Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Christmas Doodles

A few unrelated doodles done over Christmas for no reason other than my wish to be doodling. It probably says a lot about my Christmas. I had it in mind to start the new year with a resolution to draw something each day, perhaps a rough doodle of a face, just to see if I can get a likeness. Perhaps I’ll do that. Perhaps I won’t. I guess tomorrow we’ll see if I’ve found the time to draw anything tonight.

Stuffing Winkleman Miranda Charles

Monday, 30 December 2013

The Next Thursday Conundrum

It seems like a dumb question as I type it but: what do you think I mean when I say something is going to happen ‘next Thursday’?

I’ve had this argument a few times in the past month. In fact, it’s occurred so often that I’m now sitting here writing this when I should be building a website.

My observation is that ‘next Thursday’ means the coming Thursday except if today happens to be a Tuesday or a Wednesday. Then ‘next Thursday’ actually means a week on Thursday. Today, as I write this, it’s Monday, hence the reason for this blog post. Somebody just told me that our bins will be emptied ‘next Thursday’ and I launched into a rant about how we’ll be swamped with rubbish by then. Of course, they meant this Thursday, which proves my point that on a Monday, ‘next Thursday’ can mean ‘this Thursday’ or ‘a week on Thursday’. There is an ambiguity in our language that it’s hard to explain to non-native speakers. It feels like we should put yellow tape around Mondays and erect a warning sign that there's ambiguity ahead.

Yesterday was Sunday so there was no ambiguity. ‘Next Thursday’ would have meant this coming Thursday. Today, however, it’s all up in the air. I have no idea what people mean when they say ‘next Thursday’. But I sense this is too boring a subject to blog about. I’ll try harder when I write my next blog post, probably next Thursday, whenever the hell that is...

Sunday, 29 December 2013

From Ross Noble to Johnny Vegas: Comedians of the Year

Ross NobleThe best Christmas TV wasn’t Christmas TV but catching up on a series I hadn't managed to see on its first or subsequent runs. Ross Noble’s Freewheelin reminded me of a kind of television they generally no longer make, except, perhaps, by accident. It is TV straight from the 1980s, when Channel 4 earned its reputation for innovation by simply making room in its schedule for the unexpected.

In Noble’s show, he travels around the UK based on random suggestions made to him via Twitter. In one episode he even travelled as far as visiting St Helens, though I can’t say I recognised the parts he visited. Unlike his visits to other towns, Noble avoided the shopping district. St Helens was portrayed as an utter dump. Perhaps it is, though that will be particularly evident if you choose to look at one derelict shop in some backstreet away from the centre of town.

In a way, it was a bit of a disappointment but not unexpected. This region has a reputation and you don’t often hear people talk about the famous writer, wit, or intellectual from St Helens. In the national psyche, we’re the stuff of twisted rugby players, boxers with flattened senses, and the comedian Johnny Vegas.

Vegas made a welcome appearance in the St Helen’s episode, though I suspect that was down to his friendship with Noble rather than the producer trying to fill the show with celebrities. Unfortunately, they did that also, which was the series’ one failing. The format’s strength is that it actually involved real people in everyday situations which Noble warped with his brand of spontaneous comedy. It’s actually gave a little attention to parts of the county that rarely get included in the TV schedules. Yet I guess it’s unsurprising that even the best show should betrays its ethos by sadly conformed to the usual TV formula of replacing real people with celebrities. Does a tour of the UK always have to involve a stop off at Paul Daniel’s house? It’s as though a tour of the UK couldn’t be complete without involving some luvvie from that other world. I’ve said it before that celebrities ruined Twitter but must they also ruin a TV based around Twitter. It seems that they must.

The other thing I’ve found myself watching over Christmas are Dave’s repeats of Have I Got News For You. In many respects, I agree with people who say its lots its edge and it’s a show that desperately needs a revamp. If it does, I don’t think it need be a huge change. Simply getting rid of the guest presenters would be a step in the right direction. By its very nature, satire is the comedy of the outsider. It’s the stuff of the alternative point of view. It’s why HIGNFY rightly belongs on BBC2 and not on the nation’s main TV channel. Like the alternative Queen’s speech, it should be about standing apart from the herd, directing scorn where scorn will sting. Now on BBC1 and hosted by many of the people it should set out to mock, the show has been co-opted by the establishment and it now rarely bites. Although I don’t like the man’s comedy but perhaps ideal host would be Frankie Boyle simply because he might upset a few people in the process. An even better host would be Stewart Lee, though I doubt if it would be his thing and he probably wouldn’t do it anyway. The problem with so much satire in the UK is that it’s become safely contained within establishment rules, appropriated by the establishment as if to control disenchantment. Gone are the days when politicians would step in to try to stop the broadcast of an episode of Spitting Image. Indeed, it’s a sign of how bad satire has become that I actually miss Spitting Image, which in its later years was itself a twisted version of its former self.

It also reminds me that over Christmas, I watched a biography about David Frost. Among the few things I took away from the show was the degree to which Frost was himself always destined for an establishment role. Although he made his name in satire, he wasn’t by nature satirical or, for that matter, either a writer or performer. The great Peter Cook was said to have resented the way Frost took the Fringe out of theatres and put it on TV.

