Sunday, 28 February 2010

Just Finished: London Belongs To Me by Norman Collins

When I was a wee lad, sitting in the back of the car on drives through London, I'd gaze out of the window at the massive houses and think that the people that lived in them would have had to be really rich. How else could you live in a house with three floors and a basement? What I didn't realise, is that they weren't built for one family, and that each floor would more often than not have its own separate tenants. It's a house like this that forms the backdrop to most of Norman Collins' London Belongs To Me; a book that revolves around the trials and tribulations of the residents of Number 10 Dulcimer Street, Kennington.

I decided I was going to read this book after reading the Book of Dave in December/January. Because I'm waddling around London like, every day, I think it's sometimes easy to forget what an interesting place it actually is. It's easy to take it for granted. I find when I'm reading books set in London, I get a bit of a spark back, I appreciate it again. That's why I chose this one to read; it's described on the back cover as "the Capital's great vernacular novel", and I can't think of a better description. The word 'romp' is also used in this description, and 'romp' is a word that I love. Romp. Just rolls of the tongue...

Anyway, it's Christmas Eve 1939 when we're introduced to the loveable Josser family and their neighbours. The threat of war rumbles threateningly in the background, but the novel concentrates on the domestic, everyday battles fought by a group of very ordinary people. Along with the Jossers, there's the landlady (the respectable and stern Mrs Vizzard), doting Mrs Boon and her ambitious son Percy, the hypochondriac Mr Puddy, washed-up actress Connie and false-medium Mr Squales. Their stories interwine in soap opera fashion, the narrative leaping from one to the other, delving into one account before breaking off and reacquainting you with another.

I read afterwards that Collins was something of a big deal at the BBC when it first started, and for a time was in charge of the more popular, lighthearted programmes on BBC radio. You can see this in his writing - it's written so that you never have enough time to get bored. But this doesn't mean you don't get to know the people you're reading about - the book has over 700 pages so you still spend plenty of time with each character, just in lots of small doses.

As I mentioned, the stories don't unfold in high society - it's a warts and all account of a few months in the lives of a few Londoners as they struggle to against their worlds turning upside down. The protagonists are all ordinary, working class folk trying to make ends meet. There's no heroics - just the grim determination of a group of Londoners in the build-up to and disruption of war. For a lot of the book, particularly at the beginning, not very much happens at all, but you're swept along nonetheless. It was also comforting, in a weird sort of way, that in the past things weren't quite as different (nor as good) as the Daily Mail might like to make out. Women were already becoming more independent, the elderly feared the young, fraudulent insurance claims were made, students didn't study and everyone enjoyed a drink. It was set in a time that was at once reassuringly familiar and refreshingly different. In his introduction, Collins writes, "Real Londoners - some in love, some in debt, some committing murders, some adultery, some trying to get on in the world, some looking forward to a pension, some getting drunk, some losing their jobs, some dying, and some holding up the new baby." And lately there's been at least one reading his book on the Metropolitan Line, bloody loving every page.

It's so easy to read, I couldn't put it down. I laughed out loud at times, and sometimes it's incredibly touching and poignant yet never too heavy. I honestly can't recommend it enough. It made me proud of where I live, where I work - it made me see London in a new light - a huge expanse of city providing the backdrop to millions of separate stories every day. It captures the excitement and the tedium, the hustle and the bustle of life in the city - or, as Collins puts it "all the sheen and slime, the murk and magic."

Next Up: The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

On A Series of (Un)Events

It's been such a weird week. Not in a bad, or particularly interesting way - it just hasn't felt normal. Perhaps I have a psychic gift and there's some trouble brewing. Let's hope not. I don't think I have a family history of superhuman skills, but after this I think it could be a distinct possibility.

It all started on Monday morning when I saw four parrots in the tree by my bus stop (picture above - they're there, honest, you just can't see them). They weren't the big red macaws with killer beaks though, I think they were parakeets. Still, it's unusual to one used to sparrows and the greasiest of all birds, the starling. [I think starlings look like they've been drenched in petrol - you know when petrol on the road reflects different colours in the light?] Anyway...I looked up these parrots and apparently they're quite common. So common in fact, that they might be culled! Culled! Poor blighters.

