Monday, December 28, 2009


My mother was from a family of Methodists - a religious sect who practice a very dour version of Christianity - they don't like alcohol, gambling or ostentatious decoration. Even their churches look like sheds. My mother wasn't the best Methodist in her congregation. She'd learn her passages from the Golden Book on the bus on the way to church, and her uncle once remarked to her "Our Marianne, you're always last in and first out". Well, it was the 1960s, and she was too busy growing her hair long and wearing a bell. Fortunately, once she left home (marrying a 25 stone hippy with no prospects - my Dad - hurrah!), she stopped going to church altogether (Dad was avowedly atheist anyway, having been brought up Catholic).

But even if you renounce a religion, it's difficult to fully scrub away the stain, and mother brought up her children as Methodists - just without God and the Church having any involvement. So there was never any alcohol in our hygenically scrubbed home (apart from Harvey's Bristol Cream making an appearance at Christmas in thimble sized glasses and strictly for the over 18s). Boasting or what's now approvingly called "self-promotion", was seen as the worst crime ever, and Dad gave us regular sermons about the dangers of getting addicted to slot machines, often illustrated with real-life "Bella-magazine" type stories from his own workplace. The whole family looked down on everyone else in the street, especially those who gave their children crisps for dinner and spent Saturday nights and their Family Allowance at "the Catholic Club" (I never saw inside it, but in my mind it resembles an especially debauched scene from an Hieronymus Bosch drawing).

So we were not Methodists, but we may as well have been. Even now, my sister and I hiss "Methodism!" at each other, when we reveal tales of crazy behaviour that can be traced back to our upbringing. And my fella shakes an imaginary tamborine at me almost daily as a means of mocking my annoying self-righteousness. Our trace-Methodism manifests itself in a blind terror and disgust of gambling (I've never bought a lottery ticket and never will), abstinence and moderation, a Polly Toynbee desire for social equality, yet a rather sneering judgementalism of everyone (which I'm sure you're too polite to say you've noticed). We even hate fireworks - which committ two sins in our Methodist eyes - being both showy and dangerous.

I don't believe in God, but if there is one, I think he's keeping a very close eye on me. Every time that I stray, even slightly from the straight and narrow, I am instantly caught and reprimanded - in a way that makes me feel that I live in the Truman Show. The one time that I played truant from school - I chose to eschew P.E. and instead hang around outside Asda, both of my parents spotted me, separately from each other, within 10 minutes. Co-incidence conspired to place all three members of the same family in exactly the same place at the same time. Last year, one quiet Sunday morning, I decided to take a short cut through town and drive my car the wrong way down a one-way street. Within seconds, I was stopped by a policeman on a bicycle who pulled me over and explained my error to me. I have never seen a policeman on a bicycle before or since. Another time in my youth, I got into a fight on a train - and was lucky enough to have the whole incident witnessed by an off-duty police-lady, who flashed me her badge. I can't think of any other "crimes" I have committed - I know there's no point. But I do know that if I ever need police assistance, I should carry out some minor offence like public urination, because I will immediately be surrounded at gun-point by 20 of them.

It doesn't just extend to the law. I was teetotal for 12 years because my body decided of its own accord to reject alcohol. I never figured out why, but drinking half a bottle of red wine would put me in hospital with agonising kidney pains. It's like my kidneys are possessed by the ghosts of my Methodist great-grandparents. It's finally abated and I can have the "odd" drink - but again, it's more like the occasional glass of Harvey's Bristol Cream. I will never have that popular noughties career - binge drinker. And I remain miserably thin - thanks to decades of sensible eating and regular exercise. Last night, it being Christmas, and the house being full of what my parents call "ket" (sugary calorific food with no nutritional value), I binge-ate for the first time in my life. I had a beef stew, then a Christmas pudding, then some orange juice, then some hommous and bread, then some Cadbury's Heroes, then some raisins, then some petit fours. I watched episode 10 of Dollhouse and fell alseep.

But at 1 in the morning I woke up to gut-wrenching pain in my stomach, which had become bloated and ugly. I was apparently experiencing the effects of gluttony, and I spent the night, bent-over, yelling and incoherent. My long-suffering fella put an episode of Desert Island Disks on Iplayer (David Tennant) and we listened to that, until the 10th Doctor's inexhaustible list of bland 1980s Scottish pop stars put us both to sleep, at sometime around 3.30. So I can add over-eating to the list of things I shouldn't do, lest I be instantly and severely punished. Methodism!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My review of 2009

It's the last week of the year, so here's what I was watching, reading and listening to in 2009...


Although it was thankfully announced that there would be no more Big Brother after 2010, television line-ups seemed completely dominated by "reality" (actually scripted) talent shows, none of which I watched. The campest tv program ever made, Glee, tackled similar ground, although was actually very good, and had important messages about diversity and acceptance, even if all the female and gay characters pined after unattainable males. I tend to only discover tv shows once they've survived a first series - and enjoyed Being Human (summarised as "did you hear the one about the vampire, the werewolf and the ghost?"), which filled me with yearning for Bristol, Mad Men (which filled me for yearning for 1960s Manhattan), and Dollhouse, which filled me with yearning for Enver Gjokaj. Charlie Brooker's various outputs on BBC4 made me laugh (last night he accurately described Gordon Brown as a "failed, haunted grandfather clock"), and I ended up watching a lot of local news somehow.


A couple of good sci-fi films: the quiet yet talky Moon which covered cloning, and the very allegorical District 9. (Avatar had the best special effects and was also allegorical, but not as good). Star Trek rebooted had some pretty actors, but I don't remember anything else about it. BrĂ¼no was OK, although a bit too similar to Borat, and thanks to my nephew, I ended up seeing quite a few animation films (of which Up! was the best). Zombieland had the best beginning to a film I'd seen this year, the most disappointing film was The September Issue (which I bought on DVD and turned off halfway through - it was NOTHING like Devil Wears Prada).


A disappointing year for games, and I ended up continuing to play games I'd bought the prevous year (still haven't finished Motorstorm Pacific Rift, Grand Theft Auto IV and Oblivion IV). The Singstar online shop did pretty well out of me (I must have downloaded 100+ songs this year), and I finally completed the kitschly apocalyptic Fallout 3 this week (I have dreams about stalking ghouls through cave networks while Ella Fitzgerald sings over the radio). Drakes Fortune 2 got me playing online co-operative multiplayer games for the first time (personal discovery - I'm a really rubbish person to have on your team, I'm more of a hinderance than a help). The funnest game of the year was House of the Dead: Overkill, which had a B Movie Quentin Tarantino-inspired feel.


As I haven't paid any attention to "chart music" in about 15 years, I had only the vaguest idea about what was "current", although my Iphone has somehow acquired music by Little Boots, Amy Winehouse, Paloma Faith, Duffy and Jill Scott, so I'm enjoying the recent trend of music that looks back to the 1960s. I got a record player for my birthday, so started hunting round charity shops for old jazz records, and discovered Dexter Gordon, Kenny Burrell, Ramsey Lewis and Miles Davies. The most played song on my Iphone is "At Last" by Etta James. I don't know how. I don't even like it that much.

The Internet

This year the sites I visited every day included The New York Magazine and the New York Times (because they make me feel slightly cosmopolitan), Towelroad (for its exhaustive coverage of gay politics and culture), The Independent and BBC News sites (for the British take on news), and a handful of blogs. Blogging has changed. 7-8 years ago it used to be the trendy thing, and during 2005 I was blogging every other day. This year I've been managing about one post a week. My little coterie of like-minded bloggers seems to have dwindled and blogs feel less relevant than they used to. The blogs that I read tend to be higher quality, professionally-produced ones. There's less of a sense of a blogging community - it's moved on. I became officially anti-social and left the big hug-fest of Facebook, while Twitter, which is "the way the world is going", leaves me cold.

Personal Events

Most of the year was taken up with a new house/renovation project, which was physically and economically exhausting. I've recovered from my fatigue, but financially am in my own "recession" and will be until all the improvement loans are paid off. I had a productive year workwise - probably overdid it, judging by the fact I've had eyestrain for the last month or so. I should probably slow down. A nice thing about being in your late 30s is that you feel you have less to prove, and consequently tend to be less impressed/intimidated by the world.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cold snap

I have caught a Christmas cold and am stuck indoors. It's been quietly snowing outside for the last 2 days, so I probably shouldn't be out anway. I am certain the weather will ruin our Christmas plans and we will end up isolated here on Christmas Day. My fella calls me Cassandra. I call him Sandra Cass (which is Cassandra backwards) because he's eternally optimistic to my pessimist. We drive each other mad.

