Allotted Life.

pots

After a hard day spent digging potatoes and cropping various other fruit and vegetables in my allotment yesterday, I was thinking: how many current so-called quandaries can be answered with the word ‘allotments’? I came up with the following list:

Food prices are set to sore! Allotments.

People don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables! Allotments.

People don’t get enough exercise! Allotments.

People are becoming increasingly disconnected from the food they eat! Allotments.

People don’t take enough time to connect with nature! Allotments.

People don’t get involved in a community! Allotments.

What do we do with all the Brownfield sites? Allotments.

We need more green spaces! Allotments.

We don’t take enough time to quieten our minds and relax! Allotments.

 

It’s quite a good list isn’t it? And I’m sure there are more.

 

Now, I’m not a mad gardener. At least, I’m not a gardener, as such. I’m not even that great at motivating myself to get down to my allotment a lot of the time, as the various letters and phone calls from the allotment squad secretary will attest to. But my partner and I do, when we can, get down there eventually, and despite our patchy knowledge, always seem to do okay.

You can listen to Gardener’s Question Time all you want (if you can survive the stomach twisting tweeness of it all sometimes) – and you can fret about propagation, irrigation, irradiation and genetic modification, but generally, what it comes down to, is putting some seeds in some soil.

It’s quite amazing to see those few little seeds you sowed in pots in spring turn into this in summer (including the spuds above, and this is less than half of what we’ve had so far):

veggie

And actually, for part-time gardeners who don’t really know what we’re doing – this isn’t a bad hoard, and this isn’t our first of the season – we’ve already had a good bounty of rhubarb, onions, garlic and raspberries, and given friends and families bags of spuds, cabbage and the odd cucumber here and there (when I say the odd cucumber, that’s because I found out it was actually a marrow). We’ll have more potatoes than we need for the  rest of the year and beyond, and for a time, a load of lovely fresh fruit and veg.

But there are problems. As far as I can tell there are not enough allotments to go around, and there is a certain expectation of lifestyle attached to the idea of taking one on. And unfortunately some of this can be true, or at least reinforced by certain people who tend to involve themselves in organisational roles. I have, as I mentioned, been bothered a bit by the allotment squad, and in the past I have complained to the council who told me I should be spending 10 ½ hours a week on my plot! This was obviously slug poo. I spent nothing like that on it this year, and as the pictures above show, I still got a healthy return.

Also, I like the fact that members have the options of joining the committee and attending meetings and additional allotment activities (competitions, group days etc…), but I don’t want to feel inclined to do so myself. For me the ‘community’ bit is more that every once in a while, while you are tending your plot, someone may come over and ask you if you want a spare cabbage or something, and then, after pleasantries, go away again. But that’s just me. My plot doesn’t have a fence around it, none of them do in my allotment. I really want a fence. But that’s just me – I’m an optional socialite – I like the choice of solitude if that’s how I’m feeling.

The point is that allotments have become a bit of a hobby often seen as a retirement pastime and not part of our everyday lives. I guess that the scale of growing needed to actually sustain us all and replace intense farming may be unachievable in the current world set-up, but wouldn’t it be good to at least remind the commercial powers-that-be that we are still capable as a species of feeding ourselves every once in a while? Maybe make some demands on quality and price by generating our own competition? And as I demonstrated with the above list, be more healthy, more involved, more connected and more grounded as a result? I must add that I am not all of these things, but I am a little closer to each as a result of having an allotment.

It kind of makes you wonder why that’s not the case and why our government isn’t clambering over itself to encourage and increase this massively beneficial activity. Why we apparently prefer to stare at great big areas of unused dust and rubble behind barbed wire fences because some developer has bought the land and is keeping it fallow on the off chance they could become even more rich one day by selling it on to another developer with exactly the same idea.

You don’t need me to tell you that commercial interests are given more priority by governments than our individual health and wellbeing, but I just did anyway. You may disagree, but if you do, I would ask you to go and visit your local Tesco’s in the nearest out-of-town grey miserable retail park, and look at the clamour of grey miserable people hauling themselves over grey miserable concrete to go and buy processed yellow food, and tell me, honestly, could we not be doing a little better for ourselves?

And anyway, if you grow your own you get to say things like ‘look at the size of my cucumber!’ every once in a while, which makes it all worthwhile.

From it all.

Well I’m back from a fantastic week spent in the South West in a quiet cottage, nestled in a peninsular on the River Dart in the small and quaint village of Dittisham (that I was reliably informed is pronounced ‘Ditsum’ by the locals).

It’s nice to remove oneself from ‘real life’ every once in a while, why else would we go on holiday? But in this case, thanks to the steep, rolling, 3G-blocking Devonshire hills and an opportune breakdown of the only hard-line internet connection for the entire week we were staying there, I not only ‘got away from it all’, for most of the time I got away from it all.

I got away from my near obsessive checking of the BBC news website, as if in the hour since the last time I looked world peace will have broken out. I got away from my frequent and often pointless flicking through Facebook and Twitter, as if I expect any news from my friends and family that is noteworthy not to be announced in any other way. I got away from checking my book pages, as if I will be become an overnight success purely by my powers of near-constant monitoring of sales ranks. I got away from checking and deleting the raft of meaningless emails that, despite several mailing list culls, continue to surge through like a relentless tide and deposit digital flotsam and jetsam in my inbox. I got away from fact-checking and adorning my conversations with Google.

I say I got away from it: when we made our frequent trips to the nearby towns, such as the wonderful Estuary of Dartmouth and Kingswear (two towns separated by the mouth of the River Dart, conjoined by an amazing ferry system for vehicles and pedestrians alike as in the photo below), I have to admit I occasionally had my eyes on the signal to see if I could get a few updates here and there. Thankfully, despite myself, this rarely happened either. Now and again I would receive the header subjects of a bunch of emails with no actual message, but I found that was enough, adept as I have become at recognising spam, waffle and marketing from a milliseconds glance.

There was still television however, but this didn’t feature much at all. Most mornings I was up before 8am, ready for fishing or rowing or whatever activity was planned that day, only to find my two younger brothers (9 and 12) already up and watching repeats of ‘Golden Balls’ or ‘Pointless’ on the ‘Challenge’ channel while the adults slumbered into being. I could deal with that. At that age I would have filled the room with the screeching madness of American cartoons about transforming robots or something (it’ll never catch on). On an evening after a long day doing stuff and things, the news may have come on for a quick check of the weather, which had the sometimes unfortunate effect of meaning we caught the odd news segment here and there.

One particularly striking example was when the BBC went all ‘Minority Report’ and had somehow managed to surround Sir Cliff Richard’s house with reporters and helicopters prior to the police turning up to search it. As the sensationalist report was beamed into my eyes, I thought to myself, ‘is this a bit weird? Or am I so used to reading the news I’ve forgotten how weird it is to actually watch it’. No. It turns out it was a bit weird, and the BBC are being investigated (or at least questioned) for having seemingly blackmailed the police into allowing them access to the raid in return for not jeopardising the investigation with the details they received via some shady leak. Responsible public news broadcaster? Hmm…

So it seems you can’t always get away from it all. I still had a moment of despair at the mechanisms of mass communication that exist in this country, but thanks to the lack of internet, it only lasted about as long as they news item itself, and then it was gone! I wasn’t able to check back on updates or furiously research Google for opinion pieces and alternative news streams. I just let it slide away as I thought about getting my next beer, watching the Perseids meteor shower in the none light-polluted clear night sky, and thinking about catching fish the next morning (I didn’t catch any fish, but it was fun anyway. Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, give me a fishing rod and everyone will starve. I’d go for the fish option if I were you).

Now I am back, and yes, I have fallen into old patterns again, I admit. But I hope that by writing this down and hypocritically posting it on the internet in the hope that other people may read it, I am at least reminding others and my future self that it is possible to switch off every once in a while. All you need is to go somewhere beautiful in the countryside where there is no responsibilities, internet or phone signal whether you like it or not, despite your best efforts. Simple really, why didn’t I think of it before?

 

Dartsmouth 2

Dartmouth from the car ferry. Yes, that’s a car, on a ferry platform, being towed across the water. Very cool.

 

 

 

Disproportion.

hammer nut

 

(Note: This story contains some mild descriptions of violence).

When I was a young teenager I was playing football on the playground at school in my dinner break with my friends. Not for the first time, a thug from our year came up and took the ball from us and started kicking it around to his mates. My friends and I were generally pretty meek people and had to put up this kind of thing.

This time, however, I decided to try and tackle the bully to get the ball back. When I did he fell over as a result and got his shiny new coat wet. I hadn’t intended to knock him over, that’s just what happened as he tried to shield the ball from me and I put a leg out to get at it. As I walked away holding the ball, I knew what I had let myself in for. This guy had a reputation for being pretty vicious. I’m not talking about ruffled hair or tipped out bags, I’m talking about violence.

