Friday, 3 February 2017

Your Latest Trick

Let's be honest: right now, if you are approaching a till in a shop with the intention of paying with your smart watch there's a high probability that the person behind you thinks that you are a pretentious idiot.

I've had this happen to me a few times now, where I've been standing in a queue with my ever-so-last-century coinage in my hand, ready to take out a small payday loan so that I can afford to pay the extortionate amount being asked for in exchange for a cup of coffee, only to be delayed as someone in front of me insists on pushing back their sleeve, twisting their arm (thus spilling half the drink) and holding their wrist at the correct distance from the scanner for the signal to be transmitted and paying without the arguably quicker but less flashy alternative of getting their debit card out of their wallet.

I must admit to being a little bit guilty here myself because after some initial grumbling about not seeing how it can make transactions any safer I now regularly pay via contact less with my bank card, thus saving me having to input my PIN and probably shaving 20 seconds off what would have otherwise been a more lengthy purchase interaction.

Now I know this is going to sound out of fashion and like an old man grumbling but the basic, single purpose I wear a watch for is because I want it to tell me the time.

Back at school when I was a kid I experimented with digital watches.  Most of them had two or three buttons and a read out based on an 8888 square in poor LEDs.  One or two even had alarms.  As a kid I was even banned from wearing a watch at school - the culprit being a clockwork Mickey Mouse watch from disneyland that ticked so loudly it disrupted the class.

Eventually i returned to a simple watch with hands - I've probably had my current one for 15-20 years with only the occasional change of strap or battery and am in no immediate rush to upgrade.

But the thing is with the smart watch is that I can't help but feel that people are jumping the gun a bit.

Take the mobile phone,  When these first came out in the 1980s they were exclusively used by Wall Street types and came with big battery packs, antenna and a transmission distance only slightly better than standing at the other side of a room and yelling at the person you wanted to talk to.

Nowadays of course you have phones that can control drones, book you a table at a restaurant, organise your fitness regime and take prize winning photographs - but the problem is the rate at which the technology is changing.

Apple and their contenders seem to be releasing new, improved iphones every six months ago that via a tiny improvement or change immediately render your previous phone as obsolete as a penny farthing bicycle - I've personally resisted buying a new games console since the Playstation 2 largely because I got tired of having to buy a new one every year or so because the new version wouldn't play my old games (and because of the price of the games themselves)

And I'm not convinced by the 3D systems going around at the moment - they seem clunky and gimmicky

Personally my suggestion is to hang on for a while and see what comes next - meanwhile in the short term if your watch is still telling you the time then surely that's good enough?

Friday, 13 January 2017

Live It Up

I'm now officially old.

To be fair - I think I was born 60 and it got worse as time went on, but there are several things that have led me to the conclusion that the top of the hill is now behind me.

The first thing that tells you that your dotage is upon you is the way that women (usually Grand mothers and young mothers) refer to you, particularly when they are pointing you out to a young child that is in their care.

It starts well with, "do you see that boy there" and moves on to "that young man" before the inevitable "that Gentleman" and finally, of course, "that old man" (by which they are trying to warn their kid "keep away, he could collapse at any second")

The second thing is, of course, new technology.  (Author) Douglas Adams famously once wrote that "anything invented before you were born is in the Natural Order Of Things, anything between then and around 35 years is a New And Exciting Gadget and that anything invented much after your 40th year is Against God And Must Be Stopped.

I was actually having a conversation around the second point at work the other day with a girl half my age who was saying things like "oh I can eat whatever I like and never put on any weight" and "I can't ever see myself not understanding new tech the way my grandmother does" - and yet even she, spring chicken that she comparatively was, admitted that there were elements of social media, such as Twitter, which she didn't really follow (Twitter is beyond me I'm afraid: please explain where the joy is in reading half a stranger's text message).  My personal gripe is 3D movies - if the story wasn't good in the first place then some actor waving to the screen and arrows flying out at you isn't going to make it any better (I studiously avoid them and will only go to 2D screenings)

