would make sure he never made the same mistake again?

There is also the issue of real cost. HarperCollins is offering to replace any book already sold, but how many readers will hold on to what they see as a collectors' item of the greatest novel of the decade? The company might even sell two copies of the same book to the same reader. Franzen's reputation won't be harmed, and, even if the publisher's reputation is bruised, it has a unique opportunity to get Freedom into the public eye.

I can bring it down to the more personal level. I like literary fiction, but I'm not in the business and I don't hear about everything. Hell, it's only because I've now got friends in the business that I finally got round to reading The Remains Of The Day, and that was 20 years after it was published. But now I've heard all about Franzen and about Freedom and The Corrections. I'm going to read them, whereas I might not have done so before. Aren't you?
This blog was first published on 6 October 2010 on literary agent Nathan Bransford's excellent website. Buy the book here (Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com) and prove my marketing hypothesis.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Been patronised lately?

I seem to be getting a reputation as someone who has an irrational hatred of announcements. This is possibly because I'm the only one on the train looking up at the speaker and loudly saying, “Shut the fuck up.”

My kids already think I’m weird
Other people – my friends especially – seem to think I’m weird for doing this. Partly this is because I live in London, went to a good school and am solidly middle class. Therefore I should not be making any sort of noise on public transport, unless, of course, I am talking loudly into my smartphone about something that could easily wait the 25 minutes till I get into the office but which makes me look like a real big shot in front of total strangers who will nonetheless be impressed at an almost sexual level to discover that, after over two decades of wearing a tie to work, I have a vague idea of how to do my job. The unspoken rule is, if you can’t bellow your insecurity into your Blackberry, keep quiet.

This is how we think in the Home Counties. It’s bad enough me talking back to the disembodied voice of a railway hireling who has been piped into my cochlea by a computer, but it’s only a short step from there to talking to my fellow passengers almost as if they were real human beings, which will lay me open to accusations of being a nutter or, worse, a northerner.

But I have an objection to my friends’ arguments. The objection is this: I’m the sane one. I know I'm being a bit embarrassing, but I’ve got teenage kids and so I’m used to being a public embarrassment. It holds no fears for me.

Seriously, I loved moving to a job in London so that I wouldn't have to play Turkish roulette with the lorry drivers on the M25. I’d be able to sit, or stand, and read a book. I love reading and I spent thirteen years not reading and listening to Deep Purple, Can or even gawdelpus Grand Funk Railroad on my car stereo, which can't be healthy. And now I can’t read on the train either because I’m always being distracted by some bum-nose telling me that I’m in carriage four of eight, or to mind the gap at a station that I won’t reach for another ten minutes and where the platform is totally straight anyway and the gap is so narrow you couldn't even lose a contestant for America’s Top Model.

Those announcements are irritating for their intrusive pointlessness and, because they treat everything as a danger, they risk numbing our senses to any danger that might genuinely exist.

But the latest ones are downright insulting: Network Rail (for I presume it is they) are now telling parents to keep a close eye on their children because a stations can be “dangerous places”. No, really? Because I never knew that my kid might get damaged if she were hit by a train going through at 80mph. Next you’ll be telling me that wet surfaces are slippery. Oh sorry, you are. Because I’m only 46 and I never knew about the lubricating properties of H20. Thanks, you patronising bastards. And yet you still put up posters saying “Our staff deserve respect” even though you accord your customers no respect at all and you still don’t understand why we might want to wallop anyone who wears your uniform?

Stop insulting me. I’m a grown-up. And I’m not fooled by your pretence that you care about my well-being. I know you’re only doing it because some snivelling little shit in your head office is paranoid about being sued. So you’re antagonising your customers and making our journeys just that little bit more miserable because you want to proclaim your cowardice and ignorance of the law. And you still don’t understand why we despise you?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The 21st Century will be great when it works

You know that feeling when you buy something and it breaks just after the warranty runs out? I'm starting to feel that way about the 21st Century. It's barely ten years old and it's starting to fall apart already.

Don't get me wrong, I was really enthusiastic about the upgrade. CE Version 21.0 looked like a big improvement on CEv20. True, CEv20 had rolled out lots of great functionality, such as air travel, women's suffrage, television and rock'n'roll; plus some really kicking upgrades to some apps that were only available in beta in ADv19, such as electricity, cars, atheism, moving pictures and oral sex. It also got rid of some tiresome functions that had been knocking around the system for too long, such as imperialism, cholera and capital punishment (although the latter is still available as an add-on for nostalgists who can't bring themselves to move on, rather like Space Invaders and box sets of Star Trek). But it also had some serious bugs: nuclear weapons, fascism and Rick Astley to name but three.