I get people taking photos outside my house a lot on normal day - I especially like the Japanese tourists who make peace signs with both hands. Today it has felt a bit like living outside Buckingham Palace, with a constant stream of photographers. The picture above was taken from my bedroom window last night. After I had taken it, the street was suddenly full of couples, who decided to go on romantic walks in the snow. When you're in love, temperatures of minus four don't matter.

The grit spreaders didn't arrive until 10.30 this morning, which meant that for 3 hours cars and vans struggled with that hill, sometimes getting completely stuck and having to abandon their vehicles. People would rev their engines, their wheels spinning madly, then get out of their cars and just stand there, dumbly looking at them, unable to decide what to do next. It was a fascinating study of human nature. I was particularly impressed by one good-looking young man who managed to summon a posse of three men to push-start him. The advantages of being attractive - you only have to smile and the world roots you on. Another man was less appealing, and was unable to get passers-by to help him, one old bastard just said "Oh no, I don't think so, thankyou," and hurried on.

I also saw an elderly man fall over on the hill this morning. He picked himself up and continued, although it looked like a nasty fall, and I suspect he was making te best of it. At least if there is nothing good on tv, I can just look out of the window - all human life is there.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The wall of hate

I pass this wall every time I go to the gym. It's down a side street which doesn't get much use, and over the months, more and more graffiti has appeared on it. I'm so familiar with the wall that I can tell which graffiti is fresh, and so have watched vicariously as various grudge matches between teenage girls that I will never meet are played out. You might want to click on the image to see it in its full horrific glory.

The "wall of hate" as I like to think of it, tells me a lot about the ways that girls are cruel to each other these days, and how they take onboard views about women and sexuality that are actually damaging to all women, and then use those views as insults against each other. Reading accusations of someone being a "spacca", having Downs Syndrome or AIDS was initially quite shocking, but as the months passed those barbs seen less impressive when compared to "Tasha has a dick and its huge!" Because suspected transexuality will never run out of mileage. However, always being a grammar bitch, I have to restrain myself from putting a little apostrophe on the "its". I suspect that the writer of the "huge dick" revelation won't be doing very well in her GCSEs.

But all this pales into nothing when compared against the ongoing hate campaign against Ms Watts (of which only part is shown here). I have often wondered what this poor girl did in order to warrant such sustained abuse, and whether she even knows that she has a wall devoted to her. I try to imagine what the girl who wrote such words is like. She is probably quite a bit more intelligent than the others in her class. But nasty with it. Very nasty. She hides it well but inside I think she's unhappy and has a rubbish home life. From experience, there's usually a nasty or neglecful parent behind a nasty child.

She's the sort of girl who uses a cutting, clever humour to make others laugh and herself popular. But her popularity is always at the expense of someone else - some poor, slow-witted victim who is too inept to fight back. Someone who commits a tiny slight towards this girl will never hear the end of it.

First of all Ms Watts was described as being "a walking STI!" (love the exclamation mark). I wonder whose boyfriend she distracted? Later on, this initial proposition was built upon - now she is a "fucked up slag with STIs". As insults go, this is pretty impressive. I like how the vicious little author corrected her initial mis-spelling of "fucked". Even more impressive, she has put a full-stop at the end of her accusation. And you have to give credit to someone who can incorporate an acronym (STIs) into an insult. And not even the unfashionable STDs. Oh no, she's so "with it" that she uses STIs - mirroring the health profession's recent shift of focus from "disease" (which stresses symptoms) to "infection" (which is more concerned with transmission).

With such a good grasp of the English language, I think she will do rather better in her GCSEs than some of the other girls in her class. As for poor Ms Watts - I hope the boy was worth it. At least school-days don't last forever.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The before shot

I think it says a lot about how fucked up society is getting when the body on the left is now a "before shot".
Byebye Facebook

I closed my Facebook account this week, opting out of what's one of the most popular social trends of the present day. I'd been growing increasingly irritated with it, and felt that logging on and reading the mundane thoughts of an ever-growing number of acquaintences was not particularly edifying. By the end, I'd found it unbearable and had become paralysed by it - having felt that my entire identity had been erased...

It started off OK. I had a small number of friends - real ones. The ones I knew in real life and was in regular contact with anyway. Then I started getting friend requests from "friend-whores" - people who I'd never heard of who had thousands of friends and whose sole aim in life seemed to have more. Not realising this, I was both flattered, and afraid of committing a social faux pas as a newbie by rejecting them, so I then acquired a few of those people who seemed to live on Facebook, posting up updates, links and photos every few minutes - although I could never work out how they ever managed to attend the parties and events which they were so keen to document and share with everyone, as they seemed to spend every minute on Facebook. Maybe they lived in families of clones.

Then I got "friended" to members of my family, which was fine, but it meant that I needed to think carefully about how I presented myself. And I also found it unnerving and creepy to be suddenly given unedited details from the lives of my younger relatives who were studying at university - I didn't want to see them in a mankini at some party, or hear about them being "wasted" the night before, or who they fancied. It made me feel like Creepy Uncle Lubin. Or worst still, Judgemental Uncle Lubin.

And then the work contacts started to happen. Some of my students befriended me. And then my work colleagues. Initially that was OK, because it was generally people I liked from work, and was pretty comfortable with. And by this time I'd already worked out a kind of jolly, avuncular kind of persona on Facebook that wasn't going to shock anyone.

But Facebook is never happy for you to have a static number of friends. Facebook wants everyone to be friends with everyone else. So you keep getting little messages telling you that person X is friends with one of your friends, and you should consider befriending them too. And so, through this enforced network of jollity and togetherness, work colleagues who I'm not that close to began asking to befriend me. And unless you want to shatter the fake yet utterly necessarily civil work relationships that you've spent years creating, in order to deal with people that you actually don't like very much, you end up having to befriend such people on Facebook. Because if you didn't - they'd know that you really didn't like them. And staff meetings and all those times you bump into them in the corridor would be even less pleasant. (There's a professor at my workplace who hasn't figured out how to make his profile private so everyone can see when he's playing Mafia Wars when he's claiming to be busy working on his book - he's a laughing-stock.)

There were also the people from my past. Old school and university friends, who tracked me down and sent me kind emails, not realising that there were good reasons why we lost touch. I am still in contact with the girl I sat next to at school when I was 7. She was the first person I came out to. We don't live in the same town but we make the effort to see each other several times a year. We had a connection then, and we have one now. Most other people - we just happened to be at school together at the same time. That doesn't give us a real connection. We don't have to be friends.

And then there were the gays. Ex-boyfriend gays from many many years ago, who tracked me down and then befriended me, perhaps so they could demonstrate to me and all their other exes just how happy and exciting their lives were. Gays who loved naked men and porn so much that they wanted to share every new naked gay porn star with all of their Facebook friends. Every day. And then all of their other porn-loving friends would post up messages about they would like to do with the porn star. And don't forget the slightly older gays who harboured not-so-secret fantasies about me, and would immediately post sexually flirtatious responses to my updates, attempting to turn my most boring post into a double entendre, while hinting about aspects of my personal life which made me rather more exotic than I actually am. I would agonise over whether to delete these responses - knowing that my besotted admirer would be hurt and not understand, and that probably half my workplace and family had seen it anyway.

So in order for me to survive on Facebook, I would have to put aside my 20th century social skills (humility, respect, discretion) and replace them with a set of 21st century social skills (self-publicisation, endless flirting, indiscriminate indiscretion). I would have to become Paris Hilton. I simply couldn't do that, so I stopped posting up altogether - any piece of information about myself that I wrote could be read by someone who would misinterpret it or see a side of me that I would prefer to keep hidden from them. As a result, I became nothing - no-one. Not posting anything. Not logging on to read other people's postings, because I didn't want to know about aspects of their lives. Or worse still, I didn't care.

When things get worse gradually, it can be difficult to put a stop to them, because it's hard to define the point when they tip over from irritating to unaccepable. At this point there has to be an additional event - one which hammers home how unbearable things have become. For me, this became clear last week when Facebook decided that in response to the hegemony of Twitter (a word which once meant annoying and banal chatter and is now elevated to the highest form of communication), it had decided to change its default privacy settings to make everything potentially accessible to everybody. A spokesman for Facebook said that this "was the way that the world was going". It's the final extension of Facebook's pressing desire for everyone to have more and more friends. Why not turn everyone in the world into a friend-whore - in one swift blow.

The way the world is going.... Maybe so, but it's not the way that everyone's going. And that statement suddenly made me realise how at-odds I was with all of this.

