Thursday, 28 November 2013

Brainwashing & Bestiality: The British Shopping Experience

Last night I caught up on the Panorama documentary that exposed the working conditions at an Amazon distribution centre. It made me want to cancel my current Amazon order except, of course, Amazon being Amazon, they’d shipped my order thirty seconds after I’d placed it.

Before the programme, I’d expected to discover that the Amazon operation is dehumanising. Little did I expect it to be ripped from some dystopian novel in which human spirits are crushed with the very worst techniques taught in the gulag. Last year I wrote a book which required me to read up on brainwashing techniques. The Amazon operation reminded me of the techniques the Chinese invented to break a person’s spirit.

I don’t, from memory, recall the characteristic techniques of classic brainwashing but the list is up there on Wikipedia’s entry for Margaret Singer’s ‘Cults in our Midst’:

  • "Keep the person unaware of what is going on and how attempts to psychologically condition him or her are directed in a step-by-step manner.

  • Control the person's social and/or physical environment; especially control the person's time.

  • Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person.

  • Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person's former social identity.

  • The group manipulates a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in order to promote learning the group's ideology or belief system and group-approved behaviors.

  • Put forth a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that permits no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order."

I think at least five out of the seven techniques might be recognisable in the Amazon routine: trapping a person in a maze, running them against a clock which is continually counting down and beeping warnings, in a closed warehouse environment where they are given punishments for infractions, imposed by colleagues working for a largely faceless corporate structure beyond the control of governments to control… If the average Amazon shelf picker were a chicken, there would probably be some European rule to cover their welfare or at least prevent them from wearing their beaks down on the bars of their cage.

I’d like to say that this morning I cancelled my Amazon order but I haven’t so I can't. The reality is, of course, that none of us are in a position to do very much about Amazon. I wish I had enough money to donate £10-20 a time to a company simply to encourage them to keep existing, even with their higher prices. We vote for governments to protect us from this kind of thing but, for our sins, we seem to have voted for a government who believe in that kind of thing. Would I have used Amazon yesterday if I’d known any this? To my shame, perhaps I would have. To my credit, I hope that I wouldn’t. I just don’t know.

The problem of Amazon is really a problem with the British high street. I only saw the documentary after a day when I’d travelled to Warrington and then Liverpool hoping to find a new Wacom graphic tablet. Late Tuesday, my Bamboo drew its last cartoon and I’ve had to bite the big bullet and upgrade. Because I foolishly still like to shop rather than use Amazon, I biked the long painfully rough cycle path St Helen’s council provide (loose limestone and mud) until I hit Warrington’s cycle paths (beautiful black tarmac) which led me to the big local PC World. It didn’t sell the Intuos model I wanted but they said they could order one in for me. I declined. Since Warrington no longer has any real technology stores, I spent a fruitless morning there and then took a train straight into Liverpool.

Perhaps I was already feeling particularly remote from the crowds by the time I arrived but I began reflecting on how we individually don’t seem to matter to retailers. Outside Primark, a blind guitarist was playing Shadows hits. A crowd had gathered and was cheering and laughing as I passed. They were cheering an old tramp dancing to the music. I wondered if the guitarist knew what was happening. I wondered about people laughing at a dancing hobo who they’d normally ignore or avoid. Are you mad simply by being different to the crowd, dancing to a different tune? I felt that way after going to one store to the next and being told the same thing: that I was asking for the impossible. Why did I want the professional tablet when I could buy the cheaper model right there?

On Paradise Street, the long new shopping avenue that cuts across Church Street, a huge queue had formed. As I walked its length, heading towards John Lewis, I grew increasingly eager to discover the attraction. It was possibly the longest queue I’ve ever seen. The goal of these people was surely something meaningful. Perhaps a particularly good Santa lay at the end. Perhaps some celebrity. Was I about to see Stephen Gerrard or Ken Dodd?

Sadly not. These hundreds of people weren’t queuing to see a person. They were queuing on a freezing cold November day to have their photographs taken standing next to the Coca Cola truck. I can’t say the truck impressed me that much. It was one of those American juggernauts, decked out in Cola red and satanic chrome, with a morbidly obese Santa painted on the side. People stood up by the cab and smiled so they could say ‘this is me standing next to the Coca Cola truck you see in their Christmas ad.’

Coca Cola’s very good at brainwashing and this, I think, was a show of their strength. This was their Red Square. This their Kim Il-sung Square...

At John Lewis, Wacom’s only local dealer, I was told they only stock the basic model. ‘We can order them in,’ they said with a smile. It had become the refrain of my day and my reply was always the same: ‘What’s the point of that? I can do that myself without leaving the house.’

When I heard the same from the helpful guy in Liverpool’s Apple store, I told him ‘it makes you wonder why you even bother go shopping on the high street.’

He smiled. ‘I know,’ he shrugged. ‘I’m afraid we only stock what sells.’

I felt like pointing out that if they don’t stock something then of course it won’t sell. It means that people like me won’t go and buy other things from them and soon those things will also become things that ‘doesn’t sell’, our choices get more narrow, and their opportunities to sell me things become more infrequent. The things that sell become fewer and fewer.

The high street is dying not just because of Amazon but because of the attitudes of retailers, constantly refining their product ranges to focus on only popular products and the biggest demographic. It means that all shops of the same type have the very same stock. And if every shop stocks the same things, then there really isn’t any need for all these shops.

One final note of optimism.

In Warrington, a new shop has opened, hidden in a side street near the bus station. It doesn’t take credit cards so all transactions are cash only. From the outside it looks like a temporary operation. It sells cases for phones and tablets but they’re products you don’t see in other shops. It’s not as cheap as you might think but sells quality and is a reminder of what shopping used to be like, when you came home with some surprising object you’d discovered in your hunt for bargains. I think these shops are a reminder of what we might find growing in the ashes of the high street. These are the shops ready to open once the big branches have cleared out and rents have come down. Perhaps we need to start again, rid ourselves of the huge national chain stores, with their computerised inventories and corporate look. We need individuality back on the high street, where every town looks different and no two stores are the same.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Still Here

I’m sure there are interesting things going on out there in the real world. Some news item about Iran passed under my sniff the other day. Then there was something about the Co-op bank chief investing in crystal meth. And then apparently our cricketers are suffering at the hands of Australian bullies. I didn’t have the time like I didn’t have time to watch last night’s Panorama expose of Amazon’s working conditions. Had I time this morning, I intended to draw a cartoon of Jonathan Trott going for a job interview at Amazon.

Everything I’m doing at the moment is towards getting my animated film finished. I’d vaguely promised that it would take me a couple of weeks. I’m a few days beyond that self-imposed deadline and probably need a couple of clear days run at it to get it completely/reasonably finished. Last night, I invested a heady £3.88 into an app for my Samsung Note which allows me to create hand animations, export them as video via Dropbox, and then load them into Photoshop where I actually produce the finished colour anumation. The result wasn’t too shabby, though it took about four hours hard work last night tracing the finished animation, colouring it, and then outputting it into After Effects where it came to life. This work makes me regret my lousy Wacom bamboo tablet. Every year I say that I’ll upgrade to the Wacom Intuos but I never do.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The blog post in which I reflect on how I'm not making much progress

[caption id="attachment_3475" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Print One of my earliest cartoons[/caption]

I’ve decided that Sunday is going to be my day of rest so, naturally, I’ve found time to write this blog post. I’m not entirely sure what this post is going to be about beyond wanting to say: the problem of not working the usual working week is that there’s no point at which you can’t be asked to work. Except I’ve now decided that weekends are, generally, going to be my own.

