Tuesday, 22 January 2008

We Don't Need Jamie, Hugh Nor Gordon.

At the risk of sounding a little like a broken record my life’s re-undergone another shift as Beck once more returns from her travels. (I quite like that cliché “like a broken record” even though it’s not strictly correct, the record is scratched surely, not broken because then it wouldn’t be playing at all, and, anyway, I wonder how long it’ll survive in the digital music age.) Beck arrived at Heathrow airport on Saturday morning with a light sprinkling of snow still clinging to her boots, a half-chewed caribou carcass peeking out from her flight-bag and a twenty yard stare akin to shell shock in eyes. This is what spending a day and a half on a plane does to you, obviously. Within minutes of staggering through the front door her luggage is emptied out across the lounge floor and then scattered like fragments of memory around the house, exiting the building requires vaulting a surprisingly tall suitcase, and then she was asleep, completely conked out, not to stir for another seventeen hours.

This leaves me sitting at the downstairs table, the stereo turned down low trying not to disturb her, staring at the computer screen and thinking about the effect of distance on relationships. In particular about how the tools we use to communicate have an influence over what we say. Email is very different to a telephone conversation and that itself can never have the intimacy of a face to face discussion. It’s all in the eyes.

Beck is back and, for the foreseeable future, not going anywhere again. So, for the first time in nearly six months I have to get used to properly living with someone and not just occasionally having a rather messy houseguest. In a way I’ve almost gotten used to keeping her at arm’s length.

Obviously I mean the arm of a deity, or a giant or some other mythical creature which I’m unaware of but is capable of reaching from London to Canada.

Her return does at least mean that I can return to eating.

That is to say, clearly I have been eating whilst she’s away. I haven’t seen her in two and a half weeks and whilst I’m not too keyed up on the starvation process I’m pretty certain I’d be dead by now otherwise. And it’s not as though I can’t cook. When she is here I usually do most of the cooking, it’s just that for me alone I can’t be arsed.

Beck is what, I suppose, you would call a foodie. She loves flavours, textures, ingredients, how they all combine together. She likes to experience three or more courses delicately balanced and working in harmony. She can taste a dish and say “H’mm, a touch more oregano, perhaps?” I’m not sure I even know what oregano tastes like - I certainly can’t distinguish it in particular from amongst other flavours. I can tell if something tastes nice, or even if it could taste better and I can usually make a lucky guess as to what would improve it, but isolate one single flavour from a mish-mash of others? No chance. My palate just isn’t sophisticated enough.

This is it, you see, to me food is essentially stuff that you need in order to keep yourself alive. It’s fuel. I enjoy nice food, but really what I like is the social activity that surrounds eating. The seeing of friends and family, talking and drinking and living. For Beck though, I suspect, the primary pleasure is in the taste.

So whilst she’s away I’ll make big vats of chilli con carne, tomato and mushroom pasta sauce, beef stew, chickpea curry or whatever and eat the same thing for four days on the trot. No variety. No thought. Eating becomes something to accompany my absorption of the daily news. The only person who could possibly interact with me is Jon Snow.

I taught myself how to cook at university. Having had my initial attempts to feed a visiting Beck more or less laughed at, I borrowed female housemates’ cook books (thanks, Charlotte) and tried to understand how it all worked. I got better, She started to actually enjoy about half of what I served rather than eating it out of pure desperation.

When we moved in together Beck was definitely the superior cook. I was just about competent with a good line in curries and sausage ‘n’ mash. The ritual of a meal, a bottle of wine, at home just the two of us became a significant part of our relationship. An opportunity for no distractions, to chat about things other than what some git did today at work. They’re like mini-dates. Somewhere along the years, though, I seemed to completely overtake her. (Of course it’s a competition - life is a competition.) It’s practice, habit. We went from her doing most of the cooking to doing half and half, to me doing the most, to at some points, like last year, it being a couple of months in-between Beck actually cooking a meal.

