Tuesday, 26 February 2008

A Fresh Start

So, it’s been one of those weeks.

It started off nicely enough on Tuesday when, shortly after posting last week’s edition, I flopped down onto the sofa and heard a grating twang followed by a softer crunch.

Yup. Broke one of the springs.

It had sheared sharply off, twisted downwards and ripped through the bottom of the sofa embedding itself in the wooden floor. Good job it went down, really.

This was surprisingly traumatic. Our sofa is well over thirty years old. We inherited it from Beck’s parents, who were shocked we even wanted it as they’d been planning on sending it to the tip. Then we kept it for a decade. (I had the armchair in my room in Sheffield for those who were there) I’m not a big one on new furniture. Only the bookshelves and the Argos cheapo bed were actually new when we got them. Everything else has been begged, borrowed indefinitely, built ourselves (oh, alright, built by Beck whilst I watched), out rightly stolen or found in skips.

The idea of going out to look for a not-quite-so-old sofa that’s comfortable and fits in the space allotted seems akin to taking your elderly pet out into the woods a long way from home and leaving it there.

Wednesday didn’t get much better. I enjoyed my day at college, but had to curtail the following pub session in order to watch Southwark Council vote to approve the budget cuts that closed the Livesey Museum for Children. I’ve banged on about this before, so I’ll just express my disbelief that, given that the budget is the most important decision the local council can take, six opposition councillors didn’t bother to turn up. You know, it’s deciding the fate of local services for the next twelve months, it’s the one chance to actually vote on things that matter rather than whether new speed humps are going to be built on the one remaining residential road without them, but I guess something more important must have been happening. Like someone on a street corner giving out free Haribo.

Over Thursday and Friday I managed to write myself into a corner, which meant that I had to spend all day Saturday making extensive plot, narrative and character notes, trying to see how it was all going to fit together over a hundred thousand words or so. This is what scares me about ‘the novel’ rather than my comfort zone of short stories. It’s just too damn big to just try and write through it and then cut back the bits that’re crap later.

Anyway, I decided to take Sunday off. Entirely. No words at all. We’d do something fun, something that would give my brain a rest.

Probably should have mentioned this earlier, though. I got up late (about quarter past eight) and wallowed I the bath for a while. When I went to get dressed I found Beck just waking up.

“What’re you doing today?” She asks.

“Absolutely nothing at all. Want to join me?” I bounce onto the bed and get a flashback of Tuesday night and think that I should probably be more gentle with the furniture until I loose a couple of stone.

“I need to do some work today and there’s a meeting for that show tonight.”


Eventually we decided on a compromise. Breakfast and then to walk down to Greenwich via Blackheath. Get some exercise, potter around one of our favourite bits of London, grab some quick lunch off a market stall by the Thames and then head for home so Beck can get some work done.

“And then you can clean the house.”

That wasn’t quite what I had in mind. I’d been thinking more along the lines of mindlessly watching Alec Guinness in The Fall Of The Roman Empire for the umpteenth time, or maybe reading some more of Andrey Kurkov’s, frankly brilliant, The President’s Last Love.

But when I’d been submerged in the bath I’d been disgusted by the brown gunk growing in-between the tiles. So, I agreed.

Now, Beck and I have slightly different approaches to cleaning. I tend to clean frequently, but in a relatively half-arsed fashion. (I should probably qualify that by frequently I mean every four to six weeks, everything’s relative). I’ll also reach the point where I’ve had enough and I’ll either vacuum just the rug or simply spray a bit of cif around the basin and, hell, that’ll do.

Beck, by contrast, cleans annually, bi-annually if it’s a leap year. However, she will clean far more thoroughly than me.

Provided she finishes.

Back in July, the time of her last descent into domestic cleanliness, I came home from work tired and fancying my tea pretty promptly. I found the lounge curtains in the washing machine, all the furniture down the one end of the room and a bucket of cold, soapy water and a sponge in the middle of the half cleaned floor. In the kitchen she had clearly cleaned the inside of all the cupboards, although the contents were still strewn over the floor. Beck was, of course, absent having suddenly remembered that she was supposed to be attending a friend’s private view.

