General Election 2017: Use your vote, but use it wisely

In the run-up to the council elections earlier this year Ruth Davidson posed on a mobility scooter, presumably as part of her campaign to raise awareness about how underdeveloped the Tory party’s sense of irony is. Really, Ruth? That’s like Thatcher trying to win over the working class by posing for the 1985 Socialist Worker’s calendar, lounging across a pit entrance, and naked except for a miner’s helmet and a puff of coal-dust on each cheek.

The Tory party – in both Westminster and Holyrood – is working hard to channel the spirit of an apparently remorseful abusive partner, swearing with all of its might that ‘this time things will be different’.  In the grip of delusional desperation in Scotland – and owing to a sense of sinister, Voldermortian assurance in England – the Tories are busy positioning themselves as the party of the disabled, the disenfranchised, the poor, the NHS, the working man. ‘I’ve changed, honestly I have, you’ll see, I love you, I don’t want to lose you. I promise that this time I won’t beat the absolute fuck out of you, and then cheat on you with the posh bit of stuff up the street.’

I can understand why the guy with the monocle from Monopoly would vote Conservative, but why has the party enjoyed such an upsurge in popularity among the working class? Why are people who rely upon the NHS, a healthy welfare state and a large swathe of well-funded, publicly-run services (particularly in the care sector) essentially voting for their own destruction by embracing a party that is, at root, ideologically opposed to all of these things?

Our predominantly right-wing media is partly responsible for this state of affairs, of course, that steady drip-feed of lies, hysteria and manipulation masquerading as news and comment. Look on in envy, Kaiser Soze, because yours is no longer the greatest trick ever pulled, son: tabloid newspapers are owned by billionaires and staffed by middle-class urban professionals, but somehow the working class is convinced that they speak for them. This same mentality runs rampant in America, as evidenced by its people hailing a heartless, ruthless billionaire, who built his billions on the broken backs of millions, as a man of the people (It’s not even clear that Donald Trump is a person, much less a man).

It also seems to me that the thunderous orchestra of social and political issues that makes up the soundtrack to our dizzyingly complex and hectic lives has been reduced to one single, deafening scream: BLOODY FOREIGNERS! “I don’t want these bloody Poles and P***s using our bloody NHS!” Well, take heart, my frightened, reactionary friend. You keep voting like this and the NHS won’t exist anyway. Who knows, maybe that’s been the agenda/evil plan all along.

As a little aside, it also amazes me that most of the British nationalists and unionists I’ve encountered – the ones with streaks of racism in them so prominent they’re actually visible from space – have also been, almost unfailingly, great admirers of the Queen.

“LONG LIVE THE QUEEN!” “FOR QUEEN AND COUNTRY!” “I BLOODY LOVE THAT WOMAN!” Ah, a violent, semi-literate alcoholic skinhead with a hair-trigger temper. I’m sure the Queen will be inviting you round to the palace for tea and cucumber sandwiches any day now. Again, she’s a billionaire who sits on a throne and wears a crown. I don’t know what part of that makes Davey from Possil imagine that their love and respect is somehow mutual. The Queen probably wouldn’t piss on most of us if we were on fire.

Our charred corpses, on the other hand…

“Well,” people in Scotland might say, “I need to vote Tory to keep that wee dwarf Sturgeon out. She only cares about making Scotland independent!”

It seems a bit churlish to lambast the leader of what is ultimately the ‘We’re Committed to this Very Specific Thing’ Party for being committed to a very specific thing. Spoiler alert: yes, the SNP is pretty keen on Scottish independence, primarily because it’s our last, best hope to conduct and manage our affairs in line with our political, economic and social needs and aspirations. But the SNP isn’t a one-trick pony. Its manifesto also embraces civicism with a heavy smattering of socialism, something most people would know if they ever had occasion to hear Nicola Sturgeon talk without some arsehole shouting ‘BUT WHAT ABOUT INDEPENDENCE, DWARF?!’ at her every three seconds (I don’t think poor Nicola finish her breakfast without somebody asking her if she intends to grant self-determination to her cornflakes).

Do you really want to vote for Theresa May: a wobble-voiced Thatcher-lite who looks like she’s trying to regurgitate an albatross each time she laughs? Or Ruth Davidson, a passionless politician with the soul of a middle-manager?

The old saying goes that the longer we live the more right-wing our views become: we start off as idealists, and crusaders for justice, but evolve into bitter, jaded cynics as we come to the painful realisation that the world is a great, immutable sink-hole of unfairness, indifference and cruelty (In fact, wait, isn’t that actually a line from the Tory manifesto?).

So if a leftist is capable of transitioning from left to right, then what the hell kind of moral journey does a Tory undertake as he or she advances into their twilight years? How much more ‘right’ can ‘right’ get?

Do you really want to find out?

England: vote for Corbyn, come what May.

Scotland: Be Ruthless.

**Hey, wait a minute. It’s finished? But what about Scottish Labour? Well, exactly.

F*** The Walking Dead Season 3: The Return of the Un-Fun-Dead

How can I describe Fear The Walking Dead for the benefit of those who haven’t yet sampled its delights? Here goes.

Imagine writing a list of all the things you love about The Walking Dead. Now imagine pulling your pants down and taking a long, slimy shit all over that list, working and twisting your hips so you actually spell the word ‘shit’ with your own shit as you shit it out, like piping the icing on the world’s most abominable cake. Imagine stomping your bare feet into all that shit, really spreading and squishing it around, and then getting a lamb to lick the mess from between your toes.

Well, I’d rather watch you do that than watch another season of Fear The Walking Dead.

So I guess that makes me a sicko as well as both an unhinged completist and a self-flagellating masochist, because I am going to watch another season of Fear The Walking Dead. Why don’t you join me? Or jump back in? Catch up. Take the plunge. Misery likes company, after all.

Here’s a re-cap of the action so far, presented in the sort-of style of a sort-of recipe.

Ingredients you’ll need to make:

A series which purports to show the fall of civilisation

The fall of civilisation (4 episodes)

Getting to a boat (2 episodes)

Being on a boat (4 episodes)

I wish that they were still on that boat (3 episodes)

What happened to that boat anyway? (2 episodes)

A hotel? A Mexican death cult? This could get interesting (4 episodes)

I was promised way more boat than this (2 episodes)

I suppose Fear The Walking Dead itself is a little bit like a boat, a broken boat; cast adrift on a rolling sea of plot as the tides of tired tropes and waves of cringe-worthy contrivances hurl and tug it hither and thither. It’s doomed to sail on uncertainly and aimlessly, at least until the day it’s dashed on the rocks of viewer apathy. Despite garnering higher ratings than Better Call Saul (What the hell is wrong with Americans? No wonder you voted in Trump!) that day surely can’t be too far away, based on current narrative trajectory. I feel adrift, too. The only thing stopping me from jumping overboard – “ABANDON SHIT!” – is the faint, infinitesimally small glimmer of hope that things might get better; that I might actually start to care about what happens to the characters.

Earlier this year The Walking Dead – FTWD’s zombie daddy – wrapped up what was arguably its weakest season yet. However, even on its best days The Walking Dead is unlikely to earn itself a place in Television Valhalla, standing shoulder to shoulder with the mighty classics of our age. It’s often clunky, schmaltzy and over-padded. Who cares though, right? Not every painter can be Van Gogh. Not every TV show can be Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos or Rectify. But at least The Walking Dead is capable of turning out exciting, haunting, affecting and powerful episodes, and I actually care about most of its characters. Especially Carol. And except for Carl.

Fear The Walking Dead, on the other hand, is objectively – on the evidence of its episodes to date – a bad show, as I’m sure the subtle analogy I deployed at the beginning of this piece, involving lambs and human feces, made clear. The tag-line for Fear the Walking Dead’s upcoming season might as well be: “YOU ACTUALLY THINK THIS SHIT’S GOING TO GET BETTER, DON’T YOU? HA HA HA HA HA HA. Oh, shit. Ha ha ha ha. I really needed that laugh, thanks. Ha.”

I hope it gets a lot better. I really do… Or at least marginally better.

Anyway, here’s a re-cap of the characters:

Madison Clark

Hi. I’m Madison. I’m an archetypal strong female character in the kick-ass-mom mould. Good, right? Well, no, because I’m poorly written and portrayed as if I’m a Vulcan at a funeral, walking around with a jaw like a steel-trap, frowning and moaning the whole time. Seriously, I’m so unlikeable I can’t even stand myself. I was in Deadwood. Remember that? Man, that was a good show. And now I’m in Un-Deadwood. Fuck. I wish I’d taken that part in The Strain. At least I’m not a total pussy like my boyfriend… whatever this name is.

Travis… thingy. Or am I?

Hi, I’m Travis. Or am I Curtis? I think I’m Curtis. Am I? Or is that the name of my actor? One’s Travis, the other’s Curtis. No, I’m Travis. I am Travis, definitely. Or am I Curtis? Fuck, is my name Cliff? Christ, I’m so boring and devoid of a concrete identity it’s no wonder I’ve no idea who I am. Dull, dull, dull. I’m desperately trying to survive a fledgling apocalypse here: how the Hell do I manage to be so utterly boring in the process? I just mope around all day looking like Tully from Sesame Street, and pissing on people’s parades. But don’t worry. I beat two punks to death at the end of last season. That was a wee bit interesting and people seemed to dig it, so they’re going to ‘Rick’ me up for season three. WE’RE GOING OVER THE CLIFF EDGE, BABY! Hmmm. That doesn’t work if my name’s not Cliff though. Travis… Travis… Travis… A-HA! WHY DOES IT ALWAYS BRAIN ON ME?!

Or am I Curtis?

Alicia Clark

Hi there, (bats eyelashes) boys are like soooo gross, shutup I love boys, oh God I love my iPod, but oh God I’d die for my boyfriend, he’s like my bff, oh my God, gross that is like SO unfair, oh my God I hate you guys, I’m such a girl, I’m so ditzy, oh I’m on a boat, OMG, boys, I can talk to boys out here, uh-oh I almost got us all killed, FML, I wish I wasn’t so naïve and blindly trusting and … (CHUNG CHICK) Hi there, that was the sound of me loading a fresh cartridge into my shotgun, that’s the kind of thing I do now, because I’ve just inexplicably woken up in possession of the wise, noble soul and tactical combat knowledge of a 900-year-old warrior-general, and the inner-calm of a Lara Croft android. I’ve gone from ‘Damn, she MOAN’ to ‘Michonne. DAMN’ in less time than it takes a man to check IMDB to see if I’m safe to wank over.

Nick Clark

OK, let’s get all of the Johnny Depp and heroin addict gags out of the way first, shall we? What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Zombies, that’s what! I’ll also give you Edward Needle-hands, Willy Wonky and Crack Sparrow. There. All out of your system now. Hi, I’m Nick. I worked out how to walk safely through hordes of zombies pretty early on in the apocalypse. You just smear yourself with zombie guts. I tend to do it every single time I’m out amongst the zombies, because I quite like being alive, unlike those fucking idiots on The Walking Dead. Anyway, give or take my recent spell in a Mexican death cult, I’m probably the best character on the show, which is a bit like being awarded best in show at Crufts when you aren’t actually a dog. Or maybe it isn’t. I’ve taken a lot of heroin.

Victor Strand

I’m mysterious. Christ, I’m mysterious. Look at me lounging against the bars of this cage in my dapper clothes, offering gruff nuggets of cod-philosophy and intrigue to my jonesing new friend, Nick. It’s like my old dad used to say: if you find yourself imprisoned under martial law during a zombie apocalypse, make sure you’ve got a junkie as your right hand man. Junkies are indispensable survivalists, and not a liability at all; everybody knows that. I’m Strand, by the way. Or am I? Who am I? Who are you? Who’s Abigail? Ah, forgive the mystery, it’s my boat, you see. And I’m going somewhere. Where? Well, aren’t we all going somewhere? Christ, there’s that mystery again. I’m also dangerous. Did I mention that? Can’t you see it? Dapper and dangerous. Positively stranger-ous. I’ll cut you and you won’t even know you’ve been cut. I’ll cut the rope on your dinghy. I’ll shoot you. I’M IN LOVE WITH DOUGRAY SCOTT. He was great in Love Actually. He wasn’t in it? Well, what was the one… Kathy Burke was in it. He had the long hair and that? Anyway, I love him, and we’re all going to Mexico so we can… Oh. He’s dead. Fuck. Erm… eh. Yeah. (sigh) I’m boring now.

Chris Manawa

Hi, I’m Chris, which is short for ‘Christ, I’m an awful character.’ Remember how you thought Carl Grimes was the most awful boy in existence? Well allow me to introduce you (points at self) to this cunt.

You watched me at the end of last season and thought to yourself, ‘Oh, thank goodness he’s dead, I hate that fucking guy’, and then when the guy who plays me appeared in Agents of SHIELD – as Ghostrider’s brother – you thought, ‘Phew, well that seals it then, he’s absolutely, definitely, incontrovertibly dead,’ and then the character was only in the show for about three episodes, and you thought, ‘Oh, fuck, maybe Chris ISN’T dead’. And then you couldn’t quite remember if my death had only been hinted at or if it had been shown on screen, and you thought to yourself, ‘Actually, now I’m thinking Curtis killed him… or did Curtis kill the guys who killed him? Wait, is it Travis or Curtis… but… shit, I can’t remember’, and then you didn’t even care enough to Google it.

Oh, and Ofelia, too. I guess she’s a thing?

F*** the Walking Dead returns to US screens on Sunday 4th June with a host of new characters, and hopefully the tragic death of a few old ones.

Scotland’s Hot-Spots and Pot-Holes: A Wee Tour

What self-respecting whistle-stop tour of Scotland could begin with anything other than a picture of the Bronx?

It pretty much goes without saying – except for the fact that I’m currently saying it – that we’re all different. People are different; places are different. People are different because of places, and places are different because of people. Some places are good, some places are bad; some are happy, some are sad; some are absolutely beautiful, some are Kilmarnock. Vive la difference! Taking a stroll through the posher portions of Corstorphine doesn’t feel quite the same as a wee jog through the Bronx, for the simple reason that there are far, far fewer cunts in the Bronx.

You needn’t travel half-way around the world to see such stark contrasts between places. Look in the next city over, or the next town, or the next street. Small steps can reveal seismic shifts in mood, architecture, diversity and affluence.

Case in point. Grangemouth and Bridge of Allan. Two towns nary twenty miles apart, but strikingly different, I’m sure we’ll all agree. I live in the former, and couldn’t afford a house in the latter even if Bridge of Allan were to be razed to cinders by a 700-megaton nuclear strike.

Yes, Mr Andrew, I can see that this property’s caught your eye. At offers over £500,000, this cosy impact crater filled with thousands of irradiated skulls is something of a steal. A lot of people would give their eye-teeth to live here and, believe me, thanks to the fallout, a lot of people now literally have them.”

Grangemouth at night: Bladerunner meets Dante’s Inferno, via The Wire

Grangemouth is famous for sky-cancer, violence, drugs, drinking, destitution, pollution, prostitution, deprivation, and Kay Adams. Bridge of Allan is famous for being twinned with ‘Raised Walkway of Colin’, New Hampshire, USA.

Grangemouth’s town centre comprises mainly fast-food outlets and betting shops. Bridge of Allan’s high street boasts a rich blend of bespoke brands, shops and outlets, that only a cousin of the queen could afford to shop in. Both of the towns have charity shops. There’s a slight difference in number. Bridge of Allan has one; Grangemouth has 19,658. Each and every one of Grangemouth’s charity shops smells like the soup-splattered bloomers of an incontinent octogenarian grandmother (‘Today’s special is broccoli soup with a soupcon of piss”); they sell things like nicotine-stained doillies; microwave instruction manuals from 1983 (that have all been vandalised with crayon-drawn pictures of penises); and MC Hammer albums on cassette (that somebody’s taped over with the game ‘Horace Goes Skiing’ for the ZX Spectrum).

Bridge of Allan’s charity shop, on the other hand, is actually a boutique, darling. It’s called ‘Mrs Periwinkle’s Benevolence-themed Haberdashery for Those of High Breeding’, and it sells pre-loved harps and tiaras made from unicorn teeth.

There’s the bridge. Allan’s just behind that tree. No, not that tree, the one next to it.

Just in case you’re not getting the picture here, I’d like to draw your attention to Bridge of Allan’s chip shop, which has a sign in the window declaring it ‘Gluten Free’. Not even kicks to the head are gluten-free in Grangemouth. Last time I was in Bridge of Allan, I found  only one example of street-littering. The litter? A handful of mussel shells. Bridge of Allan couldn’t be any more genteel and middle-class if somebody knitted it a giant Pringle sweater, and drove it away in a fucking Volvo. Even the graffiti on the bus shelter is in Latin (I believe the bus shelter’s just been purchased for £500k by a Saudi sheik).

Still, one man’s palace is another man’s hovel. People from Dollar and Dunblane think of Bridge of Allan’s residents as ‘schemies’.

“Well, McKenzie, I heard that in Bridge of Allan they drive their children to cello recital… (whispers) in BMWs.”

“Oh, Florence, those fucking savages.”

Linlithgow: a traffic jam with some bunting.

Just along the road from Grangemouth is the Royal Burgh of Linlithgow. It’s a town that’s steeped in history, prestige and affluence, sure, but it’s also a town that is, paradoxically, something of a shite-hole. Linlithgow’s worst feature is the architectural atrocity known as The Vennel, a retail and housing development that I guess developers and council officials fifty-plus years ago thought would give a modern, even futuristic, sheen to the town, but which now, in the cold light of day, makes it look like the 1960s have thrown up over the 1750s. The single road that cuts through the middle of Linlithgow’s high-end high-street is permanently clogged with traffic, which makes a trip through the town feel like being stuck behind the funeral procession of the person you hated most in the world whilst running late for the first day in your new job as a ‘Punctuality Co-ordinator’ for Linlithgow Council.

