Archive for the ‘2020 minus’ Category

And so we’re on the final day of 2019. And the final post of this countdown.

But yeah, the final day of 2019; as I mentioned a couple of weeks back, few will be sorry to see it depart.

But as with any year, even the worst, it hasn’t been totally, unreservedly, full of shit. There have been good things, objectively good things. Even in 2019, there have been things that have made me smile, made me laugh, made me forget the shittiness… just for a bit.

And that’s true both on the entirely personal, and in the larger sphere, in the world.

So, since there’s been some more personal entries this time around, here’s some personal stuff that under any parameters, under any objective look, must be filed under the ‘good’ category.

These are in no particular order, I hasten to add… not chronologically nor in personal importance.

So… Good stuff – Personal

Edinburgh

Not just the place, not even just The Edinburgh Fringe, but that I got to spend – for the first time in five years, my birthday in Edinburgh during The Fringe.

Yes, Edinburgh this year wasn’t exactly empty of drama, and yes, I spent one night in agony and in hospital.

But getting to Edinburgh every year (ok, seven years of the past nine, and every year since 2014) is unquestionably good for me. Not only does everyone else notice it, and tell me, but more astonishingly, I know it. None of this ‘well, I guess so’. No, I know that I return from Edinburgh somehow… better.

Of course after a few months, that knowledge tends to fade a bit. The importance, I mean. Because while I always kind-of-remember that I kind-of-like the place… it’s not until I get up there that it hits me once again with full force… that in fact I truly love the place, love every bit of it.

Yep. I love every bit of the fringe, and love seeing friends and acts I know, and discovering new acts… and I get to have coffee in one of my favourite places to have coffee.

And I get to see a lot of comedy, a lot of new comedy; new acts, new material, new shows.

This year was particularly good, both because I got to spend my birthday up there and also because of the quality of the shows I saw.

Yeah, this was, no matter what else happened while I was up there this year… A Good Thing.

Writing

So, I’ve done more writing this year than I have in ages. Both on here (about more of which in a moment) and elsewhere. I’ve written scripts; I’ve written some short stories that I’m still pondering what to do with; I’ve helped write a comedy show; I’ve plotted out an anthology of short stories with a single theme. I’ve pulled a couple of stories ‘out of the drawer’ and have started working on those as well.

More importantly, arguably, I’ve remembered how much I enjoy… making words do what I want them to, and when they won’t do what I want them to, I’ve enjoyed the ‘figuring out what’s wrong, and how to fix the problem’ as well.

So, yeah, I’ve been writing again; again, I’d assert, in fact I do assert: A Good Thing.

Blogging

Yeah, this place. For the first time since the end of 2016, I’ve been blogging this year, I started off, after two and a half years away from the blog, in late June, hoping to make it to my birthday.

Y’see, I’d started to get the itch a month or so earlier, but it really bit when I realised that I was coming up on fifty-five days before my fifty-fifth birthday. And I can’t resist a countdown, as long time readers will know.

And having learned from previous experiences that a countdown of some kind actively helped me in daily blogging, I started the 55 minus countdown which led up to my birthday in mid-August.

And then I… continued the daily blogging, with the 55 plus run, which ran for fifty-five days after my birthday…

…which finished just before the coincidental date on which I’d need to start if I wanted to repeat 2016’s year-end countdown. So I… just carried on blogging with the countdown that’s ending today: 2020 minus.

(No idea what happens next; I guess we’ll discover that together.)

Now, whether anyone else thinks me blogging is a good thing, I don’t know, and to a large extend I don’t care. (I’ve deliberately not kept an eye on the readership numbers; that in and of itself is probably A Good Thing,) But for me, personally, writing stuff again, putting stuff out there? Yeah, A Good Thing.

Merry

You don’t know who or what Merry is, or to what I’m referring. That’s cool. But friends of mine who have had an Australian labradoodle (best and most accurately described by one of them as a Special Needs Wookiee) got another puppy this year. She’s another labradoodle, but this time part-miniature poodle.

And she’s named Merry.

I can’t ever remember taking to a dog so quickly, but yeah, she’s adorable and fun, and she’s lovely. And she’s made things a bit better when I’ve visited or stayed over.

Now if she can just stop dividing the world into a) ‘things I can eat’, b) ‘things I can’t eat but am going to anyway’, and c) ‘people’s body parts I can lick’, that would be even better A Good Thing.

Phil back in London

My lad Philip, now 24, has been back in London for most of 2019; it’s been a genuine pleasure that he’s been local once again, that I can see him whenever we want, that he can come up to the flat to visit his old man to chat, to pass the time, to play backgammon, to watch some telly… just to hang out.

