Sunday, 18 December 2011

On Messages

What with all the novels and poetry I pour into my face, I only have time for one newspaper a week, and that newspaper is the Saturday Guardian, which I read in the bath on a Saturday night. At this point it's customary to say something like, 'the fun never stops round my way' or 'that's about as exciting as my life gets', as if to imply that reading a newspaper in a bath is somehow an unacceptable thing to do on a Saturday night and that you need to get ironically defensive about it.

Now, the letters page has always been pretty annoying, sometimes rubber-ducky-kickingly annoying. In fact, my favourite thing in the last few years was the epically sarcastic column that answered the letter writers' rhetorical questions with withering precision. It was retired after a few weeks, presumably because the letter writers didn't like it. (Everyone else - i.e. 96% of the readership - did, but we had the good grace not to write in about it, more fools us, I guess). But I can't stop reading them. If anything just to make myself feel better: I may be kind of a dickhead, but at least I don't write in to newspapers with my opinions about stuff. It still leaves me feeling kind of gross, but I read it in the same way I eat popcorn: ravenously. I once accidentally picked up and bit my wife's hand because it was in a bowl of popcorn.

To make matters worse, The Guardian have now started printing online comments as if they were letters. Say what you will about letter writers, at least they have to go to the bother of finding a stamp and trudging to the post-office (or opening their email account, looking up the paper's email address and... snore....) an exercise during which the decent human mind settles like an unplugged lava lamp and thinks, You know what? Forget it. If those five words were available in pill form, internet discourse would be a whole lot readable-r.

But the commenter has no such time to take stock. I've never met anyone in real life who comments on articles. Most people I encounter seem pretty happy with Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, that kind of thing. A forum where you can share your sometimes awesome, sometimes crappy, sometimes insightful, sometimes petty, sometimes generously outward looking, sometimes pathologically self-absorbed views in a manner which isn't as annoying as a complete stranger appearing from under your newspaper and saying, 'They had it coming, you know,' after you've just read an article about some sad murders which has made you feel sad. And if you think I'm taking the lowest form of commenter as a straw-man here, let's say that the highest form of commenter is someone trying to prove that they're more reasonable and intelligent than that straw commenter. Which, if that isn't self-evident enough that you don't feel the need to point it out to millions of members of the public, is just palpably untrue. You're just as much of a dick. It's easy enough to avoid this online - just don't scroll down below articles. But I can't stop reading the letters page. I'm too weak.

Anyway, I was anticipating some classic bilious rabidity after last week's article about young "over-achievers" and was vindicated to find this, from rah90, about someone or other who had overachieved in some field and put it down to working hard. I don't know the young achiever in question or what he's like, but what had gotten rah90's dander up was over-familiar. "Tristram Hunt," they averred, "says his success is down to hard work, then goes on to describe his upbringing."

"It's the typical delusional contradictions of the privileged middle class. What's opportunity, stability, love, support, healthy role models and a sense of entitlement got to do with it?" - rah90

As I've explored elsewhere, I have a posher accent than I am posh, and this puts me in a unique position of getting frequently accosted by strangers in pubs who take great amusement in making me swear and use contemporary vernacular like "innit" and so forth. This has been going on since primary school, so I'm able to take it with the grace only available to people who were picked on at school. Furthermore, after 8 years of being the posh-voiced kid at school, I encountered people at university who found it kind of funny that they let people who'd been to state school into university at all. (NB: I also met just as many privately educated people who laboured under no such idiocy, which I guess taught me that you should judge people, if at all, based on what they're actually like and the things they think and do, which is more or less what every moral tale tells us).

My point is I've been conditioned to bristle at unexamined class bullshit whichever way it breaks, and this manages to break both ways. Why exactly I'm so upset about this, why it's taken on a kind of metonymic weight for me, is maybe 1. I'm a narcissist and 2. maybe something to do with starting a family and pre-emptively striking against comments like, "Ooh, look at that middle class dad, raising his child so middle-classly with his posh accent and his precisely nothing that I know about his life and his background apart from that." (Unfortunately the moral tale I never listened to was that Aesop's fable where we're taught not to care about others' opinions lest we drop our donkeys in the sea).

