Thursday, 29 December 2011

A positively good idea

If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.

I mean, after all, it's not as if the news is full of uplifting stories, is it? Everywhere you look there is doom and despair. Nobody appears to have any money. Everyone is angry for one reason or another.

And that's before you even mention Simon Cowell.

But you expect that sort of thing from journalists. After all, good news doesn't sell newsprint. But what's worrying is that this approach seems to have had an effect on all of us. Have you seen Twitter or Facebook recently? Blimey, we're an angry, depressed bunch, aren't we?

This hadn't escaped my friend Mike. Those of you who've been reading this for any length of time may remember Mike. He wears red t-shirts and stands in front of road signs. But when he's not doing that he comes up with ideas.

And his latest one is jolly good indeed.

Basically, Mike has come up with Positive Upload Day. Wouldn't it be great if, he thought, for a 24 hour period, your Facebook wall or Twitter feed (or blog roll or whatever) was a collection of positive thoughts? Just small things, minor victories or simple pleasures. I met up with an old friend today. The sky this morning looked great. I heard my favourite song on the radio just now.

And so, for a day at a time, he's asking people to do the same. You can follow it all on Twitter or join the first Positive Upload Day (which is coming up on 1 January) on Facebook. I'd recommend you do both.

Because, when all's said and done, we make our own happiness, don't we? Why not give the process a little nudge?

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Christmas 2011: hints and tips

Every year it gets harder and harder to enjoy Christmas. The pressure to have the perfect Yuletide is ever-increasing. But fear not, gentle reader. I have been working long and hard to bring you help and guidance.

Well actually, I haven't been working in any lengthy or strenuous way. But here we go. Don't all thank me at once:

  1. When the calendar clicks around to April and the air starts to feel a little more warm, that's the time to put the sprouts on.
  2. Christmas parties are not normally the right environment to have lengthy in-depth work-related conversations with the boss. Unless you firmly believe "I really love you mate," qualifies as 360-degree feedback.
  3. Never forget the real meaning of Christmas; buying an unfeasibly large copy of Radio Times and then not looking at it for an entire fortnight.
  4. At this time of year it is better to give than receive, so they say. 'They' being people who don't mind receiving novelty underwear.
  5. Those people who say: "Really, don't bother. I don't need anything this year". They lie. Get them something or else they will treat you like a ginger step-child for the rest of your miserable existence.
  6. Avoid having to deal with Christmas morning arguments between your children by not having any.
  7. No, Noel Edmonds really does look like that these days. If you haven't been watching Deal Or No Deal throughout the year I can understand your confusion. A full 240 volts went into that hair, you know.
  8. Christmas lunch is the one time you can get away with puns involving the words 'breast' and 'stuffing'. This may not be 100% successful if you're having beef.
  9. It is a scientific fact that no-one has watched The Guns of Navarone while sobre since 1968. Do not be the first to upset the record.
  10. Not sure of the correct glass for dry sherry? It's a straight pint glass - handles are for wimps.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Did you miss me?

I'm sorry. No, really I am. Terribly terribly sorry. I am apologetic in ways that only a seriously-lapsed Catholic can ever be. And I am lapsed, trust me. I don't know my Ave Maria from my Vorsprung Durch Technik.

I'm only too aware that throughout the world people have been anxious. "What's happened to Make Lard History?" they've been asking. "Almost three weeks and no posts whatsoever. What's that all about?"

I wrote 60-odd thousand words last month. This month? Bupkis. Nada. Nowt. Sweet bugger-all. Oh, the irony. One of the things you're supposed to get out of NaBloPoMo is the habit of writing regularly. "Write every day," they say, "and hang the quality control." It's supposed to make you more prolific; if you're getting used to knocking off a few hundred words before breakfast every day, the theory goes, you should be able to carry this on when you're not up against a deadline.

Unfortunately, Real Life is what happens when you're busy making plans.

But I'm back. Earlier this evening a friend asked me to help him with something, which meant logging into my Blogger account. And as I looked at the piles of dust, the cobwebs and dead flies, I thought to myself, "You know, this place used to have some life to it."

So I'm back. Hold onto, um, whatever it is you're supposed to hold onto at times like this.

Friday, 2 December 2011

So that's that, then

Technically I am now a novelist. The fact that I just had to check how many times the letter 'l' should occur in the word doesn't fill me with much confidence. But the fact remains that I have sat down and written a novel - a book of long narrative of literary prose (thank you Wikipedia).

And I've done it. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It's called The Gentle Man and it topped out at just under 61,000 words. I wrote it as part of NaNoWriMo - which you probably know by now. And I've been raising money for a good cause. Which you might not have known, but now you do.

So what happens now? Well, I'm glad you asked, because I'm not entirely sure myself. I didn't write the thing with thoughts of getting it published. I did it for the fun of it, although whether sitting in my spare room wrangling sentences together with an aching backside probably doesn't count as fun.

I just re-read that last sentence and realise it looks as if I used my backside to wrangle the sentences. Clearly I didn't. I used Microsoft Word, which is pretty close.

But one thing I can say for the novel right now is this. It's pretty close to being unreadable. Oh, it's got all the novel-y things, like a plot, characters, setting, but it's really not pretty. Any novel you write in such a short space of time is going to lack any editing. And this one really does need going over once again. There are some gaps, too, things I thought about towards the end that would have been nice to have earlier on. So I'll go back and fill those in too. I reckon we'll be looking at 70,000 words in the end, which is still on the short side for a novel, these days.

Will I try and get it published? I don't know. Doesn't hurt to try, I suppose. But for the moment I'm leaving it well alone. We can enjoy more blog posts instead. Let joy be unconfined!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

A quick one while he's away

Hello. I know, it's been a while. I've been busy. 53,418 words of busy so far. I've not actually finished the novel yet, so I still have that to deal with. But I took a break to write a 500-word bit of flash fiction. I'm just a giver, aren't I? Enjoy:

The Ballad of Dyspeptic Willie Madison

Dyspeptic Willie Madison was born under a bad sign. It read, “Ten Items or Less.” His unusual birthplace was down to his mother’s desire to get a year’s supply of baby supplies by giving birth in the supermarket. Tesco lived up to their promise, but his mother was less than happy. She’d been planning to visit Waitrose later that same day.

She didn’t give him that name, of course. That came from his time as the king of the bluesmen. After all, no-one in the delta would have taken him seriously with the name Craig Biggins. Apparently, according to the Blues Academy, your handle had to include a physical infirmity and refer to at least one US President. Dyspepsia was simply the next on the list. At least he wasn’t Syphilitic Bubba Washington.

His fame came easily enough. He had the blues and wanted people to know about them. He had a ready-made audience, hungry to hear what he had to say. A poet for the disaffected generation, Willie sang out loud and clear about the human condition. His first single, “Milk Carton Blues,” spoke of the frustrations of modern life.

Before too long, anyone who knew anything was name-checking Dyspeptic Willie Madison. His fame was rapidly followed by fortune. The houses, the cars. Life was good. Until the day he received a visitor.

“I am the Blues Angel,” said the mysterious stranger. “My name is unimportant, although you can refer to me as Hooch.”

“Hooch?” said Madison, reaching for the next bottle of Bollinger.

“You can blame Muddy Waters. Now then, Madison, I’ve come to talk to you about your life.”

“Things are going great, Hooch. Look, I’ve got everything I need.”

“Yes. You see, that’s the problem. You’re meant to be a bluesman. Your life is meant to be one long struggle. You get the blues, it runs your life, man. Your woman should do you wrong. The boss should be on your hide every day. Look at you – it just ain’t right.”

“What do you mean?”

“Robert Johnson fought a long battle with his demons,” he said, his lip curling with disgust. “The only conflict you have is with the Planning Committee of Solihull Borough Council.”

“But they won’t let me build an orangery.”

“Enough of this. If you want to sing the blues, you need to feel some loss. I’m here to make things right.”

“But how?” asked Madison, his eyes widening.

“Just you leave it to me.” The angel clicked his long fingers.

The crystal flute of champagne dissolved from Madison’s fingers. As he stared, his designer clothes were replaced by beat-up denim. With a loud rumble, the walls around him started to crumble and fall. In seconds, there was nothing but expensive-looking rubble. Moments later, even this had faded away.

“You weren’t kidding,” said Madison.“I ain’t finished yet,” said the angel, pushing an old guitar into his hands. “Right,” he said. “Now you’ve really got the blues. Don’t you ever forget it.”

Monday, 7 November 2011

I've got blisters on my fingers

As far as I know, Hemingway didn't slice open the tip of his index finger one day into writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. Tolkien was not pleasantly distracted from his tales of Middle Earth by the people next door inviting him over for a beer or two. And Terry Pratchett, as far as I can reasonably tell, doesn't have to write about mortgages between the hours of nine and five to keep the (non-literal) wolf from the door.

With that in mind, to find myself 20,000 words in after six whole days of NaNoWriMo is quite remarkable.I'm ahead by about 10,000, which you think would give me some sense of smug satisfaction. It's a breeze, this writing malarkey, isn't it? Don't know what the fuss was about.

Repeat after me: don't you believe it.

This has been quite tough. Tough to set the time aside. Tough to motivate myself to sit in front of a screen and conjure up the words. Tough to make it through some of the scenes I've been writing. Which doesn't bode well for the finished article, does it?

The hardest part for me so far has been the whole concept of the dash to the finish line. Although you wouldn't know it to read this, I tend to like to go back and edit things. I can worry about a sentence until a well-known cliche takes place. (The original version of that last bit had cows coming home. See what I mean?)

