Saturday, 23 October 2010

The Day of the Launch

I had my book launch yesterday - that went pretty well. My publishers had spent about 5 hours on the train coming down from Peterborough and when they came, they brought wine so that was very welcome. Starting drinking wine at 11 AM wasn't such a great idea though. Of course, you never find out these things until afterwards.

I had a pretty good turnout. At least 30 people came, and most of them bought copies of the book. Some bought more than one. I kept a tally chart which I updated each time a signed a book, and had it subdivided into friends, fellow poets and strangers. After the allotted three hours, I had sold ten to friends, seven to poets and ten to strangers. I was very pleased to have sold so many to strangers. It's lovely to get the support of your friends, but reaching a stranger was especially nice.

Waterstones had expected to sell about fifteen copies, the publishers were hoping for twenty, but twenty seven was great. Much of the credit has to go to my dear friend, Swindon's community poet Tony Hillier. He was a whirlwind of energy as he asked people to 'roll up, roll up, meet the poet' and encouraged them into the shop.

I wish I was more comfortable being the centre of attention...

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Four Go Mad In Yorkshire

I've literally just got back from an amazing weekend away so I'm typing this up quick while the taste of metaphor and imagery is still rich on my tongue. Four poets from Bluegates (Tony Hillier, Michael Scott, Keith Hilling and myself) made the long journey from Swindon to darkest Yorkshire.

I'd never been to Yorkshire before. All I knew of it was what I had gleaned from Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe books and the occasional 'Last of the Summer Wine' episode as a child. It's easy to surpass expectations that don't exist, but I think I would have been impressed regardless. It was a great time.

A group of poets called Write Out Loud, based in Hebden Bridge, had booked a hostel for the weekend and filled it with poets and poetry. There were 46 people signed up, more when you count the organisers, workshop leaders and invited performance poets.

There were workshops on a wide variety of literary subjects: comic poetry, war poetry, script writing, experimental poetry, performance techniques, etc. There were 9 different workshops in all, but alas, only time to do 4 of them. I chose 'starting from a blank page', experimental poetry, Chartist poetry (more on this below) and 'getting pithy with pity', a study of the poetry of war.

My first workshop was 'starting from a blank page' and was a series of tricks that a constipated poet can use to get the creative juices flowing again. Some of the exercises were quite useful. For example, you can take a couple of lines from an existing poem, add new lines of your own and then delete the existing lines and see where the new direction takes you.

For example, we were given the lines 'I found them huddled on the bed / the paperback opening by itself'. We analysed this snippet (who were 'them'? Words? Children? Lovers? What did 'huddled' imply? A threat? Comfort? Intimacy? What about bed? Could it also be a flower bed or a river bed? Etc). We extended the two lines, based on what we'd discussed. When I had added my new lines, it came out as:
I found them huddled on the bed,
The paperback opening by itself,
Its spine damaged by the weight of favoured memories
As its words embrace,
Breath on cheek,
Sniffing each other's hair.
I probably won't be taking this poem any further, but it's an interesting trick. I may use it if writer's block gets too troublesome.

We also experimented with automatic writing techniques and self-hypnosis, letting the eyes defocus and writing about what we see. The most interesting thing in my field of vision were the crocheted flowers on the blouse of an elderly lady sitting opposite me. This inspired the following:
Flowers on a blouse
Made of fabric
Shot through with thread
That catches the light
Like a net catching butterflies.

Flowers on a blouse
Made of hearts
Three hearts making six petals
Holding hands at the corners
A blossomed brocade
At the top of a top
In the foyer of a hostel
In Yorkshire
Not a great poem, perhaps, (I was still warming up) but an interesting exercise. I gave it to the lady whose top had inspired it, and she was delighted. Poetry is for sharing.

We were then split up into pairs, and read our embryonic poems to each other, choosing four words randomly from each. My partner chose fabric, light, butterflies and hearts, and these words then had to be included in a new poem:
Butterflies fly
Scintillating, corruscating,
Made of light,
Their hearts aflame,
The fabric of their wings akimbo
As they crash,
Into the grill
Of a Volvo
No-one said it had to make sense! We were then given postcards to write about but my poem on this was shit, so I'm keeping it to myself. It wasn't all my fault. I was given an unused German postcard of quite a bad painting of an unimaginative flower arrangement. There was little to say about it, but the idea of writing based on a picture was a good one. I've done it before (click here for details).

I took the experimental poetry workshop not knowing what to expect, but discovered that poetry can be very weird indeed. My musical tastes include things that some people would consider a bit odd, but my poetic tastes are generally quite conservative and I wanted to stretch myself, but I found this workshop a bit challenging. Poems are discontinuous, sections cut and pasted from line to line, breaking up the narrative. Sentences are incomplete and sometimes just made up of punctuation. Some are very short (eg, 'So much depends/upon//the red wheel/barrow//glazed with rain/water//by the white//chickens', by William Carlos Williams. And yes, that is the whole poem). Experimental poetry is the written equivalent of abstract art, the non-representational paintings of Jackson Pollock. But I don't really get that either. I did write a poem based on these ideas, but I don't really like it very much so I'm going to keep that one to myself as well.

The Chartist poetry workshop was a revelation. Chartism was the world's first working class revolutionary movement, and started in about 1838. At the time, there was little democracy in Britain. The common man had no voice in Parliament, no vote, and was banned from standing for election. Chartism resolved to change this by the charter that gave the movement its name. It wanted secret ballots, a vote for every sane man over the age of 21 (if he wasn't in jail), wages for MPs, so the ordinary man could afford to represent his constituents, etc. While all but one of their demands (that parliaments be dissolved after a year) were set in law by 1918, in the mid 19th century, a very nervous government sent in the soldiers time and time again, leading to events like the Peterloo Massacre. And what was the driving force behind Chartism? Poetry. Newspapers in the industrial centres like Manchester and Sheffield printed thousands of poems by Chartists, calling members to arms and reflecting on the hypocrisy of their social betters. Even poets like Shelley were involved in this. The Chartist years could have been the time that poetry was the most effective instrument of social change. And yet, the poems from this time are largely unknown to us. They have been collected precisely once, in 1956, by a Russian publisher and translated back into English. And some are excellent. Here's an example, by an anonymous Manchester poet:
O, instinct there is none - nor show of reason
By outrage gross on God and Nature's plan,
With rarest gifts in blasphemy and treason,
That Man, the souled, should piecemeal murder man.
The final workshop I took was on war poetry. This was one of the best of all, not least because we did the most writing. We discussed the First World War poets, mainly Wilfred Owen, and more recent writers that discussed the Second World War, right up to Simon Armitage who wrote a wonderful piece about the Iraq conflict. We were given an exercise to come up with a poem that expressed what it would be like for a soldier to miss his home comforts and compare his old life to that of a soldier at war. I wrote the following (probably my favourite of the poems I wrote this weekend):
The memories of beer and sex
Are faded now, already dead.
My iPod and my MTV
Replaced at last by IEDs
And UAVs and Taliban,
The poppy fields of Flanders fame
Transplanted to Afghanistan
By deep-set men in shallow graves.
We were then asked to consider a war that had affected us personally, and reflect on who had won, who had lost, and what had they won or lost. When I was about 12, the Falklands War was happening, and like any young boy, I got caught up in the excitement. My broken Action Men stopped being Germans and started being Argentinians. So I wrote this:
The sheep clung to the hillside
As the South Atlantic wind
Had Argentinian accents:
The army's coming in.
General Galtieri,
Franco on the cheap,
Had launched a quick invasion:
Give me back those British sheep!
Thatcher was the winner,
The election was khaki.
I may have been a schoolboy
But I was old enough to see
If the government's in trouble,
They make the soldiers roam.
If they give us outside enemies
We forget the ones at home.
I'm not happy about the end of this, but I ran out of time. I may revisit it later. The last war poem we had to write was one about the delivery of bad news to a relative. I came up with the following:
Gloved knuckles on a painted wooden door
Sergeant-major, crown and stripes on his arm
Beret under epaulette

Door opens
Drained, drawn face
Realisation dawning
Long hard swallow

He says "I'm afraid I have some bad news"
She says "I know"

Door slams
Crying footsteps

He walks to the staff car
And drives to his next victim
One down, six to go
Maybe I had learnt something from the experimental poetry class after all. I usually have much more punctuation and full sentences in my poems.

All in all, it was an excellent weekend. Half a hundred people were brought together by a shared love of poetry. We drove for 5 hours to get there (thanks Michael!). Others came from much further. One came from Exeter, another from Cornwall. The quality of the poetry was amazing. We had open mic nights on both Friday and Saturday evening, where we would read our poems to a rapturous audience of fellow enthusiasts, and to be honest, just being with that many poets would have been worth the cost and travelling alone. Factor in the excellent (although mainly vegetarian) food, the workshops and the accomodation and the £50 fee was embarrassingly low.

And poets are so eloquent. I couldn't get up the seven-foot vertical ladder to my bunk bed (dodgy knee playing up) and had to sleep in the lounge, but no-one said my snoring was merely loud or offensive. It was described as 'operatic, in a full-blooded baritone'.

You've got to love poets. They can find a decorative way to describe anything.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Almost There!

There are now only twelve days left until my book is launched! I'm ridiculously, childishly excited about this. The local Waterstones has been booked, my lovely publishers are laying on drinks and goody bags and I have a big stack of posters that I need to distribute to local shops and pubs.

