Friday, 31 December 2010

New Year's Desilutions

They say that there is no such thing as an original idea – but if there is this is certainly not one of them, but the other night I was talking to Herself about New Year’s Resolutions.
She had been texting some friends in London to the effect that it is inevitable that New Year’s Resolutions will be broken, usually within five seconds of the stroke of midnight.

I know this to be true – I used to be a member of my local gym (until financial restraints meant I had to stop) and from the start of January to early February each year it would be impossible to get on any of the machinery due to the Health Kick Resolution – but by mid February only a few waifs and strays remained.

Picking something to give up is difficult – one year I managed to give up chocolate (I try to blank those 12 months), but my only real vice these days is cheese – and if I had to give up cheese for 12 months then it would be onto the crack cocaine before I knew it.

But Herself has come up with the perfect solution for us all – why not give up something you already don’t do? If you give up doing something you don’t currently do then you are hardly going to miss it and can reach the end of 2011 feeling proud of the fact that you have continued to not do said thing.
So here’s a couple of suggestions for those of you looking for ludicrous things to stop doing during 2011:

#1: Hang-gliding Naked Through Woolworths

Quite an easy one to give up on several levels this one. Firstly because Woolworths selection of high-street emporiums have now gone and been replaced by numerous pound shops. Secondly, and aside from branches of Woolworths set over 2 or more levels, it is quite impossible to get the level of lift required vis a vis take-off for hang-gliding (although to be fair I have never tried)

#2: Part-time career as Director General of the BBC

Much as my commitment and dedication to the British Broadcasting Corporation has been a vital standpoint of their continued success over the past few years I feel sure that they can continue to flourish as a result of my continued absence and thus feel relatively secure in continuing not to be Director General (albeit in absentia) during 2011. However, should Mark Thompson (DG since 2004) fancy a holiday he knows where to find me

#3: Neurosurgeon

The brains of Great Britain may continue to rest easy during 2011 that should they falter in the knowledge that the the hands of this particular Pixie will not be attempting to put them right

#4: Mountain climbing

Actually, of the list here this is one that I’d quite like a go at. There is an establishment less than 2 miles from my house with a climbing wall, but starter lessons are £60 and you have to have more than one person at the lesson – so scaling Everest, Kilimanjaro or, lets face it, the stairs in the hallway, remains a remote possibility over the next 12 months

#5: Career as a singer in a Bhangra-influenced band

Actually in one of my previous roles I worked with someone who left the company to become exactly this. From what I gather they are doing rather well.

Suggestions for things that you want to give up, but already don’t do, will be widely welcomed.

Oh yeah - and whatever you do or don't do in 2011 be safe, be happy and be prosperous.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas Wishes, Musings, Sax And Ramblings

Good tidings fellow bloggers, and welcome all.  It's that time of year again and those of you that read my blog regularly will know that it it's something of a tradition for me to post on or abouts Christmas with some kind of story or alternate message.

This year I've decided to take a suggestion from Bobby, a fellow blogger and write a kind of open letter to a few people who have meant a lot to me this year

Firstly: my family - my mum, dad and our kid.  This year more than any other I've become really aware of the sacrifices my parents made for me when I was young - so thank you

Secondly: my friends - its funny how you have different kinds of relationships with different friends and how sometimes that changes back and forth, but this year I would particularly like to thank Argent and C.C. - without whom I don't know how I would have coped.  Aargent for music and laughter, C.C. for getting me writing again - and to the latter - mate: wherever you are this Christmas be safe

I'd also like to say hi to my new friends Roxy and Samurai - looking forward to getting to know you better

Next up a quick word-up to everyone in Blogland, particularly Bug, Watercats and Lydia for much needed light relief and creative stimulation - especially for you guys there's a Christmas Quiz at the end (answers will be on the responses page) - many of the questions come from a programme called QI where the things you think you know turn out to be wrong - so it's more for your interest than as an actual quiz.

Finally to Herself.  Someone at Toastmasters said this year that when you enter the room I light up.  It's true - you are my light.

But enough of the sentimentality - it's time for music lovers everywhere to turn away and start running, as after frequent attempts to record myself playing something christmassy on my Saxophone I have gone with the least rubbish.  Camera work is by Herself and she asked me to point out the highlighting of the "little" Merry Christmas.  See what she did there? 

Have a good one.  Peace and goodwill to all.


1) Which Famous Chicken travelled to China?

2) What produces most of the Earth’s Oxygen?

3) Where do loofas come from?

4) What was Mozart’s middle name?

5) What is unusual about Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer?

6) What substance replaced lead in pencils?
7) Why is Santa's Grotto accident free for the 200th year running?

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Three Wizened Men (A Christmas Magpie Tale)

Bethelehem Police Station, December 24th - Year Zero
Officer P. Pilate reporting

I was just returning to the station when I espied three strange men on camels travelling across the desert.

Upon approaching them they claimed to be three wize men, following a star, but I distinctly smelt alcohol on their breaths.

Upon further questioning they claimed to be Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, Kings of the Orient who had been visited by a spirit telling them to bring gifts to a child in a manger.  It seemed clear to me that they had been visited by several spirits, including the spirit of Jack Daniels on several occasions.

I proceded to ask them to dismount from their camels and to turn out their pockets.  Upon searching the three so-called Kings I discovered that one was carrying Gold, the second Frankensense and the third Myr.  They claimed that these were gifts for the child.  When I questioned whether some form of cuddly toy wouldn't be more appropriate for a child they could not provide a suitable response.

I was just about to ask them to follow me to the station when we were interrupted by three shepherds coming in the opposite direction.  They were also acting in a most peculiar manner and claimed to have followed the star.  I decided that they were either in collusion with each other or that the Annual General Meeting of Village Idiots was in town. 

However, as it was nearing the end of my shift I decided to follow them back to The Comfy Inn, Bethelehem, where I found a young family sleeping in the barn with the animals.

Having made a mental note to report the parents for child neglect I asked the two persons present whether they were, in fact, the parents of the poor child lying in the straw.

The male then responded that he was a travelling carpenter and that he was not the father.  His wife had claimed that she had been impregnated by God himself, although he seemed to believe it was actually some fellow called Gabriel.  I recommended the couple to marriage guidance, but decided not to pursue the issue of parentage as it was becoming increasingly clear that everyone was bonkers

It was at this point that I turned to the three men I had initially encountered and asked if they still had any of the spirits they had initially spoken of.  Sadly they did not and I returned to the station where I had a bottle of Bells hidden under the desk

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Talkin 'Bout A Revolution (Mandella Day)

I guess there must have been 70,000 people there that day.  That was the capacity of the old Wembley Stadium.

Most of us were there to see Simple Minds.  Most of us had little idea who Nelson Mandella was.  He was still in prison at the time

Myself and Our Kid took seats on the side of the station and watched the acts come and go.  Mostly they were the big names of the day - perhaps trying to support the cause of freedom for South Africa, perhaps just trying to sell some more records.

I remember...

Graham Chapman asking for 30 seconds of abuse
The whole stadium reverberating to the low bass of UB40
Watching the endless drum solos of the african musicians that inter-spersed the main acts
George Michael's set - and not being able to hear a single word he was singing
Everyone singing "how long - to sing this song" and hoping that U2 were gonna fill the blank spot on the programme.
Wishing Courtney Pine would get off and stop playing Jazz
Having to leave half-way through Dire Straits to catch the last train back

There was much talk of that hour - a mystery guest.  Some were saying the Beatles were gonna reform with Julian taking his father's place, some claimed the Rolling Stones.  In the end we got an hour of Hugh Masekala and Winne Bombata - only finding out after we returned home that it was supposed to have been Stevie Wonder, but someone had stolen his equipment.

It was long and sometimes slow day, it was noisy and some acts were better than others.

Most of it is now erased by the passing of the years: I know what we were supporting that day now and I wish i'd known more about it at the time.

But I always remember this one girl

She got up on the stage alone with her guitar, no backing musicians - just her and her voice.  None of us had ever heard of her - she was a newcomer playing to 70,000 Simple Minds fans

If you looked at the big screens you could see her shaking - but that voice took us away.

Now I'm not much of a fan of female singers: I can't stand all that Mariah Carey/Whitney Houston warbling around the notes - but that voice touched me, sending shivers down my spine.  She was shaking - but she was totally in that moment, meaning every single word.

