Sunday, January 31, 2010

The horror, the horror!

When I was a teenager, growing up in the small town of Low Expectations, Co. Durham, I tended to resort to escapism via books and role playing games. If you are a well-mannered, shy, gay teenager who is always top of the class, you can pretty much guarantee that real life is not going to be a lot of fun. I joined the Dungeons and Dragons club at school (which was run by a nice boy 2 years older than me, who I always saw getting beaten up - a charming glimpse into my own future). And the idea that you could play a game which didn't have a board, but relied on your imagination was a revelation. Role playing games and The Golden Girls are pretty much the only things about the 1980s that I can remember without needing to do breathing exercises.

My favourite role playing game wasn't Dungeons and Dragons though. It was Call of Cthulhu. A game inspired by the short stories of sci-fi/horror writer H P Lovecraft. The game was set in the 1920s, in Lovecraft's fictional town of Arkham. The players took on investigative roles, in order to unearth scary cults which worshipped giagantic, hideous monsters (gods) that had been around forever. The game's dark premise was that it was almost impossible to "win". Instead, the characters would go insane or get killed by dabbling in things they didn't understand. My favourite bit of the game was whenever your character witnessed or experienced something awful (like waiting up in a coffin or seeing a fragment of a corpse) and then they had to make a "SAN roll" - which meant you rolled the dice to see how many sanity points you lost. When they were all gone you went bonkers and had to be locked up.

It was recommended that you read some H P Lovecraft in order to get a better feel for the game, but there weren't any bookshops in Low Expectations, Co. Durham, and so I never got a chance to read them. However, last month I spotted a huge compendium of all of Lovecraft's works in my local Waterstones (which is 30 seconds away from where I live), so I bought it, and it's been bed-time reading since.

If you can get past Lovecraft's obvious racism, the stories are quite gripping. Most of them are quite short and the characters in them often only seem to be on the verge of finding something or making sense of it, but taken together they contribute towards something bigger. A common theme involves characters stumbling upon enormous underground secret cities which have been undisturbed for millenia, and were built by aliens. Despite appearing empty, there is still something nasty down there, which may be freed and will possess, kill or drive insane the protaganist. Lovecraft is often unable to describe the phenomena in his stories, instead relying on adjectives like unspeakable or indescribable. "Not known of this earth" is also quite common. In one story, The Colour out of Space, a meteor crash-lands near a small farm, and out come weird colours that nobody has ever seen before. In other stories, a city contains weird angles and geomotrical shapes that don't make sense to human eyes. I tend to agree that the best horror comes from what is suggested rather than what is shown, so this doesn't bother me. I'll always prefer the Blair Witch Project over something like Saw.

However, if does make me wonder why Lovecraft's work hasn't been exploited more in film. The 1980s film Reanimator is quite a straightforward translation of one of his stories.

But there doesn't seem to be a great deal else. I tracked down a rather low-budget recent film called Cthulu and watched it over Christmas. Interestingly, the film's main protaganist is gay, and this is handled in a way which, while important to the story, doesn't make it into a "gay issue" film.

There are also a number of audio plays of Lovecraft's stories by a company called Dark Adventure Radio Theatre. They are done in the style of a 1920s radio drama (complete with fake adverts for cigarettes).

And another recent film, The Call of Cthulu has been made by the HP Lovecraft Historical Society. It's a silent, black and white movie - and obviously a lot of love went into making it.

But it seems as if Lovecraft is yet to make it big in Hollywood, which at the moment, seems more enamoured of zombies and vampires. But just like his silently waiting monsters, miles below the surface of the sea, maybe Lovecraft's time will come one day. I hope so.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Just back from three days (work) in Belfast. It was my first time there, despite the fact that it is a 35 minute plane ride from Manchester airport, although with the 3 hour delay it didn't feel like that. Apart from the accents, Belfast felt a lot like England. I viewed it a bit like an "add-on" bit of a computer game - like with Fallout 3, when you've compelted the game, you can purchase an extra bit, which gives you some different locations to explore - it's basically the same, but they throw in a few new weapons and buildings. Belfast is my add-on game.

