Sunday, October 25, 2009

Merde du Jour

What a shit, shit week! Caught a virus, did my back in, lost money, discovered another old friend has cancer - that just about sums it up. Oh and the clocks went back, which officially makes today the shittiest of them all.

I hate GMT, it's stupid and outdated. I really don't give a shit that it doesn't get light until 9am in the morning, if it doesn't get dark until 5pm, that's a damned sight better than 4pm. If I had kids I'd rather they came home from school in the light rather than in the dark. Kids are going somewhere in the morning - school, so whether its dark or not is immaterial. Kids are meandering lost souls after school who can wander about aimlessly and take an hour to do a 15 minute journey. I'd rather they meandered in the light or twilight. Plus it's so fucking depressing and we don't get an extra hour in bed, we wake up an hour earlier! If we have to put the clocks back, lets do it it in December and put them forward again in January. That way the proper Christmas season can be all warm and snuggly and grim, like wot it was like in Victorian times...

I've been itching to write a column about social networking sites, but it really is a can of worms and continues to grow exponentially and, more importantly, I don't know if I can do it justice, especially as the areas of my invective are pretty much marginalised anyhow. However, that didn't stop me from jotting down some things wot I thought...

Facebook is something of a phenomenon, and I, like many others, have been swept up by its charmless mish-mash of applications, updates and self-importantisms*. It was started by Friends Reunited, which, of course, became more famous for elevating school romances into the realm of adulterous affairs than it did for how much it was sold for. FR was essentially a hag or shag site - were the girls/boys you used to know at school hags or shags? FB is far more sophisticated and was developed by Yanks, but it's still essentially a free form of dating site.

The concept of FB could be applied to other rip off sites, a short list of which I have compiled:
Hatebook - you don't make friends with people, you hate them. If the hate is mutual even better! Your status update is insults and all the applications are shoot'em ups.
Firstbook - a small selective SNG; you just become friends with the first person you had sex with, no one else. The interesting thing about this seeing how many other people had sex for the first time with the person you did!
Pervbook - got a perversion? Hook up with like-minded people and post photos of your own mutilated genitalia.
Arsebook - an SNG dedicated to pictures of your arse - this one's a winner! (There are obvious spin-offs from this; cockbook, cuntbook, boobbook, tonsilbook, elbowbook, nosebook... the list could almost be endless)

The other thing about SNGs (and virtual worlds, of which I have ventured nowhere near) that has me perplexed is this 'currency' that is creeping in. Recently in the Guardian there was an article about the economy of virtual worlds and how people use real money to buy virtual money to buy people virtual presents... I'm sorry, perhaps this is just me, but is that the most fucking stupid idea ever, ever? What did you get for your birthday then? Oh, I got some virtual flowers and a virtual box of virtual chocolates!

One of my current favourites is Zynga's Texas Hold'em Poker on FB. It's waaaay more popular than virtually any other application and its a free game playing with free chips. But, you can buy tokens to allow you to buy back into games which don't have actual prizes. Let me make this clear: There's a weekly poker tournament where you get 1000 virtual dollars; the aim is to stay in the tournament until the following Sunday night and accumulate the most chips. If you win V$1,000,000 by the end of the week, I get that V$1million plus a bonus of about 10%, so I get V$100k. The only place you can use these virtual dollars is in Zynga's poker game and as stakes or to buy more virtual gifts. If I get knocked out at any point during that week, I can pay $1.95 - actual money - to buy V$1k of chips to re-enter the tournament to try and win nothing! Zynga, allegedly, makes over $100k a year from this feature alone. Is this complete and utter insanity?

Another great one is FB's birthday gifts. You get half a dozen free ones and then the rest increase in cost. These are all NOT REAL and yet they want you to pay $5 for a bottle of virtual champagne!!!! You can buy Facebook credits to allow you to buy Facebook virtual gifts... perhaps Facebook should have been called GullibleTwatBook?

Anyhow, if people have no sense and enough disposable income they want to do this kind of unmitigated nonsense, then I can't stop them, but I know what they are and how to call them.

But, saying that, I remember when FB decided to change its entire look. Over a million people complained about the new look and begged for the old look to come back. I said at the time they can bleat and whine all they want, nothing will happen and guess what? Nothing happened and if anything the new Facebook is riddled with stuff that once upon a time would have had people fleeing for alternatives.

The internet is changing and if people want to fulfil the self-fulfilling prophecy that one day they would spend more time in cyberspace than on terra firma, then it's entirely up to them. Personally, I'd rather own real estate than unreal estate; I'd rather have sex with a real person than have a glorified wank in front of a monitor and most of all, I'd like to buy someone something they can hold in their hands - love it or hate it - rather than buy them a virtual gift that is utterly worthless because it doesn't exist.