I say ‘my own’ but my Saturday was entirely consumed with drawing a strip for the next issue of ‘Red All Over The Land’, the LFC fanzine. The deadline is Wednesday but I expect next week to be busy so I thought I better get it drawn. I enjoyed the drawing process and I am pleased with the result but by about 7pm last night I was beginning to question my sanity, not that I haven’t questioned it regularly over recent weeks.

The anxiety stems from my distrust of the arts. I was brought up not to believe in art. Not that my parents ever discouraged me from studying the arts but my entire schooling was always about the sciences. It meant that I pursued subjects towards which I felt a general indifference. I like science. Science fascinates me. However, science never excited my imagination. I found learning formula tedious. Wiring a plug didn’t excite me. I didn’t even really want to do a computer degree but I did one anyway. I’d got interested in computers because I was fascinated with computer graphics. I wanted to work for Industrial Light and Magic and I wanted beyond anything to do a Film degree and to make films. When the reality of my interest in computers turned into writing databases for a local telecommunications company, my unhappiness consumed me. A year after leaving polytechnic, I enrolled at the local college for their film course.

Of course, it never worked out like that. People might say we all have the same chances but we're bound by circumstance. So few people enrolled on the film course that it was dropped and the class merged with Media Studies. I spent the next year studying newspaper ownership whilst, ironically, the majority of people setting out to study media studies left the course. The few of us left had all originally enrolled form film studies. I was also doing English at the same time and my English teacher persuaded me to take my A level in a year instead of two. I loved writing so it felt natural to follow his suggestion that I should study literature at university. Eight months after setting out to study film, I was starting an English degree at a proper University. I suppose it was another compromise. I loved literature but my true love has always been film. Yet I have this strange neurosis that limits my actions. I think of it as a ‘working class’ neurosis in that it’s the same belief that study should have some chance of a job at the end of it. I don’t know why but studying literature seemed to fulfill that criteria more than studying film.

Even when I went on to do my degree and doctorate, I never entirely believed in the Arts. Or, at least, I recognised that there was a huge area of the arts devoted to things which defied logic. Modern poetry has become one of my pet hates. I needed to see the structure or design of a poem before I would accept it as poetry. Expression for the sake of expression was meaningless to me. I suppose that’s why I always wanted to study film. Films had evident structure and a clear language.

Although film was always my passion, I’ve always been interested in art and illustration. I remember watching a BBC documentary about Robert Crumb many years ago and I recall being utterly absorbed with him and his work. Yet I also knew that I couldn’t draw. I’d never been encouraged to draw at school. I didn’t even know how to use an eraser.

It laughable now, thinking back on my ignorance. I genuinely thought that to draw you needed to draw something first time as though the perfect artist was Picasso with his one line drawings. Learning to use an eraser was my Damascene moment; realising that drawing isn’t about mastery of the pencil but mastery of the eraser. It has more to do with what you choose to rub away than it has to do with what you draw. Looking at my work now, I can see that I’ve progressed a little but not enough, if you look at my earliest cartoons (below). I also see the gulf between what I can do and what I’d like to produce. I suppose this explains the problem I now face trying to be more casual as a cartoonist. I’ve had such a tortuous path to this point, I can’t simply pick up a pen and draw. I still need the safety net of the pencil line to guide me. When Ralph Steadman looked in my eyes and said ‘always work straight in ink’ I nodded but thought ‘ah, that’s true for real artists but not for me’. And I still believe that.

If you add up my life, place whatever small achievements I’ve made against the false turns, regrets, and many mistakes, I suppose the final sum would amount to not much more than zero. What I mean by that is that I feel like I’ve not really progressed much beyond where I started. I wish I’d started to draw much earlier in life and I wish I’d pursued my love of films. I wish I could grow a hipster beard and be one of those bohemian types. I wish I was the idealised artist I see in my mind who believes in his work so much that he isn’t racked by constant doubts and misgivings. I wish I didn’t feel like a fraud who he wakes in the middle of the night cursing his bad choices and swearing that come daylight he’ll march to the job centre and take the first packing job or postal round they offer him. I wish I had the confidence in my work that meant that I wouldn’t feel so happy about drawing for an entire Saturday and then giving the result away for nothing.

For anybody interested, here’s where I began my cartooning. The dates on these suggests it was about four years ago, though I can’t believe it's been that long. These were some of the first cartoons I ever drew, using a computer package and the same tiny entry-level Wacom tablet that I find myself still using. One day I might feel like I'm a real illustrator and buy myself a professional tablet. Perhaps one day when somebody actually buys one of my cartoons… Perhaps it will be another four years. Perhaps never.

Lamb violin
Carrot love




Jelly moulds Tjnsel

snow cannibal 2



Dad at 13

Friday, 22 November 2013

On Stu, Elberry, Michael and Me

It’s the Friday after a long hard week and, somewhat gratifying, I woke this morning to find a message from Stu from Horwich, though he didn’t leave an email address so I couldn’t reply directly. But thank you, Stu, for the message and it’s good to see such optimism this far north. You say you think you’ll win The Spectator’s competition ‘along with every other bugger’ but, honestly, I never for once thought I stood a chance of winning. Of course, I hoped, I dreamed, and I would have given my right buttock to draw cartoons for The Spectator. But I assume the Michael Heath cartoon competition already been decided. I’ve not looked in weeks so I wouldn’t know. I really can’t bear to look and discover that it’s been won by some twenty-three year old New Age crystal tapper called Sky or Mist who only took up cartooning last week when doodling lipstick moon symbols on tree bark.

I’m so weary of rejection that I’m finding it hard to write. I suppose the Michael Heath competition was one of the straws that finally broke this particular spine. I could say that I’ve not had time to blog but I would have made the time if I’d had the enthusiasm. It’s grim work, writing and drawing year after year for no reward. This week I feel a little more broken inside. It’s ironic but I was reading the new Private Eye cartoon book the other day where they complain that all their cartoonists are getting on in years. I’ve submitted material, mainly cartoons but also comic prose, on and off to Private Eye for nearly a decade and I have always been rejected. I can’t help but think that there’s a reason why they have a lack of younger cartoonists. They utterly destroy us before they give us a break.

I suppose all bloggers go through a process of falling out of love with blogging. We begin with renewed enthusiasm and eventually fall silent, reflecting the mood of the world. It’s the heat death of the blogosphere. It makes it particularly rewarding to discover that some old friends are still playing the game. I rediscovered Elberry a week or two ago. I once met Elberry in Manchester and I confess that he frightened me. That’s partly down to my own personality. I’m not good at meeting new people but that’s especially true when that person seems as mad as badger hair yet yet possibly the most intelligent person I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. It also took a while before I realised that he plays a fun game with exaggeration and is actually one of the kindest souls out there. I don’t say that trying to flatter him and I don’t exaggerate. I say that exactly as I mean it. He's really one of the good guys. Just don’t let him hear me say that.

Reading Elberry’s blog gives me renewed enthusiasm to work harder. He reminds me that we work not because of the money but because of the work. That’s why it feels so good to be doing work I enjoy for which I’ll get paid, even a nominal amount. My 90 second animated film improves with each day’s long toil. It’s still not animated enough and much work needs to be done. However, it has become something of a labour of love. I really want it to be the best I can make. I learn new things every day. I’m always moving outside my comfort zone. I want to be proud of it but I also want others to be proud of it. Perhaps in a few weeks, I’ll be able to post it here and say ‘this is what I did instead of blogging’ and people will say, ‘well done, great work, but there’s not enough foliage, the scale is off, and I’d have made his trousers brown instead of blue’.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

A Blog Post That Makes Me Feel Queasy Just By Posting It

I’ve never tried my hand at lion taming but common sense tells me that it’s like visiting a dentist in that you should never breathe that final sigh of relief until you step out of their cage.

