31 October, 2006

Schlock factor

Halloween doesn't seem to be such as big a deal now as it was when I was younger. Back then you'd get wall-to-wall scaremongering on the TV and radio, in magazines and papers, and in shops big and small up and down the high street. Of late, and especially this year, it feels like it's almost an incidental event or peculiar pastime with limited appeal and a niche following.

Not that this is an especially bad thing. Given the entire occasion is an American export and trades in the hugely contentious and downright deceitful dichotomy of trick or treat, maybe it's just as well it's losing currency over here.

The whole thing's just asking for trouble anyway. Kids going round houses demanding residents hand over some delicacies or face the consequences? That's par for the course nowadays, mutter the middle class tabloids, regardless of whether it's 31st October or not. Plus isn't it rather dangerous for children to be knocking on the doors of complete strangers and asking if they can give them something?

Well it is and it isn't. It's always been dangerous for a child to knock on a stranger's door just as it's always been dangerous to walk out into a road without checking for cars or it's always been dangerous to smoke cigarettes.

It's just that society's quantification of danger has changed, and its view of people doing what other people have done in previous generations back through time immemorial gets subject to bouts of hysteria brought on by a need to create enemies. It's the power of nightmares. It's one of the few remaining ways the great and the good can keep their citizens in check.

Nobody has come round here trick or treating and nobody will. I can tell. It's that sort of neighbourhood.

Unfortunately it's also the kind of neighbourhood where nobody knocks on each other's door ever, regardless of what day of the year it is. It's also the kind of neighbourhood where children probably last played in the streets in 1955. I haven't seen one Halloween decoration or present in any of the local shops or houses.

Admittedly it did always seem to be more of a big deal in Liverpool. But even then, during the 12 years I lived there, not once did some kids come round on 31st October. Which was just as well, as I never had anything ready to give them by way of a treat. But still, it was eerie to go from a stage in life where Halloween was ostensibly a big deal (school) to it being nothing at all (after school) and not pass through any kind of in-between.

Anyway, in truth isn't it just a load of old hokum? When you think of it, what has Halloween given us? Apart from some classic Simpsons episodes, Sarah Greene being taken over by a poltergeist on BBC1's Ghostwatch, and an outlet for Britain's uncannily burgeoning pumpkin harvest, that is.


30 October, 2006

Rest awhile

I had one of those dreams last night where you wake up and actually begin to go about your business as if it were a normal day, albeit all the time remaining fast asleep.

Things were complicated further, however, by the fact I "woke up" 12 years ago in my first year at university. I was in what could loosely be described as a bedroom, except instead of a door there was simply a hole in the wall, and my bed was a dirty mattress thrown on top of a ragged metal frame.

Through the hole I could see other people I remembered from my first year going about their business with a studied nonchalence. Everywhere was grey and grim. Some sort of coach party was assembling off in the distance, headed out for goodness knows where, and I was beset with a feeling that I too should be with them.

I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of tardiness and disorganisation. It seemed that I was missing out on something, but couldn't find out what it was, partly because I was too tired, but partly because the hole in the wall wasn't big enough for me to get out even if I tried.

Twice in my life I have kept a dream diary. The first time was in the sixth form at school, then I tried again during my second year at university. To be honest I'm surprised I persisted with both for as long as I did (a few weeks in each case) given how their maintenance involved writing copious and exhausting notes as soon as I woke up every single morning, before even getting out of bed.

I'm also somewhat wary of the motive behind such a pastime. Was I trying to plunder my subconscious for "material" for songs and stories? Was I conducting some kind of hopelessly rudimentary form of self-analysis? Or was I simply looking for yet another outlet to document my innermost thoughts and woefully introspective feelings?

There are as many answers to that riddle as there are possible thoughts in your head. I do enjoy dreaming; I just wish I didn't have the urge to always search for meaning in them.

Dreams, they complicate my life;
Dreams, they complement my life

29 October, 2006

Hour tune

Today was one of my favourite days of the year: the return of Greenwich Mean Time.

For me, there's always been something deeply rewarding about the very business of turning a clock back an hour. It's like you're getting to almost control time. It's one of those precious few moments where man seems to have the upper hand over nature, and can arrest the normal ebb and flow of events to his (and her) choosing. It also gives you an extra hour's sleep, of course, which is no small added bonus.

Above all, though, it really does signal the arrival of autumn and the advent of winter. I love the fact the sun now sets before the evening begins. It's something I've always found deeply endearing.

I am not and never have been at ease with the notion of the sun still being out at something like 9pm. It's just completely wrong. By definition (well, sort of) evenings are supposed to be dark, not light. I'm convinced it does your body no good at all to see and feel the sun beating down after teatime.

Anyway, out for a walk this afternoon in the fading sunlight and smelling the onset of the first chill of the night in the air, mixed in with the inevitable whiff of domestic garden bonfires and the distinctive scent of crumped leaves, I couldn't help but allow myself the sense of being a little renewed and refreshed.

