Friday, June 19, 2015

The Elephant in the Room

I have written more 'draft' blog entries this year than ever before. I even wrote a blog a couple of weeks ago about my inability to finish a raft of blog entries I'd started and promptly didn't finish it.

I've never had a problem about not finishing things - specifically writing - because I'm a firm believer of practice makes perfect, so even something like the sprawling half-finished magnum opus I started work on in the late 1990s and was well over a quarter of a million words long when I got bored with it. The arrow maker tried many times to perfect his trade...

I'm everywhere and nowhere, baby.

I recently joined a Facebook group for former employees of Shenley Hospital in Hertfordshire - a place I spent a largely happy time in the early 1980s. It stirred up so many memories, brought back into focus some of the most important people I've ever had in my life and while, one day, I fully intend to talk about my time at Shenley (when I can remember it all) because it is a period of my life that I've never talked about and in many ways it was one of the most exciting and was probably 95% responsible for the person I turned out to be.

Three prominent things happened when I joined - two of them are tangible, the other was a memory. I discovered that one of my old friends from those days was a bitter and twisted middle-aged man and the other was someone who I'd never been friends with; someone who I could almost be classed as 'the enemy' of. If the water under the bridge had made a bright-faced Northerner into a curmudgeonly old git, then it flowed the other way to make an Irishman (Martin) who I genuinely feared into a lovely and supportive friend in later life. Funny that.

The memory is the most pertinent thing and because I'm a largely egocentric person the one that has been dominant. There was this guy called Harold - he was in his 60s when I was 19. He played snooker and the charge nurse on one of Shenley's long-term hospitalisation wards and trawling through all the photos and memories on the Shenley page I saw zero mention of him; but I've noticed a lot of names are conspicuously absent by the lack of photographs having been taken in those days. This isn't the issue, what was was something Harold said to my folks. It took many years for me to fully understand what he meant and a few more to make other, educated, guesses as to part of my own failings.

Harold told my parents, "Give that boy 10 things to do and he'll do them all brilliantly, but give him one thing and he won't finish it."

So, when I sat down about an hour ago to start writing this I figured I had a better chance of finishing this than the previous ones because I have eight million things whizzing round my head at the moment and the puzzle of fitting them all together into a cohesive and reasonably easy to follow essay would be more fun than writing about what a useless fuck-up I am - which does seem to be a running theme.

The aforementioned Harold was an astute fellow and delving into the depths of my muddied mind I seem to have this inkling that his wise words were uttered after one of the shortest work experiences I ever had. A man called Les was responsible for my folks getting the job as club stewards was also the chairman of the social club committee; he was also, if I recall correctly, the head of recruitment for the hospital. He was also good friends with Harold and I believe the two of them with my dad conspired to get me a job as a trainee psychiatric nurse. I spent two hours on a ward and essentially it scared the living daylights out of me and as far as I was concerned it wasn't for me. Fortunately, it was a 'suck it and see' session rather than having gone through all the rigmarole of application forms and interviews.

That job I got lasted longer than two hours, but not a lot. Let's be honest about this; on the face of it me telling you I quit after a day and a half looks and sounds like a ridiculous thing, especially given my current circumstances, but they were a dodgy company and a number of things happened during that short space of time that meant losing the job felt more like a bonus than keeping it. The thing is companies like this have such tight margins to operate on the people who suffer are the ones who have to do the job and when margins are so small if the turnover is high then so be it. This company was almost contemptuous in their treatment of all the groundstaff it employed and the unhappiness in the office was palpable. I've consigned it to the dark and empty spaces of my mind already.

One of the issues that caused me such grief with the job was the fact I discovered after the interview that I was to have another operation on my shoulder. The preparation for this upcoming event required me to have an MRI scan on the Wednesday of the week I started; this was then followed up by a consultant appointment a week later (yesterday) to tell me what needed to be done. My new boss was as suspicious as Eliot Ness and I had an awkward situation where I literally had to plead with her to believe me that the letters came after the job offer; I even offered to show her the letters. I said I'd take the time as unpaid leave, but I hadn't told them that I had an operation scheduled for August 1st and this could keep me incapacitated for up to eight weeks. The thing was they didn't like the fact I had any appointments at all and as someone said to me, if I'd been the person they really wanted it shouldn't have been a problem.

To cut a long story short, the operation will be keyhole surgery and will keep me out of action for about two weeks. I have two interviews next week for jobs and I intend to tell them the score and that I've planned on having two weeks holiday at the start of August for recuperation. The thing is while the op is a nuisance it is necessary and if nothing else my short time at the crap company got me an up-to-date DBS (CRB) check, so starting work will be much easier and therefore more desirable to a new employer.

Obviously the need for a job that is a good fit for both parties is the main aim now and one of the main reasons for my fifty-fathom depression has been my inability to function properly and if I want to piss and moan about it, I expect that something will need to be done to my right arm at some point in the future, because it does all the work and I have probably more aches and pains in it than I do in the largely useless strand of flesh hanging from my left shoulder.

So far, so good.

Actually, something else came out of joining that Facebook group. Someone who really should have been my friend all of our adult lives reconnected with me. We'd touched upon each other a couple of times in the past, but one of the beauties of Facebook is it actually makes you feel willing to continue a typed dialogue with someone; maybe it's because of their own particular paraphernalia they bring via their own pages, I don't know, but when I was a teenager in Shenley, there was someone there who I never realised was only just a wee bit older than me, but because she was a girl and hung around with lots of older boys, it never dawned on me that we were more alike than we guessed.

I think that was why Ruth and I have hit it off so well since reconnecting; because we both had similar thoughts about our experiences at Shenley and it wasn't until later life that we both realised that mistakes we made were down to youthful exuberance rather than because we were stupid people. This was over 30 years ago and suddenly you realise that life really is too short. I think Ruth has managed to shed unwanted emotional baggage from Shenley and probably throughout her life (having a fundamental understanding of mental health probably helps), whereas I, especially when I'm down tend to live in the past. Anyone who knows me well enough knows the single thing that fucks me off more than anything else in the world is ... the passage of time.

I dare say that if I opened all 11 of the draft blogs currently in states of repair or writing and worked on them all at the same time I'd flood the world with a lot of nonsense and self-pity; but, you know, there's better things to do with your time.

Except, in many ways my circumstances are not very much different from a month ago when some people were quite concerned about whether I'd throw myself under a bus or take that long warm bath of the soul. The thing I learned from 2015 is quite black, but also relevant - I'm no longer scared of dying and until I stop that and regain a healthy lust for life then I will create a vicious circle of my own doing.

Actually, let's border on territory that could consign this to the unfinished pile.

Suicide. I'm too much of a coward to kill myself, quickly.

Let me tell you about a guy called Bill M.

Bill was my boss at the second job I ever had; he was a nice, but occasionally dour Scotsman who had the honour of representing both GB and Scotland at major athletics events in the 1960s and 70s. He was an athlete - a proper long distance runner, a willowy and sinewy man who detested cigarettes. Then in 1979, his father died and at the funeral Bill, in the mid 40s by then, started smoking! I saw him recently; he looks good for a man in his late 70s. He smoked for 25 years and stopped when he got a smoking related illness. He didn't say it, but it was like he achieved what he set out to get.

I fell off the wagon. Nearly three years of not smoking disappeared in a puff. Here is a man with the lung capacity of a pint glass committing suicide.

