Saturday, 22 December 2007

And The Bells Were Ringing Out

“It’s beginning to look a bit like Christmas,” goes the song.

And so it is.

It’s starting to feel like the end of the year, like finality is fast approaching.

Anyone would think that the apocalypse is nigh or perhaps a tornado or a volcano or a tidal wave. I mean, if the end of the world was just about to begin then buying every last tin of tomatoes, stalks of broccoli and can of Fosters is hardly going to help and you would hope that in their last moments of existence people would be able to find something better to do. But then again, possibly they wouldn’t. They’d probably leg it down to the shops to buy a few extra galleons of milk in case Auntie Ethel decided to sit out the nuclear winter in their shelter after all.

Seriously, you should see the insanity in the supermarkets around here. The desperation and the aggression, the over-compensation, the almost inevitable waste (or so I suspect - no family can eat eleven kilos of sprouts, can they?). Besides, we live in the (almost) middle of the biggest city on the continent. There are five large scale, big name supermarkets within a half hour walk from my house and at least a further fifteen corner shops within ten minutes. At the very worst they will be closed Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Two days. Let’s be honest, it’s unlikely to even be for that long, but people are stocking up like they need to feed a regiment for the next three months. You’d think that it was 1963 and that the missiles could start flying at any moment.

I used to love Christmas, the drunken frivolity, the giving and the sharing and, hell, everything about it. Even, sort of, the fairy tale of the son of god born under a star to bring peace to the world. It’s nice. Just thinking about it used to give me a warm glow inside.

Increasingly, though, that’s no longer the case. I’m getting more and more grumpy as each year passes. I leave the gift shopping later and later in lone protest against the advertising and store dressing that seems to begin earlier and earlier and so, consequently, I’m fighting against the rampaging hordes of desperate mothers and guilty husbands. I find the centre of London claustrophobic on an average Saturday afternoon, but in December it’s utterly unbearable. The streets are packed with people layered up in heavy coats, gloves and woolly hats, who then become drenched with sweat the moment they enter an overheated shop. Everyone gains an extra two feet in width as the number of bags surgically attached to their hands increases every fifteen minutes. Those more innocent are barraged out into the road, knocked to one side by a taxi transporting a peroxide blonde footballer’s wife fresh off the train from Hertfordshire, heading to Selfridges and the privileges of a personal shopper.

Me? I take a rucksack, keeping my hands free to shove the occasional cyclist under a bus, and a plan. Get in, purchase presents and get the hell out of Dodge.

Rarely works, though.

Plus, there’s the never ending Slade-Mud-Wizzard-Wham medley of audio torture, bits of tinsel attached to the door handles of public toilets, a stuffed penguin dressed as a reindeer dressed as Santa in the middle of every damn shop and the electricity drainers suspended from every lamp post, tree and vertical object on every high street around the country (to say nothing of some people’s houses). Mind you, it could be worse - at least the Christmas lights no longer seem to be just adverts for fizzy orange drinks or the latest kids movie or condoms or whatever, but how come the eco-police don’t harp on about the four million extra light bulbs along Oxford Street switched on for sixteen hours a day for nine weeks?

Oh, and then there’s my favourite part of Christmas. The complex negotiations over which parts of the festive period we’re going to spend in which parental abode. A process of feints and bluffs and counter strategy which needs to accommodate a myriad range of considerations: quantity of time spent with each family; quality of time spent with each family; number of meals where; sisters; grand-parents; aunts and uncles; dogs; cousins. Who we see when and where becomes so convoluted with twists and turns, a couple of hours here, twenty minutes there, that in fact we spend all our time driving the three miles between junctions four and five of the M42. I’m confused, but I think that I’m having lunch on Boxing Day with my Dad, Beck’s Uncle Peter, my cousin’s husband Paul and mine and Beck’s nephew at a secret rendezvous point somewhere in Wiltshire.

It’s enough to make me say “sod it, bugger Christmas” and stay in London sulking. I’ll draw the blinds, speak to no-one, spend the day in bed reading books, drinking fine ale and masturbating. It’ll be great.



Actually, you know, it’d be shite. And in the end it’s the little details that make Christmas so special and overcome all the crap in the run-up.

On Wednesday afternoon we went to buy a tree. This involved a fair degree of faffing; first we went to the local garden centre (too big and too expensive), then to Homebase (wrong shape) and then to a couple of random blokes selling them off the street (sawn off at the base; impossible to water - it’d be dead before we got home from Birmingham) and then back to Homebase. A small, rather full of character I think, tree now perches on the chest in the lounge.

We decorated it that evening. The box of decorations was, incredibly, where I’d left them the year before and I even managed to find a set of lights that worked. We sipped red wine, listened to Rufus Wainwright and in the artificially warm fuzz of the evening tied tinsel around the pot, dangled baubles and bells and stars. She smiled at something daft I said and I smiled back. Suddenly all was right in the world and that glow in the pit of my stomach returned.

I started thinking about all the times past. Of as a little kid my Dad drawing a clock face showing the time that I could get up in the morning and placing the piece of paper next to my Noddy clock; of getting up, finding Mum already up and about and being over-excited because Father Christmas had already been, unable to understand that she was getting undressed, not dressed; of the sheer unadulterated joy at getting the exact Action Force or Transformer toy that I’d dreamt of for months; of silliness and a lack of competition in playing board games with my sister and my cousins; of the straining in my gut as I force down one more roast potato and know that I’ll have find room for pudding; of sinking into the big, bright pink chair in the window of my grand-parent’s dining room, opening a bran new book and beginning to read, feeling slightly dozy as digestion takes place; of the smell of drambuie; of tunelessly howling carols in the Railway Inn late on Christmas Eve having already sunk too much Brew XI and then slurring my way through a solo version of Fairytale in New York somewhere between the pub and my parents house.

Despite the odds and all the attempts to make it trite and frustrating, it is still a wonderful time of the year. Merry Christmas everyone, now get off the internet and go spend time with your family.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Stabo Mowie Po Polsku.

It’s damn cold outside.

Cold enough to make your testicles shrivel as you walk, your lips crack when you smile and frost forms in your hair instantly.

Still, I suppose I am in Poland and big over-ear hats and knee high sturdy boots remain one of the stereotypes that haunts the former Eastern block countries for a very good reason.

I’m writing this having just devoured a rather large mushroom pancake which cost a rather surprising £2.50. Eastern Europe doesn’t seem as ludicrously cheap as it did nine years ago when we sat in Prague sucking bottles of Budvar for about 12p each. Today it’s almost as though two Polands exist simultaneously side by side. As though a Western tourist can reach out and touch a wall that feels solid and real, but if you pushed a little harder it will start to dissolve and underneath there’s something else. Layers of reality piling up on top of each other.

Old and new.

This is a country that has so many pasts. It has the history of the ancient Polish Kingdom, one of the first fully formed monarchies on the continent, it has a history of domination by either Prussia or White Russia and even briefly the French. Then there was a brief triumphant period between the wars and finally over forty years of enforced communism.

And now.

Now it’s a place where virtually everyone under thirty-five speaks English and everyone over, Russian. Where the young and the old are separated by more than just the passing of the years. A country naturally divided in half by the river Vistula and resulting in a western region buoyant on EU investment and an agricultural eastern half shackled by new trading restrictions with the Ukraine. It’s a country that wants to accelerate into the twenty-first century, but desperate not to do so at the expense of some of their hard fought identity.

In the first world it is sometimes difficult to see the differences when everywhere could be anywhere.

The café I’m indulgently taking up a table for too long, over-looks the beautiful old square of Poznan. The centre of the town for over seven hundred years, the current buildings appear to be eighteenth century town houses. Four stories tall, clad in a myriad range of stunning colours and intricate details along their roofs. At the ground floor they are illuminated by a range of neon signs. Segafredo Coffee, Coca-Cola, Heineken, Red Bull.

I come to places like this and I instinctively want to write about them. I’m swept up in their beauty, their history, the difference, the otherness. I’m interested in the ramshackle iron tram system, the brutalist 1950s soviet architecture, the remnants of different social norms and I look for a story to tell. But the thing is, I can’t. I can’t write about Poznan or Poland without dealing with everything I’ve listed above in some fashion. I cannot truly understand what is, I can only observe.

It’s all about voice. I could write a story with believable characters, with a coherent plot, with detailed references to Poland now and gone and it would (possibly) be competent enough, but it would still lack that magical sequence of letters that make the words spring out of the page and exist independently.

I’ve encountered this problem before, but I think it is only recently that I‘ve begun to recognise it. When we were in Croatia I was shocked at the number of men in their mid-thirties with missing limbs, or scars, or in wheelchairs. Survivors of the war. When we got home I tried to write a story that drew on Croatia’s history and it’s present situation of emerging from the ashes using the viewpoint of a veteran. What was I thinking? It was, of course, utter crap, and so it should have been. What right do I have to presume to understand the thoughts of a man who fought in a civil war?

In the spring I wrote a piece about Berlin, about an old man who returned to the street he grew up on for the first time since the war. Auguststrasse happens to the site of the Berlin Biennale that Beck and I had visited in 2006 and the nineteenth century architecture left to ramshackle makes it incredibly atmospheric. I really wanted to write something set on the street. The narrative takes place with the old man walking along the street reliving his youth in a series of blurred flashbacks, the present and the past overlap each other. Parts of it work. I was pretty damn pleased with the final sequence and felt that I’d written about old age and lost love and childhood memories competently, yet Auguststrasse is in the Jewish area and consequently the holocaust demanded to be included. It’s too big a thing to simply ignore and, of course, I couldn’t write about it with authority and so the whole piece fails. I tried to give the characters a strong sense of regret and I deliberately dodged the question of mass German participation, even though my character was compliant rather than active, trying to suggest that it is almost impossible for us today to truly understand what happened.

It failed because, again, who am I?

