Archive for the ‘life, don’t talk to me about life’ Category

Sorry about skipping yesterday; I really wasn’t in the mood to write anything, let alone a blog.

I’m not wholly convinced I’m in that much less of a bad, melancholy, mood today, but after yet another crap night’s sleep, I kind of feel that if I don’t write something today, the blog will lapse into disuse again. One day off I can allow myself. More than that? No.

Because the past week hasn’t exactly been great for a lot of people, and that includes me.

Oh, that sleep reference? Well, this is what I wrote around 5 am this morning.

As for the rest, well, I can’t say that it suddenly hit me, the full absurdity of nuttiness in which we find ourselves; it’s not been sudden at all. It’s been growing day by day since before the harsh ‘lockdown’, but the last week has been rough.

And I’m one of the luckier ones. I mean, though I know people who’ve got coronavirus, I don’t personally know anyone who’s died. I know people who have lost people, and know of some others, but those who’ve died? No, I didn’t know any of them personally.

As far as I know, anyway.

That’s not going to last.

Six weeks ago, more or less, a friend predicted that in the very near future, we’d all know someone who’d died of this bastard virus.. I can’t honestly say that I decried the idea, nor that I swallowed it unquestionably. But yeah, I was foolish enough to not wholly agree at the time.

Yeah, they were right, I believe.

And given the increases we’re now seeing – a reminder, those who are dying now, picked up the infection before the lockdown started – I suspect that horrible moment is going to come a lot sooner than even they feared.

Another friend of mine said, ages ago, that I’m ‘dangerously’ content in my own company. I’m not sure I’d agree with the adjective, but content in my own company? Oh, definitely. I’ve been very determinedly single for many years, and I haven’t been either the most social or sociable of people for more than a decade. I wish I could blame that on the mental health issues that became apparent almost ten years ago. I really wish I could do that, but it’d be cheap and nasty and self-serving to do so.

The truth is that I was never the most social nor sociable of people before that; the problems I had may have exacerbated it, but no more than that.

(Oh, by the way, you wouldn’t believe how pissed off I am whenever I see someone online suggesting that that those who live on their own and aren’t very social are handling it better… because I’m not. At all.)

What I have had over the past few years, though, to help me in my mostly solitary life, are a set of ‘safety nets’ .

One of them was grabbing coffee and having a regular catchup with my ex-wife, my lad’s mother. Laura’s lovely, and as I wrote at the end of last year:

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.

I wouldn’t change a word of that. But who knew that when I wrote it, that the “and if for some reason we can’t, there feels something fundamentally wrong with the world” would come to seem so prescient?

So, yes, Laura’s one of my safety nets.

Another is the Family Benn. I wrote about them as well in that post. But not being able to see them every week, to see Clara and Roger and the kids, to see Mitch… hurts. And I hate it. I truly hate that I can’t see my closest friends, and can’t share laughter and silliness and physical presence, let alone physical contact.

The other ‘safety net’ is one I’ve been well aware of for a very long time: being surrounded by people, usually at a coffee shop, who don’t know me and don’t give a damn about me (and it’s reciprocated in full, I assure you)… but it is being surrounded by… people. It eases the ‘yeah, I’m on my own’ just a bit. and highlights the difference between being on my own… and being lonely.

As I say, I’ve been single for a long time. And usually, mostly, almost exclusively, I like it. Or at least I’m fairly good-naturedly resigned to it. With occasional phases of being very bad-naturedly resigned to it, admittedly.

But never have I loathed it like I have the past couple of weeks. Never have I utterly detested my own company so frequently, so hugely, and so definitely.

Now, I shouldn’t need to say the following, but since every day there’s more evidence to justify the old saw”nothing is ever ‘needless to say’…”, of course I’m following the government guidelines/rules.

I’m only leaving my small flat for exercise (an hour’s walk), to go shopping, and occasionally for medical reasons, to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy or – as I’ll do in about two weeks – to donate blood. And when I return, I’m washing my hands. As I’m doing on a regular basis anyway.

(Not for nothing, but while I have no idea which songs you’re using to mark the ’20 seconds’ you’re supposed to wash your hands to, I’m using the first chorus of of (I’m) Reviewing The Situation from Oliver! That takes a little over 20 seconds.)

Other than that, I’m staying inside, I’m reading, watching tv… and struggling to do either for more than about 20 minutes at a go. I’m writing, a bit.

I’m going out for a walk… when the foot allows, and even sometimes if it doesn’t, knowing that getting out for a walk is – just about – worth the pain the walk will reward me with later that evening. I’m struggling with that balance as well.

“Struggling”. Yeah, that’s the word.

Especially since, yeah, as I mentioned above, I don’t really have anything to complain about… compared to many, many others. Others have people ill in their families, others have friends and relatives who’ve died. Others go into work in the NHS, working in horribly stressful conditions and, while protecting themselves as much as possible, look after patients seriously ill with this bugger of a virus. Others have lost their jobs, their income has collapsed, or they’ve physical problems that make my fucked up foot look in perfect health by comparison.

Me? I’m stuck on my own, and keeping myself to myself… which is what I’ve been doing for the most part for the past few years anyway.

So, yeah, you can add ‘feeling guilty about feeling shit’ to the mix.

I’ve been better.


Before I close this entry: a note of thanks, to everyone who’s currently using their time, either through their work or while they’re staying home, who are… making life better for someone else. Whether it’s singers and artists bringing enjoyment to others, comedians lightening the mood even if just temporarily, or those sharing their lives with others, letting them know they’re not alone, that everyone is finding it tough right now. Thank you. Thank you so much.

And, of course, thank you to everyone in the NHS, from the doctors and nurses on the front line, to receptionists, to those maintaining the equipment, to those managing the organisations… to everyone. Thank you…
 
 
Something a bit more cheerful, or at least less melancholy, tomorrow.

Possibly more of a goingcheep, this one, as it’s a short one, but it’s something that occurred to me just as I opened the app, so it”s going in here.

One of the things i enjoyed about the Brian Bendis/Mike Oeming series Powers was how it handled the effective immortality of one of its lead protagonists.

The character is thousands of years old, but can’t remember clearly more than a few decades of his life. Flashes of faint recollections, sure, odd out of context memories, but nothing clearly.

I’m 55 years old. And I can’t remember more than one or two names of children I was at primary (what we then called ‘junior’) school with. I can remember maybe half a dozen kids I was at senior/secondary school with. Maybe another half a dozen other people in my accountancy lectures, at Manchester Polytechnic.

Of the people I met in Manchester? Probably a couple of dozen I remember clearly. Maybe. More names, sure, and some faces, and with the aid of the photos I took while there, yes, some more spring to mind.

Childhood friends? Again, maybe half a dozen… (Of course, I didn’t have that many childhood friends. So maybe it’s not my memory that’s failing there.)

But thinking about school, I can remember events clearly, but not necessarily who took part in them other than me; I remember taking part – in the chorus – in a school production of Jesus Christ, Superstar, and I remember the teacher (one of the first I ever had a crush on, and yes, I remember one very embarrassing moment)… but can’t for the life of me tell you who played any of the other parts in the show.

And of course, the reverse applies: I wonder how many kids at Bushmead Infant and Junior schools (1970 – 1976), Denbigh High School (1976 – 1980), Luton VI Form College (1980 – 1982) or Manchester Poly (1982 1985) remember… me. Not that many, I’d wager.

(One thing that never ceases to amuse, however: not one of my schoolmates would have the faintest clue who ‘budgie’ is, while those who were friends at college would only remember me as ‘budgie’…)

I’ve said before that I’m a huge advocate of the position that everyone is the sum of their own experiences; I’ve heard it said before that everyone’s the sum of their own memories. If the latter is true, I’m not sure what that says when the memories fade.

Hmm. Something else tomorrow, I think.

We’re going to start today with a meme, talk about the young, then the dead.

So that’ll be fun.

Every so often, something will do the rounds of Twitter and other social media, ostensibly just a ‘huh, kids, eh?’ But something that strikes me – on the umpteenth repetition, anyways – as something a bit… snotty. A bit condescending and inherently unpleasant.

It’ll be something like: Our children will never know the connection between these two things!

The answer, of course is usually in the replies, sometimes blatant, sometimes allowing onlookers [‘the kids’] to have an ‘ohhhhhh’ moment as the penny drops.

I’m not entirely sure when these kind of digs – for that’s how I take them – at those younger started to really bug me; I only know that they did.

The at times seemingly ever-present ‘our experiences meant more’ digs, the ‘kids have it easier these days’ nonsense, the ‘we had [xxxx], kids have [yyyy] and [xxxx] is inherently better/more valid because we had it’ rubbish. But it’s replicated in everything from politicians with their ‘we survived the war, we can survive Brexit’ bullshit, to sidebars and cheap gags at their expense online.

As for when it did start to bug me, I suspect it was after listening to a topical comedy show wherein a couple of comedians were discussing a newspaper piece about how ‘kids today’ don’t understand pre-decimalisation currency, or something similar.

The comedians made the valid point ‘why the hell should they?’

I mean, ok, if the younger read novels set in, or non-fiction about, time periods before 1971, then it might help to appreciate the terms used for the British currency of the time.

But any author now writing about that period knows most people won’t have strong memories, beyond the very personal, of pounds, shillings and pence, and will account for that. And any books of the time are… of the time. They were written during that time. And there are more than a few things that’ve changed since the 19th century; currency is one of the lesser ones.

And of course, occasionally, authors will sometimes acknowledge that readers might not be familiar with pre-decimalisation and provide… help.

(The above from Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett)

In one of the later Letters from America, Alistair Cooke mentioned that it came as quite a surprise – a much needed corrective, he acknowledged – when some friends of his grandchildren didn’t know the details of Watergate. He then realised that it fell, for them, into that period of time between

  • what you live(d) through, and
  • what’s in the history books.

I was born in 1964. My first memories start in the very late 1960s, early 1970s. The history books I read at school pretty much stopped at the end of the Second World War, perhaps a couple of years later.

Anything that occurred from, say 1950 through 1968… well, that falls into that gap identified by Cooke. Much as the Boer war fell into that gap for him. He was born in 1908. The Boer War ended in 1902. It was current memory for adults when he was born, but not yet into the history books for the children as he grew older.

For me? Well… even if American history was in my school history books (I honestly don’t know) I certainly don’t recall reading anything in detail about McCarthyism until I’d left school and was actually studying US politics.

I remember reading about President Roosevelt and his successor, President Truman… but not about Eisenhower. And all I knew about JFK was that he’d been shot by someone who shared my first name, spelled the same way as well! (When I was growing up, my first name was as often spelled – for boys and girls – ‘Leigh’ as it was ‘Lee’.)

Sorry, this has drifted a bit.

But why should kids know that a pencil and a cassette tape should provoke memories of inserting the pencil, rotating it, correcting the twisted magnetic tape…? It’s not in their personal experience.

Any more than it’s in mine how to powder a wig. Or to make a crystal radio set (my dad did it when he was a kid) Or how to jive? (My mum used to dance when she was younger… a lot.) Or how to balance a budget with a ration card – my grandparents, during and after WWII. None in my personal experience. And something that was in previous generations’.

But if there’s anything that truly – to me – does raise the ‘they do it different these days’ in a way that doesn’t piss me off, but does make me wonder what the future brings… it’s people, contact with them, how they’re regarded by others, and how they’re appreciated… while they’re alive, and after they’ve died.

Or not, as the case may be.

I’m unconvinced that any generation views other people, and especially the departed, in the same way as either the previous generation or the next generation does.

A couple of generations before mine… adults were fighting in wars, different cultures, different backgrounds, different experiences, thrown together in military service. I’m certainly not suggesting it as a objectively ‘good’ thing – as a general rule of thumb, I’m against war – but it unquestionably changed how those in the forces regarded those they’d never have come into contact with otherwise. And how they regarded death at a young age.

Let’s leave death for a paragraph or two, and just stick to people.

I grew up in the 1970s; playing in the street with other kids, cycling off to the woods and hills near Luton, playing with kids you’d just met… and if you were an hour or two late back, and they couldn’t contact you – no mobile phones – the main consequence was that your mum gave you a telling off and punished you. It wasn’t called ‘grounding’ in the UK, but that was the usual punishment.

The idea that you might have gone missing if you were an hour or more late back was just never A Thing. That I’d not called them was just… naughty. But wasn’t expected, not really. And, I mean, still before the days of mobile phones, but when I went to uni, I called my parents once or twice a week.

My lad speaks to his mum almost every day; most people, most adults, I know speak to their parents very often. They speak to friends less often, but are in contact much more often, online. By text. On messaging apps.

Despite the stories of ‘everyone knew each other, everyone knew how everyone was’ back in the day, these days, people are in contact in one form or another far more often… with people they care about, and people they want to stay in contact with.

And then there’s what happens when people die.

I remember back when my brother died. After the burial, the shiva… my sister-in-law certainly had people contacting her all the time.

But my late brother himself… I have no idea how often people thought of him. Nor, on the whole, what people thought of him while he was alive. Not truly. I know what people said afterwards but it’s easy to say nice things afterwards.

At least with Mike, there was a book after his death containing tributes, what friends and family thought of him. I’ve genuinely no idea at all whether he knew it, appreciated it, before he died, though. [I’ve no doubt, by the way, that he knew how much I loved him as a brother; I’m fortunate in that at least.]

But a book about a departed one is, was, unusual. Mike’s widow wanted to do it for a specific reason.

These days? There’d be – if the family wanted – a preserved Facebook page, a tribute for people to leave online messages. People would write on their own facebooks, and tumblrs and twitter feeds that they missed him.

(And, yes, idiots would chime in with their own unwanted, unwarranted, idiocy about how they never liked him anyway.)

But that’s something that’s changed, and will change more in the future. Whenever someone dies, people say “I hope they knew how much they were loved” or “I wish I could have told them how much they mattered to me”.

(Caveat for famous people, big stars; I don’t believe for a moment that they are – completely at least – unaware of how much their work has mattered to people, nor that they haven’t been told so by many, many people.)

Flip side of all of this – and a nicer consequence of the changing ‘openness’ in society; it’s far easier, far more acceptable, to tell someone how much they – or their achievements – have mattered to you.

Sure, that’s as much for you as it is for them, but I like that people tell them, anyway.

“No one ever dies regretting they didn’t spend more time at work” is a trite remark, and in part – but only in part – true. I’m sure there are people who die regretting that.

But no one should ever die thinking that they didn’t matter. They should know – before they die – that they, that their work, mattered; to family, to friends, to people who liked them, to people who loved them. To admirers and critics alike.

So tell them.

Something else a bit more together, and a whole lot more serious, tomorrow…

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-fifth birthday on 17th August 2019. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

Earlier on in this run, I wrote about skillsets some have for their careers that I don’t have, and that I wish I genuinely understood inside and out.

But of course there are other things – not limited to skillsets – that I either don’t understand and wish I did understand, or don’t understand and don’t really care that I don’t understand…

And then there are the subject matters about which people care hugely; they’re important to them in a way that not only are they not to me, but I don’t even understand why they are to people. On an individual sense, I mean.

Like fashion, say, but we’ll come back to that.

No matter what the industry, I’ll acknowledge immediately that they’re important to people who work in the industry. I couldn’t give a damn about the design of mass produced greetings cards, say. Not really. One’s the same as another in most cases, as far as I see. Except the ones you see, look again in disbelief, and then are terrified that someone actually got paid to design it.

But for those who work in the greetings cards industries, I quite understand why it’s important to them; to the government who collects taxation from the companies, the payroll taxes, the corporation taxes, etc. To those whose livelihood depends on that industry, yes, I get all of that.

That caveat needs to be up front and centre. Any industry is important to those working in it.

Like fashion, say. But we’ll come back to that.

Small – but relevant to what follows – diversion: this isn’t fishing for compliments, but I’ve never thought of myself as ‘good looking’. OK, I’ll admit that I’m better looking than I used to be (as the annually updated A Life In Pictures post proves) but… objectively ‘good looking’?

No.

Not at all.

I’m… ok, I guess. On a good day, I might qualify for a bit better than ‘plain’. Again – not fishing for compliments here.

But I say all that I have above in order to now recognise that even I, looking like I do, am vain enough to not like it if I have a crappy haircut, or have a spot appear on my face.

I stress the above to acknowledge that there’s some, small, vanity, on minor things before going on to say that in a major way, vanity has affected my choice in clothes.

I’m not sure who first observed that clothes form an inherent part of your identity. But of course they’re correct, both in how others see you and how you see yourself. But despite the above, I’ve never much cared about how people see me, only about what they thought of me, and even then only with some people.

Going back a few decades, I don’t really remember choosing clothes to ‘look good’ before I got married. (Yes, yes, that annual post proves it. I know.)

I wore what was ‘appropriate’ for the setting (work, synagogue, pub), and b) what I felt comfortable wearing… but not really more than that.

Wasn’t fashionable usually, if ever. Yeah, fashion. We’re getting there, I promise.

Then I met the lady who became my wife. Yeah, a lot of stories start like that.

Laura had, has, far better taste than me in clothes, and it wasn’t uncommon for her to surprise me with a top, or a shirt or a jacket… In all the time we were together, maybe twice, maybe three times, I didn’t like her voice. Every other time, it was great; it suited me; I liked it.

When we split up, I dressed all-in-black for something… and for the first time – genuinely, the first time ever – pretty much everyone complimented me on how I looked. (To the point that I briefly but genuinely wondered whether they’d gotten together to take the piss.)

But no. I dressed all-in-black at work; got compliments. Dressed all-in-black for a social occasion… same result.

Huh. Weird.

I’ve said before those who are good looking, have always been told they’re good looking, genuinely don’t have a clue what it’s like to not receive those life long compliments. No more than those of us who didn’t get them have the slightest comprehension what it’s like to get those compliments through your life.

So me getting compliments all the time for how ‘all-in-black’ suited me, how much better I looked, astonished me.

Even weirder was how I felt about dressing all in black: very, very comfortable, very… ‘me’.

Yes, there was good natured mockery, the ‘goth’ comments, the “DarkBudgie” silliness. (Remember: I’m a huge fan of silliness.)

So, lots of reasons for me to continue: I liked it, it was easy, people seemed to think I looked good in it, and I felt comfortable as hell wearing it.

And here we go…

At no point was I wearing black because, say, it was the ‘in’ thing to wear; at no point was I wearing it because ‘everyone I knew and mixed with was wearing it’; at no point was I wearing it to ‘make a statement’, or to ‘make a point’.

Which brings me to fashion. Both as a concept, and an industry.

I don’t get it.

I mean, leaving aside the economics of it…

  • dresses that cost more to deliver than to purchase
  • wages paid to those who make the clothes that make people blush
  • built in short term obsolescence

…the very idea of social acceptance or otherwise thought wearing what has been decided is this year’s Thing… I’m utterly mystified by the idea.

It’s not just the actual clothes in the fashion industry, of course, that mystify and puzzle me. The ‘you can’t wear the same this year/season as last’. I don’t get it. The ‘you must buy new and newer and different.

I don’t have many pairs of shoes; a pair of trainers, a decent pair of brogues, a pair of plain formal shoes. and I’ve pretty much replaced them with identical pairs. (OK, I could excuse that because I’ve a fucked up foot.) But that wouldn’t explain why I also have lots of identical shirts, and identical pairs of plain trousers.

Having multiple outfits for multiple occasions, mixing and matching – and purchasing stuff in order to do so… not being able to, nor wanting, to wear the same clothes repeatedly.

Fashion: I don’t get it. At all.

I honestly wish I did.

Yeah, this didn’t start out as a whinge. I’m sorry it turned into one…


Well, that didn’t exactly turn out as planned. To reward you for slogging through it, I’ll let you know about the single best mass-produced greetings card I’ve ever seen, in Bermuda, in the mid-1990s. Die cut, so the front of the card was slightly smaller than the back of the card. The front of the card had a typical 1950s detective or PI. Low slung hat, raincoat.

The front of the card read: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. Somewhere, someone’s in trouble. Somewhere, someone needs to stroke a small animal. That’s where I come in.”

When you opened the card, you saw the same defective, his raincoat now open with:

“My name’s Friday. I carry a badger”.


See you tomorrow, with something more interesting.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-fifth birthday on 17th August 2019. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

I’ve never been stalked in real life; And I’m not for a moment suggesting in the entry that follows that being stalked online comes even close to the horror and fear that accmpanies someone being stalked ‘in real life’, in person, in other words.

But I’ve been stalked online, and received what I considered to be genuine, credible, threats, and it’s not pleasant, to put it mildly.

It’s happened a couple of times – two where I’ve gotten the authorities involved – and in retrospect, what strikes me isn’t how surprising it was that anyone gave a shit about me – which should still be utterly shocking, lets’ face it – but how… genuinely vulnerable it makes you feel.

The following is about one of them, in the early days of my time online.

