Wednesday, 24 December 2008

The (Alternate) Christmas Speech: The Sibylline Books

This is the story of a city, of a strange traveller and some books.

Like all the best stories it takes place a long time ago and in a place that was far, far away – although no light-sabres were involved: not even a little one.

The name of the city has been lost in the mists of time, but it was a great and powerful city that was ruled by a kind and just Emperor who took great pains to ensure his people were happy and contented. However, as is often the way, the middle-managers were rubbish.

The city existed high in the mountains, above the villages that came under its protection and with whom they traded. Every year the province opened its walls to travellers for a great fair that was the talk of cities as far as a few hundred miles away.

One year an old lady arrived on the very last day of the fair, weighed down and walking slowly due to a big, black sack pulled taut across her back. Refusing all offers of help she set up shop in the market – placing twelve large books on her table: nothing less, nothing more.

Most people ignored her, but a few curious travellers asked what her books contained. She refused to let any look inside the covers, but explained that she had travelled all her life and these books were her memoirs, containing all the truth and beauty in the world. She explained that she would only sell them together and demanded 3,000 credits.

Back then 3,000 credits was a lot of money and could have bought a good sized house and possibly a few sheep if you didn’t mind a bit of mange around the collar, so the locals laughed at her and called her names…but the old woman was not worried and asked to speak to someone in authority.

Finally, just as the fair was closing the Mayor of the city came and spoke to the woman saying, ‘How can we possibly judge if these books are worth what you say if you will not let us look at them?’

But the old woman would not be swayed, saying only, ‘knowledge cannot be given, it must be earned’

Still the Mayor refused to buy the books: and so the woman took four of the books and placed them on a pile with some firewood. Then she burned them, making sure there was nothing left for prying eyes. Packing the eight remaining books on her back she left the city, saying only that she would be back again the next year.

Twelve months passed and times were hard. The animals succumbed to a disease, meaning that the locals were forced to over-farm their lands. A sudden population boom meant that food was ever scarcer and prices rose. When the time of the fair came around again there was considerably less fanfare than in previous years and buying was visibly slower.

Two days before the end of the fair the old woman returned and set up shop, explaining that the loss in weight had made her journey faster. Again she refused to let anyone open the books, refusing to even discuss a price unless she spoke to the Emperor himself.

‘The Emperor is far too busy to deal with traders’ The Mayor explained as patiently as he could manage, ‘Perhaps we can come to an agreement?’

‘Perhaps’ the old lady agreed, ‘But you understand that the price has changed?’

‘Clearly’ The Mayor replied

‘This year I want 6,000 credits’

The Mayor could barely believe his ears. Clearly the woman knew nothing of supply and demand. He shook his head, refusing to discuss the matter further. As it happened this year the old woman had not managed to gather any firewood before setting up, so she took an axe to her table and burned another four of the books –leaving only four remaining, ‘See you next year’ she said.

Another twelve months passed and, if anything, they were harder than the last twelve. There were continual bandit problems on the borders, meaning the Emperor was often forced to spend vital money on maintaining the army that should have gone towards pensions and grain. Rains came harder and frosts colder, meaning that a lot of stock was lost. House prices crashed, leaving many people homeless. Also a lot of estate agents went out of business – but on the whole people thought this to be a good thing.

When the old woman returned to the fair it was a sorry sight – little or no bunting and only a handful of other outsiders. There was an air of despondency in the small crowd. Only the old woman, travelling lighter with less books and no table, seemed relatively happy.

By now it had begun to occur to some of the locals that had spoken to her that their Mayor was being an ass and that the old woman might be onto something. They had clubbed together and raised as much money as they had; asking her to name her price

’12,000 credits’ she announced firmly, ‘not a penny less’

‘But we only budgeted for 10,000’ they replied

The old woman shrugged and repeated her motto, ‘Knowledge cannot be given, it must be earned’

This year the people refused to sell her any firewood, so she tore three of the remaining four books into pieces and burned them in front of the locals, before leaving for another year.

When she returned for the final time it was to find the head of the Mayor on a pole at the gate and the Emperor waiting for her himself. Somehow word of the lady had got through. He took one look at the binding of the one remaining book and its cover and knew it to be a thing of beauty and value, ‘How much?’ he asked

‘Twenty thousand credits’ she replied

‘But the banks are foreclosing,’ the Emperor replied, ‘we will have to borrow heavily from the taxes; people will go hungry’

The old lady shrugged, ‘Should have thought about that before then’ she replied, ‘Firewood please’

However, the Emperor held up a hand in defeat, agreeing to the old lady’s price.

The old lady nodded and handed over the book, taking the money and counting it slowly. Finally, when she was satisfied she looked up and winked, ‘Thank you’ she said, ‘but believe me…’ she added, ‘you should have seen the rest of it’

As she left the Emperor took the book in his hands and opened it. As he turned each page he began to cry, weeping for all the truth and beauty in the book and all that had now been lost and could never be found again.

A Xmas Note From The Pixies:

For further information on the original myth of the sibylline books visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sibylline_Books

Or for a more contemporary account (upon which this narration is based) read the excellent “Last Chance To See” by Douglas Adams and Mark Cawardine

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Last-Chance-See-Douglas-Adams/dp/0330320025/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1228477124&sr=1-1

Finally – a special link to follow for anyone who would like an alternate Christmas song that reminds us about how important our family appear when we are kids. This song came second in the Christmas Charts to the X Factor winner Shane Ward 3 years ago – a pretty remarkable achievement considering the band, Nizlopi, were entirely self financed and had no record deal. Enjoy – and merry Christmas to all

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3WhQB7Hq0Q

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Eyes On The Prize (Part Four)

The flame poles spluttered and crackled angrily as the wind picked up, throwing the snow across the frozen land like grains of sand. At the far side of the camp, almost invisible against the dark backdrop of the night, the snowmobiles sat silent and abandoned.

The five riders that had accompanied Fisher still stood on the outskirts of the small circle of light, their faces hidden by their voluminous hoods. Closer still to the pool of light a pile of jackets lay just out of reach of the three figures, huddling together for warmth.

Templar shifted on the ice, trying to regain the feeling in his toes, feeling the cold metal shaft of the handcuffs rub against his bare skin. He tried his best to stop his teeth from chattering, but could not. The temperature was dropping by the minute as the wind built up, but still Fisher was showing no signs of compassion. Instead he was watching them from above, the glowing tip of his cigar the only sign of movement. Templar turned his attention to the group of bystanders. There was something familiar about them, something he had seen somewhere before…

‘Puh-please’ Brannigan stuttered, ‘I’m freezing’
‘Shut the fuck up Mark’ McKenzie snapped, ‘We’re all freezing’
‘Compassionate as ever Claire’ Fisher moved closer for the first time since the handcuffs had been applied to their arms, his grin widening to show the teeth, ‘and here I was thinking you were a changed woman’
‘I am’ McKenzie replied, her gaze meeting his, ‘thanks to you’
Templar cast her a quick glance, but said nothing. He wondered how much of her attitude was bravado and how much of it was down her past. He watched Fisher as he leaned closer into their faces and saw no hope of survival in those eyes.
‘Well,’ Fisher was continuing, ‘There’s so little time and so much to talk about – where shall we begin?’
‘Give us back our jackets and we’ll talk’ Templar offered
‘Fuck that’ McKenzie spat, ‘the second we tell you anything you’ll slit our throats – so you’ll get nothing from any of us’
‘Oh I don’t know’ Fisher replied, ‘Blood is so difficult to get out of clothes – even if you do a pre-wash’ he leaned in closer to Brannigan, so close that the glowing tip of the cigar threatened to scorch the skin, ‘Besides, ‘ he said, ‘I think I’ve found the weakest link in your chain’
‘I haven’t told him anything useful,’ McKenzie scoffed, ‘and threatening him won’t make me tell you anything’
‘Perhaps’ Fisher stood up and looked at the night sky. Flashes of blue lightning were ripping across the storm-filled sky. He glanced at Templar, ‘Time is running out Charles. You above all others know what will happen if we don’t get inside soon…and yet you haven’t said anything?’
‘Give us warmth’ Templar repeated, his tone never changing, ‘and I’ll tell you what you already know’
Fisher laughed at this, ‘True, true’ he said, fishing the cigar from his lips for a few seconds, ‘But I’m still curious to hear your side of things’ he moved back over to Brannigan and delivered a swift kick to the side, ‘So come on boy,’ he said, ‘Tell me what they told you’
‘Puh-please,’ Brannigan repeated, ‘I’m freezing’
Fisher kicked him again, this time in the stomach, causing Brannigan to double over in pain. Fisher waited patiently for all of five seconds before grabbing Brannigan’s chin between his thumb and forefinger and pulling him up straight, ‘I always find a bit of pain sharpens the mind’
‘Leave him alone John’ Templar said quietly, though his eyes were still fixed on the night’s sky. The flashes of blue seemed to be growing, twisting into shapes before his eyes. He wondered if it was the cold, hoping that his darkest fears were not true.
‘Oh I don’t think so,’ Fisher replied, ‘Not unless Claire feels like begging?’
McKenzie’s silence was answer enough and Fisher grinned again; ‘So tell me, my friend, what did they tell you?’
‘Look,’ Brannigan spluttered, still gasping, ‘All I know is that the plane took off sometime in 1944 from Germany.’ He paused to cough and shake his head, ‘The rumour was that Oliver Postgate was trying to hide religious artefacts from the Germans – but something went wrong.’ He coughed again, gesturing towards McKenzie ‘That bitch there hired me, telling me I would be needed to date artefacts. She suggested that there was a connection to Christ’
Fisher moved back, gazing at him for a long time, then he nodded and removed the cuffs, throwing Brannigan his coat, ‘And you believed that DaVinci Code bullshit?’ He turned towards McKenzie, ‘Really Claire, you always were a bad liar’

