Me and the Royal Wedding


Well, shucks, here we go again, there’s gonna be a Wedding! Bread and circuses are once again being served to the proletariat, as hard and heavy as the Press and TVF can shovel it down their throats, as welcome relief/calculated distraction from the state of this dismal country and the even more dismal state of its so-called Government. As I seem to remember David Byrne once saying, same as it ever was.

Now don’t get me wrong. Insofar as this involves a young man and a young woman who are in love and who wish to marry and spend their lives together, then good luck to them, I’ll wish them well. But as I know neither of the couples, in the same way that I do not know either of John Smith or Alison Jones who also announced their engagement today, I do not feel any need to know about it, and especially not any of the details.

But I’m going to be bombarded with them from now until next spring, aren’t I? No matter how reclusive I am, how hermit-like I have become, I am destined to know more about the bloody thing than any sane human being could want to know, short of going on strike and camping out in Loughrigg Cave for the duration. If it wasn’t so effing cold at the moment, I would be tempted.

The thing is, I have been here before, I have form for this. Like any person of my generation, we have walked the walk multiple times.

The first one was Anne and Mark in 1973. I really don’t remember the roots of my aversion to the Royal Family and the sycophancy that we’re supposed to display towards them, but it firmly was in place by that time. I was three days past my eighteenth birthday, I was at University, it was a Wednesday, and I remember that detail because we had no lectures, ever, on Wednesday afternoon, so I headed home, let myself in, shouted a hello to those in the lounge, glued to the affair, and bounded upstairs, not to come down until everything was long since over.

This got me in trouble from my mother, not because of my deliberate insult to the Royal Family, which was already firmly established and accepted as just one of the many ways in which her elder child was irredeemably weird. No, I got into trouble, and on this occasion rightly so, because she had earlier that day driven across to Hulme to collect my Nanna, her mother, to enable her to watch the Wedding in colour.

In my urge to have nothing to do with proceedings, I did not even pop my head round the door to say hello to Nanna, though in my marginal defence, I was not called when Mam left to take her home. This one I acknowledge, and am ashamed about. On the other hand, I have no regrets about boycotting the event.

The next one was the biggie, Chas and Di in 1981, the source of the New Sycophancy that is with us to today, having survived the wobble induced by Diana’s death. This time, avoiding the television broadcast brought no complaints from my mother, and I pushed off into Manchester, on the bus, which was still running despite the country having come to a standstill for the nuptials of the Heir to the Throne. I mean, this was the big one, patriotism-wise, the necessary first step towards ensuring the continuation of the Line (actually, it’s legally necessary for Heirs to be borne within wedlock).

Frankly, the only thing I genuinely do remember about the day was going with a mate to an evening festival, eating lots of sausage barms and feeling completely out of place among people who had loved the day and been seriously enthralled about everything. It felt very lonely.

Next one was Andrew and Fergie, which takes us to 1986. There was no shutting the country down for the day on this occasion, which was a Wednesday again. I had plans for this one. I was working for a big firm, in the centre of Manchester. Everybody knew me, and understood where I came from, especially when it came to my antic sense of humour, so I was looking forward for weeks in advance to a morning of stomping up and down the corridor and roaring out “Vive la Republique!” and “A la Lanterne!”.

I got shafted. About three weeks before the Glorious Day, I was approached by the Partners in Manchester. An Articled Clerk was qualifying in London and leaving, but his successor wasn’t able to start for one month. London desperately needed someone to fill in, to manage and run down his workload so that the replacement could start with a clean desk: I was asked to be that rescuer.

I wasn’t being asked because I was the best Assistant Solicitor we had but because I was the most flexible. Everybody else had houses (and mortgages) and would have found a shift to London incredibly difficult to manage. I would travel to London on Monday morning, return Friday evening (at the firm’s expense), and during the week I would live in a small flat above the office, which was usually provided for the benefit of partners who wanted to stay overnight to go the the Theatre, the Opera or a Show. All my food would be found for me (even if I nipped out for a KFC in the evening, provided I kept the receipt) and I was paid a London Allowance of £100.00 per week on top of my regular salary.

Plus one of my Manchester partners privately warned me that if there wasn’t enough work for me to do, I should have a private word with him and he’d get me pulled out.

The only time there was not really work to do was the last week, by which time I’d got the workload down to three files, and was exhausting myself badgering the same three opposite numbers every day, for updates. I never did get those files done, but my efforts were still very much appreciated, and I got on well with all those Londoners down there for the month I was intruded into their working lives.

