Thursday, 31 December 2015

Old Acquaintance





Here you are, at the season finale of another series of 'Your Life". In an ideal world you will stand, surrounded by the key cast members, who listen in reverent, beautifully lit silence as you give a speech about everything you've learned in the series just gone. You will mourn your losses and celebrate your victories. Reflect on some of those really good episodes that defined your character's personal growth this year. Maybe you'll seed some of the major plot arcs of the next series. Then you'll all file out to watch the fireworks, but the camera will linger in the deserted room. And then fade to black. And credits.

In your mind, the new year is not just 'tomorrow'. It's a whole new series. A new title sequence, revamped sets, a brand new Big Bad and a fresh narrative direction. And it's in that new opening credit sequence that we see the biggest change of all. Unfamiliar names, as new cast members join the ranks of the show. And names that are missing from last year. Actors who have moved onto other projects, their characters written out or - like Mandy in the West Wing series 2 - just gone without comment.

 
I wonder how many names have been effectively written out of the credits of my show this year? Or, to be less self centred, I wonder how many other people's credits no longer feature my name? This time of year does make me realise that there are some people I simply don't connect with any more. I'll compile invite lists for Christmas parties and become aware that there are people on those lists who have drifted away.

Some of them are names I just skip over - faces on Facebook that no longer exist in my real life. Why are they still there? Should I delete them? No, we're still friends. Aren't we? Are we? I do click to like their posts once in a while...   But if we are friends, why has the entirety of 2015 passed without me seeing their actual human aspect even once?

Some of them are people who I wish I still saw, but for whatever reason never get back to me. Maybe I did something terrible to offend them. That's not unlikely, actually. I'm often saying dumb stuff online. And because we don't see each other, they forget that most of what I say is subject to nuance, or irony, or part of a complicated set of evolving thought processes that can't really be summed up in a tweet or Facebook comment. And I forget that they are human beings, with thoughts and feelings, rather than abstract opinion on a screen, good for a critical kicking. So those friendships become part of a circular loop, whereby our lack of understanding of each other contributes to an exponential erosion of relationship.


I finally find someone I can agree with.



It's an oddness. And one that until a few years ago might have passed us by. We don't really have opening credits. Well, we might have, I suppose, but we don't get to see them because we're stuck inside the narrative. Buffy the Vampire Slayer never got to look at her opening titles and think "Oh good, Angel's in it this week - I'll spend a bit more time on my hair." And in the same way we can't step outside our own stories and say "Oh, I see they've dropped Sharon from the title sequence. I guess she's not that important any more. No Christmas present for her!"

No. What we have now that we didn't have until about ten years ago, is a list of 'Friends' on social media. Whereas once Sharon might have drifted out of my life without either of us noticing, now she has a virtual presence that exists as a constant reminder. Here's a human being that you used to know. She's still a 'friend', but you know that's not the truth. Because it turns out 'friends' is a complicated idea that doesn't really fit into that catch-all definition.

Some people have hundreds of online 'friends', don't they? Fair enough, obviously - they can do what they want. But that can't be 'friends' in the way that I define it. I get a bunch of friend requests each year from people I've never met. I'm sure you do too. People who seem to collect 'friends' like you might collect whisky bottles on a shelf or ticket stubs of gigs. Really odd.

Because friendship is about action, isn't it? About choosing how you relate to someone and what that means. It's not a state of being, that just exists in space without you doing anything. Yet that's how some people treat it. I had a conversation this year where someone told me that they couldn't spend any time with me because 'life moves on in different ways.' And I thought 'OK', because I knew there were circumstances behind this, but then I thought, "Actually, no, that's total horseshit. Life doesn't move you anywhere. You decide to do things. I've got friends - good friends - who have in the past been utterly furious with me for very stupid things I did. And they've forgiven me. And there's people who have made my life very difficult here and there, but whom I have learned to value and respect anyway, because that's where friendship comes from.


Picture of me and Ric Neale for no reason whatsoever.


I'm very glad that my friends are not a series of narratively useful characters, thrown at me by the scriptwriters of my life. These are not characters who find their way into the show because that's where life has led me. They are people who have chosen to spend time with me, despite my constant demands for wine and attention and my propensity to try stroking everyone to see what they feel like.

And I've chosen them. There's no point me pretending that I 'lost touch' with certain people, as if it just happened without my consent. If I don't keep in touch with you any more, that's because on some level - possibly subconsciously -  I've decided to prioritise other things. That doesn't make me feel very good about myself, but it's a more honest evaluation of 'friendship' that generally seems to exist.

I think I did lose a few friends this year. Some are still 'friends' by the definitions of social media, but one or the other of us has decided not to make the effort. Some have probably deleted me and I haven't noticed, which means that the relationship didn't really exist any more anyway. One person deleted me and wrote me an essay on why. Credit to that person at least for making it an active choice and not just blaming the universe.

On the other hand, the friendships I do have are frankly amazing. I am constantly delighted that middle age has not consigned me to a dull circle of tired old forty-somethings, shaking their heads and saying, "No, I can't come out to play wizards, I have to stare at this wall all night and then die." I know a lot of funny, clever, creative people, from teenagers to pensioners, who definitely all deserve their place in the credits.

And then there's this.

This Summer I met up with two of my oldest friends. We hadn't been together as a threesome since we were teenagers. The intervening years have seen us drift apart to the point where we haven't really talked for at least 15 years. Marriage. Divorce. Careers, children, lost hair and expanding stomachs. Three people met up who were fundamentally different in almost every way to when they had last shared space.

We met up in the pub we used to go to in Bradford - the Malt Kiln. I got there first and sat alone, feeling some trepidation. What if it was like that programme Justin Lee Collins did when he tried to re-unite the actors from the A-Team in a pub? Mr T never showed and George Peppard was too dead to attend, leaving Dirk Benedict and Dwight Shultz to make uncomfortable small talk for half an hour. What if it was like that?

1988


A song came on. Forever Autumn, from Jeff Wayne's musical version of War of the Worlds. Unbelievably, this song had played 26 years ago, the last time I had been in the pub. If there are scriptwriters in my life, they are not ashamed of a bit of contrived coincidence.

Paul and Ian arrived. We ordered three pints of Purple Nasty - the drink that characterised our teenage foolishness. We talked for hours. I was loud and bossy. Paul was gently funny and self deprecating. Ian was in trouble with a woman. It was like no time had passed at all, and it was one of the best days of my year.

2015





Friendships are choices. No-one else is writing the credits of my show. I don't necessarily deserve the brilliant people that come into my life. But I am responsible for making those relationships work.

Thanks for putting up with me, everyone. Now bring me wine.

Happy New Year.





