A Birmingham Weekend


After a weekend of summer sunshine and heat, almost to the point of oppressiveness, I woke this morning to the comfortably familiar sound of July rain, falling steadily from a grey sky. It took me back to a weekend away in Birmingham, thirty years ago.

Birmingham sounds like an unusual destination for a weekend away. I don’t like the city, and I don’t like the action, but Lancashire were playing a County Cricket match against Warwickshire at Edgbaston, and I never minded an opportunity to visit Nostalgia & Comics (from where I acquired my Cerebus no 1, by trading a complete set of the Claremont-Cockrum/Claremont-Byrne X-Men and still got ripped off) and the still much-missed Compendium Books, the best second-hand SF bookshop I’ve ever visited.

In addition to all this, I had a good mate back then who’d not long since moved out of Manchester to train to become an Addiction Counsellor. He was now working in the Midlands and staying at the Nurse’s Home attached to a hospital in North Birmingham. So we set it up that he would give me directions to find the Nurse’s Home from the A34, so I could drop off my overnight bag and he could lend me a Birmingham A-Z, and I’d find my way back there after the cricket.

I made a bright, early start and was at the Nurse’s Home for tennish, picking up the A-Z and my mate and one of his fellow residents, and driving them into the centre of Birmingham.

Compendium and N&C were handily close together, a walk of less than ten minutes. There can’t have been much in there to interest me because I ended up splashing out on the new Tolkien History of Middle Earth, edited by his son, Volume 5, The Lost Road and other writings, which was something like £20 even then. I tucked it into my shoulder bag and drove on to Edgbaston.

I visited that ground a handful of times in the Eighties, in the first occasion to watch the Saturday of the Third Test against the West Indies, and then a couple of times with Lancashire. Cricket grounds have their own feel and appeal. Old Trafford I love, of course, and despite its several flaws, and I’m not even including the preponderance of Yorkshiremen about, I have always liked Headingley. Trent Bridge has always been a delight, but Lords leaves me cold, too much smugness in the air. Edgbaston is a small, oddly mis-matched ground, no two parts of which look alike and I’m not keen on it.

It was a typical, relaxed cricket day for me, kicked back in the stand, idly diverting my attention between the cricket and my new book, with a bit more time for the latter than I’d really wanted when the rain came over in the mid-afternoon, and the infamous ‘Brumbrella’ was winched out.

This was a unique extended tarpaulin that in the event of rain could be winched out to cover the entire playing field, except for one awkwardly-angled corner. It stretched out prophylactically and I eased back and read.

For a time, I got talking to a couple of home supporters, about their ground, and ours. They were pleasingly loyal to Edgbaston, well aware of its flaws, but content with it because it was theirs, as they should be. They eventually left, but I stayed because I’d travelled all this way to be here, and I had nothing else to do, and I was content to read and absorb the atmosphere. If I have to be somewhere when it rains, a cricket ground is a very pleasant place to be.

By the time play resumed, the ground was virtually empty. I wandered round, looking at the pitch from different angles. In one corner, opposite the Pavilion End, was a high-banked stand and I was at the top of that when Graeme Fowler struck a perfect flat cover drive, straight to the fence below me. It was one of those shots, all along the ground, where the ball hits the fence before the sound of the shot leaves your ears, and the fielders didn’t move because there was not enough time for them to move.

By close of play, the evening had become sunny and dry, and the sky and the air was a rich, warm gold. It was perfect weather for driving in, looking at what was around me, exploring a strange place. If I couldn’t be in the Lake District, at least I was somewhere I didn’t know, and I decided impulsively that, instead of using the A-Z to plot a course back to the Nurse’s Home, I would just point the car in its general direction and set off.

It didn’t take me very long to have no idea where I was or where I was going. In other circumstances, this would have qualified as being lost, but this was practically the purpose of everything. I found myself heading out of the city towards the south west and the M5 and curving back in again. At one point, I found myself driving along Handsworth main street. It was a slow, straight drive, full of people on both sides, and not a white face to be seen.

