Tuesday, July 27, 2004

In other news 

Me again,

I fear that I may finally have breached the far side of puberty: I was quite worried to discover when dressing one recent morning that my shirt was rather snug around the chest and shoulder regions. Further investigation revealed that I was carrying a lot more muscle - I have pecs - so either I've gained those post-adolescent muscles that so many people have or those "vitamins" Mum's been feeding me are actually anabolic steroids...

I can flex my chest.

The mind boggles.

Keepin' it real 

Hey Folks,

I've spent a lot of time lately listening to the radio, usually while I'm out walking and I've heard some pretty good new tunes as a result. Curiously, and perhaps a little frighteningly, these tunes have both been examples of British rap music. Now I don't dismiss rap music in its entirety as often it can be very good, produced by highly skilled performers, but separating the wheat from the chaff is a difficult task. I've found that a good rule of thumb for me is to avoid tracks that advocate killing police officers, or use the word "bitch" more than five times; "bitchez" and "fly ho's in the Marketing Department" are, however, permissible. But that's a subject for another post at another time.

Forgive me, I digress.

Before I take you further into the dim and dark recesses of my mind, it should be noted that this post could not exist without the kind permission of Kilgore Trout, for reasons that shall soon be apparent. Dry Your Eyes by The Streets, current UK Number One, is one of the tracks that received a lot of airplay lately and it's rather good. Better, however, is 1980 by new face Estelle. Lyrics as follows:


I grew up in the 1980's
in a 4-bedroom house my family my Grandma
3 or 4 Aunties Uncles and Brothers
in and out of prison daily
at certain times when there was no heat
we stay under covers
there was life like u never seen
Daddy taking extra people in
come dinner time It was tippin' 18
boil a big pot of water and the soap to take a bath
with my face in Olive Oil all my mates used to laugh
And my Cousin's moved out And we all got divided
as I started to get older I seen god providing
I've seen £50 last 3 months solid
I got my first pair of 'Nikes' we were still eating porridge
me and my cousin used to play 'Mel & Kim'
practising dancin' coming down the stairs and ting
I touched Africa and came back darker
knowing myself feeling my roots a little bit harder

1980 year that God made me
89 I started to get mine
99 I started to write rhymes
come, walk with me baby this were my life
1980 year that God made me
89 I started to get mine
99 I started to write rhymes
come, walk with me reminiscing my life

So then we moved up thought I was the 'Fresh Prince'
'Dynasty' was re-runs and 'Dallas' was faded
with 3 beds this time and 6 kids
still we got a doggy (Does that dog 'ave to bark)
A proper butt is for a pair of 'LA Gear'
he thought it was for taking pictures of his belle's rear,
we started hanging out my jeans got tighter
my weird neighbours set their own house on fire
Church was All day every day and every week
that's where I learned how to sing
hearing that Master Preach
Benediction was all we went for
so we could run home and play 'connect 4'
Mum worked late and we learnt to cook
so I started doing stew pea soup
In the room watching Kung-Fu films
and Cleopatra films.....

[ Repeat Chorus]

the man downstairs was dead for 3 weeks
his own cat started eating him, the house starts to wreak
that's when we moved out, our house was bigger
we had the large garage and the __
we used to pray for 3 hours in the morning
sitting on the school bus believe we was yawning
all our hair was stuck down to our forehead
sexy boys walking round showing interest
in what I don't know coz we all had flat chests
don't think we never mastered the 'Kid n Play' steps
doowop for days in the bogle yep
but this is just the beginning of my life right,
9 kids a house in one life time
yo, the beginning of my life right
9 kids a house in one life time......