Thirdly, of course, my pop culture references regularly go over the heads of people working in shops.  Just recently we went to a hobby shop to buy some glue, pens and other craft materials (we're very fond of gluing pens together in our house...) and whilst Herself was rummaging through her cavernous purse I joked to the assistant that "this is what happened to Lord Lucan and Shergar, you know: they got put in her bag for safe keeping"

Now I'm aware that anyone in the US may not get the reference to the disgraced 60s Lord whose clothes were found abandoned on the beach in the wake of the Police wanting to speak to him in relation to a murder, or to the Grand National winning horse that rumour has it may have been stolen by the IRA with intentions of ransoming it before they realised how hard a thoroughbred is to look after - but both are familiar names in the UK: or at least they should be.

However: even after a brief summary of the Lord Lucan affair (which, incidentally, happened before my time as well) the expression on the girl's face remained polite-yet-liable-to-call-security-at-any-moment.

Fourthly - and I just became aware that this post, although not originally intended to, is slowly turning into a list-o-fives post -  I'm hopelessly out of touch with New And Upcoming Musical Artistes.  This is something I actually regret - we used to have a 1/2 hour music show here called Top Of The Pops which showed you the top 40 selling singles in the chart and if that were still on today then I would be fully versed because a half-hour music show is about the right length for me and I can't be bothered with all these 1 hour music video shows you get on the digital channels

The most up-and-coming music act that I recently discovered was Gregory Porter: who it has to be said has a great voice and some wonderful tunes - but he's only a small amount younger than me and he sings Jazz - so it hardly qualifies me to announce that I am "down with the kids" (slang for hip - and by god does using the word "hip" make me sound even older)

Fifth - all of a sudden I find young people deeply annoying.

Actually that's not true: all my life I've found them deeply annoying, but it's got worse.  Particularly on public transports

There's this nice old image of the traditional Brit who sits in his shed all day, quietly stoking and smoking a pipe whilst he ponders over a tricky crossword, who never complains despite being kept waiting at the station for 5 hours (other than the occasional sigh or tut) and who absolutely DOES NOT spend the entire 2 hour train journey having a loud and vacuous phone conversation about their sex life whilst playing BubbleSaga or Angry Birds on their tablet

I have to admit to being a bit of a hypocrite here because as a child I used to insist on carrying around a small case of magic tricks and "entertaining" fellow passengers when the train broke down (which was a frequent occurrence back then) - quite frankly: if I met myself as a child now I would cheerfully stab myself to save anyone else the pain - but to be fair I was a hell of a lot quieter.  I don't know whether it's a thing of getting older or what, but it seems that anyone below the age of 17 is unable to speak at any volume lower than a bellow that would start an avalanche

Finally, of course, I have recently discovered the local Folk Club Scene.

For those of you who don't know Folk Clubs are still quite common in the UK and they usually have one or many of the following attributes:
* Real Ale drinkers - people who insist that beer has to be made Traditionally and by some bloke using his bath tub - to be the real thing
* Acoustic instruments - they're still bitter about Dylan going electric
* songs written over a 100 years ago, usually about how grim it was being a miner/weaver/peasant, containing "fol-de-rol"s or heavy innuendo
* people old enough to have heard the songs the first time around
* and, to be fair, a really friendly and informal atmosphere that is a hell of a lot of fun

But what they don't have: is young people - and this is a thing I've heard and seen a lot of recently. On the stand-up course I did the teacher bemoaned the fact that the audience watching him now were the same people as 10-15 years ago and that no new audience was coming through - and it's the same in the Folk Clubs - I may be getting on a bit, but the large proportion of people there are 15-20 years older than me and I wasn't aware of anyone younger

Which is a bit of a shame - I'd hate these clubs to go out of business and to vanish like so many things because they clung onto a forgotten ideal of what the world was like

Which brings me to the final thing about getting old - becoming afraid of change.  It's very easy to complain about things changing (as I've just proven) and history is full of people moaning that INSERT NEW FANGLED THING HERE is wrecking our society and changing things irretrievably but hey - change will happen regardless. 

