Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Where's the line?

I suspect that the 6.30 comedy slot on Radio 4 is unknown territory for a lot of you, those who actually have more important things to do for instance, but on Tuesdays there’s a programme called Safety Catch about Simon McGrath a man who “likes to think of himself as a good person. He donates blood (although not bone marrow because he’s heard that hurts), he recycles and he's adopted two tigers. But he has to pay his mortgage just like everyone else and that's why he currently works as an arms dealer.”

So far, so situational-comedy.

In the car on Friday afternoon I found myself listening to the writer and the producer having to defend the content of the show essentially because Outraged of Tunbridge Wells (probably) has reached for the Basildon Bond notepaper and written in demanding that it be taken off the air. Not because it isn’t very good (although it isn’t great), but because people are offended at the idea of turning a gun-runner into a likable buffoon.

There’s probably plenty scope for a hard-hitting, biting satire about the arms industry, legal or otherwise, but this isn’t it. Nor did the writers intend it to be. And Radio 4, probably, wouldn’t be the place to broadcast it, either. Safety Catch is more like 2.4 Children or My Family. Replace the “hilarious” plot routines of the husband’s burning his child GCSE project because he wants to have sex with his wife with someone mislaying a cache of Kalashnikovs because they’ve forgotten their Mum’s birthday and you get towards the right kind of thing. It’s gentle, mildly amusing and a little surreal in places.

It’s not offensive.

Or rather, it is if you refuse comedy the opportunity to handle subjects such as gender, religion, sexuality, race, violence, politics, oppression, natural disasters, in fact anything other than someone being mistaken for a doctor when they are, in fact (ha-ha!), a builder.

(Which isn’t, obviously, to say that it’s funny to be bigoted or ill-informed, but that virtually every facet of human existence has some scope for humour. There is absolutely nothing funny about child-abuse, but Brass Eye proved that there was a satirical point worth making about people’s paranoid, mob-mentality to it.)

Rather than just being outraged at Outraged, I’d already been thinking about this sort of thing.

A few years ago there was an article in one of the weekend supplements about how the wide-spread availability of porn, primarily through the internet, is affecting men’s, mainly young men’s, attitude towards sex. The article interviewed couples where the women felt obliged to shave their vaginas, to gasp enthusiastically with every thrust, to have sex in public places, to have anal sex every time, to engage in three-or-more-somes, to have their boyfriend ejaculate into their face every single time. All of these (I guess) are fun, occasionally, as part of a varied, healthy sex life, but it was the expectation of the men that making love to their girlfriend would be like starring in a porn film every time that seemed very odd.

All of this is leading to a character who’s lurking around in the dark corners of my brain. A sexist, porn obsessed dirty old man. I want to write his story as a first person narrator, because I think it’ll make him nastier. He wouldn’t be a sympathetic character, but someone deeply unpleasant. I want the reader to finish thinking “what a shit.” However, because it’s the central character and because it’d be first person narrator quite a lot of people would dislike the story because he’s so horrible. They might even think that his opinions were mine. I can think of at least one person I know who would definitely be deeply offended by it.

Outraged of Tunbridge Wells would be, well, outraged.

Okay, so all of this is purely hypothetical because I haven’t even written it yet much less placed it in the public domain, but it’s a reaction I’m worried about, one that’s stopping me writing the story.

If it’s done well enough should we be allowed to say anything? If my character says “all women are sluttish inferior beings to men” but is clearly a horrible imbecile whom bad things happen to, is that okay? Or by trying to discuss sexist perverts, without overtly saying “and he was an evil man” in an ominous voice-over style, am I in some way encouraging such people?

Where’s the line?

I listened to Safety Catch again. I fail to see how it could possible be offensive, unless you’re a nice-but-dim arms dealer who feels he’s being stereotyped, which means that Outraged of Tunbridge Wells just didn’t like it.

And that’s not a good enough reason to ask for it to be withdrawn.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

T-Shirts, Pee and Tennis

A quick blog this week. Alas, time and eyesight is short.

Time is limited because I’ve left writing this until Tuesday and I’ve spent most of the morning delivering a large box load of DVDs to a primary school in Essex (don’t ask) and my eyesight is failing because I think I might have burnt out my retinas.

Before I went to Essex, before the parcel force man tried to deliver the large box of DVDs to next door, before I played avoid the policeman as I attempted to pass my car off as a double-decker bus whilst dropping Beck off at Lewisham station I did some proper work.