This was a new experience. I wasn’t disturbed, or angry, or threatened, or resentful, or anything. I was merely curious as to how far I could go without seeing another white face. It must have been at least a mile, of continuous crowds.

I left Handsworth behind me and motored on, still relishing the driving conditions. This couldn’t last forever and, after something not far short of two hours of wandering, I reluctantly decided that I couldn’t carry on like this forever. I looked for a quiet place where I could pull up, out of the way, find myself in the A-Z, and work out the route home.

There was a turn up ahead. I pulled round to the left, started to slow down, and then burst out laughing. I recognised this road. I had driven down it this morning. The hospital was about a quarter mile down the road, at the bottom. All that driving around, amusing myself, had ended with me getting where I wanted to be, as if by dead reckoning!

We didn’t do anything that evening. I remember sitting around in a bit of a group, including five or six of the nurses, and chatting. One of them in particular I remember, because although she wasn’t the prettiest, and she said very little, a couple of years my mate married her, and they had three children.

We didn’t sit up too late, and I went off to my room and went to bed.

In the morning, I woke about sevenish to the sound of rain. Steady, heavy, unceasing rain. I lay in bed, listening to it for some time before going and looking out of the window. It was falling unchangingly, into the trees dotted around the gardens. There were no gusts, no winds, no bursts, just a long hard fall, and the sound of it was a constant bass note drumming outside the window.

We had no plans, and I didn’t know where my mate’s room was, so after a while I dressed and lay on the bed, reading Tolkien and listening to the rain. It went on and on, for hours, without changing. It must have been after midday before there was a knock on my door.

The rain meant there was nothing to do, so after a drink, and a bit of lunch, I was going to make a dart for it. very few people were about, just one of the nurses that hadn’t been with us last night, and we invited her to join us.

I was working full-time as a Solicitor then, and relatively flush with cash, and thus quite happy to buy a round of drinks, especially as the young lady was quite pretty (not that I had any hopes, let alone expectations). My mate warned me against it: the nurses were badly paid even that far back, and didn’t tend to accept rounds as they couldn’t buy them themselves, and had their pride.

We stayed an hour at the pub. It was still raining, now at least six hours, without any variation in its intensity. I wondered whether there’d be any effect on the drive north, but I got home without incident, taking things slowly and easily. The rain was calming and stilling, the driving easy.

It seemed that the rain was a purely local phenomenon. In London, at Lords, the MCC Bicentennial match, and a Rest of the World XI, had gone on uninterrupted, and the BBC News had an item from the game that I watched with interest, apparently an amazing run out. Given that this was the famous instance where Roger Harper ran out Graham Gooch, it was actually deserving of mention as a news item, and when it came up on screen, I was in awe and disbelief.

Harper was a West Indian cricketer, 6′ 6″ tall, whip-thin and one of the most athletic and agile fielders the world has ever seen. Unusually, he bowled offspin, approaching from the left at an acute angle, almost hopping into the crease and delivering the in an astonishing arc that saw it come out of virtually the small of his back and over his head. After releasing the ball, Harper fell away, quickly, to the left.

Gooch was well-set, with over 120 runs under his belt. He came down the wicket to the ball, played a crisp ground shot, with forceful pace to the right of the bowler’s wicket, his momentum taking him about two yards out of his ground. In ordinary circumstances, the shot would have flashed past the stumps and raced to the fence, with no fielders in position to intercept it. Gooch was already slowing down, secure in another boundary. Except.

Except that Harper spun out of his movement left, shot across right, bending double, his right hand trailing the ground, taking the hard-hit ball in his palm, lifting it up to his shoulder in a single flowing movement and hurling it back down the pitch towards Gooch’s stumps. Gooch, seeing this, knowing he had no chance to get back, was turning as if to throw himself back, diving into the path of the throw, but it was two fast for him and he was still turning when Harper’s throw flashed past him and hit the stumps.

