Utterly guttered

I had the oddest exchange with someone at work a couple of days ago: one of those incidents which is simultaneously tragic but very funny.

To put it mildly, some of my work-mates are gloom-and-doom merchants – determinedly glass-half-empty folk who can turn any minor or major success into another reason to be miserable. Granted, they have their genuine problems (physical maladies, relatives and neighbours from hell.…, etc. etc.), but nothing insurmountable with a little planning and good humour.

One, for example, seems to be surrounded by feckless male relatives who think her only purpose in life is to wait on them hand and foot. From what we can gather, this is made worse because she also refuses to let them sort out any minor problem or everyday task for themselves.

This week’s toll of grief included a husband who can’t be bothered to fill in his tax form and a son studying abroad who almost daily demands she couriers more techno-toys and sundry useless (and heavy, therefore expensive) items to him, all of which cost a fortune to send and long, complicated forms for customs clearance.

As we were getting stuck into Thursday’s first menial task, having duly recited last night’s family problems, she suddenly burst out ‘We’re all in the gutter and looking up at the stars. I can’t remember who said that, can you?’

‘Well, it was Oscar Wilde’, I replied, ’but it’s actually “We may all be in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”……

….at which point she ran off screaming, partly because this proved she couldn’t even quote a well-known saying about life’s unfairness without getting it wrong, partly because in correcting her I had lowered her self-esteem still further.

The more I and the department’s other art graduate slacker tried to explain that what Wilde was saying is that you can choose to look at the stars instead of the gutter, the angrier and more entrenched in their misery she and her fellow pessimists got. This was, of course, hilarious, but we couldn’t laugh without making the situation worse.

Finally, she howled ‘But I can’t see any stars’, to which I replied ‘Well, roll over and look up, then’.

At which point we two optimists really had to leave the room, unable to restrain our giggles any longer. The Pessimist Party would then have muttered at length about us while we were gone.

I am tempted to say that at least in doing so they must have got some sort of satisfaction, and so everyone ended up happy. Sadly, to suggest that to them in person would probably cause them further grief, so I won’t.


Goodbye 2018, and good riddance

I won’t be sorry when 2018 is over.

It’s been the worst year of my life. A year that started with me running sick relatives to hospital every night, and went further downhill from that point onwards. A year in which I first lost my job, then my home, my wife and daughter.

The job situation I have hinted at before. In effect, insecure managers whittled away all the mature members of the team I worked in, leaving only a group of malleable clones in their teens to mid-twenties, and me. In order to meet a financial target demanded by potential new owners, they then had to engineer my removal and/or replacement by a school-leaver.

The whole thing was an empty exercise in creative accounting. On paper I was replaced by two juniors, both at half my salary and with twice the potential for recouping costs as “training expenses”. In fact, I moved to a far less skilled job in another department but at the same salary, replacing someone who left and whose work I had already been doing for half the day while in theory he was “training” me.

Such phenomena are increasingly common to 21st century office culture. They are too silly to worry about, and I am not doing so, as in my case it actually improved the quality of my working life.

Away from work, family is a much maligned concept, and I’m of a generation of radicals that was taught to question the “normality” of it. But the truth is, it’s central to my life now.

It’s quite odd how I’ve been thrown into a situation where I have to care for family members I haven’t felt close to or much in common with culturally for years. Far from being a burden, this made me re-examine and recalibrate most of my core values. For example, I no longer have time for people who witter away about death instead of trying to improve the quality of everyday life.

But, meanwhile, I can’t scale the wall erected against me by what I thought of as the heart of my family – two people to whom I thought I had fruitfully devoted the last two decades of my life.

It began when I was asked to go and mind a friend’s house for a few weeks while my daughter revised for GCSEs, because my presence was somehow distracting her. I then moved back in, only to be told the distraction had some deeper psychological root, and I would need to move out for at least a year or two while it was resolved.

Effectively, then, I’ve been given a jail sentence for a “crime” which has never been named, and which probably exists only in the imagination of someone who either will not or cannot explain.  This is all a Kafkaesque nightmare.

So going into 2019 I will serve it as I would any real long-term sentence in an actual jail. Reading long books, studying, and thinking with fewer outside distractions.

My inspiration for this is Tim Leary, the infamous psychedelic guru who advised everyone to “turn on, tune in and drop out”. After being imprisoned on trumped-up charges, he was asked by a smug right-wing journo how he’d enjoyed being banged up in solitary confinement with nothing to do. With his usual grin, he said he could recommend it to anyone. For the first time in years, he had been free to meditate without distraction.

