Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The World Series and me

So it’s happened. Just a few short years into my new obsession – Major League Baseball – my team, the Boston Red Sox, has made it to the World Series.

Now, this might seem unremarkable, after all I didn’t chose to support perennial strugglers like the Padres or the Mariners. I didn’t even go for an underdog like the Blue Jays or a loveable loser like the Cubs or the Mets. I chose a team that are expected to challenge every year. A team who have won two of their seven titles in the last 10 years. But, as we know with all sports, expectation, lucrative contracts and the ‘right’ to compete often have little bearing on results.

Indeed, coming off the back of the 2011 season (pitiful September collapse, no post-season, sacked manager, players who barely talked to each other and accusations of unprofessional behaviour) and the abject 2012 season (another sacked manager, finishing bottom, jettisoning three huge players (and Nick Punto)) the level of excitement and hope at the beginning of this season left a lot to be desired.

But something happened to these players during Spring Training. This blend of hardcore Sox veterans, exuberant youngsters, and seasoned newcomers found in each other a common belief that they could confound the experts, play with grit, determination and flair and be up there with the other AL East teams come September.
And boy have they.

After a season that has seen them rarely off the top spot, new manager John Farrell (a former pitching coach at Fenway) has fashioned a side that are hard to beat, never give up and play every single game to the final out. The amount of times they have come from behind, often from seemingly unsalvageable positions, is remarkable. As are the beards they’ve been growing since Spring Training.

They have been exhilarating and unmissable.
 The bags under my eyes from endless late nights watching Ellsbury steal yet another base, Bucholtz put in yet another stella pitching display, Koji suddenly appearing from a crocked bull pen to be THE closer in all of baseball, all of it, has been worth every second.

First they took the AL East, then they saw off the Rays in the divisional series, then the tough Tigers to win the AL pennant for the 13th time.

And now it’s all up for grabs.

Tonight will see Jon Lester take to the mound as we take on that storied NL franchise, the St Louis Cardinals, to see who will win it all in the best-of-seven Championship.

And when the Red Birds meet the Red Sox, and that crowd roars, and that first base is taken, and those blimp shots from high above Fenway Park beam into my living room at 1am tomorrow morning, I’ll feel proud to be a member of Red Sox Nation and I will watch every pitch with the same fear, excitement and expectation as the previous 170-odd games already endured to this point.

Soak up every moment. It’s been a long haul. We've paid our dues. Red Sox Nation are back at the top table. Time to enjoy it.  
Reading: Flashman’s Lady by George MacDonald Fraser 
Watching: filling the post Breaking Bad blues with Ray Donovan 
Listening to: The Magic Flute by Mozart

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Truth

This has been a tough week for me.
I thought after 23 year I might be able to deal with the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel Report. I thought I had my feelings under control and could take it in my stride. I couldn’t.
As I watched it unfold, from Cameron’s speech in parliament, to the last moments of the vigil in Liverpool I have cried, beaten my fists in fury and felt the guilt of survival all over again. It never goes way, it only lies hidden.

The despicable behaviour of those charged with protecting us on that day has me enraged. The cover up, beyond even the belief I already had about the goings on, aghast. The dignity and strength shown by the people who made it happen, humble.

This is not just a momentous day for the families and friends of Hillsborough victims, and those of us injured but surviving, it’s also a day that transcends football, and sport. It is a result that should reverberate throughout every football ground, and through every supporter, regardless of their allegiance.

It could so easily have been you.

I was one of the lucky ones. The report showed that dozens of people could have been saved if they had been treated correctly at the scene. Mine was saved by the selfless quick actions, and disregard for the policeman who pronounced me dead on the pitch, of a few fellow fans, who pushed me over the fence, gave me mouth to mouth and carried me unconscious out of the ground on advertising hoardings. They got me into an ambulance and I was taken to hospital. I have never met any of them. I was in touch with one lad once, but he was too traumatised to meet me. They, and everyone else there that day, should be proud of their actions. They have suffered horrifically since through no fault of their own.

