2009 highlights

Philandering Phil Caught on the Hop (June 2009)

Once you have the acting bug, it’s in your blood.  You want more more more – more of that adrenalin buzz from being up on stage with a live audience in front of you, no safety net other than a prompt, a performance to give and people to enertain.  Maybe not quite the same as skydiving but when you’ve come to realise that body can’t necessarily keep up with mind, acting is an amazing thrill.  To this day, the award I was given for my role in an Agatha Christie called the Unexpected Guest is among my most treasured possessions.  It made me realise that I can do this, create a credible character and move people.  There was a part of that show where my character had to rant on for a bit, then pause downstage, arms folded, facing the audience, before ranting on again.  I remember the Saturday night of that show – packed audience, and when it came to the bit where I stood for maybe 4, 5 seconds you could have heard a pin drop.  Even now it brings a tear to my eye to thinnk about it – acting stirs up powerful emotions.

In truth we all long to be loved and to be the centre of attention from time to time.  In fact, much of the trill comes from the process of rehearsal, the challenge of learning lines and moves and gradually finding the character inhabiting your body, taking over your life.  I once played a nervous American TV weatherman called Howard in a backstage farce called Moon Over Buffalo. Howard’s catch phrase was “Oh my gaaaaaaaahd!”  To this day, if anyone says “Oh my god” I’m on autopilot, just can’t stop myself slipping effortlessly into the guise of Howard and yelling out “Oh my GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHD!”  My daughter Lindsey knows this only too well.  I can just picture her now, rolling her eyes, sighing heavily and saying in a voice dripping with contempt but rhyming neatly with my own: “DAAAAAAAAD!”

Assuming the mantle of a character is astonishing.  You’re not aware of it happening, but happen it most certainly does.  The character takes you over, words are no longer a problem because the character speaks them in your voice.  Bit like the Exorcist, though to date I’ve managed to avoid the revolving head or green vomit.

Anyway, the problem with all this is that it takes over your life.  Completely.  Last year I did three productions: a revue (assorted songs and sketches), An Inspector Calls and a forgettable Durbridge thriller called A Touch Of Danger, where I played a golf pro and part-time terrorist with an eye for the ladies, who had to beat up his girlfriend offstage and murder an undercover CIA agent on stage.  Try making that credible….

Having had a break since last November, it was time to get back into the swing.  Couldn’t keep away!  So having moved to Chelmsford I joined another amdram group (http://www.phoenixtheatrechelmsford.co.uk/index.html), auditioned for their next production and was rewarded with an excellent role.  And I’m getting a huge kick from it!!  The play is a very farcical comedy called Caught on the Hop, and the part is Phil, “an incurable romantic” with an unbelievably tolerant wife who philosophically forgives his philanderings. But this time he intends to marry the girl in question and move in with her… next door to his wife, and to use his long-suffering best friend George to cover his tracks with wife Maggie.  Cue all manner of increasingly desperate lies to cover up the situation, mistaken identities, flights of fancy and lines both saucy and absurd: “I’ve got a very long loofah” springs to mind!!  Oh, and there’s also a neat twist in the end…

The challenge of Phil is that unlike the big role I had in An Inspector Calls, there are no long speeches to get your teeth stuck into.  It’s all bang, bang, bang – short snappy remarks and one liners, many of them almost identical.  Fiendishly difficult to learn but an absolute scream to perform.  I mean, hysterically funny but you keep a straight face and act as the character would act – except you don’t get time to think or analyse any of this.

Welcome to anyone who wants to venture out to Chelmsford to see the production.  It’s 7-10 October at the Christ Church hall, New London Road, Chelmsford CM2 0AW.  Good (and cheap!) night out guaranteed for one and all, and you can safely bring your kids along – no swearing or nudity in this one ;).

The foodie Frankenstein creates a monster… (July 2009)

A subject dear to our hearts: food!  In particular, what do we think of the very inter-cultural mix-and-match approach to restaurant and supermarket food these days?

You can understand the proliferation of restaurants reflecting the patterns of immigration, new ones springing up perhaps initially to feed the incoming people from whichever community (Chinese, Indian/ Pakistani/Bangladeshi, Italian, French, Polish, Caribbean, North, East & West African, Thai, you name it!), but then taken up by the incipient population as their own.

But then you got crossover – I’ve seen an Indian/Chinese/Mexican restaurant and there are plenty more post-colonial anomolies – a French/Vietnamese restaurant in London, for example.   But if that has a certain logic, then the abuses might have created a culinary frankenstein’s monster.  The ubiquitous Tikka Masala in every possible guise – including atop pizzas, flavouring crisps and anywhere else you can possibly think, and then some.  The sanctity of the original cultural origins has long since vanished as the food has taken a life of its own.

Food has lost its cultural virginity, you might say.  Sad, but do any of us have any right to claim ownership over our traditions and to stop them evolving, morphing into something entirely new?  How else would we innovate, introduce creative use of Indian spices or Chinese pastry into traditional English cuisine, for example?  Rather than homogenising food into a global hotch potch, is this not a trend towards creating entirely new ways to tickle the jaded palate of the lazy consumer.