McKenzie said nothing, but her eyes were full of hatred as she spat into the snow next to Fisher’s feet. Fisher gestured towards one of the five men in shadow, who had still not spoken or moved, and the remaining cuffs were removed. As Templar shook the life back into his arms he turned again towards the horizon, watching the light show
‘I think we may have left it too late’ he muttered
‘It’s still alive?’ McKenzie asked, her voice showing a hint of fear for the first time.
‘Oh please Claire,’ Fisher interjected, ‘Your theatrics may fool these two, but you forget – I know what you came here for’
McKenzie shook her head, ‘No John’ she replied quietly, ‘If you had even the slightest clue what I was looking for out here then you’d never have come’
Templar took hold of her shoulder, ‘Claire…we really should move now…’ he gestured towards the horizon where the storm seemed to be turning into something else. Now even Fisher managed to look concerned
‘What the fuck?’ Brannigan said. The blue lightning was growing into a ball of energy, seeming to define a dark shape against the horizon. If you looked close enough you could swear that the form was moving.
Fisher reached for his shotgun, made to focus on the shape, but something in Templar’s eyes stopped him from firing. As the shape seemed to grow on the horizon Templar gestured towards the cold metal frame of the plane, ‘Everybody get under cover, NOW!!!’

To be continued
__________________________________________________________________

...And that’s it until after Christmas I’m afraid. It’s funny how this is developing in my head – I had so many ideas, but they all seem to have moved around and worked in slightly different ways: not a single episode has gone entirely where i thought it would go. However, we’re getting closer to the end of the story now with only 1 or 2 more episodes, but I didn’t want to quite show my hand yet as to exactly what is going on.

A note to myself is that if I were writing this story off line and editing I would re-write Fisher a few times, as he doesn’t quite sound the way I originally envisaged him. My apologies to anyone who doesn’t like stories with a Sci-Fi/mythic angle –again if I were to re-write this I would put a few larger hints into the earlier episodes

For anyone interested a few of the influences on this story:
Doctor Who: The Seeds Of Doom
The X Files: Ice (almost exactly the same plot as the Dr Who story)
Forbidden Planet (and the associated musical Return To The Forbidden Planet)
The Thing

Although having said the above I have tried not to make this too derivative of any of these stories.

Finally – I’m starting to regret the choice of title for this story. I wanted to give it a title fairly quickly so that I wouldn’t have to worry about it, but the more the story has developed the less apposite the title seems.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The Christmas Essays #2: Losing My Religion

I could never get married in Church.

Yeah, yeah, I know – it’s lovely, traditional, very auspicious: but I couldn’t do it – not even if I was marrying the Bishop of East Anglia.

Admittedly if I were marrying the Bishop we probably wouldn’t be allowed to get married in a church, as I think (if the role actually exists) it’s currently filled by a man – but that’s not my reason.

My reason is that I don’t believe in God…or at least not any God sponsored by religion, and to me it would be wrong to stand in the house of God and make a promise before one of God’s earthly representatives to love someone for all time, interspersed with a bunch of songs about God.

As far as I’m concerned making this promise to a God I don’t believe in would a) be an insult to anyone with firm religious beliefs and b) be starting the marriage with a lie.

I tried to explain this to my Dad the other day and his response was say that this in itself was a kind of belief system. Yes Dad, it’s called a Moral Belief.

But the thing is that I feel the same way, in many ways, about Christmas. In fact a few years back I told a friend that the reason I didn’t particularly celebrate Christmas was due to my lack of religious fire.

They asked me what religion had got to do with Christmas and do you know, I had to ask myself the same question. I mean yes, Christ-mas: birth of Jesus and all that – but how many people do you know that will be going to church on Christmas Day? And how many of those go every Sunday? I suspect the figure to be quite low.

These days Christmas is about turning your street into the Las Vegas Strip, getting drunk and having to be carried back to your room at the Office Party, buying your kids the latest Yu-Gi-Oh, Ben 10 or Spongebob Squarepants DVD and over indulgence of sprouts. If you look at the Christmas Day TV schedule you’ll be lucky to find more than one or two programmes that even mention religion. In fact things have got so politically correct here now that many schools have eschewed tradional Nativity plays and Carols for fear of agonising the multi-cultural Britain (when it's a fact that most other religions have no particular problem with this)

And it’s especially odd for me, because I work in an environment that employs a large percentage of Muslims (about 60-75% of our workforce, maybe higher). They have two different versions of Eid – one around October/November and one around January. Every single Muslim employee observes the fast to the letter, every single one of them can tell you exactly why they observe it and why it is important. Every single one of them goes to the Mosque on a daily basis during that time, unlike Christmas and Lent – which people only have a vague idea what it means.

John Lennon was vilified by the press for saying that The Beatles were bigger than God, but in a way he was entirely right – God doesn’t put out hit records or advertise on prime time TV (which is why the average nine year old can recognise a picture of Ronald McDonald, but not Jesus) – so religion is fighting hard for our attention, even at a time when it should be central

And I wonder how long the recognition from the Muslim society will last – I wonder if they will be tarnished by the decadent West and find a few generations down the line that they are merely paying lip service to the old beliefs. I think the signs are already there – as the next generation of Muslims grow up with the freedoms and the benefits of the world and turn to their Wii’s instead of their prayer mats, in much the same way that we turned from our pulpits to our TVs less than a century ago.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Eyes On The Prize (Part Three)

‘Greyhound four to trap six; Greyhound four to trap six’

There was an air of desperation in the voice now, mixed in with the sound of a throat too dry from talking. Brannigan adjusted the dial on the radio again and leant into the small microphone as if this would make any difference, ‘Greyhound four to trap six’ he repeated, ‘Come in please’

From his place on the mattress Templar opened his eyes and gave up trying to sleep for the moment, ‘You’d better turn that thing off’ he said, sounding wearier than he had when he’d put his head down on the pillow two hours previously, ‘The battery will be running low…besides, in this weather there’s little chance of a signal.’

Somewhat reluctantly Brannigan turned off the radio and briefly opened the flap of the tent to look outside. The flash of cold air into the reasonably warm environment made Templar shiver and scowl, but for the moment he said nothing; knowing that any rebuke he could offer would only serve to unnerve the younger man even more.

Brannigan slammed a fist against the radio, causing it to rock slightly, ‘Bloody useless thing,’ he muttered, before pausing and shooting Templar a hopeful look, ‘I thought I heard a voice not that long ago…’ he trailed off. Templar nodded in agreement, ‘You could be right’ he said, not adding what they were both thinking – that the voice might have been Fisher, or one of his men. Unless the bad weather had turned them back, and that was extremely unlikely considering the lengths they had gone to so far, they were still out there somewhere.

Templar sat up, watching his head on the narrow roof as he did so. He scratched his beard for a while and wished for a razor. When none appeared he pulled on some boots over his socks, ‘Is she still working at it?’ he asked, gesturing towards the plane
‘Who?’ Brannigan asked sarcastically, ‘The bitch queen from hell?’
Templar shook his head, ‘Now now,’ he said soothingly, ‘I know Claire can be a pain in the arse…’ he paused whilst Brannigan muttered a quick ‘You can say that again’ and continued, ‘But she’s had to put up with a lot in her time.’ Now it was Templar’s turn to open the flap and let in the cold wind. From the doorway he could just about see the dim light from the plane through the dark night and the blustering snow, ‘Still…’ he added, ‘She really should be getting back inside the tent before much longer’ He pulled himself towards the doorway, pulling his jacket back on over his clothes and made to move outside.
‘Will they be looking for us yet?’ Brannigan’s voice made him pause and look back into a pair of almost childlike eyes, ‘Base camp, I mean’

Templar regarded the man for a long moment, his mind running through the options. Three days without contact, bad weather almost all the way: yes they would be looking for them…assuming there was still anyone there to look. Finally Templar laid a reassuring hand on Brannigan’s arm and offered a smile before heading back out into the cold.

McKenzie barely looked up as the snow-clad figure burst into the cold interior of the plane, ‘Come to drag me back into the warmth have you?’ she muttered
‘If I have to’ Templar nodded, ‘If you stay out here much longer even your blood will freeze…and then who will pay me?’
McKenzie laughed at this and stood up, throwing a small object into his hands, ‘Take a look at this’

Templar regarded the small crucifix, turning it over thoughtfully and letting his fingers caress the delicate chain. It was gold, or gold plated – he was no expert, and engraved with a set of initials, ‘O.P.’ he muttered, exchanging a look with McKenzie, who was beaming with success, ‘We’re on the right lines Charles’ she said, ‘Oliver Postgate was here’
Templar nodded, ‘Aye, thirty or forty years ago he was here’ he shook his head, ‘but that doesn’t mean the artefacts are still here…or that we’ll ever find them if they’re not’
‘No’ McKenzie replied, her smile fading back into her familiar frown, ‘but it’s a start…’ She trailed off and waved at the crucifix, as if expecting some further action, ‘Well then Father, aren’t you going to put that on? Your background is, after all, the main reason I selected you’
Templar regarded the small cross ruefully and allowed the chain to slip over his neck. When he looked up again it was as if the small item were the weight of a tombstone, ‘It’s a long time since anyone called me Father’ he said quietly.

