Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mid-life crisis

This time last Easter I had an operation to solve some sinus problems I'd been having, and then the resulting 2 weeks spent in bed exacerbated 2 slipped discs I have in my back. So most of last spring and summer were spent in quite a lot of pain of one sort or another. Fortunately, physiotherapy and swimming sorted out my back and my sinuses are fine now. This Easter I've had more of an existential crisis. In some ways it is no less painful than last year.

I've always been happy with what I see when I look in the mirror. But as the months and years pass, you start to notice changes. There are the physical ones - many of them involving hair appearing in all these places you don't want it to, and disappearing from the places where it should be. And even the ones who are kind enough to stay in place can change colour, to a sickly translucent shade, or going boldly white. Then there are lines which start to thicken, little downturned ones at the sides of your mouth, and longer ones which run down the sides of your cheeks, making you look like Deputy Dawg. And there are the dark circles under your eyes which refuse to go away as deposits of fat start to congeal under your eyelids.

You realise you can't do as much in the gym as you used to. Your relationship with food becomes a wary series of negotiations, occasional truces and all-out war. I have a fast metabolism and used to be able to gobble up as much chocolate and chips as I liked without having to worry about putting weight on. Now I have a stomach which no amount of exercise or diet is going to shift. It can be maintained in its present state, but only if I permanently reduce my calorie intake and swim three times a week. Otherwise, it is just going to get bigger and bigger. And there's sleep. As a teenager I could easily sleep for a 12 hour stretch without waking once. Now I struggle to get to sleep, on the worst nights I have to make use of whiskey and Nytol to help. I usually wake up after 2 hours, and then again after another 3. I'm lucky to get 6 hours a night now.

And as well as all the physical changes there are the social ones. Especially around younger people I increasingly feel like the uncool, out-of-touch Dad figure, at best a kinder version of Alan Partridge or Jeremy Clarkson. I unironically say things like "of course, bike technology's improved considerably in the last 20 years." Bike technology?! I get annoyed when young people broadcast their every movement on twitter and facebook, or when you're in a conversation with them and they get out their mobile phone and start a lengthy texting interaction with someone else. I find their lack of interest in politics irritating, their attitudes towards safe sex horrifying, their view of immigrants and the poor depressing. Of course all these are over-generalisations. I think the pop music of today is awful - nihilistic, celebratory of a pointless consumer lifestyle that sexualises women and embraces gangster violence. Everyone is auto-tuned and its all presentation rather than substance. Give me the wry social commentary of Pulp's Common People or Blur's Girls and Boys or even a good tune like Definitely Maybe by Oasis. I'm sure there is better stuff out there now, but I don't know about it, I'm so disengaged.

Of course, there's not much you can do about it. Raging feebly against the younger generation and bemoaning your lost youth is one of those cliched rites of passage. I think you are allowed to do it for a few months, and then you have to just get over it, accept your new position in society and count your paycheck. It's a consolation that the people older than me felt the same way, and that it will happen to the younger ones too. If they're lucky enough to live that long.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Indications of a violent society

My week in Johannesburg continued to be slightly weird.

In my everyday life, since I left school, I've only ever encountered violence through tv, film and computer games. Most of it is clearly fictionalised and there's often a very moral element behind it, with bad guys getting punished. But in South Africa, violence feels more real and closer to you. The houses are hidden behind thick walls and electric gates, topped off with electrified wire or spikes. Regularly you hear dogs barking in gardens or see security guards patrolling the streets. The people who live in Johannesburg are very serious about security. "The price of inequality" said one of my friends who was with me.

The reminders of violence continue when you talk to the people who live there, who often have pretty awful stories to tell, even if things haven't happened to them personally. One day we walked round a botanical gardens, noting the "no guns" signs everywhere. Such a sign would be infeasible in the UK, and while it was reassuring to know that someone had designated the park as a "no gun" zone, the fact the sign was necessary at all made me feel much less reassured. And there didn't seem to be a way of enforcing the policy in any case.

And on passing an open door in the guesthouse I was staying I heard this telling snippet of conversation from the unseen man inside: "The thing you have to remember is not to point the gun at anyone's face..."

We had been advised not to walk around by ourselves, particularly at night, and as we were staying out in a suburb we needed to get taxis into town or to tourist destinations. Except it didn't prove as easy as just phoning a taxi because more often than not they didn't come. Sunday ended up being a wasted day as we couldn't get a taxi to take us anywhere AND the electric gates broke again so we couldn't get out anyway.

Maybe it was our accents or international phone number that caused the taxis not to appear but we were advised to get someone else to phone a taxi for us, so in order to go anywhere you had to go through two levels of assistance. And for someone who's not used to that, it felt annoying. Because of that, on a few occasions we walked back to our hotel from the street of restaurants nearby. Most of it was well lit, but the tree-lined side street we were staying on was very quiet and as it was on the edge of a built-up area, was adjunct to undeveloped land. On a couple of occasions as we approached our guesthouse there were figures in the distance, hanging around, which caused us to increase our pace and breathing.

