Friday, 17 May 2013

Brace yourselves, Malmö

Something terrible happened today.

I had risen early, wide-eyed with excitement - what with it being Eurovision Eve and all - and eagerly clicked onto my Eurovision playlist as I wandered about finding clothes and brushing teeth.

Then it happened.

It became apparent, after fifteen minutes or so, that rather than a shuffled mix of all my Euro favourites totalling approximately forty songs and including a varied mix of crazy beats and genres, this particular morning there were only FOUR SONGS being played.  An endless loop of, quite frankly, the more mediocre of the crop, booming out from my bedroom as I bathed and abluted for the day ahead.  I hurried back to find out the exact nature of the problem.

Then it hit me.

During a recent phone upgrade, it appears that in my hastiness at getting set up and ready to roll, I didn't allow sufficient time for my iTunes library to transfer to my new phone.  As you can imagine, I was beside myself.  Shallow breaths, tear-stung eyes and a crushing sense of frustrated disappointment ensued for several minutes.

It was hell.

Anyway, then I remembered the cloudy thing in the sky, plugged my phone into my laptop, and the erroneous songs seemed to upload themselves back to where they should be.  Crisis averted.  Phew.

However, experiencing such a near-miss propelled me into having a back up plan in case such a trauma should ever happen again.  So, with that in mind, and for your listening pleasure, I am pleased to introduce some of my favourite ESC songs ever.  If this doesn't get you in the mood for tomorrow night, then there is no humanity.

Denmark - 2010
In A Moment Like This sung by Chanee and N'evergreen.  Quite simply the best ESC song ever and it didn't even win.  They woz robbed!

Lithuania - 2006
We Are The Winners sung by LT United.  Lovely, silly, funny yet… like... totally serious.    

Ireland - 1992
Why Me sung by Linda Martin
If you haven't sung this into your empty wine bottle on a Friday night home alone, then YOU SIMPLY HAVEN'T LIVED.

Malta - 1992
Little Child sung by Mary Spiteri
Not content with just the one key change, this soaring power-ballad balls stuffs them in, and has prompted many a standing ovation in my lounge.  (Again, on a Friday night, home alone.  It doesn't happen that often.  Honest.)

Right, I could do this all night, but the magical day is almost here.  I shall leave you to giddy yourselves into a tizz, and then get a good night's sleep.  For tomorrow, tomorrow we take on THE WORLD.*

*not strictly true**

**It is just the qualifying countries that make up part of the European Broadcasting Union.  But, still.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Fifty Shades of Jealousy?

Folks, it’s been a while.  For a couple of months, I have been officially enjoying my summer holidays.  Rather than harvesting peaches on a kibbutz, or trekking around Thailand on a donkey, this Summer’s main activities (for me, anyway – it seems other people have been all het up with some sporty stuff) have been based around a family member’s wedding, an extended visit from several Australian relatives, and more BBQs, family meals and road trips than I have ever experienced in such a short period of time.  In addition to this, I have managed to cram in two of my mates getting hitched, a weekend by a Spanish pool, and the whole of series one and two of Green Wing.  I have read books by Grisham, Coben, Jewell and Maupin, re-read an old Jack Reacher and got sucked into Aaron Sorkin’s latest series on Sky. 
But there’s one thing I have not done during my hiatus from my day-to-day routine. 
I have not read Fifty Shades of Grey.
Just saying that out loud in some circles would put me in the same category as a member of a confessional style support group.

“My name is Nicky and I have not read the must-have, so-called Mummy-porn book of the Summer.”

I did try to.  Honest.  Before the horny madness had taken full hold of the world's females, when the book was only being mentioned online, I ordered it from Amazon.  However, due to a lost credit card and a subsequent cancelled order, the book never made it.  (I also ordered Heartburn by the late, great Nora Ephron - a book I’m still yet to read, but one for which I will continue to make the effort.)  My lack of 50SOG didn’t bother me then though, because at that point, I had gone off the whole idea.  There were a couple of reasons for the change of heart.

1.     By then, it was all everyone I knew was talking about - friends, family, twitter-mates and Facebook friends.  My Grandma was full of it.*   I decided, just as I did in 1997 with the uber-hype surrounding Titanic, I was not going to be a sheep to fit in with them all.  (I still don’t know what happens.  It sinks, I presume.)