I guess it was one of those moments where we really stopped for a few seconds and remembered what we had paid our £40 for

Talking about a revolution

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Dominik Rivron's Universally Challenged

OK - so some days ago fellow blogger Dominik Rivron invited people to write answers to questions from a school exam paper.  Having spent the days since wondering which one to go for I eventually decided to put some spurious one sentence answers to some and then have a proper go at another.  Here's my attempt:

Are modern politicians merely managers?
No – any manager that useless would be sacked

Can the ‘freeness’ and ‘fairness’ of elections be measured?
Yes, but due to differences with the EU we can’t decide whether to measure in pounds or kilos

Is there anything to be said for astrology?
There is – but it’s written in the stars

Are technological changes creating a golden age of cinema?
Is Phantom Menace better than A New Hope? Case closed

What can we learn from a century of sound recording?
A group of five vaguely feminine young boys will always sell records

Is Islam more dangerous than any other religion?
No – the Knights Templar were acting for the Pope, remember?

Is good for literature?
Yes and no, but not as good and bad as Charlotte Bronte and Geoffrey Archer

Would you ban a book?
No – with the possible exception of “Jimmy Greaves – It’s A Funny Old Game”

Have any philosophical questions been solved?
I believe they are still debating that one

Is it worse to be cruel to a fox than to a flea?
Other than one is furry and cute and the other isn’t – not really

Does it matter who wrote Shakespeare’s plays?
Only if it really was a time-travelling stoat called Albert

Is it immoral to buy a £10,000 handbag?
Not immoral, just fecking stupid

Does celebrity entail loss of dignity?
No – only the things people do to maintain celebrity

Is Exile always a misfortune?
Depends on if you are the Exiler or the Exilee

If there are millions of other planets capable of supporting advanced life-forms why haven’t we seen or heard from them?
Most of us can’t be bothered to get up to turn the TV off – imagine the hassle of travelling 40 million light years

Is corruption inevitable?
Give me £10 and i'll tell you

What is war good for?
Absolutely nothing (say it again)

"A lunatic is easily recognised.  Sooner or later he brings up the Knight's Templar" (Umberto Eco) - Discuss
See answer to question six

Should University Education Be Free
During the recent election campaign in England the Liberal Democrat party made an election pledge that they would not increase university tuition fees.  Of course they were the outsiders and probably felt reasonably safe promising free elephants for all - but then the election results came in and, against most people's expectations they formed an alliance with the Conservative party - and promptly began talking about increasing tutition fees.

Students were, rightly, outraged and took to the streets to campaign - but is university education an automatic right?  Should the state continue to fund the education of people studying art, film, english, economics - or even more practical skills?

Most other countries do not provide much or any funding for education in this way - people are expected to start saving for their child's education when they are born - if the child choses not to go to University then they have a downpayment on a house or a car.

Most students come out of university with a £30,000 debt hanging over their heads - even before they think about looking for a home.  Even with the various protections of fixed interest until they earn a certain salary this is an unthinkable burden to be hanging over a young person who is just starting out in life. 

For myself: i work full time and all my money goes into paying bills and keeping a roof over my head.  I would love to go back to University and study (having missed out when i left school), but I am penalized because I am earning a certain amount of money and therefore judged capable of paying for myself.  Should I receive funding as a recognition of my situation?  Or is it my responsibilty to find extra money?

The inevitable down side of increasing and setting charges for university is that less people will be able to afford to go and the result could be that only the well off will receive a high level university - but is a reduction in numbers at university necessarily a bad thing?  10-15 years ago if you went to an employer with any degree you would stand a better chance of getting the job, regardless of the relevancy of the qualification.  Nowadays the sheer number of people entering for the qualification means that only the exact degree will do.

Surely instead of concentrating so heavily on further education we should concentrate on developing practical skills.  England was once described as a nation of shopkeepers, but today in the call centre world that we live in we could equally be accused of being shop assistants.

I personally feel that it is morally wrong to impose a level of such intense debt on a generation of people and that our country can only suffer from this in the long term - but equally I feel that there is an attitude in this country that everything should be given to us for free: and maybe its time that we started working out ways to take it instead.

In the current climate savings have to come from somewhere - but they shouldn't be paid for with yet another generation of debt.  A more reasonable route might be to plan in a slow increase over a period of a generation, but at the same time promote the concept of saving for ones future.

Friday, 3 December 2010

A Difficult Concept?

Ah yes - I know, i know: it's been a while now since i put out one of my massively popular lists of five things.  I can't count the amount of requests i've had for another one (you can only count things you actually have)

And, to be fair, this one may be quite a hard sell anyway.  It's a list of five great concept albums.

OK, so I realise that the concept album has little place outside of the 1970s.  One tends to associate them with bands like Yes endlessly pushing out 20 minute keyboard epics with nonsence lyrics that make bashing your ear repeatedly with a cymbal for 2 days look like a viable alternative - and lets face it the concept album has little place in today's world of download insta-tunes.

But i think there's something rather magnificent in their scale, lunacy, ego trip - call it what you want: it's essentially an attempt by a rock band to write opera and, believe it or not, there are a few good ones.

So again i'm going to start by being controvertial and discounting Sgt Pepper by The Beatles.  Simply because it's not a concept album.  It did start out as one - but the idea of linking the songs together was dropped after the first two songs and it's only For The Benefit Of Mr Kite that returns to the idea of a show

#1 Jeff Wayne, The War Of The Worlds
OK so for anyone who ever read the book or saw the film you'll know The War Of The Worlds as being HG Wells's epic of Martian Flu Pandmics - but if you've never heard this album then you've missed a treat.  Richard Burton as The Narrator, David Essex - and the main War Of The World theme: few concept albums are on this scale and the album stays closer to the plot than the Tom Cruise film did.  Top moment is the single: Forever Autumn

#2 Pink Floyd, Dark Side Of The Moon/The Wall
Just a brief mention of Dark Side OTM here - which is surely the most perfect album ever recorded: with it's recurring themes of growing old, class and social divisions etc - but as far as concept albums go The Wall is, in many ways, the more interesting album.

Drawing in equal measure on Roger Waters' obsession with losing his father to the war, the band's inability to communicate with one another and the price and pleasures of fame it tells the story of Pink, a rock star who starts believing his own myth.  True side two asks some disturbing questions and the end peters out a bit, but this one wins for being home for two of the best guitar solos ever recorded.  Top moments: Another Brick In The Wall (all 3 parts), Comfortably Numb (although the live version is better)

#3 Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway
Masters of prog-rock, posh student types obsessed with mythology - the early years of Genesis, under the leadership of Peter Gabriel, saw a series of songs intent on telling wierd and wonderful stories.  This is Gabriel's last outing with the band (leaving to concentrate, albiet not successfully, on his family and marriage), but it has been said that his involvement in the writing of the music was minimal

It tells the story of Rael, a street punk who comes to the big city in search of his brother John and becomes involved with some very sinister characters and a world of magic and mystery.  OK - so sides 3 and 4 make very little sense, but this remains one of my favourite albums of all time.  Top moments: The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, the chilling Carpet Crawl and Counting Out Time for the wonderfully daft lyric "Erogenous zones/i love you/ without you what would a poor boy do?" - genius

#4 Green Day, American Idiot/24th Century Breakdown
OK so this is only my opinion but American Idiot doesn't quite work as a concept album, but is nonetheless the superior album.  24th Century Breakdown, i feel, tries a little too hard to be something big and clever

American Idiot contains several recurring themes, the story of the Jesus of Suburbia, the girl whatsername, but somehow the story doesn't quite come together.  Top moment: obviously everyone remembers the singles, but there are great album tracks too

#5 The Who, Tommy
You know I think back to the 1970s and 1980s and to all the mods who drove around on vespa scooters wearing duffelcoats with The Who written on and wish that i'd heard this album back then so i could tell them what a bunch of pillocks they all were.

We watched the video recently and the only way i can describe it was "a voyage to trip out city"

OK so - its the story of Tommy who sees his father murdered, goes deaf and blind, is abused (a recurring theme in Townsend's writing as he was abused himself), learns how to play pinball and becomes the messiah - only to be abandoned.