So it's over. If you want to contact me, you'll need to do it the old-fashioned way - by a private email. And please don't send me photos of the last party you went to. I don't care. Really.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Don't put your son on the stage

I was interviewed for the One Show yesterday, for a short feature that might come out in January. My mother is the One Show's biggest ever fan. She retired a couple of years ago, and has a lot of free time (although complains most of it is spent brushing the dog). She writes letters to the One Show a lot with "ideas". She is very against animal testing at the moment, and thinks the One Show should do more on this topic, preferably with her in. Her latest thing is going around department stores "disguised as a researcher" (!), asking poor shop assistants if their products have been tested on animals, and then marking their responses in an official-looking folder. (I sometimes think I should devote my entire blog to what my mother says, thinks and does).

So when I told her I was being interviewed, I thought she might explode with joy. "Can I come on it?" she asked. I told her that due to the whimsical and transitory nature of television programming, and the fact that I become inarticulate and odd when a camera is pointed at me, that it is unlikely that they would use any footage of me anyway. I also told her not to tell anyone. I should have known better - she told her entire street to watch it last night - not understanding that I was only being interviewed yesterday, and that the feature, if it comes out at all, would be months later.

I had to travel down to London and then meet the interviewer and film crew in an art deco style bar in a basement in Soho, where the interviewing was being carried out. Fortunately it will all be edited, so they can reduce 20 minutes of me trailing off mid-sentence into about 10 seconds of something vaguely articulate. The weirdest bits were the "establishing shots" where they film you walking down the street, going down the stairs, or just sitting at a table and talking about nothing. In order for it to look like we were having an authentic conversation the interviewer said "Just tell me everything you did yesterday from when you woke up". So I did and then they all laughed at how boring my life is.

The interviewer was a reasonably well-known (if you live in the UK) comedian. He kept commenting on how he had been expecting me to be camp because I was gay, and I wasn't. "The other one we interviewed before you was camp, and he was wearing very flamboyant clothes," he said. I looked down at my sensible Marks and Spencer pullover and said "Although for an academic, I'm about as glamorous as you can get."

Afterwards, they invited me to lunch (a steretoypically Soho sushi place), there was various talk of which celebrities were "difficult" etc. I hadn't heard of any of them. The only celebrities I know about anymore are academic ones, and rather than read Heat magazine, I get my celebrity fix from an evil piece of computer software called Harzing's Publish or Perish. You type in the name of an academic and get a list of all their publications and how often each one is cited. This is then converted into a score called the H Score - the higher the score, the more famous you are. Mine is 13. That means I've had 13 things cited 13 times or more. To go up to 14 you have to 14 things cited 14 or more times. 13 is reasonably respectable for a linguist, and over the last couple of years I have begun to gain a tiny amount of academic fame. This means that at conferences I get more than 8 people at my presentation, and sometimes a Chinese student will come up to me and tell me that they've read one of my books. I rather like the strange parallel yet inverse world of academic celebrity. Real celebrities need to be physically stunning and stupid (Paris Hilton). Whereas for acaedemic celebrity, the more grotesque you are, the more introverted and socially stunted, the better-known you seem to be. I am thinking of developing a facial tic. It will do wonders for my H Score.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Did I fall asleep?

I've been watching the Joss Whedon sci-fi series Dollhouse, and just learnt it has been cancelled. Damn. It's Firefly all over again.

Dollhouse has an interesting premise. Young, attractive people sign away 5 years of their lives to become "dolls" - they have their memories and personalities wiped and then they are rented out to the wealthy and well-connected, having been downloaded with temporary new alter-egos. This results in a kind of Charlies Angels type of structure, whereby every week, the cast are put into new situations: one week you're a hostage negotiater, the next a pop star, the next a sex slave. The dolls all live in a giagantic underground spa/rehab centre and sleep in little coffins. When they're not been hired out, they're kep busy doing crafts or yoga in a kind of endless dream-like state, where they have a mental age of about 7. The Dollhouse is run by a (stereotypically) crisp British woman who wears nice skirts and blouses. There's also a geeky, wise-cracking tech guy who downloads all the personalities, and a morally confused ex-policeman who acts as a minder to the dolls. Then there's a sexy member of the FBI, played by a very gruffly-voiced Tahmoh Penikett, who is on a mission to prove that the Dollhouse exists and set them all free. Tahmoh looks and acts like a doll himself. Maybe he is. Almost every epsiode there is a twist where someone turns out to have been a doll all along.

Most of the "missions" that the dolls are sent on are a bit silly, and I have some difficulty in believing that the super-rich would want to pay for this kind of service. There's one guy who just seems to want someone to have motorbike races and slightly kinky sex with. He's young, rich and good-looking so I can't work out why he'd want or have to pay for that sort of thing. The show occasionally expands its central premise - for example, by showing how the Dolls could poentially allow people to live forever - if you die you simply download yourself into another person's body. And in the season 1 finale, which is set several years in the future, half the population of America have had their personalities wiped (via telephone) as an act of war, and replaced with that of a murderous psychopath, resulting in the breakdown of their society.

My favourite doll is Victor who occasionally malfunctions by getting erections in the shower, when he isn't supposed to.

Enver Gjokaj, who plays Victor, is good at doing different accents - he's done a passable posh Brit, been a member of the Russian mafia, a good ol' Southern boy and an all-American one. In a sense, acting is kind of like being a doll - you pretend to be someone else, show off your body and get paid a lot of money for it. I wonder if you can actually buy dolls of the cast? I imagine Victor would be a best seller.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The damning glee of making fun of people

There are quite a few sites and blogs I read which make fun of people. From the rather gentle My Mom is a Fob (which depicts Asian mothers who have poor English) and Passive Aggressive Notes (which often turn out to be downright Aggressive), through to the often horrific People of Walmart (which shows a the post-apocalyptic American underclass that Britain edges closer to every single day) to the toe-curlingly embarrassingly Lurid Digs, which comments on the tacky interiors and kitsch soft furnishings of gay men's self-porn portraits, to Awkward Family Photos, where bad hair + blue denim = shame shame shame. These sites seem to be springing up with alarming regularly. Or maybe it says something about me that I notice them and read them.

These sites are often funny - the commentaries read like they're channelling Karen and Jack from Will & Grace. And if someone puts up a naked picture of themselves on the internet, then really, I guess they deserve what they get. I'm a bit less sure about People of Walmart, who are snapped without realising (although if you will insist on wearing your Halloween costume ALL YEAR ROUND or decorating your car with hundreds of toy trolls, then maybe you deserve to be made fun of).

What's happening here though? It suggests a shaking up of the usual figures of fun. In the 1970s, before minority groups started to get rather mouthy, it was de riguer for comedians to tell jokes that featured mother-in-laws, racial stereotypes and sissified gays. Of course the minute that these groups started saying "that's not really very nice is it", conservatives invented the phrase "It's political correctness gone mad" and set out trying to turn the clock back and install all of that racism and homophobia that had been enshrined for decades. The Daily Mail (that nasty little snot of a newspaper) was the biggest advocate of PC-gone-mad, and seems to have had a remit to publish at least one bonkers PC story per issue over most of the 1990s and 2000s.

However, after a 20 year, often rather bloody battle - there are signs that the PC-gone-mad "brigade" are winning. The article by Jan Moir which I wrote about in an earlier posting actually wasn't that bad compared to some of what the Daily Mail has been saying about gay people for decades. Yet it produced an unexpected wave of criticism. I remember about 5 years ago, often feeling that I was the most bonkers PC person in the world. On various gay social forums, I'd complain about some instance of homphobia, or some sportscaster or celebrity making a gay joke, and be told that I was getting my knickers in a twist over nothing. Now I sometimes feel that my position is relatively calm in comparison to others. Maybe it's greater awareness of hate crimes towards minority groups - but it seems that more people are making a link between violence and those "funny" jokes that enforce stereotypes and get us to laugh at someone who's different from us.

So the rise of these new "snarky" sites is perhaps to be expected. We can't make fun of the blacks, Jews and gays anymore. So who can we make fun of instead? And the answer is the clueless. The People of Walmart are so uneducated and "out there" that they can't dress themselves decently. Those goons on Lurid Digs have terrible taste in rugs. The FOB (fresh off the Boat) Moms can't even speak English properly - ha ha ha! They say the funniest things.

A new underclass is emerging - one which I suspect is going to stick around for quite a long time - because unlike gay people and ethnic minorities - very few of them will rise up to complain in an articulate voice. Many of these people may not have internet access so may not even realise they are objects of fun. Will they be able to reclaim their "bad taste identities" and demand that people not laugh at them? Will there be FOB Pride? Or will they remain oblivious under their mullets?

I'll probably continue to read those sites, because as I said, I find them funny. But I'm not comfortable with it. And although I could probably come up with about a dozen ideas for similar sites myself, I wouldn't do it. Once you start actively making fun of people in that way, well - a piece of your soul falls off, or a fairy dies somewhere.