In similar vein, I spent my compulsory solitary confinement over Christmas discovering slow TV (two hours watching reindeer migrate on Christmas Eve), and also the novels of Thomas Mann as a side-effect of rediscovering Marcel Proust – the lengthiest chronicler of the most minute everyday detail. Over Christmas it was Proust’s Pleasures and Regrets, his early work. In 2019 I aim to achieve a life ambition, to read The Remembrance Of Things Past in entirety. All six volumes, each around 800 pages, a work so obsessively concerned with minutiae that at one point he spends around thirty pages describing turning over in bed.

Why? Well, why not? If you do need a serious reason, consider that the monumental patience and self-discipline this will instil might just allow me to look more carefully at the world, to sort out what does and does not matter and to deal with it.

And what else will I do? Very little, probably. I simply could not find the time, and I really do not have the inclination.

Signs of the times

I’m just back from doing my filial duty for one of the frailer members of my family. This involved a certain amount of driving about. So, as I routinely do, I was checking the signs leading to the Mountain Road for useful information. Instead, as it has for the last month, I simply saw the message DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE.

This annoyed me.

Firstly, what motorists really need from these warning signs is to be told about the state of the roads. Is there, for example, an accident ahead? Or is it foggy, flooded or shut by snow?

Secondly, do these imbeciles really expect anyone with more than half a brain, while SOBER, to deal with streams of office workers driving their identical Ford hatchbacks down the unbroken white line in the centre of the road?


Thirdly (and seriously seriously), there is only one day over the Christmas period when the roads are likely to have more than an average number of drunk drivers. That day is the Friday which falls midway through December (so yesterday this year). This is because the management of finance sector companies have done their sums and calculated that that Friday is the most economically viable day to hold an office Christmas party.

In return for putting on a free bar at some drab hotel for an afternoon they lose a single Friday afternoon of production. As nobody in any office throughout the former British Empire works on a Friday afternoon anyway, that is virtually none. The management still have about a week in which to invoice and warn all their clients in non-English-speaking, non-Christian countries (i.e. all the profitable ones) that, by tradition, the entire nation is closing for a couple of days on 25th December, so there is even less chance than usual of anyone doing something they’re overpaid for.

All of which explains why, since working in the finance sector, I have routinely taken that day off. For one thing, people who irritate you when sober really don’t get more entertaining while being sick down their “ironic” Christmas jumpers. For another, while deluded enough even when sober to believe they serve some useful purpose in society, they develop even more delusions about their driving abilities when they can’t even stand up.

None of this is rocket science to anyone who ever looked at the issue seriously. Any apparent rise in drunken driving over the Christmas period can be explained very simply; it is the only time of year when the police intensively look out for it. If that overtime and effort could be aggregated more equally throughout the year, so (logically) would the statistics.

Of course, nobody expects the Department of Home Affairs (which oversees the police) to think logically. Or even to think; certainly not seriously about where the worst alcohol abuse takes place and how to stop it.

Apart from anything else, it is a common public sector joke that the Christmas party which involves the most alcohol and the most obnoxious behaviour is that hosted by….the Department of Home Affairs.

Famously, the only attendee ever to be publicly reprimanded for overindulgence at one of these shindigs is a politician who did the responsible thing and took a bus home after drinking – only to have a bit of an accident.  Meanwhile all the judiciary, senior civil servants, police and prison officers who don’t will either sleep it off at further public expense in a nearby hotel or get driven home by junior police officers. Thus, of course, putting both police staff and equipment out of use at a peak time.

Thankfully, as I am always safely at home away from such annual nonsense I and mine have nothing to worry about.

But I still wish somebody could get around to putting useful information each December on road signs instead of wasting a valuable public resource.

A night at the circus

I had high hopes for a TV drama on last Sunday. Sheridan Smith starring, parents with Alzheimers the subject… all looked good. But it took me all of 30 seconds to sus it was the kind of whinge-fest professional Scousers bang out and ex-public school TV executives commission in their sleep.

So I started flicking through other channels, and chanced upon another reminder of my colourful past.

I’ve mentioned before that I was once part of an anarchic punk clown troupe in Belfast. Put it this way – we were to Marcel Marceau what the Sex Pistols were to Cliff Richard. Terri Hooley of Good Vibrations fame even booked us, and I once put on a circus show in Belfast’s most rat-infested housing scheme, a place where nothing happened without IRA approval – and I even got that.