There was an uncomfortable pause. Uncomfortable, that is, apart from McKenzie who seemed not to notice that she had overstepped the mark, ‘So then’ she continued, pressing her luck, ‘why did you leave the church?’

Templar’s eyes turned a colder shade of grey and for a moment she thought he was simply going to ignore the question. He clutched the cross in his hands and sat down wearily, ‘I always knew, even as a kid, that the Bible was little more than words and paper’ he spoke slowly, as if trying to find the right words – or as if he was unsure that what he was saying was really what he felt, ‘Don’t get me wrong – the meaning behind the words still meant a lot to me; but the words themselves’ he shook his head and looked hard at her, making her shiver, ‘Are you religious?’ he asked
McKenzie shook her head, ‘My parents were both Catholics, but I’m strictly agnostic’
Templar grinned, ‘Aye, those four hour sermons can really make you question your commitment to anything…’ he laughed bitterly, ‘Anyway: whether you believe that the bible is the word of God or not, you have to accept that it was written down by the hand of man – and we all know how much man likes to twist words to his own meaning’
‘So you had a crisis of faith?’ McKenzie asked, uncertain where this was leading
Templar shook his head, ‘Just the opposite, Claire’ he paused, ‘God said that he refused to prove that he existed because faith defies proof and without faith he was nothing…But what if a man had seen proof that God, Satan…all the rest of it was true.’ He paused and shook his head ‘That would be a terrible thing Claire’ he said, ‘a terrible thing indeed.’

McKenzie frowned, still confused and wanting to question him further – however, she never got the chance as Brannigan came crashing through the doorway, almost out of breath, ‘Snowmobiles’ he gasped, ‘At least four of them…coming our way quickly’

The three of them moved as one towards the doorway and watched as the pinpricks of light grew steadily into full-beam floodlights that made it impossible to see anything other than silhouettes. As the vehicles came closer the noise of the engines rose: competing with the noise of the wind for attention.

Finally the vehicles pulled to a stop about fifteen feet away from the plane. With engines still roaring and lights still turning night into a shadowy day one of the riders dismounted and stepped towards them.

‘Well well’ Fisher said grimly, cocking the shotgun and pointing its nozzle in their direction, ‘And here it is way past all your bedtimes’

To be continued…
____________________________________________________________________

Author’s note: I’ve actually been thinking about passages in this section for a few days before I had the nerve to write them down – almost like I could hear the characters speaking to me.

Actually I was also thinking about a recent posting by Honour (The Art Of Practice: http://honourartofpractice.blogspot.com/2008/12/blogging.html) – her poem about how characters may spring from you and your beliefs, but are not actually you…although I recognise parts of myself in all of them – particularly in the passages about religion (although I have yet to see any proof either way and wouldn’t want to!)

Additionally boring facts: the call-sign Greyhound/Trap is not original to this author and owes its origins to a popular British Sci-Fi series – it is included here for my personal amusement

The character of a priest who is something more/less than a priest is one that I’ve been toying with for a while and something I may well come back to in the future. If you ever read a novel in the future where one of the main characters is a priest, or preacher, called Lomax then you’ll know it was by me…(unless one of you nicks the name!)

Finally the character of Oliver Postgate (who was mentioned fleetingly as having been on the plane when it crashed) is so named for the Children’s TV creator who brought the children of the UK such classics as Noggin The Nog, Ivor The Engine, Bagpuss and The Clangers. Oliver died on Wednesday – but his creative genius lives on.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Eyes On The Prize (Part Two)

“I told you I heard a noise”

Templar looked up from his task, saying nothing. Not for the first time he found himself wondering how much of a liability Brannigan would turn out to be. The young geologist was looking tired, maybe on the point of cracking from the effort. McKenzie’s constant jokes weren’t helping. For the moment Templar dismissed the train of thought and returned his gaze to the bodies, strewn on the cold snow. A trail of blood stretched towards the horizon, petering out about fifteen feet away from where he was crouched
‘What was it?’ Brannigan was demanding, ‘A polar bear attack?’
Templar rose slowly from the bodies of the dead huskies, not sure what to say. They had been ripped apart, their throats gouged open. Finally he nodded, ‘It certainly looks that way’ he responded. There, he thought, I didn’t lie…but it wasn’t the truth either: at least, not the whole truth. Feeling sick to his stomach Templar turned away, sizing up the younger man thoughtfully, ‘We should bury them’ he said finally, ‘them and the pilot.’ He gestured towards the tents, ‘you’d better fetch some digging equipment. Brannigan nodded and turned swiftly towards the small camp.

A sudden noise made Templar turn and look over his shoulder, finding McKenzie watching him in a detached manner from the doorway, ‘Of course,’ she said calmly, her lips barely moving from the rim of the plastic cup squeezed between her hands, ‘you realise that this means we’re totally fucked?’
Templar scowled, not liking the use of the swear-word, ‘Not necessarily’ he replied
McKenzie laughed, taking a sip and offering what was left to Templar, ‘I suppose you want to ask Fisher for help when he gets here then?’ She watched his reaction for a second and then shook her head, ‘Nope; thought not’. Templar made his way over to her side, took the cup from her hands and raised it to his lips, feeling the alcohol on his lips before he had even drunk. McKenzie shot a look at the dead dogs, barely a trace of emotion showing, ‘I suppose you’re going to tell me it was an animal attack?’
‘It could have been’ Templar shrugged
‘Bullshit!’ McKenzie replied harshly, ‘You and I both know that if there had been an animal in the camp last night the dogs would have been going wild’
‘Brannigan said he thought he heard something’ Templar offered weakly, causing McKenzie to laugh again
‘He’s been jumping at his own shadow ever since we left base camp, and you know it.’

Templar nodded, wondering at how closely McKenzie’s words were echoing his own thoughts. Changing subject he gestured into the plane, ‘Found anything yet?’ he asked
McKenzie shook her head, ‘A few bits and pieces’ she replied, taking the cup back and draining the few remaining drops before heading inside the plane. Templar followed, already regretting drinking the alcohol. Out here, where the atmosphere was thinner, the effects hit you twice as quick and he knew that he needed his wits about him; now more than ever.

Inside the plane an A4 black book was lying open, its pages marked with a battered bookmark that looked as if it had come free with the book itself. The pages of the book were covered with McKenzie’s cramped script: every item that she had found had been classed and categorised – but despite her early start it was clear that she still had a long way to go. She gestured to one of the open crates, ‘Take a look at this one’
Templar moved to the crate and pulled out a broken rifle. He examined it closely, looking down the barrel and feeling the weight in his hands. He placed it back into the box along with the others, noticing the cracks in the side of the crate. At some point, whether on impact or later, the box had been forced open and snow and ice had got in. He turned to McKenzie and raised an inquisitive eyebrow, but she merely gestured to the next box and the next, ‘There’s two or three of them, exactly the same’ she explained, ‘Christ alone knows what they were doing with weapons on board’
Templar shook his head, not liking this new development as well as the choice of language. He took another rifle out of the next box and examined it in the same way that he had examined the first one, looking for signs of frost damage on the barrel.
‘Jesus Christ, what the fuck have you got us into?’ Brannigan was standing in the doorway his eyes wide with shock. There was a shovel in both hands, ready for digging the graves, and what looked like old tarpaulin and some rope.
‘I’ll thank you both not to take the lord’s name in vein’ Templar barked angrily, raising the small crucifix around his neck and showing it to remind them that certain things were still off limits. He sighed and replaced the weapon, showing his empty hands to the other man, ‘Listen Mark,’ he said as patiently as he felt he could manage, ‘We all knew there would be dangers on this journey; but panicking over a few ruined weapons won’t get us anywhere’
Brannigan seemed to calm slightly, but there was still a look of distrust in his eyes when he turned his gaze back towards McKenzie, ‘Did you find it yet?’
‘Not yet’ McKenzie admitted, ‘The chances are that the survivors, if there were any, took it with them’
‘Then I say we abandon the mission and get back to base’ Brannigan said
McKenzie shook her head, ‘Not possible’ she replied, ‘If we go back now Fisher will finish us off and you know it’
‘She’s right’ Templar replied, ‘But there might be an alternate to running’ He gestured back towards the camp, ‘The weather has improved a bit: if it stays this way then base camp should be able to send us some supplies by helicopter – we can still salvage the mission.’ Templar gestured back towards the camp, ‘Get on the radio; see if you can raise a signal’ he ordered, before moving towards Brannigan and taking the shovels from his hands. He threw one to McKenzie, forcing her to reach out and catch it, ‘Claire, you can help me to bury the bodies’
McKenzie shook her head, ‘Our priority has to be to catalogue the cargo’ she replied, ‘see if we can find what we were looking for’
Templar looked at her for a long moment, then shook his head in marvel at her ability to switch off her emotions. He wondered what could possibly have happened in her life that had made her so cold, knowing that in all probability it was something to do with Fisher, ‘I won’t ask you again’ he replied, his voice level and firm, ‘Get your arse in to gear and come and help me bury these bodies…it’s not as if we’re going anywhere anytime soon.’ Templar turned and made to go outside, then paused still in the doorway. Without turning around he asked, ‘Do you think it was Fisher?’
McKenzie hefted the shovel in her hands, regarding the blade thoughtfully as if the answer could be found there, ‘No’ she said thoughtfully, ‘Not his style’
‘What about our objective…’ Templar asked, looking over his shoulder, his eyes full of shadows, ‘Could it be connected to that?’
‘No,’ McKenzie shook her head, speaking slowly, ‘Nothing could have survived out here for that long…’ her voice trailed off
‘Are you sure?’ Templar asked, still hesitating, ‘You don’t sound very sure’
McKenzie moved towards him, patting him on the shoulder with her free hand, ‘Put it this way Charles,’ she said, ‘If it is connected to our objective then Fisher will be the least of our problems’ __________________________
Author’s note: not quite a first draft this, as I ended up going back to the very start section and re-writing the section with the dead dogs to spend more time on that section of the story – hopefully the atmosphere between the three characters benefits from the longer wait before we find out more about what they are looking for and the mysterious Fisher…I then went back and added the last few lines about an hour or so later

Stay tuned for part three!

