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Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Blog 31. Oh Shut Up.

 Is that a bit brusque? As a child I was told it was an impolite turn of phrase. ‘Please be quiet’ or even plain ‘be quiet’ was preferable. On the bus with those who broadcast their music or expletives or accounts of the weekend’s social or sexual trivia loudly, there will be merely a polite but firm request to lower the volume / grow up but rarely to shut up. However – this week – I take it upon myself to authorise BGOTR bleaders to tell people deserving of the phrase to SHUT UP. Perhaps we could even push for an annual Shut Up day. Unquestionably you will have deserving SU candidates of your own but here are some helpful suggestions to get any shy bleaders started:

Commercials encouraging us to sue our doctors Shut Up.

If you work on a shop till and people talk on their phones while you are serving them, tell them to Shut Up.

Comedians who hide their misogyny – not very well – behind fake irony Shut Up.

Politicians of any party using the words ‘new’ and ‘policy’ in the same sentence when in fact it’s ‘old’ and ‘nonsense’ and obviously Nigel Farage generally Shaaaaadup.

People who think the Bedroom Tax is a bad idea – Shut Up. It’s a great idea just aimed at the wrong people. It should be targeted at those folk with LOTS of spare rooms, living in mansions probably funded by historical misdemeanours and current tax evasion.

T.V. chefs – I mean really, REALLY! If there is anyone left on the planet who doesn’t know how to braise beef or arrange feathered artichokes or flambĂ© chicken livers and rest them on a bed of wilted spinach or toss shallots or marinate guinea fowl or drizzle balsamic vinegar or blanch asparagus or sprinkle flaked almonds or thicken a roux it’s because they don’t want to know so please, PLEASE Shut Up (apart from Come Dine With Me which I saw at my Granny’s and which is really funny). This from someone who, 17 years ago, was on the Halloween edition of Ready Steady Cook.

Clegg, Milliband and Cameron, stop whipping up the immigration bogeyman to distract from the wholesale failure of Western leadership. You’re just agitating the ignorant and the already vulnerable and making discerning people despise you (more) so Shut Up.

Celebrity magazines using the terms ‘exclusive’, ‘shocking’, ‘’x’ reveals all’, Shut Up (metaphorically). It’s not exclusive because everyone already knows. The chances are that if celebrity ‘x’ is revealing all in your magazine they already revealed all somewhere else but with a pout taken from a slightly different angle. Tolerating human rights abuses is shocking. Someone shagging someone who was shagging someone else in last week’s edition is not shocking it’s boring on a delirium-inducing scale.

Self Help books – narcissistic ramblings masquerading as modern day oracles, Shut Up.

Ads inviting you to ‘text this number’ (rather than just fill in the on-line form) if you think you were miss-sold PPI Shut Up.

Racists, whatever your own ethnicity and whomever you are targeting – that spiteful nasty reaction you feel when you see the particular ethnic group your nasty spiteful inner child has targeted, it’s not them causing the problems in your failed life it’s you. You have lost touch with your humanity. Shut Up and go and sit in a corner and have a good think.

The Catholic Church Shut Up about gay people blighting family life and deal with the paedophile priests who, known to you, blighted family life.

Advertisers who use the, your-kids-will-hate-you-if-you-don’t-buy-this-crap technique Shut Up.

Anyone promoting plastic surgery discount packages to young people who have absolutely nothing wrong with them and in a tone suggesting it will solve their self-esteem problems but it’s no more significant than getting your nails painted – could I suggest perhaps they have their mouths sewn up? Ok that’s a bit gruesome but Shut Up.

Anyone who markets themselves as a Royal Commentator and thinks having a bigoted royal consort is endearing Shut Up.

Tony Blair – unless it’s an apology, come on now, it’s time to Shut Up.

People with navels for noses who claim not to have had ‘aesthetic enhancement’, ‘a bit of work’ or whatever other euphemism they use for a face lift Shut Up. Ditto the paralysed zombies claiming not to have had Botox and the hamster-cheeked, rubber dinghy-lipped freaks who maintain they have not had face fillers Shut Up – if you’re able to control your own facial muscles.