‘Just a couple of small fillings and we’ll get them done today so you don’t need to come back.’

‘Hurrah!’ I thought, punching the metaphorical air from behind my yellow protective sunglasses which made me look like some 1970s disco crooner, a flesh and blood Disco Stu straight from The Simpsons’ waiting room.

‘Okay, I’ll just numb you and then we’ll do some x-rays to make sure that everything is okay.’

I nod with enthusiasm. I was only going to be in The Chair for half an hour and then I’d be skipping down the street looking for the first shop selling sherbet and boiled sweets.

The numbing happened painlessly and then there was a bit of drilling with wasn’t exactly pain free, despite so much of my face being numb that I couldn’t even feel my boots. I always mean to ask why hitting a nerve gets through the numbing agent but by the time I want to ask these things, I’m incapable of speech.

But questions are for another day. I’ve only got another twenty minutes and then I’ll be able to escape…

As the drill spun down, my dentist sat back and tapped my shoulder reassuringly.

‘Okay, that’s the drilling done. Let me just check the xrays…’

Off he goes. I’m sitting there, a couple of cavities in my dead mouth, anticipating getting out and getting back to work. The dentist takes his time looking over the x-rays before he comes back to me.

‘Okay, I think I’ll have to send you to the hospital,’ he says.

Holy shit! What is this?

‘You have some crud above a tooth that might require a minor surgical procedure to clean out…’

Double holy shit and triple what is this?

‘We might be able to save the tooth but you’ll need a new crown which will cost you everything you’ve earned in the last two months but if that doesn’t hold you’ll lose the tooth and need a bridge which will cost you everything you’ve earned in the last year and when we’re waiting to fit your bridge you might want to wear a palate so you don’t have a huge gap in the front of your smile which makes you look like an alligator farmer straight out of a Louisiana swamp… Oh, the palate will cost you everything you’ll be lucky to earn next year…’

This was explained more professionally than that but the meaning was the same.

The mild panic attack I then had in the dentist’s chair was only relieved by my dentist’s calm manner and a quick glimpse I had in a mirror that indeed confirmed that I looked damn cool in yellow sunglasses. Yet I think my eventual calm was mainly down to my dentist’s kindness. He has a gentility that’s unbelievable. It’s why I always go to him and why I trust him. It’s probably the reason why I’m not sobbing in a corner right now. He explained things. He makes the minor surgical procedure sound like a minor surgical procedure even to me, a man who can turn a pimple into an advanced case of gigantism with a side dose of botulism.

It has not always been the case. In the past, my dentists have been butchers. My first was even nicknamed ‘the butcher’ and as a child I remember visiting his surgery which was in the front room of an ordinary house taken straight from a Edward Gorey print. Every tool he used looked pre-War and seemed to have been licked clean by the dogs that sometimes came in from the living room. One of my earliest memories is having teeth removed under gas. I still recall the smell of the rubber cup they held over my nose. A day later, my tongue turned green and I was a pariah in school because I had the most unholy halitosis. I was like something from the Exorcist and like exorcisms, my green tongue was never explained.

Over the years, the surgery has changed immeasurably. It’s the same house but after numerous renovations it’s unrecognisable and contains a very modern dental surgery with an ultra-high tech computer system on which you can Tweet your x-rays only minutes after they’re taken. The staff have changed too. They’re now more professional yet also more personable and seem genuinely interested in making the whole thing less painful.

Long since gone are the two dentists who made such a mess of the tooth that will now force me to make a hospital visit. I’m hoping that this dentist might finally fix the problem either by giving me a crown that doesn’t fall out every five minutes or pull the tooth so I can be rid of the nuisance, even if that means wearing a bridge, though I’m not entirely sure what that means.

I still can’t get over the disappointment that my thirty minutes has probably turned into six months or more of work or how much of what little earnings I’m scraping together will go to pay for all of this. It’s now a few weeks before my next appointment, when I’ll get an appointment at a hospital, perhaps treatment at the hospital. Only after all that will treatment on the tooth begin.

I’m freaked out, of course. I hope the crud drains away, as the dentist thinks it might, but if the experts think I need the crud removing from above the tooth, then everything becomes a little more real. I recall phrases like ‘peel back the gum’, ‘incision’ and ‘bone’ but I’m telling myself that surely it can’t be as painful as drilling into a tooth, which is the bit that always makes me fret. It’s not the one that sounds like a high pitched drill that strikes fear but the one that sounds like a slow low grind that always gives me pain. That was enough for one day. I’d hoped it would be enough for the next six months but I see I’m going to be Dentistry’s plaything for a little while longer.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

No Time

No time to blog. No time to write. No time to draw. Barely enough time to be sick this weekend, though I felt pretty grim yesterday. A visit to the dentist on Tuesday should make this week a gem to remember and since I also have two deadlines I intend to meet, the chances of my blogging in the next five days with a sunny disposition are receding quicker than a House of Windsor hairline.

Friday, 15 November 2013

The Little Old Lady in Boots

So, today I walk into Boots where all I had to do was repeat nine words: ‘Do you sell replacement pads for a tens machine?’ The reply would be either ‘yes’ or (more likely) ‘no’ and I’d either buy some or (more likely) walk out.

Except there was a young woman in the queue ahead of me with just one guy ahead of her being served.

So I waited and in due course the man took his bag of medicine and left. The woman looked at me and nervously walked to the counter. I read the signs. I knew what to do.

I immediately took a couple of steps back and started to look vaguely at the nearest shelf so the woman could retain some degree of dignity in what was clearly a private moment. She clearly wanted to discuss something personal and those two steps back was the least I could do to make that possible. So, as the woman whispered with the pharmacist, I continued to stand there gazing through a display of something I only later realised was super lubricated and ribbed, as I scratched my nose and tried to look ignorant of the private medical drama playing out in front of me. After the whispered conversation was finished, a small bag was handed to the woman and money exchanged.

All was good. Here we go: nine little words…


In the gap I’d left in order for the woman to be discreet about her problems, another woman was now standing. She was a little old woman holding a box of Kalms. Because I’d done the decent thing, this woman had exploited what I now refer to as the 'they're-talking-about-itching gap' in order to jump the queue. I wanted to say something but the little old lady was only holding a box of Kalms, the natural remedy for nerves, and how on earth could you say anything about queue jumping to a nervous little old lady holding a box of Kalms?

So the pharmacist takes the box, rings it up, money is exchanged and the little old lady is about turn around and leave and I’m about to repeat my nine little words: ‘Do you sell replacement pads for a tens machine?’

But the pharmacist has second thoughts… She floats a question towards the nervous little old lady.

‘You’re not taking any medication are you?’

‘No,’ says the nervous little old lady.

‘Oh, that’s good. I just thought I better check.’

‘But I am diabetic…’

‘Oh,’ says the pharmacist.

‘Shit,’ I mutter, getting agitated. This queue jump was turning into serious downtime in Boots.

‘I better check,’ said the pharmacist, opening the box of Kalms.

A minute later she’s finished reading the leaflet/densely printed brochure. ‘I’ll just be a moment,’ she smiles.

Remember: nine words were all I wanted to ask and this little old lady had jumped into the queue because I was being a gentleman like I was also trying to be a gentleman by not mentioning queue jumping this in case the nervous queue jumping little old lady started to cry.