It’s been lovely, and unreservedly A Good Thing that happened in 2019.

The friends who are still friends

This year’s been rough for everyone, myself included, and it’s been good that there have been friends who have been there, who have been there at the end of the phone, or online, or who I’ve visited, or who’ve visited me, just for the pleasure – and sometimes relief from the world’s shittiness – of spending time in each others’ company.

Help when we’ve wanted it, advice when we’ve needed it, having each others’ back when needed. A Good Thing.

The friends who are no longer friends

Odd that I’d label this as A Good Thing, nu?

No, not at all. Because people I’ve fallen out with, this year, I don’t regret for a moment that we did so. Some were decades’ long friendships that ended over politics, or the election, or merely because it was time, long past time, that the polite fiction of our friendship that we maintained for far too long… ended.

If we fell out over politics, or antisemitism, or even just ‘stuff that happened’ this year, then I genuinely hope you don’t regret it, or wish it hadn’t happened. Because I sure as hell don’t.

Some truly excellent television

Yes, seriously. Some wonderful new tv series that I watched and enjoyed and that made life just a little bit better while I was watching; tv that I’m glad is in the world, and glad that I watched it. (Yes, of course there were new seasons of old shows that I enjoyed but I’m sticking to brand new shows just for a moment.)

Good Omens, Watchmen, Treadstone, Prodigal Son: All new, all flat out excellent, all led in unexpected directions, all must-see television.

But despite my previous comments about new shows… I’d be remiss if I didn’t give an especially huge nod and tip of the hat to Last Week Tonight and Full Frontal whose sheer wonder has given me hours of enjoyment and laughter. And with all the shit this year’s handed all of us, that laughter and enjoyment was dearly & desperately needed & appreciated.

All Good Things, indeed.

The Distraction Club

I’ve written about The Distraction Club loads of times in the blog but I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated, ever needed, it as much as I did this year.

I’ve been a fan of muscial comedy for as long as I can recall. Whether it was Richard Stilgoe crafting exquisitely perfect comedy songs on the radio, or watching Victor Borge at my grandparents’ (My grandmother would be reduced to tears of laughter watching him) or all who came later, or indeed before but that I discovered later…

…the first Tuesday in every month brings The Distraction Club, downstairs at The Phoenix in Cavendish Square.

Usually five acts including a headliner, and – I’ll be fair – as often as not, there’s one act I don’t enjoy. But that means there are three or four I do plus Mitch and the band, and that makes it more than worth it.

So many acts I’ve seen there, so many I now know to talk to, to chat with.

This is unquestionably A Good Thing, and 2019’s run of shows have been among the very best.

Radio 4

Not just Radio 4 as a whole, but two specific voices on Radio 4. Corrie Corfield and Carolyn Quinn, two voices whose appearance on the radio always… helps.

Two ultimately professional radio people, there have been times in the past few years, and especially this year, when hearing their calm, measured tones – Corrie’s a continuity announcer and news reader, Carolyn presents The Westminster Hour among other political shows – have… helped.

That’s all.

They’ve… helped. And that’s, I’d suggest, A Good Thing.

Rachel Maddow, Steve Kornacki & Ann Telnaes

Three from across the pond. I’ve made no secret of my admiration for The Rachel Maddow Show. It’s exactly the sort of detailed news/politics show that I love; the style, in some ways, echoes the great Alistair Cooke’s linking of ‘what is happening today’ to ‘what happened before’ and why it matters.

When I can watch, I do so; when I can’t watch, I’ll listen to the audio podcast the following day. She’s smart, funny, and incisive. And my favourite ‘explainer of what the hell just happened’.

Steve Kornacki is the single ‘elections explainer’ – on either side of the Atlantic – I’ll go out of my way to watch. He makes Peter Snow (who some of you will remember) look positively unenthusiastic about elections and his explanations of the quirks, anomalies and expectations make the ludicrous seem… well, if not less ludicrous, then at least understandable why they’re important ludicrosities.

Ann Telnaes is my favourite US cartoonist and caricaturist, bar none. I said a while back that her style is one of scathing whimsy and that’s all you should need to know about why I adore her work so much.

Three Americans whose work I’m very glad I got the opportunity to see this year. And I regard the work of all three, individually and collectiively, as A Good Thing in 2019.

Neil Gaiman

I got to catch up with Neil a few times this year while he was over, and talked to him more often than for a while. I’ve known Neil for more than 20 years and there’s no one on the planet better at guilt tripping me into writing more, into opening the ipad, opening a writing app… and just… writing, putting one word after another. And then doing it again. And again.

