Monday, 30 June 2008

Once More With Feeling…

One thing that never fails to amuse me is when, increasingly rarely, we have one of our open recruitment days at work.

All of a sudden our drab little office gets transformed – you turn up and the Duty Managers are dressed as Pirates, Fairies or Christmas characters; the desks are festooned with balloons and streamers and posters adorn the previously bare walls. Senior Managers may be wearing special T-shirts and have even been known to smile.

But the most amusing aspect is the email that gets sent around requesting everyone to “engender a happy working atmosphere” (actual wording, I kid you not)

This says rather more about the working environment than perhaps the Managers meant to say and always provokes me to ask exactly how we will go about engendering such an atmosphere: are we all supposed to sit there singing “Hi-ho, Hi-ho”??

Of course, in reality it is very rare for an entire staff to burst into song – as they do in the increasingly annoying Halifax adverts where bank buildings sail off into the sunset to advertise interest rates in the style of the Crimson Permanent Assurance (look it up) instead of, for arguments sake, spending the money on providing you with better services.

But sometimes I think it would be interesting if people did go about bursting into song at inappropriate moments, performing song and dance routines down the street. Let’s face it they couldn’t do any worse than Andrew Lloyd-Webber (no offence AL-W, but if I see another audition programme for one of your musicals I may well be tempted to throw a brick through my TV)

But of course the world of the musical is that most bizarre of places and I remain ambiguous about its artistic merits. When it’s done well it can be entertaining, but for me it often stretches credibility and, as Barry Norman (Film Critic) once said: it is one thing to ask an audience to suspend their disbelief, it is quite another to ask them to hang it by the neck until it is dead.

Take for instance the musical Grease. For many years I managed to avoid seeing this film until my girlfriend persuaded me to watch it. The upshot of the plot: Two teenagers meet on holiday and fall in love: however they are from different worlds. John Travolta (you see, I enjoyed it so much I can’t even remember the name of the character) fails to mention that he is a rough boy in leathers with a penchant for Scientology, Olivia Neutron-Bomb meanwhile is just a normal girl who wants to be accepted. Moral of the film: if you want to get the man of your dreams dress like a tart. Women of the world seem to love this movie, despite its amoral sub-context. Best moment? "The Worst Thing I Can Do" - sung much better by Alison Moyet this is a song about a girl who gets pregnant from a one night stand. So much for the feelgood factor

The Sound Of Music: perennial favourite of the Christmas TV schedules. A film that lasts from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day (or feels that way) about a Austrian count who doesn’t seem to mind when a local nun comes and cuts up his curtains for clothes (If he’s a count why can’t they afford new clothes? Tell me that?)

All very nice until the last few minutes of the film where, on her wedding day, the nun’s all sing “how do you solve a problem like Maria”. Way to stick the knife in girls. Things to worry about in SoM - why aren't the Nazi's guarding the doors of the concert venue? What does Maria want from the Lonely Goatheard? Did Rogers and Hammerstein spend a whole week trying to describe "La" before just giving up and saying "Sod it, it's a note to follow So - that'll have to do"?

Xanadu (or possibly Zanadu): actually a favourite of mine just for its surreal central concept – the Greek gods come out of retirement and send down Olivia Neutron-Bomb to form a paradise on earth…by creating a roller disco (nope, again, not making this up)

To be fair though the musical can be quite a fun way to tell a story – but the only thing worse than a musical is a bunch of songs forced together to form a musical. By this I mean the likes of “We Will Rock You”, “Our House” or “Mamma Mia” – musicals where the works of a particular band (respectively Queen, Madness and ABBA) are forced together to tell a story that they were never intended to tell, based on the idea that fans of the music will want to see the show. Thus we get plots where a group of people are Under Pressure by a Killer Queen or some such nonsense.

I can’t really complain though – one of my favourite films is Lagaan – a Bollywood movie about a cricket match, interspersed by song. Fortunately no one, not even once, sings about cricket! Who knows, maybe they just couldn't think of a rhyme?

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Not So Much With The Singing…

As you will probably guess from some of my previous postings I am afflicted with cats.

