Wallpaper Menu

I’ve always liked that sort of wallpaper popularly considered to be gaudy. The Mitchell Library in Glasgow has lots of it, hence the inspiration for today’s attempt at a homepage design.

While the Mitchell’s wallpaper (I’m lead to believe) was all custom-made for the library in the 1970s, I’ve used an original piece of William Morris wallpaper here and gone for an ultra-simple text-based menu (which I reckon is wise considering the in-your-face nature of the background). What do people think? Ace? Bosh?



“wallpaper menu” Originally uploaded by wringham
(and then ham-fistedly re-sized, hence the blurring. Just click the picture to
observe it in its natural habitat).

Incidentally, this entry was created using the clever image-blogging feature at flickr. I never thought I’d be the sort to get a boner over technology but I gotta admit that cool things happen when servers talk to each other.

I promise I’ll get over this boring nonsense soon, settle down on a homepage design and get back to the usual stimulating commentary. It’s all a part of [re]inventing myself before things start to fall off.

Fish Menu

At a seminar this afterlunch on web design, I showcased my silly new ‘fish anatomy’ homepage. “That’s a menu?” someone asked in childish delight. “Incredible!” exclaimed someone else.

The thing is, this design took about ten minutes to do. I just scanned in an old anatomy picture, added bits of text and applied the hyperlink hotspots. Fuckin’ simple. But alas, these web design courses don’t really teach you how to be creative aesthetically or even why you’d want to create anything beautiful or worthy of remark. It’s all just about html tags and defining the ‘correct’ node/link/anchor terminology.

Here’s a little preview of said fish menu:

10/10 for imagination perhaps but about 2/10 for technical knowhow. It’s just an anatomically labeled haddock with a few intrusive links to my pages thrust in for good measure. I do enjoy that the link to my new magazine idea (more on which is coming soon, by the way) is right by the anus and urinary bladder.

Amusingly, one guy asked me whether I think of everything in terms of fish. I replied that while I percieve things mainly within a pondlife or freshwater construct, my worldview – far from being exclusively fish-based – also includes bulrushes, dragonflies and small amphibians.

Domestic Fascism

To St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art to see the much-talked-about exhibition of Ku Klux Klan portraiture by photojournalist, James Edward Bates. For those of you unable to visit the actual exhibition or afraid to stray from the friendly hypertext streets and applet orchards of Internetsville, you can see most of the photographs online in all of their pointy-hatted wonder.

The photographs are mounted upon stark white walls at St Mungo’s, accompanied by very little textual explanation of the events taking place in them. They provide a chilling contrast to the museum’s usual informative, pro-belief rabbis-holding-hands-with-priests-holding-hands-with-imams fare. The exhibit’s guestbook is filled with emotional comments from visitors shocked at the images of children hanging out at cross-burnings or of the uncensored use of racist lingo.

What struck me most about the images, however, was of how domestic and communal the documented Klan events seemed to be. In fact, there is an eerie sense of familiarity to a lot of the scenes: the inexpertly stitched-together costumes and hand-painted signage parallels the efforts of urban hobby cliques such as am-dram groups, Star Trek fan circles or model train enthusiasts. The fact that these people harbour xenophobic and hate-laced beliefs almost takes a back burner to the sense of community they’ve created around it.

Imagine being part of a group, which unite not out of celebration or appreciation of a given entity but of a deep-seated hatred for it.

The fact that the Klan’s adventures in race-hate are so domestic in nature arouses ideas of its being a macrocosmic parable; of how easy it might be without a strong left wing presence for things to get out of control and for the fear of otherness to get the better of otherwise rational people.

There’s also a strange clutching-at-straws vibe to Bates’ photographed topographies: as though these people almost know that their beliefs are moronic and dangerous. It seems as though it is the upkeep of tradition that is important rather than the logic of the ideology. It’s a phenomenon I often detect in casually religious people: they say they have these beliefs but in reality they are riddled with rational doubt. One of the main ‘Imperial Wizards’ of the Klan to feature in Bates’ photographs describes himself not as a racist but as a ‘separatist’; that he doesn’t hate the foreign but rather thinks that the challenges involved in maintaining multiracial communities outweigh the benefits and can be avoided by simple segregation – a moronic and wrong idea but a crack the original ideology. The demonising of black, oriental or Jewish individuals seems to go on a lot in the Klan: as though the reality of things need not be taught to their children but rather a stilted and frightening version of it in order for the tradition to continue in the fashion it has done for so long, like an ideological game of ‘keepie-uppie’.