The name Linlithgow means ‘place in the lake by the damp hollow.’ Historians believe that the ‘damp hollow’ being referred to here is Bo’ness, a town that was built to serve as Mary Queen of Scots’ toilet. Bo’ness is in the process of being regenerated, but, regrettably, it’s being regenerated into Colin Baker. To be fair to Bo’ness, despite the fact that its town centre has all the vibrancy and razzmatazz of 1930s Albania, and its annual children’s festival is an alcoholic apocalypse, Bo’ness is actually a perfectly fine place to find oneself (as long as you don’t use words like ‘oneself’ in the open, or they’ll kill you). It will probably never find its name included in Scotland’s unofficial roster of shame, alongside less-than-salubrious towns such as Methil, New Cumnock, Cumbernauld, parts of Paisley and, of course,…  

Cowdenbeath’s hottest tourist attraction

Cowdenbeath? Cowdenbeath? What sort of a name is Cowdenbeath? It sounds like the act of explaining a slaughterhouse to a stupid person.

“Cow… den wheelbarrow?”

“Nope.”

“Cow den horse?”

“Try again.”

“Cow den beef?”

“You got it, smarty-pants!”

On the evidence of my one short trip there, filtered through the focal point of its local Co-op supermarket, Cowdenbeath IS a slaughterhouse; a slaughterhouse of the soul. It’s Slaughterhouse 1, 2, 3, 4 AND 5. Take the ‘laughter’ out of the ‘slaughterhouse’, and what are you left with? S-house. And that’s short for shit-house. Cow-incidence? I think not. Walking through the Cowdenbeath Co-op was like walking through the final level of a zombie FPS. Driving down its high street led me to believe that someone, somewhere is making an awful lot of money from the sale of plywood window-boards.

Still. There are worse places…

Imagine if Irvine Welsh made a film set amongst the Orcs of Tolkein’s Middle Earth, starring Jeremy Kyle as himself. You’ve just imagined Alloa. The tagline of Clackmannanshire, the town’s parent district, is ‘More Than You Imagine’; Alloa’s tagline is ‘It Really Is Just As Shit As It Looks, I’m Afraid.’ In fact, it’s even shitter than it looks. The bleakness and hopelessness of the place is somehow bigger on the inside, and the deeper you plod towards its centre, the more pronounced the effects become, like some haunted TARDIS controlled by the ghosts of Nazis. God seems to have taken great care when creating most of the places on earth; when he made Alloa he just poured a bucket of tattoos and limps over Central Scotland. I’ve never been so depressed and afraid walking through a town, and I’m from Grangemouth, remember? The last – and only time – I visited I took my son to a Manhattan-themed cafe for lunch. The Manhattan theme was an ill-fit, like lingerie on a corpse. If it resembled Manhattan at all, it was a Manhattan that King Kong had thumped and shat over. 

That’s not Alloa’s only incongruous (or Kingkonggruous, if you like) association. I find it cruel indeed that Alloa’s name is only one altered emphasis away from being a Hawaiian greeting, when Alloa is to Hawaii what Donald Trump’s ballsack is to … well, Hawaii. The impression conjured by that assocation with the South Pacific makes Alloa seem even worse by comparison. If you do receive a garland around your neck to mark your arrival in Alloa it’s more likely to be made of a burning tyre than lei. Please feel free to make your own joke about the wisdom of looking for a lei in Alloa.  

Throughout the course of this piece of writing I’ve catalogued a smattering of towns and highlighted some of the differences between them; all filtered, of course, through my own biases and prejudices, and written very much with tongue planted firmly in cheek (except for the bits about each of the towns I’ve mentioned – I meant every word). But do you know who else holds ideas about the differences that exist between places? Who not only knows about these differences, but can quantify them to the billionth decimal place, and will almost certainly use this data to take over the entire universe?

Asda.

That’s right. Asda. If you’re ever on the road and find yourself pin-balling between motorway service stations and retail parks, visit a broad sample of Asdas and have a good look at the things they sell. There are standards and staples, sure, products you’ll find in every Asda up and down the country, but sometimes the goods on the shelves – or the absence of particular goods – can speak volumes about the town in which you find yourself. Sometimes the look and feel of an Asda – the features it has – lets you know just what the retail giant’s evil overlords think of your town, or the town you’re in.    

The picture above is of Asda in Robroyston, and shows the police clearing up after the daily 11:30 murder. This Asda is bigger and boasts more mod-cons than its Grangemouth cousin, but inside it’s a green-and-grey carnival of lumpy people, whose faces have been morphed into masks of despair by the onslaught of life. This Asda makes the one in Grangemouth seem like a Monte Carlo Mardi Gras. Asda Robroyston does special deals on packs of razor blades, spades, body bags, and allows you to buy as much fucking paracetemol as you like.

Never mind the Office of National Statistics. There’s no better way to take the socio-economic pulse of the local area than a stroll through your local Asda. What’s that you’ve picked up there? Ah, a cumin and broccoli risotto sprinkled with shredded hundred-pound notes. I don’t know exactly where you are, but it’s probably not Fauldhouse, right? Have a look around the George department, why don’t you, try on some of the clothes. Are you wearing a £1.99 T-shirt with a picture of Tweety Pie on it, and cow-print leggings? Goooooooooood morning, Cambuslang!    

A trip round Asda in Bearsden will make you feel like a pauper, even if you’re a chartered accountant from Queensferry called Gerald. The place is big, and fresh, and clean. The cafe has mood lighting, for Christ’s sake. It looks like a trendy Scandinavian vodka bar. The check-out staff are all part-time astrophysicists. The people who shop there are unfailingly beautiful, and those who aren’t are at least immaculately turned out. No small wonder, since the clothes on sale in the George department wouldn’t look out of place in downtown Milan.

See below for a picture of Asda Bearsden.

Asda Bearsden

These big supermarkets hold data that could swing elections, and help governments address such over-arching global and societal problems as inequality, poverty and hunger. That they use their power to sell me £3 jeans and Pepperamis is almost unconscionable. Anyway, I can’t hang around here all day.

I’m off to Asda in Ayr to get myself a chocolate-flavoured brick of lard sandwich and a sub-machine gun.

Jamie’s Digest (1): Cool Bits from Books

I’d like to share with you a few passages I’ve stumbled across in books I’ve been reading recently that have struck a powerful chord with me, variously for reasons of eloquence, prescience, insight or good old-fashioned entertainment value.

To kick things off, here’s an excerpt about Donald Trump that sums him up succinctly and powerfully, and echoes the way many millions around the world feel about his rise to political power:

“He was slowly turning the country into a videocracy, a land where one person could spread disinformation and lies to millions of passive spectators who were hypnotised by the flashy, false glamour of television. Every month there seemed to be a new scandal, but nothing could bring him down: not the stories of bribery or of prostitution, not the gaffes or toe-curling vulgarity for which he was famous. There was no depth to which he wouldn’t sink. But none of it made any difference: he was ferociously defended by his mediocre political allies and by his hirelings in the media… There wasn’t a trace of statesmanship or gravitas; there wasn’t a hint of honesty or dignity. It drove me nuts and, having done my bit to warn of the danger by writing a book about him, I now yearned to go home.”

Neat, right? Except what you’ve just read wasn’t about Donald Trump at all, but Silvio Berlusconi. I guess history doesn’t always have to wait half a century or so before repeating itself.

That damning summation of Berlusconi was taken from Blood on the Altar: The True Story of an Italian Serial Killer by Tobias Jones, a book I’d heartily recommend, whether you have a predilection for serial killers, travel writing or both (imagine if there was a more literal mash-up of that sub-genre : Route 66 With a Busted Wing by Theodore Bundy; Yorkshire: From Dusk till Dawn by Peter Sutcliffe; Eastbourne Uncovered by  Harold Shipman).

Sometimes Jones can ramble a teensy bit too far off the beaten (to death) track, but his affection for and empathy with the bereaved family, his thirst for justice, and his passion for Italy in general and the Basilicata region in particular (not to mention his deep knowledge of the region’s culture and history) all work in concert to make Blood on the Altar a well-researched, gripping, gruesome, grizzly and (mostly) fluid piece of work.

Amazon link: Blood on the Altar

The [redacted] [redacted] [redacted] of [redacted] [redacted] on [redacted]

The following excerpt is taken from You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom by Nick Cohen, a book of striking relevance to this new age of offence in which we now live. Cohen is an author whose style and literary substance I admire greatly; that he was a contemporary and devotee of Christopher Hitchens – my oratorical and journalistic hero – only serves to amplify the keen respect I already hold for him. I think this book – while some may criticise it for occasionally stating the obvious, or preaching to the converted – is an incredibly lucid, important and necessary piece of work, and should be read by absolutely everyone (while they’re still lucky enough to enjoy the comparative freedom to do so).

“The faster you strip cultures down, the more you find contrariness and disputation, rather than a solid core, until eventually you reach the individual, a mammal shaped by evolution, material needs, cognitive biases and historical circumstances no doubt, but still a creature with a better right to state his opinions than kings and clerics have to silence them.

The faster you strip down the respectful arguments for religious censorship , the more you see the nation, tribe or community splintering, until you are left with one group of individuals with coercive power behind them demanding the right to censor another group of individuals because they disagree with them.”

Amazon link: You Can’t Read This Book

This book is pants – and I mean that as a compliment

I can’t resist buying books for our eldest son, Jack. I’m an avid reader (as is his mum), and a very vocal champion of the benefits and rewards of reading; as such, it’s a delight to see Jack so enthusiastic about and captivated by reading. Books are great for the burgeoning intellect, and even better for the imagination. It’s a constant source of joy and puzzlement to me that there are so many hidden gems and incredible bargains to be picked up in charity shops: as a hoarder, especially of books, I can’t understand why anyone would want to throw one away, much less a classic.

I picked up a special edition of the second book in the Captain Underpants’ series (all books in the series are written and illustrated by American author Dav Pilkey) during one of my recent charity shop forages. I had no idea there was a series, much less that I’d picked up book two of twelve. My son loved the book so much that my partner ordered him the full ten-book box set online (we had no idea there were actually twelve books in the series at that point).

The Captain Underpants books is intended for slightly older kids than my (almost) three-year-old, but because each volume is packed with good-natured naughtiness, inspired nonsense, mind-bending baddies, oodles of toilet humour, mini comic strips, and features an engaging illustration on every page, they’re more than able to maintain his interest, excite his imagination, make him laugh, and leave him longing for more.

I’ve only just discovered that a Captain Underpants movie is on general release this summer. It’ll be interesting to see my son’s reaction to his beloved heroes talking with American accents, given that I’ve made the three main characters of Principal Krupp, George and Harold sound reminiscent of the headmaster from The Inbetweeners, Louis Theroux and Peter Capaldi respectively.

Anyway, I’m a sucker for alliteration, and if you are too you’ll enjoy the below excerpt from the fifth book in the Captain Underpants series. Oh, and buy your kids – or the small people in your life – these books.

“The creamy candied carrots clobbered the kindergarteners. The fatty fried fish fritters flipped on to the first graders. The sweet-n-sour spaghetti squash splattered the second graders. Three thousand thawing thimbleberries thudded the third graders. Five hundred frosted fudgy fruitcakes flogged the fourth graders. And fifty-five fistfuls of fancy French-fried frankfurters flattened the fifth graders.”

Amazon link: Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman

The Mary Whitehouse Experience

Mary Whitehouse, the woman who spent the latter-half of her life campaigning to stop Great Britain’s religiously-and-politically conservative ‘values’ being warped and eroded by the Godless, licentious, lusty, lefty luvvies, commies, adulterers, swingers, blasphemers and homosexuals of the state-funded BBC (and beyond), died in 2001 at the grand old age of 91. She wanted to clean up TV, and society with it. Spoiler alert: she – and the National Viewers and Listeners Association (NAVLA) lobby-group that she spear-headed – failed miserably. You need only watch The Wire, The Sopranos, Dexter, Cracker, Black Mirror, Queer as Folk, The Inbetweeners, American Horror Story, or indeed most other shows on the schedule barring Songs of Praise, to see the truth of this. This book is a humorous look at some of the real gems from the Mary Whitehouse/NAVLA archive of letters both written and received on subjects as various as the child-traumatising horrors of Doctor Who, pop groups who appear to advocate teenage uprisings, accusing Jimmy Hendrix of having a wank on-stage, and this example below, where a newsreader is taken to task for insinuating he might be about to take a piss. It’s amazing how tame some of the supposed infractions of moral decency that Mary Whitehouse seized upon seem now from our vantage point in modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah (no place I’d rather be). If only Mary Whitehouse could see us now.

“Letter to BBC newsreader Richard Baker

7 May, 1973

Dear Mr. Baker

I am sure I speak for very many people when I say how much your work both as a newsreader and as the compere of ‘These You Have Loved’ is appreciated. It always seems to me, if I may say so, that your work has real quality.

It is because of this that I venture to make two criticisms. The first, and most important, was the remark you made recently at the end of a news bulletin which carried, as its last story, a feature about the antics at the opening of a new lavatory. As you signed off you made some remark about having ‘to go’ yourself. Watching the screen, your own expression of embarrassment led up to the conclusion that these lines had been prepared for you, and were not spontaneous as these final ‘punch lines’ are obviously meant to appear.

Mr. Baker, we have a high regard for you, but remarks of this kind are not only an intrusion into our privacy, they are an intrusion into your own. I feel quite sure, from the impression of your personality which comes over the screen, that you would not normally publicly inform a gathering of your friends that you were going to the lavatory, you would just go!

I have intended writing to you ever since that particular episode, but was moved finally to do so by your remarks about ‘feathered birds’ in ‘These You Have Loved’ on Saturday night. I know this is a small matter, but feel sure that the people who gain so much enjoyment from listening to this programme are unlikely to think of women and girls as ‘birds’. I know we felt irritated by it, and are rapidly coming to the conclusion that there are no programmes which one can watch or listen to without meeting this general cheapening of culture and people.

Could you have a word with the people who prepare your scripts?

With best wishes, and again many thanks for so much.

Yours sincerely,

(Mrs) Mary Whitehouse

Amazon link: Ban This Filth by Ben Thompson

Happy reading, folks.

More Sugar, Sweetie?

If you’re a parent, the following scene should be achingly familiar to you: a grandparent (or aunt or uncle or surrogate family member) arrives at your front door clutching a big bag of sweets for your children. You shake your head and sigh. A whole bag? The odd sweet now and again, that’s what you told them. How many times do you have to say it? Trust is shattered. There’s only one thing for it: you frisk them. You find another twelve bags of sweets… an easter egg under a false wig… and a string of Bounty bars stuffed around their waistband like a bomb-belt. You also realise that everything they’re wearing – every adornment and accoutrement – is edible: candy necklace and bracelet; candy watch; hell, even their specs consist of lollypops for legs, a liquorice frame and sugar-paper lenses.

Nice try,” you say as you confiscate the delicious specs. “Now, is that everything?”

You hear the beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep of a large truck reversing down the street towards your house.

Please tell me that truck isn’t anything to do with you,” you say.

They shrug. “I just ordered a couple of… hundred-thousand tonnes of hundreds and thousands….”

You shoot them a panicked look laced with incredulity.

…and… a million millionaire shortcakes.”


Becoming a grandparent, or being promoted to any rank of relative with ‘great’ in the title, appears to transform a person into a kid-seeking sugar missile, ever-ready to detonate payloads of sherbert over the pancreases of your little pride-and-joys. Trying to stop a grandparent giving a grandchild a megaton of chocolate has the same difficulty rating as trying to save John Connor from a Terminator. What makes it harder still is the fact that we as a society seem to have accepted this behaviour as if it were some sort of sacred rite. Some grandparents even see it as an ancient and inalienable right. Clearly it’s utter madness, and must be stopped. But how? And what arguments can we employ to dissuade these Mary and Marty Poppinses from encouraging our kids to use a spoonful of sugar to help the sugar go down?

I love you, sweetie: A brief history of grandparents

When I was a lad my maternal grandmother berated me for eating too many chocolates and glugging too many fizzy drinks: substances she considered more hazardous to my hyperactive brain than the purest Columbian cocaine.

Pinned to her fridge was a large list detailing all of the artificial E-flavourings present in junk food, each item accompanied by a brief summary of its evil: a diabetes-themed Da Vinci Code, if you will. Gran was convinced that those dreaded E-numbers were the invisible demons responsible for my back-catalogue of ungodly behaviour (crimes like smiling, laughing, and saying things), and only she and her sacred list clipped from a special double-page spread in The Daily Record had the power to exorcise them.

She treated that fridge like the Oracle of Thebes, always stroking it and talking to it in rhyme like some old crone from a Shakespearian play –

The young lad’s had a Double-Decker,

He’s speaking Greek, the crazy fecker.

What happens if he grabs his pecker???

Oh, sage old fridge, so full of Es,

Should I phone social services?”

But… on the other hand, my gran’s stance on my nutritional intake was rather inconsistent, evidenced by the fact that her anti-sugar militancy only seemed to apply to sugar consumed outside of her walls. Inside her house, it was Sugar City. I can’t remember a single visit to my grandparents’ house where I wasn’t greeted at the door by a leaning tower of biscuits the size of a Cape Canaveral space rocket; a tower composed of every creed and breed of biscuit known to human civilisation, all teetering together on a tiny china plate.

There were Bourbons, Kit Kats, Nice biscuits, coconut creams, Digestives, Blue Ribands, Yo-Yos, custard creams, Jammie Dodgers, Jaffa Cakes: the celebrities of the biscuit world all happily hob-nobbing with the hoi polloi. Even Rich Teas – those bland, un-biscuity discs of half-communion-wafer, half-polystyrene-frisbee; the Ned Flanders’s of the snack world – were invited to the party. A billion biscuits (give or take), and I was expected to devour them. All of them. Every single one.

I don’t know if my grandparents’ desire to see me eat somewhere in the vicinity of ninety-six biscuits each time I visited existed because a) they’d lived through war-time rationing and as a consequence had vowed never to be frugal with food again, or b) they just didn’t like me very much, and wanted me to get fat and die.

In a weird way, I thought of my grandparents as a couple of crumb-based Christs: biscuit, body and soul each inseparable from one another. You hurt one, you hurt them all. Diss the bis, you take the piss. Leave fat-stacked plate?: yer gran ye hate.

Are you going to eat that 28th bourbon, son,” my papa would ask me, a haunted look in his eyes, “Or would you prefer it if I just stood at the top of the stairs with a butcher knife gripped in each hand and hurled myself to an agonising end?”