But with NaNoWriMo the main intention is to get your story told, and get it done with a minimum of 50,000 words in the month. You don't 'win' by having 8,000 wonderfully crafted words. Mind you, it would be a failure if I provided the requisite 50,000 words but hadn't finished the story. You can't have a beginning, middle and fade to chorus. There does need to be an ending - I can't just write "And they all lived happily ever after" once I get to 49,993. Especially if we happen to be in the middle of a fight scene at the time.

So it really is a case of 'don't edit, just create'. Occasionally I'll look back at something I've written and a flush of embarrassment comes over me. Surely I can just spend a few minutes polishing that terrible bit of dialogue? No. For that way lies madness. Well, until 1 December, anyway.

In sponsorship terms, things are going well. I'm up to £200 at the moment, which, at 40% of my target, matches the word count quite well. One triumph this morning; national journalist Stuart Heritage wrote a very funny (and only slightly cruel) piece about NaNoWriMo on his LuvHat blog. If you're not too precious about the whole endeavour, it's great. If you are precious about it, well, don't read it. I contacted him on Twitter about it, to make the point that there's at least one crappy novel being produced for a good cause. Credit to him, not only did he respond, he also put his hand in his pocket and donated, then tweeted the JustGiving link to his 10,000 followers.

You might be even be one of them. Hello. Please excuse me, I need to go and write 30,000 words with only nine fully-functioning digits.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Right, I promise this is the last time I'll mention it

OK then. You win. I give up. I'm going to have a go at this writing-a-novel-in-a-month thing. From Tuesday morning November is going to pass by in a flurry of creativity, stress and frustration as I try to conjure up the required 1,700 words every day. Several people have asked questions and I'll try to answer them here.

What are you going to do?

I'm going to do the whole NaNoWriMo thing and aim to write a novel of no less than 50,000 words in the month of November. I won't be alone - there are something like 250,000 people across the globe attempting the same thing?

So it's difficult, then?

I think so. I mean, I've never done it before. Mind you, I've never skied down Mount Everest, naked and clutching a rose between my teeth either.

Actually, forget that last bit. It's not a nice image for anyone.

Why are you doing this?

Two reasons:

a) To see if I can. Loads of people say they have a novel in them; fewer actually get down to writing it. Throwing away all inhibitions and just sitting down to write daily for a period of time is perhaps the way.

b) To raise some money for a good cause. I would like people to sponsor me to do this.

What's the cause?

Mind - the UK's principal mental health charity. They do great things - go read their website for more details.

Why should I sponsor you?

Several reasons. Firstly, it's a great cause and worthy of your cash. Second, you will add to my misery by piling on the pressure. And finally, I have a unique offer to make.

A unique offer?

Oh yes. The first ten people to sponsor me get a character in the novel named after them.

Blimey.

Indeed. But I get to choose what happens to your character. They might be a drug-dealer. They could be a raving idiot. They could perish in a freak yachting accident. Which would be odd, as I don't actually envision that sort of thing happening in the plot. Yet.

How do I sponsor you?

I'm very glad you asked. You can go here. Or if you know me in person, bend my ear a little.

Is there any guarantee we'll see a finished novel by 30 November?

No. I have to be honest with you. This will be hard. I've never done it before. (Remember the Everest-ski-naked-rose-teeth thing?) I make you no promises. Sorry, but there you go. I will have a bloody good try though.

It's worth remembering that even if I do finish, it's likely to be pretty poor, as far as polished novels go. Rushing around is not normally a good thing when it comes to things like this. But that's not really the point.

What's the book about?

Good question. Although I'm not allowed to write a single word of the actual book until 00:01 on Tuesday, I have an outline plot. There are some gaps. It's set in the modern day, with elements of fantasy, horror, humour, action and condensed milk.

How will you do this?

I will devote my waking hours to writing the necessary 1,667 words per day. Well, I say 'my waking hours'. The hours I spend at work will, of course, remain sacrosanct. In case my boss is reading this, I will continue to be fully focused on what, for want of a better term, I refer to as my career. I quite like having a job and the things that come with it. Like paying the mortgage, for instance.

I have got some days off in November, which I'll more than likely fill with catching up.

Who won the FA Cup in 1958?

Bolton Wanderers. It has nothing to do with the point in hand, but thanks for asking.

If you're successful, will I be able to read the final novel?

Really? You must be a sucker for punishment. OK then. But I might want to polish it a little first.

How will I keep up to date with your progress?

I'll put the odd update on here when I get the chance. Which kind of makes the title of this post a bit of a lie. So sue me. Or better still, sponsor me.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Do something that terrifies you 2 - this time it's literary

Last week I wrote a post about doing things that were out of your comfort zone. Taking risks, doing things to which you were unaccustomed. And I wrote this in the final paragraph:

Onto the next challenge. There's something else I'm thinking of doing in November that quite frankly scares the bejeesus out of me.
Since then I've been asked about this mysterious challenge by quite literally no people at all. Thanks. It's nice to be loved. Very well then, here we go.

Is it possible to write a an entire novel from scratch, all 50,000 words of it, in a single month? While doing the normal 'having a job and trying to live a normal life' stuff? I'm not sure, but I'm thinking I'd like to know.

For the last few Novembers I've done something called NaBloPoMo - National Blog Posting Month. Throughout the month you commit to write a brand new blog post every single day. It's quite a challenge; you need to think about something to write and find the time to write it every day. But this year I knew I would be struggling. The posts haven't exactly been coming thick and fast, have they?

So I had an epiphany. Why not just have one great big stonking idea and concentrate on that instead?

I know. If I do this I suspect we'll be looking back on that statement with laughter in the weeks to come.

NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month and, during November, about 250,000 amateur writers worldwide commit to write a novel from scratch. The rules are quite simple. You can't start until 1 November. You must finish by midnight on 30 November. And you must write 50,000 words. That's actually quite short for a novel (anything under 40,000 is a novella, whatever one of those is), but still, it's quite a task.Just to give you an idea, you get about 250-300 words on a side of A4.

If I do this, I have to write 1,667 words every day. And just typing any old rubbish won't do. It really needs to have characters, a setting, plot, points of view, dialogue, etc. Typing the word 'Dust' 50,000 times really won't do, although it might get me into the Booker shortlist for 2012.

This is, without a doubt, one of the most stupid ideas I've ever had. And trust me, I've had a few. The helicopter-based challenge TV show set in Jerusalem, called 'Challenge Hannukkah' being just one.

But I think we can safely agree that I'm not one for physical effort. I can't climb mountains. I certainly don't do marathons. But writing? It's at least in the same postal district as my comfort zone. Hey, maybe I can even get people to sponsor me to do it and raise some cash for a good cause? You know, pledge cash and get a dedication, pay a certain amount and get a character named after you, that sort of thing.

But I'm still not certain. It's acually quite scary. Katie has been supportive. I mean, having me locked away in the spare room for a big chunk of next month is no laughing matter. But she hasn't said no, which I'm taking as support.

I need some opinions, people. Is this a silly idea? Should I just get it out of my system? Something you would support? Would you want to see the end result? (It would not be pretty - first drafts never are.)

Whaddaya think, loyal readers? The comment box is just there. Ahem.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Do something that terrifies you

I have a comfort zone the size of a pretty substantial town.  I must have, I'm very rarely out of it. Just about the only time I get a sense of fear nowadays is when I'm opening bank statements.

And I think most people could say the same. These days we very rarely have to face down the sabre-toothed tiger or fight off woolly mammoths on the rampage.  We're rather more comfortable. We have central-heating and sofas. Nothing there too scarey, everything just-so.

To get the adrenaline pumping, some people seek out danger. They throw themselves out of perfectly serviceable aircraft.  They might confront sharks in the wild.  Or they could order a doner kebab from that dodgy place on the High Street, prepared by a bloke with a suspiciously shiny complexion.

That's not really my approach. Well, the kebab is an option, but generally I leave the life-threatening activities to others. I have dabbled with physical activity, of course, but met with limited success. So if I need to step out of my comfort zone I'll have to do other things that terrify me.

That's why I was to be found earlier this week singing in an upstairs room with a bunch of strangers. I know. Me, singing.  I don't quite beleive it myself.  While I can hold a tune to a degree, my range is somewhat limited. It's not what you might call a pretty noise. But, my friend Rebecca (she of the breast pump) is a professional vocal coach and when she said she wanted to form a community choir, I was interested. She promised that we wouldn't have to sing anything you would  normally hear in a church.

I used to sing in a choir at school, ohmygod-number-of-years ago. We were blessed with an unconventional music teacher who realised that trying to get 17-year-old boys interested in Bach and Handel was going to be an uphill struggle, so the choir would do Queen numbers instead. We were enthusiastic. We sounded pretty good.

When I asked Rebecca, "I think my voice may be a little low.  Is there a place for me?" she said yes, I could just be the rumbling bottom.

I think that was deliberate on her part. My interest was piqued.

So on Monday I was gathered up with about 20 other people. There were only four males, one of whom hadn't actually intended to sing, only having come to drop his daughter off. My rumbling bottom was clearly going to be needed.

But I was still nervous about the whole endeavour.  What if I opened my mouth and a horrible noise came out? Would people point and stare, bewildered by my bullfrog call?

Actually, no. It was quite fun. Many of us had never sang out loud in public. But, with gentle coaxing from Rebecca, we managed to not completely ruin the song. It sounded quite good, to be honest.

