Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hacks are self-centred, self-regarding pillocks, and I shall be glad eventually to see the back of them

I’ve worked as a hack since 1974, which makes it 36 years man and boy, and I have met and worked with quite a few other hacks (a disproportionate number of whom, incidentally, were called ‘Andy’, but that is for another time). And my considered opinion is this: hacks are self-centred, obstreperous, selfish, self-regarding fuckwits who are never quite as bright, cultured or well-informed as they like to think they are. They might, individually be pleasant and good company — indeed, I know several who brush their teeth quite regularly— but when they are not themselves but are hacks, they become strangely quite insufferably, although I have also come across — and work with at least one — some definite exceptions to that rule.
There is something about the job which invariably brings out the worst in hacks. This is not something I have decided upon of late, but it has been my opinion for many years. The reason I am letting off steam here is because of something someone said earlier on, which typifies the boneheaded, uncooperative nature of so many of them.
At the moment, there is chaos throughout Europe because ash from a volcano on Iceland is being blown all over the Continent and almost all commercial flights have been grounded. Our letters editor, a guy called Andy Simpson, has spent the past week with his daughters in Turkey. This morning I was told that he was stuck there, and as I get on well with him, I thought I might ring his mobile on the off-chance he would answer and could tell us when he might be back. ‘Don’t do that,’ said a female colleague, ‘it’s up to him to ring us and tell us.’
Now, I really cannot see the point of taking a stand on the issue. But she was adamant.
Another example: a few weeks ago, I agreed to do some extra work at home (on a self-employed freelance basis so I can claim expenses) organising the puzzle pages. Since we have move over to a new page layout system (from Quark Xpress on Mac to Atex and Indesign on PCs) there was chaos for a few weeks with everyone refusing to set up the puzzle pages. I happened to mention to the managing editor that it was no great deal and he asked wether I would be prepared to do it. Well, as I had been doing it four days a week ever since no one else was doing it, I decided I might as well be paid for it. A bonus that appeals to the geek in me in that I can log into the system at work from home in North Cornwall 240 miles away.
Anyway, as I deal with the puzzle pages daily four days a week, I was doing a little extra work to lighten my load, but doing so was not part of the agreement. That was a big mistake, because now everyone else on the desk expects me to do it. To put it bluntly, they want their arses wiped on the hour, every hour. Bloody hacks. My advice to everyone has always been: if you are approached by a reporter about anything, turn around and walk smartly away in the opposite direction. What they don’t get wrong, they make up, and what they don’t make up they get wrong. They are complete and utter pillocks.

Monday, April 12, 2010

What to do when friendship has run its course? Nothing, really, just don’t pretend

Is this familiar? You have known someone for many years, and in those early days you both regarded each other as friends. But latterly, in the past few years, you feel you no longer like that person very much. It isn’t that you actively dislike them, it is just that you no longer find them interesting or good company — they are very much like those people to whom you are indifferent.
I can honestly say I don’t dislike many people at all. But I can also tell you that I am indifferent to quite a few people. I get on with them, because I tend to get on with most people. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I like them.
What I have outlined above has happened to me twice. It is rather disconcerting when it happens, but on the other hand I get rather jacked off having more or less to play act. The first friend — or perhaps I should call him a former friend — was someone I knew at university. On the face of it we were like chalk and cheese: I was the fresh-faced public school lad who didn’t know shit from sausages, he was the student radical/revolutionary who made much of his ‘working class roots’. Oddly enough, as I moved around the country, this chap would find himself nearby. I knew his first wife and was something along the lines of best man when he married his second wife. Yet over the years we were more or less officially friends, but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed his company. For one thing, I was one of his few friends who knew him in his student revolutionary days and I think this embarrassed him as he dropped the working class London accent and his speech became more markedly refined and middle-class. I remember one afternoon in particular: I had been invited to Sunday lunch (his second wife, who was an alcoholic and is now dead after falling down the stairs one night while, I suspect, very drunk, and I got on well and I more or less had a standing invitation) and after lunch we settled down to watch some tribute charity concert on TV which featured all the bands from — then — 25 years earlier. Well, I wasn’t very interested. I have never been one for nostalgia and all these bands, once long-haired and young, were now balding and middle-aged and had most certainly not taken to heart The Who’s sage advice to die while they were still young. We were drinking wine, and this chap got rather annoyed with me for not joining in the spirit of nostalgia. And I got rather annoyed for being expected to.
That was several years before we finally went our separate ways, but I remember driving home that night thinking that that was a friendship which had run its course.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Pretentious? Moi? Or why romantic self-regard has made of me a philistine