Individuals who are always forcing their unsolicited opinions onto you regarding what you should wear / eat / watch / read / buy Shut Up. If someone hasn’t asked for your opinion they possibly don’t want it.

Via e-mail - Russian women offering to marry me, Nigerian princes politely asking for bank details, dubious medical suppliers offering  discount Viagra (I’m female and I don’t want to ‘impress the laidees’), anonymous people who reckon they know me from Facebook – you don’t I don’t have a FB page ditto Linkedin / twitter all please Shut Up.

Media outlets that pronounce celebrity tittle-tattle as News, Shut Up.

And this one is possibly a bit specific but here goes. Once I was waiting at a bus stop as parents were dropping youngsters at a school nearby. A runty guy in a business suit – who clearly was nothing to himself or anyone else until he had donned the aforementioned attire – was giving a blokey nod and a wink to another be-suited chap with the words ‘that’s the worst part of the day over.’ He gave the impression in that moment that possibly the only thing he did of any meaning or import was to drop those two children at school. If I am wrong and he was off to change the world in an office somewhere in a tremendously momentous way with panache and humility then I apologise in advance and in anonymity but otherwise to him personally for that one comment Shut Up.

People who, on meeting you, unfailingly take or make a mobile call loudly to someone else Shut Up.

Radio interviewers who shout over their guests.
Spiteful people generally.
Interviewees who say whatever they wanted to say regardless of the question.
Bullies generally
Advertisers of dieting products.
Mayor Quimby
Peter Andre and Jordan.
Advertisers of cleaning products.
Miliband for shutting up on the issues that matter – Shut Up.
Personal Injury law firms touting for business.
X-Factor judges.
Nick Clegg just generally.
Celebrities who are famous for no reason.
People who have their mobile phones on in the cinema.
T.V.s on at 3am.

OK. I’ll Shut Up now.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Blog 30. The beginning of the end of the world has begun...

 If you missed it – the beginning of the end of the world – it’s because you are one of those people who, at the cinema, would still be discussing popcorn protocol by the time the moody hero had already stared moodily for the third time into the camera from the moody CGI backdrop.

Laugh all you want at the Mayans and those gloomy guys with the placards reading ‘the end of the world is nigh’. Frankly the only bit they have wrong is the immediacy of the event. They should simply take note of what T.S Eliot wrote in his dark masterpiece The Hollow Men (1925) –

“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper”

In light of what follows, I should make it clear that I interpret the end of the world the way I believe Eliot means, i.e. the end of humanity. The world will keep turning for many millennia after we’re gone. Let’s face it, not only is there precedent for that scenario in terms of planetary genus, WE of all species who have ever existed, are actively (if blindly, stupidly and partly subconsciously) working towards that end.

If you ask me – and why on earth should you, I’m just a writer – there are a few chaps on this planet at this moment who should be contemplating camels and the eyes of needles.

It’s a shame really that, in the West, have got into the idea of thinking we'll live forever or at least that death has nothing to do with us.  If you don’t believe me just listen to Money Box Live on our favourite 6th form debating society radio station – the Worried Wealthy wanting advice on how they can keep as much money hoarded away and prevent anyone else getting it. Go a few notches up to the real nutters with their offshore bank accounts hiding amounts of money that would make Midas blush, money that could not be spent if they had three lifetimes. As they shed wives for younger models, surround themselves with Yes men and flunkies, maybe they have convinced themselves that they can take it with them.

And so another Red Nose day passes. £75m raised, applauded from all quarters and no doubt those involved in the jolly japes all patting themselves on the back. And who am I to rain on anyone’s parade if their exhibitionism makes them feel better about the state of the world. Yet there are people on this distressed planet who could hand over that amount from their personal stash and not notice a change in their standard of living.

I heard an interesting statistic a couple of weeks ago - The top 100 richest people on the planet have sufficient wealth to extinguish global poverty.

The top 100 richest people on the planet have sufficient wealth to extinguish global poverty.

But the world is not a globe it is a human pyramid where the majority struggle and suffer and an infinitesimally small minority live a bizarre rarefied existence at the top. It was never meant to be like that.