It turned out that quite a few people wanted to fight their own personal sabre-toothed tigers that night.
So, comfort zone well and truly expanded. Onto the next challenge. There's something else I'm thinking of doing in November that quite frankly scares the bejeesus out of me. But that's the topic for a new post. Watch this space.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Age-related benefits

I know that "Age is just a number" sounds like one of those awful motivational phrases touted by colossally dull people. But I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that they may have a point.

Today we celebrated the 93rd birthday of Katie's grandmother. Lunch in a pub was the order of the day and I was placed next to the celebrant in question. She's really quite remarkable.

Maud is not quite what you would expect from someone ploughing relentlessly through their tenth decade. OK, so the body may not be as strong as it once was - she's not so steady on her feet these days - but in all other respects she's as sharp as a die. Unexpectedly so.

Somehow the conversation got round to money and she leant over to tell me how she remembered the Depression. No, not the ersatz one we've been going through since 2007. Not even the one we all shoulder-padded around in the '80s.

The Depression. The one with the capital D.

She told us about the Wall Street Crash of 1929, people losing their savings, jumping off skyscrapers, the whole shebang. It was still a vivid memory to her. (And yes, I'm well aware that there aren't that many skyscrapers in Stourbridge, but we must assume that Pathe News was doing its job at the time.)

And in a Black Country accent you could use to cut Brierley Hill crystal, she commented: "And it was all the fault of the banks. The bastards. You're better off keeping your money down your draws."

The rest of her family are clearly accustomed to Maud's pronouncements. But for me it was very nearly a gravy-out-of-the-nose moment. She returned to her chicken in a cheese sauce.

A few minutes later and the rest of us were talking about something else. Maud announced, apropos of nothing: "You know, it's possible to walk around in my garden in the nude, and no-one would see you."

I have no idea where that came from.

Then, as we were coming to the end of the meal, my mother-in-law ordered coffee. "I should warn you," said Katie's uncle, "the coffee here isn't great." He was right. It was an insipid beige liquid. To misquote Douglas Adams, it was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike coffee.

Or, to accurately quote my grand-mother-in-law: "That looks like a bowl of camel piss."

I know where Katie gets it from.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Indian summer 1 - English fashion sense 0

I'm not entirely sure how  to react to the unseasonable weather. More worryingly, a lot of wardrobes appear to be having the same problem.

Normally, by the beginning of October we're plummeting headlong towards Autumn. It's one of my favourite times of the year. Mainly dry, but cold. You can put on a sturdy coat and boots and go tramping through the fallen leaves, if you wish. Or, if you're like me, watch the mists and mellow fruitfulness through double glazing, preferably with soup nearby.

So the fact that we're seeing temperatures approaching 30 degrees is a bit of a shocker.

I mustn't grumble, however. It's quite nice. The other night I drove home towards a spectacular orange and red sunset. I sat there, gazing in wonder at the palette of colours, the sky a perfect unblemished bowl above my head, graduating to navy, purple and black.  I thought how insignificant I was.

Mind you, I also thought that the previous week, and it was raining.

But as I've been dusting off the air-conditioning unit in the bedroom, so have my fellow citizens been doing the same to their wardrobes. And I'm sorry to say this, but we're not very good at dressing for warm weather, are we?

This was brought home to me in no uncertain terms as I was out and about this morning, performing various chores. I won't bore you with the details, as you would find them, well, boring, but suffice it to say I was brought into close contact with many examples of the Englishman In Heat.

I say 'Englishman', because ladies seem to be pretty good at this sort of thing. Good choice of fabric, nice floaty items, it just seems natural. But us chaps? No, we're pretty hopeless. It's not for me to pretend to be some sort of fashion guru. My hot weather outfit is essentially the same as my cold-weather outfit, just without a coat. But there were some deeply disturbing sights out there today.

I saw men who had clearly raided their summer beach holiday wardrobe. Pale white legs poked bravely from under wackily-designed shorts. Fine if you're a 20-something surfer, heading out to hang ten off Malibu. Not so appropriate for the queue at Acocks Green post office.

I observed a number of bare-chested gentlemen. This is not a good look. Pigeon-chested, bony-ribbed, beer-bellies, lobster sunburn, dodgy tatoos, the whole gamut of guts was on display. And I hate to be a social commentator, but there's nothing that says "I'm not in regular contact with the mothers of my children" quite like a bare chest, baseball cap and shellsuit trousers, is there?

An attack of the shudders was brought on by the sight of sandals worn over socks. This is beyond cliche, men of England.

They have the right idea overseas. On those occasions when I've been in hot countries during the Summer, the locals put us visitors to shame. We'll be there in rather too much manmade fabric. T-shirts with designs paying tribute to surf clubs that don't exist. Those thongy flip-flop sandal things, in which I maintain it is impossible for any grown man to have any semblance of dignity. I include myself in this number. Forgive me, I know no better.

But then we'll be shown up by the waiter at the bar, the taxi-driver, the local business-man on his way to the office. They cope so much better than we do; OK, they're acclimatised, it's in their culture. But they do linen trousers in M&S, you know.

So while it's great that we have this one last hurrah for the summer, there's a part of me that can't wait for the colder winds to start blowing. After all, I've got a lovely coat that has a few more winters left in it.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The lost art of tutting

As a race we English used to be so good at expressing mild discontent. But it's something we no longer seem to do very well. For our own sakes, we need to regain the tut.

There was an almighty wailing and gnashing of teeth to be heard all over the world last Wednesday. People were upset, and in many cases genuinely angry. And what was the cause of this disquiet? Was it yet another phase of the economic cycle queuing up to kick us all in our collective backsides? Was there some natural tragedy that had unleashed terrific forces against humankind? Was Justin Bieber going to make good his promised threat of a world-wide tour? What was it that was causing everyone to be so pissed-off?

Facebook had made some changes.

That's right. A website that we're not obliged to visit, that costs us the square-root of bugger-all to use, had changed the way in which it operated, causing literally minutes of re-adjustment.

I'll admit, I think some of the changes weren't exactly well thought-out. I'm a fair believer in the "Not Broke, Don't Fix" philosophy myself, and I quite liked the simplicity of having all news updates in reverse chronological order with no faffing. That ticker at the top right, that tells me about people I know liking comments about people I don't know on the threads of other people I don't know? That's annoying.

But to see the fury being directed at the Facebook corporation, you'd have thought Mark Zuckerberg had been caught impaling babies on spikes. It wasn't really measured. A roll of the eyes and a 'tut' would probably have sufficed.

On Thursday it was the funeral for a friend and colleague of mine. He was about my age, with a wife and two great teenage kids. Lots of friends, in and out of work. A genuine man, funny, hard-working and good to be around. The world is a poorer place for his passing. And as I think about his friends and family coming to terms with their loss, it occurs to me that we need to be a little more healthy with how we deal with bad news.

Changes to a website really don't amount to much. You have the right to be annoyed when things don't turn out your way. But if you go all out; if you express the most extreme of emotion - often violently - for something like that, how on earth are you going to be able to cope when something really bad happens?

Save the strong emotion - be it outrage, anger or grief - for when it's genuinely needed. We need to re-introduce the good old-fashioned 'tut' for everything else.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Turning around

On the table in front of me there's a tiny slip of paper. On it are printed the words "Your life will be happy and peaceful." Underneath there's something in Chinese script. For all I know, it could be saying "Your mother sells whelks in Hull."

I think I'll go with the English language version. Fortune cookie messages aren't to be ignored, especially when they're broadly optimistic. A little positivity shouldn't go amiss. And if there's the right day to be writing that last sentence, I think it's today.

The fortune cookie came from the Chinese takeaway we had at Brother No.1's house last night, after spending some time playing with my niece, who is now walking and officially Into Everything. She also knows how to say "apple". Nothing else, just "apple". She'll either be a nutritionist or a fan of over-priced but incredibly-attractive computer equipment when she's older.

Just to bring the tone down a little for those of you out there with your kids. Your child is not as cute as my niece. Don't worry. Simply accept it, move on and learn to live with this inalienable fact.

So why am I obsessing over a fortune cookie message? Over the last few days there had been a few setbacks. I'd been busy. The regular worries were getting more, well, regular. And, for that matter, worrisome. I'd been getting a little grumpy. Down in the dumps. The black dog didn't exactly have its paws on my shoulders, but I could hear it snuffling about in the leaves outside. I'd been thinking it wasn't worth bothering going back to writing class when it started once more this week. When all's said and done, what would be the point?

The point is this. "Happy and peaceful" doesn't come about if you sit and wait. Happiness is rarely an accident. Our American cousins even go in pursuit of it, which I always used to think was a little overly-aggressive, but I suppose as long as humane traps are involved, I'm relaxed.

Go and spend some time with a 15-month-old. Accept some help from friends. When the email from your writing tutor comes through, reply to it (only don't do three re-writes like I did). Take some time out. Seek out comfort. Get your house filled with the smell of baking bread and spiced curry lentil soup. Jump up and kiss your wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend/family pet. When they ask what that was for, say, "Nothing. Now be careful." Do things that scare you. Sign up for that community choir your friend the singing teacher wants to set up. Just write random rubbish on the Internet if that floats your boat.

You may find, turning around, that things were never that bad in the first place. And that fortune cookies sometimes speak a lot of common sense.

Monday, 5 September 2011

I won't let it change me

I somehow thought it would be a little different. My letterbox would rattle unexpectedly, and there on the doormat would be lying an auspicious envelope.

I'm not completely sure how a simple item of stationery can be seen as auspicious, but there you go.