I have once or twice in the past alluded to my pretensions to wanting to be ‘a writer’. I have also confessed that for someone with such pretensions, I have produced remarkably little and, more to the point, have very little justification for having them (which rather begs the question as to whether anyone having pretensions is particularly concerned about how legitimate it is to have them. ‘Pretensions’ and ‘legitimacy’ are surely rarely contented bedfellows). I have read many interviews with living writers in which they reveal that they ‘have’ to write, that they have no choice but ‘to write’, and the obvious implication being that if they didn’t write, they would surely go off their heads. When, in the past, I read such claims, I always felt very guilty, because, to put it bluntly, I don’t have a clue as to what they are talking about.
It isn’t just writers who say such a thing: the sheer compulsive necessity to produce ‘art’ is seen as the essential component of the ‘artistic nature’. Composers, actors, poets, painters and sculptors are apt to make similar claims, and who am I to say that they are not being sincere when they do so? It is always possible, and, not to be too cynical, rather probable that one or two (or three or four) rather pretentious individuals will make the same claim in the hope that they sound impressive. But it is also possible that many of those who say these things are being completely sincere. Possibly a little neurotic, perhaps, but sincere: that for whatever reason buried in the complexities of their psyche, they only really feel alive when they write.
(Incidentally, at some point — although not here and not now because that would merely confuse matters — it would be useful to try to establish what ‘to write’ means. I am undoubtedly, at the moment, ‘writing’ but I am also undoubtedly at the moment not doing what people mean by ‘writing’ when they avow that they ‘have to write’.)
I must say that I enjoy writing much as I enjoy talking, but I can’t honestly claim to have a compulsion to write, and would not die in misery if I could never write again. On the other hand I do feel an itch to write which cannot be ignored, which is one reason why I post an entry in this blog every few days or so. Furthermore, where some writers — or artists generally — insist that the need to write (or compose, or paint, or sculpt or versify) comes from a definite need to ‘express themselves’, I can safely say that I belong in the opposite camp: I like the kind of art in which the artist is thoroughly concealed and, ideally, utterly forgotten. I don’t give a flying fuck whether or not the world ‘understands me’. But I do hope that, in some way or other, I am, at least, entertaining and engaging.
That is not the modern view, but then the modern view is to treat ‘the artist’ as something akin to a god, rather than as someone who happens to be rather good at entertaining and engaging using as his or her medium words, sounds, paint, stone, wood or whatever else takes his or her fancy, just as others are rather good at kicking a football, or selling insurance, or teaching or cooking or even organising. I know that makes me sound like a philistine, but, I’m afraid, that’s what I feel.
I think it all started with Beethoven. I would like to call him a genius, but these days that word is bandied about so much that it has been thoroughly devalued. For centuries musicians, as both performers and composers, were regarded as little more than hired help. If they were employed in court — which was almost always the case — they were often required to wear a uniform of some kind (as was, for example, J.S.Bach), eat with the servants and were treated as nothing more than staff. Beethoven,