Things felt right, felt...in place.

28 October, 2006

Pete's sake

In the current edition of Word magazine, there is an attempt to come up with a list of definitive "man's" and "woman's" albums; in other words, those recordings most likely to be in the collections of your average male and female.

Of the 25 listed as must-have "man's" LPs, I had half a dozen or so (while only owning one of the "woman's" records: 'Little Earthquakes' by Tori Amos). One of those six, however, was actually the first album I ever bought on CD: 'Selling England By The Pound' by Genesis.

I'm not ashamed to confess I spent a couple of years in my mid-teens developing an obsession with 1970s-era Genesis, time I know I should have spent properly embracing slightly more contemporary sounds, but which nonetheless broadened my tastes to the extent that I still listen to and cherish the band's shameless prog-orientated output today.

'Selling England By The Pound' hails from 1973 and in my opinion was - is - the best the group ever recorded. It was the penultimate album to be made with founding member Peter Gabriel, but the first (and maybe only) time the band successfully tempered tendencies towards pretension and self-indulgence with thoughtful, melodic, carefully-constructed songs.

It also boasts a profoundly affecting and universal theme: nostalgia for a lost past. Such a topic probably sounds old hat now, indeed it is old hat, but there's a freshness and imagination to the way it is tackled on this particular album which surmounts what has become musical cliche.

In addition there's something singularly Albion about the album's sound, something I think I picked up on, albeit subconsciously, from a very early stage: this was the album I chose to take with me, copied onto cassette, when I (somewhat reluctantly) took part in a UK-Germany school exchange when I was 14.

At night, lying alone and uneasy in my bed in this unknown country surrounded by people who spoke a totally incomprehensible language, I would play myself a couple of songs from the album before going to sleep. They were my connection with home, not just literally but somehow metaphorically as well. It certainly helped me through the ordeal of not just being so far away from everything I knew, but also of being in such an alien, uncompromising place. Painful, if evocative, times.

Anyway, in case you're interested, here's the full list of what Word magazine officially dubs 'Ultimate Boys' Albums' for your own consultation. The ones I own are marked with an asterisk. To be honest, I haven't heard of half of them.

'The Wall', PINK FLOYD*
'Trout Mask Replica', CAPTAIN BEEFHEART
'Live At The Witch Trials', THE FALL
'Slanted And Enchanted', PAVEMENT
'Endtroducing', DJ SHADOW
'Feast Of Wire', CALEXICO
'Maxinquaye', TRICKY
'In The Court Of The Crimson King', KING CRIMSON
'Black Sea', XTC
'Entertainment', GANG OF FOUR
'A Love Supreme', JOHN COLTRANE*
'The Marble Index', NICO
'Surfer Rosa', PIXIES
'White Light/White Heat', THE VELVET UNDERGROUND*
'Trans-Europe Express', KRAFTWERK*
'Swordfishtrombones', TOM WAITS
'Fear Of A Black Planet', PUBLIC ENEMY
'Selling England By The Pound', GENESIS*
'Eliminator', ZZ TOP
'Ambient Works Volume II', APHEX TWIN
'Radio City', BIG STAR

27 October, 2006

Basket cases

I've always found one of the best things about taking an entire week off work is the chance to do usual domestic tasks at unusual times.

This may sound like a pathetically trivial pleasure, but believe me, getting to go to my local Tesco on a weekday morning as opposed to the evening or on weekends is a completely different experience.

The mood in the shop is far more relaxed and accommodating. There are less people about. There are more goods on the shelves. And the people who are going about their business are classically colourful characters.

This morning at the frozen food counter I was hailed by a lady in a long purple mac*. She wanted to know, apropos nothing whatsoever, whether the vegetarian sausages I'd just added to my basket were "any good."

Glossing over the fact that I certainly wouldn't be putting them into my basket were they not any good, I politely replied that I could vouch for their tastiness and would happily recommend them to meat eaters and non-meat eaters alike. "Though I've been a vegetarian so long now I can't remember what real meat tastes like," I added jovially. "Oooh, you should try some," the lady countered unhelpfully, before continuing, "well, I suppose I'll give them a go. You never know, I might like them."

Which is true, of course: I will never know, because even were I to see this woman again, from a distance across many aisles, I would try to avoid her. It's just not the done thing to find yourself having two conversations with the same stranger when out shopping.

Anyway she was being accompanied around Tesco by an older woman who I guessed was her mother, and was one of those types who insist on reading out loud every piece of information on every piece of packaging they spy on the shelves.

Then when I got to the checkout the person on the till insisted on regaling me with how she "never shops at Tesco" preferring "Sainsbury's and Waitrose". She seemed pleased that I didn't own a Tesco Clubcard. "I don't want the shop knowing all my personal details," I explained. "Quite right too," the woman responded. "Although they have mine, because I work here. Funny that!"