I imagined I would rip it open with fevered fingers and excitedly scan its contents. There would be a letter - probably with nice a gold-block letterhead from a publishing house - a statement and, last but not least, a cheque.

The amount on the cheque would be almost unimportant. As long as it clearly comes from a publisher and has the word 'Royalties' stamped across it in large letters - red would be a nice idea - that would do the trick.

I'd be able to take it to the bank and smile in a way that I thought was nonchalant as I handed it over to the cashier. She (for it would have to be a she) would look up at me, doe-eyed.

"Oh, this?" I'd say. "It's just a royalty payment from sales of my book."

Did I mention I'd had a book published?

Ahem.

This was not how it happened. In fact, the reality was a little more...real. I received an email. For once this wasn't coming from a stranger seeking to part me from my hard-earned. In fact, it was telling me that some money was, for once, coming my way. And no Nigerian princes were to be involved.

"Here is your royalty payment for sales from 31 July," it said. This was indeed a thrilling moment. i had earned money - real money - from the sweat of my brow. I could now hold my head high alongside the Hemingways, the Wildes, the Tolkiens of this world.

I'm aware I've chosen three dead writers there. Bear with me.

My excitement was only marginally lessened when I noticed that the total amount due to me was £3.56. Probably best that it didn't come as a cheque. I don't think I'd be impressing many bank cashiers, somehow.

But there are wider effects. As my publisher is based in the States, they withheld something like $1.00 as tax. I like to think that somewhere in Idaho a Federal employee has been able to buy some replacement staples for the office as a direct result of my writing. Enjoy your staples, unknown filing clerk. You're welcome.

Now then, if anyone out there hasn't bought a copy, perhaps you can oblige. Who knows? Perhaps we can raise enough to buy that person a stapler?

Monday, 29 August 2011

Unlucky for some

This morning found us driving through the Buckinghamshire badlands, returning from an overnight stay after helping friends celebrate their wedding.

As I concentrated on giving stern looks to the drivers of various Nissan Micras seemingly welded to the middle lane of the M40, Katie gently slumbered in the passenger seat. And I let my mind wander.

On this morning, precisely 13 years ago today, I was struggling with a neckerchief-type arrangement and looking suspiciously at the frock-coat I was about to wear. I think a wing-collared shirt was involved, too. I don't normally wear clothing that involves hyphens. But it was the morning of my wedding day. I should have thought myself lucky. Katie was having to wear a headdress that would attract attention from Amnesty International if employed in less-enlightened countries.

13 is an inauspicious number, they say. But I feel lucky. I'm lucky to have spent the last 13 years married to someone who puts up with me.

Let's face it, I'm no George Clooney. I have the waist of a Giant Redwood. When concentrating, I sometimes forget to breathe. I can be a moody bugger at times. Sorry, make that "I am" and "always". I get frustrated at Sainsburys when they have a "10 items or less" aisle, audibly correcting one of the country's largest retailers on their poor grammar. ("10 items or fewer" in case you were wondering). I snore. Seriously, I sound like someone kick-starting an Airbus when in bed. I spend way too much time staring at the screen of a computer.

And it has to be said - I am, from time to time, extravagantly flatulent.

But despite all that, I've found someone who accepts all my faults. And this morning, waking up next to her in the Smallest Hotel Bed in Christendom, I felt as lucky as I did 13 years ago.

Love you K. But as I'm not too good with words, I'm getting a little help from The Man:




Monday, 22 August 2011

A slight technical issue

It's never a good idea to be assigning inanimate objects a personality. I've never been a fan of giving cars a name, for instance. The same goes for items of computer hardware. However I've been sorely tempted by my wireless router over the last few weeks.

Wireless routers are (when they work) indistinguishable from magic. You can be there, sitting on a sofa some considerable distance from your internet connection, and yet you're getting wonderful experience after wonderful experience delivered to your warm lap.

I realise now how that sounds. Never mind.

But it's only when the technology fails that you realise how entitled you've become. The magic stops working and you're left bereft, stomping up the stairs to press various reset buttons, pull out power leads and count to 30. Life is so unfair.

That's been me for the last fortnight or so. While She Who Must Be Obeyed has intelligently reverted to simply opening a book and enlarging her mind, I've been stomping like a brachiosaur who's annoyed at the lack of ferns.

I'm just trying that out as a metaphor. I'm not sure it's entirely successful.

A few days ago I realised that there was a way out. This is actually a two-router household. My ISP sent me one out of the blue about 18 months ago. I didn't like to contact them and ask why in case they realised their mistake and asked for it back. My wireless saviour has been collecting dust in the spare room all this time. And this is where I thought some mind-trickery might work.

I got the new router out of its box and immediately the old one started working again. At least it did for a few hours, then it dropped its connection once more. So I started reading the instructions aloud. Full service again.

I marvelled at this turn of events for a few days, until tonight. Nothing would work. I got the quick installation wall-chart out for the new router. Nothing. I unravelled the ethernet cables. Not a thing. I even read the warranty card. My wi-fi was no-no.

So I took a deep breath. But before pulling the plug I tried one more thing. It's hard to describe in words, but perhaps the following video will help to explain. Just replace the Austin 1100 with a Belkin F5D wireless router. And replace the branch with a D-Link installation disc:

Thursday, 18 August 2011

An open letter to Abercrombie & Fitch

Dear Mr Abercrombie and Mr Fitch

Hello. I'm sorry to write to you out of the blue, so I'll try to keep it brief. I'm not exactly in the habit of writing to fashion brands. But you've been in the news recently, so I suppose you have to expect unsolicited letters from the general public.

I read today that you were offering to pay some tv personality money to stop wearing your clothes in public. I must admit I had no idea who this Michael Sorrentino chap was. Although anyone who is seemingly happy to call himself "The Situation" is quite possibly a bit of a cockwomble, I suppose.

I do know a little bit about Abercrombie & Fitch, though. I went into one of your stores once. To this day I'm not entirely sure why, but there you go. You seemed to be having a problem with your lighting at the time - in fact the main source of illumination appeared to be the teeth of your staff.

Your staff. Let's talk about your staff, shall we? They're a piece of work, and no mistake. The chap who was idly sorting out t-shirts, for instance. He had the jaw structure of a Greek god and looked like he'd just stepped off a catwalk somewhere. He looked at me and I could almost hear him wondering whether we were the same species.

It's quite something to be made to feel inferior by someone who is clearly younger than several items of my underwear.

Then I looked at some of your clothes. That's quite some mark-up going on there. I hope you're making sure the people stitching your logos onto the otherwise normal-looking hooded tops are getting a decent proportion of the cash you're asking. Ninety-four quid. You're practically redistributing the wealth.

I went to speak to a young girl behind the cash desk. I think I made her nervous. Sorry about that. I don't think I acted in the way she was expecting. I know. Weighing 18 stone means I should be jolly by default, I suppose.

So here's the deal, chaps. I am not in your demographic. I get that. I am so far away from your natural demographic that I'd need sherpas and satnav to even get close to it. I don't even know what 'preppy' means. Is it something to do with bowling?

Anyway. I'm the wrong side of 40, as is my waist and BMI. The last time I was even remotely toned, Madonna actually was Like a Virgin. That's a long time ago, I know. You really don't want people like me mucking up your brand, do you?

So stop messing about with this Situation bloke. Get the chequebook out, fellas, or I'm going to be wearing your stuff in public. You think that a brand can't be damaged by over-exposure? You might want to give your friends at Burberry a call.

Look forward to hearing from you.

Unfashionably yours,

etc.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

I get up, I get down

People aren't going to be queuing up to ask me for a lift over the next few weeks. To be honest, I'm not normally surrounded by would-be passengers, but for the time being my motoring solitude is even more guaranteed than usual. And I blame Danny Baker.

Yesterday evening, I'd finished all the work I was due to do and was about to leave the office. I was off the clock and there were few colleagues around. I had a quick look at Twitter before departing. (Before you ask, it's @fatboyfat. Thank you). I give you this detail: 1) to give you some narrative to the story, 2) to build some dramatic tension, and 3) so that anyone from work reading this doesn't think I was dossing about on social networks when I was supposed to be working.

One of the people I follow is the fore-mentioned writer, journalist and radio presenter. And he had tweeted the following set of seemingly random words:
@prodnose: Yesterday a morning came, a smile upon your face. Caesar's palace, morning glory, silly human race, If the summer changed to Winter...
As I say, for most people - and I suspect that includes about 99% of you reading this - this just seems like the deranged rantings of someone with only a passing relationship to sanity. To an extent, you might be correct. But for me, and a very small group of others, it completed a mental circuit. For these aren't just words. They're lyrics.

"Yours Is No Disgrace" is a song by Yes, from their cryptically entitled 1971 album, The Yes Album. At a mere seven minutes long, I like to think of it as one of their more accessible, radio-friendly tunes. The sort of thing you could whistle to yourself while performing menial tasks involving livestock, perhaps. The snippet shown above is actually quite lucid. It goes on to include lines such as "Battleships confide in me and tell me where you are, Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, tell me where you are."

There was a whole lot of inhalation going down in '71.

For those of you who haven't yet closed their browser in disgust, I can admit this; my name is Phil and I am a bit of a Yes fan. I know. More to be pitied than anything else, I suppose. Admitting a liking for this is right up there with having a passion for Morris dancing, steam traction engines or arcane practices involving latex. I couldn't care less.