And i'm sorry to anyone who likes it - but it's unlistenable twonk.  Only decent song is Pinball Wizzard and that one's sung by Elton John.  Frankly i'd rather bury my ears in concrete than ever listen to it again

Monday, 29 November 2010

Troubles With God (Poetry Bus)

Ok so it's been a while since I travelled on the Poetry Bus and I hope I haven't missed my ride as The Bug posted very early and a lot of people have already posted as a result

Anyway - Bug asked us to submit on one of three topics - and I chose the one related to conversations with God.

I offer you the below in good humour - please do not take offense:

Get This Party Started

At the end of the world disco party
The crowd splits to two different rooms
The believers in one quietly praying
Whilst Satan keeps all the best tunes

With the Judgement day finally over
They wait for the main star to appear
From the back of his private stretch limo
And finally make his plan clear

The lights dim, the music starts playing
The smoke machine belches a haze
And in white suit and medallion God enters
Still moving in mysterious ways

Monday, 22 November 2010

Painting In Need Of A Title

This painting was done on Sunday at a 1 day art course. It's an oil painting and the second time I've done the course - the last time was back in April when I was due to do landscapes but got my days wrong.

I did enjoy the day a lot - but although the above painting has turned out really well I don't feel as "good" about it as the painting I did last week from scratch by myself - I guess it's because the mountain painting is based on the Bob Ross method and thousands of students down the years will probably have produced something quite similar. Still - I had a good time and think I learnt a few things

Any suggestions for titles for the mountain painting, serious or otherwise, are much appreciated
PS: Bob Ross had a beard, Van Gough had a beard, Rolf Harris has a beard.  Coincidence?

Friday, 19 November 2010

Buskers Code Of Conduct

I miss the old days of buskers: the dodgy bloke smelling of wee and singing half a verse of “Here Comes The Sun”, the two students who can only remember three out of four chords and the sad-old-bugger playing “The Happy Wonderer” on Harmonica.

That’s what busking should be about – turning up and being so appallingly awful that people pay you to go away . It’s also a good venue for people to try out their sound before they go professional or start getting gigs: but not these days.

These days you have to have a licence – and the process of getting a licence and the accompanying rules are torturous to say the least. No wonder that my home town hasn’t had a music scene for 30 years. Here is the official list of rules, as requested by Argent and sent by NoFun Ltd (and please note, I'm not making this stuff up):

Successful candidates will be added to the Approved List, which will be reviewed annually.

NoFun Ltd will only license competent and vibrant performers who they feel would make a positive impact on the City Centre.

Exactly how do they measure this? Is there a fun-ometer? If one in ten people are not said to have received a “positive impact” do they reject?  Was the punk movement "vibrant" and "positive", were The Beatles?

Street entertainers should only perform within the approved entertainment

So what? If you audition as a knife thrower does this mean you can’t juggle fruit instead? Can you audition with your guitar, but turn up on the day with a tap-dancing baboon?

A pitch can only used from the hour until half past the hour e.g. 12.00 – 12.30, 1.00 – 1.30 There should be NO busking on any site between half past and the hour e.g 12.30 -1.00pm.

So: you can only play between the hour and half-past the hour, then you have to wait around for half an hour before you can start again? Why exactly? What is so sacrosanct about those times?

No sale of merchandise or goods will be allowed without a valid Street Trading Licence from NoFun Ltd.

So you can’t sell your demo tapes or T-Shirts? Hmmm

Only one entertainer or group of entertainers (maximum four people) shall be allowed in any of the entertainment areas at one time.

So children’s choirs, jazz and soul bands – any brass bands: all out.  And if the pitch is already gone: tough

Low powered amplification may only be used at certain sites (see site list), with express permission from NoFun Ltd, and the sound must be kept to a reasonable level so as not to cause disturbance or nuisance to surrounding businesses or the public. All sound levels to be set by NoFun Ltd staff.

Noise (for example music or voice) should not be so loud that it can be plainly heard at a distance of 50m.

So what? If you want to have amplification do you have to wait until a council official turns up with a tape measure and a noise registering machine to ensure that it’s not too loud. If you’re not using an amplifier are you supposed to pace out 50metres to ensure no one can hear you beyond that point?

Where accompanying backing music is used, the entertainers own music must form the greater part of the performance. Drumming should only be included as a minor part of the act.

So that rules out the Salvation Army and those steel bands then (admittedly no great loss)

Entertainers must not make use of street furniture such as public seats, lamp-posts and railings.

So during the half-hour where apparently you have to ensure you utter not a single sound you also presumably have to do a bit of yogic flying or just sprawl on the floor?

Animals are prohibited from being brought into the city centre by street entertainers while they are performing.

So performing animals presumably cause some kind of offence? What about Working Dogs?

Entertainers should stand unless their performance requires them to be seated. If the performance requires the entertainer to be seated then they should NOT sit directly on the floor – a suitable folding chair should be used.

So – not allowed to sit down during the act either

Non musical entertainers (eg. Jugglers / Stilt Walkers etc) must have proof of their current public liability insurance with them whilst entertaining. NoFun Ltd will require a copy of the certificate. Performers must take necessary precautions to prevent themselves or member of the public being put at risk.

So if you fall off your stilts you could be sued by us as well as by the public. Nice

Entertainers who appear to be under the influence of either drugs or alcohol will not be permitted to continue performing and will be reported to Local Police. NoFun Ltd will also remove them from the list of Approved Street Entertainers.

So that’s pretty much all musicians out straight away

Maybe it's just me - but shouldn't music (and entertainment) be spontaneous?  Surely the spirit and "vibrancy" of a place is not improved by laying down needless rules and regulations to ensure that no one is ever offended?  Maybe we should just learn to chill out?

Monday, 15 November 2010

Today Was A Good Day

Mondays.  I don't like them.  Tell me why...

Well - to be honest: i'm not that bothered about Mondays really: it's Tuesdays and Thursdays that tend to get to me.  Those extraneous days that merely mean there's one more day before you get properly close to the weekend.

But today was day five of an extended seven-day weekend and I'm finally getting to that point that happens just before you go back to work where you can wake up without screaming, aware that you can wake up when nature tells you to rather than when the alarm does and take things at a pace that you want to.

Our Kid recently text me and asked for the new Bon Jovi best-of for Christmas: so I ordered it from the interweb and decide to spend the day upstairs doing something I've done precious little of this year.

To whit: a painting.

My attempts at art this year have been a bit on and off: I did a one day course early in the year and haven't done a lot since - until recently when I signed up for a Naked Person course (aka "Life Drawing") with Mad Penguin Lady (my favourite eccentric art teacher).

To be honest I didn't really enjoy the course that much: it had been a while since I'd really tried to draw at all and I found myself trying hard just to remember anything I had ever learned: producing a series of pictures that would have added nicely to my modern art exhibition Demented Jelly Babies, but would have added little to the study of the human body - I got quite depressed about the whole thing.

But with a day to spare and a project in mind I picked out one of my canvases-in-waiting and began a painting (sadly I can't tell you about it at the moment, as it will be a christmas present for someone)

So, with a background of Bon Jovi on the stereo I sat and  spent the day painting, taking breaks from time to time to allow the acrylics to dry (acrylics tend to be my weapon of choice - watercolours are too wishy-washy and troublesome and much as I like the finished effect of oils I just don't have the patience to wait three weeks whilst each bit dries.

I spent about 4 hours painting in total inbetween washing up and making meals: then set off into town to meet a friend.

My friend, USM, is someone I've known on and off for about 6-7 years now and we've kept in touch even though we no longer work together.  We both have a love of sci-fi and we both pretend to be writers: him rather more efficiently than me.  The thing is that I struggle with writers block - somewhere along the way I kinda lost my belief in my ability.  I think this came because of two things: firstly I get stuck in endless re-writes and secondly I know that the finished result will only ever be read by a handful of people.  But also because sometimes the ideas just refuse to solidify.

I was telling him a few weeks back that I, like many writers, am likely to be distracted within a few seconds of starting to write: to turn on the TV, spend time staring at the cat and thinking "how cute" or finding any number of excuses to do anything other than write and he said, "well, why don't you come and meet me? I usually sit in a bar in town and write in the evenings: we can just sit opposite one another: break the tension when we get stuck etc etc etc'

And we meet.  And we chat.  And we write.  I get more done in one evening over a couple of cups of coffee than I've done in the last couple of months.  The lack of distractions and the change of scene does me good, as does the company.