Back in the day, I helped run a couple of CompuServe’s Forums. One was the UK Current Affairs Forum, prevously the UK Politics Forum. Another was CompuServe’s Jewish Forum. I was a member of half a dozen Forums, but they were the only two where I actively helped run them.

On the whole, my experience in Forums were great ones: I learned a lot, made some good friends, and they were great introductions to the pleasures and pitfalls of putting opinions out there. Some of the friends I made as a result of my presence in CompuServe Forums are friends to this day.

(I recently joined Instagram, which is a flat out weird one for me, and when I went though my contacts, as to who to follow, some of them were people I first met back on CompuServe, some over twenty years ago…)

So, yes, most of my time on CompuServe was fun, and objectively beneficial.

But then there were the less pleasant aspects; take the time we booted someone from the Jewish Forum for persistent breaches of Forum Rules.

Every Forum had its set of rules. Some were simple: don’t abuse, don’t post sexual images, and… that’s about it. Some had long sets of rules, dozens of them, covering everything from “use your REAL name here” to the maximum size of images posted in messages.

The Jewish Forum, for example, didn’t have that many rules. But one of the biggies was no proselytising, no “you’re all wrong and should accept Jesus into your hearts!“. (For the reasons why a Jewish Forum would have that rule, see here and here.)

Now every Forum, every message board, had their idiots, their abusers, their ‘I have my rights!‘ crowd.

The trick was to control the harmless idiots and expel the harmful ones. Most times, I think we got it about right, most of the time. And when you don’t, when you over react, or under react, the lesson you then learn is possibly the most valuable of all.

And to be fair, when you did sling someone out, most of them just licked their wounds and either apologised… or moved on.

With some, who were thrown out of forum after forum, who joined merely to abuse and insult, you soon realised that their etire purpose was to abuse and insult in the hope they’d piss off people enough that they’d get thrown out. It was a wish I was more than willing to grant.

But even among this group, most were sensible enough to know that it was more sensible to try their luck in another venue, rather than try again in one they’d already polluted.

But there were some who would be so offended by our showing that there were consequences to abusing others… that they’d become determined to hit back. They’d be so upset, that their ‘freedom of speech’ to abuse and insult was infringed, that their determination to abuse and insult would be redoubled.

And one chose to make it his business to trash me and attempt to trash my reputation.

Among the more charming messages written to (or about) me on at least six other Forums, using one or more of his 18 separate IDs (!) were:

Alas we meet again.I’M glad YOUR brothers DEAD.Just remember I hate you,brit.

 

We know where you work.where you live.we hired a pi.the games are just starting.its all in good fun.i hope you continue to play along.i will win.you will lose.i’m going to help you lose your job.lets make a bet on it.

 

I hear your mother was a whore and you are really a nazi.i think its time for you to lose your job.lets make a bet that you will be un-employed in one years time. So many people hate that you don’t where or who or what is against you. Your mother is a coward and so are you. We made printouts of your photo and sent them to all kinda intresting places bitch.

 

Can i fuck your wife in the ass ?.your son can watch.

 
And the latest? Oh, this one will cheer all of you out there that read comics…

Why are you into comics ?The word around the office is that you use comic books as bait for meeting minors.

And remember, this was merely beause we threw him out of The Jewish Forum for abusing others, breaking the rules, and, not for nothing, proseltising.

I’ll admit to being slightly amused when he turned up on yet another Forum, with an ID of “GOPSenate” suggesting that I was a danger to American National Security.

As another member, commenting that he didn’t know how much of a danger to National Security I was: “After all,” he continued, “if you can’t trust a guy who shows up out of nowhere with a bagful of incoherent abuse and return address of ‘GOPSenate’, who’s left?”

His final messages before I’d finally had enough suggested that I was a paid up member of a pedophilia advocacy organisation, that I installed spyware on every forum member’s computer, and that the police were investigating taking my son away from me.

I was lucky, I’ll acknowledge. I had the resources, the anger, and the experience to do something about it.

So I did. I downloaded all the archive messages, and did a search for messages he’d posted in other forums…

It didn’t take me long to find the state in which he lived. It took me a bit longer to find, and confirm, the city in which he lived. It took me a lot longer, back then, to narrow it down to the suburb. I already had an idea of his real name. Even back then, once I had his location, it was relatively easy to confirm it.

And that, together with a small payment to their white pages, gave me his work and home addresses.

After that effort, it then took me only about five minutes to find the contact details for the local police department.

Given that the call came out of the blue, and the police detective they put me through was obviously – back then – less than familiar with ‘the internet’, he was great. He listened calmly, took notes, and asked me to fax through the ‘message… board… posts?’

I did, the following day, and that evening got a call back from a more senior detective. I still remember thinking that his voice didn’t so much express anger or upset through words but as an low, very low, but persistent growl. He was not happy. He was very, very not happy.

Not with me, he hastened to assure me, but that a resident of His Town (the capitals were implied) was

1) that abusive
2) that insulting
3) ‘that damned stupid’

The insulting he accepted was unpleasant, but… the nastiness was unpleasant but…

However, the going into the Jewish Forum and proselytising “well, now, that’s just not… that’s… no. Just, no.” And the stuff about children. “Well, now, that needs to… Stop.”

He explained I had two options:

I. I could make a formal complaint, it would go through the usual processes, and if charges followed — he was sure there was some law being broken — I’d likely have to come over to testify if it went any further.

II. I could ‘leave it with’ him, and he personally guaranteed I’d hear no more from the, he hesitated before saying the word, “…the man.”

I chose the latter.

I have no idea what happened next. I have no idea if – or whether – the senior police detective went to visit the resident of his town… no idea whether he put the fear of god into him, no idea whether he threatened him…

But after a year of constantly abusing, constantly insulting, constantly re-appearing and insulting and abusing, he… disappeared. He just stopped.

So, I’ve no idea what happened.

Well, that’s not quite true.

I’ve an idea or two.

See you tomorrow, with something else.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-fifth birthday on 17th August 2019. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

The last time I had a surgical procedure, the last time a doctor took some kind of medical implement, inserted it into my body, and removed something, was more than a decade ago, when I had a navicular bone removed from my foot, about which I’ve written before.

And long time followers (and what a weird concept that is) on Twitter and other social media will know that I sometimes link to the post above, a post entitled Trouble afoot, in which I detail why I’ve got a fucked up foot, and why I whinge about it when it hurts like hell. Which it does, on a regular basis.

So, congratulations to anyone with an inkling of how my mind works for guessing that this post, with its title, is about the opposite end of my body.

And now, you see, I have a problem, the ever present problem for a writer of both trying to be honest – or at least not dishonest – but also attempting to maintain a certain level of suspense that accompanies the telling of a story.

Because I’ve already lied to you: the most recent time I had a surgical procedure wasn’t “more than a decade ago”; it was last year, when I had a couple of scalp biopsies to check whether I had basal cell carcinoma; skin cancer. On my scalp.

But, not to bury the lede – too late, I fear – the tests were negative. So, no, I don’t have skin cancer. But for a while, both the medical profession and I… thought I probably did.

This wasn’t the first time in recent memory that I’d had to have skin biopsies, either. Towards the back end of 2017, I had a couple – one just below my temple, a mole removed from my upper back – that turned out to be nothing, or nothing malignant, anyways. Both my GP and the dermatological team made it clear at the time that those biopsies were really ‘just in case’; sure, they could have been something nasty… but odds were they weren’t.

One turned out to be just… a mole that kept bleeding; the other was a patch of discolouration on my left temple that several friends had noticed was growing. Well, after surgery it was about a quarter of the size it was previously. So that was nice. And when they removed the mole, it stopped bleeding. Well, it may have. I mean, if it did, it’s in some laboratory somewhere, being examined by very puzzled lab techs, I’d imagine, while it metamorphises into something with… plans.

Best of luck sleeping tonight, folks.

But anyway, as I say, the first couple were merely to confirm that they weren’t anything nasty.

The second time, last year, no such comfort was offered. The consultant was “highly suspicious” that the spots… ok, lesions… that hadn’t healed since before August 2017 were carcinomas, and the doc who took the biopsies said she was ‘fairly confident’ they were as well.

And I appreciate that they were merely trying to prepare me for the worst, but… yeah.

However, that wasn’t the scary part…

The really scary bit about the procedure was when the doc told me “yeah, they tick almost all the boxes for basal cell carcinoma, let’s do the biopsies…” dig… “oh [beat] ok, there are the other two boxes ticked.”

So the procedure wasn’t so much ‘just in case…’ as they were ‘let’s just confirm…’

And then they were confirmed… as benign in one case, and just a massive infection in the other. But excising both seemed to do the job.

I guess, I suppose, that scraping a chunk of my scalp removed any of the infected tissue, because both scars healed very nicely, thank you, with no lasting ill effects, and not even a bald patch.

So I haven’t even got that excuse; any patches I have, or will get, on my scalp will be due to me just getting, y’know, older.

Now I want to be clear: if you’re going to get skin cancer, a basal cell carcinoma is the best one to get.

And that isn’t a joke, or a bit of self-deprecating relief. It’s so much better than the other kinds of skin cancer, it’s not even an exaggeration to say you’re lucky to get one of those.

The recovery rate is very high, especially at my then-age, and though there’s a decent risk of recurrence, at least none of them were near my eyes, nor my mouth. They were all on my scalp, the latter two on the crown, separated by about an inch and a half.

And this was last year, so why write about them today?

Well, the reason for this post today is threefold.

One: I’ve not blogged since the surgeries and I wanted to write something on it

Two: To relate what happened and how un-scary the whole procedure was, on the whole.

Three: To recommend that if you’ve any doubt, any doubt at all, about that spot that just won’t heal… go see your doctor.

OK, now since I’ve already dealt with One, by writing the entry, let’s move on to number Two.

I went to St Mary’s for the initial checkup and surgeries. They couldn’t have been more professional, more courteous more reassuring. Every one of the medical staff, the doctors and nurses, were professional, courteous, friendly and ‘judged’ the situation perfectly.

At no point whatsoever did I feel that they were over-egging the situation, nor trivialising it. They knew I was scared; they knew I was worriedand so they explained everything in plain English, in simple language. Jargon was used only once or twice and they explained to me its meaning so if I heard something during the procedure, I’d know what the hell they were talking about.

Their entire motivation, it seemed, was to ensure that I a) understood what was going on and what was going to happen during the surgery, b) understood why they were concerned, and c) was fully consenting to what was going to happen.

(On a lighter note, I’m 54 years old, have had lots of local anaesthetic over my life and have always, always, been told this will feel like a sharp scratch. My thanks to the anaesthetists on both sets of procedures because the injections administrated for my biopsies were the only times in my life, literally the only times, when the injection of local anaesthetic has indeed felt like a sharp scratch. Which was a pleasant surprise.)

I had punch biopsies, which… I have no idea whether that’s always the procedure or just what was appropriate for my procedure. I felt pressure, but was completely numbed… to the point where the only reason I realised I was bleeding was when I saw a drop of blood… drop.

The stitches pulled, afterwards, but even when they were removed, the entire process was – all things considered – pretty pain free. (Oh, that was one of the signs they didn’t like before, by the way… that the spots, ok lesions, were entirely pain free, even when a bit yucky and ‘nasty’…)

So, yeah, all things considered, I was pretty lucky.

But I might not have been. I could have had skin cancer. And even with a basal cell carcinoma, the high rebate of recovery from it, the easy removal, kind of depends on the doctors being, y’know, aware of them.

So, to number Three above: do yourself a favour. If you’ve any doubt, any doubt at all, if your friends have noticed that mole’s grown a lot, or it’s constantly bleeding, or you’ve a wound that just won’t heal… go see your doctor.

Yes, it’s probably nothing to worry about, but since they’re the doctor and you’re not, let them confirm it with the benefit of their professional knowledge, rathe than your usual ‘ah, I’m sure it’ll be fine.’

Something less serious, hopefully, tomorrow.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-fifth birthday on 17th August 2019. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

Blog post titles are an odd thing. I mean, I ask ‘how are you?’ up there but, let’s be fair, there’s no way for you to respond before I continue, so it’s entirely self-serving and unnecessary.

Welcome to my blog.

As mentioned the other day, I’ve done a few of these countdowns and usually I just leap straight into them, but it’s been over two years since I’ve regularly blogged, so, a reintroduction probably isn’t the worst idea.

OK, so who the hell are you, anyway?
I’m budgie. Hello.

All right, my parents didn’t name me ‘budgie’; they may have been odd in some ways, but they weren’t that odd.

My given name, the name on my passport, is “Lee Barnett”, but I much prefer ‘budgie‘ – you’ll learn why in a moment.

I live in London, very near Abbey Road Studios. Yes, that Abbey Road Studios; Beatles, that album cover, that zebra crossing.

How near? Well, as I tell friends – whenever anything notable happens in London – if the news story doesn’t start with the words ‘Less than half a mile from the world famous…’ it happened nowhere near me.

After growing up in Luton – a great place to come from, but a lousy place to go back to – I’ve spent most of my life living in various parts of London: Ilford, Finchley, a couple of decades in Barnet, four years in Richmond… and now, since early 2017, a couple of miles’ north of Oxford Street, Central London.


I’m divorced, from a very nice lady named Laura, and together we have a son, Phil, who’s now twenty-three. That’s us over there, on the right.

He’s a lovely lad, and I’m incredibly lucky that he’s my son. Of course like any father and son, we share some interests, (comics, comedy, a sense of humour – most of the time), but most decidedly do not share others. I remain entirely puzzled as to his fascination with video games, professional wrestling, and various bands. And he remains utterly mystified by me, on a daily basis.

I’m a writer; there’s more about the writing in a moment, but yeah, that’s how I spend most of my days.

But I used to be an accountant, and in that profession, went from junior auditor, to senior auditor, to audit manager – there were a lot of audits – then grabbed the commercial shilling and ended up as a financial director of a tv channel, one of those you scroll past on your tv’s programme guide. While I rarely discuss specifics, my old profession may come up occasionally over the next few weeks, so… fair to put it out there.

I haven’t been an accountant/financial director for the best part of a decade, though.

A writer friend of mine once introduced me as “This is budgie; he used to be a very good accountant; now he’s a very good writer. The world has enough very good accountants and not enough very good writers’. As compliments go, that’s one I’ll take.

budgie’s perch?
Yeah, suppose I’d better deal with this fairly early on. The blog’s called ‘budgie’s perch’ because it seemed an appropriate title for a blog run by a fella whose nickname is ‘budgie’.

Which doesn’t exactly explain anything, does it?

‘Budgie’ is a nickname I’ve had for – blimey – over thirty-five years, now. Over thirty-five years. I’d ask ‘how the hell did that happen?’ But I can already hear Phil responding ‘that’s the way the calendar works, dad’.

But why ‘budgie‘? Well, the full story’s here, but if you want the ‘long-story-short’ version? What now, sigh, would be called the ‘tl;dr’ version?

I acquired the nickname when I was studying at Manchester Poly, and the name stuck. And though I stopped using it when I left Manchester, it recommenced when I got online in 1995…

And now? Well, far more people know me as – and think of me as – budgie than as Lee. And I much prefer that, to be honest; never particularly liked my ‘first name’, and ‘budgie’ feels more like me these days.

The full detailed story involves – in no particular order – copious amounts of alcohol, freshers, a hypnotist’s evening, and an accountancy lecture.

Yeah.

It’s worth reading.

OK, but budgiehypoth?
For twelve years, over ten British comic book conventions, comics legend Dave Gibbons and I ran a panel entitled hypotheticals. It was fairly popular, and when I was looking for a new URL for this blog, seemed a good concatenation to use.

You can see the logo we used for the panel (over there, to the side) bears a strong resemblance to the icon I use for myself online, and for this blog; Dave designed the original, and he did a ‘budgie’ version as a parting gift when we wound up the panel in 2011.

But, hey, for twelve years, I got to say I wrote scripts for Dave Gibbons. You can’t beat that.

But still… budgie’s perch?
Be grateful; the braindump I use to kickstart the writing muscles every day is named Going Cheep.

writings
Everything from being commissioned comedy for BBC Radio 4, the occasional bit for TV, a few comics stories (including writing an X-Men story) a novel entitled You’ll Never Believe A Man Can Fly and publishing two collections of very, very short stories in The Fast Fiction Challenge:

Both books are also available via Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. e-Versions (for Kindle, Sony reader, iBooks, etc.) can be obtained – email me and I’ll supply the ebook(s) in either .epub or .mobi version on request… Volume 1 (180 stories) is £4.00, or equivalent in local currency; volume 2 (200 stories) is £5.00

I also wrote three radio shows with Mitch Benn for Radio 4, and helped out with his past few Edinburgh shows.

What else?

  • erm… My alcohol of choice is single malt whiskey, neat: Jura or The Balvenie, or occasionally Glenfiddich. I can’t really afford that regularly, so a decent blended will do; never really got a taste for beer.
  • Oh, I’m Jewish; it’ll probably come up over the next few weeks at some point. I’ve never quite sorted out my relationship with my religion; I’m still figuring that one out, and have been for, oh, 40 years or so. That caveat aired, on most things, I at least try to be rational, I try to be a sceptic, to withhold belief in something until there’s evidence. I don’t always succeed.
  • That said, when it comes to my being Jewish, and given that this blog will comment upon current UK politics, it’s more than possible that Israel might come up in discussion. Just a heads up: if you’re looking to have some fun telling me that Israel has no right to even exist, you might as well quit reading now, and go off and do something we’ll both enjoy a lot more.
  • I’m in my mid-50s, so under the laws of blogging, my physical health will probably come up at some point. Other than my fucked up foot (about more of which here), it’ll likely just the usual health comments, scares and moaning.
  • Hmmm. Health. OK, I’ve had some mental health… ‘issues’, I believe they’re sometimes called. I have no intention right now to go into detail, publicly. That may change as the next eight weeks goes by. Let’s see how scared I am by the prospect.
  • Oh, and since I mentioned fear… I’ve a few phobias. Or do I? Phobias are irrational fears and I happen to think my fear of being stung by wasps or bees is entirely rational. But spiders bigger than teeny tiny in size? Yeah, ok that might be one of the tad irrational ones.

Finally in this list of stuff you didn’t need to know about me: there are things I genuinely regret not doing. Rarely, however, are they The Big Things that people are supposed to regret: lost loves, lost opportunities in life, that one person you passed in the street, never spoke to, but have thought about every day for years…

Mine are less grand. I wish I’d learned to use a slide rule; somehow never got around to it. I wish I’d paid attention during history classes at school, but then I’d have missed the joy in later life of discovering how much fun history can be. I have a mouth organ, purchased by friends of mine after I said I’d like to learn to play. I never have learned to play it, and I really should do something about that.

I think that’s about it for now. Anything else, ask away…

Oh, and see you tomorrow when there’ll be something much less about me and more about… something else.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-fifth birthday on 17th August 2019. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

I know most people reading this already know who I am, and all, so you can skip the rest of this post if you’d like. But what with the re-emergence of this blog for the seventy-five day countdown to 1st January 2017, I seem to have attracted a few recent new visitors to this blog and to Twitter.

Been a while since I’ve done this, so why not update it?

Why not indeed…

Something specifically for Twitter followers… It’s been a while since I’ve done this, so it’s probably worth doing if only for future reference.

So, a quick non-Frequently Asked Questions.


So you’ve decided to follow me on Twitter or read the blog. Thank you! I’ll try to make the experience an enjoyable one.

So, don’t take this the wrong way, but who are you? I just added you because [other Twitter user] suggested it
I’m Lee “Budgie” Barnett; I’m British; I live in Ham, near Richmond. I used to be involved in the most peripheral of ways in comics, and ran a successful panel at UK comics conventions with Dave Gibbons entitled hypotheticals. Ask your parents about it; they may distantly remember it.

I write. I’ve written for radio, tv, the occasional comic book, an online novella, and several hundred 200 word slices of fiction as part of The Fast Fiction Challenge, including 150 stories written in 150 days during one stint. For a few years, I did The Twelve Days of Fast Fiction, you can read them in the link you just skipped past. Similarly, in 2013, I wrote twenty-four of them in twenty-four hours for Comic Relief. You can read all about them here.

Many of these stories have been collected, and several collections have been published so far; you’ll see me promote t hem every so often when I want some cash to expose new relders to them. Volume 1 of The Fast Fiction Challenge, containing 180 tales, was published in 2009. Volume 2 of The Fast Fiction Challenge, containing another 200 stories, was published in late 2010.

There’s also the ebook of You’ll Never Believe A Man Can Fly, available at all good email addresses, i.e. mine

“Budgie”? Why “Budgie”?
It’s a story you used to have to get me very drunk to tell… but after too many tellings, I stuck up the story here.

You use your name as your icon. That’s a bit weird.
I know. It is, isn’t it? David Gibbons designed the icon when we wrapped up hypotheticals. I started using it then and never really had a reason to change.