So while CEv21.0 has certain security vulnerabilities that can allow pop-ups like religious fundamentalism, George W Bush and Lehmann Brothers to crash the entire system, there's no doubt that it's a significant advance. At least, that's what I used to think. Now I'm not so sure.

I'm really not nostalgic about phones you could only answer in the room where the device sat and that stopped you roaming any further than the length of that twisty cable. I don't miss walking half a mile in the rain to the nearest red box just to have a private conversation (though I do miss the fact that it only cost 2p). I like having more than three TV channels, and I can't wait for them to come up with some more content so they won't have to show Lee Evans on a continuous loop in the vain hope of finding an audience that isn't utterly fed up with the weasel-faced little turd-burglar saying "fuck" every thirty seconds (Ken Tynan might have been the first to say that once-shocking, now nearly meaningless word on TV, but Evans must hold the record for the most utterances). And computers are a bloody marvellous invention.

So the 21st Century is a great thing, or it will be when it works properly.

I've got a new mobile phone: an HTC Wildfire. It's a smartphone. "Smart" means it doesn't know not to send text messages to landlines. "Smart" means it's got something in it called Android, which appears to be a system for crashing the phone every ten minutes. "Smart" also means it can link to my new car so that I can make hands-free phone calls, except that I can only call my own phone. "Must be a problem with the phone," says BMW. "Must be a problem with the car," says HTC.

Meanwhile my expensive, new(ish) computer refuses to join my wireless network. "You don't have a wireless router," it tells me sniffily. I do have a wireless router and I know it works because three other computers (including my neighbour's laptop) connect to the internet through it. Even Armageddon (that's my name for the recalcitrant computer, though I might rename it Priscilla, which seems more suitable) connects through it, only through a cable. Priscilla just refuses to believe it. "There's something wrong with your computer," say the router people. "There's something wrong with your router," say the computer people.

And that's how it works. You set up a cheap factory in China to make it (badly) and then set up a cheap customer service office in India to tell you that they don't know why it's not working at 60p per minute. Or, if you're BMW, you make a brilliant car in Germany and then put a crap computer in it. At least with that old phone (you remember, the one with the squiggly cable), all you had to do was plug it into the socket. You couldn't walk around, you only got one ring tone and you had no idea who'd called you if you didn't get there in time. But it worked, you never had to speak to a computer or to a human who'd been trained to behave like a computer and it carried on working for decades unless you hit it with a hammer or threw it down the stairs, and sometimes it still worked even then.

At this point I wonder why I've been seduced by all this. My car's Satnav takes ten minutes to discover that it doesn't know any more than I do where I want to go, but so what? I haven't lost my ability to read a map. Yes, it's a real fiddle to link my phone to Facebook, but can somebody remind me why I suddenly need to do this?

As we all know, the prime motivation for all human social interaction is the desperate need to get laid, and Facebook has done nothing to improve my dismal record in that regard. Nor have Twitter, mobile apps or wireless networking, although the last two might inspire some cheesy chat-up lines. They might work: I never get anywhere pretending to be a sophisticated chap who isn't primarily interested in the contents of your bra and knickers but would be a lot of fun if you gave me access, hopefully after an evening in an expensive restaurant with a bottle of Fleurie while you pretend to be interested in me pretending to know about Beethoven, the Booker Prize and the war in Afghanistan. "Nice tits; another Bacardi Breezer?" seems to work fine for some people.

"Hello? No, I don't have a password. I got this century free ten years ago. It was supposed to last a hundred years but it seems to have broken after ten. No, I don't have the original packaging. Alright, I'll hold…"

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dragged out of marriage

Just don't say anything. At least they got my name as wrong as they could
It's a cold evening in November 2005. I'm in the reception area of Chelsfield Methodist Church, in full make-up, black wig and wearing a gold, ankle-length ball gown. And I'm having that conversation with my wife.

You know the one. No, not that one. Or that one. The other one.

We – the Orpington Rep, that is, not Thérèse and I – were rehearsing a pantomime. This would be my first experience of this peculiarly English genre and I was moderately enjoying it, considering everything to do with the stage was new to me and I was never, ever going to do another panto.

It was barely a year since I'd sat at the computer in the early hours of the morning, drunk of course, doing something utterly shameful. While Thérèse was upstairs in bed and assuming I was doing what any decent husband of 14 years would be doing and looking at pornography, I was actually trying to find an amateur drama society. In the end I found two, which is how, a year later, I found myself playing Baron Hardup in Cinderella.