He also understands where I’m coming from re various stuff in a way that many don’t. And I’m always and neverendingly grateful for the Good Thing that is his friendship.

Mitch Benn

I honesty don’t know where to start with how much I owe my mate Mitch.

I’d been a fan of his work for years before we finally met, and when we did meet, it was when he was fairly busy, recording the video for (I’m) Proud Of The BBC. So we only got to briefly chat on that occasion.

Long story short, we became friends and it’s something I never cease to be grateful for. Later, he invited me to helped write his Radio 4 shows on Bowie, Dylan and Elvis, and that he trusts me to help with his Edinburgh shows is an annual Good Thing that always flatters and honours me.

But that’s not why I’m listing our friendship in 2019 as A Good Thing. He’s a nice man, a good man, and I don’t think there’s been a single conversation we’ve had this year (any year, come to that) where I haven’t come away from the chat having learned something.

Our interests, our experiences in life, are wholly different, and yet, somehow we managed to have shared interests to the point where he knows shedloads about a subject that I don’t know, even though I know shedloads about the same subject that he doesn’t.

(Honourable exceptions for ‘keys’ in music which I still don’t understand – don’t try to explain it, you’ll end up wanting to thump me – and balance sheets which I’m not entirely convinced he does. Oddly though, ‘substance over form’ is something from accountancy that Mitch does understand, though I’m not entirely sure he knows he does.)

Mitch; his music, his judgement, his advice, his intelligence, and his friendship. All, unreservedly, without mitigation, Good Things.

Clara, Roger, Micah and Astrid

Clara is Mitch’s ex, (and if you’re looking for ‘people who split up but remain the closest of friends‘, since you don’t know me and Laura, I’ll just point you at them.)

Roger’s Clara’s fella. Micah and Astrid are Clara and Mitch’s kids. And they’re who I spend a night a week, or so, with.

I won’t say I wouldn’t have survived 2019 without them, but their home, their friendship, their love and them being… them, has certainly made 2019 easier. I’ve laughed and smiled and reminisced and been silly and been drunk on single malt more in Clara and Roger’s company than in anyone else’s the past few years and it’s always been from a spirit of comfort and friendship.

Their friendship and love is always and forever A Good Thing.

My ex-wife, Laura

Laura’s one of my favourite people on the planet. As well as being Phil’s mum, she’s been a part of my life for coming up on thirty years. We catch up for coffee every week or so, and if for some reason we can’t, there feels something fundamentally wrong with the world.

She’s a lovely lady; smart and funny. And I like her enormously. I’m very pleased she entered my life in 1992; that she’s still in it is A Good Thing.


OK, that’s the A Good Thing stuff done for my personal stuff.

Now onto the A Good Thing for the non-personal, for the world at large stuff.

Hmm.

Er…

Well now.

I’m joking, of course. For all the shit that’s around, some things have got better.

Take a look at this, for example.

Britain went two weeks without using coal. First time ever.

And over the past few years…?

I wish everyone a good, happy, rewarding 2020.

See you on the other side of the year-end….

I genuinely had a special post planned for today. Honest.

But a couple of things have happened in the past 24 hours and that special post will just have to wait until another occasion.

Because I want to write about those two things. Only two of them, but yeah.

First off, because it would just seem wrong not to put him at the top of the post, Neil Innes died.

Apparently he died yesterday from ‘natural causes’ (from which I take to mean that he died in his sleep), but this one hurts.

It does.

(A couple of weeks ago, I did a post on celebrity deaths and said Victoria Wood’s hurt. So does this one for both similar, and entirely different reasons.)

I didn’t know Neil Innes other than to say ‘hello’ to and occasionally chat to. I’d only met him at The Distraction Club when he played there, but I was fortunate enough to be able to chat to him then, whenever he played the club.

I can’t remember when I first heard an Innes song. I’d imagine it was I’m the Urban Spaceman track that I remember hearing first on the radio, and then when my older brother played it again and again. (Mike was a huge fan, about more of which in a moment.)

But yes, Neil Innes was the songwriter behind The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band

of The Rutles,

And of course, via the Rutles, the writer of the best Beatles songs you never heard….

That last video, of course, at The Distraction Club, where I finally, after years of being a fan, managed to say thank you to him and explain just why I’d enjoyed the previous half hour so bloody much.

My brother Mike, as I’ve said before, played the guitar. With more enthusiasm than talent, I’ll be the first to admit, but he played, and entertained his younger brothers with classic songs, and comedy songs, and sometimes new-words-to-classic-tunes. But it was possibly his enthusiastic performance of the Rutles songs and of the Bonzo’s songs that sealed my love as a child of musical comedy.