Still, I guess the two techniques compliment each other.


Cleaning our house is always complicated by the fact that neither of us is very tidy, so the first stage is always a tedious return of objects to their rightful place. Hiking boots are retrieved from the bathroom, tampons from the kitchen, stacks of open CD cases are returned to the shelves, newspapers cover every conceivable surface and orifice, some of which are weeks old. Any dead animals need to be disposed of properly.

The whole cleaning, tidying malarkey took nearly three hours, but I think I did a pretty good job for once. If you ignore the fact that I didn’t actually move anything and just dusted and vacuumed around objects and broken furniture. Apparently, though, the process includes an unyielding stream of swearing and moaning. At any moment I can be heard muttering “I hate cleaning the toilet/kitchen floor” or “I loathe vacuuming the stairs/wooden floor/bed.”

In my defensive the extremely crude explosion was probably when I was trying to fix the toilet seat and my DIY skills are about as advanced as a giraffe’s.

The only thing is, I got so bored cleaning that when I was done I wanted nothing more than to sit down and write.

So much for a day off.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Act Your Age

My Dad turned sixty last week. Well done, Happy Birthday, etc, etc. But, because people can be a mildly cruel the event was marked by a collection of cards mocking his age, suggesting an infirm body and mind. When he took the dog for a walk in the morning my Mum, apparently, warned him against falling over “at his age.” It’s almost as though, despite no indication of retiring or slowing down, he went to bed middle-aged and woke up old.

Which reminds me…

Years ago I sat in the corner at a party. It was that time a little after midnight when the booze lurches in with a kick of sentimentality and the music sounds infinitely more poignant that it will do in the morning. The guy I’m talking to takes a slurp of lager and turns to me saying: “Man, do you remember when we were fifteen? Wasn’t it great? We had no responsibilities, life was easy. I’d give anything to be fifteen again.”

Seeing as we hadn’t even turned eighteen at this point, yes I did remember. I have no idea what possible difficulties or stresses he was imaging, but I had utterly zero desire to go back. I’ve always been pretty pleased with the age I am. There’s nothing you can do about it anyway, so sitting whinging about how being twenty-one was so great does nobody any favours.

Live with life or do something about it.

I don’t mean build a time machine or invent a rejuvenation pill (although both would be cool), I mean that if you’re unhappy with your age it probably means there’s something in your life that you’re unhappy with. Your job, perhaps, where you live, how you live. It’s probably something you can sort out.

Anyway, irritated by this pillock, on the walk home that night I developed my theory on the ages of human kind. It was meant to be a joke, but when I told Beck about it shortly afterwards she was annoyed that I’d classified her sister as middle-aged already. And because it became an argument (of sorts) it stuck around in my head.

It went something like this:

You’re born, you’re a baby, a toddler and then a child. From thirteen to eighteen you’re a teenager. From nineteen to twenty-nine you’re a young adult. From thirty to fifty-five you’re middle aged. From fifty-five to seventy you’re old. Finally seventy and over and you’re elderly. These are the facts of live, deal with them.

Of course, they’re not. Instead, they’re just the arrogant shoutings of a seventeen year old. I found it funny that middle-age was a spoken with such derision, that the young feared it so. To me it was just part of life; it’s the middle-period of your three score and ten life allowance and is consequently the longest part. The decision as to what you with that period of your life, whether you settle down to slippers and the occasional glass of red wine in front of the gas fire or if you work the trans-Siberian railway as an engine driver is up to you.

Regrets for yesterday are pointless; all that matters is tomorrow.

That said, I’m seriously considering revising my definitions. Beck turns thirty later this year, I the next. Do I consider myself middle-aged? In a part of my head I’m still a teenager, I’m still directionless (Writer? Come on, stop mucking about and sort yourself out with a proper career!), still prone to irresponsible bouts of drinking, still desperate to hear youth music, still a little naively idealistic.

Mind you: Saturday night was exciting. We did some work on the Save The Livesey campaign, ate some dinner. Listened to records by Tom Waits, David Bowie and Neil Young and read our books. Beck went to bed just before eleven, I went up a little after midnight.