These are, it would seem, ventriloquist leaps too far for me at the moment.

Continuing with my example for a while: Yes it’s true that you don’t have to be a holocaust survivor or participant to write exceptionally well about the event. You don’t necessarily have to be Primo Levi to write something like If This Is Man or The Drowned And The Saved. Art Spiegelman’s Maus is superb, but then his parents were survivors and the work is as much about his relationship with his father as anything else. W.G Sebald was just a boy in 1945 but in both The Emigrants and Austerlitz he tackles the issue, but then he was German. Both of these writers have a way into the story, yet two generations removed, born into a non-practicing United Reformed Christian family in the West Midlands I have not.

This is, I suspect, about as an extreme an example as you can get.

Experience does not completely create voice, nor, indeed, does it allow you write stunning prose, but it does, I feel, give the words an added significance. It helps the reader to believe if they feel you know what you are writing about. Incidental details, supporting characters, there are many things that can be researched (although I would suggest more than just a quick look at wikipedia) and included, but I’m starting to feel that to truly write the central characters and themes of any work I must, at least, understand.

George Orwell lived penniless on the streets of both Paris and London almost seeking out the experience of starvation, poverty, of the underclass in contrast to his own upper-middle class childhood and his work as a policeman in Burma. He wanted to write political novels, words for all people and he instinctively knew that in order to be read by those he most wanted to reach he must experience the life for himself.

I could still, if I chose, write about Poland. I just have to write about an Englishman in Poznan for a brief visit. Alternatively I can come back and properly immerse myself in the area and the culture and I might find it coming alive for me, but maybe not.

Of course, it might be that none of this is true.

I’m told that Jim Crace just makes everything up. Every single detail, every location, everything either stems from his existing knowledge or his imagination. He’s a fiction writer so if you don’t know something why not invent. It is, partly, down to the confidence with which you put pen to paper. I only found this fact out recently and I’ve been a little concerned that I won’t be able to read his work again with the same intense pleasure it usually gives me, in the meantime you‘ll find me in the corner scribbling down every concept and emotion I think I can connect to.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

All That You Can't Leave Behind

I’m lying in the early morning dark. The glow from the street light cuts behind the ill fitting blind and casts a low glow across the bedroom. I can hear Beck in the bath, there’s the sound of water splashing like a gentle tide ebbing against a jetty wall. I try to focus on this rather than the dull thud in my head caused by a visit to the Marquis in Cannonbury and the New Rose on the Essex Road.

The room around me is a scattergun mess of clothes, electrical cables, adaptors, open cases, creased books and loose sheets of paper. Ah, yes, I remember. Beck is in the process of packing. I went out last night to keep out of her way whilst she finished working and prepared for departure. Clearly only one of those things has been achieved.

She comes back into the bedroom and I grudgingly roll onto the floor. When I finally make it to the bathroom I find that the deep soak she enjoyed has drained all the hot water. I attempt to take a cold shower, but as the heating hasn’t even kicked in yet and the air in the room is acutely chilled. It’s just too much and I resort to ineffectively splashing a little water around my crotch and arm pits exhaling with an “oh” and an “ah” as I do so. I get dressed still smelling of midnight sweat and go in search of coffee.

Two hours later and we need to be leaving, but Beck’s laptop is still running in the still disputed spare room and in the bedroom she sits atop the small, battered suitcase I acquired at some point that usually just lives in the bottom of the wardrobe storing hiking gear as I tend to prefer a rucksack. Spilling out of the sides I see what looks like a suit worn by a engineer sent to defuse a chemical bomb (it turns out to be the coat she brought in Canada for wearing in the artic next year) and a pair of maroon high heels. Presumably not to be worn together.

“Do you really need that?”
“It’ll be cold.”
“You’ll never get it shut.”
“You’re always so defeatist.”
“Couldn’t you take a smaller coat?”
“It’ll be cold.”
“Not so cold, surely? Isn’t that thing designed to keep you alive if you stumble and fall in snow and lie helpless for a few hours whilst the temperature drops to minus twenty?”

Eventually, we get the two bags zipped up and (probably) containing more or less everything she needs. I carry the suitcase down the stairs. It’s clearly well over the weight limit, but Beck insists that she’ll repack at the airport and I therefore have to find another bag which I can either use to take things back home or she can take on board as a larger carry-on bag.

I finally turn the ignition, after a quick dash back into the house to collect passport and flight details, and we pull off at 0955. Twenty-five minutes later than planned, but not too bad. The traffic through Lewisham is relatively light and we’re making reasonable time despite a minor panic crossing Blackheath.

“I’m not sure if I’ve got the adaptor that connects my computer to a projector.”
“Do you need it?”
“Do you want to go back?”
“Just stop and I’ll check… No, it’s okay. It’s here. We can go. Wait! I might have forgotten…”

We join the A102, accelerate up the hill cutting through the lanes of traffic and then are forced to brake heavily when descending the other side. And then we stop. The queue for the Blackwall tunnel is back beyond Greenwich. I consider trying to leave the bypass and head for the Rotherhithe Tunnel instead, but there’s road works between me and it and they’ll probably hold us up even worse. We sit it out.

For thirty minutes.

We inch forward sandwiched in-between a white van with faulty brake lights and a testosterone pumped idiot in a black Porsche boxer who thinks that if he nearly touches my bumper every four minutes I’ll realise what an obstruction I, personally, am causing and magically clear the road. There’s no accident, no broken down vehicle. The tunnel isn’t flooded, a hairline crack hasn’t appeared in the forty year old concrete. It’s just three lanes of traffic merging into two.

Eventually we emerge on the north side of the river, back into the sunlight and out of the electric tinted gloom. We make reasonable time up the A12 and the M11. There’s a bit of confusion at Stansted as the first car park I pull into has a minimum charge of £16. We finally get inside the terminal a little over an hour before the flight is scheduled to take off and join the queue.

The first of many.

You see, I really, really hate flying. Actually, that’s not quite true. It’s not that I’m scared of being up in the air, or that the motion makes me feel ill or anything like that, but I hate airports. It’s probably largely to do with the fact that I’m nearly always booked onto the cheapest possible flight to anywhere in the world at that time and it’s almost invariably leaves in the middle of the night (today is the exception), which means that it’s an expensive arse to get to the airport and then there is the continuous, loathsome queuing.

You queue to check-in, a process that would be significantly sped up if the unnamed Irish based airline had more than one seventeen year old girl dealing with all passengers and having to explain to each that yes, fifteen kilos is a lot less than other airlines, but it’s made quite clear on your confirmation email.

Then you have to queue to pay for the excess baggage, particularly galling if you’ve actually come in a dead on the limit despite the fact that you’re carrying the tent and the rest of the camping kit whilst your travelling companion, who only has to pack clothes, has somehow come in nearly eight kilos over. Then you have to get back in the check-in queue to prove that you’ve paid the excess baggage extortion racket and to collect your boarding passes. Then just because the seventeen year old girl is a vindictive little shit who hates her job you’re sent off to join yet another queue, this time for oversized baggage.

The security queue seems to creep around half of the terminal and is filled with increasingly anxious clock watchers as the second tick mercilessly by. The rules constantly change. No liquids. Up to 100ml of each liquid, but only if it’s in a plastic bag. Take your shoes off before passing through the metal detector. What are you doing taking your shoes off, fool, there’s a backlog of delayed people here?

Then there’s the inevitable bag search which results in either your travelling companion trying to explain that potassium permanganate is a powder you mix with water and soak your feet in to prevent trench foot not a component for a bomb. Alternatively you can explain to the screaming Polish soldier with a machine gun that you’ve no idea how the scalpel got into your hand luggage - even though it’d be so much easier to blame the numpty who thought they might want to sharpen a pencil during the flight.

Once all that’s done there’s just time for you to join the queue for a bottle of water from Boots, but not enough time to queue for breakfast and you ask yourself how did this happen again when you’re sure you allowed an extra half an hour this time. This is followed by a sprint through the airport as they change the departure gate to one in a shed on the next runway over.

Then more bloody queuing.

Onto the plane, off the plane, onto the pointless bus at the other end, passport control, baggage collection (presupposing of course that your bags made it onto the same plane as you), customs, the bus to take you to the place you thought you were flying to but actually turns about to be forty miles East. The whole process just threatens to break my sanity. Feet shuffling, the fat guy behind me who thinks that queuing means he has to be close enough for his belt buckle to touch my arse cheek and is nearly overpowering me with the smell of his cigarette and cheap burger breath wafting across the back of my neck.


Actually, none of that happens this time. The flight to Poznan seems quite empty and the queue to check-in is pretty short. The seventeen year old is in charge is a boy and Beck bats her eyelashes, smiles sweetly and gets away with the excess weight. I’m not flying so I don’t get to see the security queue but she made the flight so it probably wasn’t that bad. The only queue I have to endure is waiting behind someone who can’t work out how to pay for the car park.

My deep rooted unhappiness at the prospect of flying anywhere means that I really should be getting the train when I go out to join her on Friday. I could get the Eurostar form the rather lovely, restored St Pancreas to Brussels, from there I can catch a fast train to Berlin and then one that stops at every single village on the way to Warsaw via Poznan. It’d take a little longer, sure, but not that much when you factor in getting to the airport, a couple of hours standing around there and the same at the other end. With the train you just seem to walk through an orderly process, easily accommodating the volume of customers and not pressurised by lack of investment. There’s no weight limit beyond what you can carry. It’s so much smoother and efficient. On the journey you can look out the window and take in the scenery, the little trackside details in small German towns. Even when you change trains it’s far more pleasant - I love station architecture. St Pancreas is gorgeous and the new central Berlin station is fantastic. Stansted airport’s only feature of note is its dreary, pale, depressingness. At the destination you arrive, by train, slap bang in the middle of the town with a short amble to your hotel or hostel, not on an old military base somewhere in the same region.