When we rejigged the upstairs, switching the bedroom and the office-studio around, we realised that (of course) the old office-studio, now the bedroom, didn’t have any curtains. Fortunately the window was the same size as one of the two windows in the old BEDroom, the new office-studio, so we just took the blind down and moved it across.

“I’ll make some nice curtains for the bedroom,” Beck said as I attempted to shoulder-barge the bed through the, frankly, too small doorway.

Now, the window we removed the blind from is the window my desk is positioned in front of. What I hadn’t realised, mainly because of the perpetual greyness of the past six weeks, and partly because, well I’m a berk, is that the sun rises around the front of the house.

Pretty much directly opposite the window I’m now facing.

So, as the temperature soars and the sunlight strength increases in some appropriate metaphorical fashion that I’m too short of time to actually think of, I sit staring straight at the big, burning ball of flame that keeps us all alive.

Now, because I’m stubborn, or possibly just stupid, I didn’t moved. I didn’t go downstairs to work at the table. No, I stuck it out. We made the BEDroom the office-studio so as we could have permanent workspace and not spill pasta sauce on final proofs of work and, by God, I’m was going to use it.

Of course I’ve spent the afternoon feeling slightly nauseous and with a throbbing headache that feels like someone’s picking at the nerve-ends of my eyeballs with a toothpick.

It probably would have been easier to go downstairs.

Anyway, below are three moments from the past week that I intended to weave into some sort of narrative, but as looking at the computer screen hurts this is all you’re going to get:

1) Walking through the streets of Brockley the other day I saw, coming out of the post-office, a youngish Mum leading a junior-school age boy by the hand.

“Ah, shit!” the boy said for no apparent reason.

“No!” Mum shouted, scuffing him not-too-hard around the back of the head. “You do not use language like that! It’s wrong! God will punish you for swearing!”

She turned in my direction, dragging the boy roughly by the arm. Across the front of her shirt a message read: “See You Next Tuesday.”

2) I was distracted at the Flaming Lips gig in Victoria Park on Sunday night by what at first I thought was a hose pipe, but quickly realised was in fact the bloke next to me pissing into a cup.

Impressively, in his right hand he held a full beer, whilst in his left he held the rapidly filling cup of piss. Presumably his nob was just hanging into the cup, but I didn’t investigate further.

3) A couple of weeks ago, back when there was tennis on the TV in the afternoons, I chatted to one of the regulars in the pub. I was surprised when he ordered a diet coke. Over the course of a rather confused conversation he told me about the best places in Catford to get a drink at seven in the morning, “in case you ever want one on the way to work.”

Unsurprisingly he’d been told to cut down his drinking by the doctors, hence the diet coke.

On Saturday he came into the pub and ordered a pint of Stella. That’s okay, I thought. He’d told me he was allowed the odd drink, at the weekend and so on. Only when I got back to him did I realise that he’s so shit-balled he couldn’t focus on his change and was desperately clinging to the bar to stay upright.

Cutting back. Easier said than done.

What is the point of these? Nothing, really. Just little moments when I feel completely alien to the world. Flashes in my brain that can’t quite believe what people do to themselves or others; seconds where I question the sanity of everyone else in the world.

And then I spend two hours trying to make myself blind just to prove a point.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Sometimes I wish I could live inside my head.

Inside my head tempers are never lost, words are chosen correctly and even if they’re not, it doesn’t matter because we can always erase and repeat until they are perfect and no-one ever knows the difference.

Inside my head we only have to do the fun things, the things we really want to do and everything works out fine. Even it doesn’t, we can always try again unaware of the original failure. Life makes us laugh each any every day. Inside my head we never have one drink too many, we never miss a train, never have to wait hours for a bus. We never find that the lettuce has gone mouldy from the inside when we come to make a salad, the freezer door never fails to shut properly, mice never leave little trails of evidence across the kitchen counter.

Inside my head shower curtains don’t spontaneously dissolve and even if they did replacing one wouldn’t take two and a half hours, visits to six shops nor involve two traffic jams leaving us with that irreversible feeling of life slipping away, unaccounted for.

Inside my head the sun always shines except for the times that we walk arm in arm, tucked underneath an umbrella big enough for two, passing by the shimmering city lights as they reflect in puddles.

Inside my head an hour is always a little longer that we expected.

Inside my head baby plants don’t get eaten by snails, dinner doesn’t get spilt down shirts and shoe laces don’t snap when we should have already been there. Computers operate smoothly and are self-explanatory. That important piece of paper is always exactly where we left it, in the safe place that we always remember.