She says I’ve stolen her powers, like a psycho-thief coming to her at night and sucking them out of her brain. I like this analogy. The sucking aspect seems particularly appropriate. But in truth it’s the same as anything, the more you do it the better you become, if you stop doing it regularly it takes a little more thought and attention. It becomes less instinctive.

I like cooking for others. I like the process of being in the kitchen. Chopping, slicing, grating, sprinkling, steaming, flash-frying. A finish with a flourish. I like seeing it all fit together and I really love seeing people enjoying something I‘ve prepared.

There’s also a practicality issue. I don’t like eating too late in the evening. I can’t sleep, or to be more accurate I do fall promptly asleep but then awake in a couple of hours and that’s it. My eyes locked open till morning. Beck on the other hand will, at one in the morning, quite happily eat a big bowl of rice based food followed by a chocolate mouse and sleep like a babe. So, if I want to eat earlier, I have to cook. Plus Beck finds it impossible to cook anything in less than an hour nor to use anything less than every single item of crockery and cutlery. I can make most things in about half hour - that’s time in the kitchen, if I’ve left something in the oven or on the hob for half the afternoon it doesn’t count. Plus I’ll do it using one knife, one spoon, a peeler and two pans. Who else cooks a sauce, for example, in one pan, gets half way though and then transfers it to a smaller pan? Under what circumstances do you need two graters?

Okay, so that’s probably my own fault for having two graters, but when we moved in together we each owned one. Six years later we’re still arguing over which is superior.

Don’t get me wrong, mind. You’re all more than welcome to come round for dinner at some point but I’m not promising cooking of the highest standards. I'm far from perfect. Thinking about other things I managed to put carrots in a risotto tonight. Trust me, it doesn’t work. I have a limited repertoire in deserts, but as we’ll only have these on special occasions I suppose that doesn’t matter. I can’t bake. Scones, cakes, anything like is never going to quite right.

Things are going to change, though, so she says. Shell take on more responsibility for general housework and for cooking in particular. She’s finished her MA and spent six months roving. Work’s piling up for me and I, apparently, need her support.

If it happens, it’ll be nice. Less pressure on me to produce an exciting yet balanced menu each week. She can titilate her own taste buds; kind of like a form of masturbation I should expect.

If it happens I’ll have to see if I can get out of doing all the washing up as well, see if we can cut out that uncanny habit of remembering something really urgent that needs doing whenever it’s her turn to do the washing up but in fact just turns out to be ringing one of her sisters for a gossip. That’d be really good.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

January Blues

Those of you who live close enough to meet up with me for a beer may have noticed my recent absence - something especially unusual given that Beck’s away in foreign (cold) climes. Normally, during her travels isolation forces me out into the pub and because, you know, I always drink too much whilst she’s away, I might as well do it people’s company rather than alone.

But no. I’ve been missing.

I’ve been shackled to my desk working, fourteen, sixteen hours a day, surging towards my deadline of last Friday.

But now I’m free.

Dealing with assignment deadlines feels a little odd. In my working life I had monthly revenue targets to achieve. I could cold call, make appointments, chase people for decisions, but ultimately there was only so much I could do. There came a point where I had to pass it into the hands of others, it’s not as though everyone has a magic combination of words that flicks a switch in their head and makes them say “yes”. I had to move onto the next person giving space for them to reach a decision in their own time. If I forced it too much the answer would invariably be “no”.

When I did my undergraduate degree I never stayed up all night desperately writing an essay to be in the next day. I was a plodder, working consistently Monday to Friday from ten till one and then two till six, never stretching myself, taking regular breaks, all very slow and calm. Very occasionally I might have worked a bit in the evening or the odd weekend - although the latter is pretty unlikely as I remember once, when the clocks changed, being aghast to accidentally wake up on a Sunday morning . I had an eight-day technique for a five-thousand word essay. Four days reading books and articles, two days writing by hand, one day down the computer suite typing up, half a day at home editing and the last half day making corrections back down the computers, probably handing it in a day early on the way home. I got a 2.1 for virtually every piece of work I did, the occasional 2.2, but never a first. Perhaps if I’d broken my strict regime, put a little extra work in I’d have raised the bar, but I could never be bothered. There were others things to life.