I rolled the ball back to my friend and prepared to face up to the inevitable. He was approaching, red in the face, swearing and threatening me. Already a crowd had gathered. ‘Fight!’ they shouted, as usual. The bully was my height, but twice my build, with a shaved head and his fists clenched. I’d never been in a fight before, so in the few seconds I had to think about it, I decided I needed to do something.

I tried to punch him. It probably wasn’t the best decision, but it felt like the only possible way I could avoid it happening to me. I missed, having never thrown a punch before with the intention of actually hitting someone. He recoiled from my feeble swing, which was further impeded by my school bag falling off my shoulder and dragging down my arm. The next thing I saw was his knuckles coming towards my face. He didn’t miss. He didn’t miss the first time, but I didn’t go down. He didn’t miss the second time, but I didn’t go down. He didn’t miss the third time when my nose exploded in a cloud of scarlet and still I stood. I should have gone down.

After this he got me in a tight headlock. He was strong. His boasts and reputation were not unfounded. As I was held there, dripping from my nose onto his black trousers, he said to me, “We better calm this down now, there’s a dinner lady watching.”

At this I became angry. Up until that point it had just been a series of sharp pains and confusion, but that statement brought it into focus. How could I calm down the complete beating I was getting? I hadn’t started it. It had started long ago across all the stolen footballs, threats, beatings and taunts that most other people had to put up with at the whim of people like him on a daily basis.

I tried to act, but I don’t know how to fight. I tried to lift his knee to get him off me and topple him backwards. Instead, he brought it to my face, three times, further smashing my already popped nose. Then he let go, and I went to the office to get myself cleaned up. The next day I had concussion and couldn’t come to school.

Nothing of any real consequence happened to the lad. In theory I had started it with my  feeble attempt at a punch. Before that is was just playground squabbling. I had incited the violence that followed by my desperate attempt at pre-emptive defence.

What interests me with this memory, is whether this was a fair decision? Did I deserve the level of violence that I incurred because I tried to stand up for myself? My instinct tells me no, but the bare facts of the matter sound different. Consider this version of events:

Today at school someone tried to steal my football. I knocked him over and then tried to punch him. He defended himself and I came off worse.

It’s so easy to twist facts around to make the situation sound more two sided than it was, to try and engender sympathy for the disproportional response by glossing over the history and context of the matter. You may disagree with me and think I should of stayed my hand and waited till I was hit first, or gone down after the first punch and curled up in a little ball. You may think that I sacrificed any right to blame or victim status because I tried to do something rather than wait passively for something to happen that all reason and experience told me was certain.

You may think that, but it doesn’t feel right to me.

The Board Room Game.

Image

My desk sits in the square bowl of a test tube corridor that marches away from my line of sight into a corner I never get to turn. On each side of the passage there are adjacent doors where my advisors wait for the ping.

The room is stark bur brightly lit. My desk itself has shades of oak and brutal corners. There must be a way to receive the ping, so I guess there is a screen now. Maybe once it was a plastic inbox, or even a telephone; but now it is a screen. I figure this screen is to my right, at an angle, so that it doesn’t obscure my view of the corridor. There are no other computer parts. The screen is already connected through its conception in this place.

As I reckon it, I am dressed in a white shirt with black trousers and shoes. I suppose I am Mr Formal. My job is to be formal, reasoned, measured. Perhaps that is why my desk has no adornments or decoration. It is a bare room, waiting for the ping.

I don’t know what the other rooms look like. I’ve never been in to see them. When the time comes, those who are interested will flock out and channel down to the angular bell bottom suite. They will argue their case and I will listen and judge, maybe interrogate, maybe ignore. It all depends, as you will see.

The screen lights up (for it was otherwise dark and unreflective), and there is a proposition, a ping.

“Should I care about this?” it reads. It is accompanied by images of sneering men making decrees upon those less fortunate.

Should I care? I don’t know. I will wait to see who shows.

Doors start to open at various distances, but that is no issue. The occupants move at different speeds to compensate. Some are quick to my desk, others drag their feet. Whether they come from near or far is really not important.

I can never be sure which doors will open. They all get a copy of the same ping, the same question, the same relevant supporting information from banks below or above us (I’ve never been). Some may join later as the discourse develops, late to the game but spurred by some new concern or data, or they may not.

First at my desk, looking much like me (exactly like me) is Pandora. A pretty name for a man. We gave him that name. None of us really have names. He carries a can of worms that he hasn’t been able to put down since we discovered the particularly strange metaphor, and is permanently topped by a neon question mark. Other than that, he looks exactly like me, right down to the black shoes.

‘Is there something more to this?’ he asks.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well there’s what we’ve been told, and what we know already, but is there more we don’t know? Can we look further, deeper?’ he continues.

‘Not before I’ve heard the others’ I reply as usual. And here they come.

The next, Pyrrho, has joined us. He is a lot like me, but his shoulders ride higher.

‘What difference does it make? I mean, to us. Will it affect us?’

‘Maybe’ replies Pandora, ‘we’d need to know more.’

‘Do we? Do we really? If we don’t know it, and it’s not apparent, then what’s the problem here? Other than those we go and find’ he persists.

Before Pandora can answer Lyssa has pushed through the others and slammed his hand down on my desk. He is my image, but red in the face and he rarely stops moving.

‘This pisses me off!’ he screams at me, and the others, ‘who do they think they are? They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it! We should do something, NOW!’

He circles around, hand over mouth and eyes bulging, but of course, he cannot decide what to do: only I can decide. Though he does scare me, I don’t like him. On rare occasion he has held me by the throat and forced me to consider no others. But usually, he goes back to his room and seethes quietly to himself.

‘We should get more information first’ suggests Pandora.

‘Why bother?’ intervenes Pyrrho.

‘Why wait!’ demands Lyssa.

Anyone else to the table? Not just now. They may come out and appeal soon, but it is time to make a decision. I address the lobby.

‘Okay everybody. Here’s what we’ll do. Go back to your rooms and watch your monitors. I’ll call up what we’ve got, and we’ll go from there.’

‘What’s the point?’ says Pyrrho, whose memory is long but selective, ‘it will be the same as always. The options will be many and unrealistic. They will deter us from our primary objectives. Lyssa will calm down eventually, as usual, and Pandora, well he’ll get his day when we have a moment to spare I’m sure. Why not make the decision then?’

‘Go back and watch your monitors’ I repeat, and they do.

Moments later we are all appraised and gathered once again.

‘Has anyone anything further to add? Now you’ve seen the options?’

A more sedate Lyssa steps up.

‘Maybe I overreacted before. I’ve been talking to my colleagues. I mean, we’re not happy about this, don’t get me wrong, but we don’t want to take the lead. Not just yet’.

A predictable response. I look to Pandora.

‘It is something we would like to look into further, but not at this time, not as a matter of priority.’

‘And what of you Pyrrho? As if I need to ask.’

‘Whatever’ he says.

We are all sick with guilt. I know they feel it because I feel it too. It rumbles in our stomachs which are otherwise devoid of contents. There is still time for this to change what happens next: unless we take our medicine.

‘Let’s see how we feel after this’ I suggest. On the desk there are four small misty plastic caps filled with a dose of elixir. It is hard to tell from the colour, being a deep plum purple, but I suspect it is strong in pragmatics.

We all pick up and pour down, and wait. It soothes the guilt somewhat, not entirely, but it bolsters our resolve. It has a hint of selfish determination followed by notes of possible future action.

‘I think we all know what we need to do Gentlemen’ I conclude, and obligingly the screen presents me with the preferred option written in bold type, enclosed in a shaded grey box. It reads:

“Stay the course. We can do more about this later.”

Underneath there is the a tick and a cross. I press the tick and the image flicks to black. The others recede back to their rooms.

Inside me the concoction stirs and repeats a little. Outside of me the television changes to the next news story as I drain another cup of tea and think about what I need to do today, how I can ‘stay the course’.

My screen flicks into action with the next proposition and we start again. This will happen a million times at a million moments today, but not all will make it ‘to the top’ otherwise we’d all be for it. We would crank to a grinding halt and make no further steps, for the choices of so many. And we can’t let that happen because, well, because we just can’t.

Yeah, it’s my end of year thing for 2013 OK?

I know, I know – ‘end of year review’ e-mails, blogs and updates can get a little tiresome. But why? Maybe it’s because they intuitively conjure up lots of words that have the word ‘self’ as a prefix – congratulatory, obsessed, centred. It’s a curious thing that we shy away from sharing our own successes and challenges – maybe it’s cultural – but for whatever reason, I’m not going to let it stop me, this having been a landmark year for me personally and professionally. So you have been warned, this is an end-of-year review and will as a result be tediously reflective and upbeat. So there.

