Thursday, December 27, 2012

Happy Anniversary

I started this blog 10 years ago, when I was 30, and it has functioned nicely as an aide memoir of my 30s, as well as being representative of a very 2000s form of literacy - in just 10 years, the landscape of the internet has changed so much - how many people start or even keep blogs these days? They're more likely to facebook or tweet something - in fact, even I started a twitter account last week mostly for work purposes.

When I started this blog, I had only been a lecturer for a few months, and was the youngest and newest person in my department - noted for being able to make webpages and put lectures ON THE INTERNET and considered dangerously newfangled by some of the crustier members of staff who wore bow ties and had beards. Now of course, just ten years later, the latest influx of new 20-something lecturers to my department all have very active twitter accounts. And one of them treated us to a demonstration of how we could be using twitter in our lectures - while we're lecturing, we could have a twitter feed projected onto a screen behind us, so the students can tweet their comments and questions (and criticisms of our clothing choices). Naturally, it was met with howls of scorn from the more established members of staff, and I stayed quiet, because I knew that at some point in the future, this happens to everyone, and tweeting will be replaced by mind-transference or 4D-connection or something so it won't last either. Everybody gets their turn at being obselete.

Initially I disapproved of blogging too, finding the word itself unattractive as well as the idea of publicising your private thoughts and opinions. But 10 years of blogging has been instrumental in helping me to sharpen my internal censor and write for an audience, even one that has been ever-dwindling. I compare this blog to the personal diary I kept between the ages of 15 and 25, and am horrified to find so much angst and wailing in those hand-scribbed pages. I don't recall that period as especially unhappy (although young adults can be somewhat over-dramatic and less experienced at coping with grown-up things), and I think that there is a tendency for personal writing to focus on a litany of complaints and woes if you don't think anyone else will read it. So many diaries of famous people emerge after their deaths and people are always so shocked at how tortured and miserable they were - I'm not so sure. I just think personal diaries bring that side out of you, while blogs are more likely to make you jolly because you want to be entertaining rather than depress people.

Or maybe it's just that I've had a remarkably good 10 years since I started this blog. I've had 10 books published, become a professor, passed my Grade 4 piano, moved house four times, spent two years in Bristol, had great holidays to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, America, Italy, Iceland and France, gained two nieces, four nephews and a great-niece. I've kept hold of my fella, and my hair, didn't get any speeding tickets and apart from occasional sinus problems and a bad back, have stayed healthy. I think I am more patient, confident and sensible than I was 10 years ago, although probably also less spontaneous and sociable.

When I read back some of the earliest blog entries here - a commentary on Blind Date's new format, The Cheeky Girls and the breakdown of a relationship between Les Dennis and Amanda Holden - all I can think is - who is this person and why did they spend so much time paying attention to such rubbish!

And no doubt, if I manage to keep this blog going for another 10 years, I suspect I'll probably be thinking much the same thing.



Wednesday, December 05, 2012


Back in June I took my Grade 3 piano exam, after a hiatus of 26 years. The trouble with these graded exams is that when you pass one you start wondering what the next one will be like, so ignoring the voice in my head that warned of weeks of stress ahead, off I went to register for Grade 4, which happened today.

In some ways it was less scary as the routine was the same as last time so I knew where to go and what would happen. I know for example that the piano you do the exam on will be one of those big grand piano types and even sneezing on one of the keys will make an enormous booming sound, nothing like my little electric upright which has a volume control and requires keys to be pressed most distinctly before it will make any sort of sound at all. Unfortunately, grade 4 requires the pedal to be played - something I have never bothered with as it tends to make a terrible din. One of my three pieces (B1 Alone at Sunset) is constant pedal pedal pedal - if it was a car journey all the speed limits would be broken and you'd have a lifetime driving ban. Not only that, but every other second you have to play quiet, then loud, then quiet, then fast, then slow, then slow and quiet, then fast and loud. It's like an ultra-quick round of Simon Says and I always end up confused and whimpering quietly to myself by the end.

(This is not me playing)

I managed to get through my scales at the start OK, although started playing the right hand when asked to use the left, and I think I may have made a couple of minor errors at the end, but it is a complete blur. I can only recall that the kindly examiner did not ask me to play any of the dreaded F Minor scales which require your hands and brain to enter alternative dimensions. Instead I was given G minor, which I had spent literally minutes rehearsing over and over the night before to get it perfect.

I played my three pieces - not great but OK, and managed the sight reading bit OK as well. Then was the most awful bit - the aural test where you have to stand behind the piano and sing notes back and answer questions about whether a piece is in 2/4 or 3/4 time. I am just about able to get a mid-way score on Singstar on medium level, as long as I have a Tina Turner or whoever singing along with me to keep me in check, but I was somewhat thrown when handed a sheet of music and told to sing it, with no accompaniment. I kind of made a few nasal grunts, which even surprised the examiner at their ineptitude, and we moved quickly on.

I should find out the results in a few weeks - my fella took Grade 2 at the same time, so bizarrely, he has managed to get to the same level I was at 6 months ago - even though I have a 26 year head start on him. As for Alone at Sunset - it can stay alone. After four months of daily wrestling, that piece of music is due to be retired.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Five Shades of Paint

Very occasionally I write something that other people take an interest in, and so me and my fella were invited to the House of Commons this week to present some of our work at an event. I have never been in that building before so it was quite exciting (as I am a 40 year old middle-class British man, that's the equivalent of saying I was "totally stoked") and I felt very much like a pensioner who had won a prize in a magazine by naming five new shades of paint. I had a cup of tea in the House of Commons Cafe, and was a bit disappointed that there were white plastic spoons and no milk jugs, just those little UHT capsules - although as someone pointed out to me, if they'd had milk from a cow and gold spoons, there would be a taxpayer outrage.

We had printed out our invitation which had been sent via an email, and brought passports for ID purposes, although we weren't asked to show anything. In fact, once we'd got through the airport-like security machines ("take off your belt sir"), we were waved through by friendly security people who didn't ask any questions. I guess once they'd established you don't have weapons, there isn't anything very controversial you can do anyway - apart from employ the very British tactic of looking as if you disapprove or moaning quietly.

I used to suffer from public speaking anxiety, which over my ten years of lecturing has abated a lot (meaning that I only get just as nervous as everyone else now), but this wasn't the usual crowd of students - there was a cross-party set of politicians - some of whom even I'd heard of before - including Jack Straw and Simon Hughes. They were due to speak before us, and I was glad that we'd arranged beforehand that my job would just be to work the powerpoint slides and answer any questions that my fella couldn't answer (thankfully he could, so I didn't have to say anything in the end). My fella is somewhat excessively charismatic and forceful - if there is ever a war, he would be an ideal person to front a conscription campaign like Lord Kitchener, although he'd also work equally well as a Commander General, code-breaker or international spy. He is wasted in academia where only 15% of his skills ever get used.

Jack Straw sat right next to me, and ate a sandwich, before getting up to give his talk. It's always slightly weird when you are next to someone off the tv. Then I discovered something about these events - the way they work is, the politicians get to speak first and say a few inspiring and encouraging words about how great everything is. Then, during the applause, they slip out through a back door. So in the end, none of the politicians stayed around to hear about our research findings, which seems a bit of a shame.

Still, the event seems to have been a success, and after it was done I went to the House of Commons shop and bought two teatowels, two bars of chocolate and a jar of jam (which I am imagining was made personally by Nadine Dorries).

Oh, and I had a photo taken to commemorate the occasion. My five shades of paint were shroud, infection, varicose, toenail and mocca.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Not My Homeland

This makes me choke back tears, and I sometimes resent that

I spent most of last night reading about the American civil war, finding out about terms like Jim Crown, Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Southern Strategy. I've been doing some historical reseach because my publisher is encouraging me to write a book about America, and while I'm looking forward to the project, I sometimes resent the hugely disproportionate influence that America has over my life and the lives of people who live in the UK and rest of the world in general. From an early age, along with Bod, Playschool and Andy Pandy, I was exposed to American accents and values with the likes of Scooby Doo and The Red Hand Gang. The first film I ever saw was The Wizard of Oz, and when a penpal craze swept my school when I was 12, everyone put "America" down as their first choice for the location of their penpal.

The cultural cringe continued into adult-hood, when I took my first of many trips to the US aged 22 - and I worked out with shock that I've probably spent something like 1/24th of my life in the States since then, due to various holidays and conferences. And generally, once you're through the hideous queues and unsmiling staff at immigration, I have a nice time. The weather is usually better, the shopping is great, everything is familar but different, and there's a relaxed yet ordered atmosphere which I like. Constrast those big wide avenues with enormous sidewalks, enough room for everyone, all set out in a sensible grid system so it's difficult to get lost, with tiny, winding British pavements - I regularly get lost in British town centres, even with my Iphone map app.

Although I think there is tendency in the US to over-sugar and over-salt food which often dulls my tastebuds while I'm there, and I normally come back feeling more ugly and less socially articulate than before, due to the relentless use of attractive people in advertising and the general perky sass that people from a superpower have. Brits, on the other hand, had their 100 years or so at the top, and apart from some nice masonary in our cities that didn't get bombed, I sometimes feel we don't have that much to show for it. We certainly don't have that confidence.