I do not believe it is coincidence that there is no major religion (even the ones that envelop themselves in earthy splendour and opulence) or philosopher in history that envisaged a pyramid shaped utopia. Even the worst dictators who ever existed have the decency to pretend, to cloak themselves in some shabby sheep’s clothing, claiming to be working on behalf of the masses, aligning themselves with some dissatisfied group or other for general betterment. No one ever asserts that they are in it for themselves. Why? Because human beings, even the crap ones, intrinsically know it’s wrong; hence the spaghetti of justifications. For example, those bankers genuinely believe that they are worth the bonkers bonuses, they really think that they are in more responsible positions, taking more risks, more worthy of those preposterous pay packets than, say, a nurse in an HDU on an understaffed hospital ward making life and death decisions in the middle of the night on a 12 hour shift.

So why am I banging on like this in this week’s post?
Well, it’s what I do but also you may recall that in last week’s blog (if you are a regular bleader) I mentioned three events: gigging in Bristol, Writer-in-Residence-ing with the lovely pupils from Newbiggin, Lynemouth and Ashington AND a new short story anthology that plopped through my door the previous Friday 8th March. Well it’s the anthology that set me off on this tack again.

A shorty of mine included in the anthology, ROOT (published by Iron Press, available in bookshops and at ) takes its intention and tenor from the T.S. Eliot poem mentioned above. The story is called The Remainder and it is a theorised snapshot of that chilling end-of-world whimper viewed through the eyes of a lonely, obsessive throwback.

And don’t worry if you were thinking of buying a copy, the other stories are not like that and The Remainder is discreetly near the middle towards the back of the anthology – about the place on the bus your mum tells you to sit to avoid getting travel sick.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Blog 29 Rectangular Jelly & Creative Karma

No gloom or ranting this week and I’m swapping satire for the respite of juvenile nonsense because that’s just the way things have gone in the last few days.

Firstly, I’m working with a school group until 28th March and it’s madly marvellous. I gigged in Bristol where, not only did I not put my best foot forward, I may have to add the second gig there to the list of things-I-should-have-done-differently-or-not-at-all, like falling on my face at an important showcase event at Northern Stage. But then something I nearly shied away from gave me a great big literary hug. One of my short stories – The Remainder - has been included in the Root short story anthology showcasing North East writers.

So, having wobbled over something I am usually comfortable with, I’ve found myself between the covers with some sizzling regional talent in a writing form that is not the first string to my bow. It feels as if there is a significant (if partly uncomfortable) lesson here.

As there were none of my contemporaries in Bristol I could have pretended everything went swimmingly. To know why I think that would be ridiculous, you’d have to have a quick read of blog post 4 Dinosaurs Cured my Performance Angst.

I’ll be reading an extract from The Remainder at one of the launch events at our local indy book shop soon and will flag that up in a blog nearer the time.

Tremendous fun and fizz is being had at the In Other Words project in Newbiggin. Recently I was invited to be Writer in Residence for a group of Yr 5&6 pupils from schools in Lynemouth, Ashington and Newbiggin based at their Grace Darling site. Although working with 39 bright, buzzy kids is exhausting it’s proving hugely enjoyable. Last week I invented a new game for the group called Persuasive Puddings. This involved a dash down to the kitchen to find out what was on the menu then setting four teams the task of persuading me, through the imaginative use of creative language, which pudding I should have with my free school meal. In the end I had the jelly and wow, when I got to the lunch hall with my young escorts, it turned out the jelly was rectangular – not jelly shaped at all.

Rectangular jelly is a totally novel experience for me but many of my writing pals were un-fazed. They got rectangular jelly when they were at school. I must therefore conclude that my early days in formal education were sadly lacking. I recall rolls of ice-cream in bits of paper that seemed to be able to get quite warm without melting, custard that was thin and white and sometimes pink. But happily, they still serve mash potato with an ice-cream scoop.

So – just for my group – here is a little piece of nonsense verse – the sort I use to like when I was a child. It’s called (unsurprisingly) Rectangular Jelly.

Rectangular Jelly!

