Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Stuff What They Had Writted

I was a lucky child - and many say, despite my condition, that I retain that luck in some areas today. Some also say that I retain the childishness but they're just mega-meanies.

One of the areas I was most fortunate with was the writted... I mean written word, in that I both developed a love of books and was blessed with parents who encouraged the passion (for books, at least; girlfriends were a different matter...). I was also inspired to read by a particular teacher who not only stretched my vocabulary, but who introduced me to a whole new style of writing - more adult-oriented fiction (no, not that sort of stuff).

At home, I began with the normal kiddie fare and The Famous Five were firm friends (although I was never too sure about Julian), and Enid Blyton was an early favourite alongside Anthony Buckeridge with the tales of schoolboy Jennings, and the then fairly-new Paddington Bear stories from Michael Bond. I was also inordinately fond of Dodie' Smith's One Hundred and One Dalmatians (and the sequel which no one seems to remember but me, The Starlight Barking). I almost hate to admit it, but I read and re-read 101 so many times I could recite entire patches of it from memory.

My bedroom bookshelves were always full (alongside my toy cupboard which often looked as if it had been arranged using a pitchfork... seriously) but then I was taught by a guy who understood the power of the written word in a way that lit up my ten year-old brain - and the luminosity persists to this day.

The teacher in question was someone I have been unable to trace, despite the power of the interweb thingy - Brian Malliard - and if anyone knows what became of him, I would be more grateful to hear than you can possibly imagine.

Mr Malliard - probably not in effort to keep me quiet for a while - saw that I was hungry for more fiction and suggested a couple of titles that made a few people blanch in terror. He reasoned - with me first, because I was one of the blanchers - that, despite the size in one case and the possible horror in the other, the two titles would introduce me to a much wider vocabulary and more adult themes. Given that the two books in question were The Lord of the Rings and The Day of the Triffids, I'm pretty sure he was totally correct in both regards.

Tolkein's 'masterpiece' was a pain - that wasn't a tiny book for ten year old hands and needed to be accompanied by a dictionary - but a revelation. It was many years later before I began to wonder about the sexuality of one or two of the hobbits, and the general lack of females outside the elf population. But it did introduce me to one 'grown-up' reaction - that of disappointment at the ending. The mini-me back then was convinced that the final book was a 'cop out' with a hurried ending and one that made little sense in the grand Tolkein-esque scheme of things. If those eagle-things were happy to go rescue the ring-bearer from the depths of Mordor, then why the Middle-Earth didn't they just carry the ring-bearer there in the first place, taking one twentieth of the time? I was inspired, though, to read The Harvard Lampoon's Bored of the Rings, keeping a little more quiet among the adults about that one. Especially as Bilbo Baggins was replaced by Dildo Bugger....

But then there was John Wyndham's classic. As 'science-fiction' as it used to get back then where robots weren't involved, Triffids introduced me to a myriad of grown-up themes ranging from disability, through genetic modification (those plants were not space aliens whatever American film-makers like to think), to kidnap and polygamy. Almost as important to the young me was the fact that the ending - I won't give too much away, read it - was entirely fitting with the rest of the story, and not a little disturbing.

It also gave me my first graffiti favourite - 'Say it with flowers - Give her a Triffid'.

The two authors were both Johns, which I naturally thoroughly approved of, but that one was in his dotage while the other had died the previous year was a shock to my young system. The Rings trilogy was a timeless piece for little me, and Triffids had seemed so up-to-date (even though written nearly a decade before I was born) - so surely these had been written by young men who would go on to write so much more? And that, of course, was another lesson for me.

Brian Malliard also introduced me to other genres and I recall bemused looks from some parents when I recited one of Lewis Carroll's poetic works at a school function. More than one adult apparently thought I had got it all wrong when I talked of a 'frumious Bandersnatch' and the 'Tumtum tree' - I remember it to this day (Jabberwocky, before you look it up)... I'd heard all about Alice, of course (although it was many years before Smokie lived next door to her, and many more before I stood a chance of answering Kevin Bloody Wilson's question about her), but the revelation that Carroll had buried the poem in one of the Alice books almost a century earlier than when I took to the stage was like discovering a golden nugget at the bottom of my satchel.