Obviously, it isn’t actually the end of the year yet, but very nearly, and near enough for me to want to clear the decks and not have to worry about doing blogs and such like over the next couple of weeks. So, unless I am struck by an uncontrollable wave of inspiration, I will make this the last blog of 2013, and try to have a ‘holiday’ until the new year.

A new start, long awaited.

In February this year I ended a decade of working in the wrong job. I say ‘the wrong job’ because it was, for me, the wrong job. I worked in a bank (formally a building society) as a ‘thingy’. A ‘thingy’, is a technical term for someone who isn’t able to answer the question “what do you actually do?” with any degree of clarity or precision. It’s not particularly good for your soul that situation, and the world is full of ‘thingies’. I was a kind-of technical specialist, I was a kind-of legal (compliance) specialist, I was a kind-of trainer, a kind-of auditor, a kind-of quality controller, a kind-of project worker, a kind-of data-entry clerk. One day I could be in meetings, discussing requirements for a multi-million pound computer system, all the while thinking “I’m not getting paid enough for this” and the next I could be endlessly tapping numbers into a spreadsheet, thinking “I’m getting paid too much for this”. There were many things I wasn’t quite, and many more things I’m quite sure I shouldn’t have been, but still it took ten years to break away thanks in no small part to the rut/routine that a (fairly) decent wage and a none taxing job can collude to create when you are busy figuring out who you are and what you want to be.

So that was the end of that. I left by my own accord, having hung on for a few years with the possibility of redundancy that never materialised, and unable to ‘get on’ with our new pay-masters: The Co-op, and their shambolic management (an assessment that I feel very much vindicated for, given the events of this year).

When I left, I had a few things lined up, which really helped me to get straight on with my new life as a self-employed writer & musician (you see – that’s much easier to define, isn’t it?) I had been running my creative activities alongside my old job for several years anyway, but I always suspected that I would need to let go of the comfort (and boredom) of the office job if I were to really ever fully embrace my aspirations. So far, I have found that to be true, and long may it continue.

 

Unearthed

The first ‘big’ job, which lasted throughout the year (at intervals), was the ‘Unearthed’ project. This was being drafted in as a supporting artist to help develop and produce community engagement with a new memorial sculpture in my home town of Stoke-on-Trent (specifically in the town of Hanley – if you are confused by that, it’s because we have this whole weird, six towns into one thing going on over here – look it up). As part of this project I got to do several awesome things. I got to write, narrate and score an animation that was then shown at several public locations and continues to be available as an online resource. I got to write my first choral piece (set to the words of my own poem) that was then rehearsed and performed by students of a local sixth form college at a memorial ceremony with city dignitaries in attendance. And I got to work with the real words of the people we engaged with the project to produce an oral sound-piece, used to accompany an original composition and dance routine at the unveiling ceremony of the sculpture. This project took me to places I hadn’t expected, connection with history and communities though art, a sense of integrity and responsibility with story-telling and representation of real world events that I had never considered or encountered before. It was a great experience and I can’t thank Nicola Winstanley and Sarah Nadin enough for involving me in their excellent project – I am a ‘Dashyline’ fan! (Visit the project website, here: http://www.unearthed2013.co.uk/)

The Audio Mill

There was also a continuation (and I fancy a building momentum) of my composition and production work alongside my good friend and collaborator Kieran Williams as part of ‘The Audio Mill’.  This year we have produced several pieces for fashion houses River Island and Mr Porter for use in their viral campaigns. From a professional development point of view, working to brief to compose and produce original music in a variety of styles really helps you to hone your technical and creative abilities. So far (as I know) they have been very happy with all the work we’ve completed for them, and the videos our music accompanies are popular and well received. Obviously, the world of fashion houses feels miles away from me in my small office in Longton, laying down rhythms, bass lines, guitar licks and melodies, but thanks to Kieran’s ever fruitful move to London, the chance to showcase our abilities to a larger audience through an established outlet, is a welcome one, and I look forward to more work like this in the new year. Examples here: http://www.theaudiomill.co.uk/

Newsjack

My first BBC broadcast credits happened this year, in the form of several one-liner jokes and a sketch used as part of Radio 4 Extra’s topical comedy show ‘Newsjack’. There have been two series this year, the first airing while I still worked at the bank. However, I managed to get two one-liners into the first series anyway, and given the extra time and emphasis of self-employment, was able to up that score to 5 one liners and a sketch in the latest series! This is very satisfying work when it happens and takes time and practice to get right – the business of joking seems to be a serious one. This is an aspect of my work that I want to take forwards into 2014 one way or the other. I will, of course, continue to submit to Newsjack when it comes back, but one eye must be kept on ‘where next?’ – building on the successes and reaching for more regular and guaranteed work. I’d be happy if I could find a way to get some one-liners onto other radio 4 programmes (shows like the ‘Now show’ and ‘News quiz’ often have writers that have started through ‘Newsjack’ – it’s just finding the link in or being a persistent bugger I suppose). I have also tickled some light interest with a sit-com script this year – falling short of the mark but getting good feedback and encouragement from an industry insider. If the right idea comes along, I will be writing and pitching new series next year, as well as looking to contribute to more programmes. Watch this space. (well not this space, this space won’t tell you anything new – I’ll be more specific about what space to watch when we come to it).

 

Poetry

Poetry is something I do rarely, and am quite self-conscious about, but that might change following the publication of one of my (very few) poems written this year in a collection. The poem ‘I’m alright Jack’ was chosen out of 600 odd entries to form part of a collection of 50 poems by the publisher mardibooks called ‘The Dance is New’. It is a genuinely good collection, and naturally, I would urge you all to buy a million copies each from here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Dance-New-Michelle-Calvert-ebook/dp/B00FL887N8 (I promise you I am one of the authors! For reasons of Amazon weirdness, my name is not listed at the top of the page, but I am linked at the bottom – I am in there basically).

                This is another area I intend to return to and perhaps ‘force’ a little more poetry out and onto the world (that’s not a bad thing – so much writing takes effort to get down on the page, just waiting for inspiration is not at all conducive to career development).

The Dimension Scales

Did I mention that I gone written a book? No? Well I have. It has been in development all year (and most of last year), a collection of short stories that will be released in 2014. This has been my favourite part of this year’s work. I finished my creative writing studies a few years ago, and this feels like the first piece of work that really puts all my learning together into one collection. I’m sure you’ve heard me go on about this before, and as of yet, there is nothing new to show you, but soon, very soon. I’m hoping that I will learn a lot of lessons from the release of this collection next year, and that a new work will be hot on its heels when I’ve had chance to digest the experience.

Education

I was thrilled and a little shocked to have achieved a distinction in two Open University modules this year: Philosophy and Arts History. Both form part of a BA degree I am working towards. Currently I am studying the last two modules (a higher level philosophy course and social science), and these will complete in 2014, at which point, I will get my degree. I started this education journey with nothing but the desire to learn more about creative writing (the first two modules that I completed three years ago now) – and was overcome by the education bug. I have since chosen subjects that I hope have informed me and my work in a positive way. History, social science and mostly, philosophy, are all helping me to get a deeper understanding of the world and myself. I would recommend to anyone who feels they might have ‘missed out’ somewhat during teenage years to revisit education if they can, or have the inclination. Learning is fun when you’ve chosen to do it and the subjects interest you. I don’t know if I will continue after the degree (I might leave it a year before deciding whether to do a Masters), but I hope to take the subjects I’ve chosen forwards into my work and life at every opportunity. They are already paying dividends.

Gravity Dave

My band ‘Gravity Dave’ have had a solid year as we’ve welcomed a new drummer to our number, written some great tunes, and gigged fairly regularly throughout the year. We have basically written and rehearsed/performed an album’s worth of material this year, and I think 2014 is the year to take this to the next step with quality recordings and more and more gigs. The main thing is that we all still find it really fun, creative and rewarding, so we’re not going to stop, and the music’s gonna keep flowing. I need a band, it is part of who I am and what I do, and I feel privileged to be part of this one with such great musicians. We’ve had a bit of a lull just in the last month or two due to problems with rehearsal space and health, but we will be back next year, and I promise, it will be bigger than ever. www.facebook.com/gravitydave

 

Anything else?