It was an unbelievable moment. If I’d been at Lords to see it, in real time, it would have been like the time, six years later, when I saw Shane Warne bowl THAT ball: it would have been two fast, too furious to comprehend, and I would have needed to go home to watch the TV replay, to understand what I had seen.

And that was my weekend in Birmingham, when it rained for hours unbrokenly, like the rain with which I began this morning, summer rain in the best British fashion, going about its business unfussily, just pouring it all down.

Hillsborough: No Comment


After reading this afternoon about the decision to charge six people  in connection with the Hillsborough Disaster, twenty-eight years ago, I wrote a short piece, intending to post it on this blog when I returned home. Naturally, it was somewhat vituperative.

Since then, I have read warnings against such indulgences. Once charges have been raised, commentary becomes fraught with dangers as to contempt of court.

More importantly, it could prejudice the trial. It could be used to argue that a prejudicial atmosphere has been created, making it impossible for the Defendants to get a trial. It would be an unforgivable crime, almost as great as those that have been charged, to prevent a trial taking place that the Hillsborough victims and families have fought so long to see.

So I’m holding it back. If charges result in convictions, I will publish it then, no matter long it has to wait. Justice for the 96, for all of us, must be served.

Second Draft – and still no title


We’re still a week away from the end of June, which was the target I originally set myself for completing the transcription of the novel I wrote thirty years ago this year that I’ve long since referred to as The Legendary Semi-Autobiographical First Novel.

Well, not only did that transcription get transcribed a good long way ahead of schedule, and not only does a published paperback of that version of the story sit on my desk now, but I am still six days up and I have today completed a completely unanticipated Second Draft. And I still haven’t thought of a title for it.

The Legendary Semi-Autobiographical Second Draft is not the end of it, however. I have accomplished the most part of the things I set out to do, though there is one loose end the tying off of which I have managed to overlook, which I will rectify in due course. I know where it needs to be inserted, but it is probably not going to be enough to simply write a new section and plug in, as that chapter is already a bit top-heavy, so I’m going to have to juggle a few more things around.

For those of you interested in the process of writing itself, I have to say it’s once again been a fascinating experience. In some respects, this has been less a Second Draft than a collaborative re-write. ‘He’, being the younger me, has set the terms of the book. He has adapted the events of real life, to which he was a lot closer in time, into this fictional framework of people, place and event. Large tracts of his work needed no more than some minor neatening, a slightly smoother flow, changes in punctuation, removing redundancies: he was a lot less certain of what he had to tell the audience and this version has a lot more confidence in them.

Other sections have had to be drastically trimmed, or deleted entirely, not merely to create space for new scenes, other characters, the whole process of Second Draft rewriting where you can implant subtle references to things that will appear later. Some scenes have been rewritten entirely, sometimes to refresh them, or find a better way of expressing them, sometimes to change entirely what happens. Some things have been brought closer to the surface, so that the audience can see them where the characters can’t.

I’ve had to be careful about style. How I write has changed considerably since 1987, and I should bloody well hope so too! That has had to be dialled back upon, in order to blend more harmoniously with my collaborator. I was a lot plainer in style then, though “he” has surprised me many times with things he’s written that I could now conceive (I am yet further convinced that this is coming from somewhere in the subconscious, not from me), and whilst I’ve loosened some things up, I’ve had to stay within certain limits.

I’ve changed less than I expected to, after all this length of time, and so, after a suitable break for mental recoupment, during which time I may tinker a bit with at least one of the other half-stories that I have been unable to develop as I wished this past half-decade, we shall resume ere long for a Third Draft.

I just wish I could come up with a remotely decent title.

My Day as a Ghost


Yesterday wasn’t a good day. Last week wasn’t a good week, but yesterday I was a ghost.

I feel perpetually exhausted, both mentally and physically, these days. Even a four day break from work, up to and including last Sunday, did nothing to change that. I had a rush of blood with the Second Draft and did five chapters in those four days, leaving me only the final two to deal with, and as this is the Third Act, and the emotional crux, it’s pretty draining work to begin with.

