Monday, 30 March 2009

Lights, camera, inaction

A long, long time ago. In a pub far away from here*. Two men spoke of great things.

"What would you say to the chance to write a screenplay?" asked the younger one.

"I'd say, 'Hello, Chance to Write a Screenplay,' because that would be the polite thing to do," replied the older one. He was a bit of an arse, truth be told.

Long months passed. That bamboo clump in the older man's back garden got more unruly. Firefox 3.0.8 came and went. Bounty kitchen roll got re-named 'Plenty'. They were crazy times.

And yet the screenplay had not progressed very much. It was about six pages long. Not so much a screenplay, more of a Haiku in motion. Sheer brilliance, but only six pages, nevertheless. The older man seemed to prefer writing little 400-word entries on his blog. Then he discovered Twitter and the passing of time became even more of an illusion. The younger man remained largely patient.

The two knew a third man. In the same twelve months, the third man had come up with an idea, written a full screenplay, cast it, sought out locations, got hold of a crew and started filming. The first two men, the younger patient one and the older procrastinator were involved in this new film's first day of filming. It was a great day.

The younger man was very good about it; he didn't hector or harangue his older friend about the lack of a script. Instead he allowed it all to soak in.

"I should just knuckle down and do this, shouldn't I?" said the currently-failed screenplay author.

"That would be nice," said his younger friend, "just get on with it. And no blogging about how you still haven't delivered the script."

Oh bugger.

*(Well, about ten minutes, really. But it's not an easy walk. Especially on the way back.)

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Share it fairly but don't take a slice of my pie

This is probably the closest I'll get to this blog intersecting with what, for sake of a better term, I call my professional life. I deliberately keep the two separate, normally. But the events going on in the world of finance are such that they probably deserve a mention.

I'll tell you something for nothing - the last eighteen months have led me to request a new keyboard on my PC at work, with the word 'unprecedented' accessible through a single keystroke.

Anyhow, the news broke recently that one of the largest banks had managed to lose something like £28billion in the space of a year. Which was, apparently, a new record. Although I don't suspect Roy Castle, were he still with us, would applaud their dedication, it certainly shows at least one sector of British industry that's happy to push the envelope.

And it got me thinking. 28 billion quid in one year. That takes a lot of planning to get through. I mean, they could have just drawn out 1,400,000,000 £20 notes and put them through the shredder instead. It would have saved all that 'pretending to run a bank' malarkey, for starters.

But even my shredding plan wouldn't have been a walk in the park. I mean, to get through all those twenties, you'd need to be going pretty much non-stop for the whole year. You'd be blitzing 117,000,000 of them every month. No time for weekends in this brave new banking world, though, you'd be too busy grinding up 3,835,000 twenties every single day. At 160,000 per hour, no time for sleep, either.

In fact, to duplicate the performance of one of our leading banks, you'd be shovelling £20 notes into the Rexel at the rate of 44 per second. Every second, for a whole year.

And it was when I'd considered this that I had a blinding revelation. I know what I would have done. How I could, using plain old-fashioned British common-sense, have measurably improved matters.

If I'd been in charge, I'd have been using £50's. They would probably have been able to knock off by the end of April.

That phone call from the Treasury must be imminent.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

To boldly go

We were engaged in frantic tidying recently. Olympic-standard sorting. This, for us, is a Really Big Thing. Normally we tend to belong to the Quentin Crisp school of domesticity. (QC famously never cleaned. "After four years," he quipped, "you don't notice the dust.")

However, as it's Mothering Sunday this weekend and we have various family members circling us like planes in a holding pattern, we decided it was time to do something about the clutter and junk. All was going well. Then Katie ventured into The Place.

I realise that's the second time I've used capital initials so far. But The Place deserves them. Every home, no matter how tidy, has a Place. The Place in your home is where all manner of things tend to gravitate. It might be a kitchen drawer, or a space on top of a wardrobe. But you'll have a Place. And you'll rarely enter The Place, less so will you ever tidy it up.

Our Place is between the stereo and one of its speakers. This Place lends itself to capturing randomly thrown items. Letters, expired bank cards, old cheque stubs, all sorts. Once things get into The Place, they never return.

I knew Katie had entered The Place. I was in another room, but I heard her sigh.

Katie: "Why do you keep all these receipts?"
Me: "You never known when you might want to take something back."
Katie: "But this one's for a haircut. Explain that to me, Einstein."
Me: "I have no words."
Katie: "There's a wallet in here. Hang on, it's got stuff in it."
Me: (getting excited) "Really?"
Katie: "More receipts. Mainly for meals out. In New York. There's one here for Rothmanns Steakhouse on East 54th in Manhattan."
Me: "Ooh. Nice filet mignon."
Katie: "Do I need to remind you that it was January 2007 when we last went to the States? Look, there's $17 here."
Me: "But that's good news. The exchange rate means we're much better off now than we would have been if I'd changed it into pounds in 2007. We're rich, I tell you, rich!"
Katie: "I didn't have to marry you, you know. I had other options."