Well, this blog for one thing. When I started this, I didn’t know quite what it was meant to be, and I still don’t. All I know is that I enjoy it, and so do other people it seems. It’s quite a mixed bag as I’m sure you can tell. But it feels very important to me to keep on at it. It’s a bit like a digital sketch pad, a place to vent and experiment, reflect and celebrate. I hope those of you who follow this blog are generally entertained by it, at least enough to keep coming back. I have had some brilliant feedback from people directly, and I want to thank everyone who comes here and reads this. It’s kind of spooky that more people read this than I am aware of (according to the stats), but anonymity is the readers prerogative, and I appreciate your time spent reading my words greatly.

Another unexpected but fun development has been the rise of ‘ADMIN CAT!’ – a silly cartoon I produce to keep myself and some passing social network types entertained for a few seconds each week. This has potentially led onto some exciting developments for 2014…

 

And a happy new year!

I’m sure that as soon as I’ve finished writing this I will remember a whole bunch of other things. I have supported some great people and endeavours this year in a number of other ways not listed here. I occasionally still ‘do the spreadsheet thing’ for small businesses, and special mention has to go here to Misco Chocolates (www.miscoschocolates.co.uk) who are a constant inspiration to me in their attitude to life and work, both as business people and friends (as are all my friends, I must say).

You may notice a lack here of any personal details about the rest of my life! That is for two reasons: this blog isn’t really about that, and it hasn’t changed much (in a good way!). I live happily with my partner and my cats, and I love them all very much (even when they do bring in dead mice – the cats that is, not my partner).

So, all that is left is to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy new year! Please feel free to drop links to your end of year reviews or any  other work into the comment boxes – it is the least I can do to read yours if you have stuck with this! I do write really long blogs, but I don’t care, this isn’t Twitter. Thanks, as always, for reading. Here is a picture of me in a hat as a Christmas treat:

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Garry Abbott.

Combat Trousers

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Today I want to talk about fashion. Oh if you could see me now, you’d know just how unqualified I am to do such a thing. “Why is a bearded unkempt white man in his thirties who’s wearing a generic jean and jumper combo talking to us about fashion?” you would all collectively say… but I’m going to anyway, as it wasn’t always like this.

This week I’ve finally got around to sorting out all the old toys and documents at my Mother’s house that have been stored there ever since my Brother and I left home. Stuffed into cupboards and the attic, Mum has been on at me for years to do this, and finally, out of the goodness of my heart (and the approach of Christmas without any paid work)  I’ve decided to eBay the lot.

Well, not the lot, obviously. Part of the problem with attempting this task (as I’ve done in the past) is the nostalgia. It’s like a barrage of memories, hitting you repeatedly in the mind. For example, I found an old picture of me from the late 90s and whether I liked it or not, memories flooded back about that time in my life, my hopes and dreams, my  loves won and lost, and my combat trousers.

Yes, combat trousers, the fashion item reserved for IT technicians and me when I was 17. I’m not sure exactly what it is that qualifies them as ‘combat’ trousers. Certainly they resemble the style of regular army trousers (not territorial army trousers, oh no, they are completely different), but by the token of not actually being worn by someone in the actual army, can they really be referred to as ‘combat’ trousers?

I mean, they’re not like guns for example, with their own latent destructive force no matter who wields them. Even in untrained hands a gun is dangerous, perhaps more dangerous. Combat trousers however are no more deadly on the legs of a trained soldier than they are on the legs of a trained Sandwich artist.

Unless that is, all it takes for something to be classified as ‘combat ready’ is the addition of multiple buttoned pockets, several unnecessary tightening straps, and being a shade of green, in which case most subscribers of Country Life must be heading to war each time they go out for a ramble.

Or maybe I’m mistaken? Maybe they do have a latent destructive force in and of themselves that I’m not aware of? For all the years I wore them, maybe I just never stumbled on the right combination to unlock the devastating forces trapped within? Yes I said it, the devastating forces trapped within my trousers.

Perhaps, who knows, the zip down, left pocket inverted, shin pockets closed from left to right and ankle straps simultaneously clicked together and BOOM!.. They’ve turned in to a bazooka. Brilliant! Or instead, zip up, top button undone, all pockets open and the inner back pocket sealed and POW!.. They become a tank. Or better still, zip down, top button undone, pulled down to ankles and KAPOW!.. Inhumane treatment of prisoners of war during an illegal invasion.

There’s another possibility though. What if the ‘combat’ label of these trousers does not relate to human affairs at all, and actually stems from some ancient trouser civil war, when a previously peaceful and pacifistic group of trousers had an argument with some denim? The introduction of seemingly extraneous pockets and straps eventually ostracising the new breed of trousers from their kin, leading them to be shunned and mistrusted by the likes of the corduroy and the tracksuit? They had no choice but to fight for their place on the mannequin of life, and having succeeded in their vengeful and bloody liberation, they forever now carry the legend of ‘combat’ with them?

I might be over speculating. But clothes can and do carry with them anxieties, otherwise we wouldn’t have a fashion industry designed to magnify those anxieties and sell us the tailored antidotes. Nowadays for instance, I sometimes wear one of those old-style German army shirts when I perform on stage with my band, but even that causes me trouble.

I stand there, singing into the microphone, playing my guitar, wearing my long green, shoulder strapped shirt with a small German flag stitched to the upper arm, and being blonde haired and blue eyed, I think to myself ‘I wonder if anyone here thinks I’m German?’. Then I dismiss that thought, as I launch into another powerful verse of socially astute lyrical rampage, I dismiss that thought thinking, ‘well I’m not talking or singing with a German accent’ and carry on. But then, as my band reaches the intricate, driving, catchy yet subversive and melodically enlightening middle eight of our latest masterpiece, I think, ‘but that makes it worse, maybe they think I’m a German with a back-story? Maybe they think I’m half German?’

As we launch into our rousing finale, I start to wonder, ‘but what if they’re also thinking that if I’m simply half German, they should have detected but the slightest hint of an accent from the influence of my German parent? So, maybe, they think, he’s the love child of an absentee German father whom he has never met, and his abandonment issues and desire to reconnect with his German background, despite the pleas of his Mother (who holds some dark secret no doubt), are reflected in his choice of attire and attitudes to life? Putting himself on stage, wearing a German jacket, without a discernible German accent, as if to say… I am searching for my German-ness! I want to reconnect with my mainland heritage! Help me! Help me!’.

So I’m thinking all this as we finish taking our audience through a half hour of musical arousal, leaving an indelible memory of a unique yet ultimately marketable blend of rock-punk, foot-tapping commentary on modern life, and I exit the stage. There, waiting for me, is a beautiful, starry eyed girl. She flicks her hair teasingly over her shoulder, strokes the tricolour flag on my shirt softly and smiles before asking me, “Are you German?”, to which I reply, “No. I bought it in a charity shop.”  And she leaves, which is fine, because I’m not single anyway or a character from a sit-com who feels they have to weave an increasingly complex web of lies in order to try and impress a series of flaky and mono-dimensional potential mates. My imagined German past remains just that and my clothes anxiety is dissipated by the brutal realism that the three people my band just played to are only there due to a contractual obligation with the establishment we just performed in.

But then, there was a time when I was single and something similar happened. It was at a festival. I was wearing a red t-shirt with a yellow star in the middle. A gorgeous girl walked over to me, randomly out of the crowd, twiddled her beaded hair in her fingers, looked up at me with big brown eyes, pointed to my t-shirt and asked, “Have you been to Vietnam?”, and I looked back at her, held her in my gaze, and with a knowing smile I said, “No. I bought it from a charity shop”. She quickly walked away back into the crowd. And you know why? Because I’m not a sit-com character with truth issues willing to propel myself into inextricable depths of deceit in order to obtain sex, employment or perpetuate an amusing situation in such an obvious and formulaic way that would interest the commissioners of BBC3 or apparently any other independent production houses.

But then, as I lost sight of the girl in the massive crowd, I found high ground, inverted my right pocket, strapped in my left ankle strap, unzipped my fly and POW!.. My combat trousers turned into a powerful set of binoculars, and I was able to locate the girl with the beads in her hair, and explain to her that although I hadn’t been to Vietnam, I was the love child of an absentee German father, but was wearing the wrong shirt. She felt sympathy for me, and we talked for hours under the moonlight, and if it hadn’t have been for the fact that I was now wearing no trousers, and my tale of German abandonment jarred with my pointless Vietnam referencing t-shirt, I may even have got somewhere. But I didn’t. Because in the end, I found, I was a character in a sit-com, and characters in sit-coms rarely get what they want, trapped forever in farcical and descending spirals of dishonesty, destined to live episodically from one half hourly predictable outcome to the next.

And then, the credits rolled, and that was my story about fashion.