It’s why I hope Ross Noble remains on the outside of that world. I hope he manages to stay disconnected from the London establishment. I had worried that Johnny Vegas might have become ‘too London’. When Noble met him, he was in a London pub, hundreds of miles away from where his career began in the St Helens Citadel. Then I read about him laying into the establishment at the typically woeful British Comedy Awards. You need to skip to four minutes to get the meat of the business…


Of course, part of this might just have been his usual shtick and I worry that the London set laugh because of the way he says things rather than the things he says. But what he says has real significance to me given I spend most of my days lamenting about the state of comedy writing in the UK.

Johnny Vegas

Is it any surprise that the elected king and queen of British comedy should be Jack Whitehall and Miranda Hart? It makes me even more jaded and I have even less desire to write comedy or drawn cartoons, hence the reason I've spent most of my time over Christmas drawing bad caricatures on my upgraded Note. I don’t think I’ve ever been this frustrated in my own work, when my writing, typified by my Stan book, gets nowhere but two extremely unfunny but establishment figures are lauded as comic geniuses. It sickens me to watch Miranda claim Eric Morecambe as her own, somehow associating her mediocre talent to his unequaled star. I suppose it frustrates me that Johnny Vegas is laughed off as if he’s the eccentric uncle spoiling the party when he’s actually speaking truths from the heart that should be acknowledged as wisdom. If I’ve been critical of Vegas in the past, I suppose it was out of my own sense of frustration that my local area should be associated with the Vegas character. It seemed to play into all the southern prejudices that people around here are uneducated, boorish, and borderline alcoholic. Yet Michael Pennington has more humour talent in his little finger than Whitehall has displayed in his entire career. Whitehall, however, is the son of Michael Whitehall and there you have the truth of the world. So, for that one moment of sublime genius, Vegas wins my vote for comedian of the year. Not that it matters.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Reflections on Christmas

Christmas was busy. I worked the day and night before Christmas Eve and then I worked Christmas Eve night after a very busy Christmas Eve. I was lucky to get Christmas Day to myself.

In the past, I’ve always said I love to work over Christmas but by ‘work’, I roughly meant ‘doing the things I enjoy’, whether that was writing or drawing. I did neither this year, too eaten away by real work I don’t particularly enjoy and real life which has been difficult.

Perhaps it’s why I’ve had more time to notice Christmas this year. Perhaps my senses are just attuned to it more but I thought this Christmas more low key than Christmases past. The shops weren’t quite as explicit in their celebration of Christmas. TV didn’t seem quite as special. Even Sky News made a big deal about their not making a fuss about Christmas, telling us that it was business as usual over the festive break. Dare I hope that it’s a sign that Christmas is losing its significance in British culture?

I say ‘hope’ but I’m not entirely sure that I wish Christmas gone or to grow less significant. I just want rid of what Christmas has become: a guilt-driven retail obscenity disguised as something bright, warm, and worth cherishing. I travelled into Manchester on Christmas Eve to finish off what little shopping I did on the high street but partly just to enjoy the atmosphere. Yet the atmosphere was next to non-existent. The Christmas markets had already packed up and gone and many of the stores were in the early stages of emptying their shelves and preparing for the New Year sales. It demonstrated what Christmas really means to the high street. They don’t celebrate Christmas, merely what Christmas allows them to do. It’s na├»ve of me to expect different but I can’t help but reflect how Christmases were very different just a decade or two ago.

It’s not in such a distant past when times were harder and Christmas the one time of the year when we’d eat slightly better food and feel grateful for the few gifts we’d receive. Yet Britain has changed and Christmas has changed with it. Perhaps we’ve become more prosperous, when children routinely ask for iPads and expensive headphones. Maybe food has just got cheaper (despite what recent years otherwise suggest) so we enjoy luxuries all the year round. Yet it’s only very recently that Amazon have imported the Black Friday nonsense that other retailers have copied. I personally think they’re making one trip too many to the already dry well. Black Friday has made Christmas less special, just one of a number of retail ‘events’ crowded into two months at the end of the year.

Last night I watched the usual Christmas service on the BBC. I’m not religious, though I wish I were. I usually find myself watching the Christmas service. I wish I could believe in heavens, Gods, and the rest. I wish I were Catholic, so I could feel kinship with a Church that exists to laud something more significant than ourselves. I wish I were a believer just to show my appreciation for the artists who devoted their lives to devotional works. Sadly, for me, I don’t believe. I’m probably one of those atheists that the new Pope addressed when he asked atheists to stand with believers in working towards ‘a homemade peace’. I wish I could believe in God but I do believe in morality and living a moral life. I believe in the Christmas message, just not what Christmas has become. I always feel happy when Christmas is over. I feel happy that the feelings of great sadness might be past me. Christmas is when I miss people who were central to my life: my father and other relatives who made my Christmases fun. Yet it’s also that older sense of Christmas that I miss. I miss Christmas when we didn’t feel ashamed to talk about nativity or the church, even at the same time as we would also laugh about it and say how ridiculous it all was. I miss my Uncle Harry nearly setting fire to the church when he dropped his candle in an orange, which was part of the Christmas service. The thing is: I can now see that it never was that ridiculous because despite all the talk of myths, legends, and magic, it was based on something more real than Amazon Prime and having the latest smart phone. It was about people.