I was by then officially hooked on books.

My tastes were already somewhat flexible and I was always trying new things - and not just because teenage male hormones were persuading me to seek out the ripped bodices in the 'romantic fiction' genre - but my earliest 'adult' tastes were for the more horrific kind of fiction. And I always kept a weather eye on an author's age and fitness levels.

I had accepted Agatha Christie novels on the grounds that, although she was ancient at the time, she had written a few thousand books so there was always a new one to be found somewhere, but then a new author appeared who ticked all the right boxes (and one I hadn't even realised existed).

The Rats was published when I was approaching my fourteenth birthday by an old, but relatively young, author (James Herbert was not long into his thirties...) and it was out-and-out terrifying science fiction-based horror fiction. Add to the blood some serious bodice-ripping and I was a happy young bunny. A rather goose-bumpy one, but happy. And then the new box was ticked - I knew some of the places that were written about. I had actually walked those streets and lanes.

The next year saw, mistily, The Fog, which was more of the same but even nastier (and included a tunnel we often drove through), and by the time the more ghost-oriented The Survivor appeared shortly before my sixteenth, I was in danger of becoming a 'number one fan'.

Which brings me neatly to...

My appetite for the written word, blood-stained or otherwise, could not be sustained by just one man, though, and I cast my teenage net far and wide. Through good fortune, another young-ish author came onto my radar with a ghostly-freaky tale set a long, long way from the streets of my old hometown - but which somehow resonated within the teen-me. Carrie hit my mind like a speeding Plymouth car and I didn't even care that Sissy Spacek was far too pretty in her later portrayal of her - I had found a new author who wrote just for my tastes.

Teenage years were mostly taken care of, but the appetite for new and different fiction seemed insatiable. The late, lamented Douglas Adams saw some variety enter my tastes when he married science fiction with humour before I was old enough to vote (yes, there were typewriters back in those days) (not computers, I'll grant you). The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy had me giggling in a very uncool way for a teenage male, but hey ho, the word is king.

Adams was immediately succeeded by an American that time, and my favourite genre swung to pure fantasy with Stephen Donaldson's thought-provoking Thomas Covenant tales. I began to read anything and everything.

My twenties appeared and I discovered the 'hoax to end all hoaxes' when I picked up a copy of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 and 3/4. There was no way such a frighteningly accurate portrayal of a teenage male could ever have been written by a thirty-something woman! Okay, I said I loved books, not that I was sensible - what an author she was. Sue Townsend, another writer so sadly missed.

And talking of which.... I had yet to marry for the first time (yes, that long ago) when a book appeared that really blew my mind. The Wasp Factory, just one (the first) of Iain Banks' brilliant works, hit the shelves and ricocheted straight into my cerebellum. It was character-led... something? The genre has been cited as many things over the years but in my mind it is, and will always be, 'human fiction'. Screwed up humans, for sure. Frightening, for sure. But always and forever brilliant.

And so time rolls with new authors appearing like the most dazzling rays of sun - some so intense and bright as to be inspirationally brilliant.

It seems hard to believe, but I was still in my twenties when Sir Terry Pratchett was brought to my attention - a place he remains to this day, and I was days short of my thirtieth when he teamed up with Neil Gaiman to produce the funniest book I have ever read (if you've never had the pleasure of Good Omens then try out the BBC Radio 4 adaptation:

Pratchett and Gaiman remain, individually as well as together, firm favourites of mine - the former's Discworld being the setting for a fabulous (in all senses of the word) collection of reflective stories, and the latter being possibly the best story-teller I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I introduced both of their works to my eldest grandson (would you believe the little sod is now six foot plus and sixteen?), and Miles loves them. Long may his bookshelves (or more likely these days, his e-Reader of choice) bow under the weight of their copious examples of sheer brilliance.

I could list a hundred other authors who consistently captivate me in genres far and wide, but space (and time) provide limitations that are probably for the best in any case. I can't, however, finish without mentioning the 'new' brilliance of Ben Aaronovitch (check out his website -, and the mind-screwingly brilliant Jasper Fforde ( who even has Sir Terry 'worried'.

Then there's Robert Rankin, Paul Magrs, Chris Brookmyre, Dean Koontz, both David Mitchells, Mark Watson, Christopher Moore, Joe Hill (Stephen King junior), Christopher Fowler, Guy Bellamy, Alison Bruce, Mike Shevdon, Magnus Mills, Charlie Higson, John O'Farrell...

The list goes on and on - and so do I, by the look of it. Thank heavens for Kindles...

Enough now, and Happy New Year (and new books by the score).

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Deep Breaths

I've been penning a weekly blog going back to the end of May and I've just been looking at the title of the thing - 'MS and me and us' (it was going to be called My MS, but I had a sneaking suspicion that a certain High Street store would probably discourage me by sending round one of the burlier offspring of either Mr Spencer or Mr Marks). My point, though, is that of the thirty posts, precious few have so much as mentioned the condition.

This could be a factor of me preferring the written word to the rotten condition - it's certainly not that I could ever forget that I'm a sufferer because as any of my 100,000 plus fellow cross-bearers in the UK alone could tell you, it's not something you can forget about for even one waking second (and quite a few sleeping ones). Perhaps my naturally sunny disposition (oh, do shut up at the back) makes me think pretty thoughts instead of the dross brought about by multiple sclerosis.

Whatever, as my more youthful and transatlantic-influenced friends and colleagues (not mutually exclusive, before anyone points that out) might say.

Anyway, I have thoroughly enjoyed writing about anything and everything that popped into my head - and before anyone comments on that, yes, I am aware that thirty things is not exactly a pop-fest of thoughts and ideas. I've filtered out some of the odder thoughts lest any of you begin to think that MS attacks the brain-stem, leaving you champing at an imaginary bit strapped over your mouth very much a la Hannibal Lecter. Even MS is a tad kinder than that. Just not much.

That Doctor Who and the music of Queen and Kate Bush have featured strongly (alongside giving cats pills, motor racing, charities, Sir Terry Pratchett and, unsurprisingly at this time of year, Christmas - to name but a few) is more a product of what's sitting in front of my eyes at any given time than any pre-planned assault on sensibilities, or scheduled attempts to gratify certain segments of the population. And to judge by some of the feedback the gratification element has proved impossible within one or two subject matter areas - never, ever, try to please all Whovians, and I still say Matt Smith was not a Doctor I enjoyed.

My point though is that Christmas really is fast approaching - and if I maintain my normal schedule, will have passed by the time my next post is published - and I have been having a re-think about my scribbles since I have the luxury of a couple of work-free weeks in which to put plans into action.

It's clear, I thought, that many of my posts are relatively light-hearted mutterings about particular likes and hobbies (and yes, Whovians, I include the Doc Who posts in that category because he is NOT a real person, okay?) while others are darker and, some might say, necessarily more realistic. One or two are even focused on this blessed (I use the term both lightly and blown-Davey-Lamp-at-1000-metres-deep darkly) condition after which the blog was named.

One of my posts even describes what I would like to be doing in the dim, distant future when work as we know it (Jim - the Firm got a mention one week) becomes impossible - writing full time.

And so I've been considering my options, blog-wise and online generally, and have decided that I will spend a large part of the next two weeks getting organised. I'll pause here to give everyone who knows me a few seconds to pick themselves up and stop giggling.

I'm being very Martin Luther-ish just now, in that I have a dream (for the more historically aware, I'm not nailing anything to a church door in Wittenburg, I'm referring to ML King). It's time for me to cast aside my online stabilisers and wobble my way into the 21st Century with a new website featuring blog posts segregated by a happiness and topic factor, and start to introduce the writing plans and services that I and a few of my friends, both old and new, will be offering in the years to come.

I think the last time I was actually excited by anything that was vaguely related to computers was quite some time ago - as in nineteen-something - but this really does get my mind whirring (yes, as opposed to its usual clanking and crunching). Or in other words, I'm really looking forward to a Christmas break where I can get organised and happy - and that's before the whisky (which tends to score high on the happiness front, but doesn't do nearly so well in the organisation stakes).

I've even got a long list of potential website names ranging from the sublime to the far more appropriate for me.

In any case, come 2015 I will be the proud owner of a new site full of the bells, whistles and plans which will satisfy my needs in the medium term. I really don't want to put a dampener on your celebratory plans for your own festivities, but I will continue to undertake my weekly scribbles - so that you will still have something to snort derisively about every few days - and I will add to that some links to the new services that the gang will start to offer.

I'll still look for the image that makes me smile and there'll no doubt be posts written just to accommodate them because it's great to laugh - even if the topic sometimes makes you cringe a little. Beer anyone?

So, right now I need to work out how this new mains plug actually fits together, and after that, try to find the on-off switch on my new laptop. I have the strongest feeling, though, that these will prove the least of my IT stumbling blocks in the days to come...

Anyway, now you know what I'll be up to, but rest assured that I also genuinely wish each and every one of you the Happiest Christmas of your own.


and finally, do remember to play the Christmas games, like hide and seek.,.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Token Gestures

Christmas shopping was always a pain for me, back in the day. Not only was I always lacking in inspiration, I’m male as well.

The great question was ‘what do you get the person who says they have everything they need’? A closer inspection of the look of barely-hidden greed deep down in their eyes always gave lie to that statement. Doubly-so when it came to one or two of my wives.

Many of my ‘I-don’t-want-a gift-really-but-heaven-help-you-if-you-either-believe-that-or-forget’ targets were prone to describing in minute detail just what they ‘didn’t’ want, even down to the point of hinting at favourite colours and precise sizes. And not just for clothes, believe me.

Those types were, consequently, fairly easy to buy for, even if one or two of them developed sudden allergies to man-made fibres just before Christmas Day, or just after one shop or another announced that they were now stocking a more expensive, natural, version of whatever the product was. There was much swapping of ‘polyester’ for ‘cotton’, and ‘leather-like’ for the ‘hide of cow’. But my point is that they were, relatively speaking (and isn’t family what it’s all about really?) easy enough to buy for compared to the other type.

These were – and are, in one or two cases – those who were/are adamant that they didn’t/don’t know what they wanted/want other than a ‘surprise’. I’ve lost count of the number of times I resisted the temptation to wrap up a box of firecrackers with a rip-cord detonator tied to the Sellotape. I probably would have given in to the need to surprise them in that way if I had a camera with a faster shutter speed (which was not a hint, I assure you).

There are others who do express a preference, but these are another near-impossible group to shop for. Some claim to love animals but I’ve found that kittens and puppies tend to object to the boxes and wrapping paper. Especially if you need to mail them to the intended recipient.

Right up to a couple of years ago I was still trying to please those who at least openly said what sort of thing they liked, but I still maintain that it was not my fault when I confused Fifty Shades of Grey with Fifty Sheds of Grey. The relative in question has never looked at me in quite the same way ever since.

And then there’s the whole wrapping thing. Quite apart from the difficulties presented by small animals, even a small shoe box can be a daunting exercise for the average guy. And in other circumstances, what’s the point – really – in wrapping something with a very obvious shape? I’ve seen people try to disguise the fact that what they are busy wrapping is a bicycle. Seriously.

However, the answer to my shopping quandaries was staring me in the face all along. Quite literally (and I’m not talking about the dogs, who are staring at me as I type away here, but who are not a problem to buy for at Christmas in any case – they’ll eat anything. Really, anything). Rather, I work in the information technology sector, and we’re all living in a very digital world these days. Let me explain.

Sure, I have MS and that means that forays into the shops along the High Street are painful to the point of near impossibility – more-so when the Sales start or my wife thinks a few minutes (i.e. hours) of shopping would be fun (I don’t use the word ‘fun’ in connection with shopping, although the letters ‘f’, ‘u’ and ‘n’ do come into play when I am asked to describe that sort of experience…). Rather, I dive onto an appropriate site somewhere on the interweb-thingy and wield my plastic (no, I mean my bank card) when I find what I am looking for. Most places even wrap the stuff before sending it (although not the pet shops). Sometimes I don’t actually find ‘the thing’ itself, but I do locate the sort of online store that might sell them at some point.

And that’s when I resort to the ‘ideal’ solution.

I buy the person concerned a gift token for the store in question. If the person is a book lover, then it may be an Amazon voucher. If they are searching for some gardening equipment then B&Q might spring to mind. Even the more obscure types of product are often available from digital sales outlets who will issue credit notes (or send the item, if found, gift-wrapped in plain brown paper).

Tokens and credit notes are perfect. Everyone’s a winner. The recipient gets whatever it is they want because they can choose it themselves. It’s paid for already – or at least partly. They won’t end up with a dubious-looking garment that was sent by a person who didn’t correctly count the number of limbs that they have. They can browse all of the products available from the comfort of their armchairs. And I don’t get trampled by a dozen teenagers who have just noticed the new One Direction album. My recipients can stream their own music to suit their own tastes. Better yet, if I’m careful, I never have to hear it.

So this year’s shopping is a doddle – quite literally a token effort. I’m even sending digital Christmas cards. No more paper cuts to the tongue (sticking down the envelopes), no more hunting for the end of the Sellotape (how come’s you can always see the damned stuff all over a parcel, but never find out where the thing starts on the roll of tape itself?), no more reams of horribly designed ‘festive’ paper to throw into the rubbish a few seconds after it’s presented to the kids, and no more red-faces when you confuse male cousin ‘A’s’ gift with female cousin ‘B’s’ present (‘B’ has got used to black pepper freshly ground on all her meals and ‘A’ still believes it’s a bicycle pump…).

What with Boxing Day sales now starting in later September, my Christmas Shopping horrors are a thing of the past. Thanks to multi-channel TV offerings including box-sets of every programme known to man I can even guarantee there’ll be something to gawp at during the festivities.

All that’s left for me to do now is try to convince people that over-roasted turkey is no longer in fashion, and that Christmas spirit is far better drunk than ignited…

Monday, 8 December 2014

Christmas is Coming

I just noticed that we’ve entered the month of December – and yes, I know a few days have passed already, but I’m getting older and time has become very flexible. Unlike myself.

I have to confess that my enthusiasm for the Yuletide celebrations has waned over the years. When I was a toddler and old enough to understand numbers, I recall maintaining a – then popular – countdown to the ‘Big Day’. Every day, every hour, seemed to last forever and Christmas took on a new dimension – a day that never seemed to come any closer. If we could have afforded the paper, I would probably have registered every passing minute in an effort to speed things up.

Just lately I have to keep double-checking the diary to make sure I haven’t missed it.

I’m not saying I’ve turned into Ebenezer Scrooge exactly, although I must confess that there are a few things that Noel (Christmas not Edmonds) brings which make me cringe. The excitement I used to feel – back when Scrooge was not long out of nappies himself – has given way to a quiet dread.

These days I hear little ones talking about how many ‘sleeps’ they have left until the chimney gets an unexpected visitor (and more than one wondering just what a chimney actually is), and in these enlightened times there are even the occasional debates about whether dear old Santa shouldn’t be on a register somewhere given his predilection for visiting kiddies in their rooms in the middle of the night.

Even the term ‘sleeps’ is a relatively modern notion to me – we used to count the days (and, ok, hours, minutes, and for the more mathematically capable, the seconds). When I hear a little one say that there are still ‘twenty-five sleeps’ to go (normally on the 10th or 11th because educational standards seemed to have slipped) I’m tempted to suggest to them that they grow up fast with insomnia. That condition means that the number of ‘sleeps’ is radically reduced…

Then there are the little rituals and arcane knowledge that seem to be slipping away from us. I used to be able to name all of Santa’s reindeer (no joke, we really do have dogs called Donner and Blitzen – but named in German (they are Dobermanns) after the weather conditions on the grounds that one is thunderously plump and the other is lighting fast) – but these days the children are virtually unaware what reindeer are. I heard the term ‘posh venison’ used the other day.

The dear hearts even seem to believe that ‘naughty or nice’ is a no-brainer since you only have to watch TOWIE to know that no one could possibly be nice all year. Or even for ten minutes if they watch the extended highlights.

Every Santa’s Grotto – surely they were never as obviously cardboard when I was a toddler? – appears more like an equal opportunities employer with every passing year and I’ve even seen a clearly female Santa outside the local supermarket this past week. I’ve nothing against women (nothing at all at my age…) but surely that is one element of the story of Christmas that shouldn’t be fiddled with? Er, changed?

This year I‘m even suffering from the third number one version of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ and still not one person has said ‘Of course they don’t – they don’t celebrate that Western holiday’…

But I digress. As usual.

I perfectly understand that the meaning of holidays such as Christmas becomes lighter over the years – it’s a long, long time since I was the Innkeeper trying to explain to a livid Joseph that we weren’t a maternity unit and in any case wasn’t he even a tiny bit suspicious about the whole paternity thing? – but it’s not just the weight behind them that seems to have changed.

For sure, the Christmas holiday has taken on a new meaning for me (a week off work seems to hold more sway than a miracle birth these days) but the whole business has become something much greater than it used to be as well. And ‘business’ is the operative word.

There seems to be expectation from little ones these days about the value of the gifts they will receive (and heaven help a relation who doesn’t deliver). I hear them comparing notes about which games they will receive for their computer, and just what that will tell them about how much mummy or daddy (or that nice guy with the big wallet) loves them. At least our dogs will be happy to receive a nice chew. Just like on any other day of the year. (Or hour, or minute – Donner really is a pig).

In any case, the Christmas holiday is still a celebration and still sees families convene for often the first time all year – and that’s a lovely thing. Some public houses still close for a couple of hours just before the Queen gives her annual broadcast (which she has done every single one of the fifty-odd years that I can recall – yes, I’m that old).

But if you want to really understand just what it all now means to the younger generation, consider this. The post you are reading has deliberately been delayed by twenty-four hours – not that many of you will complain or even notice. Now can you imagine the number of kiddie-led wars that would start if you tried the same thing with Christmas itself this year? You might just find out what it’s like to wear holly and ivy. Internally.

 I feel like closing with a gentle moan about the Christmas Sales but that’s old news now since a lot of them started in November – which is rather my point – or about how expensive decorations have become. But what’s the use? Christmas has always been expensive and time-consuming (for the adult generations, anyway), and if I’m honest I can recall virtually begging for one particular toy one year and being a total brat about the whole thing (be fair, it was a remote-controlled Dalek…). I can’t be a Scrooge about Christmas in the twenty-first century because nothing has really changed deep down.

Christmas and Chaos start with the same letters (and I’m not talking about the badly-spelled ones that Post Office workers giggle about until March), and maybe that’s both right and the way it’s always been (fun and in-fighting). At least it brings a break for me and makes sure my bank account is thoroughly cleaned (out).

I know there are still sixteen sleeps left, but Happy Christmas! (Enjoy it before junior decides he doesn’t like Lego any more…)