Monday, 1 December 2008

The Christmas Essays #1: That All Important Christmas No 1

Christmas: a time of wanton consumerism. A time of year where children scream for the latest flash-in-the-pan Yu-Gi-Oh collectors cards and the men of Britain unite in their world-weary expressions and wait for the sport on Boxing Day

A time where, for me at least, going into shops for more than five seconds becomes something of an ordeal.

Not purely because of the long queues, although that is a factor – but due to the Bloody Awful Music they insist on playing.

Now I’m sure that some of you will notice that two of my main passions are Art & Music. And, as a music fan, it never ceases to amaze me how good taste and lyrical dexterity are just thrown out of the window when it comes to writing songs about the Festive Season.

Not carols – by the way. Heaven forbid that religion should come into Christmas in any way, shape or form (irony intended). Carols, on the whole, are actually quite nice – I enjoy listening to these. What I’m talking about here is Songs.

So here’s a list, in no particular order of some Christmas Songs to Love or Loathe (If you can think of any more, or actively disagree with my selection, please let me know):

LOATH:
#6: “Can You Stop The Cavalry” by Jona Lewie
It’s hard to know where to start with this one: the monotone delivery, the annoying trumpet section, the O.T.T. apocalyptic lyrics. A personal low for me is the “dub a dub a dum dum” section. The only good thing about this song is you don’t hear it much these days (although ironically we’re one day into December and I have already heard it!)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOe18JcatZo

#5: “Merry Christmas, Everyone” by Shakin’ Stevens
How a 50’s style rocker ever managed to have hits in the 1980s remains a mystery that only the general public can solve. This gains an entry partly for the repetitively and childishly simple lyrics, but mostly for being every bloody where all the bloody time from October onwards

#4: “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” by Wizard
It’s a general consensus amongst the public that Glam Rock should be purged from our memories forever and that anything with a children’s choir is immediately suspect as potentially awful. Roy Wood is responsible for many of the UKs worst musical atrocities – but try listening to this one back to back with “See My Baby Jive” by the same artist – they’re exactly the same tune

#3: “A Spaceman Came Travelling At Christmas” by Chris De Burgh
It’s not so much the song here that I object to, but the shameless commercialism. Everyone knew very clearly when Chris De Burgh released “A Spaceman Came Travelling” that it was really about the return of Jesus – but to re-release it at Christmas with three extra words “At Christmas Time” was just not on.

#2: “Merry Xmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon
Can someone please explain what the bloody hell this is actually in aid of? Repetitive, simplistic, sickly child choir, you name it this song is just as irritating as hell. How can this possibly be by the same person that wrote “In My Life” and “Imagine”? John, what were you thinking?

#1: “Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney and Wings
DON’T EVEN GET ME STARTED. If anyone has ever heard a worse song then I don’t want to know. This kind of fetid dingo’s kidneys makes you wonder how the Beatles ever became the band they were (though to be fair “The Frog Chorus” is far, far worse)

DON’T MIND

#2: “Merry Xmas Everybody” by Slade
Owner of the most ridiculous moniker in rock history singer Noddy Holder (I kid you not) has often said that this song is his retirement scheme – actually not a bad song as this kind of thing goes it and full of midlands humour. If only it wasn’t law to play it every single day I would probably appreciate it a lot more.

#1: “Let It Snow” (Various recordings)
I considered a couple of songs that I don’t mind too much – but was only able to think of two that I actively like and had to save the best until last (see below). I mostly know this song from its inclusion in the closing credits of “Die Hard” but its basic, swing-influenced style mark it out as something I would consider owning

LOVE
#1: “Fairytale Of New York” by Kirsty MacColl and The Pogues
Fairytale Of New York tells the story of two people who have grown apart, looking back at the mess of their lives at Christmas. Darkly funny and bitter the lyrics are both funny and tragic at the same time. A typical refrain:

Shane Magowan: I could have been someone…
Kirsty: Well so could anyone/you took my dreams from me/when I first found you
Shane: I kept them with me babe/I put them with my own/can’t make it out alone/ I built my dreams around you.

And yet despite the bleak tone the song leaves you with a feeling of optimism and hope for the future with its uplifting chorus. Pure genius.

NB: sorry there's no link to each song - computer trying to drive me insane today

Sunday, 30 November 2008

A Quick Invite

As from tomorrow - being the first official day one should have to think "Oh no, Christmas is coming soon" i will be launching a series of weekly thoughts on my experiences of Christmas on Mondays, as well as my serialized story on Wednesdays or Thursdays

But i would like everyone who reads this entry to join in the fun: every year Queen Elizabeth makes a Christmas Speech at 3pm on Christmas Day - on one occasion she mentioned her horrible anus (or was that Anus Horribilus?? I forget) - but she doesn't actually put on her fluffy slippers and shuffle down to the camera on Christmas Day, oh no - she pre-records it (in fact, someone else writes it too!)

But another channel has started showing alternate Christmas Day messages - the first one was by Brian May of Queen (see what they did there?) and so on...

So the challenge is, if you are prepared to take it, to pre-write a Christmas Speech for your blog and post it either on Christmas Eve or Day and then tell me (preferably prior to publishing) whether you'll be playing along and where i can find it (if i don't already have a link)..

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Eyes On The Prize (part one)

They almost missed it.

White fuselage, white background: only the faded markings were visible against the flurry of the snow, and then only at close range.

Brannigan was the first to see it. Peering up from the increasingly erratic compass he caught a shadow against the horizon, almost dismissed it as condensation inside his goggles – but when he removed them and pressed the sockets of the binoculars close against his eyes it was still there.

He called out a warning to the others then, realising his voice would be lost to the wind, sent up a flare.

One by one the sleds turned towards the distant object, still moving cautiously over the thin ice. Despite Brannigan having called in the sighting it was Templar that reached it first, pulling his sled to a sudden halt outside the broken shape. He looked around thoughtfully at the others and put a heavily gloved hand on the open door of the plane. Outside in the snow the others waited for the all clear, the dogs panting white clouds of heat into the chilly atmosphere. The snow seemed to have slowed to a steady flurry now, or perhaps it was that they were partially sheltered by the broken shape. McKenzie pulled down her scarf, revealing tufts of red hair and skin chapped by the cold, ‘Get a bloody move on in there, can’t you’ she called, her voice as cracked as her skin.

Behind his own scarf Brannigan smiled and shook his head, feeling his neck click. Two weeks of this and McKenzie was still behaving like the arrogant bitch she had been back in Oslo. He’d thought somehow that the cold would have knocked some of the edge off her brittleness: instead it had only served to sharpen it.

Templar’s head appeared from inside the plane, no longer engulfed by the enormous hood. The face behind the visor was old; prematurely greyed and lined with concern. He grunted and waved for the other two to climb inside and they did so, pausing only to tie the dogs to the fuselage.

Once inside Brannigan removed his own scarf and slowly slipped back the hood on his jacket, as if expecting the wind to slice his ears off. He was younger than the other two. He slipped off a glove and wiped his hand across his nose, trying to kill the itch that had been driving him insane for the last two hours, ‘Is it safe?’ he asked
Templar nodded, ‘Safer than outside’ he replied
‘Not much of an answer’ McKenzie chipped in, already looking to find fault
‘Best I can do’ Templar looked around at the cramped interior, ‘Cessna: just as described, ‘No sign of survivors though’
‘There wouldn’t be: not here’ Brannigan replied, moving towards the cockpit with a distracted look on his face, ‘whoever they were – they took the compass with them’
‘So somebody survived’ Templar nodded. He paused at the doorway, seeing that one of the seats was already taken. He couldn’t see much from behind the thick layers of clothing, but from the angle of the body he could see enough to know that the figure was long dead.

Brannigan was already leaning in towards the corpse and pushing back the layers: behind the clothes there was nothing but skeleton. Even here, in this extreme cold, there had been enough decay to strip away the flesh: or maybe the wind had done the job. ‘Died on impact by the look of him’ Brannigan announced with professional detachment, ‘Neck broken’

Templar squeezed himself past Brannigan and into the spare seat beside the corpse, examining the readings, ‘no flight logs either – might be something in the black box…if there is one’ He paused and looked through what remained of the windscreen and narrowed his eyes, ‘Must be three days walk to the nearest habitation – even if they knew which direction to head’

McKenzie popped her head into the already cramped space and grunted, ‘Then they were stupid, as well as crap pilots’ she glanced at the corpse and added, ‘No offence’
Brannigan ignored her and took a second to cover the exposed bones from view, ‘We should bury him’ he murmured
Templar glanced through the windscreen at the rapidly darkening horizon, ‘Our first priority has to be to get the shelters up…we’ll worry about the body in the morning…after all,’ he continued ruefully, ‘he’s been waiting long enough.’

