Friday, December 30, 2011


I walked past CNN's Anderson Cooper today in the very gay area of Chelsea and he didn't even give me a second look.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Little Dogs

I am having my annual post-Christmas in New York week. Rather than staying in a 40 storey hotel in Times Square, we are in an apartment in Greenwich Village. It costs $2000 a week and is basically a corridor with furniture. You could only use the bath if you were appearing in the Wizard of Oz as a Munchkin. No cats will ever be swung in it. It is a very old building and between 5am and 10pm the pipes cry out as if continuously in pain. But it is only a few doors away from the Stonewall Tavern - so I like the feeling that I am walking down the same streets where angry drag queens defiantly did chorus-line kicks and set the birth of Gay Liberation in motion (in America at least - in the UK, it all happened anyway, and with a lot less fuss and excitement, but that's one of the many differences between the two countries).

New York no longer feels unfamilar - this must be my 15th or so trip here, but it always feels different. And one of the things about visiting a place every 12 months, is that it is different slightly from the last time I was here. There was one year when all the men had beards. That fad seems to have died out thankfully (they're so scratchy), but the latest fashion appears to be little dogs. I saw about 10 this morning, most of them being walked by 30 and 40 something gay men.

I hate little dogs - while I like dogs generally, if I was ever to have one, it would have to be capable of killing someone or at least maiming them. All that little dogs can do is annoy and wee themselves with excitement every ten minutes or so. But it's sort of heartening that the gay men of Greenwich Village have all taken it upon themselves to make a commitment to something other than their pectoral muscles. I have a theory that people who get little dogs actually want to have children and settle down. The little dogs are like those little stablising wheels on bikes that children have. And the next stage will be actual long term relationships and real children. So my prediction is that in two years time I'll be coming here and seeing lots of gay men with pushchairs (or strollers in their language).

And there'll be a sad dog pound somewhere in Brooklyn which will reverebrate with the sound of a thousand abandoned little dogs.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

My first Stephen King novel (in about 20 years)

When I was 13 I joined one of those mail-order book clubs, where you got books at a slightly discounted price, as long as you committed to purchasing 6 a year. The book club sold mystery and horror books, so for the next few years, I fed on a diet of VC Andrews, James Herbert and Stephen King.

Stephen King was my favourite author - speed-reading was my normal pace, so his enormous books kept me busy for at the best part of a weekend. Although I remember one particularly wet Sunday when I hadn't been outside all day, but had read about 400 pages in one sitting. I went into the kitchen to get a drink, then opened my eyes to realise I was lying on the floor. I'd passed out without realising. It was probably a blood pressure thing, and it's the only time that's happened.

The first book I read by him was The Mist - a brilliant, spooky, doomed novella - similar to an HP Lovecraft story, where a group of small-town Americans get trapped in a supermarket when a weird mist full of monsters from another dimension descends over the them. The horror within the supermarket was more disturbing than the horror outside - with the microcosm of society breaking down pretty quickly as the frightened shoppers fell under the thrall of religious fundamentalist Mrs Carmody - who starts demanding EXPIATION! and blood sacrifices. King's talent is in writing about ordinary, recognisable people who are put in bizarre situations. The Mist was made as a film a few years ago - and is one of my top 10 films.

I also enjoyed King's novels that he'd written under the name Richard Bachmann - particularly two that were set in futuristic dystopias and involved game shows where the contestants die (this was the 80s and while we're not there yet, King definitely was onto someting). One was made into an awful film (The Running Man), the other (The Long Walk), probably can't ever be filmed - it's a totally depressing story anyway.

I largely abandoned Stephen King when I went to university. His novels seemed a bit too folksy, at times verging on syrupy, and I didn't have time to read anything but Psychology journal articles anwyay. But I was intrigued by his latest novel 11.22.63 - which is about a man who time travels from the present day to the 1950s - with the aim of preventing the assassination of JFK. It's another massive doorstep of a book (or it would be had I not bought the online version), and it took me a good week to finish. For longstanding King fans, there's a cameo from two characters from one of his most well-known books: It. The story is less horror, but more suspense with a love story, as the hero ends up falling in love with a woman from the 50s. The past is painted as almost idyllic place - apart from the racism and sexism - where cars are better and people are friendlier. The time travel plot device is interesting - it is possible to go back and forward in time through a portal, although every time you return to the 1950s, everything has been reset and you appear at exactly the same moment as before. There's also a weird tramp-like man who seems aware of the time traveller in a way that other people are not. Another interesting aspect of time travel is that the past is "obdurate" - it does not like to be changed, and the more you try to change it, the more events will appear to randomly conspire to stop you. (The past is a bit like my 39 year old body - it wants to be a certain shape and size and will conspire against me if I try to change it too much.)

The hero is further hampered by the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination. He can't just kill Lee Harvey Oswald at any point, because he may not have been acting alone. So he has to wait until just a few weeks beforehand, living in the past for 5 years until he can be certain he's got the right man. Of course, as we don't know for certain what happened, we have to suspend our disbelief and go along with King's version as being the right one. But if you can buy time travel, then you may as well go along with the rest of it.

Time travel is not a new concept (and King draws on the Ray Bradbury short story "A Sound of Thunder" - where the idea of the "butterfly effect" comes from), but I liked what King did with it. And now I might even give "Under the Dome" a go.

Sunday, December 04, 2011


December 1st is Christmas Decorations day, and I fancied a real Christmas tree this year so dragged this mammoth back to the house.

But that night, when I came back from the gym, the tree was lying on the floor in a very undignified position. Meanwhile, the cat was sitting nearby, making a lot of fuss and looking either traumatised or guilty.

I guess I should have bought him those cha-cha heels he was asking for.

Saturday, December 03, 2011


I sometimes put my lack of interest in football to the fact that I missed the first week of term, when presumably the rules were explained, and nobody ever bothered to catch me up. But I doubt things would have been different had I known the rules. It involved several things that I hate - being outdoors for extended periods of time, having to physically compete - where aggression matters, getting dirty, and being part of a team. I would much rather be off doing something solitary inside, like playing the piano.

So I would spend the whole hour hanging around on the sidelines, cold and bored. If teams were picked, I was usually picked last or close to last - a humiliating ritual, designed to establish and fix a hierarchy of masculinity. It always seemed so unfair that it didn't happen in other lessons - where I would have been picked first.

I never understood how all the other boys seemed to instinctively know about the World Cup. When I was about 9, the teacher put up a chart on the wall showing all the World Cup matches that were taking place that summer, and the boys gathered around it excitedly, giving their own opinions about who was going to do well, and who would be knocked out in the first round. It was as if they were talking another language, and even now, when I hear men talking football, I start looking for a fire exit. Because in this country, and probably the world over, you fail as a man if you confess to disliking the national sport.

During another World Cup (I was about 15 by this time), England got into the semi-finals, and then lost to Germany. My Dad, who is not particularly interested in football either, had started following the World Cup that year, as did many people who only bother to get properly onboard when it looks like England might win. He was devastated when England lost the match. I said, with characteristic teenage spite: "I'm glad they lost," and he looked at me in horror as if I'd just announced that I'd killed the Baby Jesus.

But, it turns out that while all my friends were watching other men running around fields in shorts, they were damaging their long-term prospects. The Guardian reports a study suggesting that boys' GCSE results are dented by football tournaments. It's especially true for working-class boys - when a football tournament is on, they perform up to half a grade worse. I would like to think that if my school had known this, that silly World Cup chart would have been ripped down and replaced with a diagram of the solar system - much more interesting. But I doubt it.

My nephew hates football too. So I think there must be a "liking football" gene which we don't have. But maybe it's not so disadvantageous after all.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Things that made me sad

When I'm in a supermarket queue and I see a nice old lady in front of me buying a copy of the Express or the Mail. I want to slap it out of her hand and say "Don't you know this newspaper is toxic? It's brainwashing you to be hateful?"

Similarly, when I see that Jeremy Clarkson's latest book is selling well in the book charts. Who is buying it? Why do people agree with him? Why is he on tv so much? He seems to occupy an Alternative Britain to me - one which takes all the nastiness and smallmindedness of the 1950s but filters it through a mocking, ironic modern viewpoint. I can't stand the man, and I always switch off the television when he comes on. He's like a very spoilt child who revels in the attention he gets from behaving badly. Whenever he's in polite company he'll try to shock the adults by saying "willy" and "bum". It's altogether best to ignore him.

And yesterday, when he was invited on The One Show - the marvellously anodyne early evening magazine program - a program which is the equivalent of a visit to grandma's house, he didn't disappoint. Here he is, commenting on what to do with the people striking about public sector pay.