Monday, 28 December 2015

Not Quite My Tempo

As I write, Peter Jackson's interminable version of The Hobbit is crawling towards its conclusion on the television. You don't need me to tell you that it's an over- long, tedious waste of everyone's time that's nowhere near as fun as the ZX Spectrum game from 1980 or thereabouts. Ah, those happy days, pretending to be friends with Robert Wilson just so I could have a go on his computer and experience Tolkien's world through the medium of text and low-res graphics. Odd that 30 years of technological advancement and millions of dollars should result in something so much less involving.

But the good news is, films aren't always exercises in total tedium. No. This year in particular has been very good and I've enjoyed many things. In the spirit of end-of-the-year retrospection, here are some of my favourites.

It is my intention to be more or less spoiler free. However, I will be giving a flavour of what kind of things happen, and why they matter, so use your own discretion. 

Oh, and Star Wars isn't here. I only just saw it, so it will take some processing. I'm sure I'll let you know what I think later on.


Birdman

A crazy, jazzy trip through art, theatre and madness. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson - a superhero film actor who has seen better days and is now trying to claw back some credibility by staging a Raymond Carver play. We follow the action in one apparently unbroken take, lurching woozily through rehearsals, arguments and performances with scant regard for the rules of time or space. The fluidity of the camera leaves us trying to hold onto the narrative, just as Riggan tries to keep control of his play and his sanity. His actors are egomaniacs, his critics snobs and all the time, lurking behind him, is the (possibly illusory, possibly demonic) presence of Birdman himself...

A brilliant, audacious piece of film making, bristling with style.





Whiplash

This is the film about all the drumming. You might think it doesn't sound very exciting, but that's because the last thing you saw was Star Wars and you're still giddy. This is the most thrilling film of the year, leaving me utterly blown away as the closing credits rolled.

The plot is simple. A young music student - Andrew Nieman  - wants to be a truly great drummer. He comes up against music tutor and band leader Terence Fletcher, played by JK Simmons in a performance best described as 'awesome'. Nieman is driven beyond reason. Fletcher is a monster. The battle of between them is explosive. Chairs are thrown, fingers bleed, drums are well and truly drummed.

It is amazing. You must see it. I will be testing you.




Mad Max: Fury Road

"Waaa!" Cried whiny, insecure boys at the release of this film. "This movie has strong, empowered women it! In a film called Mad Max! Why are feminists taking away our toys?"

This film does, indeed, feature strong women doing ridiculously confident things like driving cars and ignoring the natural rule of their overlords, men. But, as a whiny insecure boy myself, I found myself surprisingly OK with this. This is a blisteringly powerful piece of film making and its gender politics, though progressive, are not really something to get upset about nor really the focus of the experience.

Men and women alike charge excitedly through a world made of mud, drums and spikes, their characters defined by their actions, which is as it should be. At one point an evil mutant guitarist shoots flames from his guitar while bouncing about on bungee ropes attached to a speeding desert truck! Vehicles and mountains explode! Warriors drop out of the sky on chains! How can anyone care about the sex of the protagonists when it's this exciting?

Answer: men are jerks. 

Sorry.





Inside Out

Hurrah! Pixar are good again. 

This is the film where little colourful people inside your head govern your psychological and emotional responses to the world. It's an ingenious idea, executed with the creativity and verve that characterises Pixar at their best. The visual design is stunning, the script thoughtful and the overall experience uplifting. You know, like Up, but not like Cars 2.

I was moved to tears, but not at a sad bit, like in Up or the end of Toy Story 3. (OK now, pull it together. Don't think of that scene. Come on... We can do this. Stay on target.) There's a beautiful moment where a character relives the bliss of a happy memory... closing her eyes in rapture as innocence and harmony overwhelm her... it's gorgeous, and it's what cinema is for.



Those are the best films. There were lots of other good ones that deserve your attention too, though. Very quickly, because your time is precious, here are some very good also-rans...


Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Loads better than the very similar Spectre. Fast, enjoyable and full of great set pieces that crackle with invention and wit. A brilliant cast, given lots to do, and not just Tom Cruise running. Although, obviously, quite a lot of Tom Cruise running.



Trainwreck

What? Another bloody film where women are confident, independent human beings capable of thought and character? What is this emasculating, feminist bullshit?

Oh. I see. It's a thoughtful and touching rom-com that portrays both men and women as flawed yet interesting people, negotiating romance and its pitfalls in a way which is insightful yet enjoyable. Along the way it subverts audience expectations in a delightful and surprising manner, commenting on the very nature of romantic narratives through a series of hilarious set pieces.

Well alright then.


Ant Man

Lighter and funnier that the more cumbersome Age of Ultron, this film skips deftly around the conventions of the superhero movie with elegance and panache. A great cast and some laugh out loud moments. Delightful.


The Martian

Matt Damon gets stuck on Mars, leading to enjoyable adventures in space-peril and botany. Damon is funny, believable and engaging and should get an Oscar nom. The script is thrilling and trips along at a good pace. Ridley Scott makes film making on this level look effortless. Brilliant stuff.


It Follows

Spooky as hell horror flick, borrowing stylistically from best scary movie ever Halloween. Evil demon entity can disguise itself as anyone. It walks slowly towards you, forever, until it catches you and then it kills you to death. Best watched while drumming fingers nervously on your own skull and occasionally shouting "Arg! Arg! Behind you! Arg!"


John Wick

The most exciting action film of the year. And indeed most years.

Keanu Reeves is a retired bad ass.
Bad gangsters kill his dog.
Keanu exacts vengeance, doing a lot of tremendously exciting violence along the way.
You jump up and down, shouting in excitement.


So, there you go. I've probably forgotten loads of stuff. But that will certainly do for now. Please go watch all these films. And prepare me a written report on why I'm right.


Thursday, 24 December 2015

Waiting in between


Today is Christmas Eve. Well, it probably isn't for you. You live in the future, stalked by cybernetic robots and/or downloading your personalities from the sky. You look back at Christmas Eve as 'the time before the cockroaches rose up against us' and weep for lost innocence. But for me, this is Christmas Eve and I sit before a sparkling tree, Bailey's in one hand, iPad on my knee, thinking back over the year gone by. 




December 24th is my favourite day of the year. It always has been. It's not always a great day, a day where wonderful things happen, but it is a day of promise and of anticipation. Crackling with maybes and possiibility, like the whispers in the air that mean it's going to snow. Not that it generally does, these days. Snow, that is. Tonight the sky is full of rain, or, as I like to call it, 'lazy snow'.

It snowed in 1984. Or thereabouts. I sat in the front room of my parents' house, alone in the near dark, watching snow billow down through the night sky, loving it. I was very cool then, as you can imagine, so I was spending my day reading the Companion Rulebook for the popular role playing game Dungeons and Dragons. It's among the happiest I've ever been, buried in charts and tables and descriptions of mythical beasts. Which is a good thing, as I wouldn't have anything resembling a girlfriend for quite some time. 