You get rectangular jelly in Newbiggin
They make it in the school canteen
You get rectangular jelly in Newbiggin
Ruby red or emerald green

Perhaps potatoes will be star shaped
And apples will be square
You’ll get a surprise if you try to sit down
Because a table will be a chair

Will the gravy be made of chocolate
In this crazy mixed-up place
Are the children made of marmalade
Do the teachers come from outer space

Were the walls built boldly of beetroot
Do the cooks make curry flavoured honey
Are the radishes blue in triangular stew
If you ask me it’s all a bit funny

Maybe water will be custard
And bananas will be flat
You get rectangular jelly in Newbiggin
What do you think of that

Thanks Bailey for the editorial advice!

My friend Oonah – who will be performing at the Cumberland Arms in Byker this Friday – is, as I type, desperately searching the shops in Northumberland for rectangular flavoured jelly!

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Blog 28. Eating the Vinyl

If you’re a regular bleader then you won’t be fazed by the randomness of this blog. Mainly satirical, sometimes just cross and occasionally spinning together some personal experiences with contemporary (and prehistoric [blog 4]) observations. Well – this week it’s a blog flog / free extract from my second novel. 2013 opened with a blaunch but there hasn’t been a blog flog since ‘Concretized’ – blog 8. So here is a short extract from Eating the Vinyl.  Set against the wasteland of an 80s comprehensive, the book explores issues of contemporary masculinity and dysfunctional love. Through misplaced hero worship, John Ardle, a hardened disinterested teacher, becomes the idol of a vulnerable mixed-race teenaged pupil. The boy's disastrous life is about to become inextricably and dangerously involved with his own. The section below is from the chapter that snapshots their first exchange.

The boy’s attitude entered the classroom before he did. It saturated the previously benign space with simmering, skulking anger.

“Oh right, you. Who are you?”
said the teacher; in the deeply disinterested, slightly bored tone, which was kept especially for detentions. Too late, John realised that he did not have the detention list, which would have told him which pupils were on detention, why and what their respective captors wanted them to do for penance.
“Alex Simmonds.”
drawled the boy in a voice, which matched the teacher’s tone for tone. Again John was reluctantly impressed.
“C’min. Sidown,”
John said, now moving up a notch to the, ‘this is a disappointment / we’ve all been here before / we’re wasting your time and mine’ intonation, which was reserved for the harder cases. This was obviously one such. The boy dragged in looking casually at the empty seats. He sauntered up and down the aisles as if making up his mind where to sit. John knew this was calculated to aggravate but it was too late in the week and too early in the day to let it rile. Let him take his time and John’s for that matter, there was plenty to go round. John Ardle studiously ignored Alex Simmonds until the detainee settled on a seat right in the centre of the room as if to allow his bad vibes to circle freely about him like harpies. The boy scraped the chair back, knocked the desk, banged his bag down, burped loudly. John remained carefully impervious, looking in his bag between folders for the elusive paper, blind to actions calculated to irritate, deaf to noises intended to shock. But then John Ardle made his first mistake. It was a small one, but it was a mistake nevertheless and unforgivable in one as adept at maintaining distance as he thought he was. Afterwards he’d no idea how the miscalculation occurred.

Peering expectantly into the gap of the still open doorway, John Ardle enquired,
“Where is the other lad?”
It was a mistake because it showed that he had made a judgement about the disruption he’d witnessed in the corridor. It showed that he might not think Alex Simmonds was entirely to blame. It showed that the teacher had, from a clear vantage point, taken note of the situation and believed that someone else might be culpable. It could have been six and two threes or even four and two… anyway it was a mistake. You’d have to be experienced in these subtle complexities to realise just how much of a blunder it was. John knew. Unfortunately the moment was not lost on Alex Simmonds.
“Just me,”
said Alex, leaning his chin on his bag and looking round the room as if he’d never seen a classroom before. Over the boy’s studied expression of sullen disinterest there flickered the merest trace of… something… John could not have told you what it was. It took some control not to loudly curse his own lack of caution.