Obviously the lyrics are only half the story, and they are perfectly complemented by the tune. What makes it so good, in my exceedingly humble opinion, is that to many, many listeners it will be totally real and authentic - something that the imported US gangsta and "bling" culture fails to achieve. However much they imitate, and however much their circumstances may seem similar, British kids are not living in the urban ghettos of Los Angeles. We've plenty of social problems of our own without adding to them with misplaced notions of toughness and what constitutes a real and fulfilling life. That's what's so beautiful about 1980: her life, although obviously not a privileged one, has full of rich and positive experiences, and there is real emotion and conviction when she sings the line "I touched Africa and came back darker knowing myself feeling my roots a little bit harder." She is mature enough to recognise that her ethnicity stems from the so called "Dark Continent" and not imported from the USA. I often think that Culture is like the animal kingdom: things are better left in their own habitat. Music is a grey area, however, in that it has the power to spread across continents with its message. People can appreciate the lyrics of Bob Dylan or Public Enemy in equal measure for they are words espousing freedom and equality. An analogy that I desperately hope will explain whatever the hell I'm trying to explain, would be what I'll call for the sake of argument, Trainspotting Syndrome.

This refers to the fact that for every single person who "got" Trainspotting (i.e that it is a cautionary tale about the evils of a hard drug addiction), there are at least two more who think that it glamourises the drugs lifestyle. Although usually these people are Daily Mail readers, it is quite disturbing when you hear kids expressing this view, and sadly I've worked with several. The analogy with Rap Culture is that much of the music is cautionary and lamenting the lifestyle and hardships of urban black life, but when it crosses to our side of the Pond where we have similar but different social issues to contend with, many, although mostly kids, latch onto the idea that somehow seeing your "homiez lined in chalk" is glamourous and representative of a social ideal. Yes, that was a long way for a shortcut into my brain but I hope that you can see what I'm driving at. Because Estelle's song is steeped in her own local culture and experience, I find it wholly positive and I hope that she'll provide a good role model for the disenfranchised children growing up on the estates in London and elsewhere.

In contrast to what I feel is quite a deep piece of social commentary, Dry Your Eyes is about a guy whose girlfriend has just dumped him. Although 99.99% of all songs ever written, composed or bashed out on rocks by our ancestors in caves have been on the same subject, this one just does it a little bit differently and it's lovely.

After this brief foray into the world of current and popular music, I promptly downloaded Boston Tea Party by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. By my standards it's pretty current: only five years before I was born...

Saturday, July 24, 2004

A tale of two cities 

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

My parents' generation was defined by the conflict in Southeast Asia, the zenith and ultiamte expression of the war of ideology between Capitalism and Communism.  I believe that my own generation has been, and will likely continue to be defined, by the ending of that era.  When the wall that had divided a city and a continent was demolished by people on both sides in winter of 1989 it was here, we were told, that a new age would be built; a united Germany and a reunited world.  Those events of 1989 had a huge effect on me, and ever since then my desire has been to see obstracles and boundaries between opposing peoples and communities removed to allow dialogue and cooperation.  Scarcely five years had passed before many wished for the barriers and the old certainties that accompanied them to return.  Religious rather than political motives had replaced the strategic rationales of the past and cultural vandalism was deemed an acceptable tactic once again, and the destruction of the historic bridge in Mostar was symptomatic of this.  After all, what better way to ensure that two peoples can't communicate than to destroy the very bridge that linked them? Like a phoenix risen from its own ashes a prefect replica has been constructed and the two halves of Mostar are once again linked, if only in a physical and not mental or emotional sense. I recommend that those of you not using dialup watch Jeremy Bowen's report from Mostar - British viwers may be surprised to see him in Central Europe and not wearing body armour - and it is fitting that he who brought the suffering of the former Yugoslavia into our homes is able to return a decade later and tell of moves towards normaIisation of relations.   Most tellingly of all is that Bowen describes how the Bosniac and Croat children go to school together and are taught on the same premises, albeit separately.  I know that I'm biased, but education is the best way to ensure that harmony, rather than chaos, ensues.
And so to our second city.  Like the former Yugoslavia, this city also suffers from centuries of religious hatred and bitterness, except that it's not really a city, more of a broad geographic area.  Welcome to the West of Scotland in 2004, only 314 years after the Batlle of the Boyne.  We may not be killing our neighbours - I do wish to do this but for my own, non-religiously motivated reasons - and cleansing ethnic ghettos, but I'm sure that there are many who would, in some small section of their hindbrain, really like to be getting on with it.  Not for nothing did Time Magazine describe Rangers-Celtic matches as "the most hate-filled occasion in sport," and it's in your best interests to avoid Glasgow on such days.  In fact there's a joke about a Jewish man accosted in Northen Ireland by paramilitaries and he cries out "but I'm Jewish!" to which they reply "but are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?"  That, dear readers, is what passes for a joke in these parts - you've gotta love our famous Scots humour, eh?  It's not so bad, though: there's at least four bridges over the Clyde...