But damn them it’s just so cheap. Looks like, in some twisted form of mental masochism, I’m flying again.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Market Forces

I’m writing the first draft of this sitting in the car with the rain lashing down outside. I’m in the car park of a junior school in Bethnal Green whilst Beck struggles through the torrents to Columbia Road flower market. All of this is a little odd for two reasons. Firstly, I rarely write anything anywhere other than at home, but I’m trying to snatch what few moments I can have with Beck before she flies out to Poland at the end of the week. Secondly, to be completely honest I probably shouldn’t be writing anything other than fiction this weekend as there’s a deadline looming, hence why she‘s getting wet and I‘m writing this. It’s a good job I’ve taken to carrying a notebook around with me and in the gaps between seconds I can scribble a couple of words down. It makes a handy excuse.

Nearby is Old Spitalfields Market’s, originally built on an ancient market site back in 1886 as a fruit and veg compliment to the meat based Smithfields a mile or so down the road. Both buildings have beautifully arched glass roofs, wide open at the base with the ceiling supported by ornate iron pillars. Spitalfields is significantly smaller (if you go to Smithfields late at night you can actually drive straight through - a handy shortcut at times) and is now surrounded by permanent shop space hosting designer furniture, cafes, bars, the odd art space, etc, etc.

It’s interesting because the market forms a border between the East End and the City. To the West you have Bishopsgate and Liverpool Street with the London offices of Royal Bank of Scotland, ABN Amro and most of the other world’s financial institutions. Money that’s serviced by aluminium framed champagne bars, endless branches of the same coffee shops and top end strip joints. On the Eastern side you have the Ten Bells, a pub notoriously linked with some of Jack The Ripper’s victims, the shell of the Old Truman Brewery closed since 1988 after three hundred and twenty two years of brewing and the Golden Heart where when she was at Goldsmiths Beck watched a group of female Undergraduates first piss in the basin then tear it off the wall after a private view at a gallery. Oh, and there’s the low end strip joints too.

Things are changing. Or rather, they already have. It’s too late.

Despite a valiant community struggle nearly fifty percent of Spitalfields has been torn down - right in front of the offices for the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings too. New glass fronted shopping units are cropping up, trendy semi-chain restaurants with names like Giraffe and Leon are opening for business. Tracey Emin still lurks in the area (I often saw her striding out as I drove slowly through the traffic along Commercial Street on the way home from the M1) but she’s hardly a struggling artist these days. Back in the early summer she chartered a private jet to fly her to Venice as she installed the Biennale. Many of those who lived in the area through the grim days of the seventies and eighties have either been pushed further East, out to Hackney and Dalston, or they’re waiting for retirement sitting on a rather nice nest egg as property prices soar way beyond the quality of the structures.

Location, location, location indeed.

Beck thinks that the artists have all moved to Shoreditch, but I’m not so sure. I think they've bee pushed even further forward. If you go out around Old Street or the Hackney Road on a Friday night then you’ll see city boys looking to rough it, for that urban chic vibe, or so-called creative-types who never actually do any work because they’re so far gone and anyway their bohemian lifestyle is funded by Daddy’s share options.

Everyone’s a fake in some way.

The face of most cities is changing. Partly it’s because of the economic climate, partly it’s thanks to a reversal of the dash to the suburbs made by previous generations and partly it’s through deliberate attempts to regenerate. It scrubs itself up, but in doing so it seems to lose a little bit of itself at the same time.

And perhaps people do exactly the same. Don’t we all subconsciously begin to adapt to those around us?

When I was younger I didn’t care what I looked like. I had big, long hair, usually dark clothes, chunky doc martin boots and a grey trench coat. It was almost a negative look, one conjured out of my own mind rather than consciously following others. At some point when I was at University I cut all my hair off because I had decided I looked like a berk and when I started to work in London, surrounded by young people with money to splash, I became interested in fashion. I mean, not ridiculously so, but I bought more shirts than I’d ever had before and started looking for interesting details on jeans and trainers. I was even prepared to pay more than seven quid for a t-shirt.

As I moved on to a smaller company, where I was the youngest employee by a decade, I became more interested in suits. Mine got a little more expensive, I investigated different cuts of jacket. I began to think about what I wore and, more importantly, whether I was happy with what it said it about me. I secretly began to quite fancy a tailor-made suit, but knew that I couldn’t afford one.

Now things have come back full circle. I haven’t had a haircut since August and my locks are beginning to cover my ears and curl up at the back. I can no longer be bothered meticulously shaving everyday. While Beck was away I grew a two week beard, but I shave a little more frequently now as she doesn’t like kissing me when I’m spikey. My clothes are, in the main, falling apart. Aside from the previously mentioned jeans the soles of my trainers are coming off and one of my favourite jumpers has a bleach stain down the front from where I was cleaning up some dog crap we accidentally walked in.

Is it deliberate or is a little part of my brain just thinking that this is what I should look like. Like a character from a Sartre novel? Or from Zola’s The Masterpiece?

It’s not just me, either. Beck has been known to announce that it’s important for an artist to dress with a certain style and when she works in schools she’ll dress much differently to how she will in the studio. She calls it “smarty” fashion. She’s not a teacher, she’s an artist, but she needs to have an authority with the kids. How does she look both smart and artistic? Only smartys have the answer.

She tells me that in Banff there were two “dance nights”. For the first she changed into smart shoes and a pretty top. For the second she went along in her fleece and hiking books, far more suitable for the snow flecked Rockies. She’d never be able to go out like that in London, it can take a little while but perhaps we begin to reflect our surroundings and so perhaps wholesale tearing up whole areas is not the solution.

Back in the East End some areas are stubbornly holding on. Brick Lane, indeed Columbia Road and, in particular, Petticoat Lane markets are still serving their more traditional base. There’s pirate DVDs, dodgy leather goods, mobile phones unlocked, fags with Arabic script down the side, a sewing machine and obviously stolen bikes and other, legal, items. On Sunday I saw something I thought only existed in 1930s New York caricatures: A guy standing in the rain burning wooden planks in an old metal barrel swigging from a can of Red Stripe at ten o’clock in the morning.

Meanwhile in the partially redeveloped Spitalfields Market people were wandering around slurping iced Starbucks crap, wearing their smartly dry cleaned winter coats looking to buy a piece of “young designer” clothing or jewellery. Okay, but is it just me or do at least half the stalls sell the same tatty-cool clothes and coral jewellery? There’s a diminishing number of second hand record and book sellers, the little food stalls of curry, stir fry, goulash, baked spuds and pancakes have been completely expunged and in their place are prefabricated glass boxes just dumped in the middle of the market hall. These are all still available for rent to someone who thinks it’s a good idea to try and run a business on a site that only gets busy on Sundays.

The twenty-first century is winning the race by a country mile.

I overheard someone saying that it was a good thing to have places like Spitalfields. Is it? Is it really a good thing that there is somewhere that we can buy a olive stuffed piece of focaccia at £3.50 a slice? Okay, so it’s nice (I’m pretty partial myself), especially for those who can afford it, but is it actually an actively good thing, or does it just offer luxuries for some at the expense of the many?

It’s a hard one. Who am I to say what should be done to improve inner city areas with my middle-class white-boy credentials? For as areas are regenerated and cleaned up it is undeniable that crime figures typically go down, property prices rise and why would some lefty-sub-literati have the right to say that this is a mistake?

But it seems to me that everyone just gets moved on a few miles? That, rather than going “great a Pizza Express, now I have no need to deal drugs I can be a waiter instead,” people all get dumped in the few remaining areas where the problems just get worse. Picking up the litter and inviting a Subway franchise in does not get to the underlying problems of society, it just brushes them under the sideboard for a few years.

For anyone who thinks this is an exaggeration, on Monday the lunchtime BBC London news (yes, okay most people won’t have seen this, but I spend virtually all day in the house) ran a brief story about how fifteen of Brick Lane’s famous curry houses have closed down in recent months due to soaring rent prices. Regeneration is pushing the Bangladeshi community, who have lived there for decades, out. The area may be tidier, there be less petty street crime, it may be safer to walk around at night, but how many people will have lost their livelihoods in order for this to happen and what are their choices now?

There are no easy answers to this, but I think it’s important to ask the question. Feel free to argue amongst yourselves.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Rabbits Against The System

There seems to be a growing trend of passive protest in this country. We are developing a tendency for highlighting issues through negative action and I think this is a reflection of the British, certainly the English, temperament. In France, in protest to Sarkozy’s proposed reforms, public sector workers have gone on strike. In the UK… Hang on, that example doesn’t work. If train drivers, local council officers, utility maintenance workers went on strike nobody would notice any change from normal. I mean, there’s an elderly couple in Essex who for the past eighteen months have had their electricity cut off every single evening due to a clerical error. In Italy police accidentally shot and killed a football fan and half the nation’s cities were in flames before the weekend was out. In Britain we spend three years taking the Met to court for Health & Safety issues. In Colombia a football fan was so disgruntled by his team’s perceived lack of effort on the pitch that he shot and killed one of the players. That would, at least, end the debate over whether Gerrard and Lampard can play in the same team or not.

Bear with me. There is a point to all this.

Wednesday was No Music Day. You might not have been aware of this, but don’t worry, I only found out by chance, half listening to Front Row in the car on the way back from Sainsburys, on Tuesday night. It’s the brainchild of Bill Drummond, formerly of 90s pop pranksters the KLF, the idea being that there’s too much music in our lives, we’re saturated in it and it is only by isolating ourselves from music for a period of time that we can take a step back and think about what music means to us. Apparently Drummond’s original idea was to do it for a year, but clearly that wasn’t going to work. He tried it for a month and failed pretty quickly, then a week with the same predictable result until he got it down to just a day.