Sit Down Stand Up #1 Spontaneity

Blog warning:

To ease you into this, if you are so good as to read it, I should explain a little here about my influences and reasons. I recently went to watch the brilliant Stewart Lee in Buxton perform his ‘Much-a-Stew-about-nothing’ show (http://www.stewartlee.co.uk/) and it reconnected me to the notions of narrative in stand-up comedy and the power of comedy and narrative in general. I was very fortunate to follow this up with a chance encounter with a friend who lent me one of Lee’s books with transcripts of his previous live shows including foot-notes on his technique and inspirations. Now, I have no interest in doing stand-up comedy myself, and it’s only recently with my writing credits on Radio BBC4 Extra’s ‘Newsjack’ that I’ve written anything purposefully comedic at all. This blog, as I say in the ‘About Me’ section is intended for trying things out, for things that don’t slot easily anywhere else, and shameless self promotion. This specific blog therefore is totally the result of having immersed myself in alternative comedy for a month or so and wanting to try my hand at writing the kind of narrative that experts like Lee have so brilliantly crafted. I liked reading the transcribed shows, they worked on the page, so I figured, having no interest in actually standing up and saying these things into a microphone, I would try and write a brief narrative and put a ‘stand-up’ spin on it. I don’t really care if it smacks of influence or emulation – that’s why I’ve done it, to try and find out a bit of how this works for myself, even if it is only to conclude that it doesn’t work at all.

Not surprisingly, the very subject of not wanting to ever do stand-up and an embarrassing attempt I once made at making a joke on stage has formed the theme of this experiment. Also, like most comedy narratives, it is an exaggerated account of a true story, with some not true things thrown in.

With that said, I hope you can forgive me if you don’t either a) find it funny or b) even finish reading it. I also hope you can forgive me for my apologetic introduction. I would be interested to hear what you think so please leave a comment here or anywhere I might see it – but preferably not attached to a brick through my window.

***

So I was thinking about Stand-up comedy. Not actually doing it. No way. I can’t think of anything more terrifying. Actually I can, I can think of lots of things more terrifying, like crawling into a small hole under a tree and then realising I’m stuck there forever. What I mean is, I can’t think of anything more terrifying within the realm of public performance, except perhaps some kind of performance arts piece involving testicles and leeches. What I mean is, I just don’t like the idea of doing stand up comedy, which is interesting seeing as I’m no stranger to taking to the stage. I sing in a band, I sometimes even talk (a bit) between songs. Granted it is usually only to state the name of the next song and say thank you for the applause from the last (regardless if any actually happened), but it’s still talking into a microphone in front of other people all the same.

I think I may have shocked myself out of trying to riff funny back at my Dad’s wedding some years ago now. I was performing with my Brother and a make-shift band for the evening. It got to the point where my Dad and my Step Mum where trying to encourage dancing as most of the guests had spent much of the first half of our set in another room. Not coincidentally, the room with the buffet. Ah, the buffet, it always wins in the end. No manner of art can win against the lure of cheese & pineapple on sticks. Maybe that’s the ultimate aim of all art – to become a credible challenger to the dominating presence of a buffet?

Anyway, we had pretty much already played our set to the few people who could resist the lure of questionable coleslaw, and now the others had all filled their stomachs with cherry tomatoes and breaded bits of chicken, they were ready to be entertained (I like buffet’s, but am always suspicious now of anything in breadcrumbs having once accidentally eaten a miserable fish goujon thinking it was going to be chicken. It seems to me that in one sense, covering something with breadcrumbs is as good as disguising it in something neutral and bland for fear that its true identity will be discovered, a bit like when Jim Davidson hosted Big-Break). It didn’t seem to matter much to the quiche stuffed revellers that we had already been playing for an hour, but it was my Dad’s wedding, so we carried on.

About half way through the set, while the crowd of cold-chicken-leg fuelled party-goers sat watching and talking amongst themselves, my Dad and my Step Mum braved the dance floor. It wasn’t a ‘first dance’ kind of thing as I remember – well it was, in the sense that no one else was dancing, as they were all probably too full of limp salad and tiny sausages, but it wasn’t the first dance. It was just a dance, I think calculated by my Dad to try and encourage others to do the same. I picked up on this vibe in an almost Jedi like moment of mental connection, I knew what he was trying to do, and I liked it. By this time, my older brother (who has always had a more natural disposition on stage and a greater ability than I to say things coherently in general), had already cracked a joke to rapturous laughter at some earlier stage. I think it was about eating, drinking and being Mary… I can’t remember, or it was about three nuns in a boat. Either way, I had the notion that if there was ever a time to try my hand at saying something spontaneous though a microphone, it was now, in the bosom of my extended family and friends who would accept me out of (if nothing else) politeness to my Father.

So something was sparking in my mind, my Dad was dancing (a rare and unwieldy sight) and in the ether, from somewhere beyond, I could hear a voice saying, “It’s ok son, it’s ok, this is the time to make a joke about my bad dancing in order to get the other people dancing, even though they are struggling against the weight of many, many mini sausage rolls, now is the time. Look, I am your Father.” (That last joke only works if you pronounce ‘look’ in the same way as ‘fluke’ – which people in Staffordshire do, even though none of my family are actually from Staffordshire, but that doesn’t matter, as this disembodied voice of my Father encouraging me to talk on the microphone didn’t actually happen, and if it did, only I could hear it, so I would have got the Star Wars / Stokey accent reference anyway, so there.)

And I thought, yes! Yes, there is a joke in there somewhere… There is some vague notion of my Dad dancing and not being very good at it, and other people not dancing, who presumably can only be as bad, but probably better. I admit, I hadn’t really nailed it at this stage, but sweating, drunk and exhausted from being nearly two hours into a live set, I walked up to the microphone and looked out at the expectant faces in the large function room, my Father and my new Step Mum still standing alone in the centre of the dance floor, looking at me as if to say “now is the time! You can do it! Improvise!” and I said something along the lines of:

“They say that before people decide whether to dance or not they judge this by the least ability of the people already on the dance floor and so if my Dad is dancing, then you all should be too…”

It was a scene reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins’ one hundred and eleventh birthday speech in the Lord of the Rings where he declares “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve” and the crowd looks on in confusion while they try and deconstruct the meaning and whether or not it was an insult. I say it was reminiscent of that, because in another way, it was nothing like that all, having none of the wit, charm or craftsmanship that Tolkien possessed in unfair quantities. The only bit that was similar, was the crowd looking back at me in confused indifference, trying to work out what I’d just said, and if it made any sense. Which, it didn’t.

I mean it could have done. In hindsight. Oh yes, in hindsight, given the 15 years or so since this happened and my development as a writer, I can look at this sentence and edit it down to the following: “If my Dad’s dancing, then you’ve got nothing to worry about. Have a dance.” Which isn’t really that funny either, but as light banter, would have been more succinct and may have raised a titter. It also has the added benefit of letting the audience fill in the blanks for themselves. It is implied that it is about ability, rather than force-fed, showing respect to their intelligence. To give credit to my Dad, he seemed to get the intent behind my garbled declaration and gave a pantomime look to the crowd as if to say “he’s right you know!”, although this may have actually been to say “I don’t know either… Maybe if you just come up and dance he won’t try and speak again.”

I was lucky really that no one took me to task on my comment. Thank God there were no hecklers at my Dad’s wedding. It wouldn’t have taken much. The first comment that springs to mind is, “Who says that?” as in, “Who says that before people decide to dance they judge the least ability of other people on the dance floor?” To which I would have had to reply, “I don’t know, just people, old wise people on a mountain somewhere…” and they may have said, “Why do they say that?” to which I could retort, “because I asked them – I anticipated that you would all spend more time inhaling bread sticks and tiramisu then you would listening to my band play for several hours at my own Dad’s wedding, and then come in here and sit watching us play it all again without even attempting to dance, and as such, I travelled to a wise man in Mongolia, yeah, Mongolia because it sounds mysterious and that’s where wise men on mountains live, and I found the wisest man, on the highest mountain, and I said to him – why is that people don’t dance sometimes? And he told me why. But to be sure, I went to the next highest mountain and found the next wisest man, and asked him the same, and he gave me the same answer. I repeated this exercise several times to make sure I had a consensus of opinion from multiple sources, hence why I referred to the plural ‘they’ in my rendering of this Eastern wisdom. It wasn’t just my panicking mind reaching desperately for an elusive third party with which to frame my witticism, it was the result of many months of hard travel and research.”