Moving on...

Overheard in Tesco about an hour ago: "Oh, I'll be so happy when Halloween is out of the way; then it's just Bonfire Night and Christmas!" This is a woman who should have been sealed up pre-puberty!!! For fuck's sake, and this means you, Halloween is a purely American invention, created not in the spirit (if you'll excuse the pun) but to make MONEY out of YOU!!! It has little or nothing to do with Britain and if a kid knocks on my door next Saturday trick or treating, I will explain to him that doorstep begging died out during the Victorian era when it was made illegal, so if they don't get off my property I'll set the fucking dogs on them!

I came up with a perfect way of celebrating Christmas! Change the date to February 29th and celebrate it every 4 years! That way it would become special again and would give us all four years to forget just how awful it is and how we intend to enjoy ourselves, but always end up spending it with all the people we'd rather lock in the cellar of a flood compromised housing estate.

Did I mention I was having a bad week?


* I am aware this is a made up word

Sunday, October 18, 2009

SQUONK!!

Walking home that night
The sack across my back, the sound of sobbing on my shoulder.
When suddenly it stopped,
I opened up the sack, all that I had
A pool of bubbles and tears - Just a pool of tears.
October 16th, 1989. So many people who came to the opening of Squonk!! are no longer with us and that's the saddest part of having an anniversary like this...
SQUONK!!

It was a song written by mssrs Collins, Rutherford, Banks and Hackett in 1975. It opened the Trick of the Tail album, the first post-Gabriel. It isn't even my favourite track on the album, yet in the face of having to call my greatest business venture 'The Comics Hall', this left field suggestion was always going to be a winner.

Comic books and Genesis were the two things of my youth. I even attempted to launch a prog fanzine off the back of my comics fanzine, back in the 1970s, called Squonk Images. So when I mentioned this, everyone in the room seemed to think this was the perfect name for a comics shop; and I know I'm biased, but I still think it's in the Top One of comic shop names, even today...

Squonk!! (the exclamation marks were important and caused the bank all kinds of problems printing my cheque books) was a very half-arsed retail venture. I have to be honest, because with hindsight, I'm amazed I didn't die of embarrassment; it was as slick as a penny farthing and looked like it had been conceived, built and painted by a group of intellectually challenged goldfish.

I took £317.58 on the opening day (I still have all my takings books) and for the first time in my life felt as though I was in charge of my own destiny. That day began with a song called 'Big New Beginning' by The Big Dish and the first customer didn't walk through the door until 11.12am.

I had little or no idea how to run a shop and I made huge swathes of mistakes during the first 12 months and yet, miraculously I managed to stay on top of things, despite interest rates going through the roof and me struggling to stock much else other than comics. Comics were still very much big business in 1990 and I was approached by an investor, who, at the time was buying into a viable business, but by the time he was £8k lighter in his pocket, his stake was worth about half of that. My second business partner bought out my first and let me run the business the way I'd begun to learn how and by March 1991 it was in the black.

Suddenly, I had a small success on my hands. The bank was no longer a worry; I'd saved a couple of hundred quid in monthly bank charges and suddenly the black figures were growing larger. It was a glorious 6 weeks and then the shit hit the fan. Wellingborough Council, bless their hearts, decided to shut the street Squonk!! was situated on; the dramatic loss in passing trade was quite astonishing. By 1991, I needed to take £1100 a week to pay my bills, myself and keep the bank balance stable, anything more than that - woohoo - anything less, then time begins to run out.

Within two weeks of the planned 3 month closure, my takings had dropped by 50%, fortunately for me so had most other shops. By week six, when the council reopened the road, I had plunged to over £2000 in the red - worse than I had ever been in the previous two years - but the reopening didn't bring a flood of customers; in fact some I never saw again - they had bought their monthlies somewhere else and decided to stay (Eternity in MK did okay out of me).

By September 1991, I was in dire straits and only a massive sale at a London comic mart, which generated the £2000 I needed to ward off the wolves, saved out skins. We were all right for a while, but we needed to generate more business; we plunged into mail order, did more comics fairs and marts and I began to not pay Peter to pay Paul.

The shop started to really stagger in the March of 1992. Interest rates were 16%; I was two months in arrears with my rent and three months with my rates. The only people being paid were Diamond and they were helpful in some ways and a massive hindrance in others. Another massive sale in London generated less than £500 and at a subsequent one in Leeds, I came home with £100. It was barely enough to keep myself afloat.