2.     I read the first eight pages on the ‘Look Inside’ facility on Amazon (something I should have done before initially ordering it) and decided it was not for me.

It wasn’t the sex that turned me off – it didn't let me get that far.  Rather, it was the lack of detail and set-up that preceded the initial meeting of the two main characters, and the two main characters themselves, who somehow manage to keep up enough of a rapport to shag their way through three whole novels.  The protagonists seemed shallow, so I didn't feel the need to find out the depravities that went on beyond page eight.  Which is a pity because as far as I am concerned, dirty novels are all to the good.  I just want the key players to be complex and engaging. 

But herein lies the problem.  How can little old me, little unpublished, wannabe writer me, even begin to criticize the work of a bone fide author; an author who has sold more books than anyone in the history of the world ever (probably), an author whose works I have watched be restocked on their own special stand by the front door of my local Tesco time and time again.  It is quite simple.  I can’t.

I cannot and will not slag off E L James for managing to do what I can only dream of.  She has created characters that have struck a chord among the millions of women that have been unable to tear themselves away from her pages.  How brilliant to have been able to do that! As a non-50SOG reader, the image of Christian Grey that I have in my head is a cross between Ken Masters of Howards Way fame and, as Victoria Coren recognised in her Observer column last month, Alan Partridge or football’s own John Motson.  Sexy is not what spring to my mind, in spite of the first rate sporting trivia he might utter involuntarily between spanks.  Yet for millions of women all over the world, it seems as though Mr Grey is the pinnacle of their frustrated sexual desires.  He is our generation's Mr Darcy, or Rochester.  The literary incarnation of James Spader in the 2002 spank-fest Secretary.  He is what every woman secretly dreams of - apparently.  Pity the poor husbands and boyfriends who continue to go about their daily routines, looking forward to the moment they can sink onto the sofa and have a sneaky half-hour on Championship Manager.  Little do they realise, their other halves are strung up in the bedroom, knickers in mouth waiting to be penetrated by a personality that simply does not exist within the man that shares their bed. 

No, fair play to E L James, she has certainly pulled it off.  (Back to her book selling prowess now, not another sex act.)   But it makes me question whether I would actually want her success.  Would I be content to lie back on my gazillions of pounds, raking it in as more and more women succumbed to the sexual utopia I had harnassed in my rompy read, whilst having to put up with review after review of negativity about my actual writing?  Can the financial reward and overwhelming recognition by the public block out the constant criticisms? 

I spent three years doing a sort of English degree (it was combined with other stuff, so not the full dosage) where I read a new worthy, sometimes incomprehensible, often boring text every week.  At the end of my time, I vowed I would never pick up a book again.  Luckily for me, right about then, came Lisa Jewell, Lee Child, Marian Keyes, Armistead Maupin, Nick Hornby and every other popular, contemporary author whose words I have devoured in the years since.  It wasn’t reading that was boring me.  It was the undiluted concentration of elitist high-brow material that I was forced to plough through, with no time to recognise that books are there primarily to be enjoyed.  I am sure I would have appreciated the poetry of John Donne or plays of Christopher Marlowe much more, had I had the time to soak them up and explore them fully, rather than speed-read them the night before so I could appear vaguely knowledgeable in the following morning’s seminar, should a question be fired at me.  I don’t want to be the type of writer whose only acclaim is critical and whose work is a chore to read.  I want people to enjoy what I write, and it has to be said that 50SOG has certainly been enjoyed.  Crime writer Lee Child has stated in various interviews how snobby the literary world can be, and how he is happy to be considered a popular writer, even if it means missing out on the professional kudos that goes along with it.  If you can only be viewed in one way, then like Child, I’d rather be popular than critically acclaimed.

So, back to E L James.  There’s no doubt about it, she is popular as far as book sales go - the figures speak for themselves.  However, unlike fellow Child fans, of all the people I know that have read James' books, I have not heard anyone say that they think they are well-written.  Not the critics in the papers, but people I actually know.  No one has appreciated the beauty of her language, or the way she has built her characters into multi-dimensional and complex figures that are lifted from the page.  No one has said to me, when they hear that I have not read the books ‘Oh, Nicky, but you MUST!”  No one.  They've all made comments about inadequacies of the prose and then gone on to describe the hilariously graphic filthy bits.   As much money and recognition as these books have generated, I don’t think I would trade that for the novel-reading, everyday public actually liking my style.  Or I could just be really jealous.  Who knows.  And I suppose, if I had to choose between being E L James or Christopher Marlowe, there's no question.  Bad reviews pale into insignificance when compared to an untimely dagger in the eye.  Don't they?