The problem was, exactly in the middle of my London exile, on the Wednesday of the third week, was the Royal Wedding. Taking place in the very city where I was currently temporarily resident. I had some of the secretaries coming up to me, willing to slip upstairs to my little room (with its bed), not because of a sudden overwhelming lust for my Mancunian body (as if) but because they assumed I would have been supplied with a TV (the firm weren’t going to buy one, no matter how small and cheap for one month’s use) and they could catch glimpses of the proceedings.

Now there were one or two of them, and I don’t just mean the ones of my age, who I would have prepared to bear with some of the ceremony if we were sat on my bed, but that was no go.

And sadly, so was my plan to roar Republican slogans half the day. I didn’t know them well enough to know if they knew me well enough to take my intended sloganeering in the spirit in which it was intended, namely, that I meant every word of it, but, well, it was only Martin being Martin, ignore him.

Actually, that’s the last one I can remember having any significance. Anne and her second, the one we never hear anything of, Chas and Camilla, these were all quiet affairs as befits divorcees trying again. Eddy and thingummybob was also quiet I think (I can’t bear the idea of looking it up to see if there was massive public fuss and I’ve just forgotten about it completely).

Of course, William and Kate-with-the-bum-everyone-slathered-over-except-me was another big deal, but that didn’t take place until 2011, and as I no longer had a television by that time, ignoring it wasn’t anything like as big a deal. And the same will go for Harry the ginger and Meaghan. Indeed, by this point, I’ve forgotten just how many Royal Weddings I’ve ignored down the last forty-odd years. It’s no longer a protest, but a force of habit.

Still, at least I get the chance to flex old muscles again. It’s an ill wind that blows no Republican any good.

 

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Kenny Dalglish


I have never liked him. A lot of it is that he played for and managed Liverpool, but at least half of it is that I just don’t like him. It happens like that sometimes.

There was an interview with him in the Guardian yesterday, on the eve of the premiere of a film about him, a film I won’t be going to see. In many ways, responding to the questions, he was the Dalglish I simply don’t like. But the subject came to Hillsborough. I learned, for the first time, that his then-15 year old son Paul was on the Leppings Lane End, though thankfully he was unhurt. Then they asked him about ‘closure’, in the light of the long-overdue exoneration of the fans from the decades of lies by the Scum newspaper. And he said this:

“I don’t know what closure would be for us,(…) As long as we’re living we will support the families. So … we wouldn’t have a closure. I wouldn’t have a closure. At least the families have been totally exonerated. The families have been punished doubly by losing their loved ones and by spending the rest of their lives trying to get justice and solace.”

I am still not going to like him. But the responsibility he took when that happened was unflinchingly to be admired, and this admission that there can never be a point at which he can put this behind him… I am relieved to admit that I cannot imagine what that must be like. But it changes and enhances my respect for Kenny Dalglish, and I can only hope that one day he can discover a kind of piece that comes without leaving this life behind.

And my implacable hatred for all the bastards responsible, and those who still wriggle to avoid the consequences of that responsibility, grows even hotter.

 

On Writing: It’s All in the Mind, you know


Everyone who writes writes a different way. I don’t just mean style or technique, but the way they approach the act of writing. Mine is very instinctive. I don’t plan ahead, I don’t structure, I rarely produce synopses. I find myself to the opening line and follow that to where it goes, and I find myself saying things I didn’t know I thought, or that I couldn’t possibly have written without all the words that come before them.

I’ve spoken of this many times. The work, the real work of writing, for me, is done in the subconscious, in an area of my mind to which I have no conscious access, over which I have little or no influence.

Case in point: the Gene Wolfe blog published earlier today. Writing about Wolfe is difficult, because he is so good and so clever, and I constantly feel inadequate reading him. It’s actually a couple of weeks since I re-read The Urth of the New Sun for the purpose of blogging it. During that time, I’d made a number of attempts to get my thoughts down on paper, explain my reaction to the book, sometimes managing no more than a couple of paragraphs at a time. It wasn’t going well.

I’m currently off work for ten days, my traditional birthday time-out, a chance to just switch off, do nothing, recharge. It’s also a lot of time in which to tackle writing that gets put off when I’m working 1.00 – 9.00pm five work days a week, and I’m finding the unaccustomed opportunity to write without having a deadline to go to work or to bed to be very useful.