First of all there’s my own cats: I have two. The first we will refer to as “furry” as he has asked me to withhold his name (any cat owners will know what I mean by this – come on, admit it: you hold conversations with your cats). I can’t work out whether he is incredibly stupid or incredibly bright.

For instance: Furry will ignore the fact that there is food in his bowl a mere room away and pad upstairs at 4am, landing noisily on the bed before trampling all over your throat demanding to be fed. You ignore him for a bit, hoping he will settle down, but eventually give in and carry him down to the still full bowl telling him in no uncertain terms: “Look - food you daft cat!” (NB for followers of my previous blogs this could fit in with my “Cats rule the world” theory – he could be stopping me from dreaming up a way of harnessing the power of the sun).

However – I recently tried to stop the furry alarm clock from dribbling, licking and purring like a well tuned engine 2 inches from my ear by closing him in the downstairs room at night…only to find that he had worked out that if he turned his paw upside down he could get it under the gap and open the door. This resulted in Plan B – where I balanced something heavy just inside the door to stop him being able to squeeze out. However, he countered this move by pushing the object aside with his head. So – the result is that I have a cat clever enough to problem solve and open a door, but not clever enough to work out that simply locating the full bowl that is in exactly the same position as always would be a hell of a lot easier. Go figure.

Furry came with the house – he was hiding in the garden the day I came to view and has been inviting himself in ever since. I officially adopted him about 3 months ago and, after some years of perfect health, he instantly got ill and cost me £300 in the first month. He’s ok now, by the way.

My second cat is a little girl and we will call her “tiny”. She’s meek and timid and scared of her shadow when you are standing up, but will chase other cats out of the garden like a stampeding Rhino. Sometimes, if you’re sitting down, she will come and behave like a complete tart – performing head-rolls and demanding for her belly to be rubbed. Furry is definitely in charge and has to be stopped physically from eating all of Tiny’s food as well as his own.

The problem isn’t so much with my own cats – who get on pretty well aside from the occasional inexplicable fight (never more than one or two punches from Furry, or a mad dash of activity across the floor) – but with the other local cats. It’s impossible to go out into my back garden without being ambushed by the cat equivalent of the Jehovas Witnesses – not so much there to ask you about God as to ask you about your Fridge (or at least remind you where it is)

Cats thrive in my area – a relatively quiet road with big-ish gardens and lots of rubbish. Sometimes it can be like one of those scenes from a horror film where you step outside to realise that it’s all gone quiet and all eyes are following you. Come the day they work out how to open a tin for themselves I know they’ll turn on me – which will at least lead to an interesting epitaph.

I refuse to fit a cat-flap though – as this would result in it simply being easier to sign the house over to the cats and go and live in the shed. Meanwhile Tiny and Furry continue to thwart my art and writing career by inexplicably turning their noses up at food they were eating just yesterday, demanding to sit on my lap when I’m trying to research something on the net or just plain digging their claws into my flesh when I’m trying to sleep.

Still, despite all of this in my opinion anyone who says they don’t like cats is just plain wrong! (unless they’re talking about the musical, of course!)

Monday, 16 June 2008

2 Dream Story "The Smell Of Lemons"

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “If this story is true, how can you be telling it?” Well, the truth is that, once he had calmed down and stopped screaming, Tom was pretty helpful and he set me up at the computer with one of those voice recognition things. It’s pretty shitty and I have to keep saying delete, so bear with me if the spelling goes wrong.

The thing is that, back when I was a kid, I used to have something of an extreme reaction to hair products. Now, when most people say extreme reaction they mean throat closing up, hives and skin rash: some people have been known to die. Me – I used to turn into a dog.

Yeah – you read that right: a dog. A big, brown Golden Retriever. The first time it happened I didn’t know what the hell to think. I woke up with paws, smells in Technicolor and a strong desire to cock my leg at any nearby post. My mom freaked. We had a strict no pets in the house rule back then, so she kicked me out. I spent four hours whimpering under a bush whilst she tore around the neighbourhood screaming my name.