This is a completely new experience for me. I've never had a book out, never seen my face on a professionally printed poster before (when I had various bands, my wife used to design posters for gigs, but this is the first time I've seen something that wasn't produced on an inkjet). I have been plugging the book to almost everyone I met for months now. I don't think there's anyone I know that isn't aware I have a book coming out.

I pity my poor friends on Facebook. Almost all of my posts recently have mentioned the book in some way. There's an application that tells you your most-used words. Number two on my list was 'book'. Number one was 'watching', but that's just because I often complain about what's on TV while I post. There's always something to complain about. Nothing to complain about with the book, of course! It's almost perfect.

I say it's almost perfect because there were a couple of poems I wrote that were too late for inclusion. One I've already given (An Epitaph for Justice can be found here) but there was also one about winning the poetry competition. My publishers had asked for this months ago, but typically, I didn't have any ideas about how to start it until it was too late. Oh well. Consider this to be a blog exclusive! The poem is here:

Two Words

Two words
Short ones too
A name
My name
Andrew Barber

I don't hear these words very often
The doctor
The dentist
The nasal Tannoy
For the deli counter drones
At the council offices

I hear them most
From my own mouth
Hello insert name here
I'm Andrew Barber
Shake the hand
Flash the eye contact
I'm not scared
Feel how firm my grip

And once
I heard two words from a stage
Short words
A name
And the winner is...
Insert my name here...
I've won

And everything changed

Sunday, 12 September 2010

I'm Turning Japanese

I've been thinking about the Japanese standards for quality, and I've come to the conclusion that I prefer them. I've long preferred the difficulty levels of Japanese videogames over their American counterparts. I'd rather sweat in an abandoned shed in Resident Evil 4 with two bullets and four zombies than be the flag-waving bullet sponge capable of carrying ten different rifles at once in Call of Duty or something. I like to be tested in a game and I like the laws of physics and anatomy to be realistic.

Game shows are the same. I do like shows like Ninja Warrior, where there are absolute standards of quality. You have to complete the course, and if you don't, you lose. It's been running for ten years, and only one person has ever completed the course in the final (which is much harder than the qualifier). For nine years, there has not been a winner. Can you imagine this happening in a British show?

I've got the X Factor on at the moment, as I type, and this would be the same. Like most British game shows, they don't pick winners, they pick best qualified losers. The twelve judged best would always make the final, regardless of how good they really are. If the 'fastest finger first' winner on 'Who Wants to Be a Millionnaire' took two minutes and only got one answer right, they'd still go through. There are no absolute barriers to entry, no predetermined ability threshholds. The format requires that someone play and if we can't have good, we'll make do with least bad.

I think the worst of them all is 'Deal or No Deal'. There's literally no skill involved at all. Talk about a level playing field. Just guess a random number, and if your guess is beneficial, everyone tells you how well you did. Yay! Way to guess a random number! Of course, you are as likely as anyone else in the world to do well, because it is totally random but take your comfort where you can, I say. Take the credit for a sunny day, while you're at it.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Free T's and Semi-breves

Despite what I suggested in my last post, not all my endeavours over the last few weeks have been related to the poetry book, at least not directly. Thinking about it, a lot of time has been spent doing music as well.

I've always been interested in music, since the first time I heard Pink Floyd. Prior to that, I had thought of music as being an occasionally pleasant noise in the background. I don't dance, so I can't appreciate a song just for its rhythmic basis, and I'm a big fan of poetry, so I like words to communicate something more than 'I'm happy because you love me' or 'I'm sad because you don't'. An awful lot of music I heard growing up fitted into one of these two camps. I thought of music as being like gardening - a lot of people clearly get pleasure from it, but it's not for me.

When I discovered Pink Floyd, I found that music could say something meaningful, something relevant. Song lyrics could be as creative as poetry. They could say as much. They could arguably say more, given their much wider audience. Hearing Floyd made me reconsider the point of music, its power to communicate. Suddenly, I realised there might be other artists that tried to say more than 'the moon in June'. And of course there were. Bob Dylan. Lou Reed. John Lennon. Paul Simon. There were some fantastic writers out there.

So I set about learning music. I wanted to be Roger Waters. Why should there be only one? And while my first faltering steps were embarrassing (virtual re-writings of Waters' songs) I persevered. I taught myself music. I came to understand its awesome power. Music is an incredible colloboration between maths and emotion. Everything about its structure is logical; everything about its expression is emotional. Music is the ultimate synergy of the head and the heart. It's a language, a science, an art, a religion. It symbolises everything that mankind have evolved to produce. Over the last twenty years, I have written about fifty songs.

Having said this, though, I still feel a bit of a fraud for including song lyrics in a poetry book. I think it's a bit cheap to have repeated choruses in a poem, even though there are lots of poets that do it, even though many poets like Blake and Shelley have called their poems songs, even though the earliest poems of all were sung and accompanied by a lyre.

So to make myself feel better about short-changing the reader, I have given in the book a link to some songs (poems) I have recorded. They can be heard here. And over the last few weeks, I have been recording some songs that I hadn't done previously. Some of the songs were recorded years ago. Some just last week. One hasn't even been finished yet. My friend Sheena Dean, who did the photographic project I was involved with (see here for details), has a wonderful voice and will be recording one of the songs that my vocal cords just weren't able to cope with.

Here's a photo of me with the keyboards on which I wrote several of my songs:

My lovely publishers were kind enough to send me a couple of free T-shirts with the book cover on them. It is very tempting to just sit on a bus with the T-shirt on, reading the book, and see if anyone notices my face on the cover of both. But that would probably be considered crass commercialism, even by me. When it comes to the book, I'm not sure whether I'm the product or the factory...

Friday, 3 September 2010

I'm Back

Apologies, people, for my long absence from updating my blog. I've just had so much to do. I've spent a great deal of time working on the book, which is now finished!

There were times when I thought I would never be happy with it. I've spent the last couple of months in a back-and-forth with the publishers, where they send me the optimistically-named 'final proof' and I make a few changes and send it back. I have started to get obsessive about punctuation. Should I use a colon or a comma? Would a semi-colon be better? Should the sentences in my poems flow as normal, or should I be using punctuation stylistically? Should I be using punctuation at all? Maybe the e e cummings approach would be better. Or the James Joyce style, making one sentence last for three chapters. What is the 'right' answer?

I don't know, is the easy answer. That's why I've changed my mind so much. My wife could confirm that I'm never happy with anything I've done. There was always something I wanted to do differently. Should I use an 'and' or a 'but'? A 'for' or a 'because'?

So getting a series of 'final proofs' was just a red flag to a bull! Let's change a comma into a full stop on this draft, and then change it to a colon on the next! How about I drop a repeated refrain and then bring it back again? Does the publisher hate me yet? I think somehow we managed to keep the relationship cordial, but the lovely Lynsey, with her bottomless patience, has to take the lion's share of the credit. I nearly drove her over the edge, though, when I tried to change the contents the week before the book was due to be reviewed! I'd written a new poem that I wanted to get included, but was told very politely that I'd already made too many changes. Fair enough. If you're reading this because you'd got the URL from the back of my book, you may be interested in the poem I tried to include. It's below:

An Epitaph for Justice

Justice died alone
And was eaten by her cats.
After a while, the smell
Was put down to the drains
And then ignored.
Her body remains undiscovered.

Justice died of a broken heart.
She had seen what was done in her name
By those who did not understand
That the law was not justice per se:
It was just there to protect it.

She had witnessed the deaths
Of de Menezes and Tomlinson,
The attack on habeas corpus,
The detention without charge.
She had seen the policy of
'Innocent until proven Muslim',
As the war on terror itself became terror,
Wrapped up in the systematic dismantling of the right to protest.
She had seen her legacy
Squandered by scared little men
And she had cried.

And when she had stopped crying,
She had reached for a razor
And cut her own throat.

If Justice would not be heeded,
She may as well not speak.

And as she slumped,
As her lifeblood flowed from her
And her face turned blue and then grey,
The world tilted
And some of the point went out of it.

I guess maybe it was a little bleak for the book...

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Dorota's Dad's Distress

This is the latest installment in the continuing story of Darren Roberts. If you are new to the story, click here for Chapter One.

Chapter Six
Pyotr said goodbye to Mark and walked back to the hospital, keen to see his daughter. He had protected her all her life and it was a hard habit to break. It was funny, he thought: she was twenty-two now, she had a job and a flat and a bank account and a boyfriend, and he still thought of her as his baby, his responsibility. This had been the cause of some discord in the past.

He reached the revolving door and took his turn to wait for the walls to move. Like Darren, he hated these things. So complicated! So much extra thought required! A simple hinged door would work so much better. At least people knew where to stand.

He walked past the restaurant that sold food worse than the patients got and reached the lift, pushing the button for the second floor. He got in when it arrived, and then tapped his fingers impatiently as he listened to two verses of 'the Girl from Ipanema' as it made its glacially slow ascent.

It finally stopped and he got out, retracing his steps to the ward he'd visited before. The nurse recognised him and smiled.

“Good evening, Mr Frackoweski,” she said. “Were you able to find Mr Roberts?”

“Oh yes,” he said. “We talk much of lives and heroes. Now I see my daughter Dorota pliz.”

“Of course, Mr Frackowski. This way.” The nurse beckoned him and tapped her hair bun into shape. She was an old-fashioned lady who appreciated old-world manners.

She led the way to bed five and opened the curtains. “Dorota, your father is here...” She stopped, open mouthed at the sight before her: an empty bed, with specks of blood on the right side, covered in the adhesive pads used by the heart monitor, ECG, etc.

“Excuse pliz,” said Frackowski. “Where is daughter?”

