Stories in Seven Sentences (I)

THE DREAMER

Your bare feet hardly make a sound as they carry your increasingly wakeful body from the failed sanctuary of your home. Blood pumps hard through every vein as you struggle to maintain the frenetic pace of escape, but every fibre of your being aches for you to keep running. Every step brings a half-remembered thought of dread, of pain, of horror, of fear – the wrenching knot of your gut taunting you as you turn corner after corner. The darkness of the pre-dawn urges you on, whilst the unnatural silence dares you to continue into the black, for surely even oblivion is better than that hideous alternative? But each tiring step also denies you of evidence, your ears strain to hear any sound in the gloom, the unfamiliar surroundings work the inner recesses of your imagination hard, but there is also doubt here. For as you slow, you realise that this must be just another night terror, a by-product of a grossly over-active imagination, and as you turn yourself homeward you chastise your indulgence of one too many horror stories. But it is real… and it is too late.


Flirtation, Fornication & Pheromones

In the space of the past 48 hours I have witnessed three distinctly different reactions to the warm weather. All of them were realised in the pursuit of the flesh, but I was interested to note how the power dynamic was actually quite similar in all three situations. (hint: if you’ve got something that a guy wants to “get involved with” – you have the power).

 

Spring has sprung!

The first observation was made in my local gym. I was there at around 5pm, so a similar time to when the local colleges are kicking out I guess. It’s an earthy kind of place, with the young, lithe types sneaking looks at each other whilst huge-thighed men and women stomp away on treadmills and the rest of us world-weary folk just try and get by without anyone noticing how small the weights we’re lifting actually are. Anyhew, I was balancing on a bosu in the “floor space” – as you do – with a half dozen other people. When in walks your archetypal provocatrice in a low-cut (and wholly inappropriate) top, all giggles and hair and barely-contained boobs. I swear that everyone under the age of twenty-five stopped what they were doing. And boy, did she know it. Before long she was asking for “tips” from some of the guys, which obviously involved her lying on the floor and letting them loom over her, concentrating hard on not letting their panting tongues slip out of their mouths. And the banter, the banter!  There was innuendo that Freddie Mercury would have been proud of all delivered with a coquettish smile not unreminiscent of what the Argonauts must have gazed upon before hurling themselves into the briny deep. But there was a sad edge as her confidence in her powers increased, she dumped the punier 19 year-olds in favour of sidling up to the larger, well-sculpted gentleman with the rock hard abs (occasionally flashed in the mirror). Sadly she had at this point overshot herself, for as anybody who as ever been to a gymnasium knows, there is no getting between the gym bunny narcissist and their own reflection.

The second encounter of the “mad March hare” kind came as I was caught short after a prolonged tube journey and on my way to the park. Now I know public conveniences have gotten a lot of stick in the past, but really if you’re a guy and all you need is to pass water then frankly it’s not that much of an ordeal. Now I don’t know about you, but the one thing that does cross my mind every time I use a public loo is. Is this a cottage? I have never been able to 100% formally confirm the existence of such a venue. Well that is, until now… I’ve always wondered how you could tell whether a toilet was – you know – just a toilet, but now I know that I’d never been in a functioning cottage until this week. The distinction appears to be that if you’re there for anything other than what they were designed for, you’ll stay unnaturally long and make way too much eye contact. Or you’ll hang out nonchalantly (!) at the entrance whilst pretending to check something on your phone. Please, you’re not fooling anyone, it’s a lovely sunny day and you’re standing in the shade surrounded by the odour of public toilets. You’re not here for the free wifi… It was all so furtive, people standing at the urinals for minutes and minutes on end. Then changing positions, moving down the wall! And drying their hands for the entire time it took me to go in, do my business, wash and dry my hands and leave. The thing that struck me the most about all the meaningful glances and subterfuge was quite how many guys there were just standing around in there. Waiting. It wasn’t until I left that I realised how much of the power I had held in that room, none of them were looking at each other. It was like being behind the looking glass.

It was when my journey ended and I sat down on a park bench when the third in my torrid triumvirate was completed. I was surrounded by pigeons feeding of stale foccacia or whatever else the Italian tourists were feeding them, when I noticed two individuals had become separated from the rest of the pack, one was following the other with quite some intent. It became obvious that the one in front was the lady pigeon and the one trailing was her erstwhile suitor. As he approached her he lifted his head to reveal the opalescent feathers beneath and strutted in a circle before running a bit closer and performing the whole ritual again. Now I’m no animal psychologist and certainly not adept at reading the body language of the Columba Palumbus, but she was clearly having none of it. Leading him on a merry and unflattering dance, she shook him off like a mere irritation, comfortable in the knowledge that she was in charge. At one point it looked as though he was getting somewhere as she turned her head to gaze upon the face of her potential mate. Would this be the point at which all his efforts would be rewarded? And would I finally work out where exactly the baby pigeons are…? Sadly not, at this point he was almost trampled to death by an over-zealous pair of runners obviously out on a run from work. The man was holding back, with an ungainly gait designed only to impress. The woman wasn’t wearing a sports bra. And it is thus that I shall leave you on this sexy circular story.