I'd never been on stage before, not even at school, so I figured that now the kids were old enough to put themselves to bed I would have time to do something in the evenings, and acting was something I'd always wanted to try. It took me till the age of 40, but finally I did it.

I know what you're thinking: that isn't Baron Hardup in the picture. You're right, but Rob, the tall, thin ugly sister was on holiday and someone who would fit the clothes had to step in when the press photos were taken. And while I was being prepped for the shoot, Thérèse was at home going through my briefcase, where she found the stub of the cheque I had written to a solicitor. She marched over to the hall and cornered me. To her credit, she made no comment about the garb I was wearing and got straight down to business.

So that's how we came to have that conversation. She in shock; me in a ballgown and the other members of the society looking through the windows from while pretending not to notice. There wasn't much to say, other than that I'd made up my mind and that was it. This photo was taken about 15 minutes later.

There were lots of reasons for the breakup. I'm too concerned with preserving the myth of being a nice guy to detail what was my fault and I've got no business using the web to say what was her fault. All I can say is that wearing women's clothes and make-up had nothing to do with it. I'd only worn make-up once before (for a girlfriend at university) and once since (for the Rocky Horror Show).

I still do amateur drama but I've ever worn a dress or any other women's clothing, before or since. But I've done Morris dancing, and that's humiliating enough.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Review of The Enchanted April

Virago has a reputation for republishing 'forgotten' books by women. Often they have been forgotten for a good reason, but not The Enchanted April. It's a feminine book, but it's not just for women.

Lottie Wilkins, a woman in a dull marriage, is intrigued by an advertisement offering a month in an idyllic Italian castle. Her interest piqued, she persuades Rose Arbuthnot, a vague acquaintance from her local church, to go halves on a month-long holiday. The halves become quarters as the high cost forces them to advertise for companions, bringing the ancient, waspish battleaxe Mrs Fisher and the young, bored, aristocratic eye-candy Lady Caroline Dester ("Scrap") into the party.

One by one, the women succumb to the magic of San Salvatore. Lottie needs little persuasion, her girlish enthusiasm and her need to be revitalised having inspired the plan in London. Rose takes longer, as her maudlin dissatisfaction with her husband's 'immoral' career comes into focus and at first makes her anything but happy. Scrap, sick of being shallowly admired for her wealth and beauty, takes even longer, as does Mrs Fisher, whose arrogance and stern disapproval of Lottie initially reinforce her rigid Victorian sense of decorum.

Von Armin's genius for description is reminiscent of her cousin Katherine Mansfield, but the real joy of the book is the way she subtly charts the thoughts and changing attitudes of the four women. While her style has something of the formality of early-20th century writing, she uses it to subtly weave some delicious humour and even satire into the story. For instance, Lottie's first impression of Rose is coloured by her appearance: "The very way Mrs Arbuthnot parted her hair suggested a great calm that could only proceed from wisdom," and this observation is often repeated to gentle comic effect. Mrs Fisher, answering a question about her even more formidable friend (whom we thankfully never meet), retorts, "Nobody has ever married Kate." Earlier, she compares the macaroni served at dinner to her husband: "He had slipped, he had wriggled, he had made her feel undignified, and when at last she had got him safe, as she thought, there had invariably been little bits of him that still, as it were, hung out."

This is a beautiful and funny book. It won't provoke laughter, but there will be plenty of broad smiles.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book review: Callow gets all luvvied up

This isn't exactly an autobiography, more an account of Callow's life illustrated by pieces he has written for newspapers and magazines (now do you get the joke in the title?). You could say that it's an innovative way to republish his journalism, or you might think it's a lazy way to knock out an autobiography. And you'd be right. Either way.

Callow's prose isn't quite fussy, but there is a sense of correctness in his style and worthiness in his treatment of his subjects. Still, I doubt that he is being dishonest: he loves the theatre and the people in it, and he has some amazing insights. He can be critical, but without sacrificing the affection and admiration he genuinely seems to feel for those he has met and worked with. His writing is good enough that you forgive the formality that makes some pieces - usually those on less interesting subjects - rather hard work.

My Life In Pieces will mostly appeal to theatre lovers, but even they might find it a bit long. Even so, there are some glorious moments and I'm glad to have it on my bookshelf. In the end, it's less of an autobiography and more like a professional memoir. Take that as a criticism or a recommendation, whichever works for you.