I've stopped again, but up there in my rewired brain, it views my futile attempts at regaining some semblance of health as half-hearted at best. I could sit here and argue about the reasons for it and come up with a bunch of completely logical (to me) excuses - the black hole of despair being just one of them, but the real reason was...



My boy died of cancer. He was 8. It was possibly the most unfair thing I've lived through and while, in many ways, it allowed the worst of the black clouds to lift, I'm racked with guilt. It was my fault. If I'd not been a twat he might be with us now, albeit for a limited period of time. If. If. If.

It all boils down to the fact that both of us feel if we hadn't been so wrapped up in our own misery, we might have done something sooner and had better results. Yet, the cold callous part of me was relieved that it ended so quickly, because we would always have known that it was going to get much much worse at some point in the future.

I am also comforted by the fact that Murray was by far the most intelligent dog I've ever had; there was more going on in that little brain than ever should have been for a dog and we both know in our hearts that he knew something wasn't right, so he simply gave up. Like father, like son.

We're also a little better about it because the last proper week we had with him was like it always was. It was like he had been given a short reprieve and decided to make the most of it for those few days, because it was clear that when he had the second chemo he decided he couldn't do it any more - maybe he'd used up all that life to make sure our last week with him was a good one. That week was. What followed will have me sobbing for the rest of my life, but I'm getting better at pushing those feelings to one side.

This morning, when I sat down to write this, I had this clear image in my head, it would be about my dogs. I have written blogs since the late 1990s and my pets have always been touched upon but never fully detailed. They have played such a massive part in our lives, yet they are referenced less than my now dead apricot tree. Maybe it's because, not having kids and little paternal instinct towards pink things, but talking about my dogs has always felt a little like a new father claiming his baby's first solid shit is the best thing since sliced bread. Dog people will be interested, but like my forays into football and mushrooms, most of you won't.

The thing is, grief doesn't get easier the more experience you have of it. Yes, you can be numb to it at the time, but deep down it's twisting your gut with an invisible knife and making the irrational rational in a way that only losing something you love can. Our healing process has begun; we're looking for a new young man to balance the pack. I expect there will be comparisons, that's only natural, but as I said to the wife the day we lost the boy, "I never thought this lot would mean as much to me as the others." Butch, Sim, Harvey, Chester, Giff and Meg were defining animals in my life and having four dogs presented their own problems, but now they're part of me.

That's part of why it hurt; Murray, with the exception of a few chewed chair legs and a remote control, never did anything wrong in his entire life. The most he got told off for was being a noisy little git, which he knew we didn't really mean. The other three could easily have been got rid of at any point during the first couple of years we had them and yet, now, they're suddenly the most important things in the world. Because they have to be and I have to treat them that way, because...

They've been grieving just as badly as us. I've always been slightly sceptical of whether or not dogs can grieve. You see, while they have a long-term memory, that is pretty much jam-packed with important things, as a dog's short term memory lasts about four days, they adapt easily to most new situations. Except, it's now been a month and I still have at least two very sad girls.

Marley, Lexy and Ness don't really like each other. Don't get me wrong, they love each other, but they're family, and they're girls, therefore they are bitches and you would think at times that we had three strangers facing off. The boy was a calming influence on all of them and you could see quite easily that he was in charge. Now, it's like a pack of wankers, listless and unadventurous outside of their own constraints. Now he's not here it's a bit like having three elderly dogs and we never realised the influence he had on them, from his position of just behind me.

When we got Murray, we had them already. Ness, small, black, psychotic and utterly insecure; Marley, shit-eating mischief dog and Lexy, pudding impersonator and part Rottweiler, so understanding her is an art in itself. Marley hated him for four days and then forgot he was new and adopted him as hers. Ness was ambivalent towards him, but they were of similar age and they played and played and played. Lexy took one look at him and decided she was his mum. She growls at everyone - she has a limited vocabulary - but never ever growled at him. He could climb all over her and she'd lay there and love it.

Lexy, because she has problems which we'll never fully understand, shows little emotion and as much as it hurts to say, if she misses him she doesn't really show it, apart from looking sad, but that's her default facial expression, so...

Ness has been affected far more than I would have suspected. She's a mad airhead and shows little love for anyone other than me, but she's become clingy and edgy and bored. She still played with the boy right up until we lost him and she has no one she can play with now. I believe the horrible little rat has a heart and naturally it's just made her more important to me than I thought.

However, I'm getting worried about Marley. You have never seen such a dramatic change in an animal's behaviour. I think she still misses him terribly every day and watching this normally quite crazy dog sitting around crying and whining, cuddling toys, night or T shirts and never going more than 50 feet from me on a dog walk is not her. It was my big girl who inspired me to write this today. I got up and did my ablutions and when I went back into the bedroom she was curled up on the bed with Murray's only toy - a rubber chicken (it's not but it's too long a story) and the wife's night dress and I thought she'd died. This is a dog who less than 6 weeks ago you could walk up to, make a fist and say, "I'll punch you in the face" and she'd spend the next five minutes hurtling round the house, with her back arched, whooping and hollering like a demented seven-year-old told they're going to Disneyland. Now, she just looks at your hand, licks it gently and puts her head back down and sighs, so deep it's heartbreaking.

There is still misery and depression in the house; but there has been more laughter than tears. A degree of optimism - reserved but there all the same - has slipped in unnoticed, but it is not unwelcome. I have things that need doing, personally and professionally and they won't get done if I dwell on the past all the time.

Life is too short. Carpe diem.

* The Ruth I mention earlier, might be the Ruth who has commented a couple of times recently; or it might be the Ruth I know in the East Ridings, or just a random Ruth who has connected with me because things I've said have meant something. Whoever or whichever Ruth you are - thanks.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Turning Points

The worst thing about back pain is no one can see it.

Hurt your back and only other back pain sufferers will be able to truly sympathise with you. Any pain that isn't visible can have mental repercussions.

When I worked at the County Council I was torn between the feeling that half of my colleagues wanted me to be wearing a visible scar of my ordeal just to appease their belief that I was subjecting myself to all that shit on purpose and those others that completely understood where I was and what I was going through.

I've never been shy about wearing things on my sleeve and in the eyes of some of my friends, a few of my enemies and myself, I am a drama queen. It's essentially a Hall trait. We all make dramas out of crises in our own distinct ways and while once upon a time it was really just an attention seeking device, as we all got older (and the need for attention waned), we just adapted it like any habit - or, it was a habit rather than a mental need.

When you live in a loud house with loud people all competing with each other, then attention seeking is pretty normal and loses a lot of its narcissistic elements. I know there's been an attention seeker lurking inside me for most of my life, yet juxtapose this with the fact I worked (as the distant #2) for the largest self-serving egotist in British comics for over ten years, in an existence where the only 'I' was him and him alone...

If I was a serial attention seeker I probably wouldn't do it in such an understated way, at times, nor would it be so sporadic. The problem I think is some people confuse being loud or opinionated with a need for attention and that is only true to a certain point. One of Nature's interesting quirks is it made all mammals quite needy and humans terribly so. I'd guess most humans seek attention, some just do it in ways that aren't side shows or vaudeville acts.

And then there's social media...

I've blogged about my bad back for ever. I've blogged about my life, my dogs, my wife, some of my jobs, the idiots I've witnessed doing fuckwitted things, my neighbours and my friends and family. I've logged deaths, births, joy, sorrow, success and happiness (although not so much of the latter in recent times) and, at times, I've got a bit... personal. I embraced the on-line diary much more enthusiastically than I did Facebook styled social media and especially Twitter. I'm verbose, how the fuck is Twitter going to quench that thirst?