Not really, I thought. But this sort of thing is what I've come to expect when shopping on a weekday. You find yourself engaged in that increasingly rare art of spontaneous polite conversation. Admittedly those with whom you are conversing are perhaps not the most articulate of folk, but then they probably see me, a single sad-looking man, and think: the poor lonely soul, he could do with cheering up with a bit of easy banter. And sure enough, harmless chatter duly ensues.

*Now there's a sentence you'd previously only encounter emanating from the mouth of Victoria Wood.

26 October, 2006

Around London VIII

The last lap.

I wasn't expecting to feel quite so morose as I neared the finish, to be honest; I though it'd be a grand occasion, with a sense of pride and accomplishment surging through me and a real thrill at completing such an epic journey. Instead, as I grew closer to home and the landscape became familiar, I only felt a sorrow that the adventure was coming to an end and there was nowhere left to explore.

The fact I was walking wounded didn't help. I'd cut my hand climbing over a gate covered in barbed wire; I'd hurt the muscles in the bridge of my left foot and was limping; I'd also got soaking wet shoes thanks to it pissing it down yet again and most of the route taking me across sodden fields. But the weather undoubtedly leant proceedings an atmospheric air, which my photos, particularly the last one reproduced below, go some way to capturing.

I also had to walk through Harrow, a village seemingly owned entirely by the titular school, and through whose playing fields I had to walk - the playing fields, of course, upon which the First World War was won. Allegedly.

The entire undertaking has been a real eye-opener for me. I'd never have banked on there being so much isolated beauty and variations in landscape within the boundaries of Greater London. I'd also never have expected to spend so much of the walk entirely alone. I can't quite believe what I've done, and perhaps never will, but the evidence is recorded here and on my camera and somewhere in the back of my mind.

I've certainly done nothing like it before in my entire life. I doubt I ever will again.

Day 8: Sudbury - Hendon
Miles Added: 8
Total Miles Completed: 78
Total Miles Outstanding: 0

25 October, 2006

Year's end

I've just noticed there are precisely two calendar months until Christmas Day.

This feels wrong on so many levels. There hasn't been enough of a change in the weather for starters. It seems like it's only late August or early September, whereas in reality we're less than one week away from Halloween. The air isn't sharp or fresh enough, the ground isn't cold enough, too many trees have too many leaves for it to be this close to the festive season and, erk, 2007.

I'm also not ready for the collective bout of celebration and introspection that accompanies Christmas. It's usually the time to put a stamp on the year and total up the balance sheet for the preceding 12 months. Instead I feel like I'm too close to events to treat 2006 to any dispassionate concern or detached observation.

There's also the stuff that I fear about Christmas and which is hence lurking all too readily around the corner: forced conviviality, office merriment, and mass hysteria.

Plus it doesn't feel like one year since it was last here.

Maybe I'll become more well-disposed towards it when the weather gets colder (which it surely must) and the decorations go up and the Christmas double issue Radio Times comes out. At the moment, though, it feels not two months but two continents out of reach.

24 October, 2006

Around London VII

I've got the week off work, which has afforded me - among other things - the chance to get my circumnavigation of London wrapped up.

It was the penultimate leg today, picking up where I left off last time in Richmond and striking north to get as far as I could towards my home turf of Barnet before exhausation took over.

As it was I made far more progress than I expected, aided in no small measure by the weather. It was pissing it down for much of the time, a complete contrast to the climate in which I finished the previous leg. Indeed, autumn was inescapable all along the route, even when the sun came out towards the end. Yet it made for excellent walking conditions, even if it meant navigating by far the muddiest stretch of my journey so far. I've never walked through so many puddles in such a short space of time.

Yet again I was alone for miles and miles. Occasionally I would pass a runner, or fisherman, or even somebody who looked like they might have been gripped by the same idea as me and were making their own tottering way around the capital's edge. But for most of the time I was completely by myself. London: the most crowded, most lonely city in the world.

I did pass through Greenford and Perivale, however, neither of which were particularly deserted, and both of which had nothing to distinguish them apart from the former appearing in a Fry and Laurie sketch and the latter having dubious Doctor Who credentials.

Day 7: Richmond - Sudbury
Miles Added: 10.75
Total Miles Completed: 70
Total Miles Outstanding: 8

23 October, 2006

Arresting developments

I was woken at 6.20am this morning by the sound of my intercom buzzer being pressed repeatedly.

After a split-second of utter panic, chiefly caused by the shock of being suddenly dragged from a deep sleep, my next thought was to ignore it completely. I presumed it was some neighbour or other wanting to be let in to the building, and that having found no response from my flat would try another number on the keypad by the main door. But no. The buzzing continued.

Struggling out of bed to put a stop to the screeching din (the buzzer makes a sound like a million lorries reversing), and pausing to note only it was pissing down with rain and completely dark outside, I answered the call. "Is that Callum Harvey?" said a voice. "Er no, it's not," I replied somewhat lamely. "Can I come in?" inquired the voice. "It's a warrant officer."