Better to accept it and move on: maybe therein lies the secret of eternal youth?

Friday, 9 December 2016

What's So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding?

I narrowly missed meeting Elvis Costello today.  Although I'm not a big fan it would have been interesting to see him, maybe remind him of the jingle his dad wrote to advertise lemonade - or ask him if he ever changed his mind and decided he DID want to go to Chelsea.

As it was I was in London for two days to do a bit of work, see a friend who had come over from France to do some work and maybe take another friend to lunch.  It was here, at the second meeting, that I narrowly missed Mr Costello: as I was making my lunch appointment outside BBC Broadcasting House: a landmark one can't fail to miss (and nor should you) once you come up from Oxford Street Tube Station and locate the road in which you can see the church spire (it's just beyond that)

All of this is, by a long way round, in order to draw you, dear reader, underground into the dark pit that is London Underground.  Permanently overcrowded, constantly hot even in December and with minimal access for the disabled it is, nonetheless, a melting pot of humanity as commuters tut at the inconvenience of having to wait a whole two minutes for the next tube (they should try life in "the sticks" where missing a bus means...well, they may find your body eventually I guess...)

Oxford Circus is pretty much at the centre of London: the shops are still open and full to overflowing at 8 or 9 in the evening where little towns and cities like the one I live in have long since closed and gone to bed and, if asked to sell someone something would probably grunt before producing some kind of blunt weapon with nails in it: the kind that would, if it 'twere used, would really hurt.

Out in "the sticks" society tends to be more circumspect: there are still corners of this fair isle where the correct response to unusual behaviour is to purse ones lips, suck in air and tut loudly.  One is expected to conform, don't you know. 

Not like in London.  Where you get all sorts.

Take for instance last night

I had finished my meal with my friend from France and we had parted - her with my gift of a painting clutched under her arm (the only way I get to paint these days is if I can find some poor unsuspecting soul to inflict one on as a "gift") - and me to get on the tube at Oxford Circus to my hotel.  It's a journey of about 7-8 stops and I usually stay at the same place: just far enough out to be a bit cheaper (in London anywhere you don't have to take out a mortgage to buy a packet of sweets is considered "cheap")

At the second stop this bloke got on.  I didn't take much notice of him at first: just your usual heavy metal fan, I guessed: with his long black hair in a pony tail, black jacket, black t-shirt, black leggings, black Doctor Martin boots: he had clearly taken The Stones's instruction to "paint it black" very seriously indeed.

And so I drifted off into thought and forgot him for a station or two, but as he was sitting opposite me it was inevitable that, from time to time, I would glance in his direction.

And it was on one of these glances that I realised that what I had taken for leggings were, in fact, thick black ladies tights.

And that above these he was wearing a pair of very girlish hot pants.

As you can imagine: by now I was kinda intrigued.

And it was around the time that I noticed that his t-shirt was not, as I had originally surmised, bearing the logo of Death Monsters From Hell (or insert heavy rock artiste of choice) but contained a glammed up picture of Carrie Fisher circa Star Wars (the original) that he pulled a pink makeup bag out of his satchel and began applying foundation.

Now you may be wondering at this point: why am I telling you this?  I mean, he was just a guy out living his life doing the thing he wanted to do to make him happy and not hurting anyone else in the process, so where's the story bub?

Well: it's precisely that.  It's because being in London nobody, and I mean ABSOLUTELY NOBODY, gave a s*&t.  No one shot him a dirty look, no one tutted: nothing.  He just put on his make-up, got off at his stop and walked off, completely confident in his lifestyle choice.

And I have to say: I kinda envied him.  Not for the make-up: it really wasn't my shade...and the hot pants would have looked ridiculous below my sadly expanding gut (I am, of course, exaggerating here for comic effect.  About the only time I ever wore makeup was during a brief career as an amateur actor when I was a weasel in wind in the willows): it was his confidence in doing all of the above in a crowded underground train.