Yet maybe humans have a deep-rooted need to laugh at other people, and we'll always find a way.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Daily Mail's Fail

Musing on the death of Stephen Gatley, Jan Moir of the Daily Mail, wrote a spiteful little piece today. It was originally called "There is nothing 'natural' about Stephen Gatley's death", although the title has now been changed at the Mail's website.

In the article Moir first insults Gatley by saying he couldn't sing, then she makes several insinuations about his death, suggesting that there is something fishy about it. She also implies that he died because of his lifestyle. She then makes it clear that the idea of happy gay people in relationships is nonsense by writing "Another real sadness about Gately's death is that it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships."

Reading it made the blood drain from my face. Then I got very angry. I immediately complained to the Press Complaints Commission (along with several hundred other people), causing their site to crash. It seems that Moir and the Daily Mail have hideously misjudged national attitudes, and the power of social networking. The story swept around the internet like a crazy, out of control fire. High profile twitterers like Stephen Fry and Derren Brown urged people to report her. A Facebook group was set up. Charlie Brooker of The Guardian posted one of his quick ripostes. Marks and Spencer, who were advertising on the Mail's site, asked for their advertising to be removed. Moir has issued a response to the furore, where she basically insults the complainers further by implying that none of them have read what she wrote, and that anyone who did simply didn't understand her. So, she's basically saying that thousands of people misinterpreted her article - somewhat worrying, considering that journalists are supposed to be good communicators and get the message across easily. She's admitting to being rubbish at her job really.

I'm taking a special interest in the story. I've been tracking the Daily Mail and its homophobia for several years. In a book I published on how gay men are represented in the media I looked at over a thousand articles about homosexuality that the Mail has published and found some common themes. These are the 10 "rules" of writing about homosexuality that you have to abide by if you write for the Daily Mail.

1) Gay relationships don't last
2) Gay is not a proper identity, it's just filthy sex
3) Being gay will lead to crime and violence
4) Being gay is something to be ashamed about
5) Beware - many gay people hide their gayness for some reason - making them liars and morally dubious
6) Despite (5) many gay people are "obvious" and/or "shameless" so they won't shut up about being gay - and we don't want to know!
7) Gay people are promiscuous
8) Gay people are everywhere - they are many and they are strong
9) They want to infect your children with their ways
10) They are strident, loud and militant. They will never stop demanding "rights" they don't deserve.

To Moir's credit, her article follows the Daily Mail's "rules" on how to write about homosexuality, almost to the letter. She's at least toeing the line.

While the article is upsetting and horrible. The response from the public has been incredibly encouraging. Ten years ago, The Mail got away with this sort of bile on a daily basis. Now they know that if they try it on, they'll get an instant fight, and it'll hurt. Times haven't changed yet - but we are witnessing them changing...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hurrah for the failures of BBC4

As far as British tv goes, BBC4 is about the best that it can get. No wonder that turkey-faced Rupert Murdoch is always complaining about the BBC. While the Beeb has plenty of content that is populist, dumbed-down or cheapo, it can also do enlightening, sensible or minority shows as well - and BBC4 is full of them. They are always having little themed weeks, where they take a topic and devote their whole 6 months budget to making about 8 programmes (which of course then get repeated and repeated). Their themes are usually pretty good though, and when you tune into the channel it's a bit like popping into one of those Arts Cinemas (the Watershed in Bristol, the Tyneside in Newcastle or the Dukes in Lancaster) where all the patrons wear black square glasses and seem very intense.

I especially like it when BBC4 cannibalises its own history, and produces a biopic of one of its stars of yesteryear - usually blending comedy, drama and tragedy in equal proportions. These shows are invariably set in a version of the 1960s or 1970s where the colour has been turned right up. Everyone wears lurid lime green jump-suits, rooms are pine-panelled, carpets are white shag. They make the Austin Powers films appear rather restrained and shy by comparison. However, I get the impression that the (probably quite young) people who make these programmes have a wry passion for the period they're recreating.

The acid dropping Kenneth Williams and cooking monster Fanny Craddock have been perfect fodder for these scandlous stories. Julia Davis plays Fanny as a kind of piss-elegant, angry version of Jill from Nighty Night: "You could kill pigs with that menu." Poor Fanny was just ahead of her time though - had she been starting out now, Channel 4 (whose remit is to teach Britain how to bully other people), would have simply given her a ten year contract and a whip. In the BBC4 show though, it all ends in tears...

I expect that in 30 years time BBC4 will be recreating the lives of its current stars. Russell Brand would give them enough material for a mini-series. And Matt Lucas will be strait-jacketed as the Kenneth Halliwell of the current age. Not only did he have a disastrous high-profile gay relationship that ended tragically. Not only is he bald and fat. He was also playing Halliwell in a stage version of Prick Up Your Ears when his ex-partner committed suicide.

I suspect that BBC4 has got a bit bored of the 1970s though (or they ran out of avacado bathroom suites), and so they have now moved onto the 1980s with a new season on the Micro Age. At the heart of this season has been a documentary/dramatisation of a power struggle between two computer creators of the early 1980s, Clive Sinclair (Alexander Armstrong pretending to be Blackadder) and Chris Curry (Britain's favourite everyman: Martin Freeman). It is all played out against a backdrop of genteel Cambridge, and there is humour in the fact that these men are basically nerds acting like they're involved in something very important (in fact it was).

I had one of these when I were a lad.

It was always over-heating. You had to load in games via a tape deck. It took ages, and sometimes it just wouldn't work. The graphics were blocky, the sound annoying. The games themselves were often impossibly difficult (usually to hide the fact that there wasn't much content). I would sometimes spend hours typing in program code (in BASIC) from computer magazines, and the games rarely worked - usually due to misprints. But despite all that, I loved my little Spectrum with its funny-smelling rubber keys and its huge (for the time) 48K memory. I was/am such a Spectrum geek that I noticed an error in Micro Men when one of the characters talked about their son being on level 8 of Jet Set Willy (impossible as JSW didn't have levels).

The interesting thing about Micro Men (for me anyway), is that it explains how those early microcomputers and their associated games were conceived by somewhat autistic men who didn't really have much concept of usability. It is like they wanted to make them difficult to use. Because they were boffins themselves, they didn't seem very good at putting themselves in the shoes of the average consumer. If only they had used a few focus-groups or carried out more market research, the British computing industry could have been very different. As it was, it got swallowed up - first by "barrow boy" Alan Sugar (who, in the 1980s looked like a serial killer - now he just looks like the victim of one), then by Americans - who Got it Right.

It's a peculiarly tragic tale of British failure, as are most of the BBC4 biopics. Fortunately, as a nation, I think the British are very comfortable with failure. We are a nation of under-dog lovers, and failure gives you a chance to reflect and grow... or just become very bitter. It makes for much more interesting drama at least.

Friday, October 02, 2009


I've done a meme (via Kaz, who didn't even ask me to).

1) My mother once: won a Miss Beautiful Bride contest
2) Never in my life: have I or would I vote Tory
3) When I was five: I got measles and missed our street's Silver Jubilee party
4) High school was an: American construct that has no relevance to my life
5) I will never forget: my first week of university
6) I once met: one of the Big Brother psychologists in rather sordid circumstances
7) There's this person I know who: has a shoe fetish and doesn't realise everyone knows
8) Once, at a bar: I met my life partner
9) By noon I'm usually: hungry
10) Last night I: ate hommous, watched Glee and went to bed in my dressing gown
11) If only I had: lower standards
12) Next time I go to church/temple: I will try not to look down on everyone
13) Terri Schiavo: is probably an American celebrity who I'm pleased to have never heard of
14) I like: orange juice and Singstar
15) When I turn my head left, I see: a castle
16) When I turn my head right, I see: my cat
17) You know I'm lying when: I'm being nice
18) In junior school: I was a nerd
19) If I was a character written by Shakespeare: I would be tragic
20) By this time next year I: will be pretty much the same probably
21) A better name for me would be:Alice
22) I have a hard time: with very poor or very rich people
23) If I ever go back to school, I'll: beat up the bullies and sass the teachers
24) You know I like you if: I turn down the good manners
25) If I won an award, the first person I'd thank would be: the Baby Jesus
26) I hope that: I see the end of religion in my lifetime
27) Take my advice: don't go on sunbeds - they give you cancer and they're common
28) My ideal breakfast is: sugar free Alpen, orange juice and toast
29) A song I love but do not have is: The Boy does Nothing by Alesha Dixon
30) If you visit my home town, I suggest: you bring an umbrella
31) Tulips, character flaws, microchips and track stars: I have no response
32) Why won't anyone: offer to have my children
33) If you spend the night at my house you'd have to: not mind the cat
34) I'd stop my wedding: if your outfit didn't match your hair
35) The world could do without: about 90% of humanity really
36) I'd rather lick the belly of a roach than: let anyone get the better of me
37) My favourite thing is: beauty
38) Paper clips are more useful than: earwax
39) And by the way: this is taking ages
40) The last time I was (really) drunk: some time in the early 1990s
41) My grandmother always: treated me like a little Prince

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Nobody human in the charts

I enjoyed listening to chart music between 1988 and 1991. Before that it felt like another language, and I instead found solace in my mother's Abba, disco and Motown LPs (and she was still surprised when I came out to her - how charmingly naive!) I didn't get Culture Club, the Thompson Twins, Wham, Duran Duran or any of the other groups who were around then, with their Lady Di hair-styles, baggy blousons and cheap-looking videos set in exotic locations with saxophone players and bad dancing. For most of the 1980s I felt that the world was having a big party and I had been locked outside with just a tatty Agatha Christie book for company. Then, just as I was leaving school, something clicked - it started with the Bangles (who I loved), and then I got into Marc Almond, Hue and Cry and "House" music. I loved Shakespeare's Sister, U2 and King, and my cooler friend Kathryn got me into The Mission and Deelite. By the time the B52s and REM came along, I felt I knew all about pop music.