And, in 2012, after Neil Innes came off stage, me having sung along quietly to every one of the songs he played…

…I got to tell Neil Innes that, as much as the performance itself, as much as the superb entertainment he’d given a packed club, that for a few moments – just for a few – I’d been swamped, drowned in memories of Michael bashing out his songs.

For just a short while, I was utterly consumed by the recollections of my brother.

Friends know that I’m not really one for showing my emotions, especially not to relative strangers. But there I was, struggling to explain just what he’d done, how grateful I was… with burgeoning tears in my eyes.

Neil stood there, listening, and when I’d stumbled through my explanation, he said the best thing he could possibly have said: “Thank you. Thank you for telling me that.”

I wiped a bit of moisture away, and smiled like a fool… and then we talked comedy for another ten minutes before he got called away for someone else to say thank you to him.

I got to chat to him the next time he played the club as headliner, and he remembered, and we chatted some more about comedy, and musical comedy.

A lovely, lovely, funny, clever, warm man.

There are too many people who die not knowing how well or how much enjoyment their work gave to their fans. I’m glad I got to tell Neil Innes how much it and he had given me.

Also, not for nothing, but I’ve seen Mitch Benn onstage, playing, with umpteen headliners at Distraction Club. I’ve never seen my friend so happy doing so, so filled with unremitting glee throughout, as when he played Rutles songs with Neil Innes.

So, thank you Mr Innes. Thank you for all of the above and thank you for

“I’ve suffered for my art; now, it’s your turn.”

The sad news of Neil Innes didn’t exactly break me today, truth be told.

I was broken much earlier; not by any news item but because, man, did I have a crap night’s sleep last night. I’m probably flattering it to call it a ‘night’s’ sleep, because it wasn’t. By my calculations it was about four hours’ sleep, spread over about seven hours in bed.

As previously mentioned in this venue, I often (usually?) watch an hour or two’s MSNBC before heading to bed, and I’ll often (again, usually?) climb into bed around half-one or close to two am. I’ll read for a bit, eventually yawn, then flick on the audiobook, flick off the light, and place my head on the pillow.

I rarely have problems falling asleep, but the Phenergan I’ve taken for some years will often keep me asleep, for a few hours, at least.

Occasionally, they won’t do the job, and I’ll wake up from a nightmare and…

Oh, yeah, the nightmares. They’ve been going on for years, and it’s only with the help of something¹ to keep me doped up that I don’t – as I used to – wake up every hour or so, then fall asleep, then wake up an hour later, then wash, rinse. repeat.

It’s been some years since I shared a bed with anyone even semi-frequently, but I was informed at the time that it’s almost comically ‘someone having a nightmare on a daytime soap opera‘ when I’m having a bad nightmare. It’s not uncommon I’ll wake with a start, barely remembering the bad dream, just knowing that I had one.

It’s rare, however, that I wake up covered in sweat, heart pounding, and remember every bit, every second, of the nightmare. It’s even rarer that it’ll happen again the same night.

Yeah, you can see where this is going, right?

So I headed for bed last night somewhere around half one. I read for a bit; I’m rereading The Brethren, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s book about The US Supreme Court. After a bit, I started to yawn, and felt shattered. So I turned on the audiobook for 30 minutes, turned off the light, and quickly fell asleep… around 2:15, I think.

Next thing I know, I’m sitting bolt upright; duvet’s in a mess, my heart pounding like a trip-hammer. I’m soaked through with sweat, the sheet’s damp, if not wet, from it; my foot’s killing me, and I can clearly remember it.

I can remember with crystal clarity being in a courtroom, bound to a stretcher, while my foot is being slowly sawn off; friends were in the gallery, cheering on the surgeon (who’s dressed in lime green scrubs) and there’s a loud grandfather clock in the background…

And now I’m shivering. No idea why, but I am.

I peel myself from the sheet, go and wash my face and towel myself down. Oh, it’s just before 4am, by the way. No point in trying to get straight back to sleep; I mean I need to change the bedding, if nothing else. So I make myself a cuppa, take some painkillers for the foot, watch some telly for 20 minutes, then change the bedding, after which I’m tired again, and try again.

6:20 am. Suddenly I’m awake, face down on the bed, no pillows in sight. Sweaty again, new sheet damp again, heart pounding away. This time it was wild animals (complete with friends’ pets) biting chunks out of me while I’m paralysed, before someone tipped me into a grave and started shovelling earth over me while I was struggling to breathe.

So that was nice.

Why yes, I do sleep alone; why do you ask?

So, yeah, another cuppa, this time a shower rather than a wash, and a second change of bedding; the ‘reserve stuff that’s not as comfortable but there for an emergency’ set.