who apart from being a genius was also a very difficult man with, I should imagine, a pronounced and well-defined ego, would have none of it. When, metaphorically, he was required to eat with the servants, he refused point-blank and insisted that a man of his talents should be treated with far more respect, as something greater than others. Well, in his case that was fair enough, but with his insistence that he, as ‘an artist’, was not as other mortals, the rot set in and, if you follow my drift, here in the Western world it has still not set out again.
As the ‘classical era’ developed — some might say degenerated — into the ‘romantic’ era, the rise of ‘the artist’ as a kind of higher being gathered pace.
Beethoven’s music could not be described as ‘romantic’, but one can hear in it the transition from the classicism of Mozart and Haydn to the music of the subsequent ‘romantic’ composers. The true romantics, the Schumans and the Wagners and the Mendelssohns, produced some great music but for me a little goes a long way. (For the record, I now dislike Chopin quite a bit, and find that listening to romantic classical music is like gorging yourself on cheap chocolate.) Feeling, sensation and sentiment seemed to lie at the centre of their music, but what marked out the ‘romantic’ guys, and to a certain extent gals, was that they were regarded and regarded themselves as ‘artists’ and as ‘artists’ as something rather special. And that attitude is still with unfortunately largely with us. These days we have reached the point where once the arts establishment has sanctified someone as ‘an artist’, everything they produce is, by definition, ‘art’ and must this be revered and held sacred, irrespective of whether or not it is any good. (I am, by the way, supremely conscious of the irony that this is being written by chap who not in a million years would be regarded as ‘an artist’ and who all too often feels distinctly uncomfortable in the company of the art establishment on those very few occasions when I am.) So we are in the ridiculous situation where Gilbert and George can use faeces (or so they claim) in the manufacture of their ‘art’ and we are obliged to take it and them seriously. It’s art, after all.
There has been a development which is related to this: over these past 40 years and in something of an extreme reaction to a world in which too many people were nothing but drones and serfs and were treated accordingly badly, today’s orthodoxy is that everyone is ‘special’ and deserves to be treated as such. Well yes and no. To our families and friends we are possibly more ‘special’ than we are to the anonymous crowd I share a railway carriage with on those occasions when I travel by rail. And surely it depends on context: and if that context is ‘art’, ‘talent’ and ‘ability’, the answer to the question as to whether everyone and his or her work should be treated as ‘special’, the answer can only be ‘no’.
It is a fiction, although a very popular fiction in some quarters, that if you dig a little, you will find that ‘everyone’ is talented in some way. In fact, we now go further and insist that everyone has a right — some would even insist it is a duty — to ‘express themselves’. A consequence of that liberal fiction is today’s orthodoxy that everyone has a right to be taken seriously by everyone else when they express themselves. Now everyone can, of course, attempt to express themselves if they so wish and do so in whatever form they choose, and they should never be discouraged from doing so. For one thing they might get a great deal of personal enjoyment and satisfaction from indulging themselves in one or other of the arts. But whether in expressing themselves the ‘art’ they produce entertains or engages or is otherwise of interest to others is by no means guaranteed. And more to the point, I am in no way obliged to accept as good everything so produced merely because it is the fruit of someone ‘expressing themselves’, although to say so is these days tantamount to heresy. I am to be shot at dawn tomorrow.