 Amazon.com link (US)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

About John

For some reason I felt like writing about John. Maybe it's because it was Tony's 50th birthday on Sunday. Who'd have thought that Tony would be the first of us to get to 50? Well, all of us, Tony being the eldest. But if I survive the next four years and one day, I'll be the second. Which for the fourth son is pretty good going. Just not so good for the second and third.

John was the second son. He would have been 49 on 25 September, if he hadn't died in December 2008. He knew it was coming: he'd had Multiple Sclerosis for a couple of decades. It's hard to say exactly how long he'd had it, but I found out early in 1990. Dad had had an inkling a year or so before. After John had left the army and his strange, brief marriage had broken up, he lived with Mum and Dad in Basingstoke for a while. He found he couldn't keep up with Dad on the way down to the pub, which was a worry but not a big one. We only realised the significance later.

John and Mel at Tony & Dee's wedding, 1988
In 1990, when he was living in South Norwood, he told me that he was worried about his health. His ex-girlfriend Mel had just moved out – coincidentally she was my ex-girlfriend too, since she'd given me my first kiss in about 1980 – and he was explaining why he couldn't be my best man at my forthcoming wedding (her brother, Guy, did the job in the end). He looked me in the eye and, with genuine fear in his voice, said, "Pat, I can't feel my legs!"

Tony's wife Dee, Tony, Thérèse and
John in South Norwood, 1991
In the two decades that followed, that was the only time he ever showed any concern about his progressive disability or the inevitable end. In 1991, when my wife Thérèse and I moved into our first house, he helped us move in. By the time we moved out in 1996, he was in a wheelchair. While he could, he completely rebuilt his flat. As his condition worsened and his legs stopped working, my Dad helped him make the flat wheelchair-friendly. He lived alone, independently, and I eventually stopped asking about his illness. To him, it was no more interesting than the fact that I wear size 9 shoes. It was just a boring fact about his body.

While he could walk, he would come round to our flat in Penge. I always knew when it was him. Some people give two knocks; some three; while other do the full rat-a-tat-tat (I'm a two-knock man myself). John just knocked once. I always went to the door because John and Thérèse never got on, ever since that party in Croydon when he and I had first met her and they'd had a big argument. When she and I got together a few months later, he bluntly said, "Can't stand your woman, Pat." When she and I finally split on New Year's Eve 2006, he said, "Told you so." He was the most honest, and therefore possibly the rudest, man I have ever known.

He was a tearaway as a boy; a tendency that showed up early when his mother came into the bedroom and found him not in his cot but on top of a wardrobe. She never worked out how he got there. His stock-in-trade was the bomb, which he set off with great delight and profusion. Purley Cricket Club was so relieved when he joined the army (the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, 2 Battalion, where he earned the nickname 'Fingers', not because of any predilection towards theft but because of a childhood accident that meant he could only count to 9½). Once he built a mortar, using our brother Mark's pet rats as ammunition. The neighbours hated us, except for Tony and Mary Tucker, who'd known us for long enough and were lovely people who saw the best in us. I still feel guilty about not returning their copy of Simon & Garfunkel's 'Sounds Of Silence'. It's on my shelf downstairs even now. He was thrown out of three schools, arrested at least once and did his best to ensure that Crystal Palace could hold its head up in the league table of 1970s hooliganism.

In a sense, his illness made him as a man. I mentioned his fear as he realised that something inside him was going badly wrong, and I'm still baffled as to how he managed to cope. I watched him, week after week, year after year, getting steadily worse. He taught himself maths, physics and computers. He bought books on speed-reading, knowing he only had limited time. He learned how to play the stock market, first on-line and then by phone when a mouse became too hard to operate. When oil hit $120 a barrel in early 2008, he bet on it going higher and made £10,000 when it hit $140: very near the peak of $147. Quite impressive for a phone trader who could barely make himself understood to those in the room with him.
John in December 2007,
still smiling

I still have his fingerless gloves, which he wore when his hands started to fail. I watched him as MS tore his body away from him piece by piece, nerve by nerve. First his legs, then his hands, his voice; even his eyes. Every time I went to visit him he was worse than when I last saw him. Every time I said goodbye, I knew I would never see him so well again. When he went into hospital for the last time, I didn't find out for a week. I promised to see him on the Saturday, but he died on Friday night. After 20 years of knowing what the end would be, I still couldn't stop him dying alone. He's not there to accuse me, but he's not here to forgive me either.