So, as I read those words yesterday evening, I thought to myself: "It would be quite nice to have this on in the car going home." Now I've come out to you, you're assuming I've got it really bad and cart a whole load of progressive rock CDs around with me. But you'd be wrong. That way lies foolishness. And as I walked to my car I realised that my only hope was the very very  old and crotchety iPod I keep in my glove box.

This was my first iPod, bought many years ago when we were all still suitably impressed by the concept. A white brick, with a click wheel  and monochrome LCD screen. It's not my main iPod. ("Ooh, look at him with his two iPods," I hear you say). It has sat in my car, unused, for ages. It's endured the freezing cold of winter, the stifling heat of what passes for summer. My understanding of technology was enough to convince me that it was going to be, to coin a term, buggered. 

But no! I connected the leads with trembling fingers and it worked straight away. There I was, marvelling at the mighty 20gb of really dodgy music I possess. Time to do some rediscovering.

Last night we had "Yours Is No Disgrace" at full volume, followed by "Awaken" - 20-odd magnificent minutes of, well, magnificent oddness. I got goosebumps at the end of that one, and I suspect there are about 12 people on the planet that would understand. This morning we had the Close to the Edge album (from which we also get the title of this post).  I have found that one track can get me most of the way along my 20-mile commute. Value for money, you see.

Then this evening we got "The Gates of Delirium" and "Sound Chaser" from Relayer. These tracks are close to unlistenable, you might say, were you to encounter them on a dark night. There appears to be hand-to-hand combat going on in the first track, whilst the bassist, drummer and guitarist seem to be having a heated argument in a locked wardrobe throughout the latter. It's dense, borderline impenetrable.

It's bloody marvellous. But until I get bored, you probably wouldn't want to be a hitch-hiker.

It seems I have contrary tastes. I like things that others absolutely hate, like sweaty Stilton, peaty whisky and marmite. To this list we must add very strange - and deeply unfashionable - music.

Good. Let's hear it for weirdness.


Saturday, 13 August 2011

Panic

The last few days have been deeply depressing and I didn't really know whether it was something I felt qualified to write about. The level of disorder in England - and my own home town of Birmingham - has provoked sorrow, grief and anger.

These aren't concepts normally covered in what is meant to be a light and fluffy blog filled with whimsy and nonsense. And, to be honest, I'm a little removed from it all, in my middle-class, middle-aged, suburban supreme isolation. The nearest I get to urban deprivation is Tesco's own-brand breakfast cereal.

But as I sat watching the updates on Monday and Tuesday I saw how people were reacting. Status updates on Facebook are amazing, aren't they? You get to see everyone's immediate thoughts. And then there are comments on blogs, Twitter posts and the rest. People were scared and angry.

Me? I felt all of those emotions, too. I love my country. England is a still a great place to live. We get along, by and large. What we've seen over the last week or so is, in the main, unrepresentative. But it happened, and we need to be grown-up about it and look into why it did.


Some things are inalienable. I hardly think I need to say this, but for the avoidance of doubt I will anyway: what we saw happening on our streets was criminal activity. No ifs, no buts. The people responsible for it need to be found and should face the full force of the law.

But at the same time as there was panic on the streets, there was a clash between those expressing opinions from behind keyboards the length and breadth of the country.

At one end of the spectrum we had people clamouring for action. I saw comments asking for armed troops on the streets and, even further, a shoot on sight policy. Hang 'em high. Crack some skulls. Let's see our streets running with the blood of  rioters. It will make a point.

This country thankfully doesn't have many examples to draw from, but it is a fact that we don't have a great history when it comes to armed troops on the streets.

The lurch towards martial law is something we've seen and condemned in other countries. Is it really something we want here? Norway saw 92 people massacred recently and vowed to learn lessons. We lose a few branches of JD Sports and want to embrace death squads.

I mentioned earlier that there was a spectrum of views. At the other end, we saw people quick to make a political point. These riots were a form of protest, it was said. It's about the Tory cuts. Somehow this is a continuance of the uprisings we've seen in North Africa already this year - people joining up to make a point against an unpopular government.

I'd have some sympathy with this view if it wasn't for the fact that this activity didn't appear to be aimed against the instruments of State; rather it was directed towards retailers. Last time I checked, Richer Sounds wasn't a government department. And many that bore the brunt weren't even very corporate; it was the local newsagent, 24-hour minimarket, family-run furniture store.

So I can't subscribe to the 'protest' point of view either. I fall somewhere in between these two extremes. It's not easy having opinions that don't fit into the normal left vs. right arguments.

One thing we have to do - and this seems to be a deeply unfashionable view - is to learn from this. I say it's unfashionable because many of those baying for punishment believe that looking for explanations is the same as condoning violence.

It really isn't. If your house floods, you look for reason why, to prevent it happening again. Trying to explain the flood isn't condoning water.

What seems to be clear is that there is a section of society that doesn't act in the same way as the rest of us. It's not just a question of poverty - not every poor person was out nicking TVs. People are growing up in environments where the normal boundaries don't seem to apply. Education isn't attractive. Role models might be thin on the ground. The corrosive influence of gang culture is ever-present. Tribal finger-pointing and desk-banging rhetoric won't solve this.

Instead we should consider the words of Tariq Jahan, whose son was amongst three young men killed by a hit-and-run in the heat of the disorder earlier this week. I am proud to share a city and a country with him.

It's not easy. I don't know what the answers are. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

The water of life

There are two types of people in the world: those who drink whisky and those who do not.

It should be relatively easy, if you wanted, to move from the non-drinking group to the drinking one. What happens in many cases, however, is that someones first taste of whisky puts them firmly into a third set, the "what-the-hell-is-this-how-can-you-drink-that-for-fun" group.

As a result of this, there are a lot of bottles of whisky sitting quietly in people's drinks cabinets, unopened and unloved. Gifts from unknowing relatives, unwanted raffle prizes, perhaps. But beware. They have all the malevolence and capacity for damage as an unexploded bomb. Because they're in the hands of the inexperienced.

You might be round at a friend's house. Everyone is happy; good food has been enjoyed and perhaps some modest drink imbibed, too. It's getting a little late.

"No more beer," you say, "I'm feeling a little full of liquid."

"Well, we've got some whisky," they might say. "Perhaps a little tot?"

You thank them for their kindness but shake your head politely.

"But we never drink the stuff," they say, "it was a gift from Uncle Bernard/Auntie Elspeth/etc." And they show you the bottle.

The bottle. This is where you should avert your eyes. But you don't. You see that it's a very reasonable 18-year-old Glenfiddich single malt. A good £40 or more per bottle. This is not your normal cooking whisky. Before you're able to stop yourself, you hear your voice, as from far away.

"Oh, go on then, thanks. Maybe just a little one as a night-cap. Straight up, no ice please."

Your guests' generosity is mixed with their gentle ignorance of the power of the stuff. This is, if you'll pardon the pun, a lethal cocktail. A tumbler is found and before you know it, you're being faced with, well, quite a lot of whisky. You're a responsible drinker - well aware of what a healthy weekly alcohol volume looks like. It's just a little worrying to be seeing it all in one glass.

It would, of course, be monumentally rude to refuse. After all, what would Uncle Bernard or Auntie Elspeth think? And it is the 18-year-old stuff, too. It is quite lovely and you see that it would have been a shame to waste it. Trouble is, having manfully made your way through, you're then much less likely to be able to make any comprehensible objection when your ever-kind hosts top it your glass once more.

Which they will.

This might explain why you subsequently find yourself rummaging through the kitchen cupboard for Nurofen at 6am fervently repeating the mantra "Ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod".

I love my friends. That's why they're my friends. They're fun to be with, supportive and kind. They have excellent whisky, too. They also read this blog. Ahem. But there is nothing, and I mean nothing, as dangerous as a non-whisky-drinking friend bearing a bottle of the good stuff.

Let my head today be your lesson for tomorrow.

Sláinte.

Monday, 25 July 2011

If my phone had been hacked: 10 headlines we could have seen

  1. Birmingham man in "extra bottle of milk needed" drama.
  2. Experts confirm that man, 41, still hasn't fixed his mother's cable TV connection.
  3. Local woman "not sure" of husband's intended time of return home.
  4. British Gas fail to make appointment for third time.
  5. Man really needs to let his wife know where he is.
  6. Garage hasn't fixed car's brakes. "They're meant to be like that," says spokesman.
  7. Concerns grow over man's dinner ending up in the bin.
  8. SparrowGate Day One: remains of bird to be removed from conservatory. Cat named as suspect.
  9. Current wireless router "worse than junk," says frustrated woman.
  10. Night at pub ends in tragedy as man banished to sofa overnight.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Shine on

Many years ago I lay in a tent and had what can only be called a psychedelic experience. The music of Pink Floyd was involved. I think there's probably a bye-law about that sort of thing.

I was in deepest Wales for a week-long Boys Brigade camp. I was only 11 years of age. This is beginning to paint me in a bad light, isn't it?

My elder brother - brother number 2, if you're interested - was a more senior BB officer and as such he'd been allowed to bring along one of those big stereo cassette players that were all the rage in the early '80s, together with a selection of tapes.

I'd been run out at cricket, which was hardly a surprise as I had failed to grasp the subtler principles of the game, namely the 'don't whack your wicket with your own bat' part. That is not a euphemism and you should be ashamed of yourselves.

Anyway, I decided to ignore the ongoing delights of cricket's honest warfare and lay myself down in a tent in the corner of the field. My brother's city-block sized stereo was there; I pressed 'Play' and Dark Side of the Moon greeted me.