This was brought into focus watching the BBC yesterday. An ad came on which you might have seen. It had ordinary folk sitting looking bored on a train. It was meant to be the days before smart phones and the message of the ad was that we were bored back then. We look at the faces of the ordinary folk and they’re all sad.

Suddenly, we’re in the smart phone age and hands lift up screens so they cover the sad faces of the ordinary folk. Suddenly, their bodies sit beneath heads belonging to Bruce Forsyth and Miranda. They’re no longer dull ordinary folk but celebrities.

No add has ever made me feel so sad about what we’ve become, so preoccupied with selfies and celebrities. And that, I guess, is the problem with the modern Christmas, obsessed with brand and fashion. I’m just ordinary folk and I guess you are too, if, indeed, anybody is out there reading this. So, here at the other end of Christmas Day, I just wanted to say thank you for reading this blog. Thank you for understanding what I’m trying to say from the undernourished side of celebrity. I’d rather be with you on a train journey than Brucie or Miranda or any of those talentless bores. And let me just an ordinary shmo, wish you a very sincere Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

Merry Christmas!

Amazon

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Freeing Up Drive C

I don’t throw many technical tips out there because I figure I’m not that kind of blogger. However, when I discover a tip that’s just saved me £100, I think it’s worth sharing.

For months, I’ve been struggling to make space on my C drive. It’s a relatively small drive, 75Gb, I think, on account of it being an SSD, meaning it has no moving parts but is very very fast. I use it for my Windows install and a few applications I use regularly. When I set up this PC, I spent a lot of time redirecting most things such as ‘My Documents’ and memory swap files to other bigger drives. Despite this, my C drive has been getting increasingly full, causing me all manner of headache. I’ve even been thinking of replacing it, which would be a nightmare getting my PC back working as I like it. A new install is always a big event, at least a week of work and they usually mean that I lose some files I’ll never get back. Of course, the answer is: backup your work, David. Well, rich folk might be able to afford terabytes of backup drives but if I could afford backup drives, I wouldn’t be scrubbing around for space on my drive C.

Anyway, looking to solve this problem, I found a neat bit of free software called WinDirStat. I ran it on my troublesome drive and it produced the following graphic. It surprised the hell out of me, especially that big red block. That’s one file taking up over 12Gb of disc space.

DriveUsage

A glance at the list of files at the top told me it that it was a file called hiberfil.sys, which I immediately suspected had something to do with Windows hibernation, which I never use. I have 16Gb in this machine so a snapshot of my memory at any one time would probably amount to a 12Gb file.

Anyway, a quick Google search told me that I could delete the file and easier than I thought.

Find your Command Prompt in the Accessories menu. Select it with a right mouse click and choose 'Open as Administrator’. Then type the following at the prompt.

powercfg -h off

And just like that, the file disappeared and I now have a glorious 12Gb free on my drive.

For months I’ve been working with a few hundred megabytes of free space so today feels like my birthday. 12Gb! I feel almost dizzy with excitement.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Bloody Collect+

Dear Amazon,

Return Authorization #: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Order #: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

What kind of operation are you lot running? I saw ‘Panorama’ and you might think it’s fine to make some poor shmuck heel his bones down dark corridors for dozens of miles a day but I’ll be damned if you’re having me do it too!

I asked to return an item and you sent me the label which I printed out in full. I then pedalled across town to the Post Office, stood 24 minutes in the long Christmas queue, only to discover that they don’t accept ‘Collect+’ parcels. They also seemed a bit shirty that I was dealing with their competition. So, I return home and discover that I have to leave this parcel miles away at a remote off license! So, off I go again, bike up one miserable hill after another, to find the little gin palace you call a collection point. I hand in my parcel to the woman behind the counter (she had been smoking a fag outside the front door, so she was already a cigarette down on the deal and wasn’t too happy to learn that I don’t drink so wouldn’t be making a purchase). She scanned the parcel only for the machine to tell her that ‘the barcode is too short’.

So, not only have I sullied my reputation by entering this dive, they wouldn’t accept my parcel!

So, I ask you: what am I to do with it now? And how do I reclaim the three hours I’ve spent trying to offload this bloody parcel? That’s three hours I could have been earning money. You might say this £10 tablet case has so far cost me about £40!

I don’t mind you introducing these new schemes but could you please ensure that these schemes actually work before sending me on a wild goose chase.

Sincerely, hot, sweaty, and very annoyed…

Me

Deceived By The Bounce: The Graeme Swann Controversy

GraemeSwannSo Graeme Swann has been forced to apologise by anti-rape campaigners after he compared England’s Ashes defeat to being ‘arse raped’ by the Australians. Had he said ‘butt fucked’ I suppose it wouldn’t have landed him in such hot water or, for that matter, on such a tricky wicket. Yet perhaps it would…

It sometimes feels like we live in a hyper-connected (and hyper-sensitive) age, where certain keywords muttered in one place trigger automated responses elsewhere designed to advance the cause of whichever group believes they have ownership of that particular word, phrase or concept. A high profile figure uses the word ‘rape’ in an offhand manner and it’s no longer surprising when an advocacy group takes the chance to highlight the evils of rape. Had Swann said ‘corn holed’, representatives of the corn industry might have taken offence...