So when another US election rolls around, it's difficult to avoid it, especially when the media hype it up as such a close contest with such huge consequences. When I realise that I somehow know an awful lot about demographic patterns in certain swing states that I've never been to, the cultural cringe feels ever evident. And the contrast with China, which also had a change of power this month - an even bigger country - and rising in power, makes you realise just how much America likes to put itself out there.

America does have a lot of good tv, and I realise that the shows I regularly watch are from the States - the Walking Dead, Mad Men, American Horror Story, Glee and various reality shows I'm too embarrassed to name. The show Homeland, now in its second season, is one I'm particularly enjoying at the moment, although it is perhaps the most American of them all - with a central theme being "how much do you love America?" Claire Danes, who plays the chief protaganist, FBI agent Carrie Mathison, struggles with manic-depression, is on tablets, blames herself entirely for the events of 9.11 ("I missed something that day") and will stop at nothing to catch ALL the terrorists, even if it means having sex with them. She's a proper maverick in the Sarah Palin sense of the word, and wins my award for the most American person ever.

For the last god-knows how many years, we've spent New Year in New York. This year, we're probably going to that most un-American place, Paris. We will visit Versailles and be ignored by surly French waiters and stand in dog poo by accident, and I will wish that I had kept up my French because not having a second language makes me feel unsophisticated. It's 8 years since I was last in Paris, although it is a few hours away on the train and only a few miles separate France from England. Yet compared to America, sometimes it feels like another planet.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A rant about the state of things today

I attended a school assembly with some relatives recently, as one of their children was receiving a certificate. The last time I was in a school assembly was at some point in the 1980s, where nobody received a certificate, and parents weren't allowed to attend. Instead, the terrifying Mrs Cheeseman would bang out hymns (containing lots of thees and thous) on her piano, daring us, just daring us not to sing enthusiastically enough. At least once a week she would bang her hands down on the keys in rage and then spend five minutes shouting at us that we must try harder. After more hymns, and prayers, if we were lucky, we'd get an inspirational story, usually The Good Samaritan. And if anyone had a birthday, they were allowed to come to the front and take a disgusting boiled sweet from a big plastic jar.

So I wondered how much school assemblies had changed since my childhood. The answer is - a lot.

The parents (and me) were all seated at the back of the school hall, and the children filed in. There was no 21st century Mrs Cheeseman playing the piano. There wasn't even a piano. Instead, music was piped through loud speakers via the internet, all manipulated by a 9 year old DJ. After the children had sat down, a song was sung. And no, it wasn't "Oh Jesus I Have Promised (To Serve Thee to the End)" or "Let There Be Peace on Earth (and Let it Begin With Me)". Instead it was this.

As I am aged 105, I have never heard this song before, and as the "inspirational" lyrics progressed, my jaw started to fall wider and wider open.

Standing in the hall of fame
And the world's gonna know your name
Cause you burn with the brightest flame
And the world's gonna know your name
And you'll be on the walls of the hall of fame

So rather than being brainwashed by singing gentle songs about being humble and kind and wanting peace on earth, instead, today's children are brainwashed into wanting to be FAMOUS and A CELEBRITY! It was one of those moments when one of society's missing jigsaw pieces fell into place and I realised, "Ah, that's why!"

That's why he's so rich.

There was only one mention of God in the song, and that was in the line "You could talk to God, go banging on his door", which was held up as another example as how wonderful YOU could be. Somehow, I don't think God would be too impressed if you went banging on his door - but welcome to the 21st century God, you'd better get used to it - cos today's kids are loud, proud and are gonna hang out with you as part of their celebrity, name-dropping posse. It's gonna be you, them and The Beckhams.

I'm not remotely religious and think that like most things, religion can be used as a tool by misguided or nasty people to oppress others, but after hearing all these children screaming about how they could be the best and the world's gonna know their name, I would have welcomed a couple of hymns about what a nice guy Jesus is, and how it might be a nice idea to try to be a bit like him.

Then the certicate giving started. And oh, what a lot of children received certificates, for things like "trying REALLY hard" and "always giving 100%". The teachers gushed over their pupils in a way which I found embarrassing and even mildly creepy. The parade of certificates went on and on, until it started to feel as if more children received certificates than didn't. It was difficult not to contrast this mutual appreciation society with Mrs Cheeseman, impossible to impress ("You're ALL HOPELESS!"), telling us we're not leaving the assembly hall until we get the song right.

And next, it got even more weird and creepy. It was the "talent show" portion of the assembly. Various children got up and performed dance routines to "The Hits of Today". One routine stood out in my mind, as three girls, aged around 9, gyrated to a piece of R+B nonsense, the girl in the middle wearing a crop top that exposed her midriff.

I'm glad I don't have any children, because I would be constantly at their school complaining. I guess imbibing children with self-esteem and a competitive nature isn't awful, but it all seemed so... American. The messages I grew up with - be modest, put others first, be decent - have been replaced by "crush the competition and get 'em to notice ya!"

I expect I am hopelessly out of touch. After I subjected her to a rant last week, one of my students said to me "GET OFF MY LAWN!", likening me to grumpy Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino.

I used to admire the image of Clint Eastwood as the silent avenger in those Spaghetti Westerns. Now, when I see him shouting at an empty chair, I just feel sad. But I guess that's the route I'm going down.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

In a sound-proof booth, no-one can hear you scream

As someone who writes things that very very occasionally get noticed by members of the media, I have a terrifying relationship with the radio and have appeared a handful of times over the past decade. I refuse to do anything live, despite the fact that my fella once participated in a friendly taped radio debate which was then edited to make it look as if the debators actually disagreed with each other. However, I'd rather take that risk than get tongue-tied, stumble over my words or come out with some sort of inappropriate colloquialism live, all of which I frequently do, even when I'm not speaking to a few million people at once.

So last month when I was asked by a radio station to write a 1,800 word essay on something to do with something I did some research on about 15 years ago, and then be recorded reading it out for them, I thought "what could go wrong?"

I wrote the piece and although it got returned with a few small edits, it seemed to be liked, so I rehearsed it a couple of times and then turned up at my university's little sound-proof booth yesterday afternoon. Far away, in a different studio, the poor radio presenter who had the job of coaching me through the "reading" was impeccably patient with me, although I have seen enough television drama to know that when someone working in the media says "That was great, can you just try it one more time and this time try...." you know you are awful and they will replace you with a voice-over of John Hurt the minute your back is turned.

You would think that reading something out would be the least difficult thing you get to do on the radio. You don't even have to answer unexpected questions! You can switch your brain off. But no. Oh no. No!

First, I had to ensure that the microphone was in the right place. Apparently, you aren't supposed to speak into it, but point it slightly off to the side of your face and downwards, as if you're pretending to ignore it. Once we got the positioning right, there was the slight matter of a little humming sound that we couldn't locate the source of. I turned off my mobile phone, then the lighting (which meant I couldn't see well enough to read the script). But neither of those were the source of the hum. Finally, the announcer gave up and decided to just accept the humming. She said it was OK, but I could tell I had failed her terribly.

Then I was asked to ensure that I had both feet on the ground (because apparently if you don't, then you are using your stomach muscles to balance yourself and your voice doesn't sound as good). It's nice to learn new things.

Then I started reading the first paragraph. I tend to speak very quickly when excited and/or not enjoying something (to get it over with) so I concentrated on speaking slowly. There was a slight feedback echo over my headphones and I could hear myself, sounding exactly like Boy George, so I tried to suppress all form of modulation into my voice, making me sound just like a very bored Boy George with a cold (due to the weird weather of this year, my hayfever seems to have lingered all the way to October this year, so I also had a blocked nose).

Despite making several mistakes, I got through the first paragraph, and then was then asked to try again ("but it was great") and this time to hold the page of writing up in front of me, rather than having it on the table (because that squashes your diaphragm). And to hold the page from the bottom rather than the side (I was told why this was important but can't remember).

So I got throught the first page (there were three pages), and thought I was doing quite well, but then I was stopped again. "You're doing great, but you've started to sound like you're reading from a sheet rather than talking to an audience." I guess I had overdone it with removing the modulation. So I gave it another go, emphasising words and speeding up and down a bit. It felt a bit like I was doing one of my current Grade 4 piano exam pieces caled "Alone at Sunset", where practically every single note requires you to push down the pedal, speed up, slow down, go very quiet or get louder. Practising this high-maintenance, frankly quite bonkers piece of music, often has me in confused tears by the end.

Anyway, I finished. But then I was asked to go back to the start and do the first few bits again, because now I sounded more relaxed (whereas I mustn't have at the start). However, speaking fatigue was setting in by now and I had morphed into an incoherent caveman who couldn't speak a single sentence without getting the words in the wrong order and inserting a few that weren't on the page. And to make it worse, the announcer had a few additional edits to make to the first few sentences, so I had to get out my pen and cross out words and put them in different places.