I must have heard this album before at home. Despite what pop historians might tell you, punk rock did not sweep away everything that had gone before and there were still suburban households at the time that were no strangers to Pink Floyd, Genesis and the like. Brother number 1 was an unashamed Electric Light Orchestra fan. Johnny Rotten held no sway whatsoever.

But regardless, lying there in the rare warmth of a Welsh summer I did something different. I listened. And as I did, I let my gaze focus on the canvas of the tent above me. The sun was visible through the weft and weave of the fabric and there was this ever-changing inter-locking pattern of light and dark. I remember my breathing slowed. Before I'd even got past the end of the first track, I think I must have entered a higher state of consciousness.

I know. The only time I've ever heard that phrase before was from someone who knew a lot about ley lines and had an unhealthy obsession with silver jewellery.

In any case, this was heady stuff for an 11-year old. No substances were involved - well, nothing more than Spangles, but I don't think Timothy Leary would have recognised those as particularly counter-cultural.

I was reminded of this last night when a few of us went to Birmingham Planetarium for the Pink Floyd Fulldome Experience. A digital domed screen, some 10 metres across, with 360-degree sound and vision. They played Wish You Were Here last night; Dark Side comes later this year, along with The Wall. It was indeed psychedelic. And, not to put too fine a point on it, somewhat trippy. As the kaleidoscopes, bubbles and patterns swirled and rotated over my head, I thought back to myself 30 years ago.

As in 1981, no mind-altering stimulants were required. Well, not until later that night when a few cans of BrewDog Punk IPA headed my way. Even now, it's the nearest I'll ever get to punk rock.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

All the news that's fit to print

Many years ago I toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist. In truth, I only thought about it for a short time. I was 16 or 17, at that stage in life when the question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" has a special resonance.

They were worrying months as I embarked on A-levels and hoped the subjects I'd chosen were appropriate for my future path. For a day or so I seriously considered a career as a zoologist. This was nothing to do with a love for animals; I picked the last information card in my school Career Advisor's A-Z file system and thought, "Sod it, you'll do."

True story, by the way.

But journalism was something that interested me on a deeper, more deliberate level. At that time - and we're talking about the late 1980s here - my view of journalism was probably hopelessly naive and outdated. I thought the job would involve gathering up information and presenting it to the paying public in a compelling and engaging way. I liked words and was attracted to the thought of using them to earn an honest wage.

Plus it was mainly indoor work with no heavy lifting.

As it happened, something else came about to turn my head in another direction and I took a different path. I'm still not entirely sure what I'll do when I grow up (or even when this might be), but the uncertainty doesn't appear to be causing me too many issues at present.

However, recent events have caused me to revisit that earlier assessment of journalism once more. Today we have seen the final edition of News of the World. The acts leading up to the paper's closure have been covered in fine detail just about everywhere else, so I won't go into them here. Suffice it to say that the headline 'The Paper That Died of Shame' has been repeated again and again.

I'd been aware for some time that my earlier idealised vision of journalism as a career was just that - a vision. In short, it's probably just like many other jobs. It can be tedious. It must seem like drudgery, at times, cross-cut with the extreme pressure that comes with filling column inches and making the readers want to come back for more. Short-cuts must be attractive. And this, I think, is where media of all types - not just printed journalism - can fall down.

I'm not really bothered about the tabloid papers' fascination with banal celebrity gossip and kiss-and-tell sex scandals. Not my sort of thing, to be honest. What professional footballers get up to in Travelodge bedrooms is of no interest to me. But the Great British Public creates a market for this tosh by buying it in the first place. Coming over all moral about some of the content strikes me as a little hollow when 5+million people used to buy NotW every week. That's a far more complex issue.

But it's other, more subtle things that enrage me about journalism. It's those short-cuts I mentioned above. Haven't got the space to include the detail? Scared that your audience can't cope with a little complexity? Never fear, just strip the story down, turn it into black and white, us and them. Those details just make the story look a little messy, don't they? Leave them out then.

Want to get your readers engaged with a story? Let's personalise it. Nothing better than a bit of rabble-rousing, is there? Gets the blood pumping at the breakfast table. And you have to throw in a bit of generalisation too. Remember, we need to keep this simple.

This is why you have people genuinely believing that all immigrants are benefit thieves (when they're not stealing British jobs, that is). Or that everyone working for a bank is a blood-sucking vampire. That all public-sector workers are lazy and overpaid, serving out time for their gold-plated pension. Every single MP - without exception - is fiddling their expenses. You can't wear an England football shirt in case you offend 'others'. And there's a paedophile on every single street corner.

Are any of these statements true? Of course not. The truth is, as always, far more complex. But these ideas didn't just spring, fully-formed, into the head of the man on the number 7 bus. They were put there by someone. Someone who probably started off thinking that a career in journalism would involve using words to convey a message.

Of course, what we've seen this week is the general public and advertisers feeling genuine revulsion at stories of journalists paying others to hack into the phone messages of abducted 13-year-old girls. Newspapers showing outrage at 7/7 while listening to the voicemail of the victim's relatives. Claiming to support 'Our Brave Boys'  while intercepting the phones of dead soldiers' families. 

What we're not seeing yet is much in the way of protest about the other journalistic short-cuts - the three stage approach of simplify, personify, generalise. Perhaps we just think all papers do it, not just the red-tops. Perhaps we've gone too far down that road.

We've already seen short-cuts in operation. The closure of the NotW has been characterised as something political. It's the lefties having a pop at a free-market-loving News International title, some say. Move along, nothing to see here.

To take that view is to miss the point, though. There are 16-year-olds possibly considering a career in journalism right now, wondering what to make of it all. They are right to do so. The media has a huge influence on our daily lives - even if you don't read the papers you will come into contact with its effects. We deserve better from journalism. This is way too important to categorise as a simple case of right against left.

It's a case of right against wrong.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Inexplicably popular in Iowa

Today of all days I'm reminded of something really quite marvellous that happened a few years ago. It was 2007, a momentous year. North Korea announced her intentions to close down all nuclear powerplants in the country. The UN Climate Change Summit was held in Indonesia. JK Rowling released the final final Harry Potter book. In music news, Ace of Bass reformed. And in Japan, scientists announced that they'd discovered a 2,100 year old watermelon.

I know. Crazy times.

Closer to home, a heavy-set bloke in the UK's West Midlands was trying to lose weight for charity. Thinking that it might be nice to document his efforts, he started a blog, giving it a name that made sense for precisely ten minutes.

Yes, I'm talking about this very weblog, dear reader.

After a few weeks our heroic blogger realised that endless photos of his feet on the scales was not exactly going to bring the visitors in, so he started writing about matters of the day; the perceived anti-Wookkiee language in Star Wars, swimming squirrels, dogs that could recite Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative.

Admit it, you're glad I don't write so often these days, aren't you?

Even with these added attractions, the hero of our story was pretty sure he would get absolutely no visitors. It was all too random, too disconnected.

But then something really rather odd happened. The blog started getting hits. And comments. Hits and comments. Comments and hits. You get the idea.

But these comments weren't just coming from his 'real-life' friends and family. In fact, they weren't coming from friends and family at all. (Pause while I raise a virtual eyebrow at those people; the Comment link is there for a purpose, folks).

No, the traffic to Make lard History was coming from all over the place. Some of it was from Britain, but a significant chunk of these readers were, in fact, not from these parts. They had great teeth. They enjoyed wilfully extravagant breakfasts. They didn't just desire happiness, they were actively in pursuit of it.

In short, they appeared to be American.

My experience of Americans until this moment had been limited to a handful of trips to New York. They'd always been unfailingly polite and charming, the people I'd met, however this was perhaps to be expected from a touristy location. But now I was dealing with people from Iowa. And Alabama. And Michigan.

I don't think I've pandered. I haven't Americanised. I don't shy away from references that are peculiarly British. I've written about Marmite, the flying sausage on a fork featured from the opening credits of Grange Hill, pubs and the tills at B&Q.

I haven't covered the whole 'aluminium vs. aluminum' debate. There are some things even I can't solve.

We're led to believe that an American audience needs things to be translated. I don't subscribe to that point of view - and the people reading this rubbish from sea to shining sea appear to be living proof.

There's random stuff here. Impenetrable, sometimes. People who know me in real life often look pityingly at me after some of the posts. But others seem to like it. Well, perhaps 'like' is a little strong. It's maybe more along the lines of 'can't be arsed to unsubscribe'. But this is the Internet. Hits are hits.

I realise that as an Englishman, Independence Day has a particular resonance in my national psyche. In fairness, it's not loss of Empire that plays on our minds. No, we're still having waking nightmares about the whole 'tea-dumped-in-Boston-Harbour' thing a few years earlier.

But it's 4th July, so I will raise a bowler hat to my readers across the pond. I feel I should use some words like 'awesome' at this point, but that would be cheap and unnecessary pandering. Which would be gross.

Besides, I need some tea.

Monday, 27 June 2011

On parenthood

I am not wearing a hat. In fact, I don't think I even own a hat. We can be pretty confident about the absence of hats, as far as I  am concerned.

But if I was wearing a hat, I would be taking it off. I would be taking it off and bowing gently to all parents. In particular, all parents of young infants.

Bloody hell. How do you do it? Seriously, how do you do it, without going start staring mad?

I ask this heartfelt question because I spent Saturday watching over my 13-month-old niece. I wasn't alone - brother number 1 was with me. But his wife and my wife were out doing girly things involving nail polish, retail therapy and large glasses of wine. The chaps were drafted in.

Now, my brother, he should be an old hand at this. As far as I know he's taken his fair share of responsibilities to date. He certainly looked like he knew what he was doing. But me? Oh dearie me no. I was as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike.