Drummond was trying to drum (heh-heh) up support for the campaign by speaking with the manager at the HMV shop on Oxford Street and Jeremy Irons, the Radio 2 presenter. They were both more interested in whether he really did burn a million quid or not. I, however, was quite intrigued by the idea.

On Wednesdays I have to go into college so I wasn’t going to be able to just lock the spare room door and hide away for twenty-four hours, but I was determined to see if I could avoid music for the day. I remembered not to listen to the radio or have the TV on first thing in the morning and ate my breakfast reading the paper in utter silence save for the bin men running up and down the road. I walked down to college, nipped into the library and then spent two and a half hours in a workshop. We then had lunch in the café in the University building which, to my surprise, doesn’t play music. So far, so good.

Things started to go a bit awry in the afternoon. For some unknown reason we have our afternoon seminars in the music department. So whilst trying to listen to the guest speaker we were subjected to a regular snare drum beat and the occasional primeval howling, increasing in volume whenever anyone opened one of the doors in the corridor outside. After the session a group of us descended down to the Hobgoblin for a beer or two. It’s a student bar, so whilst I was pleased by the fifteen percent discount, the juke box was blaring. Still I managed to tune most of it out only having a Leona Lewis song pointed out to me by one of the girls (I still have no idea who she is) and I caught the chorus of the Hoozier’s Worried About Ray, which always reminds me too much of the Lemonheads.

It was only a quick drink so I was back home by seven making some pasta and intending to watch eleven overgrown schoolboys ineffectively chase after a ball for ninety minutes. I turned the TV on deliberately late to avoid the Match of the Day theme tune, but forgot to anticipate the national anthems which resulted in a frankly unnecessarily dramatic dive across the lounge towards the remote. I didn’t stay tuned in after the final whistle to hear the inevitable Keanly-Cold-Patrol-shite themed slo-mo shots of multi-millionaires feigning anguish at missed chances. However, Beck was still not back from visiting her friend’s new babies/keeping out of the way as I have a one-sided argument with the TV and the house seemed very, very quiet. Even next door had decided against spending the entire evening running up and down the stairs for once. I tried to read but the complete absence of noise was a little disturbing and I resorted to playing darts, the rhythmic thud-thud-thud being quite reassuring, whilst pretending to myself that I was thinking about the piece of writing I’d been working on.

Continuing a theme, it would appear that Saturday was Buy Nothing Day, an international event since 1992. No, I’d never heard of it either. In fact, I only discovered its existence by reading an article in the Guardian, the irony being that in order to find out about No Shop Day I had to go to the newsagents and buy a newspaper first. This particular anti-capitalist programme is being spearheaded in the UK by a group of “compactors”, people who not only take their recycling to militant levels, but refuse to acquire anything new beyond the essentials of toiletries, food, drink and - er - a pet rabbit.

However, by the time I actually got around to reading page nine I’d also bought some milk and Beck had bought some lamb chump steaks for our dinner. Whilst I applaud the sentiments I decided we were too far gone down our road of corrupt bourgeoisie-ness and that we might as well continue with our plan of going to a bar in the evening.

I’m lucky. When I worked for a large media company most of the men surrounding me would arrive on a Monday morning complaining about yet another Saturday afternoon spent following their missus up and down Oxford Street, or if they were lucky nipping off to something more interesting, like counting bricks, before reconvening in Cost-Ner-Bucks to listen to her whitter on about the great bargains she found over a jumbo cup of muckachino. I loathe going shopping. The volume of people, the sweatiness of over-heated stores, the bland inanity of it all drives me up the wall. Fortunately, whilst Beck quite enjoys it, she rarely has the time to go and even then seems to have decided that she’d rather take a friend than have me muttering about Chinese sweat shops, scowling at the staff and innocently asking “haven’t you already got a pink jumper?”

“Compacting”, though, seems quite interesting. In many ways it’s quite similar to the decisions I’ve taken now that I have no income. My savings are only going to stretch so far so I’ve cut certain things out. I’ve been getting books from the public library (which also helps stem the tide of paper taking over the house), I’ve not brought any music since I picked up second hand copies of Ryan Adam’s Heartbreaker and Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand back in July (although Beck did bring me back some cool Canadian, acoustic, folky stuff) and despite having only one pair of jeans without a potentially embarrassing crotch hole I haven’t brought any new clothes.

But what do we term essential? I would deem beer pretty damn essential and it’s still included in the weekly groceries, although I have downgraded from bottled real ale to cans of Tetleys. I would also include leisure, cultural and sociable activities - all of which tend to require some kind of expenditure. Even if you only want to watch a low budget, independent thought provoking film rather than, say, XXX2: The Next Level you still need to pay for a cinema ticket, rent or buy the DVD or at the very least buy a TV and a licence (although I did manage to get our TV for free, but that’s kind of beside the point).

Humans are sociable creatures. You need to spend time with friends, but can you do this in a economically positive way? On Saturday night we went out to a local wine bar run by a husband and wife team who’ve been there for years. We brought a bottle of Grenache from a little Languedoc vineyard and supported two small businesses rather than going to an All Bar One and having a couple of glasses of Jacob’s Creek. Surely this positive action is actually better than hiding away and doing nothing?

The woman in the Guardian’s article talks about how she used to register that the seasons were changing by the arrival of different clothes in the shops (actually, wouldn’t this make her about six weeks early all the time?) but now she just goes for long walks in the countryside and takes in nature at work. A nice image and I love walking at all times of the year and seeing the differences, but for those of us who don’t have a Dale attached to the back garden (and I’ve no idea whether she does or not) won’t we still be putting money into the system by buying petrol or a bus ticket or whatever?

Whatever we feel about it, whatever our personal ideals we cannot escape from the fact that we live in a capitalist consumer driven society. The economy works by us being able to go out and buy shit and a strong economy makes it easier for people, like me, to live their life how they wish to. It’s easier to go without if it’s a choice rather than an imposition. The truth is that if we completely remove ourselves from consumerism, if we just eat home-grown vegetables, make our own clothes, generate (somehow) our own electricity then we remove ourselves from society and, to a large extent, from reality.

Mind you, for twenty-fours hours once a year that’s probably not a bad idea.


I’ve just googled for compactors, wondering if they have a website I can link to, but all I can find is companies offering either compacting advice or services. Now there’s an irony. In the absence of anything more useful you can read the Guardian article here:

You can find out more on No Music Day and Buy Nothing Day, in preparation for twelve months time, here:


Tuesday, 20 November 2007

The Stalker

I’m being stalked.

It all started back in September. Yawning early one Saturday morning I stagger out of the house off to buy a newspaper. As usual my shoes are undone, I’ve just pulled on yesterdays clothes and in many ways I feel still undressed. Ninety-eight strides later I enter the newsagents with the tinkle of the bell above the door and I nod a cheery good morning to the owner. I hadn’t noticed the stalker yet, but he wasn’t far away.

It was walking back, leafing through the Guardian’s supplements that I first spotted him. At around the forty-second step I saw him staring back out of the cover to the magazine. Dressed in a blue-ish t-shirt, his eyes have a faraway dreamy look and he seems uncomfortable in a room that appears to be a recording studio. He almost seems to be trying to look over his shoulder at something disturbing going on out of the photograph. He is Simon Armitage, the Poet.

I don’t know why I’ve attached his profession like a grand title to him: Simon Armitage, the Poet. I can’t think of another Simon Armitage that it’s necessary to distinguish him from. I think it might be something I’ve sub-consciously picked up from Beck who frequently refers to people whom she’s worked with by their profession. John the Playwright, Tom the Actor, Andy the Jazz Pianist, Heather the Tap Dancer. Curiously I never hear of Chet the Milkman anymore.

Anyway, back to the plot. Simon Armitage is writing in the Guardian about defying middle age and going back to his teenage dreams of being a rock-star. He and a friend get together, write some songs, Simon’s appropriately enough responsible for the lyrics, they record a EP. I don’t actually get around to reading it until Tuesday on a bus steamed up from warm breath against torrential rain battered glass. Despite having to cut out the background cackle of teenage girls I find it an extremely witty and interesting article. I enjoy greatly, but here’s the thing - Poetry isn’t really my bag so I didn’t have a clue who Simon Armitage was. The name, however, tugged at my brain.

A couple of days later I’m sitting at my computer looking at blank screen when I start to lazily look around the room. Above the computer there’s poster of the Manhattan skyline on the wall with the Brooklyn bridge in the distance murky in the heat haze. I love this poster. It’s enables me to pretend that I have a spectacular view to take inspiration from rather than the off-white plaster, or if I move to Beck’s desk then the irregular pattern of tumble down fences, overgrown gardens with varying amounts of dumped bedroom furniture and the occasional ginger cat. Next to this, attached with a scrap of blue tack, is a copy of my course reading list. I’ve coded each of the books by type. F for fiction, L for life writing, P for poetry and R for literary theory works. There’s also various ticks or notes to myself, such as to collect my Henry James anthology from my parents’ house. I suddenly notice that there’s one book I don’t seem to have categorised. It is the The Penguin Book Of Poetry From Britain Since 1945. Presumably the title was too self-explanatory to warrant my effort in placing a capital P inside a circle next to it, but I realise that it’s co-edited by Robert Crawford and Simon Armitage.

Odd coincidence.

Later that same week I start the ignition in the car and the radio automatically blares into life. It’s pre-tuned to Radio 4, but I fancy listening to some music so I instantly press the seek button. Just before the tuner veers off into the ether of the FM waveband I catch the name Simon Armitage from the presenter. By the time I’ve re-tuned the radio they’ve moved on to something else and I never do find out either the context they were speaking in or even if I heard correctly. For the rest of the journey down to Staples in Peckham to buy some printing paper it’s as though there’s someone else in the car with me.