I've done a lot of joint work with Catholic youth workers, and have much respect for them; they represent everything that can be good about faith - Chris opens up his home to refugees, and housed seven in his two room flat beacause they had nowhere else to go.  Chris's best friend Simon took a beating from thugs beacuse he stepped in to protect some of those same people from the abuse that they were receiving. Some of those young crop-headed patriots went so far as to call him a traitor for supporting peole who had fled Afghanistan in terror. Sadly many in my country see violence as an acceptable means for expressing legitimate fears and grievances and it was because an already poor community feared that they would be swamped by a tide of refugees that they lashed out. This was a failure of education: rumours had been allowed to spread that the refugees would receive huge sums in benefits from the authorities; money that the host community was denied.  This, of course, was untrue and grossly unfair but Simon and several others spent a week in hospital because of it.  Ordinary people doing great work because they believe that God wills it: it's people like Chris and Simon that rebuild the bridges that others have torn down and destroyed.

So despite the fact that, in comparison to the horrors of the Bosnian war, we Scots have absolutely nothing to complain about, how do we heal these divisions?  We don't.  Have we learned our lessons? Have we Hell...

Hell mend us, Hell mend us.

Friday, July 16, 2004

"It was better when Bobby was in it" 

[Two detectives are interviewing a Russian shopkeeper]
“Lousy immigrants”
“Officer Sipowicz is, of course, the NYPD’s only native-born Hungarian officer.”
I love NYPD Blue, and I’ve watched it for many years.  People, including Whispering David Caruso himself, have told me “it was better when John Kelly was in it.”   I disagree, for it was always better when the Fifteenth Squad had Detective Simone on the team.  In relationships we often adopt each other’s habits and pursuits, and after listening to many discussions between myself and other flatmates about the merits of continued episodes sans Bobby, my ex belated picked up her remote and flicked to Channel Four on Tuesdays at ten.  Of course, by this point, the writers were wholly focusing on how cruel they could be to Andy: kill his son; his wife; permanently retire his partner to the wop cop rest home in the sky and give his other son Theo a deficient immune system – all in the space of two seasons.  It had turned before my very eyes from “the grittiest cop show ever screened” into a soap opera with cops.  When once Andy would torture confessions out of rapists, his work life was an endless stream of “personal days, boss” involving trips to the oncologist and sombre meetings with Andy Junior’s mother.  Despite all this, my ex still rather liked the programme and thought that Young Danny Sorensen made an excellent co-lead to Sipowicz.  Admittedly, much of the dialogue of these episodes went unheard over my increasingly louder mantra of “it was better when Bobby was in it,” but she liked it fine and fell much in love with Young Danny.
Now Danny’s been killed too, and Sipowicz has finally realised that the only way to cope with the pain is to torture as many suspects as he can lay his hands on.  Possibly inspired by post-9/11 events, the rest of the cast – and by God yes they do exist – have followed suit.  We all know that kids lash out to get attention and it seems that ignored cast members do too: sick of being shoved into the background the pendulum has swung back and now the other detectives jostle for screen time, reactivating old story lines – Greg Medavoy has kids? – and thoroughly ruining the balance, grace and poise of the show.
Yes, people, it was indeed better when Bobby was in it.
As you can probably imagine, my conviction that it was better when Bobby was in it started to grate a little on my ex, and I must admit that I took a fair amount of pleasure at her feeling that she had missed out on something truly amazing.  It’s not really my fault, though, for she had.  It was something special, a programme that had it all to prove, proved it, and then…just gave up.  The IWBWBWII principle can be applied to just about every long-running programme on the TV:  ER?  Better when Doug and Carol were in it; certainly better when Mark was still alive. It’s lost its way too.  We’re now getting some early episodes of Third Watch here and it has the same drive and rawness that NYPD Blue and ER once had.  IWBWBWII is actually, I’ve realised, a really cruel thing to hold over someone.  I’ve only, thanks to Channel Four’s controllers, seen one season of Oz, but the IWBWBWII principle applies here, too, except that it’s known here as the “better when Supreme Allah was in it” principle.  I don’t even know who Supreme Allah is, but I gather that he was the toughest, craftiest denizen of Emerald City.  I know that all those posters on Oz’s IMDB board aren’t lying – it probably was better when Supreme Allah was in it.