In the May, with no sublet shops, no new comics, no likelihood of any form of cash injection and after a long 3-way conversation with Dez Skinn and Mike Conroy, I decided to pull the plug. Squonk!! shut around the 25th of May; it took more money on its last day than it did on its first...

Without Squonk!! I would never have ended up working for Comics International for 11 years; I would never have ended up working with the homeless and with young offenders; I wouldn't have created Borderline quite as successfully as I did.

20 years on... the wife is still here; so is Colin Theobald - the designer of the Squonk!! logo, that sits in my shed. Neil McOnie, Matt DeMonti, Luan 'Mammary Lass' Jones - all paid staff are still family/friends; Glynn is no longer with us... Scott Goodman, the world's scariest Saturday lad is still as large as life and he and Jay Eales remain two of my best friends. Dez - the bloke who ran the Head shops and Roger, the bloke who did my accounts - are still my closest friends. An ex-customer of mine even plumbed in our new bathroom for us last year and I worked with his girlfriend! Just last week, brother Ron was at a comic mart, up north, and he met a guy who was one of my customers during the last days of its life. He was pretty sure this bloke must of had me confused with someone else because of the unbelievably wonderful picture he painted of his brother. Squonk!! haunts me in a good way...

The first ever email address I ever had and still the used, most often, today is a squonk address. The name of our quiz team is Squonk and its also the name of my fantasy football team... It's never been a password to anything! It resonates throughout my life and I'll probably have it engraved on my tombstone, just to make people in 200 years wonder... There are things about my past I'd gladly change right now if I could, but the only thing I would have changed out my Squonk!! years would be the location. If I'd been patient and waited, I might still be doing it today...

It was 20 years ago... so much has been lost, so much has been found.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rough Steez

I feel I could moan for England this afternoon. I'm well aware that many people think I could moan for England most of the time, but this afternoon I feel decidedly moantastic!

It started this morning with The Observer and an article about Morrisons, the supermarket renowned for pretty low quality, and their insistence that they couldn't serve a 50 year old woman a bottle of wine, because she might have been buying it for her 17 year old daughter, who had just accompanied her on the weekly shop. Morrisons have a regular habit of being the Jobsworth Supermarket and the management's decision to back the staff and manager of the shop in question made my blood boil.

Then my own shopping excursions found me in Sainsburys and the unrelenting march of Christmas. In recent years we've seen the invention of a new, 5th season. We have Spring, Summer, Autumn, Christmas and Winter now. Autumn now officially lasts from September 21st to October 1st, when the season of Christmas replaces it and that lasts until about January 8th, when Winter makes a belated appearance. Of course, if retailers had their own way we would still have four seasons - Christmas, Easter, Summer and Halloween/Bonfire season: the first would start at the end of the last and go all the way through until Cadbury's Cream Eggs are in the shops and they would stay there until the disposable bbqs and rows of ribs, steaks and cheap shitty burgers come out. I fucking hate consumerism and commercialism...

You can buy a Sainsburys Yuletide Chocolate Log with an expiry date of October 11th. What the fuck is that about? Are there really a huge number of complete and utter wankers out there? I'm waiting for the house down the road to put its decorations up. We thought they might be Hindus when we first moved here, but they're not - they're just complete and utter tossers. Last year the decorations went up two days before the end of October. I swear if they go up earlier this year I'm going to fucking torch the house and all inside!

Last night, I discovered that an old friend and a good friend of my brother-in-law has cancer and has been given not very long. He's 35 and that just makes this year the tops as far as young people dying. 2009 will go down in my annals of history as one that's best consigned to the depths of memory. It has been a shit year, so many deaths, so much pain, and enormous amounts of stress and to top it all off, we look like we're going to get a Conservative government next year. There is little reason to stay in this shit hole of a country. Perhaps the best thing to do would be find a cave somewhere and just hide in it for the rest of my life...

Something else that depressed me this morning, that, by rights, shouldn't have. On Friday 16th October, it will be exactly 20 years ago that Squonk!! opened its doors and I began my short but fun career as a comic book retailer. It still gets talked about today - just last week my brother Ron was at a comic mart and met a couple of lads (ha, I call them lads, they're in their 30s now) who were frequent visitors to the shop. They sent their best and Ron was amazed that they should have nothing but good things to say about me!

20 years... Fuck... This means that people like Jay Eales, Scott Goodman, Simon Coleby, Matt DeMonti and many others have been my friends for that amount of time. Time flies, no doubt. All these youngsters who ventured into my self-styled community centre are all in their 30s or 40s now and probably lead far more sensible and normal lives... well... maybe not, but it does make you realise that the older you get the quicker everything becomes. I'm dreading ever hitting 70+ because the way time seems now, it'll probably be even faster by then.