In October one of the seminars for my course is held in the Poetry Library within the South Bank Centre. I suspect that we’re extradited from darkest South-East London because it suits the schedule of the guest speaker, who happens to be a poet, but it also allows us to have a look around the library. It’s a pretty good resource, if you’re into poetry. They hold at least one copy of every poem published in England and the majority of those published in the English Language. We listen to a fairly standard induction talk about the history of the collection and are then invited to have a wander round. As I said, I don’t really “do” poetry so I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular. I seemed to amble aimlessly into the shelves holding the limited edition magazines. I ran my fingers along the cool metal shelves before, without even looking, pulling out one at random. The cover boasts a list of contributors and right at the top: Simon Armitage. I’m beginning to get a little disturbed by this and I hold the magazine at arm’s length, almost afraid of it. Before I can decide whether to open the cover or run away squealing one of my classmates calls down that everyone’s starting to head into the lecture hall. The magazines are reference only so I place it back on the shelf.

We listen to the poet talk. She’s good. I enjoy it, even though it’s insanely hot and I start to feel slightly woozy. At the end she hands out some photocopied pieces - example of poetry, writings about poetry. I flick through them on the train on the way home. They include Simon Armitage’s Top Tips For Poetry Readers. I stuff it back into my bag unread and drum by fingers against the window as it begins to drizzle.

Two weeks ago I have a meeting with my external tutor, a London based writer who, essentially, reads our stuff and then tells us what he thinks of it. He recommends some books for me to read and straight after the meeting I dutifully trot over the library. I collect the works I’m interested in and check my watch. It’s just before four. At six-thirty I’m planning on attending a seminar on the Shakespeare-Marlowe question - namely, did Christopher Marlowe fake his own death, flee to Northern Italy and write the plays usually attributed to Shakespeare? This isn’t a part of my course, but it’s something I’ve been reading about for years and as I’m technically part of the English department I’m going to listen in. I decide that I can’t be bothered to go home and that I’ll just read in the library.

It’s pretty busy for a Wednesday afternoon and there are only a couple of free tables. I take one by the window overlooking the congested A2. There are two books already there. One of them is Simon Armitage’s Xanadu. I get up and walk away, the hairs on the back of my neck tingle and I start to glance over my shoulder fully expecting the book to be collected up by the poet himself.

A few days later I’m browsing the book shelves at home. I’m looking for Paul Auster’s True Tales Of American Life (this later turns out to be helpfully filed under the bed) when my attention is drawn to a shockingly pink book spine. Yep: Simon Armitage’s Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus The Corduroy Kid. I slide the slim hardback out of it’s slot. It feels weird in my hands, almost electric. I don’t remember having ever seen it before. I’m a little concerned as to how it arrived here without so much as a crinkle to the cover.

The beginnings of my love affairs with various authors have not always been conventional. When I was at University a neighbour of my parents lent them a copy of Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum. For some reason it sat in my room for almost a year and a half. I kept intending to take it to Sheffield with me, but always forgot. When I finally began reading, it was difficult to put it down until I’d turned the last page and even then I wanted to go back to the beginning and start again. When I eventually “remembered” to take it back home the neighbours had moved. When I was seventeen I brought a copy of Graham Swift’s Last Orders primarily because it had a picture of a pint of beer on the front. Around the same time I was mesmerised by the first few pages I of Seamus Deane’s Reading In The Dark which I read in the Solihull branch of Waterstones without any money to pay for it. When I returned a few weeks later, cash in hand, I had forgotten both the book’s title and it’s author. All I could recall was the striking image on the front of a battered black and white photograph showing two young boys and the bright yellow-orange strap across the top. Beck and I proceeded to take virtually every single book off the shelves until we found it.
Weirdness can be a good omen.

Resigned to the seemingly inevitable I sat down in the large, dusty leather chair that we’d liberated when Beck’s friend Jo (Jo the What? I can’t remember.) was going to chuck it in a skip. I open the covers and inhale that new, untouched book smell.

I begin to read.

You can find out more about Simon Armitage here:

You can read the entire Guardian article that triggered this odd little episode here:,,2178386,00.html

You can buy Simon Armitage’s poems and prose (and you should consider it, they’re good) here:

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Fifty-two Days and a Wake-Up.

To borrow a phrase commonly used by American soldiers in Vietnam when counting down the length of their tour. As in x number of days and then I wake up, get the hell out of his nightmare and go back home.

A somewhat over-dramatic comparison to draw with the experience of Beck and I being separated by the Atlantic and a seven hour time difference, but there’s no harm done by going over the top every so often. So, fifty-two days apart. Seven and a half weeks. Almost two months. One-thousand-two-hundred-and-forty-eight hours. And so on and so forth.

It hasn’t actually felt very long. It’s not like when she went to California for a fortnight last year and I had evening of near mental instability which I associated with missing her. Perhaps, in retrospect, it said more about my life beyond our relationship than my position within it. This time I’ve had both more and less distractions to keep me occupied. More things of interest happening, just a whole change of life style, but also less. As in less pressure, less stress, less to be worried about. Aside from whether I was actually going to interact with a real person or go outside today.

Still, this is something of a benchmark. I’m pretty certain that it’s the longest we’ve ever spent apart in the eleven years we’ve been together. When I was studying at Sheffield and she in London we were never one of those couples who saw each other every weekend and consequently imploded by Christmas, but I think we went met up on an average of every five or six weeks. In my first year and again in her third, when the other was living in Solihull with our respective parents, Beck doing an Art Foundation course as a precursor to her degree, me working in the pub and wondering what to do next (you may notice a theme here), we saw each a little more frequently.

Anyway, it’s definitely the longest we’ve been apart in the six plus years we’ve been living together. The initial wrench was strong, I think, given that we’d just spent the longest period continuously together certainly this year and I suspect since 2004 if not longer. But the trauma of separation soon abated,

Incredibly, it’s probably the longest period of time we’ve spent apart in the twelve years that we’ve known each other. From the party just before Christmas in 1995, when my mate Mike first pointed her out as his girlfriend (he was lying, but they did end up then going out on and off for about eight months, so perhaps he was just being optimistic. Beck claims that we actually met about two months previously through my then girlfriend, but I have absolutely no recollection of this and it‘s my blog. Hardly at first sight stuff, though, is it?) to when we finally let go of each other on the concourse of terminal three at Heathrow.

Twelve years ago.

One hundred and twenty four months.

Six hundred and twenty four weeks.

Four thousand three hundred and sixty eight days.

And so on and so forth.

I’m a little surprised that I haven’t written anything about our relationship whilst she was still away. I seem to have subconsciously waited for her to get back. Perhaps I wanted to be sure she actually did come back? No, I think it’s more that, to my complete and utter surprise, being apart for so long didn’t actually feel that strange. I still felt connected to her, yet totally isolated from her experiences for the first time. I don’t know what that says about us, really.


Anyway, she definitely is back now and things are as though she never went away. Well, you know, aside from the fact I manage to fall over the still to be unpacked cases left in the middle of the bedroom floor every morning and on Friday when I awoke to realise that there was someone else in the bed my brain went into a total panic as I tried to remember just what the hell I’d been up to Thursday night.

Seven and a half weeks. It’s not exactly long in terms of the human experience. Seventy-five years, or thereabouts, for the individual or two hundred thousand years for the whole species, but like Pavlov’s dog it appears that we (or me at any rate) are remarkably quick to develop certain habits when our environment or living pattern changes. So without any sense of shame or decorum, here’s seven and a half things it’s possible to start doing when you spend too much time on your own.

1. I’ve taken to drinking a whole pot of filter coffee every morning (plus half a dozen mugs of tea in the afternoon). On holiday in Croatia I managed to cut back my caffeine dependency to two or three coffees a day. It seemed to be successful, but now it’s back and more ferocious than ever:
“What are you doing?” I try to ask nonchalantly.
“Just pouring some coffee,” she replies sweetly.
“You can’t.”
“Why not?”
“It’s my coffee. I made it. There won’t be enough for both of us.”
“This thing holds, like, eight mugs. There’s plenty.”

2. I decided that cooking for one was a pain in the arse, that it was much easier to cook for two and then freeze the other half for the next week. It also meant I only had to think about buying food on a fortnightly basis. Strangely enough over a period of time it seems that the freezing process reduces the amount of food to something resembling more a snack portion than a main a meal so I’d have to eat that for lunch and cook something else later. Around the same time my plates started to generate an optical illusion whereby the food I was serving out seemed to be an enormous pile when I’m sure it was the same as I would normally eat. Have I put on weight, you ask? No, no, the scales are broken again. Ah, it’s just this t-shirt…

3. Farting to warm the bed at night seems to be a reasonable alternative to central heating when there’s no-one sharing the duvet with you. You forget how farts always smell worse to other people. In fact, as I rarely feel the cold, I had been dispensing with central heating altogether. If I’m a little chilly I’d just put on a jumper. So what if the thermometer was reading nine degrees Celsius in the bedroom? Our ancestors didn’t have radiators, did they? A big raging fire, yes, but you can’t have everything. Just put more clothes on, all your clothes if need be and stop moaning. Think about how expensive gas is. Actually, it’s quite stuffy in here - I think I’ll open the windows.

4. At some point I decided to listen to all the bands for whom I own four or more albums and then to listen to those records in chronological order to get a sense of their musical progression. E.g: A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Pepper’s, “White”, Abbey Road, Let It Be. Honestly, it’s not weird or obsessive. Everybody wants to listen to eighteen David Bowie records virtually non-stop over the course of three days. Yes, even the experiment with drum n bass from 1997. Why wouldn’t they? No, we can’t listen to the Flaming Lips for the time being. Because we only own three albums by them and besides that begins with F and we’re on M for Manic Street Preachers.