What happened that day, and in the intervening 23 years, is a lesson in the venal nature of some in positions of authority when protecting themselves, and their institutions when they spy a way out, an escape from being held accountable. The pursuit of the truth has been difficult. Ordinary, working class people, stricken with grief, looking for answers and justice for 23 years, while having doors continually slammed in their faces and told to move on, forget about it, stop whinging.

They are an inspiration; the perfect embodiment of dignity, tenaciousness and fighting spirit.

Those responsible for the lies, the deceit, the betrayal of trust and the hateful covering up of their own culpability must now be held properly to account.

Those in the South Yorkshire Police who failed to carry out their jobs correctly then deliberately changed witness statements, tried to find criminal links by referencing the dead with criminal records, and took blood alcohol readings from children to try to blame alcohol.

Those in the press who thought that their print-and-be-damned actions were in the public interest, but were nothing short of disgusting lies designed to scapegoat, smear and denigrate 96 innocent men, women and children.

The government of the time that saw an opportunity to wage their class war against the industrial workers of this country, outside the factories, mining towns and docks.

Sheffield Wednesday football club, for their unwillingness to ever accept their part in the disaster by owning and leasing out an unsafe, crumbling stadium unfit for purpose.

And the FA, those bastions of all things inept and wretched, for their lack of awareness, their willful disregard for stadium safety reports and their typically pathetic attempts to avoid any connection with the events of April 15th 1989.

I hope the families and friends of the victims feel they have won a victory, I hope they can find some peace, and I hope that the new inquests they want are forthcoming.

For those who were responsible, took no blame and spent 23 years lying, shifting blame and treating the dead and their relatives with utter contempt. I hope they are truly ashamed and disgusted with themselves. And I hope they experience some of the horror and guilt they’ve so willing to pile onto others for the past 23 years.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Is the end nigh?

Whilst browsing in my local Waterstones recently I watched someone pick up a novel, read the back, look it up online on their phone, order it, then put the book back on the shelf and leave.
I mentioned this to an erstwhile colleague of mine from my stint working in the same shop in my student days. ‘Happens all the time’ she said ‘We’ve become a showroom for the internet’.

Now I’m no Luddite, and regularly use Amazon, but it’s a disconcerting thought that bookshops as we know them might become extinct in our lifetime.

Since 2006 the number of independent bookshops in the UK has fallen by nearly 500. That’s a third of the total. Of course, it’s impossible for these shops to survive in a publishing world that has been decimated by supermarkets piling high and selling the latest toss from the mind of Katie Price, or the new cookbook from one-man-culinary-juggernaut-and-occasional-drum-worrier Jamie (no need for a surname). It’s basic free-market economics.

But what about the rest of us who would like more choice than the 12 books the publishers and supermarket buyers have decided we’re worthy of? And how can any bookshop survive in a world where they are continually undercut by online giants operating without the wage and premises costs of those who have to deal with customers face to face in a shop?
That’s before we even consider the impact of e-books.

Since the decline and fall of Borders there is only one high-street chain still fighting. Waterstones are struggling, of that there is no doubt. The heady days of 3 for 2 are long gone, replaced with buy one get one half price. They have diversified into more games and electronics, and have given stationers Paperchase a new home since Borders disappeared. They try harder too, with creative table lay-outs and window displays, but now have noticeably less staff to guide potential customers. Another ex-colleague told me he dreads dealing with the increasing number of befuddled and downright nuts people who come into the shop now.
So what can they, and independent booksellers do?

It’s true they need to encourage more people in, and once in to spend, but to me it’s all about reminding readers that there is more out there than mass-produced pap – and more to buying a book than clicking a mouse.

A bookshop is a special place, somewhere quite unlike anywhere else. It is a repository of wonders, somewhere that can change your life, unique.

I hope the iconic ones will survive - Hatchards and Foyles in London, and Booksoup in LA, for example, but it is telling that Village Voice in Paris closed at the end of July 2012, after 30 years due to online competition and e-book sales.

