Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The God Reflex - Spirit

And in the end, well everything will just end. The beauty of creation, the void filling light will be snuffed out by a war which wrenches the world asunder. The many headed beasts will rise out of steaming hot oceans, the lamb’s blood will be spilt for no reason and the four cantering horsemen scattering pestilence, famine, brutality and the final, final death for all humanity will appear on the blood red horizon at the end of the anti-Christ’s reign. The good work, everything we’ve ached for will collapse into an abyss where the very fabric of reality cracks open and, maybe, the good will be reborn, to try again. To try better, to fail better.

‘I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the world,’ is a bit of dramatic flag waving to for tension’s sake from Flash Gordon, but, somehow, the impending end always feels plausible. Indeed the apocalypse fills fictions to overflow, words and images slip over the top of the page, the screen, and into a sticky puddle in our lap. As Stan Lee would have said, ‘this one’s got it all true believer’: The eternal battle for all humanity! Goodness versus the devil! Satan and the endless hordes of the flies rampaging up a local high street accosting boy scouts and traffic wardens alike. It’s particularly prevalent in science fiction and fantasy. For genres which seem intent on distancing themselves from the routine rules of the world they’re also the keenest for God and his adversary to crop up in some badly disguised form or other. All those stories I absorbed as a child of heroes and villains, and the fight over evil - nothing sums them up like the end of existence hanging in the balance, from the first Star Trek to Galactus looming, hungrily over the ozone layer. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is essentially revelations boiled down into an allegory about small boys trapped on an island. The underlying unnervingness of this is what makes it work for some many, for so long. Even CS Lewis in his Narnia books, despite the overt Christian tub-thumping, understood that the apocalypse is the end we fear the most because we don’t truly believe in it.

Perhaps this was partly why I studied history, by which I don’t mean the social details of a fifteenth century French Nun’s daily habits, but the grand, sweeping narrative arcs. Whilst all those nuanced details of mundane existence flesh out the past and give it life again, it was the politics, the wars, the murders and the power which really fascinated me, all those years ago. At the centre of it all, at least for medieval Europe, was the Catholic Church and its all threatening dogma: ‘be good, else come the last battle you’ll finish in the fiery pits for eternity’s duration.’ Hell was only ever a heartbeat away.

Numerous princes and irritants, dissidents and doubters were labelled the anti-Christ whose coming heralded the beginning of a thousand year reign by Beelzebub over the Earth. It’s only after the Devil’s millennia that things will really go tits up. My favourite candidate for the anti-Christ is Frederick Barbarossa, an early thirteenth century Holy Roman Emperor who dared to challenge the might of Rome in a fit of todger waggling and for ever more, according to legend, sleeps in a cave somewhere in Sicily, his broken body healing, his defiant soul surviving, awaiting the time become the harbinger of the end once again.

‘Look after yourself,’ my Mother said, some time ago as I was leaving to return to the big smoke. ‘You’re not indestructible.’

‘Yes, I am,’ I replied clambering into my car. ‘Well,’ I grinned cockily, ‘I bounce at any rate.’

But things catch up with you and sometimes you don’t quite bounce high enough. Sometimes you just pitter out.

Last week I had something of a meltdown. I’d been working hard, pushing myself both at work and with my writing, but predominately at work. Twelve hour days have been frustratingly familiar and then I write in the evenings and I neglect my life and still I don’t seem to get any closer. The point is always inching further away and so I am sacrificing things and what for? For nothing. For nothing but something half-forgotten, an argument to which no-one else is listening anymore.

I was, at my desk in central London, four and a half hours sleep for the second night running and getting eight-six emails in less than an hour, both my desk phone and my mobile ringing and a stinging, streaking white hot pain starts to pulse along my arm. I persevere, but a problem arises and I can’t think how to rectify it.
It’s a problem of my own making, something that’s happened because I didn’t have time to do it properly because I’ve got too much work to do and, for a moment, I just don’t know what to do. It feels as though my head is going to burst; literally it feels as though the skin at my temples is going to split and a throb that reverberates around my rib cage seems to contract.

I’d been to the doctors a couple of days before, not because I am ill, but because my girlfriend, rightly, thinks it’s probably not a bad idea to be registered with a GP. So I got an early registration appointment with the nurse a little after seven and as I waited, I worried about what I should be doing at work. During my check up I seemed fine until she took my blood pressure which was high. She took it again and tutted. She told me to unstress msyself and come back in three months.

‘Am I having a heart attack,’ I momentarily wonder as though that’s going to add to my problems and then I manage to calm down and realise that it’s a mild panic coupled with some fucking painful repetitive strain injury.

Bounce, bounce, bou-.

At home, that evening, I feel weighed down, as though my heart is pumping iron fillings through my blood stream. My girlfriend is endearingly sympathetic, yet I worry that such self-induced collapse can only be tolerated for a short while before it simply becomes a character failing. A spirit that refuses to relent only goes so far before it becomes frustratingly stubborn.

A bit like David Cameron being suicidally stubborn over Europe. Still, at least Nick Cleggs found some spirit again and spoken up. Admittedly it some old spirit, dried and crusty on a used tissue, but at least he’s speaking up again, trying to be heard over the distressed nation. Maybe he’s the one the anti-capitalist protestors should be looking to? Probably not, but they do need someone. Or perhaps just themselves.

The holy spirit, the holy ghost, is the third and final part of triune which makes up the Christian God almighty. Without the spirit there is no god, just mysterious paintings of an old man amongst clouds and legends of a bastard crucified. And yet this part is the hardest to define, the trickiest to understand. It is both the element which brought life into Mary’s womb and an ethereal notion of truth. It has both practical function and also is abstract to the point of incomprehension. It is but the word and the word is God and the words are what bring about our God reflex.
It’s always the words which haunt, which linger, which inspire, which hate, which love, which fight. Peel back the layers of everything and without language, there is nothing.

What is spirit? We talk about people having a lot of spirit, so it is the woman I saw sprawled on a zebra crossing at seven-thirty Tuesday evening, her skirt risen up the rim of her waist length fake fur jacket, big-arsed tiger print knickers gleefully displayed, quietly singing muddled songs from the Sound of Music to herself? No, that’s just drunkenness. High spirits is nothing but an excuse. Real spirit is something else.

Perhaps it’s the stoic, acceptance of life during wartime that many of our grandfathers would have had. They went off to fight and some came back, but many didn’t. Many may have been shocked into horror and lost, but many just got on with life. As though it was something you had to do. Me? I just go to work and I can’t really handle that. I guess it’s something that’s been lost over the generations, slowing being ebbed away at as life becomes more comfortable and your fucking iphone having insufficient signal to stream video is an infringement on your basic human rights.

Evelyn Waugh wrote a lot about spirit, I think, both holy and otherwise. He wrote some deft, slightly bitter comic turns too, but Brideshead Revisited – which I’ve been thinking about a lot recently – is about man’s spirit and its fruitless defiance in the face of the holy spirit. Waugh was a convert as a man and he wanted to expose clever, cynically, envious, glutinous Charles Ryder to the innocence and loving malevolence of faith.

I’d forgotten what a wonderful novel it was, words to bring meaning to life more than abstract aspirations to saintliness, but the real world cast on paper. It had been years since I read it, but Brideshead just seemed to swell up from the deepest recesses of my brain and as some point over the summer my own work swerved away from being a relatively straightforward noir-esque murder mystery and something which wrapped in all those eternal themes that Waugh encircled in a single family. I’m not writing about Christianity, but I think I am writing about ideals and about heroes. Not fictional ones, not anymore, but about those people whom we let control our lives, who dominate us, and for whom our flesh is weak even if our spirit is strong.

I think I’ve been trying to expose the shallow adoration for others that we all instinctively have. Rather than be reliant on someone else, someone wonderfully marvellous who will be just as fallible when the mask slips, perhaps we just have faith in ourselves. I think we expect too much, we believe in the impossibility of others and so when we can’t reach their fake standards we are disappointed. Remember everyone is a fiction to some degree.

I don’t know what Samuel Beckett though of God, other than his comment about his most famous play: ‘I wrote Godot. If I’d meant God, I would have written God.’ One suspects that maybe he wouldn’t. Regardless of his religious views, he has another point to make: I found an old postcard the other day showing a man discovering that the heavy sack of grain over his shoulder has been leaking. ‘No matter,’ it says at the bottom, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The God Reflex 2 - The Son

Afterwards the light reached itself to every corner of the new found existence, stretching and yawning its way across the once invisible universe bringing the first vestiges of life with it. There was stillness, aside from the change from black to the unnamed not-black, and there was silence. Everything was still empty, but the emptiness has potential. A potential which, eventually, was filled with the movement and noises of shuffling, snorting creatures, the penultimate of which stumbled on two legs and was named Adam, forged in his creator’s image. The first son, the forgotten son, the less favoured child than his younger brother.

The God Reflex, if it even exists at all, means that in those moments of despair and panic, much how Adam would have felt awakening in the garden, we cease to be rational beings. Suddenly we, if only briefly, are prepared to believe in that which we’d previously dismissed. For an instant we have faith in the stories we learnt as a child. We believe in more than just the moral principles of religion, but in the mythos and magic that lie at its heart. Those stories that have been told and retold, shaped by events and agendas. And us. And then, like the moment before existence, like the silence before the Large Hadron Collider actually works, when all life pauses, ends and restarts, we return to our previous state. Just twenty-first century cynics again.

It’s not so unreasonable to believe in stories that are clearly impossible, is it? I used, once. When I was a child I believed in everything I read. In the past, before we came to the cusp of the future.

My belief, my faith, in the future changes almost day to day. Sometimes it’s easiest to just think that everything will work itself out. More frequently, the coming hardships, and therefore the need for some sort of life plan, seem unavoidable. New studies show that most people think they will be worse off than their parents; the unrelenting growth pattern where the next generation always enjoys more frivolous fun and a healthier lifestyle, appears to be ending. Strangling personal debt and unemployment beckons for the young; a housing market that climbs further away; longer working lives; worse pension benefits; soaring costs of basic commodities like fruit and vegetables, gas and electricity monopolised to maximise profits before the resources dry out; a swallowing, gaping refusal to accept that the planet is dying and every word I type, every song I listen to, every book I read all contributes to the capitalist, consumerism, selfish self-destruction of all life.

