Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Classless Society

In his introduction to A Classless Society Alewyn W. Turner writes that he both explores the high politics and the low culture of the nineties because “the latter not only reflects but often pre-empts the former.” To illustrate, he reminds the reader that the infamous meeting between Brown and Blair at the Granita was not the reason why the paparazzi gathered outside the restaurant: the media was far more interested in actor Susan Tully, then playing Michelle Fowler in EastEnders, who was seated at a front table. 

Turner's explorations into the nineties have produced a stimulating, eye-opening and entertaining read. He divides it into two main sections, the first of which moves from the fag-end of Thatcher's premiership to the end of Tory rule in 1997, where he begins the second.

Each section is sub-divided into chapters all of which begin with a selection of quotations, such as Peter Baynham on New Labour, “A media-friendly, highly electable platoon of smiling, capitalist thugs.” This structure, coupled with his stated intention above, allows Turner to paint a vivid picture of nineties life.

The breadth of his research is impressive. It encompasses quotations from Bernard Manning, a reference to “the Mull of Kintyre test” that was used for female soft porn magazines and he reminds us that at the introduction of the National Lottery a Tory MP thought “Flogging criminals live on television before [it] will create a great impact.”

Turner devotes an appropriate amount of words to the two major politicians of the nineties, John Major and Tony Blair.  He is kind to the former, presenting a revisionist stance on the man that inspired Andy Hamilton's John Major-ogram: “They send round a bloke in a suit. He stands here for ten minutes, no one notices him and he goes away again.”

Tony Blair, however, receives a dressing-down to such an extent that, although the writer does allow the ex-PM a share of the back-slapping for the Good Friday Agreement, he reminds us that the “I feel the hand of history on our shoulders” comment began with “This is no time for sound bites.”

Irvine Welsh comments in his review of the book for The Daily Telegraph that the only thing it lacks is a section on the impact of rave culture. It is a good point but, as Welsh writes, the book is “an otherwise uniformly brilliant work.”

Thursday, October 02, 2014


“No other species anywhere in the world had invented boredom[...] that strange ability to think “How dull. I wonder what happens if I bang this rock on that head?””

Thankfully, Terry Pratchett addresses his boredom by writing novels and Thief of Time is the 26th set in Discworld. The plot revolves around the construction of the perfect glass clock, craved by The Auditors, a group of supernatural clipboard holders, because it will freeze time and enable them to eradicate humanity's unpredictability.

When (the personification of) Death learns of the plan he sends his granddaughter, Susan, on a thwarting mission. The news of the clock also reaches a valley which is partly populated by the History Monks, one of whom, Lu-Tze, has experience of such a device's power and is keen to block its construction.

Thus, with all of elements of the screwball plot in place, Pratchett uses it to riff on the nature of time and relativity. The novel is stronger on philosophy than character or plot. Its comedy is gentle rather than tear inducing, although the description of Susan's classroom is excellent as is the satire of martial art movie tropes. The reader also discovers that death by chocolate really is a possibility.

Although it is not his best and not an ideal entry point for a new discoverer of the Discworld, Pratchett's voice is unique. He is incapable of writing a bad novel and long may he alleviate his boredom by treating us to the fruits of his imagination.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Before I Boarded A Train

This is a thriller that should be bought only if the reader has a particular diversionary need in mind.

As it is essentially a three-handed epistolary novel in which the events take place in a handful of locations it is not, despite the suggested questions at the back, suitable for a book club, particularly if the other readers are prone to comments such as “I wish I had the bravery to buy cushions like that”.

Nor is it ideal for a sufferer of SAD who is looking for a novel to help him through a Tuesday evening in November because the story does not fully engage the intellect. It could, therefore, make the sufferer feel worse as he might to start to question his decision making.

However, its short sentences and punchy style make it close to ideal for readers who are facing a journey and, for whatever reason, crave an easy to read distraction. I read half of it whilst I was lightly toasted on a Saturday evening train from Birmingham and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I'd say it was the perfect thriller to buy at Birmingham New Street station at 8pm on a Saturday night.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


I was attacked in bed at 3am. It was unexpected, vicious and there were no witnesses.

The previous evening a friend had related an anecdote in which a colleague displayed a cool head in testing circumstances. When my friend said, “You stay very calm”, he responded “I do.....but I have a big fucking mortgage. And the other guy's a bell-end”

I have been described as having a “relaxed attitude to life.” That fact is, I don't. I'm just aware that there is a time and place to call someone a “bell-end”. Moreover, as I recently learned in a dog-grooming parlour, some self-censorship is necessary: banging on about arthritis does not make the listener want to shag you.