So today was a good day for me: I did a lot of things that make me happy and for a change they went pretty well.  It would be nice to earn a living doing things one enjoys: but realistically very few people do. 

But still:  I think we all need days like these once in a while

Monday, 8 November 2010

I Know This Much Is True

So I was sitting in this bar – this was back in the day when I was still young enough to sit in a vaguely trendy bar without people gathering in corners and wondering who the old fart in the corner was - and it was quite late in the evening. I’m not much of a drinker and I was driving anyway, so I was stone-cold sober.

And of course there was a karaoke on.

It was that time when karaoke (literally meaning “empty orchestra”) was everywhere and sad, beer-bellied blokes were getting up and singing “Hstranghers hin the night-a” or “hthe hwonder hof hew” in that style of singing that only drunk pub singers can manage, drawling out every line, whilst ill-advised young couples were taking on “Bat Out Of Hell” having failed to realise that it’s a nine minute song

Fortunately these things are rare today – though you still see them from time to time. Kareoke, that is – not drunk pub singers: you see them all the time – but they were all the rage at the time. My normal, sober, reaction upon seeing a Kareoke machine would have been to turn-tail and find another pub, but I was with friends you understand.

And it so happened that not that long ago Tony Hadley (of Spandau Ballet) had been doing solo gigs in that area – not the night before, but you know – not long back. And about half way through the night, after a particularly drunk and manic young lady had murdered Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” this bloke in a white suit got up to sing (it was also the time when white suits were yet to become laughable for the second time (the first time being around the time of Miami Vice))

And the thing was: he was the spitting image of Tony Hadley

And the song he chose to sing was “True”, by Spandau Ballet

And when he sang it he sounded exactly like Tony Hadley – to the note.

Only – I’m not sure. Is this what faded pop stars do in their spare time? Trawl the karaoke bars of the world bemusing the regulars by performing their own songs to generic backing tracks?

Plus: my memory of this Tony Hadley lookie-likey is that he must have been about 10 years too young to be the actual Tony Hadley – unless of course the man himself had aged well. So was it the man himself, or just someone who had practiced very hard? I guess I’ll never really know.

But I do feel a bit sad for these fading stars. Like I went to see Midge Ure (Ultravox and one half of Band Aid along with Bob Geldof) not long after the Tony Hadley incident (and we’re still talking at least 10 years ago here) and he introduced one song by saying “The last time we did this song we had Eric Clapton on guitar on the left, Mark Knopfler on guitar on the right, Mark King of Level 42 on bass and Phil Collins on drums: tonight you’re getting the cheap version”

All very amusing at the time: but sometimes I wonder if it hurts to be reduced from having entertained 70,000 people in one go and from having Phil Collins and the Pope on your speed-dial, to playing bingo halls and karaoke bars where the audience are disinterested at best – or if the music itself remains enough
I hope the latter is true: I hope that it’s still enough just to create the music, to be a part of that moment – but still: there must be a part of them, as they stand on that stage, that looks out on that small room and wonders where it all went.

Maybe that’s why there are so many Era-Revival tours with all the nearly-made-it acts on one line-up, not just because the acts want to recapture something they once had, but because we do as well

Who knows – maybe one day I’ll be in a pub somewhere watching a karaoke and Lady Ga-Ga will get up and do one of her own songs then disappear, unrecognised apart from by me? Don’t be too sure it couldn’t happen.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Greasy Spoon Rules

Visitors to London for the first time often find it hard to find something to eat.

They end up either wandering from street to street in increasing degrees of hunger or spending a fortune in Planet Famousville or the like. London for the uninitiated can be like having liposuction on your wallet.

However, even in the capital, it is perfectly possible to eat quite a good sized meal for £5-10 if one knows where to go.

This is where the Greasy Spoon Café comes in. This kind of eatery is, in no way, to be confused with anything referred to as a Café (pronounced ka-fey) – it is a Kaff and there are simple rules to recognise one and how one should behave once inside the doors of this most prized and sort-after eatery

Trust me: no trip to London is truly complete without a big plate of ehem, bekon, hegs n cheeps (see below)

So – here are the rules of the Greasy Spoon Kaff

1) How to find one

Locate a tube station in central London – look for some buildings that are clearly office spaces. Walk along the main street between point a (tube station) and b (office space) looking down the small streets to the side – within four or five streets you will find a Kaff

2) How to recognise it when you see it

It will be called INSERT NAME HERE’s Café

It will have a window next to the door for take-away meals (in the really good ones these will be welded shut so you have to go in regardless)

It will be filled with large IT staff eating sausage/bacon sarnies (sandwiches) and drinking coffee/huge cups of milky tea

The menu will be clearly visible from the street – usually written on a blackboard or a piece of laminated paper

The only options on the menu will be sandwiches and fried things (some places stretch to Jacket Potatoes, but most correctly assume that said IT staff eschew anything healthy) – in the really good ones even the salad is deep fried

It will have an awning over the entrance so that diners can sit outside in the pouring rain and enjoy the fume-filled air when the inside (inevitably) becomes over-crowded

3) Décor

It is law that all Greasy Spoon Kaff’s have fixed benches and chipped formica tables the size of which Bilbo Baggins would consider petite – the trick is to approach these sideways and slowly squeeze oneself in – then never, never breathe out again until you leave.

There must be either: a football banner on the wall showing the colours and names of a local London club or pictures of famous people who may, at some point, have been desperate enough to eat there (and those of you wondering where Joanna Lumley eats when in London should visit the Kaff just around the corner from Liverpool St Station to see her picture on the wall) or both

4) Queuing system

This varies from place to place. The best approach is to stand outside for 5-10 minutes and observe how the regulars do it – or to face the wrath of the staff
It varies between:
a) Being ushered to a chair to wait your turn
b) Forming one of two queues (depending whether one is eating in or out) in the tiny space that is laughingly described as the entrance in the fire evacuation forms

5) Taking the order

DO NOT order anything healthy. The correct order in a Kaff is either a Bacon Sarnie (sandwich) or similar meat-filled sandwich, a plate full of dead animal – or ham, egg, bacon, chips and beans.

Vegetarianism might as well be a foreign country as far as these places are considered and they are still labouring under the mis-apprehension that Vegans are those pointy-eared people from Star Trek.

Your order will then be shouted out across the café to the small room where the tiny workers toil – your order of ham, egg, bacon and chips will be translated into Kaff speak as “ehem, bekon, hegs n cheeps”

Regardless of what you order you will be asked if you want bread and butter with it – even (and I can’t stress this enough) your order in the first place was bread and butter.
(Americans: be warned – chips are what you call French Fries. Crisps are what you call Chips)

Whether eating in or out one must order a cup of tea or coffee – this is how you can tell a really good Greasy Spoon from a mere pretender:

a) Is the tea/coffee as weak as humanly possible?
b) Did half of the milk/tea/coffee end up on the floor/saucer?
c) Was the sugar thrown towards the cup with a similar level of gusto to an Olympic athlete throwing a javelin?

If the answer to all the above is “yes” then you are in a top quality Kaff and should mark it on your GPS for future visits

6) Staff

There are two types of Kaff workers

a) Elderly slim men with a mixture of greek and cockney accents, who despite their size and lack of meat on their bones could easily break you in two if required. They are unfailingly either extremely pleasant or entirely ignorant of your existence

b) Diminutive women in pinafores carrying more weight in their arms than Sherpa Tensing did when he went up Everest

It is the ultimate honour on Earth for one of the staff to recognise you and remember your order – if this happens then it is probably time to give up your outside life, move in upstairs above the building and put on an apron

The size of both types of workers goes some way towards explaining the small table size, alongside the policy to push as many people in as possible

7) Etiquette on leaving

Greasy Spoon Kaff’s are not, by the very nature of their existence, the kind of place one is encouraged to linger. They rely on a fast turn-over of customer and so the polite thing to do is to eat your meal as soon as it arrives, linger for a few seconds reflectively over your cup of tea/coffee and, having paid, leave quietly.

The best way to deal with getting through the inevitable queue in the doorway is just to throw oneself bodily towards it and hope for the best.


OK - so some of you novices out there who have never been to a Greasy Spoon may be reading this and thinking that actually it doesn't sound like such a great experience.

And ok: so these places are never going to win a Michelin star, and the only reason that Egon Ronay would be seen dead inside the doors would be to commit arson, but here's the thing...