Of course, the next rebuke may have been, “but what does it mean? The order of the words you chose to speak, doesn’t really make sense does it Garry? They ‘judge the least ability’? Did you mean, they judge the ability of others dancing, and if they deem themselves to be similar or better, they may feel more comfortable and participate in the awkward social situation without fear of embarrassment?” to wit I would have to concede, “Yes, that’s basically what I meant, but as demonstrated by your lengthy interpretation of my intended observation, that doesn’t make for much of a snappy one liner to say between songs does it? So all I knew, was that I wanted to say something that meant the same as what you just said, but had to be shorter, which in my current heightened, adrenalin and alcohol fuelled mindset, I couldn’t quite achieve. I only hope that this protracted conversation with you, the imaginary heckler, has clarified this point to all the other guests here and we can move on from this unfortunate and ill conceived attempt at spontaneity and enjoy the rest of the evening…”

And I looked up from this exchange, feeling I had vindicated myself from any embarrassment or misunderstanding only to find that the room was now empty, the crowd, impatient as they were for me to stop talking to myself retrospectively from the future, had slinked off back to the next room, because a waiter had just brought out some more, hot, unidentifiable breaded goods that someone suspected was garlic mushrooms… And we all like garlic mushrooms don’t we? Except for those people who don’t. In fact, they say that those people who aren’t sure about breaded goods on a buffet judge themselves by the least ability of others to decide whether or not to eat them, don’t they? Yeah they do. That’s what ‘they’ say, and I know that because I went to Mongolia to ask them.

THE END.

Syria. A good day for democracy?

A funny thing happened when I came to write this blog last week. I had just written my (now previous) blog on out TV viewing habits (available here: https://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/08/31/the-rise-and-demise-of-the-boxed-set/), but felt unable to post it due to certain more serious stuff going on in the world. The blog was all ready to go but it just felt exceptionally unnecessary at the time when we were poised on the edge of another conflict. So, I decided to shelve the fluff blog and look at Syria, see if I couldn’t get some thoughts together.

It was the day of the commons vote, and I was trying to pick my way through the bafflement of it all. I was (and still am) acutely aware of the myriad voices speaking on the matter, most of which carry more authority and knowledge on the issue. So, I didn’t want to add another opinion piece, pulled out of thin air, to the strata of loose opinion that is already out there, and instead decided to look specifically at the question itself, the question being:

What do I think about Syria? (specifically, what can I think?)

Bearing in mind that this was before the surprise vote last Thursday that ruled us out of conflict in the UK, I will paraphrase here some of the notes I made from the never-released blog (and when I say notes, I am literally trying to read my own hand-writing). Following this, I shall just offer a little update, now I know what happened last week.

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(original blog, Thursday 29th August, afternoon)

The question isn’t what do other people think about Syria, the question is what do I think about it?

At this point I am totally flooded by a sense of ignorance, resorting to snippets and tit-bits gleamed from the news and other people’s social feeds.

A vocabulary emerges for people who like me, have not specifically researched the issue but who have rather ‘allowed’ the research to find them semi-distracted and sub-consciously absorbent.

The words that spring to mind immediately are:

Assad, regime, rebels, Damascus, terrorists, Islam, oil, Turkey … And now (with this latest development), chemical weapons, UN, resolutions, weapons inspectors, arms, Russia, China, allies, USA, Obama, Hans Blix, intelligence and so on.

But what do I think about Syria?! To be honest, I know next to nothing about it, and what I do know, I only think I know. I’m not getting all philosophical, metaphysical about it or denying reality here, it’s just true.

So, I could say that the Western interests are forcing its hand to intervene in the ‘civil war’, and that the stability of oil supplies and wider business interests in the region is actually closer to the true motive for intervention than any humanitarian concern. But I have this niggling feeling that Syria (like Libya) are not huge sources of oil production, or tactically as important as say Iraq or Afghanistan. But I don’t know any of this, I can’t even cite my sources.

Another possibility is that our leaders really do ‘draw the line’ on the use of chemical weapons, as hypocritical as that seems to me. I could justify this idea though, because I can imagine how the rich and powerful could foster a twisted morality whereby the reasons and the scale by which you kill people become less important that the means by which you do so. A kind of honour-amongst-thieves scenario. Yes, we happily go around killing civilians, but with drones and missiles, not with gas. Etc..

But I can’t be sure, who can other than the handful of people making these decisions? And even then, if they are ‘convincing themselves’ in order to make the organised killing of humans more palatable to their conscience, how can we trust that there thinking is clear and reasonable?

Another problem is that I can find a counter claim to every accusation made by our leaders, simply be reading the retorts of the involved parties. When a spokesman from the Assad regime says this whole thing is a set-up by the West to draw them into conflict, why shouldn’t I believe them? I’m not saying I do, but it’s not like the CIA haven’t created or encouraged ‘trigger’ events before, so why shouldn’t we entertain the idea that they are doing it again? After all, if the regime don’t want to be bombed into tiny pieces by the West (and I’m guessing they don’t), why would they do the one thing that looks certain to guarantee it? It would almost make sense for the none-specific ‘rebels’ to stage this, in order to bring about this set of circumstances. But who knows? I don’t.

Given the thought process I’ve just briefly set out, are our MPs really able to make such informed choices? If they deny evidence produced by those who rule them and want war, would they not be branded unreasonable and risk losing the little power they have been allowed to keep?

If an answer is incompatible with any logical puzzle, it cannot be a solution to anything. A bit like ‘Jeopardy’, the American game show where the answer is stated and then the question must be guessed. But in this version, the question and answer must constitute a positive truth. So the answer could never be ‘a unicorn’, because the only question could be ‘name a mythical flying horse’, which would constitute a myth, a negative reality as such. For me, ‘war’ as we know it (not self-defence), will never be the answer to a positive reality question. It will never justify any possible question that can be asked. This is why no amount of thinking or debate, or evidence, should ever lead us logically to military intervention. Which leaves us only with other factors, less honourable intentions.

***

So that was my blog, but I decided to wait for the vote before posting it, and as I guess you know, our house of commons voted against any military action in Syria. Big hooray yeah? I think so, but then…

It was hard to fathom at first, as I sat listening to the live house of commons session. An amendment was made to the bill by Labour, specifically Ed Miliband, that called for a second vote at a later time once the weapons inspectors had actually finished their task of you know, inspecting weapons. I must admit at this point I was confused, having been out all day and only just sat down to hear the process, I wasn’t aware of the structure of debate. As far as I could tell, whatever happened, there would be a second vote after the UN had published its findings, which I thought was at least better for our elected representatives to make an informed choice.

So, as I listened, Nick (what-is-the-point-of-me) Clegg was defending/explaining (badly) how it would work if a second vote was needed, and quite rightly being questioned by a stream of confused MPs as to why a need for the first vote, if a second vote was going to happen anyway. As usual, the pointless voice of Clegg evaded and danced around the question, while constantly assuring them that the result of the first vote wouldn’t be taken as licence to act. So why the vote at all? I wondered, as did most of the house, it seems.

Then, the house withdrew to vote on the amended version, and the amendment was defeated. Immediately the house withdrew to vote on the original bill, and it was only at this point I started to grasp that this meant no second vote, if this was passed, we were as good as signing up for the conflict. I tried to reconcile why it was then that I had just heard Clegg defending Miliband’s own amendment to his own party members, but before I could unpick this, the vote came back and the original bill was also defeated! Cameron said one of the most clear things I have heard him say, that it was obvious the house didn’t want to take action and that he would therefore respect that, and that was that. No war!

But wait! Was this a victory for Miliband? Well, no. If his amended bill had of gone through, the vote for war would have happened again the next week, which by then, no doubt, plenty of ‘compelling’ evidence would have been compiled. So Miliband, Clegg and Cameron all had a position that led us to war/intervention, whatever you want to call it (killing people, basically). It was only the surprise overturning of both bills, by rebels in both parties I expect, that prevented all our leaders (opposition and all) from getting what they wanted. Conflict.

So now, am I meant to be happy with this? I get a suspicious shudder when I think that actual ‘democracy’ happened last week, because I have learned not to trust the power people, and now don’t know if I should just be happy, or wary. I’m certainly weary.

I can’t shake the feeling that something good happened, but that there will be repercussions. And I don’t mean, more chemical attacks etc… Conflict is conflict, solving it with conflict, that doesn’t add up. I mean, in our processes that allowed us to actually say ‘no’ this time. And then (the even more suspicious side of me) worries that this was engineered in order to show a glimmer of democratic control at a time when so much vile and damaging domestic policy is being shoe-horned in against the will of so many people, and no real opposition exists. But hey, at least we aren’t going to lob some missiles at another country right?

What has happened to me that makes me think everything our governments do is so suspicious? Even when it is something I want? Is it me? Is it paranoia?

No. I don’t think so. I am perfectly able to conceive of a world where the kind of inequalities I see, the kind that lead to conflict, disease and death, are not present. And in this world, the only factor that is different, is the lack of the ‘kind’ of people that are running things currently, and the systems that support them and that they utilise, i.e. massive financial backing. Sorry, MASSIVE FINANCIAL BACKING and access to machines of war, that just isn’t made available to the rest of us, because if it were, we just wouldn’t accept the lots we have been granted, across the world.