I can still remember how strangely calm I felt about it all– like somehow I had always known there was a dog inside me wanting to get out (and please, no jokes about already being a bitch – I’ve heard them all before). I guess the truth is you get used to what you have and, somehow, walking around on all fours and chasing cats just seemed like the right thing to be doing with my day. That nearly caused me a problem the first time, on account of the fact I was half-way up a tree when I felt my limbs stretching and suddenly I was butt-naked and nearly stuck. Thank God my mom’s always kept a spare key under the plant-pot or I would still have been out there when she got back – and that would have left me in even more trouble than I already was: and that was bad enough.

The second time it happened I was away on girl scout camp – and that was when I started to notice the symptoms: first a scratchy feeling in my hair after I used the products, then a vague smell of lemons (don’t ask me why) and suddenly – bam – dog! All the other girls screeched like crazy as this big, wet dog came bounding out of the shower rooms. This time, however, I knew better than to let the doggie side take over too much – so I bounded back to the tent and pulled out some clothes. Trust me – you do not want to wear clothes covered in dog saliva, especially when it’s your own, but it’s better than finding yourself naked in a field with 40 girl guides and a couple of cub scouts out looking for you. When I finally changed back I told them I’d got lost following the dog and they seemed to believe me – though I got into trouble with the guide leader and missed out on supper that night. From then on until I finally figured out what was causing it I started carrying a small bag with a change of clothes round my neck. A lot of people thought it was cute the way that dog would pull at the bag. Some even tried to take it off me.

Once I found out exactly what product was causing the change I thought it best to avoid them. Much as being a dog was fun I’d noticed that the changes were lasting longer – and it was taking longer to turn back. When it first started I’d change from dog to girl in the blink of an eye – then later in a couple of minutes. One time I was left with the stub of a tail for about a week after everything else had come back and that was when I knew it was time to quit.

And so I did: until that drunken night in college. Somehow it all came out – how I used to turn into a dog, what it felt like. And of course no one believed me, I guess they thought I was drunk – and I was, otherwise I never would have rinsed a load of that product into my hair just to prove them wrong.

And of course, nothing happened. Don’t ask me why – I thought maybe at the time that being a dog was something you could grow out of, like having a security blanket or some such thing, or that I was immune now. I guess I looked a fool that night, but it wasn’t the first time and they forgot in time (though some people still call me Fido to this day)

And then I met Tom. Sure it was 10 years later and I was in a steady job by then, but I guess it was the next really important thing that happened in my life. Tom was gentle and kind and funny in a way that no man had been to me before and I guess I fell in love with him – but for some reason I never did tell him about the dog. It was so long ago and, besides, I thought I was cured.

The thing about Tom is that he likes to go to some pretty far out places – so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when he took me to a hairdresser in china town. It was a weird place – you had to sit in a row with five other people and the barber would work entirely from behind the last person, reaching further and further over until each head was done. It was all supposed to be about getting in touch with your inner self – though frankly I prefer it when I get in touch with my inner self alone, and not when someone else is attempting to touch it for me. Tom went off to have a coffee next door whilst I had my hair done – so I was surprised when I came out and found the bike gone…but not as surprised as when I began to smell lemons.

When Tom came back from the coffee house he found his bike stolen and this weird dog standing in a pile of his girlfriend’s clothes. I don’t know what he thought – he hasn’t spoken much about that night since – maybe he thought I’d gone insane and decided to drive butt-naked around the city. I can be pretty impulsive some times, but that would be pushing it even for me. Of course, thinking I was cured had meant that I’d stopped carrying around my emergency bag, so my only way of getting home was in those keys in my jeans – which of course Tom had picked up before calling the Police. Out of force of habit I’ve always left a spare key behind a loose brick in the wall – but I just didn’t fancy the idea of doing a Lassie Come Home across country at night – so I stuck with Tom knowing he’d be too kind hearted to send me to a kennel and hoping that my doggie state would wear off overnight.

