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.

 

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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.

County Night


Though next weekend involves a working Sunday, putting a premium on Saturday relaxation (and shopping) time, I have discovered a need to tie up half the day by visiting my local football team, Stockport County, to watch an FA Cup Third Qualifying Round tie.

I haven’t been to Edgeley Park for over a decade, and having thought about it carefully, I think this is going to be only my fifth ever visit, which is not a particularly impressive record for someone who has lived in or about Stockport for over fifty years (the Nottingham years excluded).

And it’s not as if I’m going to support the Home Team, either.

Though I didn’t actually start to live in Stockport until 1987, my family had been on the border – literally: the pavement was in Manchester, the road in Stockport – since December 1966. United and City were both in the First Division and doing well, and I first became aware of County through the regular posters promoting “Friday Night is County Night”, the Club making Friday night their home slot to avoid clashes with whichever local giant was at home each week.

At the time, I was too young to be interested in football except for kicking the ball most unsuccessfully in the schoolyard or during games, and when professional football started to penetrate into my consciousness, a couple of years later, my thoughts did not turn to County, who were probably languishing in the Fourth Division in those days.

My first visit to Edgeley Park was at the instigation of my old schoolmate Steve Callaghan (pronounced Calligan). Cally was interested in non-League Football before I started to take up with Droylsden, his allegiance, for some reason, being to the long-deceased Sandbach Ramblers, Cheshire League members.

County weren’t involved. We were going to some form of local Cup Final, possibly to do with the infant Northern Premier League, founded 1968. This game was taking place in, I am certain, 1970, and featured Macclesfield Town and Northwich Victoria. Steve back Macc, as the ‘local’ team, but I as attracted to Vics’ green shirts, which were a bit of a rarety then, as now. Anyway, the game ended 1-1, and I never discovered the result of the replay.

Sometime within the next twelve months or so, he dragged me back to see County this time, or at least their reserves. The game bored me: my only recollection is wandering around during the second half, ending up at the top of the cinder bank that served as standing terraces at the ton end of the ground, an running to play ballboy at on point, to return a misdirected shot that had ballooned up to my ‘lofty eyrie’.

Time went on. We left school. I went to University, Cally into employment. Sometimes he’d go along to Droylsden games, and we’d meet on the bus, or else he’d appear, smiling around a cigarette, under the uncertain floodlighting. After he stopped coming, we lost contact.

It was thirty years before I entered Edgeley Park again, and once more it was for to games, albeit in separate seasons. County were at the peak of their success, fully-fledged members of the First Division (i.e., the old Second Division of my unconfused youth), bogeymen to the Bitters, doing the Double over them each season they shared that level.

Both occasions were courtesy of the Club, or rather free family tickets distributed to my younger stepson’s school. My stepdaughter was far from impressed, but everybody else enjoyed our visits, especially as County won both. The first was against then-Division leaders Norwich, who were beaten 2-1 thanks to a debut goal for ex-England international and new player-manager, Carlton Palmer. On the night, if a stranger had been asked to decide which side were leading the Division and which were hovering above the relegation zone, he’d have made the wrong selections.

But with two wins under our belt, and County struggling, we used to joke that the Club should send us free Season Tickets, since we invariably brought success with us.

I enjoyed the visits just for the change of scene, because I was no longer going to see Manchester United, and because they enabled me to put vital ticks on a mild obsession. Between various Clubs, I have to date seen football matches at every level in the Pyramid, or the English League System (which is a bloody stupid and non-descriptive name when the Pyramid was so spot on), except for Level 5, i.e., the Conference/Alliance Premier.

County gave me the second tier in that list, though I can’t remember where or when I saw a Level 3 game, unless my memory of both County games being in level 2 is incorrect, and the latter of them followed relegation.

But back to next Saturday. County’s fortunes have fallen far since that Level 2 spell. They were relegated from the Football League in 2011 and went through the Conference stage. For the last three seasons, they have been marooned in the Alliance North, level 6, which status they share with FC United of Manchester.