The two men moved out into the snow, fumbling with the survival packs, whilst McKenzie watched from the shelter of the plane, a cigarette pressed between her blue lips
‘A little help would be appreciated’ Templar called over his shoulder
‘I’m sure it would’ she replied, but made no move to go to their aid. Instead she headed back inside the plane, resting an exposed hand briefly on the cold metal wall before throwing the cigarette butt into the wilderness and thrusting her hands into the deep pockets.

After a few minutes Templar came in, refusing to make eye contact as he ripped open his bags and fumbled for supplies, ‘We’re losing the light fast’ he growled, catching a disinterested eye, ‘we really could do with another hand’
‘You two boys seem to be doing fine’ McKenzie replied, ‘Besides…what do you think I pay you for?’
Templar laughed and shook his head, ‘Your money won’t save you out here, Claire’ his Scots accent was full of gravel, turning the name into an accusation as he spoke it, ‘you want to survive then you’d better start pulling your weight’
McKenzie pulled herself upright and retrieved her gloves, ‘Very well,’ she replied, her voice as cold as the wind that bit into her face, ‘but you needn’t expect a bonus’. She took a mallet from his outstretched arm and made towards the doorway. As she reached the entrance she paused and looked back. Just for a second Templar could have sworn he had seen a hint of vulnerability; then it was gone.
‘Do you think he’s still out there?’ she asked, gesturing towards the horizon
‘Who: Fisher?’ Templar stroked his chin, ‘I’d lay odds on it.’
McKenzie shuddered and then nodded towards the cockpit, ‘What are we going to do with that?’ she asked
‘We’ll bury it in the morning’ Templar replied thoughtfully, ‘…assuming there’s any of us left to do it’


To be continued…
____________________________________________________________________

Author’s note: about six months ago I saw an episode of (UK motoring programme) Top Gear where the presenters were given a challenge to drive a 4x4 to the magnetic north pole – they had to establish if it was still possible with global warming.

Along the route they came upon an abandoned plane in the wilderness – it had clearly been there for a long time.

This fascinated me: how had it come to be there? What had happened to the occupants? This story takes that mental image on to see where it leads to.

I wrote the main bulk of this last night, then edited and re-wrote a few bits to include the corpse earlier than originally envisaged. I hope to make this story a regular weekly post, so look out for further episodes in the near future…


Monday, 24 November 2008

Catch A Falling Star

Sometimes I think it would be nice to be focussed.

I have a tendency to wonder through life feeling blurred, like a camera lens that has got rained on – lacking focus.

Like: there’s so many things that I want to do that I allow myself to be torn in all directions rather than choosing a route.

Back around 2003 I started writing a novel – it was based on a short story I had written some years previously. Partially due to some seriously bad planning, partially due to waves of self-doubt that would have wrecked the most steadfast of oil platforms and partially to the slow death of my old computer it is still sitting firmly in the pile marked “Incomplete”. The most annoying thing with this is that this time around I got to within four chapters of finishing the first draft when I realised I had to go back and start from scratch. Annoying or what?

Meanwhile: music. I know enough to know that I will never be a great singer, or even particularly good musician – but there’s a part of me that still wants to form a covers band: possibly Talking Heads, possibly Joy Division – commercially a BritPop (1990’s UK) band. I recently started a jokey Country & Western album, but the world may breathe a sigh of relief that Simon Cowell is unlikely to come knocking any time soon…

Then there’s the artist in me – who would like to be able to draw and paint to a much higher level – and the frustrated photographer. I’d love to do a degree in art, history or even art history but that ole bugbear of a mortgage keeps getting in the way.

My partner gets frustrated with me coming up with all these wild and weird ideas for making extra cash: I’ve considered being a celebrationist (non-religious weddings) but was put off by the political dogma, I would love to teach English as a second language, but have no qualifications (and can’t get the qualifications without teaching – talk about paradox) – or even teach Art, or Maths…Yeah I know – me and maths don’t get on together, but that’s why I should teach it: because I would know exactly where the struggling student was coming from.

Right now I’m looking into courses again – trying not to let the impossibility of it all get me down: most of the courses are in the day or require you to already be working in the industry, few have funding for those of us who have to work.

So I keep going – wondering when I’m going to work out where it is I’m heading…but maybe it doesn’t really matter whether I’m successful at these things?

I think the main thing to do is to keep on dreaming. Earlier this year I applied for a degree course that was right up my street – a study of English and Culture: no previous qualifications required, funding available, part time hours in the evening…I foolishly allowed myself to hope for a few minutes.

Then the reality kicked in: they wanted proof of my English A Level (despite having stated no previous required) – which I don’t know where it is: I argued that my Maths is more recent and more relevant, but they were having none of it…and even so I knew, right from the start, that it didn’t matter – because I honestly felt that I no longer had the freedom to dream. Everything has to be focussed on doing up my house, moving to a nicer area, starting a future: except that every step seems a little harder and slower than I thought.

I guess that ever since I saw that advert for that degree I have been coming to terms with a bereavement of sorts – because the death of a dream can be just as fatal…

And I have moments where it’s hard to believe in anything anymore: life does that to us all from time to time. We forget – the world doesn’t revolve around us and the realisation that others are too wrapped up in their own problems to notice yours can sometimes be hard to bear

Still: though my path may be crazy-paving I know that creativity is the reason I am here and it is what I want to do. Though my current role may be a thousand miles from this I have to hope that I will reach the correct turn eventually.

Last night I tried to explain to my partner why I liked the song “The Impossible Dream” – she has never heard the song, so couldn’t really get my point.

Some years ago, inspired by an episode of Quantum Leap, I read Don Quixote. It’s very old fashioned, quite rambling and hard going at times – but at the centre of the story is a man who has turned his back on reality and is living his dreams.

So for all of you who are finding the run up to Christmas, with its dark nights, cold mornings and endless adverts featuring Shakin Stevens too hard to bear I want to share the lyrics of “The Impossible Dream” from the musical of Don Quixote’s story – The Man Of La Mancha

Never give up: never surrender: believe in the dream and maybe the dream will believe in you.

Much love…

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause

And I know if I'll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

Monday, 17 November 2008

My Camera Never Lies

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in the works canteen and sipping my regular morning coffee; it was probably about 8am and I would have been going through my morning routine of staring into the void and wishing I were back in bed.

After a few minutes I’m joined by the Old Fogies – one of whom, B, used to be on my team back when I had some power in this business (sadly my tendency to stroke white cats and chuckle under my breath got me demoted). B had recently been on holiday to Spain and was promising Pictures on the next day.
And so we got talking about cameras – I was saying how I had lots of film cameras lying around my house that I didn’t think I would ever use again now the Digital Revolution had come, we both agreed that Digital was still slower to react than film meaning that you missed action shots – and I bemoaned the fact that I still wanted a decent digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex – in the good old days this meant you saw what the camera saw and that you could have a choice of different attachable lenses – these days with digital viewfinders it’s probably an inaccurate description)

Of course these days we’re rapidly moving towards possession of a mobile phone that can play your music, take your photo, book your train tickets and offer you free Nectar points for every trip you take to the moon – and increasingly the quality of these pictures is perfectly good – but for those of us who care you still can’t beat a proper camera that you look through the lens of.


So we got talking about flash diffusion and apertures and exposures and I realised with a shock how much I’d missed photography during recent years. I grew up in a house with a father who was a semi-professional photographer and my bedroom was also a part time darkroom where clock radios and duvet covers were prone to ruination through spilt chemicals. I actually left school with the vague hope of being a professional photographer myself – but sadly failed in this endeavour for three reasons: firstly there’s no money in photography, secondly there’s very few jobs in it and most importantly I wasn’t actually that great.
But returning swiftly to the conversation B mentioned that he had spent £500 on an all singing-all dancing Nikon SLR and had taken said camera on holiday – photos were promised the next day. I was interested to see how his shots would compare with mine: taken on a £40 digital which you have to hold at arms length and can’t use in direct sunlight because you can’t see the screen.
So he brought in the photos and the ladies on his team got to look first – and they started looking at them wrong…
One thing that always annoys me with prints is when people look at them wrong. Some people take your shots and put them down one by one on the table when they’ve looked at them, thus reversing the correct order: this is wrong and should be outlawed. I hate it when people do this – if you have to put them down put them down face down so they stay in the correct order – or else put them to the back until you get to the start…
Finally they came to me…and the thing was that the photos were nothing more than average: perfectly acceptable holiday snaps but with no artistic eye or focus – B might just as well have saved his money and bought a cheap disposable film camera for £10…he would have had the same results.
And the moral of the story, if there is one, is that technology will only help you so much. In a world where we no longer have a machine for everything but we have everything in one machine its important to remember that the people behind the machine will always be more important.

I should mention that the photos accompanying this story have no connection other than that they were taken by me on a variety of trips to London during the last 12 months. The first two have been edited to change them to black and white, the last one was cropped slightly – the others are all as taken. I hope you enjoyed them







Monday, 10 November 2008

Match-stick Cats & Dogs


It’s week three of my 6 week Art Course (7 if you include the free session at the start). I’m standing at my easel with a piece of graphite in my hand and it’s all I can do to stop myself just putting it down and walking out.