All of which made me more than a little surprised at my attitude to the course-work I’ve just submitted. Obsession, constant tampering, re-reading, re-working, time and time again. Doubt. All of this sounds much more like the way Beck works than my more methodical system.

There were two pieces of work to do. The first was an academic essay. The course includes a series of seminars given by established writers on their practice. We were expected to take a point from one of these and apply it to a wider contemporary literary context that also makes reference to our own work. It took me a couple of months to actually understand what the hell that meant and then it slowly dawned on me that a) I should have been making notes and b) no-one was going to be distributing a reading list or even suggesting texts of interest. It was all going to have to come out of my own head. As one of the few on the course to not have at least a BA in English Literature I already felt a bit disadvantaged, but when my attempts to teach myself literary theory resulted in cries of “what a load of cock” rather than enlighted insight I began to worry.

In the end I decided to do the essay on physical experience leading to an authorative voice which I think worked rather well. (Bugger, I’ve just exposed that my recent Poland blog was, essentially, me thinking out loud. Oh, well.) It also allowed me to focus on biographies, autobiographies and fiction rather than theory books. But the initial drafts were nearly twice as long as required. Continual rewriting was required, my brain wasn’t playing by it’s own rules. I went through about nine drafts rather than my standard three.

I also had to submit some fiction which proved even more problematic. Two pieces, both equally liked by me. Two tutors, each very enthusiastic that I should submit one piece and a little disparaging about the other. Of course, it wasn’t the same piece that they liked.

The final choice came down to me. Damn subjective mickey-mouse arts courses. There is no right and wrong, stuff just exists in its own space. So again continual rewriting of both, moving semi-colans around, changing line breaks, switching adjectives about, walking around the house reading both aloud, checking for how they flow. Trying to clamber in-between the words, to see which one’s heart beats stronger.

I hadn’t been quite ready for a such a level of intimacy with my own work. With Beck away that was literally it. Just me and the stories. All other relationships temporarily redundant.

And now it’s gone.

I spent Friday night in the pub with Ben and Stu and Saturday with my folks in Richmond Park, distracting me from the reality of work. It was only half way through cleaning the bathroom on Saturday night (rock and roll!) with a live Clash album blaring out from downstairs that I realised I had nothing in particular to do. Faced with such an opportunity I failed to utilize it and managed to do, well, nothing really. My brain was clouded in a confused fuzz, unable to see anything of interest in life. There’s almost a sense of loss. I read the paper, had a couple of beers, couldn’t even build the enthusiasm to watch Shaun Of The Dead and instead resorted to Match Of The Day, followed by a hundred pages or so of Ali Smith’s rather wonderful Like and then went to bed.

Inactivity pisses me off. I have things to do. There’s reading to do for Wednesday and I’ve got ten days to write some brand new fiction for a tutorial and all I currently have is three titles, or perhaps they’re simply lines from a story, I don’t know yet. Seven Phone Conversations Before Midnight. You Are Not Joe Strummer. The End Of History. I really should start trying to come up with some more details for at least one of these, but that almost seems a betrayal to The Definition Of A Second and Into Paddington, which, having not been submitted, now needs a home of its own. Instead I’ve procrastinated. Written this. Watched Friends (Friends? I don’t even like Friends!) and The Simpsons. Read a little. Lain down on the bed.

I’m not even sure if I can muster a decent ending for this.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

In The Wee Small Hours

I’m clearly getting too caught up in this whole blogging thing if I’m choosing to write this tonight, but I guess I’m not doing anything else.

It’s New Year’s Eve and whilst the rest of the world is out dancing, drinking and making love with their partners or complete strangers I’m stuck at home with the dead and the dying. Okay, so I’m exaggerating, slightly. Essentially I’m bitter at having to cancel my long-planned party, but I’ve just spent half the day ringing our friends and disappointing them meanwhile Beck lies upstairs in bed trying to sleep off illness before she flies to the Arctic on the second. Oh and the boiler’s bust leaving us with no heating or hot water. British Gas engineers won’t come till Wednesday and the landlord‘s odd job man has disappeared. Not only is there no party but it’s fucking freezing in here. So, it’s just me, a bottle of single malt and Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, Sparklehorse and anyone else depressing I can find on the stereo.