Bloody hell, we’ve skipped middle-age entirely and we’re old already.

Beck said to me that she hadn’t done any of the major things that she’d always planned to do before she turned thirty. Namely, have a baby, establish herself as an artist and buy a house.

But these are just the stereotypes of what we should have achieved. Property, career, breeding. We’ve done lots of other things instead.

Okay, so we nearly brought a flat twelve months ago and I’m damn pleased that we didn’t. I couldn’t have done my course, seeing as I’m using the deposit money to survive, and with mortgage repayments being significantly higher than our low rent and having no savings left to act as a cushion she wouldn’t have been able to spend nearly three months out of the country last year.

She does have a career as an artist. She’s ahead of most of her contemporaries and there are more shows coming up this year. She’s not a household name, but then she doesn’t film people buggering animals nor pee in a little pot and place it on a mantelpiece.

A baby before you’re thirty? Well, there’s just about time to sort that one out. Shall we go upstairs?

Heh. Just joking. Well, not entirely.

But why do we expect people to be in a certain position by the time they reach a certain age? I guess, in my idle daydreams, I expected to have achieved something by the time I was thirty. I’d have a couple of novel published, I’d have a nice house in the country somewhere (this is before I fell in love with London) and I’d have a couple of sprogs. But I haven’t and it’s no good worrying about it. Things happen when they’re good and ready to.

Besides, it’s always nice to have something to look forward to.

The phrase Act Your Age seems entirely redundant now as it becomes more and more acceptable to act whatever age you feel like from day to day. Responsibly settled and concerned about the environment on Tuesdays, hedonistic and looking for the nastiest party on a Thursday?

Suits me. For a little longer anyway.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Children First, Please.

In London, not too far from where I live, is the country’s only children’s museum. Hold on, let’s clarify that. The Livesey is NOT a museum about childhood through the ages; it is a museum FOR children. It has an entirely new, interactive exhibition every year covering everything from maths to alternative energy sources. The children can touch and interact with the exhibits in a way impossible anywhere else. This museum has no glass cabinets and there are no ’please do not touch’ signs.

The Livesey Museum for Children is open to the general public and during the week typically receives two school parties a day. The majority of visiting schools walk in or come by public transport. It has been recently short listed in the Guardian as one of the best child resources in the country.

More importantly it is a cornerstone of an inner-city community. George Livesey donated the building to the people of Southwark on the basis that it be used to culturally enrich the area. And it does. Sitting on the A2, The Old Kent Road, next to Kwik-Fit, opposite the KFC drive-thru and Carpet-Rite, it stands out from the steady torrent of trucks heading to Dover. London may be overflowing with cultural landmarks, but the people of Southwark tend to see these are the property of the middle-classes, of tourists, not places for them.

But they do go to the Livesey. It’s a place they can walk to, pushing a buggy with a toddler in tow. It’s a place an eight year old off one of the estates can safely walk to and spend a productive afternoon. It runs SureStart sessions and other programmes for young families. In brings in creative practitioners - everyone from puppeteers to acrobats - and in the summer hosts outdoor sessions in its courtyard, a vital piece of secure, pleasant, green space.

It has been the weekly refuge for at least one young woman trying to get away from an abusive partner and to see her son enjoy himself.

And it’s being closed down.

The Livesey is not a private venture, it is not a charitable trust. It is owned and run by Southwark Council. Southwark is the twenty-fifth poorest borough in the UK despite the northern edge being dominated by the South Bank centre, Tate Modern and luxury, riverside apartments and having areas such as Dulwich Village where a two bedroom house sells for £799,950.

In Southwark fifty-two percent of children live below the poverty line. That’s not working class or low-income families, that’s Below The Poverty Line.

Over half.

On Tuesday night Beck and I went along to picket a meeting of the council’s executive. As most of the protestors, understandably, had children we decided to help make up the numbers and sit through the actual meeting in the public gallery. I learned a lot about local government process, not least that dubiously legal threats of “severe reprimand” can be made towards any council worker joining a protest against council proposals.