Ankle revisited… (July 2009)

Right, so there I was on a Sunday afternoon in A&E.  About 4 hours in total, all a bit of a blur in hindsight.  Lots of waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting.  Then everything took off without warning: inspection from the sister, X-ray, reinspection, diagnosis, cure – delivered in stentorian tones that have probably changed little since the days of Florence Nightingale and Victoria.   The message was stern:  chipped bone, leg in plaster 4-6 weeks, using crutches, no weight on the plaster.  Oh, and no driving, no baths or showers, no buses, no nothing.  Especially not that! :S

My mind ablaze with a myriad of logistical nightmares, I decided rapidly to go my own way and ignore the dire prognostications.  Yes, I drove home.  Well, I knew there was a good reason for buying an auto transmission Beamer!  Not to mention the fact that I’m a bit of a rebel on the quiet – what more satisfaction could be gained than to thumb your nose to the dire warnings and continue with life regardless?

Or try to.  How do you solve the bathing problem?  Manual washing?  Tie a bag around the plaster?  Shower with one leg hanging out?  Hmmmm….  Then the driving issue – how would I get groceries?  Order online!  Ah, but I couldn’t guarantee being around when they were delivered… and so it went on.

Getting around on crutches was the most difficult bit.  In the street they are less than easy to use and a physical menace, though I guess I have a ready weapon in the event of attack!.  After all, living on your own on the top floor of a town house in a place where you have few friends to help is not entirely practical, nor conducive to easy living in changed circumstances.  Hey ho, do you give up?  Not a bit of it – you get on with life, don’t allow such encumbrances to bother you, perish the thought!

So it was that on Monday morning, albeit three times slower than usual, I ventured forth on my journey to Lambeth for client work.  The incentive was simple enough: no work, no pay!  And truth to tell, it worked out quite well.  To begin with, people are unquestionably kind hearted, give up their seats and help you out – or most of them.  On the way home I was pinned between two people on a narrow seat and with no room to stretch an aching leg while the train dawdled due to signal failures.  Ouch!

Did have to change a few appointments to make people come to me rather than me going to them, but that apart work was fine.  Injury no handicap!

Then came Tuesday:  the Fracture Clinic.  For these purposes, my ex-wife Jean kindly volunteered to drive over to Chelmsford and take me back to Broomfield for my 11:05 appointment.  Not that I was seen at 11:05, given that they deliberately overbook, see children first and don’t make allowance for complex cases often requiring admission.

First audience was to inform me that since I am 50, as near as dammit, they would be screening me for osteo arthritis in September.  My bones, the specialist informed me, might well be thinning.  Coming from a family saturated in arthritic relatives, that would be not the slightest surprise.  More fun to look forward to!

Eventually, close to 1:30, I was finally ushered in for an audience with the orthopaedic surgeon, who pored over my x-rays with a deep frown etched on his youngish face.  He began with a monologue about the many and varied problems with my poorly, swollen ankle.  The bad news: torn ligaments, evidence of arthritis, fragments of bone floating around, all evidence of considerable past injury.  The good news: no fracture!!  Everything else but, seemingly – the previous diagnosis having been confused by the warzone of my left ankle.

Benefits:  the wretched plaster came off, and I could once again bathe, drive and do all the other things so cruelly denied me!  Ah, but the treatment didn’t stop there, no sirree!  I need physio to re-educate my brain that I have an ankle there with a ligament in place and working.  This struck me as a bit odd, but who am I to question an orthopod, a saint of a man healing assorted physical injuries with a wave of his scalpel, conveying replacement joints like confetti?!  Shame they don’t do replacement ankles, I thought to myself…

So there we have it. Still becrutched, but able to hobble about on the sore ankle.  Won’t be doing any running and may well have a season ticket at the hospital car park, by the sound of it, but at least I’m more mobile than I was.  Here endeth the lesson! 😀

The subtle art of wooing… (July 2009)

As most of my friends know, I was separated on 25 October, 2008 after 18 years of marriage and almost 20 with one person.  No need to go into the ins and outs, but definitely time to reflect on the impact of time because 20 years is a fair old while in anyone’s book.

When I went into that relationship I picture myself in hindsight as a slightly shy and diffident character, one whose somewhat English reserve probably meant he failed to exploit this opportunities, but he had nonetheless a certain insouciant charm, an air of innocence born of the last vestiges of optimistic youth, in spite of setbacks through my 20s.  I wish he had been different in so many ways, but he was definitely ready to settle down at the time.

Now, here we are again, single.  The scales have fallen from the eyes; maybe I’m much more sceptical than I was, but not yet totally a hard-bitten twisted cynic.  Well, not all the time.  Still some shred of naive romanticism lurking somewhere deep within my soul, but basically it’s a weary and world-wise bloke.  Sounds like I should be singing “bewitched, bothered and bewildered”!

So back into the dating game after years away.  What would it be like?  The politics of dating surely couldn’t be that different, could they?  Do people behave like teenagers are supposed to or would this be a more mature, genteel game of chess?