Pastries from the Past

It may seem that I had given up posting on the blog for Lent, but let me assure you that this was merely a function of not having anything to post about, followed by having lots to post about and then getting overwhelmed at what was an increasing time between posts and then worrying what my “first post back” should be and how I should say it and what my excuse ought to be.  But then I thought I’d just get on with it and type the first thing that came into my head. And the result is this paragraph. Hmm. I think I spot a trend occurring. So moving on…

This weekend I went to a 30th birthday party of a very good friend of mine. Beforehand we’d been told that the party was being put on by Vintage Patisserie. Now I hadn’t heard of them before, but apparently Angel, the founder, appeared on Dragon’s Den and did rather well. The basic concept was a completely personalised vintage tea party experience, including special cocktails drunk out of tea cups and a bevy of beautiful sandwiches. They take over a room in the upstairs of a pub in London’s trendy Shoreditch and set the whole thing up like a post-war celebratory event. Not only do you get food and drink, but there are opportunities for dressing up as well as a chance for the girls to get their hair and make-up done in the style of the period.

Prosecco and jasmine green tea cocktails

Now I’m no style maven and whenever I frequent vintage shops, and frequent is a deliberately ironic word to use, I tend to wander around without the first clue as to which patterns are kitsch fun compared to those which are just kitsch crap and generally wondering why the smell of jumble sales has burgeoned into a big industry. Despite this and having hair too short to be styled (believe me, I’ve tried) – even I had an absolutely brilliant afternoon. I would put the reason for that solely down to the attention to detail that had been lavished on the occasion. There were cupcakes and bunting with pictures of the birthday girl, old school board games littering the table, a gloriously eccentric collection of teacups and china as well as the impeccably turned out waitresses – all seamed nylon and victory curls. But beyond that, I had my own special needs sandwiches and scones (I’m wheat intolerant) and couldn’t have felt more looked after – but in that good service way, not that irritating and ingratiating way. It’s very rare for WF catering to actually taste good, but I can tell you that those scones with clotted cream and jam were like a personal gift to me, something I never thought I’d be able to eat again (if you don’t know, WF cooking usually leads to rather dour, dry and dense desserts).

The best thing for me though, was to see this entrepreneurial individual, making a go of a niche business with passion and obviously succeeding with gusto. There was a great feeling in the room for the entire duration and I’m sure that Angel will receive repeat business from some people who attended. And that’s why brand and “soft” attributes are sometimes more important than the dreaded P/L sheets – if you have a passion and a skill, and you are a genuine person (and don’t let yourself get taken for a ride) there is every opportunity for you to excel in whatever you put your mind to.

And that’s something I really can get behind.

Check out Vintage Patisserie here: www.vintagepatisserie.co.uk

And if you do get in contact with Angel, tell her the guy with the red bow tie sent you!

Pee Wee Herman eat your heart out.

 


Dumbing Down Diversity

I’ve been thinking about this post and whether I should write it or not all day.  In the end I thought that it would be a betrayal (of sorts) to censor myself, just because the subject is likely to be controversial. So, I would truly appreciate any comments or thoughts you have on the subject.

Today is International Women’s Day. And I don’t agree with it.

Let me explain. I actually consider myself, if not a true feminist, then an ardent supporter of equality issues. But therein lies the rub. Equality means that everybody should have equal chances in life, equal opportunities and a right to be treated fairly no matter what circumstances life has thrown at you. I’m not for a moment going to suggest that there ought to be an International Man’s Day to keep balance, as that would be ridiculous, but why do we feel the need to highlight one day a year to celebrate the achievements of around 50% of the world’s population?

OK – strictly speaking, women are a minority but what I fear is that this tokenistic show of support threatens to undermine the ongoing (and sadly likely to be eternal) struggle that the female half of the population have to try and overcome. Great – so we spend 24 hours thinking about women doctors, women inventors, women soldiers, women scientists, women protestors, women pioneers, women musicians, women volunteers and women workers; so who do we think about tomorrow? I’m sure there are more than 365 worthy minorities whose struggles against prejudice deserve recognition at some point in our calendar – as a white, middle-class male living in one of the richest countries in the world I am unlikely to feature in many of them – should I be listening to and celebrating all of them? In a truly egalitarian society, at what point do I draw a line and stop caring?