The last 20 years has been something of a rollercoaster ride; retailer, journalist, columnist, editor/publisher, award winner, homeless worker, and now working with young offenders - it's been a path I would never have expected to have taken; but at least I'm happy with my lot. Yeah, I maybe could have had a far more successful - economically - life, but at least I don't feel 47 (in my mind) and I don't think I'm a boring middle-aged man, like so many boring middle-aged men I meet.

I have a full calendar of gigs to attend in the coming months, despite saying after seeing The Charlatans two years ago that I would only go to gigs where I could sit down - because of the strain it places on my back. But in the coming months there's The Flaming Lips, Gomez, Charlie Barnes, Pineapple Thief, Porcupine Tree and I have developed an urge to want to go and see something a bit different...

I've recently been extolling the virtues of a Bristol-based electronic duo called Fuck Buttons. I like progressive electronica (I'm a huge fan of Hybrid) in a big way - it probably springs from my love of Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre and prog rock and the fact that my once drug addled head loved rave music. Fuck Buttons are like rave for the space rock generation; yes it's repetitive and has umpteen million beats per second, but it's hard, relentless and not for your fans of Robert Miles or Euro pop synth bollocks. The new album Tarot Sport is probably one that you'll either get straight away or be completely baffled by. It should be played loud and I have this real urge to go and see them live - if they do live in the conventional way. I think it's because I'd like to see if they are as BIG live as they on record and from an anthropological stand point - I'd like to see what other kind of people are into this strange hybridised music. Tarot Sport has been on constant rotation this last week, much to the disgust of the missus.

One of the better things to happen recently was concluding an article/interview with Sel Balamir of the mighty Amplifier for my Comics Village column, which, it appears, is a little more frequent than it once was. That's probably down to the fact that I've had lots to talk about - even if it's just going over old ground a lot of the time. A little sidebar to this; Amplifier's new album, due out soon(ish) is called The Octopus; just this week I read that pictures of octopuses are not as popular as they once were...

The awesome Team Squonk, the quiz team that I've been in for a few years, has hit a rich vein of form recently and the team kitty now boasts well over £200 in winnings - which should pay for the six of us to go out for a meal at least twice, which is nice.

Oh and I made up with my good friend who I'd fallen out with. We were both being silly really, me probably more so, so all's well that ends well, eh? Now I just have to rebuild bridges with the other 400...

The shoulder is becoming the bane of my physique again. All the optimism seems to have evaporated and I'm growing increasingly paranoid that there's something else amiss with it. The problem is it's a different kind of problem, and not nearly as painful, but still bad enough to have me reaching for lesser strength painkillers. I have almost 80% mobility back and I do things I haven't been able to do for a couple of years; but it aches and it goes numb; the latter being a whole new wrinkle; and it doesn't like some things I do and complains vigorously during and mainly after I've done it. I mean, I'm swimming again and before the op swimming was a real bonus, now it isn't - despite returning to swimming proving to be most surreal and weird!
I'm resisting going back to the doctor's because I'm aware that it was a major operation and it might take a few months for it to be fully operational; but the longer it goes on, the more aggravating and annoying it's becoming. Plus, it's been a saga that has gone on far too long and it would seem almost disrespectful for me to resurrect it after the last 4 months...

What have I been watching recently?

Flash Forward is Lost-lite, but it's an intriguing premise and I'm enjoying Joe Fiennes growling his way through a generic Yank accent.
Fringe just gets madder and madder and I know there's people out there who gave up on this, but like Lost, you shouldn't have. Plus Walter Bishop is one of the best TV characters created in recent times.
The Vampire Diaries is Twilight but with a little more... bite. It's a Kevin Williamson show, which shouldn't put you off and if you can get passed all the teen angsty shite, there's an intriguing story in there fighting to get out.
Stargate Universe is something I urge Battlestar Galactica fans to avoid like the plague. It's essentially BG crossed with ST: Voyager and don't be fooled by Robert Carlyle's presence, he phones it in. It tries hard to be gritty and realistic, yet feels completely soulless and derivative.
Heroes - the new season is as crap as the last one - avoid like the above.
The new series of Dexter kicked off with a cliffhanger ending to end all cliffhanger endings and that after just 1 episode. This is the best TV on TV at the moment.
And, to top it all off, I started watching Smallville, only 8 years after its d├ębut. Michael Rosenbaum - Lex Luthor - is fucking awesome, it's a shame the rest of it feels like a rehash of old Buffy plots. I'm almost at the end of the first season and its one of those shows that promises much but just teases you in the end. I'm going to stick with it though, because it's the Christmas season now and there's going to be fuck all to watch on British TV...