I had no choice, of course, and let the man in, utilising the few seconds it takes for someone to walk all the way up the stairwell to my front door to try and compose myself.

I already knew what this was all about. Ever since I moved into this flat eight months ago, stern-looking letters have occasionally arrived addressed to Callum Harvey. Some were final demands. Some looked like they were from an official inspectorate or other. I don't know how long ago Mr Harvey lived here, but he'd clearly exited the premises leaving a lot of unfinished business behind him. Now some of that business was evidently catching him up.

When I opened the door I was conscious of how utterly undignified and vulnerable I was, having 60 seconds earlier been completely asleep. In front of me was a man dripping with rain but dressed very formally and brandishing his ID at me. "Callum Harvey?" he asked again. "No no, he doesn't live here," I replied meekly. "I'm not him. I've got some ID."

The warrant officer was resolute. "You're not Callum Harvey?" "No. I've lived here for eight months. Mail still comes for him, though," I added pathetically. Why couldn't I sound more confident, assured, in control? "Could you show me some ID?" the man continued, stepping inside my flat. "Of course," I responded hastily, and scurried off to where I keep all my bills, bank statements and personal documents.

I returned with a folder full of paperwork. "What would you like to see?" I began. "I've got..." "Just a utility bill," the man muttered tersely. "There you go," I countered, trying to sound more dispassionate and drawing his attention to a letter from Thames Water. "That's fine," he grunted and promptly turned on his heel to leave.

"I've got plenty of other..." I continued, somehow feeling compelled to argue my defence even though I wasn't guilty of anything. "No. That's fine," he concluded, and disappeared.

The warrant officer returned to his car in the road outside. I watched from my bedroom window, in darkness, as he sat writing something down. After a minute or so he drove off. And that was that.

Except it wasn't. The whole unexpected, brief and blunt encounter had been seared into my brain and it was impossible to go back to sleep. I lay in bed pointlessly trying to calm down. At least it wasn't too early and I only found myself forfeiting an hour or so's rest. Thank goodness he didn't call round at something like 4.00am.

Was I forceful enough in persuading the man of my identity? Could I have done more? Why was he so quick to terminate his investigation? Will he be returning for a more protracted visit?

Wherever and whoever Callum Harvey is, I wish he'd turn himself in. Then I can forget worrying about any of those four questions. And maybe get some sleep tonight.

22 October, 2006

Look East

I've spent the weekend visiting an old friend who now lives in Cleethorpes.

Despite the long trek on the train, there was something instantly reassuring about being back in the north of England. Indeed, when I was changing connections at Doncaster station, I could immediately tell I was in a different part of the country thanks to the way people walked, what they wore, how they spoke and even the speed at which they went about their business.

My mate's flat overlooked the Humber Estuary, commanding the kind of views normally associated with seaside retirement homes and guest houses. Luckily the sun was shining when I strolled the few dozen yards down onto the beach to take a few photos.

20 October, 2006

Clock watching

A letter arrives in the post from the Department for Work and Pensions. Somebody somewhere has calculated, on the basis of my National Insurance contributions to date, the amount of state pension I am likely to receive upon retirement. The figure is £79.17 a week.

The letter goes on to point out, in an unnecessarily coy voice, that such a sum might not support "the sort of lifestyle" to which I am used, and hence "if you haven't yet begun to save, it's never too late to start".

I'd certainly not expected such a communication so (relatively) early in my life, nor one of such quasi-mocking tones. I'm also not ready for such a stark reminder of the passing of time, nor the implication that - despite being perhaps even 40 years off retirement - I'm already not doing enough to set a little something by for a rainy day.

£79.17. What would that buy me in a week? My food, certainly, and probably my gas and electricity. But not my rent, nor any other costs I'd need to incur as I went about my elderly business. At least you'd get your TV licence free. Or not, depending on who's in power in 2050.

Christ. 2050. I'll be 75. Such a date, such an existence, such a period of time, seems utterly inconceivable.

18 October, 2006

Yesterday, today

24 hours late, I know, but this is still worth a mention.

The British Library will retain everybody's submissions, so generations to come will be able to look back and wonder at our obsession with listening to loud music on earphones in public places, grumbling about more pollution while refusing to pay more tax, drinking water out of bottles instead of taps, and expecting pop stars to say profound things about anything other than their favourite colour.

It's the kind of exercise that's been done before, perhaps most famously in the 1930s through the Mass Observation Archive. This was a collection of journals penned by folk right around the UK, commissioned in the spirit of democratising history and empowering citizens, but also to assemble a picture of Britain from the bottom up (this was the time of the Great Depression) rather than the top down.

A different sort of initiative was mounted in 1988 by the British Film Institute, who, on Tuesday 1st November of that year, invited the entire population to keep a diary of what they watched on television, again collecting the results for posterity.