But perhaps that’s a glib thing to say. I’m prone to say glib things that might offend, which is perhaps why this story attracts my attention. Thankfully, I’m not an oft-lauded English off-spin bowler so nobody will really care what I say, glib or otherwise. Before my meaning can be misconstrued, however, let me state here that I believe rape to be the most horrific violation of not just the body but the human spirit. In many ways, it is a crime worse than murder, so what follows is not a defence of rapists or an attempt to degrade the significance of their crime. What interests me is the degree to which we are allowed to use these words and concepts in our everyday language. At what point does a subject become too taboo for the idle quip?

You see, I feel a little sorry for Swann. Swann is an easy target and he’s in no position to defend his use of the phrase. He is speaking in a way that’s familiar in a certain context. It’s the kind of quip often exchanged between male friends, the sort of vulgar joke that might include some reference to the film ‘Deliverance’ and the phrase ‘squeal like a pig’. It’s not sophisticated humour. Nor is it humour that will appeal to everyone. Taken out of one context and placed into another, it will easily offend people who don’t share that sensibility. But it’s a type of humour that is out there and is so very recognisable.

Of course, Graeme Swann doesn’t say any of this. It’s easier for Swann to say ‘sorry’ and move on than it is for him to defend his right to use whatever language he feels appropriate when posting to his brother’s Facebook page. And, really, is there anything he can say that sounds as meaningful as the words of Yvonne Traynor, the chief executive of Rape Crisis, who told The Telegraph:
"We are appalled that Graeme Swann equates a cricket match with the devastatingly serious crime of rape. It is the duty of a people in the public eye to make sure that their own distorted views are kept to themselves and not shared with the general public. These comments lack compassion and intelligence and he should apologise to anyone who has suffered from this heinous crime."

The problem I have is the problem I have whenever an offhand remark is countered with a well-considered response. Anybody can make an offhand remark which can then be made to look foolish with an acutely reasoned reply. Somebody well practised at deconstructionism could take many a mild statement and expose some raw misogyny, fascist leaning or underlying assumption about other people and their cultures. We routinely use words to express ourselves which come laden with all kinds of prior meanings but that isn’t to say that we advocate the murder of the French whenever we say that somebody has ‘met their Waterloo’ any more than there’s an implied support of colonialism when we say ‘I could murder a curry’.

So if there has been no reasonable defence made for Graeme Swann, then I think there should be one. There should be a reasoned argument that says something like: ‘obviously, he didn’t mean to offend anybody who has suffered that most terrible crime of rape, but he used an example of extreme human barbarity to express the profound disappointment he’s feeling at the moment.’ It should go on as follows: ‘Rather than diminish the severity of rape, his comment acknowledges rape’s status as an ultimate taboo in our collective morality. Much of our humour comes from exploring these taboo concepts and his remarks belonged to a long tradition of using such terms for darkly comic effect (see Freud’s Totem and Taboo). Of course, rape exists and it will continue to exist as long as individuals seek to impose their will on other individuals. It is part of all human potential and, sadly, it will always be part of the sum total of what we call “the human condition”. Yet to hide it away and restrict our use of the word for only those moments when we’re talking seriously about something is wrong and denies us an important part of our language.’

But, of course, if that’s reasonably put, it’s also reasonable to say that there is a point at which such comparisons become unacceptable. Swann could have said ‘murdered’ by the Australians and it wouldn’t have raised any objection. Had he compared it with ethic cleaning or, even worse, been so specific as to compare it to the Holocaust, he would have been rightly vilified.

There might, then, be a matter of degree in this situation. ‘Bummed’, ‘buggered’ or even ‘butt fucked’ wouldn’t have raised such alarm. ‘Rape’, however, is such a sensitive subject and in some sense politicised, he should have known better than to walk down the middle of the wicket wearing his spikes and cutting up the rough.

Because, to some, making supposedly funny remarks about rape is tantamount to attempting to reduce the seriousness of the crime. They argue that we desensitise ourselves to the violence of rape by using the word in such a casual manner. And I suppose there might be that danger. The old saying that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ has established wisdom about it. We live in a world where it is increasingly difficult to be shocked. Films have developed such an elaborate language of horror that it’s hard to think of something that exceeds the imaginations of filmmakers. Saw was a shocking movie but tame compared to what came later. The ‘unimaginable’ horrors of films of the 1950s are laughable compared to today’s torture horror. In another fifty years, what might that generation think about today’s Human Centipede?

Yet whatever they think about our horror, I doubt if future generations will have any more developed response to rape. There is a difference between styles of horror and certain depictions of physical violence. Whilst the sight of Norman Bates’ mother, at the end of Psycho, has lost much of its shock value, the same can’t be said of rape scenes from films of the 1960s and 70s. A Clockwork Orange still makes for very uncomfortable viewing as does Straw Dogs. One of the most shocking and uncomfortable films I’ve seen which still shocks today is Hitchcock’s Frenzy.