Some books I did read this summer.  And very lovely they were too.

* She wasn’t.

Friday, 22 June 2012


It appears I am starting to get to the age where some aspects of modern life irritate me more than is healthy.  I wallow in nostalgia with greater regularity than I used to, and find myself starting sentences with “Yes, but in the olden days…”  I despaired at a recent retro-inspired Father’s Day buffet, where my youngest sibling not only admitted he had never seen a studded cheese and pineapple hedgehog before, but then had to ask what to do in order to eat it.  That’s a child of the nineties for you. 

But one of the very wonderful things about the modern times we live in, is social media, and in particular, Twitter.  To be very brief, Twitter is a constant update of feelings, opinions, information and wider internet links, from whomever you feel like following.  It brings people together instantly, and tends to allow the barriers between ‘famous’ and ‘normal’ people to slip once in a while. 

Luddites opposed to such types of communication, often decry Twitter as being boring and irrelevant.  Comments along the lines of “I have no interest in knowing what Simon Pegg is having for his lunch” give the impression that some people think that this is all Twitter can be.  An ongoing, regularly updated account of the mundane eating habits of people they have never met.  But it is SO MUCH MORE than that.   Here are two reasons why.

            Having a limit of 140 characters encourages succinct comments, and little waffle.  People have to be funnier, or demonstrate greater clarity and ‘cut to the chase’ quicker.  Alternatively, they can post links to sites you would never have found but are glad you now have.

            You choose who you follow.  They don’t have to accept you (unless they’re using the mostly unnecessary privacy settings) you simply follow them.  You create your own community that is just for you.  My own self-created community keeps me informed of breaking news stories, (@BBCbreaking) the death of any well-known figure via a fake Princess Diana account, (@DianaInHeaven) and all comment pieces in a range of daily papers, written by my favourite writers (@charltonbrooker, @caitlinmoran, @MarinaHyde, @KiraCochrane).  

Occasionally it becomes apparent, however, that one of the downsides of Twitter is that it is easy to forget that the information and opinion with which you are regularly updated, can be a little one-sided.  With the vast amount of left-wing articles and opinions I was reading in the run up to the General Election in 2010, it was obvious to me that the Lib Dems were going to romp home with a massive overall majority, and free University tuition would no longer be consigned to the history books.  It was something of a shock to find that my Twitter timeline did not reflect the mood of the nation.  Now, I have no intention of seeking out some BNP Tweeters just to provide balance, but now and then I just need to remind myself that perhaps I am not seeing the whole picture.

Yet, on Wednesday of this week, I really hoped I was being presented with the whole picture.  It seemed Clive James had been speaking on a Radio 4 programme about his terminal cancer, and had stated that he was ‘getting near the end’ of his life.  My Twitter timeline of journos, writers, comedians and general media types sprang into a Clive James love-fest.  Famous people tweeted about the wonderful qualities of the man they knew; writers declared he was the reason they began their craft; mere mortals posted links to their favourite poems, or essays that they loved.  His name was trending throughout the UK, and if you clicked on the hashtag, there was even more - a feast of word-meat into which to sink your teeth.  It appeared to be, and I hoped it really was the case, that the world was grateful for the existence of this man.  Not just a one-sided liberally minded collection of arty-farty people, but the larger world beyond my like-minded little collection of tweeters.
I think, however, that Clive James is more than just a brilliant writer, comedian, poet, scholar and all round good-egg as has been the picture created by this week’s Twitterverse.  He symbolises a bygone age of media creativity.  He was on TV and in the papers before dumbing down began, before reality TV became engrained, before TOWIE and its ilk became part of the vernacular and before twenty-four hour, easily accessible, hardcore porn was available to everyone.  He was there when wit and intelligence were enough to be featured on prime time TV.  New Year with Jools Holland is great but there was nothing like watching the year’s round-up when it was presented by Clive James.  Belly laughs, satire, poignancy and Big Ben.  (It pisses all over a seemingly bladdered Cyndi Lauper, who kept me company last New Year’s Eve.)