However, in the aftermath of my recent attack I felt like spewing out “bell-end” at everyone and saw the social value in describing pain. I felt like I had earned the right to bore the shit out of people. The pain made me feel like taking a coping saw to my big toe and working until I was blinded with bone dust. I was attacked by gout and I have discovered that it is “one of the best Antidotes against Stoical Opinions.”

There are those who argue that pain is the route to self-improvement. In 1777, after being hit by a runaway horse, the philanthropist John Brown wrote: "Do me good, oh God! By this painful affliction may I see the great uncertainty of health ease and comfort that all my Springs are in Thee."

There may be something in that. I certainly think that finding yourself in extreme pain can award you profound insight into the state of your relationship. I can also add that gout was literally my wake up call to take a long hard look in the mirrored door of the bathroom medical cabinet and ask myself “WHERE THE FUCKING HELL ARE THE PAINKILLERS?”

It took me half an hour to discover the house was a pill-free zone. The attack rendered me incapable of walking. I was reduced to crawling around my bedroom like an inchworm. I had carpet burns on my chin. The stairs? Fuck you, no: I'm not sharing that experience. Perhaps when we get to know each other better. Or you get gout.

I've yet to see a non-sufferer look sympathetic when you tell him that you have attacks of gout. I, too, was guilty of mockery. I would have delighted at the idea of a TV-show called “Bouts of Gout”,in which two sufferers are put in a pebbled arena and zombie-shuffle towards each other before going toe-to-toe.

The winner? Treat him to a soothing swing in a hammock and cover him with Labrador puppies. The loser? Send out a nicotine-starved stage-chimpanzee armed with a rubber dildo. Have him knuckle-dash towards the terror-stricken contestant. Watch, awe-struck, as he pounds the loser's toe with simian zest. Listen to the pan-hoot drown out the howls of pain. Applaud the naked ape. Buy the branded dildo. Accessorise it with sweetcorn.

The misfortunes of others are often borne with equanimity. Larkin put it brilliantly:

“Yours is the harder course I see; on the other hand, mine is happing to me.”

In the case of gout, the depth of the amusement is, partly, the legacy of class anxiety. If we delve back in history, to a time when the medical profession was still performing trepanning and other surgeries without anaesthetic, we find plenty of petite-bourgeoisie that were ecstatic when they could proclaim “I have gout”.

Folklore deemed gout a disease of the “better sort, a superiority tax, a celebrity complaint “fit for a man of quality.” Gout was the “distemper of a gentleman” whereas the rheumatism was the distemper of a hackney coachman.”

To say you had gout was to imply that you could afford an extravagant lifestyle and you hobbled through the corridors of power. It gained such an association with the indulgence of alcohol and rich rood that, now, if you tell someone you suffer from gout, they are likely to assume that you are a person of congenital idleness, rancid morals and general worthlessness.

It is true that you are more likely to have an attack if you are over forty, male, a heavy-drinker, overweight and idle. I'm two of those things, the ones that I can't address. (Technically, I could change one of the two but I don't fancy that assignment.) I don't have a six-pack but I'm not overweight. I drink, but not that heavily. I idle, but it's not, to my knowledge, a sobriquet.

Gout can just hit you if you have a build up of uric acid and it causes the kind of pain that, if I were of a certain age, might make me consider assisted death. (Given attitudes to gout, I would probably end up using “Indignitas” and find myself gently trundling down a cliff on a wheeled commode whilst watching my lover perform a “Look Ma, no hands!” sex act on her lover, all to the tune of “My Way.” )

Eighteen hours after the start of the attack, I had to call 111. The surges of pain made me my think my foot was going to explode and I was enfeebled to an extent that I couldn't perform my inchworm manoeuvre. I was prescribed painkillers and colchicine, a drug that gets rid of the uric acid but dumps you with diarrhoea before you have regained the ability to haul-ass at a functional rate. Yes, fuck you again, that is another anecdote involving stairs I'm not sharing.

Seven days later, I could stand. It made me want to dance. I couldn't, of course, but after a week in which I had sacrificed a social trip to London, a chance to meet friends whom I had not seen for many months and everyone's casual mobility provoked a desire to shout insults, unassisted standing nearly made me want to kiss “bell-ends.”

Saturday, September 14, 2013

And Bring Someone With You

A year ago today, my dad died.
At approximately 5am, he said “That’s ok, you’re just doing your job” to a hospital nurse who had apologised in case her duties had woken him. 