I pity the poor editing person who will have to listen to my hour long recording and then pick out the fluent sentences and then piece them together so I actually sound like a human being.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Who wants to be my literary agent?

About a year ago, in an earlier post, I reported that I was writing a novel. I finished it recently - clocking in at around 82,000 words. Despite my reservations about finding a writing style that didn't sound like Enid Blyton, after several edits, I'm pretty pleased with the outcome - the central storyline is about a Conservative MP who has an affair with his 20 year old male researcher during the John Major "Back to Basics" period and the ensuing tabloid scandal.

Once I'd finished it, I decided to see if I could get it published, and that's when I realised that writing a novel is the easy part. First, you have to find a literary agent - because most publishers won't even get up out of their leather chairs to put your manuscript in the bin unless they've been contacted first by your literary agent. I've scoured the websites of literary agents, all who appear to inhabit impossibly glamorous lives based around drinking white wine in the Zone 1 area of London. But so far, none of the literary agents who I've written to has even written back to say "not interested in you". I thought if I started my pitch with "I'm a professor of English Language and have already published 11 books" then it might at least raise an interested eyebrow, but no - nothing. I wonder whether I need to make more outlandish claims to fame. Perhaps I should say I was once married to Lulu?

I suspect that a major stumbling block to getting a literary agent to "bite", is that the book I'm pitching has gay characters in it, and apparently that's a big no-no these days, when it's (even more) all about the money than it ever was. This article in The Guardian, which is 5 years old, explains that it's just not cool any more to write gay fiction. And indeed, when I go into a branch of Waterstones, most of them don't even seem to have a gay and lesbian fiction shelf any more, which in the late 1980s and 1990s was a source of fear then adventure then solace for me.

There is some great gay and lesbian fiction being published in the UK - The Night Watch by Sarah Walters was one of my favourite books that I've recently read, while after reading Man's World by Rupert Smith, I was inspired to email him and ended up having a nice afternoon in a coffee shop with him earlier last year. And while Jake Arnott doesn't write probably what's called "gay fiction", his book The Long Firm is about a gay gangster (based on the Kray Twins). Finally, there's the high-profile Alan Hollinghurst whose book The Line of Beauty, won the Man Booker prize. But maybe these are the exceptional cases. Maybe for every successful gay novel published, there are thousands of unsuccessful ones, languishing, forgotten on laptops.

My sister told me that she'd seen a tv programme or read something recently about characteristics of successful people. Apparently, the most typical characteristic is that they don't give up when they fail. I was quite surprised at that, because I would have picked talent or even good luck instead. So, I guess I need to keep sending out those emails.

But in the meantime, if you happen to be an agent or know an agent, then I'd be deliriously happy to hear from you.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Lubin vs Mechanical Bull

On holiday (again) in Brighton. I saw a mechanical bull at the end of Brighton Pier and thought I'd have a go of it. I've always wanted to try one, and thought - how hard can it be - you just hold on. The teenage boy before me had only managed 8 seconds. Clearly no backbone. So I climbed on.

But the rules stated that you were only allowed to hold on with one hand, and you couldn't hold the bull's horns. And the saddle you sat in was made of some sort of shiny, slippy plastic. And that made it a lot more difficult.

I tried three times and the most I managed was five seconds.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

I left my heart there

After my somewhat lukewarm post about San Francisco, it's interesting to reflect on how much I enjoyed my week there in retrospect. It's an incredibly special place, and it's weird how quickly I acclimatised to (and ignored) the nudes on the Castro. My favourite building on Castro Street is The Castro Theatre, built in 1922, with over 1,400 seats and a balcony, it now shows the sorts of films that you can't see anywhere else (as well as Magic Mike). I watched a great Humphrey Bogart double bill (The Treasure of Sierra Madre and Key Largo) and then the Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train. Both times, there was a good turnout and it's nice to know there are still fans of great old black and white movies. Later this month they are showing Showgirls, Night of the Iguana and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. I'm genuinely regretful I'll miss them all (especially as I would have cajoled my fella to dress up as Baby Jane). If I lived in San Francisco I would probably end up living in that cinema.

A couple of days before we left, we took a walk from Nob Hill to Haight Ashbury - a district that is noted for being the centre of the hippie movement in the 1960s. I'd noticed that various cultural stereotypes (the pimp, the leather clone) still seem to exist in real life on the streets of San Francisco, and Haight Ashbury did not disappoint with hippies. As we approached the ground zero (the intersection of Haight and Ashbury) the density of shops selling bongs and vintage clothing got higher - psychedelic music and incense wafted out of doorways and there were brightly coloured vans, like the Mystery Machine in Scooby Doo. There were little homemade tributes to Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin that had been put in cellophane and then wrapped around the plants on the sidewalk.

It all felt very exotic, until we arrived at the intersection itself, to find a great big Ben and Jerrys parked there.

I guess it's better than a McDonalds, and I know Ben and Jerrys have an icecream called "apple-y ever after" which celebrates gay marriage (which is still subversive to some people) but it felt so wrong.

During my visit I started reading Changing Places (1975) by David Lodge, which is about a British lecturer of English who swaps places with an American one living in San Francisco, a scheme which proves to be oddly invigorating for both men. I am the same age as both characters and in the same job, and I rather uncomfortably, recognised some of the traits of Philip Swallow, the more reserved British character, in myself. If any English Language academics living in San Francisco would like to swap their lives with me, do let me know.

Monday, August 06, 2012

A few hills

The 50 hour train journey went surprisingly smoothly and we arrived about half an hour early. I'd done the same journey 19 years ago, and sat in a regular train carriage. All I remember about that journey was the wish that it would end, which grew increasingly desperate as the hours dragged on. There had been a woman in the seat behind us who sounded like Roseanne Barr and kept up a constant twitter of conversation about nothing for the whole journey, while a group of three women at the back of the compartment kept themselves busy by eating endless bags of spiced sausage. On the last day, the conductor did a sweep of the compartment every couple of hours, spraying deodorant over all of us as the smell of us all was unbearable by that point. During meal-times we had to share a table with random strangers, who all seemed to be mid-west couples who collected dolls of the British royal family and wanted to know if we knew Diana.

So this time we booked a "roomette" for ourselves - ostensibly as large as two seats facing each other but closed off from everyone else, and with bunk-beds. It made a huge difference - and this is how we spent the 50 hours:

30% sleeping
30% looking out of the window
3% watching films
3% playing games
5% reading
5% eating in the dining compartment
24% making fun of the woman with the loud voice two roomettes down from us who we named "Pammy Jo" and used every opportunity to get off the train to smoke.

We had five meals in the dining compartment while we were on the train, and each time we were lucky to have reasonably interesting company - a very decent father and 17 year old son who had been visiting prospective colleges in the northeast, a very rich white doctor (educated in India) and his lovely chaplain wife who loudly complained that Republicans were racist, a friendly, chatty teenage girl in glasses from Iowa who talked about the 4H club and going to the prom with the Serbian exchange student (and later sought us out to give us strange American candy), a sad-looking psychotherapist with a fire ant tattoo on her arm who worked mainly with mentally ill Vietnam vets in San Francisco, an elderly couple from upstate New York ("Upstate New Yorkers NEVER go to Manhattan") who could hardly walk, and a couple with a swimming pool and were on almost permanent vacation as the wife told us she was "a two-time cancer survivor". They all offered a slice of (real) American life that I otherwise would never have seen. I was almost sad to get off the train, and nobody sprayed me with deodorant once.

We arrived in San Francisco yesterday evening. It's my third visit and the first one in around 15 years. My memories are a little faded, but this time there seem to be many more homeless people than I remember and the smell of cannabis is a lot more pervasive. While Chicago felt like a kind of modern utopia, very clean and well-ordered, San Francisco looks like a social experiment to get rid of rules and responsibilities which is danger of going wrong. It is full of hills that are exhausting to climb (we are staying on Nob Hill so have no choice but to walk up them or pay 6 dollars for the trolley), but the past day has made me confront a couple of mental "hills" that are more challenging - it's difficult and a little frightening to encounter (and feel compelled to walk past as quickly as possible) so many homeless people, drug addicts and crazy people who shout out things like "I'm going to report you all as terrorists!" Especially as this is such a rich country and San Franciso is such a beautiful city. It feels wrong. And when we went to The Castro, we encountered something else which made me question the limits of my tolerance.

The Castro seems to have become more gentrified in the last decade, with nice little shops and restaurants (although a smattering of sex shops remain). There are more gyms and adverts using very muscular young men than I remember (the wonderful commericialisation of gay life - every time I visit America I always end up feeling insecure about how I look). A lot of shops seemed to have received their names via the Department of Innuendo - such as The Sausage Factory (an Italian restaurant), Puff and Stuff (smoking paraphernalia), Squat and Gobble (another restaurant). I saw a bona fide Castro Clone - complete with moustache, leather cap and thigh length black boots. Earlier that day I'd also seem a 1970s pimp, resplendent in a white suit, floppy cap and ornate cane. It was only 11am and almost endearing. It is nice to know that such stereotypes have not died out altogether.