It's just constant, isn't it? You can't let your guard down for a second. You think, "Oh, there is some vitally-important sporting event on the TV which is demanding my attention right now," but the moment your eyes are off the child, she will be heading with unerring accuracy towards something that will leave a scar. And it will be all your fault.

And you have to entertain. The blocks have to be ready to be stacked. Then unstacked. Then stacked. She sat in her ball-pit, and seemed perfectly happy to throw balls around the room. Which meant getting down onto the floor to get them back.

Again. And again. And again.

Pull a funny face. Make a daft noise. Blow a raspberry. Get a reaction. It's quite exhausting to be entertaining for so long. Witty anecdotes weren't going to cut it with this audience.

There were the feeds. Which were quite cute actually; she let me feed her and fixed me with these ocean-sized blue eyes as she steadily devoured whatever-on-earth it was I was shovelling in. The food was this gloopy mixture - I have to be honest, it looked as if someone else had already started digesting it before it got to us.

Of course, putting food in at one end meant there was the inevitable outcome at the other. She smiled beatifically at us as she gently filled her nappy. As we took her upstairs to change her, brother number 1 calmly said, "It will either be a neat pyramid. Or it will be a bit of a train wreck."

It was a train wreck.

People, I feel like a Vietnam veteran when I say this. But you weren't there man. You wouldn't know.

This happened at least twice. I can't be 100% sure, folks. My addled brain may have blocked some of the memory out as a self-defence mechanism.

At one point my brother offered me a beer. I can't believe this, but I refused. I thought I had to try and stay at the top of my game. The 13-month-old was winning, though.

Eventually the cavalry arrived in the shape of our wives. I had to go and sit in another room and twitch gently for a while.

Seriously, parents, you do this all day? Every day? Blimey. That hat is staying off.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Britain's next top model?

What would be the first thing to enter your mind if you were to think about models?

Behave yourselves, you lot at the back.

Most of you are probably thinking about strange, other-worldly creatures. Normally stick-thin. People who are aware of the general concept of chip shops, but have no truck with the idea in practical terms. Dodgy fake tans often feature, too.

Orange twiglets wearing oversized sunglasses, then.

UK fashion retailer Next - purveyors of clothing to people for whom the word 'hip' doesn't need to be followed by 'replacement' - are keen to see if this vision of models still holds true. They're running a competition for normal folk to see if they're worthy of being made a Next model in 2011. The competition, called, with unerring creativity, 'Make Me The Next Model 2011", is running until the end of this month. Those voted into the top 250 get to go to a live event where industry experts make their choices.

As you would expect, the usual run of wannabe twiglets - male and female - are there to be seen. There is pouting a-plenty. The afore-mentioned satellite-dish-sized sunglasses are abundant. It's sickeningly shallow.

I think something should be done. Real people don't look like this, do they? Certainly those wandering around my local Next don't.

No. Before you ask, I'm not putting myself forward. I'm the wrong side of both 40 years of age and 17 stone in mass. Even with my infinite levels of optimism I can't see that taking flight.

But my friend Barry has entered. He's a normal bloke, is Barry. Some of you may have seen him on The League, the short film I wrote a year or so ago. He's a good actor, radio DJ and all-round decent chap.Well, actually, Barry is probably not the name his family uses. His actual name is Barinderjit. Here he is:


In his own words, he's a "slightly overweight Catholic-school-educated-Sikh-Geordie-George-Clooney-lookalike". He started off in position 1,700-odd, but in the last few days he's broken into the top 750 and is now in the 500s. More and more people are getting on board with this.

I think he'd represent Next very well indeed. And there's something about the image of all these Tango twiglets at the event in London being confronted by Barry that makes me smile.

But he needs your votes, people. You can vote for Barry here. I seriously recommend that you do so.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Film 2011

A week or so ago I was idly reading through a film script.

Ooh, get me. Writing books, reading film scripts. I've changed, you know. I'm not the humble man I used to be. I'm getting ideas above my station, and no doubt. I'll be getting out of the bath to go to the toilet next.

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes. Here:


Before you ask, no there isn't a group of 20-foot high people behind us. It's a mural.

So there was a bunch of us doing a script reading for our friend Chris's latest magnum opus. Chris makes films. It's not what he does for a living. As far as I know, his real job could involve livestock, the circus or being the lynchpin in an international educational toy smuggling ring.

They're mad for VTech in the Ukraine, or so I hear.

But when he's not doing that, he makes films. By his own admission, it's a bit of fun and not in any way meant to be taken seriously. He has past form when it comes to films. It was Chris that I hold faintly responsible for various injuries I sustained a couple of years ago when an action scene became rather too active. Last year his film was a collection of sketches and once again I was a willing victim. In one memorable scene I played one half of a set of conjoined twins.

It was not pretty. (This is quite possibly NSFW. I can't remember, so consider yourselves warned.)

And now it's all starting again. Once again, Chris is going for a 'magazine' format with a selection of short sketches. This time, however, he's allowed me to contribute a sketch. I'd like to think this was the one being read out in the picture above. Look, some people are smiling. It's a winner!

So now I have lines to learn - not just my own, but others too. It means I can write 'Filming' on the calendar. I can tell people, "Sorry, I can't accept your invitation. I'm on set". the set in question is Chris's back garden, but that's not the point.

I firmly believe George Lucas is having difficulty in sleeping right now.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Unaccustomed as I am

This morning I walked to the local village centre to post a letter and buy some vegetables. There are a number of things that are unusual about that statement.

I can hear you cry: "Post a letter? At the Post Office? What is this, daddy-o, 1952?"

Those would be fair questions to ask. I don't normally bother with letters these day, but in this case it was necessary. The intended recipients of my missive are, quite frankly, as organised and trustworthy as a whoop of gorillas, so Registered Post was needed.

The 'vegetables' bit of the equation will be equally confusing to those who know me well. I truly believe that plants are food for food. Garnish at best. But Katie made a fish pie the size of Hampshire for tonight and she insisted that we have something to go with it. I tried to protest, but all I got for my trouble was one of her looks.

Out of all the factors, though, it's the walking part that is so out-of-character for me. Partly because I've fallen out of practice with forward ambulation since the halcyon days of 2010. I really haven't got back into the swing of regular exercise at all and as a result I'm attaining a waistline reminiscent of a Giant Redwood.

That's not a good thing. Redwoods live for very long, but I think they don't have cholesterol to worry about.

The thing is, it's normally so easy to jump into the car for things like this. This morning, however, saw us recovering from a rather late night out during which several cleansing ales were involved. Driving was definitely not on the menu.

And so I trudged into the village centre. Well, when I call it that, it's only because "the particular bit of the city in our postal district that has a selection of shops" is a bit of a mouthful. It would be wrong for you to have the impression that we live in one of those idealised English villages, where the church bells ring out mid-day, there is cricket on the green, cosy taverns selling warm beer and half-timbered tea shops displaying piles of buttered crumpets.


No. This is urban life. The only pubs around here have shouty red-faced men sat outside with no shirts on, studiously necking continental lager. And the last time we saw anyone around here holding a cricket bat they were holding up the Cash Converters.

But I think I could get the hang of this urban walking. I enjoy walking in the countryside, but it's not always convenient, mainly because the countryside is not here. But today I didn't need to wear special boots or gore-tex. No backpack or hydration unit was necessary. I got to use my iPod for its intended purpose, delivering The Black Keys' latest work into my rapidly-recovering-but-still-thumping-a-little-bit brain. And, heavens to Betsy, I got some exercise.

More to the point, the car sat unused. And with fuel at £1.40 a litre, that is not a bad thing.(I'll pause for a second here while my American readers process that last nugget of information. About $8.60 per US gallon, if you're interested.)

There was another unexpected benefit that arose as I got back home. I was greeted by a grim-faced Katie.

"Jesus, what's up?" I asked, watching as her bottom lip began to protrude.

"I was making the cheesecake for tonight and I went to move that big bag of icing sugar to one side. It, um, exploded."

I went to see that the kitchen did, indeed, look like the aftermath of a Rolling Stones aftershow party. If I'd driven this morning I would have been back 45 minutes earlier to witness what will forever more be called SugarGate taking place in real time. I might have laughed. This would not have been well-received.

Going for a walk and missing the event meant everyone was happy. A little sticky, perhaps, but at least peace was maintained.

Monday, 6 June 2011

We'll keep the blue flag flying here

"Are there any more questions?" the leader asked the assembled crowd.

There was an embarrassed silence, punctuated only by the twitterings of birds in the forest canopy overhead. Then a nervous cough.

"Um. Excuse me?"

A hand rose into the air. A bright blue hand. Its owner stood up, extending himself to his full, three crab-apples, height.

The leader pushed the red cap back on his head and regarded the young Smurf warmly.  Stroking his bushy white beard, he motioned to him to speak.

"Papa Smurf," said the newcomer. "I have been reading the human press...."

This brought a shocked response from the other Smurfs gathered around. "What the smurf!" "I can't smurfing believe it!"

"Let him speak," said Papa Smurf, raising his hand calmly. "Handy Smurf, isn't it? I recognise you from the overalls."

"Thank you Papa. The human press says that we Smurfs are communists. Apparently, because we have no personal possessions and work in a co-operative manner, Smurf society is essentially Stalinist."

There was a deathly silence. Brainy Smurf, sitting next to Papa Smurf on the raised platform, removed his spectacles and polished them thoughtfully. He replaced them once more; hooking them over his button nose and regarding the young Smurf coldly..