I question sometimes whether Twitter is part of the cause of this plunging common denominator.  Has reducing everything to 140 characters - occasionally forcing even the linguistically puritanical like myself to write ‘R’ instead of ‘are’ (oh, the shame) – meant that the beauty of language has been lost?  Has word-play and poetry become pointless and time consuming, creating an unnecessary barrier to the actual point?  (Just like the realisation that it is much less faff to bung a bowl of mini sausages on a buffet table, than to spear them individually with a cocktail stick, arrange them symmetrically on a grapefruit and then watch people juggle a wine glass and potato-salad laden flimsy plate in one hand, whilst using their other to prise a stick of meat out of a citrus fruit.)  Has Twitter contributed to the loss of the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the written and spoken word because people can't be arsed?  Though at times it may feel as though this is the case, after clicking on #clivejames yesterday, I was led to link after link of virtuoso writing – too much to read all at once – but evidence of the treasure trove that is the body of his work – work that will ultimately outlive him.  Twitter led me to this.  Good old Twitter. 

Taking the opportunity to read some of his TV reviews yesterday, (like this one about Beyonce)  it is easy to forget how far the intellectual bar has been lowered in recent years.  Clive James is a link to an era when it was accepted that the viewing and reading public had a brain, and that they were willing to use it to engage with material presented to them.  If you want a reminder of that time, or if you have no concept of what that must have been like due to an almost force-fed diet of Mail Online and Cowellian gruel then you could do a lot worse than dip into the great man’s website.  Just don’t be surprised if your brain kicks in and cogs start to whir.  It happened to me yesterday.  Don’t worry, you’ll like it.  It’s retro.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

What Euro Crisis?

I have no idea why some sporting events leave me cold, yet others whip me up into a frenzy like a big whisk and a bowl of defenseless angel delight mix in milk.  It seems I am a muddle of opposing views when it comes to sporting competitions, with no clear ideology running through to predict my views.  The Olympics – NO! Wimbledon – NO!  But European Championships – A BIG FAT YES!!

As I type this I have half an eye on the telly.  If I wanted to avoid distractions and noise, as is normally the case when writing, I would turn the TV off.  It is really important that it remains on today, though.  It is 6pm on a Tuesday evening, and I am watching a football match between Greece and the Czech Republic.  I am not Greek, nor Czech.  I don’t follow those countries’ football leagues in any way, and I am not being forced to view this game at gunpoint.  Why am I doing it then? Why am I typing away but insisting on keeping a noisy crowd cheering for two unknown teams in the corner of my living room?  Well, I’ll tell you why you insistent bastards!

I'm watching it RIGHT NOW!

It’s because it’s football time!  It’s the SUMMER OF FOOTBALL!  It’s all kicking off everywhere and there are Wall Charts and sweeps and ball related excitements everywhere I look!  It may be grey and gloomy outside - the promise of rain has been hovering about all day - yet when the footy is on, it is THE HEIGHT OF SUMMER!  Everything feels different, and new rules apply.

Rule 1 -  Mid-week drinking is not only acceptable but actively encouraged.  To abstain from beer during any England match is not only rude but downright unpatriotic. 

Rule 2 – Paying the bills on time, buying the children the new school shoes that they need and remembering to drop off ageing relatives at doctors’ appointments all come a clear second to the responsibility of keeping Wall Charts up-to-date.

Rule 3  At some point over the footballing month, and preferably to coincide with an England match, it is ESSENTIAL that you have a BBQ.  (Especially if you live in a flat.  It means more.)

For the rest of the year, I really don’t give a shit.  Competitions like the FA Cup, Premier League and Champions League pass me by, with me having no clue as to who is playing for what, where, when and why.  I grew up in an Evertonian household.  To assert my independence, at the age of six I chose to support Liverpool.  Having no means in which to do this, however, it became little more than a family-based political stance.  I was never taken to Anfield or encouraged in my team choice and so my interest dwindled to the state it remains today.  I can tell you that Liverpool play in red, but that’s about it.
My footy-indifference dramatically fades into the background of my life, on the other hand, when it comes to England.  Perhaps it is my specific age that makes me love international, summer-held football competitions.  I remember Italia ’90 most clearly.  I was twelve (and yes I know that competition belongs to the World Cup and not the Euros, but they all have the same effect) and that particular summer was a belter with my memories all now merging into one – the heat/the patio door open all day and night/the start of my periods/excellent performances by England.  (Not all football related, but memorable nonetheless.  I can’t hear Nessun Dorma without getting a stomach twinge.)  Skip forward to the next competition of note, and it was Euro 96.  This was the start of my adult life.  I had just finished my A Levels, it was another boiling summer, my love of beer gardens began and there was lots of lovely England success on the pitch.  The Times columnist, Caitlin Moran, tweeted earlier this week that,
             “This tournament will always be called Euro 96 to me 
              * Britpop face *

