The internet is lethal. I have managed to do £150 of Xmas shopping before I even got out of bed this morning. At least, in the good old days, you went around the shops and had to hand over actual physical cash. And the reality of that would stop you in your tracks.
“It’s how f***ing much!??!”
Because wallets used to hold a finite amount of your finite amount of money. So you would start factoring things in like…
I don’t even like her that much.
And I’m gonna have to carry this shit around for the rest of the day
At least it’s done then.
I can’t think of anything else though
It’s my own stupid fault for getting married in the first place.
So you buy it. It matters not a jot that, as far as you know, you bought that person an almost identical thing a year ago to the day. You buy it. You stand in a queue whilst the bags full of tat that you already bought start to get heavier and heavier until you get to the front and meet a 17 year old who is currently risking her life from the covids just so you can see your wife/child/parent look ever so slightly underwhelmed but smile at you anyway for a second or two.
So you leave and ten seconds later find something much better. Which catapults you back to “How f***ing much?!?”
After about three rounds of this for every person you know in your life you struggle through the crowd (all of whom you want to murder in straight to video slasher movie fashion) and fire up the engine. Wait for the windows to clear and drive home through spray intensive traffic, with the windscreen wipers never going at quite the right speed and the slowest drivers in the world in front of you who all seem to be heading to your house for some reason.
But you’ve done it. At last. Now you just have to hide all the stuff. So you start to empty the bags only to discover that a strange transformation has occurred on the way home. Some things just don’t look the same as they did in the shop, some have changed into other things and there’s a whole different set of things that you don’t remember buying at all.
This can’t be right. Have I really bought my Gran lingerie? And is a combination foot spa/soup pot really a brilliant idea?
Dear reader you were likely expecting a calumny here. An assault on the internet and all that it stands for but no. I have discovered throught the writing of this that I actually love the internet at Christmas. I’ve ordered so many things from Amazon that I can’t even remember what they are so every day the postman comes and gives me a little surprise. It’s like a mini-christmas every lunchtime.
Yes, the internet is shallow and toxic and filled with idiots. But then again, so is Livi centre.
Merry Amazon Day and a Happy New Year to you all.
Haven’t written for a while because… well, I have been learning Gaelic and writing films and scripts and then just generally mooching around in a funk due to being cooped up most of the time but now it looks like I might have to leave the house. The lockdown is easing off – as if it were a bout of sciatica – and in some respects we are heading back to a form of normality.
And that’s a bad thing.
I’m not just talking about the Covid, obviously. Anything that means fewer people are falling ill and dying is good by definition. No, as far as Covid goes I have not really changed my mindset there. I swing between being relaxed and optimistic or panicked and angry. There are less than 1000 cases in Scotland currently and 600 of them are in the hospital. At time of writing there are about 6 people in intensive care and for all I know they were all in the same 7 seater coming back from a barbecue – the chances of me actually meeting someone with coronavirus is quite slim. Of course if I do then I’m dead but hey ho.
That tension has not changed. What has changed is the rest of the world. Coronavirus might be under control in Scotland but a brief look at the news or the numbers on the internet tells you that we aren’t anywhere near the end. These are the numbers for Scotland. Look at the red line.
The shape is very familiar to us now and it is seen throughout the world where the virus has been brought under control. I speak only as a normal civilian, no expert on stats or epidemiology (not even sure I have spelled it right) but does that red line look like this one?
No. It doesn’t. The graph above is the number of cases in the world at the moment and if the shape of the graph is anything to go by then we are only just starting. If you take the world as one place (and despite what the politicians say, it absolutely is one place, I checked) then we are still at the start. That graph in blue does resemble one part of the previous one.
If it resembles anything it resembles the start. It’s just about to take off… just about to… I don’t even want to think about it.
As I said, I am not expert but the shape of that curve doesn’t fill me with hope. Just in case you think the graph I have picked is exceptional this is New Zealand.
And this is the United States…
You can think that the progression from here will somehow be different (and I hope someone can tell me how it might be) but every time a country has decided that they can deal with this thing differently the virus has quickly taught them otherwise. It’s not gambling and it’s not luck. The virus moves in mathematical fashion. At this point there are a little over half a million dead across the world with over 12 million cases. The humanitarian disaster ahead is something we haven’t seen in decades, if ever.
And it was only last night that I realised the truth. Yes this is a public health issue. Yes this is an economic issue. But when you get right down to it – this is (and is going to be) a political issue.
I always knew the system was less than optimal. I knew it was less than moral, but it has taken the coronavirus to show us just how bad our system is. The graphs are all the same shape in the developed west but now the virus has reached the developing countries…
That’s Peru. It’s the same all over the world and it is just beginning. Do we imagine that these street vendors are protesting a lockdown for reasons of ideology? Do they have some credo that requires constant work in a dangerous environment?
Or do they need to eat?
You don’t need to watch the entire video. It has faith workers trying to heal through prayer, there are right wing gun nuts who believe that the media is inflating the scale of the problem by associating every death with coronovirus and it has mass graves… so many graves. But what I see is the poverty. They can’t run away. They can’t socially distance because the living spaces are so cramped. They can’t not work because that just means hunger or homelessness or both.
For billions and billions of people their normal lives mean they risk death and bereavement. Watching the news (and it is easy to find these videos, it took seconds and I couldn’t possibly watch them all) I am struck by how poorly humanity has done.
Yes, we have the internet and satellites and we can criss-cross the globe. In some countries we have an astonishing amount of wealth. But that’s not the ‘normal’ for a great many people. Even in rich countries like the USA normal can be poverty and insecurity and grief.
So, yes. I do want the virus to go away but no, I don’t want everything going back to normal.
Continuing my theme lately of ‘No good intention goes unpunished’ I have actually managed to find something even more uncomfortable than riding a bicycle. You would not have thought it possible, but it is true.
Lockdown has tended to mean the family splits up. The girls spend too long in their rooms either alone, or just on endless video calls to friends whilst playing Roblox – count yourself lucky if you have never encountered Roblox. It’s a virtual world that looks a bit like Minecraft but where you don’t build things – you buy things. With Robux.
And yes, you guessed it, Robux are purchased with real money.