I don't do role playing much any more, but I still think very fondly of that night and, indeed, of the whole 'role playing' thing. In many ways it's still part of my life. This year I've played a number of video games that have been up there with the best artistic experiences I've ever had, and they are rooted in the same place as that Companion Rulebook. Systems and structures that try to create meaning and significance from things that are, essentially, nonsense. Games of pretend that are at once meaningless and profound; wastes of time and works of art. Whatever fascinated me on that Christmas decades ago still ticks inside.

Here are a few of the games I've played this year. I recommend them.

This War of Mine

If you've played The Sims you'll know the pleasures of controlling the lives of a bunch of little pretend people as they go about decorating their homes and pursuing careers. It's like a Rorschach test for the  soul. Do you play the game as intended, living vicariously through their consumerist urges and buying them the best sofa on the planet? Or do you simply trap them in a swimming pool and watch in glee as they wee themselves to death? Or maybe you could make everyone have affairs, so they all end up desperately sad and weeping, until you burn their house down and kill their pets to give them some perspective on what misery really feels like.

This War of Mine is a bit like that, only this time you don't need to do anything terrible to the people under your care - it's already happened. The bunch of characters under your control live in bombed out ruins, eking out a pathetic existence somewhere in the midst of war torn Eastern Europe. Your job is to help them scavenge for food, fortify their crumbling home against violent scavengers and try to keep their spirits up against the grey relentless misery of life in a time of senseless war.



It's a good game, well balanced with strong mechanics and a distinctive aesthetic that draws you into the world. But it would be hard to describe as 'fun'. Your character will starve. Freeze. Weep. If you're not careful they'll attempt suicide. Worst of all are the things you might find yourself doing to survive. Robbing a house for food is fun, until the old couple that live there start following you sadly about, crying as you take their only belongings. Shit, video games, what are you up to? I came here to be a bastard, and now you're making me feel terrible about it.


Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

A beautiful and clever game. Bright and colourful, this is lots of fun and has a great central mechanic. You control the titular brothers as they venture through a fairytale land in search of a cure for their dying father. So far, so so. The clever bit is that you control them both at once, through the two sticks of the controller. Not an easy proposition, especially for someone like me who can quite easily confused when stirring milk into tea, but one which brings a real sense of connection to the two characters. 

I've become more and more interested in how gameplay techniques can reinforce theme, and here it works very well indeed. You often have to work both characters at once, your two hands working simultaneously on different aspects of a challenge. It binds the brothers together in a very real way - they are separate, yet inextricably connected. It's a clever idea with surprising emotional resonance.




Life is Strange

Probably my game of the year, unless Fallout 4 simply beats me into submission with its relentless, addictive, enthralling beauty.

Life is Strange is the story of a teenage girl - Max - who finds her college life interrupted by a David Lynch-ian series of events which are at once terrifying and compellingly beautiful. You control Max through a simple point-and-click interface, no running and shooting here, and get to choose her conversational and emotional responses to the bizarre events which confront her. 

This is a cine-literate and mature experience. It's about sex, self confidence and murder. It's about art, friendship and what it means to grow up. It's about abuse, both physical and emotional. Sometimes it is uplifting and beautiful beyond measure, but on other occasions it can be quite breathtakingly distressing. 



The central game mechanic allows Max to rewind time - to replay incidents and conversations and choose different approaches each time. At first this just seems to be an admission of what all games do - they give us the chance to try again. But this is more than that. This is about choice and consequence. Making a choice when you don't know the outcome is one thing. If it goes wrong, you can always tell yourself that you didn't know what would happen. But when Max rewinds time and gets to look at all the ways things can play out, she has to take responsibility for the results of those choices. When bad things happen - and they do happen - she has to swallow the guilt.

This is a game which deals in ambivalence and refuses to give easy answers. I felt a whole bunch of emotions while playing, not least guilt at the things I let happen to the people around me. But there's also real pleasure at the intimacy of the relationships that develop and the deep satisfaction of burrowing into a world constructed with such love and passion.



I played other games this year, but these are three which really stand out as artistic experiences which moved and delighted me. They are all fun, even though they have the ability to poke at more serious issues, and they are all worth your time.

Christmas Eve. Sitting by a tree, in the dark. Thinking about the gap between things. Between now and that Christmas in 1984, with all the snow, Between now and the noise of tomorrow, with all the wrapping paper and then noise. Between the pressing of a button on a game controller and the emotions that can result. 





Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Closing of the Year

The future year 2015 is stumbling to its end, trying to find its coat and woozily telling everyone it loves them and they should open a pub together. As we wait patiently for it to leave, so we can finally get some sleep, it's time to look back and see what the whole thing was about.

And when I say 'what it was about' I mean, 'What did Rob like best?' There's no point pretending otherwise - I only care about myself and things which give me pleasure. So this probably won't be about explaining the rise of ISIS, unless someone makes an awesome movie about it in the next 8 days.

Let's start somewhere obvious. Television. That's the best thing in the world, isn't it? So that's an ultimate good. Here's some of the TV I've really liked.

I could have just said that to start with, I suppose.



Agent Carter, Daredevil and Jessica Jones

It feels kind of redundant and obvious to say it, but here I go anyway: the Marvel Cinematic Universe is really bloody good. A brilliantly planned, creatively diverse array of stories that has fundamentally changed mainstream cinema and, perhaps more importantly, made excellent, sexy use of Scarlett Johanssen. It hasn't always hit the mark; Incredible Hulk feels a bit of an imposter, Thor: The Dark World is needlessly complicated and Iron Man 2 is made of testicles. But for the most part it's been a series of awesome, exciting and varied wonders.

One of the most enjoyable films of the year has been Ant Man - a playful, zippy movie that made ingenious use of its premise and, in Paul Rudd, gave us yet another example of Marvel's great eye for casting. But far more exciting, for my money, was the arrival of the MCU on the small screen.

Agent Carter is a beautiful period piece, lit up by the luminous Hayley Attwell. She's great - confident, funny and believable - and brings a lightness of touch to a show that could easily become over impressed by its own period detail and (excellent) feminist credentials. The story telling is solid and it looks fantastic.



Daredevil is also powered by a strong performance, but this time it's not really the eponymous hero that thrills. Loki aside, the MCU has struggled to give us a truly great villain. Not any more. Vincent D'Onofrio bristles and thunders at the centre of this show, inhabiting the villainous Wilson Fiske with an astonishing combination of fury, cunning and childlike desperation. There's also some awesome fight choreography, especially in episode 2's already famous corridor battle.