"I'd have them all shot!"

Clarkson has since apologised, although thousands of people have complained. On YouTube and other sites, there seem to be slightly more people defending Clarkson than those who are complaining about him though. As I said, a lot of people are buying his books.

One argument is that he was joking. Another is that we need to consider the context. Earlier Clarkson had said that the strikes had made it easy to "whizz around" London and that shops had been empty. So he seemed to be implying that for him at least, there were benefits to the strike. But then he made the point that because it's the BBC "you have to balance this", and then he made the extreme comment. So it could be seen that none of what he was saying was actually his point of view, but that he was simply stating two sides of an argument.

I agree that it's important to consider context. However, I'm aruging from the other side. Had Clarkson said his "joke" on a satirical late-night programme like "Have I Got News For You", then it would have still annoyed people who don't like him, but it's likely to have been understood as a joke. But he said it on a popular, family primetime slot, where children will been watching.

Here's an example of a conversation I had last week with my 8 year old nephew on the telephone.

Me: Hi, what are you doing?
Nephew: Oh? Ummm. (long pause) I'm talking to you on the telephone.
Me: No, I meant what were doing just before you started talking to me.
Nephew: Oh, I was playing cards with grand-dad.

Children have a tendency to take things literally, and so when Clarkson starts saying that he'd have all the strikers taken out in front of their families and shot, it's at the least going to get some kids asking why Clarkson wants to shoot mummy for going on strike.

Telling jokes is a skill. That's why professional comedians get paid to do it. And one of the skills you learn is comic timing. You need to know that your audience will "get" the joke. And if your joke results in thousands of people complaining about you, then the joke has failed.

And, more cynically, we might ask. Was he really joking? Nobody knows what goes on in his head, or what he'd do if he was suddenly given absolute power to rule the UK. I'm afraid I've heard "It's only a joke" far too many times as an excuse from people who were behaving badly and then they try to shrug it off when challenged. People often use jokes as a way of saying something that's taboo or to test the waters. I've sat quietly in pubs or gyms and overheard conversations start with an offhand jokey comment about gays or Muslims, and after the laughter shows that everyone's onboard, the jokes can quickly get followed up by rather more nasty comments.

So I never fully buy "It was a joke!" It's the sort of argument I started hearing school bullies saying when I was 12, and that's really the level of argument that it brings you down to.

And even if it was a joke, it works both ways. The obvious retort is "Fine! Jeremy Clarkson, you should be shot in front of your family. And so should George Osbourne and David Cameron, and all the bankers who got the country into this mess etc etc.." Cameron himself has tried to downplay Clarkson's comments by referring to them as silly. But then, they're friends.

So, if you want to degrade public debate by bringing in jokes about killing your opponents in, then you have to allow your opponents to do the same. And of course, everyone will swear that they're joking, right up until they pull the trigger.

American political debate started using the language and imagery of violence in recent months, particularly in the language coming from the Republicans and their media. Remember Sarah Palin's infamous "crosshairs" target list map of the US.

And then this happened to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Because you might be joking. I might know you're joking. But not everyone is going to get the joke.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A perfect tv show for the 99%

"Look our Paul, money doesn't make you happy!" said my mother, almost every Saturday night in the 1980s, as my whole family (big butch Dad included) settled down to watch Dallas or Dynasty.

In hindsight, I can tell you that she was wrong. Money actually does make you happy, and unlike Blake Carrington off Dynasty, most rich people do not have their wives replaced with a body double, have their whole family gunned down during a wedding in an invented East European nation state, lose their memory and regress back to being in love with their evil first wife, be falsely accused of murder and accidentally kill their son's gay lover. Instead rich people just have a lot of very long nice holidays in expensive hotels, travel business class everywhere, and whenever they have a problem, they close their eyes and throw money towards it, until it goes away. At worst, they may spend too much time commuting or working late, neglecting their children and partners, or they may get a bit tubby, as they eat at restaurants too much. But those things don't make for good soap operas.

So now you know the truth, you may as well just try to become an investment banker.

But if you like watching unhappy rich people, then you will love Revenge, a campy drama set in "the Hamptons", a series of well-heeled villages in Long Island, New York. The series is a very loose reworking of The Count of Monte Cristo, and involves the patient machinations of a mysterious young woman who goes by the name of Emily Thorne. She's out to get revenge on the ENTIRE Hamptons, because many years ago, they were all involved in a plot which caused the death of her father. Every episode she targets a new person and manages to destroy their life in some sort of clever way. For example, in episode 1 it involves soup, while in episode 2 she puts on some white gloves and types a password into someone's computer. After that she puts a big red cross through their face in a handy photograph she has of all the people who have done her wrong. She's saving up her bestest revenge though for the main villains - the Graysons who live in the beach house next door. When I say " beach house" I actually mean Disgustingly Enormous Palace of Decadence.

Oh this little thing?

Mrs Grayson (played chillingly by Madeline Stowe) seems to spend most of her time glaring at Emily from her turret room. The Queen of the Hamptons, Mrs Grayson has an over-botoxed forehead and too much loose neck tissue. She emits a series of wintery smiles and ambiguous platitutes which are actually all threats. To cross her is instant social death.

Emily's scheme for the Graysons involves their hottie son who must be seduced.

Well, no-one said Revenge would be easy.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Murder For Introverts

On Christmas Eve, when I was 9, ITV showed Murder is Easy - an adaption of an Agatha Christie film set in a quaint English village starring Bill Bixby (from the Hulk) as the hero, and Olivia De Havilland as Mrs Waynefleet - the old lady murderer who always wore black gloves. From my council estate it all seemed impossibly glamorous, and I thus began an intense love affair with Mrs Christie which went on for the next six years. Every Saturday I would traipse to the only book shop in Peterlee town centre (it was actually a newsagent that had a tiny section which sold books), and I'd buy 2 Agatha Christie paperbacks with my pocket money (they were £1.50 each). I never solved the murder before Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple did, and I never noticed how hackneyed her stories were, how stereotyped her characters were or how her writing style was unremarkably plain, to the point of feeling like you were reading instructions to work a washing machine at times.

But it was a world of upper and middle class people (mainly southerners or Londonders), mixing with exotic foreigners in exciting places like Egypt. I thought the strange revenge mystery "And Then There Were None" (which had a racist original title), was the cleverest and most chilling piece of writing ever, while I became so addicted to Death on the Nile that I forced my eight year old sister to read it, and when she became confused by the fact that there were too many characters in it, I made her keep a record sheet with names of all the suspects. I'm sure she was grateful. I would scour the TV Times and Radio Times each Thursday to see if there'd be any Agatha Christie films that week - Christmas editions were also especially productive, as sometimes there'd be a whole season of them. When the BBC showed a series of Miss Marple, with Joan Hickson as the lead, my Friday nights were almost orgasmic.

I never told any of my friends about my Agatha Christie addiction - even the nerdy ones who liked Dungeons and Dragons or programming computers, or even doing jigsaws, because I knew that there was no way that it could be explained without me losing what little teenage "cool" status that I had. And these days, I only read them very rarely, and in a much more critical, ironic way. If anyone tells me that they like Agatha Christie, I'm afraid I look down on them a little bit (although I do have a special fondness for the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films and the potty harpiscord music).

Agatha Christie novels are to introverts what extreme sports are to extroverts. Introverts like to stay indoors, don't like socialising too much and hate taking risks. The novels are a form of "safe danger" which is just about manageble for introverts and their over-sensitive imaginations. Unlike modern murder dramas like CSI, all of the murders in Agatha Christie novels are anti-septic with no nasty realism to make you want to look away. Mrs Christie never lingers over the gruesome forensic details of the crime, there are no rooms spattered in blood and guts, instead it's all glossed over in favour of the Sudoko-like puzzle of who had the motive, means and opportunity. And quite often, the people who get murdered are implied to be slightly rotten types who probably deserved it anyway. By the end, we rarely end up feeling particularly sorry for them, and Christie usually gets us to focus our emotional attentions on a budding romance between a mousey secretary type and a dashing young man with shiny black hair called Harry.

But Agatha Christie taught me how to be British, and also, how to be approximate a kind of fictional "middle-class" identity, which eventually came in handy when I left my council estate and was suddenly expected to interact successfully with the sorts of people who went to restaurants and went on holidays abroad. More importantly, those books were one of the few resources I had which helped me cope with my particularly difficult teenage years. And for that, whenever I'm channel-surfing and see one of her films, I silently thank her.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

It's 1938!