We went to an LGBT Museum which was interesting and had cabinets showing the personal effects of Harvey Milk as well as match books from hundreds of now long-gone gay bars. We then ate at the Sausage Factory and I had the "baby salad" which would have fed four big men. After we came out of the restuarant we walked up Castro Street a bit and then I noticed that people around me were sniggering. This picture explains why (you may need to click on it to enlarge).

We saw three such men, all naked, all old, all not traditionally attractive. Some people simply ignored them. Others stared or smiled (not especially nice smiles). I suppose that for some people, a lot of what happens in The Castro would be shocking. Men walk around holding hands and they kiss in public. Such things are liberating, to me at least. But I don't know how I feel about the public nudity. I wasn't expecting it for one thing, and while I didn't find it arousing or disgusting, I'm not sure I'd be happy to take any of the children from my extended family to that street, even though The Castro seems more family-friendly on the surface (there were adverts elsewhere saying "visit the gaybourhood!" and we did see a few families with kids walking around.) And that makes me question my own attitudes to nudity - I don't think children should be given off the message that the naked body is wrong, but at the same time, these men made me feel uncomfortable. I guess they're brave for doing something which attracts such a lot of attention, but at the same time, it appears selfish - what about the right of other people NOT to be surprised by someone's penis?

Friday, August 03, 2012


My first holiday to American took place in 1993. Rather ambitiously, we visited Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco, all in two weeks, taking trains between those cities. We used one of those "Rough Guides" to book hotels, which ended in us staying in some terrible places, including a motel two bus-rides away from the Strip in Las Vegas, which had a fire alarm that beeped with a low battery every minute and a freezer full of mincemeat. The worst hotel was one in San Francisco which was where prostitutes took their Johns. The corridors contained drug addicts hanging out on the stairs, we had to check in via a bullet-proof glass window and when we got to our room we found that the bedsheets hadn't been changed, there was a hole in the wall and scary Charles Mason graffiti on the door. We checked out instantly and were charged for an hour.

This summer, we're doing the holiday again, although this time just the Chicago and San Francisco parts. I barely remember Chicago from 19 years ago, although Hotel Cass, where we last stayed is still there - one of the few buildings that seems to have remained in an area that now looks rather gentrified. Chicago is a walkable city and seems cleaner and more relaxed than New York. We took the subway to "Boyztown", the gay area, although it was the middle of the day and everybody seemed to be taking a nap. Escaping the relentless heat, we went into a full coffee shop, where we were the only people who were not sitting alone at a table, with a laptop and headphones plugged in, completely disengaged from their immediate surroundings like that row of robots in the Flash Gordon film. I'm sure they were all tweeting away and updating their Facebook statuses, but it felt sad, like a vision of the future that I didn't want to belong to.

And the world is changing. There's a nice book shop near our hotel here, although both times we've been in it, it's been empty. I wonder whether it'll be there in another 19 years. Ray Bradbury's vision of a world where people don't read books is unlikely to come true, but they'll just download them onto their Ipads without having to leave their rooms.

Still, I suspect my Ipad's going to come in handy over the next two days as I'll be confined to a train cabin as we go through Denver and Salt Lake City.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Expecting the Worst

In a couple of weeks we were supposed to be moving to Newcastle to spend a year there, but due to some bizarre and unexpected events at work, my fella has had to cancel his sabbatical, so we're staying put. He has been having a very odd couple of months. He had put in an application for a very large grant (several millions of pounds) and had got through to the last round, where 10 applicants battle it out in front of a panel for 5 places (a bit like X Factor but for professors).

So he went down to London, all prepared with his notes for his talk and his handouts. But an hour before he was due to go into the interview, his suitcase was stolen while he was in a coffee shop. It contained all his notes, an Ipad, his laptop and his clothes. The people in Cafe Nero could not have been less interested. London is apparently a nest of thieves at the moment, due to the Olympics. If it had been me, I probably would have just got the next train home and gone straight to bed, but he has something of the air of an old trooper about him, so he went to the interview and did it anyway.

Afterwards he was convinced it hadn't gone well, and spent a week being down in the dumps. But it turned out he got the grant after all.

He also took Grade 1 piano exam at the same time that I did Grade 3 - although recounted afterwards that it had gone "very badly". He'd decided to play the pieces off by heart, and made a mistake in the first one which he was unable to recover from. His mind went blank and his hands couldn't stop shaking. We worked out that if he was lucky, he might have got 101 out of 150 (you need 100 to pass).

We received emails from ABRSM last night that the results were out. These exams have no bearing on our careers, but all the same, I experienced a momentary feeling of anxiety when I clicked on the results. Thankfully, I got 121, which is a merit (just). We then looked at my fella's results, both of us expecting the worst. He got 120 (also a merit).

I think the moral of this is that I could save myself a lot of anxiety if I take every thing he says with a pinch of salt.

"It must be nice to have something that you're better than him at," said one of my friends last night.

"It won't last..." I replied. He is the sort of person who played Angry Birds for hours until he had 3 stars on every level.

Sunday, July 01, 2012


When my elderly and lively in-laws come round, they like nothing better than to sit on high-backed chairs, drinking endless cups of teas and recanting stories about a) holidays abroad that took place in the 1980s and b) arguments they have had and won. I am not expected to make any contribution towards these "conversations", other than to show mild interest or to act as a stand-in for the person who was argued with, so many years ago. Over the past 20 years I have heard some of these stories so many times that I almost feel as if I participated in those holidays, and I note any deviances from the usual narratives with interest. It all reminds me a bit of conquering Vikings, singing songs about their victories: "And then I told her... 'look love, so my money's not good enough for you is it? Well I'll take my service elsewhere!'"

Sometimes, for variety, when my warlike in-laws are exhausted, I will try to distract them with a comforting television programme. We all agree that the highest form of television entertainment is the 1970s musical "special", ideally featuring Sammy Davis Jr, although Perry Como, Doris Day or Nancy Sinatra will also suffice. My father-in-law is a notorious tease and will inevitably make sordid remarks about Doris Day, upsetting my mother-in-law who will then transpose the offence onto me. "Stop it! You're upsetting Paul!" (I am viewed by everyone as the upper-class, tasteful, nervous and delicate member of the family, who needs to be protected from vulgarity and the outside world at all costs).

A few months ago, we played the in-laws some episodes of Sounds of the Sixties, which makes up about 80% of BBC4's output. They were enjoying Tom Jones' ode to unjustified violence toward women - Delilah. Then this clip came on, and the mood changed.

My mother-in-law got increasingly angry during Julie Driscoll's performance of Wheel's on Fire. "This is miserable!" she proclaimed. "I don't like it!" Helpfully, BBC4 had provided some information about each performance, in the form of text across the screen. About half way through we were told that "Wheel's on Fire" was originally a Bob Dylan song.

"Bob Dylan!" exclaimed my mother-in-law in triumph. "I hate Bob Dylan. There! I KNEW something was wrong!"

I can't agree with her here though. I love this performance of Wheel's on Fire. And I wish Julie Driscoll was my friend. Here's another clip I've recently discovered of her, in full-on psychedlic freak-out mode.

It's worth watching, just for her hand dancing and facial expressions. And I love how it all seems to have been created by Blue Peter set designers on LSD.

Julie (now Julie Tippetts), I do wish all of your songs were on SingStar, because I would never stop singing them.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Twenty Six Years Later

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, I have entered myself for Grade 3 piano, after having taken grade 2 26 years ago. Today was my exam. There is an almost exquisite feeling of anxiety and torture in the build-up to this sort of exam which is unlike anything else. The day began when I was roused from a nightmare about being in the piano exam - where my fingers were basically deficient jellies and I was unable to even direct them to press the keys I wanted.

I managed to stay calm through the day, distracting myself with work, and practiced my scales and three pieces a couple of times. I was good at them, although was annoyed because that probably meant I would mess them up for the actual performance. I must have played those pieces hundreds of times, and they have gone from being strangers to old friends to tedious enemies who will secretly betray me. So today was the day when at least I knew I would never have to see or hear them again, if I passed.

This is one of the pieces I had to play (this isn't me playing it). It's called Strolling Along. Every time I play it, my fella starts doing a ridiculous walk.

I arrived at the exam location on time and an obligatory old lady with a kindly face and glasses showed me to the waiting room, where a mother waited while a teenage girl had her exam. Various teenage girls fluttered in and out, and it became apparent that they were running late, and I was the last person of the day. I needed a wee, and felt like one of the more high-maintenance characters from Glee, preparing for an audition to get into some prestigious New York music academy, rather than a 40 year old male (who admittedly could pass for 39).

Fortunately, I was allowed to have a practice on another piano, which disturbingly sounded much louder and the keys were much harder to press than my own at home. Then it was my turn. I played all my scales OK, apart from hateful E flat major, which I always mess up. Fortunately, B minor, which I always worry about, went fine, as did the two arpeggios (A major and G minor) that need to be done both hands together.