And then there's Jessica Jones. Bloody hell. Just when I was ending the year thinking Agent Carter was going to be the best female action hero and Daredevil had given us the best villain. Along comes this super-confident, amazingly written piece of work. Great performances all round and a strong script give us the most mature and interesting iteration of the MCU yet. The subject matter is dark,
serious stuff yet the show is smart enough to stay witty and human throughout. David Tennant plays Kilgrave as, well, basically an evil version of his Tenth Doctor, and he's quite magnificently creepy - not least because he retains a certain likeability even as he does the most despicable things.



All three series show that the success of the movies is no fluke. This is more than just a canny marketing exercise. Marvel is stepping beyond an (impressive) array of superhero movies and starting to develop genuinely diverse narratives. Free of the need to accommodate the high-stakes plot arcs of the movies, these stories are dealing with more profound and personal issues.

The Infinity Stones may have some huge, universe shattering importance but I find it much harder to care about them than I do about Peggy Carter's struggle to be accepted in a world designed for men, or the emotional consequences of Jessica's abusive relationship with Kilgrave. I'm way more interested in the battle raging within Wilson Fiske than I am in a hundred robots destroying yet another city. This is great television made with heart, passion and real intelligence, and if we're in luck, it's the future.




Friday, 21 August 2015

Sometimes I even forget the song


So, this is about a) religion and b) left wing politics. And, as usual, things that irritate me about both.


Many years ago I used to write worship songs. That is, songs which people in church could sing, all together, on the understanding that God - in Heaven - would hear them and find them pleasing. It's an odd concept, singing to God, but we did it anyway and who knows, maybe God liked it. Or maybe God just stared at us, like you would at a dog that keeps bringing you a horrible, saliva covered stick.

There are in existence thousands of worship songs, called things like "O Lord Be My Salvation" and "You Are the One I Worship". My writing of new songs was not in response to a perceived drought of material. I just found many of the existing songs unsatisfying - cloaked in arcane language or drowning in sentiment - and wanted to make my own contribution.

Among the songs I wrote was a bouncy, daft piece of whimsy called "I Really Like You". It was, as you may already have gathered, not a very serious song. It scampered along like a puppy, taking delight in the impossibility of articulating a meaningful response to the Creator of All Things.

Sample verse:

I think you're wonderful
Kind of indescribable
You sometimes seem peculiar
But that's alright with me

It seems you know everything
You're completely Omni-something
You can do what you want
But what you choose to do is often quite weird


It was almost impossible for a congregation to sing, but that was part of the delight. When I used to lead the song, I would comment on its impossibility and explain how that was kind of the point: singing a song to God is inherently nonsensical. If we take ourselves very seriously when we sing those songs - if we think we can do this well -  we inflate our own cosmic importance and reduce God to a commonplace thing, a galactic Simon Cowell, impressed by surfaces and acts of skill.

When it went well, it was a joy. The peculiar rhythms of the verse left us tripping over each other and collapsing into a mad sprawl of voices. We stopped trying to be a harmonious choir and became a bunch of flawed individuals, laughing and making mistakes together. The chorus was just about catchy enough to gather us up at the end of every verse, probably because it was more or less stolen from 'Everybody Needs Somebody to Love'. It was daft and fun, but heartfelt and - to my mind - more truthful than many other, more 'harmonious' songs.

Why am I telling you this? Well, obviously to point out how brilliant I am. I hope you got that. I am amazing. You should probably write that down. But also because my memory of this song is rooted in an event which annoyed me at the time and annoys me now. So I thought I'd annoy you with it.

Like all my annoyances, it is petty and almost completely unimportant.

During my reign as an amazing and paradigm-shifting church-song guy, I was asked to lead worship at some kind of Church away day. I can't remember what it was for, but everyone in the church had gone away to some lovely building in the countryside to be together and learn about Jesus and - of course - sing songs.

I played a few songs and encouraged the assembled mass to join in. Some of it was very reverent and quiet. Some of it attempted to be stirring and powerful. And then, to finish off and segue into the more talky bit of the day, I played 'Really Like You'.

It went pretty well, we all had a bit of a laugh, and I sat down. The leader of the talky bit got up. Let's call her Susan.

"Thanks Rob," she said. "Though I'm not sure that really works as a kids' song. I don't think 'Omni-something' would make much sense to children."

She wasn't being mean. It was a light hearted aside. But it irked me nonetheless. From my position in the congregation, I replied.

"It's not a kids' song," I said.

"Oh, of course it is," she smiled, and opened her Bible, ready to get on with the next bit now this was dealt with.

"No," I countered, "it's not written as a kids' song. That's why it has that language in it."

This was, by now, a bit more tense than was appropriate for the large gathering, who had enjoyed the song but were not really up for a debate on the semantics of its symbolism. So I let it go and we got on with the service.

Except, obviously, I didn't let it go, did I? I continued to be annoyed about it for years. It sat in my mind, a festering little speck of irritation which came up whenever I thought of the song. Because Susan's comments had that special quality of all really stupid arguments: it was hard to work out exactly what so irritating about it.

You'll be pleased to know I've worked it out now.






The frustration inherent in Susan's words came in two parts. One: redefining my song as 'a kids' song'. Two: then saying that it didn't work as 'a kids' song'.

First up, then. I say it's not a kids' song, so it isn't a kids' song. I didn't write it for 'kids' and it's my song so I'm right. So why did Susan decide I was wrong? Well that's easy - because it was fast and because it was fun. Like most Western Christians - and indeed most Western people in general - Susan had got locked into that tiny minded idea that a frivolity = youth. If it's fun or loud or colourful, it's for the young. If you want to talk to older people, then you better get serious and calm and quiet. It leads to the nonsensical idea that younger people can't cope with ideas of substance. It draws a false equivalence between serious tones of voice and intelligent, mature thought. 'Growing up' means 'slowing down'. 'Being young' means 'being an idiot'.

It's total horseshit and, worse, it's unchristian. It consigns people to categories. Patronises them. Assigns intellectual worth to slow speech and sensible shoes rather than ever really looking at what things mean. My song was daft, but it was getting at something complicated and true. And that something is this: If you're going to sing to God - God who invented the concepts of light, gravity, space and time - if you're going to sing to God, then 'I Really Like You' is no less ridiculous a thing to say than 'O Lord I Come to You In Awesome Wonder'. They're both just things, said in English to a being who probably doesn't speak English or possibly even exist in time as we understand it. They are both bloody ridiculous. I'm not saying that God might not appreciate it. I'm just saying that if She does listen, She's unlikely to give a toss about the particular class of language employed.

(Yes, 'She'. I don't know. He? She? Could be anything. Probably neither. But let's do a tiny bit to redress thousands of years of patriarchy, shall we?)

Anyway. There's that. And then there's the other, weirder part of this. Having incorrectly defined my song as a 'kids' song', Susan then goes on to say that it doesn't work as a kids' song. I mean... what? Huh?

