Friday, 20 November 2009

Rebel without a pause


The first time I walked past the billboard, I could see its potential. It stood there, bold as brass and as proud as a full ashtray, sharing its jocular message with the world. I wasn’t laughing though but I soon thought of a way to change that.

I’d have to move quickly, because advertising posters seemed to have short life spans. (I know, darkly ironic for tobacco advertising.) And I’d need to plan carefully. I was as subtle as a kick up the arse, in a lift holding just two people. The billboard was at the end of our road so I nipped down there with a ruler and measured the height of the lettering. Then I dug around in the plastic box under the stairs – the one with all the tools that I can’t use properly – and found the masking tape.

The idea was both simple and largely pointless. I wanted to tape over the original tagline, mask up my own then take a photograph. After that, I’d remove my work and nip back home for a celebratory cup of peppermint tea, like a good little liberal activist.

I spent an evening wasting a felt-tipped pen to colour in the letters, got everything ready and prepared myself for the assault. Next morning, somewhere between 05.30 and 06.30, I tiptoed into the street, a scroll under one arm and a camera in my other hand. I remember there was a breeze in the air but that wasn’t why I was shivering.

Two cars drove past, which I hadn’t expected, so I leaned casually against the wall, staring off into the distance. No one stopped; no one cared. Then it was just me, standing there, blood pulsing in my brain.

The lettering stuck where it was supposed to – that was the easy part. Now I had to stand in the road and take a reasonable picture without attracting the attention of passing vehicles. There were a couple of false starts, and an unexpected commuter who seemed to appear out of nowhere, gazing at me intently as I pretended to cross over and search my pockets. I must have looked like a very amateurish car thief.

Then a moment of stillness descended and I finished the job, hurriedly removing the evidence afterwards and slinking away back up my street. I was jubilant, like a kid completing a dare, just for the hell of it.

Later, I walked into work as usual, past the poster which was none the worse for my shenanigans. And as I looked up at it, I smiled. Not quite adbusters material but a very British effort.


Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Someone else's space

I quit Myspace today.

It was like one of those relationships that had never worked from the start but you tell yourself that it's better than nothing. Initially, you're flattered by the attention, by all the possibilities and new personalities. Then, after the 25th band you've never heard of - but who are a friend of a friend of a friend you've never met - get in touch, you start to wonder: 'Is this really for me?'

At first you figure that, if you keep on trying, you'll find a way to make it work. You get caught up with how time and effort you've put into it and how you don't want the other people to feel ignored. Or else you try and collect as many people as possible, treating superficial contacts the same way that Blue Peter used to treat milk bottle tops.

My intention was to meet and collaborate with other writers, and also performers who wanted to work with writers. I have to say that I 'met' some really nice people, for a time. But the truth is that the doers out there tended not to have time to report back on Myspace. It works for bands, I think, because you can add tracks and people can listen to them on your page. Not so for scripts, unless you record them, and I'm not sure the world is ready yet for my nasally tones.*

I was sorry to leave because it was a recognition that my experiment had largely failed. But that's okay. I console myself with the knowledge that I hadn't unduly pimped my profile nor spent excessive time shouting out to my community daily - all 24 of them.

I did learn a few things though; I call it my Beginner's Guide to Myspace and it's a handful of useful definitions:
1. Friend - A person who wants to sell you something, even an idea.
2. Site - an often garish attempt at creativity that proves the opposite.
3. Community - a whole bunch of people all simultaneously trying to sell one another stuff.
4. Comments - a facility to use other people's sites to try and sell your own stuff.
5. Kudos - an arbitrary pat on the back to encourage others to do the same with you, thus undermining and devaluing the whole kudos economy.

And who knows, maybe some of the gang will pop across and read my blog!

* This may have to change, because I'm working on a demo comedy CD of my own material.


Saturday, 14 November 2009

The girl and the dance

So much of what we respond to, and how we define the quality of our experience, is entirely subjective. The same incident can be perceived in entirely different ways, by different people, based purely on their own internal landscape.

I recall a friend telling me, years ago, of two women discussing their childhoods and the effects on them as adults. The first woman said that her parents showed no interest in her upbringing and gave her no guidance or boundaries. As a consequence, she was now a woman who felt there was something fundamentally missing in her psyche, leaving her incomplete. The second woman talked of how her parents had encouraged her to be independent by letting her make choices for herself and never passing judgement on the consequences of those choices. Now, as an adult, she looked fondly on her childhood as the basis for her strong will, spirit of adventure and independence. The two women were twins.