5. Not closing the toilet door. Ever. In fact it’s quite enjoyable to sit on the crapper, at the top of the stairs, watch the post come through the front door. If I wave the postman sometimes does a double take at the flash of movement behind the frosted glass. I don’t have to pause a movie if I need a piss, I just turn the volume up. If I’m reading then I don’t have to stop at all. I just hold the book in my one hand and my appendage in the other. I do have to remember to wipe the seat afterwards, though, as my aim without looking isn’t as good as I think it is.

6. Leaving the standard lamp permanently attached to a timer switch saves the significant amount of time and energy involved in noticing that it has become dark, getting up and switching it on. Plus it also reminds you that its time to go to bed when the lounge plunges into darkness.

7. When slouching on the sofa reading or watching TV it’s quite comforting to slip one hand down my trousers and to cup my testicles. I really had no idea I was doing this and it’s proving to be a worryingly hard habit to break.

7.5. Talking to people who aren’t there is completely normal, even if there really is someone else present and the words coming out of their mouth don’t match the ones I’m hearing in my head. It’s fine. There’s no need to worry.

It’s not just me, though. Beck has, including our holiday, spent nearly a quarter of this year in hotels or on campsites or staying with relatives, eating in restaurants, having people to tidy up after her, anything other than in a normal domestic environment and she too seems to have picked up some unusual habits. She keeps asking for the desert menu after we eat and this morning, as I type away and she is still sleeping upstairs, a “do not disturb” sign has appeared on the door.

Interestingly the anticipated conflict over the use of office/studio room seems to have been postponed. Essentially Beck has arrived back, taken one look and decided that her space is too messy to work in. Rather than actually tidying up (because it’s in her contract that she needs to tidy only twice a year and the next one’s not due till March) she’s decamped to the dining room table. Basically we’ve swapped places. Personally, I think she’s just ducking out of a perfectly good argument.

Mind you, the above may have just provoked one. I’ll let you what the score is next week.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

To the Ends of the Earth

“Where rose the mountains, there to him were friends” - Lord Byron.

Tiny grains of dirt flick up as my boot stamps against the hillside. There’s a damp patch spreading across the small of my back where my rucksack keeps the sweat contained. My breathing is becoming slightly laboured as my ribcage vibrates to the beat of my heart. I feel fantastic in the cool and bright air - despite it being frustratingly too cold for just a t-shirt and my exertions making it too hot for my fleece. For November it is unseasonably dry, for our luck the weather is shockingly fine.

We slither, single file up the side of Dale Head, our footsteps following the zig-zag originally laid out by miners six hundred years ago. I don’t remember it being this steep when I came this way three years ago. My memory increasingly plays tricks on me, things are rarely quite as how I recollect. The seven of us are a little spread out and I can picture how we must look from one of the other ridges, or from down in the valley. Seven perfectly black silhouettes against the smoulderingly grey sky, each delicately perched on the very tip of the horizon, on the edge of the world.

It feels great to be out of the city, out in the clean Cumbrian air high above the carbon monoxide and the stench of people rammed together. Away from the claustrophobia of endless roads of stationary traffic, away from the smothering, incessant noise of everyday life. Here there is just us and the mountain, the relationship between man and nature is pure. Well, the mountain, us and a couple of dozen Geordies.

I love the solitude you can sometimes find in the Lake District, but it’s harder to do at this time of the year. In the summer I’ve disappeared over the fells and only seen a couple of people in eight or nine hours of walking, but in the Autumn there is a limited amount of daylight and so there’s a greater concentration of walkers on the routes which can be completed in the available timeframe. This particular hike, up over Cat Bells, along Maiden Moor and onwards over High Spy is one of the more popular ones. Even Wainwright, not one normally given to hyperbole, describes the views from Cat Bells as “ravishing”.

There’s a long tradition of associating walking with writing. The Romantics, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, would think nothing of walking forty miles a day and relaxing in the evening over a case of wine or an opium pipe. Coleridge and Wordsworth would walk between each other’s homes in Somerset and the Lakes respectively. Wordsworth walked to Paris to celebrate Bastille Day, Keats walked to the Alps to get some mountain air.

Walking slows you down. It empties the mind and you become locked in to the rhythm of striding out. Your sense take in the world with a new keenness. There’s a clarity of awareness as all the trivia dissolves away back into the regular life tied to a desk and a computer and, instead, your thoughts can soar.

Robert Louis Stevenson was a young man in turmoil. Torn between his desire to write and his family’s expectation of a more respectable trade he took to his heels. He and his long suffering donkey walked for twelve days solid through the Cevennes region in France and along the way he strengthened his resolve to live by his pen.

Peter Ackroyd claims to walk for at least two hours a day around London. He lets the city wash over him and the words come together. Whole pages will form in his head ready to be written down, perfectly formed at birth.

Graham Greene, struggling with writer’s block after a series of early mediocre novels, decided he needed a challenge. Greene became one of the first white men to walk through inland Liberia. One of the first modern, independent African states and virtually untouched by western colonialism the dangers of this expedition were many. But Greene, who had never done anything like this before, left his wife and children in rural England and along with his young cousin, Barbara, headed into the wilderness. The pressure each day of to reach the next remote village combined with the climate, inadequate supplies and outdated equipment even for the 1930s all made the physical exertion immense. On his eventual return to England he, almost magically, metamorphosed into a far superior writer and embarked on a run of novels which include some of the finest ever written. It was as though walking through that uncharted landscape, alone with his thoughts, had removed all his mental inhibitions and had awoken the genius within.

They all march out of history. Left, right. Left, write.

Whilst I have no intention of comparing myself to such illustrious company I do find a similar need to get some miles under my boots in times of difficulty. I pace around the house incessantly whilst trying to write. Occasionally I can only manage a couple of sentences before I’m up on my feet, darting down the stairs, circling the lounge, pointlessly going into the kitchen or the bedroom, but it’s not a very big house and it doesn’t take long for me to need more than it can offer. So I hit the road. I go out into the streets of the city, walking in ever widening circles, along familiar and unrecognisable streets, sometimes with a plan, sometimes just ambling. Sometimes I look up and find myself outside a favourite museum or sometimes I am suddenly, completely lost. I walk absorbed by the characters speaking in my head.

But London is too full of distractions, it doesn’t have the purity of the countryside. Here high amongst the clouds there is just the joking, the nonsensical ramblings, the bickering of friends, and the sweet lilt of people from Gateshead. At the same time there is an eternal silence.
At the top of Dale Head I look back into Borrowdale. From this angle the valley is virtually uninhabited, save for a couple of cottages, the farm at Little Town and the tiny white church hidden amongst the trees. The ridge we have just tramped along dominates the entire Eastern view, its black scree is ominous in the encroaching afternoon mist.

Someone recently suggested that the next time I find myself atop a mountain I try to picture the valley full of water. I shut my eyes for a second and when I open them water laps at the hillside just a few feet below my boots. The tarn and gills flood out to swamp the land in murky rain water. Nothing offers resistance to the surge. I can see how the tide has ebbed away at the rock and carved the horseshoe shape out of the mountains, how the drama of the landscape has unfolded. In my mind’s eye I leap off the cliffside and dive down into the cold water. The chill bites at my bone marrow, but, no, this is a metaphor too far and all my amused imagination can see is soggy sheep struggling with the tide. I’m pulled, gasping for air, back to the surface by laughter as the camera records reality.

I had planned to take us further on, over Robinson, but we decide to drop down off Hindscarth instead. It’s a steeper descent, but we’re running out time. There’s a real need to be off the hill before it gets dark and in Keswick there’s beer to be drunk. It always tastes better when you’ve earned it and whilst the ale flows freely aching legs are not hollow ones. We persevere against our weariness, fool around, reminisce, ridicule each other’s foibles and with each pint I grow increasingly nostalgic. The drunken part of me wants every day to be like this; out on the hills and then down the pub, but it cannot last.

The next afternoon I drive the length of the country back to London, depositing people at various locations on my way. As I drive the tiredness kicks in. We start boisterous and chatty, but the voices get progressively quieter and fewer and the milometer ticks over again and again, a never-ending beat of haste. We drive through the sunshine, through the unexpected fog and through the night until, eventually, there is just me trundling through south London, alone. The inside of the car is lit softly by the glowing dashboard. The occasional glare of passing headlights serve to illuminate my hands tightly gripping, as though welded to, the steering wheel. My eyelids are locked open by exhaustion and my vision is bombarded by endless rows of red brake lights. The Artic Monkeys are blaring out tales of Sheffield through the speakers, but all that I can think of is that beautiful, narrow ridge across the sky. Alex Turner may be singing, but all I can hear is a line from a different song repeating again and again long into the night.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Why is an iPod like a clitoris?

No, don’t worry, it’s not another anti-technology rant (1), instead I want to talk about language. In particular I want to look at how our perception of what is and isn’t acceptable has changed and what that means for the use of rude words in writing.

I don’t really want to get into language as a tool to incite hatred, deliberate or otherwise. It’s, surely, a given truth that this is unacceptable, that we should not, ever, use our words to derogatorily distinguish between people on the basis of race, sexuality, gender or, well anything. Anything that a) is something that people just are, that they have no control over and b) doesn’t affect anybody else anyway so why are we making an issue out of it? However, if someone’s just being an arse don’t we have the right to tell them as such?

Personally, I feel that it does us all good to have a vehement swear every so often. It allows us to blow off steam, to release our frustrations verbally - far better than to do so physically. These days we’re allowed to, attitudes have become more relaxed after the over-tightening of the moral belt in the post-Second World War years.

The first “fuck” appeared on British TV in 1965. It took another eight years for it to slip out again. Both times it cost people their jobs. Television bosses took it as seriously as the wrongful naming of a cat. It was a further thirty-six months until the Sex Pistols were goaded by Bill Grundy into saying it three times (plus a couple of “shits”) in as many minutes (2). The red tops were furious - “The Filth & The Fury!” ran the Mirror’s headline - damming them for allegedly corrupting a whole generation with a few little words. In the meantime significant events took place around the world. The following year a Nottingham record shop was prosecuted under the Indecent Displays Act for displaying the band’s album Never Mind the Bollocks. Frankly hadn’t the Crown Prosecution Service got better things to be doing?