In the 'research' I did for this specific blog, I discovered that the amount of times I have delved into personal dramas is a surprisingly small percentage - less than 10% - and the general theme is to try and make light of bad situations or to see the irony. The number of truly downbeat blogs until a certain point in time was almost non-existent. In fact, my blog despite using it as a diary of sorts, has little 'from the heart' type rambles.

Facebook heralded a new way of sharing ones life with others. I have posted on average 0.92 things per day since I first got the account and I had to double check my figures. First because I couldn't believe that I'd posted almost 1 thing a day and then because it didn't seem enough. Here's a weird one for you - really being stumped by the result of something that seems both too much and too little at the same time... If you scrutinised my posting habits you'd find out that I can go weeks without posting anything. It is normal for me to go three or four days without even looking at it let alone posting anything and the way peoples news feeds are set up the more friends I have with lots of their own friends, the less chance of them seeing everything I post.

I'm sure you're beginning to wonder what the bloody hell I'm waffling on about and I agree this seems like a very convoluted way of denouncing something - a point - I haven't even mooted yet, but, you know me... The point I'm making is I'm not actually in your in-boxes as much as you might sometimes think. Familiarity doesn't just breed contempt, it also over-familiarises things to the point where you notice them more than you would. The truth is you don't, but the thing is now prominent in your psyche and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes when you buy a new car you then think everyone else had the same idea as you because you see them everywhere; it's only because you didn't have one of those cars before to prick your memory the way it does after the event.

I'm also loud, brash, in your face, passionate and emotional - I'm sure a true attention seeker goes for the most impact rather than little ones anyhow and social media revelations from me have tended to be impact driven. The writer in me appreciates melodrama and the power of words in headings to maximise the impact. The thing is ... of the 0.92 posts a day on Facebook I've done since May 2008, less than 2% of them have actually been 'melodramatic'. There is nothing in any of them that aggrandises me; they aren't strewn with tragedy and reaction. The drama queen that many of my friends, my wife and I know all too well is strangely absent. Well, until May 2015...

In fact, until May 2015, I had talked about depression in my blog but never on a 'live' social media forum. I usually whinge about my physical health and - I'm very close to it - I don't think you can accuse me of self-pity or searching for sympathy in my blogs that have highlighted back and shoulder problems - I like to think that if it was just me moaning incessantly (and humorously) then I wouldn't see so many people reading the thing. Besides, my moaning is legendary and moaning isn't attention seeking.

Now, back during that time when I worked for the Massive Yorkshire Ego, a number of my friends were pretty much of the impression that I had the cushiest job in the world - writing about a subject I liked, hanging out with the Stan Lee of British comics 5 days a week, smoking the finest spliff, having cafe lunches every day and going down the pub all this and earning far too much money... Wot a lucky bastard...

Oddly enough that's pretty much what it was like, except take the rose-tinted specs off and I had to input over a quarter of a million words every four weeks and if you think that sounds easy, try copy typing 250,000 words and see how long that takes you. Working for Skinn was hard work in many ways; it was just all concentrated into 2½ weeks and people saw me swanning about for the other 2 weeks and thought I had it easy.

Of course, these people never saw the conjunctivitis I suffered; the 72 hour stretches without sleep; the poor diet; the smoke filled rooms, the utter arsehole who EMPLOYED me and subjected me to mental and verbal abuse that belonged in a Dickens novel. They just saw happy old Phil taking another two weeks off from that easy job he had; swanning around smoking pot and being bohemian.

2015 has pretty much been a living, waking nightmare. Every single day has felt like I'm a greenfly trapped in molasses. There have been days when I only put outside clothes on to take the dogs out or to give the wife the impression I've been doing something. I have sat and sobbed my heart out at times because I'm scared of everything - the past, the present and especially the future. For most of 2015, if you read any of my social media statuses, you would have been pretty surprised by the stream of depression-laden rhetoric and public airing of private mental laundry that eventually spewed out during May.

Yes, there had been some histrionic outbursts in the past; and I'm not shy in coming forward in some things; yet to pretty much admit to so many people that suicide has been a topic on my mind; or that the relentless bad luck, vicious circle creating consequences can spiral so far out of your ability to rationalise them, it really does seem like your life is out of control. Yet, this was the first time I had admitted publicly that I was suffering from severe depression (and even then some information was withheld because once you get to a certain position with your mental health you become paranoid about people discovering certain things and there's rarely a rational reason behind this either).

The support I got from a huge bunch of people was remarkable - both publicly and privately I was blown away by the willingness of others and the support they showed me; the positive words, the selfless offers. A lot of these people were old friends; people who I've known from social care, even from comics and as May started to spiral completely out of control and with a tragic destiny, one of things that kept me going was the thoughts and comments - which I viewed without cynicism or doubt.

Then as the light at the end of the tunnel was first extinguished then phoenix-like reappeared and started drawing closer, two comments were made to me, in person, which deeply affected me...

Two people, very close to me personally, said things that upset me.

The first was an old friend who said I needed to 'man up'; that real men don't talk publicly about depression and crying and that shit. I didn't really expect much difference from this person, but it bothered me that he still had no real idea what it's like for people to go through a terribly shit time where you have no idea how to cope and no idea where you're going to get any support.

The second event could have ended up with a horrendous outcome; but fortunately I'd had the fight beaten out of me long ago and all that came out was a kind of resigned 'you could say that but you haven't been inside my head for the last six months', which was probably for the best considering how much it has bothered me since.

While I was out on Friday evening, having a beer with my friend, trying to cheer myself up after a daunting week, but also celebrate the changes in my work situation, he suggested that I'd never really been depressed, I'd just been 'a bit down'. Or that I couldn't possibly have been depressed because I would have been hospitalised, because 'real depression is a serious illness and not just a term used by people feeling down'. Now, you need to understand what made this feel harsh was I was talking to the only person outside of my doctor that I'd admitted having suicidal thoughts to - back in November - and he'd been suitably shocked and I believed realised how awful our lives had become. Seven months later, in the week I lost a dog to cancer, in a year that had rained insult, injury and all manner of shit on me and mine, he said, 'If you had been serious about killing yourself you would have tried...' He even wanted to know how I felt when I felt suicidal because, you know, I didn't do it so I must have just been attention seeking...

I was then reminded what a drama queen I was. I agreed. I almost felt like I was being remonstrated at for having shared all my crap with people on Facebook and therefore by the process of the logic held by someone who doesn't know how depression works, by posting about my shit life publicly it can't possibly have been that bad. I felt slightly uncomfortable with the amount of dubious incredulity being aimed at me - it has to be said not in a malicious way at all - like there is a stereotypical way that depressed people have to act and putting on a good show to ensure your friends don't know about it isn't one of them.

When I tried to point out that I've already been diagnosed, by a proper doctor, that I suffer from chronic illness-based depression, he didn't actually realise just how bad my COPD was; or even what it really entailed. But... and this is what hurt the most, none of the doubts seemed to be through ill-education, they seemed to be based on the fact I'm an attention seeker so therefore nothing that is wrong with me is going to be that bad because I have a history of making mountains out of mole hills. Or I'm, in his eyes, the boy who cried wolf, because I'm not in a fucking wheelchair or wired up to an iron lung. This was the same reaction I had from people who didn't understand the job I had in the 1990s...