But back to the title of the piece. Picture a boy, contemplating the high school dance and a girl that he wants to take along. Fix them in your mind – got them?

Now, imagine if you will, the following scenarios:
1. He’s too shy to ask her to the dance.
2. He’s asks her to the dance and she says no.
3. He asks her to the dance and she later changes her mind and doesn’t go.
4. He asks her to the dance and she says yes but something unanticipated stops her going. (You can be creative here – localised hurricane in her back garden / swine flu in the house, whatever.)
5. He asks her to the dance and she says yes but when they get there the dance is cancelled. (More hurricanes or swine flu, anyone?)

Now, his objective – or desire for the emotionally literate among you – was to take the girl to the dance. In each case, his ambitions are thwarted but his experience of each scenario is tempered by his perception.

All of which suggests that, most of the time, we’re only responding to internal values. And so is everyone else. So next time you’re told the train will be delayed but some other smug sod is standing there smiling, you’ll know why!


Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Armistice


I don't know of anyone who doesn't observe the two-minute silence on Armistice Day. Whatever our views of the business of war, military engagements overseas or the economics of investment in defence, we pause and reflect on the fallen. The last survivors of WW1 have passed on now, but those affected by that conflict - and all those that have followed - are still with us.

A year or so ago, Anne and I (she's the brains of the relationship) took a short trip to Bruges, in Belgium. It's a marvellous medieval city which was spared the devastation of WW2 bombing; a gem of a place where development has been kept to a minimum.

While out there, we visited Ypres in a daytrip, including Tyne Cot Cemetery, Hill 62 and Ypres itself. All most of us know about WW1 is poppies, a few old songs that make little sense and the fourth series of Blackadder. 54 nations were involved in the 'Great War', many regiments from fledgling countries keen to demonstrate their new national identity. A global generation slaughtered or scarred, and in the whole bloody process, the foundations laid for the Second World War. At all those places we saw, people paused and reflected there too.

It's easy to get caught up in our modern lives with rising mortgages, shit jobs and unfulfilled childhoods / adolescences / adulthoods. But here's my cure. Take a trip to Tyne Cot Cemetery and gaze in wide-eyed despair at row upon row of identical headstones, reflecting the bright sun like bleached bones in a field. And look at the columns of names that fill the walls: like the graffiti of the lost. I promise you, it brings a different sense of perspective. No answers, just an opportunity to pause and reflect.

It would be a fitting tribute indeed if Armistice Day became a focus for peace. But until that day, the very least we can do is make more time to pause and reflect.

And while we're strolling in shades of grey ambiguity, have a read of this famous poem by Rudyard Kipling. It's as relevant today as it's ever been:
http://www.kipling.org.uk/poems_tommy.htm
You can also find a great version of it on Youtube, read by the actor Nigel Planer.


Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Knowing when to quit


As a writer, searching the Net for work is a hit and miss affair, a little like searching for a piece of hay in a needle factory. In my experience, much of the freelance writer jobs are from the USA and usually stay there. But, with a refined search, you can often find little gems.

One such nugget was the writing team of the iLarious phone app, which delivers topical news gags direct to the user. As a compulsive gag writer myself, this seemed like a match match in cyber-heaven. Even better, when submitted material is used, the writers are paid proportionately, based on the number of subscribed users to the app.

I was thrilled to be offered a contract and signed my John Hancock (signature to you) before you could shout comedy connections. The writing team is headed up by Fred Graver, a seasoned US writer whose track record reads like a who's who of comedy.

So far so good, but you know me too well dear reader. 'Where is the custard pie?' I hear you shout from your seats. Rest easy, it's coming. The gags, naturally enough, are based largely on American news. No problem there because I've written material for an American stand-up before and I'm an international kinda guy.

However, after 38 gags submitted (plus 14 samples) and no material used, it was time to face the music, because the lady of ample proportions was already launching into an aria. As everybody knows, there is a huge difference between British humour / sensibilities and that of our American cousins. I knew that but I thought I could write my way around it. On this occasion, I was wrong.