In such circumstances who would want the future, who would bring more living beings into the world?

And yet I can see the joy in the faces of my friends and family who have children, who have future. The pride and devotion they feel towards one whom came from them, but perhaps for the unconvinced, it is better to remain without? After all, provision for myself is likely to be difficult, why should I knowingly cause a dependant to suffer? To place the burden for my old age onto another who never asked for anything, who never existed until I chose to release myself into the gene pool?

My girlfriend and I went to see We Need to Talk About Kevin the other Sunday night. It’s a rare incident for me to see a movie without reading the book first - although, to be honest, I’ve no real inclination to read it. My girlfriend refers to this animosity towards best-sellers and popularism in general, as cultural snobbishness. Well, okay, so it sort of is, but I also feel that, since those books will be around to read in the future, and others might not be some sort of prioritisation is in order. Besides, somewhere along the line Lionel Shriver just started to irritate me. There was something strangely aggressive about her approach to marketing which I found disturbing.

Anyway, it was hardly relaxing end of the weekend viewing. Whilst it was indeed prettily directed and neatly acted I found the sense of foreboding doom difficult to ignore. It was like a relentless voice from above signposting the devil in all our spawn, a thundering arrow jutting down into the middle of the narrative declaring that was possible would be inevitable. It’s just what happened to people, okay?
The movie did, once we’d pulled apart the plot and style, force us into a vague conversation about children and the complexities of being a parent. My standpoint has always been unashamedly ambiguous sprinkled with cruel jokes about keeping infants in plastic boxes in the cellar, but this has only ever been a distraction technique. All the gags and socially unacceptable statements can’t hide my internal unease, my lack of a plan.

Maybe I’d have more decisive clarity if I had a life plan. Maybe, maybe not, but the world keeps getting in my way. Events, dear boy, events, conspire against me and I’m not single-minded enough to plough on regardless. Those that do have that drive also seem to have this faith that the world will always, stutteringly but ultimately actually, improve. That’s something which seems to be as flawed, or at least as unproven, as a faith in divinity. Huh, I make myself sound like life has been one long hardship, but then I look up from my keyboard as glance around my world. In the main it looks pretty damn good. Different from how I once expected, but very fine indeed.

Is there any point in having a plan when the pace of change over the past hundred years has left a world utterly unrecognisable from the one our great-grandparents were born into and who’s to say it’s going to slow down. Society and the ways in which we interact with reality have shifted into something inconceivable at the end of the First World War. But, whilst change still advances at a pace I find almost impossible to keep up with, the expected end point has shifted from a utopia to a dystopia in the same period of time which I spent at infant school. The lucky few, the so-called one percent, will continue their personal advancement whilst everyone else finds themselves relocated to down amongst the Morlocks in the sewers.

Perhaps this in itself helps to explain the God Reflex? That when the world’s demise appears inevitable in one form or another then at least there is another life to be embraced, an afterlife of perfection and enchantment, once you’ve negotiated the oft forgotten notion of purgatory. Everyone, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, passes through that temporal punishment, where the good and evil are purged from one another, torment tests the worthy for the advancement up the divine ascent to heaven whilst the others spiral down to the fiery pits. But for all of us there is the opportunity of perfection, something better than an ever degrading human existence, to be snatched.

Whatever his personal opinions on the church, Dante lived in fourteenth century Italy and so the concept of a better world in the next was pressingly desirable. Life would have been moderately short and filled with far more difficulties than running out of coffee or a jam on the motorway so what came next important. In the same way, a son was crucial to continue the lineage. They came next too, only on the Earthly plain. Legacy and the next life; the lines become blurred as the two interlock like reincarnation.

Perhaps that explains my reticence. I worry that I expect a son to be better than me. Not exactly a hard feat, but still an unnecessary burden. Is that what Jesus, Adam’s sort of younger brother, was supposed to be? Better than humanity’s creator, its saviour?

Whilst I am in no way trying to compare myself to anyone else’s deity or the so-called son of God (although I’m sure there are those out there who would expect me to do just that), I worry that I have been something of a disappointment, or at least a mystery, as a son. I lack a career; I lack offspring of my own; I am far away and unable to engage with family responsibilities fully; I feel as though I am yet to do anything of worth to justify this self-indulgence.

No, that is not fair. I know my family, my Father, love me and are proud of my meagre achievements. They don’t begrudge me my independence and nor do they expect me to feel guilty for it. Kevin is guiltless, that’s what seems so alien about the character. He’s so utterly free from remorse whilst his mother drowns in a sense of self-indulgent shame, a personal affront which implies immaturity below her years and experience.

I wandered through the protest camp outside St Paul’s the other evening, on the way home via London Bridge station after a few beers with Ben. It was eerily quiet and yet defiantly full of people sheltering inside their tents, deep breaths echoing out into the open night sky. The plastic pseudo canvas flickered in the reflected up lighting illuminating the domed tower high above them. As I walked, I remembered an anecdote I’d read recently. The main complaint about their protest against capitalism is that they don’t know what they want instead. If you go to a restaurant and your steak is disgusting you don’t have to eat it. You also don’t have know how to grill an amazing steak to know you want something different to what you had before, something better.

You don’t have to know exactly what you want in life, but it doesn’t hurt to always want something better and sometimes helps to acknowledge that you can be more than one thing. It is possible to be both the son and the father without losing traits of either.

Which makes me wonder whether you can also be the final component of the trinity?

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The God Reflex - The Father

There are moments of intense darkness in life, as though there is nothing else in the universe except the black. As though it hasn’t yet come to life. Endless. Unrelenting. Pitch, thick, black. And then, with a sound like a breath, there can be a chink, a glimmer of golden light which etches its way through.

Does this sound familiar?

I suspect that there comes a moment in most people’s lives, a point when they have pitched to their lowest, that they consider seeking salvation from something intangible. I’ve done it. Only briefly, but at those scarce times when all the other options were exhausted and there seemed to be nothing else to lose, no further down that I could possibly sink. Those moments when I found myself alone in the night with an incoherent mind and an ache of remorse ricocheting from my gut, through my chest and heart, resting heavily in my lungs before building pressure up through my throat causing swelling behind my eyes and finally forming a throb on my brain that contracts all the muscles in my body in shame; in wishing that I could say or do it all again just to make the weariness go away. Yes, I confess In those moments, I have rolled my eyes upwards and turned my thoughts, not entirely metaphorically, heavenwards.

‘Please God,’ I may have whispered and then, selfishly, asked for some favourable miracle. Or, at least, for it to all just to stop. Afterwards, I felt ashamed at my temptation; at my automatic God reflex.

And of course my plea never works which, when life inevitably sorts itself out, simply adds to my rationale for the emptiness of the universe, for the non-existence of any deity. That there is no divine judgement or purpose. Instead it’s all just the tidal ebbs and flows of petty coincidence. But, even if there were an all-mighty keeping an eye on us, I should realise that what I’ve asked, or begged, for simply isn’t how it works. Like all nice girls, God rarely puts out on the first date. There’s a getting to know each other phase, a confirmation that the other isn’t a psycho, a sense of some sort of commitment first.

A God reflex; when non-believers call on a higher power to sort out the impossible. Starting to sound familiar?

I know, work with and am friends with Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, followers of Shinto and all manner of religions, even the sort where people have half-defined it themselves. Alan Moore, not alas a personal friend but he seems to keep cropping up, belongs to the religion of Glycon, a ancient snake-god with a elegant seventies male flowing locks whom most researchers, including Moore, acknowledge was nothing more than a Roman joke . Moore’s “belief” is partially an intellectual experiment, similar to the man whom I’ve read about and can’t find the name of who decided to whole-heartedly follow a different religion for a brief period in order to find the one he liked, and partly mid-life crisis where he’s decided to become a magician. Magic, Moore says, and religion are intrinsically linked. They are both, after all, about words. Words which reveal something hitherto known but not fully understood. And the wholehearted, often unquestioning, belief in the tapestry stitched by those words as Truth.

Which is why there’s something unsettlingly sinister about Michael Gove – the Tory minister who looks as though he’d be most at home in an oversized black uniform overseeing a camp – sending copies of the anniversary edition of the King James bible, complete with Gove’s own introduction, to schools. The King James bible is an example of how crucially interlinked language and religion are. It not only cemented the understanding of Protestantism is early Stuart Britain but was almost singlehandedly responsible for the spread, growth and embedding of English as first a national and then an international language. Without it we’d still be swearing in French.

I can see where Moore’s coming from, but for me whilst belief can be influenced by words I think it is also grounded in something more abstract. It really requires a more underlying inclination to need, to want and to give yourself back to from whence you came. Without it you’re just the grumpy Brummie tuting in the back row of the magic show that the trick seems impossible.

Perhaps, though, it is this apparent relationship with words which makes the overtly religious writer writing religious characters something of a rarity. To an extent they can understand too well how the carefully phrased sentence can be used to convince. Graham Greene, originally nothing but a Russian Roulette enthusiast, suddenly became devoutly Catholic in his twenties. Quite a turn of character for such a womaniser, but then Greene always was a bundle of contradictions. He was a bitter cynic who was also deliriously romantic, a regular user of prostitutes who fell in love easily, and yet it was the hypocrisies which fuelled his writing demons. For Greene, religion was too important to ignore; it gave people, both those that walked around talking to others and interacting with the physical world as well as characters etched onto paper by the thudding imprint of the typewriter keys, a soul. He criticised Virginia Woolf and EM Forrester for, despite all their lyrical inventiveness, being concerned with nothing but cardboard cut outs of people whilst the eternal conflict of belief was what drove real people to struggle with the decisions of existence. Life, he appeared to be saying, was all about what happened once it was over.