There is something about the act of rape that isn’t lessened by familiarity or overuse of the word. It simply never fails to shock. I’ve laboured longest over the wording of this brief article than I’ve done over anything in a long time. The very fact that it makes for uncomfortable discussion and there’s been little or no debate about a cricketer’s use of the term would suggest that it retains its power. Horror has its basis in some part of the brain that’s unconnected with our moral actions. Rape remains the ultimate violation, utterly taboo, a place reserved for the worst things that humans can do to one another.

And in this respect, Swann’s remarks belong to that category of darkly humourous exaggeration we use as a way of commentating on something so out of the ordinary. Is it too much of a stretch to say that it was used in the same way that Alexander Pope meant it when he wrote ‘Rape of the Lock’? Well, perhaps it is. Times change and perhaps Swann was unwise to use the word in what might be thought of as a public forum. He might have used the word unthinkingly (but I don’t think it was as unthinking as some would wish). Yet if Swann’s choice of expression was shocking, some might say it was shockingly funny but shocking nevertheless. And that is how it should be and, in that sense, I don’t believe he has any reason to apologise. Just to suggest that he uses it in a way that’s disrespectful of all rape victims is to play unfair games with language. It plays politics with the issue by spinning the spinner’s words.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Dreaming of Tom Waits

WaitsI met Tom Waits in my dreams last night. It was the first night I’d slept soundly, undisturbed by the coughing that’s characterised the latter days of my heavy cold. Waits was at his charismatic best, performing a duet with David Bowie in a clever video which I can’t entirely remember but was one part hobo chic and another part travelling balloon carnival. After the song, Waits took to the stage and I was sitting near the front, feeling blessed that I had an opportunity to see my very favourite musician up close. Then he started to hand out free albums and magic beans and the whole thing got crazy.

I can’t remember much of the show except it seemed to involve driving old 1930s cars through a corn field as a dwarf accompanied him on the sousaphone. After the performance, I had chance to meet Waits and I reached out to shake his hand. I thought his hand was small. Perhaps I’d shaken hands with the dwarf instead. I’ll never know. We got to talking about the topless brunette sitting in the Model T Ford and that’s when the telephone rang and I woke up.

Sleep, I think, is important to me. Or at least, dreaming seems to be key to the way my brain functions in the day. I’ve been struggling to come up with good cartoon ideas for the past week, which I think confirms my suspicions that my imagination is tied to getting a solid eight hours. Today I’m supposed to start work on one of the websites I’ll be building instead of enjoying Christmas this year but I also intend to make some room in my afternoon for some serious cartooning.

The lack of time and ideas to cartoon is particularly galling because on Saturday I took the bold step and upgraded my Samsung Note.

I’d found a buyer for my relatively new Samsung 10.1, meaning that I took next to no financial hit when it came to buying the newer 2014 edition I’ve been talking about for so long. I did the deed at the John Lewis store in Liverpool with a little of the money I’d made from my animation project.

The whole experience has been a bit unsettling, given that the first Note had quickly become as useful as my right arm. I’m still not completely at home with the new Note, though that’s partly down to my ordering a case from Amazon that is now going back. I originally ordered one of these, a beautiful case but with major flaws. The magnet in the lid is meant to wake the Note when you open it and shut it down when you close it. This it does but it also shuts down the Note when you fold the lid all the way back, as you do when holding it to draw. The same magnet (I suspect it’s just too powerful) also infers with the magnetic field that S Pen uses to locate its location on the screen, meaning that if you happen to draw in the same spot where the magnet’s located at the back, you have a dead spot on the screen.

I’ve now bought the same type of case as I had on my original Note and hope that things improve. The reason I wanted the newer Note was to draw on the 4k canvasses supported by Art Flow and the experience so far hasn’t made me regret my decision. I think my few scribbled test cartoons are already looking crisper and the whole drawing experience is much improved, with smoother operation and no lag between my hand and the screen. The only problem is a bug in Art Flow which means I can’t export the canvasses to Photoshop. I emailed the developer and apparently he’s working on a fix.

Tomorrow, I’ll post the results, if there are any results and my brain starts functioning again. I suppose the fear I always live with is that one day I’ll wake up and I’m no longer able to think of a funny joke or a funny cartoon. I fear that one day I might wake up to discover that I’ve grown up and become fascinated by tax and the brain rotting seriousness you find among the comment section of The Guardian. I worry that I’ll become one of those serious people when all I want is to be like Tom Waits, casting glitter over the heads of the midget tumblers and brunettes in classic cars.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Getting in the silverskins

The big news today is that I renewed the-spine.com for another two years. Opening my wallet this wide so near to Christmas must mean that I’m still serious about blogging, even if, yesterday, no sooner had I written ‘I’ll be back to my normal blogging habits’ than I got a call to say that I’ll be expected to build three websites over the next fortnight.