You’re hiding what you look like! Are you one of these anonymous trolls I’ve heard about?
Naah, not really. But it’s a perfectly understandable assumption. Here, this is what I look like: A Life In Pictures – December 2015 update. I update it at the close of the year.  

Anything else?
Yes, I have a son; he’s 21. (I know, I don’t look old enough, you’re too kind.) His name’s Phil, but for some reason his mother insists on calling him ‘Philip’. He gets mentioned every so often, usually complete with some indication of the pride and love I feel for him. He’s studying at Aberystwyth University right now, and probably in lectures. Or shooting music and gig videos with his fiancée, Rheannon. 

His mum’s name’s Laura; she’s one of my favourite people on the planet. We got divorced last year though we’d been apart since 2005.

What kinds of things do you blog about?
A mixture of fiction, my thoughts on various matters important and unimportant, occasional links to other people’s blogs or news reports, photos, videos… oh the usual. There are some standards, however; a Saturday Smile post, occasionally some politics, very occasionally a rant about something that’s pissed me off. And I’ll post something on 9th January every year in memorial for my late brother who died at 38.

You lost your brother? Shit, man, I’m so sorry.
That’s ok; you didn’t know. Here’s what I wrote about him this year.

You said you write about silly things as well though, yes?
Oh yeah. Here’s something about The History of the World. You’ll like it.

What kinds of things do you tweet about?
A mixture of utter nonsense, references to interesting posts – either on Twitter or their blogs – that other people have made, replies to questions, and occasional bursts of frustration.

You’re not going to overload me with your tweets, are you?
Oh, I hope not. Many of my tweets are replies to other people, so if you don’t follow them as well, you’re fine.

That’s not all of them, though, right?
Well, no.

So you’re going to follow me back, right?
Not always, no. I tend to follow people that I know for the most part. But engage me in conversation, comment on the blog, and it’s quite probable that I’ll add you. I’ll usually take a look at your recent tweets though, and may not… If so, sorry in advance, no offence intended.

You’re not going to get pissed off if I unfollow you, are you?
I’ll be furious and… no, of course not. Plenty of reasons why people unfollow me: I tweet on stuff they’re not interested in, or they followed me out of curiosity and that curiosity has been well and truly assuaged. Mostly, though, people unfollow me because they’re bored by my feed. That’s ok. Welcome to Twitter. 

I’m new to this Twitter thing. What do you use to tweet from? Come to that, how do you blog?
 Come to that, Almost without exception, I’m tweeting from either my iPhone or my iPad. If so, it’s usually from the Tweetbot app. I prefer it for all sorts of reasons to Twitter’s own app, but on the rare occasions I tweet a poll, it’ll be from the Twitter app. For blogging, I use the WordPress app.

Are you anywhere else online?
Other than here? Yes, I do a daily braindump – a couple of hundred words or so on whatever strikes me – on a tumblr entitled going cheep. NoI’m not on Facebook.

So what’s your Twitter account again?
I’m on @budgie

I’ve been thinking.

I know, I know – I’ve been warned against it in the past but what can you do?

I’m a time travel junkie. Not that I actually travel in time, you understand, other than one second at a time, the way that you do as well. But I’m a time travel science-fiction junkie. Any science fiction story that involves changes to history and the effects thereto will have me cutting the story a break even before I’ve picked it up to read. The story itself may be crap – it often is – but I’ll try it out. I’m not quite the Doctor Who addict that Mitch Benn is but I’m close. (One of my favourite Mitch observations is that he was a Who fan back in the 1980s when it was crap so you can imagine how made up he is now that it’s actually good!) Yeah, I kind of dropped out during Colin Baker’s run, and didn’t really come back until Chris Eccleston. I missed McCory’s run entirely. And I treated the Paul McCann telemovie as a curiosity, no more. Still do. (I felt the six minute Night Of The Doctor was more Who than the entire movie, but hey ho.)

So, yeah, I love time travel science fiction. Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol short stories? Yeah, I’m there. Give me a collection of time travel short stories and ignore me for a while; I’ll be busy absorbing them.

And, yeah, every so often, like any fan of time travel fiction, I wonder: where would I go? I’ve no one answer; to be honest, I’m in all likelihood to come up with a different answer every time I’m asked. An historical event? I’m not so sure. Certainly not one that has happened since the advent of television. One of the weirder things I’ve come to realise is that those watching often have a better view than those there. Think of any televised gig; yeah, there’s a lot to be said for being there, but as for a view, you’d get a better one sitting at home. Mission Control, July 21st 1969? What the fuck would I do other than get in the way? Anthing prior to about 50 years ago, I’d be completely lost anyway; slang, clothing, haircuts for heaven’s sake, reliance on tech? All completely foreign.

Murder Hitler? How do I know what and who would replace Hitler wouldn’t be worse? I’ve read enough alternative history to know the only thing you know is you can’t know for certain.

But then another question occurs: what if I could go back and change some major event in my life that I regretted? Would I do it?

The answer, to my partial surprise, is always a firm “no”.

The obvious example, to my mind, isn’t spending more time with my late brother before his death. I’m pretty sure that no matter how much additional time I’d have spent with him, I’d still end up regretting that I didn’t spend more.

No, the one pivotal event in my life that I could have done something about, undoubtedly, was my degree.

Because I failed it. No, I didn’t merely fail it. I failed it as bad as if I’d have gone out of my way deliberately to screw it up. My first year at polytechnic, I did well; the second year wasn’t too bad either, though with exam results not quite as good as the first year.

Then, as my father later put it, “I forgot I was there to do a degree”. I had a great time in my final year, a really good time, but ended up throwing the degree away. (I was offered resits but due to a bad case of glandular fever, I was unable to take them up on the offer).

That was 30 years ago, and there’s no doubt that had I passed the degree, my professional life at least would have been very, very different. For a start, I would have been on the road to qualification a lot earlier; even assuming retakes, the odds are that I would have qualified a good five years earlier than I did, with the consequent affects upon my career, my remuneration, my prospects. (For years, the first major question I’d get asked in an interview would be ‘how come you failed your degree?’)

But…

But…

The odds are also that, for various reasons in part to do with the fact that I wasn’t qualified at the time, I would never have met Laura, the lady who became my wife in 1994, was my wife for a very long time afterwards, and who tolerated my enjoyment of online life, comics, hypotheticals, and writing. We separated in 2005 and finally divorced this year.

Not knowing Laura? That alone would put a negative answer in the frame. But no Laura equals no Philip as well. And that’s just unacceptable.

If someone offered me the chance to go back and guarantee that I’d pass my degree? I’d say “thanks, but no thanks”.

But that bit about “spending more time with Mike?” That’d be tempting, you know.

Up until the early 20th Century, you could actually sue someone for breach of promise, which was a common law tort. Now to be fair, it was pretty much limited to the breaking of an engagement by a man, an engagement and promise to marry then being a legally binding and enforceable, though in practice rarely actually enforced, contract. (In Jewish Law, the marriage still is a contract, by the way…)

I think they should bring back “breach of promise” as a legally enforceable concept; not in respect of promises to marry, and not for everything, but for one specific thing: any recommendation online or by email, or any plea by those methods, that has anything like:

“watch this show/play this clip… you’ll love it, I promise!”

I wouldn’t like to think how many times I’ve read such an exhortation and guarantee, and you know what? I don’t love it most of the time. Sometimes I smile, sometimes I groan, but most often, my reaction is “well, that’s two/five/ten minutes of my life that I’ll never get back.”

So, a new proposal, I think anyone who recommends something with that level of certitude ought to set aside a small sum, say a couple of hundred punds (or equivalent in local currency) that those who rely upon such a promise may claim against if indeed they don’t “love it”.

As a side effect, I suspect that it would rather speedily reduce such recommendations to things that are genuinely good, rather than 95% of the things I currently get recommended which I don’t find funny, or even amusing.

(Of course, one problem with the above is that to sue, you have to prove financial loss. How to prove that, or even measure it. I suppose you could use your salary as a guide, but then – if you’ve done it during the working day, your employers would want the cash… hmm, in the words of Fagin via Lionel Bart, “I think I’d better think it out again…”)

We could then go further; “10 things you didn’t know about [insert subject matter]!” Well, what if I do know some, indeed, most of the items in that list? “You’ll be surprised about…[insert subject matter]!” Well, what if I’m not only unsurprised (look up the definition of surprise, folks) but entirely unastonished?

Clickbait is an abuse of the entirely natural human phenomenon called curiosity and the entirely modern phenomenon of “what am I missing? What does everyone else know that I don’t?”

Modern etiquette has evolved right along the ubiquity of online life, and has only accelerated with the growth of social media.  I should be able to claim. I’d phone to complain but then what happens if I lose the signal?

Which leads me onto a second complaint about modern etiquette which perplexes me. Whose responsibility is it to call back when a phone conversation is interrupted by a lost signal? 

For once, the other day, I was using my mobile phone as a phone (it’s notable that I rarely do this; it’s far more often used as a mobile computer or camera than a telephone). I was chatting away when the signal was lost. Don’t know if it was ‘my’ signal or theirs that was lost; it doesn’t really matter, and unless it was due to one of us going into a tunnel or a lift, unlikely that we’d ever know. But anyway, I called her back and got her voicemail. And it occurred to me, as it usually does in such circumstances: what if it’s going to voicemail because she’s calling me back?

So, I think there should be a new rule: if you lose the signal while talking to someon, the person who originally made the call… calls again. Simple solution. Also takes account of what happens when you call someone who’s got not credit left on their phone – if you lose the signal, you know that you’ve got to call them again, and if they’ve got no credit, then they know you’ll be calling them back.

Done.

Next problem?

Seventeen years. Over decade and a half. Or to be more precise, seventeen years and three and and a half or so hours since my brother died.

And yes, I rewrite this every year. I stick up something about Mike annually on this day with not a smidgen of guilt nor concern; Michael deserves a public remembrance from me every year.

9th January 1998. I’d gotten into work early and, having dropped my bag at the office, was having a coffee across the road at my then favoured café. Thirty minutes or so after sitting down, around five-past eight, someone else who’d been in early came to get me; a call from Laura. I know, this was long enough ago that I didn’t possess a mobile phone. I went back to the office with a growing sense of dread; a call from my wife, mentioning my brother didn’t sound like good news. It wasn’t; a call to the hospital led to a growing suspicion from the immediately understandable reticence of the doctor to tell me anything over the phone… and then the knowledge – the horrible, horrible knowledge – that my brother had died.

Not a good morning.

Mike was 38 years old, over a decade younger than I am now. And that’s a thing you never get used to – that you’re now older than someone who was older than you. It’s a genuinely strange feeling, realising that; knowing that you’re seeing birthdays that he never reached, experiencing birthdays, anniversaries, life, that he never got to have.

And that’s leaving to one side the fact that he lost those years – he lost seeing his children grow up, he lost the chance to see Phil grow up, and that Phil never got the chance to know Mike. Not properly, not as a growing child should get to know someone.

I’ve got friends who I’ve met over the past few years who I absolutely know Michael would have liked to have met, and they’d have liked to have known him. I can easily see Mitch and Clara sharing a laugh with Mike; very easily indeed as a matter of fact, probably at my expense, the way you allow friends and close ones to do that. I can also smile, reluctantly at times, at the life experiences and choices I’ve made that would have at various times, cheered him, made him laugh, made him angry, and left him speechless in exasperation. He was my brother and I loved him – what else would you expect?

Where the hell have those seventeen years gone? Seventeen years… Of course, I know the answer to that: I look at my son, and know the final family photo taken of Mike was with Philip, when the latter was a little over two years old. And Phil’s now nineteen, an adult, and he prefers to spend his time with friends, and college mates, and with his fiancée, far than with his old man. And I can’t – and won’t – blame him for that.

Still and all, where have the years gone?

Seventeen Years.

I’ve said before – and I maintain – that it’s utter nonsense to say that ‘time heals every wound’. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close. What it does do, I’ve discovered – and I rediscover with every passing year – is lessen the temptation to pick at the scab.

So with every year that passes, it hurts a little less… most of the time.

Every so often, of course, it bites; it hurts terribly, and I miss him so fucking much; his wry humour, the love of comedy we shared, the cool way he’d examine a problem from every side, then laugh and say “fuck it, go for it…”

Michael Russell Barnett wasn’t perfect, far from it. He loved puns, just didn’t ‘get’ comics at all, had problems carrying a tune in a bucket, and his enthusiasm for playing the guitar wasn’t in any way matched by ability.

Still, as a brother, Mike was as good as they get and if I’d have gone to Brothers ‘R’ Us, I couldn’t have picked better. He taught me so much, and I hope he knew how much I respected him as a person, not just as a brother. I was best man at his wedding to Lynne, and that he trusted me (at the age of 21) with that responsibility honoured me then, and it still does. I’ve still many wonderful memories of Michael, but those few hours on the morning of his wedding when it was just me and him… ah, they’re memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.

He died seventeen years ago today and I miss him dreadfully, especially today. I miss him always, but today, it’s a bugger.

Rest easy, brother.


A few years ago, after I posted something similar to the above, I got several emails and messages from people who either didn’t know I’d had a brother, or didn’t know what had happened. Both asked what had happened. Here’s what I put up in response..

Soon after Mike’s death, I was asked to write something about him; I’ve linked to it before, but figured it was about time I put it on this blog as well. So, here it is:

Michael Russell Barnett
20th November 1959 to 9th January 1998

 

“On Thursday, Mum took me shopping. It sounds
harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?”

– o –

When I was at Manchester Polytechnic, ostensibly studying for a degree, one of the highlights of my time there was getting a letter from Michael. Full of gentle humour, the letters showed a literary side to Michael that can still reduce me to laughter 15 years later. The above line was written as he was recovering from his first heart operation.

Reading through the letters recently, what surprised me wasn’t so much the realisation that Michael was only 23 or 24 when the letters were written, but how much of my own writings have been influenced by Michael’s style.

Michael taught me so much, from how to play backgammon to the skills necessary to cheat at cards better than our younger brother; from how to scan a line when writing a lyric or poem to the proper glass out of which to drink scotch – “one with a hole at one end and no hole at the other.”

I’ve often said that Mike was my hero. And he was. The courage he showed throughout his illnesses and operations, the way he dealt with people and the way he supported me in all I did was everything I could have wished from a brother. We shared a particularly dry sense of humour and it was rare that a few days went by without one of us calling the other to share a joke or to tell the other a particularly funny story or a funny event that had happened to us.

Yet of all the memories that spring to mind about Michael in the 33 years I was privileged to have him as my ‘big bruvver’, four stand out as clear as day…

– o –

“Dear Lee, How are you? I hope you’re getting down
to it. And getting some studying in as well.”

– o –

August 1983
I’d driven up to Harefield to visit Michael before his first op. He was in the ward and when he saw me, he grabbed his dressing gown and we headed for the café. As we were leaving the ward, a nurse rushed past us and went to the bed next to Michael’s. We didn’t think anything of it until another nurse, then a doctor, then another nurse, pushing a trolley pushed past us. Naturally concerned, we headed back into the ward to see them crowding around the bed next to Mike’s. The curtains were quickly drawn and Michael suggested we leave. At that moment, we realised we’d left Michael’s cassette recorder playing.

In the sort of accident of timing that only happens in real life, Michael reached out to turn the cassette recorder off just as the next track started. The song was by a band called Dollar.

The title of the song? “Give Me Back My Heart”

We barely made it out of the ward before doubling up…

– o –

“I’m looking forward to our engagement party. My only problem
is how to ask Jeff for a day off on a Saturday. I suppose on
my knees with my hands clasped together as if in prayer…”

– o –

Wednesday 9th October 1985
Lynne and Michael’s Wedding Day. As their Best Man, I’m theoretically responsible for getting Michael to the shul shaved, showered and sober. Failing that, it’s my job to just get him there. Anyway, Mike has a few things to sort out at their new home, so I tag along and we spend a few hours together. Precious hours that I wouldn’t swap for anything. We tell jokes and pass the time, two brothers out together letting the rest of the world go by.

We get to the shul and get changed into the penguin suits. Flip forward a couple of hours and Lynne and Michael are now married. Mazeltovs still ringing in everyone’s ears, the line-up has ended and we poor fools still in morning suits go to the changing room to, well, to get changed – into evening suit. For whatever reason, Mike and I take the longest to get changed and we’re left alone for five minutes together after everyone else has left.

As a throwaway line, just to ease our nervousness for the forthcoming speeches, I make a comment that I’m sure glad I’ve got everything with me: “Suit, shirt, shoes, speech…” Mike grins and repeats the mantra. “Suit, shirt, shoes…” There’s a horrible pause followed by a word beginning with ‘s’. But it’s not “speech”, it’s a shorter word.

Mike looks at me in horror, and I’m beginning to realise what’s going through his mind. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your speech,” I tell him.

“I know exactly where it is,” he says, making me very relieved for a moment, before continuing, “it’s in my wardrobe at home.”

After another split-second when we struggled not to crease up at the ridiculousness of the situation, Mike took control in that calm way that he had. He borrowed a pen off of me – the pen that he and Lynne had given me as a thank you for being Best Man – instructed me to get a menu and then stand outside the door and leave him for twenty minutes…

An hour or so later, after I had given my speech, Michael stood up to make his. He started off with a line that fans of Rowan Atkinson would recognise in a moment : “When I left home this morning, I said to myself ‘you know, the very last thing you must do is leave my speech at home’. So sure enough, when I left home this morning, the very last thing I did was… to leave my speech at home.”

As I say, it was a familiar opening to fans of Rowan Atkinson. To everyone else, it was merely a clever start to a speech. To everyone else that is, except our mother. Mum, you see, knew exactly how the speech should have started and there was a classic moment – thankfully caught by the photographer – when she realised that he wasn’t joking – he really had forgotten the speech…

– o –

“Last week I graduated to hair-CUTTING. Next week, if
I’m lucky it’ll be cutting the hair on someone’s head…”

– o –

July 1997
After Mike’s second heart operation, Laura and I took our then 20 month old son to see him. Michael had often told me that being a parent was a mixture of joy and heartache but that he was absolutely revelling in being an uncle. When we got there, he insisted on going outside with us, for Philip’s sake, he said, but I suspect that he wanted to go outside as well, ‘breaking parole’ if you will. He took Philip by the hand and went for a small walk with him.

Looking back, watching Mike and Philip walking together, and a little later, Michael holding Philip on his lap, I remain convinced that it was at that moment that Philip started his adoration of Michael, a feeling that lasted after Michael’s death.

– o –

“Did you go to shul in Manchester. Hmm – is a shul in
Manchester called Manchester United?”

– o –

December 1997
The last big family occasion was on Boxing Day 1997. It had long been a family tradition that the family got together at Lynne and Michael’s on Boxing Day and this year was no different. The last photo I have of my brother is of Michael lifting Philip to the sky, the pair of them laughing out loud.

He looked so well, having regained all the weight that he’d lost through his illness, still with a very slight tan from the holiday he, Lynne and the boys had taken in late 1997.

That’s how I’ll remember my brother, full of life, laughing and surrounded by his family.

Well, it’s mid-December, so time for the annual update.

And best to get it out of the way before The Twelve Days of Fast Fiction kicks off, I think.

Now… about the pics you’re going to see below: I’ve already been about as embarrassed at the shots as I’m ever likely to be, but yes, if you feel the need to go “awwww” at the cute pics of me as a youngster, or mock the pictures of me during the decade(s) that fashion forgot, feel free to do so.

Look, the whole thing started in 2004 when there was a meme going around about putting up photos of yourself when you were younger. I did it… and then continued to update it every year or so for more recent pics…

So, here they are, bringing the photos up to date, as of December 2014. Precious few additions this year, but that’s – I suspect – mainly because I took loads of photos of other people and things and places, and fewer people took photos of me. Also, during 2013, I did Twenty-Four Hours of Fast Fiction for comic relief and there were more than a few photos coming out of that. But since this has now become a tradition as we approach the end of the year, and I’ve a few more people following me on Twitter and this blog, why not?

Why not indeed…

So, in rough order of age…


Probably the earliest photo I’ve got of me…


3 years old


Aged 4


I’m five, I think, here.


It was 1972, ok? And I was at my brother’s bar mitzvah. I was eight.


My son takes great delight in this shot – I think I was 10 at the time.


Me at age 11


Just after my 15th birthday


August 1980, I’m 16 – yes, that is a curly perm. Shut up.


November 1982 – Freshers’ Fair at Manchester Poly


1983 – me at the PULP office, 2nd year at Manchester Poly.


Age 21, at a work leaving do, having left Manchester Poly a month or so earlier..


1985, at my brother’s wedding… at which I was best man. Yeah, 21 again.


At my dad’s 60th birthday in 1989, aged 25. Blimey, was that really almost twenty-five years ago?