Then it was time for my pieces. I think I did OK. I only noticed a minor slip towards the end of the first one. I tried to put in the loud and soft bits as appropriate, although because the piano was so loud, I felt I was banging away in a very uncouth manner. The examiner did a lot of writing after my first piece, and less so for the next two. My sight reading piece went OK. But I think I did badly on the aural questions. I was basically guessing whether the pieces the examiner played were in 3/4 or 2/4 time, or whether the change in pitch was gradual or sudden. Fortunately those bits only count for 18 marks, and you need 100 out of 150 to pass. I wouldn't be surprised if I scrape a pass. It's just as well it doesn't make much difference - I'm not getting into that fictional New York music academy either way.

I think my only worry now is if I do pass, will I put myself through it all again for Grade 4.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

New Car Smell

My first car was a 20 year old Hilman Imp that cost £100 in 1993, just after I passed my driving test on the 6th attempt. It had a back window that didn't lock and a seatbelt that went over your knee, like a useless ribbon. It never went above 50 miles per hour and on my first trip in it (to a garage), I managed to reverse it into a parking space and found myself unable to maneouvre out again. Two burly enraged mechanics got tired of watching me, and ended up picking up the car (with me inside it) and carrying it a few feet so that I was freed. I never went back to that garage, although I drive past it every day of my life on my way to work.

The poor old Hillman Imp lasted all of six months, and then during an ambitious and foolhardy trip to visit my parents, it conked out on the A685, in the middle of nowhere, forever. After that I bought a little Renault for £400, which regularly conked out on hills, and used to make a hideous grinding noise when going round corners. A series of better second hand cars followed, gradually getting bigger and more expensive. My most recent one (a Nissan X-Trail) lasted five years although it almost permanently had a yellow warning light on the dashboard, and every time I took it to get serviced it came back with more problems than I had started with. I endured it vibrating scarily for the past year when it went above 70mph on motorways, but after its last service last week, it stalled 5 times on an A road, and I decided I'd had enough.

So now I have a brand new car - no previous owners, straight from the car shop, place, thing. It is like a spaceship, with buttons that I don't understand and will never use. If I reverse, it shrieks when I'm about to hit a wall. The music system has bluetooth and starts playing songs from my Iplayer. There are dual air conditioning systems for the front seat. Even the glove box has its own air conditioning unit. And the integrated satnav says "please" when telling you to turn left.

I will be paying for it until I retire, and I keep putting it into reverse when I mean first gear. But I finally have a car with the number 12 in the registration number. And it feels quite nice.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

In the kitchen with the lead piping

I was made a professor recently, ending what has been a slight source of stress for the last couple of years. My fella hid a bottle of champagne in the fridge as we awaited the decision of the third and final committee who get to decide these things. He even offered to make me breakfast so I wouldn't accidentally find it. So I had an excuse to have champagne before breakfast without looking like an alcoholic Joan Collins. My parents were actually impressed (they stopped following my academic "career" after my GCSEs), and sent me a card that said "You've reached the very top." I didn't have the heart to tell them that I am only a level 1 professor (my university has 9 levels to traverse - my fella is at level 8), so I'm merely at the bottom of another ladder looking up again.

At least I don't need to keep my CV up to date for a while. I had hoped to be made one before I got to the end of my 30s (like my personal rival, quadrulpe threat Professor Cox - professor, media star, member of D-Ream and person who my sister-in-law fancies), but my 40th birthday came and went at the end of May, and I kept my birthday cards up for a week longer than usual, so at least I could say that I got made a professor just as I turned 40.

I look and sound even less like a professor than Brian Cox (OBE) is, resembling someone who might have been in a boyband in the 1990s but now looks like they probably appear in local newspaper adverts for step-ladders. I tried it out yesterday when someone asked my title and I don't think I was very convincing, and when it was said back to me, it just sounded silly. I guess it's a role you can grow into. I think the trick about being a professor is not necessarily knowing more than other people, but just being able to convince others that you do. The best professors are good at evading difficult questions (by turning them back on the questioner) or giving vague, cryptic answers that seem wise. Other than that, I could just grow a beard and/or start wearing a bow tie and stroking my chin. It's either that, or go the opposite way and try to be trendy, which means wearing jeans with ripped knees, driving a Volkswagon van and saying "fuck" a lot. None of those seem attractive.

"You do realise that people will start asking you to do things now," said my fella, bursting the little bubble of happiness I had going. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Finding Doggerland

For my 40th birthday, my fella got me an unusual present - DNA testing kits for both of us from the private company 23andme. We both had to spit into a testtube, which was then collected by courier and whisked off to a lab in America, where it was then analysed to reveal information about our ancestory, traits and health.

We were emailed that our results were in, this morning, so logged on to the website to find some interesting information, and in 20 minutes everything and nothing changed.

I first looked at my ancestory. My maternal lineage is Haplogroup H1a1 (a haplogroup is a combination of DNA sequences which are passed down from parents). People from H1a1 are mainly from Scandinavia, although they're also found in Western Europe, especially Spain (we always thought my mother's mother had Spanish heritage). My paternal lineage is R1b1b2a1a1*. This tends to be focussed more around the North Sea, especially England, Germany and the Netherlands. Apparently some of both my maternal and paternal ancestors lived in Doggerland (named after Dogger Bank), a land mass that joined England to Europe and eventually vanished when the sea rose about 9000 years ago - it's like a real-life Atlantis. Weapons and bones are regularly found in the North Sea, dating back to when Doggerland existed. Here's a map that someone speculatively created of what it could have looked like

So I'm from a country that until this morning I didn't even know existed, and it doesn't even exist any more. That's pretty mind-blowing. It's not like I can go back there on an ancestral pilgrimage.

The analysis also tells you what percentage of your DNA is neanderthal or caveman. Apparently the average Northern European has 2.6% caveman DNA. Mine is 2.8% which is in the 80th percentile - so I'm more caveman than most people around me. Maybe that explains my heavy eyebrow ridge and big nose (apparently for it's for protection from cold air).

I then moved on to look at health. Your DNA is examined to see if you are a carrier of dozens of different hereditary illnesses and other traits that may or may not end up being expressed as actual diseases. The bad news is that I'm twice as likely as the average person to develop Alzheimer's Disease - the average risk is 7.2% - mine is 14.2%. I also have an increased risk of a range of other nasties, including high blood pressure, stomach cancer, throat cancer, aneurysm and osteoarthritis, although the risks of these things are actually very very low anyway - so even though my risk of stomach cancer is double the average - it's still only 0.4%. I can live with that (probably). And I have a decreased risk of lots of other things including diabetes, melanoma, rheunmatoid arthritis, gout and migraines. I'm quite a bit less likely to have heart disease or Parkinsons. So, you win some, you lose some.

In terms of traits rather than diseases, I discovered that I should never try heroin or cigarettes (I'm likely to get very addicted to both). I also have a genetic marker for low tolerance of pain (which reminded me of yelling out when pulling off a plaster yesterday - at least I can blame my genes for being a softy). The analysis correctly predicted my hair and eye colour, and that my wee would smell funny if I had asparagus. Apparently, I don't metabolise caffeine very well, I'm likely to sneeze in bright sunlight and I don't have a gene that gives me enhanced athletic performance, although I do respond normally to exercise and diet by losing weight (so I have no-one to blame if I get fat but myself - in fact there were a couple of other genes which said I shouldn't really be fat at all - so I'll really be to blame if I get fat). I was also relieved to see that I have substantially decreased odds of going bald - which kind of fits with what I'd suspected. And I have one of the markers for HIV resistance - apparently 1% of people have two markers and are very unlikely to become HIV+, whereas 10-14% of Europeans have one of the markers, which means that if they are infected, there's a good chance that the disease will take a long time to show up. Weirdly, my fella has that same marker as well.

It's fascinating stuff, but as I said, it changes everything and nothing. I'm not too bothered about my increased potential to develop Alzheimer's, though I think I will start having more decaff drinks. Of all the information, what really affected me was the Doggerland stuff, though I suspect most Europeans could probably trace ancestors back there. Still, as birthday presents go, this beats a pair of socks!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Guilty pleasure

My parents went on "honeymoon" (a year after they married) on a package holiday to Spain, in 1973 and hated it. They won't talk about it, but it was enough to put them off "abroad" until I was all grown up and forced them to come with me to Rome, many many years later. My father, who is 65 at the end of the month, announced on Saturday that he never intends to go on holiday again as he can't bear "waiting around for trains and planes" and they're quite happy staying at home.

I would never go on a package holiday to Spain either - though it is more due to middle-class snobbishness rather than a general dislike of travel and "foreign things". But I have recently discovered the ITV series Benidorm, which, while revelling in the awfulness of such holidays and the people who go on them, ends up making you like them.

Benidorm feels like a natural inheritor of the British Carry-on films and seaside postcards. It has a regular cast consisting of British stereotypes and eccentrics, lots of rude jokes, class-based humour, bizarre visual jokes and a faintly moralising sentimental ethos. The establishing shots show Benidorm as hideously built-up with miles of brutal-looking tower-blocks dominating the skyline, while the opening credits show Britons at their worst. The series is set in the Solana Hotel, an "all-inclusive" resort which resembles a hospital built in the 1990s, where guests have to wear a yellow-arm-band to get the free food and drinks, and the specially laid-on entertainment largely consists of karaoke in a large hall (self-entertainment in other words). Many of the holiday-makers bring no money with them and never bother to venture out of the hotel grounds, instead preferring to fester by the pool, getting drunk, being unpleasant to one another and eating.