Shit Cafes

One of the things I like about living in Glasgow’s West End is that there is certainly no dearth of cafes or coffee shops. These things are important stepping stones in the day of any self-respecting flaneur. They are reasonably diverse as well for a city with a reputation as a stinking filth pit populated by so-called schemies and neds. If you fancy something chilled out and hippy-friendly, there is T’chai Ovna. If you’re a pinstripe city type, there is Cafe Gandolfi, not to mention a multitude of Starbucks doppelgangers.

Glasgow is also home, however, to two of the shittest cafes I have ever seen.

Shit Cafe #1: The Abbey National on Argyle Street is half-bank-half-cafe. The very thought. The juxtaposition is reminiscent of The Thing with Two Heads or the resulting Futurama homage. Don’t the semiotics of banks and cafes kinda oppose each other?

Why would anyone want to sit in a place with a soundtrack consisting of beeping ATM machines and the clickety-clack of pens on chains? A quick Google search reveals that this is a recurring theme with similar Costa/Abbey National mutants opening up all over the country: Chelsea, London’s King’s Road, Brixton. They have our towns, people!

This article reckons that the idea behind such monstrosities was “a way to make banking less tiresome”. Yeah, cos, phewie, I for one draw a sweat pressing those six buttons on the cash point to retrieve a tenner. Better retire to the old armchair there for a double espresso.

Shit Cafe #2: Movie World on Great Western Road opened a few months ago as a video rental shop with an Internet access port on the side. It must have been failing due to (a) people’s reluctance to rent videos any more and (b) the fact that broadband for your home is so cheap and the public library even provides it for free. Their way of turing things around, it seems, was to put a Costa coffee in-store. So now you can sit around in leather ‘gentleman’s-club’ armchairs, surrounded by cardboard display units for Lord of War. No thank you.

I just don’t understand why anyone would pay £1.90 or thereabouts for a coffee in those conditions when you could have the same drink at home for about 10p. It’s the ambiance of the place you’re paying for after all and a video rental shop or a BANK for freak’s sake just doesn’t provide that.

I guess this is what happens when you franchise a company. The most annoying thing of all, of course, is the fact that (financially) it works: further evidence that the world is full of morons.

Toy Soldiers

As the nearest tube station is a good twenty minute walk from my new flat in Hyndland, I decided this morning with an uncharacteristic ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ attitude to walk the entire way to my lecture at Strathclyde University on the other side of the city.

It’s a bloody long walk and took about 80 minutes to complete, even with my John Cleese/Comedy Nazi stride, but I’m really glad I did it. I don’t know if it was the fresh atmosphere of ‘morning’ (a thing I don’t usually like to get involved with) but I was struck with the realisation of what a strange and beautiful city Glasgow really is. With its eclectic architecture and sporadic greenery, it feels like an experimental mixing-tray for other cities. (the famous incomplete ‘roads to nowhere’ are evidence of this in themselves.)

On my way over the motorway flyover, I kept an eye-out for the strange piece of guerrilla art I had spotted once before: a series of plastic toy army soldiers arranged in battle along some of the railings. The spectacle is undeniably lovely: the presence of such uncomplicated childish innocence in an enclave of stinking post-war functionality. It is also amusing to think that whoever arranged the army men, did so at great trouble or risk of peril, as many of them are positioned in places you simply cannot get to without risk of being run over or falling to one’s splattery demise.

My favourite piece of the arrangement was an army helicopter positioned atop of a lamp-post. But today it had gone. Who on Earth would have stolen it? They would have needed a stepladder in order to get to it.

What am I thinking? It obviously hasn’t been stolen: it must have flown away. After all, how else could it have got there in the first place? Sadly, the helicopter’s pal, the paratrooper, now dangles forlornly and alone.

Nonetheless, the helicopter’s disappearance had been compensated for by the addition to the flyover space of a number of shiny model fish hanging in the trees around the corner. How sweet. Their juxtaposition with the tree and the flyover reminds me of that old Fortean phenomenon, Fish Rain.

Has anyone else in Glasgow noticed the army men? Or am I imagining them like in that Stephen King story?

Wacky Neighbour

After devouring some loaned box sets of Frasier and Seinfeld, I decided to do a bit of reading on the topic of American sitcoms. Their worlds are just so fascinatingly peculiar; quite unlike anything else. In particular, I’m interested in ‘stock characters’ and the ways in which they relate to each other.