"Papa, they say your red clothes and beard are a dead giveaway," said Handy Smurf. "Are we Stalinist?"

This time Brainy Smurf spoke: "If we're going to use labels, we prefer 'Marxist'. Each Smurf provides according to their skills. Each Smurf receives according to their needs."

"What?"

"Yes. Essentially we have the basis of an agrarian commune. The key decisions are made by Papa Smurf, as the leader. I act as executive officer but ratify decisions with the Smurf congress on a weekly basis."

"But surely we're just fantasy characters for young humans," said Handy Smurf. "We don't have to be political, do we?"

"It's really nothing new," said Papa Smurf. "Most childrens' characters have a political background."

"Really?"

"Oh yes. Camberwick Green? Rampant fascists." He spat. "Everyone in their place, all that 'Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew' nonsense."

"I never knew," said Handy Smurf, crestfallen.

"Moomins? Bourgeois colonialists. Even Thomas the Tank Engine is at it!"

"Really?"

"Oh yes. Think about it. All the means of production are controlled by one man with a top hat. He gets fat off the profits while all the engines - the workers - toil endlessly. It's capitalism red in tooth and claw."

"How about the Clangers?"

"No. Don't be silly. They're just knitted woollen moon-creatures."

"So how did the humans get to know about this?".

There was another pause before Brainy Smurf spoke.

"It was that traitor Father Abraham."

"What happened to him? You didn't....hurt him, did you?"

"He has been re-educated," said Papa Smurf flatly. "It was for the best."

Handy Smurf thought for a moment. Then one more thought occurred to him.

"So, as communists, do we share everything?"

"Well, almost everything," said Papa Smurf.

There was a collective coughing from the crowd as Smurfette regarded her feet thoughtfully and blushed a deep magenta.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Did I mention I'd had a book published?

The package came to me at work. In itself that was nothing unusual; I often get packages delivered to me there. Relying on the postman for anything larger than sinister window envelopes is pretty much an exercise in futility, involving "we-couldn't-be-bothered-to-deliver-this" cards and interminable waits at a small postal depot with all the charm of an above-ground nuclear shelter.

The package? Oh, nothing really. Just a copy of a book that I've had published.

I know, I tried being nonchalant when my colleagues watched me open it. "Oh, it's just that book that I wrote," but I think they could tell I was anything but relaxed about the whole thing.

I even left it casually on my desk, so that anyone passing would see it, and on their enquiry I could say "Oh that thing? It's just a book I've had published."

To understand this story we need to go back in time.

Born the third son of a dispossessed nobleman, I was cast out of the family home at the tender age of nine for a crime involving flock wallpaper, chutney and a small rodent.

Hang on, not that far back. Let's skip a few years.

Some months ago I put a collection of my short stories together as an eBook, available for download from all major retailers that are named after major South American rivers. I considered that there would be considerable scope for people who weren't that keen on reading a blog but were technically savvy enough to read eBooks.

Yes, I know. Stop looking at me like that. That's not a Venn diagram - that's two circles on different sides of the paper. So I looked into getting the book published as a paperback. There are, essentially, three ways of doing this:
  1. Be the one lucky sod that gets their book published out of a gazillion manuscripts submitted to the mainstream publishers every day. I may be waiting a while for this to happen.
  2. Go to a vanity publisher, which typically means paying £800 and ending up with a garage full of slowly rotting books that I can't give away. As I don't have a garage (or, for that matter, £800), this is not viable.
  3. Go to a self-publishing 'print-on-demand' publisher like Lulu.com, where through the joys of digital technology, your rough-looking Word document gets turned into a proper, printed, bound book. They only print one when someone orders it, so no costs upfront and no stock needed. Genius. When someone orders one from the site, they print it and post it out to their willing, hungry letterbox.
The book even has an ISBN and barcode so retailers could stock it. If they were having a brainfart, of course. If I say so myself, it looks vaguely professional. I am a little proud of it, I suppose. I can call myself a published author, in an intensely tenuous way. My mom will be happy. Well, until she reads it.

It would make a perfect present. When is it Father's Day? Thanksgiving? Christmas?

Now, you might say that this entire post is nothing but a thinly-veiled advertisement for my book. That I've used every opportunity to drive you to Lulu's website where you can pick up a copy for the bargain price of £2.99 (or whatever that is in your local currency).

As if I would engage in such obvious and shameful self-publicity!


Oh. OK, then. You got me on that one.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Buyer's regret

My body is a temple, I tell people. However, in recent years it has become more like a cathedral. Flying buttresses are a distinct possibility in the years to come. It’s with this in mind that I regularly consider exercise.

The word ‘consider’ is doing all of the heavy lifting in that previous sentence, isn’t it?

But it’s with these considerations in mind that I regard the cross-trainer in the conservatory. Whenever I go near it, I can sense it. It’s almost as if it’s looking at me. It’s not mocking. I think it feels pity, if anything covered in dust and cobwebs can display such an emotion.

It started several years ago. I took a phone call from Katie.


“Cross trainer?” she asked.

“I’m not sure I express any emotions during exercise,” I said. “I’m normally too knackered.”

“You know, you’re not in the slightest bit funny. What would you say to a new cross trainer? And, by the way, ‘Hello new cross trainer’ is not an acceptable response. Unless you fancy sleeping on the sofa tonight.”

It turned out that she’d stumbled across a place selling professional gym equipment at discount prices. Perhaps ‘stumbled’ is the wrong word – she’d gone in there, debit card at the ready. She was smitten by their cross trainers – these exercise machines that require you to adopt the look of a Nordic skier and move your arms and legs in perfect harmony.

“It’s a great idea,” she’d said. “For the amount this costs, you’d normally have to go to the gym for months. Now we can exercise any time we want.”

“Well that’s just fine. Because I never actually want to exercise. How does that work?”


She replied with two words. I’m not entirely sure I understood the first one.

Some days later I was to be found at home – studiously not exercising - when there was an overly-confident knock at the door. I opened it to be presented with Gym Equipment Lady. Gym Equipment Lady was a perfect advertisement for her wares. There were abdominal muscles off which you could confidently bounce a cricket ball. She was wearing gym shorts above legs reminiscent of Redwood pines.

She flashed me a dazzling smile. “Cross trainer?”

“I’m not sure I express any emotion during exercise,” I started, before noticing her eyebrow starting to rise. Even this looked muscle-bound, so I decided not to be a smartarse.

“Um, yes, it needs to go round the back,” I said.

“No problem,” she said, leaping back into the cap of her pick-up and reversing it into the driveway.

“Do you need any help? “ I asked, some semblance of masculinity still in effect.

It was clear only seconds later that I’d asked the most redundant question in history. Her biceps moving like two Volkswagens attempting to parallel-park, she shifted the cross-trainer in one graceful movement from the flatbed to the ground.

“No need,” she said, “just clear a path for me.”

And with that, cross-trainer and Gym Equipment Lady moved in perfect harmony through my garden. It was a sight to behold. The cross-trainer was installed and then she disappeared in a cloud of diesel and Chanel.

And that was the problem. Having seen the Gym Equipment Lady in operation I was convinced there was something in this exercise concept. Who knew, after only a few months, I too could be a perfect specimen?

Alas, it was not to be. It doesn’t matter how good the equipment, you still need to put a degree of physical effort into the whole endeavour. Before too long, the cross-trainer was relegated to impromptu clothes-hanger. It now sits, humbled, its pistons and drive belts cruelly silenced.

For sale, one cross trainer. The perfect present for the Amazon in your life. Buyer must collect.

Friday, 20 May 2011

It's the end of the world as we know it

I thought 'Rapture' was just one of Blondie's weaker songs until quite recently. But it turns out that it's a little more serious than that. According to American preacher Harold Camping, the Rapture happens tomorrow from 6pm, when all the righteous will be swept up to heaven while the remaining 95% of us are left behind to wait for Armageddon.

Well. That puts my plans for the weekend in jeopardy. Mind you, at least it means I don't have to watch Birmingham City getting relegated from the Premiership on Sunday. Silver linings and all that.

By all accounts, according to Camping, this all starts happening at 6pm local time wherever you are, too, so it'll start in New Zealand, moving westwards as the earth spins. I reckon those of us in England will get a few hour's notice. However, as normal, the Germans will have got there first and no doubt their righteous ones will reserve the best places in heaven with a massive beach towel.

It has made me wonder: "What if this was the beginning of the end? What would I do if the world was ending tomorrow?" They say you should try everything at least once before you die. But I still can't get too enthusiastic about Morris Dancing, though.

Mind you, if you were a Christian with a sense of humour, you could play a great trick on your friends and neighbours. Simply wait until 6.00pm tomorrow, then go and hide. Bound to cause some consternation, I'd have thought.

It seems, however, that Camping isn't the first preacher to tell us the end is nigh. It happened before, notably in the 18th century - a Baptist minister in New York confidently predicted the end of the world would happen in 1843. It didn't happen. (It occurs to me - that last sentence is the most redundant sentence in history). Then he predicted it would take place in 1844, when, once again, it failed to happen. His followers referred to the world's stubborn refusal to end as 'The Great Disappointment', which tells you all you need to know about fundamentalists, I suppose.

For once, I wish that the people coming up with forecasts like this were a little more circumspect. On Sunday, Camping's followers will more than likely wake up and find themselves still here. (Carry on Camping, anyone?) Perhaps they need to be a little less shouty, a little more meek. After all, if they have to stay on earth, they might as well try inheriting it.

But in the meantime:

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