Truth of the matter is, no-one else would have either of us. I like to think we're performing a service to humanity.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Just when you thought it was safe

Looking back, I suppose it was coming for a while.

January had been pretty tough, but I'd made my way though it. After the funeral I threw myself headlong into other things. The business of being busy. Work and sleep, the regular rhythm. Writing daft things down for a handful of strangers to read. Social stuff. Displacement and distraction.

Sure, I'd get reminders here and there. Odd things. There was a trailer for the latest series of ER running on TV through February - a doctor type character with a pained expression was explaining to someone that he'd lost his father a year ago and still hadn't got over it properly. It made me wonder, every time I saw it. Was I supposed to be like that?

It was still coming, though, sure as anything. This last couple of weeks had been unbelievably hectic at work. I'd been going in, working on two big projects simultaneously, with identical - and unmovable - deadlines. And I thought I was being the life and soul of the office, cracking jokes, firing out one-liners, being the busy bee in a hive of activity.

Last weekend I went to dinner at my brother's house with my mother. We all talked about various things. The future, mainly. But there were holes in the narrative like a Swiss cheese. Dad featured highly in the conversation, even when we weren't mentioning him. It occurred to me that it would have been his 72nd birthday on Thursday, and my parents' 50th wedding anniversary later this month.

Still, I seemed OK. Good days and less-than-good days. But something was coming. It was inevitable, sure as night follows day.

Yesterday was a whirlwind. One significant, and highly detailed, report delivered. The other project passed its key milestone. I was running around like a mad thing to get things done. In the midst of it I received some more bad family news. Yet still I kept on running.

Last night was a late one. I was driving home at about 9pm. The big projects were done and the pressure was off. I was on my own. There's a stretch of the A45 between Coventry and Birmingham that's unlit and at that time of night it was deserted. I was in my own little bubble. Then Paul McCartney's 'Maybe I'm Amazed' came on the radio.

The tears came. At first hesitant, then hot, salty, bitter. I can't explain this at all, but looking back I suppose all the signposts were there. It was no more than a minute, maybe even only 30 seconds. But when I reached the streetlights of Birmingham they had gone as quickly as they had arrived.

I slept like a baby last night and woke up refreshed this morning. It occurs to me that I haven't done that on a weeknight for some time. I'm certainly not sure that I'm over it. I don't think you're supposed to be - yet I have no frame of reference. Perhaps writing this down serves as therapy. Perhaps I'll re-read this in the morning and be embarrassed that I'm over-sharing.

Maybe I should stick to randomness.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Don't mention the Toblerone

There are just some things you don't expect to hear. Certain combinations of words that don't go together. So when the news on the radio covered the jailing of a Swiss Gigolo, my ears pricked up.

Yes. I realise the unfortunate use of words just then. Can we move on? Thanks.

Swiss Gigolo, then? It's not something I'd really considered, to be honest. By all accounts, the gentleman in question was originally an investment banker, which made me feel a little better. We're on familiar territory if we're talking about Swiss investment bankers. Maybe all Swiss people start out as investment bankers? Perhaps it's the default position?

Apparently he used to be a specialist in mergers. Stop sniggering at the back, there.

But the words 'Swiss' and 'Gigolo' still don't fit together, as far as I'm concerned. It doesn't seem right. A bit like a Libyan tobogganist or an Icelandic bluesman. Although 'Blind Herring Magnusson' does have a certain ring to it, I suppose.

Somehow I can't imagine 'Midnight Cowboy' with fondue.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Signs of ageing

To the badlands of Solihull last night for my friend Mike's birthday shenanigans. Actually, although I say "badlands", I think most Silhillians (that's what Solihull inhabitants are called - it has nothing to do with Tolkien, honest) would consider running out of sun-dried tomato as hardship and privation.

The night went very well. We went to a place for food that seemed to have taken the whole concept of fusion cuisine to the next level. You've not lived until you've been presented with the option of Thai chicken, lamb rogan josh, sushi and pizza on the same plate. But funnily enough, it seemed to work well. I certainly pushed the concept of an all-you-can-eat buffet to the nth degree.

Then onto the Coach House for drinking and other levity. Normally the pub empties around 9:30-10ish as the bright young things go off to a club, leaving us old farts with plenty of room. This wasn't the case last night - perhaps the clientele were making the most of pub prices before going off and paying omigod money for drinks elsewhere. Anyway, it meant that the place was heaving. It was five-deep at the bar, and a trip to the bathroom meant serious consideration as you'd be a good ten minutes pushing your way through the crowd.

I'm happy to admit this isn't normally my favourite drinking environment. I like a lively atmosphere as much as the next person, but there's a limit on just how much humanity I want to deal with on a night out. However, there was a solution - we simply moved outdoors.

Looks like fun, doesn't it? We could move away from the worst excesses of the music being played by the DJ while still enjoying a great atmosphere. But there was one problem - this is England in March, don't forget, and it gets a little chilly on a clear night. OK, my Canadian readers may scoff a little, but some of us were insufficiently anaesthetised to shrug off the cold.