“I'm not entirely sure,” said the nurse. She called over a colleague. “Nurse Flannagan, have you seen where Miss Frackowski has gone?”

“No,” she replied. “I've not seen her since she woke up and screamed.” She saw the look on Pyotr's faced and smiled that reassuring smile again. “It's OK, I think she was just a little disorientated because she'd just woken up. Why don't you take a seat and I'll track her down. She's probably just gone for some tests.”

Pyotr went to sit down and the nurse wondered why she had mentioned the tests. She knew there weren't any tests that were scheduled to be done. Of course she would know. The young lady was her patient. But she had no idea where she was and a little white lie was better than a frantic and potentially litigious relative.

She went to the nurses' station and asked the other nurses if they had any idea where the patient had got to. They had none. All the MRIs and x-rays were already complete, and the other tests for blood, urine, etc, could be done while she was still in the bed. She checked the toilets, and apart from finding a junkie shooting herself up, there was nothing amiss. But there was something missing. Dorota could not be seen anywhere.

She checked her reflection in the ladies, made sure her hair was neat and the clock at her breast was in position, practised her smile, braced herself and went to tell Mr Frackowski that she'd lost his daughter.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Bodging, Trees and Butterflies

Today was an interesting day. I am someone who thrives on new experiences, and there were many to be found. The wardens at my block of flats had organised a day trip to a local park for residents and filled it with activities.

First we were to be tutored in the art of 'bodging', the working of wood using tools unchanged since the days of the Tudors. It was humbling to attempt the manufacture of a candlestick using techniques used in the construction of the ships that sank the Spanish Armada in 1588. While blades were made from metal, the main structure of the tools were made from wood. There was a pleasing symmetry in working wood using wood.

We took a hunk of green wood and split it using a special kind of axe, one that is flat on one side to ensure a straight cut. This was struck with a rough wooden mallet to produce a chunk of wood that would be shaped using a two handled knife similar to the 'mezza luna' used by Italian chefs.

An example of this is shown above. The purpose of the exercise is to turn the wood into a circular shape suitable for turning on the foot-powered lathe. As may be seen, everything about the vice used for working the wood is itself made of wood. The pressure that holds the wood in place comes from the foot.

Once the wood is sufficiently round, it can be used on the foot-powered lathe. This is a wonderfully simple device, powered by a combination of the tension in the string and the repeated foot movements which keep the wood turning at a surprisingly high speed. Applying a chisel to the wood allows it to be shaped in a way recognisable to anyone who has seen a wooden chair leg or wooden pepper grinder.

Bart (the man in the pink shirt on the left) is certainly on my list of people I want to know when the world economy collapses and we are forced to live off the land again! Everything we did today required no electricity, no cost (the wood was taken from his copse in Wales) and had zero carbon emissions. True it took longer than the modern approach of electric plunge routers, jigsaws and angle grinders, but it was significantly more satisfying.

After a hearty barbeque (again, requiring no electricity although some carbon emissions) we were taken on a nature walk by the park ranger (a job title that made me feel like Yogi Bear and put me on the lookout for unattended picnic baskets). This was useful, interesting and informative. We made little cardboard wheels for identifying butterflies, insects and trees and were taken on a guided tour of the trees and hedgerows. We identified trees from their leaves and learnt which ones could make tasty beverages like dandelion and burdock. We learnt about the uses of elderflowers and elderberries and reminisced about the effects of elderberry wine and sloe gin.

I kept a keen eye open for butterflies, although I had been warned that the overcast day made them unlikely to see. How like us, the humble butterfly, to stay at home when the weather is not to our liking! The park ranger regaled us with interesting factoids about the plants we encountered, eg, the phrase 'burning the candle at both ends' came from the days when rushes were burnt to light the homes of the poor, suspended by a string in the middle and lit at either end.

All in all, this was an interesting and an enjoyable day and I look forward to my next lesson in the ways of wood and nature. And the opportunity to meet our opposite numbers at the evocatively named 'Windswept House' was a welcome one.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Darren and the Dad

This is chapter five in the continuing story of Darren Roberts. If you are new to the story, click here for chapter one.

Chapter Five

Darren looked at Mark, Mark looked at him and they both ran to the capsized car, now rotating gently on its roof. The driver seemed to have the wherewithal to open his window and remove his seatbelt, and they helped him from the vehicle; He didn't seem to be injured.

“Fuck me Jesus!” he said. “Hell of a ride”. His English was strongly accented. “Excuse pliz... one of you is...” He consulted a piece of paper he pulled from his pocket. “Darren Roberts?” He took his time with the 'R' sounds, giving them an otherworldly intonation.

Darren braced himself and took a step forwards. “I'm Darren Roberts.”

The older man stepped forwards too, put his arms around him and kissed him on both cheeks, regardless of Darren's somewhat paranoid reaction. “I am Pyotr Frackowski and you have saved my daughter Dorota. Nurse tell me you here. You call me Pete, if pliz you.”

Darren took a step back to get out of kissing range and extended a firm and manly handshake. “Nice to meet you, Pete”. He tried to make his grip as heterosexual as possible before releasing it as soon as decorum would allow. “How is your daughter? They won't tell me.”

“Ah, such a system,” said Pete. “Not even man who saved her life can be told that she is alive. You did a good thing, Darren. You saved my little girl. She is so precious to me.”

He looked at his car and sighed. “Things like my car do not matter when my baby's life at stake. At least doctor say no permanent damage to head. That good. You saved her. You hero like Superman.”

Darren looked at his feet and mumbled a few words of thanks. He was not so craven as to feel good about his charade. He left Mark talking to Pete and made his way to the hospital, narrowly avoiding being run down by an ambulance that sped to the site of the car crash.

It felt good to be walking back to the hospital. He'd just had half of Mark's joint, he'd heard the best news he could imagine and the cool April air set his mind tingling with possibilities. He had to find this Dorota and talk to her, persuade her that he wasn't involved in her accident. He needed a story. Maybe the wrench was dropped by someone else on the scaffolding: as the foreman said, he didn't look like he worked there. But it would only take the police interviewing a single rubbernecker who saw him there and his alibi was blown. Maybe he could say that he was just walking down the street with a wrench in his hand, he was idly catching it and he missed on one occasion and it hit her. But they could probably do tests to work out it was a six pound wrench falling twenty foot that caused the injury. He'd have to wing it. The seat of his pants would have more frequent flyer points than Richard Branson after tonight.

He entered the hospital through the large, slowly revolving transparent door that always made him feel like a hamster. And as he waited for his chance to enter, he saw a woman on the other side waiting to exit. He looked at her again, out of the corner of his eye. He'd seen her somewhere. He paused. He'd seen her here, through the closing ward door. He'd seen her lying in a spreading pool of blood on an Old Town street. This was Dorota!

He cursed the revolving door as he got out, then missed his chance to get back on again and had to wait a full rotation before he could follow her.

“Dorota!” he shouted after her when he navigated himself free.

“I'm not her!” came the reply, as the misnamed patient staggered off.

“It's me, Darren!” he called. “I was the one who found you”

She turned and looked at him. “You do look lovely,” she said. “I was right about that at least.” She turned away, and looked like she was going to cry. She stumbled, missed her step, and slumped, landing with her knees bent in front of her and her head on them. “I've got myself into some trouble,” she said.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” said Darren, sitting down beside her and putting his arm around her. “I know exactly what you mean. Now, you know who I am, and I know who you're not. What I don't know is who you are.”

“I'm Claire,” said Claire. “Did you know you've got blood all over your hoodie?”

Thursday, 1 July 2010

What's in a Name?

Well, after much email based to-ing and fro-ing with my publisher, I now have a title for my book of poems. It will be called 'Reflections from a Broken Mirror'. I chose this because of the potential for double meanings. It could be the literal interpretation of echoing images in shards of glass. Or reflections could mean 'musings', 'broken' could allude to the fact I am bipolar and a 'mirror' could be a metaphor for a poet, whose job it is to hold a mirror up to life. 'Musings of a bipolar poet' is thus its encrypted title.

My first choice was 'Hemp Fandango', which again I chose for the double meaning. If you're not familiar with the term, it conjures up images of marijuana and dancing, two activities associated with pleasant feelings. If you do know what it means, you know it represents one of the most unpleasant feelings of all, that of slowly choking to death and kicking your legs impotently as an attempted hanging fails to snap your neck and just aspyhyxiates you instead. The 'Hemp Fandango' got its name from the hemp rope used in the Old West and the Mexican dance that victims seemed to perform as their feet spasmed.

'Hemp Fandango' was rejected by the publisher because they would not be able to sell a book with a 'drug suggestive title' to schools. Ironically, I chose a 'drug suggestive title' specifically because it was more likely to appeal to teenagers. Anyone who has ever visited a shop like the Blue Banana or the Trinket Box will know that the dope leaf symbol appears on everything from satchels to condoms. Dope references sell. But apparently it's the teachers that we should be appealing to, not the kids. Fair enough. I hadn't even thought of that market.

They suggested 'The Lunar-Verse of Andrew Barber', because they thought my poems were like the moon, with a light side and a dark side, different moods and phases, changing colours with the seasons, intimate and distant. I liked their analogy (I was flattered to be compared with the moon - I'm a big fan) but I wasn't wild about the title.

I suggested 'Black Dogs and White Tigers', because I thought the Black Dog was a good metaphor for depression (it was what Churchill used to call his) and the White Tiger summed up mania well, because it was an overgrown genetic freak with a hint of dangerous glamour that turns on its loved ones, eg, Siegfried and Roy. The black and white references suggested polarity, the light and dark side to my work that the publishers had noticed. But they thought it sounded like a book for pre-schoolers so that idea had to go.