I KNOW IT DOESN'T WORK AS A KIDS' SONG! THAT'S BECAUSE THAT'S NOT WHAT IT IS!

The only one calling it a kids' song - is you! You, Susan, with your idiotic lack of understanding of how we begin to define things. You may as well look at a car and say "Well, that would be terrible for cleaning your teeth!  It has no bristles, it's too heavy and I'm afraid it's far too big to go in my mouth! This thing is a failure!" And then, when someone points out that this is a car, you smile a patronising smile and shake your head."Oh dear, no, this is a toothbrush. I've decided."

It's possible, at this stage, that you are starting to fear for my mental health. You may also remember, way back at the start of this, I promised some kind of left-wing politics.

Well, here it is. The story above is all true, and it does irritate me. But it was brought to mind recently, when observing the Labour leadership fiasco. Plenty of people have pledged their support to Labour in recent months, hoping to take part in the process of selecting a new leader.

Plenty of those people have been told they cannot vote, because they 'do not support the values of the Labour party.' Many of these are people who have supported Labour for years. The reason given by Labour is that they fear the party is being infiltrated by people who will subvert the true cause of the party.

It does not sit well with me. It feels like the definition of 'true Labour values' might have come adrift. My story above now feels like a parable.

Susan's arbitrary definition of my song, used to dismiss its value.

My frustration that my voice got lost.

And a sense that real meaning is slipping away, redefined by people who have lost perspective. That's a kids' song. That's a toothbrush. These are True Labour Values.




The chorus of my song goes like this. It might not mean anything, of course.


That's not to say sometimes you don't freak me out
That's not to say I don't have my doubts
I'm only human after all

That's not to say sometimes I don't get it wrong
That's not to say I don't sometimes forget the words
Sometimes I even forget the song

Monday, 27 July 2015

Say hello to my little friends...


People have spoken many lies about me. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it comes with being such a cool, interesting, centre-of-attention kind of celebrity kind of guy. Perhaps it's because I used to spend a lot with a certain type of Christian - the type who are convinced the world is full of sin and so invent stories to back up their convictions. Or maybe everyone tells lies about everyone and that's just how things work.

Either way, it doesn't really matter. What are far more interesting are the true things people say about each other. Of all the true things said about me, the following remains my favourite.

I was 18 and, having spectacularly failed my A-Levels due to the discovery of snakebite and black, was working in a pub in Bradford. The pub in question  - The Ring O'Bells - is now, sadly, gone, replaced by a Tesco which must surely be haunted by the ghosts of beer and late 80s karaoke. It makes me sad that it is gone. It was the first place I ever performed a song in public and now it's just a little brick shop. Where will they put the blue plaque when I become incredibly famous? Near the fish fingers? That seems disrespectful.

Here's my band, outside the pub, before they destroyed it.
Note the awesome cut and paste job which seamlessly works
our band name into the pub name. I am in white.


Anyway. 18. Young, thin, spotty and terribly stupid. The bar was quiet so I was amusing myself by making a wine bottle opener do a little dance. I imagine you've done this - you pull the corkscrew bit down and make its 'arms' wave about as if it were praising Jesus or trying to stop an aeroplane landing in Die Hard 2: Die Harder.

I probably gave the little fellow a voice, too, because I am amusing. Maybe I made it sing a little song. Maybe, more disturbingly, I was having a conversation with it. "What are you doing with your life, Rob?" it would croak, like Danny's little finger in The Shining. "I'm not sure," I'd reply, tears pricking in my eyes. "What should I do, corky? Please don't say murder. Murder is your answer to everything."

Whatever it was, it drew the attention of a young woman called Sadie. She worked at the pub too and she was as scary as she was sexy, which is to say 'lots'. Faced with my hilarious corkscrew-based improvisations she gave me a look of hatred and/or affection and delivered this assessment of my character: "Everything's got legs to you, hasn't it?"

It's stayed with me, that phrase. Everything's got legs. However I've changed over the years, this has remained constant. Every object is, potentially, a new and excellent friend, a receptacle for a tiny part of my personality. Every pencil does a dance, every fridge welcomes my entrance to the room with a song. Computers, obviously, come in for a lot of attention, being not only inanimate objects but also whores, idiots and bastards who live to thwart me. I talk to them a lot.

Cars, in particular, seem alive.  I actually made myself cry, once, as I said goodbye to a car I had just sold to a dealer. As I drove away in my new car, I gave the old car a desolate, confused little voice. "Where are you going daddy? Will you be back soon? I hope so. I love you daddy!" It was an anthropomorphic step too far and I nearly drove into a fence with grief.


Look at that little face and tell me he's not alive.


This love of cars, though, seems to be a more socially acceptable form of my condition. People love their cars, give them names, refer to them with personal pronouns, that kind of thing. And so, when we drive, we see not metal and plastic, but personalities. Extensions of people. And, I'll be honest, what this reveals about us makes me despair.

It's not just the BMW drivers, though obviously I hate them. Man, the personality of the drivers shines out of those metallic bastards. And that personality is, invariably, 'inconsiderate twat who thinks he owns the road.' I assume the thought process is quite natural:

i)     I have a BMW because I earn lots of money
ii)    I earn this money by being in charge of people and telling them what to do.
iii)   By extension, this means I am very important in every aspect of life and can tell people what to do everywhere I go.
iv)   By further extension, my car is a cool sexy kind of guy called 'Captain Shark-Dick'
v)    Thus, indicating is for wankers and I can drive as fast as I like and get pissed at you for being in my way.

So yeah, I hate those guys. But there's other, more subtle stuff. Like this.

I hate traffic. All those tossers, getting in my way with their stupid cars. Selfishly driving places and thus making me late home. Don't they know I'm trying to watch all the episodes of Doctor Who, in order, from the start? Yes,  including the ones that got wiped and now I have to watch fuzzy photographs taken by nerds in the 1960s. That's going to take ages. Why are you all in my way?

And, of course, the entire issue about which I am becoming mindlessly enraged is a product of many people doing exactly the same thing I'm doing.  Our lovely car, Henry, is not an innocent victim of other, more brutish cars. He's a constituent part of the problem.

 He's part of me alright. He's the part of me that can't see my own complicity in how stupid the world is. The bit that doesn't draw a connection between my own bad mood and how unreasonable everyone else is suddenly being, including traffic lights, people on the radio and weather. The part of me that theoretically opposes capitalism while constantly filling my house with new things. I got a Facebook message the other day and four different electronic devices all tried to let me know about it, all jumping up and down like children, bleeping and clicking for all their worth. Four! There's no need for that. Yet here I am, tutting away at the behaviours of the very same companies that rely upon my consumption to keep them afloat.