That’s what I think of Syria, I think. I hope that the suffering is alleviated by greater wisdom than we seem to posses at the moment. I hope that ‘Nobel peace prize’ Obama is defeated in his congress vote to happen soon, but I guess he won’t be. I hope we do not get consistent with the shame and pressure we should be pouring on all the leaderships of our democracy who tried so sneakily to dupe us into conflict, and that we stand up more often to be counted against the multitude of sins that are taking place both at home and abroad by people who would convince us they are helping us, while they are really feeding off us.

But then, I hope a lot of things.

 

Totally Leek

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(Take a bow Marc…!)

For those of you who don’t know, I have strong connections with a sleepy little market town in the Staffordshire Moorlands, at the foot of the peak district, called ‘Leek’.

I worked there for about ten years in my former life at a building society, I lived there for three years, my band ‘Gravity Dave’ (www.facebook.com/gravitydave) are based there, I ran a music festival for the last 4 years (www.leeksummerjam.com – unfortunately on hold for 2013 while we take time to consider our options), and best of all, I have good friends there.

So I have taken an interest, I am a Leek ‘fan’ if you prefer. I may not live there any more, but I am there every week for rehearsals, and often on other odd days for gigs & visits. Nowadays, I live in Longton with my partner, and as nice as it is, well, it’s just not Leek.

I try and explain this to people when I talk about how much I miss the place (even though I’m often there). The usual explanation goes something like,

“You can just walk out of your door you know, and it’s nice, just being able to ramble round the shops, maybe see a few familiar faces. Have a pint. Oh, and it’s great when there’s a market on…”

Because that’s what you get in Leek, a proper yet inclusive localism. Maybe it’s just because I’ve joined the ranks of the self-employed, but I know so many traders, musicians, artists and skilled people who live and work there. And maybe that’s why it was so nice to see the opening of Leek’s first ‘pop-up emporium’ last Thursday (04/07/13).

It’s bitter sweet in a way, because the good people of the unique gift-shop ‘Colloco’ (http://www.colloco.co.uk/) have decided to wind up their high-street presence, but luckily for the rest of us, the driving force of the ‘Totally Locally’ campaign in Leek (http://totally-locally.co.uk/leek/), Colloco’s Marc Briand, has decided to allow other traders in for the final couple of months of the tenure, to road-test Leek’s first pop-up.

And so it was, on Thursday, while taking a swift break from a gruelling day of setting up recording equipment for a Gravity Dave session (and it was gruelling, there are about 5 sets of stairs to our lofty practice room, and they wind and turn like an Escher painting), I decided to nip out for some grub before the big push. Our fantastic volunteer producer (another Leek talent, a man who knows everything there is to know about recording and is a talented musician to boot) asked if I could pick up some biscuits from the health-food shop, but alas, it was closed. So a quick call later and I was asked to grab “a nice Tartlet from Pronto”. Pronto is the gorgeous little Deli, which handily for me, is also directly opposite the newly opened Pop-Up shop.

So, clutching my bag containing my ‘nice tartlet’ and other goodies, I wandered into the waiting crowd at the official opening. There were lots of smiling faces and a vibe of energy running through the place, as producers, customers and local dignitaries gathered round to browse, chat, promote, network, and nibble on the free snacks (also provided by Pronto).

Once the photos were done and the ribbon cut, we all filed back in to the sound of Dominic Morgan (the hardest working musician in the North from what I can tell – check out his fantastic acoustic numbers here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dom-Morgan/411516972218221?fref=ts), and continued our joyful perusing.

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First stop, for multiple reasons, was the wonderful Miscos chocolates stand, (www.miscoschocolates.co.uk). I say multiple reasons because a) I love their chocolates and wanted to bag myself a salted-caramel cup, and b) because ‘Cisco’ from ‘Miscos’ is the bassist in my band and I wanted to let him know how the set up was going, and c) because Meg & Cisco from Miscos are very good friends of mine and I’ve watched them build up this amazing business, and helped out where I can. The fixture looked amazing, as you can see:

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After that, I started my quick scanning of the rest of the wares. I’ve spoke to Marc about the whole set up before, hoping that if it continues long enough I may well start my own book-stand to sell a few of my upcoming self-published titles. He told me about the many and diverse local producers in the area that he has discovered thanks to the cooperation that has emerged out of the ‘totally locally’ campaign. That was certainly evidenced here, and this is only the first brave batch of traders to have a pop at the pop-up format.

From clothing (I particularly like the ‘Choose Leek’ range, see below), to jewellery, haberdashery, a great range of craft cards and gifts (I bought myself a modest little notebook and badge set from the fun and cheerful ‘Crap Cat’ range, below) and even the odd bit of local publications and art from the ‘Borderland Voices’ group (http://www.borderlandvoices.org.uk/). Plus a whole lot more that I had neither the time or memory to list here for now. Just go and see it, that’s the best way.

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So, after my quick browse, purchase, snacks and salted caramel cup (yes!), I left them to it so I could walk back along the historic market town  of Leek to my practice room and get on with the job of recording. It was perfect timing. Our producer relished his tartlet, I got to see the pop-up shop, and a great evening of recording lay ahead of me.

These kind of days happen in Leek all the time. You pop out for something and you see something else. It may be one of the many Markets (the fine-food market every first Sunday is a must…), or the local, independent restaurants, cafe’s, pubs and shops that are working together to show what high-streets can and should look like. They are defying the odds when you look at the topography of Leek only to see it is surrounded on all sides by massive national/global supermarkets, all trying to turn every town into a boring carbon-copy vision of a generic shopping-hell future, undercutting prices and sapping character from every corner of the country. But not in Leek, not yet, and hopefully not ever. Not while we have the cooperation and enthusiasm of the local producers working with each-other and the council (when possible) to stage events, offer local discounts, start pop-up shops (hopefully one of many to come), put on amazing markets and generally just be a cool place for a day out, or (if you can convince your fiancé to move there, which I’m working on), a life lived.

Where else can you… (in no particular order):

  • Grab a slice of stone-baked pizza over a continental larger… (The Napoli. http://www.thenapoli.co.uk/)
  • Try the rare-bread meat’s, artisan bread, chocolates, and local brew beers on your way through town (Fine food market)
  • Drop into a few antique centres, just for the fun of it if you like, they’re always interesting places, full of little treasures (the many antique centres)
  • Freshen up with a Belgian beer or two (Den Engels Belgian Bar)
  • Drop in and browse a selection of wares from local producers in a friendly and colourful atmosphere (totally locally pop-up – https://www.facebook.com/TotallyLocallyLeek)
  • Grab a posh-oatcake and choose from dozens of real ales from the good people of Titanic brewery (The Roebuck)
  • Have a coffee, see an exhibition, or catch a few bands in the historic ‘Foxlowe’ community arts centre (http://www.foxloweartscentre.org.uk/) (The Situation – original music nights every month at the Foxlowe, amongst other events, https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Situation/113561162062815?fref=ts).
  • Pop into a wine tasting evening (http://www.wineandwhisky.com/), drop in to the Deli for a ‘nice tartlet’ and wander over to the beautiful park for a sit down, drink and a snack…

These are just a few things that spring to mind, there are lots more, and it’s only a small place! I know other towns also do or are starting to do this kind of thing, I just hope they all follow through on the experience and bring this laid-back yet skilled and productive continental style brand of localism to the whole nation. (I secretly cheer a little inside every time I hear of another multi-national chain store going into administration. That model is broken and if we keep up with doing it ourselves and supporting local producers, maybe even the MPs will take note and start reducing the over-inflated business rates fixed by the mass-buying power of the faceless corporations… you never know).

So another great day in Leek. If you’ve not been, visit. If you want to know about the ‘Totally Locally’ model, feel free to contact the guys through the links provided in this article, they are all about best practice and idea sharing, and maybe you can make a Leek of your own, in your own town, supporting your neighbours and local traders, providing skilled and independent jobs, making the high street a nice place to be again.

Well done Leek. Keep it up.

Of the Benefits of Crisis

There is an important question that should cross the mind of anyone who makes a departure from a particular career after a significant amount of your life has been given to it: Have I just avoided a mid-life crisis, or am I heading towards one? I had this thought last night, a bit drunk, while smoking and looking at the stars as usual. I should request here that those who say that 31 is hardly ‘mid-life’ to put semantics aside for the purposes of this article… you get my meaning.