He doesn't know that I've been praised by my COPD practitioner for managing my chronic illness very well. Or that I have discussed on several occasions suicide, antidepressants and a whole bunch of other things with my GP that I don't tell him or you about. He doesn't seem to realise that Public Phil Hall does keep a lot of his private life to himself. I wear my heart on my sleeve, but I hide my piles in my pants and keep my low weeing pressure to myself...

In my defence, as I said, all I could say to him was he didn't know what went on inside my head. He wasn't with me when I'd sit and stare into space for hours, not knowing where to start let alone what to do. I explained that I had been scared to seek help; I'd hidden away from people, especially the ones trying to help me. I explained that sometimes you hide it well from others and others aren't really looking for it, so hiding it doesn't become that difficult. I reminded him that depressed people are very good at hiding things from their loved ones and this was sadly met with a certain amount of derision and it was at this point that I realised my friend had never been depressed and had this completely wrong impression of what depression really was and also disputed his belief of that misconception vehemently.

Despite knowing me extremely well, he was basing his entire belief of my health on what he'd heard from me or read on line and ironically I think, if you analyse it, his problem was he is averse to the public airing of laundry - telling people how your life is crumbling around your ears isn't terribly British and not the expected thing, you know. I think it was the fact he wouldn't do that himself in such a public forum that has made him so sceptical of the reasons I did it and therefore even more doubtful that my depression was anything more than me just being miserable.

Talking about depression is a form of therapy in itself. Admitting the problem is an extremely positive step to take, especially given what is going on in your mind at the time. Discovering people care is better than any drug because it is a positive reinforcement, something which your mind can't argue with (or if it does it loses). I've seen therapists - they give about 75% less input and feedback than my friends on Facebook have. A lot of it is talking about it to try and identify the indicators yourself - there is a lot of holistic stuff going on and it's just a less detached process.

And sometimes you just want the rest of the fucking world to know that you're fed up to the back teeth with being kicked repeatedly.

I have to emphasise that the person in question upset me, not annoyed me. I was disappointed because I thought my friends would know, but equally the wife and I have said for over 30 years that we have no idea what goes on in our friends houses once we've gone home and we have no idea how much attention people pay to things.

I'd urge anyone who thinks depression is one specific thing to read up on it. It'll take 10 minutes and at the end of it you'll understand just how serious it can be and how the ignorance of others can just make it much much worse.


In the wake of the totally unpredictable week just gone, I would like to say that sometimes pulling out of depression can achieved by the oddest of things. When I originally set out to write this, I was going to talk about Ritilin - the ADHD drug, which is effectively speed given to kids who are already naturally whizzing their tits off. The effect is like a double negative - one cancels the other out.

The three days leading up to Murray's death (which I'm sure I'll document at some point) were, in many ways, so bad they made me feel physically ill. I cannot emphasise strongly enough how sad, lonely, lost and helpless I felt and how I would have willingly given up my life, there and then, for my dog.

Then he died and the two jobs I had to zombie walk through the interviews of both offered more than hope and ... it ridiculously felt like it actually wasn't going to get worse...

My shoulder was being fixed. There were job offers. The roads were being resurfaced. My boy was now free from pain. A few little, almost inconsequential, things happened that isolated might have meant nowt, but now seemed to reinforce that it might actually begin to get better.

But (and I know you should never start a sentence with one, but...), I might view the next six months as a challenge I can face a little easier. It helps knowing the next six months are pretty much unknown and full of potential excitement. First I'm going to sort me out and then I'll sort the other things out. It might be slow; it might be two steps forward and one back; whatever it is it's me saying it's time to 'get up, stand up and don't give up the fight' because it is worth fighting for.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Happy Birthday to Me, Squashed Tomatoes and Pee

My weekend has been chilled and uneventful - just how I like it.

So, I'd like to tell you what I did for a while today, that was very positive and was possibly the best thing to happen on my 53rd birthday (even better than the curry, the sex, the drugs and the dancing girls), but first a preamble:

I've been suffering from severe depression for best part of a year now, but the last six months haven't been at all good and as any depressed person will tell you we hide it extremely well. Well, things got really really dark around February and I needed to do something positive or I might have become yet another tragic statistic in oh-so-civilised 2015.

I've had lots of things I'd like to talk about or even to tell you lot, but it never seemed to be the right time, or it seemed like I was being too negative, or it's not time or I chicken out or ... you get the picture. I have several unfinished pieces about how fucking depressed I've been; how suicidal I felt and all the time I stare at the finished words and think, 'fuck me, they're going to have me sectioned for my own safety'. My crappy lungs, dodgy back, wonky shoulder, wanky publishing company; woefully inadequate printers, distributors, unhelpful helpers thrust upon me - the list of woes is so long and so ... almost far fetched... I just didn't want to remind myself while making everyone else think I was fishing for sympathy or trying to be the centre of attention - being depressed does that.

I could tell you stories about paranoia - there are two kinds I've experienced: drug induced paranoia and the kind caused by depression. The best way of describing them is the former is a mild cheddar, the latter is a 3 year matured with more flavours than a sushi bar.

Anyhow, lets get on with this now it's gone midnight. 

I was out walking the dogs one day towards the end of February and I had the seed of an idea. That seed germinated into a narrative, which grew into a few hundred words and then into a few thousand; all the time I was aware that my personal creation process tends to be fragile at best and usually only needs the slightest of distractions for me to discard an idea or leave it for a rainy day that never comes.

So I was molly-coddling this one; it was cosseted and caressed and kept safe from the alliteration monster and because it was a mild March I got the chance to do what I love doing - writing in the garden. The few thousand words turned into 10,000 and still I defied Phil Hall logic and didn't tell a soul - not even the wife. The 10,000 clicked over to 15,000 and then eventually to 18,456. I saved the doc, went to the pub quiz and told everyone I'd been writing a story and that now, on the verge of 20,000 words I decided to tell them because once I pass this specific landmark figure there's a 90% chance I'd finish it.

A week later I had written ...
... 18,456 words. 

I'd put the kiss of death on the project. I just knew that was it, another shelved idea that never came to fruition (for me finishing something is as good as having something published, I've been published loads, I've only finished 7 big projects). The day I gave up on it was the day I thought my way out of the hole I dug myself - something my brother-in-law would be proud of me for doing - it was hard work, but once the idea reseeded itself everything started to slot together nicely.

That was nearly three weeks ago and since then I've spent a lot of time each week working on it. Today I reached an important landmark - 40,000 words. It is now in novel territory, it's no longer just a short story or novella. I am also aware this is a first draft and that it'll only be about 47,000 words when said draft is finished. I'm already identifying areas that need fleshing out, rewriting or clarifying. 

It has a title and a beginning, middle and I'm on the end right now. It might be a load of shit. I don't care. I'm going to finish it because I think it's a unique idea. It started as a story for kids; with some tough editing it might become that again, but the point is while I don't feel much happier in myself, this project is helping me rediscover some of my self-esteem and its been a fucking blast.

What's it about?

I'm not going to tell you.

I will say it's set in Leicestershire; it involves an enormous amount of Victorian history and railways. It involves 147 missing children and my love of mushrooms became my own personal Jesus. Oh and appearances can be deceiving. I can't pin a genre on it at the moment either, just to confuse the issue.