That’s the way the biscuit situation made me feel sometimes. The expectation, the gratitude, blown out of all proportion inside my head. I’ll be honest with you, though: it was my papa who prepared the biscuit plates, and I think he just liked being as generous as possible with them because he was a nice old guy. Plus, to some extent, he knew not what he did. My gran’s obsession with E-numbers aside, anti-sugar sentiments weren’t as strong or as prevalent then as they are today. In this age of information, however, it’s almost impossible to plead ignorance over the fact that sugar is pretty much the devil’s dandruff…

…especially when I call this section: Sugar is pretty much the devil’s dandruff

Sugar is now such an undisputed evil of our age that the US military has added plantations to its approved list of overseas bombing targets, alongside schools, orphanages and hospitals. The criminal underworld has started welcoming its first black-market sugar barons, a veritable legion of Tate & Lyle Tony Montanas. Pharmacies are already dispensing Canderel to help wean addicts off the hard stuff, and politicians have promised that each town in Britain will have its own sugar rehabilitation centre by 2020. Sweet-toothed junkies line our streets, accosting citizens at all hours of the day and night: “Come oan, man, ah just need a few quid for a packet ae sugar, man, jist enough sugar fur one wee bowl ae Rice Krispies, man, then ah’m clean again, ah swear it.” Parents yell at their kids: “Are you INSANE, going out with a Twix stashed in your pocket with all of those vigilante anti-sugar Death Squads patrolling the streets??”

Sugar is the new salt. It’s the new smoking. We now know – after a few careless and carefree centuries of garnishing our kids’ vegetables with chocolate; encouraging them to brush their teeth with lollypops; and syringing hot sugar directly into their eyeballs – that too much sugar can turn a reasonably normal, well-adjusted, healthy child into a spotty, toothless meth-head with the strength of a polar bear and the life-expectancy of a mouse; the sort of kid who lists their hobbies as cat-strangling, booting old ladies in the face, and dying of a massive heart attack. Kids so riddled with diabetes that they’re nothing more than armless heads bouncing around on a single big toe; kids whose brains have been so short-circuited that they regularly mistake themselves for hawks; kids so fat that their parents have to roll them around like over-inflated tractor tyres.

Man with diabetes holding a stack of chocolate chip cookies

Grandparents may well offer sweeties and chocolates and fizzy drinks in the spirit of love, but how many ‘thank-you’ cuddles do they think they’re going to get once their grandchild has had their sugar-ruined arms amputated? Or have become so fat that you’d need a team of sherpas to circumnavigate the cuddle? Come on, grandparents. Don’t be a Donald Trump on the sugar issue: an old fuck who doesn’t care if the world gets nuked or choked, because he’s probably going to be dead next week – just so long as the people love him until then (admittedly, that latter part of the plan isn’t working out too well for Trump).

Yes, sugar will make tiny people love you. They’ll come to associate the endorphin rush they get from treats with the sight of your face: a Pavlova-ian response, if you will. Kids love sugar like coke-heads love coke, and, boy, do coke-heads really, really love coke. Don’t be your grandchildrens’ drug-dealer. Be their celery dealer. Give them a packet of stickers and a stick of mother-fucking carrot. Give them a command to drop and give you twenty, then reward them with some kale. PLANT CRESS IN THEIR MOUTHS?! 

“This sugar thing stretches WAY back – just like your gran used to. HIGH FIVE.”

You might encounter the following pro-sweetie argument – that I skirted over earlier in this piece – from older relatives: “I had to put up with this kind of thing from my parents, feeding my kids sugary shit all of the time, so you’ll just have to suck it up and put up with it, too, now that I’m a grandparent. This is just what grandparents do.”

Given that we as a species have only very recently started living beyond the age of twelve, grandparents – in the sense that we understand them now in our particular corner of the developed world – are a very recent invention, as are teenagers, and the very concept of childhood itself. Older relatives filling kids’ faces with sugar is not an idea that’s been passed down from generation to generation since the first caveman grandpa handed the firstborn of his firstborn a finger of Fudge, shortly before having his own distinctly un-fudgey fingers bitten off by a hungry sabre tooth tiger. In the grand scheme of the near-infinite universe, this practice is about as ancient as Eastenders.

Jesus did not break Kit Kats with his disciples instead of bread at The Last Supper, as he glugged the finest fizzy Cola Jerusalem had to offer. Nailed to the cross in agony, he didn’t wail out to the heavens above: ‘The absolute worst thing about this situation is the woeful lack of Yorkies.’ There weren’t groups of supporters crowded around Jesus as he slowly perished on the cross all trying to chuck Fun Size Mars Bars into his open mouth.

Biscuits themselves have only existed for about two hundred years, and even then for much of their existence they were probably made out of goat bladder and dog cheese. The first milk chocolate bar arrived in 1875. Jaffa Cakes came along in 1927. Penguins waddled onto the scene in 1932. See? We’ve had guns longer than we’ve had chocolate bars.

We could erase this madness from our behavioural repertoire overnight if we really wanted to, and our descendants would thank us (once they’d stopped laughing at how bloody stupid we were). There’s nothing time-honoured or sacred about the way grandparents dole out sweets and sugar; in much the same way that there’s nothing time-honoured or sacred about a modern day gypsy’s wedding dress (on the grounds that ancient traditions tend not to feature multi-coloured luminous neon dresses with bridal trains the length of a blue whale’s cock). We invented it. We can un-invent it.

But don’t get too preachy. We’re all addicted to sugar. We all eat too much crap. Let’s just try our hardest to stop the hearts of future generations exploding like stress-balls under the tracks of a tank.


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The Blunder Years: Toddlers and Friendship

06 Oct 2005 — Babies Crying — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

“I miss my friends.”

I felt a thud in the lumpy mattress of my heart. I looked at my son, Jack, in the car’s rear-view mirror, and saw that his little features were being weighed down by an achingly adult expression.

At that point he wasn’t much older than two, but here was a face already conveying levels of pain, regret and sadness seldom seen outwith the confines of the video for Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt. Surely toddlers can’t wear faces like that, I thought to myself. It was the sort of face you would imagine could only appear after the brain had been bombarded with nuclear-strength nostalgia: images of long ago summers spent running through the cornfields and dancing over lawn sprinklers, smiling and laughing and holding hands with friends, perhaps in slow motion as a wistful soundtrack scored the action, or an elderly Fred Savage added his pseudo-philosophical tuppence-worth. “We were happy. We were toddlers. We were the best of friends. Somehow we knew that this was it. That after this we were going to be on the long road to becoming the people we weren’t; the people that we didn’t know how to be. Our lives would never be this carefree again. So what else could we do? We joined hands, counted to ten… and violently shat ourselves.”

[Incidentally, in the commission of this throw-away gag that won’t be appreciated by anyone under the age of too-fucking-old I visited The Wonder Years’ IMDB page and discovered something cool. Do you know who provided the disembodied voice of future-Kevin? Only bloody Marv the burglar from Home Alone!]

I was driving Jack to a park and woodland above which loomed an old building that had as its centre-piece a giant stone pineapple, figuring the incongruity would give a pleasant jolt to the ever-knitting neurons of his burgeoning brain. Given his sudden shift in mood, I figured he could do with a jolt.

“I’m sorry, little buddy. You’ll see your friends again real soon, I promise.” It had been a great many weeks since he’d last seen his best pal – a little kid called Noah who shares a birthday with Jack, whose mothers met and became close friends after fate placed them in adjacent hospital beds post-partum – or any of his other toddler chums.

Jack’s sadness was total. Complete. We’re talking ‘Van Gogh running after the bus in the rain when he’s already late for his appointment to sign-on at the job centre’ sad. But much like the sadness of every other toddler on earth, it lasted for about three seconds before morphing into inexplicable euphoria; in fact, the only feeling to endure beyond the confines of the car that day was my sadness about his sadness – a sadness so fleeting that it wouldn’t even have outlasted your average mayfly’s awkward teenage phase.

Questions abounded. What could I do to make my son feel better? How on earth could he possess such a deep sense of the concept of friendship at this stage of his development? Especially since most of the time he was with his friends he either a) completely ignored them, or b) threw things at their heads. The questions kept coming – not all of them Jack-related. For instance: why is there a giant stone pineapple perched above a long-dead rich man’s house in a woodland in Central Scotland? Is there a reciprocal sculpture of a humungous alabaster square sausage above a cathedral somewhere in Costa Rica? Why do we Scots consider a square to be the best shape into which to chop our dead pigs? Do other countries venerate the man-made geometry of their foodstuffs? “Ah, Tecwin, pass me another slice of our world-famous triangular lamb, boyo.”

I discussed the ‘friend’ situation with my partner at home later on that day. It was heart-breaking for us to discover just how hard he was pining for his friends. At that point he hadn’t started attending playgroup, so we fretted that he wasn’t getting enough interaction with his peers and pals.

A week or so later, Jack and I were walking past the local play-park on our way to the shop when Jack suddenly got super-excited and started gesticulating in the direction of the park.

“My friends, my friends!” he cried, pointing at the gaggle of kids beyond the maximum-security cage that encircled the play-park. I peered in, expecting to see a familiar face or two. There wasn’t one to be found. They were all strangers. Every single one of them. Plus, they were all around twelve. “I want to play with my friends, daddy!” he hollered, as that same sadness from the Pineapple trip sank into his eyes, quickly joined by a hefty dollop of indignation. He started crying: “My friends, my friends!” he said, “Oh, father, I beseech you, my friends, I must have leave to speak with my friends! Monster! Gaoler! Oh heaven save me from this tyranny!”

I’m paraphrasing ever so slightly.

And so, the penny had dropped. In Jack’s brain the word ‘friend’ was synonymous with ‘other kid’. Or maybe he preferred his friendship Mayfly-style: e.g., “I like my friends like I like my coffee: instant.”

I love watching kids who’ve never met before interacting with each other. It’s refreshing. There’s no awkwardness, preamble, or ‘getting-to-know-you’ period. “So, are you from around here?” “What do you do for a living?” “Adjusting for inflation, how much do you reckon your toys are worth in the current economic climate?” Blah blah blah. Kids don’t care who you are, where you’re from, or what you do, so long as you know your way around a chute.

“Hi boy!” one of them shouts. “Hi girl!” the other one shouts back. And then they’re off: holding hands, bossing each other about, and running into the sunset in a birdsong of shrieks and giggles. One time at our local country park I and another dad – with whom I’d exchanged the grand total of one word – had to pursue our respective sons across a field, because the two of them had formed such an intense bond in the four minutes since they’d met that we oldies had ceased to exist, and presumably they were off to start a new life together in the forest.

“JACK! JAAAACCCCKKKKK! STOOPPPP!”

“JACK IS DEAD, DADDY, MY NEW NAME IS TREE McPLANTINGTON!”

I envy that. Single people will moan about how hard it is to meet a viable partner, but it’s even more difficult to find and make new friends – especially following the advent of parenthood when you discover that your social-life has choked and died like a fat, asthmatic pit-canary. It would be wonderful if we adults could emulate our young kids’ social interactions. Making friends would be a cinch. I could walk down the street and pass some guy who was wearing a ‘Sopranos’ T-shirt, and think to myself, ‘I bloody love The Sopranos; I’ll bet that guy’s on my wavelength’, and feel emboldened to grab his hand, swish it to and fro like a skipping rope, and say, ‘Hey, man, wanna go bowling with me?’ before pulling him down the street like a reluctant cow on market day. What do you think would happen next? Do you think we would giggle and skip down the street together, or do you think I would find myself sitting on the pavement coughing up my own teeth?

Jack – now a little over two-and-a-half – possesses an enviable, fearless confidence. He’ll talk to any kid, but he’ll also talk to any adult stranger. He has a deep and boundless curiosity about people in general, and it’s my sworn duty, my solemn responsibility as a father, to snuff that out of him immediately. Here there be monsters. The world isn’t safe. He doesn’t yet know that most people who walk the face of the earth are, to use the accepted psychological term, absolute fucking cunts.

It is cute, though: how he’ll introduce himself to literally any adult he encounters, usually with a weird bow, in the manner of some 17th century courtesan; how he’ll wordlessly insinuate himself into the middle of whatever activity an adult or a whole family happens to be engaged. I wish I could change the world… but I can’t, so I’ve got to change him (and his younger brother, Christopher, once he’s old enough to do anything other than laugh and shite himself). I need to guide Jack’s behaviour so that he’s aware of the potential dangers of strangers, but not so sternly or over-the-top that he becomes some jaded, fearful, feral dog of a boy, or loses his sense of wonder and self-confidence. I find that subtlety is always the key. For instance, if I’m out with Jack for a walk in the park, and he walks over to a man he’s never met before and starts blabbering about cartoon characters, showing off his new shoes or telling the man his name, I might just casually funnel my hands over my mouth and shout, ‘LOOK OUT, JACK, HE’S A PAEODOPHILE!’

We, as parents, will remain the be-all-and-end-all (Or Baaea, as the youth of today would probably call it) in our kids’ lives until our dying days… just so long as they don’t find out our secret. The secret that we’re shit. Laughably shit. Shit people, and even worse parents. We’re winging it. Completely and totally winging it. We don’t have a bloody clue. Half of our life has been spent getting it all wrong. And the other half has been spent lying about getting it all wrong, which we’ll continue to do, especially once our kids become teenagers and start calling us out on our hypocrisy, at which point we can open the emergency envelopes and draw out the sacred argument-winning cards that say things like: ‘WHILE YOU’RE LIVING UNDER MY ROOF, YOUNG LADY…’; ‘WHEN YOU MAKE YOUR OWN MONEY YOU CAN SPEND IT ON WHAT YOU LIKE’, and ‘YOU CAN JUDGE ME WHEN YOU WASH THE SKIDS FROM YOUR OWN PANTS, BOY.’  

I guess that life is a slow and constant retreat from the people who gave you life, into the bosom of your peer group, into the arms (and other parts) of a significant other, until finally you’re ready to repeat the pattern, and you too can raise children who will one day leave you in a corner to die: salivating and beshitted, half-mental and muttering about mayflies, giant pineapples and square sausage.

“Yep, that’s right, Dad, there was a giant pineapple. Could you see that through the window of the UFO you were abducted by? … Yes, doctor, if he shits himself one more time, just pull the plug.”

Sometimes… Dads Can Be Wrong?

Life affords us plenty of opportunities to reflect upon the wispy and elusive nature of memory. Who among us hasn’t forgotten our on-line passwords, even though all of our passwords are ‘password’? Who hasn’t found themselves standing in a car-park panicking that their car has been stolen, only to remember that they don’t actually own a car? Who hasn’t found themselves jamming a sausage in their eye because they’ve forgotten how to eat?

When two people are asked to recount a shared experience the opportunities for conflict and confusion multiply exponentially. Showtime’s ‘The Affair’ – a show about truth, deception and perception, starring McNulty from The Wire and that crazy chick Alice from Luther – deftly highlights how a person’s emotions, traumas, delusions, neuroses and agendas can disrupt their sense of the linear, mould their memories and in some cases re-write history.

Sometimes ‘The Affair’ will show two versions of the same event through two different character’s eyes, and the only difference will be an emphasis here, a piece of clothing there, an outburst here. Sometimes, the differences will be almost laughably extreme. The wife will remember sitting with her ex-husband in a cafe enduring a tense conversation about alimony as they both sip coffee; the husband will remember the wife charging into the cafe on horseback, slicing off a waitress’s head with a scimitar, and angrily shouting the Swedish national anthem at a frightened old man as the horse shits into a child’s sundae. I’ll often find myself rolling my eyes and scoffing: “This is bloody ridiculous. No two people could arrive at such seismically different interpretations of one reasonably mundane afternoon. Codswallop, I tells you, codswallop.” And yet… a recent experience has given me a renewed appreciation of The Affair’s perspective on perspective.

A few weeks ago, our eldest boy, Jack, staggered through to our bedroom in the early hours of the morning, and clambered in next to me. He felt hot to the touch, especially his forehead. I’d been concerned about him. He’d been coughing, sluggish, glassy-eyed and subdued, and generally not acting like his normal, bright-eyed, bonkers little self.

‘He needs medicine,’ I croaked to my partner, my hand wrapped over Jack’s forehead. ‘He’s got a temperature.’

My partner rolled over to face us, opening a blood-shot eye. ‘He’s hot, he doesn’t have a temperature.’

‘That’s what having a temperature is, being hot! I’m going to get him some medicine.’

‘No you’re not, he’s fine. He’s just warm.’

‘He’s not warm, he’s hot, and it’s not ‘hot hot’, it’s ‘ill hot’. I know ‘hot hot’. This isn’t ‘hot hot’.’

‘He doesn’t need medicine.’

‘I’m going to get him some medicine.’

‘No you’re not.’

‘Yes I am.’

‘NO!’

And that was the end of it. There I lay in the room’s murky half-light, nursing both my little boy and a massive grievance against my partner. What a cruel witch. She’d just repealed my son’s health-care for reasons that were at best arbitrary, and at worst directly linked to her crankiness at being woken up. I seem to remember getting Jack a cool drink of water, and then mumbling something suitably melodramatic, probably about him exploding at some point through the night, and THEN HOW WAS SHE GOING TO FEEL?

The next day at work I recounted the story to a work colleague, eliciting the expected response of ‘Oh, you can’t take chances, he should’ve got some medicine if he had a temperature’. Towards the end of the working day, I texted my partner to ask how Jack was doing, making sure to mention the medicine debacle and the furnace his forehead had become the night before. Twisting the knife, you know. My speciality. Here’s a little excerpt from the exchange, in medias res:

CHELS: “We miss you too. Jack is a bit weird this morning, maybe he is ill.”

ME: “I told you, darling. He’d peed himself and he was roasting hot for the whole other hour I was awake next to him. Hope he’s okay.”

CHELS: “I never disputed he was weird I just said he never had a temperature, which he never. He still says he feels great and nothing hurts. He’s just quiet. I told him that we had to come home and get some medicine and he just said okay and went to get his hat, it’s usually a fight.”

And then, a sharpened point of memory whistled its way towards my skull, smashing through bone and embedding itself in the spongy yuck of my brain. I had an unsettling moment of revelation, similar to the one the cop experiences at the end of The Usual Suspects when the whole horrible truth of Kaiser Soze hits him like a shovel. ‘I just said he never had a temperature, which he never…’ I replayed my partner’s words again and again in my thoughts. ‘…which he never…’ But how could she be so sure that he definitely hadn’t had a temperature last night, unless she’d actually taken his temperatu… Oh my. Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. Suddenly I remembered. It was like fireworks had been set off in my thoughts. We’d taken his temperature. Not we: me. I’d taken his temperature. A course of action, a compromise, that had actually been suggested by my partner.