A year or so before all that, the guy who originally taught me was Martin Burton.

https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/interviews/2017/martin-burton-circus-is-not-just-a-job-its-a-way-of-life/  will give you a potted history of Martin, and on Sunday I found out what he was up to these days.

Martin is the founder of Zippo’s Circus, who were a major component of Daredevils and divas: a night at the circus – a BBC 4 documentary celebrating 250 years of circuses. The programme began with a lovely sequence where a geeky clown rode a unicycle across a ‘bridge’ of upturned wine glasses, and just got more and more extraordinary.

True, the sequence featuring a sort of juggling version of Steve Reich’s minimal music was a bit of a bore, but that wasn’t one of Martin’s projects anyway. By comparison, Extraordinary Bodies, a group of disabled circus performers with a show called What am I worth took my breath away. If the Beeb could manage even 10 minutes of TV that good every week I would gladly pay my TV licence. Check them out on I-player and you’ll see why. A blind acrobat on a massive rotating wheel like some nightmare fairground ride, a dancer on crutches…absolutely astonishing, heart-breakingly beautiful stuff which will tear apart every preconception you ever had about disability.

Then there was the equally astonishing tightrope walk across the River Wear which concluded the programme. I did not move from my seat in the ten or so minutes while all the elements of the walk came together. Usually I’ve flicked the channel, gone to do something else or even left the room within one.

The sly reference in the programme title to Angela Carter’s magic-realist classic, by the way, was totally apt. Forget Cirque du Soleil and such art-wank. This programme demonstrated precisely why proper circus is something kids from straight backgrounds used to run away to join, and straight society has always run away from.

Forget Broadway, forget Hollywood blockbusters with budgets of zillions and special effects. Every circus performer that ever lived does more magical stuff every time they enter the ring in some dead town, and they do it for real. Every performance is unique, nothing guaranteed, often no safety net. But as one of the performers said (and I can also attest) you go to a place inside your head that is like nothing else. For a few minutes so alive it should terrify you, but somehow you’re so calm, so perfectly in control that you fear nothing and can only enjoy it.

Not long ago I wrote that it was “Time to do something extraordinary, funny, or marvellous. Daily, when and where people least expect it.”

As this programme reminded me, I managed it 35 years ago, and some of the folk I worked with then still do.

So why not try again?


Public health warning

This is the time of the year when sceptics like me are on the alert for the first War on Christmas panic in the right-wing press. These are usually as baseless as the myths about nurseries not being able to sing Baa Baa Black Sheep or the EU demanding straight bananas.

But it is interesting to see how any small attempt to point out that we are no longer a Christocentric society demonstrates just how dumb and intolerant some folk still are. Because the truth is, if anyone is out to ruin everybody else’s seasonal fun it is acolytes of the Zombie Carpenter. It is equally true to suggest that the best way to respond to this is to laugh at them, long and hard.

While accompanying a relative to the local hospital this morning, I noted that one of the island’s worst examples is back. Yes folks, uglier and more predictable than a UKIP panto , it’s……….The Nobles Hospital Nativity Display!

I have actually blogged on this monstrosity before. So, rather than repeat myself, can I just refer you all to Manger Danger?

Oh, and advise you not to go past the hospital foyer if you’re accompanying small children or persons of a nervous disposition……..

…….and you may need a sick bucket.

Choose life

I’ve been doing Good Things all week. This is always a chore, so I’m glad it’s over.

No, don’t laugh. The thing is, while I rarely go a day without signing some petition (usually supporting appallingly underpaid manual workers) I am not one of nature’s social reformers. Far from it.

Class Warrior – yes (at one point I even wrote for Class War magazine), Social Justice Warrior – definitely not. Everything about self-righteous, middle class interfereniks sends me scuttling in the opposite direction.

Which is one reason I won’t be further involved in a campaign I actually helped launch this week. The others are mainly because it’s yet another project obsessed with dying, while for years I’ve been trying to encourage projects to do with happier day-to-day living instead. Death happens, but why spend your entire life obsessed by it?

I’m also somewhat riled by the attitude of folks I am supposed to help put a generous legacy to suitable purposes.

The late donor was a holocaust survivor who no longer trusted humanity and had squirreled away money in a Swiss bank vault in case of a second one. If he should die without needing it, he wanted it to be used for life-affirming purposes. He trusted members of a group to which we both belonged to do this, as he blamed politicians, religious thinkers and power-hungry bigots in general for the horrors of his youth and thought we would be none of the above.