He outlived his mother by six months. She'd already lost one son (Mark, in a motorbike accident, in 1984). When Tony and our Dad met on the Monday to make arrangements, we had to divvy up his records and CDs, which he'd left to me but which I wanted to share with Tony. Tony insisted on playing one that he was to keep, a Tom Petty album. For the next week, the lyrics kept running round my head as I thought of John listening to it on the bed that he only left to go into hospital: "I'm learning to fly / But I ain't got wings…"

I thought that it would be easier to bear, knowing it was coming, whereas Mark's death was as sudden horror that had to be swallowed whole in one painful gulp. It wasn't. Knowing it was coming was more like investing in grief, which then pays out with interest. I miss them both, and the best way to describe the emotion now isn't grief but resentment. They should still be here and I'm angry that they're not.

There were two close friends who helped me through it, and I'm eternally grateful to both of them, even if they don't understand exactly what they did. They were there, and they cared, and that was enough.

So why do I put this down in a blog – all this that seems so intensely personal? Because he was a real person, and I know he only lives now in the memories of those of us who knew him. Because when we die, he dies, finally and completely. When we are gone, there will be no-one left to know he ever existed. But he existed as much as you or me, and I want to leave something of him; as much as my inadequate prose can muster.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Parting the Fringe

A healthy breakfast in Lauriston Place
Edinburgh was a fabulous experience again; plus I didn't have any black dogs this year. This didn't stop me drinking whisky, mind you, but that's more a form of cultural tourism, don't you think? As a breakfast, it can't be any less healthy than Coco Pops, and it's not like I had it every single morning. Not with so much leftover red wine to get through.

OK, that was a joke. We never left any red wine. I always had to open a fresh bottle.

I've blogged already about some of the shows I saw, but there were 23 in all so the rest deserve a mention.

After the disappointment of Pappy's we hooked up with the rest of the party who'd gone to see Noise Next Door and had a much better time of it than I did. The best way to finish the night seemed to be the late Storytellers show (Pleasance), in which performers got up and told stories. Sometimes the names of Fringe shows are refreshingly clear about what you're going to get. In the style of The Now Show, we had to fill in a sheet of paper saying the worst thing we did at school in five words or fewer. There were some pretty lurid tales, but mine ("I gave kids live ammunition") came second on the public vote. So I didn't win the prize, but it did intensify my enthusiasm for getting involved in the show – something that was to get us into trouble later in the week. 4/5

These crazy Aussies were bizarrely wonderful
Aside from some fabulous comics, Storytellers introduced us to the quirky yet wonderful Australian three-piece band Suitcase Royale, whose shit-kicking country folk seduced us into watching their full show The Ballad of Backbone Joe on Sunday. It was a bizarre story of love and death in a small Australian outback town, played around an imaginatively constructed set of toy buildings and half-made rooms, with shadow play and asides to the audience that made us love them all the more. Turning a suitcase into a car was a stroke of genius. But for all the shambolic humour of the show, they were great musicians too. 5/5.

The sun was bright enough on Friday to send me scurrying back to the flat to get my sunglasses, but I somehow got diverted into the Dragonfly bar, where we'd seen a cracking Quiz In My Pants two days before. Sad Bitch In The Corner was just about to start her free show, so I thought I'd look in. The eponymous heroine is 24-year old Rowena Haley from Bolton with her equally sad acoustic guitar. She regaled us with songs played badly and sung worse, all about her semi-psychotic and desperate life. The lyrics were rushed and didn't scan, while the rhymes were crude and obvious. It all contributed to a sense of amateurish crapness, which I'm sure was deliberate but was no less crap for all that. I don't care if your life is full of boredom and frustration, unless it's funny. Lines like "You're more annoying than period pains" will give you enough of a flavour. A particular low point was the story of the death of her pet hamster Maureen ("the only way I could get over it was to write a song about it"), with the immortal lyrics, "We used to have fun / But now we can't because you're gone / We can't any more because you're buried in the back gar-dun." The comedic high point was a pause: "A moment's silence because I haven't got enough material for 45 minutes." At least she saved the best for the last five minutes: Guilt Trip and her story about how the show was funded were genuinely funny. 1/5

