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: 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