On Friday night, as we walked back, I was saying to my fella "Oh, I think the warnings about crime and danger are exaggerated here," and just then we heard a woman screaming and running towards us, followed by a couple of men who stopped and turned round when they saw us. The woman, who was understandably very upset, told us that the two men had just attacked her, tried to strangle her and grab her handbag. We helped her to get her to safety but if there was something to hammer the point home, that was it.

It could be a paradise. And I hope one day it is.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Gated in Johannesburg

I arrived in Johannesburg this morning for some work related stuff and some sight-seeing hopefully sandwiched in. Several people have asked me if I was scared of going, and the person who invited me and arrange my accommodation sent me a semi-reassuring email last week saying not to leave my luggage unattended at the airport and not to walk around at night by alone. But a couple of online searches on the internet at Heathrow left me feeling pretty terrified. But I have walked around Mexico City, Rio, Columbo, Mumbai and Preston city centre and coped. And actually, the airport felt very civilised - moreso than JFK at New York. The city has a smattering of tall buildings, which look like some were built in the 60s. We were driven to our guesthouse which had a very reassuring electric gate, and is in a "bohemian district". We were shown a 1-storey street of small shops and cafes which seems to make up a kind of cultural centre. After napping we decided to go out at get some breakfast.

But that's were events took a slightly surreal turn - we had been given a key fob with a button to press to make the electric gate open so we could go in and out as we pleased. But as much as we pressed it, the gate wouldn't open. The lady who seemed to be in charge of the guesthouse had vanished, and we appeared to be the only guests. Wandering around the compound felt a bit like being in the Twilight Zone, and when we tried phoning the numbers of the owners of the guesthouse we couldn't get through.

So eventually we got in touch with the guy who'd invited me and set up our booking and he lives about a 10 minute walk away so he said he'd come over. "I don't know what you expect him to do when he gets here," my fella snapped (by this point spousal relations were on shaky ground). "He might have a trick to get the gate open that we don't know about," I suggested, uselessly. So we sat watching tv with the sound turned down, waiting for him to arrive.

Finally, he appeared at the gate. And in an act which suggested experience which I have no knowledge of, he quickly pulled it open with one hand. Apparently these gates break down sometimes and have to be manually opened. By the time we got back from our coffee it had been fixed.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

[Carol] doesn't have many friends you know, I suppose it's just her personality.

The above bitchy quote from the Joan Crawford film Queen Bee has been buzzing around in my mind all day. Having done a degree in Psychology and then read up on a fair amount of Social Constructionist theory on top of that I don't believe in the validity of personality tests that much - they can be just as accurate as horoscopes and people have a tendency to just agree with any vaguely sounding positive statement they read about themselves. But I did the Myers-Briggs personality test last night and it turns out I'm an INFJ. More specifically that means I'm more introverted than extroverted, and tend to be introspective and rely on my imagination rather than engaging with the world around me. INFJs are somewhat sensitive souls and make decisions with their hearts. They like to commit to things and have order and tidiness around them. We are also quiet but have strong opinions and are good written communicators. We hate conflict and criticism and can behave somewhat irrationally when dealing with it.

Martin Luther King was one apparently. And I'd guess Carrie from Homeland would be one too. She spends a lot of time alone rather than socialising, she relies on hunches and emotions in her work (sometimes to her detriment, sometimes not), she's very driven to defeat all the terrorists and she can't handle conflict at all - almost always over-reacting. And she's not very relaxed.

The description of INFJs sounds like it applies to me too, but what surprises me is that this is the rarest personality type, held by only about 1% of people. Some personality types, like reliable best friend ISFJ, fact-checking ISTJ and team playing nice guy ESFJ are about 12 times as common. Maybe that helps to explain why I sometimes feel that my everyday interactions are a bit off-kilter at times - that I don't get other people and they don't get me. I kind of wish I'd done the test earlier in life - it might have helped to have known the result when I was in my 20s - a time when I tried harder to fit in and connect with other people and often felt disappointed by friends. All this time, it was just my personality unfortunately.

The website suggests other types that I'm likely to fare best in a relationship with, and fortunately my fellow, who also took the test, is one of those. He holds the second rarest type - making us a pair of very odd birds. It's true that there is someone for everyone, but in our cases we were lucky to find each other when we did - the odds weren't necessarily in our favour.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Don't Put Me In The Shoe!