Sadly, it didn't take though, and by the mid-1990s, I discovered something called "lounge music", which mainly involved the sort of music that gets played on 1960s detective shows. I turned my back on the charts - and radio 1 had gone all shouty and coarse anyway by then, so that was the end.

I caught an episode of the chart show last week, and felt more like an old man than ever. I didn't know any of the names, and everyone sounded like the robot vocoder voice in Cher's "Do you Believe in the Power of Love". I deduced that it must simply be the "fashion" these days, but then fortunately, The One Show (BBC1's daily 7pm magazine programme for the Elderly at Heart) explained it all for me.

Apparently pop artists are so incompetent at their jobs these days that they aren't capable of singing in tune anymore. So their voices are fed into a computer which corrects them, syllable by syllable. Sometimes, if they are really way off, say by about three notes, then the computer has to work extra hard and what comes out sounds distinctly inhuman - like Metal Mickey.

Using machines to alter music isn't a new idea. This clip from the 1960s film Smashing Time was eerily prescient about "manufactured celebrities" of the time, but seems even more accurate now.

And I remember a late 1980s French and Saunders' skit about Bananarama where the music prodcuers simply turned up the volume of the backing music to drown out their awful caterwauling but apparently, in the 1980s, when Culture Club recorded their songs, if they messed up a note, they just had to do it again until they got it right.

Does it matter though? We live in a world where everything is digitally altered. Almost every profersionally photograph that you see (especially if it's used in advertising) has been changed to make the model look more attractive and younger. It's just the way things are now.

But it does bother me, because if everything original can be put through a computer to make it "better" then why try in the first place? Having played the computer game Singstar, which can tell if you're off-key, I know how difficult it is to hold a tune. It's a skill that you have to practice at - over and over. We risk losing skills and the ability to put in the perserverance to gain those skills in the first place, if at a few clicks of a button we can "fix" things. Put simply, it's laziness.

I suspect if I were a teenager, I'd find pop music even more alienating and weird than I did back in the 1980s.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I love Jane Lynch

It seems that everywhere I look, Jane Lynch is there these days. She was the hyper-active, over-earnest, reformed addict youth group leader in Role Models "Do you know what I had for breakfast? Cocaine? Do you know what I had for lunch? Cocaine?... I've been to prison... Prison of sick thoughts! I used to have sick thoughts!" She's the gung-ho lawyer in lesbian soap opera L Word (and the perfect partner for Cybill Shepherd's daffy, elitist University boss). And now she's turned up as a moustache-twirling cheer-leading coach in Glee - a sassy high-school "dramedy" with lots of musical numbers.
"You think this is hard - try being water-boarded! That's hard!" Glee would be great without Jane in it, but she's the icing on the cake.

If you don't love her, then we can't be friends.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Falling out of love with cities

I stayed Friday night in the new Crowne Plaza in Manchester. It has a monochrome theme - walking down the dimly lit long black corridors was a bit spooky - like going to hell. It's been built in an area which is undergoing massive regeneration - so there are working-class pubs mixed alongisde trendy furniture shops. There's also quite a large ethnic population there - I wonder whether one demographic will "win" and ease the others out, or whether everyone will reside alongside one another, or whether there'll be some sort of blending process over the decades so everyone becomes indistinguishable.

There was a time, about 5 or 6 years ago when I'd spend every weekend in Manchester, and 2-3 years ago, I seriously considered moving there permanently. The commute was the only thing that put me off. I thought it looked a bit rougher now in places though, and in some areas, like The Triangle, the recession seems to have closed a lot of shops. We'd arranged to meet my fella's cool 20-something niece for a meal on Friday night. However, I'd written her phone number down incorrectly and the restuarant we'd arranged to meet her at - El Macho's - was long gone. By Saturday morning, I'd had enough of the noise and ugly buildings in the city centre (both the dilapidated old ones and the brash modern ones), so I got in the car and spent the afternoon in Didsbury which is a lot smaller and prettier.

I wonder if it's another effect of getting older though - I've had an odd relationship with cities. As a child I hated them all, until I got to be about 16 - then I thought they were great - and the bigger the better. 20 odd years later I'm starting to appreciate smaller places - like York, Durham and Cambridge. Noise and jarring architecture aside, the other thing about big cities I don't like is the people - the fashion leaders with their interesting hairstyles, the loud, over-confident behaviour, the anonymity which seems to mean that people don't have to have as good manners as they would in a smaller community. I know, I sound like a very old man. It there's one city I do still love it's New York. It's so big that it rarely feels too crowded (except around Times Square).

At least Manchester has a big HMV. I got a French film there called OSS 177: Cairo Nest of Spies. It's 2006 a parody of 1960s spy films, starring my new husband, Jean Dujardin. This is him in his 1960s spy mode (I love his hair):

And here he is normally. He's a bit like a french Hugh Jackman.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The feral homes of Detroit

You wouldn't think if from reading the Wikepedia entry on Detroit, but things aren't going well. Wikipedia does tell us that the unemployment rate is 28.9% and parts of the city have vacant lots and buildings. But it doesn't give much of a clue of the extent of the problem.

I've become interested in Detroit lately, partly after watching episodes of the drama series Hung which is set there. Hung stars Thomas Jane (the hero from the recent film The Mist) as Ray Drecker, a washed-out high school coach who becomes a prostitute after a series of personal disasters. Ray is symoblic of Detroit itself - he was once the high school football hero, and now he's stuck in a lowly-paid job, his wife has left him for a richer guy, his house is burnt down and he lives in a tent. Images of once grand, now derelict buildings appeared in the first episode. They were shocking and I couldn't work out whether they had been digitally altered to look derelict - how could anybody allow them to get into that state?

Turns out, they were real enough. The blog Sweet Juniper has been documenting the decay in Detroit for years. He's taken pictures of feral dogs, feral houses (which have been abandoned for so long that they have become like castles of thorns in Sleeping Beauty), abandoned schools that have trees growing out of piles of books, empty zoos, tower blocks containing haunting personal mementos from residents who had to leave. There are stiched-together friezes of streets where almost every home has been abandoned or burnt out. It's one of the most chilling and beautiful websites I've seen.


The pictures remind me of a computer game I was a bit obsessed with earlier this year, Fallout 3 - which is also set in a post-apocalyptic America.

Detroit's population has halved since the 1950s. It's been hard-hit by the economic recession and the decline of the auto industry, and the fact that it is home to a lot of poor, working-class and/or black people has made its fall all the more dramatic. Having grown up in East Durham, which lost its mining industry in the 1980s, I can sympathise - what is happening to Detroit happened to the northeast of England thirty years ago, albeit on a smaller scale. I got out of town in 1990 - just as the drug dealers were arriving. There were so many boarded up shops in our town centre, that the council used to paint pictures of fake shops over the boards - book shops and travel agents, perhaps in at attempt to con casual vistors that things weren't as bad.

But what really affects me most of all, is - how whole communities can go wrong in rich countries. Ultimately it's the social fallout of humans who don't care enough. And while an overgrown building has a certain melancholy splendour, there is nothing beautiful about the decisions that led it to get that way.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pictures of the new house

Garden - the only bit of the property that the previous owner seemed to have any time for. We have neglected it since we moved in. The tree on the left keeps producing enormous apples, as if trying to get our attention. This is the first garden I've had in 11 years. I don't really know what to do with it.

Bathroom sink. I have a thing about big sinks (probably because my fella cleans his teeth at the same time as me and he juts his elbow out at right angles.)

Living room. There is literally my blood, sweat and tears mixed in with the paint.