It's great.  From the moment you go through the door and the bloke behind the door calls you "mate" instead of "sir", to the moment where you sit down at the formica table and regard the world over a large cup of tea, all the way through to the no-nonsense food, the wink of the waiter/waitress, the informal atmosphere and the simple, straight-forward food.

Given the choice between tea at the Ritz and ham, egg and chips in a simple London cafe I'd chose the bacon buttie every time

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Cat Man Doo-Doo

It’s not entirely clear when it happened: sometimes these things take on a life of their own and evolve seemingly out of control.

One day there’s this new strange cat in the garden inviting itself in, the next it’s living with you hiding constantly behind the sofa and then, all of a sudden without warning: the cat becomes French.

I know what you’re thinking: what cat? How did you acquire a French cat? How can an English cat become French without going through the messy business of passport application?

It all started from some odd noises in the kitchen. We had seen the Alleged French Cat (AFC) in the garden several times over the summer but with myself increasingly working from home and increasingly leaving the back door open so that Willow could enjoy the summer weather the AFC started inviting itself in.

Ever since Charlie died in January Willow has had full reign over the house and spent more and more time with me, even joining in the occasional conference call (to much amusement from work colleagues)

And now the AFC, a black and white cat that was clearly afraid of humans (mostly running away from me despite my attempts to make friends) had decided that Willow’s food was particularly appetizing and had begun repeatedly launching commando runs from the kitchen door to the bowl and back

Willow seemed to get on with AFC pretty well: in fact they had joined forces against the hated enemy black-cat-white-nose on a couple of occasions and although she was slightly cautious around this new interloper they did seem to get on ok: which is why we decided to try and catch the cat, take it to the vet for a check-up and make sure that it was being looked after

(AFC's then unnamed 1st trip to the vet)

AFC had no collar and was unkempt: it was clear he’d been in a few fights and he was not a happy cat. This is why, soft buggers that we are, we decided to catch him and take him for a check-up at the vets.

At first we tried a range of traps and tricks that would put The A-Team and McGuyver to shame – involving upturned laundry baskets and string around the scratching post that doubles as a door stop. The cat was just too fast.

And then one day I saw the cat sitting in the kitchen doorway and managed to make it to the food bowl without scaring it away. I positioned myself and the food bowl so that the cat would have to come past me to eat and then shut the door. The thing immediately turned into Steve McQueen and started a desperate bid to climb into the windowsill and through the closed window as we tried gamely to pull the cat’s claws away from the net curtain and stuff it into the carrier that used to belong to Charlie. The cat managed to sink his claws into Herself’s arm and left her with nasty marks but otherwise went quietly.

At the vet they checked him over and told us that that he is a male, about 1 year old and with all his bits in tact. They were pretty sure he was a stray and had either never been owned or only briefly. They gave us some details for the Cats Protection League, but told us cheerfully that they have no room to re-house cats at present due to the recession (people abandoning pets)

We let him loose in the garden and discussed the situation, Herself still with huge red wheals on her skin and an arm swollen to the size of a tree trunk. Cats Protection League would pay to have his naughty bits removed or amended, but after that we would be facing the prospect of putting a homeless cat back into the garden for the winter.

So a week later we trapped him in again. He spent the first few hours hiding down by the window until we moved him to the front room: where he promptly hid under the sofa.

We barely saw him for two days: just long enough to eat some food or use the litter tray we placed under the kitchen table then he would vanish.

Before we could take him to the vet again for injections etc he needed a name. We went through a couple of options – I was quite fond of Mr Flibble until Herself reminded me that when you to the Vet with your pet they call out your pet’s name

Herself suggested Giles (going with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer theme started with Willow) and it stuck, along with the usual array of extra names that cats gain as you get to know them.

(AFC, aka Giles, still in hiding under the sofa)
After a couple of days he stopped hiding under the sofa and started alternating between hiding under the sofa and under the bed. When he was seen (briefly) it was clear that his fur condition was improving.

The problems started a week in when Willow started to realise that there was another cat about on a permanent basis. She had a nervous weekend: wee’d on the bed a few times. We rapidly ran out of bed clothes until we ended up spending two nights sharing a zipped-open single sleeping bag that was so devoid of actual warmth that Sir Ranuph Fiennes, had he been stuck with it on a polar expedition, would have had no option but to burn it.

Meanwhile Giles had learned how to use the litter tray and was managing to create a smell that permutated into the bricks of the house. He’s about twice the size of Willow and can happily chomp through a whole packet of food and then go and eat Willow’s for an encore.

He’s still a kitten: so when you do fuss him he will go to catch you with his claws or bite in a friendly way – which makes me wonder why we are so forgiving of our pets. If our pet shark gnawed someone’s leg off would we just say “ah, he’s just being friendly?”

The other day we took Giles off to the vet to “have his ‘nads chopped” as the vet charmingly put it. He was gone for most of the day.

Since he came back he doesn’t seem to be holding it against us and has shown no interest in going outside. My main concern is the first time we do let him out: will he come back? I hope so.

(Giles grabbing my jeans)

It’s been about six weeks now and he’s really come out of his shell and we’re starting to get a picture of his personality.

So what do I know so far? He’s a cheeky bugger who’ll scoff all the food he can. He likes to rub against your legs and catch things in his paws. He destroys the litter tray in an attempt to cover his extremely smelly poos. When he miows he sounds like a broken squeaky toy. He can move fast enough when he wants to and is oblivious to our calling his name. He is still a kitten in many ways and will jump on shoelaces and attack pieces of paper.  He likes sleeping on the edge of the bed and pouncing on my toes at 4am.

On the whole Willow tolerates him, though they do seem to be arguing, especially when he's just woken up and is full of energy – some of it is that he doesn’t realise that his idea of playing is seen as aggressive. My worry is that Willow won’t feel as free to roam around as she has and will retreat – I hope not

And yes - we still refer to him as Monsieur Gilles

(Willow and Giles in a rare moment of tranquility)

Monday, 25 October 2010

Poetry Bus - The Visitors

OK - so this week my good friend Argent has set the subject for the poetry bus.  The topic we were supposed to take was "meetings", but I have taken the term slightly loosly (alright, I threw it out the window, but it didn't get hurt - so no letters of complaint please) and thought I'd write a poem loosely based on a well known meeting.

So, and with apologies to Samuel Taylor-Coleridge, here is my poem about meetings (sort-of)

A Caution To Callers From Porlock

A person from Porlock came calling
Upon a bright summer’s day
I was out in my shed, when he messed with my head
And sent those daft visions away

He asked if I’d like double-glazing
I told him I’d had them all done
But he wouldn’t be gone, and he just carried on
So I snuck down and hid till he’d gone

I told him I never had needed
His patter, no matter how slick
But he just wouldn’t go and he couldn’t take no
So I had to resolve it and quick

A person from Porlock came calling
And gave me too many a thick head
But he’ll cause me no trouble, coz I fetched out my shovel
And I buried him under my shed

Friday, 22 October 2010

And The Award Goes To…

OK – so some of you may have noticed that I haven’t been around much this last week – or most likely not to be fair. There’s far more interesting things to be noticing than the absence of my piffle for a few days.

This absence is due entirely to the evil machinations of my broadband suppliers who have taken every last opportunity to drag out what should have been a simple process for 11 days

And there’s lots of odd things that I’ve been thinking about whilst I was away: all of which could make potential posts before I fall back into the habit of Wordzzle/Poetry Bus entries – if my creative spirit were so motivated.

Like I was going to tell you about my new cat (and please keep an eye out because this post WILL happen), and I was going to bring you a list of top 5 concept albums (and may still do so) and discuss at length the health and safety implications of Alexander cutting the Gordian knot (no, not really)

Also – I was going to tell you how frustrating I’ve found my latest art course and why I’m at the point of giving up on the whole damn thing – but to be honest my creative batteries seem to be quite low at the moment, so I won’t be doing that at the moment either.

Instead I will tell you briefly of something I really should start doing. This is, in part, brought about by the recent Evil Machinations of my Broadband supplier, but also in reaction to an increasingly bizarre world

Like the other day I was out with Our Kid and some random woman approached in the street and just when I thought she was going to ask for directions she asked me if I ever drank cider.