Gay rights campaigners have been given the label Gaystapo and compared to Nazis by Alan Craig, a former east London councillor writing in the Church of England newspaper. Craig writes:

Having forcibly – and understandably – rectified the Versailles-type injustices and humiliations foisted on the homosexual community, the UK's victorious Gaystapo are now on a roll. Their gay-rights stormtroopers take no prisoners as they annex our wider culture, and hotel owners, registrars, magistrates, doctors, counsellors, and foster parents … find themselves crushed under the pink jackboot.

"Thanks especially to the green light from a permissive New Labour government, the gay Wehrmacht is on its long march through the institutions and has already occupied the Sudetenland social uplands of the Home Office, the educational establishment, the politically-correct police. Following a plethora of equalities legislation, homosexuals are now protected and privileged by sexual orientation regulations and have achieved legal equality by way of civil partnerships. But it's only 1938 and Nazi expansionist ambitions are far from sated."

Poor Alan must have slept through Remedial History, because wasn't it the Nazis who put gay people in concentration camps? How confusing!

As a fully paid up member of the Gaystapo, all I can say is "Oh no! She's got us rumbled!" I guess we'd better bring forward the attack - Offizieranwärter PinkPants - deploy the queer gas cannisters all over the UK! Stabshauptmann Candyass - unleash Lady Gaga on the strategically placed tannoys! Hauptmann Bitchqueen - airdrop our queer propaganda (vintage muscle mags) across football stadiums and building sites!

Anyone who disagrees with our message of acceptance will be herded off to Bigotry Camps by our Special Lesbian Unit and forced to watch episodes of Glee until they break down.

Here are the rest of our Gaystapo Demands.

1) From now on, the pronouns "he" and "she" are to be switched around. Also, everyone must start every sentence with "OOooh Girl!" and end it with "You bitch!"

2) Everyone will wear face glitter.

3) Madonna will be crowned Queen of England, and we shall all Praise Her.

4) Organised sports will be banned, unless the (male) players do it naked.

5) Heterosexual marriage will also be banned because it's just sick and disgusting what those hetties do with their bits. We don't want to know! Uggggh

Long Live the Glorious Queer Revolution

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Meaner Girls

I blogged a few months ago about the awful A List New York series, which followed the lives of a bunch of so-called A-list gay men in Manhattan. The show proved to be naggingly addictive, mainly due to its car-crash nature. I hated myself for laughing at the use of subtitles for EFL Rodiney - a Brazilian bisexual who lovingly mangled the English language.

I wished I didn't care about the on-off "friendship" of drunk southern, "fat" Austen and skinny, judgemental, orange Derek. I pitied poor Reichen - the hapless central wheel of the program who was first in an ill-judged off-off Broadway show, then tried to record an even iller-judged hit song - his reedy voice struggling to approximate the top notes. And I just plain hated Ryan, whose plump, botoxed face emitted waves of serenity while he contrived situations of conflict for his own pleasure - a 21st century Iago, or in plain-speak, a nasty little shit-stirrer. The introduction of Nyassha (I think that's how it's spelt), a female female impersonator whose insane, haughty, spiteful and unreasonable presence made the other characters appear grounded and shy, was a step too far for me. Not that it matters a jot, but none of these people are "A-List" by any stretch of the imagination, except for perhaps photgrapher Mike Ruiz, who got the least airtime and managed to come across (or edited at least) as kindly, sensible and normal. His only vice appeared to be excessive vanity (even his boyfriend looked like a clone of himself).

So I was glad when season 2 came to an end, as the storylines seemed to spiral in on themselves, appearing more and more contrived and silly. In real life, when people hate each other, they simply avoid meeting. But in this show, despite all the hatred, they kept bumping into each other - at parties and social events - even arranging to meet in public places so they could "clear the air" which always ended in someone storming out and mirroring futile "talk to the hand" gestures at each other. The final show, which involved the Meanest Girls conspiring to split up Austen from his Yorkshire boyfriend (who also required subtitles) by refusing to attend his bachelor party, then revealing that they'd heard that the boyfriend had been unfaithful, felt like something out of a 1960s daytime soap. Enough! You people are all dead to me, and if there's a season 3, I won't be watching. And if I bump into any of you while I'm in Greenwich village in January, I will cross the street. Except for Austen maybe.

Perhaps sensing that the A List New York needs a rest, the action has moved to Dallas, where a new coterie of unrepresentative non-role models for gay men have agreed to pretend to know each other and be filmed ad libbing storylines for noteriety and money. I was hoping that with a new town, things would be different. But after watching one episode, it looks like The A List Dallas is just The A List New York with cowboy hats and big belt buckles. Instead of Mean Girl shit-stirrer Ryan, there's Mean Girl shit-stirrer Philip. Instead of drunk Austen, there's drunk James. And instead of "hot" Reichen, there's "hot" Levi (Reichen in a cowboy hat). The similarities go further. In A List NY, Reichen is the subject of a jealous little love triangle as Austen and Rodiney tussle over him, while in A List Dallas, Levi is fought over by James and Taylor (and possibly Chase). While A List NY had delusional fag-hag Nyassha, A List Dallas has delusional fag-hag Ashley, who when asked to wash the asparagus responds with "With soap?".

At the start of season 2 of A List NY, the internet buzzed with the scandal that Reichen had been caught sending naked pictures of himself online. This was even addressed in a gruesome scene where he had to confess it to his mother. But look, history's repeating itself, and now similar naked pictures of Reichen #2, Levi are also circulating. And it all feels a bit too much like a publicity stunt. Viewers should not make the mistake of thinking that any of this is "real". It's not. It's like when members of the judging panel on X Factor started throwing glasses of water over each other. It's all decided upon in advance. Like wrestling.

It's kind of depressing that these programs perform a great disservice to gay men, by simply rearticulating a bunch of negative stereotypes - gay men as catty, slutty, substance abusers, materialistic, vain, shallow, silly and unsupportive of one another. Clearly, such gay men exist, but to base a whole series (twice) around people who embody the stereotype seems wilful. Gay people are still under-represented in the media, and these programs seem like a step backwards rather than forwards. With shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, while I was kind of annoyed that gay men were only viewed as good at stereotypically feminine things like fashion, interior design, hair styling etc, at least they were trying to improve people's lives and tended to come across as reasonably grounded and functioning. Anyone who doesn't know any gay people and switches on The A List, is likely to have all their worst prejudices confirmed. Had my teenage self watched this show, I'd have been horrified, and would have probably decided to stay in the closet. The program takes the "It gets better" message and rips it up in your face. It doesn't get better. It gets worser. Thankyou Logo.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Autumn means new tv

The Staghorn Sumac tree in my garden has gone bright red, while the apple tree's leaves have fallen off. The clocks just went back (for the last time if the government manage to convince Scotland to stay on BST all year round), and everyone I know has flu. It's autumn again.

At least it means better tv, as we all retreat indoors. I'm watching the second season of The Walking Dead - having been to Atlanta a couple of weeks ago, and seen where it was filmed (and the street where a poor horse got mauled by a zombie horde), it helps to add a frisson of realism. My fella (always a strategist) watches it scornfully, mocking the poor decision making and lack of an overall plan of the main characters. If there was ever a zombie virus, I'm sticking by him.

He can't stomach American Horror Story though, declaring it to be "sick" after one episode. So I have to watch it alone. Just as the Walking Dead takes a film convention (zombies) and stretches it out into a long-running series with proper character development, American Horror Story takes the "family move into Haunted House film" and serialises it. Every previous tenant of the home (and there have been many) met with a sticky end, and so back they come (in lovely period costume) to shake their chains and go bump in the night. Actually, as my mother used to say "It's not the dead you should be afraid of, it's the living", and much of the horror doesn't come from the ghosts. As expected, the family are full of angst and issues (lots of guilt over a miscarriage and an affair), the teenage daughter is a surly emo and in episode 2, a group of murder re-enactment fans invade the home, wanting to restage a murder that took place in the 1960s. The ghosts rather kindly help to see them off. The best character is a weird next-door neighbour played by Jessica Lange, who steals things, makes inappropriate remarks and gives gifts of poisoned cupcakes. She has a previous relationship with the maid of the house, who she once killed and threatens to do so again. And it seems that the male lead has it written it into his contract that he must appear shirtless for at least three full minutes.