There’s a lot of detail to follow, but please bear with me.

A local authority runs an April to April budget. 73% of their budget comes from a donation from central government. The remainder is generated through council tax, parking fines, etc, etc. This money has to cover local health services (meals on wheels for example), refuse collection, road maintenance, etc. Council housing has a different pot of money. National health and education comes direct from central government.

Here’s the crazy bit. The councils only receive a ball-park figure for the following year’s budget in late December. This is not confirmed until late January. In order to be implemented a budget needs to be presented to the whole council for vote in late February. This doesn’t, as you can imagine, leave much time for long-term financial planning or consultation.

Whilst 2008 sees local boroughs receive a ’three-year deal’ for the first time , I understand that inner-city boroughs in general and London boroughs in particular have done rather badly in terms of the actual amount. The central government’s donation to Southwark will increase by less than the rate of inflation. In real terms this means the council is going to be £35,000,000 short over the next three years.


Some of this is recouped by an increase in council tax of 4% (above the rate of inflation). Councils are only legally allowed to increase tax at a maximum of 4.9% but as a disproportionate number of Southwark’s residents are exempt, or paying lower rates, it’s not that useful.

(There’s that word poverty again.)

Southwark Council itself is a mess. It’s run across dozens of different sites across the borough, most of them falling apart. Hosting a meeting, apparently, almost inevitably involves three or four people taking a taxi. The council, however, anticipates a saving of nearly £30 million when it finally moves into its nice new offices of Tooley Street, in the fancy bit of the borough up near London Bridge, later this year.

They’re still £5,000,000 short and cuts in services clearly need to be made. The Livesey, it seems, will be one of them. I’m not stupid. I understand the maths, I appreciate that this is almost an impossible situation. I realise that no-one on the executive takes an pleasure in closing services down nor in making people redundant. They are not acting out of malice, but I do think they’re acting in ignorance.

Oh, and I’ve issues with the process too.

The Livesey costs £150,000 a year. A metaphorical drop in the £5,000,000 ocean. Clearly, though, if it is closed the building will be sold off (morally wrong given that it was donated to the people, but not illegal) and despite it being a grade II listed building it will still fetch a significant sum, although the council denies factoring this into their figures.

The report recommending the museum’s closure (obtained through the freedom of information act) justifies its suggestion on the basis of cost against visitor figures. I’ve worked in the exhibitions industry. You can massage visitor figures to say whatever you like, but even I’m surprised at the variances in different quotes. The museum is only open to the public nine months of the year, taking three months to rip out the insides of the building and build a new exhibition. It claims 18,000 visitors for that period. The report says that visitor figures vary, depending on source, between 11,000 and 15,000 a year so it bases its conclusions on 11,000 visitors over twelve months.


Councillor Lorraine Zuleta, the member of the executive responsible for culture, heritage and leisure, claimed at the meeting that she had “no choice” but to close the Livesey. It is not one of the services the council is obliged to provide. She has “no choice” but to recommend it for closure, and then promptly mentioned two viable alternatives.

1. Close two libraries.
2. Cut funding to a fitness initiative designed to combat obesity in Camberwell.

We’ll come back to these.

The process with which the council makes decisions are so rapid that there has been no public consultation. The report recommending the Livesey’s closure has clearly been put together after the initial budget figure arrived before Christmas. The budget, responding to the report and the confirmed figure, has been assembled in less than two weeks. Tuesday’s meeting was for the executive to agree to propose it to the wider council. The council will meet on the 20th and (in all probability) vote to accept the budget. The Livesey’s current exhibition will be its last and it will close in late April.

That’s fast.

Opponents to any proposals made by a council can present a delegation at the meetings of the executive. A representative may speak for five minutes and then may be subjected to a further five minutes of questions and answers. The hastily formed Friends of the Livesey did this. No questions were asked. From where I stood deputy leader Kim Humphreys barely seemed awake. It’s not surprising because there was no way anyone was going to reconsider their position, in public, with such a short time scale. This was a rubber stamp meeting paying lip service to the notion that the community has a voice.