And on top of that, are there really any long-term benefits to this endeavour? Do we really think that someone who doesn’t view women as an equal will change their views as a result of this day? Or do we think that there is anybody who doesn’t already know that women sometimes have a tough time of it that will hear about it? Will enlisting James Bond himself make an appreciable difference?

Granted there may be specific instances of inequality that may be raised or promoted – but I think using the banner of International Women’s day is facile and actually a bit patronising in a post-feminist world. Does this day make women feel good about themselves? I’d genuinely like to know.

But then again, I’m a white male living in one of the richest countries in the world – so I probably don’t understand the true gravity of the situation.


Gunge. Goo. Gaga.

I am a massive fan of the music video as an art form. And seeing as I had a spare bit of time at the exact same moment as Lady Gaga unleashed her latest audiovisual behemoth on the world I thought it might be fun to “review” it.

After another enormous amount of fanfare, we have all now had a chance to see the latest offering from this century’s most talked-about musician (by people over the age of 14, sorry Bieberphiles) – what do you mean you haven’t seen it yet? OK. Catch-up here:

Right, so where to begin, eh? Following on from her egg-cellent entrance to Grammys (oh yes I did), Ms Gaga is continuing on her theme of rebirth with an ostentatious but heavy-handed visual extravaganza into her own imagination – she is listed as the co-director of the clip. We start on an initial neon window, through which we just manage to glimpse a dream Alison Godfrapp had in 2002 before a hasty segue into a lengthy & pretentious opening monologue (something to do with a GOAT and Mother Monster) that misses the mark in terms of profundity. Sample clunky line “thus began the beginning” – well what else was it supposed to do? The emphasis in this clip is on physical and other in-camera effects, which deliver a much more visceral edge compared to the high gloss of Bad Romance. Where this really hits its stride is with the goo and gunge which pour forth from Gaga as she seemingly gives birth to first a giant egg and then herself. Scenes which reminded me of a recent Flaming Lips album cover.

Once we’ve got past the guff about being reborn as good and evil (what?) we finally get to the part that a thousand dance imitators have been waiting for, and the bit that is likely to make it on to telly. This is my favourite part of the video, just before the routine kicks in Lady Gaga walks amongst the semi-clad dancers and almost imperceptibly bobs her head along with the building intro. Much like we all did when we first heard the track – it’s a nice touch that emphasizes the growth in confidence that she has experienced since the days of having to hide behind a giant hat.

And so to the dancing. Now I’m no style maven, but is she wearing flip-flops? Having more than brushed with celebrity culture in the past, I can already feel a bunion conspiracy theory waiting in the wings – that’ll keep Heat magazine’s red circle of shame working overtime for weeks. Anyway – I’m sure that this routine is already being discussed by hungry choreographers, zumba dance teachers and teens who are YouTube famous all across the globe. I don’t have the creds to pass comment, but suffice to say that I think she stole a move from Austin Powers – on the line “don’t be a drag, just be a queen”.

So ultimately, this video, made for the internet and certainly not for MTV will surely live a certain amount of time in the public’s consciousness – although I doubt its legacy will come anywhere close to Telephone or the aforementioned Bad Romance. (Side note – checking YouTube, the boring video for Alejandro has more than double the number of views of those other two put together.) The real and “infinite” and “eternal” rebirth will be in the endless parodies and pastiches that we’ll be enduring long after the track has dropped out of heavy rotation.


Rare Reverse Rant

I know the internet is mainly about venting, demonstrating, complaining and their less positive brethren trolling, insulting, hating. This blog will probably see its fair share of those in time. And believe me, I think that some of the best things that this place has ever achieved are down to this freedom. But for once I want to rally against the rant and extol the virtues of a particular kind of friend.

There are a few people that I have known now for over a third of my life, and it’s a testament to how our shared experiences have shaped us that a group so diverse in scope are all still friends now. We all started our relationships pretty much on exactly the same path, as science students, but now we number among us marketers, lawyers, teachers, travel agents, engineers, communications gurus and TV execs who span the entire globe. And we can still meet up and immediately revert to our comfortable & comforting places within the group. And every time it feels like coming home. There’s a communal trust there and even though I can go six months or sometimes even a year without seeing some of them, there is never awkward conversation, never judgment and always support, always friendship. And always laughs. And I mean belly laughs. These are people that know you the best and you can completely be yourself with them, without all the pretences of a professional life or the politics of a new friendship group. There’s no pretending. They can see right through you. And it’s wonderful.