So I decided to entice the girls downstairs with movies and snacks so that we could all sit in front of the TV together. This is lockdown life so that’s what counts as family activities of an evening. And, oh did it backfire on me.
The girls are ten and twelve. Those of you familiar with my facebook page will know that I relished showing them Jaws. I watched the damn thing in the cinema when I was about eight or nine. I was kinda on my own as well because I went with my next door neighbour and his Dad – so he had someone to cling on to and I had no one at all. A reasonable person would be more cautious with his own children one would think — but it seems not. I even filmed them when Ben Garner’s head pops out of the bottom of the boat.
And I am currently being repaid for that in spades.
The initial selection started in the 1990s but it just seemed easier to move backwards into the seventies and eighties. The next one up was Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark – which they liked less than Jaws to be honest, but I started to get cocky. I had a list of classics that I was going to use to connect with my daughters in this lockdown period. We would have common history, a shared knowledge that would provide them a more rounded (better because I picked it) film vocabulary.
Better yet, I could use my superior knowledge of superior film to help them develop and become more rounded individuals. Can you feel the hubris? Can you sense the fall that is inevitably about to occur following this owerweening pride?
I would love to say that I was thinking about themes. I would love to say that I was looking for an symbol of lockdown, of teens in lockdown. I would love to say that my fantastic knowledge of film guided me to the next possible film because it is a coming-of-age piece that combines those elements. I had no such conscious thoughts – all I thought was…
Maybe my eldest would benefit from watching…
The Breakfast Club! Of course! Teens in lockdown come to terms with their identities through an extended and enforced period of isolation. It’s even got a Simple Minds track right up front and a bit of rebellion does you good after all. This would be perfect for the eldest although possibly not both. The youngest still tends to go “Eurrrggghhh” when boys and girls kiss on screen.
But I ain’t as stupid as I look (nearly, but not quite) so I floated the notion with my teen girl expert. My pal Nerys.
Nerys is the person I go to when checking my male privilege and she also kept a diary when she was a teen herself – so not only can she remember what happened she can also remember how she felt – this is invaluable because I was never a teenage girl and my middle-aged brain can’t hardly remember anything these days. I couldn’t really remember the whole film you see but I had a recollection that there was something a bit Me-too-ey in one of those John Hughes films.
As luck would have it she was saving it to watch for this weekend – she would check it out and then report back.
Had I left it at that then I would have been fine. But then, just as Indiana Jones ended and the Ark was being stowed away in a warehouse, we had a quick look at the program guide. There it was!. The Breakfast Club. Brilliant! I’ll just have a quick look to see if I can get a +1 channel and I can record it.
Only I actually had it on whilst I was looking for the +1 channel didn’t I?
And what part of the film was it? As I sat there with my 12 year old daughter sitting next to me? Only this bit.
This is Judd Nelson and he’s an intense individual from another age. This is approaching half an hour into the film and just as the sound comes on his character Bender asks Clare (Molly Ringwald -who ruled the eighties)
“Are you a virgin?”
Oh FFS! I thought. Typical. I’ll just get this done and switch the damn thing off and wait for Nerys’ report on the whole movie.
But I couldn’t find the +1 channel quick enough and I had forgotten just what an asshole Bender is at this point. He is just going to town on Clare.
“Have you ever been felt up? Over the bra, under the blouse…”
Gimme me a break Judd. My 12 year old is sitting right there. And at this point I’m not sure who is the more uncomfortable. My 12 year old daughter (I’m not even looking at her to find out), Clare in the film or me, sat on the couch and desperately trying to find a channel that might not exist.
As I spin through channels on the program guide my wife starts to question what I am doing by asking…
What are you doing?
Which is, quite frankly, just bringing more attention to the fact that I don’t really know what I am doing and I am currently in full panic to be honest. Then Judd chimes in again – not helping the situation at all.
“Over the panties, no bra, blouse unbuttoned…”
Right! That’s enough of that. Thank you so very much.
In the film Emilio Estevez (who we saw last week in The Mighty Ducks) comes along and saves the day but I didn’t even wait for him. I just picked a channel – I saw Guitar Heroes on BBC 4 and thought – ‘you’ll do’.
I then had to sit there and pretend to be really interested in Tom Petty (was never a fan) , Nazareth and some spanish classical guitarist I have never even heard of. Luckily for me my twelve year old daughter and wife took this as a comedy interlude as they commented on 70s hairstyles.
I will still wait on Nerys’ report on The Breakfast Club. I am not ruling out letting my eldest daughter watch it but I do know one thing – she’ll be watching it on her own. She might be mature enough to deal with the issues. I don’t think I am.
Just to cap it off I went to bed and had a dream about my ten year old driving a toy pedal car through some traffic lights and crashing into an idiot that I had to have a fight with. I might survive Covid-19 but not sure I am going to make it through their teens.
Short post today. Mainly because I am knackered. The planets finally fell into alignment you see. Normally I am stuck in my shed, beavering away on videos and scripts and funding applications for SYFF and I am frequently pointed towards my woeful lack of anything resembling exercise.
Sure, I do a few press ups but nothing that any self-respecting human would call P.E.
Call in the excuses!
1. The Weather – my go-to excuse. This is Scotland after all. Hardly ever lets me down. And it doesn’t have to be really bad either. I ride a bike so the slightest wind will provide cover for a call off. I’ve seen me get away with ‘It’s miserable outside’ – which is true of Scotland ninety six percent of the time.
2. I’m busy – Oh yes. I’m a writer. Me at work looks exactly like me doing fuck all. I’m thinking you see.
3. Injured – I can’t often use this one to be honest but if I have a sore knee then what’s a man to do? Of course now we live in the world of Covid-19 and NHS heroes. I can’t exactly grumble at a bit of a scrape or sniffle.
So it finally happened – I finally had no excuses. It is currently scorchio in Scotland. The bike is in good repair and, worst of all, I have taken time off and announced same.
On yer bike Bolt!
Out I went. I travelled to a distant reservoir called Hillend. Here’s the proof.
I say distant. It isn’t that far as humans go. Around 6 or 7 miles away. There are a few mountains en route (bumps) and the traffic isn’t all that dangerous (it’s a cycle path). But to hell with the dangers, when my mind’s made up and all that…
And damned if there weren’t some other unfortunate souls who had been forced into the same kind of thing. I saw poor gents struggling along with bald heads under a blazing sun. I saw women dragging their children on migrations of unendurable torure and can only guess at what privations led them to leave their homelands. I had sympathy for all of them. Well, nearly all.