The pharmacist when to the back of the shop where she adopted the special pharmacist sorting hat or whatever it is that these people consult. About five minutes later, she’s back and my silent muttering is beginning to get audible.

‘Oh, the covering of Kalms is sucrose,’ she said.

‘I’ll give her bloody Kalms,’ I mutter.

‘You just need to be careful,’ explained the pharmacist but this has now triggered the nuclear response that’s always likely when dealing with nervous little old ladies in Boots. The little old lady starts to describe her entire medical history, complete with full list of prescription medicines, the opinion of consultants, and something interesting she once heard in a waiting room.

I’d had enough.

‘Bugger this,’ I said audibly and walked out.

But my point is: never again will I do the gentlemanly thing when a woman wants to talk privately in Boots. ‘You’ve got a rash,’ I’ll shout, hovering over her shoulder. ‘Deal with it!’ I won’t take prisoners. ‘You’re not the first person with a fungal infection,’ I’ll cry, defending my spot in the queue.

And this is why the world is cruel and savage and there’s so little kindness left to go around. It’s the fault of nervous little old ladies everywhere. You have been warned.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Yet another pointless debate about social immobility among the very people causing it

Listening to David Cameron talk about social mobility is like listening to Elton John discussing deep sea welding. I sense that he realises this himself but Cameron wouldn’t be Cameron unless he’s aligning himself with some popular opinion. He’s the consummate ‘me too’ politician of our day and will undoubtedly be the first sitting PM to get himself a tattoo sleeve when he deems it politically shrewd to do so. The latest popular trend will always have him spittling his lips with unctuous words. ‘Of course, the public have spoken and I for one am not going to stand here and say that red hot pokers aren’t a suitable punishment for the work shy if that’s what people in Britain have decided. As Prime Minister, it’s my job to support these public driven initiatives and that’s why I’m also throwing my weight behind Mumsnet’s campaign to ban all knives with sharp edges and any stick that doesn’t have a rubberised tip. Yes, it might mean that we chop down a few trees but that’s a price we need to pay if we want to protect our children’s eyes.’

Of course, ‘social mobility’ is a problem that goes to the very roots out of culture and, much as I hate to say this, I’m not sure that Russell Brand is entirely wrong in what he recently said about revolution. Just look at the Tory’s current motto: ‘For Hardworking People’. It’s code, of course, for ‘we’re no friend of scroungers’ but, as with all things, the reality on the ground doesn’t conform so neatly to their quasi-Thatcherite ideology. Are they for the disabled who might not be able to work? Are they for the old, the poor, or the underclass? Are they really for the person working every hour to live on something much less than the minimum wage? It’s easy to talk about social mobility from a position where social mobility is a given. It’s easy to be hardworking when there’s an abundance of work, especially though family connections, but are they also for people on zero hour contracts and writers who don’t get paid for their work?

In modern politics, the only game that matters is the game that brings in the most votes and the current Conservative plan is to cauterise the places where they traditionally don’t do well. That only increased the problem of social mobility in areas such as my hometown here in the North. After seeing investment under Labour, it’s places like this that are now taking the brunt of Tory cuts.

Of course, they try to argue differently. The whole thing has a bowel knot of familiarity about it and Cameron has already addressed social mobility by leaping to discuss the racial makeup of the Tory Party, as though social mobility is only synonymous with race. Indeed, this new awareness of social mobility will no doubt lead to the usual round of positive discrimination which pretty much ignores the majority of people suffering from the lack of social mobility. I sometimes think that the worst thing you could be in these enlightened days is a white, heterosexual male stuck in a no-name northern town and not suffering from any serious but TV-friendly disability. I’ve never been asked to stand behind any Prime Minister as he gives a speech. In fact, no Prime Minister ever visited this town. The closest we came was Michael Heseltine flying over in a helicopter and arbitrarily deciding where the local boundaries would be drawn, completely oblivious to the regional allegiances on the ground.

I don’t know any celebrities and I don’t know anybody who knows any celebrities, except perhaps for one person I’ve spoken to online who is from Oxford and whose children were friends with a star of the Harry Potter films. Look at the profile of the average celebrity and they will have been school friends with other celebrities or their families or connected through marriage or their parents would have been famous in their own right. Look at that Claudia Winklewoman and tell me that she deserved to host the BBC's premier film show.

The problem I’ve argued for a long time is simply that there are huge areas of the country where chances are few to none. The country is run from London, with nothing much of note happening outside the major cities. All the major newspapers no longer cover news outside London with much conviction. A year or so ago, we were ravaged by a huge storm which barely made the news. A similar storm hits London and it's 24 hour coverage. Entire regions of the country are now covered by (at best) a single reporter, a fact highlighted by the sadly unambitious plans mentioned in this article from earlier this year. Compare The Guardian’s push into North America with their plans for northern England and, indeed, the area where The Guardian originated as the Manchester Guardian.

And that's what all this hand wringing comes down to. If the most liberal media in our country can’t be trusted to care about social mobility, then is there really any hope?

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Worst Blog Post Ever

It disappoints me when I don’t blog. I didn’t want to miss another day for precisely that reason. I had a hellish weekend and it annoys me that I’ve not drawn a gag cartoon in nearly two weeks. Monday and Tuesday, I was busy/distracted/worn out by a variety of jobs that needed doing. I had people to see, places to go, and blogs I didn’t have time to write. In my various travels, I did get to hold the new Samsung Note 10.1 (2014 edition) and it was a beautiful as I thought it would be. Somewhat annoyingly, had I waited, various offers might have made it less than the price of my current tablet.

In other news: lost a spoke on my bike and it’s next to impossible to find a place to replace it at a decent price. Can’t do it myself because spokes have to be right length, down the millimetre.

Still no word about cartoon competitions. I guess it has been announced. I’m not looking and I have to stop even mentioning them.

The only positive is that I’ve managed to make a little progress on my promotional video.

Okay, this was definitely my worst blog post ever. I’ll try to do better tomorrow. Meanwhile, here are some strange shots I took after I discovered the panoramic function of my phone. For some of these, I Just held the camera to the window as the train moved and the camera did its magic. I think they came out looking surprisingly reasonable.


5 4 3 2 1


Monday, 11 November 2013

The Monday Carton

‘Dear friend! Lovely day! Glad to hear that you're in the market for cartons…’

This was the first email in my inbox this morning and it made from grim reading. Needless to say, I’m not in the market for cartons. I’ve never been in the market for cartons. For some inexplicable reason, cartons don’t excite me on a Monday morning.  Oh, you could say that I’m just a carton denier or perhaps I’ve never been with the right carton. You could even argue that I must have some deep latent love for cartons that I’d want to blog about it. Perhaps this email exposes the great carton lie I tell myself every single day.

‘Damn it, man!’ you should cry, while grabbing my lapels and slapping me around my face. Yes, you would need at least three hands to do that but you’re gifted and you like to make your important points impressively. ‘There’s nothing wrong with a man expressing his love for cartons. Some of the greatest men in history have been secretly in the market for cartons. What about Gladstone, Ghandi, Ulysses S. Grant? Nobody looks on them differently because they enjoyed the company of slatternly cartons. There’s nothing wrong with expressing your love for a good carton once in while.’

And indeed there is not. And perhaps if the circumstances were right, I would be in the mood for cartons. Perhaps dressed seductively, their pouting cardboard lips irresistible, they would be irresistible and I would succumb, possibly up to three times a night and sometimes even rinsing them out. And frankly, given my recent luck, I might have a better chance if I was I’d gone in for some carton competitions, rather than cartoons.