That's all you need to know. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Culture Dump #2 - Charterhouse Blues

I've been reading a biography of Peter Gabriel. Before I touch on that, I want to say that a few years ago I read the official biography of Canadian rock band Rush. It was possibly one of the most boring biographies I have ever read. Rush's members are all really dull. They didn't take drugs; they dabbled in libertarian politics, came from good middle-class families and probably all pay their taxes. Hotel rooms are probably tidier when they leave than when they arrived. It was that exciting.

So, when I started to read Gabriel's story, I expected the first half of the book - about his time with Genesis - to be jam-packed with tales of picnic hampers, public school hijinks and jolly japes and wheezes with a smattering of the distasteful Jonathan King thrown in for good measure. I expected the book to rival the Rush book for edge of the seat excitement. Strangely, I wasn't disappointed; the fact that the three public school members of Genesis thought of extremely middle class Phil Collins (from Chiswick - bastion of middle class London) and Steve Hackett (from Pimlico) as 'common' (my word not the biographer's) pretty much epitomised what to expect. Gabriel's wedding took place at St James Palace if you need another example.

Yet, they were surrounded by all the glitz and glamour of the 1970s. They rubbed shoulders with most of the greats and were arguably influential to some, better known, performers. They still had hampers and didn't take drugs (Mike Rutherford allegedly inhaled occasionally) and were thought of as 'serious' or 'rich kids' depending on where you stood. But the book is good and it does so much more than just paint a picture of rich toffs breaking into the British rock scene. It also reinforces the now growing belief that Genesis keyboard maestro Tony Banks is a cock.

I discovered Genesis through my brothers. They were hooked on them almost from the moment Trespass came out. In the days before the Internet, word of mouth was your best advertising campaign and living in Daventry, we were pretty much removed from the world. Yet my brothers were treated to a succession of top bands at odd venues, like pubs in Staverton and Watford Gap or Wollaston or Rock Street school in Wellingborough (apt that). They saw Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, Stray, Atomic Rooster, Steppenwolf and a host of 1970s rock monsters at the unlikeliest of places, but this became the music for them in the 1970s and as a pre-teen I was subjected to most of it.

Harold the Barrel was probably the first Genesis song I became aware of. It was something my parents sang along to at the end - it was a jaunty, eccentric typically Genesis ditty about a suicidal young man on the ledge of a building getting ready to jump. It was the line about there being a man here from the BBC that always got them going. I, it seemed, had rather hip parents.

Unlike, say 'Touch Me' by the Doors, the first single I ever bought because I got hooked on the organ line, Genesis permeated into my life rather than exploded. Being subjected to Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd et al during my formative years made me a fan by default rather than choice (which is why I embraced electronic music in the late 70s, because I felt it was my first musical choice).

I didn't start getting into Genesis until Peter Gabriel left. I didn't know he'd left because I was 13 and I was just discovering The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Where this album polarised many fans, it was the gateway for me to really start to listen to their back catalogue; not as background music, but as my own entertainment.

My untrained, musically deaf, ear didn't see much difference after Gabriel left. The music was still there and Phil Collins seemed to handle the singing duties as well as his predecessor. For me 1976 was a great year - fantastic summer, not a care in the world and bookended by A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering. I had notched up a few live performances as well. Genesis were my favourite band in the world.

But even by the time And Then There Were Three came along, I'd discovered bands like The Stranglers, been to see David Bowie on his Stage tour and started to discover there was more to music than 9/8 time.

A series of less and less inspiring albums followed, yet during the 1980s, despite listening to more of anything else than Genesis, I doggedly claimed they were my favourite band. I continued to see them live and even these became less enjoyable, because they were doing less of the music that got me into them and more of the commercial shite that had made them megastars in the USA. By the end they had a fifteen minute medley of old stuff to appease the die-hards.

The last proper album, back in 1991 - We Can't Dance - had some fleeting moments, but you could gauge how much it meant to me by the number of times I played it. Genesis had stopped being even one of my favourite bands by then.

That's not to dismiss all the good stuff they did. Or how much more important, musically, the Gabriel era was and how, now many years later, it seems that getting rid of Steve Hackett was the final nail in their prog rock coffin. Despite reading about the tensions in the band because of their need to write music as equals, it appears when it was Gabriel, Banks, Rutherford, Collins and Hackett they wrote and played brilliant songs - the sum of all of their parts; once you took the two fantastical elements from the band they became anodyne. That's not to call Steve Hackett dynamic - he's anything but; he did continue the eccentricity in the mix when the fantasist - Gabriel - left and when Hackett left they lost the ability to bridge sections effortlessly. The three remaining members might have liked their new 'punky' direction, but they lost the 'class' they had and the tensions between Hackett and two of the other core members over the years - specifically Tony Banks is now pretty clear.

Banks took on the role of the musician in the band. His grandiose pieces all seemed to fall flat without a coherent classical guitarist and Rutherford, the weakest songwriter of the combo was reduced to rock riffs and fiddly bits he couldn't replicate live. Recently, in a retrospective documentary about the band it was clear that Banks is tolerated by Gabriel and Hackett and even now, despite being arguably one of the richest members of this uber-rich bunch of musicians, he's still bitter that he was never anything more than the keyboard player.

This is weird, I initially set out to explain why I liked Genesis and what was great about their music, because there are probably two full CDs of their music that you could keep to play a lot. A CD and a half of the stuff up to the band becoming a trio and half a CD of the things they did that were good after. The thing is you cannot compare Selling England by the Pound with Abacab or The Lamb with Duke - some of the musicians are the same, but the band is playing a different tune.

For me the test of time is the best gauge. Over the last few weeks while I've been working on other projects, I've played the back catalogue and in many ways listening to From Genesis to Revelation - the first Jonathan King produced pop album is more enjoyable than listening to the eponymous Genesis. Trespass is a work of raw genius compared to Invisible Touch. Foxtrot is a behemoth in comparison to We Can't Dance. Nursery Cryme is better than Wind and Wuthering, despite my love of the latter. Only A Trick of the Tail sits alongside the Gabriel era - arguably because most of the music was written while they were touring The Lamb and because it needed to be a Genesis album and not another band with the same personnel.

The old stuff, while under-produced because of the technology available, is visceral and raw, despite the fanciful musicianship - there is an element of punk in it long before punk got going. The Knife is a rock song with an edge and an anger that would never show itself again as raw and obliquely Gabriel was writing a lot about the underlying malcontent in the country. Yes, people think about Genesis songs as being stories of funny men, disappearing animals and lawnmowers, but they were incredibly subversive at times, with songs that showed Britain how Britain looked to an outsider. My favourite album - Selling England by the Pound - was released at a time when the country was up shit creek with a chocolate paddle, it pretty much is a satirical dig at the country from inflation to criminal gangs; but there's a song about a lawnmower and his funny walk and one about going to the cinema so people don't think about subtexts in their songs.

I believe Collins kept some of Gabriel's rhetoric, the problem was that Gabriel despite being of privileged background is something of a socialist where as Collins is a Tory; therefore Collins' songs tended to be whimsical rather than charged with an underbelly of truths.

In conclusion; they don't deserve to be maligned, at least not until they started pandering to Rock FM in the USA. The albums directly after Hackett's departures are better than the ones that concluded their career; the decline wasn't so much a decline as a change of direction that alienated the people who put them where they were. I didn't like it and many others also thought it was a bad move, but ultimately if you buy a ticket to a football match it doesn't give you the right to manage the team. Bands do what they want, by and large, not what their fans want and how could you ameliorate such a thing?