The MAMILs (Middle Aged Men In Lycra) I have no sympathy for at all. Except for perhaps the fact that they all seem to be forced to shop in the same store. I have never seen so many black and red lycra tops. it became so prevalent that I thought it must be a law of some kind. Or at least I did until I saw one wearing black and yellow. I imagine he thought he looked like…
But in actual fact he was more of a…
I’m not saying anything against the man, by the time I got back my face was so red that I looked the world’s fattest matchstick and that was according to a neighbour who professes to like me.
And how I looked upon my return wasn’t even the worst bit. I cycled seven miles (we’ll round up) and when I stopped I took my tiny backpack from my back.
(Backpack provided by ten year old daughter.)
Within its cool environs I had stashed a snack, a pen and a notebook. All were returned to tbe bag. Too tired to think let alone write and since I had cycled all those miles gasping for air and with my mouth hanging open as if I was suffering from some form of seizure there was no need for food. I had swallowed every fly that crossed my path and was no longer even slightly peckish.
After sitting there for an inordinate length of time to regain my breath I then indulged in the greatest folly of all – which was to turn around and cycle all the way back again.
Humans. It’s no wonder we are being out-thought by a virus.
Anyway, that wasn’t the worst bit either.
The worst bit was getting off the bike at the end. As has been established I am not professional cyclist and so I have had no need to invest in a professional cycling seat. The one I currently have is… a sadist’s device.
Seriously, I got off the bike thinking ‘Who’s riding who here?’
I felt like the most popular chap at an orgy in a gentlemen-only club, but without the added pleasure of someone verbally checking whether ‘I liked that’ or even informing me that I did like it, didn’t I.
I might not walk right for a week but to all those MAMILs currently sweating in the same black and red lycra bought at the same store this is what I’ll be wearing next time …
Or ‘How I learned to stop worrying and (not quite) love the corona virus’
Chances are that you are reading this from lockdown somewhere in the world (I have little clue about how the internet works but most people who read what I write, read it on the day it was written) and no matter where you are I appreciate the fact that you are reading it at all.
Of course, it meant more back in the olden days, when we were allowed to do things and go places but hey, I’ll take it. You might be berating the fact that all you have available to you currently is this crummy blog and I feel your pain, as they say. All I have available is to sit here and write the thing.
Life is… different now. It is constricted, oppressive… limited.
Or is it?
If you look at my google activity map for March you will find a marked difference to any other period in my life. I drove for a total of 7.2 miles in the whole month and that was one trip. So I have become limited in my travel but… I have also become freer to do other things. This lockdown has not been uniformly negative for me.
Make no mistake. I wish it had never happened. As an asthmatic with poor lungs I am fully aware of what it is like to be struggling for breath inside in an oxygen mask and you don’t get to my age without experiencing grief. Although I cannot possibly conceive of the agony suffered by those families who have lost young people. 13 year old boys… five year olds. This is a horror.
For those who are self-employed or struggling financially I totally get it – this is a disaster and don’t imagine for a second that I won’t be harangueing all and sundry when this is over. Equally there are some people who can’t stop working because they are fighting the damn virus – and life has changed for them only in bad ways. I won’t be forgetting Priti Patel’s non-apology either.
It is easy to highlight the things that we have lost and easier still to blame the people in charge for their failures – that is what the press is for. But I didn’t want to write about what I thought and felt right away because my first thoughts were Fuck! Shit! and my first feeling was terror. Which is no good to anyone.
And even weeks into this thing, that feeling has not entirely gone away. It’s like a fairground ride or a pendulum. It’s like trying to stand up in a small boat as the waves toss you up and down. Just when you reach some kind of equilibrium another piece of news appears either at home or abroad; or another wave of deaths is broadcast, so you lurch into a nauseous spin as your mind tries to grapple with both the existential terror and the sunshine in the garden at the same time.
If there were sirens going off and drone strikes then perhaps we would become acclimatised, but there aren’t. There are stereos playing in the back garden and the sound of lawnmowers. It feels like a long weekend, where there’s not enough time to go anywhere but no work to do. Until you remember there is work to do and, oh yeah, your chances of survival if intubated are about fifty percent – the toss of a coin.
That confusion you feel is the combination of fight-or-flight adrenaline mixed with boredom. And what we are living through is the most intense and mundane thing that will likely ever happen to any of us. For those of us not suffering the immediate trauma of loss, or the exhaustion of the battle in the hospitals this is a lens through which we can see our lives a little differently – and like all lenses, it tends to change your focus.
For me, this is bringing great clarity in certain areas. If, for example, you focus that lens on …
The Big Stuff
Margaret Thatcher once said ‘There is no such thing as society’ and that turns out to be about as right as you think it is. Her idea was that although there were things like family units there was no underlying structure or greater altruism. People didn’t really care about the big picture, they cared only about themselves. Turns out that was a pile of shite.
And it sucks to be poor, or worse, poor and in an ethnic minority. Both groups being disproportionately hit by this pandemic. I’m going to check my privilege right here and leave that subject to people better qualified/justified in their protests.
The corona lens also brings into the spotlight things like the importance of normal working folk – nurses, yes, but also the delivery drivers, the supermarket workers and the tradesmen like plumbers and electricians. Turns out everyone is important – guess that’ll get forgotten immediately when this is all over.
The Little Things
And just as it is the ‘little’ people who turn out to be vital so it is the little things that are teaching us the greatest lessons. Some things we thought were vital turn out not to be. For example…
I can’t go to the shops.
No shit? I live seven or eight miles from the nearest real shopping centre place and guess what? I’m lucky if I can find the time to get up there four times a year. Sure, I have the weekends but between ferrying the kids to lessons and clubs and getting the grocery shopping done I can easily go three months without hitting the mall in search of something I don’t need. If I actually do need a new pair of Adidas that can be a six month project. I don’t like shopping and I won’t miss it.
I can’t get out and exercise
I’ll leave those who know me in the flesh to fill in the punchline of that particular joke. Although I am trying to do some press-ups, squats and the like.