‘If you think he’s got a temperature, Jamie, then go downstairs and get the thermometer and test him. If he’s got a temperature, then give him some medicine.’

If you’d given me a lie-detector test earlier that morning and asked me to give a truthful account of my hot-headed son’s entrance into our bedroom, I would have passed it with flying colours. It begs the question: how could I have hidden this crucial piece of information from myself? I hadn’t willfully constructed the version of events I’d carried into work with me that morning. There was no premeditation. No deceit. I’d simply mis-remembered. But why? Does the brain have its own version of predictive text? Has a lifetime of self-righteous anger re-written my neural network, and taught my brain how to process and store real-time events in accordance with my expectations and personality? That’s absolutely bloody terrifying. There’s so much plausible deniability swimming around in my head that my brain’s basically a mob boss. There are so many locked doors that I’m close to becoming Elliott from Mr Robot.

Perhaps our poo-pooing of The Affair’s central conceit is an act of self defence; we shut ourselves off from a truth that’s simply too terrifying to absorb. The linear reality we perceive around us is an artificial construct in a state of permanent flux; the by-product of our sensory organs sending billions of signals to an endlessly intricate yet endlessly fallible organic super-computer. Our memories are inextricably linked to our identities, and so if we can’t trust our memories, then who the hell are we? And who are we once our memories fail altogether?

Stranger still, as you’ll see from the reproduced text-thread above, our little boy had peed his bed prior to arriving in ours, and I’d washed him, changed him and put his sheets in the wash, something I’d ALSO forgotten until I reviewed those texts in the process of writing this very blog-post.

This blog-post is a sequel to this one I wrote a few weeks ago, also on the subject of our son’s physical well-being. My partner wasn’t too happy with it. She said it was funny and well-written (I’ve no trouble remembering things like that), but disputed its veracity. She agreed that the sequence of events was correct, but maintained that an emphasis here and an omission there had rendered her unfairly villainous. Apparently, it was our son’s distress and not her own stern words that had prevented me from taking him for a pee. She also claims that she’d said: ‘I’d rather he went to bed calm and happy and risk a wet bed, than put him through any more distress.’

Am I right? Is she right? Did any of it even happen? Was there a horse and a scimitar involved? I… just don’t know anymore.

Donald Trump: The Apocalypse’s Casus Bellend

I have to keep reminding myself that Donald Trump has held office for a little over a month. It feels like his cartoon duck mouth has been issuing terrifyingly hilarious proclamations since before America was even discovered; as if the vortex of evil that propelled him to prominence is so powerful that it has bent not just reality, but also time and space to its will. “I was there at the creation of the universe. The ‘let there be light’ thing. That was my idea. And God was very appreciative, said my idea was the greatest. And when that light went on? No dinosaurs, people. FAKE. You know I’m right.”

I can’t envisage a single day in the next four years when I won’t see or hear the onomatopoeiac fart of his name. Being president must be doing wonders to stoke the fires of his pomposity, paranoia and narcissism: the entire world really is talking about him. Incessantly. Every hour of every day. Trump would have you believe that our obsession with him is due to a giant, media-fuelled conspiracy, or sour grapes on the part of the losing side, but it’s clear that Trump is a megalomaniacal ratings chaser who will stop at nothing to keep himself in the limelight, even if that means inventing terrorist attacks, banning journalists from his briefings, or labelling reality ‘fake’. We shouldn’t be too concerned about our attentions being hijacked by Trump’s hyperbolic rhetoric: what should concern us is what would happen if we all chose to ignore him. He’d probably nuke Belgium, or declare war on Lidl.

Many people have been quick to point out the societal similarities between modern-day America and Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. There’s definitely some weight to that comparison, however there is one crucial, towering difference between Donald Trump and Hitler: Hitler was a good orator. If evil must have a face and a voice, then it’s a pity that this time around it’s got the face and voice of a malfunctioning android stuck in a six-phrase feedback loop, or a racist, half-mad taxi driver who’s been ripped from his cab, pushed behind a presidential podium and handed a scrap of paper that’s got ‘Everyone except you is an asshole’ scrawled on it in blood. When Trump talks he sounds like a man who’s being continually interrupted and fed lines by an invisible hologram only he can see, who’s also a complete fucking idiot. “Ziggy says there’s a 40 per cent chance that wall, wall, muslim, muslim, wall, wall, America, great, America, dude, wall, bad guys, bad dudes, enemies, bad dudes, wall.” “…What the fuck?” “Just say it, Sam! Just say it!”

Feel free to insert your own crude mustache.

Each day the world wakes up, switches on the TV and stares at the orange man with the nest of half-dissolved, beshitted candy-floss on his head, and thinks: how the fuck did this happen? The man has all the grace and articulacy of the giant man-baby who’s forced to fight Mel Gibson in Mad Max 3. His face vacillates between that of a man who’s sneering with disgust at the whiff of a particularly foul fart, and then smirking a little cause he realises it’s his own, and he likes it. He possesses all the charm of a bogey-soaked tissue bobbing in a warm flute of piss, and all the compassion of a malnourished tiger let loose in an orphanage. You wouldn’t trust him to be in charge of a tombola stall at the church fete, much less place a nuclear arsenal at his disposal. Seriously. How did this happen? Let’s rewind the tape, because somebody’s very clearly edited out a crucial sequence from this movie. Where’s the arc here? There’s no arc. It’s just: world is sane: world is crazy. Someone’s deleted the middle: the bit that explains this clusterfuck.

Within the space of a few short weeks, Trump has put a climate-change denier in charge of protecting the environment; placed a brain-damaged billionaire who struggles to comprehend basic facts in charge of education; classified dissenting (for dissenting read ‘truth-seeking’) journalists as enemies of the state; tried to erect an invisible wall to ban Muslims from entering his country; proposed to erect an actual wall around the border of another country; signaled that he’s ready to accept Vladimir Putin as his best-bro and role model; re-branded a smorgasbord of bare-faced lies as ‘alternative truths’; and harried, bullied, threatened, cajoled and alienated just about every section of society, with the exception of prickly white billionaires and the sort of alt-right, flag-waving, gun-toting tit-wanks that share both his disdain for reality and hatred for ‘the other’, whoever that ‘other’ happens to be in any given week. Never before has Orwell’s ‘1984’ been so successfully re-appropriated as a manifesto.

If you evaluate success in terms of capitalist excess, then Trump’s been a winner all his life. This is something, true or not, that seems to have struck a chord with many Americans, for whom Trump is the living embodiment of the American dream. If you’re rich and powerful, you must have worked for it, earned it. You must be smart, strong. You must deserve it, else you wouldn’t have got it. His supporters don’t necessarily think that Trump’s just like them, but believe that one day, with a little bit of graft and a lot less foreigners, blacks and socialists running around, they could be just like him. They admire his directness, his toughness, the way that his world-view hasn’t been corrupted by science, truth, nuance or articulacy. I’d maintain that just because you enjoy watching fictional sociopaths like Tony Soprano and Cersei Lannister ruling their empires with an iron fist, doesn’t mean that it’s a particularly good idea to elect a real-life sociopath to the most powerful office on Earth.

He looks like Ruprecht from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

You probably haven’t heard anything in the media about Trump’s financial successes. He tends to hide his light under a bushel, but if you listen really, really carefully to his speeches, you may occasionally, every so often, once in a blue moon, hear him mention it. Who am I kidding? No one’s better at telling people he’s better than people than Trump. His self-categorisation is, however, something of a hollow boast, given that he was born into his fortune. Look at it this way: if you happened to be born with a 6000cc engine in your back, and high-performance wheels instead of legs, then it would be rather churlish to berate your fellow competitors in the 100m sprint for failing to beat you with their shitty normal legs. Trump’s inherited wealth has always insulated him from failure, and gone a long way towards helping him construct and maintain the Death-star of his ego. The Art of the Deal, the most famous book Trump’s ever not-actually-written, only really needed one page, with the following written on it in big, bold letters: Be born a billionaire.

Given his arrogance and privilege it’s little wonder that Trump’s such a stranger to reality; his life must be like a virtual-reality tycoon simulator with cheat mode enabled. Trump was free to run his businesseses with a cold heart and an iron fist, pushing his employees around, conning his customers, eliminating competitors with the dead-eyed zeal of a Nazi death-camp commandant, and generally treating people like dog-dirt quesadillas, and people would applaud him for his tough-talking, get-results-damn-it, business acumen; and if they didn’t, or if one business or a thousand businesses imploded in a shock-wave of lawsuits, bad PR and bankruptcy, then who cared, right? Blame the government, blame the media, blame the Chinese, lie, lie, and thrice lie, pick up another bundle of dollars, clean the slate, and start again. Unfortunately, if you take the same set of principles necessary to succeed as a ruthless CEO with an infinite supply of inheritance behind you, and apply these to government, then what you are is a dictator.

Trump is reminiscent of a vengeful Scientologist, or the Iraqi information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who famously appeared on camera with a fleet of American tanks behind him to claim that there wasn’t a fleet of American tanks behind him. Lying is such an integral part of Trump’s strategy and defence mechanism that it’s difficult to believe anything that he says. Even his fortune is up for debate, given the amount of businesses he’s allegedly sent to the grave. But it doesn’t matter. Some evil supercomputer has calculated Trump’s ground-base of support down to a man, and told him what TV stations they watch, which news outlets they read in print and on-line, and what size of shoe they take. All he has to do is keep preaching to the converted, telling as many outrageous and egregious lies as he likes, and they’ll always be lapped up, and never cross-referenced. “Ostriches are green. Japanese TVs electrocute people. Barack Obama once killed a penguin with a hole-punch. I’ve never met Vladimir Putin… who is he again? I’m so smart. My hands are the size of frying pans. Mexicans are responsible for ISIS. I cured AIDS.”

If Trump really believed his rhetoric, then his best weapon against his critics would be the steady, patient unveiling of his vision to Make America Great Again, piece by piece, encouraging transparent democratic debate every step along the way. After all, if a man was lying bleeding on the street, and I could help him, but between me and that man was another man, who was shouting out vicious slurs about my motivation and intentions, then I’d still move forward and help the bleeding man. I wouldn’t thunder off in a fit of rage, and proceed to hold scores of press conferences in which I angrily discredited the shouting man, as the other man – the one I was supposed to be saving – died in the street.

I guess it begs the question: who, or what, does Donald Trump want to make great? Because it sure as shit doesn’t seem to be America.

Sometimes… Dads Can Be Right?

The other night, sometime around two am, I awoke to find my eldest boy (2) standing at my side of the bed. He was staring at me, his face smeared so liberally in blood that he resembled some half-mad jungle general who’d just taken a bath in the gore of his fallen enemies, or a demon sprung from the Cenobite’s mattress. His hands, too, were as red as pillar boxes, obvious even in the half-light conjured by the street lamps outside our bedroom window.

The uneasy, tentative ‘Jack?’ that escaped my lips belied the frenzied engine of my thoughts, which were screaming ‘AAARRGGHHHHHH! BLOOD! AAARGGHHH! BLOOD!’ inside my head. As he opened his mouth to speak I was sure he was going to say one of three things:

  • ‘Jack no need to have two legs so me took one off.’
  • ‘Which one of you rat bastards is next?’
  • ‘The cat’s sleeping now…Sleeping forever, Daddy…’

What he actually said was: ‘Hi Daddy,’ giving his biggest, goofiest smile in the process.

Mercifully, there was no sinister explanation for his appearance. He’d had a nose bleed. His mother’s prone to them: enjoy that little gift of genetic inheritance, my young friend. Psoriasis and depression runs on my side of the family, so look forward to an adolescence of scratching and crying as the blood streams as if you were some sort of Vatican-sanctioned miraculous statue.

We whisked him through to the bathroom and perched him on his little stool by the sink. His mum had to scrub him really, really hard. What began as an act of cleaning quickly turned into exfoliation, which in turn became a genuine attempt to scour the very skin from his face. It was late, very late, and Jack was tired. He moaned. He cried. He just wanted this brutal ritual to come to an end so that we all could be snuggled up in the cosy darkness of the parental bed like a family of fairy-tale bears. ‘Let the blood stay,’ his eyes seemed to implore, ‘Maybe I like resembling one of Captain America’s oldest and most significant enemies!’ He wailed and whimpered, simpered and sulked, even as I carried him back through to our bedroom and the warm, imminent promise of sweet dreams.

‘Hang on,’ I said to my partner. ‘I’ll need to take him for a piss; you know what he’s like if he doesn’t go for one through the night. Let’s not tempt fate.’

‘No,’ she said, decisively. ‘He’s really upset; you’ll just traumatise him if you cart him back through there, and then he’ll wake his little brother up.’ His little brother, Christopher, a young lad of not-quite-12-weeks old, sleeps in a stilted extension at his mother’s side of the bed, and is forever having his slumber disturbed by his lumbering big brother.

‘He’ll piss the bed.’ I said.

‘No he won’t,’ she asserted.

‘Jack, do you need to pee?’ I asked him.

‘Nope,’ he said.

For some reason I accepted his reply as definitive proof, even though most days if you ask him, ‘Are you a giant tarantula’, he’ll say yes without a second thought.

I awoke a few hours later feeling very lucky indeed, but only in the sense that while Nostradamus died without seeing any of his prophecies come true, I had woken up tinged with the wet and vindicating piss of a little boy.

I slipped Jack out of his sodden clothes, and carried him through to the bathroom. He stood under the shower, harried and half-asleep, his tears attempting to give the whooshing water a run for its money. He wasn’t happy with the situation, but if happiness is lying in a coating of your own warm piss, then happiness be damned. One quick towel down and change of jammies later, and we were in Jack’s room, crammed together in his tiny single-bed. He burrowed into me like a baby bear, while I lay sprawled and contorted like a giraffe in a toy hammock, desperately trying to stave off deep vein thrombosis.

Have you ever looked into the mirror and said ‘Candyman’ five times? Or crank-called 999? Do you ever just feel like playing chicken with fate? I guess I must’ve been feeling particularly brave or stupid that fateful morning, because I made the ill-advised decision (all decisions are ill-advised when I’m acting as my own advisor) to summon my partner: and when I say ‘summoned’, I can assure you that the context is demonic.

What I said to my son, loudly and clearly, to ensure that my voice carried to the next room, was: ‘Oh, son, don’t you worry about having a little accident. It’s easily fixed, Daddy doesn’t mind. It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have done anything about it… (at this point I sucked my teeth) IF ONLY THERE HAD BEEN SOME WAY WE COULD HAVE STOPPED THIS… IF ONLY… IF ONLY SOMEHOW, SOMEONE, SOME FORWARD-THINKING SOUL, HAD BEEN BOLD ENOUGH TO RECOMMEND STEPS THAT COULD’VE PREVENTED THIS; LIKE, I DON’T KNOW, TAKING YOU FOR A PEE WHEN YOU WOKE UP EARLIER, BUT, YOU KNOW, SON, HINDSIGHT’S TWENTY-TWEN…’

At this point a megaton bomb of thunder detonated in the skies above us, and a thousand jagged forks of lightning drove themselves into the ground, scorching and immolating trees, birds and even people, whose screams filled the air like air-raid sirens. Blood seeped through the walls. Ghosts appeared in a flash-flood of light, and swirled around the room like tornadoes. A raven smashed through the window, squawking its message of hell and damnation, each frantic beat of its wings shooting blood-covered shards of glass across the room towards us. I held my son to shield him from the rising chaos, when, before us, she emerged into the doorway through a pillar of foul-scented smoke, the hair dancing on her head like nests of snakes. Her body jerked and spasmed like a stop-motion animation demon jammed on fast-forward; an inhuman blur of boobs, limbs and underwear. We heard the bites and snaps of a mouth that in its fury was more shark, or Beelzebub, than human.

”WE’ DECIDED NOT TO TAKE HIM FOR A PEE BECAUSE IT WOULD HAVE MADE HIM UPSET, WHICH IT WOULD HAVE, SO EVEN THOUGH THIS HAS HAPPENED, WHICH WE COULDN’T HAVE KNOWN WOULD HAPPEN, IT WAS THE RIGHT DECISION AT THE TIME! AND THAT’S THE END OF IT JAMIE! SO ENOUGH OF YOUR BLOODY SARCASM!’

And with that, she was gone.

As I lay stroking Jack’s hair, a large smile barged its way across my face.

‘Totally worth it,’ I said to him, planting a kiss on his forehead.

I slept the sleep of the just. A dad may only get to experience one moment of pure, undiluted rightness like this once in a lifetime. It’s best to savour it.

My awesome Ghostbusters prank

The little Ghostbusters wheeze you’re about to enjoy has been two years in the making. It started with this article in the local paper in March 2014, when paranormal writer Brian Allan made this plea to the people of Falkirk to get in touch with him about spooky goings on at the old Bellsdyke hospital in Larbert.

Well, of course I couldn’t resist. I wondered if by assuming the mantle of an elderly gentleman by the name of William Murray (I hit the ground running with the Ghostbusters references, folks) I could convince Mr Allan to print a paranormal account that was ostensibly a scene from Ghostbusters, padded with plausible background details and a liberal sprinkling of veiled Ghostbusters’ references.

The answer? Yes. Yes I could.

Unfortunately, Mr Allan didn’t manage to amass enough relevant material to publish a book on the subject; however, my account was finally published as part of an article that appeared in the September 2016 edition of Phenomena Magazine – a monthly, on-line E-publication dealing with the paranormal that enjoys a far-flung readership.

Read the account of (ahem) William Murray below by clicking – and then clicking again to make it full size:

Page 1 – The account of William Murray

Page 2 – The account of William Murray

I guess Brian Allan was ready to believe me.

Four days after the piece appeared on-line, I received this email from Brian – who, remember had been corresponding with my invented alter-ego on-and-off for about two years.