So now we have 'Reflections from a Broken Mirror'. I like it. It's a title I can put my name to. And I've had some cool ideas for the cover. I want a hand mirror drifting through space, the stars symbolising the universal themes I write about (love, death, time, money, etc). The mirror is breaking, shards flying out from the centre like the big bang, each piece still reflecting a part of my face. There might be an eye flying out, then a part of my nose or whatever, like a Picasso painting. I think it could look really cool. And there's the angle that each shard, each poem, reflects a different part of me. Each poem is different and so is each reflection. I can't wait to see it.

Monday, 28 June 2010

In Defence of Dad Rock

I was tidying up my documents folder, and found this, which I wrote for my college course in music last year. Apologies for recycling something so old, but I re-read it and still like it, so thought I might share it with the world. Parts of it deal with technical music questions but most of it should be fairly accessible and hopefully interesting.

Dad Rock - 1967 - 1975
What is Dad Rock? Apparently, it is the music that people my age play air guitar to when we get drunk at family gatherings. I have also seen it referred to as 'classic rock', 'stadium rock' or 'dinosaur rock'. A recent episode of the Wright Stuff debated whether this year's Glastonbury, with its Dad Rock stars like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Bruce Springsteen, should have stuck with a rapper like Jay Z, who caused such controversy last year. The segment was called 'Hip Hop or Hip Op'. Harsh, but given how old you'd be if you were a teenager when these bands were first working, it's probably fair. I've just had a knee op myself, and I got into some of these songs 20 years after they were first released.

Despite its somewhat disparaging title, Dad Rock is a recognisable style of music that gets new compilations released every fathers' day. I will be mainly focussing on the first age of Dad Rock, which approximately covers the period between Woodstock and disco. Dad Rock resurfaced in the 80s, when bands like Whitesnake, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi and Europe kept the flame burning, but while the musical elements were often in place, the lyrical aspects had lost a lot of sophistication ('Girls, Girls, Girls'? Even ZZ Top's 'Legs' had more depth) and there did sometimes seem to be a slide into self parody (Bad News, Zodiac Mindwarp), at least until Guns 'n' Roses brought some authenticity back to the genre.

Dad Rock is really a subset of rock and heavy rock. When I say they are driving tunes, I am not referring to their rhythmic motifs, although they have a strong beat and good interaction between the bass guitar and the kick drum. I mean that they are good songs to drive to. Put on some Steppenwolf, some Queen or some Led Zeppelin, even better, some Lynrd Skynrd, put the pedal to the metal and let the open road embrace you. There are few experiences that compare to driving fast down a country road in a cool car on a hot summer's day with Freebird's epic guitar solo blaring out of several speakers.

It's not just me that gets this, of course. Arguably some of the sharpest, coolest people working today are the designers of games like the Grand Theft Auto series. Every game I've played (and that's most of them) has had a dedicated Dad Rock radio station in the car, alongside all the breakbeat, reggae and satirical news and adverts. I doubt that I'm in the target demographic for the game, so presumably there must be some young people out there who know what I'm talking about. Choral music was made for the church. Jazz was made for the speakeasy. Dad Rock was made for the car stereo, via the stadium. Australian rocker John Farnham, whose song 'The Voice' is a good example of the genre, has said in interviews that part of his mixing process involves hearing how the CD will sound on various popular car stereos, so that he can optimise it for his audience.

There are several identifying stylistic elements of Dad Rock. Songs should have an anthemic, shout-along chorus pitched within a limited range. 'Born to be Wild', with its three note chorus, is a good example of this. Virtually any Status Quo song fits neatly into this category, as do songs like 'Alright Now' and 'Smoke on the Water'. Dad Rock songs generally recognise that people who can't sing are going to want to sing along with them.

As will be seen just from this limited range of examples, although Dad Rock songs tend to have the big anthemic chorus, the rest of the song can be constructed in many different ways. The Quo, as is their wont, went for the simple 12 bar blues progression, and there is a place for their quaint chuggalong shuffle-type rhythms, but it is not a place near me. 'Born to be Wild' uses both an E minor and an E major chord, to add interest and a change of mood. The verse is just a repeated E minor, and the chorus uses solely major chords (including implied transpositions) to declaim its anthemic credentials. 'Smoke on the Water', meanwhile, again uses just major chords, with the unexpected and atonal semitone drop in its main riff. Clearly it is not possible to use four major chords in a six semitone range and still stay in one key, and the chords used actually come from three separate keys. Dad Rock could not be said to be basic (although 'Smoke on the Water's repeated bar chord makes it one of the easiest songs to play and presumably write). Personally, I consider 'Bohemian Rhapsody' to be Dad Rock. I think that concludes the case for its complexity.

Having said that, Dad Rock is a no-nonsense genre that knows what it likes. Complexity is all well and good as long as it doesn't sound weird. While bands like Deep Purple blurred the distinction between prog and hard rock, songs that are too demanding can not be considered Dad Rock. For example, Pink Floyd's 'Money' is Dad Rock, despite its somewhat challenging 7:8 time signature, for it has a strong guitar and bass riff, a great guitar solo and shoutalong sarcastic lyrics of fiscal subversion. Crucially, it sounds simpler than it actually is, at least until you try dancing to it. Compare this to something like 'Echoes' or 'Careful with that Axe, Eugene' by the same band, which were from their more psychedelic period. Although there are many elements in common, from the actual musicians to the instrumentation, the writing and arrangements are much more complex, more challenging. There is nothing in either song that would get a stag party full of drunks singing along to a jukebox, or a kitchen full of dads embarrassing their teenage kids by reliving their glory days through shared memories of song, raging against the dying of the light.

This is perhaps the heart of Dad Rock. It is party music for people that are supposed to be too old to party. And while it's true, as my grandfather used to say, that 'many a good tune is played on an old fiddle'. I don't think he really grasped what sort of tunes could be played on a '62 Stratocaster and a vintage Marshall stack turned up to eleven.

I remember seeing lots of old ladies wearing headscarves when I was growing up. Bearing in mind that I was a child at the time, I initially assumed that women got to a certain age and started wearing headscarves. I'd never seen a young woman wearing one. Perhaps the old women were going bald. After a while, I saw films set in the 40s and 50s and realised that these old ladies were just wearing what they had worn when they were young. Rest homes of the future will probably be full of tattooed pensioners called Britney and Beyonce with Burberry colostomy bags, pimped wheelchairs and the same knock-off tracksuits they've always worn. I think the same is true of music. I didn't get to forty and suddenly start listening to Queen, Pink Floyd, Steppenwolf, etc. It is not some rite of passage. There was not a voice that said 'you are now middle aged. Congratulations. There's some good news and some bad news. You are now at higher risk of prostate cancer, your metabolism has slowed to a crawl and your youthful idealism has withered to a resigned indifference. But on the plus side, you now understand what a good guitarist Brian May is. You now really appreciate "Born to be Wild"'. I have been listening to this music for the last 20 years just because I like it. I've always liked it. I probably always will. Nothing has happened to make the music any less great.

What could? Phil Spector is now a convicted murderer, but 'The Long and Winding Road' still sounds amazing, as do 'Unchained Melody', 'Da Doo Ron Ron' and 'Be My Baby'. The wall of sound has not been knocked down, even by murder most foul. If it can withstand that, it will probably stand forever. Queen's music is still exciting and witty, despite the tabloid-fed 'scandal' of Freddie Mercury's 'selfish and self-inflicted' death from AIDS. Eric Clapton's drunken on-stage rant in the 70s, where he seemed to support the National Front, directly led to the 'Rock against Racism' campaign and a serious fall from grace for the man they once called 'God'. But the opening twelve notes to 'Layla' remain the most recognisable lead guitar riff in rock music. Over the course of his chameleonic career, David Bowie has probably done something to alienate everyone in his audience. At various times, he has been a flowers-and-patchoulli-oil unwashed hippy folk singer, a pill popping, bed hopping bisexual hedonist in a dress, a right-wing pseudo-intellectual smackhead who was once refused entry to Russia because his travelling library contained so much Nazi literature, and a cynical yuppie who so absorbed the message that the artist was the product that he sold shares in himself. The only consistent thing about Bowie is that he was, is and ever shall be a dedicated follower of fashion, even if that fashion is fascism. Knowing this, do I still want to join in with the 'hey man' chorus of 'Suffragette City' every time I hear it, even though I've now been listening to the song for decades?. Absolutely. Good music will always be good music, regardless of anything the musicians get up to, no matter how many times we hear it. Sometimes, familiarity breeds not contempt but contentment. Gary Glitter, of course, is an exception to the 'bad people can make good music' rule, as paedophilia is indefensible but more relevantly, the music wasn't that great anyway.

But a lot of Glam Rock was, and some Glam Rock songs can also be considered Dad Rock. Given Glam Rock's position on the Rock / Hard Rock spectrum, this is not altogether surprising. Examples include 'All The Young Dudes' (now sung ironically, especially the bit about 'Billy rapped all night 'bout his suicide / said he'd kick it in the head when he was 25'). Dad Rock proves you don't have to be young to be a dude (even a dude who looks like a lady). Songs like 'Ballroom Blitz' by the Sweet, even 'Ziggy Stardust' and 'Starman' fit the Dad Rock template, although other Bowie compositions like 'Life on Mars' are probably too ambitious. But follow the path of TV's 'Life on Mars' and time travel back to 1973. Turn on the radio. If there's a guy with a mullet, a sleeveless T-shirt and a Watney's Party Seven wobbling his beer gut in time with the music, it's probably Dad Rock he's listening to.