1994 – Laura’s and my wedding day – aged 30


1996


September 1997, at UKCAC


Me in New York, January 1998, just after we lost Mike


Part of a formal family shot, mid-1999


June 1999 – my spiritual home


August 2000; taken by Phil – he was five years old at the time


October 2001; New York, six weeks after 9/11; visiting Ian


May 2002, Hypotheticals – not a happy Budgie


mid-2002, taken for a WEF World Wide Wednesday


Bristol, 2003. You can see the greying hair now…


July 2004 – working at the office


December 2004 – at my nephew’s bar mitzvah. See? I scrub up nicely occasionally.


August 2005 – at Brighton. First picture for ages that I’m genuinely happy with.


September 2005, last picture of the Nissan before I crashed it…


October 2005. Again, a photo taken by Phil…


April 2006, at the flat.


May 2007, Bristol, Saturday night, at around 2 in the morning.


December 2007 – at the office party, with my ‘secret santa’ gift. No, the book.


May 2008 – Phil and me at Comic Expo


May 2008 – Me interviewing Dave Gibbons at Comic Expo


October 2008 – Me and Phil, studio shot for the bar mitzvah


May 2009 – Me and Matt Jones, (pic by Jamais Cascio)


July 2009 – At the BERG 40th Anniversary Apollo 11 drinkup (pic by Matt Jones)


October 2009 – In New York, with my cousin Nikki.


November 2009 – Me and Phil at Ian’s son’s bar mitzvah.


April 2010, in Luton


July 2010, on Mastermind


August 2010, at Laura’s


October 2010, from Phil Tanner’s Photos – Mitch Benn ‘Proud of the BBC’ video shoot) The actual video’s here.


October 2010, again: at MCM


December 2010, after the office party


January 2011, at Tony and Tracy Lee’s wedding.


October 2011.


Yeah, I grew a beard in October, then shaved it off…


Laura took this one in April 2012 – not a bad shot of me, all things considered.

And then I had my hair cut…


No idea why I took this one, but it has me without a beard, anyway… August 2012

Lesson 1 about falling asleep in a friend’s house where children live. Don’t
(November 2012)


Me, at The Leveson Inquiry. The reading of the summary, not giving evidence…



Met up with an old friend, and wandered around Camden with him. A nice afternoon…


Yeah, I broke my foot…

Lost my father in October 2012 – here’s the progress of the shiva beard before trimming it down

And so to 2013…

Well, in March, I did a charity event where I wrote twenty-four stories in twenty-four hours for Comic Relief.


That’s Mitch Benn in the background, writing his comedy album, which he did also within twenty-four hours.

Phil turned up to support us…

And I got progressively more tired, and more silly, as the hours passed…

A small accident with the beard trimmer led me to shave off the beard I’d had for roughly a year…

Most people were glad I grew it back almost immediately

Later in the year, finally managed to get a photo with two of my closest friends. There’s been any number of pictures of two of the three of us, but rarely any shots of all three… until now.

Not the best pic, I have to admit, but rather pleased we managed it at all!

However, another photo was taken that night which continues to amuse me no end.

You don’t think I’m in it? Really? Look to the right. Yes, just there… that blurred shock of grey/white hair? Yeah, afraid so…

Towards the end of the year, there was something new… a mini-me. Or to be precise, I was scanned for a 3D printing of myself. Very strange to see myself post-scanning on a screen…

But that was nothing to seeing the actual result…

Here’s another shot of the 3D model, this one with Mitch (who was similarly scanned.)

In July, managed to catch up with an old friend, at his reading of The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains at the Barbican. I like this photo, entitled Two beards (old friends attached), a lot.

Here’s the difference a haircut, a beard trim and sticking my contact lenses in makes… from September 2014.

Around the same time, I wrote a post on the rising tide of overt anti-semitism in the UK, and that I’d personally faced. I used the following shot to illustrate it. I was very happy with how it turned out.

Now, this blog post, indeed this blog, is pretty much all ages, and I’ve hesitated before sticking this shot up. Not sure I’ll keep it here, but since this is supposed to be a record of me through the years… I shattered the end of my collarbone in a fall in September. A week or so later, the bruising was well and truly showing, so here it is.

Aaaand, I think that’s about it for this update.

Haven’t done one of these personal ones in a long time, but for various reasons, I’ve been thinking about me today.

I think it might have been sparked by a number of tweetes, blogs and other writings on the propensity of people while at Edinburgh to retweet praise about themselves. Now, I’m fairly ok with that when people retweet praise about their work.

Robin Ince, in a piece yesterday, wrote:

I am not as zealous as Michael Legge in my loathing of compliments retweeted, though I worry for our sanity when authors and performers retweet someone saying that they seemed quite nice. I can understand the retweeting of a review when hawking wares, but RTing any semblance of a complimentary comment troubles me.

And that’s exactly what I’ve said before; that I have no problem when people compliment me on something I’ve written, something I’ve done, but have huge problems in accepting compliments for who I am.

(He finished off that paragraph, by the way, with

I am easily troubled, a perplexed scowl is my face at rest

But that’s just Robin being… just wonderful as always.)

And then Shappi Khorsandi, one of my favourite comedians – note that, ignorant people who say women comedians aren’t funny: not one of my “favourite female comedians”, one of my “favourite comedians” – tweeted the following:

imageI’m a huge believer in everyone being the sum of their own experiences; change the experiences, change the person. Had I never met Laura, I have no idea what my life would now be like, but it’d be very, very different. (To be honest, I’m struggling to imagine any scenario where it could have been possibly ‘better’ had Laura not been in my life.) But had I not gone to Manchester polytechnic, but instead gone to Birmingham, odds are I’d never have gotten the nickname ‘budgie’. And my life would have been very, very different.

So if ‘people’ are the sum of their own experiences, are ‘other people’ the sum of what they’ve done, and of which the observer is aware?

Hmm.

Anyway, given the above, it’s common for me to say what I’ve done, but less so – particularly in this iteration of the blog – for me to say who I am. Time to remedy that, if only a bit.

BACKGROUND
Full name: Lee Barnett. No, despite rumours to the contrary, my parents didn’t name me ‘budgie’. They may have been strange, but they weren’t that strange.
Nickname: budgie, and I’ve related the tale of how I got the name too many times. But if anyone reading is unaware of it, the story’s here.
Birthplace: Luton, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom
Heritage: There’s Polish and Russian a couple of generations back; three of my four grandparents were immigrants to the United Kingdom as children.
Places you’ve lived: Luton, Manchester, London and surrounding areas
First language spoken: Gibberish.
Last school attended: I guess Manchester Polytechnic.
First real job: define ‘real’. You mean full time, as opposed to summer vacation work? Working in a firm of accountants in London.
First relationship: daft question. what kind or relationship?
Parents’ current jobs: Mum works at an electrical retailers as a saleswoman; dad’s retired.

PERSONALITY
Right or left-brained?: Tch, if only you’d asked top-brained or bottom-brained.
How talkative/social?: Depends on the company and on how comfortable I am. If it’s people I know, I’m happy to chat away like a loon (and often do). If I don’t know the people or am uncomfortable, you won’t hear much out of me.
Introvert or extrovert? I always say I’m “introvert”… and then have to wait for the laughter to subside. Let’s just say that I’m not extrovert and leave it there.
Most common mood: Pissing others off.
What happens when you’re angry?: I get angry. What else?
Habits: Whinging.
Quirks: …genuinely not a clue what to write in response to this.

DESCRIBE
Your handwriting: When I’m writing something for others to read, neat and very legible. When it’s notes for myself, it looks like a spider on a bad dose of acid.
Your voice: Once described by an American friend as sounding like “Michael Caine on an off-day”.
Your speech/dialect: I don’t have a dialect. It’s everyone else that does. I do and say nothing that could identify where I come from, neither do I use any words specific to London. No, I don’t.
Your sense of humour: …yes, I have one.
Your room: Smaller than its been for the past eleven years.
Your friends: I have friends.
Yourself in two words: No. No.

LIKES
Name 3 songs you really like:
* Time In A Bottle – Jim Croce
* Piano Man – Billy Joel
* Monster Mash -Bobby Picket
Name 3 books you like: The Man, Imzadi, All The President’s Men
Name 3 movies you like: Cast A Giant Shadow, A Few Good Men, In The Line of Fire
Where are you most-often found?: At work or at S/Mimms.
Your perfect environment: Bright hot sunny day, with a fast cool breeze
Your perfect significant-other: Yeah, I’ll take the fifth on this one…
Your dream career: dreaming
Favourite way of travelling: Car, as long as I’m driving.
Favourite source for conversing [best way of talking to people]: depends on the person, but face to face speech takes some beating
If you could be physically attractive, what would you change?: the possibility of an entire body transplant.

DISLIKES
Most annoying sound: “I know I promised you that you’d have this by Monday, but…”
Least-favourite place: I don’t have least favourite places, I have least favourite things that happen at places, which tarnish my views of those places.
Worst habits in a significant-other: Again, for what I hope are obvious reasons, I’ll take the fifth.
Makes you feel uncomfortable: someone who obviously wants to tell me something, but isn’t sure how to.
Will make you go into a raging fit: being thought stupid.
Will make you hate yourself: my own cowardice.

THOUGHTS
On life: I’m waiting for the book to come out.
On humanity: It would be a good idea for most people to get some.
On sex: what is this “sex” of which you speak?
On gender roles and sexual orientations: I’m reminded of the comedian who suggested that it would be a great idea if homosexuality could be ‘cured’, because that would imply that anyone could ‘catch‘ it at any time as well… including bigots and prejudiced bastards who one day would be walking along the street, see a hunky male walk past, look at his backside and go “mmmmm… nice…”
On education: a great idea in principal.
On war: Should be respelled “whoooooar!” As in, “we’re declaring whoooooar”! No one would ever take the word seriously again.
On death: When your number’s up, your number’s up.

PHYSICAL APPEARANCE: (uh-oh)
Describe your body type: tall, slim to medium build.
Your hair: medium-brow, greying at the sides all over the bloody place, kept relatively short, it curls slightly when it’s longer.
Eyes: brown, decidedly non-greying.
Nails: Twenty of them.
Most often wearing: clothes.

RANDOM:
Current location: Work
Currently listening to: My tapping at the keyboard and the air-con which is making strange noises.
Last phone call: To one of my staff, asking them to bring some papers in to me for signing.
Any last words?:: “What bus…?”

Since I’ve just got back to Edinburgh after a lovely few days in (or is it ‘on’?) Skye, I’ve been thinking of satire. It’s difficult not to think of it in general, to be honest, having several stand up comedians as friends; not all of them would describe themselves as satirists by any means, but enough do.

Long time readers of this blog, and its predecessor, will know that in the dim and distant past, I used to write for – at that time – BBC Radio 4’s main weekly satirical show, WEEKENDING. Did I consider myself a satirist at the time? I’m not entirely sure I did; I just thought of it as a writing job, where part of the commission was to make a satirical point, and another perhaps larger part of the job was to make people laugh. Because that’s the difference between satire and comedy.

My favourite observation on the subject of satire remains that of the late Peter Cook, who said that:

“the purpose of satire isn’t to make the audience laugh; it’s to make them uncomfortable.”

which is very similar to what’s been said by others, about both satire and journalism: that its purpose is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

(On a tangent, it’s always struck me as similar to what Warren Ellis said about horror: not a direct quote, but something along the lines of great horror doesn’t scare you, but it makes you feel as uncomfortable as hell… Anyway, tangent over. Back to satire.)

During the London run of Beyond The Fringe, it was reported at the time that portions of the audiences walked out at two points; the first won’t surprise you, the second may well do.

One sketch dealt with the futility of war and the necessity, it was felt at one point, for a meaningless sacrifice. Given the relative nearness of the Second World War, it’s perhaps no surprise that some felt angry and upset. However, another sketch poked fun at then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. In a memorable line, Cook-as-Macmillan, said “I have been around the world on your behalf… and at your expense.” And some of the audience got up in disgust at the very idea that it was acceptable to have a pop at the Prime Minister.

However, despite the success of satire, Cook was sanguine about its long term consequences, and satire’s ability to influence politics. When he opened The Establishment in London, he was asked whether he thought it would have an effect on the politics of the day. His reply?

Oh, I think it will have as great an effect as the Kit Kat Club did in preventing the rise to power of The Nazi party.

I think that everyone agrees that good satire, like good comedy, punches up. Punching down, taking a pop at those who are already disadvantaged in and by society, and at those who are already the targets of the ignorant, the stupid and the malicious, is seen – quite correctly – as lazy.

When I write “lazy”, I’m not necessarily talking about “playing to the crowd” nor being a “crowd pleaser”. It always puzzles me when comedians are thought of as less valid because their style is popular and when “crowd pleaser” becomes a perjorative criticism. As I wrote above, I’m fortunate enough to know a number of professional stand up comedians. Pleasing a crowd is hard work and if anyone thinks otherwise, they’re welcome to prove to me how easy it is.

But if you agree that satire should always punch up, then how do you decide what constitutes “up”? And who should be entrusted with that decision? There’s the one-size-fits-all description I used a moment ago:

those who are already disadvantaged in and by society, and at those who are already the targets of the ignorant, the stupid and the malicious

However, what about someone in a position of privilege who is unable to punch back? One can argue, for example, that politicians are always fair game; indeed, if you take a look at James Gillray’s cartoons and caricatures from the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, they’re at least as vicious and just plain nasty as anything Spitting Image ever produced. And his weren’t the only ones…

Take a look at this cartoon. The subject? Our first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole.

And this, from the time of William Pitt the Younger, about the Bank of England policy to do with the bank only circulating paper notes from then on, instead of honouring amounts in gold coinage. Rumors circulated that the Bank’s coin was merely being held in reserve to send to the Continent in support of and to finance the war.

The bank, portrayed as an elderly virgin, says:

‘Murder! Murder! Rape! Murder! O you villain! What, have I kept my honour so long to have it broke up by you at last? O murder! Rape! Ravishment! Ruin! Ruin! Ruin!!!’

Where did you think the nickname of the Bank of England of The ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’ came from?

So, politicians are fair game, and banks and bankers always have been. Each of those, and individual examples of those, can hit back, of course. It wasn’t unusual, in the times of Spitting Image, for the politicians to comment that the puppets of course, of course, were wonderful, but the scripts were peurile and just flatly inaccurate. Such responses were always common when Yes, Minister and its sequel were broadcast. Politicians always said that the series got the civil service spot on but were unfair to politicians. And those civil servants who would comment, usually off the record, of course said the reverse, that Yes, Minister got the politicians exactly right, but were woefully inaccurate about the civil service. The same comments once again came to the fore when The Thick Of It was on television.

So, what about the Royal Family? They are surely fair game; exemplars of privilege, the epitome of inherited privilege in fact. And from the eighteenth century onwards (maybe before) satirists have been taking a pop at them. But is it punching up to do so… when they can’t hit back? Constitutionally, I suppose, there’s nothing actually stopping them doing so, but they don’t. They can’t. They just… can’t. And on the rare occasions when it’s let slip that a cartoon or a piece has been received with great hurt, there’s something faintly icky about both the piece and the reaction.

Once again, who decides what punching up actually constitutes? Would satire written by someone with fewer advantages in life be inherently more satirical than something written by someone from a solidly-middle class background? Are there targets that would be considered ‘punching up’ by some but not ‘punching up’ if someone from another background wrote exactly the same piece?

Because that would imply, horribly, that there’s a class structure to satire beyond the targets themselves; that the quality of satire depends upon the origins and lack of privilege of the satirist. And that’s something I suspect Peter Cook would have had problems with… and not for the first time, I’d be in complete agreement with him.

I’m driving up to Skye shortly, to stay at an old friend’s house. And apart from walking around doing some aimless wandering and driving to the more distant parts of the Isles to do some aimless wondering, I’m going to be chained to my bluetooth keyboard. I’ve got a shedload of writing that I need to do, and there’s nowhere better to write than where I’m going to be, for lots of reasons.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s rare that I write about politics, and even then it tends to be more about the political process than my own politics and beliefs. But eight months out from the next election, I find I’m getting angrier and angrier about one thing in particular. Not the bedroom tax1, nor the tax avoiders2, not even the rank hypocrisy3 from all sides.

But since I’ve mentioned those three, let’s get them out of the way before moving on.

image1The bedroom tax
Yes, it’s a misnomer; it’s not a tax. If anything, the actual sickening nomenclature by which it’s referred to by the government is more accurate. Or at least it would be if it was an extra amount paid to those on housing benefit who live in social housing, what used to be known as council houses. But it’s not an extra amount. Neither, though, is it a tax; it’s a reduction in the benefit paid. But I guess that’s not snappy enough for a title.

Thing is, I don’t see anything wrong with the measure in principle. The government’s argument makes perfect sense. Now, before you jump down my throat or spit at the screen, I’m talking about the basic principle of the tax/subsidy/reduction in benefit, not how in practice it’s being implemented. Of course there should be exemptions for those who need a room solely for medical equipment; of course there should be exemptions for disabled people with carers; of course there should be exemptions for temporary situations. And, quite important this, OF BLOODY COURSE it shouldn’t apply in any situation where nowhere for the family to move to! It would be a controversial (though, as I’ve said, certainly arguably justifiable) if there was spare capacity in the [public or privately owned] housing market. But when there’s no spare capacity? It’s illogical, foolish, unfair and morally indefensible.

2Tax avoiders
Before I write anything else, let’s get it straight, there’s a world of difference between individuals and companies when it comes to tax avoidance. And even once those have been discussed (as I’m about to) I’ve changed my mind on whether or not tax avoidance is a good thing or bad. More about that in a moment.

imageOh, and if the government outlaws “aggressive tax avoidance” and makes it illegal, it’s no longer tax avoidance in any way that counts. At that point, it’s just “tax evasion”. It’s a simple rule: tax avoidance is legal, tax evasion is illegal. You can’t have illegal tax avoidance; it’s an oxymoron. (As opposed to just “a moron”, which describes quite accurately those who write about it from a wilfully ill-informed position.)

OK, individuals. First off, a famous law case, many years ago, is often said to be what kicked off tax avoidance as an industry. How long ago? How about 1934, when Judge Learned Hand wrote in a judgement:

“Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.”

However, one could argue that there is a moral duty, that it’s part of the civil contract, that people pay their taxes and that they do so in acknowledgement of what Elizabeth Warren, the junior Senator from Massachusetts, said when elected:

imageThere is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

None of which I’d disagree with. Because people have moral codes by which they live. Some may be immoral, some amoral, but there are morals the effect of which everyone lives under, through and with.

Now we come to Companies. I’ve found it almost amusing how the very people who loathe and detest the idea that companies could be people (see recent Supreme Court decisions, particularly the Hobby Lobby decision) are the very same people who say that Companies should have morals and should pay their ‘fair share’ of taxes. (More about that term in a moment.)

First off, companies don’t have morals, don’t operate under a moral code, and can’t possibly do so. Because it’s illegal for them to do so. Companies, depending upon in which jurisdiction they operate, are bound by territorially-specific legislation and company founding documents to act for the benefit of… who?

The government? No.
Their employees? No.
Their directors, then? No.

Their shareholders. Not individual shareholders, of course, but as a body. That’s it – that’s in whose benefit the company is obliged (note that, obliged) to act. It’s very possible, in fact I’d say certain, that if a company paid more tax than it was legally obliged to do, the shareholders could sue the company’s board of directors for giving away money that is properly theirs, as the owners of the company. After all, that money could have been used to pay out dividends to those very same owners of the company or could have been reinvested to increase the value of the business, and thereby the wealth of the owners.

image“Fair share”. Oh yeah, I said I’d get back to this. UKUncut among others have said that companies should pay their ‘fair share’ of taxes. I’ve always been irritated and puzzled in equal measure by the use of this phrase. Could someone please define it? And not by offering synonyms, but by actually explaining what they mean. Because it seems to me that it’s great as a slogan and utterly useless as a policy suggestion. Do they mean the company shouldn’t take advantage of reliefs specifically offered to companies to invest in certain industries? Do they mean that companies shouldn’t get a tax break on the money spent to research and develop medicines, or new technology? Do they mean that companies shouldn’t be able to write off assets over a period of time? Or do they mean that companies simply shouldn’t be able to… to…

No, what they mean is that companies should pay more tax. That’s it. That’s all. No sensible, practical suggestions how this should occur without overwriting company legislation and centuries of case law. Just that companies should pay more tax. Still it’s always easier to slogan paint than solve problems, eh?

I mentioned that I’d changed my mind on something to do with tax avoidance. And I have. For many years, certainly for all the years I was in the business of accountancy and then as a financial director, my view was that if it was legal, it was fine for a company to take advantage of reliefs and tax breaks offered. No matter how convoluted, if it was legal, it was ok.

I’ve amended my view on this for one simple reason: I realised that tax avoidance schemes fall into two simple categories: call them ‘considered’ and ‘cockup’.