But alas, for the carton producers of China's Hebei province, this will have to remain my secret. Perhaps one day the world will be ready for a man to express openly his love for a carton but until that happy day, these emails will have to be stored in a safe place, such as the trash folder.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

You're Now Entering... The Comfort Zone

twilight-zone-big-bonusSaturday was a day of two emotions. I sat down at one point to make headway on a project I’ve just started for an American startup. As soon as I sat down and focussed my mind on the task at hand (animating a tree so it sways gently in the breeze), I felt my body relax. My tensions eased and the things that have been preoccupying me in the past week just disappeared. I was actually happy.

The alternative was my other work which preoccupied the rest of my day. I was like a caged beast grinding down my teeth on iron bars. I suppose more than anything I was struggling with myself. The problem comes down to this: I don’t want to install Skype on my PC.

It sounds such a dumb thing to get agitated about but I hate Skype. I hate the way it lurks, ready to spring into life. I hate the presumption that I want to be connected with hundreds of smiling people, all with great teeth and feeling so damn happy. I hate Messenger too, though I’ve very reluctantly installed it. I hate that it sits next to me when I’m working. I dislike the way it informs the world when I’m sitting at my desk and when I’m away. I can, of course, make myself ‘invisible’ but then why have the foul machinery installed in the first place? And what business is it of other people if I am sitting at my desk, if I’m working or idle? Yet if I accept that Messenger is a good way to communicate, then Skype is a step too far. I hate phones, generally dislike mobile phone culture which increasingly cuts us off from the people around us. Phones also break my concentration, allow devious bastards like marketing agencies to bother me. Generally I don’t have them in my room. I’m also not one of life’s great small talkers. I have too many interesting things I could be doing rather than discussing the weather.

Yet as much as I don’t want it, I’m told that I must have Skype. I thought I’d install it on my iPad so I can at least turn it off when I’m working… Except, it seems that’s not enough. I need Skype on my PC so I can be watched as I work. Skype will allow others to see my desktop and others want to instruct me, guide my hand so I’d just be a lump of unthinking meat responding to commands and moving a cursor around a screen. Yet I’m so damn truculent that I can’t accept that. I’m stubborn. This is beginning to feel intrusive. My PC sits in my office which is my studio, my work environment, my writing den, my home. In this space, I have peace and I can think and I can write. I’d want to install Skype on my PC in the same way that I’d want to install a karaoke machine in the corner of the room and purchase a series of sweat soaked drunken Japanese businessmen, one for each day of the week, to take turns singing Barry Manilow classics when I’m trying to write.

Yet I must be wrong. Doesn’t everybody use Skype? Why must I be so damn difficult? Why can’t I just say yes? Why must I stand by my principles?

Still agitated by all this, I then receive an email directing me to this video on the website

I’m told I must watch it. It will ‘help me’. I’m not entirely sure how it would help me or even if I need help. I appreciate that somebody wants to help me but I watched about a minute of this video and wanted to stick my fist through the computer screen. When I agreed to do this work, I didn’t agree to have my psychology tested and changed. I don’t want to be a different person. Other than wanting some success in my writing and cartooning, I’m actually quite happy being me.

But why don’t I just conform? Why do I want to scream at the top of my lungs: I fucking hate self-help gurus promising instant abs, popularity, and success with the ladies? Sending me a video of this kind is like hanging a red rag before a bull. They promise me money and fame and to change my life but I despise every smiling grifting one of them. They’re charlatans, they’re goons feeding on the vulnerable, offering instant fix solutions to age old existential problems that Sartre, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Socrates and Plato couldn’t solve. Yet Bob’s solved it and Bob’s bought himself a luxury house in Florida. And Bob’s success could be your success too…

The tradition of snake oil salesmen is as old as most countries, strongest in American folklore. The Magnificent Oz was the prime example but American culture is steeped in their tales popularized by writers such as Mark Twain. These days, it’s harder for these chancers to sell snake oil. They have to find other ways to promise rewards in exchange for magic. Many of them become SEO experts and the purveyors of that most miraculous magic of all: success at social networking. Others peddle business theory, advice on how to be a great manager. They always talk about teams and positivity, as though it were that easy to dismiss the essential individual yearnings of each of us. I’ve never believed in any of it and it saddens me that other people believe in it. Taking this kind of bad advice destroys many young companies. It’s the reason why group meetings usually involve people sitting around feeling uncomfortable and refusing to speak. Ask anybody in one of those meetings what they want to do and they’ll either say ‘go home’ or at least get on with their work. My last job was made difficult by the same kind of micromanagement that ultimately demoralized the staff. Always told to be a team and be motivated, nobody would actually pull their weight because they knew that anything they did would ultimately be criticized and changed. So they did nothing and eventually the business folded.

None of which solves my problem today except I’m going back to animating trees in my comfort zone.


Saturday, 9 November 2013

John W Henry: The Cartoon Strip – Episode 4

My latest comic strip for Red All Over The Land, currently being handed out around Anfield ahead of this afternoon's match against Fulham. This one was rushed to hit a deadline. Also not sure how many of these I'll do. This morning's news that BT have bought all the rights to the Champion's League makes me even more disenchanted with football. It might just be easier to stop watching it entirely. I have books, films, writing and cartooning to keep me busy. Football was another luxury I could easily cut from my life. I suppose it's another glowing success for our market economy...

Friday, 8 November 2013

One Friday that definately wasn't as good as Christmas

If there was a day when I needed a phone call from Michael Heath saying ‘congratulations’ for the cartoons, then today would have been that day. There hasn’t been a phone call, an email, or a sniff of good news. For my health I think I’ll now stop checking The Spectator website for the competition announcement. I don’t think I could take the disappointment. Not today.

My lack of a blog post yesterday should have confirmed that it was a hard day but I enjoyed working long hours and I got a lot done. Today I’m not enjoying as much. In fact, it’s been a freakishly hellish Friday. I wish I could blog about it but I can’t. Today I really needed a friendly ear but there’s none to be had anywhere.

To clear my mind, I went shopping but that didn’t help. Not only didn’t I find a friendly ear, I was disgusted to see my local Tesco are now declaring that ‘there is nothing as good as Christmas’. I know. Horrible, isn’t it, to see religious persecution writ large in their seasonal advertising. I don’t know… To me it sounds just a little too much like they’re saying to Jewish people that Yom Kippur isn’t as good as Christmas, to Muslims that Christmas is far superior to Ramadan, to Hindus that Krishna Janmashtami is a mere distraction because there’s only one really meaningful religious holiday on the calendar. They’re shouting to Pagans: ‘Hey, you Pagans! Your Autumnal Equinox isn’t a patch on Christmas because there really is nothing as good as Christmas.’ I’d be surprised if Pagans weren’t offended. I think I can even hear their moonbeam wheat crystal ear pendants / dreamcatchers rattling as they murmur spells over their flagons of cider.

Of course, Tesco are not just talking about major religious holidays. They’re saying that there’s ‘nothing’ better than Christmas. So, a mother’s love isn’t as good as Christmas. National prosperity isn’t as good as Christmas. A small puppy just missing the front wheels of a loaded Tesco refrigerated wagon isn’t as good as Christmas and, to my ears, that sounds like Tesco saying that they wish that puppy dead.

The end of war isn’t as good as Christmas, feeding the starving isn’t as good as Christmas, and even world peace isn’t as good as Christmas. When Obama rings Putin and asks for complete nuclear disarmament and an end to all proxy wars, Putin will simply say, ‘Barak, that sounds like it’s the best thing ever but haven’t your forgotten about Christmas?’