I can’t have friends to the house for a BBQ
Okay, I’ll give you that one. Not being able to see friends has actually been really painful. I only have about two BBQs a year because we live in Scotland but the (in)ability to see friends has been a big effect.
The other day we took our daily family walk and just went to people’s houses to play the dumbest game of chap-door-run ever. We knocked on the door and then stood a good fifteen feet away so that we could talk to them across the width of their garden. We went to my sister’s house just so we could see her and clap the dog (The spaniel knows nothing about anything and less than that about the corona virus).
Did we talk about anything important? Hell no. How can you when you are standing on the street and nearly shouting across the lawn?
It didn’t matter though. I called my father the other day because I was standing within eyesight of a petrol station and the price of petrol is ridiculously low and I thought I would share that information. We got 5 minutes chat out of that. It genuinely feels like being thrown back in time. When someone comes to visit the whole fucking family has to come down and see what all the fuss is about. We’re the 21st century equivalent of those kids at the beginning of the 20th century who would run after cars because who knows when you’ll ever see another one?
I now have an appreciation of small talk. I used to hate it (and likely will again) but for now I understand why it exists and I need it just as much as anyone. The sheer joy I get in seeing other people’s faces and knowing that they are there… it’s a big change from a small thing.
But not the biggest.
No. It’s work that has seen the biggest effects. And I’m not just talking about financially. Of course, everyone is different…
I know people who work for large corporations and they are reporting actual financial benefits in some cases – there is no travel to pay for, fuel costs have all but vanished and hotel bills are non-existent.
Perhaps you work in London and now find that the morning commute was not really necessary – only to discover that you do miss leaving your house each morning and going to a place that has people in it. Even if two months ago you would happily have gone postal on most of them.
It’s the going to work that has changed and that’s why I am not sure life has been made measurably worse for us. For me the difference really lies in how defined I had become by my work. I spend a lot of time in classrooms, or in meetings. If you look at me as an educator or a film maker or even as a writer then my job is a people job. Take that aspect away and… what is left?
I now have to work remotely. There are fewer meetings and exactly no trips to London (which I had been looking forward to) for useless film industry encounters that, actually, mean the whole world to me.
I should be moaning. And those who know me could tell you how much I love a good moan. But I ain’t. Not because this isn’t going to hurt financially – it will – but because the corona lens has shown me what is important in my life and I am (a little) grateful for that.
I am terrified of this thing. Not just because it could kill me but because it could leave my children without a father. I realised quite quickly that there are things I have to do that I have not yet done. I have stories that lie unfinished, including my own.
So thank you corona. I wish I had never heard of you but in the last three weeks I have done more work not less -whilst at the same time (hopefully) retaining a sense of perspective on what is important. Whilst a great many of you might be out there and hating every second of this unfair incarceration (and rightly so) I have listened to (and appreciated) more music than I normally would in a year; I’ve retreated into reading… and research… and writing.
So, I have run to my favourite place – a world of my own creation where I move the characters around and summon events at will. This pandemic has only really shown me that I should have been doing this more all along. It has focused me… like any good lens would.
Perhaps this is just me but I suspect not. I suspect that the corona lens has had a similar effect on other people and brought into pinpoint sharpness what is most important to all of us.
All of us.
INT. BEDROOM – DAY MARILYN (A mother of 40)is in bed with her husband, wide awake and staring at the ceiling. The husband is snoring. Marilyn gives him a nudge and he stops. Then, after a second, he starts again. She looks at him in despair and then gets up. INT. KITCHEN – DAY Marilyn walks into the kitchen and sets her phone to broadcast from a small portable speaker. Radio news fills the room as she starts to put on the kettle and empty the dishwasher. NEWSCASTER Well that was the weather. Not that it matters because we’ll all be staying inside for the foreseeable future. The government lockdown continues into its fourth day and it looks like we have weeks to go. We’ll have Ramsay Graham our favourite chef on the line later to talk about how we can vary our diets and how the lockdown is an opportunity to really get into that healthy eating habit. That’s later. But for now we want to hear from you. What are you doing to keep from going stir crazy? Lines are open… (music fades in) INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY As the radio plays quietly in the kitchen Marilyn wanders into her living room where she peruses book shelves filled with books and DVDs. She is starting to get excited about the idea of finally reading these books and watching these films (some of which are still wrapped). MARILYN Lockdown you say? She puts her tea to one side and starts to take selected books and DVDs from the shelves. She doesn’t get too far though as her husband comes in behind her. HUSBAND You up already love? Excellent. I’ll just have a shower while you’re doing the breakfast. Marilyn smiles sarcastically and puts down the book she is holding. INT. HOUSE – DAY Marilyn cleaning the floor of the kitchen, a book on the table, unopened. Marilyn hoovering. EXT. STREET – DAY The empty street. Nothing moving. A sequence of events that involve Marilyn getting no peace to read or watch her movies or anything. INT. BEDROOM – NIGHT Marilyn lying in bed with her husband beside her. It is dark. He snores. Marilyn lets out a little scream and puts a pillow over her face. FADE OUT. FADE IN: INT. HOUSE – DAY More events like the previous day. Interspersed with radio saying an ever increasing number of Lockdown days. Marilyn cleaning, Marilyn cooking and tidying up the detritus of unseen children. She watches her slob husband eat. She tries to watch a movie… INT. LIVING ROOM – EVENING Marilyn approaches the DVD player with a classic film in her hand. The sounds of a football match coming from the TV HUSBAND Woah there love. Watcha doin’? MARILYN Let’s watch a film. HUSBAND But I’m watching the game. MARILYN I thought they cancelled all the football? HUSBAND This is a classic. Come and watch it with me. They score a beauty in a minute. Marilyn just puts down her DVD and wanders off. INT. BEDROOM – NIGHT Marilyn is lying in bed. Wide awake again, but this time the husband is not snoring – he is coughing. Marilyn puts a pillow over her face. He keeps coughing and eventually Marilyn just gets out of bed. EXT. STREET – NIGHT Marilyn steps out onto the deserted street and memories come to her. The husband snoring, the husband coughing, the endless washing and picking up of clothes. The never-ending lockdown on TV and radio. Blitz spirit. INT. KITCHEN – DAY Marilyn in front of empty cupboards. Taking out mismatching tins that can make nothing at all together. EXT. STREET – DAY Marilyn struggling across an empty supermarket car park carrying bags. INT. BEDROOM – NIGHT Husband is coughing. He sounds a lot worse. Marilyn sits up this time and looks at him. FADE TO BLACK.