Considered tax avoidance is, let’s agree, where a government has fully intended and deliberately put into legislation a tax break or a tax relief that they fully desire companies to take advantage of. An obvious example would be film production. Movie companies can choose to film in any number of countries. If a film is being made in a country, however, they’ll employ a number of people – cast, crew, etc. – and these people will spend money in the country; there’ll be payroll taxes paid to the revenue service. And all the associated benefits that come along with a production, direct and indirect benefits. So a government will often offer tax breaks to film companies in order to induce them to film in their country. I see nothing wrong with this in principle. As I say, the government fully expects the benefits to outweigh the money they’re voluntarily (and again, I stress this, deliberately) forsaking.

Cockups on the other hand are precisely that; a mistake in the drafting of the legislation that leaves it open for a smart accountant to take advantage of a gap in tax law just to save their client from having to pay their full amount of taxes. It could be a mistyped sentence, or an entire passage in the law. Or it could be that most horrible yet inevitable law: The Law Of Unintended Consequences. Either way, anyway, it’s an error, a blunder, a cockup. And no company, no individual should have the right to unfairly benefit from a mistake of government, just as no individual or company should be unfairly punished for a mistake of government.

If only there was a way to know what a government intended when they introduced legislation.

Oh wait. There is. In the UK, it’s Hansard; in the US, I believe it’s called the Congressional Record? And there are briefing documents by the truckload issued by government departments. It’s not difficult to discover what the intentions of government were.

So here’s where I stand at the moment. And I remind you that ‘illegal tax avoidance’ doesn’t exist; it’s legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion.

Considered tax avoidance is tax avoidance; perfectly legal, perfectly justified in my view. Cockups are tax evasion from the moment it’s discovered it was a cockup. I’m not sure – I’m willing to be persuaded on this one – that someone taking advantage of a cockup should be retrospectively punished; mere payment of the tax avoided (avoided, yes) should be sufficient, and the loophole closed. Future attempts to use any ‘closed’ cockup are flat out evasion and should be punished to the full extent of the law.

3Rank hypocrisy
Yeah, I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago. Not about to repeat myself, so you can read my views on it here.

So, if you remember way back when, I said I’m angry. If it’s not about the above, what am I angry about? Well, it would be nice if the official opposition was making those arguments, and holding the government to account for once. The more I consider the current state of the Labour Party as our official opposition, the angrier I get.

imageI’ve no brief for Labour – I find many, but not all by any means, of the policies they espouse to be ones with which I fervently disagree. But then I could honestly say that about any and all of the major political parties in the United Kingdom. No, what pisses me off is that for all my faults, I tend to believe in the value of a strong opposition. Not “to keep this Government honest”; I think that it would require several torture chambers, daily enemas and being hooked up to portable lie detectors to achieve that, same as with any government.

But a more than halfway decent opposition is important to ensure that the public knows at least some of what the Government is up to. It’s been some time since a Government has treated the House of Commons with any respect, as anything other than a necessary duty. But successive executives have so emasculated Parliament (with their fawning acquiescence) that unless and until there is serious Parliamentary reform, nothing will change. The current Speaker has gone some way, some little way, to helping MPs in the chamber of the House of Commons at least try to do this, but it’s very little, very late.

It was no different almost fifty years ago when Richard Crossman wrote in his diary:

Cabinet. The Prime Minister had decided to take my procedure package of parliamentary reform. Actually it took nearly two hours and was a ghastly discussion. How ghastly you certainly wouldn’t get an idea from the Cabinet minutes . . . The moment I’d finished George Brown said, “Well, it’s asking a terrible lot of us, Prime Minister. We’re busy men.” . . . He was followed by Minister after Minister round the table simply saying how busy they were, how they were harassed by all these Cabinet Committees and how they simply couldn’t be burdened with any more work by the House of Commons.

imageMost of these Ministers were individually as well as collectively committed to parliamentary reform. Yet, after two years they’ve become Whitehall figures who’ve lost contact with Parliament. And of course what they’re saying is pure nonsense. The Executive rides supreme in Britain and has minimum trouble from the legislature. Perhaps it’s because Parliament is so entirely subordinate to the Executive that my colleagues were saying, “We can’t allow this Parliamentary Party to bother us.”

And what, after four years in power during which a coalition Government has enacted legislation from a cobbled together coalition agreement instead of a manifesto with a mandate, does the Official Opposition party spend the majority of their time doing?

Well, it seems to me to be an even split between defending their leader to those who dislike him intensely, and briefing the media against that very same leader.

This should be the time when the official opposition should be challenging the government every bloody day. And they’re not. At all. They should – less than a year out from the next general election – be ripping the Government a new hole daily.

Do I want a Labour party in power? I don’t know – show me their next manifesto and I’ll tell you.

Until then, I’d be content with them proving they actually bloody want the job.

Well, I’m 50.

To be precise, I was 50 yesterday and those of you who’ve been following the countdown on this blog may – with some justification – have expected a blog post from me before lights out last night. And, to be fair to myself, I’d actively and positively intended to post something before I crawled into bed and pushed the light switch into the off position.

Ah, the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley, especially when numerous examples of what Alistair Cooke used to call the wine of Scotland are involved.

I mean, it’s not even as if I’d planned planned on coming up to Edinburgh this year; like the past few birthdays, I fully expected to spend the day on my own and just wandering as on any other Sunday. However, the opportunity to (a) come up to Edinburgh for a few days during the Festival, and then (b) to travel onwards for another few days to stay at an old friend’s house on the Isle of Skye was too good to pass up.

So, I arrived Saturday morning in Edinburgh after a couple of hours driving; I’d come up with Clara Benn and the girls but once I’d fallen asleep after the first stint, surrendering the driving to Clara. She very foolishly kindly let me sleep and drove the rest of the journey.

A nice pleasant, relaxing Saturday afternoon followed before we headed into town for my first Fringe experience of 2014, seeing the most excellent Nick Doody in his show: Nick Doody vs The Debonair Assassin. Nick’s a funny, clever man with a clever, funny show in part discussing the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Brilliantly incisive and superbly funny. Highly recommended. No, sod that; I’m telling you to go see him.

Although we got out early enough to see another show if we fancied, to be honest, I was enjoying just soaking up the atmosphere of the Fringe; Nick, Clara and I then visited several bars and caught up with other comedians, most of whom I knew and chatted away, passing the hours in a very pleasant manner.

At one point, we found ourselves at the abattoir bar, with an amusingly appropriate wifi password, and although the place was packed with comedians, and there’s no way whatsoever that I should have felt comfortable – since I’m obviously not in the business – I didn’t. It took me about ten minutes to realise why: the atnmosphere, sounds, and sights were almost exactly the same as that at a comics convention (comics in the meaning of comic books) after the punters have gone home and it’s just the pros and hangers-on* remaining.

*(e.g. me.)

The same tone of stories were being told, the same age range was there, the same relaxed comfortable nature of professionals catching up in a social environment with other professionals in the same industry.

It’s funny – I’ve always thought that it’s amusing that comics can be taken as meaning comic books and comedians, especially since the bile thrown at women in both industries is distressingly similar: the vile insinuations as to how they got their break, the ludicrous assertions that there’s something inherently and qualitatively better about the work of men, and the flatly outrageous sexism online.

Somewhere in the very wee hours, my phone buzzing with texts, emails and twitter notifications wishing me happy birthday, we headed back to the house in which we’re all staying, old friends of Mitch Benn and Clara.

And so to bed.

Woke up mid-morning and then quickly into the city centre to meet up with Emma Vieceli and her husband Pud for lunch. Emma’s up here in Parade; I’m hoping to see it when I get back from Skye; you should see it now if you can. Lovely to see Emma and Pud; they’re always great company, and Emma genuinely is one of the nicest people in comics, as well as a fascinatingly wonderful artist. You should be reading Breaks by her for a start…

After lunch – delicious! – headed off to The Stand 3 to see Mitch Benn Is The 37th Beatle; although I’ve seen several versions of this show, this was a new one to me, as although it’s returned to the hour length of last year’s Fringe version, there’s at least one new song (from the 80 minute touring version), and a few minor differences and new jokes I couldn’t recall hearing before. Lovely show, as always though; it’s my favourite of Mitch’s recent shows, but of course, I haven’t seen this year’s show yet…

Bumped into Andy Salzman as I was leaving Mitch’s venue; Andy’s a lovely bloke, and he very kindly supplied a challenge for last year’s Comic Relief 24 Hours of Fast Fiction, this one. Confirmed with him when his shows are this year, Satirist For Hire in the afternoon, Political Animal at night. I’ve plans to see both if I can. You may know Andy from The Bugle podcast, or from Radio Five Live’s 7 Day Saturday. Or you may not have heard of him at all; if it’s the latter, I highly recommend you remedy this loss in your satirical needs.

Thinking of Andy reminds me of John Oliver (Andy’s partner on The Bugle) and his new venture, Last Week Tonight. Anyone who saw him sub for Jon Stewart on the Daily Show knew that John was ready for his own show, and I’m more pleased than I can say that not only has Last Week Tonight been a roaring success so quickly, but also that it’s established with astonishing rapidity its own, very different, identity from that which most people thought it might be, i.e. The Daily Show on Sundays. That the show has managed to do that is fantastic for all involved but especially for its audience which if there is any justice in television is sky rocketing week after week.

Anyway, back to me. When you left me… (ok, ok, that was a long digression, I know), I had just left Mitch’s gig and was on my way to The Pear Tree wherein I intended to reside for the rest of the day, enjoying friends, acquaintances and possibly one or two people I didn’t know, stopping by to help me celebrate my 50th birthday with chat, stories and alcohol.

Now I don’t want to spoil the story but… that’s pretty much exactly how it worked out. Too many people to list everyone but it was so bloody lovely to see Carly Smallman, if only briefly, as well as Kirsty Newton and Nick Doody; Jay Foreman dropped by, which is always a pleasure, as did Tiernan Douieb and Matt Blair. And the gorgeous Pippa Evans popped by as well… (Loretta Maine promised to come, but strangely couldn’t make it.)

Can’t thank Mitch and Clara enough for organising it; was a lovely day, and a lovely evening.

Managed to get to see Al Kennedy and his missus Cariie, as well as their six-week old daughter, who was cuter than any child has any right to be. Despite me merely wanting people’s presence, rather than presents, I must mention two presents I got.

I already mentioned Clara buying me a first edition of my favourite novel, The Man by Irving Wallace.

Al and Carrie’s present was a tad more recent, but it involved one of my favourite writers and one of my favourite artists, Kurt Busiek and Stu Immonen respectively. Somehow, somehow, I’ve never reasd ShockRockets, their 2000 book.

So, I was particularly delighted to receive a hardback collection of the entire series. Really looking forward to reading this.

When I returned home, suitably relaxed, suitably chilled, and not shaken at all, let alone stirred, Mitch presented me with the following:

As the more sharp-eyed of you will see, the pen has the words MAKE GOOD ART engraved upon it, a worthy sentiment most often expressed by our mutual friend Neil Gaiman, but one which I commend to everyone reading this.

And that was my birthday, leaving out the hour or so during the evening when Clara and I nipped out for a bite to eat, which I didn’t quite realise I needed as much as I did until the first bit of food hit my stomach….

It almost feels like cheating to talk about today, but since it’s got a link to the above, why not? It was Kirsty Newton’s dad’s birthday today (as well, coincidentally hers as well) and she’d organised a ‘flash mob’ to sing Happy Birthday to him at half-three this afternoon. Since she wanted unique things to happen for and to him today I offered to write him a short story, an offer which she accepted. So, this morning, I typed out a short story written specifically for him. And then… I hand-wrote the story, using the my new fountain pen, onto Basildon Bond paper, sealed it in an envelope and presented it to him this afternoon, a story no-one else will ever read unless he chooses to let them read it.

I think it’s nice and appropriate that the first thing I wrote with a pen engraved with MAKE GOOD ART was a story written specifically for one person.

As for the next thirty-six hours (I’m leaving for Skye on Wednesday morning), I’ve plans to see Salzman, and tonight, Jess Robinson in her four and five star reviewed Mighty Voice. As for the rest, I’ll see what occurs… it’s not as if I’m short of choices, is it?

If you read super-hero comics, sooner or later, in a day-dream or seven, you’ll wonder what super-powers you’d like to have.

The best answer to this, of course, is “America”, but leaving aside the political satire for once, what super-power would I actually want?

Well, I’ve an extra bone in my foot … at least I did have until I had it removed some years ago, and its removal and a few other problems with it have been well documented here and elsewhere.

So, no adamantium feet for me, dammit. But if you do wonder what powers you’d like to posess, even if you’ve only a semi-decent knowledge of super-hero comics over the past few years, you’ve a few hundred powers to choose from.

Running down the most obvious:

Flight: This is the power that most egregiously springs to mind. The power to lift off, fly anywhere you want to and, presumably land safely, although I suspect that landing is probably far more difficult than it looks. Getting up in the air is one thing, but landing? As David Gunson said in his incredibly funny What Goes Up Might Come Down, A good landing is defined as one after which you walk away….

Add to that problem the small but inconvenient fact that I have no sense of direction and would just as likely go in the wrong direction to my destination. Furthermore, given the current state of the world’s media, and the ghoulish fascination the public has for anything different, I suspect that this power would be one which would be difficult to keep to yourself. And what’s the point of a super power that you never get to use, eh? So, flying’s out.

Telepathy: Sorry, you couldn’t pay me enough to have this power. I know my own limitations and I don’t think I’ve got the willpower to be able to only read in people’s minds what I want to discover. I suspect that if telepathy genuinely existed, i.e. the power to ‘read people’s minds’, anyone with such a power would be quickly driven insane. No, not from the ever present background psychic buzz that would be around, but from the overload of trivial information that would of necessity be attached to the important information. Say I want to discover whether or not I’m getting a pay rise, so I take a peek inside my boss’s noggin. And, immediately, I’ve faced with the knowledge that he needs to get the car fixed at the weekend, because there’s a nasty knocking sound under the bonnet and he really hates the latest song released by that band that he loved when no one knew them but they’ve sold out and does his daughter really have to eat in the car and leave the wrappings on the backseat and who’s been smoking in the back room and now that the election’s been called he really should decide who to vote for and… and… and…

You see the problem?

So telepathy is out, unless it’s a very defined and refined telepathy, about which more in a minute…

Next up?

Well, Invisibility is tempting, I’ve got to say. The knowledge that I could discover what’s going on around me when no one knows I’m there. Probably the best way of living up to Robert Burns’

O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!

But you know what? I’m not so sure I’d want to know that necessarily. Surely there are times when ignorance is bliss. No, despite the obvious temptations, I think I’ll pass on this one as well.

Super-speed is another one that I don’t think I’d really like, to be brutally honest. So I could run fast? Who needs that? I’ve a car when I want to get somewhere beyond walking distance, and anyway, from what I’ve seen from Flash or Quicksilver, it’s only objective time that’s affected. Subjective time isn’t affected at all. Peter David nailed the problems of speedsters for me in an issue of X-Factor when he had Doc Samson interview the team members and the following dialogue ensued:

QUICKSILVER: Tell me doctor… Have you ever stood in line at a banking machine behind a person who didn’t know how to use it? Or wanted to buy stamps at the post office, and the fellow in front of you wants to know every single way he can ship his package to Istanbul? Or gotten some counter idiot at Burger King who can’t comprehend “Whopper, No Pickles?”

DOC SAMSON: Well… yes… I suppose…

QUICKSILVER: And how do you feel on those occasions?

DOC SAMSON: Impatient. Irritated. A little angry sometimes.

QUICKSILVER: Precisely. Because your life is being slowed to a crawl by the inabilities or the inconvenient behavior of others. It’s not a rational or considerate attitude to have, but there it is. Now, Imagine, Doctor, that everyone you work with, everywhere you go your entire world is filled with people who can’t work cash machines.

OK, so if I’m dumping super-speed, how about super-strength?

Well, to be honest, I can’t imagine a more useless power to have… unless you’re fighting super villains. Seriously, so I’m incredibly strong? What can I actually use it for? Opening tough pickle jars? Finally managing to tear open the wrapping on a blank video cassette? Nope, I can’t think of a single solitary use of super-strength, beyond possibly feeling comfortable holding The Complete Bone at arms’ length; and since I don’t like Bone, that’s probably where I’d put it – at arms’ length.

Magneto’s powers? The power to control metals? I take it back, there is a more useless power than super-strength.

Thinking further, the number of super-powers that exist in the world of comic books that appear only to exist so that they’re there to use to fight super-powered beings of another persuasion are legion. John Byrne, in a column in John Byrne’s Next Men freely admitted that when he created Alpha Flight, the primary consideration as to what powers they had was that they group had to be able to be convincingly hold their own against the then group make-up of the X-Men.

And yet… and yet… after due consideration, I keep coming back to the one super-power I’d really want, and it comes from a character in an X-Men story, or to be more precise, in X-Men vs. The Avengers.

The series, written by Roger Stern and drawn by Mark Silvestri (apart from the final issue which was credited to Tom DeFalco/Jim Shooter as writers and Keith Pollard/Joe Rubinstein as pencillers), saw print in 1987 and featured a character that I don’t think ever appeared again. A pity, since the power The Light had was simple, discreet, and just about perfect.

He had the power to instantly know whether or not someone was telling the truth.

Simple as that.

And you know what, that’s a power I’d like to have.

It’d made dealing with some submissions editors a whole lot easier for a start…

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything about comic books. Let’s address that now.

I was rereading Watchmen recently. It’s one of my favourite standby hardback collections, i.e. a book that if I want to read something, I know I won’t be disappointed. Every time I read it, I’m rewarded by spotting something new, some element of the structure or story that I hadn’t noticed previously. I suspect that’s as much to do with the changes that I’ve gone through over the years I’ve owned the book as it is to do with having missed something in the past.

(I certainly remember, when first reading it, finding the ‘backmatter’ prose in each issue tough going, as I did the ‘pirate’ story within a story; now, I’m old enough, possibly mature enough, to appreciate their inherent worth.)

Now, despite my reservations about the whole “this is how super-heroes would really act” ( I kind of agree with Peter David’s take on the ending – the world wouldn’t come together in response to the attack; they didn’t after 9/11, after all), I noticed something that has been poking into my consciousness whenever I read any number of super-hero comic books or almost any comic books, really.

And that is that there’s no realistic connection to, or association, with the day-to-day successes in their “real lives”. I’m not even talking about the monumental things like weddings and funerals, but more mundane things.

To show what I mean, let’s take an example from real life, all the more relevant since many super-heroes, even those in teams, have ‘day jobs’.

I used to have a day job; I was Director of Finance and Administration of a company; when I was promoted to that role, I was overwhelmed by the number of emails and invitations out to the pub to celebrate my success. And, sharing my success with those people just added to the enjoyment I was experiencing.

Aaron Sorkin summed it up beautifully in a relatively early episode of The West Wing, in which Josh Lyman says to the President and a colleague:

I want to be a comfort to my friends in tragedy. And I want to be able to celebrate with them in triumph.

That’s it summed up right there: tragedy and triumph.

The tragedy angle is more than taken care of in comics. I can recall, without really trying all that hard, many occasions where death or personal disaster have struck denizens of Marvel or DC and other characters are quickly there with sympathy, help, advice. The sort of thing that would and does happen in what we laughingly refer to as ‘real life’. Jason Todd is killed by The Joker, and Dick Grayson is shown being consoled by his girlfriend. And then there was Identity Crisis, during which various spouses (and ex-spouses) went not so gently into the night; sympathy exuded from the page in bucketloads.

But what about the triumphs, eh? What about them?

Where, for example, were Bobby Drake’s friends when he qualified as a CPA?

The man had, after all, just spent several years studying for it, and he got it.
And who did he tell? Well, we don’t know that. But who was there at the pub to wish him congratulations? No-one.

Matt Murdock, Daredevil. In all the years we’ve seen him in action as a lawyer, he must have won some decent cases. You don’t get the reputation that he apparently has as a lawyer without winning big a few times. And who of the people that are supposed to be his friends ever calls him up to say “Hey, Matt – nice win!”? Exactly.

Reed Richards, inventor extraordinaire. You’d think that if he came up with a great invention, then Tony Stark would telephone to say “well done”, wouldn’t you? But, no.

And it’s not just Marvel. Clark Kent may not be the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist he once was – blame Nu52 for that – but he was still one of the best writers the Daily Planet had before he jumped ship. So why don’t those in the Justice League who know that he’s Superman (damn, I haven’t spoiled anything for anyone there, have I?) make a comment or two about a story he’s written that they really enjoyed?

Barry Allen aka the Flash is a CSI; given his resources, it would be perfectly believable for him to have come up with a new technique. And to be congratulated for it by his colleagues and friends.

It’s not even limited to the adults. DC’s Teen Titans book is full of teenagers; you’d expect that they’d be pleased for each other when they’ve had a good test result at school, or won a personal victory of some sort, or even got a smile from someone they had a crush on. Well, wouldn’t you?