Nor did the high temperatures and hot sun of the first three days help me. I don’t do this kind of weather well in any event, only really managing it when I can either sprawl out on the benches at Old Trafford and watch cricket, or wander beaches and beachfronts in Mallorca: zuma naranja, agua sin gas and Coca-Cola Lite. It didn’t help that for at least the first half of Tuesday, I was in serious pain with my right knee. It’s been increasingly sore for years and I’m pretty much doomed to arthritis in it, if it hasn’t already developed, but this was throbbing mercilessly at regular intervals, no matter what I did to ease it, until it just went away, like that.

But on Thursday, after lunch, I developed toothache. I don’t have a dentist, I haven’t been to one in nearly a decade. I hate them. My ex-wife used to have to go with me, and sometimes hold my hand, and she said I didn’t so much shake as vibrate. It wasn’t a particularly jabbing pain, but it was a persistent one, and I didn’t sleep on Thursday night.

I think I got some rest in, maybe ninety minutes at the back end of darkness, but I was awake the rest of the time, in that intermediate state somewhere between wakefulness and conscious dreaming, my mind drifting under only partial direction. Friday morning, I was wierded out. My tooth was easing, but I was still very aware of it, and I couldn’t have gone best-out-of-three with a wet dishrag.

I shouldn’t have gone in to work but my absence record couldn’t afford it. I was limp, mentally as well as physically, and I was doing everything so slowly, snails were backed up behind me and tooting their horns.

As you know, I work in a call centre, as part of an efficient, second-tier customer support team dealing with technical faults ad customers of all attitudes. Fridays we’re relatively thin in numbers and I took my seat in my usual spot. Almost immediately, it got impossible to bear.

One of my team-mates, with whom I get along well, is irascible at the best of times. He’s undergoing stress himself, with a succession of headaches, and the number of things that irritate him seems to be growing, but his big bugbear is whistling. He cannot stand it, it is his nails-on-a-blackboard. Of course, another of our team-mates, who is big and booming and eccentric to begin with, starts whistling, and doesn’t take kindly to attempts to check him, making this almost a freedom-of-speech thing. It’s doing my head in and I haven’t even logged on.

My team leader is already aware I feel lousy. I tell him that as soon as I’ve done this urgent callback I’ve promised for one o’clock, I’m moving workstations, somewhere further away.

It takes three attempts to find one where I can work. It’s of only minimal effect: this is a call centre, we are a team of talkers, we have plenty of people who live to talk and who can charitably be described as distinctive, also as loud. Two get into an argument that results in one storming out briefly. I am as far away as it’s physically possible to be and still be on our team, and I have become a ghost.

When customers come on the line, I can summon the energy to deal with them, albeit in a calm, subdued manner. I’m laidback in my approach anyway: my schtick is empathy, calmness, confidence: let’s see what I need to do to fix it for you. This doesn’t help me with the guy who phones up early on to complain that his Broadband – which he took out only a month ago – may be fixed now but it’s too slow. He’s one of those who treat it as a personal insult that we’ve given him Broadband this useless, as if we’ve selected him for unfair treatment instead of it being the inevitable, and unalterable consequence of the distance between his house and the Exchange. He wants to upgrade to Fibre, and he wants a good deal out of us.

He says it as if we owe it to him. Now we continually have differing offers for new and upgrading customers but it so happens that there are currently none except if the customer simultaneously takes out one of our television packages. That offer is good: it’s a lot of product for a little outlay and it’s locked in for eighteen months, but I don’t know from TV. I don’t know the prices, I don’t know the packages, my head cannot cope with all the various alternatives and a customer who’s being as much of an arsehole as this one. Whilst I’ve got him on hold, and a colleague is blithely drowning me in details I’d struggle to understand in a normal state, he hangs up on me, which is best for both of us.