As it happens, the game has moved on mostly because of the Internet, which was not around when i was a teenager.  Suddenly it’s easy to meet people and chat like you’ve known each other for ever on the strength of 5 minutes acquaintanship.  A very artificial environment, your remoteness giving an undue sense of security that prompts an emotional striptease far quicker than would ever happen face to face.  Thus I found myself revealing rather more than expected of myself, my historical baggage and even (shock horror!) feelings.  Guys don’t talk about feelings.  Do they?

So is Romance dead?  Could it be that the subtle art of flirting and wooing has in the intervening years been foreshortened to the point where you chat for a day or two, arrange a meeting and before you know it you’ve hit the sack?  Surely people don’t cut out the process of getting to know one another properly and forget altogether the elaborate rituals of courtship, honed over centuries of practice, trial and error?

No, I don’t think we do, but dating is evidently a lot more knowing, not least but not entirely because of encroaching middle age.  Granted some people only ever did it to get the prize of a sexual encounter to add another notch to the bedpost, and in that it isn’t very different now, particularly since there are obviously many people out there who obviously are gagging for the thrill of sexual liaisons… and they’re not too difficult to spot either.  But there is more than meets the eye to the superficial soundbites of internet coupling.  Perhaps it’s a continuation of old fashioned courtship by other means.

At any rate, when I finally did date someone in the flesh (to coin a phrase) things weren’t so very different.  Except I wasn’t the tongue-tied teen of yore, but a confident, dashing (literally!) eloquent adult with some considerable charm and even acceptable looks.  Well, that’s what I learned though at times I find it rather difficult to believe.  Ego swelling comes with no extra charge!  She and I met in a public place, got chatting, found things in common, talked about aspects of our lives, chipped in with experiences, shared a few drinks, engaged in eye contact, all the things that tick the boxes for a first date.  We even parted, as the song says, with a kiss, a light and delicate peck on the lips with the promise of further encounters to come…. First base (as some teens might have said!)

Not so difficult after all, and as a voyage of self-discovery, worth the investment.  Keep at it, guys – your teenage years were not wasted after all!!

Toads… or, this working life (July 2009)

Many years ago I worked in a very particular office.  Nothing unusual about that – I’ve worked in a great many of them and been miserable as sin in a fair proportion.  But this was no ordinary office.  Forget Ricky Gervaise and the excrutiating embarrassment of his TV version, this was the original, no holds barred mother and father of all desperately awful working experiences.

You can usually tell the bad signs from the moment you enter such an office.  This one looked as if it had not been re-equipped with new furniture since about 1860.  The desks were shiny from years of bodies slumped across them, deep grooves and doodles carved by people long since retired, driven no doubt by the sheer intensity of their boredom.  The lighting was dim and the venetian blinds covering the window seemed to have been long since glued by a potent combination of sugary tea, dust and sunlight, so that they would not now move in any direction.  Dim light came from ancient crackling florescent bulbs hidden way up on a high ceiling and shaded so the room was half in shadow and half bathed in blinding artificial white light.

This being before computers became (a) small and (b) cheap and plentiful, there were precisely two in the office.  One was a terminal to a mainframe computer, complete with green screen.  The other was an original IBM PC with a command line DOS interface and precisely two applications:  a prehistoric version of WordPerfect and a primitive spreadsheet like VisiCalc v1.0, on which accounts were maintained with religious regularity, and printed on enormous dot matrix printer that made the most incredible clattering noise.

But all this was not the reason for my hatred of working in this office.  That was just the set.  The players shuffled on stage at 8:55am every morning and shuffled off at 4:55pm each day. Not only did they conformed to every known stereotype, but formed lasting cliches in my mind:

There was the barrack-room lawyer, as my dad would have called him.  If anyone remembers Arthur Haynes, that was him to a tee – pompous belligerent ex-army type, yet remarkably servile when his boss was anywhere nearby.  Yes, he did have a bristling moustache and did smoke a pipe, often in the office.  Immediately I treated him with rather more deference than was due, much to his obvious delight, though in fact he was remarkably junior for his age (perhaps early 50s.)

Next there was the spinster, for spinster she undoubtedly was.  Possibly in her mid-40s, she spoke wistfully like a 70-year old about spending weekends with her nieces and nephews, and like Miss Haversham wore a permanent expression of noble sacrifice.  She was the high-necked priestess, the office oracle.  People, largely women, would come to her in a steady stream about everything, be it work, relationships, gardening, making clothes, hairstyles, you name it.  She knew every procedure, which form needed to be filled out for which purpose, where you filed the pink, green and yellow copies, who to go to for every possible grievance… yet it was her own life and career that seemed far more on the shelf.

The office junior, Terry, looked and behaved exactly like an awkward teenager in a totally alien environment.  He generally wore a pair of baggy brown trousers, a scruffy shirt with one or two buttons open to reveal a vest beneath, and a badly knotted tie of the high school monster variety, sometimes with a tank top in a vile shade of mauve or lime green knitted by his grandmother.  You could never engage him in eye-to-eye contact.  Conversations were short and painful.  If he had a job to do (which usually consisted of processing mail, making tea and filing endless reams of paper), it would be done in a surly and resentful fashion.  The only time I saw Terry spring to life was when I inadvertently caught him on the phone (one of those big old grey numbers with a dial and a chunky cord) talking to a mate about football or girls or nights out boozing, whatever it was.  But as soon as he saw me, down went the receiver and normal service was resumed.