But, no, because that’s not the way that it happens in comic books.

Comic books have their own set of rules and conventions, and it appears that one of them is that the little daily triumphs escape unacknowledged.

Of course, it’s not only the little ones that go unnoticed.

Wouldn’t it be cool if just once, after [insert your favourite hero] defeats the world- or city-endangering plans of [insert your favourite hero’s arch enemy], there was some acknowledgement that they’d done well from their peers?

But it’s a serious question. We all know that a friend in need is a damn pest, but don’t you like to celebrate friends’ triumphs? So what makes the super-heroes any different?

One answer could be the old standard about “there are 20 pages a month, twelve months a year; you don’t see what they get up to the rest of the time.” This is what I refer to as “The Wolverine Excuse”, since it explains how he can be in seventeen books in one month. OK, I exaggerate, but not by much. That explanation works, but only to a limited extent. All the emotional support, cheering and celebrating? Happens off panel, my friend. Well, that would be ok if it was the occasional celebration that we miss. But it’s not – celebrations, because they’re so rare , becomes conspicuous by their presence.

Another explanation could be called the “Live Fast, Die Young” excuse; i.e. because their lives are lived at such a pace, what us normal people would consider worthy of celebration is merely the flannel and froth of life to them. They’d no more celebrate things outside their costumed identities than we’d celebrate getting the right change when we buy a newspaper. The problem is that this excuse works no better for me than the first, since it’s perfectly natural to want to share your friends’ triumphs. no matter how great or petty. And it leaves out the fact that even celebrations by non-powered characters are rare.

Finally, one could argue that the reason we don’t see it is a matter of choice because when people are celebrating, there’s no conflict. And without conflict, there’s no drama. As I say, an arguable case.

It’s not, however, an argument you’d win.

No drama, no conflict during celebrations? Even leaving aside the tensions that run riot at a family get together, all you have to do is look around at any ‘formal’ party and there are stories beneath the surface. Even in the midst of celebration there can be dramatic tension.

Of course, there is something to be said for the current attitude. If every time work colleagues get together this happens, it’s worth keeping everyone apart and non-communicative:

A friend mentioned Livejournal and ‘dead but not deleted’ blogs today. Probably not the biggest surprise to anyone who reads this thing that I used to blog on Livejournal. It’s still there, a zombie blog.

I keep it as a zombie blog for several reasons; sometimes just to look back at what I wrote, say, five years ago today; also, it’s useful to have it there for reference. Sometimes, something comes up and I know I wrote about it previously. But that’s for when I’m out and about. I’ve also got the blog archived and searchable on my local hard drive.

One of the drawbacks, however, is coming across old ‘memes’/questionnaires I completed and either (a) wondering where the hell my mind was when I wrote it, since there’s no way I’d write that now, or (b) being faintly depressed that I’m so ‘stuck in my ways’ that lots of answers would be pretty much identical.

Amusing and worrying (for the same reasons above) though, is reading old memes where I asked those reading the blog to describe me in one word, or to say something about me. Some of the compliments that I remember being genuinely flattered (and sometimes surprised) by are things that, arrogantly I guess, I can still imagine people – though not necessarily the same people – using about me now. Some of them though, honestly? I can’t see being used about me other than in jest. It could be, of course, that they were used in jest back then, but I don’t remember them being so.

One set of answers in particular have amused and worried me in equal proportion today when I came across them again; it’s a set of comments wherein people posted anonymously. Even if I knew – or guessed – who posted the comments back then, there’re literally only a couple that I remember now. Most of the comments below, I genuinely don’t have a clue who posted them, and no, this isn’t a shout out to people to reveal themselves.

Quotes like:
– “You look much better now than you did in the early 80s”
– “You seem like a nice chap… but appearances can be deceiving.”
– “You’re an excellent father, and not just to your son.”
– “Sometimes you are like a dog that barks at phantasms and snaps at those who’d reassure you.”
– “You’re one of the kindest people I know.”
– “Sometimes you are a little self-obsessed.”

None of which I think I can dispute that much.

And that leads me nicely onto writing once again – I wrote about it on the old blog but apparently I’ve never done so on this one – about compliments, and my view that if they come from a stranger, or at least someone with no ulterior motive, they can probably be trusted. You might disagree with them, but they’re unlikely to be taking the piss or even taking pity on you.

(For example, and this may qualify as a #humblebrag, I once received an email out of the blue from someone at NASA, commenting upon the columns I was then writing, and saying how much everyone in his team enjoyed them. So, that was nice…)

So, that’s compliments from strangers. However, if it’s a friend… whoa, do the “rules” change. At least in my view.

There’s a school of thought that argues that if they’re your friend then they’ve no need to flatter you. They like you, and you presumably like them – as the saying goes – “with warts and all”. You may think one of your friends is ugly as sin… but you like them for who they are, not what they look like, and you certainly wouldn’t say to them that they’re the hottest thing in the room, let alone in town. No need to make them feel better – they know what they look like.

I think this is utter, complete crap. People who like other people want to make them feel better if they’re down. Perfectly normal reaction… that ends up pissing the other one off.

Why? Well, this is why, at least in my opinion. When it comes to friends, the only compliments that you can trust, in my opinion, are those where you didn’t need the affirmation in the first place.

If you know you’re good at your job then it’s nice to get the backslapping from a friend, but it’s not necessary. If you know you’re hot, then a friend confirming it merely makes you feel even better than you did.

But if it’s a compliment about something that the other person don’t believe deserves a compliment… then at best they’ll consider it insincere, and at worst a mark of pity.

Hence my view that when it comes to friends, you may trust them absolutely… and you may be right to do so… about everything… except when it comes to compliments about things you genuinely don’t believe deserve compliments. Because there will always be that suspicion (sometimes more) that it’s insincere or said out of pity. If you’re convinced that you can’t write well, or aren’t good looking, or have the grace of a pregnant rhinoceros on heat… then compliments from a friend regarding, respectively, your writing, your looks or your grace are difficult to trust.

There are things that I’ll accept compliments on in good grace… because I believe I deserve complimenting, or at least I’ve an open mind on it being a matter of opinion. I think I’m a better than ok prose writer, but no better than ok as a comics scripter. (And according to at least one ex-Marvel assistant editor, not even that.) If someone, even a friend, says they enjoyed a script I wrote, of course I’ll accept it as genuine. If someone says it’s the best script they’ve read in ages, or it’s as good as professional comics writers, no of course I wouldn’t believe them, strangers or not.

So, some things I’ll accept compliments about.

Other things though… well, I’m less likely to take them in good grace if I think they’re either taking the piss, taking pity or just plain insincere.

Some time ago, I told a friend that whereas I’ll take compliments for something I do, I’m far less able to accept them as well meaning when they’re about who I am.

I suspect that remains the case.

It’s tempting to generalise about things. It’s comforting, even. Also, dangerous as hell.

All MPs are on the take. All benefits claimants are scroungers. Furthermore, all MPs who wrongly claimed expenses were doing so fraudulently, and all mistakes on benefits claims are made by those favourite scapegoats of the right wing press: the benefit cheat.

Or: MPs followed the law, in most cases, and those that weren’t charged with criminal offences made honest mistakes, paid back any money mistakenly claimed and are paragons of virtue. Similarly, it’s perfectly understandable that with the confusing and inefficient benefits system, claimants sometimes make errors, so there’s never ever anyone cheating on their benefits.

All of the above is pure, unfettered, unmitigated crap.

And yet, depending upon the political view held by an observer (hardly an unbiased observer in most cases) one of more of the above generalisations, at least one of the above extreme positions, is actually believed.

Let’s have some more. All Tories are scum, not a caring one among the bastards. And all Lib Dems are spineless immoral toerags who wouldn’t know a principle if it jumped up and bit them. And all socialists want control of your lives, 99% tax rates and can’t be trusted to manage a shop, let alone an economy. Oh, and all UKIP supporters are racists, while all Green party supporters are naiveté personified .

Again, all pure unfettered, unmitigated crap.

Oh, but let’s not limit it to domestic politics. By no means; all American right wingers are misogynistic racist thugs, and all Democrats can’t be trusted with the nation’s security. Oh, and every Christian is either a nonce or is covering up for them, you can’t trust Jews because of course they support Israel unquestionably and all Moslems want you dead.

Once again, pure unfettered, unmitigated crap.

It’s truly astonishing to me how many otherwise sensible people take an example, often take more than one example to be fair, and extrapolate those to the entire population under discussion.

I’d love to be able to say that it’s only the extreme cases that rely upon generalisations, but it’s not; it’s prevalent in discussion to the point that it’s rare to engage in conversation where at least one of the arguments doesn’t rest upon a generalisation. I can’t think how many debates I’ve had with people over the past couple of years where the extreme position has been the fundamental basis of their position. And it’s been even worse the past couple of weeks, what with Israel’s military attack on Gaza, after and during which anyone who doesn’t call for the destruction of Israel apparently supports baby killing, and those who don’t agree with the military action are apparently ok with all the Jews being killed. (c.f. unmitigated crap, above.)

(Yes, I know, I know – I’ve said there may well be a full post on that, and there still may be. I’ve drafted, redrafted, written and rewritten the post a half dozen times and I’m still unsure whether or not I’ll post it.)

The extreme positions taken by some, by many online it sometimes seems, bothers me. And it worries me. Because… and this is where I tread carefully, you end up with the “not ALL men” responses.

“Not ALL men” is a comment that gets thrown back at anyone who tries to explain why women feel afraid of men; I’ve felt the impulse to respond that way myself and it’s only really because I have intelligent – and understanding – women friends who’ve explained to me in detail why such a comment is not only inappropriate but wildly so.

But yeah, I sometimes want to respond “not ALL Tories” are unfeeling, uncaring loathesome specimens, “not ALL Lib Dems” are craven cowards, “not ALL American right wingers” decry equal marriage. It’s hard not to, especially when you’re one of the people (none of the above in this paragraph, to be fair) who’s being unfairly traduced.

Whatever happened to nuance? Have we taken the twenty-four hour news cycle to which we demand politicians answer and appropriated it to ourselves? OK, I accept that in the most part, people want simple yes/no solutions to complicated problems. In short, people want to know who’s the goodie and who’s the baddie.

Well, people are neither the one nor the other.

In that wonderful TV programme, The West Wing, at one point, the President says:

Every once in a while, every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts.

Thing is, even then, even when body counts are involved, it’s usually too simple to say there’s an absolute right or an absolute wrong.

And for the rest of the time, why the hell not accept that you just might not know enough to talk knowledgeably about a subject? In fact, if you’re sure there is an absolute right, or an equally absolute wrong, and that your generalising merely emphasises that fact, you’ve just proved to me that you don’t know enough.

So either learn some more about it or sit in the corner and let the grown ups talk for a while.

Came across this xkcd cartoon earlier and it reminded me of a favourite tale from my long ago career as a practising accountant:

NB For any Americans reading, all references to ‘flats’ may be read as ‘apartments’, and all references to ‘lifts’ may be read as elevators.

Many, many years ago, when I first started out in accountancy, I was working for a company with a lot of property clients… a lot of them. About 80% of the firm’s business came from auditing property businesses, which included companies with several blocks of flats. Now when you have a company that owns lots of properties, they usually employ third party property agents to look after the property, maintain the lifts, etc.

So with one company, very early on in my career, I’d done the audit, all the invoices looked correct, everything looked fine. I took the file into the audit partner and he held it in his hand, as if weighing it, and simply said “Nope.” When I queried it, he said “Lee, I’ve been doing this job for twenty years. I know when enough work’s been done on an audit file. This isn’t enough. Finish it off and then bring it back.”

I left his office thinking less than charitable thoughts about him and racked my brains wondering what more I could do. To be brutally honest, I was wondering what extra photocopying I could do to increase the file’s weight without actually involving me doing a lot more work.

While looking at the file, I noticed the invoices for lift maintenance and had a brainwave. The contracts for maintenance are always bulky! I quickly checked the previous three files and there was no contract in there, so yeah: it justified inclusion. I called the agents and asked them if they could send me a copy of the lift maintenance contract. The guy at the other end of the phone said he’d bang a copy in the mail to me (this was way, way before scanning, PDFs and email) but probably not for a few days. The block of flats weren’t that far out of the way home for me, so I called the caretaker/manager of the building, thinking I could stop in on the way home, grab it, copy it at the office and return it the following day. I’d spoken to him several times before; he was a nice chap and I’d been told by previous years’ auditors that he’d do small favours for us without a problem.

The following telephone call ensued:

Me: Hi, it’s Lee Barnett from the auditors.
Caretaker: Hello, Lee – what can I do for you?
Me: Quick favour; can I drop by tonight and pick up your copy of the lift maintenance contract? I promise I’ll return it tomorrow night – just need a copy for the file.

= pause =

Caretaker: What lift maintenance contract?
Me: The maintenance contract for the lifts. With [checks name of maintenance people in file and reads it out].

= pause =

Caretaker: We don’t have any lifts.
Me: I beg your pardon?

Yeah, turned out (a) they didn’t have any lifts, (b) the managing agents had been supplying fake invoices, (c) it had never been picked up before, (d) it wouldn’t have been picked up by me, (e) it was picked up solely because the audit file didn’t weigh enough.

First case of outright fraud I’d discovered during an audit. It wasn’t the last, but you always have fond memories of your first, don’t you?

I think it was Alistair Cooke, as it so often was, who first taught me that if you want to really surprise an American student of politics, you explain to them how long it takes to pass a Budget in a Parliamentary system.

“How long”, I write. I should really have typed how short a period of time.

An American budget can, in theory, take a relatively short space of time from when it’s first proposed by the President of the United States to when it’s voted through by both Houses of Congress.

It doesn’t. Ever. There are many reasons for this, ranging from deep ideological objections to things the president has proposed, right through to just wanting to embarrass the president if he’s from the other party. Not for nothing does the old saw of American Politics say “The president proposes and the Congress disposes.”

Remember last year’s federal government shut down in September 2013? Or any of the twelve government shutdowns since 1980 (although only two lasted more than a week each)? All due to the funding gap created when Congress refused to pass one of more Bills that form part of the Federal Budget.

And this after continuing resolutions, and more continuing resolutions, and yet more of the damned things.

In the UK? Well, take the 2014 Budget, the one covering this year. (OK, some things were already going to take effect this year, from previous budgets, but they could have been removed/repealed during this year’s process, so let’s just stick with the main Budget.)

The 2014 Budget was presented to the House of Commons in March this year, by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. You remember him, the politician booed by the crowd at 2012’s Paralympics. Nothing to do with the subject of the blog, but it’s always nice to recall that. Anyway, presented on 19th March 2014.

Now some of the things announced took immediate effect (tobacco price rises, for example, though not in the shops, from the wholesalers). But when did it receive “Royal Assent”? Take a guess. Six months? Best part of a year?

Naah – it passed into law on 17th July 2014, 118 days (82 days if you exclude public holidays and weekends.)

Just one of the many differences between any parliamentary system and a non-parliamentary system, though I guess if you include dictatorship in the latter, you could shrink the time even further.

Another difference is the weekly Punch and Judy show known as Prime Minister’s Questions where the Official Leader of the Opposition gets to ask the Prime Minister of the day six questions in the House of Commons for the entertainment of the watching masses. (Other MPs get one question each, if they’re called by the Speaker.) I would like to add that it’s there to inform fellow Members of Parliament and the public, but I can’t in all honesty: it’s been a long, long time (certainly not in my adult lifetime) since it was used for that purpose.

It long ago ceased to have any educative benefits and became so many years ago what it is now: a chance for political point scoring, obsequious toadying by MPs seeking to impress their party’s leader, and very, very occasionally (maybe, maybe, one question every other half hour session) for an MP to ask a genuinely important question about a serious issue… which the Prime Minister won’t answer.

The Prime Minister would, of course, deny that he doesn’t answer, and indeed Parliamentary procedure does not oblige the Prime Minister (or any minister) to give a reply that would qualify as a ‘genuine answer’ as anyone outside parliament would define the term. However, over recent years, first lords of the treasury of all stripes have treated questions in the House as if they’ve come from a journalist from a friendly (or unfriendly) news organisation: in other words, have something to say, and no matter what the question asks, say that. And if you can point score at the expense of the party opposite at the same time, then so much the better.

Every Prime Minister comes to power swearing blind to change the nature of PMQs. And within an astonishingly (if you haven’t seen it happen before) short space of time, they’ve abandoned that pledge with faux-regret and returned to the shouty match you’ve almost certainly all seen.

What’s particularly annoying about this staged performance for someone who thinks parliament is important is the rank hypocrisy involved from all sides and from almost all MPs. Certainly the party leaders. They condemn the barracking from the opposite side of the chamber, yet encourage it from their own MPs. They complain that the minister – or Prime Minister – won’t answer the question but their own party, when they were in government, did exactly the same, said exactly the same, behaved exactly the same.

The Prime Minister will attack the very questions asked – “on a day when unemployment has fallen, no questions about unemployment!”, “in a week when the rate of inflation has fallen, no questions about the economy!” – and will ‘forget’ he’s there to answer questions… but when he’s the leader of the opposition, he asked the same type of question.

And so we have to ask: what is the purpose now of PMQs or any ministerial questions. It’s to please your own MPs. That’s it, in a nutshell. To prove to your own side that you can survive in the bearpit of the chamber. And I don’t know why this is important. I really don’t. The most talented performer in the House in the past twenty years was, I’d say, William Hague, late of the Foreign Office, but for four years at the turn of the century, he was leader of his party. In that position he regularly trounced Tony Blair at Prime Minister’s Questions. It was rare that he didn’t land a blow, uncommon that he didn’t make Blair look on the back foot.

And yet, despite that, despite being the acknowledged victor in the vast majority of clashes… he and his party lost the 2001 election, gaining only one seat, going down to another Labour landslide.

The hypocrisy of politics sickens me.

If your side does it and you agree with it, it’s not only ok but a fantastic thing to do; if the other side does it, it’s inherently bad.

If you’re a Labour person, all Conservatives, (sorry, “Tories”; they’re always Tories, never Conservatives) are scum. No matter that the Conservative Party contains some who are pro-Europe, pro-state intervention, pro-equal marriage. Similarly, if you’re a Conservative, then Labour are rabid socialists who want to control every facet of British life and every person living here.

Some people on the left called for Jeremy Clarkson to be immediately – note that, immediately – fired from the BBC after he made a [bad] joke about shooting Union leaders, while anticipating street parties when Margaret Thatcher died. (And indeed, the celebrations when she died brought hypocrisy to a new level.) But it was all right, apparently, because they didn’t like Thatcher or Clarkson. Yet when Tony Benn died, and some right wingers made disparaging comments about him, the left were all “oh, no, no-one must say anything against Benn”, “he’s only just died, have some respect”, “think of his family…”

I was going to carry on this theme by mentioning Gaza, but I that’s probably a subject for another day…. I think I’ve stomached enough hypocrisy today.

About two and a half years ago – at the end of 2011, there was a public sector strike – a big one. At the time, I wrote:

No-one in the UK could have been unaware yesterday that there was a public sector strike. Or to be precise, there was a day of action called by several trade unions, and about two million people (give or take, according to which source you favour) took action, refused to work, marched, protested and otherwise signified their displeasure with the policies of the current coalition government, specifically about pensions.

At the time, some people – mainly tory politicians – argued that since the union strike votes received low turnouts in some cases, they were somehow less valid. And again, the same case is being made this week, by David Cameron among others. It’s utter nonsense, of course.

Utter, total, complete, nonsense.

But not for the reasons many suppose.

The main case against the “low vote” argument seems to be “well, how many people voted for the coalition?”

This, in my view, fundamentally misunderstands two, completely different, votes. An election and a resolution couldn’t be more different, either in process, organisation, or result.

How someone is elected and how resolutions are voted for are never the same.

You don’t tend to get alternative voting in resolutions, simply because it’s usually a choice between yes and no, between aye and nay.

A much better and more appropriate analogy would be something else that is a choice between yes and no, between aye and nay, say… how they pass laws in parliament. 

So if Tory MPs want to say that unions should have a minimum turnout for votes for resolutions, then they would presumably accept the same in Parliament.

And, to my astonishment, they do.

There is a quorum for divisions in the chamber of the House of Commons. There is – I checked.

You want to know what this quorum is, how many MPs are required in the Chamber for national legislation to be passed? Given the Tory MPs anger and passion about this, you’d expect it to be a sizeable number or percentage, yes?

It’s 40.

40 MPs in the chamber, and a vote can take place.

40.

Out of 650.

I’ll save you the maths. It’s a little over 6%.

So, with 6% of MPs in favour of a law, it can pass, yes?

Well, no, that would be stupid, wouldn’t it? That would mean that all 40 voted in favour.