Inside my head I’ve never punched a wall or kicked a bed.

Inside my head no-one forgets how they really feel, nothing gets submerged by the daily grind. We never hurt those who mean the most to them and consequently there is never a gut twisting moment when a fight looses its energy and you want to throw up, then curl inside yourself and somehow become something else. Something better.

But inside my head there isn’t the tender touch of tentative fingers to my shoulder blade when I’m doing the washing up. There isn’t the squeeze that holds my breath for me. There isn’t the emotional physicality of being. Inside my head the warmth of someone else on my neck never feels quite right.

Inside my head, ultimately, there is just me.

I forget that sometimes.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Are You Ready For The Rain?

Outdoor festivals are oddly popular in the UK, aren’t they?

I mean, they’re not when you take into account that we’re a affluent nation that spends god-knows how much on music each year, but then you have to think about the weather and it becomes more puzzling.

There seems to be more and more festivals each year. From the old favourites of Glastonbury, T in the Park, Reading & Leeds, the resurrected Isle of Wight and Guilfest to more recent additions such as Lovebox, 02 Wireless, The Big Chill, Hydro Connect, Cornbury, Latitude. Given that they’re not exactly cheap, though, I’ve been looking for the perfect line-up.

Which is why we went to the Hop Farm Festival. The main attraction was, obviously, Neil Young (and I’ll write that again: Neil Young!) but with Primal Scream, Supergrass, My Morning Jacket and Rufus Wainwright also on the bill (plus others, of whom Laura Marling in particular was excellent) we couldn’t not go.

And then we come back to the weather.

I’d been monitoring the BBC all week and it was looking shaky at best, veering between light showers and, I believe the technical term is, pissing it down.

It always amazes me how thirty-thousand people standing dripping in a field can remain pretty optimistic if the music’s good enough. Bear in mind most were probably hoping to spend the afternoon sitting around drinking, smoking and eating, half-listening to bands they’d never heard of, waiting for the main acts and you can understand the rippling disappointment at having to hunker down under cagoules or bin-liners.

When we went to see the Red Hot Chilli Peppers in Hyde Park a few years ago it chucked it down and the irate crowd decided to boo and throw bottles at the opening act, Chicks On Speed, until they went away and left us to our damp misery.

Of course, they were crap, but the bands this weekend were significantly better.

And this is the power of music. Sometimes it just completely floods your nervous system with emotions.

By the time Rufus Wainwright came on it’d been raining increasingly heavily for over three hours. He was playing an acoustic set, which for Rufus means a grand piano and an acoustic guitar, and he rattled through several songs in that gloriously voice of his that sucks your heart into your mouth. I recognised the set closer from the first couple of striking piano cords. There’s no mistaking Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah for anything else, that hymn of lament and joy wrapped up in a melody that makes your soul shiver and then, before he’d even reached the end of the first chorus, the clouds parted and streams of melodious sunshine poured down over the crowd, tingling at the nape of my neck. Hallelujah, indeed. It just couldn’t have been any other way.

(I googled ‘Rufus Wainwright Hallelujah’ to see if anyone had posted it online, on youtube or something and found out that he covered it for a Shrek soundtrack which kind of spoils the image I had of him choosing it as the only song that could possibly beat the weather. Oh well…)


And that’s all I intended to write for this week’s blog, but things never quite go to plan. For every moment of beauty there’s got to be something that makes you go ‘urgh!’ The above all happened and I’d composed bits of it in my head whilst Beck nipped for a wee in-between Supergrass and Primal Scream, but the moment kind of got spoiled.

Not by the weather. That more or less held. Not by Neil Young. He was suitably fantastic.

But, the disadvantage of arriving at these things early, getting a good spot and making sure you see all the acts is that the first cars in are usually the last out. The lights went up at eleven o’clock and I didn’t move the car as much as a centimetre until twenty to two.

People handle long waits in different ways. Beck slept. I tried to work out the life history of a secondary character in my novel. The mid-forties couple in the car parked next to us played Hallelujah, the original Cohen version, at maximum volume and snogged. Tongues out in the air, over noses, along cheeks and everything. Then, after a while they lowered the seats and he lay down on top of her.

At this point I decided to discreetly turn around and look at the rows of stationary brake lights shimmering through the returned rain. However, I couldn’t help but be aware of the gentle tilting to and fro of the car.