Then the boss.  He (for they were always ‘he’ in those days) had a connecting office with frosted glass.  He actually said very little but did periodically come out to talk to Miss Haversham or Arthur Haynes in a gruff tone that sufficed for professional conduct in those days.  Even more mysterious, they were occasionally invited into his inner sanctum for deliberations, though nobody ever repeated a word.  I was largely ignored, and Terry the Teenager barely warranted so much as a glance.

Occasionally, someone got a roasting.  It was the most animated the boss ever got.  The victim was invited to sit before his desk while he ranted on in a not unkindly tone, befitting a man who found it utterly painful to hurt another human being, but one which left you feeling an abject failure, the most miserable snivelling creature crawling the earth.   Humiliation was called for and humilliation was what you got.  If it had been in Japan, the victim would have broken down and shot himself.  Here, people studiously ignored it and got on with whatever they were doing.  Dressings down were never ever referred to, even though every word could be heard.

So why was all this so miserable for me?  I could put up with the tellings off, largely because the boss did not really believe in what he said.  But I hated it because it felt DEAD!  All life and spirit had been surgically drained from people, the work was tedious and without variety.  Fulfilment, satisfaction, enthusiasm – all gone with the wind.  The highlights of the day?  Lunch (akin to old fashioned school dinners, of the liver and onions followed by steamed pudding and custard ilk), then home time.  As TS Eliot put it, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”, and in my time in that office clock watching was not just a sport, it was a religious observance.

So it was that I chanced upon Larkin’s poem Toads, and knew that at some point that toad WORK had to gain relevance, and that one day I would be using my wit as a pitchfork.  So it is, that I have now worked for myself these past 16+ years, like “lecturers, lispers, losels, loblolly-men (and) louts” I’ve lived by my wits. And it will never be any different, while I still live and breathe.

Art for art’s sake?  (August 2009)

Last Saturday, a friend and I went to the Courtald gallery in Somerset House, London, to enjoy a very fine collection of art, especially many great Impressionist and Post-Impressionst works (see link below.)  We spent a very happy couple of hours deconstructing many works of art (metaphorically.)


While landscapes by  the likes of Cezanne and Monet made wonderful viewing, we gained most pleasure from attempting to intrepret the motives of the people within pictures and the message conveyed by the artist in the process, often telling a vivid story in the process.

My personal favourite is Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere (see link below), a painting of such delightful ambiguity that your eye follows through the clues:  the barmaid’s face, passive and melancholy; the strange spatial distortion, whereby what we assume is her reflection in the mirror is impossibly far away; the customer glimpsed in the reflection but not before the barmaid.  Gradually, the realisation dawns that it is we, the viewer, that Manet is mocking.  It is we who are guilty of offering her money to escort her for favours.  A revelation and far more.  A truly great painting in both its physical execution and in its subtle content!


As we later enjoyed a coffee in the courtyard cafe, it occurred to me how important art and culture generally are to our enrichment.  Apart from their heritage value, there is no better way to reflect and relax than by appreciating works of art not only for what they are but on the reaction they inspire in you.  Perhaps we all need to develop the imagination and deductive reasoning powers (as in the Manet) to look beyond the obvious to see where the artist is taking us, for there lies true art.

But where does it end?  The criticism of modern art that a pile of bricks is just a pile of bricks and not possessed of some greater significance, for example, surely depends on the work of art and the context in which it is presented, and indeed how receptive we are to the possibilities it offers us.  One such ephiphany came for me on the day I separated.  I went to see the Francis Bacon exhibition at the Tate Britain.  Apart from the savage imagery in Bacon’s screaming popes and the distorted carcasses of meat, his work spoke elooquently to me at many levels.  I felt as close to the mindset of the artist as I’d ever been.  Whether or not that was true did not matter – the fact that Bacon’s work said so much to me justified not only my trip but my belief that art nourishes the soul and develops the faculties of thought and expression far better than any other experience available to me.


At any rate, I am so glad to live near London, where so many great museums and galleries are available to me, mostly free of charge.  Of the treasures I can see in both Tates, the National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, The Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and many, many more, may i always count my blessings.  If you have never been to the gallieries of London and live close enough to do so, I urge you to go, and look beyond the immediate.  I hope the same feeling of euphoria that I experienced comes over you too.

Mature learning for beginners (Aug 2009)

A friend from amateur dramatics, Tracey, is giving up her job, selling her flat and returning to full time education as a mature student.  She’s going to Aberystwyth to study for a degree in drama.  This pleases me, not least because it was me who offered her her first break as an actor by casting her in a one-act play some years ago, though I am struck by the courage of a woman in her early 40s making such a life-changing decision.  Maybe she will go on to teach drama, or even earn a living through playing character roles.  I wish her every success.

The parallels with my own foray into postgraduate education are worth exploring.  I was 40 when I started my MBA at Henley Management College (as it then was.)  Admittedly this was not full-time education, since I was doing a full-time job (albeit working for myself), and indeed had with my wife two small children to care for.  At first it seemed daunting, being surrounded by all these people in various high-powered jobs from many different sectors, but it didn’t take long to realise that I was as good as them and occasionally better.