No, the number in favour only needs to be 50% plus 1 of those attending, i.e. 21

Or a little over 3%. To pass national legislation. And in the House of Lords, the number is smaller still: 30 peers need to be in attendance.

30. Out of a House of Peers of 779 currently able to vote.

Conservative MPs are lucky that trades unions don’t say “you know, you’re right; we’ll accept minimum strike ballot turnouts… at the same percentage you lot have in parliament.”

Tory MPs? Shut the fuck up about trade unions requiring minimum votes for strike votes, eh?

Sixteen years. Over decade and a half. Or to be more precise, sixteen years and two and and a half or so hours since my brother died.

And yes, I rewrite this every year. I stick up something about Mike annually on this day with not a smidgen of guilt nor concern; Michael deserves a public remembrance from me every year.

9th January 1998. I’d gotten into work early and, having dropped my bag at the office, was having a coffee across the road at my then favoured café. Thirty minutes or so after sitting down, around five-past eight, someone else who’d been in early came to get me; a call from Laura. I know, this was long enough ago that I didn’t possess a mobile phone. I went back to the office with a growing sense of dread; a call from my wife, mentioning my brother didn’t sound like good news. It wasn’t; a call to the hospital led to a growing suspicion from the immediately understandable reticence of the doctor to tell me anything over the phone… and then the knowledge – the horrible, horrible knowledge – that my brother had died.

Not a good morning.

Mike was 38 years old, over a decade younger than I am now. And that’s a thing you never get used to – that you’re now older than someone who was older than you. It’s a genuinely strange feeling, realising that; knowing that you’re seeing birthdays that he never reached, experiencing birthdays, anniversaries, life, that he never got to have.

And that’s leaving to one side the fact that he lost those years – he lost seeing his children grow up, he lost the chance to see Phil grow up, and that Phil never got the chance to know Mike. Not properly, not as a growing child should get to know someone.

I’ve got friends who I’ve met over the past few years who I absolutely know Michael would have liked to have met, and they’d have liked to have known him. I can easily see Mitch and Clara sharing a laugh with Mike; very easily indeed as a matter of fact, probably at my expense, the way you allow friends and close ones to do that. I can also smile, reluctantly at times, at the life experiences and choices I’ve made that would have at various times, cheered him, made him laugh, made him angry, and left him speechless in exasperation. He was my brother and I loved him – what else would you expect?

Where the hell have those sixteen years gone? Sixteen years… Of course, I know the answer to that: I look at my son, and know the final family photo taken of Mike was with Philip, when the latter was a little over two years old. And Phil’s now eighteen, an adult, and he prefers to spend his time with friends, and college mates, and with girls, far than with any family member. And I can’t – and won’t – blame him for that.

Still and all, where have the years gone?

Sixteen Years.

I’ve said before – and I maintain – that it’s utter nonsense to say that ‘time heals every wound’. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close. What it does do, I’ve discovered – and I rediscover with every passing year – is lessen the temptation to pick at the scab.

So with every year that passes, it hurts a little less… most of the time.

Every so often, of course, it bites; it hurts terribly, and I miss him so fucking much; his wry humour, the love of comedy we shared, the cool way he’d examine a problem from every side, then laugh and say “fuck it, go for it…”

Michael Russell Barnett wasn’t perfect, far from it. He loved puns, just didn’t ‘get’ comics at all, had problems carrying a tune in a bucket, and his enthusiasm for playing the guitar wasn’t in any way matched by ability.

Still, as a brother, Mike was as good as they get and if I’d have gone to Brothers ‘R’ Us, I couldn’t have picked better. He taught me so much, and I hope he knew how much I respected him as a person, not just as a brother. I was best man at his wedding to Lynne, and that he trusted me (at the age of 21) with that responsibility honoured me then, and it still does. I’ve still many wonderful memories of Michael, but those few hours on the morning of his wedding when it was just me and him… ah, they’re memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.

He died sixteen years ago today and I miss him dreadfully, especially today. I miss him always, but today, it’s a bugger.

Rest easy, brother.


A few years ago, after I posted something similar to the above, I got several emails and messages from people who either didn’t know I’d had a brother, or didn’t know what had happened. Both asked what had happened. Here’s what I put up in response..

Soon after Mike’s death, I was asked to write something about him; I’ve linked to it before, but figured it was about time I put it on this blog as well. So, here it is:

Michael Russell Barnett
20th November 1959 to 9th January 1998

 

“On Thursday, Mum took me shopping. It sounds
harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?”

– o –

When I was at Manchester Polytechnic, ostensibly studying for a degree, one of the highlights of my time there was getting a letter from Michael. Full of gentle humour, the letters showed a literary side to Michael that can still reduce me to laughter 15 years later. The above line was written as he was recovering from his first heart operation.

Reading through the letters recently, what surprised me wasn’t so much the realisation that Michael was only 23 or 24 when the letters were written, but how much of my own writings have been influenced by Michael’s style.

Michael taught me so much, from how to play backgammon to the skills necessary to cheat at cards better than our younger brother; from how to scan a line when writing a lyric or poem to the proper glass out of which to drink scotch – “one with a hole at one end and no hole at the other.”

I’ve often said that Mike was my hero. And he was. The courage he showed throughout his illnesses and operations, the way he dealt with people and the way he supported me in all I did was everything I could have wished from a brother. We shared a particularly dry sense of humour and it was rare that a few days went by without one of us calling the other to share a joke or to tell the other a particularly funny story or a funny event that had happened to us.

Yet of all the memories that spring to mind about Michael in the 33 years I was privileged to have him as my ‘big bruvver’, four stand out as clear as day…

– o –

“Dear Lee, How are you? I hope you’re getting down
to it. And getting some studying in as well.”

– o –

August 1983
I’d driven up to Harefield to visit Michael before his first op. He was in the ward and when he saw me, he grabbed his dressing gown and we headed for the café. As we were leaving the ward, a nurse rushed past us and went to the bed next to Michael’s. We didn’t think anything of it until another nurse, then a doctor, then another nurse, pushing a trolley pushed past us. Naturally concerned, we headed back into the ward to see them crowding around the bed next to Mike’s. The curtains were quickly drawn and Michael suggested we leave. At that moment, we realised we’d left Michael’s cassette recorder playing.

In the sort of accident of timing that only happens in real life, Michael reached out to turn the cassette recorder off just as the next track started. The song was by a band called Dollar.

The title of the song? “Give Me Back My Heart”

We barely made it out of the ward before doubling up…

– o –

“I’m looking forward to our engagement party. My only problem
is how to ask Jeff for a day off on a Saturday. I suppose on
my knees with my hands clasped together as if in prayer…”

– o –

Wednesday 9th October 1985
Lynne and Michael’s Wedding Day. As their Best Man, I’m theoretically responsible for getting Michael to the shul shaved, showered and sober. Failing that, it’s my job to just get him there. Anyway, Mike has a few things to sort out at their new home, so I tag along and we spend a few hours together. Precious hours that I wouldn’t swap for anything. We tell jokes and pass the time, two brothers out together letting the rest of the world go by.

We get to the shul and get changed into the penguin suits. Flip forward a couple of hours and Lynne and Michael are now married. Mazeltovs still ringing in everyone’s ears, the line-up has ended and we poor fools still in morning suits go to the changing room to, well, to get changed – into evening suit. For whatever reason, Mike and I take the longest to get changed and we’re left alone for five minutes together after everyone else has left.

As a throwaway line, just to ease our nervousness for the forthcoming speeches, I make a comment that I’m sure glad I’ve got everything with me: “Suit, shirt, shoes, speech…” Mike grins and repeats the mantra. “Suit, shirt, shoes…” There’s a horrible pause followed by a word beginning with ‘s’. But it’s not “speech”, it’s a shorter word.

Mike looks at me in horror, and I’m beginning to realise what’s going through his mind. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your speech,” I tell him.

“I know exactly where it is,” he says, making me very relieved for a moment, before continuing, “it’s in my wardrobe at home.”

After another split-second when we struggled not to crease up at the ridiculousness of the situation, Mike took control in that calm way that he had. He borrowed a pen off of me – the pen that he and Lynne had given me as a thank you for being Best Man – instructed me to get a menu and then stand outside the door and leave him for twenty minutes…

An hour or so later, after I had given my speech, Michael stood up to make his. He started off with a line that fans of Rowan Atkinson would recognise in a moment : “When I left home this morning, I said to myself ‘you know, the very last thing you must do is leave my speech at home’. So sure enough, when I left home this morning, the very last thing I did was… to leave my speech at home.”

As I say, it was a familiar opening to fans of Rowan Atkinson. To everyone else, it was merely a clever start to a speech. To everyone else that is, except our mother. Mum, you see, knew exactly how the speech should have started and there was a classic moment – thankfully caught by the photographer – when she realised that he wasn’t joking – he really had forgotten the speech…

– o –

“Last week I graduated to hair-CUTTING. Next week, if
I’m lucky it’ll be cutting the hair on someone’s head…”

– o –

July 1997
After Mike’s second heart operation, Laura and I took our then 20 month old son to see him. Michael had often told me that being a parent was a mixture of joy and heartache but that he was absolutely revelling in being an uncle. When we got there, he insisted on going outside with us, for Philip’s sake, he said, but I suspect that he wanted to go outside as well, ‘breaking parole’ if you will. He took Philip by the hand and went for a small walk with him.

Looking back, watching Mike and Philip walking together, and a little later, Michael holding Philip on his lap, I remain convinced that it was at that moment that Philip started his adoration of Michael, a feeling that lasted after Michael’s death.

– o –

“Did you go to shul in Manchester. Hmm – is a shul in
Manchester called Manchester United?”

– o –

December 1997
The last big family occasion was on Boxing Day 1997. It had long been a family tradition that the family got together at Lynne and Michael’s on Boxing Day and this year was no different. The last photo I have of my brother is of Michael lifting Philip to the sky, the pair of them laughing out loud.

He looked so well, having regained all the weight that he’d lost through his illness, still with a very slight tan from the holiday he, Lynne and the boys had taken in late 1997.

That’s how I’ll remember my brother, full of life, laughing and surrounded by his family.

Time for the annual update. Well, beyond time, since I usually update this at the start of December, but the Twelve Days of Fast Fiction kind of took that over. (You’ve bought the ebook, I hope? It’s only $0.99, after all…)

Now about the pics you’re going to see below: I’ve already been about as embarrassed at the shots as I’m ever likely to be, but yes, if you feel the need to go “awwww” at the cute pics of me as a youngster, or mock the pictures of me during the decade(s) that fashion forgot, feel free to do so.

Look, the whole thing started in 2004 when there was a meme going around about putting up photos of yourself when you were younger. I did it… and then continued to update it every year or so for more recent pics…

So, here they are, bringing the photos up to date, as of December 2013.

In rough order of age…


Probably the earliest photo I’ve got of me…


3 years old


Aged 4


I’m five, I think, here.


It was 1972, ok? And I was at my brother’s bar mitzvah. I was eight.


My son takes great delight in this shot – I think I was 10 at the time.


Me at age 11


Just after my 15th birthday


August 1980, I’m 16 – yes, that is a curly perm. Shut up.


November 1982 – Freshers’ Fair at Manchester Poly


1983 – me at the PULP office, 2nd year at Manchester Poly.


Age 21, at a work leaving do, having left Manchester Poly a month or so earlier..


1985, at my brother’s wedding… at which I was best man. Yeah, 21 again.


At my dad’s 60th birthday in 1989, aged 25. Blimey, was that really almost twenty-five years ago?


1994 – Laura’s and my wedding day – aged 30


1996


September 1997, at UKCAC


Me in New York, January 1998, just after we lost Mike


Part of a formal family shot, mid-1999


June 1999 – my spiritual home


August 2000; taken by Phil – he was five years old at the time


October 2001; New York, six weeks after 9/11; visiting Ian


May 2002, Hypotheticals – not a happy Budgie


mid-2002, taken for a WEF World Wide Wednesday


Bristol, 2003. You can see the greying hair now…


July 2004 – working at the office


December 2004 – at my nephew’s bar mitzvah. See? I scrub up nicely occasionally.


August 2005 – at Brighton. First picture for ages that I’m genuinely happy with.


September 2005, last picture of the Nissan before I crashed it…


October 2005. Again, a photo taken by Phil…


April 2006, at the flat.


May 2007, Bristol, Saturday night, at around 2 in the morning.


December 2007 – at the office party, with my ‘secret santa’ gift. No, the book.


May 2008 – Phil and me at Comic Expo


May 2008 – Me interviewing Dave Gibbons at Comic Expo


October 2008 – Me and Phil, studio shot for the bar mitzvah


October 2008 – Me and Ian, at the bar mitzvah


May 2009 – Me and Matt Jones, (pic by Jamais Cascio)


July 2009 – At the BERG 40th Anniversary Apollo 11 drinkup (pic by Matt Jones)


October 2009 – In New York, with my cousin Nikki.


November 2009 – Me and Phil at Ian’s son’s bar mitzvah.


April 2010, in Luton


July 2010, on Mastermind


August 2010, at Laura’s


October 2010, from Phil Tanner’s Photos – Mitch Benn ‘Proud of the BBC’ video shoot) The actual video’s here.


October 2010, again: at MCM


December 2010, after the office party


January 2011, at Tony and Tracy Lee’s wedding.


October 2011.


Yeah, I grew a beard in October, then shaved it off…


Laura took this one in April 2012 – not a bad shot of me, all things considered.

And then I had my hair cut…


No idea why I took this one, but it has me without a beard, anyway… August 2012

Lesson 1 about falling asleep in a friend’s house where children live. Don’t
(November 2012)


Me, at The Leveson Inquiry. The reading of the summary, not giving evidence…



Met up with an old friend, and wandered around Camden with him. A nice afternoon…


Yeah, I broke my foot…

Lost my father in October 2012 – here’s the progress of the shiva beard before trimming it down

And so to 2013…

Well, in March, I did a charity event where I wrote twenty-four stories in twenty-four hours for Comic Relief.


That’s Mitch Benn in the background, writing his comedy album, which he did also within twenty-four hours.

Phil turned up to support us…

And I got progressively more tired, and more silly, as the hours passed…

A small accident with the beard trimmer led me to shave off the beard I’d had for roughly a year…

Most people were glad I grew it back almost immediately

Later in the year, finally managed to get a photo with two of my closest friends. There’s been any number of pictures of two of the three of us, but rarely any shots of all three… until now.

Not the best pic, I have to admit, but rather pleased we managed it at all!

However, another photo was taken that night which continues to amuse me no end.

You don’t think I’m in it? Really? Look to the right. Yes, just there… that blurred shock of grey/white hair? Yeah, afraid so…

Towards the end of the year, there was something new… a mini-me. Or to be precise, I was scanned for a 3D printing of myself. Very strange to see myself post-scanning on a screen…

But that was nothing to seeing the actual result…

Here’s another shot of the 3D model, this one with Mitch (who was similarly scanned.)

Aaaand, I think that’s about it for this update. Not that many pics of me taken this year.

Not a lot to say, to be honest – just didn’t think that people were enjoying the daily blogs… and when I took a break, I didn’t get any negative responses to doing so.

So… while there may be a blog entry or five coming up before the year-end (I’ve half a dozen half-written quite important ones), and they may even have the “2014 minus…” header, they’ll be the exception.

However, there will new content, for more of which check the next entry on this blog, which should be up shortly.

I knew exactly what I was doing today: a bit of shopping, a bit of writing, some correspondence I had to deal with, some more writing, catching up on a couple of podcasts, some more writing (this time for something specific I’ve been asked to do), and this blog.

Oh, and the dozen or so other things that anyone might have slotted into their lives among the obligations they have.

And yet today got blown out of the water, and I’ve spent the past twelve hours doing something else entirely, about which I may or may not write about here as part of a larger blog entry.

So, everything I had planned have been put off until tomorrow, the next day and, in one case, next week. And I find myself, at almost nine o’clock in the evening, sitting in front of the iPad screen, thinking about the viccitudes of life, and how unanticipated events can throw not only a day out of planned complacency, but a life.

Events. Yes, such a small big word.

It was Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister, who was reputed to have answered (although he probably never did) the question of “And what do you most fear?” with “Events, my dear boy, events.”

But events is as good a word as any for those unforecast, unanticipated things that happen and cause all your assumptions, every one of your plans into disarray.

At one end, the huge, massive events – whether on the political stage, or the personal, an unexpected death would do the trick. No matter whether it’s assassination, or accident, a death changes everything. Not only for those left behind who loved and cared, but others, far beyond the immediate circle. Take John Smith, the Labour Leader. Had he not died, although I don’t agree he would have won the 1997 election with anywhere close to Blair’s victory, the first Labour government would have been hugely different from that of Tony Blair’s.

Take my brother’s death in 1998 – undoubtedly life would have been different had he lived for his family.

Or take something far more trivial; your car is stolen. Less changes in the long term, surely, but think of everything in the next 24 hours, the next week, that’s different just because of that small little change. Or your house is broken into; because of it, one member of the family has such a reaction that you move home to get away from the scene of the crime. And so many consequences arise from the decision of that burglar on that night on that street.

Or take my best friend’s wedding, in 1992, and my decision that since I was Best Man at the wedding and likely to be busy all day and evening, and I wasn’t seeing anyone at the time, to attend said celebrations without a date. A small decision, with large consequences.

During one dance, (yes, I danced, don’t make a big thing of it) with the bride’s aunt, she mentioned that she’d have to set me up on a blind date. For whatever reason – usually, I’d have run away from the idea as fast as my then-undamaged feet would carry me – I said yes.

OK, the first blind date was a disaster. No, seriously, a disaster; the sort of date where, after twenty minutes, you’re both sneaking looks at your watches wondering at what point it’d cease to be an embarrassment to call the evening to a halt. When we did eventually bring an end to the torture, the relief on both our faces as I dropped her back at home – and didn’t go in for the perfunctorily invited coffee – was plainly obvious for the other to see.

And that was supposed to be it; I’d had a blind date, it hadn’t worked out. Except that the lady in question – Marsha – came up with another name and another potential blind date for me. And again, I said yes. And then, after we’d arranged it, what do you know, Marsha’s husband died and the shiva covered the date. So we cancelled. And rearranged. And, a few days after the date had originally been planned, a week or so after we’d spoken first on the phone, I turned up, knocked on a door, and the woman who I’d only agreed to meet at all because I’d not taken a date to my best friend’s wedding opened the door.

Of course it was Laura, the lady who, a couple of years later, did me the singular honour of marrying me.

And because of that small decision (the non-date at Ian’s wedding, not the marrying me), so much has happened to me and in my life.

Obviously, there’s Laura herself, and though we’re not longer a couple, she’s still one of my favourite people on the planet. One of my closest friends, and partly but not wholly because of the life we shared, probably the person who knows me best.

And of course, there’s our son, Philip, now 18 years old.

I can’t imagine having the success I did have in my former life as an accountant, financial controller and financial director without Laura in my life. I can’t imagine my life would have been remotely similar to how it’s turned out. So many unanticipated consequences of a single decision.

And to think, I remember, at one point, early on in the proceedings at Ian’s wedding, thinking “I wish I’d brought a date.” Who knew, eh? Who knew.

I’ve not subjected the readers of this blog to one of these yet in the couple of years I’ve been writing here but you know what? Time to answer some general questions…

100 questions, 100 answers
1. Full Name: Lee Barnett. No middle name, despite some people thinking that “Budgie” really is my middle name.

2. Were you named after anyone? Yes, for my mum’s maternal grandmother, Leah. In Judaism, you tend to name after those who have died. If we’d have had another child, I’d have named them after Michael. As it was, my younger brother’s oldest is named after him.

3. Where did your nickname/handle come from? It’s a constant surprise to me that people who’ve known me for more than a month don’t know the story. A friend named Dave Rothburn came up with ‘budgie’, at Manchester Poly, coming up on 29 years ago. Full story’s here.

4. Do you wish on stars? No, never have; and never really understood it at all. I’m not superstitious at all.

5. When did you last cry? A few days ago. I had a mini-meltdown and at one point cried from pure and utter frustration.

6. Do you like your handwriting? Heh. No. ‘Bestest’ handwriting (i.e. when I’m handwriting something at work) isn’t that bad, but my normal scrawl is horrible.

7. What is your birth date? 17th August 1964. Yes, that means I’m officially “old”, well at least almost certainly older than you. Not necessarily, but I’d say the odds heavily favour it.

8. What is your most embarrassing CD? Leaving aside the ones brought for me deliberately as a gag? Probably Best of Chris De Burgh.

9. If you were another person, would YOU be friends with you? Highly unlikely. To be fair, I think I’d probably be hugely surprised (both good and bad) if I knew how people honestly thought of me, let alone what I’d think of me – I suspect there’d be bits of me I’d like, and bits I’d be bored by, and certainly bits I’d detest.