I noticed that Seinfeld has a strangely similar feel to Father Ted. Indeed, I’d go as far to say that Seinfeld might be the American counterpart of Britain’s Father Ted. If America were to remake Ted they’d call it ‘Father Larry’ and set it in rural Arizona with all manner of wacky characters popping in and out. That would be a literal remake but not really a translation. The elements shared by Ted and Seinfeld make me think that they are sort of transcontinental doppelganger shows. I seem to recall Graham Linehan saying on the Ted DVD commentary that he admired Seinfeld as a sitcom so maybe this ‘translation’ was deliberate.

It is the similar use of stock characters in these two shows that make them so alike, I think. In particular, it is the Sage, the Holy Fool and the Rake that populate both sitcoms.

According to Wikipedia (and other sources, admittedly), there is a sitcom stock character called ‘the wacky neighbour’ and Seinfeld‘s Cosmo Kramer is the first example of this.

Now, while the ‘wacky neighbour’ is undoubtedly a recurring entity, particularly in American sitcoms, I don’t see how it can really be considered a stock character. It’s not up there with the likes of the Sage, is it?

The reason for wacky neighbours is surely down to the geography of the family sitcom. It’s set in a house and you need a way of getting regular characters in from beyond the walls of the house. A neighbour is the obvious way of doing this and since they are transient characters, you can allow them to be slight departures from the reality of the show, hence their ‘wackiness’.

Stock characters are the result of social archetypes. As everyone is a neighbour to someone or other, how can there ever be an architypal neighbour? Perhaps the role and responsibilities of neighbourliness can become archetypal, but that’s not important to the character of the ‘wacky neighbour’.

So I wouldn’t describe Kramer as being a ‘wacky neighbour’ but rather some sort of idler; a not-quite-human flaneur, to most extents unemployable yet strangely adored by everyone and whose real agenda is seen only by the rest of the central cast and by the viewers at home. In Father Ted, Kramer becomes Father Jack.

Perhaps this wacky neighbour business is an American phenomenon (and conseqentally should always be the wacky neighbor now I think about it) and people actually have these characters living in their in real life neighbourhoods. And perhaps fat, bald men constantly date attractive, classy women and perhaps the furniture in American homes really does all face an empty fourth wall.

The Simpsons

My friends will confirm that I do not watch much in the way of television. However, they will also point out that neither the dancing images of the cinema screen nor the digital contents of DVDs, are included beneath the umbrella of my distaste.

My problems with TV are not that it’s anti-intellectual or a form of mass-government. Believe me, I love the escape value and easy access to what Harlan Ellison calls ‘the glass teat’. There’s very little I enjoy more than vegging out on the couch and catching a few phospordots. My problem with TV lies in its fragmented nature: the ad-breaks are excruciating and you have to wait a whole week for the next installment of your show. DVDs remove these problems. One episode of Frasier isn’t enough for me: I want twelve. I also hate how your entire life will have to be arranged around these TV schedules if you want to catch every installment of your favourite programme but with DVD, you’re in control. There doesn’t even seem to be a good reason for the weekly interval (except for with Lost which has mastered the art of the cliffhanger and cleverly takes advantage of the episodic nature of TV Shows).

The reason for my writing about this bollocks, is connected to my sister’s recent lending to me the first four seasons of The Simpsons on Digital Versatile Disc. They’re shiny. The excite. They do dazzle. Until yesterday evening, I hadn’t watched an episode of The Simpsons for so long, distracted instead by the clever naughtiness of and hard-to-believe-it-got-through-the-censors satire of Family Guy. Oh, Simpsons, how I’ve missed thee. My time away from Springfield has resulted in a grotesque devouring of these DVDs in a series of most disgusting binges.

Occasionally, with these DVDs, you think you have come across an episode you’ve not seen before. But that’s only because the beginnings of episodes of The Simpsons are so different to the episodes’ main storylines that it’s fallen out of your head. They start off with Bart and Lisa’s parent-teacher night and wind up with telling the history of The Itchy and Scratchy Show.

Today, however, by some freak miracle, I saw an episode entirely new to me. It’s ‘Marge Gets a Job’ in which Marge, as the title may hint, gets a job. At the nuclear plant. And Mr. Burns falls in love with her. And Smithers kidnaps Tom Jones. And Groundskeeper Willy has to wrestle a wolf, escaped from Krusty’s Studio. Insane. How did this episode pass me by? According to the commentary, the episode was first shown in 1992. That’s fourteen years with me missing it every time. Bizarre.