1988: Just after I finished my GCSE exams, I noticed an intriguing entry in the TV Times, on Thursday night after the 10 o'clock news. It was for a late 1970s Australian soap opera set in a women's prison (the Wentworth Detention Centre) called Prisoner Cell Block H, and I watched it, not expecting it to be very good. In some ways it wasn't - the acting was often camply melodramatic, the sets looked like sets and the storylines sometimes dragged and sometimes didn't make much sense with characters appearing to be written out for no reason. But it was riveting stuff all the same. In the first episode, a pretty young woman checks into the prison, accused of trying to kill the baby she has been employed to care for by burying it alive. She claims she's innocent, and sure enough we find out that she's telling the truth and the baby's still in danger from its insane mother, but the other prisoners don't believe her and the episode ends with the top dog of the prison, Bea Smith, burning the girl's hands in the steam press. During my student years, the soap was often pre-empted for sporting events (boo!), and when I moved across country to go to university I missed 2 years of it, as different regions were all showing it on different schedules. I remember during my first week at university, feeling disoriented and lonely, turning on the tv on Sunday night to see the welcoming faces of Bea, Lizzie, Doreen, Meg, Erica et al. And things didn't seem so bad. When Sheila Florence who played old lag Lizzie Birdsworth, died, my friends and I lit a little candle for her. I even started watching the series all over again on DVD a few years ago and kept a blog about it, although I have been remiss in keeping it up to date.

So it was with some interest that I realised that the show has been recently rebooted - and is now on Channel 5 - simply called Wentworth, it takes the same characters as before, but places them in the here and now. It's more of a retelling - or rather, a badly remembered retelling - as the storylines of characters deviate from the original. The actresses have a lot to live up to, and perhaps because it is filmed like a professionally done drama, it doesn't have the bumbling DIY feel of "Pris" as we called it. And in any case, I'm already hooked on another women's prison drama, Orange is the New Black. Orange follows middle-class New Yorker, Piper who goes to prison for trafficking drug money ten years previously when she had a drug-dealing girlfriend and a very different life. It is through Piper's eyes that we encounter the prison and its inmates, and each episode gives the backstory of a different character through a series of flashbacks which document some of the events that led to that prisoner being locked up. Even characters who are extremely unsympathetic are gradually fleshed out and shown to have a complex side - these are not women who have chosen a life of crime (as is the case for the reprehensible characters of Grand Theft Auto) but have often been forced into it via circumstance. Every character is believable and the acting, even from the minor characters, is compelling, particularly considering how young and relatively experienced some of the women playing these roles are.

My fella has an instinctual hatred for the drug-dealing girlfriend (who - spoiler alert - of course, happens to be in the same prison), calling her a "traitor" - which is the worst thing you can be in his eyes. But he also disapproves of those tv property buying shows like "A Place in the Sun: Home and Abroad" which follow people who are thinking about leaving the UK to start a new life. (He calls that show "Traitors".)

Although the cast of Orange are mostly not well known, it is fun to see Kate Mulgrew (Captain Kathryn Janeway) playing the prison top dog - a Russian chef with mad red hair (called Red) and a cold temper. Episode 2, which shows some of Red's backstory - is called "Tit punch", and has to be seen to be believed (episode 3 is called Lesbian Request Denied).

One of my favourite characters is Suzanne (aka Crazy Eyes). Here's why.

Even ol' Crazy eventually gets a sympathetic write-up after she is initially painted as mad and sexually predatory. And there is a heart-rending scene where she asks Piper, "Why do they call me crazy eyes?"

As the inheritor of Prisoner Cell Block H, I'd say Orange is the New Black wins the prize.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Magic Box

If there was one thing I could tell me 21 year old self, it's eat as much as you like now and savour every piece of chocolate because even your metabolism will slow down by the time you're 40. And if I was allowed two things, it would be - don't throw away so much stuff because you'll just miss it eventually and spend ages on ebay buying it all back again.
I think it started with a Mr Man Annual that I had as a child. You get older, move out, and all your childish books somehow vanish. But I saw this particular Annual in a junk shop in Bristol, years later. And opening it up fired off all these dormant synapases, each page full of memories, suddenly hurtling back through time to 1982. I didn't buy it, because, well, it felt a bit silly. But I immediately regretted it, and when I saw the same annual a few years later on a market stall, I stopped in my tracks and bought it. It's now on my book shelf, along with the Fighting Fantasy books that I used to have as a child, and an enormous book from the 1940s called A Day in Fairyland which I used to look at when I visited my grandmother which cost £80. It's not just books. Up until the age of about 16, we only had a handful of records in our home, and I must have listened to each one hundreds of times. I threw away all my LPs about 10 years ago when CDS and then MP3s started changing the way that I listened to music. But I've since regretted getting rid of so many of them, and have hunted most of them down - the Disney Album that was advertised constantly in the run up to Christmas 1977, the Readers Digest Sensational 70s Boxed Set (10 fabulous discs, one for each year), Ed Stewart's fairytales - with a classical music soundtrack that made me fall in love with Swan Lake years and the Hall of the Goblin King before I knew what they were, and even a really corny Western Film Music album.