Back then the notion of being able to find out what the country really thought about something, and to take the temperature of public opinion, was a startling novelty. Now the reverse is true, but before blogs become as redundant and passe as Laserdiscs (it could happen!), the least we can hope is that 17th October was a day that will be remembered for centuries.

Your blog can be uploaded anytime between now and 31st October.

17 October, 2006

Cold comfort

Perchance it could soon be my fortune
To bid farewell to blind despair,
And wonder at this kingdom of the sun.

These lines are from a poem by my friend David, written - or rather composed - in 2001 using a fridge magnet kit comprising words and phrases culled from the collected works of Shakespeare.

The magnets were stuck on the door of my mum and dad's fridge. During one of my visits back to my family home he and I were selflessly idly away time in the kitchen, when for reasons lost in memory one of us suggested using the magnets to try and construct a full-length poem.

I'm hoping he won't mind me reproducing the results here. I know it can sometimes come across as incredibly self-aggrandising to plug the work of close friends online, especially if you try to make out it's epic poetry or the product of undiscovered genius. I know it can seem equally arrogant to assume that anybody else in the world will be at all interested in the work of somebody they know absolutely nothing about.

Yet this particular poem, given the curious nature of its birth, unusual lifespan (it remained on the fridge door for months, long after I'd returned to Liverpool) and improbably conception is, I'd like to think, deserving of a mention. Not least because I'd forgotten about it entirely, and only by David putting it up online himself did I recall its existence.

Anyway, here's the complete work, hailing from that distant summer of 2001, when the world seemed (in retrospect) a more surer place and I was far less wizened than I am now.

Wherefore the thought
Ask ne'er for mercy;
Only madness and golden midsummer straw.
Leave humility at the window,
And scorn frailty.
Laugh at thine sorrow;
Lost kisses die with haste,
Passion knoweth mercy nor reason,
But life will ever give chance and circumstance.
Love is sometimes a tempest
But always as sweet and noble
As winter ghosts drunk on dreams of summer.
Perchance it could soon be my fortune
To bid farewell to blind despair,
And wonder at this kingdom of the sun.

16 October, 2006

Smell? Smell?

It's something of a dust-covered cliche to talk of how a particular scent can evoke a particular memory, and one that can hail from as little as a week or as much as a decade ago.

Nevertheless I found myself being so profoundly affected by the whiff of something today I couldn't help but feel compelled to record both it and a few other similarly nostalgia-inducing odours to which I find myself susceptible:

- Hash browns: these make me think of my sixth form canteen, specifically the combination of vegetable spring rolls, hash browns and baked beans, which back then I thought was the nicest meal in the whole world.

- Tar: this reminds me of one hot summer in the mid-1980s when the council dumped a load of asphalt in our road with the expectation that residents would take it upon themselves to repair all the potholes themselves.

- Curry: I used to smell this on a particular stiff winter breeze when walking to school in the early 90s, a route which took me across a university campus and very close to some halls of residence kitchens. The combination of the spicy odour and the freezing temperature was perfect.

- Damp: I'll always associate this with February 2001 when my roof started leaking while I was away for the weekend and I returned to find my living room soaking. It had been snowing as well, and the place stank of dirty water. While it took relatively little time to dry up and clear away the damage, the smell persisted for weeks.

- Cut grass: school playing fields on a hot summer morning

- Permanent markers: school classrooms on a hot summer afternoon

- Funny cigarettes: not that I encounter the smell much these days, but when I do - walking down the street, usually - it always reminds me of the time I lived directly above a group of unfettered drug-sozzled layabouts in Liverpool who did nothing with their lives except sleep until early afternoon then smoke until the early hours. They hung around for about 18 months or so before suddenly disappearing, leaving behind a flat entirely empty of furniture except for one filthy sofa, plus strange daubings on the wall including a giant spiff and - inevitably - a naked woman.

- Chips: this never fails to make me feel hungry, even when I've just eaten. And this was the smell that caught me off guard today. Just after I'd eaten my lunch.

13 October, 2006

Breakfast time

7.30am this morning. The first time I've seen fog in London. I sincerely hope it won't be the last; the serenity it lay upon the otherwise harsh and rattling rush hour was beautiful.

12 October, 2006


By way of a pathetic self-fulfilling prophecy, the Foreign Secretary has already done precisely what the opening paragraph of an article in today's Guardian predicts and vacuously denied any of its contents are true. Which is all the more reason to take the article and its conclusions entirely at face value.

11 October, 2006

Medicine bawl

I had to go to the doctors' today, and it was the first proper visit I'd made to my new local surgery since moving to London.

It might be unfashionable to say so these days, but I have to confess to experiencing a surge of reassurance every time I step inside a surgery, confirm my arrival with the receptionist and take my seat in the waiting room. It's almost like I suddenly think I'm halfway towards feeling better already.

Being held within the benevolent arms of a giant organisation is comforting to me. Again, it's unfashionable to say as much, but I like the idea of having the state waiting just around the corner to protect me from cradle to grave.