The best episode I’ve seen while on this binge is one called ‘Homer the Heretic’ in which Homer decides to stay at home instead of going to Church and winds up having a face-to-face theopany with Big G. It’s a fantastic argument for idling and the apocryphal idea that God doesn’t particularly want you to go to church. Matt Groening points out that when Homer meets God, God has five fingers (where all other characters in The Simpsons have only four). Oh, the theological ramifications.

Valentine’s Day

I learned in a pub quiz (a fantastic source of completely objective knowledge, surely) the other night that 90% of the population dislike or hate February 14th.

It really is a frightful cliche to be anti-Valentine’s Day. Sorry kids. The main reasons for people’s disliking of the event appear to be (a) of the moralising “Valentine’s Day is so commercial – you can celebrate your love any day of the year, y’know” variety or (b) of the resentful “Maw. No one loves ME” type.

To the folk who fall into my first category, I’d question whether they practice what they preach and actually do celebrate love on any other day. Do you really go out for special meals or buy your loved one gifts so spontaneously? Probably not. The pressures of modern life don’t really cater for that, so it’s nice that there’s one day a year specifically designated for it.

In a way though, these people are right. The vampires from Buffy the Vampire Slayer like to murder and/or scare shitless the inhabitants of Sunnydale on any given day, but on Halloween, they stay in their tombs and put their feet up. Perhaps we could treat Valentine’s Day in a similar fashion: ignoring the distractions of romance all day but going out for nice dinners and enjoying adventurous sex every other day of the year.

As for the lonely folk: lose the ego. Don’t worry about what you’re getting but instead think about the epistles or flowers or other gestures you can send to other people. You want what Harry Hill calls ‘ego puff-points’ but you’re not giving any to anyone else. You’re too embarrassed about what they’ll say if they figure out it’s you who sent it. So just send the shit out. To anyone. You don’t even have to fancy them. It’s a nice gesture, you’ll make old Arseface feel good and if you believe in the ‘eb and flow’ model of reality, you’ll get a heap of niceties in return.

Having said all of this, the Valentine’s Day of your humble narrator was a little excruciating. I tried to get flowers sent to two of my London friends (the horror critic, Alex, because he’s an impossibly lonely loser and to the artist/actor, Adele Geddes, because I want to put my penis between her breasts and rub it up and down) but found that it was impossible due to the vast quantity of other flowers being driven around the city today. It sounds silly now to assume that such a service would be available on Valentine’s Day, but I kinda figured that the florists would be expecting last-minute orders from the nation’s dog-house men and would have taken on extra staff and grown extra flowers so that easy money could be made. Like they do with pine trees at Christmas.

I did however, purchase a single red one, from a florist on Byers Road for my cohabiting and lavender-scented chum, Stuart. It made me feel pretty OK, walking around the West End with a rose. It looked sartorially splendid against my tweed jacket as much as anything, but also because middleaged women kept giving me “Awww. That’s sweet” looks.

But, alas, Valentine’s Day (or VD) is over for now. Time to get back to the hatin’.

Deep South

It is true to say that my Glasgow had shrunk to the same surface area as a puddle of urine passed by a dwarfed amoeba. Seldom would I stray from the leafy and macrocosmic West End, save for the occasional commute to the Mitchell Library. One good thing to have come out of the stupid work placement I’m on is an antidote to this incestuous routine. All of the libraries I’ve had to work in are on the city’s Deep South: Giffnock, Clarkston, Thornlibank – all interesting towns in their own rights and would have remained unexplored if it weren’t for these enforced sojourns.

Southside towns are strangely diverse. Giffnock is lovely: plenty of pubs and cafes frequented by handsome and beautiful members of a massive Jewish community. The library building won an award for its unique architecture. Barrhead, on the other hand, should be twinned with the moon. The library can be found in an abandoned pillbox clinic.

Yesterday I visited Clarkston. Alighting the train, my olfactory bulb was suddenly alerted to the vague whiff of animal manure hanging in the air. There were fields. And trees. One of the fields had a cow in it. A man walking in the opposite direction, nodded and said “Good Morning”. Ye Gods. Was it possible? I’d been to some obscure backwater places over the past few weeks but this trip had taken the cake. This time, I was in… the countryside.

I asked a woman for directions to the school (at which I would visit the library – more on school libraries soon, I’m sure). “Just follow the main road,” she said. A ten-minute walk up the so-called main road and only one car and one van passed by me. I could hear blackbirds. It was quite lovely.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote of a personal message from a newspaper dispensing unit. Someone emailed me about this story and claimed to have experienced such phenomena herself. She calls them “messages from the universe”.