Friday, April 2, 2010

I admit it: I am, apparently, a glass of absinthe away from a life and death of meths drinking. Or why it is advisable not to believe the bullshit

I am, apparently, just a pair of piss-stained trousers away from lying in the gutter and drinking meths. That, at least, is my wife’s opinion. I was about to write that it was her ‘considered’ opinion, but the truth is my wife doesn’t really consider anything she is about to say, or she doesn’t appear to. Whoever first observed that ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’ will have had my wife in mind, or, at least, her spiritual foremothers. She shared her opinion with me the other night as I was pouring myself a glass
of a rather unusual drink. Now, there are many less usual drinks, but this particular unusual drink - absinthe - comes with rather a lot of baggage. In the popular mind - although ‘mind’ is, perhaps, too strong a word in context - absinthe is the very essence of a debauched, immoral, wasted life just this side of criminality and acts of sodomy on the hour every hour.
I happened to be preparing for myself a glass of absinthe - there is a certain rigmarole involved in preparing a glass of the drink which draws attention to itself - after I had, over several days, taken an interest in the drink and had been googling it to find out a little more about it. I have always liked Pernod, raki, ouzo, fennel (both the seeds and the vegetable), liquorice and aniseed balls, and I began to wonder whether, given that Pernod was first produced as a substitute for absinthe, what all the fuss was about.
The drink was declared illegal in some European countries at the beginning of the last century after claims that it was driving people mad, and there is an intersting, not to say quite convincing, conspiracy theory as to why. That was when the bad PR started. Absinthe, we were all assured, was for wrong ’uns: absinthe drinkers included - and it is here difficult not to add the word ‘notorious’ - Oscar Wilde, Vincent van Gogh, Verlaine and Rimbaud (who oddly enough, no poetry in the latter part of his life and instead choose to serve in the Dutch army), Ernest Hemingway, Voltaire - the epitome of a wrong ’un - and Alfred Jarry. Modern connoisseurs are said to include Johnny Depp, Leonardo Di Caprio and, to keep alive the link with debauchery, Marilyn Manson.
It wasn’t, in fact, made illegal in every European country, and was, for example, never outlawed in Canada, atlthough in the U.S., that highly schizophrenic country in which everything is both tolerated and condemned, it was outlawed. Since the beginning of the Nineties, however, it has again been legal to
produce it, and after a somewhat shaky start when - so the internet informs me - what was being produced as of pretty low quality and was being manufactured by distillers keen to cash in on the drink’s notoriety, it is now universally available, in both the French/Swiss kind and the Czech kind. (It was always available in Czechoslovakia and was never banned, but as the Communist authorities had a kind of petit bourgeois morality, it was rather frowned upon, and production and consumption were discrete.)
From my ‘research’ - great word that and one used by bullshitters the world over, so why should I stint myself? - I gather that the essential ingredient which took all the blame for absinthe driving one mad is now not present in great quantities. One of the herbs used in the production of absinthe was wormwood, and the active ingredient was the chemical ‘thujone’. Because thujone was deemed to be the dangerous ingredient which lead to the banning of absinthe - see my account of an alleged conspiracy below - some websites claim that the amount of thujone present in modern absinthe is very low compared to what the old stuff had. I am in no position to judge. Over these past 20 years, absinthe production had now come of age, and many, many brands of absinthe are now available, both of the French/Swiss variety and the Czech kind. It is available from 55 per cent proof, which I gather is at the low end, to up to 78 per cent proof. If you google absinthe, you’ll come across all manner of reviews and appreciations of this, that and t’other brand.