Kitchen work surface and drawers. My mother pronounced this to be an "interesting" work top, which means she wouldn't have chosen it for herself.

Front view. It's a castle. Unfortunately, you can only get to see inside if you do some shop-lifting.

Drinks trolley. I don't know how that got in there.
Poor Rupert

I don't like Rupert Murchoch. He looks, talks and behaves like a villain in a James Bond film - (his head resembles a withered hard boiled egg preserved in vinegar). I'm sure he has plans for the world, and they don't involve sending free chickens to Africa or solving global warming. He is one of the people most responsible for the tabloisisation and partiality of news (summed up most succinctly by two vile words: Fox News). He's one of about 1000 people, who, when I hear about his death, I will punch the air and shout "yes!"

So I've been quite pleased that the 132st richest person in the world seems to be having a bit of a bad time at the moment. First, after making a loss, he's announced that he'll be charging for his news websites from next year. People will have to pay to read The Times (right-wing), The Sun (right wing and aimed at people with learning difficulties) and The News of The World (which is written by and for people with learning difficulties). I expect that this might backfire - if you're surfing the web, you might stop off at The Sun's website during your lunch break if it's free, but would you really pay to read the insane ramblings of Mystic "care in the community" Meg...

...a titillating cartoon strip masqueradin as advice (Dear Deirdre)

or the latest gossip about Britain's premier intellectual and feminist role model, Katie Price. I may be wrong, but I suspect that a lot of the people who read The Sun's website weren't paying a lot of attention at school and as a result don't have the best-paid jobs in the country, so if they have to pay for their dose of fluff, then they'll just move on to something free.

And now at the Edinburgh Television Festival he's denounced the BBC, because ""The news operation is causing immense problems, huge problems for the independent news business, and I think it has to be dealt with." He described the growth of the BBC as "chilling".

The whining hypocrisy of his complaint is the most wonderful thing I have heard all year. I almost feel sorry for him and am contemplating sending him a few cans of soup in the post.

However, I suspect that Rupert will find a way round his woes. He's managed to peddle his nasty rubbish for decades - proving that on the whole, people are stupid enough to buy into it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

House 7

We moved house last week. This is the 7th house I've moved to in 17 years, which means I move house on average every 2 and a half years. My fella hurt his shoulder last month, so wasn't able to participate in moving day at all. It was probably just as well. I tend to go into Typhoon Lubin mode anyway, so it's best just to leave me to it. All the boxes were unpacked and disposed of within hours. The only thing I couldn't locate was the power cable for my electronic piano. I lay awake in bed, visualising where it could be - until I deduced that the only place I hadn't looked was under the lid of the keyboard. I checked in the morning and it had been placed there by the removal men.

Moving in day is relatively easy. The hard bit (for me) comes in the month afterwards. I tend to over-focus on everything that's new. If there's a slightly odd smell in the bedroom, I get a sore throat. If there are unfamiliar noises outside the window, it freaks me out. Tiny things, which most people wouldn't notice, become enormous obstacles in that first month and I convince myself that I've made a huge mistake in moving. My fella finds all of this annoying - in comparison to me, he is like a robot - with barely any sense of smell or hearing, while I'm like a wild animal, with all my senses far too highly tuned.

For the first time since I was a student, we are living in a house which is directly onto a pavement, so people pass by almost constantly. The woman who lived here before had put net curtains up, but I don't like them (they make me feel like I'm living in an Alan Bennet monologue). So I've bought some sticky mirrored film which I've stuck over the two front windows. I can see out, but people who look in just get their own reflection. I feel almost like a ghost, watching people walk past, oblivious of the fact that they are being scrutinised (and judged on their hair and fashion choices) by me. I can get really up close to them. It's also had the effect of making the living room like one of those rooms in Psychology experiments - with the whole of the outside world as the experiment.

I have a lovely view of the castle from the front rooms of the house. Which is nice if you discount the fact that the castle is also a working prison. My sister lived next to a prison in Leeds for a couple of years (her furniture was stolen the day she moved in by locals). My parents also live next door to a prison in Durham (and have never reported any trouble). The houses round here are all quite posh, so there is an unusual social mix - with people dressed in full tweed popping out of their huge, film-set like Georgian homes with their whicker baskets, bumping into upset-looking young women in tracksuits and push-chairs, off to visit their boyfriends who are doing 18 months.

We got home internet yesterday - you don't realise how much you miss it until it's gone.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Man with a tan plan

My tan was worn away thankfully, but my vapid alter ego Jamie4U is on a mission to turn the world orange...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hurrah for the National Trust Dragons

My fella is a big fan of the National Trust (you know you are middle-class when you have a National Trust card) and gives out cards to my entire family every year as presents. The children's play areas are always of superior quality, and the children who play in them are usually called Abigail or Tristram - there is no bullying (although your kids may suffer feelings of inadequacy when they realise that their new playmates are expert oboe players and can speak 4 languages).

So while we were in Torquay we went to a few NT places. They tend to be old country mansions or smallish castles, kitted out with heirlooms so you can go round and feel Class Envy (well you do if you're me anyway). The other thing about them is that they are run by an army of volunteers - usually pensioners, mostly women, who are stategically positioned - 1 to a room - around the mansion. They're there to answer any questions "Are those real William Morris curtains?" and also (I suspect) to ensure that nobody makes off with those curtains. Whereever you go in the UK, they are made of the same sort of steel. The accents may change slightly, but the personalities are immutable. They're the sort of women who you only see in black and white British movies made before 1959. They take no nonsense, they don't suffer fools, they are absolutely terrifying but can be quite sweet if they take to you. The key is to show no fear. My Great Aunt Ethel was one. I'm trying to think of ones in the media. Barbara Woodhouse came close.

As did many of the characters played by the actress Stephanie Cole.

There was a great one at a castle we saw near Torquay. She forced everyone who came into her room to read a laminated page of information about the room, whether they wanted to or not. She actually tried to whack my brother-in-law about the head with a laminate. Everyone was terrified of her. Women connected to the Tory party could be National Trust Dragons, but generally they aren't. Anne Widdicombe is too sour while Christine Hamilton is too drunk and flirty. But if the National Trust Dragons all stop being interested in old houses and start caring about politics - then we'd all better watch out! We wouldn't stand a chance.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

All day in bed

I have succumbed to the dreaded Swine Flu and am spending the day in bed. Being ill is a lot more fun than it used to be. I have internet, a 32 inch screen tv and my Iphone. Apart from the headache, joint pains and fever, it could just be a Sunday morning. I am watching a 3 hour long inspirational matinee on More 4 about a WW2 fighter pilot who lost both his legs. He's staying remarkably chipper about it. I love British 50s films - because I normally only ever get to see them in the middle of the day if I'm not at work. I don't know how I caught swine flu. I suspect it might have been at motorway services in Birmingham on Saturday. The place was teeming with people. I've been feeling a bit overworked and stressed lately (we were supposed to be moving house on Saturday but I've put it back to Wednesday). My fella is staying out of my way (he doesn't want to catch it), but pops in occasionally with lemsip. Last night I phoned the Swine Flu hotline and they authorised me some Tamiflu. It's given me a stomach upset and diarrohea, just to make things a bit more fun.

We finally sacked our plumber yesterday. He should have finished the job 2 weeks ago but seems to have a drink problem, and on the occasional day when he did show up (after much phoning and begging), wouldn't get much done. I feel sorry for him - he was quite friendly, and is clearly having a bad time - his girlfriend's left him and he's just coming back to work after a car accident. I guess that's why we tried to keep him on as long as we could. I hope he'll get his life sorted out, but I'm not sure he will.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Snarling at myself in the mirror

The weather in Torquay was pleasant but not especially blazing hot. Yet somehow I've come back with a tan. I look like Peter Andre. In the past five years or so I've grown to hate tans. They represent everything bad about this shallow, irresponsible, tacky first decade of the 21st century. I hate people who want tans, who go on holiday just to get tans, who come home and go on about how great their tan is, who lie on sunbeds (I call them cancer pods) so they can go gravy coloured, or failing that, rub smelly orange muck on themselves. I glare (and sometimes snarl) at people on the street if they have a deep tan. Now I'm having to snarl at myself.

The majority of people born in this country have fair complexions - we've evolved to be like that because this little damp and overcrowded island doesn't get much sun. I suspect that's why we invented so much in the 18th and 19th centuries. Heat (not the magazine) is so tiring, and as there was no point in sitting outdoors with a copy of Heat (the magazine), we stayed in and created patents.

My hatred is also probably a social class snobby thing. I'd never noticed it until I read Kate Fox's "Watching the English", but fashion for the lower classes increasingly seems to be about looking as artificial as possible - changing the colour of your skin or hair so that you look fake. This clip from the BBC3 "make-under" show, Snog, Marry, Avoid? makes me laugh.