That contractual clause seems to be quite common at the moment - the Dad in new sci fi drama Terra Nova also takes his shirt off a lot. Terra Nova is even sillier than American Horror Story, charting the adventures of a sickeningly all-American family who flee the pollution and strict rules of the 22nd century to go back to an Earth of dinosaur times. We are supposed to be sympathetic to the family because they have been persecuted for having a third child which is against the law. However, it's never explained why they get to break the rules, and when Daddy gets broken out of prison and then illegally manages to get to Dinosaur World, there's no punishment waiting for him at the end other end. The message seems to be that as long as you have a square jaw, a big chest and an urge to procreate, then you can do what you like. And there's also a British scientist who talks in clever-jargon speak and is marked out as the villain. Actually, it's not very good. When does Summer happen?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Black Lizard

My fella has glandular fever and has been signed off work for a month. Poor him - he's tired all the time, has no appetite (he's lost half a stone already) and alternatively hot and cold. It's no fun for him being stuck inside for a month. Fortunately, I am on hand to provide painkillers and cups of tea, and the cat seems to be strangely aware that something is amiss and refuses to leave his side. I think I had glandular fever when I was 18 (I vaguely recall feeling rotten in my first year at university for weeks but not really knowing why). I don't seem to have caught anything from him yet anyway.

We watched The Black Lizard last night (on youtube).

It's a 1968 Japanese cult film about a drag queen night-club singer who is also a jewel thief and kidnapper. She kidnaps beautiful people in order to get jewels, then kills them anyway and spirits them away to her Pacific island lair where she turns them into sex-dolls. The screen play was written by Yukio Mishima, a prolific bisexual Japanese writer who became infamous for a failed coup in 1970. He then committed ritual suicide. He has a brief cameo in the film as a body-building sex-doll (he was also in a relationship with the drag queen black lizard in real life). The film is strange enough, but the off-screen lives of those involves sounds even weirder.

The film doesn't seem to be easily available on DVD, and the youtube version is rather dark (though watchable). A great version of the theme tune is available from Itunes, by Pink Martini. The Black Lizard herself (Akihiro Maruyama) is the best thing in the film. She's completely mad and a slave to overwhelming campy emotions (it doesn't help matters when you fall in love with the detective who is trying to capture you). And she manages to evade capture by simply switching gender when she has to.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Back from Atlanta

With the conference ended, I had a day in Alanta, although it started raining and as I didn't have a coat, I ended up stuck at the airport for rather longer than I was expecting. The journey home seemed designed to test my patience at every stage, and by the time I arrived through the door, almost 20 hours after setting out, I wasn't feeling very good.

Here are some of the photos I took anyway.

Graffiti wall

Street market

Martin Luther King eternal flame momument

We are the 99% protest camp

Grid-iron building

Saturday, October 08, 2011

(Conference) Friends

I am in Atlanta, Georgia for a conference. I gave my talk yesterday so can enjoy the rest of it without having to feel much pressure to perform. I always get exhausted by conferences - I can assume the personality of an extrovert, but it's hard work, like holding my breathe, and I usually need to lie down with the curtains drawn afterwards.

I quite like having Conference Friends though. These are people who you meet at a conference and end up hanging out with for a few days. Then you leave and they're out of your life apart from an occasional email, until the next time you see them. Sometimes you never see them again. It gives you a chance to reinvent yourself, and if you screw up socially it doesn't matter because it's not long-term. So after the conference ended for the day, I ended up with a new bunch of Conference Friends and we went for a meal at a Turkish restaurant. (We had been invited to an "after party" which involved a hookah, but none of my Conference Friends wanted to go.) We sat outside the restaurant - because we could. (I often wonder if I would be a more gregarious person if I lived somewhere with better weather.) There were six of us and I felt like I had been cast in an American sitcom. There was a very hip black straight Canadian man, a beautiful Jordanian/American woman with strong opinions, a football-loving gay man from the same place where the southern camp vampire tv series True Blood is filmed, a very liberal straight guy from a place called Hicksville (literally) and his wife. And I was the British One. We made an unlikely set and the lively conversation felt like there had been a team of script-writers behind it.

And just over the road from the restaurant in a small park, a group of people had gathered, holding placards and chanting. And suddenly we were in a fully-fledged demonstration. It was one of the 99% protests which are taking place all over the US at the moment. There was a celebratory atmosphere, people honked their horns (presumably in support) as they drove by. Someone got a banjo out (it is the South after all), and even by American standards there was a sense of cameraderie and willingness to talk to complete strangers which I always find faintly horrific.

The protest carried on for some hours, and I was woken up from my hotel room to the sound of police sirens in the night and shouting. There was a loud crowd of people outside my hotel, the police had closed off roads and were telling people to disperse through a loud-speaker. I wondered whether the crowd had turned nasty (like in the British riots), and deeming my hotel to be home to the hated 1%, had decided to burn it down.

But I was very jet-lagged, and managed to get to sleep, even as I heard the loud-speakers shouting "Move on! Move on!".

Thursday, October 06, 2011

My new hobby?

My fella was away in Ireland on an annual teaching thing that he does. He'd taken the car with him so he could stay in some isloated cottage in the countryside and look at stars through his telescope without having light pollution. He's very good at "hobbies". I don't really have the personality for them. I always dropped out of university hobby societies after the second week. The people in them tend to talk obsessively about that one thing they're doing (photography, being LGBT etc).

But after five days of just talking to the cat (who does his best but isn't as witty as my fella), I was getting a bit (stir) crazy, so accepted an offer from a friend to go bell-ringing. I live about a minute's walk away from the local church, and know a couple of people who do it.

My friend is a "key-holder" to the local church, and he picked me up early so he could show me around. Have you ever been in a deserted church at night-time when there are no lights on? I kept expecting Evette Fielding to jump out at me while screaming about ghosts. We climbed a windy staircase then went up a ladder, then another staircase, then another ladder until we were in the bell tower, and I saw my home town from a different perspective. I don't know why the church doesn't get a lift fitted and then they could charge people a fiver to go up there and look at the view.

But just as I was enjoying things, the bells all chimed bong at once, and I practically fell over. Then the other bell-ringers started to arrive. There were two distinct groups - the experts, who were mainly men in their 50s and 60s with beards and not a lot of conversation. And the beginniners, who were mainly women and younger men, some of whom were in a state of anxiety about bell ringing.

Because I learnt it is very complicated. It's not just a matter of pulling a rope willy-nilly. The ropes have to be pulled in various complicated sequences. And also (and I probably understood this wrong), first, the ropes had to be pulled in a certain way so that the bells were all upside down, balancing precariously the wrong way round. This was called "bringing the bells up". Each round of bell ringing had to end with them being upside down, and this could be difficult to acheive as you had to give the rope exactly the right amount of pull. One poor woman couldn't get it and she was stuck there for ages, trying and trying.

I had a brief lesson from the Head bell ringer. I am not a quick learner, and I often confuse left and right if I'm in company, so I looked like an idiot when he said things like "grip the rope with your left hand as high up as you can and then put your right hand above the left". He had to say it about ten times before I even got that bit right. Then I had to pull the rope. And not look up. "You're doing it too hard" he said on the first two goes. Then I either got it right, or he gave up.

My friend said afterwards that I seemed to be picking it up more quickly than everyone else he'd seen. But I think he was just being kind.

I don't know if I'll do it again. Someone told me about a beginner's class at another place, and I was invited to go along. Do I have the personality for a hobby though? And does it matter that I'm a screaming atheist? I think they kept the believing in God thing a bit on the DL, but I noticed that the one good-looking man there had a Christian fish tattoo on his wrist. I'm sure they won't mind me being gay (apparently the vicar is gay too), but being a filthy heathen? I'm not so sure.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Why I hate buses

When I was much younger, and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I used to say "a bus driver". My Dad was one, and children tend to copy what they see. Gradually that ambition morphed into lawyer then journalist then lecturer then retire as early as possible. Seeing my Dad get up at 4 in the morning to start the early shift, or getting in after midnight, upset because various drunks had threatened him and refused to pay, was enough to put me off.

These days I try to avoid buses as much as possible. We didn't have a car when we were growing up, so we went everywhere by bus, and I've had more than my fair share of riding on them. But today, my fella had the car so I had to catch one to work. I always dread those rare days because I never know the rules and invariably end up humilating myself. Last time the driver refused to let me on because I tried to pay with a £10 note. This time, the humiliation began when I got on the bus with a Cafe Nero drink. I put it on the ledge by the window as I fished the correct change out of my wallet.

"That had better not be a hot drink!" the driver scolded. "You're not allowed to put it there."

So I had to pick it up and then use one hand to get my money out. The driver scowled at me the whole time, drunk on power. Everyone else glared at me, as I held up the queue. I wanted to give her some sort of passive-aggressive parting shot like making an allusion to insane health and safety laws or the Third Reich, but knew that she'd throw me off for insubordination, so I just skulked to the first empty seat in shame.

Apparently I got off lightly - some drivers won't let anyone on the bus if they have coffee.