To me, though, what I’ve seen of Oz is amazing – wheelchair-bound cons that narrate the events and quote Greek philosophers and Shakespearean works –against a backdrop of ultra violence.  It’s brilliant, but I want to see Supreme Allah!  I’m missing out!  Perhaps, however, our belief – and if you wish to continue reading this blog you better had – that life was better when Bobby was in it is nothing more than a desire for the life of the past.  As a historian, I am constantly amazed at how fondly the old days are remembered, and the way in which many of its faults are dimmed or deliberately airbrushed out over time.  Take me for instance: 
Things were better when:
1) I was fit
Not true.  When I was fit, I was used exercise as a means of dealing with, perhaps it’s more accurate to say covering up, huge difficulties I had in relating to the world around me and with my place in the world.
2) We started having sex
Again, not true.  Yes, we must have made love about ten times in a week – I was still reasonably fit then – but it was awkward and a little painful.  Sex had for me become the new black; the new exercise and it took on a lot of negative connotations for me.  Even today, after several years of excellently fulfilling lovemaking, I still haven’t really lost my belief that sex is one of the few ways in which I’ll ever feel truly normal and engaged with the world.  It’s a little disturbing, yes, but lovemaking has always been the guaranteed silver bullet for the evil thoughts cluttering up my head – it made me feel truly alive and drove the demons from my mind if only for a little while.  Oddly enough, when I discovered SSRIs I discovered a wholly chemical way to achieve the same result… 
3) We were together
Tough one.  Yes.  No.  Maybe.  When things were good, yes, they were better, but in the context of the events surrounding our break up then things were absolutely not better when we were together.  Splitting up with and losing contact with my best friend and lover has been the only lever long and strong enough to force me to get help and sort myself out.  Love is truly a many splendoured thing, but it is also a security blanket.  This in and of itself is no bad thing, but when you’re warped like me any excuse to drop the wool back down over your own eyes is a dangerous thing.  I need huge doses of cold hard truth and realisation to force me to deal with things and love always defeats the harsh realities – it fuzzes and smoothes the sharp edges of life.  Like a drug it makes you desperate to keep getting your fix, and like a junkie you’ll do anything to hold on to your supply.  A great part of it is fear of the unknown and it gets rather easy to justify terrible actions that keep you nice and safe in your fuzzy loving world.  No matter how bad I feel about being cast out into the real world, I’m terribly glad that I’m no longer hurting her and now that I’ve recovered enough of the old me that people once knew and liked, that is the most important thing to me.  As I mentioned in my last post I’ve lost my grip on a lot of certainties and foregone conclusions are no longer decided, but after a long time of selfishly doing whatever it took to prop up my flawed character her happiness and security matters more to me than anything.  Which is why I’m staying away.  I hope that one day she finds true happiness and has the life she deserves, and I owe her a great deal of thanks for allowing me to share her life for as long as she did.
So perhaps things weren’t always better when Bobby was in it.  It seems, sadly, that life isn’t like television after all.  Changes are necessary and perhaps ultimately to be welcomed, and I think I’m ready and able to accept that. 
But just the other night I was watching The Shield and realised that I was thinking “it was better when Connie was in it…” 