From an arrangement perspective, Dad Rock usually uses the rock template of two guitars, bass and drums, although there are many examples of other instruments like piano (Lynrd Skynrd), organ (Steppenwolf / the Doors) and saxophone (Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band) as well. Many bands also used synthesisers. Meatloaf, who is perhaps the Pavarotti of Dad Rock, was famed for his over-the-top theatrical arrangements (because, as writer Jim Steinman said, 'until you've gone over the top, you can't see what's on the other side').

Keyboards were used in many different contexts in Dad Rock. Lynrd Skynrd would use a twinkly, arpeggiated piano in a high octave to make their songs prettier, something they learned from their country background. Apart from some string-based sweetening, 'Tell Me Why (I Don't Like Mondays)' was entirely based around the piano and had been cunningly written in the key of B so that the descending harp-like intro could be played just on the black notes and still be in tune with the rest of the song. The Doors based their sound around Ray Manzarek's Bach-like organ compositions, replete with contrapuntal harmonies and some surprising transpositions, at least in the instrumental sections / intros (I'm especially thinking of 'Light My Fire' here, but there are others). J. Giles Band's 70s hit 'Centrefold' was based around a simple (but huge!) analogue synth riff. Most people assume the opening chords of 'Smoke on the Water' are played on a guitar, but it is actually John Lord's Hammond organ going through a distortion pedal. And 80s era Dad Rock artists like Pat Benatar ('Hit Me With Your Best Shot') and Bon Jovi ('You Give Love a Bad Name') made much use of the newly available digital synthesis to make their choruses bigger.

While drummers on some of these songs were among the best in rock music (eg, Nick Mason, Ginger Baker, John Bonham, etc), and all were capable of 45 minute drum solos in their live sets, drumming on the Dad Rock songs was generally more contained. Most of the time, the drums kept to the rock template of kick drum on first and third beat and snare on second and fourth. Choruses would be heavily based around cymbals (and some Dad Rock bands had an extraordinary number of these) and rolls on the toms would be used frequently (see previous parenthesis). There was also a surprising fondness for the cowbell.

Perhaps the word that best describes a Dad Rock bassline is 'solid'. It is often made up of repeated eighth notes, locked in with the kick drum or pushing the beat slightly. While there is potential for the bass taking more of a lead role (eg, 'Money', 'With or Without You') most songs in the genre are too anthemic for the bass to be too mobile, too interesting. The bass should not detract from the song's strength, which is often its simplicity. It should play simple parts to make this simplicity bigger and more effective, especially in the chorus, which is where the impact is.

What makes a song Dad Rock? I think it is a combination of the big chorus, a strong electric guitar riff that lends itself to air guitar shenanigans, an unobtrusive, dependable but still cool bass part, a guitar solo full of soulful angst and agonised facial expressions and lyrics that remind middle aged men of their rebellious youth, when everything was possible and bliss was just a Jimmy Page solo away. Choruses and occasionally verses are sweetened, depending on context, by the use of backing vocals, often in three or more parts (eg, Pink Floyd, Queen, Guns 'n' Roses, etc). The use of diffused backing vocals, often singing a full chord, can lift the song wonderfully, and just as backing vocals on a karaoke song can seem to make the singer more tuneful, the drunken hollering of middle aged men at a wedding can only be improved by the same.

The lyrics generally have at least a veneer of rebellion. The really succesful Dad Rock songs had lyrics that struck a chord both with teenagers, who wanted something rebellious to identify with, and middle age men, who wanted to be able to remember their 'salad days', when they too were 'green in judgement'. 'Born to be Wild' is a good example. It is about the freedom to just get on your motorbike and ride down the highway, wind in your hair. Given that young people like the cool image of motorbikes, despite their being four times more likely to be in an accident than a car, and middle aged men on a budget often adopt a motorbike as a menopausal lifestyle choice, the song neatly appeals to both camps. The concept of freedom is a curious one to men of a certain age, who often feel that they have made their choices and are stuck with what they've got. Reminders that this is not the case probably have some kind of therapeutic benefit. Other songs in this ilk include 'I Want to Break Free' by Queen and the immortal and defiant Freebird ('I'm as free as a bird, yeah, and this bird you cannot tame / Lord help me, I can't change').

Then there are the good time songs, to remind us that the sun comes out occasionally. Examples include 'I'm Gonna Rock and Roll All Night (and Party Every Day)' by Kiss, Queen's 'Don't Stop Me Now' and Homer Simpson favourite 'Two Tickets to Paradise'. There are Dad Rock songs on many subjects, of course, as it is a subset of rock, and rock is incredibly diverse. But generally, Dad Rock songs are either about rebelliousness or partying. Songs like 'You've Got To Fight For Your Right To Party' by the Beastie Boys combine the two.

One song that deserves special mention for its lyrical content is Aerosmith's 'Dream On'. I think if Dad Rock, a genre made up mainly of anthems, needed an anthem of its own, 'Dream On' would suffice. Lines like 'every time I look in the mirror / all the lines in my face getting clearer / the past is gone' reflect the preconceptions of the audience. Speaking as someone who has spent 'half his life in books written pages', I have indeed tried to 'live and learn from fools and from sages', so I at least can relate to it, and I suspect I'm not alone.

Life gets more complicated as you get older. To quote Lou Reed: 'responsibility sits so hard on my shoulder'. So reminders of an earlier, simpler life are an important part of staying sane through middle age. This is an important function of Dad Rock: it is not merely a musical force. It is also a psychological one.

There is an old Russian proverb that says 'would that the young had the wisdom / would that the old had the strength'. By invoking youthful memories of hearing songs the first time around, Dad Rock allows men in their time of wisdom to recall their time of strength.

To recall, perchance to relive... Dad Rock can even keep you young. It has doubtless fuelled many a menopausal misadventure. Looking for Tir Na Nog, the mystical Irish land of eternal youth? Listening to Thin Lizzy playing 'The Boys are Back in Town' or Van Morrison singing 'Gloria' might well take you there. Possibly even some early U2, if you still haven't found what you're looking for, if 'they' could not take your pride (in the name of love). 'Credence Clearwater Revival' could almost be a metaphor for a belief in the clear, reviving waters of the fountain of youth, assuming that 'Credence' in this context has the same Latin root (credo, meaning 'I believe') as words like creed and credibility. Personally, I feel 20 years younger when Dave Gilmour goes into the high part at the end of the second solo in 'Comfortably Numb'. My arteries become unclogged, my joints regain the power of movement, my politics lurch leftwards and cans and jars miraculously become easier to open.

Just like the dads themselves, Dad Rock must be relatively old. Probably at least 20 years old. There are some modern contenders for Dad Rock status (eg, 'Wonderwall' and 'Don't Look Back in Anger' by Oasis, 'Oh My God' by the Kaiser Chiefs and 'Run' by Snow Patrol have the required anthemic nature and singalong potential), but even given the youth of certain dads in the news recently, these songs are probably of too recent a vintage to be considered Dad (and therefore classic) Rock.

However, these songs will probably become the Dad Rock of the future, as the current generation of teenagers find their narrow waists and broad minds swapping adjectives, and kitchens of the future will be full of the song of fathers singing 'Mr Brightside' while their embarrassed offspring cringe before their apologetic mothers. Meanwhile, Britney and Beyonce in the rest home are being entertained by a local organist playing 'Smack My Bitch Up' and 'Gangsters Paradise'. Dad Rap - it can only be a matter of time.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

There's No Future, and England's Dreaming

So another World Cup comes to an end for England. We've just lost 4-1 to Germany. Why do we believe it would go any other way? We are shit at sport. Let's just accept it and get on with our lives.

Why do we hope for a win? Hope is a tyrant. Hope causes pain. If we watch our sub-standard national sportsmen and expect them to win, we will be disappointed. We're just not good enough. Over the course of my life, I've seen England at eight World Cups, and we've never done particularly well. Yet from the amount of St George's crosses hanging from plumbers vans and teenagers' bedroom windows, it seems like a foregone conclusion. Maybe I'm missing something. Maybe the amount of tacky plastic flags can change the outcome of events playing out thousands of miles away. But I doubt it.

And there is always some disputed reason why England should have gone further. The 'hand of God' incident. Lampard's disallowed goal today. There is always some reason for saying 'we would have won if...' No, we wouldn't, because we're just not good enough.

It's not even limited to football. Frank Bruno was a reasonably good boxer, but he was not world champion material. Tim Henman might have been a good club or county tennis player, but he was never going to win Wimbledon. He never had the heart of a champion. He never managed the straight sets wins of his rivals in the early stages. All his matches were five set marathons. Of course he wasn't going to win. Even if he had the talent, he would have been exhausted, and his opponents, who had won in three sets, had a big advantage if he did reach the later stages of the competition. But this didn't stop the folks on 'Henman Hill' from assuming he would win, if they could just summon up the spirit of St George.

St George. There's a joke. He was a Palestinian who fought for the Romans, never set foot in England, and is also the patron saint of the plague, leprosy and syphilis, as well as places like Malta, Rio, Greece, Russia, Ethiopia, Portugal and Venice. If there was such a thing as a saint, he couldn't possibly be looking after all the places he was saint of simultaneously. But we are supposed to invoke his name and memory, buy the crappy plastic flags and make our nation proud.

Well, not me. Bollocks to the lot of them. They are never going to win and they are going to have to lose without me in future. I just don't have the energy for it any more.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Darren's Dorota Awakens

This is the latest installment of Darren's Adventures in Scaffolding. If you are new to the story, click here.