Three weeks in and the best drawing I’ve managed so far looks like a cross between Gollum from Lord Of The Rings and a demented Jelly Baby. Art is something that I want so badly to be good at that it’s now actively stopping me from achieving.

I look at the piece of paper and The Cloud comes down a bit thicker. The truth is that The Cloud and I are old friends – as a rather unpleasant side-affect of a food allergy I am prone to periods of dark depression from which I find it hard to see a way out : I know that I am doing this to myself, but find it almost impossible to stop.

The start of this week’s class has been another stressful experience: I can’t seem to relax into things and the so-called warm-up exercises are only making things worse: you get three minutes to draw a figure without looking at the paper, or to draw without taking your pencil from the paper, or to shade in only the shadows. At the end of which MPL (Mad Penguin Lady – my loopy but lovely Dutch art teacher with a Penguin obsession) asks us to do a round of the room and “look at what everyone else has done” – I know before I even start that everyone else’s will look like one of Rembrandt’s cast-offs whilst mine will look like it was drawn by a five year old.

MPL is probably one of the best teachers I’ve had – she’s very encouraging and patient (both of which you need to be with someone like me who keeps asking the same question again and again until he’s absolutely sure he’s understood it in his own way), and knows when to back off…but she doesn’t understand.

When she comes over she talks about perspective: she says to relax and not to look at the whole – to break things down – here is the head, here is the foot, think of the body as like a triangle…I understand exactly what she means: but I just can’t find a way to see it for myself. Why am I measuring myself against everyone else she asks: I want to reply that it’s because my efforts are simply not good enough for my own happiness.

That’s when The Cloud is at it’s worst and I’m just standing there feeling like I just want to go home. On some unconscious level I guess I’m remembering the words of everyone in my life who’s never expected me to achieve at anything. My parents for starters: they’ve always treated me well, but were too busy being happy for me to be average as long as I was happy to notice that I was unhappy precisely because I was average and wanted so much more: my teachers (actual quote from my Art Teacher at school: “I’m not entering you for the exam because I can’t be bothered with the paperwork and you probably won’t pass”- after having not bothered to teach me anything) and people to this day (including myself if I’m really honest) who seem all too keen to give up on me.

What always gets to me the most is that I want so desperately to improve myself, but every step of the way I feel like I’m fighting to learn: like when I had to keep asking my maths teacher the same question again and again and again until I could put it into a context I could understand. I don’t know: maybe it’s their failings as teachers, maybe it’s true that the best time to teach someone something is when you’ve just learned it yourself – before you’ve forgotten that it takes effort and is not second nature?

And then…I don’t know…something seemed to change: some tiny part of me, a part that still has the guts to stand up and fight, must have kicked in. I’ve had another class since and still can’t tell you what’s changed but suddenly my pictures are looking…well…almost human anyway. True, the legs are still like tree-trunks and I haven’t attempted the face yet…but finally I’ve gone home with something I felt able to show to others.

The worry now is: what happens when I forget again? I have no idea what it is I’m seeing or doing differently, nor why these pictures have worked when the earlier ones haven’t? I guess I just have to learn to relax a bit more…

And, with The Cloud gone for the moment, I’m able to see the funny side again: so I take one of my pictures around and show my parents. My dad, who tries (bless him), looks at the picture from various angles and hands it back with his Best Supportive Expression: “Hmm” he says, “the eyes are quite far apart…”

Er…Dad…those aren’t the eyes…
...anyway - and for anyone still feeling depressed:
...as the man once said: do I listen to rock n roll because I am depressed, or am I depressed because I listen to rock n roll?
Good music: enjoy: feel better

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Our Lips Are Sealed

June 1977 and there’s a blank space at the Number One slot in the charts.

As a kid I didn’t even know why there was a small but vital omission from the chart rundown.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that at the height of our most patriotic period – the Queen’s Silver Jubilee – something else was going on.

The BBC (and other media) had decided, in their ultimate wisdom that The Sex Pistols’ new single God Save The Queen was not fit for public consumption.

For anyone whose never listened to the song the worst thing that John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) says in the song is that she “ain’t no human being” and the head of a “fascist regime”, but there were those who thought the youth movement of the day could bring down society as we knew it. The Pistols would famously appear on a Live interview programme where a drunk presenter would dare them to say rude things to shock. Each time Lydon said a word (mostly not that offensive) he looked slightly embarrassed.

Skip forward 31 years and I’m watching a comedy programme at 9:30pm. The comedians are making jokes and comments about the news of the week. It takes me a short period of time to realise that they’re not even bleeping out the F word. Everyone is using it like punctuation (as everyone tends to do these days)

And yet the news this week in the UK has been dominated by the increasingly dull story of two Radio presenters.

The two radio presenters made a series of pre-recorded prank phone calls to a well known British actor – one of which implied that one of the presenters had had sex with the actor’s granddaughter.

At the time of the original broadcast there were only 2 complaints – since when it has escalated to 30,000? Why?

The purpose of this posting isn’t to comment on the rights or wrongs of censorship – that’s far too thorny an issue and an ongoing fight between the freedom of speech and the freedom of privacy that will not be solved any time soon.

The reason that there have been 30,000 complaints is that anyone who wants to go and be offended by the broadcast has a multitude of formats to do so with. If you miss the original programme you can go to the BBC site, YouTube, Google etc etc and be offended time and time again.

Another example of this is the film Saw V. The Saw franchise is not one that holds any interest for me – I really can’t see the attraction of torture for shock and entertainment purposes (makes you wonder how far we’ve come since we chucked Christians to the lions for entertainment) – but there are posters on the side of busses advertising the latest edition with the message: “Image Banned – go to www… to see the poster in full”

Presumably the point of banning the poster was to stop people seeing the image – but it is freely available on the internet for anyone to look at.

Whenever a programme gets complaints about levels of violence it seems to be written off as “necessary for the plot” and everyone shrugs and carries on as if that makes it ok and the boundaries of what we can and can’t do and show get pushed further back.

Of the two presenters one (a comedian and known womaniser) has resigned – but his programmes are still showing on other channels, whilst the other (a presenter and critic) has been suspended without pay for 12 weeks. Both have books out at the moment – the sales of these will have increased during the argument and their programmes will return to increased ratings as we all tune in to see what the fuss was about. Even the granddaughter (who, it turns out, is an exotic dancer of some kind) of the actor has cashed in and sold her story for a few fleeting minutes of fame.

I’m sorry if you find this posting a bit random – as usual I am in two minds about the issue. Part of me thinks that the presenters went to far and a person’s sexual practices, regardless of their status and job, are really no-one’s business, whilst another part of me thinks that other comedians and presenters have said far worse about other people.

Perhaps the boundaries of what we consider to be tasteful have been pushed so far back that we no longer know where they are? Perhaps we should all be allowed to act like adults and decide for ourselves what we do and do not consider acceptable and use our ability to press the off button accordingly?

If anyone has an answer please let me know – though I suspect there isn’t one

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

The Book I Read

This week I was tagged by Jenny (Some Breath, Assured Pints) and asked to perform the following instructions:

Here are the rules: Grab the nearest book. Open the book to page 56. Find the fifth sentence. Post the text of the next two to five sentences in your journal/blog along with these instructions. Don't dig for your favorite book, the cool book, or the intellectual one: pick the CLOSEST. Tag five other people to do the same.

However: me being me I have a slight alteration to make. Instead of tagging 5 people I would just like everyone who reads this post to leave a few paragraphs on the responses page regarding what they are reading right now – you don’t even have to quote the book in question unless you particularly want to.

I am also going to cheat slightly, by pasting bits from two different sources…this is partially because, as per usual, I am reading more than one book at present. I have a book by my bed – which is a compendium of three Ian Rankin novels (crime/detective) – this is too big to bring to work, so I also have two other books that I am reading for research into my next novel – one of which I have quoted below as ordered:

Those who are idolators have a language distinct from the others. This city lies towards the east-north-east. They are not a commercial, but an agricultural people, having much wheat. There are in this country a number of monasteries and abbeys, which are filled with idols of various descriptions. To these, which they regard with the profoundest reverence, they deliver sacrifices and, upon the birth of a son, they recommend him to their idol’s protection.

NB: the book is The Travels Of Marco Polo and is full of this sort of thing – lots of talk about people worshiping idols and offering their wives to strangers in the hope of honour from their gods. Although some modern scholars now believe the journals to be fake Marco Polo’s story remains the earliest travelogue and a rare example of West meets East at that time.

The second novel I’m going to quote from is another slight cheat, but it is one that is constantly with me and has been for over ten years:

Yes, that’s right – it’s my own pitiful attempt at being published. As it’s all in single-line spaced word files at present I had to take a rough guess at the 56th page – and the below is a short quote:

His stomach churned in horror and his face became a mask of pain. He looked up; his mind clouded with panic, and saw that the tavern had emptied and that people were already searching for water to fight the fire. It would only be a matter of seconds before he was seen. Somehow he scrambled to his feet and ran into the darkness, not pausing to look back.

On a final note – some of you may (or may not) have noticed that my topic titles are often quotes from songs or books – this one is the name of a Talking Heads song and the previous post was the first line of a song by Blur.

I look forward to your responses – will keep an eye on them over the next few days. Meanwhile, keep reading :)

Monday, 27 October 2008

Confidence is a preference…

Some years ago a British writer/comedian did a routine about money.

The upshot of the routine was what a load of old rubbish the stock market is.