What's that, wine? Drink all of you? Because it would
make you happy? OK, wine. Anything for you,
 
 
The other thing I've noticed about traffic is the stupid desire we have to be just that little bit further forward in a queue. I take great, spiteful satisfaction when some speed merchant lurches excitedly around me, as if in the pre-credits sequence of a James Bond movie, successfully pulling ahead, only to then sit still in the same queue, but a few feet forward. What a dick, I invariably think.

But that's all of us. Scrabbling ahead, desperate to be further forward. Desperate to win. And somewhere within us knowing that we only win in relation to others. We're further forward in the traffic, but we're still in the traffic. We still are the traffic. Our victory is only defined against those not doing so well, and they're not doing so well because of us.

That's why those BMW drivers irritate me. Because I know that, for some of them at least, their Fuck You attitude behind the wheel is the same as their attitude behind a desk. "I'm ahead of you. that's all that matters." A culture of entitlement and superiority, validated through cars and suits and how nice your house is. And that's who we all want to be. Behind that desk, calling the shots, being a selfish dick. I'm assuming that's why so many people voted conservative in the last election. Not because it makes our lives better - it manifestly doesn't - but because we think that maybe, if we could only get a little further forward in the traffic, then we would be happier and life would be better. So let's support the traffic.

Or something. It's not a perfect metaphor.


I don't know why, for me, everything has legs. Maybe I'm just a child, and I hate grown ups because they don't like to play. I guess I'm also scared that, as I finally have a bit of money, I'm creeping towards being that idiot who genuinely thinks he matters more than others because he has an awesome sofa. I do have an awesome sofa. I haven't given him a name yet, which is something I'll be thankful for should I ever have to throw him away. It. Not him. Damnation.

However. There's a bit of me that likes to remember that all the stuff that surrounds us is important. Whether we give them voices or not, our possessions talk about who we are, the choices we've made and how they affect the world we live in.

My things are always doing a dance and singing a song, but often I'm surprised at the true stuff they say.



Friday, 5 June 2015

Emotionally... erect.




Great news everyone! I’ve worked out why we’re all so unhappy!

OK, not all of us. Not you there, stuffing your face with a sausage and egg sandwich. Not you, sir, striding purposefully down the street like Amelia Earhart on her way to the toy shop. And not you, madam, driving your BMW like all the other cars are butter and you are a big, expensive knife. Screw those other cars! They’re not as cool as you! You rule!

You lot aren’t even a bit unhappy. You’re made of joy and satisfaction. And, in the case of the BMW driver, a deep seated contempt for all humanity.

No. I mean the rest of us. Those of us who don’t have a lovely sandwich, or time to go to the toy shop, or can’t afford a massive shiny car to career around in, making other road users feel miserable like a giant ignorant penis. Our lives are stupid and made of nonsense.

I’m not talking about real misery, of course. Our lives may be stupid, but they’re far too pleasant for that. The fact that you’re looking at my nonsense words suggests that your days are relatively free of true distress. You have time to read, so you’re not working every hour god sends or walking five miles just to get water. You can afford electricity, so you’re not eating fluff to survive. Best of all, you have the freedom to look at my inconsequential witterings, so you probably don’t spend your days hiding in rubble, on the run from a terrifying militia of child soldiers.

This is a very specific kind of unhappiness and, annoyingly, it comes from being quite happy. It’s what some people would call first world problems, and that’s very hard to deny. This is a kind of unhappiness that can only exist in relation to comfort and joy. Let me try to explain.

One of my favourite films is LA Story. It’s not a great film and many people probably dislike it, but it has a special place in my heart and if it’s ever on TV I have to watch it. Oh, turns out I’m lying. I just looked on Rotten Tomatoes and it has a 94% approval. Turns out it is very popular. Dammit, I thought it was my special film. Turns out everyone likes it. I was going to recommend it, but now I realise you probably own it, and love it too.

See what I mean about my life being miserable?



LA Story. You should watch it.




Anyway. There’s a lovely line in the film spoken by Steve Martin’s character Harris Telemacher. Describing his life, he says,

“I was deeply unhappy, but I didn’t know it, because I was so happy all the time.”

It’s always struck me as a strange line. It’s meant as comedy, of course, and I generally took it as something that was just meant to be absurd. But as I’ve got older, I’ve kept coming back to that line and I think maybe it’s more meaningful. In fact a quick check online tells me that when Steve Martin made the film he was about 45. That’s very nearly my age now. Maybe that’s why it has started to make sense.

I am, for the most part, very happy indeed. I live in a lovely house that is often full of friends and wine. Said friends are an excellent bunch of people who make me laugh and – more importantly – laugh at my jokes. I have a job which pleases me and money to buy toys. In short, I rule.

And yet. Very occasionally, under the surface, there’s this weird sense of dislocation that’s never been there before. Something I don’t have a name for. A weird, unusual flavour of emotion that exists in direct relation to the pleasure and delight of life.

I don’t think it means that the real happiness is false. I just think that there’s a kind of unhappy that exists alongside it, rather than opposed to it. It might need a new name.

I have been unhappy, in the past. Properly, actually unhappy. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre I fell off a ladder and broke my shoulder. That sucked, because it hurt, and I was self-employed and had no money, and everyone seemed much more concerned with world events that with my constant moaning about how I couldn’t play guitar anymore. 

There was school. That sucked. Everyone was bigger than me and everyone was mean and boy did I look like a jerk. And I’m pretty sure it always rained.

And there was that time that my ex fiancée tried to steal several thousand pounds from me and told loads of lies about me and acted like the world’s biggest, greediest, most deceitful bitch. That was miserable too.

But that’s not what I feel now. Now I often stand in my lovely kitchen, drinking a glass of wine while dinner cooks, listening to music as sunlight pours through the window. Miles away from all that horrible rubbish and as happy as can be.

I think of Harris Telemacher’s words. Unhappy, but not realising it because of happiness. I don’t think it’s quite true, but there’s a something. A something that exists alongside the deep, genuine pleasure that life gives me.




Some happiness, yesterday.


Here’s what I think it is. That moment I just described – me in my kitchen with my wine and my music – is beautiful. But part of my brain knows that there is a way in which it could be more beautiful. No, not if Anna Kendrick was there too. Well, maybe a little, although she seems a bit high maintenance and would probably want to turn the music down or have some of my wine or something.

No. The way in which that moment will become more beautiful is when it is gone, and gone forever, and I can’t have it any more.

If it all goes wrong. If I wreck all my relationships. Lose my job. Get hurled out of my house and have to live in a skip, eating bees. If I wake up each morning to a grey damp world of loneliness and misery and my best friend is a sock called “Toothless Jim”. Just imagine the place my previous happiness will hold in my memories: The day I stood happily in that kitchen, enjoying that wine, loving that life – it’ll be more than good. It will seem like heaven itself.