We only discovered all this when his estate was settled and the hidden money came to light, about a year after he died. Unfortunately, two sad things have happened.

The first is that, since he made his will, all but one group member of Jewish heritage has left because of rampant anti-semitism amongst newer members. This goes well beyond, say, well researched and balanced criticism of Israel over seizure of Palestinian territories for “redevelopment”.

The second is that all attempts to try and spend more than, say, £100 on positive, useful or just fun projects (e.g. promoting education or the arts) are rebuffed. Instead we hear long, rambling (and clueless) speeches about the need to invest the money and get a good return.

What for? Better gravestones? Because it isn’t as if new, younger and energetic members are rushing in while this incessant chuntering about death and long-term investments dominates every attempt at an “ideas meeting”.

Also, in the time since the death obsession began (assisted dying, natural burial grounds, non-religious funerals, secular remembrance ceremonies for the war dead, planning for death…)  I have gone from being a new father to someone who qualifies for the “pensioners special” at a local restaurant. Every year for almost two decades I have begged for just one project which is a simple, unashamed celebration of the pleasures of everyday life.But every year more zombies just rise from the grave instead.

Which is why I have finally run out of patience. The next such “ideas meeting” falls in January, and the AGM of the group will be next November. From that meeting onwards, I will not attend or support any group initiative involving death, long term investment or delayed gratification in general. And if by the next AGM the group has not embraced and celebrated life instead, I am off – forever – to do it without them.

Let the dead bury the dead.

Long live the living. Bring on the revolution of everyday life.

A little dumber girl

I’m currently watching The Little Drummer Girl with some fascination, because I worked with the producer when we were both little more than children. I can see aspects of her life in the production, so I’m probably just checking that I don’t turn up as a character too.

At the time I knew her, I’d just started work with a radical arts group in Belfast. With my usual impeccable timing I actually arrived there the day Bobby Sands died. Meanwhile she was one of two English students who came over to join us later in a theatre tour as a summer job. If I was a fish out of water, she was more like a goldfish from another planet.

Those who’ve been following the series might now see my particular interest. Of course, I’m also jealous that she went on to make award-winning films while I – well, do what I do these days.

But that was inevitable, even then, as I was saying to someone else I recently rediscovered from those days. Someone else who’d stumbled in from a humble background, who’d also had a bit of luck in an odd time and place, went through the mill later when Thatcherism kicked in big time, hung on by the fingernails and was now just about getting by all these years later.

“Laura Double-Barrel” , by comparison, was from one of those nice upper-middle-class families where kids are driven to succeed or else – albeit in the arts rather than anything as vulgar as banking or industry.  She even had two surnames, fer feck’s sake: how much more capitalistic can you get? As I recall, this was because Daddy had traded Mummy in for a younger model, so also going through the self-righteous faux-feminist thing at the time I knew her.

I, meanwhile, was a council estate kid who’d somehow wandered into a cutting edge (for the time) arts commune and was making the most of it. No real game plan. Never have had, apart from a brief period about five years later when someone very kindly and patiently explained that in a market economy the good stuff won’t actually happen unless you plan for it (and knock yourself out working towards it to the exclusion of just about everything else).

So am I bitter when the plain truth is she just got her head down sooner and worked harder while I dithered and idled about? Well, yes and no.

That was a rare time when, despite Thatcherism, it was (briefly) possible to experiment and have a good time instead of submitting to a straight job for life. The Welfare State was still considered a good thing. Bright working class kids were still encouraged (and state funded) to go to university or enter the arts. People still had radical political ideas, and trade unions could still legally protect workers rights.

Somewhere around the time of the Falklands War it was becoming obvious that the nasties were taking over. By the end of the Miners Strike those times had gone for ever.

Once that happened, the rich kids who – all along – had been driven from birth to succeed or else (albeit in the most polite way) carried on doing that. Folk like me and my recently rediscovered mate just went back to the bottom of the heap. Short term contracts doing something interesting if we were lucky, but eventually a service industry job or no job at all.

Am I old, bitter and twisted?

No, I had my time in the sun and a hell of a lot more fun than anyone that age today – or in the foreseeable future.  I never learnt to think like a UKIP bigot, never even started to act or feel like an office drone.

Like one of the more mischievous political thinkers of that happy time used to say, I have learned to be happy while having little and being much.

Oh, and laugh a lot, especially at folk who have led far more privileged lives but remain as dumb as they were at 18.