I like the notion of a government-run web of organisations watching over me from youth to old age. Greatest of them all is the NHS, and I can't help but feel a surge of appreciation each time I step onto one of its thousands of premises.

Which is what happened today. My new surgery is only five minutes from where I live. It's clean, spacious, friendly, expertly run and efficient. In short, it's fantastic. And I left with a piece of paper in my hand which will, of course, make my life and my health 100% in no time at all.

Well, you've got to have a bit of hope in somebody.

10 October, 2006

Evenin' all

Strange goings-on last night.

I was woken at about 1am by the sound of voices outside down below, including the distinct and heart-stopping phrase "the police want to get in."

There's an intercom system operational in this small block of apartments, and for someone to gain access to the stairwell a resident has to buzz down and open the main door. I don't know who did this, but within a few seconds I heard raised voices getting ever closer and then the ominous thump-thump-thump of a front door being pounded.

It wasn't mine, thankfully, but the one of the flat opposite me across the way, occupied - as far I could tell from merely seeing the tenant coming and going - by a large Afro-American woman with a propensity to go about her business at a speed roughly equivalent to a tired snail.

Pretty soon her voice could be heard shouting from within. "I will call the police! I have my passport! I am a UK citizen! I am calling the police!" "This is the police" informed the uniformed contingent the other side of the door. "Could you let us in please? We need to check you're all right." "I have my passport," the women wailed. "I am a UK citizen!" "We don't want to check your passport," they consoled. "Your sister wants to know if you're all right." "I don't want to see my sister!" came the response. "You can arrest me. I have my passport. I am a UK citizen!"

Well, this went on for some time. It soon became clear the women was, if not hysterical, then mentally unwell - there was much talk outside the door of the lady's condition and the fact she "hadn't taken her pills". The police soon went back outside and I could see from my window there were friends and family of the resident among them as well a nurse and several other uniformed officers.

I tried to go back to sleep, but it was pretty clear this situation wasn't going to end until there was a resolution, and one that involved the woman being made to leave her flat and climb into the ambulance waiting in the road.

I could still hear her screaming about "just needing something to eat" and how her sister "wanted to assassinate her". The drama of the occasion was accentuated by it being now almost 2am and the fact there were no other sounds to be heard anywhere in the whole district except the lady shrieking.

Anyway after what felt like an age the party of visitors came back in and on the premise of wanting to check her passport managed to shuttle her out of the flat, down the stairs and out into the ambulance. She was babbling and chuntering the whole time, but the unsettling thing was the way her body language was so at odds with her voice. She moved slowly and calmly, with dignity; no arms thrashing, no restraining of limbs, nothing by way of a forced escort at all.

I'm not sure if she's been back since. I can see into one room of her flat from one of my windows, and the place looks, well, decidedly normal. Up until last night I'd never heard her speak. I barely knew she existed.

09 October, 2006

Those days

I just wish I could go someplace where nobody knows me.

The first time I saw the film Stand By Me was at a friend's birthday party. It must have been 1987 or 88, and the friend, Luke, had only invited a few of us round for what was, for a group of young teenagers, a bizarrely sedate affair comprising a sit-down meal and an evening in front of the TV.

I remember stupidly arguing with him about wanting to watch Octopussy which was on ITV that very same night, but Luke insisting - rightly - that we watch this video he'd got out especially for the occasion. As such I gave neither the film nor the occasion the attention they deserved, which was stupid of me but I wasn't old enough to know better.

The next time I saw Stand By Me was a good many years later, and I reckon at first I didn't realise it was the very same film I'd only half-watched first time around. Either that or I subconsciously didn't want to concede that I'd treated such a masterpiece with such disdain, and revised my memories accordingly. I recall being profoundly moved and affected by the film, its mood, its music, its comradeship, its sentiment and above all its timelessness.

I caught it a couple of times on TV during the 1990s, but hadn't seen it for ages until last night when I watched it on DVD and found myself instantly transported back into that same cloud of emotion I experienced the first time I saw it properly. I let that cloud wash over me and wrap me up in a fog of shameless nostalgia, and I realised again, were it need re-stating, that the film is an example of genius and one of best movies of all time.

It happens sometimes. Friends come in and out of our lives like busboys in a restaurant.

Why is it an example of genius? Because of the way it so deftly takes universal themes and personalises them in the shape of its four protagonists, who don't know it but are representing the hopes and fears of every single child in the whole world, and every single adult who looks back on their childhood as a period of missed opportunities and dashed dreams.

Because it affords the viewer the luxury of transferring their own past onto that of the collective characters and filtering their own particular take on growing up through the glorious gauze of reminiscence. Because it has ace music. Because it is beautifully shot. Because the four kids speak such profound wisdom and achingly truthful insights one minute then indulge in the most fantastic casual swearing the next. Because it has great jokes. Because it is deeply, deeply human.

Because it reminds you that what you gain by way of experience in growing older you lose by way of innocence and charm.