So if you’re lucky enough to know anybody that fits this bill, why don’t you give them a call, meet up for a beer, drop them a text saying hi or even just use Facebook. Because no matter how easy it is when you are together, it is also far too easy to take this valuable gift for granted and let it gradually, and almost imperceptibly, slide into the recesses of the past. And that’s a terrible waste.


Boredom-beating bromance

 

Does anyone else think they've gone overboard on the airbrushing of Simon Pegg?

First up, I should qualify that this film was probably written specifically for me. Well, not personally, but demographically speaking. One of my earliest memories is the excitement I felt when my Dad brought home an anonymous looking VHS cassette and put it into the machine advising me to “wait and see” what it was. It didn’t take long for me to work it out though – that gloriously anachronistic prologue in blue, followed by the now-familiar fanfare and then the baffling scrolling yellow writing which always seemed to go on way too long, until finally we see that Star Destroyer releasing the imperial probes – one of which will eventually track down our heroes in their frozen fortress.

So yes, when Simon Pegg says “I really liked that T-shirt” about his beautiful Empire Strikes Back grey tee it was a poignant moment indeed. This film was meant as a love letter to Spielberg, specifically to Close Encounters, but whilst there are obvious elements that have been imported from his canon – the film is actually a love letter from Simon and Nick Frost to each other. And as that, it works well. In reality their characters in the film (Grahame & Clive) are a bit too old to be doing this whole nerd shtick – going to Comic-Con and then following it up with a road trip to all the best-known UFO hotspots in the US. Most men of their age would have settled down and given up these childish things but these two guys have stuck with it, clinging on to fleeting sci-fi success from the 90s and seemingly unable to commit to the real world. For me the story arc of Clive (played by Frost) was the less clichéd and more truthful one. What would happen if you finally did get what you’ve always wanted? You’ve been dreaming about little green (or grey) men for most of your life. How do you deal with the crushing and unavoidable anticlimax of actually meeting one? As the more introspective of the two, I found his reaction to their intergalactic hitchhiker much more engaging than the “let’s just get on with our adventure” reaction of Pegg’s Graham. The relationship between the two humans was well written, although I think it was hardly a stretch for them to play best buddies – the supporting characters were all fun, although not really given enough time to breathe and be sufficiently fleshed out. Kristen Wiig enters the film as a one-eyed creationist and ends it a very different person indeed. Whether her speedy transformation is symptomatic of her character’s underlying motivations, or whether it’s a sacrifice in the name of storytelling is up for debate. But then again, this is not meant to be an in-depth character study. In fact, the best character of the lot is the Seth Rogen-voiced Paul himself. Smart, and smart-talking, but with an appealingly dumb streak he manages to be worldly-wise and naive at the same time. And his verbal and physical delivery is spot on. And unlike computer-generated characters that are meant to resemble real people, you don’t have the problem of constantly comparing his skin tone / eye colour / iris reflex with what a photoreal person would actually do (see Tron: Legacy).

OK – so far this isn’t a review, more a jumble of thoughts vaguely related to the film in question. But I don’t care. It’s my blog and I’ll do what I want. Apparently. Although I suppose I should at least get round to whether I thought it was good or not! I enjoyed it, on the level of spotting all the quotes and references lifted from other films (I’m sure there are many I missed, but off the top of my head we had Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, Total Recall, ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The X-Files, Return of the Jedi etc.), and I laughed out loud a few times (which with me is more of an achievement than it sounds). Did it exceed my expectations? No. Did it change my life? No. Did it have the layers of storytelling like Shaun of the Dead? No. Did I have fun? Yes. Would I recommend it to you? Yes – if you’re a nerd like me, you’ll have fun.

***


Purposefulness & Pyramids

So in order to try and prevent any creative blockages that might befall this nascent blog (although four days in the blogosphere is practically a retirement, right?), I suppose I ought to try and define it a little bit. And seeing as I’m now writing a blog – why don’t I just do it here?

I suppose that’s the first type of thing I’ll be doing. Asking questions that are rhetorical, irrelevant or possibly some combination of the two. The beauty about shouting into an empty space is that you don’t expect answers. I had a manager once who employed the “cardboard cut-out” approach to problem-solving. Often summoning me to his desk so that he could spell out what his problem was and then almost immediately work out the solution for himself. And it’s a technique that I picked up from him over the years and have to say I’m a big fan of. So, dear reader, thank you for being my cardboard cut-out.