As we went through a battery of psychometric tests and eventually got formed into syndicate groups who would work intensively together over the following two years, it became evident that our skills were complementary and that we needed to full mix to survive the various tasks imposed by this masters degree, not least the various team-oriented tasks.  In many ways, the sort of team building, trust development exercises we did were not untypical of drama classes in many ways – we did a team-based obstacle course by moon and torchlight, for example, requiring combined reasoning and effort to succeed.

Oh, and forget for a moment the fact that we ranged in age from late 20s to early 40s, we soon reverted to type.  Like students everywhere, we had a bloody good time amidst the hard work.  While most class evenings for FEMBA (Flexible Evening MBA) were held in London with a drink in the pub afterwards, we also had lovely weekends in the gorgeous facilities afforded in Henley, right on the Thames.  These included a bar with informally flexible opening hours and a snooker room, perfect for late nite drunkenness!

Then there was the international study trip.  Four options for random distribution:  China, Malaysia, Hungary and Cape Town.  Lucky for me, I got Cape Town, and what a life changing experience it was too.  On the first day, straight from the airport, we were taken to the delightful fishing & tourism town of Hermanus to see Southern Right whales right by the coast before going off to visit the Hamilton Russell vineyard.  What an introduction!!

Apart from lectures we also saw a number of businesses and talked through many of the issues applicable to sub-Saharan Africa, like migration patterns, AIDs, attracting capital, education, housing etc.  And then business and economic growth.  Then as a complete contrast, we saw the apartheid museum and took a tour of the townships and shanty towns. It was arguably one of the most haunting and emotional experiences of my life, for reasons I’ll go into another time.  And in close juxtaposition to all that, we went out and enjoyed all the night life the Western Cape has to offer along with our colleagues.  A memorable experience for many reasons.

Then suddenly the classes finished and we were on our own, completing the monumental task – the dissertation.  Maybe half the task of a PhD thesis but pretty demanding in its own right.  Actually I really enjoyed doing it and felt a total sense of anti-climax when it was over.  What would I fill this enormous hole in my life with?  The answer was amateur dramatics, but at any rate the sense of achievement from completing the MBA was palpable.  It MEANT something to me.  The only regret was the fact that my dad was too ill to attend the prize giving ceremony, but at least I can look up at my framed certificate and know that is a record of what I can achieve when I put my mind to it, quite apart from the many benefits offered by the work, the tools and techniques learned, everything.

So in a nutshell, returning to education can bring many benefits, not solely confined to the academic, important though those might be.  I’d recommend it to anyone who feels they are in danger of becoming brain dead or stuck in a dead-end career.  Financial support is available for many and the boost to your self-esteem is like a jolt of electricity.  It truly energises you and makes you want to reach your potential, go out there and grab life by the scruff of the neck – make things happen!! 😀

Nostalgie de la Boue (Aug 2009)

nos·tal·gie de la boue (nō̂s tȧl z̸hē də lȧ bo̵̅o̅) – a desire for or attraction to crudity, vulgarity, depravity, etc. (source:  yourdictionary.com)

To begin with, let’s broaden the definition here.  Vulgarity on its own might be Frankie Howerd or Carry On films or anything mildly titilating, but for these purposes let’s look at things that might otherwise be more shameful, anything indeed that sets the hares racing, frightens the horses, meets with the general disgust and approbation of our current societal norms, that sort of thing.

When you count up the sheer volume of letters filling the columns of the Daily Mail from Disgusteds of Tunbridge Wells Britain is drowning in a cesspit of wanton lust, vulgar exposes (emotional and physical) and generally all manner of debauchery.  Sodom and Gomorrah, eat your heart out, the UK is the place to be for disgracefully kinky and crude behaviour of every kind. No discipline, no decency,  Gone to the dogs…

Well, for sure the tabloids scream at us with all manner of shock horror revelations about the lowering of standards still further (without a hint of irony either.)  And then there was Mary Whitehouse and the infamous NVLA (National Viewers and Listeners Association) ranting against the incessant stream of puerile filth emanating by the minute from our televisions and radios.  Everywhere you go, they would say, we our exposed to degradation at an ever accelerating pace: four-letter words on TV (as Michael Flanders put it so memorably “I am very much opposed to the use of four-letter words.  If they are in everyday use, what are we going to use for special occasions?”); nudity everywhere you look (I can’t talk, having been naked on stage for one certain production!); violence and sexual acts in common circulation (and there’s no doubt that you can do in a 12A film now what might once have been in an X cert film in the “old days”), and so onwards goes the litany of apparent evil.

Is that how we live? Well, for sure we had various breakthroughs in what was acceptable in our society.  Hallelujah for the 60s and the “permissive age”, can you imagine how claustrophobic life would have been without it.  But then culture does change over time and people change with it.  Not too long ago we had the Lord Chamberlain to censor our viewing patterns and tell us what we could or could not watch.  Freedom of speech meant we were now dependent upon our own consciences over what was and was not acceptable viewing.  Mary Whitehouse is dead and gone and the NVLA has become Mediawatch.com (“challenging racism, sexism and violence in the media through education and action.”)