So, rather than bang my head against a cultural wall, I've drawn a line and asked for my profile to be deleted on their site. If there's a lesson here, it's that sometimes things just don't work out however amenable and positive people are. Fred's been great and I think the idea is a brilliant one. And if anyone is thinking of starting something similar here in the UK, drop me a line. I can definitely do British humour, honest! Below were some of my submissions...

Pop star and professional child-catcher Madonna has visited a school in Malawi. A spokesman denies rumours that she was carrying a colour swatch so she could collect the set.

The 18 year-old amnesiac found in Times Square NY has been identified. Someone had to break it to her that we’re still in a recession.

McDonalds is shutting its business in Iceland because of the global credit crisis.
Health officials are drawing up plans for emergency feeding stations, for the Icelandic obese.

Madonna has visited Malawi for the construction of a new school for girls. She cut a ribbon and planted a tree, before declaring the drive-thru officially open.

A British drug dealer has finally been charged after refusing to go to the toilet for 16 days, to avoid producing ‘evidence’. A spokesman said: “The situation was creating a real stink for the prosecution team and a backlog in the cells.”

The owners of the world’s oldest dog, 20 year-old Otto in Britain, have put his longevity down to Sunday dinners and vegetables. And having a big enough straw to suck them up.

The Walt Disney Company is offering a full refund for anyone who bought Baby Einstein DVDs but failed to end up with a genius child. George Bush senior is said to be reading the small print.

Two Washington teenagers have been barred from their school, after they used turf to draw a swastika and spell out racist messages, in a car park. They’ve been set community service and ordered to attend the Holocaust Museum. Hopefully the courts won’t combine the two and assign them to garden duty.

Elizabeth Taylor has declared the Michael Jackson film ‘This Is It’ the greatest documentary ever. Mind you, she thought ‘Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’ was a documentary about Animal Welfare.

Japanese officials have high hopes that president Obama will visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The idea has given local communities a warm glow. That and decaying Uranium 235.

Hillary Clinton has criticised Pakistan for its failure to capture extremists. She said it was hard to believe nobody in the Pakistani government knew where they were. In an unusual role reversal, Bill Clinton is staying tight-lipped.

After an historic deal, the US military will get access to seven Colombian bases. A spokesman said it was an opportunity not to be sniffed at.

America is now officially out of recession. Next up: genuine evidence of the lunar landing.

Christians in Kentucky are up in arms over plans to rename the Frankfort Christmas Tree as a 'Holiday Tree' to be more inclusive. Unusually, that's a bitter sting for KY Christians.

An Iraqi immigrant in Arizona has been charged after running his daughter over for being too westernised. He was unrepentant and said if she hadn't been wearing high heels she'd have made it to the sidewalk.

The White House says that federal stimulus has resulted in 650,000 jobs. And most of those jobs are in the 'print more money' industry.

Dr Martin Luther King's daughter has been elected president of the civil rights group he helped to found. Critics have called it a shining example of affirmative action and nepotism.

President Obama is lifting the ban on HIV sufferers entering the country. He said not only was it time to end the stigma, but there were a whole lot of quality pink goods available on special.

Halloween has been politically corrected. 'Trick or Treat' will now be known as 'Developmental Non-Confrontational Challenge or Appropriately Nutritious Reward'. Not only will it be better for kids but only the literate ones will be able to cope with it.

Hillary Clinton insists that Washington remains firmly against Israeli developments in the West Bank. She said the US stance has firm foundations, much like the lovely new homes in the West Bank.

The city of Vallejo, California is voting on whether to tax text messaging, in a bid to raise funds. If it's approved, there will be a further monthly text poll.

Aghanistan's president Karzai is celebrating after winning an election where he was the only candidate, after the opposition withdrew. Yeah, it's a victory for democracy, in the same way that sending yourself a Valentine's Card shows how attractive you are.

Two Tower of London Beefeaters have been suspended after allegations of harassing the only female beefeater. Moira Cameron from Argyll said “I’m not usually one to complain but I won't be squeezed between two buns for anybody.”

The Czech Republic's constitutional court has endorsed the EU reform treaty, despite President Vaclav Klaus's Euro-skepticism. One critic descirbed it as giving burglars the keys to your house so they don't scratch the paintwork.