I like most of everything Pink Floyd has released, but people will tell you they didn't do a good album after Wish You Were Here or maybe The Wall. People hate the last Zep album and pretty much ignore the existence of Coda. Yes haven't done a decent album in 10 years and have produced probably a double album's worth of good material in the last 30. Just because I grew up with a band doesn't mean they will grow with me in the way I desire. My brother loves later Genesis and will argue that much of it is better than Gabriel era; I could deride that quite easily, but it's a matter of taste and that's what makes critics no better placed than Fred Bloggs in the street: you listen to what you like, if you don't like it you don't listen to it, there's no point in telling people they're wrong because they think something is better than something else - this is music, there is no right or wrong.

That said, I could probably go the rest of my life without listening to any Genesis from 1978 on and not miss it. I couldn't say the same for the music between 1969 and 1977.

Culture Dump #1: Shameless Praise

On my own personal Tmblr account I'm subscribed to a number of blogs that are related to actors in a US TV show. I also follow a few of them on Twitter. This is pretty blatant admiration from someone who professes to abhor getting involved in all the fake platitudes that the Internet has morphed into (apart from when it lies or is pernicious, of course). It's not that I want to know the intimate details of these peoples lives; I just do it to keep up to date with stuff that's happening in and around the show they're in.

It started with Jeremy Allen White, a young American actor charged with filling some big shoes. The shoes were those of the character Philip 'Lip' Gallagher. Now, anyone who watched TV in the first decade of the 21st Century will have noticed a show called Shameless - even if they didn't watch it or thought it was a documentary.

Shameless introduced us to James McAvoy, Ann-Marie Duff, Maxine Peake, Dean Lennox Kelly, Jodie Lee Latham and a bunch of others. It started as a gritty dramedy, which because of its success saw just about every interesting character leave to explore new and better horizons. McAvoy is Professor X, Duff one of our best stage actors, Peake is probably a Dame in the making, oh and there's David Threlfall, the titular Frank Gallagher - one of our best character actors playing a drunk, drugged out waste of time and space and holding the show together when it became a parody of itself.

The problem with Shameless was - as I said - its popularity and the fact that once an actor gets attention he wants to move onto bigger and possibly better things. With hindsight (and that's a TV series I might get around to talking about one day), Shameless was lucky to have kept Threlfall, because the A list actors involved were unlikely to stick around playing gutter trash for very long.

However, in the USA most actors get signed up for seven series at the outset. If it goes past five seasons then there's a renegotiation of the salaries; to pull out of a series, especially a popular one to go and do something else, tends to cost a lot of money, so it's rarely done. So when Paul Abbot - the man who created Shameless - sold it to the USA, he knew there was a better chance of him being able to tell the story he wanted to tell in the UK but was unable to because of actors' departures.

The first season of Shameless (US) was a carbon-copy of the first two series from the UK, even down to the shagging scene in the kitchen, between the two stars the show was really about - Steve and Fiona (McAvoy and Duff in Manchester and Justin Chatwin and Emmy Rossum in Chicago). We watched with some mild amusement, it was interesting to see how it transposed from a council estate in Manchester to a project in east side Chicago. The belief in this household was it could never quite achieve the anarchy of the British series; this was, after all, a US TV show and even if it was on cable it was never going to be as ... 'shameless'.

That was where we went wrong and that was how, by the end of the first season, we had become hooked on an almost word for word remake... Except, while the scripts were the same-ish, the situations were developing in an altogether different way.

There were differences; Frank's love interest, Sheila, was introduced immediately. There has been less focus on Monica Gallagher (although she's not been ignored) and Kev and Vee were less... abrasive and dodgy, but no less sexual and, well, they were still dodgy. The interest was generated mainly by seeing how far they'd push the source material - how shameless they would be.

Now we just finished the fifth season. The cast in the first series is essentially the same. There are some new additions and some minor departures, but the Gallagher clan is still intact and that is one of the main reasons why Shameless (US) has grown to be my favourite TV show.

We gave up on the UK version around series 5 or 6. It had changed focus to the Maguire family presumably because most of the actors playing Gallaghers had left and as I said, it became a parody, preferring to focus on out-and-out comedy rather than the social humour and outrageous scams. The Maguire family is the Milkovitch family in the US version - they are important, but they are, with the exception of Mickey, supporting cast, adding to the rich tapestry that time has allowed them to create.

We started with Frank, Fiona, Lip, Ian, Debbie, Carl, and Liam and they were still there at the end of the latest series, although Lip is now on the verge of fulfilling the potential anyone who watched the UK version knew he was capable of. Fiona is married, but that is a statement that says a lot but doesn't really convey the complexity of her character. She has become a bit of a slapper, but for all the wrong reasons. Series five delved into the subtext of 'father issues' and it's clear that while Fiona despises hers she needs one.

Carl is in prison - juvie - after bodging a massive drug deal for his new 'employer' and he's not yet 15. Debbie is pregnant and she is just 15. Ian is bi-polar and as mad as a box of frogs; he would also make an unbelievable Joker in a Batman film. And there's Liam, the eternal 3 year-old mixed race child, who doesn't appear to have aged a day in five years (that would be my one criticism of the realism in this series, unless it's a joke; which I wouldn't put it past the makers to try).

Oh and there's Frank Gallagher. William H Macy doing a character that is a million miles away from any character you've ever seen him as before. Remember Fargo? Well Macy in Shameless is the complete antithesis of that anally-retentive criminal 'mastermind'. He's a drug addled, alcoholic with a new liver, a new daughter (who he was only vaguely aware existed) and he makes Threlfell's Frank look like the comedy foil he became. Macy is not the stand out actor in this series, there are at least two people who act him off the screen every week, yet he commands this show like an emperor. He is an evil, despicable, heartless piece of shit who would literally send his own kids up the river for a joint, yet like Threlfell's Frank, you just love him.

At the end of Series 5, Frank had returned to Chicago after a brief hiatus away with a terminally ill doctor he was introducing to the delights of crack, crystal meth, pot and alcohol. She wanted to go out in a blaze of disrespectful glory and who better to show he the ropes. Except, after five series of watching this heartless degenerate fuck up the lives of everyone around him; he fell lock stock and barrel for something that was only going to be temporary. Frank has a heart, you just have to work in mysterious ways to find it.

It is almost impossible to convey just how brilliant this series is; the outrageous set pieces devised are superb, only to be out-outlandishly bettered the next time around. Yet, the real theme of the series is about survival. This is, in many respects, I would imagine parts of the poorest areas of US big cities to be like - dangerous places, but also places full of love and hope and fun and taking the opportunity when it comes along because that is the American Dream in this part of Chicago. It also paints a slightly horrific picture of what the most deprived areas of the USA could be like; Shameless doesn't cross into territories such as gangs (very much) and organised crime (although it exists). The Gallaghers exist in a world where they fit into it and have a place to play, but they are also the house down the street from The Wire. Or the people who live in the dodgy area behind the Soprano's strip joint. They are the people in the background in Dexter. The stars of Shameless are the people who tell the story that happens while everything else is happening.

One of the selling points for me is how 'every action will have a consequence'. The series is cleverly written; it isn't just a 12 part spotlight on scum every twelve months; there is a deep plot running through it; it has things that happen that seem to be of no importance that will come back and haunt a member of the clan for some reason or another. nothing happens in this series without it coming back to bite you on the ass.