The end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008 gives me many potential themes to write about. The year gone by, my own achievements (how modest), potential resolutions (already done by all the Sunday columnists), a year review of popular and unpopular culture, celebrating only eleven months left of idiot Bush trying to end the world. H’mm, choices, choices.

I know. To really drive home how much alone, unloved and un-mourned I feel tonight let’s have a rehash of all the great New Year’s Eves I have had in previous years. That’ll really cheer me up.

Let’s see now. 2006 was nice. Dinner for four round at Stu and Clare’s flat. I’d knackered my knee slipping down a Welsh mountain the day before so the subdued atmosphere was perfect. Nice food, plenty of chat, wine and beer. Beck and I mercilessly slagged off Amy Winehouse who was on Jools Holland before Stu piped up that he quite liked her. Really? I can’t stand her, especially given the hype surrounding her. The next person who swigs from a large chardonnay and tells me she sounds like Aretha Franklin or Billie Holliday is going to get a slap. There’s no comparison. Franklin sounded like a force of nature and Holliday sang as though her life was in danger, which it usually was. Winehouse sounds like she spends too much time with the first half of her name and not enough in the second - and not in that endearing way Shane MacGowan did. We left about one-ish and spent two and a half hours inching our way across London, just missing a tube at every change. In fairness, most of that time was spent just down the road and the bus driver refused to move any further or open the doors until she had an apology from the drunken idiot at the front. A long, long stand off ensued.

2005 was at ours. As we’d only just moved in throwing a big party was pretty easy. We hadn’t unpacked anything so there were no possessions to get in the way and we just stuffed the bedroom with boxes, found the records and the glasses and were set. At midnight a huge firework display went off nearby and everyone piled into the garden to watch. Unfortunately our garden’s only eight foot by six and so Ian and I wouldn’t fit. We took a tactical retreat to the front of the house only to be mobbed by a load of pissed middle-aged women in dressing gowns demanding a New Year’s kiss. Rarely have I been so frightened.

The next day I felt dreadful. Whilst everyone else had a fried breakfast I tried to sleep through the roaring whirlwind in my head and guts. I finally emerged in the early afternoon and we went and flew a kite on Blackheath until in got dark whereupon we returned home and I ate cold bacon and eggs as a starter for my dinner.

2004 was at Claire and Ian’s in Chester. You’ll have to bear with me as we move back through the years and my memory becomes a little fuzzy. We went out into town ending up in the same club I’ve been in every single time I’ve been to visit. I’m starting to suspect there’s nowhere else in Chester to go out in. Beck reckons I fell asleep upright on the dance floor, which is possible as I did do exactly that at Claire’s hen-do earlier this year in that very club. We all go round and round, things hardly change.

Beck and I stopped off on the way back down to London the following day at Charlotte’s and Pete’s weird rented house in the middle of the Staffordshire countryside. Perched on the corner of a road junction it was surrounded by a huge garden, but inside everything was doubled up as though two bungalows had been knocked into one. I think there were three bedrooms and about eleven toilets, rarely have I felt so disorientated whilst needing to urinate, but presumably it would actually keep the cleaning down as you’d use each one so infrequently.

2003 was at Stu and Clare’s old flat in Tufnell Park. From memory it was a select party which we were privileged to go to. The best thing about their flat was that it was on the fifth floor (I think) and you could clamber out onto the narrow rim at the bottom of the sloping roof to take in a fantastically atmospheric view of Holloway and Highgate. The city always feels more vibrant at night and I loved looking down at the people scurrying to and fro. There was no barrier or anything preventing you from falling to certain death on the concrete slabs below. Always a great idea when you’ve had a few drinks. I’ve got a feeling Stu had actually fallen into flat through the open window shortly before and Clare then hid the key for the New Year’s Eve party.