Chapter Four

She woke up, and instantly wished she hadn't. Waves of pain ran through her, starting at the back of her head and undulating down her spine. This wasn't good. This wasn't good at all. She braced herself to open her eyes again, and did so, more gently this time, letting her eyelids control the amount of light coming in. Through the narrow crack she allowed herself, she took in her surroundings.

To her left, several items of medical equipment: a heart monitor, each ping like a hammer blow to her distorted senses. A crash trolley, defibrillators ready to restart her heart if required. A drip, attached to the vein on the back of her hand. She looked to her right. Unimaginative but inoffensive furniture, in the sort of colours designed not to excite anyone. A plastic bag seemed to be closed in a cupboard door. Maybe her clothes were in there. And all around her, the plastic screens like shower curtains that give patients the illusion of privacy, at least until a nurse or doctor feels like barging in.

She was obviously in a hospital. Why was she in hospital? She opened her eyes a little wider and the pain came back with a vengeance. Her head felt like a Napalm Death drum solo. There had to be a connection.

She tested her body. She could feel her feet, and by rubbing one against the other, she could at least confirm that she wasn't paralysed. She looked down at her arms, and apart from the drip in her hand, she didn't seem to be injured there either. She reached up, careful not to disturb the tubes and wires attached to her, and ran her hand through her hair. And the scream that resulted brought a nurse with a very worried expression.

“Good evening, Miss Frackowski,” said the nurse, relieved that the screaming had stopped. “You've been in the wars.”

The woman in the bed looked at her. “Frackowski?” she said. “Who is Miss Frackowski?”

“I'm sorry,” said the nurse. “I didn't mean to be so formal. Do you prefer Dorota? No problem. You've had an accident but you're in the best place now. I'll go and tell the consultant that you've woken up.” She smiled reassuringly, the muscles working from long experience, and slipped through the curtain, pulling it closed before her.

The woman in the bed was confused. Who on earth was Dorota Frackowski? Was it really her? Had she lost her memory?

She ran through as much as she could remember about the day. She had been walking along the road, under the scaffolding, when she felt like the skies had fallen in. Maybe Chicken Little was right. No, that couldn't be right. Chickens barely have a nervous system. They couldn't be right about anything. She tried working backwards. What was she doing before that?

She remembered pasta. Spaghetti carbonara in a little cafe, sitting outside somewhere. She could still taste the bacon. Bits were still stuck in her teeth. She remembered a woman on the next table, having a very agitated conversation in a foreign language. Other diners gave her such disapproving glares that she had left, to pursue her argument elsewhere.

The woman in the bed considered this. And that's when it struck her. She wasn't Dorota Frackowski but she had stolen her handbag, left behind while its owner screamed in Polish down the 'phone. Shit. This wasn't good. This was a nightmare.

She tried to move her head again, and once more, the white hot pain coruscated down the back of her head and neck. But a bit of pain was better than a lot of bird. She pulled the drip from her hand and reached behind her to unplug the heart monitor. She was an avid fan of medical dramas and knew that unsticking the pads first would change the tone from bleeping to whining, and that would attract a lot of attention. She sat up in bed, and bit her lip to prevent herself from screaming again. Her head really did hurt, and waves of dizziness, a tsunami of pain, crashed over her.

She had been right about the location of her clothes in the cupboard, and she put them on, trying as best she could to keep quiet. With the stoicism born of necessity, she put on her shoes, took several deep breaths, and slipped between the curtains to find a way out of the hospital.

Deification 0, Defecation 1

Today is one year to the day since Michael Jackson died. Below is a poem constructed from haikus that I wrote about him after his death. Any genuine fans of him should probably stop reading now. I'm not a fan and my opinion of him may be construed as cynical.

Deification 0, Defecation 1
Michael Jackson died
And everyone pretended
His fame was for song.

The whole world cheered when
Israel pulled out of Jordan.
Did Michael do that?

We will never know.
It was settled out of court
For ten million bucks.

In America,
The law speaks with a whisper,
Money with a shout.

One question occurs:
Why not speak ill of the dead?
Guilt will never die.

But when Michael died
Vigilantes became vigils,
Knives became flowers.

Death beatifies
Even the worst of tyrants.
Listen up, Nixon.

When you breathed your last,
Watergate was forgotten.
China was your wreath.

The dirtiest tricks,
The eighteen minutes of tape,
All wiped clean by death.

So do we forget,
Or do we just want to, lest
His guilt becomes ours?

We are not supposed
To kick a man when he's down,
Even when he's bad.

But should death really
Rewrite the lives of tyrants,
Paedophiles and worse?

You probably know
What I think about this one.
Exhume them and sue them!

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The Lion and the Unicorn

I wasn't sure whether to post this story or not, but my class liked it so I thought I'd see if anyone else did. It's a fantasy-type story, which I've never tried before. My homework was to write a story based on three stimuli: I chose unicorns, the history of the barber-surgeons and traditional Chinese medicine. Why not? I was allowed to choose anything, so spread my net widely.

The Lion and the Unicorn

The unicorn dropped the half-eaten human leg from its mouth and sniffed the air, its razor sharp hooves digging at the ground anxiously. He knew there was someone around. All his hunting senses were tingling and the trees were trying to tell him something.

It had been a long day for the unicorn. He had been woken early by a band of men who prized his horn, his teeth, his hooves. All were much called upon by armourers and blacksmiths. But they were more prized by the unicorn. He fought to the death for them, slicing the throats of any that came within hooving distance, biting holes in those that came near the teeth and impaling from a distance with his horn, the lance that should never miss. It was mounted between his eyes.

But those men were now all dead and there was a new threat in the forest.

Leo hid behind the tree and remembering the story of Perseus and Medusa, he pushed his reflective shield out from behind the his cover, using it as a mirror to better make out where the unicorn was. He was downwind of the beast, which helped. At least the creature's flaring nostrils would not pick up the scent of him. His scent was quite pungent after a near miss earlier on in the battle. He had followed the trappers, hoping to use their distraction to kill the unicorn on his own, but their fight had been brief at best. Several flailing flurries of limbs, a pink mist on the air and a unicorn who now stood next to a pile of bodies chewing on a severed leg and letting the blood drip from his mouth.

Leo cursed the stories he'd been told about unicorns. So pure, you needed a virgin to tempt them. Hah! Noble creatures on the side of good, the side of Aslan. Yeah, right. Shy, reclusive creatures that lived in pleasing harmony with nature. The truth was somewhat different: they weren't even vegetarians. They were actually predatory and territorial beasts, with sharp hooves, vicious teeth and a six-foot spike mounted on top of their heads that could pierce any armour or shield currently available. Leo sat as still as he could and considered his options.

But he couldn't do it for long. The wind had changed, and the unicorn now sniffed his soiled presence on the air and calculated his position. It charged, head down, rounded the tree and came to attack him from the flank.

Leo just reacted in time, reaching up for the next branch, pulling himself up and out of the range of the unicorn's horn, which stuck into the trunk of the tree and vibrated, shaking the beast's head.

Leo dropped onto its back, and stabbed his dagger into the side of its throat, pulling it round in an arc from beneath its left ear until it reached its right. Vivid silver-green blood gushed from the wound, spurting from every part of the cut, The unicorn slumped to its knees while Leo got a flask and held it to the overflowing fountain of fluid, filling it up. There was good money in the sale of unicorn blood to men of a certain age.

Leo took out his harvesting axe and hacked away at the feet of the creature, taking good care to wrap the razored hooves in bark before putting them away in his bag. The head he hacked off below the jawline: the teeth were valuable for sure, but would need a blacksmith to extract them. He didn't have the tools or the forge here, but the teeth would become part of a barber-surgeon's kit, mounted on a silver handle in a sawdust-floored saloon and drawing whatever blood is left after the battles took their toll. And the horn itself would be his: a lance that could never be broken, a lance that would match the Spear of Destiny for the shadow it cast over history.

It was when he was walking back to his horse, tied around a tree in the nearby clearing, that the female unicorn saw him and charged, head lowered, hooves pounding the ground, soundless above his laboured breathing as he carried the dead weight of the unicorn's head back to civilisation.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Darren Considers Beauty

This is chapter three of the continuing story of Darren Roberts. If you are new to the story, click here for chapter one.

Chapter Three

The sister replaced the telephone and tutted to the nurse beside her. 'I literally cannot remember the last time I was able to reach both parents on the same number', she said. 'If people stayed together, it would save the NHS a fortune.'

The nurse disagreed, but had learnt that showing it was a bad idea. She made a vaguely encouraging sound and carried on with her work. Now they had had a chance to examine the patient's handbag, they knew who she was.

Dorota Frackowski was her name, twenty-three years old, and she had a Polish father and passport. An examination of her purse showed she was a member of Slim Jim's Gym, had an appointment with Mandy for a hair dye next Tuesday and lived in Old Town, the more cosmopolitan area of Swindon. Her staff ID showed she worked at British Telecom.

Her condition was currently stable, at least since doctors had induced a coma to reduce the swelling of her brain. The blood transfusion had been successful, and her pulse and blood pressure were now within the normal range.

Darren knew nothing of this. He was not a relative and did not know the victim, so was reduced to sitting outside her ward waiting for a passing doctor or taking the long walk to the very edge of the hospital carpark for a smoke.

He had seen her once, the briefest glimpse through the closing ward door. But that glimpse was enough to conjure up a vast array of worst case scenarios.