I'm a big music fan (you may have noticed) and was around to see the tail end of Punk.  I can still remember all the punks hanging around our city centre with their bright red, spiky hair and staples through their lips, belly buttons and assorted body parts.  But I would never have made it as one: I wouldn't have got two streets before dying of embarrassment, curling up into a ball and wanting the earth to swallow me: I'm much happier shrinking into the background.

And let's face it: 2016 has been a pretty shitty one for showing understanding and compassion.  We here in the UK were doing a pretty good job of being the stupidest country in the world at the start of the year until Donald Trump....but I won't go there other than to say that I recently met up with a devout Christian friend and, over dinner, said that he at least must be pleased: because surely everything that was happening was signs of the coming rapture (fortunately he has a good sense of humour)

And there was a part of me that, as this chap got off the train, wanted to chase after him, introduce myself and say: "Good show old bean.  Life's too short to be living according to what other people expect of you" - but, of course being a natural coward I did nothing of the above and now shall never know the fuller story.

As it was I found myself in front of New Broadcasting House the next day explaining all of the above to my friend over coffee and we came to the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, a world where this kind of freedom could still exist may not be so bad after all.  After all: what's so funny about peace, love and understanding?????

Take it away Elvis...

Friday, 4 November 2016

Where The Streets Have No Name

I'm on a secondment for the next six months.  Great because it's closer to home, so less travel, but not so great because the work dried up almost as soon as I joined...

The train journey is about 35 minutes as opposed to 1hr 30 so I'm there and home a lot quicker.  It's getting colder and darker though, so I'm often coming and going after the sun has gone down

In the morning it's cold, the frost hanging on my breath, the ice growing stubbornly on my windscreen.  It's a half-mile walk from the station to my work: you come out, go down in the lift, cross the road at the lights, turn right up the hill and then first left under the flyover and you're there.

No distance at all.  No distance at all

Yet in the 10 minutes or so it takes me to walk it I see anywhere between 2 and 6 homeless people.

Most of them are usually asleep in the doorway of a closed down lap-dancing club, covered in an array of duvets that have seen better days, barely visible beneath the thin layers.  Some of them sit outside the coffee shop, or the small supermarket.  Sometimes they lie under the underpass or sit in the walk-in entrance to the car park.

One or two will call out for help: just a bit of change please.  I give them what I can: not every day and not much.  I used to really worry about giving homeless people money: what if they use it for buying drugs? what about the next person and the next and the next?  Then I realised: what they spend it on is their choice.  Sometimes I buy them a coffee instead, once I took someone to lunch (a Big Issue (magazine sold by homeless people) seller that I have become friends with) - it's not much and I guess it doesn't make much difference, but it's better than nothing.

Most of them didn't choose to be there: some just had a run of bad luck, some are running from something or someone, others may have mental health issues.  Mostly they are just trying to survive as best as they can.

And every day I think the same thing.  Every time I give a few coins, or when I don't, I think: how can we allow this?

How can it be that in a first world country, where most of us carry £600-£800 worth of smart phones in our pocket, where second homes sit empty and properties are allowed to fall into disrepair - how can we allow people to fall through the cracks of society and be left to rot?

So I do what I can, not always but sometimes.  It's not enough, it doesn't change a thing - but maybe it's a start

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Stand Up, Comedy (Part 2)

About a week before my Stand Up Comedy day course last year Herself suddenly turned to me and said, "Well, you could have asked me if I wanted to come as well"

This, it should be said, despite the fact that I had told her all about the course repeatedly and she'd had ample chance to jump on board.  I pointed this out and said, "well, the tickets are still on sale - would you like to go?"

As it happened she wasn't really feeling up to it, so decided to pass - but we did agree that we would both go on the longer version of the course from April - July that also included the chance to take part in a showcase at a local Arts Centre

Now the first problem with the course was that it was on a Monday night - and Monday's are traditionally difficult in my job as it's the day I am needed in the office for our main meeting (a meeting that could equally be held entirely remotely via the internet if it weren't for the large number of Dinosaurs that work with me) - so I had to get permission to work from a different office that was much (100 miles) closer to the course.  Having agreed this with my colleague and immediate boss you can imagine my surprise when, having paid for the course, my boss upped and left the company without telling his boss what had been agreed.