David Mulholland counts his takings
By then the rain had returned and the red wine was becoming rather moreish, so I stayed for American ex-journalist David Mulholland's You Are Being Lied To, a show that aimed to uncover the truth about the lies you read in the press. Having been a journalist myself, I found it interesting and occasionally funny, but my companion was less impressed. Still, I loved the story about how an EU map of lifesaving stations in England, France and Belgium, whose only crime was to refer the English Channel as "La Manche / The Channel", became the tabloid headline "EU abolishes Britain". 3/5

iOTA and the band from Smoke & Mirrors
None of this prepared me for the amazing spectacle of Smoke & Mirrors, in which an almost Rocky Horror cabaret show from Australia (again) with a heavy dose of burlesque sent a packed late-night audience away from the Spiegeltent in raptures. There were magicians, acrobats, tap dancers, a dynamite band, a bearded lady and a leading man called iOTA who is surely going places. The whole 100 minutes was dripping with decadence and a sense of fin-de-siècle ennui that was compelling from start to finish, and a wonderful way to wrap up Friday night. While my companions were talking to the magician from the show, I was distracted by a charming American lady who was cadging cigarettes. She was almost as drunk as I was, but her friends dragged her away just as the possibility of moral hazard seemed about to emerge. Bugger.5/5

Tarot time with the Devil's Advocates
Early Saturday afternoon offered another free event: this time from the Sceptics On The Fringe organisation, whose panel game Devil's Advocate focused on science versus science fiction. It also provided another accidental encounter with guest panellist Laura Lexx, who probably now thinks I'm stalking her. Ash Pryce presided over events as Tarot readings, Zener cards and Star Trek all got an amusing going-over. 4/5

The same people (not Laura this time) also showed us How To Be A Psychic Con-Man on Monday, so I now know how to bend spoons, read minds and cure cancer (or perhaps not). A few more explanations would have been good, but it was a fun and free diversion. 4/5

Death of a Samurai
Possibly the oddest thing I saw was Death Of A Samurai, a crazy and highly stylised Japanese dance show backed by electronic beat music. It was a strange concept, brilliantly performed but with too much use of English, which occasionally robbed it of its magic. If you can't say "I love you" wordlessly, there's something wrong with your performance. The use of red confetti to symbolise blood was highly effective, as was the way darkness was used to leave a performer's image on the retina.

I've mentioned The Late, Late Show in a previous post. One high spot (literally) was the acrobatic dance of Circus Trick Tease, but I can't let the 77-year old female San Franciscan comic Lynn Ruth Miller pass without mention. She was terrible, from her granny raps to her jokes, only some of which were younger than she was. Her sub-Joan-Rivers shtick relied entirely on the shock value of a septuagenarian telling sex jokes, but the jokes wouldn't be funny if she were 50 years younger. 1/5

I had to see Colin Hoult's sketch show Enemy of The World at the Pleasance on my own because my friends had started to run out of money. He knocked me out – not literally, because I had to sing later in his show. Backed by a graceful young woman with a triangle, a grubby older man on guitar and a mad, swarthy homunculus on bongos, he acted out the parts of several deranged, damaged characters with a heavy reliance on audience participation. His stock in trade is arrogant, deluded men. Most disturbing was Len Parker, an ex-squaddie from Nottingham with some psychotic ideas for film scripts and the loving, aggressive Glaswegian father, terrifyingly interrogating his son on what he wanted in his Christmas box. The funniest was the camp film impresario, complete with feather boa, asking the audience their names: "John? Oh fuck, I love that. How do you spell that?", then asking his companion, "Is he your boyfriend? Look after him. Never clean out his trough." 5/5

It's just possible I won't get back to the amazing theatre show Bound, the slightly misfiring Taking Liberties and Aude, Vide, Tace, the always hilarious Shakespeare For Breakfast (hilarious except for a dreadful Lear) or the sublime Micky Flanagan. If not, I can tell you they were alternatively amazing, misfiring, hilarious and sublime. And maybe you'll never learn how my penchant for sitting at the front and getting involved led to an obscene online incident involving an unsuspecting female friend.



Friday, August 27, 2010

Debauchery and dissipation at the Fringe

Just got back from the Edinburgh Fringe and have already broken my promise to review everything I saw. I managed to review Pappy’s, largely because the spiteful little comments I scribbled in my notebook seemed to sum it up well enough but also because it’s so much more fun to slag something off, isn’t it? Journalism must be in my blood.

Smoke & Mirrors

I saw a good mix of genres and quality, from the sublime Smoke & Mirrors to the lamentable but perfectly named Sad Bitch In The Corner. A lot of my personal highlights came from the shenanigans of the people I went with and don’t bear repeating here. In the spirit of journalistic discretion, I can only offer highlights of the conversations without naming the guilty parties:

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone it was you that unplugged the fridge.”
“I’m not wearing anything under this towel.”
“I’ve had some very disappointing wanks.”
“Why have you taken your shirt off?”
“True, but they said the same thing about anal sex.”
“I was so disappointed when he took the sock out of his pants.”
“Honestly, I don’t always have whisky for breakfast.”
“Someone was wanking at me on the internet!”
“Weren’t they were supposed to kill us all?”
“Our friend is drunk – and married. We’d better get her home.”