I guess one of the luxuries of being an adult is the chance to romanticise about your childhood, but it's a far from positive indulgence, and can often - speaking from experience - lead you into psychological cul-de-sacs of reverie you can't reverse out of. Stand By Me is a way of accessing your own childhood at one remove, and therefore can't help but feel a more harmless, even safe, form of historical tourism.

Yet the impressions still run deep and its litany of quotable lines and visceral images touch me in a way not many other films, let alone TV or music or books, can do. It's impossible for me not to measure the scope of my own childhood against that of its fictional foursome and invariably find it wanting.

But then that's surely what such films are for. To afford you the chance to idly rate reality against fantasy and draw succour from the discrepancy. To articulate the sentiments you lock away deep inside you. To give you the emotional tools to excavate your own past so as to better steel you for the present.

And, of course, to make you cry.

Chris: You're gonna be a great writer someday, Gordie. You might even write about us guys if you ever get hard-up for material.
Gordie: [wiping away tears] Guess I'd have to be pretty hard-up, huh.

08 October, 2006

Bush whacked II

Here's something which combines two of my favourite subjects: the writings of George Orwell, and shameless George W. Bush-baiting.

It's an article discussing and paraphrasing Orwell's famous essay 'Politics And The English Language', ticking off the salient points and applying them to today's world, culminating in a thoroughly fantastic clip from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It's deeply reassuring to know that this kind of television is still being made and broadcast in the United States.

07 October, 2006

Welling up

I was surprised, off the back of some idle office gossip the other day, to hear so many men readily testify to having cried while watching a film. This flew in the face of the common stereotype which dictates that males are only permitted to weep, or confess to weeping, at football matches (the same place, of course, where men are also allowed to openly embrace each other).

When it comes to films, or music and TV for that matter, it doesn't take much to make me start welling up, and it never has done. I can't cry in public, though, partly because I know how unflattering and ugly it makes me look, but also because it has always felt an avowedly private emotion and one that is open to such a degree of third party misintepretation.

I remember crying once at school, when I failed my driving test for the third term running. I remember crying twice in front of my parents, once three years ago down the phone when I really felt my life had reached the last remaining atom on the bottom of the barrel, once when I was 16 and right in front of them after I'd been verbally abused by the dad of a sometime friend.

In each case the circumstances were somewhat extraordinary. In private, though, it is the most mundane and everyday of occurances which can and will set me off. Aspects of my appearance, forbearing and prospects can hit me hard when I'm low, but more often it will be some moment, some gesture, some transient mood and feeling evoked by something I have seen or heard that does the trick.

But contrary to received wisdom, I don't always "feel better" for having cried and "let it all come out". Usually I feel worse, somewhat dishevelled and shabby and at an extremely low ebb. And here's the crux of it, because if someone was around to see me weep and blub all over the place, maybe that expulsion of emotion would translate into some kind of positive epiphany. But of course there can't be anyone around, because I'm too ashamed.

It's enough to make you weep.

06 October, 2006

Fifteen score

This is the 300th post I've made on Visions Before Midnight, but things have reached that point now where such milestones start to have diminishing resonance. 300 might as well be 350, or 400 - it's just another Big Number.

I suppose were I to make it to 1000 I'd feel a surge of, well, something (pride, hopefully), but that tally just feels so far off and implausible that it too has no meaning. Quantity has officially been superseded by longevity, and I will soon be able to measure the existence of this blog not by individual entries but calendar years.

Saying all that, I'll promptly do what I've done loads of times and flip things around by stating I can't think of anything offhand that I have notched up 300 instances of. If you see what I mean.

Discounting such practices as meals, nights sleeping up a particular roof or journeys along a particular route or path, to have done 300 of something is a rarity for me. Rather, a rarity for me at this time of my life. I own more than 300 of various items, formats and objects, but I didn't create them. They're not my handiwork. So I suppose 300 can be imbued with some degree of significance, albeit qualified by the all-encompassing cloak of being a Big Number.

The act of creating should be something to be celebrated in its own right, pursued for its own right and perpetrated for its own sake. If it has any consequences, positive or otherwise, upon yourself or anybody else, then that should be purely incidental and coincidentally fortuitous. If everyone is done to order, order becomes the substitute for impulse and then everybody is doomed.

05 October, 2006

Nasty party

The Tories will not win the next General Election.

They are being led by a man who's fighting the battles of ten years ago and who's trying to paint himself as "Blair's heir" (his words, not mine), neither of which will induce enough members of the public to vote for him or his party come polling day.

David Cameron's performance at the Conservative Party conference this week was a wispishly constructed PR exercise from start to finish. It's utterly self-deluding and counter-productive to make a virtue out of not outlining policies, not least because when he does start outlining them people will already have grown bored of his voice and won't be listening. In other words, let's hope he goes on speaking about what he's not going to do rather than what he is, and hence discourage more people from giving the Tories the benefit of the doubt.

