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?


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?


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