Context, of course, is everything. That’s why I’m not going to provide any, except to admit that I was the disappointed target of that last comment.

Very occasionally the clouds cleared, and the city was rent with the wailing of fearful Scots, crying: “The yellow ball of doom has returned to destroy us all!” Most of the time, the climate of Edinburgh successfully probed the weaknesses of our footwear, revealing leaks that had gone un-noticed in London for months. It was the same last year. Edinburgh is where my shoes go to die. The rest of my footwear huddles in the corner, knowing they will never see their departed friends again and wondering whose turn it will be next year to take the long walk to the Lothian Footwear Abattoir. But I won’t go on about shoes, because I can’t be as funny on that subject as Reggie Hunter was. So, on to the culture.

Itch (at the Pleasance) was a great way to kick the week off. Unusually, it consisted of half-finished sketches performed by actors who were mostly still holding their scripts (“Itch”: scratch theatre, geddit?). The highlight was Mike Haley – a Geordie actor who I can’t seem to find on the web – performing as a pompous, fake, upper-class English mystic whose reading of the supposed log of the ship that brought Dracula to England was pure genius. 5/5

After an Itch, you need Soap (Assembly): a show with dancers, singers and jugglers in baths. It sounds crazy, and it was, but for the most part it was also breathtakingly brilliant, although they need to come up with a better way of linking scenes than singing Splish Splash to various classical music tunes: Rimsky-Korsakov was amusing, but the joke wore very thin after that. The girl juggling with her feet was astonishing, as was the guy who juggled seven balls at once, bouncing them on an upturned bath while standing on it. But the Assembly venue deserves special mention for having no bloody idea how to run a show. The seats weren’t allocated, which means that the best were the same price (£17 – phew!) as the worst, where pillars meant that some of my friends saw very little of what was happening. 4/5

Having failed to endear me with Soap, the Assembly added to my disdain with its Late Late Show, which started after midnight and went on for two hours. With a low stage and a highly visual show, the organisers should have offset the seating so that everyone could see. They didn’t, so, after 6’5” of Fringe-fast-food-fuelled corpulence spread itself out in front of me, I might just as well have been listening to the radio. Great acrobats, apparently. Co-host Mikelangelo looked like an outsize Mark Kermode and, with a Nick Cave-like darkness of delivery, was a compelling compère whose musical excursions were cheerfully Gothic. But there’s no excuse for doing Two Little Boys. Ever. 3/5

Killed off in the first 3%
The same venue had earlier shown Your Days Are Numbered: The Maths of Death, in which “stand-up mathematician” Matt Parker was held in check by Timandra Harkness as they took us through the chances of dying from different activities, bumping the audience off one by one. My comment from the audience earned a sharp rebuke about Venn diagrams and an early award of a ‘Dead’ sticker slapped on my forehead. 4/5

Tom and Laura Quiz In Their Pants
We also found time for the delightfully silly Quiz In My Pants over at the Dragonfly, which had Tom Livingstone and Matt Grant (of Noise Next Door) as guests when we saw it. With regulars Nicola Bolsover, Laura Lexx and Dan Carter-Hope, it was a friendly, charming and bizarre afternoon, with the added bonus of being free. On that performance, Tom and Matt might actually convert me to improvised comedy. 4/5 


Rhod Gilbert is one of the country’s top stand-ups, which is why he got a proper theatre at the EICC for his sold-out show of increasingly surreal rants about how bloody annoying life is. It’s a hilarious half-hour show; unfortunately it went on for 60 minutes. There’s nothing wrong with any of it: Gilbert is a brilliant comic who takes the logic of irritation to gloriously ridiculous extremes, stretching the thread of logic as thin as he can without breaking it, but his dyspeptic tirades are all a bit too similar to sustain a full hour. (There’s also his mildly irritating habit of facing the stage-right wings for much of the show, such that some of the audience at the front mostly saw the back of his head). 4/5 

Reggie Hunter, on the other hand, was even better than last year. With his slow, drawling American delivery, alternately challenging and chummy, it’s always a pleasure to spend an hour in his company. This year he even told some memorable jokes as well. 5/5

I hope I’ll get to review everything I did. Let’s face it, I’ve got 11 months in London to recover.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Where did Pappy go wrong?