The tabloids still sniff around for juicy stories and people are much the same as they ever were.  The old still deplore the behaviour of the young, even if the nature of the rebellion can be somewhat more extreme these days.  Where once a puff of tobacco and maybe a rock & roll 45 was considered daring, they might now be accused of binge drinking, taking whatever are the latest tabs to help you dance all night, then the precocious sex and teenage pregnancies.  Yes, the UK has among Europe’s highest rate of teenage pregnancies but keep things in proportion here (ie. don’t believe everything you read in the Sun) – 41.9 conceptions per 1000 teens is still way too high but judging by the reports you might think it was every teenage girl nursing a baby!

But dig deeper and realise that not much has changed.  For any given age there has always been the underbelly of society, the crude and the lewd.  Prostitution is the “oldest profession” because men have always used it (not this one, thankfully!), though the extent to which the “middle classes” (for want of a better phrase) are in denial about the truth compared to Victorian mores is now radically different.  Where once people would choose in public to deny knowledge of any socially unacceptable habits, today they can do so openly with no apparent consequences.  OK, for sure it would be somewhat shameful and harmful to admit to your wife that you frequent a brothel, but that’s nothing compared to the Victorian society where if anything was known it was most certainly never discussed, so all the debauchery of today and much more went on in secret.  Even our worthy Prime Minister, Gladstone, was said to patrol the streets of the East End of London to save “wicked women”… and as the old joke has it, he saved a few for himself in the process!  As many studies have revealed, Victorian men were often characterised as Jeckyll and Hydes, respectable by day but giving into their various violent carnal desires by night.

If the demand has been there, the market was around to meet it with supply.  So it was that the supply of pornography, something in circulation from Greek times and earlier, was met in abundance during the Victorian age as a vulgar antidote to the moral rectitude of society.  And there it stayed, maybe shameful, something to be enjoyed in total privacy or with a smirk among your mates, And as time went on, porn went through phases, sometimes more explicit, sometimes less, but which always shocked the more conservative elements of society, no matter how harmless they might now seem.  60s editions of Playboy probably seem delightfully twee these days, We were probably the most sex-mad nation on earth but we denied ourselves so many pleasures for fear of offending the cultural norms.

Or did we?  Even then there were almost certainly under-the-counter magazines and film reels that prompted regular police raids!)  Then there were private members’s clubs and various ways to overcome the censor legally, importing all our filth from the continent, where they had no such hangups.  No sex please, we’re British!  Oh, the irony….

But things did change.  Ah yes, there is the Internet society to blame.  The custodians of our moral well-being are like Canutes holding back the tide of porn, violence, powerless as the net flooded into our homes with every known taboo.  Hardcore was here to stay.  But that wasn’t the only taboo we had broken along the way.  In my youth there was the rise of horror films… no, sorry, not horror films, since they have been around for a very long time, no it was the onset of splatter movies, the stalk & slash variety, “video nasties” as many of them came to be known. And it became a rite of passage that you could sit through these without throwing up. But even they probably seem tame against some of the real life footage now available for the connoisseur.

I could go on but you get the general drift.  In short, we’ve always had moral standards and we’ve always pushed at the boundaries.  What would be the fun of living unless someone was challenging our norms and expectations about what was acceptable to say and do in public, forensically examining the grey areas and the taboos as yet untramelled by our modern times.  We’ve come a long way since Lenny Bruce said his first four-letter words on stage, yet in some ways we’ve also become strangely coy.  The political correctness era and the backlash against it showed we may have become desensitised and now accept many things that would have made our parents blush and our grandparents react with total outrage, yet at the same pace we have gained other danger zones, places we dare not go.

Think about it next time you change your form of words to avoid what someone might view as crude or distasteful turn of speech – something in appropriate that causes you to censor yourself.  Is vulgarity dead?  No.  Are we drawn to it?  Always!  Nostalgie de la boue is here to stay!

Fear and loathing, Larry & dentists (Aug 2009)

Took my kids to see the dentist today.  She was a charming South African lady who quickly determined that my daughter needed a trip to the orthodontist because two milk teeth did not have underlying permanent teeth, so she needed them removing and her mouth somehow “rearranged” (as you can see, I have all the correct techical jargon at my fingertips.)  Lindsey was somewhat agitated, though more from a vanity perspective since she was appalled at the possibility of having to wear braces, thereby to be shamed among her peers.  My, how sensitive are a girl’s feelings at 14 – not sure I would have given two hoots!

However, being with the kids in this high-tech dentistry salon did remind me of my last trip there.  The woman’s husband performed his sadistic feats upon me, drilling down to nothing, doing root canals and finally capping me off with a porcelain crown.  The pain and suffering I can live with, though being forced to pay a fortune for the privilege rubs salt into the wound.  Worse still, the bugger insisted on playing Christian rock music the whole time AND singing along to it.  Think people have been murdered for less!!