I say ‘build’ but they’ll be Wordpress installs with themes I’ll customise. In a way, it’s a disgrace to even suggest that I’ll be building them. Over the last five or so years, website building has gone from being a form of virtual bricklaying to a highly refined form of interior design. Where once I would be found sitting on an old car seat beside a hot brazier, smoking a fag and tutting over my union sanctioned mug of tea as I contemplated the next line of HTML, I’m now usually found flouncing around and clapping my hands and demanding more aqua in the banners PEOPLE! I’m not sure which I prefer.

Talking about unions, I’m increasingly dismayed by the lengths some shops go to prove they’re fun and happy places to work.

At my local Tesco, I spoke to one of the women working the checkouts this morning. She was wearing sagging reindeer horns and a look of joyless intensity.

‘I hope they pay you extra to wear those horns,’ I quipped.

She looked at me blankly and said nothing as she slid me my seasonal jar of silverskins.

On Saturday, I was walking in Liverpool for reasons that will become apparent in coming days. The Clayton Square shopping centre is now almost dead upstairs when I remember it as quite a vibrant little arcade. The Clayton Square planners made a big mistake when they removed the pedestrian entrance, making this little corner of Liverpool a dead end. However, it’s still the easiest way to get up to the level of Lime Street Station (the entirety of Liverpool seems to be one long climb to the railway station) and I used the escalator to take me up to a level and I cut through Boots.

It was in Boots that I saw a woman dressed like a pixie or an elf, complete with mismatching leggings and a red nose. She might have had bells on her toes but I can’t recall, hence the confusion over pixie or elf.

It happens everywhere I suppose but this sight did make me wonder if the poor woman had a choice. What would happen if somebody like me was working for one of these companies and refused to wear something so ridiculous? At one time, the unions would have said something but union power seems to be at an all-time low. If I refused to dress as a pixie or elf, I’d be out on my not-so pointed ear.

I know a person in one of the great professions who is constantly forced to do things which, given any reasonable union power, they wouldn’t have to. Hmm… ‘Great professions’ makes it sound like they work in prostitution when I actually mean the old professions: the law, academia, medicine, TV weather…

Under a boss who micromanages his entire realm, demotivating every employee with his Sauron-like gaze, highly trained people are turned into performing chimps, never making a decision on their own or able to execute the skills they’ve mastered through years of daily grind. I’m being cautious about how I write this because I wouldn’t want my friend to get into trouble. The point is: in all businesses, employees have rights that they’re in no power to enforce. Unions stand by as rules are flouted. In the situation I’m describing, the union representative is as much under the thumb of the boss as anybody and routinely bend to his will.

That isn't to say that things were bad when unions had all the power but now I fear that things have gone too far the other way. ‘Oh, they can’t simply fire so long as you do your job well,’ was always something I believed but I believe it no longer. Companies, organisations, and faculties of the state can always find a way to force a person out if that person doesn’t agree to fiddle the figures, work unreasonable hours, or wear an elf costume.

And, yes, that’s right: two more years of blog posts like this. Won’t that be worth the hard earned £22 I blew this morning?

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Monday After the Month Before

Alongside the animation, the abscess, and the heavy cold I’ve been suffering for the past week, I’m still enduring the disruption caused by my deciding about a month ago to rearrange and tidy my office. The truth is that I’m not the tidiest person but I attacked this task like a North Korean leader arranging the seating around the Christmas turkey and realising there was one uncle too many. I’d amassed so much junk that it was shameful to see how many bags of detritus I took out behind the shed and despatched via firing squad.

I’m still not finished and the work gets harder by the day. Take, for example, The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Despite the name, the Compact Oxford English Dictionary is not compact. It’s probably the biggest book I own. You might know the edition. It comes with a small box at the top to store the illuminated magnifying glass which you have to use to read the book’s miniscule font. I bought it cheap from a book club many moons ago, probably having only joined the book club to get my hands on a book that I couldn’t afford at full price. Currently, they’re probably going for about £20 on eBay, which says everything about dictionaries in the age of apps, websites, and illiteracy.

My problem now is: what the hell should I do with it? I bought it when I was in doing research in academia, when knowing the derivation of words was a significant part of my life. To throw it away would be amount to admitting that I’ll never again be that person. Not that I want to be that person. Calling myself an academic felt too narrow, too knowing, too definitive of who I was or what I might become. I’m not sure what I have become except deeply disenchanted about a great many things but disenchanted about dictionaries isn’t one of them. Throwing my dictionary away would amount to my admitting that writing no longer matters to me.

And that’s the point. Although I’ve not written a book in about a year (for me, a rare thing), it’s not that I care any less about writing. Yet reading just the other day about the Specsavers literary awards, I noticed the same sad spectacle (pun intended) of celebrities receiving plaudits and the book industry trying to ride out the hard times on the coat tails of TV fools. To be a writer these days is synonymous with a certain lifestyle or it is merely an adjunct to fame. If you didn’t lose your knickers in the jungle or are an ex-rower who climbed the north face of Brian Blessed, to be a writer means conforming to certain stereotypes in order to follow the money: to be the globetrotting internationalist lesbian writing for The Guardian from your solar powered wheel chair, to be the old school pipe smoking socialist in the New Statesmen, or to have the same John Bull beefy lips of the conservative meatheads writing their polemical nonsense elsewhere. At times I can find myself agreeing with all three but, as I found when I tried to be an academic, I don’t sit neatly inside one group meaning that I belong nowhere but this hinterland of blogging.