Eventually I get back to sleep for an hour or so before I wake, feeling like I’ve not slept at all, but not wanting any more sleep.

So, yeah, 2019? Fuck off, will you? Please? Just depart, leave, disappear, go forth and scram. Fuck right off.

Something else… in fact two something elses… tomorrow.


¹for a while it was quetiapine, but docs didn’t want to keep me on it, and eventually we found that 75mg of phenergan does the job, usually.

Housekeeping: Well, we’re really coming to the end of the year and the countdown now, aren’t we?

And, after a couple of years of not blogging, I’m still pretty astonished that I managed to put something up pretty much every day – with only a few ‘days off’ – since 23rd June 2019, when I kicked off my “55 minus…” countdown to my 55th birthday in August.

There were a few mini-runs during the past six months, a couple on Doctor Who, one on antisemitism. Oh, there were a few different ones.

But now we’re at the end. Well, almost.

After today, I’ve two special posts left for the run: one tomorrow, one on Tuesday.

Well, actually, there are two posts coming on Tuesday, but one of them isn’t going to be part of the run, so to speak.

It’ll be this year’s update to the annual A Life In Pictures, and – unusually for me; no idea why – this year I seem to have plenty of pics to me to choose from. Usually, I might have three or four to pick from; this time? A couple of dozen.

Ah well, you’ll see in a couple of days which I choose for the post.


OK, so today. What do you have today?

Well, since Tuesday will be taken up with the aforementioned ‘special’ posts, and tomorrow, I have something equally special but entirely unrelated to Tuesday’s stuff, one more set of Christmas related fast fictions, I think, once again from two friends who always supply much needed help when I want it, but much needed advice when I need it:


A decade and a half ago, I threw out a challenge. and then repeated it thereafter whenever I felt like it. The challenge was the same in each case:

Give me a title of up to four words in length, together with a single word you want me to include in the tale, and I will write a story of exactly 200 words.

That’s it. The stories that resulted always included the word, they always fitted the title, but usually in ways the challenger hadn’t anticipated. And they were always exactly 200 words in length.

For a few years, I did something at Christmas entitled Twelve Days of Fast Fiction. Friends – writers, actors, comedians – issued challenges, from which stories resulted. I haven’t done it for a couple of years; maybe next year?

For the very final selection from Twelve Days of Fast Fiction, two very different stories, one a bit of fun, one that I didn’t have any idea I was writing until the first words hit the page, and then I knew it intimately; it’s one of the easiest stories I’ve ever written, and yet I never saw it coming .

My thanks once again to Jason and Jamie for the challenges, and the enormous fun I had writing the tales.
 


 

I can’t remember how I first met Jason Arnopp or first discovered his writing; I suspect it had something to do with his career in the SAS psy-warfare division. He’ll deny that, but then of course he would.

I know that he’s a very nice man, with an infectious laugh, who writes stories that will have you curled up behind the sofa, calling for your mummy.
 
 
Title: Hell Comes To Greenland
Word: excruciating
Challenger: Jason Arnopp
Length: 200 words exactly

The rooms were all freshly vacuumed
Fresh flowers on a new silver tray.
After all, one does not skimp on details
When the Devil comes to visit or stay.

Santa had been fretting for hours
Putting all of them under huge strain.
The elves and the reindeer were trying to help
Obeying the commands as they came.

“Paint the staterooms a darker vermillion…
And the paintings should be far more lewd.
And the heating is nowhere near hot enough –
He’ll wonder if we’re being rude.”

And then they all smelled the sulphurous stench
As the carriage appeared right outside;
An excruciating clamour of commotion and noise,
As Satan stepped down from his ride.

They bowed at each other, as custom demanded,
And each smiled three times, as myths do.
Then Santa motioned Satan into his home,
Bade him welcome, whether or not it was true.

The Devil retired early that night,
A night-cap most politely declined.
And the demons and elves and reindeers alike
Spent the evening with each of their kind.

They met again the following morn
Two Nicks: Old and Saint, but it’s moot;
For as always when Santa and Satan confer
It’s regarding a demarcation dispute.

© Lee Barnett, 2012
 


 

Jamie McKelvie is unfairly talented. No, I mean that; it’s genuinely unfair that someone is so talented, and also so nice.

I was fortunate enough that he drew an illustration for You’ll Never Believe A Man Can Fly. And while I’d never be lucky enough to have a story drawn by him, if I ever get to write another published comics story again, the best present anyone could give me would be the words “Oh, Jamie McKelvie said he’d do a cover…”

Jamie’s lovely.

You should all read anything he’s drawn.
 