From then on, it’s nothing but technical stuff of varying complexity. Come six o’clock, three of my louder colleagues reach the end of their shifts and leave, but the two who started things off with the argument over the whistling are, like me, on till nine o’clock. I am miles away, miserly conserving what little energy I’ve got, combating the headache that hasn’t shifted all day. I don’t want to talk to anyone, though conversation would help eat up the looming time, but I am not noticed recognised, spoken to. I am a ghost, not even sure of my own corporeality. The new t-shirt I am wearing today, which would ordinarily have been remarked upon approvingly by several people (Fools! I Will Destroy You All! (ask me how)) isn’t even noticed.

Probably they’re being sensitive to my silence and my distance, but it’s Friday evening, six till nine, the last and worst hours and my eight pm I am done. I don’t have anything left, except guilt that they’re taking calls and I’m staring at old matters, checking details, filling in time because I am a deadweight.

And the irony is that when it officially reaches 9.00pm and I log off, they’re both out of the building before I’ve even returned my gear to my locker.

I slept better last night, but I don’t foresee me doing much this weekend. There are few necessary chores: food shopping later today is the only compulsory one. Having allowed myself to get a full five episodes behind on iZombie, I plan to continue my one-a-day catch-up. And having taken in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 last Sunday, I hope to feel up to Wonder Woman tomorrow, and if so write an Uncollected Thoughts about it.

And there is one scene, and one short coda left to revise and the Second Draft will be complete, though that doesn’t mean the book will be complete as there is still more to do before I consider it publishable. I shalln’t be going in for much human contact this weekend. But I shall be real both Saturday and Sunday. Yesterday, I was a Ghost.

Crap journalism: Best Batman?


It’s been a while since I’ve felt sufficiently irritated by the Guardian‘s patented brand of garbage that I indulge myself myself in one of these kickings, but here we are again, with another piece of egregious stupidity.

The recent death of Adam West has brought forth an outpouring of nostalgia and genuine affection for a man who, by all accounts, was an intelligent, thoughtful and genuinely nice person, whose career was effectively blighted by the one role for which he was known. Most people who worked with him have made it clear that he was a talented actor, capable of much more subtle work than was required by his role as Batman/Bruce Wayne, but which was denied him because of his indelible association with the ‘Biff! Bam! Pow!’ TV series.

People have been falling over themselves to praise West’s portrayal of Batman, and to contrast it with the modern day interpretations that take the character seriously. Naturally, I disagree. But that doesn’t make these people wrong. Nor does it make their affection solely justifiable by nostalgia. I say again, they like that Batman, I don’t, and there is nothing more to be said.

However, a guy named Jack Bernhardt clearly thinks there is much more to be said, and he says it here. Please go read: I’ll still be hear when you return.

At base, it’s the same old story that has inspired many previous ‘Crap Journalism’ posts. Person has Opinion. Person mistakes Opinion for Universal Truth incorporating bitchy put-downs of everyone – usually the overwhelming majority – that disagrees with him or her. Advancement of human knowledge: zero, even if the opinion being offered is of some kind of merit.

In a way, Bernhardt’s contempt for anyone who regards not merely Batman but any superhero in any way remotely seriously is apt for someone defending the 1960’s series, because it exactly mirrors the attitude of the people making Batman for the character, the concept and, most appalling, the audience who bought the comics and wanted to see a decent treatment of the character onscreen.

This is not to say that a less-than-wholly-reverent approach to a character is an abomination before God, or at least that part of the audience that represents the concept. I have seen hundreds of spoofs and parodies and send-ups and absurdist deconstructions and I have seen plenty that I found hilarious. Without exception, the ones that have worked best, for example, The Princess Bride, are done by people who know and understand the subject matter, who can be completely aware of its inherent flaws, weaknesses, absurdities yet still share some level of enjoyment of the original. This gives them the insight to accurately, vividly and perceptively take the piss, without ever extending that disdain to the audience, because they know why people love these stupid, silly and flawed things in the first place.