Then there's the Shadow Chancellor George Osborne, a man only 33 years old yet a man trying to take over the running of the nation's public finances. His utter inexperience and remote sensibilities will fortunately see to it that he never gains office - either that or his spectacular lack of self-awareness, as demonstrated by his branding Gordon Brown "autistic".

Deep down the Tories are, of course, still utterly divided: over Europe, over tax, over state education, over the NHS and over defence. The same old fissures will open up as the months go by and MPs feel less obliged to fall in behind Cameron and tolerate his endless platitudes.

If all that wasn't enough, any relief at the prospect of seeing Tony Blair out of office will have been used up way before the election when the man steps down of his own accord. As such there will be little impetus to "kick out" the incumbent Prime Minister at the next election given they'll have only been in office a couple of years.

Not that any of this excuses the fallabilities of Labour and the fact they have frippered away all the goodwill upon which they were carried into power in 1997. It's just that, at the same time, the opposition will neither deserve nor have the ability to effect enough of a defeat at the ballot box to kick them out next time around. Which, depending on how you look at it, is either an enormous boon or...an enormous boon.

03 October, 2006

Syntax burden

By way of a coincidental follow-up to a comment I made the other day, a BBC producer has triggered a discussion about why the Corporation always refers to "the so-called 'war on terror'" or "the American-led 'war on terror'".

It's something I actually hadn't picked up on, subconsciously processing such turns of phrase as entirely legitimate and understandable. But inevitably, by calling attention to the practice, the Beeb has invited a load of crackpots and nutters to turn up and exercise their usual demented warped logic and lunatic prejudices. At least it helps the rest of us to know who to steer clear of.

A particular favourite of mine is the one who breaks out into a fit of Daily Mail hysterics: "The so-called British Broadcasting Corporation. You have nothing to do with my Britain stop taking taxes off us and go out into the real world and get proper jobs you losers."

02 October, 2006

Face time

I'm sure you've already come across this piece of video before, but it's worth a plug here, not only for reference but also for the way it collapses six years into six minutes.

01 October, 2006

Battle hymn

Watching Downfall on More4 last night, I fell to wondering, as I always seem to do when confronting such visceral reminders of global warfare, whether I would, if so called upon to do, bear arms for my country.

Such a notion seems fanciful when viewed as an abstract, of course, because it's not going to happen in my lifetime or, quite possibly, anybody's lifetime given the nature of modern conflict and mechanised armoury. Yet what if it was 65 years ago and I was facing conscription into the army to fight the forces of fascism in some far-flung corner of the world?

The answer is in the question. 65 years ago I would, I'm sure, think nothing of seeking to join the defeat of fascism by any means possible. When your enemy did you the service of so clearly defining himself by way of an aggressive ideological evil sitting on the opposite side of the English Channel, the choice is obvious.

Yet this doesn't clear up the matter of just how I would prefer to contribute to the defeat of fascism. Would I be able to prove myself intelligent enough to spend the war far away behind enemy lines sitting in Bletchley cracking codes in the hope of one day ending up being portrayed in a film produced by Mick Jagger? Or would I feel enough patriotic stirrings to actually happily join the army and fight in the front line?

There are moments, increasingly so as I get older, when I can only conclude the answer to that last question would be yes. It doesn't follow that I consider war to be anything other than abhorrent and good for, to coin a phrase, absoutely nothing, yet one of the values of experience as opposed to youthful innocence is a deepening awareness of the fabric of society and the continuity of history. If the call came...surely, ultimately, honestly, you would have no choice?

Well, perhaps it's more constructive to introduce that woefully pious division between a 'good war' and a 'bad war'.

As helpfully itemised in The Simpsons, 'good wars' include The American Revolution, World War Two, and the Star Wars Trilogy.

'Bad wars', it can safely be stated, include every possible kind of conflict since 1945, including the present stupidly-named 'war on terror' (as if you can fight a war against a noun) and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Whereas you can see the rationale, I would hope, in taking part in a 'good war', there is assuredly no worth in lending your support, be it physical, vocal or implicit, to a 'bad war'.

As such Hitler embodied the ultimate 'good' baddie: desperately easy to categorise, even simpler to demonise, whose only concern was to spread hate around the planet. Saddam Hussein, on the other hand, while an obvious dictator, did not wish to spread hate around the planet and was not, when leader of Iraq, easy to categorise.

Indeed, we spent most of the 1980s selling him weapons, then spent most of the 1990s trying to make him dismantle them, and look like spending most of this decade trampling round his erstwhile domain turning more and more of his erstwhile citizens into enemies of the West.

It's a singular problem. Fortunately, as I said, there will never be a moment in my lifetime when I have to consider whether I should go and fight in a trench. But spool back three generations and I'm increasingly convinced it wouldn't have been a matter for consideration at all. For lest we forget, as memorably cited in the cartoon series Dungeons And Dragons, "from bad can come good." Although, as memorably retorted in the self-same cartoon series, "try telling that to my math (sic) teacher."