I decided I would buy myself a bottle, but then came across a website which sold taster kits: a small bottle of its absinthe (50ml, enough for two glasses), an absinthe spoon and, quaintly, two lumps of sugar. As this cost a cool £11, both the unsure punter and the canny producer benefits from the offer. I am no expert on absinthe, but I gather that some, if not all, brands can be quite bitter, and the idea is to sweeten the drink a little with the sugar. I gather that the way to prepare a glass is slowly to pour ice-cold water over the sugar lumps - sitting on the absinthe spoon which, itself sits over the glass - in order for the subtle aromas of the various herb oils to evolve. The Czechs, who have a different kind of absinthe do it differently. They dunk the sugar lump in the absinthe and then set the lump alight. Once this has caramelized, it is stirred into the absinthe.
So I prepared my first glass and that was when my wife observed that I would be drinkng meths next. But after 14 years of marriage, that kind of thing is water off a duck’s back and could and did in no way discourage me.
So what was it like? Well, I like Pernod, pastis, raki and ouzo and to drink it tasted similar. I liked it. But where was that absinthe magic, the green fairy? I can’t claim the she and I became intimately acquainted on that first occasion, but I can report that after a second glass - I had no more than two because that was all I was supplied with - and later on in bed I did feel rather different. It was, in a certain kind of way, as though I were sitting next to myself, but I must stress that the reader should not allow him or herself to be carried away with the description. Yes, I felt different and different in a way I had not experienced before with any other drink, but I suspect that had I had a third, or even fourth, glass, my account would be a little more defined. But I didn’t.
I enjoyed it, but shall I get a full bottle (and I would go for quality, because not doing so is, in such cases, a waste of money)? Yes, I shall, and I shall drink several glasses in the company of my cousin Gerald (who demanded I remove an account in this blog of our most recent drinking session, but who is far better value than most and, I would suspect, the ideal absinthe-drinking companion).
As for that conspiracy theory: well, the temperance movement was against absinthe as it was against every other kind of booze. Absinthe was first produced in the early 19th century and was something of a minority drink for many years, enjoyed by those who liked a little variation. Then France’s wine industry was devastated in the mid-19th century by an aphid and the drastically curtailed production of French wine pushed up prices enormously. So everyone who had enjoyed a glass or ten of French wine found the could no longer afford it and, it is claimed, turned to drinking absinthe. When, at the end of the 19th century, the French wine industry had recovered, it found it extremely difficult to regain it previous volume of sales. This is where the conspiracy theory kicks in: it is claimed that the French wine industry joined forces with the temperance crowd to attack the absinthe distillers - my enemy is your enemy. The flaw in this theory is, of course, as my more astute readers will have already realised, the question of why the temperance crow should have decided to join in with the wine industry. That’s a fair point, but I really don’t know. But whatever the answer to that question is, both are said to have jointly targeted the absinthe distillers and as part of their campaign quote ‘scientific’ proof that absinthe can drive you mad. It seems a lab full of mice were injected with thujone and went ape shit. The conspiracy theorists point out that the amount of thujone given to the mice - who are a fraction of the weight of a human - has 50 times the amount ingested by a drinker in one glass. But as, for me, the
whole exercise was a PR campaign, I don’t care either way. At the time, it seems, an unemployed man turned one his family and killed them all, a wife and many children. He had been drinking absinthe before he committed his crime. This horrific case was cited by the anti-absinthe group, but what was suppressed by the anti-absinthe lobby - it is said - was that he had also been drinking wine, brandy, beer and other spirits.
These were just two examples of evidence paraded to try to prove how pernicious and dangerous absinthe was. What other evidence was produced I don’t know, but in time absinthe production was declared illegal, and it wasn’t until the early Nineties that is was legal again to make the stuff.