On Monday afternoon I had a meeting with a lady who works for a wildlife charity. She said, interestingly, that the charity is often criticised for devoting itself to animals in areas of the world where whole families go without food. Her response to this, which is also interesting, was that they often help animals indirectly, through improving the living standards of the people around them. For example, to help combat the abuse of horses and donkeys in east Africa, the charity has built a school, a medical centre and working facilities for the villages around the sanctuary, all in the hope of improving the lives of the animals they care for. Very admirable stuff I must say. I came away however, feeling slightly shallow and a bit jealous of her job. She must go home feeling like she's actually helping, making a difference. I won't moan though, my job might not be the most life-changing role a person could play, but it suits me just fine. It was a mere blip, a moment of 'maybe I should do something really meaningful' before I lapsed back into reality.

Yesterday also passed in a blur - not a drunken haze but a cloudy, flouncy blur of nothingness. Thanks to my manager, a founding member of the Fellowship of the Moan, I had Dean Martin's "How Do You Like Your Eggs In the Morning" stuck in my head all day long. And this wasn't all that was troubling me. Earlier in the month, in a fit of I'm-so-busy-woe-is-me that I swiftly recovered from, I told everyone I couldn't go to my boss' birthday do. I can go now, but it's all booked. So now I just look all miserable and antisocial. Alas, it's another lesson I must learn - I have made my bed, and now I must lie in it. At home yesterday night, I found myself sucked into a BBC documentary following all sorts of people as they plough their way through London traffic - this ranged from ambulance crews to a stripper who had to perform in a limo. The most infuriating was an estate agent who claimed all the driving was making him ill so he had to keep going home early. I've always thought that if my job was making me ill (and I doubt it actually was), I'd do something else.

And that brings me to today. Another odd little day. My commute was spent in a paranoid panic. I never get like that but there were police EVERYWHERE this morning. So many I thought I was either being followed or something big was on the way. So I spent the majority of my journey looking over my shoulder and turning my IPod on and off. This was nothing to do with the police - this is because every now and then my IPod decides to go on standby every five minutes or so. This happens maybe once a month. The battery was charged, the keys were locked, so why does it keep turning off? Can anyone help me with this, please? It's infuriating. How am I supposed to time my walk to the music if it keeps going quiet?

I appreciate this post has probably been as dull as dishwater, but thanks for giving me the opportunity to vent my confusion, paranoia and frustration. Tis much appreciated.


Monday, 22 February 2010

On Professionalism vs. Office Banter

[This is a derelict building I walk past every day on my way to work. I really like it, and think the graffitti adds to it rather than detracts from it. I would like to make this my house.]

Today at work I achieved a goal. I entered into office banter with people from five different countries. I found a kindred spirit in Norway, Portugal, Holland, Spain and...Basingstoke. I say banter - but this is a broad term. Basically, so many of the emails I send and receive sound like they have been written by machines so every now and then I like to throw a little nicety in to see if I am actually emailing a robot, or whether there's a real live person at the other end. As such, my special definition of banter is basically anything that deviates from the standard, boring, no frills emails we churn out to eachother.

Now, I was really quite chuffed with this influx of people nibbling at my conversational bait - some of my colleagues, however, weren't. I do understand the need for professionalism, honestly I do. I would never dream of subjecting colleagues to the four-letter rants my friends are familiar with (although I have been tempted). I wouldn't drink at work (unless everyone else was). In fact, I'm a pretty professional person. But at the same time I can't talk to people day in day out without trying to get to know them. I think it makes for a better working relationship if anything, and said so when I was told that I should be more interested in my job rather than what S in Holland did last night and who she was rooting for in the Winter Olympics. Oops. Perhaps they are right - my job isn't a social networking opportunity. However I still don't see why the odd banterful email should be frowned upon, especially when my Sent Items folder is full to bursting with boring, robot-speak emails.

So sod them I say. I will continue to ask what people do at the weekend, or how they celebrated Chinese New Year. I won't give up trying to find out what exactly R in Norway does with the wild boar on his farm. I will relish every weather update I get from Lisbon, and join in with Spain's post-siesta jests. I will do my job, but I don't see why I should be miserable while doing it. I'm taking the banter, and spreading it worldwide.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

On Being A Telly Addict

As mentioned yesterday, I've once again pissed my wages up the wall. At least February is a short month, so I don't have to wait too long for my payslip. Roll on next Friday...