The central "common" family, the Garveys, is headed by leathery-skinned gnome-matriarch Madge, who is never without a cigarette and sits resplendent on her disabled mobility scooter - the punchline being that she can walk perfectly well - but she's on holiday and doesn't see why she should have to use her legs. Madge has never been troubled by a kind thought in her life, and her many daughters have mostly disowned her, except for affable Janice - who is played by Siobhan Finneran who also plays evil O'Brien in Downton Abbey (as well as Rita from cult 80s film Rita, Sue and Bob too!). Janice is married to lazy Mick (League of Gentleman's Steve Pemberton), a typical benefit scrounger so beloved of the tabloids. Like an infestation, the family keep returning back to the Solana year after year, encountering other holiday-recidivists like Donald and Jacqueline (dim swingers), Kate and Martin (disgruntled middle-class couple there by mistake and Kafka-doomed to keep coming back despite their efforts to escape) and delusional overweight quiz champion Geoff and his slow-witted mother/PA Noreen. As the years progress, newer, ever more flamboyant characters emerge.

There is a lot of flabby, aged, wrinkly or otherwise oddly-shaped flesh on display, and while we are encouraged to laugh at the gluttony, petty criminality, idleness and poor taste of the working-classes, nobody comes off well in Benidorm - the "posh" characters are exposed as inauthentic (like Martin's mother played by Una Stubbs), stuck-up (like Kate) or deluded and weak (Martin). The message is that the working-classes may be vulgar, but at least they know how to enjoy themselves with simple pleasures like a burger, a lie-down by a pool or a good singalong.

Similarly, sexuality of any sort is made fun of. There is a stereotypical gay couple called Troy and Gavin (one is fat and camp who uses a black fan with a flourish as a prop, the other is tall and thin and slightly less camp). They are accepted by the other holiday-makers, as are the swingers - who are always genuinely sorry when they inevitably mistake someone as being from their sauna back home or misread an innocent suggestion as a sexual come-on. A gruff transvestite played by Tim Healy, while the butt of visual jokes is reasonably sympathetically treated, and "normal" heterosexual desire is punished - Martin's lust for a con-woman results in him losing his passport and money, while Janice's brief dalliance with a much younger man brings her no happiness (and he ends up locked in the boot of a car).

While there are brief glimpses of Spanish culture and countryside, the series hasn't managed to tempt me to venture onto an EasyJet flight. I'm happy to enjoy Benidorm at a distance.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012


My fella and me have a year's sabbatical starting in August, which means we can live anywhere we like. This has been the subject of much discussion and planning over the past couple of years, and the original plan was to rent out our house and spend three months in each of the following locations: New York, London, Sydney and Brighton. However, the practicalities of such a globe-trotting year quickly meant that we had to reduce our plans quite a bit. We have an elderly, high-maintenance cat who, on the one occasion when I left him with a live-in cat-sitter for a month, went into a deep depression and took to sitting in a corner of the living room with his back to the wall. Taking the cat abroad would also be unfeasible due to quarantine restrictions. So instead, we are spending a fortnight in August travelling across from Chicago to San Francisco by train, followed by a week in Brighton.

The other issue which brought us back down to earth is cost - I thought flats in London were quite reasonable initially, but then I realised I was looking at the price per week rather than per month. So the capital city was out (and anway, it's so unfriendly and competitive). Eventually it came down to a competition between Brighton, Bristol or Newcastle-upon Tyne. I like all three places, but ultimately it was the bonus of having friends and family in Newcastle which was the deciding factor. My fella, very kindly let me make the final decision, although he stipulated he wanted to be in "walking distance of a Waitrose".

So we've found a nice apartment (near a Waitrose), overlooking a park, in a fancy Georgian terrace. And this weekend, we moved in half our furniture. My fella bravely drove a van across. I caught a cold earlier in the week, so it wasn't the best timing - and our efforts to move the bulky sofa were worthy of a Laurel and Hardy film. Lots of comedy accidents. And we have to do it all again in July when we move the rest of the stuff.

We thought the boiler was broken, but just as we were phoning British gas we realised that the strange box in the kitchen cupboard with a credit card sticking out of it was a pay as you go meter - put in because the previous tenant didn't seem to like paying any of his bills. We hadn't seen one before so I'd just kind of ignored it as irrelevant. So we had to get the card "topped up" at a newsagents. There were lots of "final demand" letters for the last tenant, including some from bailiffs and an £800 phone bill. He sounds charming. There were all sorts of weird little things we had to resolve over the weekend - I had to buy a new toilet seat because the one they had didn't stay up (why? how?) At least it gave us an excuse to go to John Lewis a lot.

Oddly enough I don't think we'll use that Waitrose much. There's a huge Marks and Spencer next door to it - the food hall is about 8 times bigger than the one in Lancaster - and it has things we've never seen before like Luxury Garlic Bread - Lancaster only has the regular sort. I feel so cheated - like one of those Russian diplomat's wives who went insane on first seeing a British supermarket in the 1980s.

So between now and August we'll be living in two places, echoing that period in 2006-7 when I lived in Bristol and commuted back to Lancaster. I have strong and fond memories of Newcastle - I used to go shopping there in my childhood, although the enduring memory is of never having any money and doing a lot of enviously staring in shop windows wishing I could buy stuff. I recall going to an all-night showing of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Evil Dead films at one of the cinemas, and when I was a student, I visited my friend Kathryn (who still lives there), and we used to spend a lot of time going around the charity shops (it was the early 1990s - grunge was just coming in), and watching foreign films at the Tyneside Cinema (we thought we were so sophisticated). During the summer of 1992 I discovered Newcastle's gay scene - in those days there were a lot of men wearing check shirts with moustaches, and I had a brief relationship with a chap who was high up in the civil service and wanted to take me to Egypt.

Geordies only seem to have two vowels ("a" and "oo"), so I'm sure in a year's time I will be incomprehensible all over again.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Memories of My Spectrum

The ZX Spectrum, arguably Britain's first famous home computer, is 30 today. I have fond memories of my 48K Spectrum, and its big sister, the 128K which came later on. Using the Spectrum was often a frustrating experience. There was no screen - you plugged it directly into a tv (in my case an ancient black and white thing in the dining room). It had a tendency to overheat and reset itself, and it ran programs from a tape recorder - so you'd have to wait up to 10 minutes to play a game, again with the random tendency for the uploading of data to get to the end and then just reset. The keys were rubbery, a bit unpleasant to touch, and you had to make copious use of combinations of different keys in order to get it to display certain commands like "POKE" (which I never really understood - it was very different from poking in social media).

Quickly, my weekly comics (Jackpot and Buster) were replaced by ZX Spectrum magazines, and I would spend hours typing in programs in order to play a very basic-looking game that probably had a typo in it and wouldn't work anyway. I suppose it helped me with my keyboard skills, and kept me off the streets if nothing else.

On the rare occasions when I got a Spectrum game to actually work, the experience of playing the game itself was often just as frustrating. Games were not meant to be actually won, so programmers tended to make them as difficult as possible to complete. Sometimes they would have weird bugs, like "The Hobbit" which always froze when I got to the cellar of the wood elves. It was usually impossible to save data, so if you died, you had to go all the way back to the start and do it again. But many of those games are indelibly marked in my memory. Here are my favourite ones.

The Hobbit

The aforementioned Hobbit was one of my favourite "adventure" textual games. I loved text adventures more than any other type of game because it was like reading a book with endless possibilities and you had to use your imagination to supplement the lack of fantastic graphics. There was the feeling with these games that you could go anyway and say anything, even though in reality most of what you typed in would be ignored unless it fit a very specific set of instructions relevant to only one point of the game. But I loved how The Hobbit took a great novel and let you play through it. I loved that there were TWO mazes in it (which I spent hours getting lost in and trying to map). I loved that you could talk to Thorin and Gandalf (even though they didn't have much to say), and I loved the graphics - which at the time appeared to be amazingly sophisticated and complex.

Jet Set Willy

A truly amazing platform-based game which had the shocking innovation of allowing the player to wander between different screens, each one a room in a giant mansion. As the tune "If I Were A Rich Man" played on a loop, you had to jump, run and avoid weird moving objects, and collect strange sparkling ones. Occasionally, if you went through the wrong hole, you'd get stuck in a weird infinity loop and lose all your lives in an instant. It wasn't fair and I'm sure it was impossible to compete without resorting to cheats.


This was one of the first games I ever played when I got my computer, and the whole family spent Christmas Day in awed shock. Someone appeared to have used a very weird drug trip as the premise for a computer game. It asked me for my name and then later on referred to me by it - as we were unfamilar with what computers were capable of, we half-believed that this game was somehow watching us and responding to our movements. It was a text adventure, which involved moving by typing in numbers and collecting various strange objects like a hula hoop, valium and a pork pie. The B side of the cassette contained a surreal pop song, and the game was actually a real-life competition - you had to play it to discover clues to where an actual golden sundial was hidden somewhere in the UK.