Why does the dentistry scene in Marathon Man spring to mind as I write this?  You know, that scene were Laurence Olivier’s sinister and sadistic SS officer in modern day NYC captures Dustin Hoffman’s enquiring student, mixed up in the ex-Nazi’s affairs thanks to his brother, and subjects him to a gruesome and excrutiating assault upon the nerve endings…. A friend of mine said this turned him into a “lump of quivering jelly”.  Just remember this next time you go to the dentist… does your man look a bit like Larry, maybe in the half-light of the dentist’s lamp? :S

The tale of a left ankle… (June 2009)

Let me start by saying that this guy is not a hypochondriac.  Many are, but not me.  I solider on with limbs hanging off  spraying arterial blood in all directions, that kind of guy!  However, we all have our permanent weaknesses and two of mine are left ankle and knee.This dates back donkey’s years through many sprainings, ligament tears and more besides – not least when my sister and her friends took me faster around the ice rink than my body wanted to go, and left me howling in agony on the ice.  But did I give up?  Did I hell!  Kept going until I got home, took off my shoes and socks and discovered an ankle twice its usual dimensions and a very fetching shade of deep purple!  Further diagnosis revealed a break somewhere in the bony archipelago of my lower leg.Since then the ankle has flared up periodically, as if that would stop me punishing myself!!  Not a bit of it.  I used to have a rigorous gym regime that included pounding on the treadmill for 30 minutes after a tortuous pedalling session and gruelling cross-trainer antics.  For a time this seemed to work fine.  No problem, I thought!  Alas, my body began to tell a different story and eventually the ankle and knee hurt like hell when I dared venture above 6km/hr.  So I learned my lesson and stuck to power walking, consigning my running days to history.  Even now, if I were about to miss the bus I would probably hobble like an arthritic giraffe than risk running full tilt.  Ah, the joys of aging…A few weeks ago I went to a business meeting in Brixton.  No, no, really – Brixton is a lovely area and I’ve come to enjoy going there, Streatham and lots of other places around Lambeth borough!  So it was that I stepped away from my meeting full of the joys of Spring and promptly fell over the kerb and almost under the wheels of a reversing van.  Call it a minimum suicide attempt if you like.  Anyway, I got up, dusted myself down, tried to regain some dignity, took a step forwards and felt the crippling pain of a lightly sprained ankle.  I could put some weight on it, so I knew it wasn’t too bad, but even so the warm Brixton air was momentarily much bluer.

I tried to walk it off for a few minutes, got a bus back to the office and did my last hour of the day.  Mistake number one: do that and the muscles seize up.  So I walked off to my bus even more giraffe-like than usual.  Got home and continued with life as usual, sure that it would soon mend itself and everything would be alright.

Actually, I went through the next week thinking like that!  The following Friday I had a day in London, met a friend, walked around, went for a drink, wandered some more, caught a tube and eventually got home feeling like a had a bloody stump where my foot had once been.  Mistake number two:  sprains need rest, so overdo it at your peril!!  Spent that night with the foot raised on two pillows and a bag of frozen peas applied to the swelling.

So to this week, 3 weeks on from the original injury.  It was still swollen and painful, but on I went regardless.  And then walked over an uneven paving slab and twisted it again!  This time if felt like a hot knife had sliced through my leg and was busily amputating what was left of my foot.  Excrutiating!  But still I carried on, took two paracetamol and ignored the injury til I got home.  The appearance was utterly horrific – a large bruise and swelling such that I could barely get the shoe off.  It was also noticeable that the ankle felt sore but at least usable when I was on the move, but sitting down was murder.  Didn’t matter what position I had the leg in, which way I crossed it, the ankle throbbed like someone was banging a large pair of kettledrums somewhere down my shins.

Mistake number three:  if your body tells you something is wrong, do something about it.  I didn’t even get to a GP let alone bother our hard-stretched A&E resources, in spite of friends begging and pleading with me to go.  So here we are: some weeks on and still with a swollen ankle.

Today I thought I would pack the paper and my play script to go learn my lines, maybe drive over to A&E in Chelmsford, and settle down for a few blissful hours on a Saturday afternoon.  It was thundering outside, but no way was I going to be put off caring for myself.  Opened the front door and….. some bugger had parked his/her car over the drive so I couldn’t reverse out! :S

That’s it – maybe I should call 999 and get them to come to me?  Or get the breadknife and amputate my own ankle?! (only joking!! :D)