This does mean, however, that I've been under self-imposed house arrest all weekend. You see if I'd gone out, I think I would have used the credit card to fund some sort of frivolous debauchery or drunken rave up. So I locked the doors, barred the windows and made sure my food stocks were adequate, before settling down on to the sofa, from which I've barely moved. On Friday we had fish and chips - I'm not 100% sure why but I think it's something to with my mum being Catholic. I was too, once upon a time, and I'm sure that the night before Lent you were supposed to eat fish. Is that right? Even if that is why we had it, I failed, because I had a battered sausage. Yum.

And this sausage was consumed in front of the telly - the first Eastenders episode to be broadcast live in fact! Eastenders is one of my guilty pleasures - I don't follow it religously but I do have a soft spot for it (perhaps we share a common bond as we're the same age). And the 25th anniversary live episode was much fun. I particularly liked it when Jack Branning fluffed his lines and told Bradley "You've got a motive. You''ve held it against the public!" What now? What's the public done? Sort it, Branning. The acting from everyone else was pretty much top notch if you ask me, except when Max, on seeing Bradley's body, stuck his fingers down his throat to make himself sick. Actually stuck his fingers down his front. Live. In front of 16million people. Great stuff. In all honesty though, I was well into it and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I also used this enforced alone time to catch up on some of the episodes of Skins and Shameless that my drink-fuelled antics in the first two weeks of the month made me miss. It's been a bit like spring cleaning, a clearing of the backlog of TV programmes that I want to watch but never have time. It's something that I have to do now and then, and will continue to do so until I find a happy balance between my social life and my telly addiction (I want to avoid a repeat of the night I stayed up watching Waterloo Road until half three, then went to work feeling hungover despite not having touched a drop).

So in honour of my reunion with television, here are my top 5 moments:

5. The bit in Goodnight Mr Tom when when the kid calls John Thaw 'dad'. Weep...I believe I've mentioned this before, but in case I haven't, I have a friend who invented a drinking game involving Goodnight Mr Tom - basically you have to drink every time you're impressed with John Thaw's acting. Needless to say, as he was such a high quality actor, much booze was consumed!

4. Tim and Dawn finally get together in The Office. I can't hear Only You by the Flying Pickets without thinking of it. Finally. In fact, I might watch both series again, just so I can experience the build-up, the frustration and the elation all over again.

3. "YOU AINT MY MOTHER!" "YES I AM!" This period was, for me, an Eastenders golden age. Probably because I was still at school I think, so actually watched it when it was on. I thought Kat Slater was an excellent character, although Zoe got on my wick, and even though everyone new this was coming, when she shouted it it was still a shock.

2. John Sergeant on Strictly Come Dancing. Best example of people power EVER. He couldn't dance, and didn't care, and for that the Great British public voted him back in week after week. Classic.

1. Delboy and Rodney dressed as Batman and Robin in an Only Fools and Horses Christmas special. This is my favourite programme ever - I've never watched anything that's quite as capable of making you laugh in one scene, and then tugging on your heartstrings the next. I think it's fantastically written and acted and never get bored of watching repeats - which says something, as I must have seen a hundred chandelier crashes by now...

And on that note, I must dash - I reached a personal record of 5 late mornings last week and am going to get in early to avoid the chop!

Hope everyone had a good weekend!


Friday, 19 February 2010

Just finished: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

By Jove it's been a while. I've been rubbish! I have, in my defence, been busy drinking away my salary, and my recent return to Debt's cold embrace should mean that between now and the end of February I should have plenty of time to dedicate to my neglected blog.

When I was young, I had a book on Greek mythology. The illustrations were gory and gaudy and the various myths and legends separated into tasty chapters with titles like "Wicked Women" and "Evil Men". I read it cover to cover, even spending hours on the "Who's Who" section at the back. This inspired an interest that I've never really given up - N discovered my love for all things mythological soon after we met (despite my efforts to keep it hidden, for fear of being branded a geek) and encouraged it with even more mythology books. I was in my element... Often with things like this though once you've read one version you've read them all - with them being such old and well-known stories - so it was great to read about the gods and goddesses of old in a completely new light. The Greek pantheon might be left out (perhaps being too well known?), but Odin, Kali and Anubis are all included, alongside a host of more obscure deities and monsters that I'd never heard of, but don't disappoint.