A few months ago I finally left employment at the bank I had worked at for about ten years. It was a job that I had originally taken as an agency worker in my very early twenties after dramatically leaving my job at a pub due to differences in opinion (I thought the landlady was a nosy drunk, she didn’t). Before working at the pub I had been placed in several factory/warehouse jobs by agencies, so this time I wanted to try something that a) required greater use of my brain, and b) had somewhere to sit. So I decided to try and get a job in an office. At the time I had no inkling that I could turn my skills as a musician into a paying enterprise, and writing was still just an occasional hobby. I just wanted some money so that I could live for a bit and see what happened. The agency took some persuading, usually when I asked for office work they would nod, stare blankly, tell me that they would have a look, and then send me to a factory in the meantime. But eventually I got in at Britannia Building Society in Leek and was able to don my old school black trousers and shoes (literally, that’s not a fashion comment), pull on an ill-fitting work shirt (having fluctuated in weight by two stones since I had last bought any) and head to my new office job where they had computers and everything.

For the first two months I was put in a documents store room and spent all day on my feet filing miscellaneous paperwork into mortgage deeds. We had one chair between three of us, no windows and no supervision. It was just like being at a factory again, but eventually, after what seemed to be some kind of sadistic trial period, they let me upstairs to hit keys on computers and move paper around. They soon found, as did I, that I’m quite good at hitting keys on computers and moving bits of paper around. I was also quite good at telling other people what keys to hit and where the paper needed to be moved to, so I moved relatively quickly into a job where I helped to figure out what keys needed pressing, and even designed some of the bits of paper that got moved around.

I can’t say I enjoyed it, in fact, I pretty much hated it. I even grew to miss the honesty of putting cups in boxes, because it was a clear and distinct task that had some merit and needed doing. Most of the work at the bank, especially when I got involved in projects, was reactionary and unnecessary. It could have been done by the computers if they would just spend the time and money. But apart from that, it was just so damn false and I quickly learned how much emphasis was put on advertising and internal propaganda. They wanted us to whistle while we worked (not literally), to be ‘on-board’ and ‘with the programme’ – we were quite often told that if we didn’t agree with the bank’s ‘values’ we should leave (all very well and good coming from an exec who pockets over a million pounds each year… it’s easy to hold values with that kind of incentive). But I persevered, I panicked but did nothing, I threw my efforts outside of work into a relationship which eventually broke down, and then I had my first quarter life crisis.

I say a quarter life crisis because I must have been 25 at the time, so although it’s unlikely I will see 100, again, you get the meaning. As I found myself moving back home, a shadow of a possible life left behind me, I laid a lot of blame at the feet of my job. I had thrown myself into work, going for interviews, moving up the ladder slightly, bringing home the pay and bonuses. I had convinced myself that was what was required when I moved in with my girlfriend. I had a household to support etc… all that protestant work ethic crap which was somehow engrained in me (and still is to an extent – it’s that feeling of guilt you get when not being productive). But it made me unhappy, creatively starved and frustrated. That probably wasn’t the reason the relationship ended, but my retrospection found it the easiest thing to target as something I could do something about. I couldn’t do anything about the failed relationship, that was over, and I was determined not to slide into self-pity and destruction (I had done that before and it wasn’t pretty for a while). So I took the big, bold step of… going part-time. It doesn’t sound like much, but I was determined to carve out some space to figure out what I wanted to do. As quite often happens when you come out of a situation, I rediscovered a lot of my friends were still there, waiting to be supportive (I’m very lucky in that respect), and things started to happen. I moved to Leek with a friend and we set up a music production business, I got involved in organising events, I restarted my education with the open university and started to write, I lived by myself for a year (everyone should try it), I got engaged, I joined a band, I moved in with my fiancé, and then, last of all, after ten years of waiting for the right moment, I gave up the day job.

That was three months ago now. February 2013. Throughout all the changes I had continued to work for the bank, partly because I still didn’t have the confidence to give it up, but mainly because for the last three years there was the possibility of redundancy and walking away with a reasonable sum of money (due to the take-over by wool-clad wolf, the Co-op – see https://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/ethical-alternative-my-guide-to-the-coop/). Eventually that possibility, though still hanging in the air as a remote distant chance, was denied to me. While others around me were losing jobs they wanted to keep, I couldn’t get rid of mine. I tried my best to argue the senselessness of this to the powers that be, even ending up face to face with my ‘big boss’ and telling him what I thought of the way they did things, but it didn’t make a difference. Perhaps I had showed my cards too often, threatened to leave just one too many times, because they wouldn’t cut me loose. Why would you give me money to go when I quite obviously wanted to leave anyway? That’s the corporate way. Despite all the work and energy I had given them for ten years, despite the moving of the ground from beneath our feet as one lot of corporate clowns took over the running of our lives from another bunch, that path was not open.

And so, after a few sleepless nights and the flaring up of every ailment in my mind and bodies repertoire of stress-induced warning signs, I gave it up. It was not very dramatic in the end. I told them I was going to leave, they did the paperwork, and within a couple of weeks (thanks to stored up holidays), I walked out of the building for the last time, with the sun and the chatter of open-office politics behind me. I was overwhelmed for a minute or two as I drove away, laughing tears, and then I was back to normal. I waited a few weeks for the reality to kick in, but it already had. All I had now was what I made of it, all I have now is what I make of it.

So the point of this blog is, have I just gone avoided a mid-life crisis or am I walking straight into one? And I hope to make this appraisal global enough for this blog to be of value to anyone else reading who has or might be thinking the same thing, otherwise I’d just be sharing with you chapters from my life, which is not my intention.

One of my nightmares as a teenager was ending up like ‘Ernold Same’, the eponymous character from the Blur song over which Ken Livingstone drones this monologue:

Ernold Same awoke from the same dream
In the same bed at the same time
Looked in the same mirror
Made the same frown
And felt the same way he did every day,
Then Ernold Same caught the same train
At the same station, sat in the same seat
With the same nasty stain
Next to him the same old what’s his name
On his way to the same place to do the same thing
Again and again, poor old Ernold Same.

– ‘Ernold Same’, Blur.(The Great Escape, 1995)

                So if turning away from a day job at a bank, in which I sat in the same chair, next to the same people, doing the same things, again and again, the same drive to work, the same canteen, the same coffee machine, the same pot plants, the same meetings, the same screens, the same problems and the same solutions, the same frustrations, the same politics, the same building, has made me a little less like Ernold Same, and a crisis that is, then a crisis is certainly a good thing and I would urge anyone considering having one to go for it.

If on the other hand, the crisis is forthcoming, and this is a temporary stop-gap where everyday my work is what I make it, be it writing music for high-street companies, writing stories, writing scripts, writing scores for original films, writing blogs, or whatever else I choose to do, then what a crisis the next one will be! Is it possible that one crisis will cancel out another and I could end up back at a desk in an office? Not if I have anything to do with it, not unless the work that takes place in that office is  creative and/or for the benefit of those who need it (the moral-void of bank work is a strong motivator to express yourself and help others). So now, as a fledgling self-employed person, with all the uncertainty that brings, not knowing if the last paid job was literally my last paid job, having to try and pick my opportunities from everything I am capable of and convince others of that capability, a crisis would surely be a good development. I mean, the last two crises I’ve had started my desire to educate myself further and produce original work, and have given me the opportunity to do so. What will be next? So far, I’ve had only net gain from crises, the only thing that was ever holding me back was not instigating one in the first place.

I say, if you are heading towards a crisis, at whatever stage in your life, bring it on! It is a creative act and we are creative creatures. It is decision and action, and those are attributes we are blessed with. Aristotle said that our capacity for reason was the objective of human-life, and that only aiming for mere survival like plants and beasts is to not fulfil our humanity. So let’s not be plants, not just now, maybe another life-time if you believe in that kind of thing, but not now. Let’s greet crisis with open arms, because it means something is about to change, and change is the only way we can create (there was only ever one truly creative act in this Universe, and no one really knows how that came about, we just work with what we’ve got).

So in answer to my own question, I think I have both gone through a crisis, and am heading towards my next one, and I hope that is always the case.  For others, and I do not mean to undermine the choices people make, some people genuinely do want to work for a bank or other such industries and that’s fine (though I wager most people don’t), but if you are becoming a bit ‘samey’ and you wonder where that feeling of wasted time and senselessness is coming from and what, if anything, you can do about it, instigate a crisis of your own. So far, the evidence tells me, they can be very good things, if you have control (which of course we all do, though it may not seem that way). There is a fundamental truth in here somewhere, even if the crisis comes to you and seems negative, there is nothing you can do about the past, there is only how we choose to appraise and move on from it to the future by choosing the present moment by moment. That is not a wishy-washy, motivational sound-bite, it is just a statement of fact. I certainly don’t feel that I have ‘made it’ yet, and the anxiety of self-employment is a formidable foe (this article is just one round in the fight against it), but I’m definitely on the right ladder now, which is a start.