That was something which worried me. I remember as an eight or nine year old being frightened of death. I was already fairly certain that I didn’t believe in a painted picture of heaven where winged angels plucked harps atop perfectly formed clouds, but alternative was made my head hurt. I was confused by an afterlife I’d imagined where there was nothing but disembodied voices in a grey smog like world, where you could talk and communicate but never touch or see, just the snatches of loved voices and strangers far away or so close you’d imagine them on where your neck had once been. It gave me goose-bumps. And yet the idea that there was simply nothing, that my consciousness froze and melted away to have never been was too big for my little head to contain.

I seem to be floundering on the edges of Christianity. Sorry. I can’t help it. Obviously religion and therefore God has a fairly wide definition, but for the purposes of “the God reflex”, I am, for simplicity, sticking with English Protestantism and some conflicting dollops of Catholicism lumped in. Why? Well, I think, despite diminishing returns in church aisles, Britain is still just about hanging on as a nominally “Christian” country. Whatever the hell that means since there isn’t, rightly, a state sanctioned religion and you cannot say one religion is fundamentally more British than another. Instead it’s just that white middle-class people from the middle-of-the-country, people like me and this is blog is always about me really, if they are anything are statistically more likely to be Christian.

Fuck, aren’t we all unoriginal? Here we are in 2011 and nothing’s changed in the last five hundred years. Christianity is looking a bit bedraggled and beaten, smelling like it hasn’t had a wash in a while, but still at the core. Which is why it’s no coincidence that the anti-capitalist protestors are encamped outside St Paul’s. The seat of the Protestant church’s government may officially be Canterbury, but St Paul’s is its figurehead, its grandest architectural statement. Okay, so there might be limited other places where you can throw up a thousand tents in the middle of the City of London without having a double-decker bus plough through your sleeping bag every half an hour, but I think it’s more serendipitous than pure convenience. I think it feels irrationally right, almost like faith might. Their presence forces the church to become involved in twenty-first century politics. Even though they’re spending most of their time trying to avoid saying something the flock is turning to them and begging for an alternative to the capitalist anti-God life we all freely adopted a while back when it suited us.

We need to be careful here. I mean it’s not like the church doesn’t have enough blood on its hand or, indeed, all the way to its red stained armpits. A thousand plus British years of internal crowd subjection, external moral expansion and enough butchery with convoluted excuses shoe-horned into a fluid dogma are hardly a glowing resume for a bright new world, but maybe, in the past forty years or so whilst it’s been beaten back by secularism, the church has had time to rethink.

Sorry. The purpose of this blog isn’t to join the God and faith bashing, the “aren’t people a bunch of fucking deluded schmucks brigade”, if only because marching at the head that particular army is Richard Dawkins, a man so utterly smugly odious that I am relieved to now find him inescapable from his comedy variant on Radio 4. The God Delusion is a different point. That’s about why people are hoodwinked into believing, how the church manipulates society and individuals out of the belief, money, time and occasionally morals. That’s fine. I get that. What I want to know is whether Dawkins, at moments when his family’s safety is threatened and there really is no way to avoid the plunging car off the ravine edge, closes his eyes and whispers to an entity he despises? Just in case?

Most people would. It’s not necessarily something to feel guilty about, but why do we seek sanctuary in that which we’ve so frequently denounced? What does our subconscious know that we don’t?

Perhaps it comes down to childhood and the fact that people like me, children of the seventies and early eighties when schools were still holding onto the fact that once they’d been forcibly bound to local churches and so we endured bible readings and hymns and other pomp and circumstance. All the information is in there, hidden in the back of our heads. Besides crying out for Father sounds slightly less pathetic than for mum.

Is that the point? Is that why some religions have a male Godly figure at the top of ecclesiastical system? God as the Father, the embodiment of heroism for many children. For young boys it is their father whom – it at least according to the Daily Mail when it slanders single mother families – provides a stable yet stern influence whilst showing the straight and narrow route to a future of stolid employment whilst for little girls, as Grease said, “the only man who isn’t going to let a girl down is her Daddy.”
Perhaps it’s this which explains the old fashioned aloof, stern faced, unemotional approach to Fatherhood that was once a cornerstone of a country struggling to be in touch with its emotions. A son’s relationship with his Father was supposed to be as complex and respectful as the one a young man has with his God, with his maker.

My own relationship with my Father is a lot simpler than it used to be. Growing up, we rowed in the ways which were inevitable. It was never anything serious, just differing of opinions and as a teenager it was impossible for me distinguish shades of grey – everything had to be black or white, right or wrong. But before then, my memories of being a very small boy hinge around the simplicity of riding high on park swings, firm hands catching and pushing me upwards, of being so excited that he’d returned home one evening I managed to toss myself down the stairs straight into his arms. Then as times toughened through the nineties, I got older and self-sufficient and he threw himself deeper into his work. I didn’t really understand the necessity behind it and became mildly jealous of other kids whose Dads appeared to be back for dinner on a Tuesday rather than still being somewhere on the M5 just south of Bristol.

All so celeb faux misery memoir of my hardship filled youth. I’m not trying for nor do I deserve your sympathy. Everyone differs from the generation before. My Dad sang in the church choir as a small boy, went to work at sixteen, reads the Telegraph and the Mail, votes Conservative and worked hard to provide for his family. He likes films with explosions and gentle, settling sit-coms; he listens to Neil Diamond and the Moody Blues; reads John Grisham and Robert Harris novels. Our differences are the same as everyone’s and, just like everyone else, I failed to realise it whilst I was growing up.

As an adult, however, I can only marvel at the humongous effort he undertook to ensure that we were well fed, warm and had a secure roof over our heads. I suspect in many ways he sacrificed all the self-indulgent rubbish I take for granted whilst lost in my head being concerned about things like rhino poaching that I can have little impact on whilst he, by my age, was already married with a child: me. My Father gave up a lot of things, but he never gave up me. Something many but by no means everyone can say. Like every relationship the Father-Son one is about the individuals involved which determines whether it’s a positive one or not. Little my Dad has ever done was ever for self-serving purposes; it was always for us and for that alone I owe him more than I can ever articulate.

It would seem inevitable, therefore, that fathers and father figures, whether heroes or not, are in part defined by their children and – at least for the context of this argument - specifically by their sons.

To be continued.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Everything bad happens in the rain

The end of last week’s blog fades up to the rafters. The audience peers into the darkness. There’s an anxious shuffling amongst the dark and a spotlight flips on. To start with it shines just away from the slithering presence on the boards; only a grey suited elbow is clipped by the silver ray. With some kerfuffle, where initially the beam sprays across the room, it settles on the slight, surprisingly short man with a grey badger streak to his hair that matches his suit. The only flash of colour is the deeply dark red tie. He looks slightly hunched as his eyes squint under the bright light. He takes a final half step towards to the microphone, one of those old large circle ones from the nineteen thirties that partially obscure the speaker’s face.

He clears his throat, a rough grating harumph that catches in the mic and radiates around the room. He half-glances down to his hands folded together at his midriff and then, with the tiniest, almost imperceptible smile, he opens his mouth to speak.

But we don’t stop to listen to poor Ed Miliband because we know what he’s going to say. His mouth will be opening and closing, but the words won’t be his. They’ll be those decided by committee, reviewed by focus groups to see how supporters and haters will react and dragged into the crowded centre ground. It’ll be nothing new, anyway. An understanding that there must be cuts; an acknowledgement that the future will be tough, but that by working together we can make a new economy. Poor Ed. Don’t get me wrong, I like Ed. I think he’s great. In the Labour leadership campaign I thought he ran a better, more left-leaning, more grass roots of the party focused campaign. I’d vote for Ed, I’d probably vote for brother David too, mind, because, at the very least, I think, compared to the current floppy-haired, over lacquered occupant of the big chair, they at least give a shit.

Regardless I still feel sorry for Ed. Nobody’s listening to him. Nobody’s listening to him, because it’s not just me who can predict what he’s going to say. It’s everyone. You get the impression he’s kept on a leash by his party handlers, too fearful of letting him saying anything truly original or vaguely controversial in case he’s lampooned and instead he ends up being mocked for his very dullness.

It wasn’t always like that. It might seem fanciful in an age of twenty-four hour news coverage, but once upon a time our politicians were larger than life and had that mystical otherness which suggested that they might change the world for the better. The real world. The one people lived in. The rhetoric of the great reforming Liberals of the early twentieth century was not only capable of stirring the masses to exaltation, but was followed up with real action that eventually dragged Britain out of the workhouse and laid the ground work for the major reforms of the late forties to take place. The NHS. Pensions. The welfare state. Mortar which held together the society that gave a shit. The politicians who survived Queen Victoria would never be elected now. They’d be seen as too rogue, too maverick for national office. Lloyd George and Asquith both led lives filled with women and dubious money and fateful misadventure and bitter slighted enemies who would ensure their foibles were routinely plastered over the papers in the twenty-first century. Attlee would have been too boringly unphotogenic. Bevan too wildly Welsh. Even Churchill, the man held up as a pinnacle of British spirit and wouldn’t-it-be-marvellous-if-all-our-children-turned-out-like-Winston, in 2011 would have had his exceptional drink habit exposed.

In those days it was easier for a politician to bend reality to his will, to control the story so that he was always a hero. Lloyd George, in 1918, emerged from the First World War as the man who’d won it, who’d finally ended the slaughter and with victory no less. He was the man the people loved for his reforming budget despite the dead bodies growing mountainous over in Flanders. They loved him so much that a congratulatory biography of his life was filmed, which Lloyd George’s office quickly quashed simply because it wasn’t theirs.

In contrast, Tony Blair must wonder if he’s ever going to get his appearance back. He’s continually ridiculed and accused of ever more fanciful crimes. From the, when broadcast, near-future The Trial of Tony Blair, where he awaited his fate for war crimes, to the contemporary The Hunt for Tony Blair where he is chased across a noir-parody, sleeps with Margaret Thatcher and murders anyone who crosses his path, including tossing Robin Cook down a Scottish scree slope. Criticism of our leaders has become virtually post-modern, a pastiche of itself as we begin to muddle Blair with an unending mess of actors who’ve tried their hand at his peculiar mannerisms and faux charm.