The Wolfe blog was on my list of things to do this week. Tuesday was Deep Space Nine Day, and it was a good episode and gave me a lot to think about. I had a buzz in my head, the kind of sensation that I now easily identify as meaning that I have words there, words and the mental energy to use them, persist with them, concentrate.

So I started the Wolfe blog. From scratch. Ignored everything I’d already written, started from the same opening point but in new words, and just let my sense of engagement, my subconscious, pull me through. You’ve read the outcome earlier.

It conveys all the things I thought whilst I was reading the book, my reservations about why I found it so much easier to pick up and put down to do other things. And this after not just DS9 but also completing the latest of the Lone Pine books I’m re-reading so I can revise the series of blogs I posted on them earlier this year.

I knew I had the flow just waiting to be turned out. I knew that these Lone Pine rewrites are equal parts re-writing and editing, and that the energy I felt was more suited to a flow of words, not the finnicky work of piecing existing work together.

And I was right.

This is my way of working, as it’s evolved over the years since 1994, when I first started to write my response to Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch that became the first completed piece of extended writing I first achieved: twenty years on from first trying to put words together and finally feeling like I knew what I was doing. You may call it winging it, and to some extent, that’s what I do. But the odd thing is that I can only wing it once: once they’re out of my head, I can’t reproduce them.

So when I feel the energy, when I feel fecund, as I call it to myself, I try to take advantage. If you’re interested in the process of writing, you may recognise something in this, or you may be aghast with horror and think that nothing of the slightest worth could ever possibly come from this kind of thing.

Maybe you already think that nothing of the slightest worth has ever come from my pen and this just proves it to you. But this is how I work. And if you’re one of those who, as I was twenty-odd years ago, plans and prepares and synopses the hell out of it, maybe trying throwing caution to the wind one day and see if that gives you something you haven’t had before. And if it doesn’t, then you can damn me.

The Presidential League Table (and Britain’s equivalent)


He isn’t even mentioned…

I’ve been an enthusiastic student of American political history since the early Eighties, the catalyst for this interest being Garry Trudeau’s consistently funny satirical newspaper strip, Doonesbury (currently in long-term decline into significance due to Trudeau’s decision in February 2014 to take it into Sunday only format). Well before the Guardian picked up the daily strip in 1981, I had been picking up collections at Comics Marts, including as many of the older books as I could lay my hands on.

Being an American politico-satirical strip, many of its references were meaningless to me. One such was the idea of a ‘Joe Welch moment’. That was referenced in Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men (which I grabbed after borrowing the film on video) and The Final Days.

Between the two, I started to realise how little I knew about such history, even as I had been so ignorant about Watergate, an event I had lived through. So I started visiting the American History section of the Library. My first choice was an overlong, over-detailed, dry as dust book on the Red Menace era of the Fifties (I knew that this ‘Joe Welch’ moment was something to do with destroying Joe McCarthy) but the next one, though just as long, was considerably more interesting: David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, about the origins of the Vietnam War.

No matter what I read, I couldn’t find this bloody ‘Joe Welch moment’. What the hell was it, what did he say, what was the context? Well, my first link came from R.E.M., including the crucial lines from it over the middle eight of ‘Exhuming McCarthy’, from Green. But my final discovery was an accident: there was an ITV series in 1988 or ’89 about the history of television. I walked downstairs to speak to my mother one night when it was on, and discovered myself watching the whole thing by sheer accident.

I no longer pursue such history quite so avidly and haven’t for years, having absorbed a basic knowledge that lets me orient myself reasonably comfortably to anything that crops up. I began when Reagan was President, and it’s amazing to think that, in the decades that have followed, we have only had a further five Presidents since.

One thing I did take away from my years of amateur study was that there is a Presidential League Table. This is a fictional table, endlessly debated by historians, constantly arguing about its order, constantly open to change. It’s underlying notion is simple: it is a ranking of the (presently) 44 men who have been President of the USA in order of, for want of a better word, their greatness. (45 Presidencies, 44 men: Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms and counts twice).

Naturally, there’s no agreement upon order, given that Political partizanship plays a tremendous role in each person’s rankings, but there is a certain degree of consensus on the likes of Abraham Lincoln, who usually comes out on top, with Washington, Jefferson and the two Roosevelts somewhere close behind. And there is near-universal agreement that the bottom of the list belongs to the Twenty-Ninth President, William Gamaliel Harding, in perpetuity.