No-one was listening.

A woman standing next to Beck who was there to hear about a proposed development on a piece of green space, and who was also hard of hearing, asked what was going on.

“It’s the Livesey museum,” Beck whispered.
“Our museum?”
“Yes, they’re going to close it.”
“But they can’t. It’s the only one we’ve got. They can’t.”
I couldn’t help but think ’they just did.’

There is still a chance. The ruling coalition of 26 Liberal Democrats and 6 Conservatives only have a majority of two. It could still be blocked, but there’s only a week to get all the opposition councillors on side and find at least two others prepared to go against the party line.

This isn’t just Southwark, or even just London. The cuts in government funding and the swift processing applies to all councils around the country. If you’ve got facilities or a service provided by the council that you think is pretty good, then you probably won’t by June. I’d have a nose around if I were you.

So what should be done? The money has to come from somewhere, what’s the alternative? Well, I suspect there’s £150,000 that could be saved in other council expenditure. I understand, from a councillor no less, that the annual bill for catering at the town hall is £30,0000. Alternatively, give the Livesey time to morph itself into a charitable trust. Donate the building (which allegedly isn’t factored into savings made anyway) and it’ll be £150K off all future budgets. The success of the South London Gallery in Camberwell suggests this is a viable option.

Or, and this is going to sound crazy coming from someone who’s trying to become a writer, shut the two libraries. London is awash with libraries, Southwark has fifteen libraries including major ones in Peckham and Camberwell and (I think) a new one opening in Canada Water soon. The closure of two, smaller libraries would not be a disaster. The books would be shifted to other centres and people will still be able to use the facilities because there are other libraries. There is no alternative to the Livesey.

Or, cut the fitness the initiative’s funding. Okay, so obesity is media popular at present, but Tuesday’s lunchtime news included two items on anti-social behaviour amongst youths (the murder in Warrington of Gary Newlove and the decision of Corby council to ban so-called mosquito alarms that disperse groups of children by targeting their hearing spectrum) both of which emphasised a lack of alternative activities and the BBC website today leads with a story announcing government targets to get children involved in culture more.

I would suggest that the Livesey does all of these things.

Councillor Nick Stanton, the council’s leader and a man with a young family, said that the Livesey was not designed to be a drop-off centre for kids, it was not designed to keep children off the streets. Maybe not, but that’s what it does. He claimed that “in all likelihood” Southwark’s children would go on to use other cultural facilities elsewhere, such as the Tate, the Imperial War Museum or the National Maritime Museum.

But that’s the point. The middle-class parents who use the Livesey will shout and scream and wave placards and join Facebook protest groups and if it closes they will find alternative for their kids. But the locals, the people for whom it is really intended, won’t. In London there are a surprising number of people who don’t leave their communities. They have no need to. They can’t afford to go shopping on Oxford Street or down Convent Garden or for drinks and dinner in Soho and why would they want to when all their friends and family live in Peckham which has a busy shopping centre of its own? And they certainly won’t be buying four travel cards and traipsing across the city for an hour to the Natural History Museum where, when everyone’s tired and thirsty, they have to find fifteen quid to get some drinks and a snack.

The Livesey Museum for Children serves the Southwark community because of what and where it is. Close it down and there are no alternatives. It’s this or nothing for the vast majority of people who use it.

You might want to look at the following websites:
www.facebook.com/group.php?grid=8314768438 www.bridgetmckenzie.blogspot.com/2008/02/save-livesey-museum-for-children.html

Tuesday, 12 February 2008


Nearly six months into this exercise and for the first time I’m struggling to find something to write about. I’m rummaging through the corridors of my memory for some amusing anecdote to tell you, but nothing leaps out from behind any of the closed doors.

There’s a very simple reason for this: I have done nothing all week except sit on the God-damned toilet.

Unfortunately, both Beck and I have been laid low by arguably the worst stomach bug to strike western Europe in a generation. For someone who’s only taken three days off sick in the past seven years to be confined to my bed or the sofa for the past ninety-six hours has been intolerably boring. The only excitement was the continual rumbling in my guts and the very real need to not be further than a fifteen second dash from the toilet at any given time.