Perhaps this reflects our deep lying disappointment with him? And them all.

As regular readers know, years ago I planned to write a short story about my disappointment with the Labour government and with Blair in particular. The 1997 dawn at the pinnacle of my teenage years heralded so much none of which really came to pass. Sure, there’s the minimum wage, vastly improved NHS, public services that worked for a while, the climate change act, child poverty and crime rates reduced, reformed city centres, but there’s also wasted opportunity of a majority, university fees, catastrophic bust and war after war after body after lie. I never could find the words to express quite how frustrated I was with how it had gone wrong. Tony the smiling, “pretty decent guy” who’d promised to usher in a new, cleaner age of politics was gone. Admittedly he had swept aside the Tory sleaze of toe sucking, cash for questions, arms dealing, oil smuggling, prison and health service disinterest and education incompetence that had riddled their way through a whole cabinet like the dark dreams of the underworld, but in their place were the backhanding, cash for honours, document sexing-up, invading, gun-toting, Bush-and-Clinton arse licking, Cliff Richard holidaying, verbal tick caricaturing, demon-eyed, dead man walking that was all centred around Blair himself. How do you write that?

You can’t and that’s why, rather than a single big denouncement, a Profumo moment, the satirists and writers and comedians had to pick away, until there was nothing left but a fiction. We took arguably the last man capable of being a political hero and we reinvented him as a work of fiction to make his failures and his lies less harmless.

We’d done it before with our hate. We made Thatcher vulnerable with our words, in fictions like Grant Morrison and Paul Grist’s masterful St Swithin’s day. That was a tale of teenage broken heart so yearnfully realised through the partnerless dance-swaying amongst the midnight railway carriages, to the La’s There She Goes which played in his head long after the batteries of his walkman had died. No-one believed his hurt and so he did what any sensible love-lorn teenager would do, blame his ills on society. After all, it was a society butchered into no such thing by the woman elected to the office of power, Mrs T. There’s a gun (or was there?) in a plastic bag (or maybe it’s just a notebook). It doesn’t matter. All he had to do was get close enough, amongst the crowds in the St Swithin downpour, the rains which signalled yet another washed out summer, get close enough to catch her cold blue eye and to whisper, ever so quietly:


Because they’re all fallible in the end. They all fall in the end. Even big bad Silvio Berlusconi. God, we think we have some ill-deserving fuck-wits running Britain, how did a first world country manage to keep electing a man whose sole interests in governing appear to have been ejaculating across and into as many women as possible, preferably in a sun-drenched private villa at the public expense? Simple, he controls all the media. The picture we see of a power-crazed, plastic face tightened, hair transplanted, megalomaniac sex fiend prepared to drag an entire continent into the ocean just to get laid one more time, isn’t shown in the same light in Italy. Contrary to the snarky British view that the Italians probably don’t care, that they think he’s some kind of idealisation of the Mediterranean psyche, rather it is they don’t know.

So, maybe it is impossible to build up any single individual to believe they might change the world through politics in this country ever again, but at least we’re not going to have a prime minster more interested in bunga-bunga parties than impending financial disaster. Playing polo and serving the interest of Daddy’s friends in business, yes, but then we knew that last year and we still, sort of, elected them. More fool us.

I wish it were otherwise, but I don’t think it’s Ed’s who’ll save us. I don’t think any modern politician is, could or even should be the answer. There’s too much of a necessity to be practical, or political if you will, and too much subsequent awareness of such actions for them to be iconic; for them to be untainted; for them to appear more idealistic than human; for them to be heroes.

So, we’ve discarded high and low culture, science, sport and state. There’s not much left. If we pick apart society’s layers there might be one last cowering group, huddled underneath a damp mushroom head in the corner. Church.

Yeah, I know. It’s called a God reflex.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Self-made hero

When I was a young teenager I would while away damp lifeless Sunday afternoons in my room reading and losing myself inside my head. I was, I find myself forced to admit, into comics about superheroes and magicians and fantasy characters often written by people with over-inflated senses of high drama. Somewhere along the way I muddled my admiration for the story’s turn with a sense that these tales might be telling me something more. Whilst other kids were still just about fantasising about scoring the winning goal in the FA cup final or discovering a cure for dementia I was looking for the secrets of life in four-colour pamphlets.

I got over it in the end. Music and girls and proper books without pictures became more important, but still I would let my mind drift into images of the impossible. Save the world? Pah, I couldn’t even stay awake during class.

This meandering narrative which I’m trying to explain is about heroism. Not real heroism. Not saving people from burning buildings without flinching but idealistic heroism, an idea of the hero as an abstract. Something to believe in. We, all of us, need those sorts of heroes in our lives. Ideals can be false, but they can also bring us hope. As the global economy teeters towards wilful self-implosion of greed where do we look for inspiration? If there was any righteous anger behind the opportunism of the kids that ripped apart London and Birmingham and Manchester and, God, even Gloucester one week in August then wouldn’t be better if that could be articulated into something better than nicking shit?

So, for those of you who haven’t been keeping up: Sportsmen may bring a sense of drama, they break hearts and offer elation, but surely it’s only ever fleeting? You could call in entertainment, even something which has the potential to unify peoples but it lacks the ability of communication to offer a message. Scientists may well be great men and women, striving for the betterment of society even if the by-product is personal glory, but their objectives and methods are too far out of most people’s realms of understanding. Writers, alas, are possibly too anonymous as individuals. So where do people look? To whom will they still listen?

I can’t remember when I last fell in love with a band. Or, if not a band for there’s often something more functionally workmanlike about a band, then a pop star. I do still get arguably too obsessed about music meant for the young when I’m a thirty-something, but it is one thing to be nodding appreciably at the drum riffs or the myriad range of influences being cleverly note-checked it is quite another for them to matter more than life.

Of course, once upon a time it was easier. There was an enemy. These days Tinne Tempah talks in management speak about his global brand, but once youth hated the establishment whoever it was. Thatcher in the eighties or Wilson in the seventies, the “man” was always someone to push against. Pop could harness the natural rebellion of the teenager into listeners. Sid Vicious and Adam Ant, Jarvis Cocker and Pete Townsend, Elvis Presley and Dizzie Rascal, the purpose of the pop star has always been to be confrontational; to stick two, preferably outlandishly garbed, fingers up at government and encourage teenagers around the world to slam their doors and play it fucking loud.

So they’re the ones, the last ones left who can help us. Right?

Well, no. Not really. Sorry.

Billy Bragg, the champion of the downtrodden wearily romantic lost causes everywhere, appeared in the Guardian at the weekend in conversation with Johnny Flynn about the St Paul’s protestors. By coincidence I’d first heard of Flynn, an earnest floppy haired young singer-songwriter with some acting in his back pocket, the night before. He’s appearing in the play Jerusalem, which my girlfriend and I are going to see soon, and someone insisted on playing us some of his songs. “It’s the most amazing music ever,” she gushed. It’s not, but that’s kind of beside the point. No, the curious point was Flynn’s claim that in 2011 it’s harder for pop stars to play a part in the end of capitalism protests, to have a platform for any articulated voice because the charts are dominated by X-Factor sponsored rubbish.

But then it’s always been like that. Just think of The Osmonds, Boney M, Chicago, Mud, and any number of shit seventies plastic pop bands. Punk was partially a nihilistic resistance to society but it was also a protest against there not being any music to love aside from Iggy Pop. Even Bragg’s earliest stuff was more about East End teenage heartbreak and not wanting to be in Pink Floyd than the more clear political agenda of the red-wedge eighties.

The disadvantage today’s politically aware musical rebels have is that the X-Factor tripe has a multi-million marketing campaign absorbed by millions of dribbling brain drains on a Saturday night. It’s as though it takes pride in being the optimisation of the giant disco hits album available in the supermarket that the Clash had such disdain for, but still everyone laps up the advertising like its entertainment in itself.

So, if pop hasn’t ever really tried to lead us, what about their precursors as the representation of the teenage wet dream, movie stars? Douglas Fairbanks Junior, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, an ever changing cast of smouldering dark eyes in the skull of young men questioning what the future was for, fighting against the establishment with sexual deviancy, powdered thrills and broken down livers. Only Errol Flynn became sufficiently confused to believe his own legend when, drink sodden and without a bow and arrow in sight, he flew off to Cuba to report on and play a part in the revolution.

We can’t really blame them for failing us. I mean, they were only ever supposed to be acting, but they would be so beautifully outrageous that we’d occasionally forget. We’d imagine they could be something more, something greater than us. Today’s movie stars are too well media briefed to ever wander off message and say something that matters to anyone other than to the people whom they’re making money for. As Noel Gallagher, to return to music, recently said about the Arctic Monkeys and Kasaibian, they’ve got the tunes but you just want them to start sounding like pop stars. Say something controversial for god’s sake. No-one’s paying you to be nice boys. We want you to live a life so that we don’t have to.

Droning self-indulgent drip Ed Sheeran makes Lego models to relax for fuck’s sake. I can do that, if I wanted to. He’s supposed to be offering something more, but at the moment I can see the puppet strings of reality. If we’re to love our pop or movies stairs we need to believe in them wholeheartedly. True adoration comes when we’re fooled and they transcend reality. It’s never been about the politics or the hidden message. Sorry, Paul Weller, people loved the tunes and the brashness of Eton Rifles and Going Underground and a Town Called Malice, they loved your skinny trousers and sparkling shoes and the tight hair cut, they loved you more than they loved Margaret but they could never quite join in with your hate. That’s why they kept on electing her.