It was when he was smoking that he met Mark, another acolyte of the bitch-goddess Nicotine. They nodded, as smokers do, making a lie of smoking's anti-social reputation. Mark coughed. He was out of breath from the walk. 'Don't they realise smokers can't walk very far? Why do they make us do a marathon before we can have a fag?'

Darren smiled. He'd had the same thought himself. 'What you in here for, mate?', he asked, as if they were both prisoners. In a sense, they were.

Mark smiled. 'Missus having a baby. First one. But apparently I'm not needed for a little while. Word to the wise, mate. If your girlfriend ever asks you to time her contractions, don't bother. They're not interested. It's just something they make you do so you don't get in the way. Do yourself a favour and play Call of Duty instead.'

Despite himself, Darren laughed. He needed the release. He was very nervous about the girl he'd hit. He didn't even know her name.

'What about you mate? Women's trouble too?' asked Mark.

'Yeah, in a way', said Darren. 'I found a woman lying in the road, bleeding from the head. I just wanted to make sure she was OK but they won't let me see her. I only saw her once. She looked so beautiful.'

Mark thought about this. 'Have you ever noticed that sadness is required for beauty to exist? A woman will always be more beautiful at her father's funeral than on her wedding day. Audrey Hepburn will always be more beautiful than someone like Pamela Anderson because the sadness runs through her. Happiness and sunshine can make someone cute, maybe even hot, but it takes sadness and moonlight to make them beautiful.'

It was at this point that Darren realised what Mark was smoking and reached out for it. He took a drag and instantly his head swam. It had been a long day. 'What about love songs?' he said. 'My mum's always saying they're beautiful and they're not sad.'

'Have you ever listened to them?' asked Mark. 'Most love songs are about loss, asking people to come back to them. 'Since You've Been Gone', 'Come Back and Stay', etc. There's no drama in 'aren't we happy? Look at our perfect lives'. We don't want to know. The songs have to be interesting.'

Darren started to wish that his life was more interesting, then paused. Here he was, smoking illegal substances with one complete stranger in a hospital carpark while awaiting news on whether he had accidentally killed a different complete stranger when working illegally on a building site. This was about as interesting as he wanted his life to get.

He was still musing this when the car roared around the corner, skidded out of control and knocked down a row of motorbikes like skittles.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Quantum Facebook, Newtonian Perceptions

I have been trying to use Facebook as a way of connecting with each of the significant phases of my life. Don't know why, really. Just an exercise, I guess. But how cool would it be to be able to say I've got Facebook friends that represent my primary school, my secondary school, college, where I've worked at various times, people from my time in Australia and Hong Kong, that kind of thing? If I had access to people from each main phase of my life, maybe I would feel that the past was not so completely out of my control. Maybe I would feel that by accessing the past, I could change the future. Why not? Newton's 'clockwork universe' has been debunked by quantum mechanics and chaos theory, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle suggests that observing something changes it. By observing people from the past, the possibility exists that the past is not fixed, or at the least its perception exists in a fluid state, a waveform that can be collapsed at will by the simple act of reconnecting with people I once knew.

I've had the same policy with all my hunts: prioritise those with the most unusual names. I hate paging through loads of people with the same name, especially as there are so many with profile pictures that look nothing like them. The ones with motorbikes or Optimus Prime, their kids or their house are impossible to tie back to someone's personality, if you've not seen them for decades. There was one guy who had a greyhound as his photo, and I knew he used to like greyhounds, so I tried him and that worked out OK, but generally, if I don't recognise the face, I don't bother trying any harder.

So I've been racking my brains trying to remember not just people from my past, but also people who had the name that was easiest to find. There was one girl from my secondary school that I was able to find because she had a very unusual Greek name, at least in my life. It's probably less rare in Athens. Let's call her 'Anita Christodopolous'. I found her months ago and put a big mental tick on the file marked 'secondary school' - her photo was consistent with 25 years of ageing on top of my memory of how she looked: dark eyes, big dark hair, her 40 year old self retaining the beauty that I remember her for but recasting it based on her knowledge of who she had become, and also of motherhood - many of her posts mentioned her child.

I was stunned then, to find out yesterday that I had the wrong 'Anita Christodopolous'. I'd commented on a photo of her, saying 'you're so lucky - you've not changed since Christchurch' (my school) and she sent me one back saying 'what is Christchurch?'. Apparently there are two girls with the same name who look like the girl of my memories, two women who look like that girl a quarter of a century later.

Maybe 'Christodopolous' is not as rare a name as I thought. I know 'Anita' isn't - I went to school with several Greek or Cypriot girls of that name.

So now I'm racking my brains trying to think of other people I went to school with who aren't called 'Darren Roberts' or 'Bob Smith' or any of the names that have hundreds of Facebook users.

My impossible quest continues...

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Glastonberry Fool

I was lying on the sofa, while 'the rain auditioned at my window / its symphony echoed in my mind', to quote Marillion. I started asking myself if there was some reason it had started to rain quite so much, when it hit me: this is festival season. Of course it would rain. One Glastonbury a few years ago had so much rain that people caught 'trenchfoot', a disease brought on by trudging through mud, a disease not seen since the battle of the Somme in the First World War.

My own experiences of Glastonbury are largely dominated by rain. My main view of the festival was through the triangle of the tent flap, as I watched groups of people trying to negotiate the elements, women negotiating with men for a piggyback ride to the stage in exchange for very public favours later - it's impossible to have sex in a tent without everyone around knowing about it, especially if you leave the light on.

Anyway, I had another homework assignment. I had to choose three memories and use them as the basis for a short story. I chose going to Glastonbury, playing the guitar and writing a satirical nursery rhyme as my themes and the story is below:

Glastonberry Fool

It was hard to say whether it was raining again or still raining. Had there been a break in the downpour? Was there a moment unaccompanied by the repetitive tapping of raindrops on the roof of the tent? Alex didn't think so.

“You know, I think it's been raining every second since we got here” he said. He inhaled deeply on the joint, and drew the air into his lungs, holding it in. He let it out slowly, tendrils of smoke hanging on the air like blue-grey vines and gathering in clouds at the tent's low ceiling.

“I've told you a million times, don't exaggerate!” Simon sniggered at his own joke. This was one of his stock phrases and he used it whenever he could. Someone laughed at it once years ago and now he thinks he's Oscar Wilde. He's forgotten he got it from the Young Ones. The irony is that he may well have used the line a million times, in which case the absurdist wordplay just becomes banal truism.

Alex reached over and passed the joint. “Maybe this will keep you quiet for a minute.” He shook his head “I can't believe I've spent all this money on the bloody ticket just to sit in a tent with you for three days”, he said, running his fingers through his hair and dislodging some threads of tobacco he'd slept in. “Some of the best bands in the world are playing four hundred yards away and we can't see them because you're scared of the rain.” He cracked the last beer open. It wasn't supposed to be the last beer, they were drinking way quicker than they'd intended, but they hadn't intended spending the whole Festival in the tent.

Simon's face showed a look of mock umbrage. “Moi? I'm not the one who brought suede shoes and a gay Bon Jovi-alike tasselled suede jacket to a rock festival. What were you expecting? Of course it was going to rain. It's Glastonbury! It's all part of the fun”. He picked up the acoustic guitar lying between them, shook off all the loose tobacco and rolling papers on its back and placed it on his lap, tuning up the G string which inevitably slips whenever the temperature rises. “We're here at a rock festival. We should at least hear some live music.” He started strumming, a basic four-four rhythm, experimenting with major chords in the key of G. An idea crystallised as the cannabis caused random synapses to fire in his brain and he started to sing, new words to the old tune of 'Once I Caught a Fish Alive: “A, B, C, D, E, once I went to Glastonbury”

Alex giggled into his beer and joined in. “F, G, H, I, J, then I had to go away”. He reached down for the Rizlas and started to roll another joint.

Simon carried on strumming and humming while he thought of the next line. Then he had it: “K, L, M, N. O, tell me why you had to go?”

Alex sprinkled tobacco into the waiting paper and remembered the night before. “P, Q, R, S, T, because I took some LSD”.

Simon worked out the next letters and was pleased with how quickly the line came. “U, V, W, tell me how it troubled you?”

Alex thought for a moment and punched the air. “Woof, wibble, X, Y, Z” he shouted. “I hear voices in my head”. They both collapsed into giggles.

“Brilliant”, said Simon. “Let's do it again and I'll record it on my phone”

“Do what again?” said Alex, licking the paper and rolling the joint closed.

Dr Darren's Dilemma

This is the next installment of the continuing story of Darren Roberts, klutz extraordinaire, who has just dropped a spanner on a passing woman while working as a cash-in-hand scaffolder (click here for chapter one):

Chapter 2

Darren looked down at the woman, and squeezed her hand. “You're going to make it”, he said, mainly to himself. His eyes took in the spreading pool of blood beneath her head, the loss of colour in her face, the breathing, getting shallower. He had no idea what he was doing, but he fumbled for her wrist. He'd seen enough of Holby City to know the basics, and while he had no way of measuring her heart rate or blood pressure, her pulse seemed strong. Unless that was the pulse in his finger? Had he heard that somewhere? Was there a pulse in his finger? He realised he was panicking, and tried to control his breathing.

Darren took off his hoodie and placed it over the woman, who had started to shiver, spasms shaking her shoulders and making her cough. He made a somewhat bizarre spectacle, half naked, kneeling in the road, the remainder of his hair product smeared over his forehead, like some kind of prize fighter cooing over a fallen opponent.

The foreman had now appeared, and he was furious. He frogmarched Darren down an alleyway and pushed him against a wall. “All you had to do was tighten the fucking bolts! What's the matter with you? What have you done?”