10. Are you a daredevil? In no way whatsoever. I rarely take risks, and if I do, I’ve analysed them to the nth degree.

11. Have you ever told a secret you swore not to tell? Yes, but only back in the days when I was a financial director, when ethically, I had no choice in the matter, and (b) I chose to break a confidence in order to correct a seriously wrong (and potentially dangerous) impression person A had of person B.

12. Do looks matter? No… in the kingdom of the blind. In any other sphere, of course they do! I can’t understand anyone who thinks that looks don’t matter. I know that some disagree with this, but I think looks are what gets you interested in someone you don’t know… and everything other than looks keeps you interested.

13. How do you release anger? As a general rule, I don’t. Through ‘writing it out’… or ‘bunkering down’ for a while have both been known.

14. Where is your second home? Don’t have one, though Laura’s would probably come closest.

15. Do you trust others easily? No. I usually find it incredibly hard to trust people. There are (and have been) exceptions, of course, but it takes me an incredibly long time to trust most people.

16. What was your favourite toy as a child? Lego. No question. I had other toys and games, but it always came back to Lego.

17. What class in school do think is totally useless? Geography. Never saw the bloody point of the subject. And I can’t think of a single thing I learned in the subject that’s been any use whatsoever in my life post-school.

18. Do you keep a handwritten journal? No, I have a notebook in which I scribble down thoughts and ideas, but it’s not a diary or journal.

19. Do you use sarcasm a lot? A lot? No. Sometimes, yeah, when I think it’s necessary… or occasionally funny.

20. Have you ever been in a mosh pit? Heh. No. Not my thing.

21. Favourite movie? Couldn’t narrow it down to just one, really.

25. Do you untie your shoes when you take them off? Yeah, usually.

26. What’s your favourite ice cream? Carte D’Or Banana. That they no longer make it is irrelevant. The best ice cream I’ve ever had, however, was melon flavour. Only had it once, in Israel in 1980, but the memory lasts…

27. What’s your shoe size? 10. My foot size varies, it feels like anyway, depending upon how bad the pain is.

28. What are your favourite colours? Black and red. Look I had to give two, so I added red.

29. What is your least favourite thing about yourself? See the answer to question 21 above.

30. Who do you miss most? Michael, my late brother… more recently, for various reason.

32. Are you patriotic? Not really, no. I don’t feel any pride about being British, nor any specific link to Britain in general.

33. What are you listening to right now? Well, I’m watching BBC1, this week’s Have I Got News For You?

34. When was the last time you ate chocolate? This afternoon.

35. If you were a crayon, what colour would you be? Don’t have a bloody clue, and suspect I wouldn’t care less about it..

36. What is the weather like right now? Cold, very cold.

37. Last person you talked to on phone? No idea, it was a wrong number.

38. The first thing you notice about the opposite sex? Depends on how far away they are. If they’re close, eyes. But in general, their face.

40. How are you today? Next question…

41. Favourite non-alcoholic drink? Dr Brown’s Cream Soda. And it’s a crying shame that you can’t get it in the UK. In that absence, I’ll go with coffee.

42. Favourite sport? To watch? These days? Don’t have one. I’m not a sports person.

43. Your hair colour? Grey, more white than dark.

44. Eye colour? Brown.

45. Do you wear contacts? Yeah, for most of the the week. I usually end up giving my contacts a couple of days a week off. And occasionally, I’ll give them more than that; I still remember with amusement turning up for a drinkup wearing glasses and at least one friend being rather surprised, because they’d never seen me wearing them.

46. Favourite month? November, no question.

47. Favourite food? Don’t really have one. I’m incredibly fussy about food, but if I like it, then I like it as much or as little as anything else I eat. I’m really not a food person. At all.

48. Last movie you watched? In a cinema? No idea. Can’t remember the last time I went to the cinema.

49. Favourite day of the year? 2nd November, my son’s birthday.

50. Scary movies or happy endings? Happy endings, every time. I don’t enjoy scary movies, generally at least. I have enjoyed the occasional one. I still think the original The Omen is one of the best movies for so many reasons, but I’d prefer a happy ending most times. The question’s unfair though – nothing says you can’t have a scary movie with a happy ending, is there?

51. Summer or winter? I always used to prefer Summer, but I’m unsure these days…

52. Hugs or kisses? Depends on the person I’m with… or want to be with.

53. Do you smoke? Yes.

54. What is your favourite dessert? Apple pie with ice cream. I’ll have the latter without the former, but never vice versa.

57. Living arrangements? I’m lucky enough to live with close friends.

58. What are you currently reading? Prose – rereading Terra by Mitch Benn; comics – Young Avenger by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie.

59. Do you have any kids or do you want to have kids? Yes, one eighteen year old son, the Phil mentioned above. I don’t want any more; very happy with the one I have, thanks.

60. What ‘s the first thing that the opposite sex notice about you? No idea, but I’d guess the greying hair.

61. What’s on your mouse pad? I don’t use one.

62. Favourite games? I don’t play computer games, and don’t really have a favourite game on the iPhone or iPad, so let’s just play safe and say backgammon. Probably.

63. What did you watch on tv last night? Lots, but I’m a news junkie so always safe to say “news”.

64. Favourite smells? Citrus, leather, freshly mown grass and freshly baked bread.

65. What is the first thing you think when you wake up? “Damn.”

66. How tall are you? Six feet exactly

67. Have you ever fired a gun? No. Strangely enough, I don’t feel as if I’ve missed out any. I’m mildly curious as to what it would be like to shoot one, and to see the effect of me pulling the trigger, but only mildly curious.

68. Ever been in rehab? No.

69. Have you ever killed an animal? Other than insects, spiders, wasps, etc. No. And wasps deserve it, the little buggers. In fact I think that great effort should be made by various people to make animal experimentation compulsory for wasps.

70. What do you think of hot dogs? The owners should be prosecuted for leaving them in the car.

71. What’s your favourite Christmas song? Fairy Tale of New York. I don’t care that it’s become a cliché for people to say it; I fell in love with that song the first time I heard it.

72. What do you prefer to drink in the morning? Coffee. Or Tea.

73. Do you do push ups? No, but I probably should.

74. Have you ever been hospitalized? Yes, many times. Most recently was a year or so back.

75. Do you like painkillers? When I need them, I take them like sweets.

76. What’s your secret weapon to lure in the opposite sex? Haven’t got one. If there is one, please tell me.

77. Do you own a knife? Yes, two Swiss Army knives.

78. Do you have A.D.D.? No.

79. Have you any tattoos? No.

80. Have you any piercings? No. (gosh that was an easy set of three to answer.)

81. Name three drinks you regularly drink: water, coffee and tea.

82. What’s the last song you played on your CD Player/iPod Paint It Black, Rolling Stones

83. What’s under your bed? Nothing but carpet.

84. What time did you wake up today? 9:00 am, but I didn’t get to sleep until 7:30 am.

pic85. Current haircut? See pic.

86. Current worry? See answer to 21 above.

87. If you could play any musical instrument? Mouth Organ. Usually popular, and no one ever asks you to sing!

88. What was your first paid employment? Other than working for my father in the hair salon? Supermarket (Sainsbury’s) shelf stacking and on the checkout.

89. What was the last CD you bought? Again, I can’t remember the last time I bought a CD.

90. Do you have a motor vehicle (car, bike)? Yes, a Ford Fiesta Style+.

91. Who’s the one person from your past you wish you could speak with one more time? No surprise there, my late brother.

92. Where do you want to live? Quite happy in London, thanks.

93. Number of pillows you sleep with? Two on each side of the double bed.

94. Are you paranoid? Why do you want to know? Why? Why? Huh? Huh?

95. Latest crush? Next question…

96. Last thing you ate? Couple of bagels.

97. What’s in your pockets right now? money, cigarettes, iPhone.

98. What colour are your bedroom walls? White.

99. Have you ever won any awards: None since school.

100. Who do you tell your dreams to? I rarely remember them anyway, and those that do, I really wish I didn’t.

I wrote the other day on public persona vs private truth, and a friend picked me up on it. “Well, it’s not as if you’re wildly open about yourself on the blog, is it?” she asked. And she has a point. But I’ve always acknowledged that, especially when asked about it.

A while back, well, to be fair, some years back, I stuck a poll up on my previous blog asking whether readers thought they were the same online as offline, and also whether they thought other people were. The results were – at the time, though less so to me now – quite surprising.

Almost without exception those who responded said that they thought they were pretty much the same online as offline, with a few exceptions, such as stuff they never talked about online, but would happily talk about with friends. (Work-related issues tended to be the favourite there.) And they were equally certain that other people were quite different online and offline.

Apart from me – again, with the notable exception of work, almost everyone thought (or at least said they thought, not necessarily the same thing at all) that I was very much the same online and off. That’s not to say that I was entirely open and transparent online, quite the reverse: there were things I wouldn’t talk about online and they were, by and large, the things that I didn’t talk about offline. Interestingly, the word “predictable” was used by some, even “reliably predictable”, which I still don’t entirely think was a compliment.

Sure, the frequency with which subjects came up was different (it was notable, one friend said) that I occasionally mentioned Laura (the lady I was then married to, and now still one of my closest friends) or my son Philip online, but I often spoke about them in ‘real life’. And work was similarly rarely mentioned online but quite often offline. But other than that, other than with very close friends? Stuff that I felt, stuff that mattered to me? Rarely in either environment.

Another friend at the time said of me, and particularly the blog:

Someone can read your blog for a year and while they’ll know what ‘budgie’ thinks about any number of issues: comics, politics, religion, they’ll reach the end of the year not knowing any more about what you feel about things than they knew at the start.

I think that’s quite true, and even in this era of disclosing everything, I maintain there’s a huge difference – particularly online – between actively lying about something on the one hand, and allowing others to draw conclusions by their silence.

On a slight tangent, strangely – or maybe not so strangely, given that I was married at the time – I never, ever discussed sex on the blog. Partly because my son, when he got old enough to go online, occasionally read the blog, but that’s no real excuse seeing as I could lock an entry so only those I’d marked as ‘friends’ could read it. Mainly because I think that when you’re single, your sexual preferences and choices cannot necessarily be taken as those of someone else’s. When you’re in a long term relationship, or married, it’s kind of implicit that your preferences are probably* those of your partner, and I believe no-one has the right without explicit permission to discuss or reveal someone else’s sexual preferences.

[* Yes, I’m more than aware that a couple’s sexual preferences may not be identical, but I also think it’s perfectly reasonable that unless you specifically state that to be the case, readers may infer from a stated favourite sexual position, or preference for bondage, say, or threesomes, that their long term sexual partner also enjoys it.]

However, I’ve come to realise that at least where that’s concerned, nothing’s really changed. Yes, I have a son who is now 18 and reads this blog sometimes, and I’d not want to subject him to any more nightmares about me than he already has. And while I’m in awe at those parents who are (and have managed to be) entirely open with others about their feelings, views and sexual preferences, I’m not one of them.

I’ve effectively been single for a very long time (partly from choice, partly through circumstance) but there are things – not only related to that that I do stay quiet about; there’s a reason – at least as far as I’m concerned – why a “private life” is called that.

Do I keep secrets? From you, dear reader? Of course. Some are trivial, some are hugely serious. Do I keep secrets from people I know, from my friends, from my closest friends? Again, yes, of course. I’d be astonished if everyone didn’t in respect of some things.

Am I lying to you and them? Quite possibly. But I’m not responsible for conclusions that others draw any more than you’re responsible for the conclusions I draw from your and their silences.

Of course I’m aware of the quote from Edmund Burke reads:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil in America is for good men to do nothing.

OK, the quote limits it to America, but I think the principle applies internationally and for life as a general rule. Similarly, Father Martin Niemoeller’s poem is well-known by many, many more since the age of the internet:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me–
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

So the lesson is pretty clear, yes? If you say nothing, you’re complicit in the evil that happens (with, I think, the fair caveat that you’re responsible only if your actions would genuinely have made a difference). So if they’re one side of ‘the argument’, what’s the other?

While there is a latin maxim of qui tacet consentire videture, which means “he who is silent is taken to agree”, I’ve mentioned before my utter contempt for the view that “silence indicates consent”. The formal environment of contract law where the principal that silence can never be taken as consent was established in English Law as far back as the 1800s, although you can get ‘acceptance by conduct’, one of my favourite legal concepts. However, you can’t take mere silence or apathy as acceptance of the premise.

In the less formal atmosphere of campaigning, again, I don’t accept for one moment that silence on a campaign always implies in any way support for (or acceptance of) the thing that the campaigners are, well, campaigning against. Sometimes, yes, but not always. There are lots of reasons for not joining a campaign and actively participating; one of them may be that you disagree with the campaign; others might be that you have a problem with the methodology/ideology of those campaigning, or you might not have the time to participate, or you just don’t care one way or the other. One problem I have with many campaigns is that they believe (or at least promote the idea) that unless you participate you actively support the other side. Whether it’s racism, sexism, party politics, or taking someone to bed, silence does not indicate consent. Ever.

I dredge the following example up every so often, so you’ll forgive me if I resurrect it one more time.

A meme did the rounds some time ago, viz:

“Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?” – Ernest Gaines

We would like to know who really believes in gay rights on Livejournal. There is no bribe of a miracle or anything like that. If you truly believe in gay rights, then repost this and title the post “gay rights.” If you don’t believe in gay rights, then just ignore this. Thanks.

Simple, easy to do, so you should do it, right?

Not in my book. No. Bloody. Way. It’s trite, insulting, patronising emotional guilt-tripping. And it’s wrong.

Why?

Well, suppose the message was this:

We would like to know who isn’t anti-Semitic on LiveJournal. There is no bribe of a miracle or anything like that. If you’re NOT anti-Semitic, then repost this and title the post as “I hate anti-Semitism”. If you are anti-Semitic, then just ignore this. Thanks

I’m supposed to then, presumably, believe that anyone who doesn’t post the comment in their own blog is anti-Semitic?

Utter nonsense.

But you wouldn’t know that from the reaction of some.

So, bringing this back to me, if there’s a secret you’re curious about, something you think you’d like to know, ask me. I’m not thinking of “what’s your favourite colour?” or “how come you almost exclusively dress in black?” I mean, the real secrets, the one’s you’ve always wondered about, the things you actually want to know.

Now, I appreciate that such an invitation carries its own risks: for a start, you may not want to ask the question in public, or be identified as the questioner, although that’s hardly fair, I think. But certainly the first part of that may worry you. No worries, I assure you.

You can ask either below in the comments attached to this blog, or if you’d rather, you can email me the questions; and I promise I’ll answer them honestly… if I can, or at least reply that it’s something about which I’m not comfortable discussing even by email.

OK, I think that’s about it for today. More tomorrow, hopefully neither secret nor a lie.

I’m sticking birthdays in quotes in the title of this blog entry because usually when you – or at least I – mention someone’s birthday, it’s to wish them a happy birthday.

And – not to put too fine a point on it – you can only do that when they’re… you know… alive.

Alfred Cooke was born 105 years ago today. You probably don’t recognise the name, because when he was 22 he changed his first name to what he became known as, literally worldwide: Alistair Cooke. Cooke died in 2004, weeks after he recorded his final Letter From America, and I still miss tuning in every week to hear his voice. Yes, I have the CDs, yes, I have the books (his collections, his histories, his America, and his biography by Nick Clarke, also sadly gone) but it’s not the same. It really isn’t.

I was introduced to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America by a college tutor named John Ramm. He taught me a subject entitled “Government and Comparative Political Studies”, and as part of that we spent a year on British Government and politics, and another year spent 2/3 on America and 1/3 on China. Of course, the final exam was designed to get the student to compare and contrast the different ways different countries did things, whether it was how to get legislation passed, or the history of politics in that country.

Tuesday morning, we had ‘double politics’, and John would always start of the lesson by playing us a recording of that week’s Letter from America. This was in 1982, so the show had already been broadcast for the BBC for almost forty years. From then until 2004, I doubt there were more than half a dozen editions I didn’t hear, either on broadcast or within a few days afterwards.

One of the pleasures of listening to them now is undoubtedly the strange way that his own recollections of fifty or sixty years past triggers similar memories of mine. It’s not going too far to say that I’ve had memories sparked by a listen to the show that I’d genuinely forgotten happened. I still miss the show.

As far as I know, Cooke had no great love of comic books, but he was a fan of the comic strip, as anyone who heard his tribute to Charles Schulz could not have missed.

The other man? He was born 51 years after Cooke, on 20th November 1959; he also died before Cooke did, on 9th January 1998. He’d have been 54 today. As far as I know, he was never a huge fan of Cooke’s; I have no idea whether or not he knew of the coincidence of their birthdays – I never asked him. He’d probably have just shrugged and said something like “well, there you are – just shows to go, doesn’t it?”

Moreover, to be honest, he never had much interest in comics, commenting more than once that he just didn’t ‘get’ them. Not once though, in the thirty-three years I knew him did he even once denigrate comic books or those who read them. He just regarded reading and understanding them as skills he lacked.

248His name, as you’ll probably have guessed by now, was Michael Barnett and he was my brother.

As people who have been readers of this (and the previous) blog will know, I don’t tend to have a good 9th January; people steer clear of me, and I’m grateful for it. In my day job, when I had one, people communicated with me by email that day, and my staff went above and beyond by keeping everyone else away.

But unlike my parents, I have no problem at all with his birthday. It’s a day I relish, revelling in good memories (there aren’t that many bad ones) of the years I was privileged to have him as my “big bruvver”.

I often regret that he never got to know Phil, who was a shade over two years old when Mike died; he’d have enjoyed Philip’s bar mitzvah, and would have further enjoyed watching Phil grow up into the young man he’s become.

But since I’ve already mentioned comics, it seems fitting to mention that there’s a comic book that I cannot read without thinking of my brother.

Small digression: the very first published story I wrote was in the first issue of a short lived anthology entitled Trailer Park of Terror. The story, entitled, It’s Murder Out There had in the final panel, in the gutter, the single lettered line “For Mike, LB”.

Michael may not have ‘gotten’ comics, but he was never anything other than wholly supportive of my writing efforts, and took great satisfaction and pleasure in any success I had.)

Digression over. It’s Sandman #43, the third book in the Brief Lives arc.

An explanation is required, methinks.

Shortly after Mike died, at the tragically young age of 38, I really wasn’t much in the mood for comics. The family were still trying to make sense of what had just happened, and were still saying, in response to those who those who said “we don’t know what to say”, “no, we don’t know what to say to each other either”. Sure I read some comics, some old favourites, but I was just getting through the day.

At around this time, my closest friend, who’d emigrated to America three years earlier, invited me to visit, just to get out of the UK for a few days. It was with genuine gratitude that I accepted the invitation, and went over to stay with Ian and his family in Forest Hills.

Well, that gave me a problem of a different sort. Although I usually have no problem sleeping on airplanes, I knew that this flight would likely be different. I wanted to take something that I could enjoy reading, but was something I’d read before, but something that would take my mind away from the dreadful events of the previous couple of weeks. Sandman seemed perfect. I picked up the first collection and put it in my bag. Then I took it out… remembering the final story in the collection: The Sound of Her Wings, a nicely crafted tale, but one in which the character of Death shows her necessity in the cosmos. During the story, you see the deaths of several characters, characters that you only met for a couple of pages, but with Gaiman’s and Dringenberg’s skills, you actually cared about.

Uh-oh.

Even in the state I was in, I knew that was too close to home. Which wiped out The Doll’s House as well, since the story was included there as well, for some reason.

So I grabbed my copy of Brief Lives (the meaning of the words completely slipped past me, I’m afraid) from the bookshelf and packed that, as well as some others.

A few hours later, I’m on the aircraft, we’re pulling away from the terminal, then we’re in the air… and after reading the newspaper, I pull out the first of the books to read.

No, it wasn’t Brief Lives. As I recall (and for reasons you’ll understand in a paragraph or two, I remember this flight very well), it was my collection of Howard Chaykin’s Twilight. I finished it, and then picked up Brief Lives.

I’d forgotten how #43 starts, and I’d forgotten the character of Bernie Capax, a man of some 15,000 years of age. And how he dies in what he thinks is an accident, buried under a collapsed wall. His spirit, however, doesn’t realise he’s dead and he stands by the remains of the wall, in delighted surprise: “Not even a scratch.” When Death arrives, he’s, you’ll forgive the word, crushed. Then, in an attempt to convince himself that he didn’t do too badly, the following happens:

And you know…?

It helped. I have no idea why. No idea at all… but it helped.

I thought of what my brother had achieved in his thirty-eight years, and for a moment, just for a moment at that time, but later for longer, I was comforted by the line.

Mike lived what everyone gets: a lifetime.

Neil Gaiman was a friend back then, but not as close a friend as he became. It’s been one of the pleasures of our friendship that I’ve been able to tell him about this over the years, and how it mattered, when it mattered that something mattered.

So, on Mike’s birthday, raise a glass with me to his memory, eh? And if you have good memories of your family, or of friends who’ve passed on, then take a minute, and revel in them.