Staying in shouldn’t really have been too much of a hardship given that I’ve become particularly adept at it over the past few months, but what’s made it so frustrating is that I seem to have lost my ability to write. Or to write properly, anyway. I can string together a vague narrative sentence, but there’s no metaphorical layer of any worth. There’s no extra dimension, as though everything I have to say went dribbling down the pan with that piece of dry toast I tried to eat for lunch.

So, I’ve just been reading, shitting and getting annoyed.

Beck, perhaps, has a more philosophical outlook on illness. She always sees being poorly as an opportunity to bank sleep. She must have spent a good fourteen hours a day under the duvet, nearly twenty of Friday, just emerging every so often, her eyes half open, heading at a semi-trot for the bathroom.

With my brain barely functioning I resorted to a disturbing amount of flickering images on the magic box. So, Thursday night, as I wondered if I’d ever be able to leave the house again, I noticed that the much hyped Ashes To Ashes was on.

Now, I don’t watch much TV, but I did enjoy the episodes of Life On Mars that I saw, so I thought I’d give the sequel a go. It was rubbish - although, I am prepared to concede that I may have missed crucial parts by having to unexpectedly leave the room. I don’t want to go into the specifics of the writing or the acting as my critical facilities have probably deserted me too, but I think the main reason for my distaste is the whole Eighties-Factor.

I liked Life On Mars, partly because it reminded me of the Sweeney - that violent-adult-seventies cop show that I watched repeats of as a kid in the mid-eighties. I liked the early seventies drabness it portrayed. Normal pubs, working blokes, family life, bad fashion that’s quite cool in a way, anyone pretentious likely to be a villain, drinking bitter, living in terraced houses rather than elaborate factory loft conversions. Great soundtrack. The eighties of Ashes to Ashes, on the basis of one single episode, seems to be arrogant glitz, champagne, really hideously bad fashion, Ultravox and Adam and the Ants for God’s sake. None of this creates the same pleasant whiff of nostalgia (which is presumably the point) for me.

The fact that Life On Mars did, however, is rather odd given that I was born in 1979 and therefore have absolutely no recollection of seventies Manchester.

This keeps happening. I seem to forget when I’m from.

I went to the corner shop for milk the other day and in front of me three nine (or so) year olds were trying to buy some sweets. Not just a Mars bar, but five quids worth of fizzy drinks, chocolate, crisps, gum, etc. The funniest part was that they kept asking the grouchy owner how much each thing was, clearly trying to get the maximum amount for their money. Between the three of them they still managed to add it up wrong and had to put a Lion Bar and a packet of Dorritos back. I told Beck about it when I got home and we launched into a tirade about kids today, eating habits and parenting. As though we have any experience ourselves, as though we were young in 1950s rural Yorkshire and only ever saw a piece of chocolate when we ran away to the big city. And then it made us sick.

Our on-running debate over cheap-chicken for all versus organic free-range chicken is another example. Is it more important that the chickens are happy or that families on low incomes can afford to be fed? The current twist in that particular discussion seems to be that actually chicken is a top end meat and should be priced accordingly. Low income families should be eating liver, pig trotters, sheep hearts and tripe, like people used to. Then we proceeded to try and work out whether one supermarket’s £1.99 whole chicken was comparably priced to enough tripe for a family of four in 1961. Again, as if we have any experience of eating this stuff! I quite like offal (well, liver and kidneys although I’ll give most things a whirl), but I wasn’t eating it every evening after Father came in from the pit/factory/fields.

My brain works in strange ways at times.

Anyway, the eighties. Still don’t like them. I think it’s a knee jerk reaction against all the media coverage in the past few years pushing it as the greatest decade ever. The music, the drugs, the money, the attitude, the sheer luxury of life experienced by a very small minority, (mainly living in London), at the expense of millions of unemployed around the country. Not that the seventies were any different. These self-congratulating pieces by anyone vaguely famous aged between twenty-nine and forty-five have been cropping up on a regular basis for a couple of years now. Oh, look, there’s another in this week’s Observer. Whoopee. Another article about how I made it as media luvee despite spending most of the decade of my tits to Wham!