The truth is – I’m not sure why I’ve started a blog. I have been meaning to explore this world for a while, and as I’ve now got a lot more time on my hands (more of which to follow no doubt) I really couldn’t put it off any longer. As to what I want to talk about? I’m still clueless. I imagine there will be plenty of thinly-veiled analogies such as the first post, but I would also like to indulge my love of stuff by spouting forth about whatever I happen to be watching / listening to / reading / experiencing / visiting / ignoring / hating / avoiding / denying at any particular time. I also like the fact that I’m starting something that everyone else seems to be saying is dying.

I can hardly claim to be a cultural titan, but the past seven days have already seen a new album from one of my favouritest bands, an introduction to a potential new one from a trusted friend (and blogger) and a visit to the British Museum to see the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. So let’s start there.

The Opening of the Mouth. With carpenter's tools.

To be honest, they should have called it the Books of the Dead, as each one was custom-designed for each person’s journey to the afterlife. Well, it was unless you bought one of the pre-written ones and just filled in your name afterwards (a tradition I saw continuing with a “write your own will” at WH Smiths once). A kind of set of instructions about how the “ba” (soul / spirit) of a living person can make the most successful transition to the underworld.

I was taken by many things at the exhibition, principally the museum itself, which I have (wretchedly) never actually visited before. However, I was certainly not impressed by the organisation of the “special” exhibition which was overcrowded and cramped – and one thing you’ll learn about me as this blog matures is quite how little tolerance I have for the general public.

What I loved most about it though, was the number of parallels that could be drawn between a civilisation existing 3,000 years ago and our own constantly evolving stab at getting on with it. Each book would be different and would contain all sorts of spells that you could use as soon as you passed over. Some of them were fairly prosaic, such as spells to ward off beasties from consuming your mortal remains – in case you ever needed them again I suppose – but some were a lot more interesting. Like the tiny figurines called Shabti that you would have buried with you, inscribed with certain mystical verses that would enable you to command them to perform any arable farming that was required of you in the underworld. Specifically. To this end, hundreds and hundreds of spells were concocted to try and combat every perceivable occurrence from beyond the “grave”. The richer or more important you were, the more spells you had – leading to one extraordinary example on display which was 37m long. That particular priestess was probably incredibly paranoid, very well informed or simply just a show off.

I think I just love the idea of these religious types spitballing new spells to be added to the book:

“Ooh! What if you’re in the land of the dead, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And you know you have one of those bits of hanging skin by your fingernail?”

“Erm… OK…”

“And when you try to pull it off, you always end up halfway to your knuckle?”

“I do hate when that happens but…”

“And it’s really painful, and it won’t stop bleeding?”

“You’re right that it’s fairly inconvenient but do you think it warrants….”

“Listen. Do you want to explain to the princess why it is her fingers are in such a state that Ra doesn’t let her on the sun boat?”

“Well, not really no, but I still think…”

“EXACTLY. That’s why we should do a spell for that!”

“And charge another couple of oxen?”

“Naturally!”

“Naturally.”

I bet there are similar, but more modern, exchanges such as this going on all over the world to this day.


Balking at a blank canvas

I hate white spaces.

I especially hate big empty blank pages.

Lined pages aren’t so bad. Squared sheets, like they use in France, are less terrifying again.

But it’s the pure, unadulterated, crisp, unblemished white page that really sends me into a cold sweat. Even rendered digitally, it looms large in the mind. Seemingly sentient. Waiting. Staring. Judging. In fact it’s almost worse as it bathes you in the cool but ultimately bleak light of your own trepidation.

And it doesn’t end there. The blank canvas looms large at me in ever ingenious fashions. There it is now, casually taunting me from it’s whiter-than-ivory tower of “opportunity”. Oh yes, the blank canvas is adept at propaganda. There are many “opportunities” when you are offered a blank canvas. “You could do anything!” it sneers. “The world is your oyster…” it coos. “You’re so lucky to have a chance like this.” it sets you up for the final, killing blow – “Your only limit is your own imagination.”

Because what if your imagination isn’t enough? What if you don’t take full advantage of this situation? You could agonise for days over what to put on that sacred piece of proverbial parchment. Searching books and newspapers and magazines and in-flight pamphlets for inspiration. TV shows and movies and the internet and friends are plumbed for possible sources of creativity. Your mind flip-flopping between ideas, concepts, words & pictures until you stumble across something in the whole jumbled-up mess, a glint, a grain, a glob of truth. And you grab it. And it’s tantalising. And it’s terrible. And it’s too late.

Because you see, once that virgin surface is sullied with the first drawing of your stylus. There is no way back. There are no erasers, keystrokes or brainwashing techniques that will completely eradicate an ill-thought out line. A well-worn cliché. A tired metaphor. A hackneyed example.

And perhaps I haven’t managed it either.

But at least this bloody page isn’t blank any more!