Hello William,
Just to let you know that your contribution to the Bellsdyke Hospital article went into the magazine this month and I did enjoy the reference to Ghostbusters along with the rather good anagram on ‘Pers Enggleson’ for Egon Spengler one of the actors, not forgetting Bill Murray.  I thought about it and decided to run with it anyway, because I wondered if any of the readers would pick up on it, so far none have.
Brian Allan,
Editor, Phenomena magazine

 

Clearly Brian was caught with his pants down a little here, but I’d like to take this opportunity to salute him as an impassioned, inquisitive, earnest and sweet human being, who’s clearly able to laugh at himself. He’s an all-round good sport and a good egg. I didn’t enjoy the necessary deception involved in this wheeze, and certainly didn’t anticipate the whole thing would be such a drawn out affair, from initial approach to publication. This was supposed to be a gag to tie in with Ghostbusters’ 30th anniversary.

And, remember, if you ever come across things that go bump in the night…

Who you gonna call?

Brian Allan.

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Link to the website of Phenomena Magazine

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Classic Doctor Who: hammy, hilarious, and worth it

I’ve been slowly but surely working my way through old episodes of Doctor Who, rejoicing in the wobbly-setted delights of the first four doctors. I’m currently concentrating on a chunk of episodes from Pertwee’s tenure in the 1970s, some of which I vaguely remember seeing on UK Gold many moons ago, most of which is entirely new to me.

It’s become something of a cliché to talk up the rubber monsters, the hammy acting and the all-round low-budget feel of the show’s yesteryear, but, Christ, some of it’s downright hilarious. Last week, I saw a Northern Irish bureaucrat screaming in terror as he was slowly eaten by a plastic armchair; a posh old toff wailing miserably as he was attacked by a ridiculous, scrunch-faced plastic doll who’d come to life and leapt onto his neck from a mantle-piece, and Jon Pertwee himself reacting to a malevolent phone cord trying to strangle him to death. Granted, these are events out-with the normal sphere of human experience, and thus reasonably difficult to react to with any measure of verisimilitude. Even more difficult considering the special effects technology that was available at the time. In most episodes from that era the poor actors had to feign death in response to nothing more than a series of increasingly daft sound effects and shimmering blobs, that were only added in post-production. Meaning they were actually reacting to absolutely nothing. However, in all cases the director appears to have shouted from off-camera: ‘BOGGLE YOUR EYES OUT, THAT’S IT! LIFT YOUR HANDS UP LIKE A HEROINE IN A SILENT MOVIE WHO’S ABOUT TO BE HIT BY A TRAIN! THAT’S IT! SCREAM LIKE A SHOT TORTOISE! NOW STICK YOUR TONGUE OUT LIKE YOU’VE JUST BEEN STRUCK DOWN BY A STROKE MID-WAY THROUGH TRYING TO MAKE A BABY LAUGH! THAT’S IT! THAT’S PERFECT!’

I do like Pertwee though. A lot. I like his haughtiness, his abruptness and his occasional bouts of silliness. Pertwee’s doctor and Capaldi’s share much in common, although Capaldi tends to accentuate the doctor’s strange otherworldliness, while Pertwee always strived to put the ‘Lord’ into Time Lord. However, Pertwee’s Doctor was a Lord who seemed to have a fondness for poor people and the less fortunate, which is a rare Lord indeed.

The act of criticising a piece of television for the crime of reflecting the society in which it was created is a little like shooting fish in a barrel, but the way that race was handled in some of the early Who stories can’t help but make me cringe. I keep expecting Jeremy Clarkson to materialise alongside Pertwee’s Tardis in a time-travelling Porsche, muttering about ‘woeful indoor plumbing’, ‘spears’ and ‘laughable head-wear’. Hindsight’s 20/20 I suppose. The great Roman orator and lawyer Cicero owned a slave, George Washington owned slaves, and we all used to hum along to Gary Glitter songs.

It’s still uncomfortable to watch, though. In the Troughton serial ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’, an archaeological expedition team has a giant, ox-like, black slave/henchman who trundles in its wake, issuing monosyllabic grunts and clobbering people. In the Pertwee serial ‘Terror of the Autons’, a circus baddie has a giant, ox-like black slave/henchman who trundles about the circus, issuing monosyllabic grunts and clobbering people. In ‘Mind of Evil’, the Master has a black limo driver. That could just be the law of averages. There were probably a lot of black limo drivers in those days, and there may even be a fair few of them today, I don’t know; I don’t have the statistics to hand. However, perhaps less forgiveable, that same serial features a Chinese lady whose every appearance on screen is accompanied by plinky-plonky, mysterious oriental music, which registers as a little lazy and gratuitous to modern ears. Thank heaven for small mercies though. At least the lady wasn’t required to ride around on a ceremonial dragon whilst eating rice and shouting about communism.

And let’s not forget this line, uttered by a Scotsman in the opening seconds of the Tom Baker serial ‘Terror of the Zygons’:

MUNRO: Hey, listen, Willie. With tomorrow’s supply ‘cop trip, can you no send over a few haggis?

Hey, Munro, Groundskeeper Wullie wants his patter back! I guess the contrast between the two Who-eras is only made starker by how inclusive and reflective Nu Who is of contemporary British society. Are we ready for a black, asian or female Doctor Who? Well, I’m ready, insofar as I wouldn’t care one way or the other. It’s not a case of ‘We should have a non-white male as Doctor Who’ and more a case of ‘Why shouldn’t we have a non-white male as Doctor Who’? The only problem the show would face if it recast along those lines would be our own history, which has discriminated against women and non-whites for long millenia. Every time a non-white Doctor Who travelled to earth’s past, the storyline would invariably have to tackle racism and prejudice, which would become incredibly tiresome for the actor in question who presumably would just want to be left alone to dash along corridors brandishing a sonic screwdriver and shouting at Daleks.

Still, I’m enjoying my little journey through time (on-screen and off), despite the fact that my partner will occasionally walk past the screen and offer her considered opinion on classic Who in all of its glory:

“How can you watch this awful, awful shite?”

How indeed.

Or should that be Who?

Facebook is being invaded by advertising

Everyone’s worried about, and infuriated by, the incursion of brands and advertisements into the supposedly safe spaces of our beloved social media . But I don’t think we’re in danger of being brainwashed just yet. We don’t live in The Lawnmower Man, or The Matrix, or A Clockwork Orange. We live in the gladiatorial arenas of ancient Roman times, except now people are goring each other with keyboards instead of swords. Big companies with goods to hock aren’t going to ruin our on-line experiences: we, the baying mob, are going to ruin theirs. To paraphrase The Watchmen’s Rorscharch: “I’m not in the internet with you, Coca Cola, YOU’RE IN THE INTERNET WITH ME!”

I would absolutely hate to be the guy who has to monitor a company’s social media presence, and respond to customer comments and complaints. Any time I’ve checked out the promoted page of a company brave or foolish enough to roll up its trousers and wade into Facebook’s stormy waters, its comment threads have been alive with inspired (and not-so-inspired) trolling, righteous indignation, and insane levels of rage.

A typical exchange goes something like this:


REYNOLDS’ CORNFLAKES

Image result for cornflakes

A little bowl of ever-so-slightly genetically modified sunshine every morning!

angryAngryPat: “YOUR FUCKING CORNFLAKES KILLED MY FATHER!”

tick,octagon,frame,check on,checked,correct,right,yes,checkmark,okReynoldsCornFlakes: “Hi Pat! Thank you so much for your comment, and I hope you’re having an absolutely super day. Brrrr! It’s a bit cold outside, isn’t it? So sorry to hear about your father, but I can assure you that our products are only made from good, wholesome ingredients, and all of our manufacturing is overseen by beautiful unicorns in magical palaces built at the ends of rainbows. If anything, our cornflakes should have added a good five years to your father’s life. Was he a drinker, Pat?


Or


CHIKE MAX-PERFORMANCE TRAINERS

Image result for generic sneakers

If you’re looking for a decent shoe, jog on.

peaceHippyGenoveve: “How many little Taiwanese children had to be whipped to death on a yearly wage of sixty pence to perfect your new range of death boots, you fucking Nazis?”

tick,octagon,frame,check on,checked,correct,right,yes,checkmark,okChikeTrainers: “Hi Genoveve. Amazing to hear from you! My late mother was called Genoveve. Beautiful woman. Let me just assure you that we only subcontract to companies who subcontract to companies who subcontract to companies who subcontract to companies who subcontract to companies who we’ve heard on the grapevine are absolutely reliable. And if that isn’t enough to reassure you, then please remember that our partners use only the best, free-range Taiwanese children.


Or


LEPSY NAX

Image result for fizzy drink

Fucks your heart, makes you fart…

evilCarcinogenicGraham: “What do you cunts enjoy the most, giving people stomach cancer or diverting water supplies from the poor indigenous peoples of the Indian sub-continent?”

tick,octagon,frame,check on,checked,correct,right,yes,checkmark,okLepsyNax: “Graham, I know this is crazy, because we’ve only just met, but how would you feel about our familes all going on holiday together later this year? Thank you for your passionate comment. Reading between the lines, I think what you’re really asking is: ‘How do we get the taste of our mouth-watering cola product just right? Is it some sort of magic?’


There’s something deliciously democratic about all of these conglomerates finding themselves at the mercy of angry (in most cases justifiably angry) proles like you and me. Their on-line pages are slowly transforming into long lists of bad-for-business buzz words; endless cries of CANCER! DEAD KIDS! EXPLODING EYES! YOUR COCOA MADE MY ASS BLEED!

Marvellous.

I used made-up generic brands for the jokey examples in this article, rather than risk using real company/brand names like Kellogs Cornflakes, Nike or Pepsi Max, which would’ve been foolhardy at best.

OTHER ARTICLES ON THE SITE RELATED TO ADVERTISING –

Culture Jamming Pt 1

Culture Jamming Pt 2

Why Advertising is So Full of Shit

The Walking Dead Season 7A: What happened, and what’s going on… and what went wrong?

It’s fair to say that the front-half of The Walking Dead’s seventh season has attracted a lukewarm response from audiences and critics alike, despite the arrival of Negan, everyone’s favourite trash-talking, bat-wielding sociopath.

So what went wrong? I’d contend that The Walking Dead’s biggest enemy has been the audience’s expectations. Never before has a show or a movie taken such a continuous, long-form look at the nuts and bolts of a zombie apocalypse. A zombie movie has a definite arc: there’s an outbreak, society collapses, the survivors endure horror and heartache, a plan is hatched or a quest undertaken, and slowly and painfully the survivors learn to adapt. The movie then ends on a note either of hope or nihilism. The zombies never linger long enough to lose their terror, certainly never long enough to become a manageable nuisance.

The Walking Dead has entered its ‘manageable nuisance’ stage, and many viewers now find themselves struggling to reconcile the show’s new direction with their expectations of it being a man-against-monster zombie survivalist saga. Nobody can talk such viewers out of their apathy or active dislike; however, it’s worth pointing out that if the show had simply continued to place its zombies front-and-centre – if the story hadn’t expanded to incorporate new challenges, obstacles and threats – we would have become as desensitised to the undead as the show’s characters have by this point in the narrative. The Walking Dead had to end or evolve, and if you’re willing to accept its evolution, then you have to cut it a certain degree of slack during its transition.

I only started reading the Walking Dead comics after the show’s sixth season finale. I very quickly gorged myself on them, catching up and then overtaking the TV show. By the time Lucille had crashed down on the heads of her flesh-and-blood victims, I was already in a post-Negan, Whisperer-infested world. I’d also decided that the quintessential Negan could only be the brutish, black-and-white, fuck-fuckity-fuck-stick version from the comic books (you can read my article about that here). It’s fair to say that Jeffrey Dean Morgan had something of an uphill struggle against my expectations. As did the entirety of the seventh season itself.

While the show doesn’t follow an identical trajectory to its source material – and has different characters and different versions of existing characters to boot – I already knew the main thrust of the narrative, meaning that when certain scenarios began to unfold on screen, I had a fair idea of what would happen next, and in some cases who would die. I wonder if these two related things – how much I’d enjoyed comic book Negan, and my knowledge of the main story beats to come – robbed me of my objectivity and sense of surprise, which in turn left me pre-disposed to view the show comparatively and analytically, instead of through the gut and the adrenal gland (which of course is the manner in which The Walking Dead is best enjoyed).

That being said – and while it’s obviously impossible for me to un-read the comic books and watch those first eight episodes again through untainted eyes – I do believe something has been severely off-kilter with season seven so far; problems that run deeper than the show’s new direction, and my foreknowledge of the source material. I can’t remember ever enjoying a fresh batch of episodes less. Sure, The Walking Dead has always had slower episodes, and weaker episodes, and filler episodes, but these are usually buoyed by a mix of competent, good and occasionally great episodes either side. Not so this season. All of the episodes thus far have felt lukewarm and lacklustre, and somehow lacking thrust and cohesion. Many of the big dramatic beats, especially the deaths in the premiere and Rick and Negan’s jolly RV trip, were handled clumsily and gratuitously. The show has never felt so coldly nihilistic, and that’s saying something in a series threaded through with so much death, destruction and misery.

I understand that in order for the coming war to mean something, and for the inevitable victory to provide us with a visceral dose of catharsis, our heroes must first be trampled deeper into the dirt than they’ve ever been trampled before. We have to fear for them, we have to feel their sense of pain, impotence and outrage. We have to be introduced to and start to care about all of the potential allies that are going to be thrown together in the back half of the season, and have a fair idea of the mechanics of the enemy camp, and the tenuous fear-soaked peace that keeps the Saviours in power. I understand the chess pieces have to be moved into place, and the pace slackened to prepare for the fireworks. But still… meh. At first I thought the problem was Negan. But I’ve come to realise that the real problem is Rick.

Not Andrew Lincoln, you understand, who has always done terrific work as Rick Grimes. But Rick the character, who suffers in comparison to his more effective comic-book counterpart. While it’s true that Comic Rick has had his lapses of judgement, spells of foolhardiness, and suffered the odd psychotic break, he’s always felt like a leader in both name and deed, fully deserving of the title and capable of handling the weight of the crown that goes with it. His ruthlessness and occasional recklessness is tempered by a strong conscience and a pragmatic outlook. I can see why his people like him, trust him, respect him and follow him.

The only real evidence that TV Rick is a great leader is the amount of times the other characters repeatedly tell each other that Rick is a great leader. To my mind, he only has two stock responses to most managerial and logistical problems: cry face, or full psycho. Case in point, Comic Rick only swallows down Negan’s brutality in order to lull him into a false sense of security. Even as Lucille swings down atop Glen’s skull, Rick is formulating a plan to take that mad, cackling bastard down, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds against him, because that’s who Rick is, and that’s what he does. He’s strong and capable, even in his darkest and most testing moments.

Game of Thrones may be able to juggle the narrative demands of an entire world and its multifarious clans and characters, offering up a smorgasbord of delicious little interlocking short stories that served together are greater than the sum of their parts, but The Walking Dead – while definitely an ensemble show – really needs Rick as its focus, its point-of-view, its through-line. The lack of Rick – and especially the lack of a strong Rick more in-line with the comic book incarnation of the character – has been to the show’s detriment.

Unless of course this Ricklessness is part of a deliberate strategy. I’m thinking more and more that perhaps the ground is being prepared for a shocking shake-up that will serve as the biggest break from the source material imaginable: the death of Rick Grimes. One thing season seven has done particularly well is to promote the strength and resilience of the show’s female characters, especially Maggie, who is an obvious and believable contender for the top spot should Rick ever take a long, one-way walk into Walkersville. It’s worth steeling yourself for such an eventuality. For once in the show’s history, the possibility of Rixit doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

I sincerely hope that, whatever lies in Rick’s immediate future, the Walking Dead will return with a barnstorming, seat-of-the-pants, solid smattering of tense and exciting episodes, to exorcise the malaise of this season’s opening half, and perhaps even grant it a retrospective pardon. The first eight episodes may not have rocked my world or inspired much in the way of hope or enthusiasm, but there was still plenty to enjoy: Carol (she’s my ‘if x dies, we riot’ character); the introduction of King Ezekiel and his pet tiger; the effective and over-due fleshing out of peripheral characters like Rosita, Father Gabriel and Tara; Daryl’s stay at Dick Dastardly’s Dog-food Motel; and the mid-season finale, which was actually very good, and finally convinced me that Jeffrey Dean Morgan was the right man for the role of Negan; he really owned the character in ‘Hearts Still Beating’, seemed to swagger straight onto Alexandria’s twee suburban streets from the pages of the comic book. I’m sorry I doubted you, Jeffrey. Perhaps you just needed a shave.

One thing I didn’t enjoy – and which I gather had fans howling into their hankies – was the emotionally manipulative reunion of our band of heroes at the episode’s climax. Those few minutes of silent smiles, nods, tears, hugs and raised eyebrows, all set to uplifting music, felt a bit too on-the-nose, like a cross between a music video and an episode of a soap opera. I couldn’t help but remember a funny video I watched on YouTube a few years ago, where the musical score was removed from the scene at the end of Return of the Jedi, as the heroes are receiving their medals. It just looked ridiculous, and made me laugh like a loon.

I’m under no illusions about The Walking Dead. It’s a compulsive show, incredibly popular and lucrative, but it isn’t, and never will be in my opinion, a truly classic show; certainly not when stacked against worthy behemoths like The Wire, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. That’s not to say that it hasn’t produced thrilling narratives, or produced some truly great episodes: the pilot, 18 Miles Out, Better Angels, Seed, Clear, Internment, Too Far Gone, After, The Grove, No Sanctuary, Consumed, What’s Happened and What’s Going On, JSS and Here’s Not Here, to name the stand-outs.

Lest you imagine I’m launching an attack, it goes without saying that I’m very fond of The Walking Dead, else I wouldn’t expend so much time and energy thinking and writing about it. And while the show may never be uttered in the same breath as the true classics of TV’s first and second Golden Ages, it’s shown itself more than capable of greatness in seasons gone bye (sic). And I sincerely hope that it’s able to reclaim some of its past vigour.

So come on, showrunners, Let’s do it.

Let’s make The Walking Dead great again.

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MORE ZOMBIE ARTICLES I WROTE FOR ‘DEN OF GEEK’

Syfy’s Z Nation: fun, low budget and well worth your time

How will The Walking Dead end?

When zombies attacked … Neighbours (and other shows)

And another from this website, reviewing S05E09.