Producer William Dozier and writer Lorenzo Semple Jr., thought Batman’s fans were morons. They despised them for the crime of liking the character, of seeing something of worth in it, and they set out to effectively fart in that audience’s face. Batman runs unconvincingly around a pier, carrying a bomb so cartoonish it only lacks the word bomb in big white letters painted on it. People get in his way, nuns, a woman with a baby carriage. They are ridiculously oblivious to a man waving a cartoon bomb around. Even a gaggle of fiendishly cute ducklings frustrate Batman’s attempts to dispose of this bomb before it goes off and, guess what, kills everybody horribly.

Bernhardt thinks this makes Batman a likeable, punning character and, get this, genuinely anti-authoritarian. He seems not to notice that by creating this scenario, the people involved are pissing all over a character they cannot sustain belief in for a moment, and which they cannot understand anyone with their level of sophistication, intelligence and taste holding any belief whatsoever. So does Bernhardt, whose piece reeks of superiority.

If he likes this version of Batman, let him. The series was made, it cannot be undone or changed, and I’d be very wary of it if it were. It was a comedy, but there is no real humour, or point, in any comedy that exists simply to say, “You’re all so fucking dumb for liking this.” There is no purpose or comedy to be made from ripping into something you can’t understand because by definition, you’re not so much going to miss the point as going to miss that there ever was a point to begin with.

And as with Dozier and Semple, so too with Berhardt, the only thing remaining from your supposed enthusiasm for your opinion is your overriding smugness at having one.

May the cheese always be cracking


The announcement today that Peter Sallis has died at the age of 96 finally rings down the curtain on the Last of the Summer Wine era. None are left now of that immortal trio of Foggy, Cleggy and Compo (with respect to the late gone Michael Bates as unforgotten Cyril Blamire).

And there can never be any Wallace and Grommit again, for no-one else could voice that sterling little inventor.

That we had such marvels for so long should be what we marvel at.  So long, and thanks for all the joy.

A Win for Manchester


I watched the Europe League Cup Final last night in a rather different frame of mind than I’d expected. The greyness of the season disappeared in the circumstances of what happened on Monday night, which still fills me with pain. I have learned this morning that the missing 14 year old girl from the Hebrides has now been confirmed to be among the dead, I learned yesterday that the bomber, may he be resurrected to die and be resurrected to die again again until he has suffered as many deaths as he caused, this bastard went to my old school.

So last night couldn’t be normal if it tried from here until eternity, and winning was both irrelevant and essential, and it wasn’t about United winning for me and my all the other Reds and our club, it was about our own and how we will never give in and we will not be stopped, no matter what you do, and instead of elation and excitement, I greeted the final whistle with sobbing, the release of tension.

It keeps welling up. I contain it at work, which consists of listening to people tell me that their broadband or their telephone isn’t working and it’s not good enough, and yesterday afternoon I came closer than I have done in over twenty years to losing my rag with a customer/client over the phone. I was shaking, physically, by the end.

Because I can’t let go at work. I’m not like that in real life either. I may rant and rave here but I don’t do it in person, I sit, I absorb, I am cool, laid-back, professional, so all the rawness has to happen once I’m back here and alone. And there’s stuff going on all over Manchester at the moment, in places and streets I know.

I have banned myself for a short time from a group of friends, a private political forum, that is discussing the implications of all this on the Election that takes place two weeks from today, who see conspiracy theories in how the Tories are reacting to this. In other circumstances, I would see exactly the same things as them, if this had happened/was happening in Leeds, or Newcastle, or Bristol or Nottingham, but it isn’t. I’m the only one from Manchester and I’m too near it.

Yesterday began early, with another Counselling session: good and helpful in many ways but it started with both of us, the Counsellor and I, in tears again about what had been done.

So winning last night was unimportant and important both. It was about standing up and not being phased by it. Had the finalists been our hated rivals Manchester City, I would have supported them to win, would have applauded their victory, would have still sobbed with relief.

I’m sorry. Allow me this self-indulgence. These are hard days to get through. I’ll try not to let this happen again.