Fortunately I was able to argue that I could offer support just as easily from a remote location and could therefore complete the course.

A lot of the material was the same and many of the exercises were ones that I had already done but the structure was different - in the first hour we did group exercises, whilst in the second there was a "show and tell" section for the class members to try out the routines they were working on and get feedback from the others and the teacher.

The honest truth is that you can't really teach comedy as there is no right and wrong - but you can learn about different styles of comedy, where ideas can come from and get useful feedback.

Excercises included:

Taking a household chore and assigning one of the seven deadly sins to it - so how would your attitude to washing up be affected if you were Slothful or Envious etc

Anthrophormorphisation (probably spelt wrong) - assigning a character trait to an inanimate object.  How might a tin of tuna feel about never being used etc

Another thing we talked about was the economy of language - often taking the shortest route to a joke is the best so that people can keep track without speeding ahead

Pretty early on I started writing my routine - it developed from a single joke about my hometown to an entire routine of 40 jokes (we had a five minute slot each in the showcase, which was open to the public), many of which were inspired by the location I lived for the past ten years

I wrote and re-wrote, all the time telling Herself that maybe it would be a good idea to at least write something and that the deadline was looming increasingly closely on the horizon (she seems to thrive on waiting till the last minute)

My main fear was my memory - I was so afraid of forgetting bits that I would constantly repeat the jokes in my head or out loud if no one was around hoping that they would stick - I did decide that I would have a sheet of paper with bullet points on and that I would finish on a song

Now I've done a small amount of amateur theatre in the past and we are both members of a public speaking group - but the difference with acting is that there are other people on stage whose lines will help you to put a framework around your own - this time I would have only my memory: and each time I repeated them there would be a blank spot somewhere.

The first time I tried the routine at class there was a deafening wall of silence - clearly it needed work and re-writing - the second time (a few weeks later) things were much better.

The week of the showcase came around at last and for the first time Herself stood up and tried her routine in front of the class - total silence.  Oh dear.

The evening of the performance - I was on first, herself was third.  I wasn't even slightly nervous whilst I listened to the teacher/compare do his warm up jokes, just trying to keep hold of the jokes in my head.

I stood up, told my first joke, got a laugh - and went totally blank.  It was like my brain stepped out of my head.  It was probably only for a second but it felt like a lifetime.  I turned to the piece of paper I had left on the desk and saw the next bullet point - from there on I was fine and, although I did leave out one or two jokes, I got plenty of laughs

Fortunately Herself had rethought the way she approached her routine and she did really well, getting lots of laughs as well from a routine about how sign language can land you in trouble if you use the wrong sign (never confuse the sign for samosa with the one for vagina)

All in all it was a good evening - but looking back I don't know how I really feel about it.  Sometimes when you come off a good gig you feel like you could take on the world, and your head is buzzing with energy.  Sometimes you can come away from a gig, even the best gig in the world, feeling terribly depressed because of something tiny that went wrong - I just came away feeling empty: not really knowing if I had achieved anything or not.

I think it was good to challenge myself - recently at the public speaking group I've been aware that I am coasting and have lost interest - and am glad that I got plenty of laughs.  But still...

Anyway - here's a comedian talking about spices

Friday, 13 May 2016


Pretty much every year around about this time, and also just after the summer, we get the same old article in the newspapers or on TV

Some kid, at a posh school somewhere, has been sent home. Usually because his/her hair is too short but also for any reason from skirt is the wrong shade of blue, were wearing trainers to had left their tie at home.

And it's a big thing because the mother of said urchin is bemoaning that until such time as the hair has grown back or the remains of the missing tie has been retrieved from the cat litter tray their child has been sent home from school.

And they are, of course, indignant: their child is being excluded from blah blah this and will miss out on blah blah that...

As you can tell: by this time in the article I've usually lost interest - because all of these articles have one thing in common: the school/institute had a clearly publicized dress code and set of rules for appearance.

I have to be honest here and say that I don't really hold with the whole idea of uniforms working, as I do, in the IT world where for the past 10 years or so my ability to perform my job has in no way hinged on the presence, or lack thereof, of a tie around my neck - but I do understand that part of the point of wearing a uniform at school is to teach us that there are certain areas of life where having a smart appearance and conforming are still expected and necessary.

Not that this stopped anyone at our school: where boys wore their ties with the thin end showing and girls wore their underskirts so that the hem of the lace would show in line with the Fashion

But then there was an article in the news yesterday about a woman who had been sent home from a temping agency without pay because she had not been wearing high heeled shoes.

This may seem archaic and immensely sexist (and yes, actually, it is) but again the woman had signed an agreement that included a dress code that stipulated women wear heels - so part of me thinks that the time to mention that this requirement was out-moded was at the point she signed the agreement.

Now it seems that there is a move to make it unlawful to enforce a particular form of footwear that may affect a particular sex - but part of me wonders if we shouldn't just be applying common sense.

In the case of the child removed from school: ok so their hair is a bit short, but unless it looks like they are doing it to make a point or that it's somehow going to undermine their moral code then surely the teachers should consider the child's personality first and think "well it will grow back" if they're otherwise well behaved

And in the case of the woman surely all that needs to happen is for the company to admit they've been a bit over the top and to amend the wording to "smart shoes" rather than stipulate a particular pythagorean angle of tilt?

But then what is smart?  Ask the average man if what they are wearing is smart and they will probably shrug and say "it'll do" as long as it hasn't been worn for so long that it can actually stand up unaided

Having said all of the above I find myself thinking back to just over twelve months ago and the area I used to live, where people would regularly pop to the local corner shop wearing their Panda Onesie and can't help but feel that those people might have benefited from a lesson somewhere about social acceptability and self control

I mean come on man, it's simply not British!

Monday, 2 May 2016

The Van

Memory is a funny thing, isn't it?

My brain can store pages of random facts about old TV shows, will often flag up things that I did and said that I now wish I could do differently and, for some reason, retains the middle name of Captain Scott of the Antarctic (Robert Falcon Scott for those of you who are interested - although who knows where I gleaned that from) - but the name of the person you introduced me too five minutes ago: not a chance.

I say this because my mum is currently clearing out her house: going through things that we don't use and downsizing it all and there's still a small wardrobe of stuff that is mine there so every Saturday when I visit her there's a new pile of stuff waiting for me to sort through.  Most of it, to be honest, is junk: old magic tricks that I had as a kid (I used to do magic, and was even a member of the Junior Magic Circle but I lost interest when I realised that the local Senior club was really just an excuse for bitter old men who hated their wives to drink - as I suspect most of these clubs are), old demo tapes from when we thought we could be rich and famous pop stars (the tapes really were awful looking back) and various other dust-gathering paraphernalia.

This week she gave me a folder of prints and negatives to look through, the pages most likely unturned in 30 years.  I actually bought a slide and negative scanner recently that displays the pictures on your computer screen and allows you to save the ones you want.

Most of the pictures there I have no memory of even taking, some negatives had been ruined because they stuck to the paper they were held in (sadly one of my grandfather blowing out candles was amongst these - although I do have a print of this I'm hoping to scan) and there are some that I'm convinced may be my father or brother's pictures - but the one that worried me the most was the one of the van.

It must have been a warm day.  Everyone in the picture is in short sleeves or has their top off and we're all sucking on panda pops (a frozen tube of flavoured ice that probably had millions of e-numbers in it).  It's the school van; made legend by the rust that was all that was holding it together.

The worrying thing is that most of these faces mean nothing to me - and yet I must have known them because I'm one of them (though I'm not going to tell you which)

The lad in the centre in the white shirt is Iain though I can't remember his surname and having looked at it again I think the boy on the far left may be James, but otherwise: nothing.

I knew these people for at least five years of my life.  True; I wasn't always very fond of most of them, but their names and their voices are now gone from my life forever.

It makes me wonder what, if anything, I will remember in twenty years time of the people I know now.