INT. BEDROOM – NIGHT Sounds of grunting and pushing. Marilyn on top of her husband rocking back and forth – putting real effort into it, breathing heavily. She looks near to climax. Eventually she rolls off. After a while she looks at him again. There is a pillow over his face. Her pillow. She takes it and puts it under her head. Husband is stone dead. She goes to sleep. DISSOLVE TO: INT. PRISON CELL – MORNING Marilyn is sleeping in her cell. It is time to get up. INT. PRISON – DAY Marilyn mopping, Marilyn reading a book. Marilyn cleaning her cell. INT. PRISON – NIGHT Marilyn is lying in her bunk. The cell mate starts to snore. Marilyn picks up her pillow… FADE OUT.
I never know whether to tell this story or not.
There was a Christmas or two when I was in kinship care. If you don’t know what that is then it is when you are being looked after by a relative or some other friend of the family that isn’t your parents. It could be a Grandmother or an aunt or whatever. It never used to have a name – it was just a situation – but now they recognise it as being somewhat less than ideal.
My strongest memory of Christmas comes from that time. And, strangely, it isn’t a bad memory.
I lived in my aunt’s house. We had a lot of kids in that house. Five kids. Two bedrooms. All in single beds that took up so much space there was no seeing the floor. And we did it all on rotation. You changed bed so that you were near the door at least once a week… Or you were near the window.
By chance that year I had drawn the short straw (so everyone thought) by being near the window on Christmas Eve. Yes, it was single-glazed and so the chances of there being ice on the inside of the window come morning were actually quite high but I didn’t care about that. It was even further to go to get to the toilet as well: Over everyone else, round the corner, down the stairs (all in the dark) and then back again without putting a light on or stubbing your toe or getting a row for being up… it was not, theoretically, the best bed.
But I liked it.
Because I got to look out the window.
And it was snowing.
At that time Christmas was always a bitter/sweet affair. Yes there were presents. Maybe not the best presents. Maybe not as good as the presents sitting next to it under the tree that my cousins got. But there were presents. And I appreciated that. Although it wasn’t the best bit.
It also meant there was a fair chance of seeing at least one parent the next day and possibly two. Which I appreciated even more.
You would expect that to be the best bit. It wasn’t.
The best bit was the looking out the window: The endless soft silence of snow falling in the night as I sat, undisturbed and wrapped in a duvet, looking at a pristine world. There was no wind and so the large snowflakes fell straight downwards and disappeared into the separate blankets of the back gardens. The peace of that moment became all encompassing. The future held nice things, yes, but I didn’t even want the future to come – all I wanted to do was remain in that stasis and watch snow fall forever.
I tried to stay awake so that I could. I had no interest in seeing Santa – all I wanted to do was watch that scene: The falling snow acted, somehow, like a cold cloth on a fevered brow – a cooling calm. Snow brought ease and contentment. Snow removed worry and anxiety.
And how wise I was at that tender age. I wasn’t really bothered about the extra stuff I would get. All I really needed was a removal of anxiety and room to simply… be.
That’s still all that I want. The world is so noisy now. The anxiety levels are through the roof on all fronts and I don’t get the time any more to just look at the window and soak up the scene in silence.
Although it looks like the world is gearing up to provide a new level of horror and dismay I hope you all had a fine festive period. I hope this New Year brings you all that you would wish for.
Me? I’ll be hoping for peace but I’ll settle for snow and silence – at least once in a while.
Having been to Rome lately I thought I might continue the travel tales whilst mixing that with a bit of film industry nonsense. Names changed to protect… well, me really.
Readers who follow this page (I know you all, I am sure) will be aware (maybe) that we re-wrote our feature script a while back and we have been progressing that project as and when we can. And to anyone outside the film industry that sounds like a half-assed affair. Being brutally honest I used to roll my eyes whenever anyone said things along the lines of “Well, this year I’ve been developing a feature about…”
This year? It’s December! What the hell have you been doing every day? How long are you spending in the shower?
Of course you aren’t working on it all day every day. This is a well developed script in its late stages and now it is a case of putting a film together. Which is fine if you are making a student film with your pals but not so easy when you are asking people to jump on board to the tune of £3m – £5m at a minimum.
And who exactly is it that you are asking to jump on board? Well, there’s loads of them. They all have very nebulous titles and work in buildings that remind you of sci-fi sets. The 1st picture below is located in central London and the offices of a major studio are on the 3 – 5th floors. If you make it through the barriers then you reach the lifts.
God knows what happens to you if you just jump over the little security gate. I imagine those big white balloons from the Prisoner come after you and deposit you outside Byron Burger.
The lifts are also very amusing. There are a dozen of them and to prevent people just pressing ‘UP’ then standing around guessing at which lift might arrive first there is a single hi-tech panel. You choose a number and then it tells you which lift to get on.
This is a moment of absolute faith because, you see, there are no buttons in the lifts themselves. Nor are there any indicators as to which floor they are going to or, indeed, which floor they are currently on/passing. So everyone has to look out the door whenever it stops to see if they have arrived where they wanted to be. When we got in our guide asked if the lift was going to the third floor only to be met with shrugs and ‘no idea’.
We got in anyway and it stopped at the first floor because it wanted to. No one got in and no one got out. Then it went to the third floor. We still have no idea why.
Then we waited 25 mins to go into a meeting that had been confirmed only the day before. Which isn’t unheard of in the film industry but it is very rare when you are expected. I would love to blame the machines for this as well but I can’t. The floor we got off on had three receptionists who sat at raised plinths with massive screens in front of them. No desks, just a podium with a great big Dell on it. Feck knows where they put their handbags. Anyway they took our names and the name of our meeting and sat us down with water.
Then nothing. For 15 mins. Then they checked the names and the name of the meeting. Then nothing for another 10 mins. And then it became quite clear that something was not right.
Our intended collocutor had started a search party via email just as the receptionist asked …
Who are you meeting again?