2002 was at Ben and Sam’s old flat in Willesden Green with Emma and Owen too. I remember very little about this year other than we ate dinner, drank gin and played board games. I do remember waking obscenely early on New Year’s Day and sitting in the lounge, waiting for what seemed like an age for anyone else to even stir. When we left in the late afternoon gloom I brought a copy of the Guardian from a perpetually open corner shop and accidentally picked up two copies. The shop keeper didn’t notice and nor did I until I was on the tube. I felt like I’d begun the year with a life of crime.

2001. I’ve told this story many times before, but it’s probably worth telling again. New Year’s Eve 2001 was non-existent. Two days previous a group of us, as is tradition, had gone to north Wales to climb a mountain. We then threw a dinner party at my friend Claire’s parent’s house (we were using the Midlands as a base). To cut a long story short I got horrendously drunk. A couple of beers, two bottles of red wine and the best part of a bottle of brandy. There were broken glasses, wine spilt over carpets, Steve says I nearly fell under a taxi on the way home.

I suppose the level of drunkenness is best summed up by a photo Claire took. It had begun snowing and we rushed outside for an impromptu snowball fight. Everyone else is taking part, wrapped up in coats, scarves, gloves and hats. I’m completely oblivious to what’s going on, standing in the very middle of the picture in a short sleeve shirt greedily slurping brandy from a glass. When I got home (I mean my Mum and Dad’s place) Steve threw me through the door, I crawled to the kitchen sink and attempted to throw up in it.

Eventually I struggled upstairs and tried to get undressed. It’s usually a good idea to take your boots off before attempting to remove your trousers and the resulting fall, thud of my head hitting a piece of furniture sturdier than it and a cry of “fuck” woke my poor Mother who came into the bedroom to discover me lying on the floor, trousers around my ankles giggling to myself. Not unsurprisingly I had the most crippling hang-over that lasted over forty-eight hours.

2000 was more fun. In between Sheffield and London I lived with my folks for a year, but Beck was a student down at Goldsmiths. This year she and her flatmates threw a house party with, frankly, a staggering number of guests for a small flat. Michael, with whom I lived with at University, came along and brought his unpredictable chum James.

Beck’s relationship with her flatmates was strained at the best of times - even the staggeringly attractive Martha - and our contingent decamped to the Marquis of Granbury on the New Cross road for a swift couple of beers early on. The Marquis is not the sort of pub to ever sell tickets for an evening. In fact, I’d be tempted to say that nobody ever wants to go to the Marquis but that that certain types of people just always seem to end up in there. For some time this included me and when I recently went back in for the first time in what must be four years its scuzzy edges no longer held the same attraction.

Upon returning to the flat James spent a couple of hours chain smoking spliffs before passing out behind the television, curled up into a neat little ball. Ben and I took Owen for a walk around the New Cross bus garage to try and sober him up and prevent further vomiting - this was all before midnight.

After the bells finally struck for the New Year things got increasingly odd. Beck’s flatmate Pam began hanging out the window screaming abuse at everyone walking past, someone managed to set their shirt on fire and I confiscated a can of Fosters off someone who was just pouring it in an intrigued fashion over the floor. When my back was turned he simply opened a fresh can and started again. To escape the madness Beck, Michael, Emma and I took a walk up Telegraph Hill at about three in the morning and watched the scattered pops of fireworks exploding around the distant city.

1999 was of course the big one. The Millennium. It was going to be impossible to live up to the hype, especially the poor sods having to endure the Dome and the sight of awkward members of the monarchy and the government exchanging pleasantries when they’d all rather be somewhere else. We took to the streets of London. Randomly we bumped into Kris, with whom I was at University. We had a swift pint in a pub Beck was working in on Whitehall, the name of which neither of us can now remember, and were then promptly kicked out as they closed down to reopen as a ticket only venue five minutes later.