Of course – things didn’t work out that way. I got stuck as a dog for the best part of two weeks, by the end of which I was pretty sick of marrowbone jelly I can tell you. All I can say is that the hair product must have been a strong one because when it finally did wear off it didn’t do it all in one go. I wouldn’t have liked to be in Tom’s shoes when he came in and saw my human head on a dog’s body – but the sound he made as he crawled backwards across the carpet in a stream of his own mess was enough to get every dog within a hundred mile radius up and barking.

It took a hell of a lot of persuading to get him back in to the room and there’s still a bit of me that wonders if he didn’t consider calling Jerry Springer first, but come back he did and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.

Things have improved since then. My body is mostly back, though I could be wrong but I think my breasts have got a little bigger, but I still have paws where I should have fingers. The other day my thumb popped back into existence, so I reckon I should be able to handle a knife and fork in another week or two. Tom went out and bought me some anti histamines and they seem to be speeding things up, but he still looks at me in that freaked out way and I don’t know if things will ever be the same between us. He’s been very kind and all, but I know he’ll be happier when I move back home in another week or two. Meanwhile I keep taking the pills and fighting the urges – I don’t know which is worse: wanting to chase sticks, bury bones or stick my tongue out and pant all day. One thing I do know for sure: when I finally get back home I wont be washing my hair in any products – not now and not ever again.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Bus Conversations #3

I've often thought that life is strange enough without going about inventing any more of it, so in the spirit of this i would like to pass on this surreal conversation that I overheard whilst standing at a local bus-stop about 3 weeks ago. Both conversationalists smoked incessantly through the conversation.

A woman in her 50s or 60s (henceforth referred to as “W”) entered the bus shelter and saw a familiar old man (referred to as “OM”). The names given are not their real names, as I can’t remember what their real names were. The woman did most of the talking, interrupting the man when he tried to make a point. See if you can spot, or understand, the leap of logic:

W - Morning George, how are you
OM - Mustn’t grumble love, mustn’t grumble. Leg’s still giving me trouble though
W - You goin’ into town?
OM - Eh?
W - I said, you goin’ into town?
OM - No – I walked down here you see, wanted the shops, but I’m too tired to get back, so I’m on the bus
W - Town’s really busy now anyway isn’t it?
OM - Well…
W - I saw our Jack in town the other day – he said to me, ‘it’s bloody busy here now’ and he were right

An elderly Chinese man power-walked past the stop at this point, grinning as wide as possible without his head splitting, and waving like a manic desk-fan at the old man

OM (calling) - You alright Joe? Great old bloke he is

W (noticing “No Smoking” sign on the bus stop for the first time and taking another drag on her cigarette) - What’s all this no smoking nonsense then?

OM - Bloody ridiculous
W - I’ve been smoking all my life – 40 a day me – and it’s never done me any harm.
OM - No
W - They say it causes cancer, but that’s just rubbish. My friend’s daughter never smoked a day in her life – got lung cancer aged 25.
OM - You’re right
W - And they go treating us like bloody criminals just because we like to smoke. It’s not like its causing anyone any harm
OM - oh well…

And then a brief pause, before…

W - It’s that bloody Hitler! How the hell did he ever come to power?

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Taking The Moral High-Ground

Let’s face it – only Britain could produce a woman like Mary Whitehouse.

An ordinary school teacher from middle Britain she became the scourge of TV producers everywhere when she set up the National Viewers And Listeners Association in the 1960s – complaining about sex, nudity, swearing and, quite oddly, about puppet pigs being cruel to one another (no, really)

She believed that young children were at risk of being exposed to images and ways of life that her Christian upbringing didn’t approve of. She was also instrumental in starting the “9 O’clock Watershed” for more adult-themed programmes (a watershed that becomes more and more pointless as the years go by)

Much as Mary Whitehouse was as nutty as a Whole-nut Chocolate bar with extra nuts I do sometimes pause to wonder exactly what values the Idiot Box is teaching our nation.

Take “Golden Balls” (and I wish someone would)

GB is hosted by 80s comedian Jasper Carrott (not his real name) and is shown at 5pm. The idea is that three contestants are given 5 balls – some may contain cash amounts, others contain the word “Killer” (which reduces the prize fund). Only they know which is which and they have to convince their opponents to keep them, and their balls, for the final round – where they will have the opportunity to “steal” or “share” the money.