Now, I can get behind being pissed off at a sense of entitlement and opportunity, sure. The arts are positively dynastic with them. There are opportunities if you can afford to live rent-free in London for a year, and significantly fewer if you can't. I get it; that sucks, and if you benefit from it the dignified thing to do is to acknowledge that rather than pretend you've gotten where you are through hard graft.

But LOVE? Seriously?! LOVE is middle class now? Ooh, look at that middle class person treating his fellow human beings with LOVE. Feh! Makes you sick, doesn't it? Can you imagine how privileged his upbringing must have been in order to condition him to treat people with kindness and respect? What an irredeemable cunt.

Tell you what, why don't you fuck off, rah90, IF THAT IS YOUR REAL NAME, WHICH IT DEMONSTRABLY ISN'T. Fuck off and start a family and raise them without love just to prove a point. Criminy. And I'll be like, Ooh, there goes good ol' Rah90, treating his kids and everyone he meets like dirt. How VERY AUTHENTIC OF HIM.

Happy Christmas, all.


Thursday, 15 December 2011

Ambassador Thumb 1

Ambassador Thumb 2

Ambassador Thumb 3

Ambassador Thumb 4

Ambassador Thumb 5

Cheap and Vulgar and Sort of Childish - EXCLUSIVE

Every year I think I'm going to do one of those virtual advent calendars where I post something new and delightful every day from the 1st to 24th of December. Had I managed to do so this year, the thing behind the first door would have been this. It is a short piece called 'Ambassador Thumb' which I wrote in between The Harbour Beyond the Movie and The Migraine Hotel. I read it at readings a few times and then submitted it to Succour, a magazine for which I was regional editor and was therefore confident, if not certain, of publication. I also talked it over with my most useful and critical friends and they felt it was a bit "trad absurdist", clearly derivative of Gogol ('The Nose'), which is true, and that I wasn't really doing much to make the style my own, an opinion with which I was inclined to agree. And seeing as I'd also brought along a radio play (derivative of Beckett), a full-length novel (derivative of Beckett) and a sinister one-act monologue (derivative of Fraggle Rock) to show-and-tell that week, I didn't have any time to make a case for it.

But a year or so later when I gave a friend a copy of Migraine Hotel, he wrote to me a week later saying, 'Where's Ambassador Thumb?' I told him it didn't really fit with the rest of the pieces in MH and he wrote back to say, "You fucking idiot."

The only surviving version of 'Ambassador Thumb' is in Issue Six of Succour (subtitled 'The Future') and the only copy I have is one that I read from at a school in the South West. Thankfully, just before I went on stage (or "on library" as it so often actually is), I overheard one of the teachers talking about the headmaster (who was to be present) and his attitude to swearing. Apparently he had thrown a writer out by his lapels (licking him squarely in the face with his good, clean tongue all the while) for using the word "bloody" only a couple of months ago. I had a pen with me and made some hasty edits to 'Ambassador Thumb', so I present to you the expurgated version with the following notes as sometimes the crossing out is pretty thorough:

1. For "How very magnanimous of you" read "How fucking magnanimous of you"

2. For "I murmured disconsolately" read "'Fuck you,' I told him"

3. For "Git" read "Bastard" (Not really sure about this one - I think "Git" had recently been used in one of the
Harry Potter films, so I figured it was okay).

4. For "Even the soap operas" read "Even the Adult Channel"

5. For "people's backs" read "flesh against a background of groaning and saxophone music"

A narrow escape, I think you'll agree. I might post something about swearing too much in my writing if I can fit it in with my therapist next week. The manuscript I'm working on at the moment is just lousy with cussing and it sometimes makes me kind of sad. It seems cheap and vulgar and sort of childish. For most poets this is a question that never comes up. They write about soulful, meaningful lovely things, and occasionally, when they're really cross, they maybe drop in the odd light swear, and we're all like, oh boy, he/she must really mean this! But if you spend all your time playing in the gutter with little obscene plasticine figures you made, the whole swearing issue is completely different and nobody understands. For instance, my wife just came in to ask how the marking was going and has found me trying to photograph my own thumb. That would make a good title. I guess all I'm really trying to say is Happy Christmas! And I hope you enjoy!