Sabre Wulf

This was my favourite game from the successful Ultimate stable. You were an explorer in a huge jungle maze, and you had to collect four pieces of an amulet to escape, and also avoid a wolf whose territory extended over several screens and could run very fast. There were different coloured orchids and if you picked them it would result in various effects (blue made you run faster, yellow sent you to sleep etc). It was deliciously garish.

Knight Lore

Another "Ultimate" game which brought the innovation of 3D graphics - this was mind-blowing when it came out, and inspired dozens of copy-cats. Unfortunately the game itself was a bit boring and also difficult. You were the same explorer from Sabre Wulf, but this time you turned into a werewolf occasionally, and you were trapped in a castle, having to collect objects and move blocks around to get past obstacles. I always seemed to get killed by falling metal spikey balls :(


A graphical 2D room-based adventure featuring a knight who had to move around, collecting objects and giving them to various people or casting spells in order to open up new bits of a castle. What made this game interesting was its use of "Windimation" - a system where menus would open up and you selected an option from one of several. This was a somewhat more forgiving game in that it didn't kill you off at a moment's notice but allowed you to think through how to do things.

The Trap Door

A crazy, colourful game based on the children's animation series, this game was fiendishly difficult - you had to make various recipes by gathering weird objects and putting them in a cauldron. Quite often, the objects were alive (like worms) and would run around trying to escape from you, while a spider would also chase after them trying to eat them. Playing this cute looking game often induced feelings of panic in me as time ran out.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Broke Back Gym

Well, I am 40 in slightly over a month. This blog, which I began almost 10 years ago chronicles all of my 30s (at least the stuff I'm prepared to share with the whole world and several people who know me in real life). Prior to that, the private diaries I kept in my teens and 20s give a much more introspective and confessional account of my life.

I don't think I look too bad for 40. I still have all my hair, and most of it is still brown, save a few grey ones. There is only one permanent line on my forehead. The dark circles under my eyes make me perpetually look tired, but I blame them on genetics. I get plenty of sleep - more than anyone else I know. At the gym last month, I had my annual "check-up" which meant I was taken into a cupboard and measured by one of the receptionists. She told me that I'd gained 5 cms around my shoulders and lost 5cm around my waist. It's true that I've gone back to 32 inch trousers, which I last wore around the age of 25. And there are funny bumpy bits in my back and shoulders that didn't used to be there. I've cut out crisps, orange juice and "healthy" smoothies from my diet, so that's probably helped.

But there's been a price to pay for getting back my mid-20s body. For a year, several times a week I went to circuit classes at my gym, organised by a man I refer to as "THe PE teacher". The classes involved lots of high intensity running, jumping, bending, stretching and lifting weights. The PE teacher shouts a lot (it's motivational), and also decides how heavy the weights should be that you lift. It gets results, but has also left me with back problems which started before Christmas and ensured that I spent most of Easter on painkillers. Worryingly, my father is 25 years ahead of me with his own bad back, and had an operation last month as he was barely able to walk at Christmas. He used to work on a farm as a teenager, and lug around 9 stone bags of concrete all day, so no wonder he's broke his back. I only have vanity to blame for my situation. And also poor work habits. Twice a week, I usually work from home. I like to boast that I don't need an "office" like some of my colleagues who claim they can't work unless they have a south-facing room over-looking a brook with no traffic noise, and lavish bookshelves etc. Having being brought up in a little council house where the tv was never turned off, I view such sentiments about people needing workspace as precious and excuses for laziness. So my "office" is my sofa, and there I can sit, for up to six hours a day, laptop on lap, only minimally moving to get a cup of tea. This set-up used to work fine, but now I've damaged myself through exercise, my body doesn't like to sit in that position any more. So I've relocated to the dining room table. Quite a few people I know have bad backs at the moment - so maybe it's the fault of laptops making us all put ourselves in slouchy postures.

My doctor gave me a pamphlet about bad backs based on the latest research. I was expecting it to contain lots of weird exercises to do and descriptions of scans you can have done on the NHS. Instead it simply said - don't take to your bed - keep moving around, do exercise, go walking. Take painkillers to manage the pain. Don't be pessimistic, expect things to get better and they probably will. So fingers crossed.

The other sign of middle/old age that I'm experiencing is weird memory issues. My fella accuses me several times a week of forgetting conversations we've had. He says my memory is ruthless in excising information it doesn't want to keep - and he's right there. But I think it's getting worse. I sent an email to a work colleague yesterday, asking her to help me with a task. But then realised I'd sent her the exact same email before Easter. But when I tried to find that first email, I couldn't find it. It never existed - I just convinced myself I'd sent it, when I hadn't. Not only am I forgetting things, but I'm inserting in new false memories of things that never happened in the first place. At least eventually, I won't even be able to remember that I've lost all my faculties... Happy 40th!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Finding Madame

My new favourite obsession is Madame, a sassy-talking old lady puppet from the 1970s and 1980s. Madame was the brainchild of Wayland Flowers, who was a skilled puppeteer rather than a ventriloquist - something which he had Madame say at the start of their routine "Wayland's no ventriloquist and I'm no fuckin' dummy!" However, once Madame started talking, all eyes quickly fell on her, and Flowers became almost invisible. Bedecked in her "fuzzy" (a boa with a life of its own) and her summer diamonds ("some are diamonds, some are not"), Madame's party piece was to let down her hair from the bun it was tied up in, halfway through the act, in a bizarre display of frenzied shaking and contorting. As I said, Wayland Flowers was a skilled puppeteer.

In the 1970s and 1980s gay men were largely absent from American mainstream culture, although gay humour will always find a way - and one way that this was achieved was to have women standing in for gay men - particularly older women who were no longer attractive (although they still saw themselves as desirable and were insatiably desirous of men). The Golden Girls were a good example of this, and here's Madame with Bea Arthur (another Madame), singing "A good man is hard to find" while exchanging potshots with one another (and fighting over Rock Hudson - naturally).

Madame's larger-than-life personality was based on campy movie stars like Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, Gloria Swanson and particularly Rosalind Russell in Aunt Mame. Much later, Karen from Will and Grace also channelled Madame (and in one episode where she catches sight of her aged face in the mirror, Karen retorts that she should have Wayland Flowers' hand up her ass). Madame was a wise-cracking mistress of the double entendre, and while her tv appearances were reasonably "clean", her stage shows cheerfully threw around four-letter words for shock effect. The 1980s were perhaps the last decade of "light entertainment", where audiences would still politely sit through puppet performances - and I recall many variety shows on Saturday afternoons with Keith Harris and Orville (although I'd much have preferred Madame). Even with a puppet as sharp and "adult" as Madame, I'd be surprised if she'd be allowed to entertain today's more demanding audiences on tv.

When Paul Lynde left the panel show Hollywood Squares, Flowers and Madame set up residence in the centre square - the place reserved for the celebrity with the wittiest barbs. Sample question: "Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss lived in the same place. Where was it?" Madame's answer: "At the YMCA!"

Madame also appeared as a regular on 1980s pop show Solid Gold, interviewing, insulting (and at times flirting outrageously) with singers and providing the links between ad breaks: "We'll be right back with more great music so don't you dare move. I'm not moving either because, well... I think I'm having a STROKE!" Here's a typical escalating exchange she had with Marty Harty:

"Hindenberg nose!"
"Chicken lips!"
"Chicken legs!"
"Chicken eyes!"
"Chicken neck!"

In 1982 Madame appeared in her own sitcom "Madame's Place" which starred a young Corey Feldman and was notable for featuring a "talkshow" portion where Madame interviewed the likes of William Shatner. She also featured along with several other of Wayland's puppets in a tv special called Madame in Manhattan. This included Crazy Mary (special skill - getting herself stuck to the floor in a most unusual way), Shirley (Madame's dresser) and Jiffy (a prostitute from Harlem). The show features much of the stage act, but then goes slightly surreal as Madame and Wayland start waltzing around Battery Park together (on a very windy day), and finally there's a sequence where Wayland tucks Madame up in bed and tells her that she's very special to him: "I was teased a lot as a child, I was different, I was sensitive. But I had a grandmother who raised me, protected me, and taught me to believe in dreams. She died when I was young. I cried a lot. By myself. Then one day, there you were, needing me just as much as I needed you." Then he sings "Someone to watch over me" to her. It's a rare moment of Wayland taking centre stage, and it could have come across as schmaltzy and silly, but somehow it doesn't. A camp outlook on life is often developed as part of a coping strategy, because life can be very cruel to those of us who are "different and sensitive". Camp allows you to make a joke out of less than desirable circumstances, being passed over, getting old, being bullied or laughed at. Wayland's coping strategy just became externalised more than most - he laughed first and laughed loudest and longest.