Ginny Smithson (Name changed)
Ah, good. I have emailed him already.
Have you now? Given that (unless we missed an email of some import) we’ve met the gal before… you might not be…
But she had already gone back to her ivory plinth.
Ginny turned up a few moments later and when she discovered that we had been waiting for that long left us at the lifts and went back into the room to shout at some people. We got in the lift and went to the fifth floor (eventually). Turns out that there is supposed to be an intern called Heerah or something. Who was supposed to meet us and tell her we were there. Only no one knows where he is.
Personally? I think he’s stuck in one of the other lifts.
The main offices are filled with very young people with very big, curved screens. Aside from random film toys and posters dotted about the place. (We saw an ET spaceship that was very tempting) it looks like a high end call centre. They have desks and places to put a handbag but only the execs get offices. Which is where the true London returns. The vast chambers at the front and on the ground floor are merely there to give you the illusion of space. Upstairs everyone is crammed in. Yes, execs get offices but they aren’t big. They have a single glass wall and a sliding door. Unless the office is not twice the width of a door – then they get normal doors with hinges. Floor space is power.
Then you have the meeting. Which is now of so standard a format that there are books and blogs and articles and interviews detailing the separate phases and what you should be doing in each phase. I will leave that for others to detail. We tend to play it as standard but being comedy writers the initial icebreaker phase is important to us since we’re supposed to be funny in a professional way.
Pleasantries complete you start to talk business. Not your business, not necessarily… at least not right away. A bit of chat about the state of the business in general is always good. How hard it has become lately. How no one is making any money. How that one film should have made more and the other made less and how much did it make?
Phones are checked. $95 million!??! Well I never.
Then it comes to the crunch.
“So, what’s going on with you guys?”
And that’s the signal. You don’t want to be in there too long but you can’t be out in 25 mins either (not counting the 25 mins we were all looking for Heerah). Anywhere between 40 mins and an hour is good as far as I can tell but I’m not exactly a veteran. Everyone is always positive and there will be chat about international rights, domestic rights, things being packaged and so on. This is where information a normal person would regard as shallow and meaningless comes to the fore. Lists of actors between the age of 20 and 32. Directors of comedy who are vaguely famous but not to anyone you might meet out on the street. Names are thrown hither and yon with little regard for the actual owners of the names since right now they are no more than possible ingredients for a dish you might not make and even if you do no one might ever eat it.
And all you want, your entire goal, is to get the next meeting. You are unlikely to win the game in this particular meeting you see, but you sure can lose it.
It’s in rooms like this where another little world is created. A place of magic where reality is suspended somehow and it seems perfectly reasonable to talk about creating something at a cost of £5 million that might or might not work. It’s insane when you think about it. If your mate came along and said
“I’ve got an idea for a pop-up shop/t-shirt/toy/car. What say we get £5 million and a couple of hundred other people involved and see if we can make any money?”
You’d surely just advise him to go and get a job. But no. Everyone buys into the illusion that just by asking if we have someone involved who can drive a car or draw a t-shirt we might guess how many we could sell. Who was that guy who drew that shirt? That was a great shirt let’s get him.
Yeah, but he designs black t-shirts mainly. Not sure he’s the right fella for the white t-shirt I have in mind.
You’re right, you’re absolutely right. Let’s get someone else to design it and then we’ll get someone else to check that and then we’ll get someone to run a few off and we can always copy a bit of that other t-shirt… what we want is a really good and original t-shirt that no -one has ever seen before but that (somehow) we know everyone already likes.
We could put Che Guevara on the front?
In truth it is utter madness to even consider that some people you have never ever met will have enough faith in you and your t-shirt vision to give you millions of pounds. And people still wonder why it takes so long to make films. At the moment we make little films and I find it miraculous when we can scrape up a few grand to make a short. Of course, we don’t get paid often.
Then it’s back out into the real world. The other London. Which looks nothing like this…
The thing about futurology is that people always assume rationality will prevail without taking into account human nature. The picture above is from 2001: A Space Odyssey and I thought of it when I was in London this time. And how utterly, utterly unrealistic it is. The truth of the matter is that were we to really build this spaceship it would need a lot more in the way of signage. Film Studio offices aside I never saw a space in London that size that didn’t have advertising in it. Actually, a space that size would have a Starbucks in it.
London is cramped. Every cafe has the maximum number of seats. The little supermarkets are designed to within a millimetre or so. When we arrived I had a wheelie case of medium size but I might as well have been driving an artic and heaven help me if I entered the Tesco Express at the same time as a mum with a pram. That particular manouevre required a banksman and some temporary traffic lights.
London used to feel big and bustling and exciting and now it just seems busy and stressed and expensive and loud. We have the benefit of staying at a friend’s place when we go to London – it’s in Hampstead. It is not big in Hampstead but in Hampstead it doesn’t matter. Passing by an estate agent’s window a cursory glance will find properties in nearby Swiss Cottage renting at just under £4,000 per week.
Which is fine I guess. I mean, it’s approaching £200,000 a year and apart from Jose Mourinho I don’t know anyone who needs to rent a house at that price but if it works for them…
But what is it buying them? The ability to sit in a cramped cafe drinking cappuccino whilst three feet away the owner grinds beans at a volume close to that of a Heathrow runway? The pleasure of everyone having to get up when someone wants to leave?
I love London – it’s got it all going on. I went for dinner, had an accident with a steak taco and bought a replacement shirt before the offending sauce had dried. It’s amazing. But they all seem very busy and I can fully understand if they don’t really have time to look up.
But… if you can’t look up then you can’t help but look down and when you do what you will see is people lying around. One of our meetings was with a comedy writer friend. He is well known in the writing game and very good at it so he has to live near London, but he doesn’t live in the centre. Even he, a veteran of the place, was shocked at the homelessness. He’d seen nine in a two hundred yard walk from Angel Underground to the bank across the street and I had had a similar experience the night before at Charing Cross.
To be clear, I’m not talking about begging here. I walked out of a tube station and found people sleeping where they fell. One of them in his work clothes. No one asked me for money. No one even looked at me. I would have taken a photo but that seemed wrong somehow. Like the zoo scene in La Haine it would just have made it worse.
London is bigger than Rome and more cosmopolitan than anywhere I have ever seen outside of New York. We nearly crashed into Alastair Campbell as he raced off a tube. Then we went back to Hampstead and sat in this little pub (which was packed to bursting on a Tuesday night) where the walls are covered in black and white pictures of famous people to the extent that there is no more room on the walls. Bowie, Einstein, Olivier… we even saw a picture of Nick Mason from Pink Floyd which would be an unremarkable thing in and of itself except that we left to go home and he was sitting in a restaurant around the corner.
If Rome is organised chaos then London is poverty-stricken wealth. Fur coat and no knickers.
After the madness of a film meeting I went to dinner with an old friend who works in the justice system. She told me a story about a person she encountered in her job who had a tendency to eat things. He’d eat ceiling tiles like toast so they threw him out of the office. At which point he ate the buttons on their keypad entry system.
He would starve to death in the film industry of course.
The lifts don’t have any buttons.
It’s election time – again.
When I think back it seems that we’ve had a few of late. And when not having elections then we have a referendum.
2014 – Indy Ref 1
2015 – General Election UK
2016 – Scottish Election
2016 – European Referendum
2017 – General Election UK
2018 – Year off (presumably for the World Cup)
2019 – General Election UK
We have now moved in to the political equivalent of perpetual war where conflict continues endlessly and upheaval is the new norm. It is the ‘forever election’ cycle. Boris Johnson, hang on until I get my standard picture of Boris…
Boris (and it more likely to be Dominic Cummings) is merely adopting the standard political techniques of the day – constant chaos – to achieve his aims. By creating mayhem and then posing as the only possible answer to that mayhem.
Let’s Get Brexit Done
Followed or preceded by the words. “People are tired of this constant wrangling over Brexit” which is the same as saying “People are tired because of the thing I did, so let me do this other thing”.
Should Johnson win do we imagine that any of the sunny policies he is espousing will actually come to pass in the form that he describes? No, they won’t because the policies are not an end in themselves. There is no end beyond the continuation of Tory (Boris and Dom) power. And when that has been achieved the policies will warp, or vanish…
We’ll build 40 hospitals!
No they won’t. They’ll say they will and then, when it turns out that 40 hospitals costs more than £10.50, they will change it. It will be a more staggered roll out but they are still building 40. Then it will be 30 but they are more efficient and 2 of them are bigger. Eventually, after causing so much chaos no-one can remember they were ever going to build a hospital at all they will announce…
We’ll build 50 hospitals!
And when someone digs out the last manifesto they’ll basically point to some chaos that they can vaguely claim was not their fault and say “People are tired of these poor services (thing we did) so we need to get on with fixing the economy (other thing) and so we’re cutting corporation tax and increasing national insurance”.
Johnson is often described as Trumpian. But the truth is that Trump isn’t even the original. He models himself on Putin and the fact is that even Putin isn’t the original. The Russian power is maintained by Vladislav Surkov who may well come to be seen as the inspiration for Cummings, Steven Miller, Bannon and the like. Follow the link and have a read if you have the time but if you don’t then perhaps this single quote sums it up.
…the stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away. Surkov is at the centre of the show, sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next. It’s a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.Peter Pomerantsev – Putin’s Rasputin – London Review of Books
In a state of bedlam it can be difficult to know where to focus and what to believe – This is the very state they want you to be in and I don’t mind saying that it is difficult to handle. As a person I simply cannot see a problem unsolved or an injustice unaddressed. Which, as you can imagine, my partner loves when I am supposed to be ‘listening’ and I am actually just trying to come up with answers.
Note: This is not a good idea. Partner wants to be heard not helped.
I struggle every day not to over-react. My partner, my doctors and my friends tell me to chill. It’s not my job to solve everything. And I really, really wish that I could do that but if I know one thing I know that complacency and assuming it will be all right is not the answer. And how do I know that? Because of this photo.
This photo haunts me. For reasons too numerous to mention here. I keep it on the desktop of my computer and I look at it occasionally. not for macabre, ghoulish reasons but more as a lode star. A reference point for navigation. If anything is proposed or reported I compare it to this photo. Any step, in any direction, that leads towards this photo is to be resisted with all the power at my disposal.
At this point you might be thinking ‘Here he goes. Comparing everyone to the nazis, why does everyone have to be compared to the nazis all the time?’.
I’m not saying people are Nazis. I’m just saying that if you take enough steps along the road then that is where you end up and the price we have to pay for not having that, is vigilance. Have another look at the photo and then have a look at the photos below.
Then ask yourself – ‘In what direction are we moving? Away from, or towards, Vinnitsa?
So, here we go again. More marches, more protests, more chaos. Another referendum perhaps and another election on the way. This time in winter. You’re tired, I get it but do me a favour. Have a look at these photos one more time.
Rome. A bucket list item finally chalked off said list after all these years. I won’t bore you with all the photos (there are hundreds) as they mostly contain my family standing next to a useless pile of old rubble. There are a few I am not in however.
Why Rome? Well that goes back over 30 years to my school days where, in my wisdom, I was the only pupil in a school of hundreds who actually chose to do Higher Latin. Chose to. I wasn’t very good at it but in our school when it came to second year you got to choose another language to study or you got to keep going to PE. Given that our PE teacher was a rugby fanatic and I weighed less than your carry on baggage allowance (seriously, I would have had no trouble fitting into the overhead compartment or under the seat in front) then it seemed only logical to take Latin instead.
And I loved Latin – it was, at least, madly different from all the other subjects. I’d far rather be learning the best way to the forum instead of trying to figure out what Leiselotte and the rest of Die Familie Rheinhagen were up to. I also had a crazy teacher. Mr Clark aka Blinky. A man for whom the modern world (1983) was deeply unsatisfactory and whose response was just to keep his eyes closed most of the time even when he was talking to you. Seriously, unless he had to move around or write something he just kept his eyes closed and I tested whether they were fully closed or not one time in class. There were only the two of us and he was giving me pelters about how I had completely misunderstood a certain passage – Aeneas was not making a phone call apparently – when he closed his eyes to go off on a rant and I switched seats.