I ended up in a sort of semi-argument with someone just before Christmas who claimed that all the best music came from the eighties. I, obviously, disagreed and he countered with “REM were an eighties band.”

Well, okay. Yes, technically, they were, but they didn’t achieve commercial success, in this country at any rate, until 1989’s Green, really, and besides they’re hardly atypical eighties music. Indeed, scanning my own records I’ve plenty of albums released in the eighties, but I don’t think they would appear on most themed club nights sets: The Pogues, The The, Tom Waits, NWA. Even the more obvious acts like Prince, U2 or the Smiths almost exist because the stand out against the dross.

I was thinking more of Duran fucking Duran, ABC, The Human League or worse. Will people please stop trying to redeem these bands and just let them slide away into the obscurity they truly deserve.

I guess the point is I won’t be watching any more of Ashes to Ashes even when I’m back on my feet. It left a nasty taste in the mouth, like too much hairspray, and there’s always the danger they’ll play Tiffany which might provoke me to put my foot through the TV.

Provided, of course, I can get out the bathroom fast enough.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Sophisticated Dinner Conversation

We’re sitting having dinner one night shortly after Beck came back. I forget what we were eating. Something pretty simple I suspect. Pasta, perhaps? I sat with my back to the various book shelves and CD towers that are crammed down the one wall of our living room. Beck sits, facing me, on the uneven little white-wooden chair we stole from her sister years ago.

“You’ve rearranged the books?” she asked almost fearful, her forked perched somewhere between the plate and her pretty mouth.

“Yeah, I cleared a few out. And a load of CDs.” I felt pleased with myself. She’d been moaning for a little while about how words and music seemed to be taking over the place, spilling out into independent piles of ideas. I’d been wondering how long it would take for her notice that I’d finally fulfilled an oft made promise and done something about it.

“Why?” This was not the reaction I had been expecting.

“I thought you’d like it.”

“I notice that some are still loose,” she nodded towards the heap of a dozen or so CDs in the corner. “You haven’t actually chucked anything, have you?”

“No, no, no. The CDs are in a box upstairs. I moved about a hundred or so. Ones I hadn’t listened to in the last twelve months, singles or things I’m actively embarrassed to own. When did I buy a Gabrielle album for God’s sake?” She pulled a slight face, “nothing of yours though. Except for that dodgy French crooner. He’s gone. The books I just rearranged. I’ve put the gardening book in the kitchen with the cook books.”

“That strangely makes perfect sense.”

“Some have gone in the empty cupboard upstairs. Things like that rubbish Nostradamus picture book or that atlas from the seventies.” I took a bite of my food. “I decided we didn’t need two copies of Robinson Crusoe, so I’ve kept the nice hardback out and the tatty paperback’s upstairs. Some of my books about language I’ve put in the office.”


“Office. There’s some others we can probably move. Do you really want Sister Wendy Beckett’s History of Painting on public display?”

“I occasionally use it for reference.”

“But a buck toothed nun is hardly giving you artistic credibility.” I chew thoughtfully for the moment, “oh and I chucked all your chick-lit up there.”

“You what?”

“You know. What’s her name? Jennifer thingy and the other one. Them.” I looked at her darkening face. “Only upstairs.”

“But why would you do that?”

“Because it’s rubbish.” She opened her mouth to speak, but I continued regardless, “Okay, not rubbish, but… trashy? They’re a bit of fun, but do we really want them on the shelves, out in the open?”

“You’ve got Raymond Chandler up there.”

“Chandler’s fantastic.”

“You’re such a book snob.”

We ate for a while in silence, both formulating the next stage of our arguments. Planning our next move, not wanting to descend into “am not”, “are so”.

“The things is,” I said after a few mouthfuls, winding myself up into full pontificator mode (never a winner with the girls), “your general tolerance for pap is lower than mine. Airport fiction. You’ll tape trite films like Sweet Home Alabama and then force me to waste a couple of hours of my life watching it with you.”