So effectively the programme encourages the idea that stealing and lying brings instant rewards.

GB is not alone in this – programmes like X Factor and Britain’s (Really Hasn’t) Got Talent encourage people with No Fixed Ability to shame themselves on telly by being useless in the hope of getting a quick route to fame. The same can be said of the Big Brother phenomenon of programming – 10 chimpanzees in a house for umpteen, seemingly never-ending weeks, looking to earn themselves a big cash prize for lazing about, picking fleas off one another and being annoying.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m deeply cynical about censorship. We can’t go around treating people like idiots and trying to protect them from the real world – but there is a thin line between showing the truth (showing scenes of a war) and voyeurism (showing a dying man being handed a phone so he can phone his family one last time) that is clearly aimed at ratings only.

We forget how powerful and seductive the TV is – we invite it into our houses as we would a friend and it informs our view of the world. Gone are the days of the impartial BBC.

In many households it has replaced the babysitter and become the moral compass by which our nation sets its values – with endless soaps showing crimes that go unpunished, crime shows showing corrupt police officers and news programmes that concentrate on celebrity gossip over actual facts.

But I could be wrong – maybe the BBC should organise a phone in vote?

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Crushed Leaves and Cow Lactations

There’s a theory going around at the moment that the best way to deal with anyone who is particularly useless at their job is to promote them to a level where they can no longer do any harm. This theory seems to be supported by the promotion of (TV gameshow regular and All-Round Upper Class Twit) Boris Johnson to the position of Mayor of London.

Barely a week into his term of office Boris was introduced to the current Mayor of New York. NY Mayor presented Boris with a specially created Faberge apple symbolic of the Big Apple worth hundreds of dollars – Boris returned the favour by presenting a novelty London T-Shirt worth £5.99

Let’s face it – the British image abroad is not the best. No one in the Eurovision Song Contest will vote for us and any fictional rendering of a Brit is usually of a sexually-repressed upper class twit or of a cool, calm villain. Whilst we do still have our fair share of both very few of us wear bowler hats and suits, carry an umbrella everywhere or hold our little fingers out whilst drinking tea.

Although: we do drink tea - lots of it. We’d have it intravenously through a drip if we could – particularly at work.

Personally I prefer a coffee first thing in the morning – the bitter taste reminds me I’m still alive and gives me something other to think about than the Excel spreadsheet I’m going to be spending morning staring at in a vain attempt to look busy – but the issue of tea in the workplace is a contentious one.

One of my roles in my job is to look after the supplies in our mini-kitchen, ensuring that tea, coffee and especially milk are in good supply. This is not always easy as the Evil Spawn Of Satan (people who take the tea milk for their cornflakes) will happily get through the first 2 pints by the time I roll in to work. They have been told that this action could lead to bloody rebellion, but they continue to take the risk…

If any of the supplies runs out you can guarantee that I’ll get an instant email or phone call from someone on the verge of emotional break-down, whereupon I have to establish if we received our full contingent of cow lactations or if we were short changed by the main kitchen. This is not easy as they lie to protect their own staff from the carnage that would ensue if they were unable to supply a hot brew of crushed leaves upon request.

You may think I’m over-exaggerating here, but I’m talking about a work place where some teams have resorted to signing up to and similar sites to avoid the bitterness that results from someone persistently refusing to make a cuppa of an afternoon. Senior Managers are particularly bad on this – one Director recently requisitioned a flip-chart holder purely as a way of recording who had last made tea and how frequently. They tried to ban drinks at tables due to health and safety reasons and had to back-track rapidly, bringing in cups with lids especially to avoid further bloodshed.

At home I barely touch the stuff – meaning that when I do finally make a brew I actually appreciate it, but I doubt that even I could get through a whole morning at work without a nice cup of tea.
I guess we just do what we have to in order to survive the mundane nature of jobs clearly designed by scientists to see who’ll go mad with an axe first. My guess is the person who finishes off the teabags will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes – but I could be wrong. He does, after all, make a lovely cup of tea!