I don’t want to look back in a few years and wish I could go into a bookshop again. I’m going to do my best to resist the urge to use Amazon all the time, and at least sometimes go in, browse, enjoy the look, smell and ambience of the shop, and the delights on offer, and spend my money in there.

It’s got to be worth a couple of extra quid to save something wonderful that could otherwise end up a distant memory, hasn’t it?

Reading: What a carve up! by Jonathan Coe
Listening to: Shootenanny by Eels
Watching: Breaking Bad, Season 5

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Return

Well, I’m back.
I never envisaged getting married would take over my life to such an extent. Terribly naïve I think. It was all worth it though, and I’m very happy, but boy did it put the kybosh on other areas of life.

So much has happened since my last blog. Funny how stuff keeps happening. As Douglas Coupland described it, ‘historical overdosing - to live in a period of time when too much seems to happen. Major symptoms include addiction to newspapers, magazines, and TV news broadcasts.’

We’ve had the Olympics, which was a mixture of amazing sport and vomit-inducing bouts of flag-waving, bemusing opening and closing ceremony and awful music, in a summer that’s been like living continually inside a particularly angry cloud.

But I must talk weddings, last time I promise. No rain that weekend, only glorious sunshine. We put a huge amount of work into it, and had masses of help from lots of people, some obvious, some less so, and it was a truly wonderful weekend that brought together people from all over the world. At one point one of my best men took me to one side and said ‘Look. You did this. It looks effortless because you put in so much effort.’

Worth every second, every penny, and every sleepless night.

The day after we got married the wife and I headed to The Millers at The Anchor, Porlock Weir for a night. A gift from one of my best men. It’s a hotel that was unknown to us before we arrived.

What a place.

Designed on the principals of ‘maximilism’, the entire hotel is a cluttered, marvellous, distracting, ramshackle delight. Filled with everything from superb antiques and stuffed animal heads to huge alabaster busts, paintings, ornaments and knick-knacks, photos from across the ages, including family pictures of the Millers themselves, tapestries, velvet curtains, chandeliers, and exquisite sculptures at every turn, there’s always something new to explore. There are even vases, pots and bowls all round the hotel filled with sweets. Perfect for me.

From the honesty bar with Martin Miller’s very own brand of gin, to the endless bookshelves, cluttered with all types of tome, all free to read or take away, to the wonderful lounge area that has to be sat in to be believed, the entire place exudes an old world charm that’s completely beguiling.

Upstairs they have their very own cinema - a dark, lounge room filled with a jumble of old sofas where they show films twice a week. Our room was four-postered, wood-panelled and full of faded glamour, with a gorgeous writing desk nestled in the bay window. We lay on the bed and drank the champagne that was waiting for us (another generous gift from a friend) and opened our cards and presents and looked at photos and glowed in the aftermath.

The views of the tiny 15th century harbour, with all manner of little yachts and working boats resting on their keels before being lifted by the incoming tide, and the sea and headlands beyond, are fantastic.

We didn’t eat there that evening, a mistake I feel, instead dining in the pub next door where we were served perfunctory pub food without smile. The next morning though, we had a splendid breakfast in the hotel’s wonderful dining room, Fruit, toast, porridge, juice, coffee and a very tasty full English. After that, a stroll along the seafront and then back to the room to enjoy our last hours in The Millers. A pleasurable drive back to Bristol followed, via Exmoor, for sun, fresh air, cream teas and a stroll around the most idyllic cricket ground I’ve ever come across (Bridgetown CC, accessible over a tiny wooden bridge across the River Exe) brought to an end a weekend filled with wonderful memories. And we still had the mountains of Mallorca to come!