Despite the attempt by Glenn David Gold in his tremendously popular 2001 novel Carter Beats the Devil to portray Harding as the innocent victim of plots and smears, history is in one accord as painting him as a basically corrupt Ohio Machine Politician who saw nothing wrong with letting his cronies rip America off, left, right and centre, cf, the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal, which was on the point of breaking (and which might possibly have swung the 1924 Presiodential Election to the Democrats) when Harding died of pneumonia in San Francisco in 1923, to be succeeded by his personally incorruptible Vice President, Calvin Coolidge.

The only time Harding changes place in the Presidential League Table is when a new President is elected, and he automatically drops one rank, numerically.

So it’s been, ever since I discovered the existence of this highly interesting thought experiment.

Since the year 2000, more or less, I have experienced many disappointments. One of the most minor of this is the knowledge that, barring the sudden discovery of personal immortality, I would never live to discover if history would fulfill my prediction that, one day, Harding will be lifted into second bottom by George W. Bush.

Which is why I find it deeply ironic that even before he took his perjured Oath of Allegiance, Donald Trump rendered all those long years of speculation and prediction completely meaningless, by beating ‘Dubya’ to the bottom. Looks like Harding may drift up as far as third bottom, but who gives a toss about that?

There is no such equivalent concept among British Prime Ministers, or if there is it’s an entirely academic exercise that never gets into the public press, where the howls about the complete discrepancy of opinions over Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair would render the whole thing completely unmanageable. But in this decade, my regrets about not being around to see History pin Bush 43 to the donkey’s arse did develop an amusing little parallel in the concern that I wouldn’t be around to see History hand out a similar designation to David Cameron as bottom of the Prime Ministerial League Table.

Only to see Theresa May instantly crush his claim so thoroughly that as long as there are Prime Ministers there is no chance whatsoever of anyone digging their way beneath her.

At least, I hope so…

What it’s like the day after


It doesn’t last.

By the next day, I’m usually recognisably human again, and I can go into work, and I can talk to people, and joke, and make ironic comments, several of them aloud, and in quiet moments between calls, I can string together dialogue that bridges a gap in the Long Overdue Sequel, and it feels like I’m back to what passes as normal.

And today’s the day when my shift starts and ends early, so that even with a brief visit to ASDA, the chippy’s still open when I get off the bus, and I can have my ritual Wednesday night fish’n’chips dinner, and very nice it is, but I still can’t help but wish that instead of a cold bottle of caffeine-free Diet Coke in the fridge, I had a fucking massive container of Will to Live. Because, people, I have had enough of you today.

No,not you, nor you, or you, nor any of those stalwarts who flatter me with your attention. I mean the people that it is my business to talk to, and to help with the problems that prevent your Broadband connection and/or your telephone line from working. I am a senior advisor, with years of experience, and I know what I am doing.

But you have utterly drained me today. Do you not think, given that I deal with dozens of your calls daily, that I might possibly understand the horrors you are experiencing, the utter, wrenching misery of a life without Broadband? No, you have to explain to me what it means to have your service disrupted, and you are so concerned that I should understand you, when I understood completely before you got halfway through the sentence, that you tell me again, and again, and then again, completely unaware that I can’t do anything to help alleviate your problems until you shut up and let me start asking you the pertinent questions.

And then there’s the ones who can’t grasp that, marvellous as this technology is, and how we’ve lasted a whole seventeen years into the Twenty-First Century, that I can’t just wave Sooty’s magic wand over it, go ‘Izzy-wizzy, let’s get busy’ and it’s all fixed. That the Broadband network in this country is all fucked up and not half as good as it could and should have been, and the reason for that is dead simply, it’s Maggie Bloody Thatcher again.

I mean, take my word for it, though I can’t be arsed explaining the political decisions that brought us to this, and no, I’m not just being politically prejudiced when I say that. But by now you’re bringing out the “Surely…”s, when I’ve patiently explained to you what can really be done in practice, and you really can’t grasp that it isn’t the way you expected it to be, because, yes, of Thatcher, and I even had to say to one customer, who had explained things to me about a dozen times, that if there was another way, our conversation would have ended twenty minutes ago, because I would already have done it.

At least this guy’s bright, and he realised that I’m also saying that I would really prefer not to have to listen to you repeating yourself for twenty minutes, which is not an exaggeration for effect, I promise you. And Yog-Sothoth protect me from the ones who still think there must be a magic wand and an “Izzy-wizzy” that I’m deliberately concealing from them, just to be spiteful.