And yesterday in the pub, a friend of mine said exactly the same thing.  Euro 96 was, for my generation perhaps, the best we have ever seen England play.  As a result, lots of thirty-somethings get inordinately excited about the start of this competition, and fantasise about the route to the final that England will undoubtedly tread.  It must be slightly dispiriting then, for the youth of today.  Not the really young like toddlers and children – they’ve got enough to worry about what the older generation wrecking the planet, ruining the economy, and creating Desperate Scousewives.  No, I mean the twenty-somethings and teenagers.  Those that are too young to remember the glory days of England’s international dominance; the days that it felt like we were a serious threat to any competition in which we played.  For those youngsters, the next month might not be as exciting as it could be.  The McClaren/Capello factor might make them assume we have no chance.  They might not be eagerly completing their wall chart twice a day, buying England flags to stick on their wing mirrors, or being creative with reasons for calling in sick on an England match day.  They might not care about this competition at all, and that would be a tragedy.  For the rest of us, it’s a month of BBQ burgers, beery bonhomie and hopefully some nail biting, edge of the seat football action.  I can’t bloody wait.
Stevo's sweep, adding untold excitement to all the fun.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Much Ado About Something

Well after all the excitement of my blog from 3rd May (Learning Me Your (Hebrew) Language) I finally got to see The Merchant of Venice on Monday night as part of The Globe’s international Globe to Globe season.  Every review (and this one) I have read since has focused largely on the demonstrations and disruptions that some members of the audience created.  Oh, yeah, did I not mention that the evening turned out to be a hotbed of political activism before my very eyes?  The nature of the specifics of the protests can be found here, but in spite of all the police, security guards and airport style detectors, over the course of the evening several realisations became very clear to me.

1.     You can never see the same play too many times.  
      This particular production depicted Shylock in the most humane way I have ever seen, ultimately giving me a completely different feeling about the rest of the characters, and therefore questioning the validity of their happy endings.  This was an unexpected pleasure.    

2.     Peaceful protests can be really rather lovely.  
     People on opposing sides of the debate, held placards in separated areas on Bankside in the afternoon sun, smilingly handing out leaflets and playing music, demonstrating the importance of standing up for beliefs and sharing opinions with respect.  It was powerful.

3.     Protests lose their impact when art is disrupted.  
      Once inside the theatre, the outbursts and banner-unfurling became sinister. Censorship is always worrying, and the organised disruptions at regular intervals of the performance only seemed to alienate the protesters and their valid cause from the rest of the audience.  It suddenly felt very important that the play continue as was summed up to loud cheers by one audience member, as he shouted “Carry on, we’re all with you!” 

My view

      The play did carry on, and the professionalism of the actors was rewarded by an extended curtain call, with many of the audience getting to their feet.  I felt they deserved it for their interpretation of a complex play not just for the challenges that particular performance had faced.

And as for the initial concerns that I had aired in my previous blog - those relating to understanding an evening of Hebrew Shakespeare?  Well, they were completely unfounded.  Even if I hadn’t been able to see the English summarised subtitles at the end of each scene, I knew exactly what was going on.  This was mostly, I suspect, due to knowing the plot well, but also the visually rich interpretation that included dancing caskets, well-timed slapstick, and the most wonderfully symbolic costume for Portia that recognised the binding legalities to which she was subject, but then cunningly changed into the chains that held the arrested Antonio, and ultimately Shylock, in the dramatic court scene.    

A final highlight for me was that The Globe’s Artistic Director, Dominic Dromgoole poked his head into the middle gallery at the interval to check we were all OK (several of the protesters had been seated in the row in front of us.)  I did wonder for a second whether it would be a good opportunity to pitch my novel/script/personality at him; this could have been the only time I got the chance.  In the event, he seemed a little flustered what with all the threats and metal detectors and stuff, so I let him get on. 
Shame.  He seemed like a nice man.