To everyone who came, for all your generosity of time, and gifts, and for being part of it all - thank you, thank you thank you. I shall re-engage my cynicism for next time…

Reading: Loads since my last blog. Stand outs include - The Devil All The time by Donald Ray Pollock, The Rise and Fall of John Gotti by Jerry Capeci and Gene Mustain, and Five Boys by Mick Jackson.
Listening to: Beach Boys: That's Why God Made The Radio. Ben Kweller: On My Way. Smashing Pumpkins: Oceania.
Watching: Season 5 of Breaking Bad. The finest TV since Sopranos and The Wire

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Wedding (un)fairs

I’ve just returned from a wedding fair that was held in the venue where myself and my betrothed will be wed come July. And I’m exhausted. Maybe it was naïve of me to imagine anything different, but proposing (and the rather wonderful acceptance of said proposal) opened a door into a world I had no understanding of, and no inclination to discover.

You might have thought that as a guest at innumerable weddings, and having witnessed first hand and up close and personal, the stresses and strains of friends who’ve been through it, I would have some sort of handle on what actually occurs.

No. No I didn’t.

Venue, food, drink, accommodation, invites and who to invite (and who not to), music, registrars, insurance, flowers, cake, decorations, table plans, place settings etc are not the individual things I thought they were. Every one of them opens a door into a seemingly never-ending labyrinth whereby every specific issue unfolds endlessly like the evil product of a sadistic origamist.

Who knew that choosing the flowers for the flower girls and the bridal bouquet had such a catastrophic knock-on effect on the flowers for the tables, foyer, cake, buttonholes – and by extension the colour of the seat cover ribbons, the napkins, the suit I’ve yet to buy begrudgingly from Moss Bros. (Don’t get me started on the shoes, what’s wrong with the ones I have?), all in all it’s a nightmare.


Despite the expense, the worry, the hellish logistics, and the endless discussions on exactly what type of fruit we need to compliment the cheese board, I can’t help feeling that it will all be worth it. Every confirmation of attendance from friends near (Bristol, Warwickshire, London) and further afield (Australia, Texas, South Korea, Rome) brings a tinge of joy. Another tiny piece slots into place and as momentum builds and the juggernaut gathers pace I know it will be fine, my friends and family, and my wife-to-be will see to that.

And so, even though the glass may feel half empty right now, in the depths of wedding paperwork at the end of another dog-eared winter’s day, come the day I’m strangely confident that the glass will be completely full. Until I drain it in a toast to my new wife and stare out a sea of faces that we’ve brought together to smile and laugh and celebrate, and for a few hours cast off the worries and woes of this strange world we call home.

Just read: A Sunday at the pool in Kigali by Gil Courtmanche
Reading: A time of gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Listening to: Cuckooland by Robert Wyatt

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Trying. Very Trying.

This time of year tends to be a quiet one for a writer and freelancer.
The big boys are winding down for the consumer-fest of Christmas and all their projects have been written and are well underway, the small guys jettison every freelancer wherever possible to help bridge the lean month or so, and so we writers retreat back into our novels and screenplays, circling producers in the Radio Times, going through the inbox sending a little nudge emails to every contact in the hope of stirring up some work, or interest, and generally take stock of the progress (or lack of it) over the past year.

And you know the main thing I’ve realised over the past 12 months?
That the old adage of 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration holds more true now than ever before.

A writer’s life is one of networking, contacting, emailing, calling, smartphones - constant, neverending effort. Even when not writing my brain is chastising me for not writing.

Watch a film – mind giving your grief, go out shopping – same, go to the gym, ok just for a while but then back to it!

It’s like being on a Roman Galley, no respite, the mental whipping continues over and over screaming ‘Why are you not writing’. The novel, the screenplay, the short story, all of them on the shoulder, malevolent and chippy, pick pick picking at you and your lack of effort.

It is with you always, and that’s not healthy, but then if I finish this project it will go away wont it? No it wont, because the next project is already barging it’s way rudely to the front of my mind like a navvy at a bar on payday.

(All the time you’re writing of course you are chastising yourself for not replying to the 77 agencies that have replied to YOUR initial inquiring email)
I went to a networking event on Tuesday night in a beautiful bar in Bristol with Bristol Media, all very lovely; fizz, good chats about writing, work, intelligent people with passion chattering away into the night. And you know what I felt? Guilt. All the talk about writing when I could be at home writing. Arrrgh!