I think about this sort of thing quite often and I’m starting to think it’s part of what being really happy is about. Everything I have gains value when I think about what it would be like to not have it anymore. My hands moving on this keyboard – imagine a time when these fingers are stiff with age and pain, and suddenly their fluid movement seems wonderful and insanely precious. Everything I see looks like art when I think that one day I might go blind. And when I let my mind wander and create a world where the people around me are gone forever, I think how much I’d long to have just five more minutes in their company.

If this sounds like a clichéd ‘be grateful for what you have’ kind of thing, that’s probably not far from the truth. I don’t pretend this is massively insightful. It’s just a way of helping me recognise the true beauty of what’s going on around me, all the time. I can sometimes sit and sulk about the things I don’t have, like a PlayStation 4 or a swimming pool or an Anna Kendrick or a bottle of wine that was just a little closer… But the more I recognise this feeling – this happiness that contains within it unhappiness – the more I’m grateful for the stuff I do have. Take these things away and I’d be very poor… so I must be rich.

So, where does that leave us? Well, I imagine you probably have the strong desire for a sausage and egg sandwich. And some wine. You might also have become involuntarily aroused by the thought of Anna Kendrick. And we have, of course, all learnt a valuable lesson about not taking things for granted.

Most of all, though, I imagine you probably think I’m just inventing a nonsensical new kind of ontological maths to justify my constant state of emotional confusion. And you’d probably be right. But look on the bright side. Eventually we’ll all be dead. And then we’ll really see what’s what.

Now go watch LA Story.







Monday, 18 May 2015

The Naked Now






I’m about to ruin the next five minutes of your day. Here goes.

You are blinking. Constantly. With your eyes. There you are. Blinking. Eyelids battering away at your face. How do you even see properly?

Oh! And swallow. You have to swallow too.

How often do you swallow? Well – you’re going to find out. Because now you’re acutely aware of it. And so, as I type, am I. And now it’s taking an effort to do it. What’s that about? How was I doing that a second ago without realising, and now it’s like heaving a great lug of muscle about inside my head. Help!

It’s OK – it’ll be gone in a little while. Soon you’ll be distracted by a kitten or a sandwich or a terrorist atrocity and the whole blinky-swallowy festival of noise and effort will recede into the background, managed by your body like Norton antivirus doing a check for porn. Which is good, because (gulp) it’s a horrible (blink) effort, isn’t it? Gulp. Blink. Let my body deal with it.

But it’s also kind of more scary, I think, that we do forget about it. It’s a weird reminder that our bodies get on with loads of this stuff all the time and don’t even ask us. My heart beats while I sleep, chugging happily away like a fat little monster. Wounds heal. Food digests. Blood wanders up and down my arms and legs, asking if everything is OK and if anyone needs anything from the shops.

People talk about ‘knowing themselves’, especially as they get older. I’ve done it. “The great thing about being in your forties is that you really start to know yourself.” But, like so much I say, it’s absolute nonsense. Imagine the horrible reality of actually knowing yourself. Becoming suddenly aware of every blink, every swallow and every beat of your heart. Feeling the blood charging up and down your veins. Realising the constant fizz of neurons firing, the constant chatter of your brain micromanaging every tiny operation that keeps your nervous system from collapsing like lazy spaghetti. And no respite. No letting it fade into the background. An eternal hell of being aware of yourself.

You’d go mad. A great deal of what we do relies upon a cheerful ignorance of how any of our actions actually happen. How am I standing up? I mean, I know it’s theoretically about balance and positioning and stuff but that’s just what I’d write if I suddenly had to show my working in an exam. In reality, I just kind of… do it. I tell my body to stand, and somewhere a team of brain cells get it together to carry out what I can only assume is a terrifically complicated set of sums. And even that’s a lie. I don’t tell my body to stand at all. I just assume it will know what I want and let it get on with it.

I guess what I’m saying is, thank goodness for a certain level of ignorance. And I guess I’m saying it because recently I’ve had a number of really weird moments  - moments where I felt like I lost that ignorance. Moments where I became suddenly, horribly aware that I was existing in the present tense. And I’ll tell you what – it freaked the hell out of me.

Most of the time I’m not really in the present. I’m sort of vaguely aware of what’s happening, but it’s all perceived through this weird mist. At any one time I’m remembering some events, looking forward to others and imagining alternatives where things are different and I have a cowboy hat or a flat in Cardiff Bay. The present is buffered by expectations, memories and daydreams and rarely has the chance to impact meaningfully upon my psyche.

Then, occasionally, for whatever reason, the real, actual moment scrapes through. Dreams and memories melt away. I look around and I think, “This is happening now. These people are talking to me in real time. Shit! What do I do?”

I have little information on this aspect of life. It’s not some future event that I’m imagining happening, like my wedding day or what I’ll say if I ever meet Tom Baker – things I’ve considered in great detail. The first involves smashing through a window like Billy Idol, landing on a motorbike and riding up the aisle, playing electric guitar. The second features me crying like a child and saying thank you until he goes away.

And it’s not a thing that happened in the past, like that time I tried to explain widescreen aspect ratios to Andrew Brown and wanted to weep with frustration at his lack of comprehension. “Why are there black bars at the top and bottom of the TV?” he kept saying. “Why don’t they fill those bits in?” Because that’s the shape of a cinema screen you cretin! "But why don't they just make it the same shape?" How would they do that? Where would that extra visual information come from? Aaaaarrrrgg!

Idiot. Where was I?

Oh yes. It’s really weird looking at someone talking to you and becoming aware that the conversation is actually happening in the present. My subconscious is so used to my complete lack of interest in things that it usually takes care of it all for me. I just hear words tumbling out of my mouth and kind of casually observe the process as if I’m watching TV. “Hmm,” I think, “That was surprisingly sexist. Ooh, listen, I’m claiming to like jazz.”

On the rare occasions that I am slammed without warning into the unvarnished present, I have no idea what to do. I panic. For a start, I’m never 100% sure that I’m not just remembering this in super high definition detail. Then I feel utterly terrified at the responsibility of being present, in time. Who’s allowing this? I could do anything. What if I punch the person I’m talking to? What if they tell me something sad and I just laugh and say “I’m glad that happened to you - I hope it happens again.”? What if I stand up in church and shout “You’re all a bunch of bastards”?

I’m not even exaggerating. The power of realisation is blistering. If this is ‘now’, then nothing is set. I can disrupt all of this so easily. Without the comforting numbness of temporal dislocation I have no framework, no reference. There’s a reason why memory and fantasy combine to couch the present in cotton wool. I need to be kept confused and slightly out of synch.

And then there’s eternity.

Once in a while I will lie in bed and remember that I exist in time. And that either I will die and be dead forever or the afterlife exists and I will live forever. And that both are impossible to fit into my tiny mind. A terrifying chasm of existential fear opens up around me and I freak out completely. How can I not-exist forever? How can I not not-exist? How is anything meaningful unless it ends? And what happens after it ends?