Lazing on a sunny afternoon… June 14th, 2009

Well, half three on a sunny Sunday afternoon and I’m at a loose end.  All alone in my room in Chelmsford, nothing particular to do.  Not that I haven’t done useful things today, you understand – washed the bedclothes, shaved my head, cut fingernails, grazed on a bit of lunch, participated in a few online debates, that sort of thing.  And there are things I couldbe doing if I felt in the mood – like ironing (hmmm…) or writing (tempting but I’m doing really well – past 65k words and steaming ahead!!) or even planning a great new future!!  After all, work tomorrow and back to the grind.  Weekends don’t last long…Hey ho, time to think instead.  About how this reminds me of Sunday afternoons when i was a kid, to begin with.  Sundays seemed so dull.  Nothing much on TV, and in those days shops didn’t open on Sundays.  My dad would be mowing the lawn or doint other jobs, my mum would be cooking and I would be mooching about aimlessly, maybe watching some cricket or listening to the radio, playing a few vinyl albums on my old-fashioned mono record player (remember them?)  All my mates would be similarly closeted at home and on the prowl for something to do.  God we were soooooooooooooooooooooooo bored!!!!  Tedium knew no limits….  Even when we went out en famille, it was hours in the car and feeling fed up.  And when we got there, wherever it was, there would be little or nothing to do.  Either being polite for elderly relatives who would reward you with some obviously useless gift you neither wanted nor needed.  You would be so bored you would have to examine the many and varied knick knacks and ornaments scattered across the furniture like a bric-a-brac blizzard sweeping in from the west.Then before you knew it, it was back to school on Monday morning and the teacher would ask you what you had done, and you would reply, “I dunno sir.”  And he would say in a voice laden with sarcasm, “You must know what you’ve been doing.  The weekend only just ended!”  But it was true – you really could not rember where the time went.Anyway, more later – time for my bubble bath now, I think! 😀

In praise of London buses (May 2009)
I started work at a client yesterday.  It was the first client work I’ve done since December, the interim period having been filled with personal crisis and logistics, writing the novel and generally slobbing around.  Client work means getting up early, dressing in the quaint and curious costume one is required to wear for these events (suit, shirt, tie),  Living the high life as a management consultant – gosh, what fun!The problem was getting there from my current Chelmsford base.  Not quite so easy, particularly after rising at the crack of 6am: walk, bus, train, tube, tube, walk.  Hour and three quarters to get to my client (agreeably close to the Oval cricket ground but sadly nothing whatever to do with cricket), two whole hours to get home: 15.625% of my day wasted, just like that!Admittedly I can bring my laptop along and tap away at the novel during the interlude between Chelmsford and Liverpool Street, something even i wouldn’t dare to attempt while motoring around the M25, but the frustration came with the tubes.  We’re talking sardine country here, packed in, pushing through crowds, delays, you name it.  Fun it is not.And then came the piece de resistance when yesterday I discovered that the Victoria line was closed due to industrial action.  Sadly I was on the Victoria line platform when I made the discovery, having apparently missed all the warning signs.

This is where the British male shows his resolve.  Or the next best thing, anway.  So I found a way to Waterloo, worked out which exit was required to which bus stop and, lo and behold, boarded a 77 to Vauxhall with  considerable ease.  How splendid, I thought, but got to find the same bus back.  So come the evening, I went in search of the 77… only to discover that at the same bus stop I could also board a 344 direct to Liverpool Street, one every 7-9 minutes and with buslanes aplenty to see it rapidly through to destination.

In the scheme of things, this is not quite up there with penicillin or the wheel, but what a revelation that you could get on one bus and stay there in some comfort right the way through to your destination!!  No sharp elbows in your ribs, no trawl to change trains, no cancellations, nothing – just a smooth journey and a chance to watch the world go by.

Not only that, but when I caught the same bus back to Vauxhall this morning, the sun shone, the office workers looked cheery, the Thames looked less murky, everything in the world seemed right.  Wow!  Almost felt like working when I got here, incredible as it might sound.  So what on earth persuaded me that buses were old hat and that I needed the tube anyway?

Whatever – that’s me sorted!  Hope you enjoy your journey home too! 😀

Catastrophe and the craft of writing
For my first blog, a brief introduction to the novel I’m presently writing.  This is my second attempt, the first being as yet unfinished but with much promise once the best can be tamed.This time I’ve taken a more measured approach and chosen to write for a specific market – teenagers!   Someone once told me that writing for teenagers was like writing for adults, minus the sex scenes.  Not so.  Teens have an endless capacity for deep, dark and dangerous, read voraciously irrespective of the material, play fast and loose with genres, and don’t bat an eyelid at things that would give many adults a fit of the vapours!The story I’ve developed is a thriller, codenamed Catastrophe, though what the final title will be I have no idea. Perhaps a little competition might be in order?As a theme is was inspired by my daughter Lindsey, who also described the leading protagonists.  As with Harry Potter and Jo Rowling, they apparently wandered into her mind fully formed and have been fleshed out in the course of writing.  I’ve grown to like them, and indeed the baddies written into the story too.  You could make a case for saying I don’t control them, they control me.  I often have no idea what they will end up doing, but they manage to catch me by surprise at regular intervals, the little blighters!!  For example, one of them committed a murder recently.  I was totally gobsmacked!  Hadn’t seen that one coming at all, though it was totally in character.

Writing is a fascinating and somewhat organic process.  Yes, you plan it out to a greater or lesser degree.  Some writers allow the story to meander from a fixed point (as with JRR Tolkein’s “this story grew in the telling”), while others research and plan down to the last degree and give themselves little room for manouvre.  I know pretty much how each chapter will end and I do know the massive denouement to which I am ultimately heading, but how I get to those landmarks does not necessarily follow a straight line. And in truth, I rather like that – it’s exciting to allow your characters free rein and to exercise their own initiative en route.  It seems to make for a fresher and less predictable end product.

More to follow on this gripping adventure!! 😀


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