Pappy's All Business
Pleasance, Edinburgh Fringe, Thursday 19 August 2010

Pappy's – now shorn of one member and the ‘Fun Club’ part of their name – take to the stage in front of a largely adoring audience to the tune of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s Takin’ Care Of Business. Only they come on too early, before the lyrics even start, and spoil the effect – unless, that is, you’re a sad old git like me and you already know the song. Most of the audience are too young to remember album tracks from unhip 1970s boogie-rock bands, unless there’s been a Don't Stop Believin'-style rehabilitation and I missed it.

Not that this is important in itself. I can go home and listen to my desperately outdated music collection any time, and I’d already heard more of it than I (or anyone else) deserved in Edinburgh when the dance show Soap played She Brings The Rainby Can.

I only bring it up because it’s a foretaste of the desperately shambolic nature of the show. You might say this review is just as shambolic, but I paid £12 to see Pappy’s and you’re not paying to read this.

The Pappy boys might argue that this is part of their charm, but there’s a limit to how far you can go by sniggering at your own crapness and hoping the audience can see that you’re not fooled any more than they are. There’s no doubt that they’re talented performers – especially the short, bearded Matthew Crosby, who shares more than just stature with Christopher Ryan as he lays down the law to the audience (“no refunds!”) – but the show itself is reminiscent of a 6th Form revue. You’d be impressed if you were 18 and these were yer mates up there, but a comedy team that’s been together more than half a decade should have moved on by now.

It’s not all bad, and some of the audience were screaming with laughter as the team moved from sketch to sketch while trying to maintain some sort of coherent storyline via some very forced and disjointed links. The jokes were usually telegraphed from a distance of several miles, and sometimes worked all the better for it. There were also some sublime moments, with three French sisters played by Tom Parry with a pole across his neck dangling a doll either side, and best of all when the trio wore t-shirts with designs that gradually became a fruit machine as they progressively took the shirts off.

The jackpot was three cherries, if you must know, but three lemons would have summed up the show. It came across like improvised comedy, but we forgive impro because we know the comic has just made it up. This was scripted, although they were sometimes funnier when they veered away from the script.

Ultimately, they’re still just a bunch of students larking about, and we’ve seen it all before – long before some of this audience were even born. You might still find it hilarious if you’re under 30; or at least, if your age and mental age add up to less than 30.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Further than anyone should go, or How I Gave Up Fantasy and Got Interested In Girls

A review of The Silmarillion

A Tolkien fan from the age of six, I got this as a present as soon as it came out, when I was twelve or thirteen.

It's a long, tedious work of background notes spun into something vaguely like a story by Tolkien's son Christopher. It comprises a turgid, invented mythology that is only suitable for insatiable Middle-Earth completists.

At least it did me a favour: just as puberty kicked in, I was able to turn my attention from hobbits to girls. For that, Christopher Tolkien I thank you, if for nothing else.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review of Kate Atkinson's latest novel

Started Early, Took My DogStarted Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I’m in a rowdy pub, watching England play Slovenia. It’s crowded, so I have to park myself right under the wall-mounted screen, my book resting on the shelf. Towards the end of the match, with the restless crowd running short of things to shout and despairing of a second goal, a voice starts chanting: “If you love Kate Atkinson, stand up!”

I’m already standing up. So is most of the pub. We all love Kate Atkinson. She is becoming one of Britain’s most popular authors, and with good reason, and with ‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ she maintains that quality.

‘Started Early’ brings us back to some of the characters we met in [[ASIN:184657238X Case Histories]], with the Scottish private investigator Jackson Brodie bringing his peculiar brand of gruff humour to a collection of apparently unrelated mysteries. Where Atkinson shines, as always, is in creating a large cast of perfectly realised characters, each of whom is unique and sympathetic, or at least understandable and human.

Early on, the novel does demand slightly too much faith from the reader that all the disparate characters will come together to make a coherent story. Tilly is a particularly peripheral character: separated from the action and with a role that only becomes apparent at the very end. She justifies her place in the novel, but only just. But Atkinson’s readers have learnt to trust her, and that trust is rewarded.

To be honest, it’s not as strong as her earlier work, and plausibility is stretched a bit far in places, especially at the end. But it’s still brilliantly written and highly entertaining, so it looks like Atkinson will have another hit on her hands. Unlike England’s footballers, hers is a talent that can be relied on.






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