Since County have wound up in the same division as FC, I have wanted to see such a derby. Unfortunately, home games at Broadhurst Park have always been all-ticket, and the return matches at Stockport have all clashed with me being on shift. Not so Saturday week. I am going to catch a Derby, I am going to cheer on FC United. My only previous experience of an FC Derby was against Droylsden, both games going 4-1 to FC, but on the other hand, I have never seen County lose.

Incidentally, if we’re playing the completist game again, as to the FA Cup, I have the complete set: I have seen games in every round from the Preliminary Round through to the Final, so a Third Qualifying Round is familiar territory for me.

Though I have always had a fondness for County, and a wish to see them do well (especially when playing Manchester City), and though there will be a certain oddity about supporting the visitors in a stadium that is far closer to my home than my team are based, I will be up for’t’ Cup with FC United.

Roll on next Saturday!

Brief update 4


Doing the widow/orphan dance…

I use Open Office software, have done for a decade or so. There’s probably a knack to it that I haven’t yet discovered but one of the big bugbears about self-publishing books is formatting your source document for conversion into a Lulu.com pdf for ‘camera-ready’ printing.

Two problems arise. Firstly, Open Office seems to not want you to apply settings to complete documents. My drafts are generally unformatted so if I want to insert paragraph indents for the print copy, I frequently find myself having to apply these manually: set indent for para 1, carriage return, one space, delete gap tp bring next para up, backspace, repeat until hand falls off.

The other is widow/orphan control. This is a default setting, at two lines. It means that if a paragraph breaks over a page bottom so as to leave two or one lines isolated at the bottom of one page or top of the next, the entire paragraph will be dragged over into the next page, leaving unsightly and unprofessional looking white space at the foot of a page.

It will not let me uncheck it for a whole document so I have to comb through the print copy to eliminate widow/orphan in every instance it affects my format.

Then I upload the document. This has been carefully, indeed lovingly been formatted on Lulu’s template document for the book-size I am going to use, so that the pdf they prepare will look identical to my Open Office original.

It doesn’t. They always have to reformat it. This throws the page bottoms out of alignment. I have to download the pdf, scroll through it, mark all the places where there is an unsightly and unprofessional looking white space at the foot of a page, locate it in the print copy and eliminate widow/orphan.

I then have to check that this slight shift in the text does not introduce further widow/orphan instances later in the print copy. Finally, all such things eliminated, I backtrack in the book creation process. delete the existing source document, upload the amended version, wait for a new pdf to be created, download this… and start scanning for knock-on effects.

I’m on the second round, scanning in three-chapter bursts. There are fewer instances to correct this time. I’m currently taking a break, two-thirds of the way through. Doing the widow/orphan dance.

Xmas 1969


A conversation between colleagues overheard: a team-mate has bought tickets for the musical Hamilton, for his girlfriend’ birthday, but it’s a secret he has to keep whilst she is badgering him to go, or it won’t be the surprise he intends. This has brought back a bittersweet memory of my Dad’s last Xmas, in 1969.

He’d been in and out of hospital for over a year by then, though only my mother and her elder brother knew at that point that his cancer was terminal. Dad had been the one to urge our Lake District holidays towards the fells, and who had gently managed my initial reluctance to a burgeoning enthusiasm.

During his illness, we hadn’t been able to add to the three fells we had already climbed. There were no holidays, no Lake District, not even a Bonfire Night and Fireworks that year, just some sparklers for my sister and I, properly wrapped up, to have outside the French window at the back, because the noise who have disturbed Dad.

Wainwright had completed his Pictorial Guides, and gone on to the Howgill Fells, which didn’t attract us. He’d produced The Pennine Way Companion, which did nothing for us. But he’d begun a series of Sketchbooks, intended to run to five,  showcasing his beautiful and wonderfully representative pen-and-ink drawings. It would be available for December.