Then the other aspect of buses that I hate kicked in. All these people I know from work got on, and then we all pretended that we didn't see each other so we wouldn't have to make polite conversation the whole way. At least I didn't have to face Lancaster's new scourge which has been reported in our local newspaper - religious militants getting on the bus, sitting next to people and then trapping them into conversations where they try to brainwash you.

As the bus lurched off the main route to enter a confusing housing estate, adding another ten minutes to the journey, a hand tapped me on the shoulder from behind. I looked round. A wizened face wearing a rainhat (it wasn't raining) beamed at me.

"Are you a lecturer?"

"Yes," I said. Everyone looked at me again.

"So am I!" said the face.

"That's nice," I replied.

That was the extent of our conversation, although about ten minutes later I heard and felt him give a terrific disease-ridden cough onto my neck.

My fella actually likes getting the bus. This is one area where we are very different.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It's Special

Not a very productive month for me in terms of blogging. I often wish I could blog more and look fondly back on the period around 1998-2001 when I had much more of an internet presence and used to make people laugh. Over the last decade, paid work has tended to drain all of the energy and creativity out of me. I have done a lot of writing this month, but it's been for work, not the blog.

Here's Nancy Sinatra, singing "Who Will Buy" in a "Special" from 1968, which has kept me amused lately. I don't know why they filmed this in a deserted amusement park.

I love television specials. BBC4 showed a Doris Day one from 1970 recently. She had all of her dogs in it (!), and there was a gratituous sequence with her dressed up in lots of different outfits, which even by the standards of the time were outrageous. Perry Como showed up of course, as did Rock Hudson, wearing a lot of facial hair. Beards all round. This clip has a great background and she has two camp male dancers wearing tight trousers.

We showed the whole thing to my fella's parents on Sunday when they visited. My father-in-law poked fun at it all the way through. My mother-in-law tends to like these sorts of things unironically and got annoyed. Apparently, on the way home, she told him off, claiming that I had been irritated by him.

I've ordered to Nancy Sinatra special for them, so that should take care of the next visit.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Let's hope the next decade is a better one

Around ten years ago, I flew back from Athens with my parents on a late night flight. It wasn't a very nice journey - lots of turbulence, and there were some drunken, loud British men who kept walking up and down the aisles, talking and shouting to each other. I was so glad when we finally got off the plane. My fella, who'd been on holiday with us, had to go to work in Poland, so he'd caught a different flight. I was due to spend the rest of the week pretty much alone until he came back.

The next afternoon, I decided to leave work early and go into town to buy a tv. It was a blazing hot clear day with a gorgeous blue sky, and I remember thinking how nice it was that we were still getting days like this in September. A crowd of people were gathered outside the windows of Dixons. I assumed they were watching the climax of some sporting event that I knew nothing about because I didn't follow sport, but there was something weird about how quiet and still they all were. I took a glance at the televisions in the windows and saw what looked like a disaster movie - the Twin Towers with great yellow plumes of smoke coming from them. It was the yellow that sticks in my head, even now.

My brain didn't process it properly. I walked back to my car, got in it and turned on the radio to hear that there had been a terrorist attack on Manhattan. I remembered how a month earlier I'd been down by the World Trade Centre during a summer holiday. We'd caught a boat over to the Statue of Liberty. Now those familar towers weren't there any more.

I didn't buy a tv. Instead I went home and spent a weird evening, alone, watching tv and phoning my family. My fella phoned from Poland, worried he might be stuck there. He had some choice words to say about the news footage of a particular owl-like woman in Pakistan who was shown whooping with delight.

Two days later I went to Manchester with my parents to receive the laser surgery that I'd been scheduled to have on my left eye. A cute Australian eye doctor gave me valium and kept saying my name over and over as I reclined onto the operating table. He scraped my eye with a knife before switching the laser on. I smelt my own eye burning. It smelt like meat cooking.

As my Dad drove me home in the rain, we stopped to get chips, and the anasethetic wore off. I crushed my mother's hand with mine as an insistent unstoppable pain went through me. I spent the next 24 hours in bed, mostly sleeping, while my mother ironed all my shirts and exclaimed over and over that we had so many, while my Dad sat around bored. We didn't watch much tv.

A couple of days later, while sitting in the bath, I realised how sharply into focus everything had become. I'd needed glasses since the age of 16. Now I could see properly. The world would never look the same again.

Life went on. A couple of days after that, I had my PhD viva. With my eye still recovering from the surgery, the main thing I was worried about was whether or not it would be sensitive to the outside lights, so I asked if I could sit with my back to the window. The viva lasted 2 and a half hours and afterwards I was told I was a doctor.

It was one of the most eventful weeks of my life - I experienced pain, shock, fear, anxiety, elation and relief. At the time, it was difficult to understand the ramifications of that week, both personal and global. And I'm glad weeks like that are rare.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Ignore that this is an advert for a shopping centre opening in East London next week, and appreciate the century where clothing, hair, dance and music styles went far too quickly. Unless you're very young, this video can't help to inspire a flashback to your own youth. For me the part from 1.15 to 1.20 was when I was hitting nightclubs every other night, and even now, a large part of me is "stuck" there.

It's cleverly done, even down to the evocative backdrops of each period, and the little wave that the 1940s woman gives as the man goes off to war. I love the little Bob Fosse neck dance at 0.53 too and my parents totally looked like 1.00.

If I had my quibble hat on I'd say that the 1950s music doesn't sound right, and that punk came after disco, but it's a reminder of 100 years where nothing stayed the same except for change, which is signalled by that wistful little whistle at the end. Maybe that's a blessing in some ways. The 60s-80s look particularly bonkers now, although there's a general rule that anything from about 30 years ago tends to be viewed as naff, but eventually it gets rehabilitated as retro, then vintage, then beautiful.

I wish some of the style had hung around longer - those 1930s hats and jackets would have so suited me.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Some of My Best Friends Are... 40

Little-seen film "Some of My Best Friends Are..." is 40 this year (download it here, and the soundtrack here). Set almost exclusively in the confines of a Greenwich Village gay bar called The Bluejay (actually real-life bar The Zodiac), the action happens over the course of Christmas Eve 1971, as the lives of the patrons and staff of the bar dramatically intersect.

The film could be seen as a companion piece to another film, The Boys in the Band, which features a birthday party at a gay man's apartment around the same time. Both have a party atmosphere, campy characters, a violent attack from a homophobe, a sympathetic black man and anguished queers coming to terms with their sexuality. Of the two, I prefer Some of My Best Friends Are... Boys in the Band has a depressing tone and ends in a downbeat way. In Some of My Best Friends... there is a better sense of a cohesive gay community, along with happy endings for most of the nicer characters. It also features a number of casting delights including, Rue McClanahan (who achieved fame as Blanche in the Golden Girls). Here she plays a bitchier younger version of Blanche.

There's also Gil Gerard (Buck Rogers) in the role of a gay butch pilot who Rue's character jealously lusts over.

And best of all is Warhol regular, Candy Darling, giving the most serious, strange and nuanced role of her career. Candy is one of the other girls who goes to the bar, and her storyline involves two important twists as it progresses. She also gets many of the good lines in the film: "They all heard him say I was beautiful! Prettier than she is. But I can't dance with them all!" and "Has anyone found a contact lens?"

There's a huge cast of characters, from all walks of life - a priest, a ski instructor, a perfume counter queen, a hustler, assorted actors, a frightened newbie, business men. One odd fish, referred to only as Miss Untouchable, arrives in a cape and never speaks, but manages to inject a lot of humour into giving archly prissy looks at everyone.

Another is called Giggling Gertie due to the fact that he finds everything hilarious. When someone accidently spills a Bloody Mary in his lap, he shrieks "Thank heavens! I'm not pregnant after all!" There are plots and sub-plots and characters who just seem to be there to add colour. As gay life increasingly happens online now, where it's easier to check out someone's profile and reject them if they don't match what you're looking for, I wonder how long the gay bar as an equalising all-in-it melting-pot will last.

The film has a great soundtrack, with two title songs - one is a down-and-dirty funk number by Novella Nelson called "The Bar", the other a plaintive lament called "Where do you go?" which plays at the start as the key characters are set up.

A few of the scenes seem to mingle shots of real-life patrons with the cast, and as a piece of history documenting New York's early '70s gay scene, the film is priceless. As with the orignal Stonewall Inn, the bar is owned by a small-time Mafiosa who regularly gives envelopes of cash to a corrupt cop so it won't get raided. A sign on the wall (mostly ignored) says that boys can dance in a straight line but not facing each other. At one point someone's mother turns up and publicy disowns him for being gay. Times have changed, though the types haven't.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

My Best Friends Wedding Proposal

A few years ago I was invited to give a talk at another university and the lady who invited me offered to put me up for the night. That night, as I settled down on her sofabed, I looked through her DVD tower by the tv. All of her DVDs seemed to heavily feature the colour pink, with pictures of male-female couples, often in contrived silly poses and I realised her terrible secret - she was a romcom addict.