Wayland died of AIDS-related complications in 1988, aged only 48. And I know Madame was with him all the way to the end.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Prisoner Cell Block Lancaster

Lancaster Castle (one of the world's oldest prisons) closed down last year and today, for the first time in 50 years, the prison grounds were open to the public. My house looks on to the castle gates and I've often wondered what's behind the walls. So I grabbed my camera - and here are some views that previously you only could have seen if you'd committed a crime.

The castle dates back to the 11th century and has been used as a prison since 1196. There are marks made by musket fire around the gates when Royalists attempted to take it back from Parliamentarians during the civil war. It held the Pendle Witches who were subsquently hanged, and its court was used for the trial of the Birmingham Six.

The Pendle witches apparently cursed anyone who visited Lancaster to have to keep returning there for the rest of their lives.

Hangings were done in public, ostensibly as a deterrent, although in reality hangings garnered large crowds and there was something of a carnival atmosphere, with people selling food and the local schoolboys getting half a day off. The vicar of the overlooking priory church sold tickets so people could get a better view from the ramparts of the church and avoid pickpockets below.

Some prisoners ended up having to stay on in prison for up to three years as they were unable to pay for the gaoler for their "upkeep" at the end of their sentence.

The Duchy of Lancaster, who owns the castle, is currently consulting on what to do with it. It would make an interesting, if rather claustrophobic hotel. (After only a few minutes of wandering around the enclosed court-yard spaces I was starting to feel a bit nervy.) It could also be a good performance space. But I hope it becomes a museum - not only would it bring a lot of tourist trade to Lancaster, but its rich and varied history is fascinating and deserves to be shared with as many people as possible.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Do you have the stomach for The Hunger Games?

"This isn't going to be one of those torture splatter films?" asked my fella on Friday as I invited him to accompany me to an early showing of The Hunger Games. I assured him it was a 12A rating, but in describing him the bare bones of the plot "It's about this game show where children kill each other", I doubted whether I would ever allow my imaginary 12 year old child or the 12 year old version of myself see such a film.

In the early 1980s, when I was 11, my father took me to "the pictures" to see Conan The Barbarian. It had a 15 rating, and I did not look 11, let alone 15. But my father has a somewhat intimidating and confident personality and so he announced to the ticket lady "This is my son, he's 15 alright?" and we were waved through. I recall nothing in the film which warranted a 15 rating, and when I caught it again a couple of weeks ago on ITV3 or ITV4, the only thing that was scary about it was Grace Jones, and the only thing corrupting about it was Arnold Schwarzenegger's decolletage. Standards of what it is acceptable to expose children to have certainly changed.

In order to get the 12A rating, the child deaths in The Hunger Games are not dwelt on or shown in graphic detail. Many of them happen off-screen - a dull "boom" sound announcing them to the other contestants and us. When they do occur, the camera-work is so quick and jerky that it's almost impossible to make out what's going on. The camera-work is the worst thing about The Hunger Games - it reminds me of the first time I used a video camera on holiday. And when we watched it back, my fella went upstairs and threw up.

But while there isn't any gore in The Hunger Games, it's the ideas themselves which should have earned it a higher age rating. Not only is this a contest where children have to kill themselves, it's one which is televised for entertainment, and it's part of a punishment inflicted on a once rebellious and now starving populace. The children are selected via lottery, and you can enter multiple times in order to receive food.

I remember the first time I read dystopic fiction - at 15 I read George Orwell's 1984. The book's hopeless ending threw me into a deep depression - around the same time I dyed my hair black - and turned into a proto-emo. I wasn't used to unhappy endings, and had thought that somehow Winston Smith would have grown a pair of biceps, got hold of broadsword and hacked Big Brother into bits, Arnie-style. But instead, after being captured, tortured with rats, screaming "Do it to Julia", and then mentally destroyed, the book ends with Big Brother triumphant. Forever.

The Hunger Games is one of a trilogy, and it remains to be seen whether in the later books, the silly blue-pompadour wearing elite of The Capital will be overthrown. As we left the cinema, my fella observed that it was a "1970s ending". With messages about the cruelty of reality tv and growing inequality in societies, The Hunger Games is the sort of film which young people should be watching - if only to ensure that they will treat the likes of me more kindly when we're in our 80s and they're in power and can decide what our taxable income should be and whether we get winter fuel allowances...

As of next year, the school-leaving age goes up to 17, then 18 in a couple more years time. We expect children to stay in school for longer and longer, yet we also expect them to grow up much more quickly. I hope they have the stomach for both.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

...although I do like the interweb really

After that last post, where I warned of the dangers of engaging too much in online life, I should really balance things out with a nicer post about it. As someone who enjoys watching old films, particularly low budget bad films, the last few years have seen an embarrassment of riches being placed online and for free. In the past, I would have to go to the now closed Virgin Mega Store in Times Square or Kim's Videos on St Marks Place (also NYC) to and browse their vast collection of cult DVDs (or back in the day, videos) in order to find trash classics like The Baby, She Devils on Wheels or Sticks and Stones. Back in the 1990s I built up a large cupboard of video cassettes, which were stacked on top of each other and which was always at risk of toppling over and crushing me (imagine being trapped under hundreds of cult movie videos forever!) Once DVD took off, I started buying disks online from places like, and storing the disks in wallets (alphabetically because I'm a bit Type A), which saved space, but even so, I can still see myself running out of space eventually.

Fortunately, plenty of the sorts of films that only a very tiny minority of the population of the world would ever seriously consider paying actual money for, are now available on youtube... for free. The picture quality isn't that great, and sometimes you have to watch them in little 10 minute chunks. But there are so many long-lost friends and "new" (I mean old but I've never seen them before) films that I've discovered recently. Here are a few, with my comments. If you ever find yourself with cancelled plans on a Saturday night, or suffering from a debilitating illness which means you can't go out at all, you could do a lot worse.

If you watch any of these films, let me know what you think of them, or feel free to recommend your own youtube grindhouse favourites...

Devil Times Five

A bus full of deranged children from a mental hospital crashes on an isolated road, and the little darlings monsters escape to a winter cabin where they encounter six bickering adults who all act like they're in a bad soap opera. The adults take pity on the children, not realising that this isn't going to turn out well for them. There are some inventive death scenes (if you like that sort of thing), such as putting piranha fish in the bath. One of the men is supposed to be the "looker" so he's naked for some of the film (standards of male beauty weren't as exacting as they are now - he's no Channing Tatum). One of the male children is implied to have gender-dymorphism issues, although this plot doesn't seem to go anywhere, but it's kind of interesting it was there in the first place.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death

The titular Jessica is recovering from mental illness and has retreated to a countryside farmhouse location with her husband and another friend. They're a bit weird (they drive a hearse and like to take rubbings from gravestones) and the locals don't really take to them. But then weird things start to happen, and Jessica can't decide whether she's going mad, or the victim of some sort of wicked conspiracy to make her think she's going mad, or whether she's just dreaming the whole thing, or whether the weird things are actually real. It has one of those 1970s endings and afterwards you'll wonder whether you dreamt the whole thing yourself. Really, with a title like that though, I'd have watched this even if it had been the most rubbish, boring awful film ever made.

Hell Night

Link to full film

A group of teenagers have to spend the night in a spooky old house as part of an initiation into their silly fraternity. But the planned adolescent tricks on them are nothing in comparison to the real psychopath who lives in a series of underground tunnels under the house and doesn't like unwanted guests. The film morphs from an episode of Scooby Doo into something much more disturbing, and it particularly picks up in the last third, with a couple of genuine scares. Linda Blair (from The Exorcist) follows in the footsteps of Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver and gets to play the Final Girl - the slightly asexual one who gets left to last, while the pretty blonde girls are all bumped off first as a punishment for having sex (1980s morality is so complicated). Even though the characters should have been one-dimensional and annoying, there are attempts to make them likeable and rounded (in an early bit Linda's character says she's learned how to fix cars, and it's actually turns out to be relevant to the plot!)

Messiah of Evil

In a very HP Lovecraft-inspired tale, Marianna Hill (one of the weirdo sisters from The Baby) is looking for her missing artist father in a small Californian beach town. Her father's house is full of his disturbing giagantic art installations, making for an interesting film set. She teams up with an odd trio who are implied to be in a threesome relationship (Michael Greer who was more well-known for playing outrageous gay characters in films like Fortune and Men's Eyes, the rather unsubtly named Joy Bang and B Movie stalwart Anitra Ford (from classics like The Big Bird Cage and Invasion of the Bee Girls). But gradually, the heroes are overwhelmed by the zombie-like residents of the town. There are two stand-out scenes in a supermarket and a cinema, which start off normal and gradually descend into horror. A bit like "Jessica", this has a nightmarish quality to it where the characters question what is real.

The House that Screamed

An isloated French boarding school for wayward girls is full of shennanignans, including peeping toms in the shower-room, lesbian initiation games in the cellar and a kind of weekly sex-lottery with the man who delivers the wood. But girls keep "running away", although actually they're not running away at all. While this film was made in 1969, it has more of the feel of a 1979 film, and a lot in common with a later movie Suspira. It's also notable for featuring John Moulder-Brown, who plays the main role in the weird bath-house film Deep End.