These thoughts pass through my mind as I start at the Compact Oxford English Dictionary sitting on my desk. Getting rid of it would be like giving up so I’ll keep it.

I might need it because as this post suggests, I’m also back blogging. I know it’s the week leading up to Christmas but, as I sit here, Monday lunchtime, I intend to be blogging regularly, perhaps even get some cartoons finished.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Damn, Hell and Bugger!

As if my luck wasn't bad enough, I've now developed an abscess front upper. Not particularly painful but damn uncomfortable and ready to pop. Just cycled in the hope of seeing a dentist but they couldn't give me time. Just told me to keep rinsing with salt water which I've been doing all day. My mouth feels like the Dead Sea.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

John W Henry: The Cartoon Strip – Episode 5

Last night I think I finished the animation I’ve been working on for weeks now. I’ll miss working on it. As if to mark the moment, this morning I woke up feeling rotten. Yesterday I had a root canal done. What surprised me was that it was done without the usual numbing but it had been painless, despite the tooth causing me problems for years. I’d had a crown fitted many years ago after cracking the tooth doing karate. The crown had been painful for months after and only recently have I discovered the reason why. The dentist hadn’t done a root canal, despite my new dentist assuring me that when you do a crown involving a post going into the tooth, you should always do a root canal.

Anyway, whether it’s just a coincidence or the fact that the dentist opened up the root of this tooth and years of bad voodoo have come flooding out, but today I feel rotten. It feels like a lousy cold coming on mixed with the after effects of being hit by a bus. I also have the deadline for another cartoon strip today so perhaps that’s a good thing: I can go and hide in a warm corner and do some cartooning, which is when I’m at my happiest.

As a way of saying that I’m still here and that I hope to blog about as things more uplifting than my previous post, here’s the previous John W Henry strip, which appeared in last week's edition of Red All Over The Land. I enjoy drawing these. I enjoy drawing John W Henry like I enjoy what he's doing for Liverpool. Second in the table isn't a bad way to be heading into Christmas.


Saturday, 7 December 2013

A Slow Burning Tragedy Courtesy of the NHS

I rarely write about things that are deeply personal to me. Certainly, I don’t often write about the important things in my life such as my family. I have never, as I recall, written before about the difficulties those closest to me suffer on a daily basis but recent events have brought me to the point where I’m using my blog to do just that. I want to write about the NHS and its systemic failure to deal properly with one particular case.

My sister has been ill since her teenage years when she had her gall bladder removed. At the time, the surgeon said that my sister was the youngest person he’d known that needed to have their gall bladder removed. After the operation, he told us that he’d found so many thousands of tiny stones that he’d had difficulty getting them all out. He warned us that there was damage done that might cause problems for my sister in later years.

The surgeon was right. There have been brief periods of time when she has been well but ‘well’ is such a relative term. My sister has rarely been so well that she can do any amount of physical exercise or do the things that most people would call ‘living a full life’. Simply travelling on a bus can result in days of illness. Strangely, she can ride a bike which doesn’t bring on the symptoms but that is about the extent of her activity. Bending over, lifting things, or twisting motion around her upper body all seem to trigger flare-ups of the condition, which is symptomized by intense pain and a heaviness under her left side ribcage, nausea, fevers, and other things too unpleasant to describe. Two weeks ago she bent down and she’s now endured a fortnight of pain, sickness, and the rest...

Over the years, the NHS has tried vaguely to understand and treat her problem. It sometimes feels like I have lived my entire life against a background of her hospital visits and the usual disappointment of her returning home after another consultant has passed her over to another department. She once had a test to check how quickly food passes through her digestive system. Hours after she’d eaten the 'special sandwich', the doctor running the examination expressed his surprise that the food still hadn’t left her stomach. It was the slowest example of stomach emptying he’d ever seen. Yet doctors never put a name to it. Gastroparesis was something we only discovered recently but that was only through American websites. Nobody on the NHS has ever thought to refer her to a dietician to see if we can help her through better food. My father also had his gall bladder out but he was on medication to help digestion which doctors, for some reason, have not thought to give my sister.

Occasionally, we get a doctor who is caring and seems interested. One doctor thought she might have something called Sphincter of Oddi but when he left (he was a locum), his replacements didn’t recognise the term or want to follow it up. Another caring doctor (a wonderful young Scot) thought she had the classic symptoms of gall stones. He was fascinated when she told him that she hadn’t had a gall bladder for ten years. He wanted to refer her to a specialist but, being another locum, it never transpired.

Meanwhile, whilst many drugs have been administered, the true reason for her illness has never been explained. Nobody actually seems interested or concerned that a person’s entire life is being destroyed.