‘Hot damn!’ cries Obama and slams down the phone as he reaches for a small puppy to throw under a refrigerated wagon.

But perhaps I’m not realising the full significance of what Tesco are saying. The beginning of the universe, the very Big Bang itself, which brought everything into existence including Christmas, even that isn’t as good as Christmas in Tesco’s all-seeing eyes. Humanity and civilisation means nothing to Tesco. Customer satisfaction isn’t as good as Christmas, heaving no horse meat in their burgers isn’t as good as Christmas. Damn it! Tesco themselves are not as good as Christmas, which I grant you is the only part of this which is believable. They’re definitely not as good as Christmas.

I mean, it’s not as though we’re talking about Asda…

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Council Business

I often wonder how many of you actually read the day’s entire blog. I’m not saying I’m blessed with hundreds of people reading but I do know that I can count regular readers on one hand, sometimes even two. That’s one finger per hugely intelligent and divinely blessed individual with the good sense to have bookmarked this blog.

And bookmarking is definitely the way to go. I wouldn’t like to think that anybody visits via a link on another blog that only takes them to the latest post when I’ve actually written two other posts today (this and this) , one of which (this) was the day’s proper blog post.

This post, for example, is just an update to say that there’s more civic news from Counciller Barry Prunefield over at The Pangolin. Today he’s discussing council bin collections. Any similarity between Barry’s views and my own are mere coincidental. Any similarity between Barry and other council officials is also a coincidence. Sadly, he doesn't make the following observation which I've just made whilst standing in my slippers in the rain: why do the bin men only arrive at 4pm in the afternoon when you put out your bins at 11pm the previous night? And why when you forgot to put out your bins the previous night do you only remember to put them out when you hear then go flying past on their wagon at 7am?

In other news: it’s raining, The Spectator still haven’t rang about the cartoon competition, and I fear that another cartoon opportunity has passed me by. However, in good news: I have underwear in the wash and tomorrow my loins will smell like Lenor lilacs.

Finally, a message to St Helens Council and our council leader, Barrie Grunewald, regarding their advice to now put cardboard in our black boxes instead of our now largely empty green wheelie bins: you are idiots!


Tattoo Culture

OneLifeLiveItI sat down intended to write ‘half a mile’ but then I thought I better check my facts on Google Earth. The radius of the circle I drew was 86 metres. That’s 718 metres short of half a mile. 718 metres of being plain wrong.

The 86 metres is the distance between a succession of local shops that have opened in the past couple of years. Would it surprise you to know that in this small working class town, population not much more than 20,000 people, there are no fewer than five tattoo parlours, all contained within that circle drawn with an 86 metre radius? We don’t have that many doctors, dentists, or vets. We have no bookshops (Tesco’s bestsellers don’t count), no stationers, and now we no longer even have a further education college which was recently demolished along with three quarters of our library (now just one room mainly devoted to romantic thrillers). We used to have two bicycle shops but they both closed down as did our specialty sweet shop. We've had a succession of We once had a jewellers but that disappeared about five years ago. A long time ago we had a general hardware store where you could buy nails and wood but not any longer. Blockbusters closed this year, so there’s now no video store. We once had a cinema but that closed its doors back in the 1970s and was later destroyed by fire. Local rumours hint at arson. The cinema had stood derelict for a decade or more, some kind of preservation order on the old façade which was of historical significance stopping the site from being redeveloped into ‘luxury’ apartments. But like I said, that’s just local rumour.

On our high street, it’s impossible to buy books, treacle toffee, lengths of wood, a watch or necklace, or leads for a mechanical pencil. Yet the same town can support five independent tattooists, all no more than 172 metres of one another.

The fact they have become so ubiquitous is an interesting modern phenomenon which probably says something deeply revealing about our culture. Perhaps they are symbolic of a culture that no longer values the spiritual or the intellectual and instead has embraced materialism and a totemic obsession with the body. Perhaps they have something to do with our false illusions of individuality.

I think that begins in school. Schools are supposedly about educating us but I’m sure they’ve always really been about breaking youthful spirits. Riding past a junior school yesterday, I saw the kids peering out though the railings. It’s probably a clichéd observation but it’s one I hadn’t made before but I realised how those railings don’t so much protect the children from the world as protect the world from the children. The iron fences keep the kids inside as if the world can’t operate normally with youth running around. School teaches us to stop being youthful and to conform to certain lifestyle patterns: the nine to five routine, our place in a hierarchy, the repression of ambitions, dreams, and foolish joy.

Of course, life after your school years has changed. Perhaps it’s no wonder that people do choose to adorn themselves with tattoos when the world is increasingly alienating, where there are fewer ways to be unique and individual.

I was in Wilko yesterday and a guy in front of me was covered in various names and mottos. He was also bald and on the back of his head he had a big tattoo written in the usual flowing script. ‘One Life’ it said and beneath that ‘Live it’. I immediately thought: live it with a tattoo on the back of your head? Live it doing something as extraordinary as shopping in Wilko wearing a vest, tracksuit bottoms, and lots of gold chains?

But I guess it’s easy to mock these ridiculous aphorisms and note that most expressions of individuality can be found in the standard tattooist’s sourcebook, available from Amazon. Yet what other opportunities do many of these people really have for expressing themselves? They are defined by family, football, and celebrity: all of which feature prominently in tattoos. Some also have God or, in God’s place, some esoteric wisdom, reduced to a cryptogram written down a forearm. Beyond that, what else is there?

Not many years ago, there was a time when people engaged in hobbies. A person would learn to play a musical instrument or learn a foreign language even if they didn’t have a reason or particular desire to travel to that country. A person would make things in a shed or take up drawing or ballet or join a rock and roll band. I guess these things still happen but I suspect they’re increasingly rare, especially in working class England where music shops have closed, libraries disappeared, colleges turned into flats, theatres demolished. Life is increasingly dictated by the strip of American style fast food operations that line the main routes between our towns. Cinemas have moved into retail parks, impossible to get to without a car, prohibitively expensive even if you can drive. Between Thatcher and Murdoch we now have sport available to only those who can pay for it. Movies and culture too are for those with the means to buy them. The BBC News reported just a few nights ago that culture spending in the UK is £69 per person in London, £4.60 for the rest of us. Given that the majority of my £4.60 will go to art in regional cities like Manchester and Liverpool, what is the actual cultural budget around here? I suspect it’s pence and that definitely shows.

So instead of hobbies and culture, we have Twitter: the constant babble of people wishing to sound significant. And that, perhaps, is the key similarity. Perhaps tattoos aren’t such a surprise. Perhaps like Twitter, they’re a collective scream, part of some deep nihilistic urge to sanctify the self and to give us all meaning. They are the affirmation of lives increasingly devoid of any significance. Perhaps tattoos are to individuals what blogging is to cowards: a way of writing something meaningful for a world of individual spirits increasingly deaf, distracted or simply defeated.


Damn You, Vodafone!

Vodafone, you blithering fools! My mobile phone never rings! So few people have my number that when my phone does ring, I think it’s important. I know it's important...

Last week, I sat here hoping I might win the Jonathan Cape Graphic Short Story competition over at The Observer but the phone never rang. This week I sit here hoping and praying I might have figured in the Michael Heath cartoon competition at The Spectator. So, Vodafone, why do you mock me by choosing this week to ring me and asking me if I’m happy with my package? You've never done it before. Do you think my being happy with my package makes my hands shake like this? Does a cold call make my heart race? I can barely strike the keys cleanly on the keyboard.

Why Vodafone? Why did you raise my hopes? Why, damn you! Why?