In my mind, it was the perfect Xmas present for Dad. He loved the Wainwrights as much as I was starting to do and I desperately wanted to give him this book for Xmas. I suggested it to Mam, but she was curiously unencouraging and vague. I brought it up a couple more times, unable to understand why this idea didn’t seem to be favoured. It was perfect, absolutely so, and I couldn’t understand why we were missing the opportunity to give him something so suited.

What ended up being my present to him, I can’t remember.

On Xmas day, at Granny and Grandad’s, the family together as we always celebrated Xmas day, I found out why they wouldn’t let me give my Dad that book as a present. I opened a hard, rectangular parcel, and found it to be Wainwright’s First Lakeland Sketchbook. I couldn’t give it Dad, because Dad and Mam were giving it me.

I’d forgotten that detail but it all comes back to me now, and whilst it was a lovely book, and I have it still, and after Dad died, I collected the other four as they appeared, the gift fell a little flat that year. I was just turned fourteen, and I wanted that book for my Dad. He could and did read it, and enjoy it as much as me, but I wanted it for him. There was never another Xmas, and though there was one more birthday, in January 1970, his 41st, I have the same no idea of what I bought him as a present.

Now I’m sitting here, remembering this, and there’s a tiny lick of pain behind the memories, because I don’t have the memory I should have had, of my Dad’s look of pleasure at a gift given by his son that was so perfectly what he would have wanted.

Most memories associated with Dad come with their measure of pain because the loss is uncontrollable. At least I have recovered one more moment to add to that inadequate store of memories that are all I can hold to.

The Hobbit at 80


I’m indebted to the Guardian for the news that today is the eightieth birthday of the publication of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, a hitherto obscure Oxford Don. Which makes tomorrow the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, but let that pass.

There’s a lot of hostile BTL comments, directed at The Lord of the Rings as a book, and The Hobbit as a three-film extravaganza, absolutely none of which I can concur, but there is also frequent mention of the ill-chosen description of the book as a prequel to LOTR. The films are prequels, but the book of The Hobbit came first, by the best part of twenty years.

I have mixed feelings about The Hobbit. I recall my first hearing of it, in a First Year English Class at Grammar school, discussed one late and lazy Friday afternoon near the end of the year by our English teacher and Form Master, Mr Bassett. He talked about the famous first line, which sticks in my memory, though nothing else does.

It didn’t inspire me to search out the book, not in 1967. I was still in the Children’s Section of the Library, and if Tolkien was there, as he must have been, I don’t recall even seeing the book. And whilst I vaguely remember LOTR being discussed at school, no doubt in another English class, I have no memory of when, or which teacher first put that book into my consciousness. It did not suggest anything that would appeal to me then.

I finished school in 1973, proud possessor of enough A-Levels to get me into Manchester University to study Law. This was the long summer of cricket I’ve referred to before, but cricket didn’t blot out reading, and I was at Didsbury Library at least once a week. I had eight ticket, and it was a point of honour to get out eight books every time.

One afternoon, I was carrying seven books around, and scratching for an eighth. Nothing appealed. Eventually, I ended up in front of Tolkien. I remembered The Lord of the Rings. I was not enthused, but I had already been there ages and I couldn’t leave with only seven books, so I borrowed ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, just to see.

I left it till last, a sunny Tuesday afternoon. I read it before bedtime. At 9.00am, on Wednesday, I was at the Library, returning my eight completed books and heading straight for the Ts for ‘The Two Towers’ and ‘The Return of the King’. They had the first of these, which was frustrating. I carried it home, flung myself down on my bed, and finished it by mid-afternoon.

All I needed was the third volume. I was desperate to know the end of the story. But it had vanished from Didsbury Library. For the next two to three months, I kept going in every two to three days, hoping that a copy had been returned, but eternally frustrated.

In the end, Xmas passed, and January 1974 arrived and one Saturday my family found themselves in Stockport. We were on the bus, something needing repair on the car, and we had to get to Droylsden by 1.00pm, for the usual Dinner and talk and tea. I had long since been getting money for birthdays and Xmas, to enable me to select presents for myself (I was an awkward bugger when it came to taste even that far back), and inevitably some money was left over after the day, to be used up.