While enjoying my lunchbreak in the countryside yesterday, I decided to sit on a bench. No sooner had my buttocks made contact with the wood, I spotted in the distance a roadside advertising board. It said, “Choose Not to Sit on the Bench”.

What the hell? Another dude would have been freaked out about this, surely. But as an atheist, I felt determined to ignore it. Messages from the universe indeed. So I sat there for the duration, ate my lunch and read a good few pages of my library book (Rob Grant’s Vonnegut-esque novel, Incompetence, if you’re interested, dear reader. It’s undeniably funny but I can’t tell what Mr. Grant is trying to say – the story is either a clever parable or a rubbish “political correctness gone mad” satire) without incident.

Hah. Take that, Universe.

But as the day went on, I began to think about what reality would be like if I’d have heeded the Universe’s warning and not sat on the bench. Perhaps I’d have continued walking and found a winning scratchcard on the floor. Perhaps I’d have met my future husband/wife. But no matter – I’m happy enough as things are. I put that thought out of my head.

But the Universe knows all about causality, right? The effects of my sitting on the bench may not be recognisable now but what if I’ve altered reality from the molecular level. What if the wings of my butterfly caused some massive weather problem in China?

These things only happen on the weird South Side of the city though. Maybe it’s built on a ley line or upon an ancient Venusian burial ground something. After next week and the end of the placement, I’ll never have to leave the lovely West End ever again. Perhaps then the Universe will quit bugging me.

Hidden Conveniences

Occasionlly, life reveals to you little shortcuts or hidden conveniences: tiny oases that make your working day more comfortable and don’t contribute to your stress-induced brain tumour. Part of you wants to shout about these things so others can enjoy the same benefits as you now do, but a bigger and louder part of you is determined to keep it under wraps so that your secret loophole in reality doesn’t become oversubscribed. It gives you a slight edge over other rats in the race and when you use it, you can’t help but snigger Mutley-like at their shortsightedness. Haha. They are stupid.

I’ve discovered two such conveniences of late. In way of dispelling some of the guilt I have about keeping these things secret, I have decided to share them with you, my beloved and stinking readership.

One of them is the cleaners’ schedule of the bathroom in my university library. Why not do some research into the toilet-cleaning rota of your own hangout? If you time it right, you can poop into a newly bleached toilet without the worry of some other students’ poopoo sliming its way up the pan, into your asshole and eating you from within.

Instead of the vague uriney pong, only the pleasent whiffs of anti-bacterial cloths will assult your olfactory bulb. That you don’t have to hold your breath means more time to read the witty graffiti:

“Death to all Spurs fans! (I am wanking as I write this)”. Et Cetera

The second thing I’ve noticed recently is how much more pleasent a train journey can be if you manage to bag one of the seats with a table. There’s a hell of a lot more legroom than at the other seats; you are more likely to have a conversation with someone (as the table-seats are usually in groups of four with two facing the other two); and you can put your stuff on the table instead of in the overhead luggage rack, which saves time at the destination. I wouldn’t have thought this was a particularly hidden convenience, but I’ve boarded an excess of EIGHTY trains while on work placement these past four weeks (it sounds a lot but it’s four trains per day – two to work and two back) and I’ve never failed to get one of these seats because everyone just goes for a normal, lonely, cramped one. Weird.

These pointers may not sound like much but I’m reminded of one of the lessons from Premo Levi’s Auschwitz account, If This is a Man. The few Jews to survive the camp, did so by identifying and exploiting little conveniences. One of them, I recall, was engineering your position in the soup queue: those at the back of the queue would receive bigger chunks of meat that had sunk to the bottom of the soup urn. They consequentally survived. I wonder if the prisoners told eachother about these things or whether they kept them to themselves?

Levi killed himself in the end though. Probably out of guilt for the poor saps at the front of the soup queue. So let that be a lesson to ya.

Bad Directions

After leaving the home of Mr. Neil Scott and Miss Laura Gonzalez in the tiniest possible hours of this morning, I decided to take a walk back to my flat rather than flagging a cab. It was a still, cool evening and the alcohol in my bloodstream would protect me from muggers.

Once I hit the West End, I realised that most every building I passed was invested with a poignant memory from the two years I’ve lived here. This was the coffee house I worked at over the summer and autumn. This was the bar where I first went out with staff from work. This was the street I marched with Dave and Siggi, late for the Daniel Kitson gig. This was the studio where I was drawn in the buff. This was the massive chimney next to the hospital, which we theorise is connected to the aborted-baby incinerator. Et Cetera.