According to the people I was working with, Belfast is more socially conservative than "over the water" (which is how I heard England being described). "It's like 50 years ago", one person said. Religion, community and family seem to play a bigger part in people's lives, than they do here, where we don't know our neighbours' names, even though we're hosting "key" parties for them.

Poor old Iris Robinson got a lot of mentions also. For those of you who don't follow Homophobic News, Iris is a former Northern Ireland Unionist politician who said on the radio in 2008 that homosexuality was an "abomination" and that it made her feel sick and naseous. Later on, at a Northern Ireland Grand Committee session on Risk Assessment and Management of Sex Offenders, she said: "There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children". How delicious then, that it later turned out she had been having an adulterous relationship with a 19 year old man (and his Dad apparently before that), and she'd gotten out two loans totalling £50,000 for him, which weren't declared to parliament.

I suppose he is rather good-looking. And he'd have been at his sexual peak. Poor old Iris - she just couldn't resist the charms of an attractive young man, giving her quite a bit more in common with her abombinable gays than she would like to admit. If only Tennessee Williams had been alive to write the script of her life. I just wonder who will play Iris in the Hollywood version? Susan Sarandon? Glenn Close? It's a plum role.

As a born-again Christian, Iris took the Bible completely at face value - "Leviticus 18:22-23; You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination." Although I do wonder about her views on some of the other bits of Leviticus, such as "Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard." Leviticus 19:27) - I'm sorry God, but now you're coming across as a rather snippy hair-stylist. I don't like Mohawks either, but I wouldn't want to ban them. They can look nice on some people.

Similarly, "Do not wear material woven of two kinds of material." (Leviticus 19:19) It seemed that God wasn't a big fan of polyester. Nor does he like seafood. "But all in the seas or in the rivers that do not have fins and scales, all that move in the water or any living thing which is in the water, they are an abomination to you." (Leviticus 11:10) I suppose seafood is something of an acquired taste - and I guess with all that creating stuff and judging people and smiting, God hasn't really had time to develop a more sophisticated palate. If he were to come round your house for tea, you'd probably have to give him egg and chips with white bread.

Now had Iris started ranting at people wearing polyblend jumpsuits, or eating Calafornian sushi, then at least she'd have been consistent. Bonkers but consistent. However, there are so many ways that she's mired in hypocrisy that.. well you couldn't make her up. Nor would you want to.

I don't like the Bible. It's boring and too long for one thing. If it had turned up on my desk, I'd have failed it. Actually no. I'd have put a red cross through it and replaced it with a single sentence "Oh just be nice to each other." Although I might have kept in the bit about polyester being an abomination. Because, really, it is.

Friday, January 15, 2010

15 minutes

Last month I wrote that I was interviewed for BBC1's The One Show. Today they phoned me to say that the feature I was on was going out tonight. I took a deep breath and phoned my mother who lives for The One Show. There was a lot of screaming, and then she had to ring off as she had "lots of phone calls to make".

My fella set the program to record but I decided not to watch it. I have a fairly nice yet completely unrealistic mental image of how I look and sound, and I didn't want to have it shattered. About 7.10 the phone rang and my mother said how great it was. She was a little bit too enthusiastic. She said Aunty Dorothy had liked it too, and would have phoned herself but she had to make the tea. I had a few emails from people who'd seen me, and they were all nice about it also.

While my fella was watching it, I peeked round the corner and saw someone with an oily t-zone who looked like a bit of a nutter. It was me.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Are you tired of those plain old doorknobs?

One amusing aspect of visiting America is American tv adverts, particularly those made for the local region. Unlike in the UK, American advertisers have a tradition for getting the owner of a local store to feature as the star of his own ad - resulting in some rather sweet, yet hideously amateurish hard-sells. Especially good are the adverts which aim to sell pieces of nasty kitsch to poor families - trying to convince them that it will make them appear like sophisticated urbanites.