Those two are from the same part of the world that I grew up in. I'm exactly like that boy.

I agree with the bossy computer voice "What's wrong with natural skin?" I guess I'll just have to go on holiday to the Artic Circle next year.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

My pussy is leaking

Now that Mrs Slocambe is dead, someone has to take up the "pussy joke" mantle. I just hope I'm up to it. My cat is 13 and has recently developed a new trick. He'll climb on your knee, start purring, get a blissful look in his eyes, and then... wee all over you. Cat wee is almost impossible to remove. And he seems to be making some sort of special version which is especially noxious. The vet says he is in early stages of kidney failure. We've put him on tablets and special food and put plastic covers on the furniture (John Lewis - only 2 years old). We're hoping that he'll get better, but the prognosis isn't good.

I don't want to complain about it too much - otherwise I'll sound like the people at White Whine - a site which reveals the true malady of the 21st century - not having anything much to actually complain about. The pronunciation of vente, poor tasting strawberries, having nothing to wear for a holiday, jeans that have that "straight-from-the-factory smell", The Jonas Brothers, iPhones... we all sound like the character Luna in Woody Allan's Sleeper.

I've been on holiday in Torquay - we rented a large house with a hot-tub and a sea-view. I got the impression that the people who owned it were a bit insecure and "nouveau riche" because in the first minute of meeting them they announced that their son captained a yatch for a Russian oligarch, and the table in their garden cost £5000. They also had plastic flower arrangements everywhere and those scented things in the bathrooms which have always struck me as a bit lower-middle class. Still, it was a nice house. I spent some of it playing the brain training game on my nephew's Nintento DS. The best I could get was a C+. To put that into perspective, hmy nephew got a D- and he is only 6.

I like Torquay a lot. Most seaside towns in Britain have gone horrible in the last 30 years. They have either died altogether or become havens for binge drinkers and documentary makers making shocking exposure shows about binge drinkers. Torquay is just about hanging on to its genteelness - they make a big deal of the Agatha Christie connection and call it the English Riveria. If you squint hard enough and cover your ears, you could be back in the 1930s.

The journey there and back was hideous. Thanks to the recession and over-enthusiastic predictions of a Good British Summer, it seems that everyone has decided to holiday at home this year. The motorways were scarily full, especially round Bristol and Birmingham. I kept sane by listening to Margaret Cho stand-up routines. Thank you Margaret. Several times you averted incidents of road rage on the M5.

Now that we're back, we move house in a week. I kind of wish that we had allowed Channel 4 to film the entire thing as part of one of their "Property Mess" type shows
- it would have made good tv. It is a house built in the 1840s which has had all of the original features removed, and many 1970s features put in (nasty fireplaces, a dining hatch, folding kitchen door, MDF fitted wardrobes, flock wallpaper, tabby cat pattern carpets). We have ripped all of these disasters out and have replaced them with sanded floorboards, picture rails, new coving etc. but just like in all those shows we have gone horribly over budget. I suspect that the previous owners have installed their own tv cameras everywhere and are laughing as we discover all of the traps that they have left us to find. Due to some bizarre DIY plumbing, it appears that the waste pipe in the bathroom has not functioned properly for many months. As a result, there's been a build up of "waste product" which finally exploded all over the bathroom floor late one Saturday night and dripped through the kitchen ceiling below. It all needs replacing. The previous owners also seem to have had fun with layer on layer of wallpaper. After we removed the hideous woodchip stuff in the living room we found a layer of silver foil, then under that a layer of brown paper, then under that a layer of black paper. All which had been stuck down with wood glue. It took hours to remove. All of the windows had been painted shut and haven't been opened for decades - I guess they thought it would save on heating bills or something. But if you couple that with the fact that they allowed their two little dogs to wee on all of the carpets - then you have a sodden stinking mess. I don't know how people can live like that.

Our plumber was supposed to finish putting in the radiators while we were on holiday but has gone missing, and as a result, the carpet fitters refused to fit the carpets while we were away as they didn't want to move the plumber's tools. The kitchen has been postponed so we will have half a bathroom and no kitchen when we finally do move in. I know I have neglected this blog. I haven't even had time to go to the gym since May. They actually phoned me up toda and asked me why. If I ever talk about buying a house again, and it isn't a show-home, please email me and tell me to stop!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Should have just had the salad

I had a steak tonight at the hotel's canteen (it has very stark lighting and you order at a counter and carry your food to the table on a tray so it's not glamorous enough to be a restaurant - my fella would refuse to eat there). I ordered a steak (to make up for all the Subway sandwiches I've been eating) and had a bizarre conversation that went like this:

Woman: How you want it? Well done? Medium or Rare?
Me: Well done.
Woman: Well done?
Me: Yes.
Woman: Well done?
Me: Yes well done.
Woman: Well done?
Me: Yes.
Woman: Well done?
Me: Well done. Yes.
Woman: well done?

She then turned to a man who was also serving and asked him to ask me if I wanted it well done. He did.

She then checked with me again, just to see if I wanted it well done. When the meal finally arrived, 20 minutes later, the man who brought it to me said "Well done! Well done! Hahahaha!" I laughed too, but it came out a bit hysterical and some of the westerners sitting nearby looked round at me.

I think I need to go home.
Basic Lubin

I have been in Hong Kong for over a week, and feel a bit like Alan Partridge in the episode "Basic Alan", where he's bored out of his mind in a Travel-Lodge that's equidistant between Norwich and London. My life has been reduced to a repetitive series of routines. At least I get to go home tomorrow.

The people who work at Subway, where I eat most nights, could have been in Alan Partridge (if he ever went to Hong Kong). They seem fascinated by my lovelife and comment on it in a way which would be unheard of in frosty Britain.

Subway Woman: Oh you have wedding ring on. You marry?
Me: Yes
Subway Woman: To Chinese girl?
Me: No
Subway Woman: To Phillipino girl?
Me: No
Subway Woman: English?
Me: Yes

I wanted to say "Actually love I'm married to a 6 foot tall man" but didn't have the nerve or energy.

The next day, there was a teenage girl in front of me, who let me go first as she couldn't make her mind up. The people behind the counter charged her for my meal, and then informed us that they thought we were "together". "We were just saying, that she seemed a bit young for you..." the Subway Woman told me as she took my change. That's the problem with being in a country where you don't have the first language. They could be saying anything about you. And as I've suspected, sometimes they are.

I walked to the cinema to see if there was anything playing (there wasn't). On the way I passed endless fashion billboards showing perfect depictions of young, haughty, blonde, pale-skinned Caucasians, looking down on the Chinese people below, as if saying "Even if you wear these clothes, you'll never look like us, suckers!" I hate fashion at the best of times, because even the models themselves don't look like the pictures on the billboards once they've been airbrushed and had their proportions altered. But it seems an especially cruel trick to play on a whole ethnic group - so that you don't have the slightest chance of resembling a corporate idea of "beauty" and "glamour".

The "West is Best" message comes out in all sorts of odd ways. I looked at a few local gay websites while I was here and kept seeing adverts like this: "GAM seeks GWM only". Here G=Gay, M=Man, A=Asian and W=White. I also saw a few from westerners who specified "Sorry, but I don't like Chinese guys". Now I've never in my life seen an advert from an Asian guy who said he didn't like white guys, and I don't remember seeing any from white guys who don't want white guys either. And I keep bumping into white-Asian pairs of people (both gay and straight) while I'm here - where in almost all cases, the Asian person is younger and better looking than the white person. I think there's a lot of things wrong with the UK, but to be marginalised in the advertising and romantic domains in your own country... well that's pretty fucked up.

Monday, June 15, 2009

I have my own swine flu mask

Another Hong Kong trip (my 6th). It's giving my poor hands a chance to recover from two weeks of decorating work that they're completely unused to. The blisters and cuts are finally being erased away, while the general pain is starting to subside.

I'm here on my own and feeling more like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation than ever: I'm an insomniac, isolated giant. I've made no pretence at trying to come off British time, and simply stay awake all night, watching DVDs, like a sulky teenager. Some of my colleagues who came out here, have gone on about how great the night-life is - but that's not really my thing.

Introverts have a lot of internal resources to keep them going, so I'm 90% dealing with having no-one to talk to. I'm nearly finished the Zadie Smith book on Beauty, which appears to have shamelessly ripped off the plot of Howard's End (I think I may go out and buy that book afterwards). I take Zadie everywhere - she's especially useful in restaurants. None of the characters are especially likeable, but the writer is pretty observant - and there are some points of connection in the book that I can make regarding academia and social class. I've also been wearing headphones while outside. It helps cut down on the number of times hawkers try to sell you "copy watch", "fake Rolex" or "hand made suit sir". I like seeing how much westerners get angered by the continual pestering, and realising that six years ago, that was me. The trick is to give off no response at all, don't even acknowledge their presence and they usually stop immediately.