In the past two years, things have got worse. Our local NHS practice has changed and new doctors have arrived. One doctor doesn’t seem to believe that my sister has anything wrong with her and one day removed nearly all my sister’s medication. Within a fortnight she was extremely ill. The same doctor took her off tablets prescribed by a consultant for fibromyalgia, leaving my sister in constant pain. Another doctor reinstated the tablets saying she should never have come off them (the closest we’ve ever heard one doctor criticising another). A month ago, one doctor gave her something to help her. It did help her until last week a different doctor took her off the same medication.

This is happening week after week, month upon month, like the system has been failing my sister year upon year and even decade upon decade. One doctor contradicts another but all doctors smile behind their enigmatic silence but offer no help.

Why is that? How could that be allowed to continue?

The cruelty of the NHS is in its general indifference to the individual. The NHS is a faceless entity with no compassion. The systemic failure of the NHS to help my sister is partly down to her not having a regular doctor interested in her case or a consultant willing to investigate it properly. It is now a few years since a doctor properly examined her and, in recent months, doctors have preferred to ask about the state of her mental health. This, I suppose, is why I’m now writing, out of a sense of anger at their negligence and presumption.

The thing is: I’ve never met anybody so strong or psychologically well-adjusted as my sister. She is articulate and clever but damned by circumstance. Despite enduring things I can’t comprehend, she still refuses to allow it to get her down. She is no less intelligent than me except I had a chance to do a PhD whilst she has only ever had the chance to suffer. She is self-taught historian, fascinated by politics. She is a gifted writer but illness prevents her pursuing her love of journalism. Yet through it all she remains strong and cheerful. It’s her who cheers me up when I feel down because of her health and the fact that I feel so powerless to do anything about it.

Most days I sit here trying to draw funny cartoons or just to ‘be funny’ when a few rooms away, one of the people closest to me is suffering with intense pain, sickness, and fever. She can go days without eating, the pain under her rib cage only made tolerable by a Tens machine sometimes at full power. Today the pain is radiating up into her shoulder and I suspect it’s another attack of pancreatitis (one of the few words doctors do occasionally mention). Locally, the doctors don’t seem concerned. They don’t seem to even believe her. I think they have us marked down as problematic, worse than the drug addicts and benefits scroungers they normally see.

The saddest part is that we’re now considering paying for a private consultation but this is now a state of desperation. It’s £150 for 30 minutes and I don’t know if it would help given that she would then be left back in the NHS system for tests. We’ve paid before. Doctors took an interest until the money ran out. Then the general indifference of the NHS took over as it always does.

People often tell us to ring for an ambulance when the attacks are at their worst. We did that a few years ago. A doctor at the local hospital examined my sister and told her that he was amazed that nobody had felt the ‘something’ in her side which he suggested might be a cyst. He pushed it so hard he later suggest it burst or removed whatever blockage was causing her trouble. She was violently ill that night but so much better the next morning that they discharged her. She was well for a couple of months and it was as if the problem were solved. Except it wasn’t. It comes back every month or three and now doctors won’t even examine her. They just ask ridiculous questions as if suggesting that she’s making all this up. They even suggest she is imagining her problem when I’ve sat beside her mopping the sweat from her forehead. I’ve seen the readouts on the thermometers, the violent sickness, her terrible pallor, and even her fainting when the pain is at its worst. Sometimes even a cup of soup can make her violently ill. She hasn’t eaten a proper meal in months yet doctors have the temerity to suggest that gluttony might be her problem because she’s not stick thin. That’s not just insulting but it’s downright neglectful.

I suppose that’s why I’m writing this. I would like to think that somebody out there reading this has advice or medical experience to know what to do or where to turn. But perhaps that’s just a ridiculous hope and a sign of my frustration. At the very least, I just want to write this now to put it on the record to say that my sister is terribly ill and nobody on the NHS seems concerned or even gives a damn.

After decades of living with this, I’m beginning to feel at my wit’s end. My recent blog silence isn’t just down to working on other things but trying to look after somebody left stranded by the system. There is no pleasure in life when all you see on a daily basis is suffering and you are helpless because the system doesn’t care. I often joke that I should have trained to be a medical doctor than waste all those years becoming a useless Doctor of Philosophy. Then I could have helped her. As it is, I dream of a gastric consultant taking an interest in my sister’s unusual case but that’s fairy tale stuff. It’s the stuff of newspaper stories where something rare is finally diagnosed when the run-of-the-mill medical professionals don’t care to look. In the past, appointments with consultants end up with five minutes with junior registrars, passed back to the doctor, who simply say ‘keep drinking the morphine when the pain is at its worst and don’t bother us again’.

This is a slow burning tragedy of living with the NHS. It’s the tragedy of anybody stuck with complicated symptoms under a system made for the routine. The NHS works wonderfully for the average complaint: a sprained knee or a broken wrist. It appears unfit for purpose when somebody requires investigation and specialist knowledge. We’re so utterly lost in the system, passed from one faceless doctor to the next, that I even found myself suggesting we walk into a Chinese medical centre yesterday. That’s right. Me, a man who believes in neither Gods nor magic, has started to wonder if there’s something in the ancient medicine. Yet modern medicine is failing us. The medical service is failing us. The only chances that seem left for us are those offered by charlatans and mystics and that makes this feel like a very bad place to be.