Laura had been telling me not hours previously about how at home she felt in Glasgow. I’m inclined to agree: there’s just something about the city – particularly the leafy, bohemian west end – that makes it more habitable than most.

It was a nice evening and I felt for the first time in ages, comfortable with the way things are shaping up.

Suddenly, a small red car (a vectra?) pulled over and a slightly neddish guy stuck his head out of the passenger window to ask for directions. “How do you get onto Argyle Street, Pal?” he asked.

“You’re on it, mate,” said your humble narrator.

Suddenly the guy and his mates erupted with laughter. “Sure!” he nodded and they sped off.

It occurred to me suddenly that Argyle Street was in actuality the next street over. But why did that constitute a joke? I’ve had the piss taken out of me for various things in the past but never has my poor sense of direction been the source of comedy, even to myself.

Why was this funny? It wasn’t even as if I was miles off the mark. Argyle Street and this one ran parallel.

Some people are weird.

Pret Bad

Someone told me last night that the city-centre purveyors of delicious organic smoothies and dairy-free sandwiches, Pret a Manger, is actually a McDonald’s in disguise.

A quick Google search revealed that this is absolutely true. I’m shocked. Not that I ever really ate at Pret but because I’m aware that it’s seen by many people to be a healthy and, by extension, an ethical and down-to-Earth alternative to fast food shit like McDonald’s.

Here’s an item from the Guardian business pages which explains the history of Pret and how it became an annex of the corporation that brought you Grimace.

They say that McDonald’s don’t have any input on the food side of things. But as I see it, if you’re boycotting McDonald’s you’ve got to cut off funding to their niche market units too.

Don’t eat there anymore, kids. Don’t even look at it – you’ll get cancer and die.

The Escapologist

I have so much work to do right now. The deadlines, both writerly and library-related, are bleeding out of my eyes. Things are not helped by the fact that I’m re-reading the excellent and uber-subversive Walden. I can’t help but consider the merits of ‘doing a Thoreau’ but figure I should give this respectable career idea a fair shot first. And anyway, it’d probably take a cod-handed chimp like me at least six months just to sand down the timber.

The theme of escape continued last night with a trip to the Tramway Theatre on the south side to see Simon Bent’s acclaimed play, The Escapologist.

It is too literal, I think. A straitjacket is surely a hackneyed symbol of entrapment. I can’t help feeling that the show would have been better as a black comedy, possibly involving iron lungs like wot I cleverly did back in 2000.

Most reviews of the show make reference to the idea that we all share a desire to escape. Is that what this play signifies? Are we really all so desperately unhappy and unfulfilled that the desire to escape is constantly present? Do we all feel as though we’re failing to keep up?

I’m reminded of the ‘bird man’ pictographs etched into the rocks during the last days of Easter Island – thought by many to be articulations of the islanders’ inability to take flight after their raw materials had been expended on irrational statue-building. Is The Escapologist a modern incarnation of the bird man? Do we all long to flee the mess we’ve made of things?

Help Yourself

Waiting at the train station in the dismal suburban town of Barrhead (the birthplace of Armitage Shanks piss pots) this evening, I noticed a dump-bin display unit for the free Metro commuter newspaper. "Help Yourself" it offered. Since the last copy had been taken, a second message was displayed: "You’ve Got to Be Quick".

If I were a more superstitious individual I might have taken this to be a personal message from a higher being or perhaps a clever piece of programming from my real-world trapped-in-an-artificial-reality-booth self.

“Help Yourself. You’ve Got to Be Quick.”

It was like a subliminal message planted by Darren Brown and his funny-shaped head.

Your humble narrator has been a little down in the dumps, you see. The feeling of ensnarement and the desire to escape have been seldom far from my consciousness of late. I’m four days into a five-week placement with East Renfrewshire Community Libraries. I really don’t want to do it but it’s a requirement of my MSc librarianship course. The fact that I’ve been working in libraries for years now does not call for my exemption from this exercise. So I’m having to do the job I’ve been doing for years, only for no wages (for minus wages in fact given that it’s an expensive train journey for me to get there each day) and for more intolerable hours. It’s really quite awful.

So the opportune sighting of the message, “Help Yourself. You’ve Got to Be Quick” almost pushed me over the edge. It was kinda like that old episode of The X Files in which people start receiving messages (usually along the lines of “Kill ‘Em. Kill ‘Em All!”) from digital clocks.

“Yeah”, I thought, “I really do have to be quick. I’ve only got a few years of youth left. I shall join a commune and paint my nails immediately.”

