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. 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.