And finally: please note that I have nowhere used the old cliched pun that ‘absinthe makes the heart grow fonder’. I don’t at all mind cliches unless they are so hackneyed and demand so much rewriting in order to be placed that the whole piece is wrecked. And if you have reached the end of this blog entry and are reading this, you will know that at no point might I have introduced that particular cliche without being horribly hamfisted.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

What’s sauce for the goose, or how revenge is still the sweetest dish

I am about to recount a tale of an act of revenge which, unfortunately, has not yet been concluded and cannot so far be regarded as successful. But give it time, please give it time. It doesn’t involve violence or anything nasty, but I does involve me getting rather very irritated with another party’s high-handed behaviour and deciding to get my own back.
For many years, it must have been at least seven, I drove to work in London and parked my car for the time I was there directly beneath the Daily Mail in space reserved for I know not whom but certainly not for the poor bloody infantry. Perhaps those who arrived for work after seven were able to park there, but for everyone else doing so was not legal. Staff who were entitled to a car parking space were given permits to use a car park three-quarters of a mile away, and those on higher pay grades were given credit card to allow them to use the NCP car park opposite the Mail on the Young St. side. And at £25 a day, parking there is not cheap, so anyone the paper to whom the paper does grant that privilege must be reasonably valued. That car park, though, is on the other side of the street. I, on the other hand, was parked directly below the building, just a short five-storey lift ride away from my desk. How I got away with it for so long — and what I was doing was common knowledge on the features subs’ table — I really don’t know, but I did. I was able to get in because on Sundays when no civilians worked at the paper (admin, classified ad staff, researchers, that kind of thing), we were allowed to use the car park. I managed to park there for four days by driving in legitimately on Sunday mornings, but then not driving out agian until Wednesday evenings at 6pm when my shift ended.
But as it most certainly would in time, the arrangement came to an end eight months ago. I was rumbled by one of the security guards to whom one legitimate car park user had complained after he couldn’t find an empty space. The guard realised that at least one used was parking illegally and set about comparing the registration numbers of cars with the list of number belonging to legitimate users. It must have taken him some time, and he must be some boring fart even to bother, but bother he did and my game was up.
That lead to a problem: I had to find somewhere else to park which didn’t cost me an arm and a leg. Even better, I had to find somewhere reasonably close where I could park for free. Finding somewhere like that would be harder than finding a needle in a haystack, but eventually I did. One night, after my single Sunday shift, I took off driving ever further into West London, keeping my eyes open for a street not governed by residents’ parking permits. I finally was out as far as Acton Town when I found myself driving down a street where there were no parking restrictions of any kind. I started parking there, about five minutes walk from Acton Town underground station. (For anoraks who are into this kind of thing, it is quicker getting there by the Piccadilly Line than the Circle Line because although follow the same route, the Piccadilly Line stops at fewer stations. It was quite a coup finding somewhere where I could park for nothing, but the trouble was that getting there to pick up my car when I was about to drive home took about more than 45 minutes from leaving the office and getting into my car and was a pain in the arse. Then my brother Mark mentioned that, incredibly just around the corner from his flat in Earls Court was a small piece of land, rather hidden from the street, on which four cars could park comfortably. One space used to be used by one of those companies which hire out cars by the hour and which are becoming ever more popular and the rest seemed to be used by a firm of estate agents. So that is where I started parking my car on those occasions when I drove to London. Everything went well until last week. It would seem that the firm of estate agents had got a but narked that one of the spots was occupied, probably by my car, although I don’t know whether some other drivers had come across it. So they installed rather thick metal chains fastened by padlocks to seal off the small area. Thankfully on the day they did so, they ‘kindly’ did not seal off the area where my car was parked, allowing me to remove it. But last Sunday (I came up by train this week and I am writing this on my laptop with a view to uploading and posting it when I get home later tonight) I went to the spot — it is just three minutes walk from Mark’s flat — to see what had been done and saw that the estate agents have now completely sealed of the area. Had I turned up with my car — and I am due to drive up in two weeks’ time — I would not have been able to park and would have had to fuck off to Acton Town again.
That is what irritated me, or, to put it another way, what pissed me off. There is a very old sign lying around indicating that the small piece of land, which sits behind a 30ft long advertising hoarding, is the property of More O’Ferrall. But I would be very surprised indeed if the estate agents had come to some agreement to rent the land from More O’Ferrall to park its cars. It is far more likely that they are, like me, opportunistic squatters. So it is a bloody cheek to seal of the ground to make sure only they can use it.
What to do? I did consider going along (the estate agents have their office just around the corner opposite The Troubadour where Mark works) and simply appealing to their better nature and informing them that I now only drive up infrequently and could I also use the ground. Well, that’s a non-starter. First of all, who has ever heard of an estate agent with a better nature? Also
(note the image of a car above whose driver decided to do things by the book and rely on 'better nature') there is only room for four cars and I’m sure what with their staff commuting to work and coming and going to show clients around local flats, they would not be too inclined to give me a sympathetic hearing. Finally, if the ground is left open for me, it is highly likely that other drivers will also take advantage of it. That is when I gave up all hope of ever being able to park there again and decided that all I could do would be to take my revenge. If they could seal off the area with chains and padlocks to make it inaccessible to other drivers, well I could do the same. I might even argue that I have the same moral right. So I decided to buy padlocks and double seal off the area, making sure they couldn’t park there, either. I bought them yesterday and on my way to Marks added my two padlocks to theirs. That would do it, I thought. Well, it hasn’t yet quite. It seems that in the dark I had not applied the padlocks to anywhere where it might make it impossible to for them to remove the chains to let their own cars in. Oh, well. But I don’t think they noticed my padlocks, so next week I shall go back and make sure I get it right.
Am I being petty? Probably, but who cares. Bastards.