We need a hero. The St Paul’s protesters are being accused of not knowing what they want when asking for in an alternative to capitalism, of hypocrisy when they wee in Starbucks, of slipping off home at night to a comfy bed. Tuh. What’s a middle class revolutionary to do? Can’t pee in the streets, the concrete is tough on the hips as you get older and as for coming up with a whole new economic system that needs global buy-in? Come on, surely it’s just enough to be asking the question rather than blindly following. So they, we, need a hero of some sort and if music and film aren’t going to provide them, then perhaps we better make them up.
Because sometimes what you make up comes true.

To return to my younger, more teenage self, reading late at night by the lamp stuffed down the bed, face splotched with zits, hair just beginning to snake down to the edges of my collar. One of my favourite comics was Hellblazer starring John Constantine. Constantine was a trench-coat wearing, chain smoking, sarcastic, heavy drinking mage made out to look like Sting in a cheap suit and a hell-blood stained tie. Alan Moore invented him in the eighties and claims to have met him shortly afterwards. In a cafe.

“All of a sudden, up the stairs came John Constantine. He was wearing the trench-coat, a short cut—he looked—no, he didn't even look exactly like Sting. He looked exactly like John Constantine. He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner.”

Jamie Delano who took over writing chores after Moore, had a similar experience outside the British Museum. “I didn't realise I'd walked past him until I'd gone fifty yards down the road, I looked round, and he was just vanishing round the corner.”

For a while, I completely believed in this idea that you could write stuff into existence. Grant Morrison, writing the bonkers conspiracy end of the millennium psycho-babble romp that was the Invisibles, claims that by shaving his head and buffing up to look like the main character he began to take on the fictional characteristics, even to the point that when he put his invention through a torture scene Morrison’s own body collapsed and replicated the ailments, all the way down to blood poisoning, a collapsed lung and a rotted hole in his cheek. Morrison, allegedly, almost killed himself through writing.

More recently, in a performance art piece, Moore claimed another encounter with Constantine: "Years later, in another place, he steps out of the dark and speaks to me. He whispers: ‘I'll tell you the ultimate secret of magic. Any cunt could do it.’"

And then the spell is broken, because it’s too wry and too knowing. It’s too close. I can see the strings again as Moore uses the invented anecdote to make a joke, to prove a point about the reality of magic. Fictional heroes, they’re all mysterious and enticing, but they’ll only ever go and let you down.

After all, they are only made-up. Just like Pete Docherty. I had a moment, sometime around 2004, where I latched onto the idea of the Libertines as a band for tomorrow. It only lasted for a few months, but briefly I almost loved them in the way a late teenager loves a band. Especially a band that carried around their own lyrical myths of country and self and lifestyle; a band with an ideal for living. And I then woke up, the bodies began to pile up, and I realised that they were just a gang of wannabe musicians led by a self-centred drug addict. You can’t bring fictions into the real world by making them up and you can’t apply the mythical inventiveness to real people; we’ll only be disappointed.

No, if their hero is going to mean anything it needs to come from the real world and be able to make a difference. Mr Milliband, the stage is yours.

(Part 1 to be concluded next week).

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The truest poetry is the most feigning

In the sixteenth century, Deptford was both different and the same as it is now. There were no high rise tower blocks and backed up motorised traffic struggling to get through the Rotherhite tunnel, nor would there be the occasional mislaid tourist up from Greenwich and the market wouldn’t have had racks of Domestos and Andrex knocked off through the backyard of the Tesco’s distribution warehouse, but still, there would have been festering vegetable waste in the drains, an undercurrent of violence, of poverty through aimless men sitting around on street corners and it would persist as one of London’s forgotten areas. Back then it was dominated by the Royal Naval dockyards sitting on the estuary side of London, defending against potential invasion and aiding smugglers for a coin. Deptford was convenient for drafting in drunken lost souls from around the city. Deptford was the end of London, the last point before a lifetime aboard the waves whether that was the way you wanted to go or not. It was a place that people came for looking for trouble.

One imagines the Dog and Gun has changed little since then. It is a traditional boozer with a marvellous range of ales, but it lurks down a side street amongst a relatively run down estate and when I last went in there three men sitting along stools at the bar turned and stared, their gaze warned me to mind my own business.

It was a similar establishment, I imagine, where Christopher Marlowe holed up after his arrest for heresy in 1593. At the time, Marlowe was one of the most famous men in the land. A playwright extraordinary, dandily dressed, handsome like a cherub and possibly an Elizabethan spy. What he was doing in Deptford, amongst the rough and tumble of rum drinking sailor dens is unclear, as is so much about his life and death. Perhaps he was hiding out amongst the dregs of the city for the false glamour of it all; perhaps he was about to embark on some secret foreign mission or to flee for asylum abroad. All we know is that he became embroiled in an argument that ended with a rapier penetrating his right eye and then his brain. He bled to death in the gutter outside down amongst the urine and turnip cores and fish intestines and the thousand other dead men of a generation. The man arguably destined to be the greatest playwright of his age was cut down in some booze filled row, or silenced for the too many secrets he had in his head. Too fast too young is not, after all, a twentieth century concept. Marlowe went down aged twenty-nine having already lived a life.

The title of the bard rather than merely being a bard could have been within his grasp. The incredible Dr Faustus may have only been the first building block towards a canon unrivalled for half a millennium, Instead the title was taken by his contemporary, the no doubt equally raucous, but significantly less glamorous, playwright, actor, husband, father, middle of the road man from the middle of the country, William Shakespeare. Or was it?

Unsurprisingly for a death that involved the threat of high treason, religious defilement, whispers of then-perversion, the alleged perpetrators dying is custody and a handsome, quick-tempered dramatist, strange myths linger around Marlowe’s death. The most common is that he faked his own death in Deptford, hoped on a clipper headed out to sea and spent the rest of his life ghostwriting Shakespeare’s plays from a Tuscan retreat whilst conducting the odd act of espionage for the Queen and Country.

As anyone stumbling over a review of what looks like a pile of trite melodrama masquerading as historically accurate film, Anonymous, knows there are conspiracy theories are abound that Shakespeare was nothing more than a front for a wide range of alternative playwrights. The film decides that the Earl of Oxford is the real man behind the pen. “People like me don’t write plays, people like you do” he declares, whereupon, in the trailer I had the misfortune to see the other evening, he tosses a manuscript in the face of a half naked young William, who has presumably been disturbed from a drink-sodden evening defiling a pub wench, as an actor’s bohemian, even if the concept hadn’t been invented yet, lifestyle demands.

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was put forward as the real writer of the canon in 1920 by, the appropriately named, J Thomas Looney. The basis for this is the intricate knowledge of the royal court system Shakespeare displays, the fact that Oxford was a champion of poetry and art and was probably Shakespeare’s patron whilst William himself was an uneducated oik, and that many of the plays, especially Hamlet, reflect de Vere’s own life. In other words, they’re nothing but shrouded autobiography. This ignores the fact that Shakespeare was appointed to the royal court and that many of the plays are based on other fictional works or actual history. Shakespeare was a precursor to the likes of Neil Gaiman, the sort of author who happily pinches bits here and there of different myths and half-remembered legends until some sort of flimsy fictional shroud comes into being.

My favourite bit of evidence is the suggestion that the code E.Vere appears 17,000 times in Shakespeare’s forty-odd plays. Given that it can be found in ‘every’, ‘ever’, ‘never’, and so on I’m surprised it’s not more. Still, lots of things are surprising about Shakespeare, not least that I struggled with it at school.

Even though most of what I read at the time was accompanied by pictures, I didn’t struggle with the language particularly. I may have initially found myself flummoxed by the sonnet structure and the odd archaic word, but all teenagers, except the exceptionally precocious, do. I got the lyricism and even enjoyed the, in hindsight, somewhat over-analysis of the plays. Line by line we went, seeking quadruple meaning in every pretty turn of phrase as though determined to prove that genius has to shine in every third turn of the plot. In retrospect it should have been enough to just appreciate the language’s rhythm and the clever metaphors for what they were; phrases that four hundred later still told us something new about the world and our place in it.

Anyway, it wasn’t a lack of understanding it was more that the deeper the comprehension the more I found it a little boring. Maybe it was partly because we flew through Macbeth one summer term and then spent three years dissecting Romeo and Juliet act by sodding act. I wanted to like it. I liked reading and I liked books; I theoretically liked the theatre although at thirteen had limited experience of it beyond the obligatory Christmas panto. Yet it wouldn’t quite click for me.

In many ways, I blame Romeo and Juliet and thus by proxy William himself, for my abandonment of English Literature at sixteen. The over-analysis broke down the work, the magic, so that all that was left was a combination of familiar phrases and reinterpreted myths slouching across a plot riddled with holes. Nothing was left but a bruised and bloody, used and soggy script, an idea of fiction destroyed. I didn’t want that to happen to all the other heroes I loved: Conrad’s colonial adventurers, Greene’s spies, another Marlowe, this one with a cheap suit and wry series of put downs, the myriad characters that filled up Terry Pratchett’s and Douglas Adams’ novels. They were all three dimensional beings for whom I didn’t want to understand how the mortar that held them together was nothing but words. I preferred to think of them as almost people; as though they might just about exist beyond the page, whisked from my sub-consciousness and out, out somewhere into the real world. There were, I felt, too real not to exist.

So, it was only as an adult that I finally came to Hamlet and Othello, Shylock and Lear, Benedick and Beatrice and all those marvellous histories (my enjoyment of which was no doubt enhanced by studying the war of the roses for A level meaning I understood who all the Richards and Henrys were). And slowly I began to understand that what made them great characters was their complexity. I’d missed the bleakness melancholy, the otherworldly knowing authorial hand behind Greene’s, Conrad’s and Chandler’s words. (It is, after all, hard to spot). I read instead at a surface level of black and white. Good and evil. Shakespeare’s heroes were bigger than that, because life is bigger than that. It is a contrary, mixed up, muddling block not designed to make sense. ‘Couldn’t have’ doesn’t really apply, except when based upon the laws of science. Anything is possible, even people with little formal education explaining the complexities of the heart in choice, succinct lines.