I was carrying a rucksack full of beer and wine, but with no corkscrew or toilet facilities anywhere we were either unable to or hesitant to drink. As a more experienced boozer, I now realise that spirits would have been a better option - less likely to need to pee it out, lighter and keeps you warm. Not that it was cold that night. The sheer volume of people made it like a spring afternoon. It incredibly took over half an hour to walk to the three hundred odd metres across Waterloo bridge and somehow managed to lose Kris at the same time. Ah, life before mobile phones. We watched the over hyped fireworks and the failed river of fire in the shadow of the South Bank centre before, feeling slightly disillusioned, we headed to a house party Beck knew of in Waterloo. Tired from all the wandering around we didn’t stay long, but after an hour or so decided to head for home.

The spanking new Jubilee line was clogged up so we walked through the back streets to London Bridge - a journey which, looking back, took an unfeasible length of time, I can only guess that Beck was pretending she knew where she was going and in fact we wandered around in an ever decreasing circle. To make life more frustrating Anne managed to leave her purse at the house party which meant we walked all the way back again and then back to London Bridge.

My most enduring memory of that evening was actually what happened afterwards. Beck somehow managed to leave the gas ring on the cooker burning very lowly when she left to go back to Birmingham and no-one else came into the flat for another week or so. Fortunately it didn’t burn down, but when the gas bill arrived at some ridiculous sum of money the other flatmates insisted Beck pay the vast majority of it. Of course, it was leaving the gas ring running and not having the heating cranked up to well over thirty degrees so you can all wander around in skimpy nighties all day long (or in one girl’s case absolutely nothing at all) which cost so much.

1998. This was the only New Year I spent in Sheffield. I remember very little about it, other than accidentally hurling a drink over a girl in The Fox & Duck and then trying to pretend it wasn’t me. I think I got quite drunk quite quickly and was hustled out of the pub before a potential fight brewed. I remember Pete’s little brother being there randomly and trying to play a guitar, but actually just succeeding in snapping all the strings. At least I wasn’t the only one with a bad hangover the next day as one of the most enduringly grim images I have of that house is Charlotte’s vomit trickling down the stair case as she failed to reach the bathroom in time.

1997. We went to see Rhys’ band, Casual Knitwear, at the Golden Lion in Solihull with a random assortment of people who weren’t doing anything else. Beck and I took the long walk back to my parent’s house and we briefly considered having sex on a bench in the park, but then decided that Owen whom we walking with probably wasn’t quite drunk enough to not notice. Alcohol. It makes you think funny things at times.

1996. We went to yet another house party at a guy called Nic Atkin’s folks’ place. I wonder what happened to him, or indeed to half the names that are about to be thrown up. Beck had recently split up with another friend of mine, Mike Johnson - this is how we met, but I was far too much of a gentleman to make a move on her whilst she was seeing someone else. Mike chose New Year’s Eve to tell me that we had his blessing (not that we were looking for it, we were only seventeen) to go out together, but, and this is the weird bit, that he ought to warn me. Beck had homosexual tendencies. He went onto to describe in unnecessarily graphic detail the previous New Year’s Eve when Beck had gotten fairly drunk and ended up kissing her friend Lorna who was a fully blown, although extremely fit, lesbian. I think Mike was trying to screw with my head, or put me off, or whatever, but I found the concept rather titillating.

1995 is going to get a quick mention if only because I’m surprised that I can work out where I was. There was a house party at Craig Harwood’s parents place and it’s worth mentioning because I’d entirely forgotten this: I used to take CDs around to parties in a little box, but in reality I would only have about two albums in there and some cans of beer swiped out of my parent’s cupboard. I wonder if they ever knew that I took them on such a regular basis?

Well, that’s it. A bit of an odd review of times gone past and from this you’d probably get the impression that I spent all my time drinking to excess. Well, maybe, maybe not. New Year’s Eve always seems a good excuse though. The fireworks have gone off, the bells have rung, Jools Holland keeps shouting hootenanny in that annoying way and I’m seriously considering going to bed.

Sober and early.

Oh well, there’s always next year.