In W.H.Smiths, I discovered the one-volume paperback of the collected LOTR, sans Appendices, with the wonderfullly evocative Pauline Baynes cover. It cost £2 for a book of over 1,000 pages, and I had £2 of Xmas money left over. Unless forced to enter into conversation, like at the Dinner table, I was lost to my family for the rest of the day, even on the bus here I wasn’t supposed to read because of what it could do to my eyes (big deal: I had been wearing glasses for over a decade by then anyway). I was straight into Book 3 and immersed until I finally got to the end.

And on my next visit to Didsbury Library, ‘The Return of the King’ had been returned to the shelf. Of course.

Just as Justice League of America 37 had done, almost ten years before, LOTR changed my life. Having read and loved this epic, immense fantasy, I wanted more, more of the same. I began to haunt the SF/Fantasy section of the Library: not just Didsbury, but the even more massive selection at Central Ref. For the next twenty years or so, this was my primary genre of reading, and I owe it to that afternoon’s frustration in Didsbury Library my absorption in Gene Wolfe, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin, and the irreplaceable R A Lafferty, not to mention those other authors in whose work I have been, sometimes fanatically, interested down the years.

Naturally, once I had completed LOTR, I was enthusiastic to read The Hobbit, and I was barely back at University for the Spring Term before I was picking up the paperback in Boots. And boy, was I in for a shock.

Based on reading LOTR, and based on its references to event in The Hobbit that formed part of the overall story, I expected a similar book, despite the massive difference in style. I got a children’s story, some elements of which I would have found embarrassing had I been half my then age.

I still have The Hobbit, though I’ve long since up-graded to an anniversary hardback, and I also have John Rateliff’s two-volume history, analysing how the published version was built up from the original drafts, the equivalent of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series. But I rarely read the book.

I’ve always wondered how my opinion would have been affected if I had read The Hobbit first, and at an age nearer to that of it intended audience. There is a lot of adult support for the book as being infinitely better than LOTR, and a lot of that comment does command the book to an adult audience. I agree that the story gets progressively darker and more serious as it goes on, but this is as soon as Tolkien begins to attach this kiddie story about a jolly Hobbit on an adventure to the larger, and higher matters of the Silmarillion mythology he had been developing for twenty years already.

But I came with expectations of something high and adult and serious, and the actuality was a shock. I was eighteen, and just in the process of my first literary adult literary enthusiasm, and my response to Tolkien’s first book is permanently coloured. I cannot see past the childish tones and the silly song.

I’ve already given my opinion in respect of The Hobbit Trilogy. This is a prequel, unlike the book, coming after the LOTR Trilogy. It’s easy to understand the objections of those who love the book: turning a novel of that size into three epic films, totalling some seven and a half hours before you look at Director’s Cuts, and completely rejecting the style and tone of the source novel can be hard to understand for someone who loves the book.

But I don’t love the book. I love LOTR and the films came after that and were part of the same world, and the film Trilogyhad to reflect the tone and style of LOTR. And, despite the flaws, especially in the various story changes made in Part 2, I did and still do love the LOTR films.

There’s no escaping the fact that, without The Hobbit, none of this would ever have happened, and thousands of book, many of them crap but a great number of them beautiful, elegant, thoughtful, mind-expanding and immensely involving would never have been written. Having read The History of Middle Earth, I see almost no possibility of Tolkien’s earlier and higher mythology ever being published, or finding anything greater than an esoteric audience.

And without The Hobbi there could have been no Lord of the Rings, and without that book, what would or could have opened my eyes the way that did?

So Happy Eightieth Birthday to The Hobbit. I am in the middle of so many other things at present, so I can’t mark the day by digging you out again, but I promise to re-read you as soon as is possible. I may not enjoy you much, but I owe you, big time.