S'not my fault”, mumbled Darren. “Spanner slipped”

“Is that all you can say for yourself? Well fuck off. You're no use to me. If I get asked about this, I will tell them that you entered the site without my permission. You're not insured and you're working off the books. You're not taking me with you. Twat!”. He spat the last word and turned on his heel. Then he turned back. “You know, when I saw you this morning, dressed like that, I thought I'd never get my men to work for laughing at you. Now I'm glad. No-one will believe you belong here. And that's because you don't. Fuck off!” He turned again and tried to get his crew back to work. But there was way too much excitement for that. Darren returned to his roadside vigil and knelt once more at the woman's side.

Thankfully one of the gathering crowd had called an ambulance, and after a brief wait, it pulled up next to the building site. Two paramedics got out, and quickly made their way to the scene of the accident. While the female one started to speak to the woman, getting her to count fingers and name the prime minister, the male one urged Darren out of the way, and took his place at the woman's side. He took the pulse (fifty) and the blood pressure (eighty over sixty) and shot a concerned glance at his colleague. “We need to get this woman to hospital now. Her pulse is faint and her blood pressure is very low. She's lost a lot of blood and needs an immediate transfusion, a skull X-ray, possibly an MRI scan. There's a swelling that may well be a sub-dural haematoma”. They carefully moved the victim onto a stretcher, applied a dressing to the back of her head, let the ambulance's lift manoeuvre the gurney into place and locked it into position.

“Can I come with her?” blurted Darren, all pretence at cool long left by the wayside. “I was the one who...” He looked down to avoid the eye of his foreman, who watched him intently. “I was the one who found her”.

The paramedic looked at him and nodded. “Yes, the police will want to interview you about this. Jump in.”

Darren put on his now bloody hoodie and entered the ambulance with a sense of trepidation. There were no good outcomes from this. If he admitted to working illegally, he would lose his benefits, probably get fined by the DSS and almost certainly get a good hiding from the foreman, maybe even the whole crew. If he didn't, and went along with the foreman's story that he trespassed onto the building site and presumably just dropped the spanner on the woman, he would get arrested for both crimes.

But these were matters to consider later. He sat beside the stretcher and held the woman's hand in his, squeezing it, waiting for a response. But the oxygen mask now covered her face and all was still beneath it. Her hand was flaccid in his. The bleeping of the heart monitor continued to play its vaguely comforting tune, but in a most disquieting tempo. It was noticeably slower than the machines he'd seen on TV.

The ambulance lurched forwards, the sirens started, and paramedics, victim and perpetrator started their journey towards the hospital.

The Grape, The Grain, The Aftermath

I used to work with an Australian woman who was convinced that she was allergic to a new additive in beer. The basis for this was that in her 20s, she never got hangovers at all. In her 30s, though, she did, and the only explanation had to be that there was something new in the beer that she was reacting to.

This morning, I am coming round to her way of thinking. I never used to get hangovers either, and yet today, it feels like my head is a Guns and Roses hotel room, with little puddles of Jack Daniels laying around waiting for people to slip. Meanwhile the drummer is trying to see if he can break his bloody cowbell by hitting it as hard and as fast as he can and the mighty Slash is trying to break glass with the power of pinched harmonics and wailing feedback turned up to 11.

And of course I know the problem. I made the fatal error of mixing the grape and the grain, going from wine to Guinness to Jack. And at the time, there are no warning messages, no 'are you sure?' confirmation boxes to click on. Not that it would have made any difference. Last night I was up for anything, even playing bass on songs I'd never heard before at an open mic and singing Pulp's 'Common People' on an acoustic with a rhythm section who'd never heard the song before. Oh well. At least I'd picked a popular song and the crowd's singing drowned out any mistakes from the stage.

Last night was the private view of my wife's art exhibit for her final degree show. It was the culmination of about 5 months of work by a large number of people. It was a worthy cause for celebration. And free wine flowed like the tears of a first broken heart.

The exhibit looked amazing. It was enormous, a 36 square metre installation of images collected by a Facebook group on the subject of hope and despair. There were word clouds, graffiti art, monitors showing slideshows of the images, a full multimedia event. The external examiner described it as '21st century art'. I'd written a couple of poems and about 40 haikus for it, many other people had been involved on the actual visual art side (I'm hopeless at such things and see the world in 16 colours) and apart from some basic carpentry, there wasn't much I was able to contribute. But I recognise and embrace my limitations. I'm happy to be a consumer of visual art. I don't have the steady hand, the penmanship, the understanding of colour, the gift of proportion or the spatial intelligence to be a visual artist. But give me a word processor (my handwriting is like a seismograph on acid) or an instrument (I can get a tune out of most things) and I might be able to do something.

You might note I keep referring to 'visual artists' rather than the more usual 'artists'. This is a pet peeve of mine. There is an arrogance to the visual arts that annoys me. Despite the fact that there are so many different types of art (the Ancient Greeks recognised nine, one per muse, for dance, poetry, theatre, etc, and we can now add filmmaking, satire, photography, videogames, CGI and several others to the list) the visual arts insist on calling themselves 'art', or more usually, 'Art'. This is the same kind of hubris that led to Microsoft naming their word processor 'Word'. I'd be satisfied if they just called themselves 'an art'. Chemistry doesn't call itself science. English doesn't call itself language. Most subjects recognise that there are many types of science, language or whatever, and don't 'big themselves up', to use the modern parlance. Visual arts, however, seem to think they have a monopoly on all Art. It just seems wrong to me. But I'd probably feel differently if I could paint.

God, my head hurts. Not even smoking helps, and smoking makes everything better. There's a rhythmic throbbing in my temples that is intense enough to make me think, albeit briefly, that I now understand the pain of contractions. To quote Ian Dury: 'I widdle when I piddle 'cause my middle is a riddle'. I've got some kind of intenstinal civil war being fought in places I'd rather not think about and I can't tell if I'm too hot or too cold. It keeps changing.

Carl Jung said that 'the meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed'. Not all reactions or transformations are welcome, however.

The grape and the grain. Keep them separate.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Dumb Down, Deeper and Down

I was just replying to a friend of mine's wall post about 'Video Killed The Radio Star' and I started thinking about technology. Not 'does one level of technology kill its predecessor?' because we know the answer to that question. But if you don't, do you want to buy a Megadrive? I was thinking about what technology kills in us.

I've got no proof that technology actually wipes out skills we've acquired, but it certainly takes away the need for them. When we built a calculator, mental arithmetic became less relevant. When we wrote a spell-checker, so did the dictionary. When we had our first TVs, we had to remember what time our programmes were on, or we'd miss them. The VCR revolution meant we would only have to programme that information in once a week. The new wave of Sky digiboxes and hard drive recorders let us tick a programme we like and it will record it for as long as possible, every time it is on. The first videogames tested our skills, our reflexes, our strategic thinking. Many modern games (especially but not limited to on-line farming simulators) have removed the need for any skill but hand-eye co-ordination. Navigation was a skill much beloved of drivers. Now navigation is limited to entering a postcode into a GPS and becoming its bitch. Turn left now! Yes, oh master...

The CD came, which was a good thing. With its better sound quality, instant access to tracks, and almost indestructible surface (allegedly but dishonestly), the compact disc entirely displaced the cassette tape. But the tape taught people valuable skills. Through its constant insistence on wrapping tape around its innards and those of the player, it required maintenance on a regular basis with the sort of tiny screwdriver that make their wielder feel like an engineer. Once the engineer's job was done, it was time for the surgeon, rolling tape back on the rollers, trying to reverse any folds, and all without touching the front or back of the tape. It must be done with the sides. It might seem like a small example, but it was many people's first experience of DIY. It gave them confidence that the land of DIY was not some distant planet, but something they already had. Repairing a tape might seem like a pretty useless skill, until you try fixing a paper jam on a photocopier. Then you realise exactly the same principles apply.

Is technology dumbing us down a bad thing? If technology has given us a way to live without certain skills, is there any need to keep them? Well, yes. Video games used to test our reaction speeds. They may save our life some day. Learning to read a map or a compass teaches spatial awareness. Learning arithmetic is a step on the way to learning logic, and that can be applied to everything except pesky human emotions. Don't try applying logic to them. You'll get in all sorts of trouble. Skills gained in learning to remember the TV times can be applied to all manner of situations. There is usually a logic to it (every weekday, channel 4 at 6 0'clock will show the Simpsons, followed by Hollyoaks, followed by the news, for example). And discovering the rules is another huge bound down the road of logic. I am talking of this as if it were an old man reminiscing for his youth, but I'm only talking about 20 - 30 years ago. When I was a kid, I read the TV guide, saw the patterns, found easier ways of remembering them, and applied this to the rest of my studies, especially maths. It's hard to explain but I saw the TV guide in my head in 3D reduced to its constituent parts and there were brackets around some of them. It put algebra into context. Would I have been so into maths without this epiphany? Probably not. Would a kid nowadays have this experience? No. He would never need to study the TV guide. What's the point? Everything he wants is already recorded.

Yeah, I know the last example makes me look a tad geeky. I was about 12, I looked into a TV guide full of the A Team, the Sweeney, Knight Rider and James Bond movies and I saw algebraic parentheses and variables filling slots on the schedule in line with some underlying logical law. But I did.

I know about chaos theory. I know about fractals and quantum mechanics. I understand why Newton's 'clockwork universe' cannot be. But I wish it could. Because the things in my life I seem to remember are moments like the above, when I can show that there is an underlying order to the world, or at least a small part of it.