Friday, December 30, 2011

Uncruised

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

Not on CHRISTMAS!



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

Mutant

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.