Monday, July 12, 2004

A life lived in 201,600 minutes 

Hey Folks,

Back on the fifth of May I blogged about my cousin who had knocked his girlfriend up. A week ago today, she miscarried the baby at twenty weeks gestation. Their little girl lived for an hour, but her heart simply wasn't strong enough to allow her to survive. This, and my other cousin losing her baby as well, has made me realise just how lucky those with children are: the only other people that I'm close to who have a child didn't have any problems and, as if to prove just how good their breeding stock is, they're so to be having another baby, a girl, in August. If she's half as good looking as her brother (the shorter, prettier one on the left), then I expect that no one shall try and drown her in the river, which is as good a start as any of us can expect I guess. Perhaps it is a sign of the openness of people these days that such things are talked about - when I was at school, I didn't know anyone whose parents had lost a baby. Of course, when I was at school and even after I left, there were more than enough parents who lost children for a variety of different reasons. Perhaps no one talked about miscarriage, or perhaps there truly weren't any and all those later deaths were part of some mysterious cosmic balancing act.

Yes, I know, that was an incredibly miserable rambling paragraph. What I really wish to focus on is that my friends are incredibly lucky to be blessed with children. Although we all know the mechanics of conception and pregnancy - and if you need a brush up on the basics go and visit Kilgore Trout - I still can't help but feel that it is nothing short of a miracle. In all honesty, I'm incredibly jealous of my friends that they managed to produce something, someone so perfect. I can remember vividly the first time that I ever held their son, and it was such a beautiful moment for me. I had looked forward to similar experiences with the children of my family members, but I suppose that in time those moments will come too. If not, I'm still thankful that they experienced that miracle for a few short months. Up until a year or so ago, it looked quite likely that I too would personally experience that miracle, but that and a lot of the old certainties that I once had are, well, less certain.

If it ever happens, though, then it'll be even more miraculous and wonderful.

Friday, July 09, 2004

A man walks into a psychiatrist's office... 

"Doctor," he says, "you've got to help me - I keep thinking that I'm Paul Revere."
"Yes," says the doctor. "I can see why that would be a bit of problem. Why don't you tell me about it?"

So the man sits down on the couch and proceeds to describe his symptoms to the psychiatrist, telling him all about his paranoia, about how the English are coming, about how horrible it's all going to be for the new country. The doctor talks him through it all, asking the man how he copes with his family and with his job. "It's awful," says the man, "I've kept it all a secret from my family and my co-workers. The only person I can tell is George Washington himself - do you see my problem?"

"Yes." The doctor thinks about all the previous patients that he has treated, and decides that perhaps the patient really needs some serious help to get to the bottom of things. "Would you be willing to try hypnosos?"

The man seems a little unsure, but he concedes to the process and the psychiatrist "puts him under." Free from the stresses of his conscious mind, the man freely talks about his life as Paul Revere and his patriotism. After a while the doctor brings the patient back to full consciousness and they discuss what he said while hypnotised. "do you really think that all this is just because I'm angry that I didn't get that promotion at work?"

"I really believe so. Try and focus more on your home life and not be so consumed by your work, and things should soon improve."

Happy that he is not mad, the man stands to take his leave. The doctor walks him to the door and they say goodbye. "Thank you, doctor, you've really reassured me."

"You're very welcome, glad I could help." As the man leaves the office, the doctor locks the door behind him and returns to his desk. He lifts the phone and dials a number.

"King George, King George, this is Benedict Arnold. I have the plans..."

Good one, innit? Credit goes to both my ex for telling me the joke and to Ford W. Maverick for stirring the memory.

I'm currently healthy and looking for a new job. I really feel like I should be posting more, but Dad rivals me for the precious online time - it seems that he's swapped one addiction for another...

Take it easy folks.