He was eighty-four, an active maths tutor, a keen swimmer, a husband and father of five. He had been referred to the hospital by the chiropodist because he had no feeling in the fourth toe of his right foot, a concern as he had type two diabetes. After investigation, the doctors had concluded the toe would have to be amputated. Not pleasant, but not life threatening. 

At approximately 6am, my mum received a call from the hospital: Your husband is very poorly. Come right away. And bring someone with you.

Confused, she called my sister, who drove her to the hospital. There, they met the duty sister. She fluffed her delivery, mangling the message that my sister had decoded but my mum had yet to comprehend.
“You mean he’s dead?”

He died of a myocardial infarction at a time between 5am and 6am. 

At 8am, I received a phone call from my eldest brother: “Are you sitting down?”

Approximately two hours later I was in a taxi, my eye caught by the driver’s mirror as it had an air freshener that stated “World’s Best Dad.”

When I arrived at the hospital, my mum’s first words to me were “We didn’t expect this, David, did we?”
I’d just seen what we didn’t expect. 

The last time I saw him alive he was waiting to be X-rayed.  My mum and I had just said goodbye to him but as we walked out I glanced over my shoulder. He grinned and gave me a high thumbs up. Everything was going to be ok.
Eighteen hours later, directed by my eldest brother, I joined my mum, my sister and aunt, in a tiny room, just outside the ward, the bad news room, the room of shattered lives. I went from an unexpected end to the start of the unimaginable. As Iris Murdoch put it, “Bereavement is a darkness impenetrable to the imagination of the unbereaved.”  

As we sat, sipping tea and breaking down, my other brother and sister were making the journey from London. They arrived at about 2.30 and we went to Bluebell House, the hospital’s mortuary. We walked in and my mum let out a cry, her face contorted by anguish, “I don’t think I can do this.” 

I do not know how she has done what she has done this last year: the person most gravely affected by the bereavement has been the one who has displayed the greatest mental health. Bereavement tests everybody’s maturity: on many occasions this year I have failed; she has not faltered at all.  

She, wisely, I think, spends time at home, keeping herself busy, maintaining the rooms they inhabited, the places in which she can, if she chooses, populate with my father. Grief has not made her a hermit: her weekly routine is structured around, as it was before, lunches out with her friends; but annual or seasonal rituals that she would have attended with my dad seem now to provoke uncertainty. 

They are occasions in which she has to sit, in company, conscious of her massive amputation. Gone are the in-jokes and the shared facial expressions at moments of social intrigue that have been a near lifelong staple of her experience of the communal dining table. No longer can she offer her goodbyes, return home and digest the event with my dad. No more combining memories to validate the other’s experience and cement each other’s identity.   

She, we, didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. He didn’t hear “you have months to live”, he didn’t glimpse his coat being held by the eternal footman, he just died. Apparently, he’d expressed a wish “to go on the dance floor” and years ago, his doctor, had told my dad, while clicking his fingers “You’ll go out like a light.”
He had multiple health issues that were masked by his energy and his charisma. We, the offspring, know now that he would have been on kidney dialysis from early this year, facing death by dimmer switch. 

I knew his preference but, in the dark days of bereavement, I wondered, pointlessly, if it is preferable, in the context of the ultimate double bind, to have the chance to spend time with him, knowing the sand is trickling away, or to be surprised by the smashed hourglass. 

There were plenty of times during the six months following his death that I really, really, felt the pain of the broken glass. On such occasions, my mind was a snake pit.  Grief contaminated my thoughts, sometimes causing poisoned outbursts at undeserving people, sometimes leading to feelings of intense self loathing.
It was during one of the latter bouts that I served a brunch for four people that included cold mushrooms and insipid scrambled eggs.   My head screamed:
”You can’t even do that David, can you?”,

to which another internal voice rejoined, 

“What’s this? Thinking about your own inadequacies, when your father died just a few days ago? Who the fuck do you think you are?”

In the evening, a plastic bag I was carrying split and four cans of lager tumbled onto the street. There has not been a time in my when I have hated myself more.  

A feeling of lacking control percolated in such a manner that caused damaging examinations of past behaviour, in which my actions now appeared to be inexcusable, incompetent and insensitive. It was also the start of the “What If?” narratives, of which there were to be many, but they all shared the same need to punish, to blame, berate - myself, institutions, the world.   

Scared by the intensity of these feelings, I tried to maintain a poker face, thus depriving loved ones of the chance to offer me consolation and, at times, appearing dispassionate. An anguished person sometimes needs to see a genuine reflection of feeling in the face of a family member. Sometimes, looking at me, my family didn’t see it and that can lead to intense anger, as the other seems to be an emotional tourist, not a true member of the tribe.