But I didn’t, of course. Because I’m a pussy. And such spontaneous Dice Man decisions are seldom made by pussies.

Tonight, I repair to The Tron to witness the acclaimed The Escapologist. Quite Appropriate, I’m sure.

Quiz Show

I was unlucky enough to catch some of The Weakest Link this afterlunch.

The contestants are forced to vote each other off at certain stages of the game until only one of them remains. When this happens, Anne Robinson likes to enquire as to the contestant’s decision-making process: “So why did you nominate Graham?”

Usually they will respond with something vaguely justified like “Aw, Graham’s supposed to be a medical student and he got that question about genital herpes wrong”.

If I was on the show and Anne asked me why I’d chosen a particular guy, I’d say, “Because he’s black”.

Even if he wasn’t.

Bad Jokes

To the new house of Miss Stephanie Clark to celebrate the end of one arbitrary unit of temporal measurement and the start of a new one. It was a nice evening. We played a pop-music DVD quiz (which I wasn’t much help on because the only pop music I understand is that of the White Stripes and Morrissey and there weren’t any questions on either) and ate vegetable samosas.

Among the guests of our little party were the parents of Steph’s new housemate, Adele. It seemed that I’d been introduced to them and everyone else beforehand and that Steph had positioned me as ‘the funny one’: part librarian and part stand-up comedian or something. I’m such a ball of irony.

This was actually nice and left me feeling rather un-self-conscious for the first time in ages. There was much uproarious laughter at my stupid and mostly off-the-cuff one-man dialogues to the extent that the situation reminded me of that episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation where Data trains to become a stand-up comedian but all of his audience is holographic and programmed to laugh at anything he does. You’d think this would be a bad thing. But it was great. Because I’m a shallow, shallow boy who likes attention.

I assumed that Adele’s parents – being middle-aged and from the Black Country and all – would be a bit conservative so I had endeavoured to watch my potty-mouth. But before I knew it, a great big cancer joke toppled out of my gob like an ugly, dislodged homunculus.

But it was okay. They liked the cancer. I had been completely prejudiced in my assumptions about them.

Maybe everyone finds cancer funny and it’s not really an edgy or controversial subject matter at all. Which is weird. I doubt there is a person in the world over 20 who has not been affected by cancer in one way or another. Why is it funny? You’re all sick. Sick and wrong. Stop touching yourself! I can see you, you know.

As usual though, faux-pas would raise its hilarious head. Steph passed an atypically maternal comment about her 19-year-old ‘little brother’ and I said something like “Oh, Steph, he’s old enough to have had a wank. In fact, he’s probably wanking right now.”

For some reason this one didn’t go down well. Why is cancer okay to laugh at but wanking isn’t? I’ll probably never understand comedy at all.

Grumpy Chic

As Polly Toynbee points out today, it’s quite fashionable to be a curmudgeonly old fucker. This is quite fortuitous for me, as I’ve been miserable ever since I developed sentience*. At last I am in vogue.

Ms. Toynbee proposes that we give up this grumpiness on the grounds that we live in a "golden age" – a golden age in which iPods, the Internet and mobile phones have revolutionised the way we live and have made everything free and accessible. She goes on to ridicule people who object to "mass culture" and those who search for "authenticity". She even goes on to describe the "cornucopia of affordable pleasures" involved in leisure-shopping.

Has Polly gone stark raving bonkers? I’m a big fan but as a member of the British Humanist Association I’m sure she once wrote something along the lines of "when you’re a humanist, even buying a bunch of grapes becomes an ethical consideration." I may have got her confused with someone else, but she’s definitely a member of the group and this is really one of the founding principals.

The problem with leisure-shopping is that it’s a form of unnecessary consumption. People have to stop buying shit they don’t need. Doing so just makes a place for mind-numbing, underpaid jobs. Most things in the mall are made partly or entirely of plastic: every time you buy something you stimulate further demand for oil and consequentially the demand for war. That’s what’s wrong with it, Polly.

And have iPods and the likes made anything better? Have they made us happier? Can they indeed? Not me. Sadly, it’s really all shit. As a librarian, I know how devoid of good stuff and full of dangerously misleading shit the Internet is. Take my blog for example. As for MP3 Players, I‘ve got through three different models in as many weeks because they are cheap and shit. It’s not made me happy: it’s merely justified my grumpiness.