John was flustered - momentarily. Not good. He was angry with himself and unaccountably nettled with the boy for wasting time. Not that time was a commodity he was short of, he reminded himself, in an attempt to stabilise his position. Trying to revive his best I-can’t-be-bothered air to neutralise the error John said brusquely,
“Get a book out lad”.
It didn’t quite work. John must have been tired he concluded. The boy countered by asking what he should read.
“Whatever you’ve got with you,”
John said evenly, without looking at his captive. He had found yesterday’s paper in the desk drawer amongst the rest of the incredible amount of rubbish that had already accumulated. That would have to do. But the boy wasn’t letting the matter drop.
“I’ve only got work books in my bag Sir.”
 He said the word ‘Sir’ as if it was an afterthought or he was just about to spit. It was easy to see why the likes of Len Barrow could not cope with Alex Simmonds. John plunged into the bag again and pulled out the first thing that came to hand. He had been grinding through English that day for a stand-in class. Charles Dickens, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. John Ardle threw the book expertly.

Chucking texts accurately is something a smart teacher learns early on. There is a particular art to it so that it saves your shoe leather, doesn’t cause too much damage to the book and shows disdain for the receiver. You have to flick the wrist so that the book spins slightly on the flat rather than tumbling through the air. The former will lead to a satisfying slap as the book comes to rest, still closed, on the front or back cover, the latter can result in the book landing splayed and possibly on the floor. The text landed with a healthy thump on the desk next to the one the boy was sitting at. With a curled lip and poking the book with the tip of a long slim finger, Alex looked at the cover and then, without opening it, said in mock-dramatic,
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times-”
John cut him off,
“Alright, alright…”
and threw a slimmer volume, George Elliot, ‘Silas Marner’.
“Mmm,” said Alex, “Golden haired girl in surprise love shock”
and tossed the book back, yawning extravagantly. The book landed on the very edge of John Ardle’s wide desk, threatening to tip off. John had to lean quickly to retrieve it. The boy had reduced him to playing catch with his own books. Perhaps Barlow had a point. The only other book in the bag was John’s own copy of Henry Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’. He drew it out, walked over to the boy’s desk, placed it down deliberately, pinning it with one finger for a moment while the boy rocked back on his seat, looking anywhere but at the teacher. Then he walked slowly back to the teacher’s chair. As John re-seated himself he enunciated sharply,
“I don’t care if you’ve read it before, open the cover and look at the text as if you are reading it. Do that for the next…” he checked his watch, “forty seven minutes.”
Then John Ardle focused down at the tattered paper, determined not to take any notice of the boy again until the session was over.

Bill, the caretaker, went past but as the new teacher did not respond to the extended brushing of the particular piece of corridor just outside the detention room, he moved off to try to find distraction elsewhere. The Head of Year looked in as she went by, just to be polite but as neither of the room’s occupants noticed, she went back to her classroom. John expected she was glad not to have to make small talk when she would rather be tidying up and completing lesson plans.

John Ardle had no idea what he read in that time. The printed word fed through eye sockets and went directly to yet another handy brain compartment, this one marked dross – do-not-register. It was the nearest he got to sleep. With time still to run, John drifted back to full consciousness and noted that the boy was in fact reading the book. They didn’t seem to have made much of a dent in the forty-seven minutes.
“Alright lad; off you go.”

The boy stood up without speaking, his air of challenge muted perhaps. The atoms in the room were not vibrating at quite the pitch they had been when the session started. As Alex was passing by the teacher’s desk to exit, John Ardle committed the second stupid error. He noticed that the boy had a bruise below his right eye, the surrounding puffy flesh indicating that it was newer than the detention-related injuries. He blurted out,
“You didn’t do that on Monday?”
It came out as a question rather than a statement. It should not have come out at all. The boy looked at the teacher with that startled-by-headlights expression but replied as if he were commenting on the weather,
“No, my step dad gave me that for getting beaten up on the first day of term,” and he smiled briefly, awkwardly. It was as if he were as taken aback at answering frankly as John was at inviting the response in the first place. The boy bit his bottom lip and frowned. His eyes darted over John’s face, searching. The teacher was over exposed, the boy suddenly more childlike. Then Alex shrugged his shoulders, resumed his piss-off attitude and slung his school bag over his back.
Eating the Vinyl is available in traditional format and also now as an e-book on Amazon. For a quick link go to the side column headed ‘Amanda’s Books’.