Consequently, I suspect that there were times when I damaged, temporarily, relationships with my siblings. My poker face was a misguided attempt to have a sense of control when everything seemed chaotic. I was so desperate to clutch at something I could control that I offered to be acting executor of my father’s will.
The experience of going through his paperwork was the opposite of that staple of fiction, the discovery of a proverbial hatbox containing a cache of letters: he had been self controlled, responsible and authentic. Everything I was not. My respect for him grew. 

Through clipping his passport, sending back his driver’s licence, seeing almost thirty-five years of his medical history I, over time, accepted the extinguishing of his light.  By contemplating the darkness, I was forced to stop my psychological shadow boxing and began to fully grieve.

Just over three months later, all of the post death tasks were complete. The estate had been released and my dad’s ashes were buried, in a rose garden, by the roots of a Joie De Vivre.  It is then that my sense of time started to be become less muddled. During the immediate aftermath, when I was trying to come to terms with the disappearance of one of the greatest sources of consistency in my life, my sense of past, present and future were all over the place.  I developed a firsthand understanding of how a middle aged person could develop obsessive compulsive disorder: Amidst chaos, small routines can bring comfort and a sense of control.

Existing rituals have a permanently altered texture, as I discovered on my birthday. I visited the Joie De Vivre with my mum and brother. It was a warm, beautiful day. I felt a sadness that I would not wish away, the sadness that is part of being bereaved.    

Bereavement creates many new anniversaries, the biggest of which occurs today. I hope we can create a ritual of remembrance. I hope it will draw a straight line from the past to present to the future and celebrates his life.   

It was a life that was full of warmth, engagement and fun.  One of the last things I heard him say, on the thirteenth of September, as he was getting in a chair, wearing a towelled robe and about to be wheeled to the orthopaedic X-ray department, was, as he rolled his shoulders, “We’ll take him in the fifth, Rocky.”

Saturday, April 03, 2010


Packing bags should be classified as an emotionally high risk activity by [the] Department of Psychology.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Battle for the Soul

I am a recovering nerd.

I am trying my best to make progress but the road to rehabilitation is long and beset on all sides by the inequities of the elfish and the tyrannies of evil students.

I have tried many methods to erase my nerdiness:

I have listened to gangsta-rap, developed a minor interest in gridiron and have seriously contemplated purchasing a Stadium Pal;

but still I feel stained by my adolescence.

Recovering nerds constantly have to police their thoughts in order to stifle any sign of regression. It is the self monitoring equivalent of kettling - i.e. it batters down any sense of deviancy - but sometimes the ideas cannot be bludgeoned and one's inner nerd temporarily takes over.

Recently I was watching the adaptation of The Da Vinci Code.*

After about seventy minutes I could not shake the notion that I was watching a particularly well-plotted game of Dungeon & Dragons.

Everything seemed to be in place:

the leading characters were dragged along by the plot and their actions made no difference to the outcome;

when seemingly at a loss, they would -

a) discover a hitherto overlooked clue

b) be assisted by a timely intervention from a badly drawn supporting character or,

c) appear to make a "saving throw" against certain death.

The dialogue was worse than the improvised efforts that we shouted when my friends and I wasted far too many weekends sitting around a pool table - Sorry! - anxiously standing guard outside The Crag of Xianworth - wondering how to slay The Crimson Legion (how's that for a Freudian nightmare?) without squashing the Chewits.

If you think that is a bold claim, here is a random selection of lines from the screenplay:

"Yes, and the more penises you have, the higher your rank."

"It is information from a man only known as.........the teacher."

"You, cripple. Put the keystone on the table."

"I've got to get to a library.....Fast."

I know the feeling, Tom.

The more I was exposed to this drivel, the more I felt myself being pulled back to the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide. My only chance was to seek out knowledge borne of more rational minds,** so I paused the DVD and spent ten minutes reading a newspaper.

By the time I restarted the film I felt sufficiently grounded that I could listen to - "You will not succeed. Only the worthy can unlock the stone." - without suffering an existential spasm.

By the time the DVD finished, I was in a state of inner peace. I had realised it could not have been a Dungeons & Dragons game as the film had a lower sense of character development.

Maybe screenwriter Akiva Goldsman should buy the latest update for the D&D Character Builder.

In bad news for my recovery, it is now number 2 on my wish list.

It has supplanted "shag."

*The post could have ended here and the point would still have been made.

** Note that the nature of this action dooms the recovery to failure. When presented with a challenge to his world view, a nerd takes solace from fact.***

***How many nerds does it take to change a light bulb? Any number, but the change has to be logged in a notebook.****

****Presumably when the effin' light is back on.