Saturday Night Live also has a long history of parodying these adverts, which often feature terrifying working-class women with strangulated New Yawk accents. Scarlett Johnasson turned up recently playing Lexi, the overly-aggressive daugher of a family business who are in the trade of porcelain fountains "You gotta get yourself some porcelain fountains!"

What! Are you kidding me? How can you not have porcelain fountains all over your house? Look at this one! Look at that one!"

The sketch also has Ryan Reynolds as Lexi's terrified, hyper-ventilating husband "I come to you!" (The sketch doesn't start until 2.45 below).

And in a later episode newcomer Jenny Slate (who distinguished herself by saying "fucking" live on air, in her first episode) is Tina Tina Cheneuse - an East European beauty who has her own range of custom-made doorbells, which all feaure recordings of her own voice:

Are you an individual? Guess what? I know, we got a doorbell for every person. Just come up and ask me.... I can even do fancy doorbells: [ she pushes a button ] Voice on Doorbell; Hello! Wine and cheese! Ding dong!

Do you enjoy a fly, fancy lifestyle? Then why is your doorbell so vanilla?

Even better, apparently, the Ding Dong advert is a rip-off of the real-life Krystal Touch doorknobs.

Are those nails legal? I love the way she says "door". I want one.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A British view of those superior American social skills

One thing I hear a lot when visiting New York is "Are you from London?" It always makes me seethe with rage and indignation. Just because I have a British accent that does not automatically mean I'm from London. I wouldn't assume an American-sounding accent meant you live in New York. In fact, I don't assume it even means America even - as several disgruntled Canadians have pointed out to me.

But, being raised "British", I'm not allowed to show my emotions to strangers, so instead I politely say "Not really", and leave it at that. There's no point in telling them where I am from. Nobody has heard of it or cares. So when I was asked it at the hotel gym, I just added it to my mental tally, and continued drinking from the water fountain.

But some (actually all) Americans are very friendly, and this one wouldn't leave me alone. It turned out his name was Walter (!) and he was a lawyer. He was also trying to chat me up. Somehow I had ended up in a bad episode of Sex in the City.

This would never happen in my gym back home where everyone is painfully heterosexual and unrelentingly dreary. My hotel gym is like a mirror universe of my home gym. It is on Times Square and seems to be populated mainly by hyperactive show-boys who diss Angela Lansbury (performing next door).

So it was nice that Walter found me exotic enough to flirt with. London (British) accents have a cache in America. I kept hearing awful Britons, who would have been unemployable in the UK, doing voice-overs for burglar alarms or bed adverts on tv. Simon Cowell is much-loved, and even though British people always end up being cast as sophisticated villains in American films and tv, at least we're on the American radar, which is generally very inward looking.

And I have always wanted to meet a New York laywer - just like the one from Will & Grace. It turned out he was having a party at his apartment the next evening, and did I want to come? I said I'd try, but was very jet-lagged. He gave me his address, which was in a huge tower block a couple of blocks away. (If you are British and reading this you will probably be shocked by how "forward" Americans are. And this isn't even an isolated incident. I've had more men proffer me their business cards in the changing room at that gym than at any conference I've been to. Musical directors, immigration laywers, gay, straight - it doesn't matter - if you respond to a comment about the weather they're pressing their business cards into your hand).

Despite being somewhat anti-social and misanthropic (even by British standards), I decided to call in, more out of nosiness than anything else. I wanted to see if he had his own baby grand piano next to an arched window with a view of the Manhattan skyline. I wanted to see if his friends were all amusing and witty like Jack and Karen. And whether they all wore Prada and shopped at Barneys.

I should have left things there, scintillating in my imagination. In fact, Walter's apartment was miniscule and decorated by Ikea. Shockingly, the doorman let me in without asking to check my credentials (serial killers have British/London accents too!)

Having checked out the view (lovely, but no baby grand piano), and made small-talk with some people with Peru I decided enough was enough, and I was having trouble understanding everyone's accents. So I left. I actually said "It was lovely to meet you all but I must be going." I'm sure Walter and his friends complained about me "He said he was a British university lecturer! But he was nothing like Colin Firth in A Single Man."