 

Why it’s time to bid farewell to Santa (or: Why Santa is bad for your kids’ elf)

I could sit in a circle of peers and announce that I don’t believe in Yahweh, God, Vishnu, Allah or a giant turtle that holds the known world atop its back as it crawls through the cosmos, and most of them would probably accept this declaration with a silent nod or a shrug of the shoulders. Never mind that in certain countries, among certain people and cultures, such a vow would earn me a spell in prison, a steak knife to the stomach or death. Here in the modern, secular west, I can profess belief, or its lack, in whatsoever I choose and be almost certain of a tolerant reception. But try to tell people that I don’t want to play along with the Santa myth we force upon our kids, and I’m treated like a scar-faced leper with a vest of grenades and a public masturbation problem.

The sprawling Santa conspiracy, global in its reach, in which we entangle our children raises a multitude of uncomfortable questions, and comes at a terrible price: not least of which is the spirit of shattered trust in which it’s perpetuated.

All other western cultural norms are fluid, it seems, except for this one. Never this one. The only things that will grant you an exemption from Santa are deeply-held fundamentalist Christian beliefs or adherence to a non-Christian faith, and even then you’ll probably still be regarded as a destroyer of children’s dreams.

It’s clear that there’s something about this little red-and-white lie that’s seen as integral to and inextricable from a hearty and wholesome childhood. There’s a concomitant notion that somehow the act of debunking Santa holds the potential to obliterate a child’s capacity for innocence and imagination, and quite possibly leave them with the dull, jaded outlook of a middle-aged chartered accountant on the eve of his second divorce. Or else turn them into a fleet of joyless androids each with the face of Richard Dawkins.

Santa is but one fictional character in a cast of thousands. Why should he get special dispensation when it comes to the laws of reality? I regularly read my son stories about alien encounters, magical beanstalks, sentient robots and talking horses, without ever feeling the need to perpetuate the entertaining fallacies inherent in the source material. No-one would consider it heresy for me to explain to my son that horses can’t really talk; knowing this fact doesn’t in any way limit his imagination or detract from his very real enjoyment of the story. Penguins don’t have jobs, dogs can’t moonlight as policemen, there’s no such thing as ghosts, people can’t turn green and smash buildings when they’re angry. He knows that, or at least these things have been explained to him. He doesn’t care. He still mimics these characters and scenarios, and riffs on them in his own unique, imaginative way when he’s running about the house or play-acting with his toys.

The power of Santa compels him… to do very little

Here’s a question for you: why does Santa deliver unequal amounts of toys to the children of the world? Why does he deliver more toys to affluent families than he does to poor families? Clearly, on the great sliding scale of political ideology, the red-jacketed sleigh-racer is more tightly aligned to conservative notions of capitalism than he is to communism, or socialism. If your kid goes back to school after the winter break with a new pair of cheap shoes and a toy laser gun, and has to listen to another kid bragging about his £1000 home entertainment system and surprise trip to Disneyland, what is he to infer about his worth in Santa’s eyes? Should he castigate himself for being too naughty, placing the blame for his poor festive haul upon his own tiny shoulders? Or should he just conclude that Santa doesn’t really like him all that much?

Remove Santa from this equation, and you’ve still got a problem with unequal distribution of wealth and resources in society, married to an unslakable thirst for goods and gadgets that’s only heightened and reinforced by our media, but that’s an argument for another time (besides, there are more learned, original and eloquent thinkers out there with better and more important things to say on the topic than little old me).

Consider also this point: Santa is an omniscient being who has mastered time itself, can travel around the globe and back in one evening, and can apparently conjure an endless supply of toys from thin air, much as another bearded magician once did with water, wine, loaves and fish. Santa uses these powers not to alleviate suffering, lift people out of hunger and poverty, cure the sick and the lame or to usher in a new era of world peace, but to drop toy robots down chimneys. What a role model. He’s no better than Sooty, or Jesus.

You can emphasise the magical, imagination-stretching benefits of a child’s belief in Santa as a rationale for deceiving your children, but when I hear Santa’s name mentioned by parents, more often than not his name is evoked as a correctional tool rather than as an instrument of wonder. Be nice, behave, go to bed, tidy your room, eat your dinner, or Santa will cross you off his list, and you won’t get any toys. By weaponising Santa in this way, parents have created a bearded boogeyman to scare or bribe their children into behaving the way they want them to. This may be an instantly effective, no-nonsense behavioural control technique, but then so is smashing them in the face with a cricket bat.

The sad truth is that parents are conditioning their children to be good not for goodness’ sake – as the old snowman song goes – but to be good so they can get a new TV. They’re being encouraged to equate virtue with financial reward. Part of being a happy, successful and fully-socialised human being necessitates a degree of sacrifice, negotiation, humility and deference. These are qualities – and modes of conflict resolution – that shouldn’t need a chuckling demigod, or the dangled carrot of a PlayStation 4, to be fully realised.

My family and I were in a shopping mall at the weekend, and passed by a Santa’s grotto. I couldn’t help feeling that there was something deeply sinister and ritualistic about the line of dead-eyed kids shuffling up to receive their gifts. They were like a cult. Ho ho ho. Here’s your new church, kids, here’s your new Jesus: roll up, roll up, as we inculcate you into the wholesale religion of consumer greed.

We experience rather enough problems with the religions we already have, thank you very much, without adding Santaism to the list. While belief in Santa may be the ‘Temporary Profile Picture’ of quasi-religious micro-faiths, it worries me tremendously that a belief in the supernaturalness of Santa might serve as a gateway drug to harder fictional beings, like Jesus or Moroni.

Imagine the scene in a household where a child who has been raised in a pro-Santa Christian family finally discovers that Santa isn’t real.

CHILD: “Ah, so Santa was all a big lie, was he? That’s hilarious. You had me, you did, you really had me, you got me hook, line and sinker with that one. So, come on, put me out of my misery. Jesus, right? Come on, the cat’s out of the bag. You made him up too, right? Miracles, walking on water, rising from the dead. I knew there was something iffy about that. I’ve got to hand it to you, though, you’ve created a genius fictional character there.”

PARENT: “Em… nope. Nope. That’s all true. Em… Jesus is real.”

CHILD: “…”

(Actually, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Santa – employed properly – could be the antidote to Jesus: the great flicking wrist to bring down the whole house of cards.)

Parents and guardians are the people that children listen to and look up to above all others, whose word is gospel for a significant proportion of their young lives. For them to distort a child’s understanding of the laws of time, physics and the universe is an unforgivable crime. Nothing should be done to inhibit a child’s burgeoning critical faculties, or to corrupt their very sense of the world as an observable, rational and comprehensible place.

Don’t get me wrong. I myself used to believe wholeheartedly in Santa Claus. I used to get letters from him, in this very ornate handwriting. I thought, this could only be the work of a magical being, he writes like a bloody pro. This guy’s the real deal. I also used to get plenty of Valentine’s cards. I don’t think I can properly express the horror I felt on the day I was old enough to realise that the letters from Santa and the Valentine’s cards were all in the same handwriting. That was a shock to me. “Well, Santa. I see last year’s presents have come with a few strings attached. I’m not that sort of boy. But maybe throw in a few easter eggs and we’ll talk.”

The truth was even more horrible. I cross-referenced the Santa letters and the valentine’s cards with the handwriting on my birthday cards. They were from my gran. “Roses are red, I’m your mum’s mummy, I am going to put you, back up in my tummy.” I know she was just trying to boost my fragile little-boy ego, but I really bought in to the whole romantic fantasy. And all that time the unrequited love of my young life was a bloated septugenarian who smelled of cabbage. I was cat-fished by own gran before it was even a thing.

I guess what really irks me about this time of year is the fact that Santa is a secret I’ve had no say in. You don’t need Santa to make Christmas magical, but you do require his absence to maintain an honest and healthy stance on both our society and the universe itself. My silence is being demanded, not to preserve the mystery and magic of the festive season, but to stop me from blowing the whistle on the millions of other families who have chosen to deceive their children. Families who want to keep using Santa as a four-month-long carrot-and-stick combo. This only makes me want to blow the whistle all the more; to send my sons into their future schools with information bombs strapped to their brains, ready to blast your children in their faces with the bright light of truth.

I always want to be truthful with my children.

“Daddy… what happens to grandma and grandpa now that they’re dead? Have they just disappeared? Will I ever see them again?”

“…”

“Daddy?”

“TWO MONTHS UNTIL SANTA COMES, WEE GUY, ARE YOU AS EXCITED AS I AM??!!”

I think I do, anyway.

Negan: The Walking Dead’s Saviour? Emmm…

Negan in the comic books is physically imposing and plausibly psychotic. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a fine actor, but he somehow doesn’t feel like the right man for the role. Negan needed to be part Henry Rollins, part Tony Soprano, and part Wilson Fisk. For his interpretation of Negan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan seems to be channelling Ian McShane’s mid-life crisis. I’m convinced by neither his physicality nor his charm. He spends the bulk of his time on screen slinking about in his ‘geez a gobble’ leather-jacket, cradling a barbed cock-proxy and blathering about pussies. He’s little more than a post-apocalyptic, post-watershed Del Boy; a washed-up Fonzie after a long spell in AA.

TV Negan doesn’t seem especially cunning and, crucially, he doesn’t inspire dread, tension or terror like the Governor or the crazy cannibals before him. When he raises his voice to shout, employing his weirdly over-emphasised, sub-Shatner shtick, it’s not a mercurial, megalomaniacal, homicidal demigod that’s brought to mind, but a hitherto mild-mannered deputy head teacher losing his shit at the school assembly. TV Negan is simply a smug, sleazy, cheeky asshole, who just happens to have insinuated himself into a position of supreme authority while everyone was looking the other way. Not only does he not feel like a real and credible threat, he doesn’t even feel like a real guy; just a composite of hammy panto villains, a wicked step-mother that occasionally gets to stove people’s heads in with a baseball bat.

The Saviours themselves are an odd phenomenon, too. Here’s a band of maniacs hundreds strong, spread out across a wide geographical area, with outposts and spotters and tentacles everywhere, and yet the group from Alexandria never encountered them once. Not until Rick and his crew turned up dragging death and bad-luck behind them like a plough. These days, no-one can sneak out for a piss without a man with an AK47 jumping out from the bushes and demanding half. Negan himself was introduced as a near mythical figure, always spoken of in hushed tones; a living legend that was as elusive as a smile on Michonne’s face; a man who never revealed himself, and kept to the shadows, his people even employing the old ‘I Am Spartacus’ technique to keep his identity hidden from the masses… what happened to all that? Now the gobby fucker pops round for tea about six times a week, usually without back-up. He’s an enigma wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in an illuminous jacket with a GPS tracker in the top pocket. He’ll be doing a fucking book tour next.

I can’t wrap my head around the mechanics of how TV Negan managed to amass such a cowed and loyal, multifarious following of normals and nutcases alike; deeply puzzled as to why he hasn’t been assassinated. He doesn’t seem to have an especially sympathetic or trustworthy high command around him to act as his buffer, and any carroty behaviour he exhibits is rendered pretty much void by his vast preference for the stick. I get that other people’s greed and fear, and the carte blanche he gives them to unleash their ids while in his company keep them enjoying (or submitting to) Negan’s reign of terror, but that again begs the question: why hasn’t one of the innumerable violent psychopaths in his crew assassinated him?

All Negan seems to do is talk. And talk. And talk. And talk. Punctuating every other line with a triple knee-collapse, like he’s just finished a particularly tricky tap dance: ta-da! Or perhaps auditioning for a new, post-apocalyptic boy-band (sometimes I think he’s going to launch into that thing people do where they pretend to be walking down a set of stairs). And talk. And talk. And talk. And talk some more. Man, does that guy talk. Every episode in which he’s yet featured has consisted of five per cent Daryl scowling, five per cent Rick’s cry face, ten per cent Carl’s atrocious attempts at emoting, forty per cent people wandering in the forest, twenty per cent miserable people whispering in dark rooms, twenty per cent cheeky ‘I’m yer pal but I’m no really yer pal’ winsome grins, and six thousand per cent Negan talking.

In the comics, Negan’s talking is a joy to behold, principally because he’s allowed to talk as a real murderous dictator would, and not in a watered-down, neutered way to make his stylings appropriate for American network television. Negan does the ‘poopy pants’ line he utters upon first meeting Rick in the comics, too, but because he also peppers his sentences with a barrage of fucks, the discordance of the ‘poopy pants’ line renders it – and his entire subsequent speech – both scarier and funnier.

Here are some choice excerpts of comic-book Negan getting his swear on:

“So now I’m going to beat the holy fuck fucking fuckedy fuck out of one of you with my bat.”

“And here I am. Friendly as a fuckless fuck on a fuck free day.”

“You think I got all these little communities at my feet because I roam the countryside bashing in Asian-American skulls? That’s no fucking way to make friends. Everyone toes the line because I provide them a service. I keep them safe. We’re the saviours, not the kill your friends so you don’t fucking like us at alls.”

“I assure you, m’am, he’s dead as fuck.”

“So now our big swinging dick is going to swing harder…and faster, until we take off like a motherfucking helicopter and blow all these motherfuckers away.”

Isn’t it odd that the network and its advertisers aren’t too concerned about things like a man being literally torn apart in a set of revolving doors, or rotten corpses chasing after children, but absolutely will not tolerate the use of the word ‘fuck’? That’s the word I use when I stub my toe. I can only imagine what I’d say if a zombie tried to rip my cheek off with its stinking, contaminated teeth. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be ‘Cor blimey, guv’nor, this is a pickle and no mistake.’

I often wish that HBO had picked up ‘The Walking Dead,’ thrown a bigger budget and a more authentic cavalcade of sex, swearing and violence at the screen. More and more, I’m coming to prefer the insane inventiveness and all-round bat-shit craziness of SyFy’s Z Nation, which – while clearly ridiculous – always leaves me with a grin on my face. The arrival of Negan in The Walking Dead comics heralded an upswing in risk, excitement, tension, horror, hope and humour. I can’t say the same for the TV show, which appears to have slipped into a coma in its seventh season, awaiting a final and merciful headshot. Season six wasn’t perfect, but it at least had a smattering of excellent episodes to balance out the dreck and the crass manipulations. Season seven has Negan. That should’ve been enough. Sadly – at this stage at least – it isn’t.

Come on, Negan, Mr Poopy Pants. There’s still time for you to save the show by fulfilling your destiny as Mr Motherfucking Shitty Fuck Pants.

Admit it: you prefer one child over the other

birthy1When my son Jack was born, I was filled with an almost cosmic feeling. I took to the keyboard and rattled off an effusive essay that encapsulated my feelings of fatherly pride and love, factoring in a rejection of God and religion along the way. I saw myself in Jack. He was me, I was him. I understood something of the universe, and my place within it. I poured all of my hopes and dreams into the tiny vessel of his wailing, reddened body. He was my world. He was the world. He was everything.

We were a family.

The problem I now find myself facing, following the birth of my second son, Christopher, is how can I write such a thing twice? How can I feel all of that twice? Look at it this way, through the prism of another variety of human love: if you write a book of poetry for your first wife, what the hell do you give your second wife? Two books of poetry? A Ferrari? A dismembered ear? And given how passionately you articulated your undying love the first time around, how can you convince your second wife that your present feelings are to be believed without cheapening the memory of the just-as-genuine feelings you experienced with your first wife?

It goes without saying that I felt a great rush of relief and happiness when Christopher emerged alive and intact from his maternal cocoon; an explosion of love and affection and an urge to safeguard and protect that was only amplified when I held his fluttering, mewling, helpless little body against my skin for the first time. But I also have this guilty, soul-curdling feeling that, this time around, I didn’t feel as much, or as strongly.

Some of it’s the novelty factor (but imagine that I’ve used a word other than ‘novelty’, which usually conjures up images of an electronic singing fish you’re given for Christmas, laugh at once and then throw in the bin). What I mean is, the whole event and its after-shocks the first time around were unmapped, mysterious and terrifying. Now we know what we’re doing, and we know what to expect. For instance, during the first two weeks of Jack’s existence there wasn’t a single moment where both my partner and I were asleep at the same time. We took it in shifts to sit awake with him, all through the day, all through the night, in a bid to ward off surprise attacks from all manner of unwelcome scenarios. A watched kettle never boils, we reasoned: a watched child never dies.

It’s a gruelling time, as all first-time parents know. Each and every sound Jack made acted upon our nervous systems like a fire alarm. Dangers lurked around every corner, and between each of his miniscule breaths. That fear, which can never fully be exorcised, has now been dampened, and with it, I’m sure, some of the spikes of over-powering relief and devotion that follow in fear’s wake. Christopher can now enjoy a set of new, improved and fully desensitised parents. He could scream like a banshee as a giant mutant hawk splintered in through the living room window, and our response would most likely be some species of Parisian shrug.

I guess some of my more subdued feelings can be attributed to my partner’s style of mothering. She breast-feeds and co-sleeps, meaning that my part in proceedings is necessarily limited. Yes, it’s important that I form a bond with Christopher; it’s important that he knows who I am and comes to recognise me as one of the core people sworn to love and protect him, but nothing is more vital – in these early stages at least – than his bond with his mother. If he’s hungry, she feeds him. If he’s frightened, she soothes him. If he soils himself, she… well, okay, I should probably be doing that, too.

birthy3My partner and I decided that the best use of my time during my absence from work would be to concentrate my attentions on Jack; help out the team by occupying its most vocal and demanding member. Take him places and busy him to soften the blow of his mother’s attention being refocused on his little brother. There’s an element of strategy at play, but it’s certainly not an imposition. Jack, at his present stage of development, is endlessly fascinating: his capacity for joy, jokes and affection grows visibly each day; likewise his intelligence, vocabulary and curiosity, the outer-limits of which are increasing exponentially, like a universe expanding. I love being around him, seeing what he does, seeing how he thinks, watching him laugh, coo, cry and dash about, all the while helping to give his critical and emotional faculties a leg-up. He’s fully-formed and ready made, and I can see the difference I make to his life in real-time.

Of course we’ve also been careful to ensure that Jack spends as much time as possible with his mother, both within the wider family and one-on-one; to remind him that although his little brother requires the lion’s share of his mother’s time, he’s not any less important, loved or valued. It’s important for my partner, too, who dearly misses the closeness of the bond she once shared with Jack. In some sense, the baton’s been passed to me. I’ve been privileged these past few weeks to share the bulk of my time with him, and for a long time now I’ve been the one who’s there with him at bed-and-bath times; the one he crawls next to in bed when he toddles through from his bedroom in the dead of night, wrapping his arms around my neck, burrowing into my chest as his body resigns peacefully to sleep.

birthy2You’re not allowed to prefer one child over the other. But how can you avoid it? At least initially. How can I feel equal affection for a living toddler and a cluster of cells in my partner’s womb? (Should I feel love for my nutsack, being as it is a site of potential future Jamie and Jemima Juniors?) Or even a living toddler and a screaming, half-blind purple baby who does nothing but gurn, yelp and poo? Imagine you had two mates: one you could sit and watch Ghostbusters with, and then take on an imaginary ghost hunt around your house; and one who just sat there saying nothing and shitting himself all day? Be honest with yourself.