That brings us back to Lip - for me this series has become about him, not Fiona or Frank. It is the story of an extremely clever young man who is something of a freak within his own neighbourhood because of his potential. There is no resentment, just mocking and good humour from his peers. it's like they hate him for being clever but, by God, they want him to get away from the hell hole they live in and that's where this series really works - there is a genuine humanity about it. Lip is at university; he's struggling and doing Gallagher things to get ahead, yet he's spotted as a bright and potential brilliant talent and that is a theme that has pushed on slowly through the five seasons to the point where he is beginning to realise that his future is away from his family and neighbourhood - but maybe only for a while.

There is the final element for me that makes Shameless excellent drama and not faux-fact. There is a fantasy element in it - not Game of Thrones or Snow White fantasy, just a knowledge that one episode in each run of 12 will have something that defies belief; has something happen in it that you have to stop and think about. And when I say 'fantasy' I don't mean fantastic I just mean unrealistic, yet in the context of all the shit that these people face, it is deserved. What do I mean then? Well; Frank's liver transplant was by accident - almost - without it he would be dead. Lip's relationship with a lecturer is feasible but also slightly 'wow'. Something happens in each series that has you thinking its a scripted drama rather than an improvisation.

It's been shown on ITV2 now for four seasons and it is the kind of program that deserves a prime time slot on a bigger network; it is so good if people watched it they would be hooked and as a result you will find yourself thinking, "I really can't believe they just did that!" a lot.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Gig Review - North Atlantic Oscillation

"Light makes soft shadows hurt like teeth
Wherewith to crack our almighty seed"

I've never professed to even half understand what all the words to this band's song mean, but singing it at the top of my lungs in a shitty venue is something fans of bands will completely understand. You're there, wherever 'there' is and you are, to quote the famous Sledge Sisters - Lost in Music.

You also do not expect a band with this mob's ability to be playing a venue that looked like an afterthought in urban regeneration. The Custard Factory sounds like this impressive happening place and then you discover that it is, like a lot of gig venues, in Digbeth or Little Dublin as it is often referred to by the locals. Digbeth is seriously like being transported back in an episode of Life on Mars - there are places there that look like they haven't had a makeover since Harold Wilson was PM; I half expected to see pre-decimalisation money and 52 year old men who look like octogenarians.

There is this place in Leeds, where the Thought Bubble comics festival culminates. It's at the Docks - an odd place considering Leeds is essentially landlocked and nowhere near a coast - and it isn't actually in the main part of Leeds City centre, so therefore it is in one of those satellite districts that really appear to struggle to bring people to unless they're actually going there. I'm not suggesting The Custard Factory is even remotely comparable, but it has the same feel. This is a place that had lots of money - urban regeneration - thrown at it to make a 'precinct' in an area that is adjacent, but not in, the city centre. Nothing was open. it was a Thursday night and there were none of the shops open; no restaurants and what appear to be flats all built around it look like they have just one single resident. It looks like a reasonable idea gone bad and dying on its feet.

The Oobleck is the only place that appears to have any life and as we had a couple of hours to kill before NAO went on 'stage' we looked for a pub. We gave up looking for a decent pub - we found four; two were shut, one was an Irish themed Irish pub and the other sold Hobgoblin and lots of lager, so we gravitated back to the venue and it just screamed at you that they're struggling to stay open. It's been there a few years apparently and has, it seems, a rep for putting on metal and heavy rock bands, so NAO were an odd choice in many ways. The problem with the place is it doesn't quite seem to know what it wants to be. Spread across four floors, the ground floor has a Tapas/library chic that is spoiled by the general disarray; the first floor appears to be an extension of the Tapas eatery and just looked a little grubby. The third floor was like one of those odd foyers you found in 1970s night clubs and given the decor - horrendous wallpaper; plastic covered bench seats and a waiting room feel with its access to the toilets and unused bar (complete with padlocks and unused shit from the other floors) said to me that the owner had lost his enthusiasm for the place.

The gig room was roughly the same size as the ground floor but without staircases intersecting it; it was oblong with a bar at the end that also looked like they only catered for cider drinkers, dodgy lager-wallas and some fruit juices; I've been to wedding receptions in tents with better selections at the bar. It is an oblong room and not extraordinarily wide, so whoever devised using this room as a gig venue should obviously have put bands at one end, not in the middle so that mixing the sound becomes more of a hit and miss affair than an exact science. But this, to me, was why I'd be surprised if this venue is still operating in 6 months - the people who run the place don't seem to understand it. There's this basement in Shoreditch that puts 'biggish' bands on all the time; it reminds me of a lot of the shit holes I've seen bands in over the years, places that are so dirty they're almost sterile. This venue we were at last night had that unwashed tables, sticky balcony and general grubbiness you associate with OCD nightmares; it also had the feel of a place that is slowly winding down. Not a good venue and this was compounded by the 31 people in the audience (of which we estimate nearly half of these were probably friends, support band members and staff). I do not believe for a second that the piss poor turn out had anything to do with North Atlantic Oscillation; it might have had something to do with the fact this gig was originally scheduled for four months ago and had to be cancelled; it might have more to do with the fact it's just not a good venue in an area that would look as dodgy as hell if there were any people there.

Oh and it isn't helped by the fact that they have house and disco music blasting out on the ground and first floor, so everything fights everything else. The toilet was like a small cupboard and we couldn't find a second one, so this broom room catered for all the men in a venue that looked like it catered more for them more than anyone else (apart from maybe the 70s themed 3rd floor of nothingness).

It has to be said that Baltimore Gun Club - the support band we saw - weren't that bad and there was a grind-core-Cocteau Twins kind of mesh going on; however they appeared to overrun by about ten minutes which suggested to me that it had curtailed NAO's set because of the curfew. Why the venue has a curfew is also slightly puzzling - perhaps the single resident in the flats is a curmudgeon? This rather soured my feelings towards BGC; if you want to piss an audience off who haven't come to see you what you do is overrun and try to sell your CD at every opportunity.

Then there was Sam, Chris and Ben, setting up their equipment, struggling with the mix and I'm just looking at my watch because we're running out of valuable music time. And then... it was August... They played tracks from Grappling Hooks, from Fog Electric and the rest of the set from the new album - it was a good mix.

I've seen some of my favourite rock bands over the years and always in massive auditoriums or halls and never close up and personal; the good thing about Birmingham gigs is that Brummies seem so disinterested in great music you get to stand right in front of your heroes. It happened a decade ago with Shack; in an audience of about 30, I got to stand right in front of the Head brothers and really experience one of the best indie jangly guitar bands ever. This was in many ways better because there were so few people there, I crept closer to the band and the closer I got the more it became MY PERSONAL GIG.

However, it was lacking an atmosphere; it lacked the response from the audience to generate the need for an encore; I felt like I was leading the appreciation and that didn't bother me. I'm old and falling apart but I can still groove like a granddad on amphetamines, albeit weak ones that won't allow me to do myself a mischief or pull a muscle.

There were so many disappointing things, North Atlantic Oscillation was not one of them.

I saw how in many ways Chris Howard keeps the band together - he's the bassist (and the man who got Sam Healy into prog) and he's the jam between the bread that is Sam and Ben Martin - the drummer who hits drums like they've offended him. Five or six years of playing together has obviously made them a tight unit that covers for each other and they obviously all really like each other - I've seen bands who barely speak to each other on or off stage - and they watched the support act, which I think rates high.