It’s important not to be anti-progress but it’s difficult to enjoy this "golden age" when all the new technology is ever used for is making plastic-looking dinosaurs in the appalling new King Kong. Toynbee has a go at nostalgia and young people pining for a past that they never experienced, but it’s more complex than that. Directors of films in, say, the 1950s, had honed their craft: they’d perfected the various arts involved in black and white filmstock. When you look at the new King Kong or Sky Captain or something else heavy with GCI, you just think "what on Earth are they doing?”

Having said all of this, ‘grumpo chic’ is undeniably an unhealthy fashion to follow. It can be justified, I think, with John Stuart Mill’s famous maxim "it’s better to be an unhappy Socrates than a happy pig", but even then it must be bad for your health. Be happy if you can, sure, but it’s important not to go around in a daze of retail therapy and constant iPoddery. I almost got run over the other day for doing just that.

I feel like such a prick for criticising Polly Toynbee. I love her! But I don’t know what she was on about today.

 

*< size="1">It happened at 1:23pm on December 15th 2001. I was spiral-binding scripts for a play I’d written for an amateur theatre group and it suddenly occurred to me that I’d wasted my youth.

I, Twat

I got called a twat today by a barmaid in Stourbridge. It was one of those unanticipated, out-of-proportion responses that you occasionally get from terminally baffled people or people who are pissed off about something before you even get there.

“YOU TWAT!” she shouted “CAN’T YOU READ, YOU FUCKING TWAT? THERE’S SIGNS UP EVERYWHERE!”

Confused at first, I realised that I’d put my pint down on the wooden part of the pool table and that there was a hand-written sign on the wall asking you not to do this.

“Christ,” I said, “I’m sorry, really. I didn’t see any sign.”

And I hadn’t seen it. My friend and I had literally been in the pub for five minutes. We’d picked up our drinks from the bar and carried them into the next room, in which I spotted a guy I knew and hadn’t seen for a couple of years (He used to be in a band I episodically hung out with, which he informed me today had split up due to their lead guitar guy being poached by a bigger, undoubtedly better band) and so I naturally put my pint down on the nearest surface so that I could shake his hand.

She snatched my pint from the pool table to put it up on a ledge and then gestured to a beery ring mark left by my glass.

I wanted to tell here that there wouldn’t have been a beery ring mark if she had not snatched it up so violently but decided it was best not to go in this direction and instead to just apologise again. If this had been her reaction to a ‘misplaced’ beer glass in a public house, then only Christ knew how she would have reacted to my arguing with her: she’d have probably produced an old Winchester from behind the bar and shot the place up.

“Really, I’m sorry. I only just got in the door and I’ve never even been here before.”

“TWAT!”

The weirdest thing about all of this was that no one so much as battered an eyelid at all the shouting. As soon as she’d gone, my friend just continued in our conversation as though it hadn’t even been interrupted. Perhaps the barmaid going ape-shit is a commonplace thing there, though it made me wonder if the whole thing had even happened at all and it wasn’t just a sort of
Spaced-esq moment of unreality.

Make Me Rich

Now that my postgraduate course is slowing down for Christmas, I get to spend a greater number of daylight hours doing productive things like working on my book, writing articles, spending time with friends and family and watching terrible, terrible, bad, terrible daytime television.

Particularly of interest is a show I’ve found myself watching on no less than four occasions called Make Me Rich in which a TV Money Guru goes round to people’s houses and shows them how to save literally pence a year (actually, it does usually equate to several thousand pounds) by cutting back in certain areas.

The principal of the show seems quite commendable at first: Mr. TV Guru Man says things like “I want to tackle those big companies who rip you off and put the money back in your hands”. The website says:

This series isn’t about cutting back – it’s about enabling people to take on companies, find the top deals, and play the system helping them to potentially release thousands of pounds each year.

I like this. It is good. He’s literally sticking it to the man. He’s like a human version of anarchist fox, Robin Hood. ITV are being quite brave here by airing such radical anti-establishment programming so early in the day: the mums of the nation will soon be forming NIMBY groups against the biggest multinationals.

The money-saving starts with quite sensible things that scrape surprising amounts of money back from The Corporation such as ‘giving up smoking’ so that the evil tobacco people are robbed of up to £10,000 of working-class money per year.

But then it all goes quite mad. They start cutting back on things like food or having haircuts or bathing. They cancel their gym memberships. They have their pets exterminated in order to save on vet bills. All of this is obvious: the key to becoming rich it seems is not to spend or do anything.

In the end they have saved around twenty grand but at what cost? They are now long-haired, seldom-bathed freaks with no friends, shivering from nicotine withdrawal and staying at home every night with all the lights turned off.

It’s great TV.