Who you gonna call?

It’s a taboo thought. You’re not supposed to express a preference for one child over the other, under any circumstances. Before I was a parent, I’d hear people talk about sibling rivalries and jealousies, and the parental imbalances that fuelled them, and I’d say, ‘That’s horrendous. A parent should love their kids equally, no matter how many they have, or how different they are. I think it goes without saying.’ And now, as I get older, and especially since becoming a parent, I’ve found myself thinking… hmmmmmm. I’m looking at other people’s families, at their brothers and sisters, and aunties and uncles, and mums and dads, and I’m thinking, ‘Actually, I can see why they might prefer the other one…’

What worries me most is what will happen in a year or two when Jack is much more self-reliant, and his little brother is hitting the same bench-marks that he’s hitting now; when Jack begins his long, slow journey to becoming a responsible and free-thinking boy, shedding his adorableness along the way as the air rings out with a chorus of ‘nos’, ‘whys’ and ‘why nots’, all accompanied by the percussive beat of stamping, tantrum-tapping feet? Will I find myself secretly, perhaps even subconsciously, preferring Christopher? How do I stop myself from feeling this stuff, and if I can’t stop myself from feeling it, then how do I counter the effects of these feelings – how they manifest in my behaviour – to ensure that I screw my kids up as little as humanly possible? Because some element of screwing them up is inevitable. Over to Philip Larkin, who can offer us some concise, brutal and eloquent words on the subject:

This Be The Verse

   By Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.
                            ~
But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.
                            ~
Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.
                            ~

familyAll of this has got me to thinking about my grandparents, who came from broods ten and twelve strong. If we accept the proposition that the continuation of our genes is the only real point of existence – biologically-speaking of course – then it figures that the bigger the family, the more perfect the expression of this point. But how are we to square this in-built desire to sire with our modern Western notion of parenthood? A notion that holds at its core the idea that we should be able and willing to devote not just time but ‘quality time’ to our children; to be able to guide them and closely oversee their development as loved and loving, free-thinking individuals? After all, smaller class sizes are better, right? Or, in the context of the family unit, will having multiple siblings actually help promote intelligence and language skills? Anyway, never mind the question ‘How can you love twelve children equally?’: how can you even remember their bloody names?

I genuinely believe that much of Osama bin Laden’s thirst for chaos, death and domination was a direct result of having to share his parents’ presence and affections with literally scores of siblings. Forget ‘middle-child syndrome’. What the hell would you have to do to get noticed in that family? I wonder if young Osama began his mission for attention in the traditional manner, perhaps by riding his bike up the street shouting, ‘Look, papa, look at me, no hands!’ (Although that’s probably a phrase you’d be more likely to hear from a Saudi kid after they’ve stolen a bike) Look, Papa, look, I’ve got an ear-ring! I’ve got a tattoo! I’m living in a cave, a real-ass cave, Dad, look, look at me, look at my beard, it’s so long, and my minions, I’ve got minions, Dad, thousands of minions!!! Do any of my other brothers have minions, hmmmm? Hmmmm? I’m even on TV. Dad!! Dad!!!?? Dad!!!!!? Won’t you look at me? Can’t you see what… Oh, fuck it. [launches terrorist attack on the US mainland]. NOW YOU’LL NOTICE ME, DAD!

Osama’s Dad: [sighs] Why couldn’t you have just been a painter and decorator like your brother, Barry bin Laden?

birthy4

It seems that I’m so loathe to engage with my feelings on this subject that I’ve taken us down a highway of distraction to 9/11 itself. Sorry about that. Here’s both an update and a coda, though. While I’ve been writing this article, Christopher has been changing and growing. Yes, he still lists his favourite hobbies as pooing and drinking milk, but the more he’s in my life, and the more times I hold him in my arms and see my reflection in the milky black of his tiny feral eyes, the greater the power he exerts over my heart. I was cradling him in my arms a few days ago, and caught sight of us both in the mirror. I know he’s tiny, and helplessly delicate, but something about that moment, about seeing it and feeling it, caused a sharp surge, like a shock of electricity, to zap down my spine. My little boy.

Yesterday, as I lay Christopher down to change his nappy, he looked up at me, little limbs flailing like a penguin who’s really bad at dancing, and his face contorted into a smile. I know he’s too young for real smiles, and this was just a wind-sponsored facsimile. Try telling that to my heart. He made a wee cooing noise too. We’re a bit far from ‘Daddy’ at this stage of his linguistic development, but never-the-less: I heard Daddy anyway.

I think we’re going to be okay.

[But, just to be clear, Jack’s still in the lead so far!]

[PS: Hi, Christopher-of-the-future. Thanks for reading this. This is the reason you’re a heroin addict today. Love you!]

READ MORE ARTICLES ABOUT PARENTING BELOW

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Happy Father’s Day… to me?

On the horror of taking your child to hospital

A Celebration of Public Breastfeeding

Existential Nightmare at the Soft-play Warehouse

Parent and child parking spaces: the dos and don’ts of not being a dick

Flies, Lies and Crime-fighting Dogs

The (not-so) hidden horror of your children’s fairy tales

Reflections on school days, bullying and the bad bus

When people take pictures of your kids

The (not so) hidden horror of your children’s fairy-tales

Jack and the Beanstalk

jack1OK, so little Jack’s supposed to be the hero of this story. Unfortunately, he’s an absolute bell-end of a boy, whose reckless behaviour and kleptomania should have handed him a death sentence, or at the very least a bloody good grounding. Instead, by the end of the story, he and his mother are rewarded with untold riches. His unethical actions are only rendered good in retrospect by a dose of deux ex machina at the tale’s end, when a supernatural entity reveals that she’s been influencing Jack’s actions all along. Influencing, not controlling. Jack was more than willing to let his id run rampant and shake shit up in fairytale town, with nary a thought to the consequences.

First, he sells his mother’s only cow to some dodgy butcher at the market for a measly bag of beans, bankrupting his little family for the ye olde fairytale equivalent of a Euro Millions lotto ticket. He then climbs the beanstalk that sprouts in the beans’ wake and inveigles his way into the giant’s home not once, but three times, robbing the giant of a hen that lays golden eggs, a bag of gold coins and a golden harp respectively. Now, the giant certainly deserves to have his stuff nicked, being as he is a foul brute who constantly prattles on about sniffing people’s blood and making bread out of little boys’ bones, but the giant’s wife is an innocent victim – a hostage, really – whose victimhood is only compounded by Jack’s callously shitty behaviour. Each time Jack arrives at the giant’s manor he hoodwinks the poor woman into letting him through the door. He pretends to be a different boy, each time armed with a fresh sob story. Three times he makes this frightened little woman look like a proper mug, and three times he places her at the mercy of her husband’s violent temper. What’s the moral here?

Who cares if an old housewife gets her head punched off by an abusive giant: check out these golden eggs, motherfuckersssss! I’m going to get me a golden milking stool and a jaunty hat! Yay boy!

jack2But really, poor ethics aside, the most despicable element of this story lies in its blood-curdling sexual subtext. The giant is about sixty feet tall: his wife is about five-foot five. The giant’s walloper alone must be a good couple of feet long, as big and as thick as a rolled-up carpet. Imagine getting slapped across the face with that monstrosity! Now, there’s no way that this husband and wife are able to enjoy carnal relations in the conventional way, unless she’s got a TARDIS for a vagina, so this lesson in sexual physics leaves us with a catalogue of increasingly outlandish and humiliating alternatives to consider. Pity this poor woman as she’s forced to scale the giant’s hard-on, shoogling up and down its length like a koala with bone disease trying to climb a tree. Recoil in horror as the giant lies down on his back and bids the exhausted little woman to dash back and forth along his shaft like a footballer doing pre-match warm-up exercises. “Fe Fi Fo Fum, another few pivots and I’m ready to cum!” The story should really be renamed ‘Jack Off the Beanstalk.’

The giant doesn’t seem like he’d be the world’s most sensitive and giving lover, but if he was inclined to reciprocate and get her rocks off too, his only option would be to jam her onto his pinky like a fleshy finger-puppet and bob her up and down until she either cums or splits open like a pea-pod. And imagine if he decided to ‘finish’ on her? Jesus Christ, she’d be shot across the room like an exploding man-hole cover. She’d spend the rest of the day looking like Walter Peck at the end of Ghostbusters.

‘He… slimed me.’

Disgusting.

Hansel and Gretel

gretel2As I was reading this story to my son, I had to pause a few times to process my incredulity, and offer a few whispered expletives to the cosmos. How the hell does Hansel and Gretel’s father manage to come out of this story not only unscathed, but celebrated as a hero? He’s the most horrible, spineless man who (n)ever existed. Yes, the step-mother is irredeemably wicked in the extreme, as most step-mothers are in both life and fiction. But this guy is supposed to be Hansel and Gretel’s protector, so for him to sell them down the river (or down the forest path, if you prefer) is as unconscionable as it is unforgivable.

First, the moping sad-sack goes along with his wife’s plan to leave his children to starve or get eaten in the forest not once, but twice. Hansel and Gretel then have to endure a terrifying ordeal at the hands of an elderly cannibalistic paedophile who inexplicably lives in a house made of Swiss Rolls and Twixes. When they escape and find their way back home, they reward their father with a whirlwind of hugs and kisses. Their wicked step-mother is dead by this point, perished off-camera and without explanation, and so their father is able to reassure them that, with her out of the picture, he probably won’t try to have them killed again. Probably. Although there is that nice widow with the come-to-bed-hips and the big diddies who lives in that cabin down by the river… phwoar… she looks like she’d be able to shift a few sides of ham. But… you know… Yay! My kids are alive, let’s celebrate!

gretel3And they all lived happily ever after….

No, no, no, no, no AND NO. What sort of a message is that to send to my sons? This fairy-tale universe is in dire need of some gingerbread social workers. I’m going to re-write the ending of Hansel and Gretel so that my sons’ bed-time contains a little more in the way of cosmic justice. Here’s my stab at it:

The kids return home having vanquished the evil witch, with armfuls of Battenburg Cake and Maltesers and everyone’s favourite chocolates from the Quality Street tins bulging against their chests, and all manner of sugary treats stuffed into their pockets. Their Dad throws open his arms and says, ‘My children, you’re home. I am so happy. Your evil step-mother is no more. Come, let us celebrate by feasting on the bounty you’ve brought for us, and live a happy life of plenty.’

‘Fuck off,’ says Hansel, through a glob of Mars Bar.

‘Yeah’, says Gretel, peeling the wrapper from her fifth Double Decker of the hour. ‘Hope you enjoyed getting your hole from that murderous whore wife of yours. Now you’re going to get your hole from us: a hole in the ground.’

Hansel laughs, and downs a tube of sherbert Dib Dab. ‘Yep. We’re pretty much going to stand here eating sweets and chocolate and watch as you slowly die from hunger.’

‘You think he’ll die from lack of food?’

‘Well… he’s bounty!’

The two kids laugh maniacally as they stuff handfuls of Fun Size Bountys into each other’s mouths.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier

tinsoldierMy partner read this boundlessly cheery story to my son one bedtime, and later shared with me her horror upon reaching its less-than Disney-ish climax. Allow me to summarise the plot:

A little tin soldier with one leg falls in love with a little paper ballerina who also has one leg. Aw, sweet, it’s just like Toy Story. Looking forward to an absolutely heart-warming ending to this one, and no mistake, guvnor. An evil Jack-in-the-Box tells the tin soldier to forget about seeking happiness with the ballerina, or there’ll be dire consequences for them both. Excellent, a little bit of adversity and tension in the mix, which should only make their eventual union all the sweeter… So the tin soldier is placed on a little boat by the kids who own him, and pushed out to sea, whereupon he falls in the water and finds himself accosted by a rat. Just like Ratatouille, right? Classic! Eventually, after a further series of mishaps, the tin soldier finds himself back home, and by the side of his beloved ballerina. Now, just wait until I grab my hankies, I can feel the tears starting to jerk, God this is going to be beautiful, I can feel it, I can feel it…

Then a little boy throws the tin soldier into a fire, a gust of wind blows the ballerina in with him, and the pair of them burn to death.

They burn to death.

Yeah, but in the morning, they’re fused together in the shape of a heart, and… No. NO. Let’s stick with ‘They burn to death’. At the end of a fucking kids’ story, the main characters literally burn to death. This ‘burning to death scenario’ almost played itself out in Toy Story 3, but the bods at Pixar quite wisely opted to have the three little aliens rescue the toys at the last moment. Where are the three little aliens in this story, Hans Christian Andersen, you gloomy Danish bastard?

This is what Wikipedia has to say about The Steadfast Tin Soldier:

Joan G. Haahr writes in The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales: “The story is unusual among Andersen’s early tales, both in its emphasis on sensual desire and in its ambiguities. Blind fate, not intention, determines all events. Moreover, the narrative questions the very decorum it praises. The tin soldier’s passive acceptance of whatever happens to him, while exemplifying pietistic ideals of self-denial, also contributes to his doom. Were he to speak and act, the soldier might gain both life and love. Restrained, however, by inhibition and convention, he finds only tragedy and death. The tale is often read autobiographically, with the soldier viewed as symbolizing Andersen’s feelings of inadequacy with women, his passive acceptance of bourgeois class attitudes, or his sense of alienation as an artist and an outsider, from full participation in everyday life.”

The fuck? So my sons have got to suffer the onset of clinical depression just because Christian Andersen struggled to get his hole? I look forward to reading them a version of the Three Little Pigs in which the protagonists are butchered and made into BLTs.

The Little Match Girl

matchgirlI’d never heard of this fairy-tale before I read it to my son for the first time. As with the previous entry in this list, The Tin Soldier Who Literally Burns to Death, I was fooled into thinking that because this was a fairy-tale in a book for children that it would have a nice, happy ending. It doesn’t. But at least nobody burned to death this time.

Instead they froze to death. Yep. The little match girl freezes to death. On the street. In the gutter. On New Years’ Eve. A group of revellers find her smiling corpse the next morning. She’d been unable to sell any of her matches that night, and thus couldn’t raise enough money for food and shelter, so that’s that. Capitalism: 1 – Little Girl: 0. I kept turning the page to see if there was additional text, perchance a surprise happy ending. Nope. There wasn’t. That was it. A dead wee girl. Bambi eat your heart out.

Jesus Christ, Victorians, what the fuck was wrong with you? I know your life was all top-hats, fog and misery, and you mercilessly beat your children with cummerbunds if they so much as sniffed at the dinner table, but couldn’t you let them escape the horror of their pre-TV lives for the duration of just one measly story? You were basically writing episodes of Eastenders for the toddler market.

I had to read my son Silence of the Lambs after this gloomy death-fest just to cheer him up.

Wait a minute… I’ve just noticed that this one’s another Hans Christian Andersen effort… I might have guessed (shakes fist at the heavens). Annnnddeerrrsseeennnnnnnnn! Could somebody please travel back through time and screw this guy before he gets a chance to pick up a quill?

The First Day of the Holidays

And the less said about this one the better!

penguins

READ MORE ARTICLES ABOUT PARENTING BELOW

Co-sleeping kids: banished from the bed

Being at the birth

Happy Father’s Day… to me?

On the horror of taking your child to hospital

A Celebration of Public Breastfeeding

Existential Nightmare at the Soft-play Warehouse

Flies, Lies and Crime-fighting Dogs

Reflections on school days, bullying and the bad bus

When people take pictures of your kids

Being at the birth

ouchMy second son was born last week, a healthy, whopping laddie of 8 pounds and twelve-and-a-half ounces. It goes without saying that I’m pleased as punch, happy as a sandboy, and a billion other over-used cliches besides, but I’m not here to discuss those feelings. Little Christopher deserves his own blog-post, which he’ll get in due course. For now, I’d like to talk to you about my experiences of witnessing and assisting in live births.

I’ve been at the births of both of my boys, which I guess technically makes me a birthing partner, although I think the term ‘partner’ somewhat oversells my usefulness during proceedings. I gather that in days gone by the majority of men holed themselves up in the pub as their wives gave birth, blind drunk and desperately trying to decipher a gambling Da Vinci Code within the pages of the Racing Post. They’d then hurry home – usually two to three days later – still melted out of their soot-blackened faces and reeking of a thousand filterless rollies, mildly startled to find a human baby clamped to their wife’s tit. “Shit, the baby was this week? Sorry, love… you got the tea on yet?”

But, hell folks, this is a different world, and my cock-and-ball-owning contemporaries and I are sons of a new age. We want to be there. We need to be there. All the tea in China couldn’t keep us away (unless it was stacked up against the front door of the hospital: then we might have problems). It’s just that… Well. I really don’t know who is the most helpless in that delivery room: the fathers, or their freshly-born offspring. Women – quite rightly so – have the monopoly on the pain, respect and wonder of birth. Men are there to… well, men are there, certainly.

My duties can be broken down under the following sub-headings:

Words of encouragement: Mid-wives, and women in general, tend to excel at saying the right thing, in the right way, during labour, and the woman giving birth – in my experience anyway – tends to respond to their words with gratitude and deference. For all the positive effects my words had over the two births, I may as well have been hollering abuse from the other side of the room. “You call that a push?” “I’m on the clock here, can you hurry it along, please?” “Hey, I can see its head, can you believe that it’s actually fucking uglier than you!”

During the second birth, I got locked into a bit of one-man-up-manship with the midwife.

She’d say: “You’re doing well, you’re doing good.”

I’d say: “You’re doing well, you’re doing GREAT.”

She’d say: “You’re being brave, you’re doing okay.”

I’d say: “You’re being SO brave, you’re doing absolutely bloody BRILLIANTLY.”

She’d say: “Come on, you can do it.”

I’d say: “Can?? You ARE doing it, you ARE doing it.”