I politely (or impolitely) ignored her existence and carried on walking, but for just a second I did wish that I had, ready in my pocket, an award for the Most Random Question asked of me that I could hand out.

And I would like to encourage you all to produce some small awards and laminate them and keep them ready in your pockets for special occasions: because people who help (and hinder) us should be advised of such

So – here’s a few recent awards I would like to hand out (admittedly belatedly):

London Underground Train-guard who read out the train times in the style of a Darts Commentator – Award for the Person Who Made My Day Bearable

Music shop assistants all over the world – Most Miserable Employee Of The Month Award

Anyone on a bus loudly discussing their personal lives – Conversation I Could Have Happily Lived Without Hearing Award

Or: Person Most Mistakenly Believing Themselves To Be Funny Award

So please go forth, spread the word and produce some awards – the only rules are 1) you can only give out one of each until all of them are given out and you start again 2) if you’re going to be rude to people join a gym/take up karate first

As you can imagine the Minions Of Satan award goes to the IT Support Staff for my Broadband suppliers – put it on display somewhere dark and warm why don’t you?

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Don't Laugh At Me Coz I'm A Fool

is where you find it
it can be hard
to find it

is often where
you least
expect to find it

But dont let the smile fool you
behind these eyes
their lies
a story that is seldom told

For who knows
how true
the tears of a clown
can be

Photo: Norman Wisdom (1915-2010)

Friday, 1 October 2010

The Old Ones Are The Best

Sherlock Holmes sat back and felt the thick grass through the blanket. The game of solitaire was beginning to bore him now, so patted his pockets and when they came away without discovering any matches he lit a thin cigarette from the oil lamp and extinguished the light.

He turned to his trusty companion and saw that his long diatribe on the need to save our schools from the decay in education had been wasted as Watson was gently snoring

The great detective frowned in thought for a second. The camping trip had been tolerable at best. Watson seemed to be enjoying himself and had even taken time out to catch a few butterflies but Holmes, neurotic as he was, could not relax.

There was something disturbing him, something that he could not quite fathom. It was only as he stared at the distant church that he realised what it was

Dr John Watson jumped awake as his companion uttered a sharp exclamation, ‘the candles, the candles’ he snapped before he had time to fully wake from the dream. He looked around and groaned as he saw the face of Sherlock Holmes peering into his

‘Having a quiet think were you Holmes?’ Watson asked, tongue in cheek

Holmes shook his head, ‘I am incapable of sleep tonight Watson’ he announced to the field of sheep, ‘I think it is the spam that we had for supper’

‘I told you to take some charcoal tablets’ Watson muttered, knowing he was wasting his breath. Holmes the man was lost to him now, replaced by Holmes the thinker

‘Tell me Watson’ Holmes asked, ‘When you look at the stars above us: what do you deduce?’

Watson thought for a moment, trying to clear his head. The usually reticent Holmes had been something of a chatter box tonight, but he had been too tired to concentrate on the Detective’s postulations and had fallen asleep. He was sensible enough, however, to realise when he was being tested.

‘Well Holmes’ Watson replied, clearing his throat for the forthcoming oration, ‘I deduce that our sun is one of many in an infinite universe: that each may contain planets much like our own and who knows: even life. I further deduce that it is a clear night with little chance of rain and that the nature of creation is far beyond the comprehension of a simple man like me.’

Holmes shook his head, ‘No, no my dear Watson, I will not have that. Though you lack the killer instinct of a trained professional your natural observation skills often lead you indirectly to the correct conclusion’ he paused, ‘although on this occasion you do seem to have missed one simple fact’

‘Oh?’ Watson asked, irked as usual by his companion’s ability to out think and out deduce him at every turn, ‘then tell me Holmes: when you look at the stars tonight – what do you deduce?’

‘Oh it’s quite elementary my dear Watson’ Holmes replied with a small grin, ‘I deduce that the tent has been stolen!’

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

At Home With The Montagues

assuming that the priest had made it in time, where might our star crossed lovers be today???

Juliet enters the living room from the kitchen and sees Romeo on the couch with a six-pack of beer

Juliet: Romeo, Romeo: why hast thou notst changest the cat litter tray?  Verily it hast been four days since the cat did shat and the kitchen dost smell of wee

Romeo: Juliet, the stars doest shine from the lights in thine eyes, but thou knowest not to expect household chores fromst mineself whilst the football season ist in full swing.  Besides: thou hast not done the dusting for ere on a month of sundays and mine mother shalt visit this very weekend i'faith.

Juliet: thou didst not inform me that thine mother wouldst be arriving on the sabbath

Romeo: i'faith, but i didst: i texted thee most rapidly, and mine n'uncle as well

Juliet: Thy n'uncle is thrice visited this week, but either thy texts are false or thou ist, as my SIM card doest prove

Romeo: doubt that the very stars doest shine but doubt not mine texts. 

Juliet: Hast thy called the gas board today likest I asked of thee?

Romeo: Verily i didst but I was placed on hold ere three hours had passed and thy child didst wail and moan most grieviosly

Juliet: child of mine? How ist it that when our child doest misbehave he doest become mine only

Romeo: Alas, but the child ist mine also, i must confess.  Hast thou had a hard day at work?

Juliet: thou knowest i didst, or perhaps you were not in truth listening when i camest in and toldest thou?

Romeo: Listen most earnestly I didst, but thou knowest that mine ears do not hear verily when mine belly ist empty

Juliet: All thou hadst to do when thy got in wast to putest thou food in yonder microwave likest i instructed thee - instead i see that the cat hast most well been fed again.

Romeo: in truth i didst not see thy note and did drop the plate.  It is true that the cat didst benefit most well from my misfortune.  Perhaps i should venture forth and swiftly purchase a Big Mac?

Juliet: Perhapst thou shouldest at that: and make mine a cheese burger

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Wordzzle Opera

OK hello again - and apologies for the below Wordzzle.  I was really in two minds as to publish it or not as I wrote it late in the evening with a headache from travelling - so it didn't really come out as well as it sounded in my head.

As you may have noticed I had a go at Magpie tales this week.  It was interesting to try a different type of challenge - but I think I find Raven's Wordzzles more interesting - you can pretty much do what you want with a picture, whereas words set by someone else make you work a bit harder for the payoff.  Maybe everyone should have a regular try at both - keep those thought muscles working.

As you know Raven publishes a series of words - 5, 10 and 15 to be incorporated in any way you see fit.  This week we have a one off idea that came from recently listening to some Puccini and thinking "well, it sounds nice - but i don't have a clue what it's all in aid of"

Words for thisweek's 10-word challenge are: English, edible, eagerly, elves, eulogy, estimable, entrance, education, extra-special, Energizer Bunny

And for the mini: drab, dutiful, dusty, delicatessen, dart board


La Stationeria
A modern day opera about love, life and stationery supplies
Act The First

“Ode To The New World”
The early hours before opening and the products sing eagerly of their joy that soon they will be sold and go forth into the world

“Deep Secrets”
Amongst the voices Harold the novelty stapler sings a eulogy to his forbidden love: Florence the duplex photocopier

“Opening Time”
The shop assistance arrive and sing about the futility of life selling items of stationery

“What Do You Want?”
As the customers arrive we see Claude, the education specialist. He is marking the scores from his English class and needs an extra-special stapler. In contrast Harold the stapler sings of his attempts to hide – but will Harold be sold?
Act The Second

“Ode To A Busted Staple”
Claude tries out the various staplers on display – none of them make the grade, but tragedy strikes when he sees Florence the duplex photocopier as advertised by Gertrude

“Lapin”(French for bunny)
Gertrude the shop assistant makes her entrance, dressed as an Energizer Bunny and sings about the shelf life of batteries. Claude, unseen, sings of how he wishes to make Gertrude fall in love with him

“The Copies Are On Me”
Florence the duplex photocopier sings of the estimable service she provides to the world as Gertrude and Claude debate the price of her sale. They fix on a price and Claude goes to the counter with the love of Harold’s life in his arms

Act The Third

“Oh My My”
Harold is comforted by the edible calculators and decides he must take his revenge on the world outside.

“It’s In Our Hands”
Claude and Gertrude plan their lives together whilst Harold conspires with the other supplies.