And then, salvation. Sleep claims me. My thoughts drift and now I’m in a hotel and Tom Baker is eating cheese at the next table. Andrew Brown’s wife is stroking my face and I feel both guilty and delighted. I try to tell her about his inability to understand aspect ratios but my voice comes out like birdsong. And now I’m due on stage, and have to play saxophone… I can’t play saxophone…

I dream. Or some of me does. Elsewhere, the rest of me keeps it all running. Heart beating, blood moving, swallowing.


Goodnight. If you can.


Friday, 1 May 2015

How to Disappear Completely

It’s not easy having a face.

I know, I know. You think having a face is easy. You think it’s no big deal, and this is just another one of my paranoid rants, like that time I decided Christopher Walken was talking to me through the television. But that’s just another reason why I don’t truly understand you and never invite you to my sex parties.

Having a face is bonkers. My face is massive, and everyone looks at it, all the time, like it’s who I actually am. But your face isn’t who you are. It’s just some flesh arranged in a weird shape with holes in it that go inside you. Inside you!!!  How are you so fine with this? And your brain sends it signals, like “Look pleased that you’ve been given the biscuit,” and your face responds by contorting itself up and down for a bit, hoping that will do the trick. But just as often the person giving you the biscuit will look at you as if you have just signalled hatred, or lust, or total apathy. Although, of course, you’ve no idea if that’s what they’re really thinking. Because their face is probably making it up too.

And people say things like “You look tired,” or “What’s so funny?” or “Why are you so clearly aroused when I start talking about Avengers: Age of Ultron?” Or they say that someone ‘looks kind’ or has ‘cold, evil eyes, like a sex nonce’. All rubbish. You don’t know me. You have just been fooled by this shell, this fleshy ambassador to the world. And let me tell you – he’s an idiot. My face. An idiot. He tries to tell you what I’m thinking and feeling, but most of the time he just grimaces ineffectually, trying to communicate complex emotions and attitudes through a few stretched muscles and the odd raised eyebrow.

Every now and then I catch sight of myself in a reflection, like a shop window or the forehead of a particularly shiny butcher’s assistant. And I’ll tell you what, I look furious. Every time. I can be in the best of moods, my soul singing a little song as I rejoice in the many benefits of being me. And there’s my face, growling at the world as if to say “My mind is full of spiders and hatred! Fuck you all!” No wonder everyone refuses when I invite them to my sex parties.

I have, however, found a way to defeat my face. I have hidden him away from the world, where no-one can see him. Yes, I have grown a fine and mighty beard. This has proved a brilliant idea and I recommend it to everyone.



 
I started growing it last Summer and it has proved a pleasing and delightful experience. For a start, there is the great ease with which it happens. The beard literally grows itself while you are doing other things. You can spend all day filing your Doctor Who magazines into chronological order, breaking only occasionally for a cup of tea and a bit of a dance, and your beard will wander slowly across your face without you paying it the slightest heed.

There’s also the fact that people find beards inordinately fascinating. It’s now the first thing people mention upon meeting me. “Ooh,” they say, “You have a beard.” As if we were on Radio 4 and everything needed pointing out to the listeners. It is, in fact, a thing mentioned by people who I don’t even know. Perfect strangers observe and comment, as if it were a beard composed not of hair, but of miracles and adventure. It’s kind of fun, and does give me a sort of instant identity. This must be what it is like to be tall, or a well-known serial killer.

Then, of course, there are its face-obscuring qualities. People no longer judge you by what you are thinking, because they have, quite frankly, no idea. Where once you had a vulnerable, quivering mass of lips, cheekbones and jawline – open to interpretation by whomsoever gazed upon your naked face – now you have a tangled mess of terrifying hair. Inscrutable, beautiful and rampantly heroic.

 
“What am I thinking?” the beard asks. “That, my friend, is for you to find out. I am a mystery to you. No more assumptions based on the haphazard arrangement of my features. Now you have to talk to me, to get to know me properly.”

All well and good. Crisis averted through the medium of hair.

Except.

Except another, more existential crisis arose in its place.

I couldn’t help noticing that I was not the only person with a beard. In fact, they’re bloody everywhere. Men roam the streets, hirsute and    raggedy of jawline, beaming at me in fuzzy faced solidarity. People I’ve known for ages are suddenly experimenting with beards of their own. Every famous person on TV seems similarly decorated. It’s a world of hair.

 There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s nice, actually. There is a real sense of being part of something. But that’s kind of the problem.

I was having my beard trimmed when it occurred to me. That’s right, trimmed. I go to see a man, in a special shop, who applies all manner of lotions and oils to my follicular majesty. He trims and grooms and teases while I sip a beer and consider how I’d look with a monocle.

On this particular occasion I am gazing around at the tiny bottles of beard oil and tubs of wax that lined the walls of his excellent shop. I enquire as to how long he has been open. Less than a year, it transpires. Oh, I think. That’s handy, because that fits really well with when I decided to grow my beard.

And then I think – that is quite the coincidence. And then I think of all those others I know who also decided to abandon the razor in that same time period.

I’m forced to conclude that the decision to grow a beard might not have been, in any real sense, a choice that I actually made. The more beards I see, and the more I realise that they’ve all sprung forth in the last twelve months or so, the more I realise that I’m part of a trend. A cultural movement, invisible to me in its happening.

Me and all these other men with their fine, luxurious expanses of prickly faced joy. We didn’t just all, coincidentally decide, one day, to be done with shaving. Even though to all of us that’s probably exactly what we thought we were doing. We somehow, subtly, noticed that having a beard was a ‘thing’.  A host of cultural influences crept into our collective consciousness and worked away at our decision making process. Grow a beard. You’d look excellent with a beard.

So I start by worrying that my face doesn’t really communicate who I am, being open to the inference of other people. And I end up realising that even my choices are subject to the whims of others. My decisions creep up on me, preformed by the world. My sense of who I am exists somewhere else, conjured, maybe, in some boardroom where a well groomed dominatrix in horned rimmed glasses unveiled her latest scheme – “Fostering the Illusion of Personal Freedom through the Encouragement of Beards”. A swish presentation, featuring pictures of hipsters laughing in trendy bars and charts articulating a rise in sales of beard oil.

One day, when the zeitgeist demands it, I will be filled with the compulsion to shave away my beard. I won’t know why. I’ll just feel that I have decided. And as I scrape away the shaving foam, a terrible sight will meet me in the mirror. No flesh beneath. No cheekbones, lips or chin. For everything will have gone away. I will remain a blank space, unformed without anyone to tell me who I really am.

But I won’t mind. It will seem cool. And you won’t mind, because you’ll think so too.



This might be a parable.

Or it might be just that my beard itches.

I wonder what it would look like with just a moustache?