The magical Reader's Digest Sensational 70s Boxed Set was what set off my love of retro, way back in 1989 when my friend Kathryn discovered that magic box in her older sister's cupboard. We were both hideously uncool and "swotty" although I don't think anyone at our school realised the intellectual disdain we held them all in. Like many social outcasts we rejected a lot of the stuff we were supposed to like, and inside fell back into the past - reclaiming a garish decade that nobody thought much of. I think we started off by making fun of The Carpenters and all the disco but after a few plays, we had fallen in love. We held a bizarre 1970s party for our bemused friends, which culminated in us walking around Peterlee town centre dressed in 1970s get-up, very late one Friday night, posing for photos next to supermarket trolleys and hoping a drunk would see us and think they had somehow gone back in time.

Kathryn loved The Mission and U2 and Bon Jovi and used to make compilation tapes out of Radio 1's Chart Show on Sunday night, followed up by the more exotic fare that Annie Nightingale offered just afterwards. But she's maintained her soft spot for the 70s, and last night presided over a 1970s quiz, made up of 20 intros from the Sensational 70s boxed set. I'm afraid my memory, like my metabolism, isn't what it used to be - and I couldn't recall about 7 of the songs. MY strategy was to put "Dire Straits" for every question I didn't know, although my fella pointed out that they were more of an 80s group, so that didn't help. Towards the end, in desperation I simply wrote "I have the Alzheimer's Gene", and "see above" for questions 16 and 17, hoping that Kathryn's husband, who was going to be marking my answers, would take pity on me. Unfortunately I came last, even mis-spelling Bacarra. I think I'll be needing to spend more time with the Magic Box so I don't disgrace myself next time.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

All my Niggaz

Yesterday saw the release of Grand Theft Auto 5 - the much anticipated and several-times postponed ultra-violent computer game where you take the role of three criminals (and a dog) in a huge perfectly rendered rendition of Los Angeles. The previous game, set in New York, took up quite a lot of my life a few years ago, and I didn't even finish it. I was in two minds about whether to buy GTA5 as apart from having three characters and a different city, it looked like more of the same - driving around and shooting people or wandering aimlessly through a beautiful city, where the sense of awe at the gigantic game-space always gives way to a horrible sense of loneliness (I am wandering alone and have no-one to talk to) and futility (I'm wasting time playing a game and not even playing it with any sense of purpose).

But my biggest problem about GTA is the unrelenting, Tarantino-like violence, which characterises about 90% of computer games these days. It's not that I expect it will turn players into violent nutters (you could equally argue it's providing a safe outlet for nutters), but I don't want to play that role. Even in a "sophisticated" way. I'm not interested in the little character nuances and dilemmas faced by people who have chosen violent crime as a way of life. I find them boring and it's why I could never get into the Sopranos.

But I got swept along with the glowing reviews last week, so last night went to buy a copy. A news article noted that someone had been stabbed on the way home from buying the game. For the first time ever, there was a queue in my local Game (all of us buying the same thing). As I entered the shop and asked the assistant at the door whether there were any copies left, a posh man in a suit barged in and said "Can I just interrupt you, are there any copies of Grand Theft Auto 5 available?" Because I'm a bit slow socially sometimes I just let him take over, but my fella has a maternal DNA strand from the "battle-axe" tribe and is made of much more assertive stuff than me, so he let the guy have a few snappy comments (which had no effect). For a second or two, I wished I was a character in Grand Theft Auto, equipped with one of the more exotic weapons in the game's endless arsenal.

I got the game home and played it for most of last night. It feels like all the other games in the series, although with slightly better graphics. "Can you turn the dialogue off?" my fella asked after one of the characters called another a "homo". After a couple of hours, I worked out some of the dialogue rules of GTA5: If a black character is speaking or being spoken to, the word nigga must be used (preferably twice in the same sentence). Every time someone speaks, the f word must be used. Every time someone speaks, there must be reference to private parts or a sexual act involving private parts. All women are bitches or hos. Claiming that someone is homosexual is still a valid way of insulting men. And everyone must always sound ironic and world-weary.

I'm not sure if I'm supposed to find the language funny or realistic not. It's so over the top that it becomes a parody of itself. And GTA prides itself on being very postmodern and clever. So characters are critical of capitalism: "just a legal way of screwing people over" and the tv shows you can watch in the game show programs like "Republican Space Rangers: Intergalactic war on terror" which features one of the homophobic troopers having gay fantasies. The radio stations make digs at censorship and the way that sites like Facebook invade privacy. But at the same time, there are no playable female characters. And ultimately to get on you have to kill people.

There's so much talent in Grand Theft Auto. It might be the best computer game ever made. It's clever and funny and beautiful. But at its core - it's rotten.