He said that when anyone mentions the FTSE on the news we all mentally switch off and wait for the reassuring bit at the end about Pandas being flown into zoos for mating purposes before we start paying attention again.

He also said that all this confidence in the pound stuff is basically nonsense: if you walk into a pub and try to buy three pints of lager, a packet of salt and vinegar crisps and a three course meal and expect change from a pound on the grounds that you feel very confident about it right now then the chances are that the only thing you’ll be eating is a floor sandwich as they throw you out the door.

I mention all of this, of course, because the “R” word is looming ever closer to our consciousness. We’re still officially calling it a “credit crunch”, but some of the so called experts are starting to talk seriously about Recession…(oops, I said it!)

You can blame pretty much anything you want on the current downturn: the fact that history shows that there have always been ups and downs in the economy and there probably always will be, a failure to regulate banks on the part of our governments, basic greed on the part of the banks…the fact that, when you get down to it, even the top bankers are no smarter than you and me and mentally turn off and wait for the bit about the Panda with erectile dysfunction when the news comes on…

But the problem really is that our whole economy is based on an enormous confidence trick. No really

Do you have any money in your wallet/purse right now? I just pulled a £20 note out of mine (unusual for me to have so much money, but there you go) and on the front are the words: “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of twenty pounds”

You see? “I promise to pay the bearer on demand” Not “This note is worth”, but a promise to supply. Its intrinsic value is nothing. If you were starving right now you could not eat this note, you cannot build a shelter with a stack of them and you cannot ward off death with them even if you wave them especially hard at people: yet people will and have killed, maimed and sold their souls over the movements of pieces of paper.

Twenty pounds of what exactly? Lead shot? Goat’s Cheese? Cinema Tickets? That’s part of the beauty of the trick – that little piece of paper can magically transform into pretty much anything all because we buy into the trick. We allow the magicians to blind us with their sleights of hand because the alternative is far, far worse.

OK, you’re probably thinking about all that money you have in the bank – about how it moves around and gets invested in properties, business shares and the like. You may even own shares in a business yourself, but are you sure? Exactly how sure are you? Have you ever seen these shares? Of course not – they don’t exist. Your shares are little more than numbers in a computer – if you went along to the local business that you own shares in with a hacksaw and demanded to take part of their bench in lieu of physical proof of your shares you would be firmly turned away. Try going into your bank, asking where your money is and asking for certificates from each and every place – you will not get very far.

But I could be wrong – because a recent report suggested that there is as much as £60 million in loose change lost down the back of the sofa’s of Britain or stored in empty whisky bottles.

Perhaps this is where the answer to the current financial crisis really lies, perhaps it is well past time that Dubya made the rounds on his Bush Mobile and begged each and every house in the world in person to hand over their spare coins to avoid higher taxes for a crisis he helped to cause?

If nothing else it would give us all something to laugh about. His only other option, it would seem, is to carry on clicking his red shoes together, scrunching his eyes closed and chanting “There’s no place with a recession, there’s no place with a recession, there’s no place…”

Friday, 17 October 2008

Should I make a speech?


I should probably start with a couple of apologies: first of all to all of you because over the next week or so I won’t have much time to post a blog, to read your blogs or to comment on them.

Do not fear: I shall return – but for the next week I am effectively performing two jobs for the price of one so will probably be starting early, finishing late and generally climbing Mount Email on a daily basis – except for Thurdsay evenings when I will be starting my new 6 week art course with Mad Penguin Lady (MPL)

MPL is from Holland and three years ago I did a similar course with her – Life Drawing – in which I created one of my few masterpieces “Butt Naked Bloke #1” (does what it says on the tin really). I call her MPL because shortly after the final session I visited an exhibition of her work and she had painted a giant Penguin that stood rather taller than I did (and I’m 6ft)

Secondly I should apologise to Lisa (Lisa’s spot): a couple of weeks ago you gave me an award – I’m still not sure exactly what I did to deserve such an honour, but it has been on my mind ever since and I have been spending a lot of my spare time thinking about it.

How does one respond to such a thing? The instructions on the award say I should post it on my own site and then pass it on to eight other people who write blogs.

This is something of a serious issue – because I generally don’t respond to the kind of email that tells you that if you forward it to twenty of your closest friends within two minutes of reading it you will receive the bank details of a Saudi Sheik including his PIN (by the way – why do we refer to it as a PIN number? What do we think the N stands for anyway??)

So – I now read rather more than 8 blogs and each one is listed on my places to visit list and each one means something to me: so the problem is how to make the decision on who to include.

And here’s my response: to you eight listed below and for the reasons I have given I award this award. Much like Tony Wilson (manager of Factory Records) is alleged to have done on the last night of the Hacienda night club I order you to ransack the list, do with it as you will but to go forth and create new and glorious things. Pass it on if you want, the choice is yours.

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENTS IN PHOTOGRAPHY: Michael (always going, going, going on beyond) and Lisa (Lisa’s Spot)

SERVICES TO LITERATURE: Honour (The Art Of Practice), Michael (always going, going, going on beyond) and Anne-Marie (Mightier Than Any Sword)

INSPIRATION AND STRENGTH: Lisa (Lisa’s Spot) and Lydia (Writerquake)

THOUGHT PROVOCATION AND INTELLECTUAL CONTENT: all of you, but particularly Clandestine Samuri (Life, The Dynamic), Honour (The Art Of Practice) and Lydia (Writerquake)

MOST SADLY MISSED: A. Stageman (Eyes Closed, Jazzing)

BEST NEWCOMER: Bhudda (Bhudda of Hollywood)

For those I had to miss – I apologise. Do not think less of me for this – I cherish your words and thoughts.

See you soon

Monday, 13 October 2008

Hell is other people…

October 31st 2007 – It’s 5:30pm as I get off the bus around the corner from my house. It’s already dark and as I walk up the road, feeling tense, tired and frankly like shit I can already hear the noise waiting for me around the corner.

Sure enough as I turn into my road I see the groups of kids. There’s at least six or seven separate groups, maybe more. As I walk up the road I see a group of them try my door and walk away disappointed: knowing they will soon be back.

I let myself into the house and I barely have time to turn on the lights and close the curtains before the knock on the door comes. I go to the door and open it: a group of three or four goblins are stood in the darkness – none of them taller than my knee. Just inside the door is a small tub of fruit-flavoured lollipops – each individually wrapped. I hand the lollies out and close the door. Less than three seconds later the door is knocked again.

And so it goes for the next hour and a half – a constant stream of kids out Trick-or-treating. Some come with Appropriate Adults (a term that will come to have more significance when they begin Helping The Police With Their Enquiries in another year or two), but most don’t. After two hours I’ve still accomplished little more than chop some vegetables and turned the gas on and have barely sat down.

Still, at least this lot make an effort: each set of kids are dressed up as witches, goblins, ghosts or have faces painted like spider-man. Back when I lived at my mum’s house we only ever used to get one or two groups per night and I clearly remember a night when I opened the door to two fourteen year old lads wearing jeans and a t-shirt. As I looked at them one of them sheepishly took a bottle of washing-up liquid and stuck the nozzle between his teeth. “What are you supposed to be?” I asked. The lad looked down, shamefaced, “A ghost from the future” he replied. I shook my head, “No, you’re not” I said and closed the door in their faces. But that was then…if I was to send any of these four year olds home without a treat they’d probably put a brick through my window for starters.

Finally the steady stream turns to a trickle. Even in my area where kids are a ready source of income (child benefits) and a cheap alternative to turkey at Christmas, there are only so many groups that can visit in one night. Foolishly I allow myself to relax – thinking that it might all be finally over for another year.

The door is banged again – rather more loudly. With a sigh I go to the door – thinking that what I really need right now is a nice lie down and some food in my belly.

I open the door and the first thing I see is a man in jeans and a vest. He’s about 30-35, maybe older and stocky with close shaved hair and breath that reeks of alcohol. He leans in closer to me and I look at the bloodstain on his forehead, trace the line down his face to his vest. He leers drunkenly into my personal space, forcing me to retreat slightly, ‘You gotta help me’ he drawls, his words slurred and broken, ‘I’ve been in a hit and run – the driver just drove off.’ He pauses and his face breaks into a dangerous grin, ‘Trick or treat!’ he says in a tone of voice that might as well be saying ‘Give me your money, I have a knife’

I glance down at the little kid that’s out with him – no more than four or five years old and, shaking slightly, I turn and pick up a lolly for the drunk: wanting him gone as quickly as possible. Then I bend down and look at the kid ‘Here – take two’ I say, offering him the sticks. The man looks down at the kid, ‘Oi’ he growls, ‘Don’t be #@$£ing greedy’
‘No, it’s ok’ I say, offering the sweets again before standing up.

The man accepts the lollies for what they are and grabs the kid by the hand, starting to leave. I watch the kid for a second: my heart feels heavy knowing that there is no one in that child’s life who is emotionally mature enough or who cares enough to stop and say ‘You’re not taking that kid out: you’re too drunk’

That kid has no hope: no chances, nothing.

I close the door and turn on the TV: but the noise is not enough to block out the static in my head.

And in that moment I feel the tiniest piece of my hope for the future curl up and die.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

In Celebration of National Poetry Day

Textual Frustration
By The Hungry Pixie

I’ve been sending emails till I broke my mouse
Formatting my documents in my office and my house
Filling up my inbox till I finally go insane
Reading all the adverts till the words dance in my brain
Just another number in another hall
An information block in a communications wall

I’m textually frustrated,
Foaming at the mouth from all these words
Textually frustrated,
Another silent message that no one has heard

Got a system warning from a distant man
Adding up to a lifetime’s worth of spam
An add for Viagra makes me lose my esteem
Can I really grow hair back if I use this cream?