At one point, my partner opened her eyes through her fog of agony and locked me with a stare seldom seen this side of Hades. I shut up for a bit, and silently resolved to settle the matter with a fight in the hospital car-park later in the day.

My main issue is, what the hell are you supposed to say to your partner? And how the hell are you supposed to keep saying it for hours upon hours? There are only so many generic phrases of encouragement you can utter before you start to feel like a jockey whispering in the ear of a prize racehorse. I caught myself a few times during the first birth stroking the bridge of her nose and saying things like, ‘Shhhhh, girl, shhhhh, calm, calm, shhhh, you’re doing great, that’s my girl, I’ve never seen your coat looking so shiny.”

Going for a shit at inappropriate times: Whoops, right? I gather my partner cursed my name to the midwife as I disappeared out of the room with a newspaper tucked under my arm. I missed the opening salvos of her most painful pre-birth contractions. I was along the corridor, pushing out an entity of my own. Luckily, I returned in time. I don’t think our repertoire of family memories would’ve been enriched by the tale of, ‘You remember that time you missed the birth of your second child cause you went for a shit?’

birth3Reading the paper: At one point during birth two, my partner’s sister was holding one of her hands, and the mid-wife was holding the other, which left me sitting a few feet away in a comfy armchair with nothing to contribute. My partner was in a great deal of pain, which I caught a glimpse of from time to time as I bobbed my head up from behind the newspaper to say encouraging things like, ‘Oh, you’re doing well, SO well. Fancy giving me a hand with this crossword?’

This is a wo-man’s world…

A childbirth simulator? Come on, men, did we really need that? "We've spent millions on this thing, and what do you know? It really IS fucking sore."

A childbirth simulator? Come on, men, did we really need that? “We’ve spent millions on this thing, and what do you know? It really IS fucking sore.”

In most women’s eyes, men are a gaggle of pussies who would never be able to bear the pain of childbirth should medical science ever make that process available to them. I think they’re on to something. I know we men tend to jokingly underplay the agony of childbirth, comparing it to a toe-stubbing or the pushing out of a particularly gnarly poo, but, really, I defy any man to watch a woman grunting and screaming a human being out of her nether-regions, and feel anything other than admiration, empathy and a great, burning sense of relief that they were lucky enough to be born with a cock.

bbbGiven the enormity of birth, it’s surprising that women don’t talk about it more often than they do. Can you imagine if men gave birth? We’d never shut the fuck up about it. You see what we’re like after we’ve lifted a reasonably heavy box, or recovered from a bad head-cold. Childbirth would be incorporated into our testosterone-tastic rituals of puff-chested dick-swinging; our conversations with other men would become like tweaked versions of the scene in Jaws where the guys sit around on a boat and compare war-wounds. Or the Yorkshiremen sketch from Monty Python.

You think that’s bad? I was in labour for eight weeks without sleeping or eating, gave birth to a baby the size of a rhino, in fact it was a rhino, pushed so hard that it ripped my arse and balls off, lost fifty litres of blood, three of my limbs actually exploded, and just prior to delivery a squad of terrorists broke into the room and started stabbing me with kitchen knives. And I never felt one bit of pain.”

And you try telling the women of today that… they won’t believe you.”

The two questions most often levelled at a man who has attended the birth of his child are ‘Did you cry?’ and ‘Did you puke?’, the latter because women don’t merely think that men would be incapable of handling childbirth: they deem them incapable of handling even the sight. I understand why some men find childbirth unpalatable; why it might engage their gag reflexes. It’s gross. It really is. The word ‘beautiful’ is banded about a lot in this context, but I’d just like to disavow any prospective fathers out there of that notion. A sunset is beautiful; a rainbow is beautiful; morning dew glistening on the grass as birds chirp from the trees is beautiful. But a roar of feral agony and an explosive squelch of blood and human tissue? That’s resolutely not beautiful. Unless you happen to be Ted Bundy with a cricket bat.

birth2In the run-up to birth number 1, my partner gorged herself on episodes of One Born Every Minute (or Jeremy Kyle for Slightly More Respectable Poor People, as I like to call it), an activity from which I abstained on the grounds that I only want to bear witness to pain and horror if I absolutely have to. Because of this, I went into the birth ignorant of its mechanics and intricacies. In particular, I was woefully unprepared for the first glimpse of my son’s blue, gunk-covered cone-head as it pushed through my partner’s vagina like something out of HR Geiger’s nightmares. I remember expressing concern that I appeared to have sired one of the X Men.

I couldn’t watch heart surgery without reaching for the barf bag or a big bag of valium, but live birth doesn’t seem to revolt or frighten me. It may not be beautiful, but the process is undeniably fascinating and filled with wonder (an easier sentiment to express if you happen to be watching it instead of doing it, I’m sure!). That being said, our second child was born in a birthing pool, and I did describe the moment of birth as looking like someone had thrown the mattress from Hellraiser II into the bathtub at the end of Fatal Attraction.

Mere minutes after Christopher’s birth, my partner was poised to receive an injection that would hasten the appearance of the afterbirth. It wasn’t required. As she stepped down from the birthing pool, the placenta performed a spectacular dive for freedom, only halted by her quick reflexes, and the help of the midwife, who grappled with the umbilical cord like a magician doing a difficult trick. I got to look at the placenta, long and hard, as it sat wholly intact on a table. I always imagined it to be some sort of thin, almost-ephemeral, jelly-fish-like substance. It isn’t. It’s like a T-Bone steak, almost as big as some babies. Fred Flintstone’s dinner. Women, I salute you again. You have to give birth twice, you brave sons of bitches. And a shout out to my partner in particular: just gas and air the second time? Hardcore. I’m sure you’ll never throw that fact in my face the next time I’m a wee bit tired or feeling under the weather…

The tears of a clown

gazzaBirths are one of the few times in a man’s life when he’s permitted to cry (football being the other) without being judged an insufferable weakling or some sort of emotionally-unstable, nascent spree killer. Having a good sob at a birth is now mandatory; indeed, my partner considers my lack of post-partum tears a weird, almost unforgivable omission, and possibly evidence that I’m a psychopathic half-Vulcan robot. This judgement has left me feeling a little like the protagonist in Camus’s The Stranger, whose inability to cry at his own mother’s funeral indirectly leads him to the gallows (apologies for the slightly pretentious literary reference; at least I didn’t use its French title, L’Estranger). To make matters worse, I feel like I’ve sold my sons short, given that I didn’t cry at their births, but I did cry at Ghost and Watership Down.

I did cry that day, though. My toddler, Jack, was brought to the hospital in the afternoon by his grandpa and grandma to see his newly born little brother. Afterwards, as I was staying with mum and baby for the next few hours and didn’t know exactly when I’d be home, Jack was going back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for a sleep-over. As he was being carried down the corridor in his Grandpa’s arms on their way out of the ward, I locked eyes with him, and he seemed to give me a sad, wistful little smile that doubtless I imbued with my own feelings of separation anxiety. My eyes started to glaze over with a thin film of tears. I’d never slept under a different roof from him since his birth.

I still haven’t. When I got home he was in the house with his grandma and grandpa, in the process of having a story read to him. He just couldn’t settle without his Dad. Well, he name-checked the cat, too, but I’d like to think I was the greater part of his motivation… he does love that bloody cat though. When I heard his little voice drifting down from the top of the stairs, I actually punched the air with happiness. And even though his unexpected presence in the house deprived me of the rare treat of pornography with the sound turned up, I couldn’t have been more glad. See? I do have a heart.

MORE PARENTING/PARENTHOOD ARTICLES

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Happy Father’s Day… to me?

On the horror of taking your child to hospital

A Celebration of Public Breastfeeding

Existential Nightmare at the Soft-play Warehouse

Flies, Lies and Crime-fighting Dogs

When people take pictures of your kids

Reflections on school days, bullying and the bad bus

seatbeltsIt’s going to be a while before either of my children (one a toddler, the other yet to be born) go to school, but given how quickly time has whizzed by since little Jack first emerged gunky and cone-headed into the world, I wouldn’t be surprised to look up to discover him bedecked in a blazer and sporting an incredibly ill-advised side-parting the second I’m finished writing this article.

The thought of sending my children to school terrifies me. For all that school is a place of forced captivity where lessons are learned and friendships forged, so is fucking prison. School’s a place where we’re bundled off to be indoctrinated into a work-a-day routine that’ll help keep the wheels of capitalism spinning, whether we’re destined to become the spinners or the spun. They’re living-flesh factories, sorting children by aptitude and ability and then spitting them along the conveyer belt – or down the garbage chute – of life. Teachers seem to be so over-worked and under-resourced that even the most inspirational of them are too busy being crushed under a ton-weight of bureaucracy to break out any Dead Poets Society-style shit. While it’s true that school has the power to teach you a lot about yourself and the wider world, that doesn’t prove that the experience is ultimately a worthwhile one. After all, even in war people still find time to play a quick game of five-asides against the foreign exchange students.

In some ways, things are even more war-like than they were in my day. Schools now have their own cops, for Christ’s sake! How did that happen? This development in community policing indicates either that schools are now fundamentally unsafe places to send our children, or else the government is conducting a grand experiment to save time and money by identifying and labelling future offenders early: a choice between The Hunger Games and Minority Report, if you like. Bullying, which has always been a constant of school-life, has now entered The Matrix thanks to the oppressive, omnipresent connectivity of social media. 2016’s bullies have the access and power of the fucking Lawnmower Man, meaning that my kids can now be bullied in the comfort of their own bedrooms, 24/7. In my day (there’s that fuddy duddy refrain again), a bedroom was a sanctuary that only homework and mothers had to power to penetrate.

media

I’m perhaps over-accentuating the doom and gloom element of school life in general and my own school days in particular. My schools were hardly the stuff of The Wire, or Dangerous Minds; they were rather pleasant places, actually, and I do have a lot of fond memories to look back upon. As I still live in the same general area I’ve no reason to expect that my sons will experience a radically different school-life from mine. Even still, whichever school they attend is going to have a ‘Lord of the Flies’ flavour that I dearly wish they didn’t have to taste: regardless of any culturally-shared notions of school ‘preparing them for the real world’ or ‘building their characters’. Simply put, my partner and I can’t afford to send them to private school.

The good news is, though, that because we can’t send them to private school, my paper-thin socialist sensibilities get to remain untested and intact. Thank God for that. (clears throat and raises fist aloft) Education for all! Down with the two-tier system! Private school kids are all snobby bastards… (checks bank balance again, just in case)

Of course, Private school wouldn’t eliminate psychopathic bullies from my children’s school life, but it would probably buy them a better breed of psychopathic bully. Instead of being stuck in a class alongside kids who listed among their hobbies eating stringy bogies, setting fire to bins and taking steaming shits in the teacher’s supply cupboard, they could be rubbing shoulders with the crème de la creme of cold-hearted monsters, the sort of rich boys who will inevitably grow up to destroy the world’s economy with one solitary sniff of Bolivian and a single thump of an ENTER key (We’ve considered home-schooling, but my partner’s worried we’d make them weird. They share fifty per cent of my DNA, love. That ship’s already sailed).

Thinking about my kids’ future school days has got me thinking about my own behaviour at high school. While – broadly speaking – I was a good, unobjectionable and unremarkable young lad: never quite top of the class; never quite on the teachers’ shit lists; liked – or at least tolerated – by a wide-ish spectrum of the school continuum – I could still be an absolute cuntbag. As all teenage boys, I’m certain, have the potential to be, a potential that most of them fulfil at one point or another.

school

My cuntbaggery always shone brightest when I was sitting up the back seats of the Wallacestone bus on the journey home from school, alongside a merry band of chanting dick-bags who – when we weren’t cruelly impersonating teachers or singing bawdy football songs (which even I joined in with, despite my hatred of football) – took great delight in providing really quite horrible intro music for the bus’s regular cast of characters. We revelled in the supreme power our size, seniority and prime seating afforded us, believing ourselves to be banter-maestros extraordinaire, when in reality we were a bunch of boorish, bullying bastards in the iron grip of mob rule.

The memories are a catalogue of shame. There was a little boy of wholly Caucasian extraction whom we decided had a curiously Mexican flavour to his heritage, and so, without fail, every time this poor unfortunate boy stepped onto the bus, we stamped our feet in unison and mimicked the vigorous strumming of guitars, belting out a Speedy Gonzales-esque Mexican ditty. You know the one: de de de-de de de-de de de-de, de de-de de de-de de de-de. We may even have shouted Ariba. We really were cunts.

There was another boy called Michael, still not sure of his surname, whose only crime was to have an ear-ring. He also bore a striking resemblance to a young Jimmy Sommerville. When he got on the bus we always chanted, “Micheal Thingmy is a poofter!”, which we repeated and repeated until he’d sat down, each line of the chant punctuated by four loud hand-claps. I don’t know what hit Michael Thingmy the hardest: the taunts about his ear-ring, or the fact that we never considered his surname all that important to the bullying process. Michael’s probably a bank manager with a wife and three kids by now, and it’s my fond hope that the Thingmy family is doing well.

fight

Another poor boy was welcomed daily with a chant of ‘You smell, and you know you do’, again and again until he disappeared up the top deck of the bus. It’s never been confirmed that he actually smelled, and it’s certainly never been confirmed that he knew that he did. He never stuck around to debate the matter with us, quite correctly ascertaining that a gang of idiots with a mixed-back of monosyllabic chants probably wasn’t the best group to engage in rational discussion.

The worst song was reserved for one of our own, a pleasant chap by the name of Craig Muir (*not his real name), and to my eternal shame I must confess to having written it. Craig was a nice, normal lad, peaceful by nature, and never went looking for trouble. He had a close friendship with his brother, and at primary school used to win fights by chewing on his own hand with a terrifying look in his eyes (the tactic being: “If I can do this to myself, think what I’ll do to you!”). From that scant biography grew a song that went a little like this:

The Muiry Song

Verse 1

He lives in a house of tar and bricks,

He’s had the same jacket since primary six,

And when in a fight one must demand,

He opens his mouth and bites his hand.

Chorus

Muiry boy,

Muiry boy,

Went to the shop for a new sex toy,

Stuck it up his bum,

Covered it in cum,

Oh Muiry boy, oh what’s your ploy?

There were a lot of other verses, possibly as many as there are to be found in our own national anthem, which have thankfully been lost to the mists of time: one of which I’m sure was about the Muir brothers fucking each other. It was a very subtle piece of work. The song became so popular that another wee guy in our circle, Karl, typed up the lyrics and handed out song sheets. Song sheets on the bus, for fuck sake. Some of these guys never did their homework, but committed themselves with great zeal to this extra-curricular musical extravaganza. Years later, in my mid-twenties, I was at a function at a hotel, and was served by Craig Muir. One of the first things he said to me, with a scowl on his face, was: ‘That fucking Muiry Boy song.’

The bad news: I was an arsehole. The good news? I’d written a hit song.

NEXT TIME: The scales are re-balanced slightly when I recount my own experiences of being bullied, and of saving someone from bullying. Plus, an introduction to the phenomenon of ‘the shaggy pole’.

(PLEASE NOTE: NEXT TIME could be a long time away. Child number 2 is imminent, and I have to be in the mood to write it. I’m sure you’re on the edges of your seats waiting, right?)

Parent-and-child parking spaces: the dos and don’ts of not being a dick

Tesco has vowed to start fining people who make improper use of disabled, and parent-and-child parking bays (improper in the sense of categorical appropriateness, rather than improper in the sense of setting up tombola stalls in the vacant spaces). Whether or not Tesco has the authority to enforce such fines remains to be seen; however, what I find most interesting about this news story is the reaction to it from certain quarters of the great unwashed via the ever-malevolent medium of the comment threads underneath online articles, especially on Facebook.

To my mind, responsibility for the regulation of car-parking behaviour shouldn’t fall under the auspices of local government or corporate might. We should self-regulate; the impulse should come naturally to us. It certainly seems like a slam-dunk to me: don’t park in a disabled bay if you aren’t disabled; don’t park in a parent-and-child bay if you don’t have children in the car with you, or if the child you have with you is 43 years old. The clear focus of the issue here is basic respect and decency, not some imagined Stalinist nannyism against which we should all be rallying. Even still, in the vacant spaces beneath articles, via the empty spaces between some people’s ears, the bile-bomb has gone off with a bang. Ignorance drips from the fingers of a thousand angry eejits. Drip drip drip. Into our eyes, and into our brains, water-boarding us with a steady flood of selfishness and un-reason.

I’m going to keep my focus on the parent-and-child spaces, because even the worst of the world’s keyboard warriors – troll and non-troll alike – would clearly find it hard to sustain a charge of laziness against the disabled. What follows is a flavour of the comments I’ve witnessed on my journeys through cyberspace. I’m going to be paraphrasing here, but only ever-so-slightly:

“OMG, just because they have children suddenly they can’t walk??? Their r sum lazy good-for-nothing people out there!”

 

“I’m sick of people thinking they deserve special privelle…privvill… treetment just becoz there husband didn’t pull out in time. WALK you scrounging assholes.”

 

“WHY DO THEY NEED WIDER SPACES? IS IT BCOS THEY’RE FAT AS WELL AS LAZY? MAYBE IF YOU AND UR FAT KIDS WALKED FURTHER TO THE DOOR YOU ALL WOULDN’T BE SO FAT AND YOU WOULDN’T NEED WIDER SPACES YOU LAZY FATTIES??!”

 

“Now THIS is why I voted for BREXIT!!!”

You get the idea.

Just to clear some things up: parent-and-child spaces are wider to allow parents extra room to load and unload things like push-chairs and car seats. Where the parent has many children with them – but even if they’ve only got one – the extra space makes said children’s entry and exit from the car a lot less of a logistical nightmare, and a whole hell of a lot safer.

Yes, it’s true, parent-and-child spaces are often – but certainly not always – positioned near the front-door of a store. Where the bays are not located right at the front door, they are always connected to a path or walkway that will lead parents and their children along a safe route to the front door that doesn’t necessitate a mad, dangerous dash through a gauntlet of reversing cars and fast-moving traffic. Safety is the concern here: not proximity.

Now, isn’t that simple? I like simple. And this next bit is even more simple: if you park in a parent-and-child space when you’ve no right to be there, you aren’t some ballsy Robin-Hood-style folk hero sticking it to the man. You are indeed, and without exception, a cunt. And cunts don’t get their own special parking spaces.

Unless you count Waitrose.