I shouldn't feel superior about anyone's film choices. I've pretty much lost count of the number of times I've shown one of my favourite films to someone at the start of a friendship, which has ensured they never invite me round again. Just coming out of the closet ? The self-hating gay men of Boys in The Band will send you right back in again! Fancy a fun lesbian romance? How about the kidnapping and religious rancour of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit? Are you recently pregnant? Well I'm sure you'll enjoy the abortion jokes in drag queen epic Girls Will Be Girls. Do you hate horror films? Well don't worry, retro-cult movie The House of the Devil isn't that scary at all. I'm sure you'll like it and not go upstairs halfway through, never to return.

It's only when I watch such films through the eyes of my friends that I realise that awful scenes of people being horrible to each other are not necessarily "read" as camp and hilarious but can be quite upsetting.

And actually, I'm not that picky when it comes to films. Despite a natural liking for some of the films I've listed above, as well as lowbrow nasties like Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, I'm also happy to watch something in Italian with subtitles, a rousing war film, a spaghetti western, a Disney film, a Bond film or even a romcom.

Although with romcoms they have to be enjoyed on two levels - first, as the creators would have you watch them - getting swept along by the story, caring for the characters and shedding a few tears when they finally get together. But also on a much more cynical, detatched, look how they are manipulating me level. All romcoms follow a formula - which can be reduced to: a heterosexual couple encounter various obstacles to love, then get over it and live happily ever afer.

My favourite romcom is 27 Dresses. As Stefon from SNL would say "It has everything!" I think it might be the most perfect romcom ever. You can tick off the bits of the formula.

  • A heroine who lives in New York and has a glamorous job (Katherine Heigl is Jane, a wedding planner.

  • A gorgeous leading man who despite his obviously contrived flaws that any normal person would be prepared to overlook, it will take the heroine the WHOLE FILM to realise she loves him. In this case it is James Marsden who is a bit grumpy and writes a slightly mocking article about the heroine. My personal favourite is Ryan Reynolds (Definitely Maybe, The Proposal).

  • A Distractor Male. This is usually a less famous actor who the heroine will think she is in love with but actually isn't. In 27 Dresses it's Edward Burns (who?)

  • A sassy "supportive/supporting role" best friend who hangs around on the sidelines and doesn't really have much to do except act as a cheerleader, make witticisms and be quirky. Margaret Cho sums up this character well in one of her routines "Hey, I can't get a man, but I got a lot of good advice!" The character has been around forever - Eve Arden made the wise-cracks to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, while Corale Browne did it for Rosalind Russell in Aunt Mame. In 27 Dresses, it's Casey, played by Judy Greer. In one scene, on seeing Jane, she tells her "Ooh, you clean up good. *I* might even be into you." But towards the end of the film, when Jane has humiliated her OWN SISTER by revealing her to be a meat-eating, dog-hating slut at her wedding rehearsal in front of the groom (and now "the wedding's off"), Casey tells Jane "You could have told him face-to-face. I mean, I know my moral compass doesn't exactly point due north, but... if I say something's wrong, something's wrong... What you did was unleash twenty years of repressed feelings in one night. It was entertaining, don't get me wrong, but if it was the right thing to do, you'd feel better right now. Do you feel better right now?" Oh the wisdom of the sassy best friend.

  • A love rival. Jane has her trashy sister Tess (Malin Akerman) who may as well be the devil in this film. Her most serious crime? She pretends to be a vegetarian to get Edward Burns into bed. Seriously - who hasn't told a few lies in the name of love? If we didn't hide all of the negative aspects of our personality at the start of a relationship, the human race would have died out long ago.

  • A musical number. At some point, the main characters will give a pitch-perfect rendition of a slightly naff pop song. In My Best Friend's Wedding the whole cast suddenly started in on "Say a Little Prayer" with no warning at all. Here, they sing Benny and the Jets by Elton John.

  • Declarations of love in public. Because these films are American, where everyone shouts and there is no concept of "private", nothing really counts or means anything unless it has been witnessed by a group of complete strangers and all of your friends. Therefore, romcoms frequently feature large parties where someone will grab a microphone, climb onto a stage and spontaneously announce that they loved Mary-Sue all along. Then everyone will go "ahh", smile and applaud, and the couple will have a passionate kiss, smug in the fact that they are the centre of attention, now and always. My favourite take on the public declaration of love is in "Failure To Launch" when, somehow, the crucial love scene plays out while the main characters are being watched on webcam by an entire COFFEE SHOP of hip Americans.

    There can be variations on a theme - poor old Julia Roberts ends up all alone (apart from her sassy (gay) best friend Rupert Everett in My Best Friends Wedding (there's two variations for you!) And I always like it when the romcom does "foreign" which means that the American characters wind up in London (as happens to Debra Messing when she hires a handsome male escort in The Wedding Date). It's a London that I have no experience of - everyone live in huge houses, goes to even huger country houses for the weekend, the males are all sporty and ruddy (sometimes they play rugby and wear rugby shirts constantly), it never rains and there are no poor people or black people anywhere. But really, Jane Austen wrote the original romcom - and give or take something disastorous happening with a pair of big pants, the winning formula hasn't changed since then.

  • Saturday, August 13, 2011

    Is your life so interesting you should write a novel?

    Thanks to the accessibility of the internet, I recently read a novel that I enjoyed, found the writer's website, emailed him to tell him how much I'd liked it, and a couple of weeks later spent a nice afternoon in a Cafe Nero in London chatting to him about all sorts of things. I'm guessing that not all writers are as friendly towards random people. The guy already vaguely knew of me, due to the fact that the historical setting of his book was something I've written about in the past also, though, being a stuffy academic, my books are always non-fiction. Writing in academic style is something which you partly pick up as you go along, being improved if you do a PhD and have a good supervisor. The first time I submitted an academic paper, back in 1995, the reviewer, who was a very prickly old man, said something like "The content is fine but it needs to be edited by someone who can write English." He had a reputation for being a bit of a bitch, but I'm sure that if I was to read some of my earlier stuff, I'd cringe at it.

    One of the questions that my novelist friend asked me was "Have you ever considered writing a novel yourself?" I lied and said I hadn't.

    During 1990 and 1991 I wrote a novel, using my mother's type-writer. I don't remember very much about it, except that it was set in Blackpool and involved a group of teenage friends who felt superior to everyone else around them. It descended into violence and tragedy at the end. I had only ever been to Blackpool twice and had no experience of violence, so having finished it, I had the vague feeling that it was awful, and I put all the pages in a green folder, relegated it to a box in the attic and have never looked at it since.

    On and off, I've attempted to write novels or short stories since then, with varying degrees of failure. My most fruitful attempt, still ongoing, is 40,000 words - and is set in the early 1990s, loosely based on a summer I spent in London when I worked for a down-market gay magazine.

    If I had a penny for the number of times I'd heard someone say "My life is so interesting, I should write a book about it," I'd have about 37p. I freely admit that my life is not interesting at all (and is getting less interesting the older I get), and that one summer was the peak of excitement in the life of a person who has never taken any risks, normally tried to do the right thing, and at the age of 20, opted for quiet domesticity in a small, respectable town in northern England.

    The story is narrated by the rather mean-spirited best friend of the main character. He is not an "unreliable author" (which recently seems to have been a fashionable device) but he is a spiteful author and is often critical of the main character. Unlike earlier attempts, it is based on events and people who I have experience of, and that probably makes it more authentic. It is also fun writing about that period before the internet and mobile phones. However, I am unlikely to try to get it published because I don't have a very good writing style for fiction. When I read it back it sounds like it's written by Enid Blyton. I read a lot of Enid Blyton between the ages of 6 and 13, and her moralising, simplistic style has become indelibly imprinted upon me. Even when I am writing a sex scene, it comes across as Enid Blyton. This was also a problem when I worked on the gay magazine and was asked to write erotic stories. All of the characters in them spoke like they were in The Famous Five. Worse still, I am hopeless at providing descriptions. My novel is all about plot, character development and things happening. I rarely bother to take the time to describe what a room looks like, or put in stuff about what someone is thinking as they're walking down the street. When I write dialogue, it ends up looking more like a play. The characters seem to stop what they're doing and only use their mouths. Proper novellists manage to let us know what characters are doing as they're speaking, and the really good ones are clever in that their actions or objects that they're holding are somehow symbolic of their emotions at that time. It's all too clever for me.