Which is why the frantic urge to attribute the canon to anyone other than William is somewhat galling. Francis Bacon, Elizabeth I’s spymaster was the first alternative suggested to the author, allegedly because there are a couple of coincidences in metaphor between the two’s poetry and the plays, allegedly, contain numerous legal terms which Bacon, as Queen’s Counsel, would have known. Toss, yet people – academics no just vain-glorious movie directors – noisily look for truth where there is no lie.

They pick on the Earl of Derby for pretty much the exact same reasons as Oxford and get no closer. And these are just the serious suggestions. After them, then it becomes pretty much anyone who could have held a pen during the same period: Francis Drake (too busy being in charge of the navy, surely, and on the wrong side of the world at several key performance dates); Anne Hathway, William’s wife (which is just odd); Ben Jonson (more famous himself at the time); Thomas Kyd (usually in the debtors prison); Thomas More (already long dead); Mary, Queen of Scots (headless); James Stuart, Kind of England and Scotland (a child and then a monarch).

Out of all seventy-nine candidates proposed, the Marlowe theory at least has some possibility behind it. Jonson was almost as good as playwright and so comes close. Someone once wrote, “I admire Ben Jonson the most, but I love Shakespeare more.” But Jonson was too prolific in his own right to fit in an extra forty odd plays and also had an ego too big to allow a piece of work such as Macbeth to appear under anyone other than his own name.

Marlowe’s Faustus is held up as the direction his work is travelling in and it is indeed excellent. Although, no Hamlet or Lear. Besides, Shakespeare’s writerly trajectory is supposed to go entertainment (comedies), royal patronage (histories), despair (tragedies), melancholy, (the hard to place romantic-comic-tragedies of Alls Well that Ends Well, the Winter’s Tale and the Tempest). Marlowe was already on the tragedy arc by the time of his death and never seemed that interested in laugh-out-loud comedies let alone conventional pandering to the monarchy’s rather dubious claim to the throne. In 1593 Shakespeare only had half a dozen plays to his name, of which only Richard III could stand up to Dr Faustus. Would Marlowe really have taken a dozen steps backwards putting out filler work until mining the vein he’d already ripped open?

But the main reasoning behind the theory that Marlowe ended up in Tuscany and writing the plays, or indeed anyone else writing the plays, is Italy itself. Two Gentleman of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, the Merchant of Venice, Othello, again and again Shakespeare’s plays are based in Italy, a country Shakespeare never visited: why? Who knows? Who cares? They certainly weren’t based on any accurate representation of Italy. In The Merchant of Venice he even forgets to mention the canals. It’s made up. It’s fiction. You don’t have to go somewhere to write about it – especially in Elizabethan England where most of your audience had never left the home counties let alone ventured further afield. And even if they had it was probably to war and one imagines that a muddy field filled with canvas shelters, the taste of adrenaline and the echo of screams in the night air looks the same whenever or wherever you may be.

Italy? Pah. That isn’t a reason. The real reason that there is this debate, is class.

Because in this screwed up country during a particularly screwed up period of time, the Victorians and their immediate hiers couldn’t comprehend that a relatively uneducated lad from the Midlands was touched by genius. He had to be either a patsy or a thief, either covering up for his social better who, for reasons which slightly escape me, shouldn’t have been writing literature of such dazzling variety and quality, or a convenient pen name for a member of the early middle classes who had at least managed to trudge up from his parent’s Kentish shoe shop and attend Cambridge, as Marlowe did. The concept of the working class kid done well was forbidden.

And at least in terms of literature it remained so until the 1950s at least when the likes of Alan Stillitoe and John Osborne emerged, blinking into the published light, fresh faced and sporting chips the size of a mine on their shoulder to tell grimy realism of the north, drink, being poor and frustrated by it and desperate for the weekend to forget the tedium and physical harshness of the week. And, unlike George Orwell or (Lord help us) JG Priestley they weren’t middle-class observers but they had actually lived what they wrote about: a not watered down by agenda.

It was but a fleeting moment when the creative flourishers from a working class background flocked towards literature. It was before rock and roll and mass market television; before the lure of easy glamour and girls was attainable with slicked back hair and a guitar. Nothing but a brief period when ale in tankards mid-afternoon, a thousand cigarettes accompanied sensible coats that kept the inevitable rain off and cheap suits as the fashion of the class rebel.

Now, in twenty-first century Britain it almost feels like we’ve taken a step backwards. Sebastian Faulks, Zadie Smith and Adam Thirwell, all three of the British writers whom I’ve read recently went to Oxbridge. Clearly this is not an exhaustive sweep of the literary establishment and I’m making a generalisation about writers who come out of Oxford and Cambridge – a generalisation which I know for a fact to be incorrect - but the real point is that this doesn’t actually matter. I loved White Teeth and Politics. A Week in December was a bit meh, but it had a couple of good moments and it certainly didn’t lack for ambition. (Although, perhaps it was Faulk’s background that prevented him from fully painting his broad society landscape that he got close to, but that’s another discussion...)

Good writing is a good writing no matter whom it comes from. This isn’t a campaign for William Shakespeare as an early working class hero; it’s just an expression of disappointment that in 2011 we’re even having that conversation about someone whom should be amongst the nation’s heroes for giving us a language with which to argue.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Big bang better than theory

“I’m going to save the world,” said the man with a glassy gleam to his eyes, “through the application of science.”

Or some similar sort of dialogue.

I’m sure you know the sort of thing. It happens in the moment during the ridiculous movie when lengthy exposition about something fundamentally impossible is only going to get in the way. So the writer, who really didn’t want to waste those sitting around hours, dropped in the shorthand version. It’s probably less prevalent these days if only because Wikipedia enables you to at least sound convincingly full of shit, but in those terribly glorious B movies the only scientific qualifications you needed was to be vaguely reclusive, have a creepily calm demeanour and to smoke a pipe.

In reality there is no such thing as science. Not really, it’s a complex collaboration of astrophysics, microbiology, hydro-chemistry and a hundred other sub-specialities. Sure, they all get to combine into one as science, but it’s a bit an uneasy alliance. Kind of like saying “fiction”.

Maybe the confusion is my fault, after all I do find it hideously complicated. Unfortunately, I had a habit of not paying attention at school when a subject was challenging, rather than struggle to gain ground I would just tune out. Science was one of the worst (after geography, maths, IT, design and graphics, French, German, and so on). Raised on the sort of movies described above, I was expecting science to be fantastical, but instead it all seemed somewhat mundane. Biology was little more than trying to remember by rote the correct anatomical correlation of our reproductive system or how photosynthesis worked, physics an extension maths with seemingly even less practical application and chemistry understanding how oil formed. Perhaps we did experiments, but I think we were mainly just taught theory. Things that went bang, smoking formulas bubbling over the top of test-tubes, leaping into the quantum physics divider to visit the fifth dimension? We didn’t actually get to try doing stuff ourselves.

State education, eh?

I’d completely expected science to be akin to magic. In the world in my head, science could be used to build space ships that could reach the universe’s perimeter. It existed in the same theoretical zone as serums that transformed skinny weaklings into buff athletes, radiation poisoned animals attached school boys with positive after-effects, bomb detonations didn’t always kill or lightning strikes that hit a specific combination of chemicals and splashing them over someone would create heroes. Okay, so I took my early years science education from comics, but I was expecting something which would illuminate a brighter, more exciting universe than suburban eighties Birmingham. Was that so bad? Instead I got systems of classification and basic electronics, neither of which were going to help me build a time machine.

I don’t think this was helped by my disruptive class. From the boy who routinely called out “I’ve got gametes up my nose” for no apparent reason to the couple who spent the entirety of every lesson trying for a practical biology demonstration it was somewhat difficult to concentrate. We were virtually riotous, scaring off one supply teacher by pelting her with insults so as the head of department arrived with a cricket bat to quell the noise. On one of the few times I recall actually were allowed to do any real experiments it almost always ended in disaster.

Disaster or fire.

I remember quite distinctly sticking the ends of paper aeroplanes in the Bunsen burner’s flame, blowing it out and imaging the smoke trail belonged to a real plane, a fighter jet maybe, crashing due to a missile strike on its tailfin or an engine malfunction. Incredibly I was thirteen, not six, at this point. When one of the even less tuned in kids did the same, he found suddenly holding burning paper to be disconcerting and so decided to get rid of it as soon as possible.

By dropping it in the waste paper bin.


Instant fire. Well done. Smoke and flames billowing, the no doubt exasperated teacher strode across the room to extinguish the fire.

By standing on it.

Whilst this did have the desired effect of putting the fire out, unfortunately, it didn’t do so before his trousers were burning.

In a panic about getting sufficient GCSEs to get into the local sixth form college I crammed Double Science because it was worth two and somehow ended up with BB despite not having seen a mark higher than a D on any work for years. When I went to university I found myself living with and then friends with an extended batch of scientists, mainly zoologists. I had no comprehension of the work they did. They would try to explain, but it would come across as gibberish. And yet there was a touch of envy on my part. I remember at least one conversation about the value of their studying over mine. History was worthless; an analytical appraisal of things which no longer mattered. Whilst the application of biological investigations had the potential for a profound impact upon society. Depending, of course, on what they found out. To an extent, they were right, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I couldn’t, at least not without the help of a scientist with dubious mental health and a fortress in an inclement mountain climate, rewire my brain.

So, science is clearly important and by definition, therefore, so must be scientists.

David Baddiel wrote very elegantly a couple of years ago about how scientists are the last heroes. Or to be slightly more accurate, that they are the last profession to be universally ordained as “great men.” (And for the purposes of this argument, I’m going to keep Baddiel’s definition of men, but we all know it can include women too, right?) James Joyce, he points out, was called a great man, a great writer by Erza Pound and TS Elliot, both of whom would have some claim on the title themselves, and so it became commonly agreed that indeed he must be. Yet if Ulysses were published in 2011 it would be pulled apart and bickered over – mostly via the internet – and any argument for its greatness would fail to reach a consensus. People would start sniping about his Irish background, his drinking, his failings as a teacher in northern Italy and how reliant on his wife he was. All irrelevant to the sentences on the page, but try telling the baying masses that.