When he opened his eyes again I had ‘blinked’ two seats down. He wasn’t happy. Anyway, I digress. He was a lovely chap really and his enthusiasm for Ancient Rome kinda rubbed off on me. Everyone else remembers Gladiator and the Colosseum but for me it was the forum and the Palatine Hill that I wanted to see.
This is where the Caesars ruled. Where Julius and Augustus and Tiberius and, my favourite, Claudius reigned. If you have not read I, Claudius by Robert Graves incidentally then you should remedy that at once.
I couldn’t wait to wander through their world.
So, of course, we went everywhere else first.
That’s the thing about Rome. It’s a nicely sized city. You can walk just about anywhere if you are feeling fit or if you have the time. The entire Metro system has about 20 stops in total and you are usually only about three stops from where you want to be in any case, but despite the small size it is absolutely packed with stuff. You can’t be the eternal city without accumulating some baggage along the way so there are countless museums, monuments, statues and piazzas to be seen in your immediate vicinity without traipsing all the way across town.
Our apartment looked onto the dome of St Peter’s a few hundred metres away. We had left the house at four o’clock in the morning and so we were wandering around St Peter’s square a little before lunch. We’d already paid for a tour the next day and took a half a day just familiarising ourselves with the atmosphere of modern Rome.
And what is there to say that has not been said before? Yes, it’s a modern European place – it has the obligatory statuary and monuments alongside the graffiti and the homelessness. The place is to cry for.
I had already been in Rome for a couple of days when we took the compulsory hop-on hop-off bus tour. I don’t mind saying I cursed when we turned the corner and I saw the ‘wedding cake’ for the first time. The thing is enormous and to give you some idea of scale the guy on the horse in the middle is so big that his hat is taller than I am.
And then that night I saw a guy in a wheel chair begging outside the Spagna metro station who had clearly suffered incredible burn damage to his face and body. He should have been in some kind of accommodation but he wasn’t, he was begging to live in a life that had treated him just about as badly as life can. I cursed again.
Rome is the city of opposites. Based on an empire that almost invented the concept of being organised it is utterly chaotic. Yes, there are rules and systems but you get the feeling they made them up because they had to and then never bothered with them again. Crossing the road is a matter of trust when you step onto the black and white pedestrian crossing and hope that the cars will stop, but a matter of mistrust when you use an actual crossing. Sure, the countdown might say that you have 3 seconds left to get across the road, but the scooters bearing down on you can’t see the countdown and don’t care anyway. Move.
In a city where space is at a premium and everyone lives on top of each other they have seemingly random areas of wide open space and splendour. And sometimes just wide open spaces…
This thing you cannot see the end of is the Circus Maximus (you’ll remember Charlton Heston charging around here every Easter on BBC2) home of chariot racing and at its height a stadium that could accommodate 250,000 spectators. In Rome it is just left to be.
There are tiny streets and alleys where the shops are all crammed together as well. They have enormous boulevards that they then make tiny by parking thousands of cars there until they become small and cramped.
Speaking of cars. This is Italy, the home of Ferrari, Bugatti, Maserati and Lamborghini (other super car makes are available) but they all drive tiny little smart cars because they have made the place unusable for anything else. If you turned up here in a Ford Mondeo they’d just assume you were mad. Or it was part of a funeral or something.
Actually I did see a woman driving a big Range Rover thing so I can only imagine she is living in it or the boot folds out and the back turns into a mobile trattoria where delicious pizza is served by her and her family.
The Italians pride themselves on their food but unlike the French they aren’t actually that good with it. Yes the pizzas are delicious and they make a tomato sauce to die for. But that’s it. Italian ingredients are excellent – Italian cuisine is somewhat limited. I found myself wandering around Rome and in all the time I walked I saw one Chinese restaurant and one Kebab shop. This is a world capital – you’re telling me there’s no demand for an Indian curry? Or a caribbean place or… well, anything except pizza and pasta? I’m not saying a deep fried haggis is the answer but would it kill you to offer a goulash? A german sausage?
Perhaps the answer lies in the people. We went out shopping and amidst the shoe shops we found a place selling masques. We love a masque so in we went.
Where we were accosted by a charming Syrian fellow who endeared himself to my French wife in short order. We’ll leave aside the fact that he tried to sell us some catwoman type masque as being good for the ‘sexual attraction’ when our kids were stood right next to us. The rest of it was very illuminating. This chap speaks perfect English and French and Italian and Syrian and heaven knows what else. Why is he in Rome? Well, the war obviously – he had to get out about a year ago and ended up here.
“And do you like it here? Do you feel at home here?”
“Not really. The Italians aren’t anti Syrian particularly but…”
“Well, they just hate everybody equally”.
Which sums it up to be honest. The place is all smiles for the tourist and that’s just great but you are there to spend money. Every bridge and street has someone happy to see you because you are there to spend money. We ended up with a lot of worthless jewellery (my fault) and some worthless stamps (his fault, money back please) but we still had a totally marvellous time. The scale of the grandeur and the weight of the history are overpowering.
The Other Empire
As stated we were living near St Peter’s and the Vatican City. There are endless photos and videos that I will cut together somewhere else and then drop in a folder so that I can easily access them when my wife moans that we never go anywhere or do anything.
I simply wasn’t ready for the scale of the wealth that the church has. I wasn’t ready for the extent of the art or the reach of the church as an organisation, As we walked towards St Peter’s square for the first time I said.
“This is nun soup here”
And my daughter – brought up atheist -promptly asked me why they didn’t have any soup. So we had to start explaining nuns and the church and all that. It isn’t easy.
We did the tour of the Vatican museums which is a sprint past centuries of art. You could spend weeks in there and never come close to seeing half of it. The place was so busy we had to detour through the Etruscan wing and they have probably lost more priceless art by just forgetting than we ever owned in the first place. The Vatican is a microcosm of Rome – it is just too much. Here’s a random corridor on the route to the Sistine chapel…
See what I mean? This isn’t the Sistine chapel, this is just going to the Sistine chapel.
If I had to sum up Rome that’s how I would do it.
It’s just too much.
And as a result I am sure that the Romans themselves have become inured to it. They don’t even see it any more.
We were only there a few days and for my youngest daughter this place wasn’t a global icon at all. It was just the place she ran around in after our evening walk and gelato.
Truly a city of opposites. I got the perfect visual representation on our last day there…