I’m textually frustrated
An isolated contact from a distant machine
Textually frustrated
An internet connection can’t fulful my dream

Won’t you share a text with me there’s nothing wrong
With a little exploration while my firewall’s on

I’m Textually frustrated
Weighed down by these spreadsheets till my eyeballs groan
Textually frustrated
Overblown with contact, but still sleeping alone

(c) HP 2008
NB: this was originally written as a joke song, but i could never find the right chords

Friday, 3 October 2008

Measure For Measure

For the last couple of months there’s been a builder’s skip outside my friend’s house. His mother, who my friend has decided is on a Mission to make everyone around her – including herself – as miserable as possible, had commissioned an extension to the kitchen.

To say work is going slowly is somewhat similar to saying that light travels fast. The workers, having no particular job to go to next, have settled in for the long haul – complete with copious cups of tea and biscuits.

But although the builders of today are well known for their excuses not a single one of them can hold a candle to the builders of the 10th and 11th century.

“Prithee” they must have said, as they stood looking at a half-completed hovel, “Tis sad that I am unable to complete my promise – but verily King Henry is a very busy man”

Because one of the absurdities of measurement is how random it all used to be: until 1963-65 we in the UK had a bizarre system of counting and money that involved farthings, shillings, crowns and probably the odd florin thrown in for good measurement. When everything went decimal there were those who complained – even today we resist the metric system of measurement for food and forced a change in the law to continue to sell in pounds (llbs) and ounces of weight, rather than kilos as everyone in Europe wanted us to.

But the measurement I wanted to talk about was the Yard.

Used for measuring…well, yards as it happens, the Yard was useful in measuring gardens in complicated maths problems as well as in providing people at trendy bars the chance to prove themselves idiots by drinking from an extra long glass called a Yard of Ale.

The truth is that no one really knows exactly where the measurement originates – but one of the most popular theories is that it was designated by King Henry 1st of England (1100-1130 ish).

Fourth son of William the Conqueror of Normandy Henry’s own descendants founded the royal house of Plantagenet. Henry 1st himself is believed to have defined the Yard (approx 0.9144 metres, or 3 foot) as “the distance from his nose to the end of his thumb” (with arm stretched out in front) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yard

Pretty odd way to measure something – and not very useful to the average man in the street: I mean – how many of us have a handy King of England mooching around on our sofa when we need to measure whether it will fit through the door or not?

“Oi, King-y – I can see you’re busy forming a seat of power against the French and all that, but could you just pop round for a minute? It’s just the wind is coming in through the roof and I want to get the new sink fitted before the Black Death gets a good grip” – not particularly likely is it?

Mind you, as expressions of ultimate power go it’s not so bad. When you consider that previous kings had commanded such various things as having the first born son of every couple to be killed on the off chance that one of them would grow up to be messiah like King Herod – or that everyone should wear the same size shoes as him like the Emperors of China then suddenly the idea of a King who goes about demanding everything measured according to how far he can reach seems all warm and fluffy. Very possibly King Henry was a frustrated landscape gardener and liked nothing better than popping round to criticise someone's back patio - we will never know!

This method of measurement could explain a lot about the problems of my own house. Built in the 1950s as part of the Councils’ mass advance on the wilderness that was there before I’m sure that more than one of the workers must have stood outside my house when it was finished: looking at the poor plaster and ready-made holes for local pigeons, with the regulation 2 inches of butt-cleavage showing from the back of his trousers and whistled through his teeth before saying, “Well Guv, it would’ve been perfect – if only Henry 1st had been available…”

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Dark Sarcasm In The Classroom

Early September comes along and I’m looking for a course to do this year. I look at the Part-Time degrees in the free booklet from the local University and find an advert for History of Art.

Right down my street, I think – only when I go on their website I discover that the advert in the booklet is wrong: the course is only available during the day.

Instead I opt for English Language & Culture – as language is another of my pet interests. I email the department for details and they respond with a request for application a.s.a.p. as the deadline has already passed. Bear in mind that I rang them less than two days after the booklet arrived through my door.

So I rush together some references and copies of recent certificates. I have no idea where my A Level English certificate is, but as this was taken in 1996 and the course description specifically states “no prior qualifications required” and only requests “evidence of previous study” as additional I assume my maths (taken in 2007) will be sufficient.

Not long afterwards I get an email saying that my application will only be considered upon proof of A Level and spend a hurried weekend trying to find the damn thing to no avail. I have to withdraw from the course – which is probably a good thing in general as there would be no way I could afford it financially.

What particularly galls me about this decision is that I have been desperately trying to find an evening course to improve and update my A Level – but the current system seems to be specifically discriminating against me.

I look on my local college website: but in the light of recent budget and funding changes they have drastically cut back on their evening courses Рthe only way I can do A level with them is to take time off during the day: something I am unable to do because of my job. This is because the emphasis on adult education has shifted onto getting people with few qualifications back into work. As a result lots of leisure courses (such as photography, creative writing, Tai-Chi and Advanced Karate Macram̩) have either folded altogether or been forced to tack on points towards a degree in order to retain funding from the government.

So if you are already in full time work and want to improve or update your skills set you are unable to do so. Although some evening courses do offer points towards a degree they are all points at level 1. The only way to get level 2 & 3 points is to give up your job and go into full time education – presumably selling your house, car and anything else you may be working towards.

So I contact my old school, who used to do Adult Education – but they only do GCSE (the level below A Level) these days, as the colleges do the A Levels…

At the moment I am looking into distance learning: but the companies involved seem very reluctant to tell me their prices – they certainly don’t seem to advertise them on their websites…leading me to assume they are actively trying to dissuade custom. Also the nearest test centre appears to be 100 miles from me, which could cause a problem when I come to take the exam.

Meanwhile I am continuing to look into funding options for a degree, which I would love to do if only pesky bills didn’t get in the way…again I am not eligible for much of the funding available because I chose to go out and work for a living instead of being career unemployed (when you get everything for free)

The good news is that the mad Dutch woman who ran a class on life drawing a couple of years ago has emailed me to say she’s running a non-college course during October. Despite her infatuation with painting pictures of giant penguins I feel moved to support her independent non-qualifications stance and email back telling her to book me a place.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Eclectic Dreams

I get off the bus in town and head into the bus station, pushing my way through the crowds of kids hanging about in the doorway, smoking cigarettes and happy just to be bored rather than take the effort to find something to do. My connection home isn’t in the station yet: so I stand at the overcrowded stop and watch as the previous bus loads up and rolls out. The time-table on the wall is telling me the time in bizzaro world - which bears no relation to life as we know it on Planet Earth

My bus pulls in: as its rush hour they have, of course, put on a single-decker – which means I have to put my bag on my lap and sit there hunched up for twenty minutes whilst a never ending array of strangers catch my shoulder as they brush past.

The bus pulls out of the station and up the street, passing the usual array of two-bit public houses, employment agencies, mini-supermarkets and Luxury Apartments (for luxury apartments read “Luxury Rabbit Hutches”)

Then, just before we pass the next bus stop, I see it. Sitting in the window of the local Cash Converters is a battered looking Banjo. I can’t read the price from here, but I know from looking the other day that it is £79

This is the third or fourth time the shop has had a Banjo for sale and the price has ranged from £50 to £100 on each occasion. I shoot it a wistful look; thinking that if I just had some money spare…

I already play the guitar. Well, perhaps play is a strong word to use. I know my chords and can produce a song, but put me in a room with anyone else who plays and I suddenly look like a toddler bashing away at a Xylophone.

But the reality is that it’s too late now. I don’t have the training to be a banjo player. You probably need three years and a BSc in Banjo before they’ll even let you change a string. Even if I bought the banjo and took classes I would be up against younger, more agile-fingered players. Besides, with bills to pay and cats to feed I can’t afford to give up my job and dedicate my life to Banjo study for a year or two in the hope of one day finding that dream Banjo-spot in the Royal Philarmonic Orchestra.

There are so many demands on my money and time. Though I dream of a Christmas No 1 of Banjo-related-songs CD the truth is that I have already taken two jobs I didn’t particularly want just to keep a roof over my head and will probably have to do the same again and again in the years to come just to pay the bills. At the end of each month, when all the bills have been paid there is little spare for dreams of musicality. Sometimes I feel that I am sleepwalking. Sometimes I feel that dreaming is a luxury I can no longer afford. Sometimes I feel that everything I have just said is a load of cobblers and that actually, all things considered, it's not so bad. After all…while there’s life…and besides, i'd probably get bored with the banjo and want to learn the Saxaphone instead

I slump into my seat and turn away, my hope fading as another passenger bumps into my arm. I try not to listen to the argument between the teenage mum and her prison-proud boyfriend.

My thoughts turn briefly to a lad I knew, some years ago. I’d guess we first met at Junior school when I was about 8 years old – and that I last saw him when I was 17 or 18. We were never particularly close – but he was always friendly and full of talk of joining the army when he left school. He never did: all of it was talk – same as the rest of us, just dreaming of becoming something more.

He died: right about the time I was 25. A friend of a friend told me he’d been living rough, taking Heroin.

Such a shame: all that potential in life – coming to so little.