My life while here, has shrunk to a small number of streets, coffee shops and restaurants. I've done all of the touristy things on other trips, and it's less fun to sight see anyway when you're alone, so it's easier to stick to a routine. I had been wondering whether my hotel would be placed under lockdown due to Swine Flu. So far, apart from a few more people than usual wearing masks (and they love their masks in Hong Kong - I was given one at the airport but haven't put it on yet), there's not been much to report. Some schools have been closed, but everyone seems to be going about their lives as usual. June is the worst time of year to come to Hong Kong - it's notoriously humid outside, while indoors there is a distinction between "rich" places, that have air conditioniong (usually on too high so it's like being in a fridge) and "poor" places - often corridors or stairwells that don't get used much - which seem to have no oxygen and induce instant sweating. British weather isn't that bad really - rather like the British themselves - it's not very glamorous or extreme - but it very rarely becomes intolerable.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

On repetition

I've spent the last few days stripping wallpaper, taking up carpets and flooring, and removing wardrobes and doors from the new house. Most of the jobs have been incredibly repetitive - scrape a bit of wall, take out a screw, then do it again X 1000. I sometimes wonder how people who work in the building profession cope, but then they would probably look at my job, which often involves repetition of a different sort (except it's on a laptop) and think the same thing. My job might be mentally tiring at times, but at least it's not physically tiring. My hands ache and are covered in tiny cuts. I've stopped noticing when my fingers bleed but just continue - the bleeding stops after a few minutes so I just pour Dettol on them at the end of the day. I forgot to wear my face mask yesterday and noticed that when I sneezed, I produced black stuff...

We have removed most of the traces of the previous owners now and have a blank slate with which to improve on. Every hour results in new discoveries. In the main bedroom, a piece of flooring had been "mended" with a flattened baked bean can. The area around the toilet in the bathroom had been boxed in with some cheap looking plywood which had a sticker on the back, proclaiming it to be a "telly cabinet". We have found old coins - some dating back 80 years. There are also bits and pieces of other people's lives - a photo of a child found under a stinking carpet in the attic. A man's blue polo shirt (size XL), still in its packaging at the back of an inbuilt wardrobe. A bit of 1930s newspaper stuck to the bottom of the floor - hidden away for years. An old Stork margarine lid - probably from the 1950s. After I'd taken up the horrible wee-stained parquay flooring in the hall, I found a hatch. Lifting it up, there were stairs going into a previously un-mentioned cellar. Sadly there were no dead bodies or hidden treasure. Just some sacks of bricks. At least it wasn't damp.

The dog wee smell is sometimes overpowering - a couple of times I have had to run out of a room and retch. I have developed a hatred of little dogs over the last few days, which I suspect will now remain with me for my entire life. They have come to represent a cluster of traits that annoy - yappy, easily excited, silly and incontinent.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


Yesterday we got a new house. Me and my fella move house quite a lot - this will be number 7 in 17 years. We always say "this will be the last time", but it never is. This place is quite different from our usual purchases. We normally live in flats (now annoyingly rebranded as "apartments") which have had a weird tendency to be ex show-homes or at least have been renovated in some way. Usually we've been able to move in immediately - although, being typically wasteful and extravagant, have often redecorated just for the sake of it.

This new place is a proper house - with a garden - something which we haven't properly had for a long time (communal gardens don't count - nobody uses them). This garden is secluded and gets the sun. It's the sort of place where you could enjoy a gin and tonic without having anyone look at you. Also, the house is about as far from show-home as you can get. It was built in the 1840s and the previous owner doesn't seem to have done any decoration since the 1970s. Sadly, a lot of the original features have been removed. Some new features - rather reminiscient of Abigail's Party have been put in instead - there's a rather pointless, tiny hatch from the kichen to the dining room. There are home-made book shelves in the lounge, which have been painted in white gloss. There is bad taste wallpaper everywhere. Upstairs the bedrooms have a variety of home-made fitted wardrobes. They'll all have to go. The bathroom has uninspiring white tiles. Even worse, two little dogs have been using most of the house as a toilet for god knows how long. We spent yesterday pulling up carpets to reveal urine that had soaked through the underlay and pentrated into the floorboards. I'm hoping bleach will get rid of the worst. I don't want to be cruel about the previous owner - she's getting on a bit - and the house had clearly become too much - but I wonder how she managed to live there with the stink. There's also rising damp, possibly woodworm and the electrics look like they need a rehaul. So this looks like a long-term project. Fortunately we don't have to move in until we're ready, so we'll try and get as much as possible sorted out over the summer. Tonight we got the carpets taken away. Tomorrow we're going to get the fitted wardrobes out.

I suspect I may be making a big deal of the problems. My parents and sister came round today to have a look at it. They liked it - my mother liked all the things that I have complained about above. She said she would keep the wardrobes and the floral wallpaper. She loved the hatch. She couldn't see what was wrong about the bathroom. "From the way you were talking about it, I was expecting it to be like a condemned property." They couldn't even smell the dog wee (though I had gone on an insane bleach blitz this morning). I don't care. I suspect the house has never been occupied by two difficult-to-please gay men. It isn't going to know what hit it...

Friday, May 22, 2009

Smell my cheese!

After one Alan Partridge moment too many, Jonathan Ross is losing his "live radio show" status and will now have the suffer the indignity of being recorded and then having any offensive bits taken out before the show is aired. Last year it was the business with Russell Brand, and a couple of weeks ago he said that boys who ask for a Hannah Montana MP3 should be adopted before they brought their gay partner home. The BBC simply can't trust him.

I sort of like Ross - in the late 1980s he did a series about cult films which influenced me a lot. I remember he interviewed people like John Waters, Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis. He was even on the set of Hairspray when it was being filmed. I listen to his radio 2 program occasionally, and often like the eclectic mix of music.

One thing that does make me cringe about Ross's tv show is his house band - 4 Poofs and a Piano.

"Puff" was the only word for homosexuality that I knew until I was about 12. My father would sometimes talk about people he worked with, saying "He's a puff." He was always quite friendly to these people, but there was something about the way he said "He's a puff", that wasn't very nice. It was the 1970s and almost everyone was homphobic. But part of me takes a spiteful glee in the fact that his own son ended up as one, and eventually he found the "puff" comments of his workmates so hurtful that he had to tell them to shut up. I love helping people to learn to improve, especially if they get to suffer a bit in doing so.

Here are the Poofs in action.

I guess there are a number of reactions to them. You could say that they're unashamedly camp and have "reclaimed" the "poof" identity. This might be a good thing - the internalised homphobia of many gay men who claim to be "straight-acting" and not interested in "fems" is so dreary. The 4 puffs are unapologetic about their effeminacy, and show that they are good sports by using the word on themselves. They use it first, and perhaps that takes away some of its power to wound.

On the other hand, some would argue that they are "Uncle Toms" - simply pandering to existing prejudice, and being complicit with homophobia in order to obtain a small amount of power from it. Their "poofiness" is their gimmick - and it's the reason why Ross has them on the show. They're not going to threaten his masculinity. And while some people may view them as brave or engaging in a reclaiming project, there are bound to be television viewers who do not "get" the potentially post-modern or ironic reading of the group. Instead, they will engage with the band in a much more straightforward way, having their own prejudices validated. The media doesn't really go out of its way to show representations of gay people who are NOT camp, funny, harmless etc, and the four Puffs contribute towards that stereotype. In the context of Ross's Hannah Montana comments, they start to appear a bit more like something to be laughed at rather than laughed with. Would the BBC countenance Four Pakis and a Piano?

So.... I don't know where I stand on the Puffs and Ross. I want to give Ross the benefit of the doubt, but he's starting to push it. It's for the best that his show goes to recorded status rather than live. As for the Puffs- maybe it's time they rebranded. Maybe they could call themselves "Jonathan Ross's Dildoes" or something like that.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


For my birthday I've asked by fella for this.

I've been wanting a record player for a few years now - a lot of the music I listen to was made before I was born. While I love the convenience of things like MP3 players, I sort of miss the connection with the past that you get when you take an LP out of its sleeve, place it on a turntable and watch it start to spin round and round. That's the way that people in the 20th century used to listen to that music, and I like the idea of reappropriating those behaviours, as part of the experience of listening to old music.

Steepletone is the company which makes these retro products. I did consider buying a proper authentic old record player, but in the end decided to get something which had the advantages of being new (and working) but worked in the same way as something old. And if I really want to, it has a USB port also.

Now I just need to find some old jazz LPS to play on it.