But scientists are different. They’re more revered, because we don’t understand what they do. If someone cures cancer they will automatically – and correctly – be acclaimed as great. No debate amongst the masses. Perhaps this has always been the case, but whilst Shakespeare, for example, was ordained in genius fairly early on there seemed to be more reluctance to voice passionate support for medical scientists who advocated leeches for every ailment. Alexander Fleming, in contrasting example, and the discovery of penicillin must have been a revelation; a cure that didn’t have to be removed with a match. Anyway, perhaps today we recognise that scientists, whatever their field, have done, or are capable of doing, something which is so far from the everyman’s ability that it becomes almost inconceivable. In contrast, most people equipped with laptops think they can write a novel. Most people are wrong, but that’s kind of beside the point.

Margaret Atwood (no slouch herself, but rarely acclaimed as great without dispute) recently defined science fiction as being split into two types. Essentially, the fantastical and the exaggerated, or the Jules Verne versus HG Wells death-match. Verne, the man whose fiction was based at the edges of the scientific knowledge at the time and Wells who had Martians invade Woking.

Essentially, I believe – no doubt incorrectly – that you can divide real science into two equally matching sub-sections. (And, okay, numerous other bits as well, give me a break here). Jules Verne twenty-first century science is the science that keeps us progressing at a steady rate; it’s research into new medicines, computer engineering, formulas for hair dye and toilet cleaners and pesticides. Like the Mitchell and Webb Laboratoire Garnier sketch where the powerful and rich Monsieur Garnier gathers a team of crack scientists not to cure cancer but to formulate hair dye. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still inventive stuff which arguably improves people’s lives on a daily basis, but it’s still capitalism science. Science which supports the economy and, like the science I was subjected to at school, more than a little boring. HG Wells twenty-first century science is the hadron collider, it’s the inside of Stephen Hawking’s brain, expeditions to Mars and the international space station; it’s the sort of work where staff arrive thinking, “fuck, yeah, I’m a scientist, baby.”

Perhaps we plebs trundling through our daily, dreary lives can’t properly understand the distinction. And maybe that’s fiction’s fault. A few years ago I was crammed into the cattle shed commuter train at some ungodly hour and failing to concentrate on my book. It wasn’t helped by the young woman yattering excitedly down her phone. “Oh, I don’t mind the commute in, it gives me plenty of time to read,” she plainly lied as she’d spent the entirety of that particular journey yacking down the phone.

“Yeah, yeah. I read. I so read. Yeah, actual books. You know, like, science fiction.” She then named a couple of authors I’d never heard of, but it seemed to be of alien armada guerrilla marine testosterone never-ending serial bullshit sort beloved by their fans and bemoaned by everyone else. “Yeah, and when he gets his badass caught behind enemy lines then he breaks out the hyper-tension gatling gun and a neo-spike pill to keep the Bortch hordes at bay. Science faction, baby. Science faction, this shit is totally being reeled back to us from a better world.”

(Or something like that, anyway.)

The point is the use of the invented word, faction. Even if you accept that for those who love this sort of science fiction can be delightful, meaningless entertainment, it is not, it is never, trying to pass itself off as real life. I think, as a child, that was what confused me. It was written down and so I wanted it to be true. More than anything in the world, I wanted an exciting future full of space ships and epic journeys to beyond and back, of noble heroic captains and their rag-tag crews from the far corners of the galaxy and easily defined alien villains bristling with additional arms and spikey things. The drab greyness of reality where the bad guys are dressed in designer suits and shirts from Pink and either fucking up the economy, contesting your patents or disagreeing with your research funding has a sheen of boredom. It takes empathy to appreciate the underlying human drama.

Case in point: The suspension of operations by NASA and the apparent gradual winding down of space exploration operations by everyone (except China, India and Iran) is a shame. There’s a nice bit fairly early on in The West Wing when the Mars exploration probe ‘Galileo’ goes missing as it attempts to touch down on the red surface. Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett is disappointed because he sees space exploration as the natural extension of humanity’s strive for a better tomorrow. He even infuses ‘Galileo’ with more than a nominal nod to an Italian philosopher so as it becomes something greater, something more noble.

Yet it clearly makes complete economic sense, the average trip into space to pootle around and watch the sun come up over the Earth’s rim, costs – no doubt – the same as Belgium, the end of something as aspirational as the voyage to another planet, another solar system, is something to mourn. As Kevin Fong, a director of the somewhat implausibly named Centre for Altitude, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine (who I’ve met in real life and is a thoroughly nice guy, so apologies for his inclusion here) says it taught us to dream. The shuttle, despite apparently flying like an open safe still gave of an air of grace and beauty. It was the ideal vessel to touch the rim of knowledge, but for the time being it’s gone; we are earth-bound once more. Science is being beaten back by economics.

I know little about science, and actually I don’t care. I’m happy with that. I understand that ninety-nine percent of science isn’t as photogenic, not quite as phallic as a rocket launching out the desert and into space (and hopefully not as bad for the environment as something packed with sufficient fuel to give it the equivalent explosive capability of a small nuclear warhead). Whilst childish idiots like me want to be wowed, most science is done by people sitting at computers late into the Saturday night, ploughing through reams of data looking for the pattern, or lack thereof, which will give them an answer to the question: why?

And that’s true heroism. The risk of wasting a life time looking for better when there might be nothing. Real people’s mundane life cycle becomes heroism, greatness. Perhaps we should push our empathy further and find stories to write about this reality so as kids like me are happy to be bored for a couple of hours a week. Bored yet maybe just a smidge of something useful will be retained.

You know, for the future.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Balls. Balls and running.

I am not, it may surprise you to learn, a big sports man. I have had moments where it may have appeared otherwise but these have been a facade. If I’m being really honest, I just don’t get it.

Even if I have pretended otherwise on many occasions.

My Father was a rugby player as a young man. Rugby and no doubt the associated high-jinks of the club filled, as far as I can tell from the affection which he speaks of tearing along the flanks with mud spraying in his wake, a large part of his life for many years. I don’t actually remember him ever playing, but I suspect buggered knees at a relatively young age and increasing job demands as much as the stresses of raising my infuriating infant self ate into his time too much. Still, it was this rather than football or cricket or, I don’t know, water polo, which he attempted to share his enthusiasm.

I was, I say with regret if only because it probably would have bought him happiness, lamentably bad. In many ways it was one of the few sports where I stood a slim chance. Speed, competent hand-eye coordination and graceful agility are not prerequisites. Indeed, fat, stocky kids who can get in the way make ideal forward props provided they are also brave and prepared to throw their face in the way of someone else’s boot. I wasn’t brave. I was the exact opposite, being particularly cowardly about the prospect of physical harm and so coupled with my inability to run, pass, kick or catch I was doomed for a brief rugby career. Even so, I did spend a year or so lurking around the edges of the school team – who clearly must have been pretty dreadful if they were considering letting me take the field – before my eagerness to take part in anything that wasn’t sitting in my room reading comics subsided and I spent Tuesday and Thursday mornings sleeping in later and later rather than jogging, slowly, around a frozen grass pitch.

As I have grown up and become more physically able I enjoy being outside doing activities. I don’t mind kicking a ball aimlessly around, although I could think of better things to do. I quite like swimming in the sea, although have no real interest in doing laps of a pool. I love hiking, canoeing, climbing, cycling – well, okay, maybe not love, but I am starting to enjoy cycling. The point is that I’m not a fat slob who gets out of breath taking a shit. I’m moderately fit; I do sporty type things.

And yet, I have very little interest in sport itself. I can drive and like driving fast and along difficult country lanes, but I cannot watch formula one without wondering whether I’ve died and gone to hell. Doing is not the same as participating, but sport is primarily a spectator activity. Far more watch football than ever lay on a chilly Sunday morning, happily berating foreign players for weather gloves and snoods whilst refusing to leave their electric blanket fuelled dens themselves. It’s entertainment, I get that, even if I don’t particularly find it entertaining.

People looked at me like I was mad when I made zero effort to secure Olympics tickets. To be honest, if I was there I would no doubt get swept up in the moment, be taken over by a crowd’s hysteria of anticipation on the verge of being squashed and fear that every loud noise is the thermite being detonated. I may even enjoy myself, but equally it may make me want to tug my eyeballs out and eat them as watching the games in Beijing did. I didn’t want to watch the games, but they were shown in the pub I tended bar for during my Masters. The afternoon shifts were far from busy and the time difference meant it was likely to be men’s third round hurdle-javelin hybrid blaring at high volume. It was either watch or play on fruit machines. Or read the Daily Mail. Anything to avoid talking to the midday drunk with tattoos on his knuckles and scurvy scabs at the corner of his lips.

So, next summer: I’m not sure I really want to risk spending money on an event that will leave me initially frustrated at the inevitable claustrophobia of the queues in and then potentially suicidal at the dreariness of it all. I’ll be okay if I skip this one. But people can’t believe me. I’m missing out, they insist, on a once in a generation experience of terminal public transport collapse. What will I do whilst the games are on? What other thing is there possibly to do? Get on with my normal life and read less news, I guess.

A working knowledge of football is, however, a necessity for a man trying to negotiate with the rest of the world. There’s a default presumption that you will support a team. My choice, for having a false one is usually easier than explaining otherwise, of Birmingham City is mainly based on their lack of success meaning few people know anything about them either so I am less likely to be caught out in any error. But, after several years of pretence it started to become genuine, as though I was an undercover agent gone native, unable to remember what was a lie and what wasn’t. The deeper I went the greater the required knowledge to engage in the banter. I was reduced to actually reading the BBC Sport’s section on an almost daily basis to keep up with the statistics and gossip the clichéd twists and fucking turns that defined any season. And this is, I think, largely my problem with sport. It refuses to let you be passive; you have to give money and become emotionally involved.