“Take Me Up The Aisle”
The staff of the shop, unaware of the machinations of Harold pause to wonder if it is the magic elves that haunt the shop that are moving the staplers around

“Never Make The Sale”
On the verge of being sold Harold makes his move and Claude is stricken by a fatal papercut

“Ode To A Dying World”
As the papercut takes Claude’s final moments he sings of his love of Gertrude and sings his dying aria “I wish I’d bought a tumble dryer instead”

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Last Bus To Woodstock (Or Thereabouts)

The woman at the front of the queue doesn't understand.  She pulls at the pockets of the fur-lined coat and pulls out a small purse.  She waves it at the sour faced guard.

He shakes his head, 'Sorry luv'

The queue is growing. The smell of dampness hangs around us all, makes the place stink of days old washing.  Human washing, pulled in from the storm outside.

She waves her credit cards at him again and complains, 'Look' she says, 'You must take one of these cards'

He shakes his head, 'Your bank's six feet underwater luv' he explains, 'Your money's no good here'

A few of us are getting weary of this now.  It's been a long couple of weeks.  Homes, jobs, families: all are swept away.  The army of the dead are marching and this woman thinks she can buy her way into heaven.

You can tell from the way she holds her head that she's used to getting what she wants and she tries the trademark icy smile that has frozen so many people into submission.  But the guard is impervious to her looks and her pleas and is not swayed by her expensive perfume

'Your name's not down luv' he explains.  The waters are rising now around the remains of the terminal.  There's only a few seats left on the last bus out.  I wonder if i should have joined the queue with the nun at the front, but see that she is still arguing ecumenical matters when she should be climbing onboard.

Somewhere behind me someone breaks ranks, runs through the crowd towards the gates and tries to climb aboard the bus.  He is struck down.  No one says a thing.

The woman watches for a while, unable to comprehend that this fate could befall her, 'Look,' she explains again, still not getting it, 'surely everyone accepts AMX these days?'

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Back Once Again With The Renegade Master

Greetings Fellow Bloggers: us hungry pixies are back. We'd love to tell you why we went away, but much like Fight Club - we don't talk about it. So please don't ask if you don't already know.

It's enough to say that we're back: leaner, meaner and short of a few pounds here and there where we've been working up our creative juices.

Sorry I wasn't able to run the Poetry Bus this week as promised, but moving on, and to make amends for those of you who were afraid you'd never see the end of my Wordzzle (and who missed part 8 on Raven's blog), here it is again:

OK – before I start I wanted to explain a bit about the idea behind this story. A while ago there was a programme on TV where they took members of the public and they trained them to be spies, making them go through the type of exercises that a real spy (not the movie type of spy) would be expected to do. Some of these exercises included: Taking on a false identity in a work place and slowly convincing someone to help you by little indiscretions (IE shared confidence in something or sneaky breaks) and slowly building up, following a close relative and leaving a message without being seen, obtaining evidence from a house via surveillance and so forth.

So the original idea of the story was: what would it be like to have to take on a different identity, maybe for years – just sending back reports and pretending to be someone you’re not. I think after a while the lines would become blurred. So I wanted to write a spy story that felt more realistic than the action/adventure of a James Bond/Jason Bourne adventure – I’m not entirely sure I succeeded, but the end result was interesting nonetheless.

Sleeper – part 8 (the final)

The waves crashed against the side of the boat bringing with them the salty smell of the sea. The wind calmed for a second, allowing the two people at the stern of the boat a seconds respite from the spray.

Sir Keith Chegwin turned his head away from the water, his bushy eyebrows furrowing in thought. If he listened carefully he could almost make out the tune playing on the piano in the first class lounge: something he felt he could almost name, but that kept slipping from his memory.

The person standing next to him shivered and pulled the huge jacket tighter around their frame but otherwise didn’t move.

‘It’s a shame’ Sir Keith muttered almost under his breath, ‘a real shame’

The figure nodded, saying nothing for the moment: so much work gone to waste, and for what?

Sir Keith cleared his throat, still feeling the after-effect of the carrot soup he had eaten at midday on his breath. They were half a mile from France now: no turning back now. Operation Littlegirl was a failure – blown wide open by a classic case of over-enthusiasm. He wondered if the careers of anyone involved would ever be the same.

It all went back fifteen years to 1995: five Russian operatives had gone missing under surveillance. It was suspected that one of the agents watching them had defected – but so far there was no evidence of this. Then they had found the diary. No names, no dates – just an entry saying “The Facility”. It had been enough for them to send an agent undercover within the Facility and from thereon in it was as if the Devil himself had decided to shuffle the cards of fate

Bomb threats, over-active imaginations and people too keen to get promotion at any cost: Divine had made a classic rookie mistake – joined the dots in a way that suited him and thrown the balance of the equation into overdrive. He had wrongly assumed that either Sophie or Mark were the Russian agent and had first tried subtlety then out-and-out blackmail and lies. In short his behaviour had been like a blind polar bear wading through a wall of fish, sending the tails of chaos flapping.
And yet…

If you throw a rock up in the air you’re bound to find someone guilty – or at least hit a spy if you were at the Facility. The bomb had been entirely separate, some disgruntled employee entirely unconnected, but through the blundering of the resulting scare Operation Littlegirl had been blown apart – because once the finger of blame was pointed at someone it was no longer safe to keep them there.

The figure in the coat shivered again and held out a hand, ‘I’ll need a new passport’

Sir Keith nodded and handed over the documents, ‘Here.’ He cleared his throat again, ‘I thought you might like to know…’ he paused, wondering how to put it into words, ‘Trenchard from finance went missing shortly after the bomb scare – hasn’t been seen since. It looks like he was the Russian…’

The figure threw back its head and laughed once, then shook it’s head, ‘Typical. I never suspected Trenchard for a second’

There was a second’s hesitation as the small, almost frozen, hands prized open the passport and stared at the picture and the name. Then Sophie pulled back the hood

‘Heather Green?’ She said distastefully, then shrugged: it was as good a name as any.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Passing On The Thing

OK - so the other day I got given a thing by The Watercats and I muchly greatful for said thing - i've always wanted a thing and you can rest assured that it will be put on display in a suitable location.

I think when I accept the thing I'm supposed to tell you seven random things about myself and pass said thing onto someone else - not sure I can entirely manage this but, will do my best:

1) I was a member of the Junior Magic Circle and used to be an annoying precocious kid performing tricks at strangers (I left shortly after realising Senior Magic Circle was little more than an old man's drinking club)

2) I'd like to see "Musical Chairs", "Pass The Parcel" and "What's The Time Mr Wolf" on the list for the 2012 Olympic Games

3) I was once surprised to bump into (he's a quiz show host/comedian) Les Dennis whilst waiting outside a local theatre

4) I once cycled 300 miles across China (more of which later this month to mark the anniversary)

5) I'm rubbish at finishing the novels i start to write

6) I really, really didn't enjoy "Fight Club" and thought the end of "Se7en" was just daft (controvertial, i know)

7) My next Poetry Bus challenge will be announced this Friday to save me posting Poetry Bus twice arond my Wordzzle

OK - so the only people I can think to pass this onto who haven't already had it are:

A Bug's View

Total Feckin Eejeet

Do with it what you will

Friday, 10 September 2010

Worddzzle, penultimate episode!

Greetings once again for another wordzzle challenge and I think that we’re finally getting somewhere close to the end of the story – just a few loose ends to tie up and we’ll finally get some kind of answer soon

But in the meantime, and for those of you who don’t already know, each week Raven sets a total of 15 words: 5 for a mini challenge, 10 for a main challenge and all fifteen for the mega challenge – the task is to write a story, poem, song or short few paragraphs utilising said words as best one can. It’s a great challenge because it forces you to think in different ways in order to get the job done.

And as recent readers may be aware I have been embarking on a short piece of fiction that has now reached its seventh and penultimate episode (it can’t go on much longer or all the plot strands will just unweave)

Yet another twist this week – so for those of you who want to catch up here are links to Part1, Part2, Part3, Part4, Part5, Part6

If you enjoy reading my useage of the words why not go and have a go yourself?

Words for this week's 10-word challenge are: charm, judge, flowers, mixed nuts, earthquake, politics, sugar and spice, bricks and mortar, neurosurgeon, blinking lights, plastic bag

And for the mini: lawn mower, sheets and towels, smashed, bookcase, pinky finger

And before we start…apologies to Cheggers (bless ‘im), and to everyone else’s names that I seem to have pilfered along the way :)

Sleeper, Part 7 (10 word challenge)

Lies within lies within lies.