We’ve come a long way in thirty years and swearing is now an integral part of everyday television, radio and cinema, fully accepted and endorsed. Everyone uses it, they always have done, so why censor something you can hear on every street? On this coming Friday a band called Fuck Button are playing the Forum in Highgate (3). There’s hardly a single drama, comedy or reality TV show on after nine or a film rated 12 or above that doesn’t include at least one “fuck”. If it’s on earlier in the evening it is simply, inexpertly, bleeped out. What is the point of “f-bip-ck”? Am I not supposed to understand what you’re saying?

So we can say anything: Shit, arse, wank, bastard, prick and nobody takes offensive. Except we can’t. There is still one word at which a high proportion of the population is guaranteed to be upset by.

Warren Ellis, writing a dramatisation of the fourteenth century battle of Crecy has the narrator helpfully inform the reader: “There’s one word you’ll have to get used to. Cunt. This is a word that many people do not like. But you have to understand the English. In England, the word cunt is punctuation.” (4) He’s exaggerating for comic effect, but the sentiment remains true. It’s an old, old word, so why - when pretty much everything else goes - does it still cause such offence amongst some people? Why, when I am at a party in May this year and I refer to someone whom nobody else has met as such, does a woman, not even involved in the conversation, come over and tell me not to use the word around her? Why is it that at the company I used to work for the office manager who could make a marine blush with her language would not tolerate the word being uttered in her presence? Why is it when equivalent euphemisms for both genders’ organs (twat, fanny, cock, nob, prick) are so commonly used that cunt still shocks? (5)

Is it because we instinctively draw a boundary somewhere for fear of what would happen if there was none?

In terms of actual swearing it’s a good word. It’s short, has an angular sound, it can be used as a noun or as a verb. This is all good for elaborate, creative and angry swearing.
Here’s an interesting diversion: I don’t think I’ve ever, in anger, called somebody a (pick your own expletive), to their face. Jokingly yes, “oo - you bugger, you’re such an arse,” or whatever. I like to take my frustrations out on inanimate objects - “tosspot toaster”, “crappy coffee maker”, “bastard bread maker” (6). They’re not ever going to be offended by my torrent of abuse. I lost count of the number of times I’ve hung the phone up at work and muttered “bastard”, but if they can’t hear me, then they can’t know. And anyway, am I really, truly, insulting their parentage or am I just releasing my own pressure gauge?

Recently in my more calm and serene state of mind I’ve been looking at it from the other side of the coin.

I take great care not to swear around my nephew (7) or, indeed, any children. I’ve never been asked to, but I just feel I ought to, not least because most of the words have meanings I don’t want to have to explain. That’s what parents are for. I used to work with a guy for whom elaborate swearing was an art form he took great pleasure in. How he held his tongue at home with two young children I shall never know, but he did. The language used was one of the things that distinguished his home life from his working life. It’s good to show restraint, only using the words when strictly necessary. It allows them to retain some sort of power.

From a writer’s point of view if every third word is a swear word then how can I use them to express a character’s mood, or how can I introduce a “fuck” for dramatic effect if the pages are already littered with expletives? Repetition deadens the effect. It worked for the Sex Pistols as an angry, young band rallying against the establishment in 1976. It’s not really worked for anyone since.

A couple of examples of how swearing is perhaps becoming institutionalised: The Guardian (bastion of middle-class leftyism that it is) runs a celeb questionnaire, where all the questions are song titles and until recently included “Who The Fuck Are The Artic Monkeys?” A lightning quick scan through Saturday’s supplements give me four “shits”, four “fucks” and one each for “bastard”, “crap”, “cock”, “piss” and “tit”. Remember there’s no age restriction on the purchase of newspapers (8).

I certainly don’t think we need to cut out swearing, that movies should resort to the cut-off sentence (“Why I oughta…”) or a watered down version of English (“you’re such a brute!”), but perhaps it should be returned to a more violent context. That way when I tell someone he’s a “fucking bastard who deserves to have his cock chopped off and then buggered to death with it”, he’ll know I really mean it.

(1) Although it has just occurred to me that someone should probably point out that Apple isn’t the caring, benevolent organisation a lot of it’s fans seem to think it is.
(2) It was guitarist Steve Jones who launched into the rant. I’ve always liked his final shout of “what a fucking rotter” as Grundy lecherously asks Siouxsie Sioux to meet him after the show. A kind of hybrid of punk and the Beano.
(3) According to the Guardian Guide anyway, I’ve never heard of them.
(4) Warren Ellis (w) / Raulo Caceras (a), Crecy (Avatar Press, 2007)
(5) That’s not to say all women find it unacceptable. I was delighted to hear a female friend of mine recently refer to someone as “Fat Dave The Cunt.”
(6) Don’t worry I don’t have a complex about electrical kitchen goods, I just happen to be staring into the kitchen whilst I write this.
(7) Okay, so as the son of Beck’s sister and her husband he’s not technically my nephew, but as the only thing that really separates me from uncle-hood is sixteen thousand pounds and a lecture from a bloke in a dress, I’m going with it.
(8) I’m not even going into the issue of the Daily and Sunday Sport. That’s a whole different kettle of fish. Text 8163 to see Britney’s flaps, indeed.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

OK Computer

Sometimes the machines speak to me. If I let my guard down I can hear them whispering, their voices are like the sound of fingernails scraping down a chalkboard somewhere in the back of my brain. They don’t say nice things. They laugh and mock and jeer. For they know that I don’t understand how they work and yet I am completely reliant on them.

This latest batch of paranoia is, essentially, Thom Yorke’s fault. Radiohead are releasing their new album as a download only. There are elements to this attitude that I thoroughly applaud - in particular the pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth option and, to a lesser extent, my inner-socialist likes the removal of the giant, faceless, music corporations. But, I am a download virgin and I’m not sure if Radiohead are really the band I want to pop my cherry with. I suspect that if I were to have a couple of glasses of wine, dim the electric lights, burn some incense, eat a couple of oysters then I could probably get myself in the mood. Loosen myself up as it were. But after the deed were done, after I had listened to the album all the way through, I think that I would feel a little dirty. A little used, as though I should have waited for a band I really cared about, one with whom I might have had a future, rather than the more experienced, seedy old men who picked me up unsuspecting one night - promised great things and then spunked it all instantly.

There’s a few things to consider here before jumping on the bandwagon proudly proclaiming the new musical revolution. Radiohead aren’t, by any stretch, the only group publishing music in this way, but they are by far the biggest band to so to date - and the only reason that they are so big, the only reason that they can indulge in such an experiment without really caring about the financial outcome, is because the big, nameless, faceless, evil music corporations made them millionaires in the nineties. I understand that they’ll also be signing up to a smallish label later in the year and releasing a CD version in early 2008 anyway which makes the whole thing smell like a publicity stunt. Oh, irony of ironies. Radiohead make such a big deal of eschewing publicity (no singles, no formal promotion of albums, etc, etc since OK Computer) but the very doing of which makes them notorious.

When everyone knows who you are it’s impossible to be perceived as doing something without some sort of an agenda.

Downloading is relatively pointless at the moment. I don’t own an iPod, or any other form of MP3 player, and for the foreseeable future I don’t intend to. And here’s why:

Sound Quality: Anytime someone’s shoved a pair of those crappy white ear plugs into my hands and told me to listen to the sound of gibbons banging on banjos, or whatever the hell it is, then it just sounds rubbish. The music is overpowered by a haunting hiss like a particularly small viper trying to clamber into your ear drum to nest and lay her eggs. I presume that if you’re happy to look like a member of the ground crew on an aircraft carrier protecting their tender ears from a jet stream you can correct this problem. Either that or there’s a surprisingly number of people out there happy to look like a berk.

Singles versus Albums: The whole point of downloading is that it encourages you to cherry-pick the songs you most want to listen to (I know that Radiohead are only allowing you to download the whole album, but I’m speaking more generally here.) I, personally, am a great fan of listening to complete albums from start to finish as they were intended by the artist. Beck always used to infuriate me by hitting the shuffle button on her stereo. There’s a reason why songs are sequenced in a particular order. Train in Vain at the end of the Clash’s London Calling is a fantastic example. As the bass hook kicks in it only sounds so fresh and exhilaratingly pop because it follows a few seconds after Joe Strummer’s last desperate, ragged cry at the end of Revolution Rock. At first you think the band are defeated, exhausted by the recording of the album that they’re unable to continue, but then - no - there’s final track which sounds like they’re not only defiant but completely rejuvenated. The two songs have to go next to each other and they only work so exceptionally well at the end of such an epic album.

Album Art: The importance of a great cover image is being completely lost in the digital age. The cover can add so much to a really great album. Again, the image of Paul Simonon smashing his bass in concert, with the lettering a deliberate homage to the first Elvis album adds to the mystique of London Calling. Or the detail in the Pogues doctoring Gericault’s Le Radeau de la Medusa with their own faces for the cover of Rum, Sodomy And The Lash. Brilliant. I understand that some iPods now flash up the album art for the song playing, but come on - you can’t get across a strong image on something the size of my thumbnail. You wouldn‘t even be able to see that Paul’s not wearing any shoes on the cover of Abbey Road. For that matter, art doesn’t really work on CDs either. We should be buying 12” vinyl packaging with a smaller disc inside.

The same goes for sleeve notes. My copy of John Coltrane’s Love Supreme includes a fantastic article by Ravi Coltrane, his son and also a respected musician. I wouldn’t have got that from iTunes.

Trousers: I’m already carrying a wallet, travel card, keys and a mobile phone. If I start sticking an iPod in as well then I’m only going to be able to wear enormous skater pants. Which just aren’t suitable for every social occasion.