    Even if I was able to resolve the problems with my writing, I don't think I'd be able to publish it anyway - the subject matter is so personal that I would never be able to show up at work every again.

    Tuesday, August 09, 2011

    London's burning

    Watching London burn while rioters break windows in shops and loot sports clothes, blingy watches and widescreen tvs, you can't help feeling that you're watching some sort of dystopic film about civil breakdown. Unfortunately, this is one bad movie we can't switch off.

    What the riots seem to be teaching me, is who, among my Facebook friends, is right-wing and who is left-wing. Some of my friends are calling for the rioters to be neutered so they can't have any more children. Some are wanting the army to be brought back from Afghanistan to deal with the rioters in the most violent way possible. Some are writing about "lazy benefit grabbing sloth". Others are blaming poverty, inequality, institutional racism, the police, the cuts. Some people are blaming the Lib-Dems, or Mrs Thatcher, saying it all started in the 1980s. Others are blaming the Labour Party, either for being too free and easy with giving out benefits to "scroungers", or for furthering the inequality program which Mrs Thatcher started. Some people are blaming all the political parties (that's about as left-wing as you can get).

    Attempts to explain the riots and looting largely fall into two camps - there's the view that the looters are mindless scum - a kind of essentalist argument. It's their own fault, they are bad, evil even. There is no point in reasoning with them, they must simply be locked up or met with even greater violence. The opposite argument, often heavily prefaced with the view that violence is never justified or a successful strategy, then goes on to look at the wider social context, pointing out the widening inequality gap between rich and poor, especially in large cities. For example, the website gives the following facts about UK inequality from 2009.

    •The gini coefficient measure of overall income inequality in the United Kingdom is now higher than at any previous time in the last thirty years. 1
    •Inner London has by far the highest proportion of people on a low income (29% in the poorest fifth) but also a high proportion of people on a high income (28% in the richest fifth).

    This argument points out that if you see rich people all around you, yet you know you will never be able to get a job and better yourself, then what do you have to lose.

    I guess I'm more inclined to fall into the latter camp. I'm from a working-class background - one of the poorest areas in the UK. All through the 1980s, I felt I was missing out somehow, especially when I watched tv and saw southerners in nice big houses, but because everyone around me was also poor, it was a very intangible abstract sense of inequality. I also had it drummed into me that education was the answer to success - my aspirational mother paid for piano lessons, a set of encyclopaedias and lots of books. Duly enough, I was shown a track to a better life, pass lots of exams, don't get involved in crime, and you'll be OK. And it worked.

    But I was one of the very few kids on my council estate who took that path. Two doors away, from the house where I spent the first 18 years of my life, a young girl died of a drug overdose recently. In my street, disputes were "resolved" by a brick through a neighbour's window in the early hours of the morning. There were plenty of problem families, break-ins and drugs. It is one of the few areas where it is easy to afford a house, because nobody rich wants to live there. Had I not been the sort of kid who likes reading, and had a mother who encouraged it, I wonder whether I would ever have left that world.

    And when I see people looting on the tv, I wonder if, I had had their upbringing and life experiences - that sense of failure, that nothing you do will ever change anything, whether I would join in. And I think I probably would. Because I don't think most people are born especially good or bad, but they can be made good or bad by the things that happen to them.

    What's ironic is that the rioters and looters are attacking their own patch. They are helping to make their own areas worse than they already are. Shop-keepers and the upwardly mobile will move out, house prices will go down, the price of insurance will go up. If the rioters were educated, if they had a proper understanding of the wider picture, of some of the reasons behind their own social inequality, they wouldn't be attacking Tottenham, they'd be going over to Belgravia, Chelsea and Hampstead and setting fire to a Waitrose. But if they were educated they wouldn't be rioting in the first place, because they'd have been able to take the traditional route to success.

    And as for the view that violence is never justified or never solves anything - I suspect that politicians are so eager to tell us this precisely because it is untrue. Violence was clearly justified and was the only effective solution during World War II. Riots have been occurring all over the Middle East, and have been effective in changing Egypt's political structure. And it is also ironic that government ministers tell us that violence isn't the answer while they conduct a war in Afghanistan. The votes for women's movement began with acts of violence - and perhaps it was not the violence itself which acheived women's suffrage, it certainly got them noticed. The violence of the Stonewall riots was a trigger which coalesced into the American gay rights movement. The horrible truth is that violence sometimes is the answer.

    Is the violence justified or effective this time? I don't know. The rioters' goal seems to be simply to get stuff. Which seems to be exactly the message which everyone in Britain has been told for the past 30 years.

    And rather than this being an opportunity to make Britain a better place, I suspect we will all just lurch even further to the right. Bring out the hoses!

    Monday, August 01, 2011

    Goodbye Habitat

    Passing through Bristol last week, I stopped into the Habitat at the top of Park Street. When I lived in Bristol, I loved Park Street - there is a lovely quality of light there just before dusk, when all the buildings look especially Italiante and sepia-toned. Sometimes, after going to the posh gym, I would hang out at the Starbucks in Borders Books, then browse the DVDs and books. Borders closed last year and is now opening as a Wilcos. I guess it's better that it opens as something, but there's no fun in browsing a Wilcos. I should know - I used to work nights stacking shelves in the Preston branch, back in 1992. And apart from being the fastest (price)-gun in the (north)west, it was the most dreary job I've ever held. You could never really shift the smell of the place off you, and during Christmas, I must have heard Johnny Mathis's When A Child Is Born hundreds of times. Which tested even my love of irony and kitsch to its breaking point.

    To make Park Street even sadder, the Habitat right at top of the street has "closing down sale" signs over everything. All over the country, the Habitats are closing down. Where will the 20 and 30 somethings from social class AB shop now?

    I've been shopping in Habitat for the last twenty years. I bought my first lot of proper plates and stuff (the Nil range which still seems to be going strong). I've had a Habitat bed (blue metallic thing which looked like a hospital bed), Habitat garden furniture (not very good quality), Habitat modular sofa (still in my office), Habitat rugs (not good quality), Habitat pictures (Chinese poster for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also in my office at work), Habitat dining room table and chairs (twice). I think Habitat's success is probably down to me buying all my stuff there, and it's because I switched to John Lewis in 2008 that it's closing down.

    With the news showing massive job losses every night, while the cost of living goes up and up, I can only feel hugely lucky that my own experience of the recession is to do with losing some of my favourite shops. And I wish that was the experience of everyone else.

    Tuesday, July 19, 2011

    Set dial to desired level of unease

    The Rejuvenique Electric Facial Mask is a ridiculous 1990s beauty treatment which involves putting a scary, serial killer mask over your face and then receiving little electric "impulses" (shocks) from various points over the mask. Even the use of the fluffiest woman in the world - Linda Evans (Krystal Carrington from Dynasty) in the promotional advert doesn't hide the fact that this is an INSTRUMENT OF TORTURE. I'm guessing that she has been kidnapped and forced into saying those lines - the pink scarf round her neck is obscuring the collar-bomb which will explode if she screams "HELP ME!"

    Is it even possible to parody such a thing? Fortunately, yes - meet the RapeFear FantasMask. After you've applied the Fet-i-Gel to required "gelmancy levels", wearing the mask takes you into a disturbing alternative reality. And don't forget to turn the dial down to "real" when finished.

    The sinister Exorcist music and bizarre text ("They should have listened") are a perfect accompaniment to something which never should have been created in the first place.

    Monday, July 18, 2011

    The Ten Worst Things that My Cat has Done

    Larry, my cat is 15 and shows no sign of letting up. He is the Boss of the household.

    1. Made me cancel a Christmas holiday to Brighton in 2005 by yowling mournfully in the back of the car when I was taking him to the cattery for a week. "I can't leave him!" I cried. "Oh, just drive us all home" snapped my fella in a resigned tone.

    2. Went out, caught a mouse, brought it in the house, chewed off its head and then plopped the remains in front of us when we were had a particularly delicate friend round for dinner for the first time.

    3. Waited until we'd had our shiny expensive ensuite bathroom put in, then, while we were out buying new towels, crept into the bathroom, climbed into the bath and christened it by scratching the surface. Irrevocably. Before anyone had had a chance to use it.

    4. Contrived a kidney disease two years ago, then sitting on my lap and pissing all over me and the John Lewis chair I'd bought the year before. Do you know how long it takes for the smell of diseased cat wee to disippate from furniture? The answer is never. Not really.

    5. Reacted well to the kidney disease medication, costing me an extra £50 a month to keep him alive.

    6. Vomitted on a cream carpet. Many many times. You can never really shift the stain.

    7. Watched as I'm eating a meal, then reached his head through my arm and brazenly attempted to take my food from my plate.