I was talking to my mother on the phone this evening, and she was on about one of her favourite subjects - the points of the compass. My mother keeps a compass in her handbag because she "has to know which direction north is at all times". Because my mother sees her children as extensions of herself, with identical preoccupations, tastes and concerns, she's reached the conclusion that I must need to know where north is at all times also. And she got me a little compass for Christmas. It's shaped like a ladybird. Isn't it lovely.

We were talking about one of her favourite topics - moving home, this evening. "It took me a very long time to get used to living in this new house", she confided. Apparently the main reason for this is that the new house is south facing, whereas the previous house had been east facing. "And I couldn't sleep because I've always been used to the bed facing north!" she complained.

Now I don't know if it's just me, but I've never even noticed which direction my bed faces. I notice if there is noise outside, if the bed itself is lumpy or hard, if the sheets have been washed in fabric softener which sometimes makes my legs itch, if the sheets are too thick... These are all things which can keep me awake at night. But the direction that I'm facing - that's not something which I've considered as essential for getting a good night's sleep. Is it me? Either I'm crazy or she is....

Speaking of compasses, I love Nurse Jackie's rather unusual moral compass (for a nurse that is). In Episode 1 she flushes a patient's ear down the toilet, bursts the tyre of a bike messenger, steals money, has sex for drugs, takes drugs and forges a form for organ donorship. I bet she doesn't know where north is either...

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


I am on my annual visit to New York, where it is minus six degrees (although it's just as cold back home and snowing too, so I don't feel too short-changed). My hotel now proudly proclaims it has High Definition tv (although it can't make any claims about high-quality). Indeed, it is the usual mix of aggressive adverts for medicine, bonkers preachers, highly partisan news and celebrity nonsense. I caught "Jersey Shore" - a reality tv show which seems to involve working-class young people hitting each other and swearing.

Beards seem to be popular in New York at the moment - at one point, I was the only male in the hotel gym not to be wearing one (apparently it is the same in London). I expect beards to eventually filter through to Manchester next year, and probably make it to Lancaster in 2015. Maybe it is post-New Year blow-out or maybe it is the effects of the recession, but the city looks and feels a bit dejected at the moment. A lot of ads stress the low cost of their product, and there are more boarded up shops than usual, and less building work going on. Every year I plan my New York Retirement - where I buy a 2 bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village and spend a life steeped in cultural pursuit and glamour. However, I don't think I could ever pull it off. I think the extroversion of city dwellers would eventually wear me down.

The cold weather necessitates spending as much time indoors as possible. Yesterday I went to the very unsexy Museum of Sex, which had an exhibition of porn stars, photographed as tastefully as is possible. More interesting were "naughty" photos from the Edwardian era - odd to see people with handle-bar moustaches caught in compromising positions.

I also saw "Precious", which is a bit of a downer. The lead character is a morbidly obese, illiterate black girl who has had two children to her own father. Her mother is played by Monique on welfare and in a very bad mood, and her social worker is Mariah Carey with a moustache. Whenever Precious experiences a particulary bad bit of bullying or physical abuse, she kind of blackouts to an alternative fantasy world where she is a film star/model with a handsome boyfriend. Or she eats a big bucket of fried chicken. I couldn't work out whether the film was pro- or anti- welfare. Americans seem to have an odd attitude towards it. One of my American friends (a very educated, gay, democrat professor) angrily tells me that our British benefits system is terribly enabling. And in the film, the mother is a hideous welfare queen of nightmares, lying to the authorities in order to get her weekly cheque. By the end of the film, I didn't know who to be angry at. Everyone perhaps. Over the next few days I will see The Road (a post-apocalyptic 'road-trip' film - I've read the book so I know it doesn't end particularly well) and The Lovely Bones (another fun-fest I've already read about a young girl who is raped and murdered). Isn't anyone making nice films any more? At least I have a DVD of the silly 1950s classic Aunt Mame with me so I can watch Rosalind Russell and Corale Browne hilariously messing around with cow bell bracelets...