Someday I’ll tell you about the time I parked next to a guy getting a blowjob in the back of his car slap in the centre of Greenwich.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

There Is No Such Thing As An Unhautned House.

I wrote those words down last night. I must have done, for there they are, scrawled in my semi-legible handwriting across the top of a chapter draft I’m reworking. I’ll often do that. Lines or titles or just an interesting combination of words will occur to me at the oddest times and I scribble them down on the nearest scrap to hand. I’m supposed to keep an ‘ideas pad’, but I can never find it when I need it.

Things is, I don’t actually remember why I wrote this. I don’t know what it refers to. Is it a plot, some dialogue, a theme that, last night anyway, I wanted to explore ?

The mystery of it makes it even more apt, but it’s also surprisingly true and for want of anything else to do with it I’m turning it into this week’s blog.

Everywhere I’ve ever lived the ghosts of those before have tickled my toes in the middle of the night.

(See, you can get copy out of anything…)

When I was five years old (or thereabouts) we moved house. Fair enough. Millions of families do it, but perhaps with not quite the same Byzantine connections. My grandparents moved into the house we’d vacated. My parents knew, in some fashion, the people whom they brought the new house off. It transpired that my grandparents had briefly lived in the same house for a while in-between the births of my Uncle and Mum.

For years I was utterly convinced that you swapped houses with someone you knew and couldn’t fathom how my folks had lived in High Wycombe for a while. Who had they known down there to swap their house with?

When Beck and I first moved in together it wasn’t the spectre of Victorian Londoners that lingered but rather the immediately preceding occupants. Especially in the kitchen.

“Hey,” Beck said unpacking pots, “ they’ve left some wine glasses. Well, that saves having to buy them. Oo, look at that hanging on the wall.”

A couple of weeks later there was a knock at the door.

“Evening,” the former tenant said with an awkward smile. “You know how I explained that I was half-way through a passport application? Has any of the paperwork turned up?”

“Oh sure,” I replied gesturing for him to follow me inside.

“Great. Did I… Um… Did I by any chance leave a wok behind?”

“A wok?”

“Quite a good one, actually. I’d really like it back.”

“Can I finish cooking the dinner in it first?”

“Oh. No, no, no. It’s fine. Keep it.”

“No. Really. I can transfer it to another pan. Won’t take a second to wash it up.”

“Honesty. I can always get another,” he was backing out the door as he waved his hands.

How very English of us. Anyway, we kept it, but then deliberately left it behind when we moved out. It seemed to belong more to the flat than to us.

(Beck had already broken all the wine glasses, though.)

The second place we lived threatened to be haunted by very old, tatty, horrible furniture. I’d negotiated with the agent so that we’d rent it unfurnished.

“It won’t be a problem. I doubt that sofa or the mattresses would pass the fire regs nowadays. I’ll get the landlord to shift it.”

Of course when we moved in a lot of it was still there.

“Is nice furniture,” said the landlord in broken English who, for reasons that now escape me, I nicknamed Slobodan Milosevic and could, embarrassingly, never remember his real name.

“We have our own furniture. Look, the contract says unfurnished.”

“Even this lovely old thing,” he said stroking a sixties formica cabinet with what looked like a blood stain down the side. “Is very, very nice. Okay, okay. I come back Saturday and get rid. Good?”

By “get rid” I’d presumed he meant take to the dump. I didn’t for a second expect him to burn the whole bloody lot in one of the biggest bonfires I’ve ever seen. The air was thick with plastic toxins that sunny April afternoon and, as the garden was only four feet wide, the whole street threatened to catch afire. I sat, nervously, at the top of the stairs to the back door with a futile bucket of water to hand.

This place, where I sit now, is haunted by the world’s most stoned DIY enthusiast. From the doors to the cupboard under the stairs with the hinges fitted backwards so each door only opens a couple of centimetres to the hexagonal Star-Trek-holo-deck-esque door frame to the lounge, it’s just too weird at times. There’s an alarm clock built into the roof truss and a severely over-enthusiastic brick fireplace, but my favourite is the intercom (that no longer works) to the front door fitted next to where the head of the bed would go, in-between the fitted wardrobes, if we used the bedroom as a bedroom rather than an office-studio.

I like to picture him in a white suit with a pink shirt open to the navel, hairs wisping out past the buttons, a gold medallion cool against his nipple.

“Well come right on up, baby.”

All of this pales next to the idea of a friend of mine spending the summer guarding a disused convent against squatters in the middle of the South Downs. Now, that’s going to give off spooky vibes at three in the morning.