No, people, I have had enough of you today, and this is when I’m feeling back to normal, and it’s my one weekday night where I have time in which to genuinely relax. And you don’t know, when you threaten to cancel and go to someone else, even after I’ve patiently explained to you that the fault’s in the network and it won’t magically disappear if you start having their signals sent to you instead of ours, how close you’ve been to be told to fuck off and bend their technician’s ears.

Why do I keep doing this? Because they pay me to, which means fish’n’chips on Wednesday evening,  and Pizza Hut once a month, and all the Caffeine-free Diet Coke I can stomach, just so I can write things that aren’t usually as dark as this and last night.

Your patience is appreciated. Normal temperament will be resumed, just as soon as I can remember what it is.

 

We’re Going Back!


Last year, I gushed about the Otherworlds Exhibition of Space Photography that I went to see in London. I was deeply moved by what I saw, not least because I found it incredible that I, who had grown up on Dan Dare, had lived long enough to see the real thing, form the surface of Mars, from the extremities of our Solar system. I had lived long enough.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first Man from Earth to stand on the surface of the Moon. I was nearly fourteen. I was not yet twenty when we last sent a man to the Moon. It’s galling that it should come about even in a small part by the idiot who masquerades as President of the United States, but (insert link) at long last, we’re going back.

And we’re not just going to land a man on the Moon again, we’re stepping even further into classic SF, and we’re going to build a manned outpost. I have lived long enough, and I am once again moved to near tears that such a thing has come back whilst I am still here to hear about it.

Of course, I doubt I shall live long enough to see the blast-off. This is not something that can be done overnight, even with American/Russian cooperation. But the intention is there, and it’s a joint operation. We’re going back into space. An I have lived long enough to see that much.

A Record Unbroken


Thirty three years ago, I straddled a metal rail at Old Trafford all day to watch Viv Richards put in the performance of my life, beating England all on his own in a 55 over a side international. Richards scored 189 not out to England’s 175 all out, setting a record that stands to this day of the highest score against England by a West Indian batsman in a One Day International. Today, it should have been beaten. That it wasn’t was an awful, terrible shame.

In between calls, I’ve been sneaking a look at the screen today, for the Fourth One-Day International between England and West Indies. These games are now 50 overs a side, not 55. Left-handed batsman Evin Lewis came in with West Indies 33 for 3, a similar situation to Richards all that time ago.

Lewis played sensibly and solidly, but he was also hitting a range of impressive shots, and finding the boundary quite regularly. I was lucky to catch a beautifully delicate late cut off Moeen Ali, the kind of shot more played in memory of cricket gone by than in modern times, let alone a One-Day game.

But once he reached 100, Lewis started unleashing sixes, all around the Oval. West Indies’ score accelerated at an incredible rate. Lewis passed his previous personal best. He went to 150 runs with a glorious, down-on-one-knee pull shot for six.

One the commentary, they started talking about Viv Richards’ record. Lewis was 165 not out and I was desperately wishing I was there to see this, and not just for the usual reason about not having to be in work. I may have seen Richards’ record, it may be one of my most cherished memories of cricket, but Lewis was going to be a more than worthy record breaker, and I wanted him to achieve this.

He has reached 176, only fourteen runs short of the record, with Jake Ball bowling round the wicket. Ball drilled in a yorker, right on the crease, heading into Lewis’s legs. It was swinging down the leg-side, no fears of an appeal, but Lewis, trying to get into position to play a shot, caught the ball on the toe of the bat and played it low, hard and fast, into his right ankle.

Pads don’t protect ankles. They protect the front of the lower leg, down to the instep. Lewin had played a fast delivery into unprotected bone. He went down, fast, rolling over with the pain.

It looked bad and it was bad. Lewis could not stand on his right foot. A stretcher was brought on and he left the pitch to a standing ovation, Not Out, Retired Hurt. It’s the highest score a batsman has ever Retired Hurt upon, and Viv Richards’ record stands.

That is so awful. To be out, short of a record, is one thing. It’s still an honourable attempt. But to be so close, and to be denied the chance to succeed or fail by an accident like this, is horrible. My heart goes out to Evin Lewis. It doesn’t matter that he was scoring against England, that he was trying to set a record against England, he was batting beautifully, with power and grace, and he bloody well DESERVED that record, and he should have had the chance to stand or fall.

That’s the tragedy, in sporting terms. That’s what makes this match such an awful, awful shame. Who cares about the result? It’s been spoiled.