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

A Bonfire Night Cartoon

‘Remember, remember the fifth of November; the Gunpowder treason and plot…’

I often wonder how many people actually remember why we have bonfire night or realise that it’s effectively a prolongation of the anti-Catholicism of sixteenth and seventeenth century England. In Lewes, they actually burn an effigy of Pope Paul V, or at least, I assume they still do.

Not that I’m for banning Bonfire Night on the grounds of religious intolerance. 99.999% of people lighting a banger tonight won’t be screaming ‘papist’ or shaking their hot dogs towards a burning cardigan and slacks topped with a Jimmy Savile wig. Bonfire night has become the one night of the year when the health and safety police are forced to cower behind their sofas as the rest of us express our personal freedom to stick a couple of sparklers down our underpants and wear a Catherine wheel as a hat. Not that I advocate sticking a couple of sparklers down your underpants or wearing a Catherine wheel as a hat. In fact, I’d probably recommend that you don’t do either. Leave that to the experts, as they say, or at least the guy who lives at the end of your road and has a glass eye due to a previous year’s larking about with incendiaries. As for myself, I’ll be indoors. I’ve not actually bought fireworks since I was a kid. ‘A fool and their money are easily parted,’ is a phrase I associate with November the fifth. All through my formative years I’d hear it muttered every time a particularly loud explosion shook the house.

I suppose the only reason we should ban Bonfire night is because of the injuries caused to innocent victims by local yokel types suddenly excited to rediscover fire. Tomorrow the news will no doubt have the usual reports. ‘Somebody thought it funny to set off a roman candle in a phone box but it took out the entire street…’ ‘He threw petrol on the bonfire but it set his trousers alight…’ ‘They tired bangers to the dog but it ran in the house and ignited the curtains…’

However, here’s a cartoon I drew last night whilst rewatching ‘God Bless America’ but with the commentary track enabled (highly recommended). If I’d had time today, I might have redrawn the kid and the parent but I don’t have the time.
I’m going to be on the 12.25 into Manchester where I intend to buy some new spokes for my bike and enjoy a coffee in a hopefully quiet and banger-free Waterstones.It's just started to rain so I'm stuck at my desk editing video.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Man in Motion

Another of the many cartoons I drew but didn't eventually send to The Spectator's recent cartoon competition. The theme, obviously, was 'man in motion'.


Bobcat Goldthwait Hating The Haters

I was reading The Guardian a couple of days ago but I only say that trying to sound intelligent. I was actually checking the scores of the Saturday afternoon football, which The Guardian covers quite well and with barely a mention of its usual green, solar-powered, America-spies-on-lesbians agenda.

Half way down their live football blog there was a link to a Youtube video of the quickest goal ever scored, which I watched for all of the 15 seconds it ran feeling disappointed that it didn’t involve a squirrel on stilts which is really the only reason I visit Youtube these days. Probably because I hadn’t seen my usual squirrel on stilts, I clicked pretty randomly on another of the videos. The link was to a video of a ‘9 year old goalkeeper with amazing saves’. I can say now that it was a lucky click. The comments below the video are worth reading. They helped focus my mind on what I wanted to write about today.

I remember being a Bobcat Goldthwait fan until he appeared in a Police Academy movie. That probably drew a line beneath my interest in Bobcat Goldthwait. Before Police Academy, I’d been something of a Goldthwait advocate among my peer group. He'd occasionally appear on UK TV and was one of the more memorable of the American standups; a wailing but strangely erudite and provocative comedian who defied you to like him so, naturally, I loved him. Then he appeared in one of the worst series of movies not involving teenage vampires and my interest died. That was until I saw ‘God Bless America’ earlier this year and I realised that Bobcat had probably committed career suicide back with his Police Academy work. It had to be deliberate. Now he’s a director and even if he’s stopped the crazy snorting and wailing, he still has one of the most interesting voices out there.

God Bless America

It’s a few years since he made ‘God Bless America’ but like many small movies, it has eventually found its audience among those of us naturally predisposed towards its message. I personally think it’s one of the best satires of the past decade. Had Oliver Stone made it, debates would have raged across the media. I hazard to suggest that it’s because it has Goldthwait’s name attached that this movie is so underrated. Had a young twenty something hipster called Brandon instead of Bobcat made it, they’d have been given millions to make the next Ninja Turtle movie. It’s a seriously insane world in which Brad Ratner makes million dollar movies and Goldthwait struggles to raise cash for his independent movies. It reminds me that yesterday morning in The Guardian, John Waters was complaining that he can’t get $5 million to make a movie. He’s doing a one-man show in Liverpool. I’d go but these things are always too damn expensive. But I digress…

The lack of mainstream success is probably down the message of ‘God Bless America’ and it doesn’t make for easy viewing. It’s a profoundly violent film and the black humour really is grim. Yet it’s also beautifully rendered satire about the impotence of rage and the twisted values of American (but you can easily read it as British) society. The genesis of the movie is Goldthwait’s belief that people are too mean. It’s the reason I mentioned the football video. The video ‘9 year old goalkeeper with amazing saves’ was a video of an ordinary kid being filmed by an ordinary father as he played in goal in their ordinary back garden. Yet I suppose it’s a perfect expression of our hateful culture when a proud father posts a video of his son dreaming of becoming a goalkeeper and it prompts hundreds of spiteful comments directed towards the kid. That was probably why I rewatched Goldthwait’s film last night.

The problem of the satire – and possibly the problem of most satire – is that it never offers much of an alternative to the things it attacks. It tends to end up looking like an impotent rage against the machine. The violence of the two lead characters in 'God Bless America are a damning indictment of the power of even satire to make things better. The lack of any restorative effect of the film is perhaps demonstrated by the fact that these excellent leads have never been given the same prominence in more mainstream fare. Joel Murray carried the movie with his bravely subdued performance, yet you also know that in anything costing more to produce he’d be fifth or sixth down the cast below a brother Baldwin. Tara Lynne Barr was excellent as the plucky but insane Roxy and she brought dynamism to the film. It was the relationship between the two that keeps the film going against the backdrop of Goldthwait’s hyper-reality of bad talent shows and fundamentalist conservatism.

In the light of this cold November day, I’m not sure if the film really succeeds. Reading the comments over at the IMDB, I see people dismissing it as a film about an old guy hating things that old guys hate. I don’t think that’s true but I do recognise that it preaches to the choir, reaching out for an audience who already shares its values.

Our culture does certainly pride itself on people who meanly grasp, take, and own. Generosity is thought of as the sin of suckers, fools, and easy grifts. Our advertisements have cheapened sincerity and sentiment to the point that we’re quick to question it in its raw form. Just last week, somebody emailed me to ask advice about writing books, publishing, and the things I’ve done over the past few years. This rarely happens so I replied at length. A few emails were exchanged and I tried to be as helpful as I could. I was honest, sometimes scathing about the industry, but trying to give good advice based on the hard lessons I’ve learned. I thought I was being generous with my advice until, after about three or four emails, I realised that the person I was corresponding with had come to the conclusion that I was mad. There was definitely a sense of their backing out of the conversation. This isn’t the first time that has happened.

It struck me again, watching this film, that what seems like rational sense can all too easily be interpreted as madness by others. I often think that people interpret my friendliness as a form of madness. And perhaps it is. Whenever I go to London, I’ll hold open a door for the person behind me but I’m usually left wondering why I’m still holding the door open ten minutes later after a hundred people had walked through without acknowledging me or offering to hold it themselves. Another thing I’ve learned not to do is smile at anybody on the Underground. You don’t even make eye contact. To do either is to confirm to people that you are indeed mad, whereas here, in the North West, you can still smile at people, have a conversation with a stranger whilst you wait at a bus stop, and if you hold a door open for somebody they’ll often say ‘thank you’ and take it from you.