The basic premise is that when immigrants arrived in the Americas from the rest of the world, their belief in their particular gods brought their gods, or versions of their gods, over with them. So when an Irish woman who believed in leprechauns arrived in the newly formed US, leprechauns existed there, too, as well as back in Ireland. Am I making sense? Perhaps not. Hope so! Anyway, there's loads of these gods about, from all over the world. They've experienced a drastic drop in popularity though, and this has forced them underground where they are being hunted down one by one by a new group of gods who influence technology, media and infrastructure. The book's protagonist, an ex-con called Shadow, is drawn into this war when a Mr Wednesday gives him a offer he can't refuse the day he leaves prison and learns that the lift he'd hoped to return to was impossible after the death of his wife.

He accompanies Wednesday all over America, meeting old gods and dodging new ones. Every few chapters you'll be taken somewhere else entirely, to learn about another god and how they've adapted to life in the States. They stop off at various places around the US that I'd never heard of, away from the beaten track we're used to seeing on the telly or at the cinema. The road-trip builds like a crescendo, with plenty of bumps and surprises along the way, to go out with a bang with a great ending.

I appreciate that I probably haven't really sold this very well, and not everyone shares my obsession for mythology, but it's definitely worth a go - and it's definitely not one for the kids - there's a fair bit of gore and the odd lashing of something saucy on the side ;)

Tis my favourite this year.

Next up: London Belongs To Me by Norman Collins.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

On A Message From Beyond the Grave

I haven't written anything in ages, mainly because I didn't feel that anything that interesting had happened...and then I remembered this...

My mum's mum died before I was born, so I never had the chance to meet her. I did, of course, hear a lot about her. One particular story that recurred at family gatherings was my mum's visit to a medium the week before my uncle's wedding. During the session my nan, apparently, told my mum that she'd make her presence at the wedding known by 'making a flower fall'. During the ceremony, a rose fell out the bride's bouquet, followed shortly by one of the flower arrangements falling off the wall. Spooky stuff. [Not according to my cynical father, who stuck a petal in the guest book and wrote 'Guess who? Woooooo!' next to it.]

Well, this is a story that's been cemented into TBR family legend for a while, so when conversation at my friend's dinner party last week turned to the ghost in Three Men & A Little Lady, I told everyone about it. Not long after I'd finished, while someone else was telling their own spooky tale, a vase of lillies on the kitchen table six feet away fell over! Mass hysteria broke out, with C (the hostess with the mostest) shouting for the flowers to be thrown into the fire. No flowers were harmed, but after the panic died down there was much laughter. It was one of the weirdest moments of my life. Of course, having inherited my dad's cynicism, I put it down to coincidence (they were very big flowers in a very small vase). However, I still made sure I text C the next day to thank her for having me, and my nan, round for dinner. Wouldn't do to be ungrateful now would it!

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

On Kids These Days

I'd known for a while that last week was going to be really busy, but I hadn't expected it to leave me feeling middle aged. Read on for an insight into why I feel old before my time...

1) Last Tuesday I was one of the lucky people who were sad enough to be on gigsandtours the moment Prodigy tickets went on sale back in November. The gig was at the Cliffs Pavillion in Southend - it was basically like watching them in a school hall, which would have been fantastic, but the majority of the people around me could also have fitted in at school disco. It's now been 12 years since Firestarter was released. TWELVE. That means that children born this year will view them the same way that I think of...erm...the Beegees. That's incredible. However, the gig was fantastic, and deep down I really quite enjoyed being surrounded by people young and cool enough to look like they should be in Skins. Which brings me to my next point:

2) The new series of Skins. Is school really like that now? Really? Kids these days...they don't know how good they've got it! My school life pales in comparison...

3) On Wednesday, I went to see Billy Connolly at the Hammersmith Apollo. I've watched DVDs of his stuff in the past and laughed until I cried, but now (and it's probably just me) he comes across bitter, and angry at the world. So much of his set revolved around the evils of modernisation and political correctness and technology; much of which I agree with, but it wasn't funny. Just a bloke on a stage ranting, and laughing at himself. This made me sad.

4) E-BOOKS. I don't like them. I think I'm alone in this - maybe a book snob - but I stare at computer screens for too long already, there's no way I'm swapping a book, those most wondrous of things, for another screen. I'm dead against them, and rooting for Macmillan in its war with Amazon. I think I'm alone in my allergy to e-readers though, as most people seem to rave about them. I however will cling to books for all I'm worth - I won't let them go the same way as VHS and cassette tapes!

So February begins with me feeling old and as grey as the sky.