“That was, disappointingly, crap, I’ll agree.”

“I’d have never even considered watching it.”

“I don’t watch rubbish television, though.”

“Big Brother? Wife Swap?”


“Okay,” I brushed past her counter-argument, “perhaps not as much recently, but then you’ll be bitingly critical of pretty much any artist who’s done financially well by compromising their integrity. Jack Vettriano. You loathe the guy, but loads of people love him. If I’m a book snob then you are definitely an art snob.”

“Art’s different…” she begins.

“Sod off,” I intellectually interrupted. “That’s an even worse attitude to take. My thing‘s better than your thing.” I sit back and feel more than a little smug.

“Git,” she said, not unreasonably, because she’s right.

I can be more than just a literature snob, my arrogance can apply itself to all forms of culture. Films; I’ll watch a nineteen-thirties Hitchcock in rapture or some French film with subtitles I taped in the middle of the night on BBC2, but I haven’t been to an Odeon since 2005. Theatre; I’d happily go to all of Shakespeare’s histories when they arrive in London in April (could I afford it) or to some random socialist-bed-wetting east end performance in a basement, but don’t get me started on Cowboys Workin’ Down On The Docks the new play to the music of Bon Jovi.

But we all have our likes and dislikes and there is neither right nor wrong. At least I’m aware that mine place me over the snob-pompous arse line.

This isn’t to say I dislike genre stuff, be it books, film, TV, whatever. Detective novels, good romantic-full-blown-slush affairs, science fiction, action blockbusters, soap-operas, slice of northern life things, if it’s done well it’s great.

Good writing is good writing.

Four Weddings and a Funeral (to use an example from the argument that went on longer than I can manage to rewrite into this blog) is a great film, I’ve just probably seen it too many times to ever watch it again. Ian Rankin writes great detective stories, not as good as Chandler but probably as good as anyone else in twenty-first century Scotland. I enjoy his books. They do what they say on the sleeve. Would I rather be Rankin than any number of critically acclaimed yet poor selling novelists?

It’s a tough one, but possibly, yes.

(I’ve no stomach for reality TV. I only endure Beck’s Big Brother watching if there’s a possible hint of tits.)

I’m pretty tolerant towards music too. I felt a secret thrill at Ian and Claire’s wedding when S Club Seven’s Don’t Stop Moving came on. I left Beck’s Best of Robbie Williams out because, hell, Kids is a great pop song. Bubblegum can be great, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to start watching the X Factor or darting out for Steps reunion tickets.

And that contract out on all of Westlife still stands.

Art’s the same. Despite all my years of following Beck around various galleries across the world I still tend to have an instant reaction of “that’s hideous” or “that’s shite” or, simply, “wow“. Sometimes things grow on me, nut ninety percent of the time it’s an immediate reaction, It’s hard to explain and it can even depend on my mood.

I secretly quite like Vettriano. I think the sense of pathos or romantic nostalgia his work evokes is quite nice and it clearly appeals to an awful lot of people. But at the same time I can see Beck’s point. It’s a little lazy, it’s commercial, it’s derivative of generations of other people’s work. It doesn’t do anything new.

Still, it’s easy to be resentful of someone who’ll make more in an annual sale of posters than most artists will make in a lifetime. Deserved or not.

I think our attitudes come from our tolerance for the things we craft ourselves being significantly lower. Architect friends are dismissive of certain buildings and I’m quite tempted to say “well, it’s got walls and windows and stands up. What’s wrong with it?” But I can also see where they’re coming from.

Blandness is the biggest creative crime.

A classical musician friend of ours came round for dinner years ago. At the time I was in the dying stages of my infatuation with dance music and was playing the then new Faithless album all the time. She’d barely been in the house five minutes when she made some irritated comment about a lack of melody and talent. I was annoyed at the time, but in retrospect should I have been?

Is it just snobbishness or is it professionalism?

“Hold on a minute,” she called from the lounge. I paused my hands covered in soap from the washing up. “have you put everything into bloody alphabetical order again?”

I pretended not to hear her and dropped a sauce pan for effect.