Plus there’s the actual physical fear I get from the idea of putting all six hundred or so of my CDs onto the damn thing. It would take years by which time it’ll probably be obsolete anyway.
So, you’ve got six billion songs on something the size of credit card - what happens if you spill beer over it, drop it down the toilet or the dog eats it. At the same time your computer contracts a virus which wipes its hard drive. It’s all gone. Okay, so you could get burgled and lose your stereo and album collection that way, but, I don’t know… The whole digital set-up just seems much more fragile to me.

One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about this in depth is that I think my CD player might be dying. I love that stereo system and I don’t want to have to replace it, but everyone so often it stalls in the middle of a record and makes a dubious thunking sound. It’s not a disaster, after all the real money’s gone into the amp and the speakers, but I’ve been trying to work out whether it was a good investment or not. I bought it in September 2002 (or thereabouts). I probably listen to music for an average of four hours a day. That’s on a basis of coming in at seven in the evening and not bothering to put another album on after eleven. It works as a reasonable average because there’s nights I don’t come in at all, or I might watch a film or the football, but against that there are days where I’ve got up at seven-thirty, popped some early morning music on and then not turned it off until one in the morning. So, four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year over five years equals seven thousand three hundred hours of listening (or taking an average record to be fifty minutes nine thousand seven hundred albums). Or one point five pence for every hour it’s been used. Definitely better than an iPod.

I’ve always been resistant to technological innovations. I didn’t actually get a CD player until 1996. Before then I was happy with tapes. I went through my entire BA without sending an email or using the Internet - I had to teach myself how to use both when I finally got a proper job in the summer of 2001. I held out on getting a mobile phone until December 2002 and even now I just want the bloody thing to be a telephone not take photos, organise my life for me and make a cup of tea. Broadband only got installed in August. We only got a DVD player because Beck needed one for an exhibition - officially it is the art DVD player and every so often it absconds for a few weeks to be in a show.

Jamie was round a few weeks ago and one of the first things he said was; “my God, is that a VHS player?”

“Yeah,” I replied cautiously.

“It’s, like, an antique.”

“How are you supposed to tape things of the TV, then?” I argued defensively.

“SkyPlus it.” I have no idea what that is. I have a suspicion it may involved Noddy Holder in bed, but that might just be a bad dream. In 2010, or whenever it is that analogue TV switches off in London, I’m going to be like one of the little old ladies in Whitehaven last week staggering around in confusion asking just what the hell digital TV is.

Do I care? Am I happy to be lagging ten years behind the rest of my generation? I don’t know, perhaps. I’m happy to learn how to use things which become useful tools (this blog for example - it enables me to rant without restraint and then leave a record in the public domain. Very liberating.) But I’m determined not to follow technological fashion trends for the sake of it. I don’t want to sit on the tube watching the last night’s episode of the latest ropey American imported television show on a screen surgically implanted into my palm. Radiohead be damned. Hail To The Thief was crap anyway.

I think the computer is laughing at me. It knows from the way I’m interfacing with it that I don’t really have a clue what I’m doing. It knows where I’m vulnerable and how it can screw up my life. It starts with a low chuckle from within the C drive before surging through the whole system and erupting across the monitor as a high pitched maniacal cackle. Good job I can always pull the plug out.

Shit, forgot about the battery pack.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Snap - who's got the power?

There isn’t going to be a general election, then. All the excitement was created either by inexperienced and aroused cabinet ministers who rapidly backtracked when the Conservatives unexpectedly surged in the polls, an act of woeful indecision and poor leadership skills by the new Prime Minister who rapidly backtracked, etc, or something whipped up by otherwise bored media hacks. It, as always, all depends on whose opinion you are most willing to trust.

The fact that the election isn’t going to happen after all is both a good and a bad thing. It’s bad because as it was looking pretty inevitable I had started mulling over three politically themed blogs. You’ll just have to wait for my musings on political ideology and for a character assassination of David Cameron and George Osborne. However, you’re just going to have to sit through this one. It is a good thing because snap elections rarely have the expected or even desirable outcome - especially for the people who actually do the voting. An election, any election, will bring out of the woodwork a vast number of political commentators scrambling for an appearance fee, all of whom will claim to have the best perspective on the predicted outcome. I’m not a political commentator. I don’t claim anything. Any opinion I give is likely to be woefully informed and bias to my own moral compass. Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be stopping me forcing it upon you.

First up, there simply isn’t the need for an Autumn election. There’s a lot of talk about giving Brown a mandate from the people, but this is complete tosh. Brown already has a mandate - it’s called a working majority of sixty-six in the Commons. The British democratic system does not elect Prime Ministers. We vote in the party that we feel has the values and the policies that we, as individuals, most agree with. We then trust that the group of people we have given the power to run our lives have the ability to choose the most suitable amongst them to be leader.

Okay, so in recent years Blair may have been day-dreaming of a presidential-style government and we may have been sub-consciously associating Labour with those frequently displayed teeth, but in 2005 it was at least made plain to the electorate that he was unlikely to serve a full third term. (I’m sure that given the choice he would have loved to have stayed on indefinitely - but that’s another issue.) So anyone who thinks we should go to the ballot box to confirm Brown’s status as leader is wrong. We have chosen the party of government; they, albeit rather meekly, have chosen the man.

We are not, thank Christ, fully into a world of David Cameron’s Conservatives politics just yet (outside of Ealing) - where the person speaking is more important than what is actually being said.

Besides, there’s no precedence for it. It didn’t happen when Major took over from Thatcher in 1990; or when Callaghan succeeded Wilson in 1976; Douglas-Home from MacMillan in 1963; MacMillan himself from Eden in 1957. In fact the only time it has happened is when Eden took over from Churchill in 1955, but as this was late into the fourth year of a term it was hardly surprising.

Of course it could be argued that these successions of power were under drastically different circumstances to that of 2007. In the main they were forced by occasion rather than following a pre-ordained plan. They were much more akin to coup d’etats where for various reasons the previous leader needed to be disposed of. The problems range from disastrous ill-advised and probably illegal wars on foreign countries (Eden), scandal (MacMillan), megalomania (Thatcher) and levels of paranoia verging on downright bonkersness (Wilson). H’mm, actually all of these could be applied to Blair.

No matter the spin applied, make no mistake, Blair did not jump. He was pushed. Prime Ministers, unsurprisingly, once given power are rarely keen to relinquish it. They usually need to have it torn from their sweaty little mitts either by the voters marking an X in the box for the opposition or, more commonly, by a knife in the back from their colleagues.

The Churchill-Eden change-over may seem relatively calm, but Churchill, having suffered a hushed-up stroke, was clearly becoming too old and mad to govern - MacMillan apparently once went to his office to find him in bed, covered in papers with a budgie called Toby perched on his head. But Churchill had privately anointed Eden as heir apparent back in 1942. Thirteen years of waiting in the wings. Pretty much the same length of time Brown has waited. Of course, Churchill had a war to win and then spent five years in opposition.

Interestingly, although not unsurprisingly, only Menzies Campbell* seemed to not be looking forward to an election. I saw an interview with Campbell (on ITN, I think) where he dismissed the question of a suitable date suggesting that we should have a fixed term government of four years anyway which would mean that none of this silliness would ever happen. Nice one, Menzies. What happens when we have a hung parliament? It’s only been in the past twenty years that the size of your majority has been something to brag about. What would happen if the days of a majority of thirty (1970) were to return? Or even, five (1950), four (1960) or just three (1974 - second time around)? The country would spend four years in political paralysis, grinding ever slower to a complete standstill waiting for the term to expire and give someone, anyone, at least a chance of actually getting anything done.

It is in these occasions of unworkable majorities that early or snap elections are called. Two occasions stand out, however, where the results were not only unexpected, but they led to disaster beyond Westminster for a lot of voters.

Thatcher was expected to go for a full first term in office, but surprised many by calling an election early in 1983. Thanks largely to her popularity riding on a high due to a surge in misguided imperialistic pride after victory in Falklands the Tories swept into power with a majority of one hundred and forty-four. It was as though most of the electorate forgot what her policies actually were and were just mesmerised by the image of action woman in a tank. The result gave the country a further fourteen years of Tory government and whilst a small minority did very, very well out of the eighties, for the vast majority of people things were to get a hell of lot worse before they got better.

Similarly in 1970 Wilson went early hoping to wrong-foot the opposition. It didn’t work and Labour were back in opposition and in the Prime Minister’s office was Edward Heath. Under his premiership Britain became a Western first world country facing wholesale national strikes and the indignity of being forced into a three day week. Here we can see the beginnings of the political, economic and industrial joke that was Britain for the best part of two decades.
Incompetent or dangerous people get into power when the voting populace are surprised by a change in the normal pattern of a May election every four or five years. And there’s enough of those hovering in the wings at Westminster. Is it really worth the risk?

Of course following a battering at PMQ, grumblings from former Blair favourites consigned to the back benches, accusations of incompetence and unsuccessful attempts at positive spin and Brown is beginning to resemble John Major. Perhaps New Labour is going to tear itself apart (then what happens? Post-Labour? Nu-Labour?) which in itself is no bad thing. It’s good for us to change our rulers more frequently than every twenty years. After all, that’s the point of voting for them rather than there being a law of succession. It means we’re, supposedly, not stuck with them when they’ve become old, senile and prone for falling asleep during important meetings. It should also mean we don’t get saddled with over-excitable youngsters driven by their loins.

I just hope that by 2009 somebody, somewhere will be offering a viable alternative.

* This article was written on Sunday. Ming, as you will know, resigned on Monday. I thought about taking this part out - but I like the point about hung parliaments so it stayed. So, the Liberals are leaderless again. Bring back Good Time Charlie Kennedy - it’s always fun to watch people so befuddled by gigantic quantities of alcohol that they can’t understand their own policies.