 
Title: The Christmas That Wasn’t
Word: plinth
Challenger: Jamie McKelvie
Length: 200 words exactly

The walk to the front door seemed longer than usual. I stifled a yawn as I pulled out the keys, half blinded by bright August sunlight.

A weariness beyond anything I’d known had come over me, but I knew sleep wasn’t going to come easy. Not for me. Not for her, either. She was still in the car; we didn’t have anything to say to each other now – we’d exhausted all possible conversations over the past hour.

I glanced through the front room’s windows; it was all there. His toys, the letter from the hospital, a small statue of Peter Pan upon a plinth, and the Christmas decorations.

We’d known it was the only way he’d see another Christmas, so we’d planned a party for him. In August.

We’d never hold that party now.

We’d been honest from the start. For a lad not yet eight, he understood what cancer was, what it meant.

A sob caught in my throat as I turned the key. I had to pack it all away now.

A protesting yell from the car. I smiled.

He understood what cancer meant. I wasn’t sure about remission. Maybe I’d buy him a dictionary. In December.

© Lee Barnett, 2012


Something else, something different… tomorrow.

When my lad Philip was very young, he enjoyed the animated Spider-Man tv series. Fair enough, lots of people did. But as a young child he had the choice of more than one Spider-Man animated series; he had several.

There was the original 1960s version; also, the Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (Spider-Man, Iceman and Firestar) one, and – of course – the version that was aimed at him and his generation. However, and the same applies to many who watch Doctor Who, again like many children he had ‘his’ version and the others were… lesser somehow. I mean, he didn’t actively dislike the other versions, but they were definitely not enjoyed anywhere nearly as much. Indeed, they were somehow… wrong.

Flip forward a couple of years to 2004, and the live action Thunderbirds film. I take him to see it, more than aware of his preference for the original. I’m eager to reassure him that even if he doesn’t like the movie… the puppet show is still there for him, he still has them. They’re still there for him.

A couple of hours later, we leave the cinema and sure enough, the words “it doesn’t matter, the puppet show is still there for you…” are spoken.

But it’s Phil saying the words to me.

He’s reassuring me.

Yeah, you can take it that I was less than impressed by the movie. Well, you can take it as soon as you stop mocking me for the above.

Oh, and Phil thoroughly enjoyed the movie, by the way.

I thought of the above both last night, and again today, when watching Evil Under The Sun, in which Peter Ustinov played Hercule Poirot in the classic Agatha Christie story.

I’ve warmed to Ustinov as Poirot over the years. At one point, I wasn’t a fan; while he got the arrogance and self-belief of the character, I couldn’t get past his undoubted lack of physical resemblance to Poirot as very clearly laid out in the books.

But yeah, I’ve mellowed towards the half a dozen movies in which Ustinov portrayed Poirot. They’re fun movies; Ustinov is having a blast playing them, as are the guest stars. I’ve yet to see a better Lady Edgware than Faye Dunaway, and with all due respect to Martin Shaw in Three Act Murder, Tony Curtis gets the role in a way Shaw never quite did. (Arguably, though, Shaw is the only weakness in the Suchet/Poirot Three Act Murder.)

Oh, before I forget, the reason I thought of the ‘multiple versions’ thing yesterday; Brian Blessed came up in conversation, and I remembered his beautiful performance as Augustus in I, CLAVDIVS. The BBC television series is rightly regarded as one of the best things the BBC has ever made, but I also really, really, like the Radio 4 version in which Harriet Walter is at least as good a Livia – perhaps better – as the wonderful Sian Philips is in the tv series. And Jacobi in the role of Augustus is almost as good as Blessed, while playing the role quite, quite differently.

Multiple versions.

Sometimes it’s merely the right actor for the right time. I enjoy Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, more than any other version of the character, but there’s no denying it’s a very different character from how the character was originally written. And thats” very deliberate. Enough of the character to be recognisable, but dispensing with the rest.

For many, Jeremy Brett’s is the best ‘classic’ Sherlock Holmes there’s ever been, and I’d hesitate before ever suggesting that anyone else comes close. However, I’d not hesitate too long, because I think both Douglas Wilmer and Peter Cushing were superb in the role, and I dearly wish I’d seen some of Vasily Livanov’s Holmes, as I’ve been reliably informed that it rivals Brett’s work in the role.

When it comes to Poirot and Miss Marple, David Suchet and Joan Hickson stand tall for me as the very best, in my opinion… but for their entire work, not for individual episodes.

I’ve seen several versions of Murder On The Orient Express, but Suchet’s version is far, far from the best. I mean, it’s not the worst; Alfred Molina’s ‘brought up to date’ version takes that less than wanted prize. And wow, it’s not only not even close, the rest are on a different continent, if not planet. It’s an abysmal movie.

I haven’t seen the Kenneth Branagh version but I understand it’s… ok.

But the 1974 Albert Finney version? Ah, that’s a masterclass in how to do the story, and it’s almost unique in that while the towering vanity of Poirot is there (most versions include that), the fact that he’s not someone you’d like is to the fore. No, really; often in the Christie stories, someone makes reference to his oddness, and how there’s something offputing about him. Suchet’s version plays that for mild humour quite regularly. Ustinov’s appearances show it as his vanity being… impolite. But Finney’s Poirot lets you into the secret: Poirot may be a superb investigator, but unless you’re a personal friend… you wouldn’t like him in person, not at all. And maybe even if you are a personal friend as well.

Similarly, I’ve seen and heard (on the radio) several versions of A Caribbean Mystery, the Miss Marple story, and with due respect to Joan Hickson and Julia McKenzie, as an enjoyable murder mystery, I much prefer the Helen Hayes version, despite its faults. Hayes made two television movies as Miss Marple and I dearly wish she’d have made more. (Sometimes the common wisdom is best, by the way; Joan Hickson’s The Mirror Crack’d is so superior to any other versions, including the Angela Lansbury version, that no other versions should even be made.)

It’s perfectly proper that classic tales, or just very good stories, are remade, are reinterpreted, for a different time, for a different generation, for a different style or storytelling.

And sometimes, just telling the story in a different way changes the quality of the tale’s telling. I’ve never read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, but I quite liked the movie with Sean Connery and Christian Slater. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the recent tv series with John Turturro in the role taken by Connery in the movie. The extra length of the miniseries gave the story space to breathe, and any doubts I had… evaporated by the start of episode 5, and disappeared entirely by the end of that episode.

And for every remake that exceeds the original (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is far superior to Bedtime Story, no matter how good the latter was) you have an Alfred Molina Murder On The Orient Express.

Disclaimer at this point: I watched all of the recent War Of The Worlds on the BBC. Hmmm. I didn’t make that mistake with this week’s A Christmas Carol. Which is fine; not every adaptation is for everyone. Both of those, most definitely, were not [made] for me. Maybe I’m too set in my ways, maybe it’s just that they changed too much. Either way, I have my own preferred versions of the stories, and although I’m open to versions I’ve not seen… (I recently saw the 1935 version of A Christmas Carol for the first time, and despite its faults, thoroughly enjoyed it)… no, there are some versions that… that… that… well, they’re not for me.

Huh… maybe this should have been a Ten Things, post… Ten remakes I really like, Ten remakes I really didn’t.

I’ll have a ponder…

Something else tomorrow… the final Saturday Smile of the year.

There are plenty of stories about how Boxing Day got its name. And, as whenever there are conflicting stories and there no one, generally agreed origin, my advice is pick the one you like and stick to it.

And, you know what? Even when there is an agreed tradition, folk etymology takes over as often as not.

Sirloin steak got its name from the French, because the cut of meat is sûr – on top of – the loin. Still, plenty of people prefer the legend that King Henry The Eighth enjoyed his meal so much, he jokingly knighted it.

My favourite one about names of things and reasons for them: almost the only things people know about Jewish weddings are
they take place under a canopy, and
the wedding ceremony ends when a glass is broken by the groom stamping on it, to cries of mazeltov from everyone.

Where did that tradition come from?

The official reason is to remember the destruction of The Temple, so that even in the midst of joy, you remember.

The unofficial reason is that you drink a wedding toast out of the glass, and then destroy the glass so no lesser toast can be drunk from it.

The entirely unofficial reason is that it marks the last time the groom gets to put his foot down over anything.

I like the second one, even though I know it’s not the ‘real’ reason.

Whatever your preferred story for how things happened, why traditions started, enjoy them.

See you tomorrow with, hopefully, something more substantial.

Merry wotsit, everyone.

Whether or not you celebrate, I hope that today has given you a day of peace and some respite from the general not-niceness that’s tended to suffuse this year.

I never really did Christmas; growing up in a Jewish family, it’s really not our thing, and no, since you ask, Chanukah is not “the Jewish Christmas.”

But I was fortunate enough to become friends with Mitch Benn et sa famille and they long ago brought me into their family.

Including Christmas.

I don’t know anyone who enjoys Christmas – all the traditions, the atmosphere, the whole thing – more than Mitch, and over the years – without even trying to – he managed to somehow get me to enjoy it.

I might write more about that at some point, but for the moment, let it suffice that I spent my usual lovely day with them today.

My friends know me well.

And Mitch knows me very well…

See you tomorrow…

You’re well used to reading stories created in response to challenges issued as part of The Fast Fiction Challenge.

For a few years, I did something at Christmas entitled Twelve Days of Fast Fiction. Friends – writers, actors, comedians – issued challenges, from which stories resulted. I haven’t done it for a couple of years; maybe next year?

But, for the remainder of December, I’m going to put some of those Christmas tales in this slot.


A decade and a half ago, I threw out a challenge. and then repeated it thereafter whenever I felt like it. The challenge was the same in each case:

Give me a title of up to four words in length, together with a single word you want me to include in the tale, and I will write a story of exactly 200 words.

That’s it. The stories that resulted always included the word, they always fitted the title, but usually in ways the challenger hadn’t anticipated. And they were always exactly 200 words in length.

For the final selection from Twelve Days of Fast Fiction, two stories written for children. Oh, the challenge came from their parents, but each had small children and the stories were written for them.

I don’t often write for children, especially since if I’m going to try, I want the adults reading the stories to their children to enjoy the experience as well.

So, to Henry Leo and Dylan, these were and are for you.

My thanks once again to Matt and Bevis for the challenges, and the enormous fun I had writing the tales.
 


 

Matt Fraction is another friend who I’ve not yet met in person; the curse of only ‘meeting’ people online. I’d love to do so, in part to thank him for the many, many clever, insightful and just plain superb stories of his I’ve enjoyed over the years. Also, of course, to congratulate him on his two wonderful children, for whom this story was really written.

Every person should have several Matt Fraction books on their shelves. Judge your friends harshly if they don’t.

Title: The Wrong Christmas Cookies
Word: apocalypse
Challenger: Matt Fraction
Length: 200 words exactly

Sir Percival Prignose, Baker Supreme
Believed every recipe should contain cream.
He considered his judgement much better than others’.
(So no-one really liked him, not even his brothers.)

In his kitchen itself, he was the leader!
(Do you know how bad he was, dearest reader?)
He’d yell at his colleagues, he’d never stop shouting!
An apocalypse of anger, followed by pouting!

And despite protestations from those far and near,
Who’d brandish complaints at him, he’d merely sneer
And continue his baking as he liked to do;
His cakes always yellow, his tarts always blue

One day Sir Percy was laying about,
Recovering from a very long and loud shout.
When he thought of a new thing that he could now bake –
Something he never had thought he should make.

He wondered and pondered: should he really risk it?
He was thinking of baking… a new Christmas biscuit!
He pondered and wondered, and pondered some more,
He’d never done anything like this before.

However, the insistence of the baker Supreme,
Meant that the cookies contained far too much cream…
So if you ever meet Sir Percy, never mention what happened
(Oh go on then, mention them, and hope you’re not flattened!)

© Lee Barnett, 2012
 


 

Bevis Musson is a comic book artist and writer whose work just gets better and better. His Dead Queen Detectives is laugh out loud funny, and for once, it’s a reflection of the creator, as his mind conjures ludicrous scenarios for DQD that make perfect sense once you read them. He’s also one of the kindest, gentlest people I know. He and his husband Chris have two delightful boys, Callum and Dylan. (Dylan suggested the title, so this is really written for him. Shhh, don’t tell Bevis.)

Title: Father Christmas Got Stuck
Word: contemplation
Challenger: Bevis Musson
Length: 200 words exactly

The elves were all ready and waiting;
So far, they’d all had good luck.
But none of that mattered, when they started to laugh
The night Father Christmas got stuck.

He’d been practising going down chimneys,
Getting dirty from soot and from muck.
He called out for help, but help came there none…
The night Father Christmas got stuck.

The reindeers were there in their manger,
When suddenly they were all struck
By the noise and the row and shouting for “Help!”
The night Father Christmas got stuck.

The panic! You wouldn’t believe it.
Everyone running amuck.
Plans were created, then honed and refined
The night Father Christmas got stuck.

His beard was the problem, suggested one elf
If only the hair could be plucked
But that was a rubbish idea, all agreed
The night Father Christmas got stuck.

A heavy weight dropped would just do the trick;
A big elf was ready to chuck!
But Santa would be hurt and it might not work
The night Father Christmas got stuck.

Thinking and contemplation solved the day
They pulled him out using a truck.
But the elves kept on laughing and laughing some more
The night Father Christmas got stuck.

© Lee Barnett, 2014


Next Tuesday is New Year’s Eve, so not sure whetehr you’ll get fiction or something else.

Meanwhile, tomorrow is Christmas… no idea whether I’ll post something or not.