To be honest there was a part of me that quite enjoyed the time in my life when evenings out were dedicated to watching football as part of a group. Not, I should clarify, the time during the 2006 world cup when I went to a pub in Islington with my colleagues and someone, not one of us, spent the match’s duration berating with ever more elaborately offensive language England. He was English, but clearly the players weren’t trying hard enough as they huffed and puffed their way to a not terribly convincing, but rarely in doubt victory. If it was he in Germany then the whole thing would be sewn up with a series of solo wonder goals, presumably. But, alas, he was a fat, balding, drunk, abusive moron who couldn’t even manage to sing the relatively easy tunes in anything other than a howl. Twat.

It was easy enough to enjoy the camaraderie of rooting for the same team. Male bonding takes place in few areas, but amongst the beer heavy adoration of a well-struck goal it is fully acceptable to hug a near stranger with tears of joy in his eyes and some sort of politically incorrect xenophobia on his lips. I think, however the need to be constantly aware of a player’s form, their number of assists, the clichés associated with their temperament, build, mercenary or sexual activities simply requires too much homework. I have enough obsessions to tend to without feeling socially obliged to know Peter ‘good touch for a big man clichéd lanky twonk’ Crouch* international scoring record against major or minor teams. Yet without this knowledge the whole dramatic tapestry makes no sense.

(* I had sports commentary clichés by the way for this to work... I feel mildly ashamed.)

Yes, I did just say the whole “dramatic tapestry” because the one thing I do appreciate, indeed am even jealous of, is sport’s artificially created drama. The result is always achingly tense because there’s your whole life as a fan hanging on it. The heroes and villains are perfectly formed and operate in a world of clear cut moments, of death defying, child sacrificing importance. Real ife is more subtle and complex and therefore full of apathy; rolling along is easier than struggling to understand.

Those moments of anguish are impossible to create in any other medium. That’s why novels about sport are almost always rubbish because they are too contrived, too scripted. Even good ones are really about something else. David Peace’s Damned United isn’t about football, it’s about the destroying obsession of ambition and shyness drowned out by overconfidence. Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland isn’t about cricket, it’s about loneliness and despair and last chances post 9/11. Don DeLillo’s EndZone isn’t about American football, it’s... Actually, it’s a clunky analogy of warfare being everywhere so let’s just ignore that one.

There’s no real competition. Sport allows the dullness, the sort of tedium novel readers would burn, of a nil-nil draw, or a long fought out five day test match broken every half hour by rain, or Steve Davis playing snooker game to help prepare for the thrillingly where literally anything could happen. You really can’t actually make it up. For example, I’m reliably told that when Birmingham City won their first trophy for forty-odd years back in the spring against far superior Arsenal side it took the Londoner’s goalkeeper and defender to stop playing and watch the ball bounce in the air between them and roll away as they then, passively let the Birmingham striker score. If you tried to write something like that random sequence of events no-one would believe your ham-fisted prose. And yet, because actual football has the twenty-two independent spoilt, overpaid characters roaming freely each with their own calculated agendas trying to fuck it up for everyone else, people believe in the impossible.

In fact they crave for it. No-one cares if Andy Murray wins a long sequence of Masters titles and advances on the world number one spot. No, they want a jaw stretching scream of triumph and then the broken, sobbing mess of man clutching the base-line two matches later as he fails to win Wimbledon. Sport really, implausibly, matters to people, far more people than ever give a toss about fiction. And it matters, ridiculously, because they love drama; they want to have the thrill of the briefest high and then crushing despair for the majority. It’s kind of like crack-cocaine.

Wish I could write like that.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Fix up, look sharp.

‘Are you going to a wedding?’ my colleague asked the other Tuesday morning.

‘Um, no.’

‘I’ve never seen you looking so smart.’ Then she burst into hysterical laughter, slapping her knee with unrestrained glee.

I have, it appears, something of a reputation for scruffiness. One that, to be honest, is well founded. My shirts are frequently rumpled. My face often cast by a few days of shadow. My hair ruffled to varying degrees depending upon how many seconds I have in front of the mirror that morning. I may well own some shoe polish, but I’ve long lost it. Outside of the work place, the theme continues with my shirts open a couple of buttons too many, scuffed trouser rims, holes here and there and a general sense of being dishevelled.

I wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time I cared and whilst, it could be argued, I frequently failed at I least tried. But what began as a money saving exercise during my Masters became more of a way of life. I developed a determination that appearance required time and time was something precious. If my degree wasn’t going to gift me a book deal and I had to go back to work, then I wasn’t going to waste additional minutes ironing when I could be writing.

Deep down I always knew it would be like this. That is to say it would be hard. Objectively I understood that most things worthwhile doing are difficult. At no point did I genuinely believe that a career of letters, writing and general self-indulgence in being lost inside my head beckoned and all I had to do was spend a year talking pretentiously about words to enable it. That would be silly. But then I do like to dream.

Daydreams, unfortunately, have been somewhat omnipresent in my life. I am far too willing for my imagination to slip away from wherever I am supposed to be and to wonder about somewhere else; another time, another place, another person I might have been. Which is ridiculous. My lot in life is pretty good, and yet I’ve always been like this.

I remember quite clearly attending first year junior school, when I would have been seven or eight years old. One wall of the class room was entirely taken up by a window, from lino floor to stained ceiling, from blackboard to dented lockers. The teacher was of the old style where rote and repetition was the basis of learning. And so on she droned; on and on about, well, who knows. Whatever seven year olds were supposed to learn in 1986. I don’t remember, but I do recall looking out the window towards the playground and the sloping grass bank that ran alongside the school and thinking about all the things that the slope could be. Covered in snow and sledged along. Skidded down in wet grass. A point of momentum for the terrorists who were coming to seize control of the school and hold the area at gunpoint until a valiant resistance, spearheaded by myself, could wrest control of some of their weapons and lead a fight-back.


For some reason, that later scenario was a daydream I often indulged in. I cast myself as the seven year old hero who gets the girl and beats the baddies.

I was something of a strange child.

But I digress (sort of). Let’s return to me sitting and gazing out the window, completely lost in the scene unfolding inside my head. Ow! A sharp slap across the back of the skull snaps me back into the tedium of school life and the dream is not broken, but paused, ready to be restarted the next moment reality gets a bit too much.

I was bored and I wanted something more exciting to happen. Something so exciting that life would never be the same again.

It was a problem that persisted long after I should have grown out of it.

When I was a teenager I spent hours meandering around the local streets (usually delivering newspapers to be entirely fair to myself) submerged in dreams of what if and glory. I wanted to be in a rock and roll band. I wanted to write stories. I wanted to act. I wanted to be a politician. I wanted to burn out and be finished by my mid-twenties. I wanted to be the centre of everyone’s attention and for them to love me for it and to miss me when I was gone. Daydreams were solace to hide in. The problem was, aside from some pretentious short stories and scripts for comics I was too talentless to draw, I didn’t really do anything about it. Certainly, I expended far greater effort in the imaging than in the actual doing.

Inertia was never really going to make me popular with the girls.

This attitude persisted into adulthood. Maybe it was inevitable given the long periods of time life made available when I could be thinking about what might else have been. Long lonely drives across the country, almost moving the car subconsciously, my mind not really there but wistfully imagining whilst a more rewarding life. Or the hours spent hiking when the weather closes in and you pull inside your waterproofs and conversation evaporates as you mechanically concentrate on one foot in the front of the other. But there’s still space in your head for unrealised aspirations, to wonder of different futures and maybes and perhaps and what would have happened if I’d done it first or differently, said no, or stepped left.

Eventually, I did do something about it. Despite the long hours of my day job, I began to write more diligently. I put in time every night and most weekends, submerged myself and dragged the things in my head out onto the page. I even got some results. I told myself to go for it properly, to stop thinking and start doing. I told myself time and again that it wouldn’t easy, that it would require effort and disappointment and grief and frustration and maybe even a little blood. But I couldn’t stop myself.

During my year of self-indulgence, I would writing in the mornings and then go for long afternoon walks, ostensibly to compose “lyrical masterpieces” in my head, but almost inevitably my mind would empty and either the latest domestic issue – needing to service the car, or paint the bedroom properly, or what to have for dinner – would trickle in and once that was clear, well then there would just be the void. The imaginative chasm which would slowly flood with first a completed manuscript and then an excited call from the agent I’d sent it to and then, finally, an actual, real printed novel bearing my name at the masthead.

My dreams would come true.

That is, if they weren’t just dreams.

I sit now at my new desk in my new flat. Somewhere amongst my files is a growing stack of rejection slips. I thought that I’d done the hard bit. I’ve completed a manuscript, but now the dreamy bit doesn’t seem to be happening. The truth is that I’m not trying hard enough. I haven’t sent out any pitches for months allegedly because I didn’t know where I’d be living.

Here, I’ll tell you a secret. The real reason is that I’m scared that when I’ve sent it to everyone the dream will still be just that; nothing.

At the moment there is still possibility, although of most intangible unrealistic variety.
But there’s a new home and another new, better life. I have more chance than many if I have the determination. On the way home from work this evening I glanced over a fellow commuter’s shoulder at the magazine they were holding. The cover said ‘What chance does Amanda Knox have for the life she dreamed of?’ Maybe the question should be about Meredith Kercher’s dreams, but the comparison shames me. It’s time to get my act together. It’s time to reboot. I’ve been spending too much time on the fun stuff, the making shit up, the actual writing and avoiding not the difficult, scary part where I try to force other people to read my work.

It’s time to smarten myself up. So, I’ve been ironing hot creases into my shirts, I’ve been shaving most days, I’ve started to take care in my appearance not because I am giving up and returning to the office career trajectory, but simply because it is time to take myself seriously. It is time to do, rather than looking for excuses to keep on dreaming.

The razor bites into the hair on my chin; the new blade wrenches the follicle from the root. Underneath the flesh is raw and the splashed water and alcohol on my face stings. Nice and sharp.

Like lemon and gin in the open wound.

Like jealous nails gouging for the eyes.

Like used syringes in the ice cream.

It’s time to wake up.