It’s a bloody nightmare.

And this is where the perspiration quote really sticks. The perspiration should surely be produced through the act of writing, not through the act of trying to get people interested in your writing, and finding work and hassling people who don’t want to be hassled.

I should have been born many years ago and lived in a garret retained by a wealthy merchant as their playwright. That would have been nice.

I lie in bed at night and I dream of the six figure publishing deal that will mean that when I see that 41 cm of fresh snow has fallen on Val Thorens overnight I can book it. Not think ‘I must delete that frigging app, it only brings pain and misery!’
But then that little part of my brain wakes again, maybe if I got out of bed now, and went and wrote through the dark quiet of the night I might get that deal, get that success, get the steep and deep powder that I crave.
Oh well, all we can do is try, and keep on trying.

Reading: I, Partridge by Coogan, Ianucci et al

Listening to: Backspacer by Pearl Jam – although I have just listened to Desolation row 6 times on repeat.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Desperate measures

The shock of Gary Speed’s death is the perfect example of how depression works. Outwardly a man with everything; success, talent, love, support, friends and family, money and acclaim. No clues. No fear for his safety. Pure disbelief.

Of course his is one of many suicides over the weekend but his high profile in the British media casts more light that usual upon this death, and the manner of it.
And once again makes people who have never suffered, or felt any urge that the world, and the people in it, would be better off without them, screw their brows in consternation.

It is one of those things that cannot be described to those free of depression.
The weight, the feeling of utter contempt for oneself, the sureness that you are ruining the lives of those around you. Your total USELESSNESS. The belief that your mental state is adversely affecting the very people you want to protect from your depression.

The cycle is truly vicious.

I have tried to deal with my particular form of the illness in my own way, but the more you understand it the more you realise that these are patterns that are replicated in so many other lives.

The need to close off from everyone and everything. Draw the curtains, ignore the phone, the post, the knock at the door. Withdrawal. Then comes the paralysis of action. A complete exhaustion that renders the sufferer unable to function properly, even for the simplest task. Anyway, the suffering of depression has its many forms, I wont list them here, it is pointless, only those who know, know.

Instead let’s look at one of the key issues raised by Gary Speed’s death. That no-one knew. Everything he had achieved, everything he had in life he did with the real man hidden from view. This is the experience of so many sufferers. We must not, can not, open up to other people, it is the pure evil nature of depression that when in the midst of it you will not tell people to avoid worrying them. And once it has past, be it a day, three, a week, a month, your brain comes out fighting and you hope and HAVE to believe that it will not return. Or at the very least revisit a long, long time it the future, when maybe you have learnt to deal with it better. Yes, next time you’ll see it coming and hide it even better than the last time.

Of course we understand the absurdity of being depressed in a time and place where we have more than any human beings have ever had; living longer, more affluent, safer, healthier, there should be nothing to worry about right?

Right. Yet another reason for the guilt and silence. We have no right to be depressed. We are spoiled brats moaning about how awful life is when we should be living the dream of consumerism and enjoying the vac-packed green beans flown directly from Kenya for our stir fry. The ridiculousness and irony of the illness is more than apparent.

So many geniuses and brilliant people are, or were depressive – many are sadly no longer with us because they could not go on with the pain they carried around.. You don’t need me to google them for you, but the list is long and sad and sobering.
My own life has been affected by the suicide of my Dad’s father when my Dad was 15. The ripples still float out and reach people he never even knew would exist.

Recently we have had insight into crushing depression from Stephen Fry amongst others. But the stigma remains.

So the next time a friend doesn’t return your text message, or ignores your calls, or you want to tell them ‘everyone gets down sometimes’, or ‘pull yourself together’ or ‘just get on with it’ maybe they need a little less judgement and a touch more understanding.

And maybe we can help create an environment where both men and women can articulate their desperation without fear. Maybe the desperate silence can be avoided if more ears are open. And maybe less families will have to go through the numbing, sickening loss and grief that Gary Speed’s family are experiencing right now.
Love, respect and peace to you all.