Having never seen the band before, I had the chance and sacrificed it for beer, there was a slight confusion in my old addled brain. I initially confused Ben for Sam, because the former has the poster boy looks and tends to be the prominent one in press photos and it would appear there's more information about me on line than you can find about any of the band. So imagine how crushing it could have been when I shook Ben's hand and thanked him for my favourite album of the 21st century - not an NAO one, but the Healy solo - only for him to point out Sam standing about ten foot away from me. I was so embarrassed. It's a bit like me, as a Spurs fan, mistaking man of the moment Harry Kane for, I dunno, the Spurs tea lady.

At the end of the set, I got the chance to do something I've never been able to do with favourite bands in the past. I talked to them, specifically Sam who seemed genuinely pleased to meet both Roger and I; we have been huge supporters of the band and it topped a great night to realise that you are appreciated. Sam and I talked about the Wolverhampton gig in 2011 where we chose to sit in the bar rather than go and listen to this 'support band', this segued into our mutual love of Talk Talk and how, the only time I ever saw my favourite band of all time, I booed them off stage. I get the impression I could talk for hours with the man about music and we could startle each other with our interesting and diverse music tastes (either that or we'd both like all the same bands and we'd have to talk about Scotland or Ireland or the sea).

It would appear that missing or deriding support bands is the gateway drug to becoming addicted to them in the future.

In conclusion; it was a curate's egg of an evening. The venue was rubbish - sorry, but it was. It was easy to find which was a blessing and we also got free parking. The band were excellent, even if Sam's vocals were lost in the mix at times and the room was acoustically akin to a showbox. They played almost all the songs I would have wanted (no Mirador - I can live with it), but frankly they could have played their entire back catalogue and I would have willingly stood there and enjoyed all of it, despite the protestations from my lower back.

Rumour has it that Mr Healy is working on a second Sand album; if this is the case I'd like to see him tour his solo stuff, but at this specific moment in time I have seen my favourite band du jour and can die happy.

NAO: 9 out of 10
Venue 1 out of 10

NAO would have got a 10 if the venue could have offered them acoustics and space and people and decent beer and ...

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Film Review - Monsters: Dark Continent

Monsters: Dark Continent

Gareth Edwards' Monsters is my favourite film of the 21st Century. No ifs or buts, I think it achieves so much in an unbelievably understated way. It is in many ways the best science fiction/alien invasion movie ever made because there is something inherently more believable about Monsters than something arriving in a space ship, looking like John Travolta, and enslaving/destroying the planet earth.

And, of course, Monsters wasn't referring to the giant octopus-like, largely benign, aliens, but the people - the humans - who were the real monsters. From the opportunistic ferryman to the pretty much dislikeable lead actors, there is barely a glimmer of humanity between any of them... except, as the film progresses the two main 'stars' are changed by the events around them; it's like they not only discover each other, but a little of their ability to be human beings again. Of course, the wonderful allegory of Monsters is the fact the actual 'monsters' are just a backdrop to the horrors of people and they appear to just be searching for a reason to exist on this god forsaken shit-hole that is earth. Plus there's the utterly splendid soundtrack by Jon Hopkins.

I can understand why Monsters is seriously derided among geeks and fanboys, it doesn't have much action in it and it's a hybrid road movie cum love story - as I said the monsters are immaterial to the actual narrative, they just perfectly juxtapose the events taking place around them.

The idea of a Monsters sequel appealed to me as soon as I heard about it. Considering Monsters cost about $50 and made millions you could almost see a franchise growing out of it, but only because of some monstrous film exec; yet I somehow had the feeling that if Edwards was producing it, it would keep a sense of what it was really about. The early clips for Dark Continent simply moved the action from Mexico to the Middle East; the trailers featured glimpses of new-look monsters; super giants compared to the ones down Mexico way and it seemed to be focusing on something that was only fleetingly touched on in the first film - the fight against the aliens - which has been a vagary of both films because it is clear that the aliens appear to have no malicious intent, they just exist and things get in the way.

Here's where it gets a little too clever for its own good. The action is set in an unnamed Arabian country, probably Iraq, and follows the mission of a team of Detroit-based US 'squaddies' as they attempt to recover four MIA colleagues. The twist in the tale is while these US soldiers are there, the locals don't want them and therefore they have as much trouble dealing with suicide bombers, terrorist attacks and insurgents as they do from the lumbering and benign aliens.

Naturally, as with the first film, this wasn't about the monsters, but about the 'monsters' that make man tick. It is made clear almost from the word go that this squad of troops are a bunch of worthless twats who have a loyalty to each other but not really to their flag. This is because they live in Detroit, which is now just a ghost city forgotten about by everyone else; except one of the team is a little more sensitive, because he was alienated as a child and grew up in the same hostile and unfamiliar environment, but without parents...

Over in 'Ragheadland', the staff sergeant is a mean son-of-a-bitch who wants to go home to his wife and daughter but they don't want him any more because he's become this obsessed nutter-bastard monster and his #2 is a black man with a chip on his shoulder and all around them are shouty angry locals who are not given subtitles to enforce the feeling of isolation and lack of understanding...

Has the allegory been hitting you around the head enough yet? Because that is what this is; it is bashing you into submission with allegory and it loses sight and focus of everything else as a result.

But wait, there's more... With the subtlety of a zombie apocalypse the 'main' protagonist, the guy with his own trailer-load of allegory weighing him down like a millstone realises that he has more in common with the monsters than the mad angst-ridden bastards he's surrounded by - except most of them are wiped out by terrorists in a scene so telegraphed they should have had signs up saying - ENEMY ATTACK IN 30 SECONDS. You knew this because for the first time in the film all of the angst-ridden angry bastards were having a laugh and admiring the fucked up alien life out-running their RVs.

Then there's the Bedouin interlude where not-so-angst-ridden is given a lesson in why life is sacred while having his own personal alien light show just to HAMMER HOME THE ALLEGORY.

Then there's the acting. There are some fine British actors on show here with credits worth praising: This is England, Skins, Misfits, Fortitude, Game of Thrones alumni all appear and they all SHOUT A LOT in bad American accents and try to impress upon us what bad ass mutherfuckers they are and how they've really struggled to become bad ass mutherfuckers and ... FFS STOP IT NOW!!!

I cannot think of much in its two hour length that can redeem it. Monsters: Dark Continent was an ill-advised, badly made pile of SHIT.

For starters it doesn't actually need the monsters in it; they served no real purpose as most intelligent people outside of Jesusland are probably more than aware that a lot of US GIs are wankers, arseholes and likely to be into shoot, slap and kill first and ask questions later than being caring understanding types and probably make as many enemies as they do friends. I'm sure the same can be said about most soldiers.

Setting alienated US soldiers in a hostile environment is pretty much a staple diet from Hollywood, with at least one every two years singled out for Oscar attention - this year was that sniper film that just glorified death the American way. Why this was needed to be Yanks and therefore get everyone to put on fake accents is something that mystifies me - perhaps the director wanted to make a point?

The monsters were great and varied and not on screen for long enough and ended up being background screensavers and an excuse to drop bombs; their potential was completely lost and was substituted for a chance for some British actors to chew scenery in their best Hugh Laurie House voices. It just took the original and instead of making the action bigger and bolder, it just gave us a bigger bunch of characters who all deserved to die.

I now understand how and why this didn't get a theatrical release and slipped out on DVD without any fanfare or mention. It is a dreadful film with no redeemable qualities; some unbelievably bad acting and no idea what it was trying to say, because the story or the possibility of a story got lost in ALL OF THE SHOUTING!

2 out of 10 (and that was for the alien monsters who acted everyone else off the screen)