    8. Pretended to neighbours that he is not fed, and wailed pitifully outside their house so that they fed him - giving us the reputation of neglectful pet owners and candidates for a BBC exposé documentaries.

    9. Climbed on a sideboard and swished his enormous life-of-its-own tail, knocking off an antique clock and smashing it into bits. Repeat with several other ornaments at regular intervals.

    10. Ruined every piece of knitwear I have ever owned by slinking up to me affectionately, climbing on my lap, then catching multiple claws in my clothes and not letting go.

    It is probably just as well I don't have children.
    Will the phone hacking scandal make Britain any better?

    Inbetween researching my family tree, I've been watching the news turn on itself over the last couple of weeks, with a mouting sense of liberal glee and schaudenfraude as the Murdoch empire collapses like a soggy souffle.

    It's surprising to see how quickly the Murdoch house of cards has come tumbling down, but also kind of depressing that politicians have had to wait until a clearly awful scandal in order to start fighting back. Nobody could have seen that the abduction of a teenage girl would have had such far-reaching repercussions. Yet nobody who followed news and politics is surprised at the relevations about the amount of political influence that Murdoch and his friends have wielded since the 1980s - because it's been common knowledge. It is pathetic to see how successive governments have toadied around this descipable man, frightened of what would happen if they upset him. Particularly sad is how Gordon Brown had to swallow his feelings when The Sun published information about his son's cystic fibrosis, and then suck up to Rebekah Brooks afterwards. That is the real tragedy of this story - that us Brits have not lived in a properly functioning democracy for over 30 years. Instead, we've lived under a media kingmaker who has controlled politicians through fear. It is not surprising that Murdoch's newspapers have almost always supported the winner of every election since 1979.

    I hope that the scandal ushers in a new era of media honesty, and that newspaper editors decide to stick to reporting the news, rather than manipulating readers. But I doubt it. Just as the bankers scandal appeared to change everything for a few weeks, before long it was business and bonuses as usual. Even if the Murdoch Empire is finally vanquished from British shores, there'll be plenty of slimy characters ready to fill his shoes, and politicians will continue to want to be represented in the best possible light in the media.

    I have no sympathy for Rebekah Brooks - an intelligent, ambitious woman who panders to the lowest common denominator, whipping up moral panics over paeophiles as well as being homophobic. Yesterday, when she "presented herself" to be arrested, the news showed the few clips they have of her on a loop, which had the effect of making her look as if she was walking around London in a big circle, forever.

    However, this is my favourite clip of the scandal so far - "dodgy geezer" Andy Hayman, who was in charge of the initial inquiry into the News of the World's phone hacking, and then went to work for News International as a columnist. Here he responds in an dramtic, bordering on camp, fashion to allegations that he received payment.

    He's like a character in a 1970s sitcom. It would be called "Dodgy Geezer". He would drive a white van, work in a scrapyard, have an Irish sidekick called Chalkie, be married to a shrewish, constantly suspiscious Yootha Joyce and have Anita Dobson as his mistress. He'd pacify both women by giving them boxes of Black Magic of course and each episode would end with him being pursued up and down hills, Benny Hill-style by the whole town. But by the next episode, the "reset" button would be pressed. There'd be no character development, no change in anyone's situation. Just a laugh-track fading into a theme tune by Chas N Dave.

    And here's my second favourite clip, whistle-blower Chris Bryant, asking for an apology from vile Kay Burley of Sky News. Every gay man needs a High Camp villain with whom to trade catty insults, and the interactions between Chris and Kay are deliciously E.F. Benson.

    He'll get his apology from Kay when there are No More Dalmation Puppies left in Hell for her to turn into fur coats, but I'm glad he brought it up.

    Chris is no stranger to media bullying, having had a picture of himself in only his underpants, which he naively posted on the hookup site gaydar, plastered all over the trashier media. But just like the Stephen Sondheim song: "good times, bad times, I've seen em' all, and I'm still here", he rode it out and is having the last laugh. I've seen the picture, and all I can say is, he has nothing to be ashamed of. Except his taste in underpants.

    Sunday, July 03, 2011

    Internet solves sixty year old mystery in three seconds

    I grew up with three grandparents not four. The missing one was my Dad's father, who disappeared into Darkest Wales in 1949, abandoning his wife and two children (it was one of those probably rash marriages that happened at the end of WWII). My Dad, now 64, has no memories of him, and no interest in finding out what happened. The only remnant of him is his surname (Baker), which is also my surname and two of three wedding photographs which only surfaced when my grandmother died.

    The two people sitting down are presumably my great-grandparents. The tallest man is my grandfather. Facially, my father looked very similar to him at the same age. I don't resemble him facially, but I do have the tall thin body. I probably look more similar in terms of face and hair to the chap on the left, who was a brother.

    Every so often he comes up in conversation, and so yesterday, my fella typed in his name and the word Wales into Google. And there he was. Ten years ago he choked to death on his food in a nursing home, aged 80. He never left the small mining village he grew up in, although he seems to have married again in 1964. There's a tiny chance it's not him, but he has a fairly rare name, and the middle name matches up also.

    Having found out, I felt a bit stunned. I wonder if he had any other children (do I have a half-uncle or aunt?) We had assumed he wouldn't have lived long, so it's surprising to find out he was the last of my grandparents to have died. I was also surprised at how easy it was to find the information, and how it had been there for years, if only someone had thought to look for it.

    And then I had a dilemma. Who do I tell? It has always been a bit of a sore point with my father, so should I tell him? Or should I tell my sister and my aunt. In the end I decided to volunteer that I had information and would tell more if asked, or else not mention it again. So we had the strangest conversation. I told my own father that his father is dead. And he reacted as if I'd announced that it was raining outside.

    I spent the rest of the evening trying to find out more information about that side of the family. Oddly enough, it turns out that the actor Stanley Baker (from Zulu) grew up in the next village along, about a mile away. I wonder if he's a distant relation.

    Any resemblance?

    Tuesday, June 21, 2011

    The most dangerous woman in America

    I find cooking shows boring generally, although I'm sure there is a sociology thesis out there on how different cooking shows reflect trends in societies. British chefs have a tendency towards autocracy, right from snobby fish-face Fanny Craddock, admonishing housewives to keep up with their neighbours, and pulling contorted sneery faces at poor working-class women, to Gordon Ramsay (Fanny in male drag) - the dictionary definition of a foul-mouthed, dead-eyed work-place bully. Even nice Jamie Oliver gets all didactic and tells us what we can and can't eat although it's for our own good.

    Still, I'd take well-meaning Jamie over some of the American tv chefs any day. Take Paula Deen for example - with her Georgia folksy "hi y'all" demeanor, huge white hair-helmet and filthy laugh, Deen is a living Hanna Barbera cartoon right out of the Perils of Penelope Pitstop. She believes that "exercise kills" and seems intent on getting her audience to eat food that is going to significantly shorten their life-spans. Liquid butter features heavily in most of her receipes. Here's a typical one, for deep-fried cheesecake. Yes, cheesecake.

    Stick with it to the end. Having fried her cheesecake, Deen decides it's "not sweet enough", then covers it in powdered sugar. But that's only the start. She then covers it in chocolate glaze AND strawberry glaze. Then more powdered sugar. Then a huge dollop of fresh cream. The woman's arteries could be used to hold up sky-scrapers.

    Deen has what's kindly described as a "bubbly personality". The more unhealthy her recipes are, the more she gurgles and giggles and takes impish glee in them. It's easier to see why she's popular. She appeals to two distinct audiences - people with bad diets who feel validated by her, and those who find her appalling yet camp. This has resulted in many bizarre edits and commentaries of her show.

    This one refers to her "Diarrehea apple pie" for example:

    Whereas this one (my favorite) has slowed down the video and put on a creepy soundtrack, which helps to bring out the druggy, scary and sexual nuances in the show. The food makes disgusting slopping noises as it's slapped down on the counter, whereas Paula sounds like an animal when she eats it. Look out for the image of a ghoul at one point.

    And Deen is one of those people who seems to attract attention wherever she goes. She made headlines when delivering hams in a charity event, and got one thrown in her face (prompting a "pigs might fly" headline which wrote itself).

    In this clip, her trousers randomly fall down, revealing her not-very-attractive bottom, during a public event.

    And if you want an even more surreal experience, check out the website Paula Deen riding things.

    Deen is a horrific example of a society which places too much emphasis on "rights" while completely ignoring responsibilites. Ignore her at your peril. Yet she is also the gift who keeps on giving. Aren't you a little bit interested in trying out one of her buttery, disgusting, sugary concoctions? Just to see?