Sir Keith Chegwin sat back into the plush leather seats of the Bentley and threw the remains of his cigar out the window. His head was aching from the blinking lights of the street and the files on the seat next to him were making him long for a drink.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier – but who was the spy?

Lies: that was the problem. First you lied to the people at work, then you lied to your family and finally you lied to yourself until you no longer knew the truth anymore. He had long suspected that the true answer to the question “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” was that you watched everyone and everyone watched you.

And now he had to judge which one of the people shown in the pictures in front of him was the spy – if any - and for which he had to decide if any of them had planted the bomb or if all of this mess was just so much paranoia. Could this just be a case of too many people jumping at shadows?

He lifted the first picture with shaking hands, hands that had once been as stable as the best neurosurgeon and pulled the first file out of its plastic bag.

Mark Smith – at least that’s what it said on the file. The notes said that he didn’t exist until five years ago, but there was some doubt about that now, an inferrence that the file had been tampered with: but who by and what for. He still hadn’t been found – but there were vague reports of sightings near the coast. Would an agent really let himself be seen?

Sophie Aldred – she’d worked for the Facility for nearly ten years now. Her face was familiar, but that didn’t explain why she had done nothing but ask for him since she had been taken in. He studied her face for a while and decided it was not without charm – was she really an innocent dupe or was there something more going on. Perhaps he would have to talk to her after all

Then there was Richard Devine – until three days ago heading the investigation into the bomb and then, like an earthquake, the evidence had started to collapse and look suspiciously handy. He had approached Mark (or whatever his name was, Sir Keith silently mused) and tried to recruit him – his story being that he was playing politics to try and see which one of the two, Sophie or Mark, would betray the other. It had been done before – but Richard wouldn’t be the first agent to try and implicate someone else to take attention from himself and when the evidence of the files being tampered had come through he too had been arrested.

But then Richard was the type of agent that were the bricks and mortar of the facility these days. Not the old Etonians of yesteryear where you were recruited on background, firmness of handshake and social standing – but the James Bond generation, always looking for their own personal Blofeld

Sir Keith threw down the files in disgust: it was a right old bag of mixed nuts and no mistake - no way to sort it out without hours of investigation that he felt no sense of keenness for. Sleepers: he hated the whole idea of it. You put someone deep enough under cover for long enough and sooner or later the margins become blurred.

He turned to the transcripts of the interview between Richard and Sophie again. Much of it was just the repeated request to talk to himself – and then:

RD: tell me where your friend is. I can hold you here indefinitely if you don’t. If you tell me what I want to know then I will let you speak to Sir Keith

SA: Very well – I’ll tell you what I know

What had mostly followed was a very plausible account of how she had met Mark, how she had come to work for the Facility, her relationship with both Mark and Richard – but that one phrase kept coming back to him

SA: Our relationship could be a bit weird. Like Sugar and Spice – somehow it worked…for a while.

All the best analysts had gone over the transcripts and had found nothing – but Sir Keith felt sure that if there was a message there then it was a message for him.

He sat back in his seat and reached for the thermos flask of not-entirely-coffee and took a sip, still mulling the words over. Sugar and spice. There was just a hint of memory of those words – like the words of the old rhyme: sugar and spice and all things nice – that’s what little girls are…’

He nearly choked on the coffee, jolting out of his chair as the hot liquid caught his skin. He leaned forward and pressed the car phone into life, barely allowing enough time for the person to answer

‘Get me Snyder, fast!’ he yelled, ‘Tell him that Operation Littlegirl is totally fucked!’

Friday, 3 September 2010

Wordzzle - Sleeper Part Six

OK – hello again and welcome to the end of another week and this week I’m a little bit later posting the next instalment of my ongoing saga.

So – for those of you who don’t know every week Raven sets a series of words: a set of five words, a set of ten words or all fifteen words if you feel lucky

Anyway – this week the words are:

10-word challenge: pyramid, laughter, orangutan, recycling, infinity, toilet paper, greasy dishes, Spanish, preparation, back-up
5 word challenge: carpet, cane, outer space, hand ball, ambitious

10 word challenge:

Sleeper – Part 6
(for a catch up you can read part1, part2, part3, part4 or even part5 by clicking the links)

After a while the walls were no longer white. Sophie stared at them blearily, trying to make sense of the swirl of colours. It had been six days since she had slept, but already it felt like infinity. There were precious few luxuries in the cell where they were keeping her: the mattress was old and worn and had semen stains engrained on its surface, the light flickered and buzzed but never went out and the toilet paper was so thin that a breath would break the surface. Every so often, just when they thought she was about to fall asleep they would drag her out of the cell and back into this room, firing question after question at her until the noise of it all crashed around in her head like greasy dishes falling from a waiter’s arms

Every time they asked a question she gave the same response: “I want to talk to Sir Keith”

“Why did you plant the bomb?”
“I want to talk to Sir Keith”
“Where is your friend now?”
“I want to talk to Sir Keith”

Sir Keith, her boss at the facility – the only person that just might be able to help her. She knew they would never let her talk to her – knew the only reason they hadn’t tried torture yet was because they had found the bomb and defused it.

Finally, just as she knew they would have to, they sent in Richard. He leaned over the table from the other side, leaning on his fists so that, in her sleep-deprived state, he looked like an orangutan about to groom her for fleas. The burst of laughter was out of her mouth before she could stop it, but the cold look in his eyes made it drain away. He sat down and connected his hands into a pyramid on the table, ‘Where’s your friend?’ he asked

‘I want to talk to Sir Keith’ Sophie responded, her voice tired and nearly worn-out

‘Sir Keith is not available at the moment’ he replied, sitting back. There was a slight hint of an accent in his voice, Greek or possibly Spanish – she was too tired to know the difference anymore, ‘So tell me: where is your friend?’

‘You mean Mark?’ Sophie asked, ‘You should know – you saw him last’

Richard smiled and shook his head, pulling a thin manila envelope from beneath the desk, pouring the few contents onto the desk and allowing himself a few moments of preparation as he spread them out. They were mostly pictures of herself and Mark, both together and separate in a variety of poses: at work, on the street, in a café. He pushed one of the pictures forward and looked at her for a long moment

‘Tell me, Miss Aldred: do you know what a sleeper is?’

Sophie nodded, ‘Of course I do: I’ve worked for the facility for six bloody years: it’s a high-level under-cover agent. Usually just sent to another country and left there awaiting code-worded orders to activate’ She paused, ‘but didn’t they all get withdrawn when the Soviet Union collapsed?’

Richard shook his head, ‘Come on Sophie, don’t expect me to think you are so naïve. Just because we’re all friends now doesn’t mean that we trust one another, besides’ he said, ‘not all were recalled.’ He shook his head, ‘Imagine that: the empire falls, your name is in the book that gets burned and you spend the next ten years living a lie waiting for orders that never come. It could really get your back up.’

‘Are you saying that you think I am a sleeper agent?’

Richard shrugged, ‘One of you: you or him. We’re still not quite sure to be honest. Your friend…’ he looked at the documents, ‘…Mark?’ Richard paused and looked at her for acknowledgment of the name, ‘the thing about him is that until six months before he met you he didn’t exist’

‘Bullshit’ Sophie exclaimed

Richard shook his head, ‘But the thing is that we still weren’t sure it was him that was the sleeper: the Russians weren’t the only country to put a few of their spies names into the recycling by mistake”

‘And so you set a trap’ Sophie nodded, her brain still processing the information. It was all too clear now. Richard must have told Mark, or whoever he was, that she was the spy: got him to plant the box on her to see where she went – and at the same time he had pretended to befriend her, to see if she would make some move that would give her away. Her eyes narrowed: there was still a chance, but she would have to play this carefully. She shook her head, 'Why should I trust you?' she asked, 'How can I possibly know that you're not the sleeper agent just trying to set me up?'

Richard shrugged, 'I never said I wasn't'

‘Please’ she said, ‘you have to let me talk to Sir Keith – he can explain everything: before it’s too late’

Richard shook his head, ‘No’ he replied, ‘tell me where your friend is. I can hold you here indefinitely if you don’t. If you tell me what I want to know then I will let you speak to Sir Keith’

‘Very well’ Sophie said, realizing she had little choice, ‘I’ll tell you what I know’