As we sat huddled around the patio heater, we watched the garden around us fill up. And this is when the advancing years of our social circle came to the surface. There were girls. Lots of girls, all dressed up for a night out. It seemed like a competition to see how much flesh could be put on display. How short the hemlines could get. How diaphanous the material of each garment could get.

And the conversation among my friends went like this:

"Look at her."
"I see her. In the blue minidress and heels. Wow."
"I know. She must be freezing."
"She'll catch her death. She'd be much better in sensible jeans and a woolly pullover."
"Just what I was thinking."

We are so old.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Lost albums of our time

Everyone else is doing it, so why don't I?

Make your band's album cover:

1. Go to Wikipedia. Hit “random”
or click
The first random Wikipedia article you get is the name of your band.

2. Go to Quotations Page and select "random quotations"
or click
The last four or five words of the very last quote on the page is the title of your first album.

3. Go to Flickr and click on “explore the last seven days”
or click
Third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.

4. Use Photoshop (or similar) to put it all together.

Post the results and stand back in awe:

The Hotel Breakers were a seminal disco/symphonic/folk group based out of Droitwich in the late seventies. They never quite matched the majesty of their first big release, "He'll not sell much ice-cream going at that speed", a smash hit in the post-punk dancehalls of Worcestershire.

After an argument over the rules of croquet, the Hotel Breakers split up in the summer of 1982, citing recreational differences.

Random fact: the band took their name from their bass player's hotel habits. Apparently he would never hang up bath towels for re-use, causing a huge increase in unnecessary laundry and contributing directly to ecological disaster.

Monday, 2 March 2009

All the signs were there

All this talk of giving things up for Lent reminded me of a period of conspicuous consumption. It was the summer of 2005. A memorable time. The Vatican was choosing a new Pope. I'd sent my CV in, but wasn't hopeful. Live 8 was in the planning stages, part of the 'Mark Poverty History' campaign.

Make Poverty History? Who comes up with these names? I ask you.

To escape from the excitement (there was the Dutch referendum on the European Constitution; I told you these were crazy times), Katie and I decided to go on holiday to Spain. A friend of hers had a house in Gran Alacant which we rented for a fortnight. It was never going to be a culturally rich experience, more of a cheap fortnight with the sun on our backs.

And it delivered. The weather was hot. I got heroic sunburn. We drank red wine at about 3 Euros per litre while watching the sun go down over the Costa Blanca. We even managed to travel further afield after I agreed to hire a car. Although the rental company actually delivered something that looked more like an automotive toad:

600cc of throbbing power. Just what you need to haul two overweight Brits up winding mountainous roads.

In the evenings, when we weren't back at the house damaging our internal organs with I Can't Believe It's Not Vinegar, we would wander down to the local town square. That sounds rather nice doesn't it? Quaint. You'd expect flower baskets, religious festivals, paella a-plenty, wouldn't you? But of course, this is the Costas, so it was not exactly Spanish in tooth and claw.

The square had a number of different establishments. First, there was the Dick Turpin pub. Dick Turpin doesn't feature that heavily in Spanish folklore, so you can guess the theme. Sky Sports on the telly, microwaved chips in baskets, all the John Smiths and Stella you could drink. We tended not to frequent the Dick Turpin.

Then there was an Indian restaurant. We ate there, once, when the air-conditioning broke down. We were eating hot, spicy food in a mediterrannean summer. I think I needed an ice-bath after that meal.

There was the one bar we did frequent, which was actually owned and run by a Spanish chap and his elderly mother. It was un-named, a little grubby perhaps, but had more character than Dick Turpin could steal at gunpoint. There was no shared language, other than "cerveza grande", but we would happily sit out for hours and consume Mahou at a prodigious rate.

In the opposite corner was one final place, which was normally closed. But one night, the door was unlocked and the shutters were up. It looked like another bar, but strangely all the customers appeared to be Nordic in appearance. It had no external signs, no hoarding, nothing. Katie and I shrugged at each other and decided to give it a try.

It turned out that this new bar was aimed squarely at the Finnish ex-pat market. A bit niche, perhaps, but you had to admire their focus. They seemed friendly enough, and the barman spoke English with a faint mid-Atlantic accent. I'd had enough beer so I asked for a gin and tonic. I know, I'm like a latter-day David Niven, aren't I?

Still smiling, and without breaking eye contact, the barman poured a generous measure. It was only then that I noticed the gin was coming from a bottle with no label. This was an unexpected development. I think I had several.

I don't know if the unbranded gin had an effect. But what I will say is that later that evening, I awoke to find a helicopter in the bedroom, hovering over the bed. Not a big helicopter, but a helicopter nevertheless. I wasn't sure if that was normal. And when I went to the bathroom, the far wall started receding. As I ran towards it, it kept on moving. Eventually it appeared as if we had a bathroom 12 feet across and half a mile long. I wouldn't have minded, but annoyingly the toilet was on the far wall.

We didn't go back to the Finnish bar.


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