But perhaps this is a remnant of a world that won’t be around for much longer. ‘God Bless America’ is a loud wail of protest but there’s no sense that things will change. Even the sharpest satire eventually gets dulled by the amount of stupidity that’s actually out there.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Looking For Good Bad Comedies

Lately I’ve been in the mood for lowbrow movie comedies, the kind of comedies you might not admit to watching if you want to sound sophisticated in polite company. In fact, I suppose I’m writing this in the vague hope that somebody reading this might have some suggestions. The Hangover is on my list but it’s currently a very short list.

So far, I’ve revisited films that for some reason didn’t connect with me in the past, which meant beginning with Will Ferrell, a guy whose definition of comedy is so broad that he makes Jim Carrey look like Bob Newhart. I began by rewatching Anchorman which previously hadn’t clicked but I have now come to love enough to have seen it three or four times. I watched Step Brothers and found it enjoyably loud and vulgar but perhaps not quite as good. The Campaign was better than both yet terribly underrated as a savage political satire. Then I moved beyond Farrell to other films in the genre. Get Smart is loveable fun. Horrible Bosses I’d seen before but I watched again and really enjoyed. I even went to the trouble of seeing the very recent We’re the Millers which was surprisingly good in its totally brash and vulgar way.

Last night, however, it was the turn of 21 Jump Street and this morning I’m wondering how the hell I managed to make it through to the close. Had I not been drawing cartoons as I watched it, I might have turned it off because it was a real struggle. Apparently it’s a remake of an American TV show I’ve never seen but is famous for being an early vehicle for Johnny Depp. I doubt if the show was anything like the movie.

I’d seen Jonah Hill in the brilliant Moneyball and apparently he was in Evan Almighty though I don’t remember it enough to say if he was good.  I haven’t seen Superbad, which is apparently the film to see if you want to become a Jonah Hill fan but, after last night, I can definitely say that’s the last thing I want to become. I enjoy purile humour. I enjoy offensive humour. I even enjoy downright bad humour if done the right way. Tonight I intend to tackle the modern Three Stooges just to see Larry David dressed as a nun. Even if it’s bad, I hope it’s bad in a good Farrelly brothers way. The only criticism I’ve ever had about the Farrelly brothers is that they try to rationalise their sick humour with sentimentality and a tendency to preach about the very issues they mock.

None of which explains 21 Jump Street which currently has a 7.1 score on the IMDB. I’m clearly in the minority who really hated this film and that just confuses me. Are there that many people in the world who enjoy the Roy Chubby Brown approach to comedy? It’s that comedy which substitutes wit for vulgarity. ‘Why did the chicken cross the road? Obviously to get to the f***ing other side you c***!’

21 Jump Street set up situations in which a half decent comedy writer could inject plenty of good one liners. Yet facing down some bikers, the two rookie cops enter into a typical exchange:
Jenko: Hey! You want me to beat your dick off?
Domingo: You want to beat my dick off?
Jenko: I'll beat your dick off with both hands. What's up? Let's go.
One-Percenter #1: That's weird, man!
Schmidt: I think what he was trying to say was, he's gonna punch you so many times round the genital area that...that your dick's just gonna fall off.

I suppose it takes all sorts to make the world and I should just move on, except that's hardly edifying, especially when I also note that whilst 22 Jump Street is due out next year, there’s still no word on a sequel to the best horror comedy of the past decade, Tucker & Dale vs Evil, the best science fiction film, Dredd, or the best thriller, Steven Soderbergh brilliantly subdued Haywire.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Merry Christmas From The Spine!

EvilSantaMerry Christmas!

Yes, I know we’re barely into November but we have to rid ourselves of those outmoded concepts such as Christmas at Christmastime. PC World’s website has been in the Christmas spirit (baubles) for the last week and my local Wilkinsons have been there for the past two months. I’m already risking strangulation from the low-hanging decorations, asphyxiation from the fumes coming off the newly-moulded plastic toys just in from mainland China, plus I risk a battering should I vent any of my anti-Christmas sentiment around the gleeful grease-haired mothers already stocking up on the cheaply tattooed chocolate snowmen.

Christmas this year began back in late September, the first time Christmas has come so early. I think it has something to do with the traditional Christian calendar which this year saw the Feast of St Argoscard fall on a Sunday with a full moon which brings Christmas a whole two months earlier than normal.

The problem is that not many people understand the real meaning of Christmas: the two months of quasi-CIA brainwashing as the TV feeds us lifestyles that don’t quite match our reality. Like some great celestial switch has just been flicked by God’s grubby thumb, the adverts suddenly changed overnight. Every one involves some daytime TV skirt flouncing down a snowy road with large gaudy bags hanging from her flimsy wrists. Then she spots her TV hubby non-entity waving from a window where he’s hanging Santa’s bollocks from his plastic pine. Then they kiss under mistletoe whist supping glasses of rum. Cue the shots of the steaming Christmas pudding covered in white sauce which makes me feel ill every time I see it. Then they roll out Grandpa to sit laughing as they open presents. Dad’s been bought a power drill which I always find remarkable that he doesn’t use to bore into his own skull. And oh look! He’s bought Mom some sexy lingerie! She winks, he smiles, Grandpa looks puzzled as the kids look delighted by their new £600 iPads…

Then it’s the message: ‘Christmas is perfect when it’s done with XXX’. For XXX insert your high street chain of choice. Or leave it as it is if you enjoy your Christmas racy, perhaps with strippers wearing sleighbells…

But who am I kidding? I might be sick of Christmas already but the majority of people are just getting started. I’m probably alone in fearing the next two months of having to tell friends and family that I really don’t want anything and that I want to be left alone. I don’t want to stop writing and drawing over Christmas because I love writing and drawing. Thankfully, I don’t have the kind of job that in previous years meant a dreadful Christmas ‘do’: sitting in some grim restaurant pushing inedible Greek food around my plate because I know it would set off my food allergy. At least I don’t have to sit watching humourless people slowly descend into drunkenness with all the jovial fun that involves.

Those sodding Samaritan messages that ruin the TV over Christmas have it all wrong. It’s not the people alone at Christmas that I feel sorry for. It’s the poor buggers stuck carving turkey whilst forced to wear crappy paper hats which always fall over your eyes when you’re handling a lethal vibrating blade. Then there’s the eating-until-you-feel-sick which, I’m happy to say, I’ve managed to avoid since I officially stopped subscribing to the modern Christmas about two or three years ago. Some people could argue that I’m miserable but I don’t need some giddy marketing Samantha to brainwash me into thinking that the Christmas spirit involves my boosting the annual sales of high street retailers or increasing the national debt sending my funds to China via Amazon.

If Christmas really was the Christmas of ‘A Christmas Carol’ or ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ then I wouldn’t have any problem with it. I’d be as Christmas spirited as anybody. I’m just not sure when the Christmas message stopped being about individuals giving thanks to their family and realising something important about being human. Instead it became an extension of our greed, our materialism, a way of controlling us though powerful mechanisms of suggestion: guilt, greed, avarice. If you complain about queuing up in the crowds to spend £15 on that John Bishop Christmas comedy DVD that will £3 on Boxing Day, then I have no sympathy for you.

As if any of this matters… Christmas gets earlier every year and few complain and nobody listens to those of us that do. What does individual opinion really matter in markets worth billions? Spend or don’t spend. I mean as much as a single light going out on the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree.