Archive for the ‘life’ Category

Yes, STILL away…

Posted: 11 February 2020 in going cheep, life

Yes, this place is still on a break, or more accurately I’m still on a break from this place.

I’ve every intention of returning to it soon, but as they say, the best laid plans… except that’s not fair as I dont have a plan at the moment, merely a vague intention.

Partly it’s health reasons, both physical and otherwise; partly, it’s because I’m just too weary, and haven’t got much to say. Not that everyone else hasn’t said better and less pissed off than I would say it, anyways.

I am keeping up – mostly – with a daily brain dump at goingcheep, so if you’re missing seeing something from me every day, it’s worth checking there to see what I blurt out.

Unlike here, where I at least try to entertain or inform, goingcheep is more just a couple of hundred words on whatever is in my mind when I start typing. So, bear that in mind, eh?

OK, hope you’re all¹ well, and maybe see you soon…


¹ok, the seven of you who actually read this thing.

My mate Mitch

Posted: 20 January 2020 in family, life, personal
Tags: , , , ,

It’s Mitch Benn’s 50th birthday, today. Happy birthday, Mitch.

No one reading this is going to be unaware that we’re close friends. That we’ve only known each other since 2010, however, does seem to surprise; most people assume we’ve been friends for a lot longer.

Even yesterday, at Mitch’s birthday bash, a couple of people expressed their astonishment that we only met a decade or so back.

But that’s perfectly fair; it still sometimes takes me aback, and saddens me, that Mitch never knew Mike, and never knew me when Phil was bar mitzvah’d. Would have been lovely to have him there for both.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Most Saturdays, since I restarted the blog in June last year, I’ve done a set of what I call Saturday Smiles; commonly, I’ll put up half a dozen funny or amusing videos just to lighten the mood, to give readers of the blog a smile or six after another week of ‘oh, what the hell has the world done now?’ I’ve done it off and on since I started blogging here in 2011.

And when I restarted them seven months ago, I made the decision to always include a song from Mitch. There’ve been some personal favourites in there, sure, but there’s always been something, if for no other reason that I like his work and I think more people should be exposed to it.

Because I do like Mitch’s work, his songs, his comedy. It’s why it was a joy to discover that I liked Mitch as well as his work when I met him.

And his 50th birthday seems as good a time as any – ten years after we met, and nine years since we became friends – to write something about my mate Mitch, and our friendship.

Now, that’s not to say that I didn’t like Mitch the moment we met, but that was under fairly frantic and pressured circumstances, and…

No. Wait. Allow me to go back a bit further. Pre-blog. Pre-Mitch.


I can’t remember when I first became a fan of musical comedy and of comedy songs. As early as I can recall, there were funny songs I recall learning the words of: playground songs, songs my dad sang, songs from I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again on radio, and comedy albums… everything from Alan Sherman’s Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (properly entitled Camp Grenada) to Ernie, The Fastest Milkman In The West; Benny Hill’s comedy songs are great, by the way.

I’d happily sit and watch Victor Borge on the tv at my grandparents. Hell, I’d watch anyone who made me laugh, while singing a song or playing an instrument, or both.

One year, I remember I was bought an album of comedy songs for a birthday or Chanukah; one of my favourite presents as a child, ever. I played it over and over, driving my parents, and my brothers, loopy. And my older brother – who I’ve mentioned before played the guitar with perhaps more enthusiasm than talent – did the whole ‘funny lyrics to existing tunes’, which I joined in with, with equal… enthusiasm.

And then there was Richard Stilgoe, and The Goodies, and Phil Pope, and Victoria Wood, and Not The Nine O’Clock News and Monty Python, and Who Dares Wins

But I’ve always loved radio comedy. My old man introduced me to The Goon Show (which had musical interludes but they weren’t comedy songs as such) and then… and then… Well, I’d been a fan of Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis through their work on The Mary Whitehouse Experience and Jasper Carrott’s shows.

So when they helmed a new topical radio show entitled The Now Show, I listened to it.

Well, ok, yes, it’s a bit more complicated than that; I used to write for a Radio 4 topical comedy show entitled Weekending; a few years after I stopped writing for them, it came off air… to be replaced by a new show entitled The Now Show.

It ‘starred’ Punt and Dennis, along with Marcus Brigstocke, Jon Holmes, Laura Shavin, and this fella named Mitch Benn who did the funny songs.

And they were funny; clever ideas, fantastic wordplay, glorious rhymes – which I later learned Mitch refers to as ‘stunt rhyming’ – and superb homages/parodies of music styles, and of specific artists.

Mitch let us into his life just a bit on the show. I learned he was married, that in 2005, almost exactly ten years after my lad was born, he and his missus had their first child. He was a huge Doctor Who fan. As was I. And a comics fan. Well, obviously. And loved sf as much as I did. And when he occasionally let his anger show in a song, it was never gratuitous, but always razor sharp, and he hit his targets. I liked his humour, and I liked the show.

I went to see a couple of the Now Show recordings in 2008 & 2009. And yeah, the personalities on stage were about what I expected: funny, silly and the cast obviously liked each other enormously.

I started using Twitter properly in early 2008, having signed up a year earlier. It didn’t take too long before I discovered Mitch on there. And his missus. And for the next couple of years, it was fun, whenever the show was on, seeing Clara nag Mitch – who’d be playing hashtag games on a Wednesday night when he was supposed to be writing his Now Show songs. The fun they obviously had, teasing each other online… well, they always lightened a Wednesday night.

I chatted to both of them, very occasionally, but no more than they chatted to other people, I guess. I remembered that Mitch had played at the Eagle awards one year at Comic Expo in Bristol while I was in the bar… but we never met.

And – it turned out – that had happened a couple of times; we’d been at the same place at the same time, but just never got around to meeting. It happens.

I knew Mitch and I had a mutual friend, but I’ve always been a bit wary of asking mutual friends for an introduction, not when they’re both celebrities in their own rights.

So, we just never met.


Several hundred words through this, we come to late September 2010. Work was hard, and I was putting in long hours, working six day weeks and most Sundays. Twitter was my… break from mundanity, I guess? Back then it was silly, and fun, and I dunno; maybe the memory plays tricks but it was… fun.

Mitch had written a song entitled (I’m) Proud of the BBC, and was doing a video for it; he invited his Twitter followers, if they were available, to come down and take part in the filming.

My office in Newman Street was about ten minutes’ walk from where they were recording part of the video, outside the BBC. I was going to be working on the Sunday of the recording – near where I’m currently typing this, as it happens – so I dropped them a message and said I might turn up.

Mitch and Clara’s reaction was – in part, I’m sure because they wanted to have a decent turn out – an enthusiastic “Yes! Come along!”

I duly ‘came along’, and ended up appearing for about a second and a half in the video, before I – having met Mitch, Clara and the kids, and liked them all – returned to the office and the month end accounts, and the three year budget, and the financial modelling, all of which I was then simultaneously wrangling.

And that was that; that could have been that. I’d met them, I’d had fun, and who knows, maybe I’d meet them again at some point?

It could have been no more than that.

And my life would have been very different, substantially worse, than it turned out.

Because when I mentioned to our mutual friend how much I’d enjoyed meeting Mitch et famile, his reaction was immediate, along the lines of: “How do you both not know each other? You two should definitely know each other. You’ll like each other.

Shortly thereafter I received an invitation to pop round to the house one day and meet them properly. As memory serves, and memories of that time are, I’ll acknowledge, a bit blurry at times, I was in the office on another Sunday, taking a break, and they said if I finished early enough, to drive around to them, to meet them properly. So I drove over to their place. Had a lovely evening, full of laughter and silliness and fun.

And then ‘popping round to see them’ after work became a regular thing, an oasis from work, and a welcome chat and time of relaxation.

I’d never ‘done’ Christmas really. I’m Jewish for a start, but it had never been my thing, and – after my marriage ended – I tended to go into work on Christmas Day itself. I’d clear the backlog of correspondence and work in the blessed silence of no telephones ringing, no emails disturbing me, no one popping by my office to ask me stuff. (For various reasons, I’d pretty much cut ties with my parents and remaining sibling by then.) So, yeah, I had every intention of working that particular Christmas Day until late in the evening.

Neither Clara nor Mitch particularly liked that idea, and they… well, I’d say they invited, but that’s not strong enough. They pretty much insisted that I join their family for their Christmas.

And I did. In both meanings.

Mitch and Clara invited me to join their family in oh, so many ways. Not just for Christmas, but to always be welcome at and in their house, to view their place as somewhere safe… another home.

They became my closest friends in an astonishingly short period of time.

And I needed friends.

I needed somewhere else I could think of as home, somewhere where I would be… ok, or as ok as I got back then.

Because I was in the process of cracking up.

And not in a ‘cracking up with laughter’ way; cracking up as in a ‘falling apart’ way.

I didn’t know it at that time, but I was. I mean, ok, everyone else – especially those at Chez Benn – knew it, or at least strongly suspected it, but me? Not so much. It’s easiest to describe what happened as a fairly comprehensive nervous breakdown. There’s more to it than that, but that’ll do for the moment.

And when I lost where I was living, Mitch and Clara invited – again, that’s so little a word to describe it – me to take over the spare room at their place, and to live with them, as part of their family. Partly to look after me, to care for, and about, me. Partly to allow me the time to get through the crisis that was… me being me.


I met Mitch in 2010; we became friends in 2011, and there’s not been a day since when I haven’t learned something from him. Stuff about life, about family, about comedy. About friendship.

(Oh, and a lot about Doctor Who. No, I meant it: a lot about Doctor Who. Seriously, so much about Doctor Who.)

One of the things Mitch and I discovered fairly early on was that we both knew an awful lot about the same subjects, and interests. But there was shed loads he knew that I didn’t, and vice versa. In ten years, there’s not been a single conversation we’ve had where he’s not surprised me with some nugget of relevant information, or shown me a side of an argument I’d not considered. Doesn’t mean we always agree; hell, as often as not, our conversations are attempts to persuade the other that we’re right and the other is… well, if not wrong, then not wholly right.

I can’t begin to list all the things I owe him, for which he deserves – but won’t ever accept – my thanks.

But here are a couple.

Mitch knew of my comedy writing career (such as it was) and when he was snowed under with work – The Now Show, appearing as Zaphod Beeblebrox in the stage tour of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, writing a novel – but had been asked to do some Radio 4 shows, he asked me if I wanted to help write them.

Whether I wanted to? Of course I wanted to. Took me about ¾ of a second to say yes. And ½ a second of that was me going ‘wha–?’

And the past four years, it’s been enormous fun, and incredibly satisfying, to work on his Edinburgh shows, to see him craft an idea, then a routine, then a show; to watch at close hand why this gag works, but this one doesn’t quite; to see why this word caps the routine, but that word would drain the energy from it; to watch an audience being taken along the journey that is an Edinburgh show.

I have no musical ability at all; I can just about pick out a tune on a keyboard, but not so as anyone would, y’know, recognise the tune. It’s a delight to see someone who knows what they’re doing… create musical comedy, and… make people laugh while they’re doing it.

Writing with Mitch has been the hardest, and yet the most fun, writing I’ve ever done. And enormously, wonderfully, fantastic.

Writing something else in the same room as Mitch, on the other hand? That’s just plain weird.

January 2013: Mitch has been away, doing a gig; I pick him up from the airport. We’re driving back, and he mentions he’s doing something for Radio 3, for Comic Relief, something with Simon Russell Beale.

Mitch adds that he quite fancies doing something else as well. Maybe… creating a muscial comedy album from scratch in 24 hours, with – we’re just chatting, you understand – maybe the song titles being chosen by the Now Show audience, curated by the Now Show cast?

The idea’s a fun one, and we bat it back and forth for a bit before I say something like ‘huh… you know, whenever I’ve done the fast fictions, I’ve done loads of extra challenges within it, but I’ve never done a timed challenge. Heh. Can you imagine? Me writing 24 stories in 24 hours?’

It sounds harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?

And yes, you can see where this is heading.

I mean, I’d said it merely as a ‘Huh… here’s a daft idea.’

But by the end of the car journey, Mitch is already working out where we could do this thing together; him writing, performing and releasing, a comedy album in 24 hours, me writing 24 stories in 24 hours, my challenges coming from celebrities, both raising money for Comic Relief.

By then, I’d lived with the Benns for six months or so. I stayed for another four years, before moving out in February 2017. I doubt there’s been more than a couple of days since when we’ve not exchanged messages, or chatted, or… something.


Mitch has no time for the sentiment: ‘never meet your heroes’; his view tends towards “get better heroes”.

Mitch isn’t my hero but he’s my friend, one of my closest friends. And I’m hugely, wonderfully, phenomenally, grateful for that.

I was a fan of his work before I met him and it was, and remains a delight to me that our friendship quickly developed to cover so much more.

Happy birthday, Mitch.

And thanks for being… well… you.

No, you didn’t misread that, and no, you haven’t skipped five weeks into the future.

A short post today.

A very short one.

I almost took today off blogging in fact. But something occurred which had me opening up the app and typing something.

I’ve seen four references to Valentine’s Day today: two people talking about its approach, two people promoting their gigs (which happen to be taking place on that day), and one person lamenting that she’d just broken with her girlfriend and will likely be spending Valentine’s Day on her own for the first time in a decade.

Which is odd, as a concept to me. No, not the ideas of spending Valentine’s Day alone… the concept of not doing so.

I’d say I can’t remember the last time I spent Valentine’s Day with anyone, in a romantic sense, but that’d be a slight exaggeration.

I proposed to my ex-wife on Valentine’s Day 1993. For such a naturally unromantic fella like me, for once I did it ‘properly’: on bended knee, with a single red rose, and a poem.

Yes, I wrote the lady I hoped would do me the honour of becoming my wofe – ok, fiancée, to start with- a poem.

And while we were married, I think we spent most 14th February evenings together, unless I was working that night.

Since then? Since we split in July 2005? Ah, well, since then… I’ve never been romantically involved, (to put it formally), or ‘seeing anyone’ (to put it casually), on the day.

And although I’ve no doubt I’ve been in company on various 14th Februaries over the past decade and a half, I haven’t sent nor received cards, nor bought roses nor chocolates for anyone on Valentine’s Day since at least February 2006.

Indeed, I’ve neither been romantically involved, nor ‘seen anyone’ at all, for… well, trust me, you don’t want to know how long it’s been.

I’m sure that should probably bother me tonight more than it does.

Well now.

Fifteen years.

Yep. Fifteen years.

I checked earlier and yes, it’s true – this thing has been running in various forms, on two different blogs for fifteen years.

It only started as a bit of a giggle.

On Livejournal, back in the dim distant days of 2004, someone started a ‘hey, post some photos of you when you were younger!”

I put up a dozen or so, from the single baby photo I had scanned in, and then one from every five years or so up until the most recent pic I had of myself.

At the end of the year, I did it properly, putting loads of photos up, and since then, I’ve continued to update it every year with more recent pics, and have managed to scan in or otherwise digitise other photos I’ve found.

Why do I do it? Oh, why not? And, besides, people who haven’t seen them before get the unfettered joy of joining in the mockery…

So, time once again for the annual mocking and silliness to occur, with the 2019 update to A Life In Pictures.

Now… about the pics you’re going to see below: as you’d expect, 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.

So, here they are, bringing the photos up to date, as of December 2019. As always, I’ve removed a couple of shots from previous years, and added some new ones. For once, I’ve more than a few to pick from this year – a rarity for me – but as with the last couple of years, thanks to some newly discovered photos and some technical wizardry, there are some surprises awaiting you below.

(Oh, since I was asked last year, the wonderful iPhone app I’ve used in recent years to digitise snaps so they’re effectively high resolution scans is a free Google app called Photoscan. I genuinely can’t recommend it highly enough. IOS version; | Google Play version)

OK, without any further ado… in chronological order…


Those are the earliest photos I’ve got of me… looks like they were taken the same day; my older brother is in the background.


3 years old


Three brothers – must be around 1967 or 1968, so I’d be around 3½ years of age?


Aged 4


I’m five, I think, here in this shot and the next one.


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. I still remember the wallpaper; very, very odd gold pattern to it.


The main ‘man’ – my barmitzvah, August 1977


Three brothers – my barmitzvah, August 1977


Starting the dancing – my barmitzvah, August 1977


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 thirty years ago?


Three brothers – 1991, I believe


1994 – A nice one, from Laura’s and my wedding day – aged 30


A low res shot from the wedding that I discovered in the archives…

I love that I found this next pic. Laura’s still one of my favourite people on the planet. And this is another great pic of us on our wedding day. And yes, ahhh I had dark hair back then…

This next one’s an odd one for lots of reasons; first off, it’s obviously my BBC pass from when I was writing for WeekEnding on Radio 4; secondly, when I visited New York just after 9/11, it was better as ID for getting me into buildings, places, meetings than my actual passport… even though it had expired six years’ earlier…


The earliest pic I have of my lad Phil (excluding ‘scans’). Me, a new dad, aged 31. And so, so tired.


Me holding my son… he’s 18 days’ old here.


Yeah, another ‘Budgie plus baby’ pic, this time he’s three months old…


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. Three generations of Barnetts.


Not exactly sure when this was taken but would have been around now…


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.


Me in mid-2006, looking very serious for one reason or another.


Again, mid-2006.


Me in December 2006… looking slightly more relaxed.


May 2007, Bristol, Saturday night, at around 2 in the morning… very relaxed… aided by what Alistair Cooke used to call ‘The wine of Scotland’.


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


November 2008 – formal pic for Phil’s barmitzvah.


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


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


November 2009 – Me and Phil at a friend’s son’s barmitzvah.


April 2010, in Luton


July 2010, on Mastermind. No, not an illusion; you’re not allowed to wear black for the show…


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


October 2011, trying out a beard… not quite yet… but give it a year…


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

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

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

This final one attracted the title “… and all the woodland creatures gathered around, for they had never seen a creature such as this in the forest.”


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

The delightful Clara Benn proved that I’m tiny when sitting next to Mitch Benn…

Isn’t perspective fun?


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


Yeah, I broke my foot…

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…

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.

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 and still am very happy with how it turned out.

Some time ago, remember, the delightful Clara Benn had taken a shot which proved I was substantially smaller than Mitch, tiny in comparison, in fact. November 2015, she proved it again…

Isn’t perspective wonderful?

And so to 2016, and I’m not sure what this pic was for, in July, but it’s an odd one…

Never liked the next shot in colour, I do, however, really like it in black and white.

Anyway… Moving on…

Towards the end of the 2016, close friends had a baby, and I got to say hello both in October and November. I’ve never hidden how soppy I am about babies. I suspect these photos prove it.


And this is the shot, at the end of 2016, that convinced me that if I ever do get a hat, it’ll be a Homburg, not a Fedora…


Me and my lad, outside Distraction Club, December 2016

And in December 2017, this one of the new[er], short[er] haircut.

In June 2018, I got to see Pippa Evans; this is me waiting to go in…

In August 2018, my lad Phil was in town for a few days. We realised it had been a while since we’d had pics taken of the pair of us. So here are two.

And, of course since we had that pic, and I had a similar one from almost exactly ten years’ earlier, I was kind of obliged to put the two together. I really like this image.

In October, I attended the Brexit march for a People’s Vote. It ended up with 700,000 people… plus me.

Same march, with Mitch… No idea why, but I really like how my hair looks in this shot.

And the final shot from 2018 answered the question “so, what did you do immediately after Christmas 2018, budgie?”

And so to 2019…

It’s rare there’s a pic of me that even I will reluctantly admit is a good shot, especially if it’s a selfie, but you know what? I really like this one…

Of course, that was after a haircut.

I look decidedly less good immediately before a haircut…

I just wish any pics from Edinburgh didn’t look like I’d photoshopped me into previously taken shots…

Oh yeah, I was in hospital in Edinburgh. I wasn’t impressed…

Here’s another post haircut pic…

I think that should do you. And, as I wish everyone a happy new year, one full of love, joy, and silliness, the traditional benediction:

Mocking may now commence.

One of the inevitable consequences, an entirely expected consequence, of my blogging on a pretty much daily basis since June was that I knew that sooner or later I’d likely run out of things to write.

Oh, there’s been the blog entries where I’ve ducked out of the day’s posting, putting up just a

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And a full week of feeling like crap illness where I just put up extra ‘fiction from the vaults’. No one seemed to mind.

But, sometimes, there are unexpected consequences of things happening. Not merely unexpected consequences of decisions you take; the one certainty is that every decision has unexpected consequences, and the best you can hope for is to mitigate for the deleterious consequences that you can foresee.

But I find myself, this afternoon, with a coffee by my side, sitting in front of the iPad screen, thinking about the viccitudes of life; pondering how unanticipated events can throw out of planned complacency not only a day, 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

“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 which cause all your assumptions to evaporate, change your paradigm, and throw 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, or even the final act of a long life, 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 for a short time in the mid-1990s. Had he not died, although I don’t agree he would have won the 1997 election with anywhere close to Tony Blair’s victory, the first Labour government would have been hugely different from that of Blair’s. Different priorities, different policies, different people doing different government jobs.

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

Or take something far more objectively trivial but subjectively hurts like hell: your car is stolen. Fewer changes in the long term, surely, but think of everything that would happen, that would have to happen, in the next 24 hours, the ensuing week, that’s different just because of that small, little, change in your life and circumstances.

Or your house is broken into; because of that single event, 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 then 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, anyway… 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, just have to, set me up on a blind date. She viewed it as fundamentally wrong, almost offencive, that I wasn’t dating anyone at the time, and so she took it upon herself to remedy that.

Usually, as friends will confirm, I regard – have always regarded – anyone attempting to meddle in my private life with unadorned scorn and dislike¹. On that evening, suffused with enjoyment for my friends, or because I was enjoying it anyway… For whatever reason, possibly because I thought she was joking, I said ‘yes’… instead of running away from the idea as fast as my then-undamaged feet would carry me.

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 as if the fates were conspiring against me, after we’d arranged it, Marsha’s husband died and the shiva dates covered the proposed meeting.

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 to me.

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 no 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, one of the people who knows me best.

And of course, there’s our son, Philip, now 24 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?
 
 
Something else, tomorrow…


¹That hasn’t changed, by the way; nor has my ‘single’ status; I’ve been effectively and actually single for most of the fifteen years since the marriage ended, and wholly and completely single for the past decade or so. Not strictly relevant, but it’s nice to ensure there’s no-one thinking they should do something about it.

Two weeks left.

Well, a little under two weeks, I guess.

A little under two weeks.

And then 2019 will finally be over.

Done. Dusted. We can put it to bed. Gently rest its head on a pillow. Cover it with a blanket. Then take another pillow, and carefully, deliberately, smother it. Put it out of its pain and misery. I don’t even think it’ll protest. It’ll welcome that longest sleep, and succumb quickly.

But it’ll be dead.

Except it won’t. Not really.

For the consequences of decisions taken in 2019, and of events that have occurred this year, will linger not only into 2020 but far, far beyond.

The obvious, I guess, since it’s the most recent in pain, hurt and time is the 2019 election we’ve all just… enjoyed. The consequences of that election, both direct and indirect, will affect us throughout 2020, and into 2021 and longer.

In 2015, as part of this blog, I wrote a countdown blog to the election and wrote more than forty entries about the election. I took almost all of 2017 off from blogging, and so didn’t write about that year’s general election. And I hardly wrote anything about this one; the occasional piece, sure. But not a full blown ‘ok, let’s take a look at what the fuck is happening’ series of entries.

Partly because I had nothing to add, partly because what I saw, what I witnessed, was too painful. Partly because I knew I was going to lose friends over the campaign period, and didn’t wish to gratuitously, needlessly, lose more.

Because the campaigns were poisonous on all sides, and the poison infected everyone. I’ve long bemoaned the political climate of ‘our opponents are not merely good people with bad ideas, but bad people with worse ideas’ but it reached its zenith in November and December. Or at least I pray it did. For if it’s going to get even more apparent and greater in scope, then that’s not a country and not a world I’m entirely sure I can handle.

The fallouts from that election on a national, and on a personal, level are still painful. And for once that’s not a netaphor, nor a conceit; it fucking hurts, inside.

And I am so fucking tired.

I shouldn’t have to wonder, every time someone I know, like and respect makes a ‘dodgy’ crack; I shouldn’t have to ask myself every fucking time: “do they realise what they’re saying, how it’s coming across? or did they just go for the quick joke and it’s essentially ignorance, not malice”.

Never before has ‘no candidate/party is perfect, so you vote for the least imperfect‘ clashed so obviously, so blatantly, with the ‘there are lines I cannot and will not cross‘.

So, yeah, I very deliberately didn’t write much about the 2019 election.

Which means, at least, unlike in 2015, I don’t have to write a mea culpa post afterwards about everything I got wrong.

And now we approach 2020.

On a personal level, the start of any new year is always overshadowed by an anniversary that takes place a week and a bit into that new year: the anniversary of my brother’s death in 1998. As I’ve written before, and no doubt will again, the advent of 1998 was the last time, the final time, I greeted 1st January with “well, whatever happens this year, it can’t be worse than this last year.”

Who knew?

But even leaving aside that intensely personal reason for not greeting each new year with unalloyed joy, four weeks into 2020 the UK will leave the European Union. Oh, there’ll be a transition period of almost a year, during which most stuff will stay the same. But unless an extension is sought by July, no extension is gonna happen at the end of 2020.

So there’s every possibility, probability even, that at the end of 2020, the UK is out without a trade deal… after which the brown stuff truly will hit the spinning round whirly thing.

I read today that after 31st January, official British government policy will be to stop using the term ‘Brexit’, presumably so Boris Johnson can claim that ‘Brexit’ was… done.

Our primus inter mendaces knows it’s not true. As does his entire government, his entire party. And saying it, and believing it’s true because it was said, is more often associated with the orange poltroon in the big round room across the Atlantic. But Johnson is banking on enough in the country being gullible enough to believe it. And, given the past few years, who can unreservedly claim that he’s incorrect in that calculation?

All the parties in the recent election, every one of them, relied on a certain amount of gullibility from the people from whom they were seeking votes; all that differed was how much.

Talking of America, and the orange poltroon, we get to see the trial of President Trump at some point. I’ve no idea whether or not the trial will happen in January. And right now, no other bugger does wither. Pelosi seems to want to not send the articles of impeachment the House voted to approve to the Senate until she gets a cast iron guarantee of how the trial will be conducted.

Which, given Mitch McConnell’s fundamental untrustworthiness, may take until after the 2020 Presidential election.

Oh yeah, we’ve got that next year as well. Which will once again show the world’s countries how – whatever their own fucked up politics and fucked up electoral systems – America really doesn’t like being second place in the table of countries with fucked up politics and fucked up electoral systems.

Just as it’s irresistible to look at the results of a horrible car crash while you’re driving past it, there’ll be an overwhelming desire to watch both the trial and the election, to witness history in the making.

Because, like it or not, both will be history in the making. They’ll be events that will make pundits and public alike look at, years later, and.. and what? Shudder at? Cry at? Wince at? Who knows.

But history in the making? Certainly.

But then there’s always history in the making.

I was born in mid-August 1964, a few months before America decisively rejected Barry Goldwater’s offer to the American people, and almost exactly nine months after JFK was assassinated and after the first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast.

In the now over 55 years I’ve been in this planet, I missed some history being made, sure; I wasn’t even aware of anything outside what directly affected me and mine for the first, what half a dozen or so years of my life, and for the next half a dozen, didn’t care about them. So, President Nixon resigned in 1974, week or so before my 10th birthday.

At ten years of age, I’m not entirely sure I even knew it at the time. It’s possible my father might have mentioned it, and I heard it, but no, I have n memory of it. (I do remember the Beatles breaking up, six years earlier, but only because my aforementioned big brother was terribly upset.)

I honestly don’t know how much I’d have been aware of, though had social media and ubiquitous connection to the internet had been around in the 1970s…

But even if you say from the age of 13 – in mid-1977 – in my life, I’ve witnessed history being made dozens of times. Just off the top of my head, without thinking about it, in my teenage years, Elvis died, as did John Lennon. We had the first woman British Prime Minister, and shortly thereafter the miner’s strike. Soon thereafter, Labour showed how you catastrophically lose a general election, a lesson that took almost forty years to be forgotten enough… to do it again.

In my mid-20s, the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR started to collapse, and Nelson Mandela walked to freedom… and and and…

History is made all the time, and occasionally you realise it at the time, but almost never does it happen in such a way that instantly you know what the consequences will be.

You can guess whether they’ll be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but not much more than that.

And 2020 will bring more deaths; that’s inevitable. There’ll be much loved celebrities who die at the end of a ‘natural’ life span’, and some that go too soon; some that go far, far too soon.

Though, to be fair, there’ll be some who’ll die and my reaction will be… that I’m surprised they were still alive, either because of advancing age or, let’s say if Keith Richards dies, that they managed to last as long as they did.

My mother used to say that things came in threes… and if another thing happened, it wasn’t that things happened in fours, but that it was the start of a whole new series of three.

But you know, you already know, that when something – I don’t know what – but something will happen in the early says of 2020 – happens, plenty of people will cry in protest: “Oh fuck; I was hoping 2019 had ended…”

It did.

It will have.

This will just be the long, lingering smell of shit, like someone dumped a huge barrel of turds across the world in 2019.

Which, I suppose, in every important way… they did.
 
 
Something else, something happier, or at least smilier… tomorrow. And next week? Something on good stuff that happened in 2019, both personal and beyond.

Someone asked, on Twitter, the other day which celebrity death had most affected people who read it.

While there were the usual people offered, and as expected, some interpreted ‘celebrity’ to mean ‘anyone famous’ which wasn’t the original intention, I suspect… what struck me was that almost no-one I saw mentioned anyone from this year.

I mean, plenty of famous people have died this year. Just from my own quick trek through the memories of 2019, the following people all died in the past 12 months:

  • Albert Finney
  • Doris Day
  • Mark Hollis
  • Andre Previn
  • Rutger Hauer
  • Toni Morrison
  • Ian Cognito

But even excluding the people who mentioned the half a century departed Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr (yes, I saw a couple of mentions for both), it wasn’t this year that people mentioned.

It was 2016, particularly the early part of it when it seemed like every other day bought the news of someone famous dying, that brought forth the most common responses I saw. (Which might, I’ll admit, say more about who I follow on Twitter than anything else.)

Because the same two names kept coming up:

David Bowie

and

Prince

Bowie died in January 2016, and Prince three months later.

Now I was upset when Bowie died, mainly but not exclusively because his music had always been a part of my life. But I wasn’t devastated.

I’d always been aware of Bowie’s music and – with rare exceptions – I’d always liked it. but it was never the most important music in my life, nor even a very important part of it. But it was there. And I enjoyed watching him perform. Never saw him live, but always liked his stage performances that I saw on tv, and I’d watch if I noticed a show was on while channel flipping.

Prince, on the other hand? Well, I’d liked some of what he’d done, but not that much. I liked some of his music, but I wasn’t a fan of his work in any way. The occasional song, yes. But not much more than that.

But between them, the day before Prince died, that was the celebrity death that affected me the most. And still does when I think of it.

Because the day before Prince died… Victoria Wood died, and that one hurt. That one hurt so bloody much.

That death broke me. Far more than Bowie’s. Far more than Prince’s. Far more than Robin Williams’ did eighteen months earlier.

I utterly and unreservedly loved Victoria Wood’s work. Not only her musical comedy – though I’ll acknowledge that was the primary source of my enjoyment. But her standup, her writing, her sketch shows with Julie Walters, with Duncan Preston and Celia Imrie and Susie Blake. Damn she was talented, and funny, and clever as hell.

Yeah, that one still hurts.

I’ve no idea whether or not she was on social media, but I don’t think she wasn’t aware of how many people enjoyed her work. Y’see, one of the consequences of social media recording and of distributing public eulogies and thoughts on the departed is the often stated common phrases

“I hope they knew how much they were loved”

and

“I wish I could have told them how much they mattered to me”.

Some of this is self-deluding; I don’t for a moment believe that big stars, very famous people, are unaware how much their work has mattered to people, nor that they haven’t been told as much by many. Not these days. (Whether they believe it is an entirely different mater, but they have been told.)

Because famous people are told that. (As much as they’re – unfortunately – faced with the trolls, the bastards and the shit-stirrers that they’re horrible people.)

There are other deaths that hurt even more, of course: family, friends, family friends. One day they’re there, then suddenly, shockingly suddenly sometimes, they’re not.

And they often don’t know how much they matter, how much they matter to you.

So take a good look at the people you like, the people you love, the people you admire.

In years to come, some of them won’t be there. Some of them, it’s true, will still be around, or at least alive, but you’ll no longer like, love nor admire them; they won’t be part of your life any more, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Sometimes the best thing for all concerned is to walk away, with as little bitterness, as little anger, as little regret, as possible. But to walk away.

But some of them? Some of them will have died. Some will have died from old age (unless you’re very uncommon, some of the people you like, love and admire are getting on in years…); some will have fatal accidents, some from illness, some from choice. (And when I say ‘choice’, I’m a firm believer that voluntary euthanasia will be made legal in many countries in the next decade or so; whether you support it or not, what illnesses it includes or not; I think it’s coming.)

And while telling someone how much they – or their achievements – have mattered to you is often as much for your sake as it is for theirs, so what? Tell them anyway; in the same way as the old line about “no one ever dies regretting they didn’t spend more time at work” is at least in part true, no one should ever die thinking thinking that they didn’t matter: family, friends, people who liked them, people who loved them, admirers alike.

Tell them.

Something else tomorrow; maybe another Ten Things.

After the past few days when you’ve had nothing from me.

Well, naybe not ‘nothing’ as in I skipped the days, but nothing containing any real content.

I’m at least feeling more like ‘me’ now, having thrown off all the reactions from the sedative, and I had – for the first time in several days – a decent night’s kip overnight.

Probably more than a decent night’s kip; I woke up this morning feeling like I’d caught up on about a week’s sleep.

So I wanted to give you… something today, something you’d not read before, not a piece of old fiction, say. I prevail upon your good graces quite enough every Tuesday, so nothing of that today.

And I did not want to present another Q&A Livejournal type meme. Oh, the temptation was there, I assure you, but I’ve resisted it. That’s ok, you can thank me another time.

Instead, here’s something about names, specifically mine.

If you were to refer to me while talking to a mutual acquaintance, how would you refer to me? Most people, undoubtedly, would say ‘budgie’. A few would say ‘Lee’. One person or another would say ‘Barnett’. And there’s probably a few, I’ve no doubt, who would insert an obscenity before any of those. And there’s one person who uses a name that – as far as I know – no one else can, or does, use.

Y’see, I’ve been known by several names over my life, in different circumstances.

(And no, I exclude the less flattering epithets used by people who are, justifiably or not, less than delighted with me…)

Those names?

Lee

Yes, obviously, my given name. The name fewer and fewer people call me with each passing year, which is how I like it. But more about that in a moment. In Jewish tradition, well, Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, you name after the deceased. In my case, I was named after my maternal great-grandmother, Leah. My mum’s mum’s mum.

I don’t know much about her, to be honest. To be equally honest, I’ve never been that curious to know, either. Three of my four grandparents came to the UK as toddlers, in the early part of the last century, as their parents escaped from pogroms or state sanctioned antisemitism in the countries in which they were born.

Leah and her family, though? No. Her family had been in the UK for generations. I don’t remember my mum talking about her grandparents that much; maybe she did and I just wasn’t paying attention. More than possible, but I dunno. And since I’ve not been in contact with her or my surviving brother for some years – my choice, I stress – I’m not likely to discover which it is now.

But I never liked ‘Lee’ as a first name. I’d have switched to using a middle name years ago, decades ago… had I the option, but my parents didn’t give either me or my younger brother middle names. I joke that “I don’t have an middle name; my parents couldn’t afford one” but again I’ve no real idea why my older brother got a middle name and I didn’t.

So I was stuck with ‘Lee’. And in the 1970s, for every kid that knew of the actor Lee Majors, The Six Million Dollar Man, there was some wag who knew of the actress Lee Remick.

I’m sure it didn’t occur to my parents the hassle they were landing their kid with, giving him an androgynous name. But I soon learned to dislike the name immensely. I’m not sure that quite captures the dislike, but yeah, it was intense.

Things weren’t improved when I was 12 and received through the post a complimentary package of items that might have been of great help had I been a 12 year old girl and of no use whatsoever to a 12 year old boy. I recall my mother seeing first my excitement at getting a letter addressed to me (it was rare in those days) then my puzzlement at its contents, then my genuine upset at realising what it contained…

…and her then taking the package away, saying something like “its ok, it was obviously a mistake…”

And I soon learned to put a smile on my face every time I received a letter addressed to Miss L Barnett.

So, yeah, I wasn’t sorry when I gained a nickname. Or two.

When I went to Manchester Polytechnic, I genuinely considered just ‘changing my name’, introducing myself with a self-chosen different name, or creating an invented nickname, but I was too nervous to do so, assuming it would merely lead to more mockery when my ‘real’ name was discovered. Fortunately, time took care of the former without leading to the latter. But again, more about that in a moment.

These days, very few people call me “Lee” to my face. My ex-wife, people who live in the same block of flats. Oh, and people who can’t stand nicknames, which I don’t really understand, unless they call our former Prime Ministers James Brown (Gordon’s real first name) and Anthony Blair… what is ‘Tony’ if not a nickname of his choice?

The only advantage my ‘given name’, complete with no middle name, has granted me is… it’s really fast to fill in forms when they ask for your full name. Ten characters, and I’m done.

L E E    B A R N E T T

Which brings me on to…

Barnett

Yeah, my surname. Now, I’m not including anyone who calls me Mr Barnett, like the bank etc., That’s not calling me by that name as much as it is using the standard courteous salutation.

I’m talking of people who called me just… “Barnett”. Since I’ve never been in the armed forces, and I was fortunate enough never to have worked for a company where the standard was surnames only, the only people who’ve called me by my surname were my teachers.

Not all of them, by any means, but some of them yeah. Oddly, I never objected to it, because it was never personal. They were older teachers in the main who called lads by their surnames and girls by “Miss…” followed by their surname.

But yeah, its been more than forty years or so since anyone’s done that.

It won’t surprise anyone with even the faintest knowledge of immigration to this country that the family surname wasn’t originally Barnett. I’m not about to say what it was – apart from anything else, it looks like the final line of an eye chart when typed out – but my paternal great-grandfather chose to change it when he brought his family here; Barnett was apparently the Polish first name of a friend of his from ‘the old country’.

Three more.

The obvious one: Budgie

OK, getting it out of the way immediately: if you don’t know where the name came from, best to read this first and then come back.

That’s ok, honestly.

We’ll wait for you.

Ok, everyone up to speed? Good.

Yeah, no surprise that I prefer this as my name, and indeed, if anyone asks how they should introduce me to new people, I always – well, nearly always – prefer and pick this one.

I guess to a large extent, it’s because not only do I think of myself as Budgie rather than as Lee, but Budgie‘s someone I created. Not the first time, maybe, but I chose to use the name from the mid-90s, and he’s a much more relaxed person in company than Lee ever was.

And as for the ubiquity of its use, while I was used to people having me in their phone’s contact app as ‘Lee (budgie) Barnett‘, I was delighted some time ago to discover that more than a few have me in there as ‘Budgie (Lee) Barnett‘. I much prefer that.

So, yes, for the avoidance of any doubt, if you want to call me ‘Lee’, go ahead, I’m not going to correct you. But if you want to be courteous and bear my own wishes in mind, I’d prefer ‘budgie’, every time. Thanks.

Yehuda ben Abram Shmuel

OK, one you’re probably not used to seeing, and that might need a bit of explanation. If you’re Jewish, you have a hebrew name as well as an ‘English’ one. Unless you use the former as the latter. But your hebrew name is of the format ‘[child’s name] son/daughter of [parent’s name]’

It’s used for religious purposes; when you’re called up in synagogue, for your bar or bat mitzvah. It’s used when you’re married, or divorced. Or on your headstone when you’re buried.

And, often though not always, that’s also the ‘named after the departed’ bit.

In my case, my parents chose Lee as the ‘naming after’ bit for me, not the ‘Yehudah’ bit. (My late older brother, though, was named Michael and Meyer, after our dad’s dad, who himself was Michael and Meyer.) My father’s forenames were Arnold Sidney, the Hebrew was Avram Shmuel, hence my own name being my own forename [son of] his forenames.

Very logical language, Hebrew.

OK, the last one. And there’s only one person on the planet who uses it. By now, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Dad

I’ve only one child, a 24 year old son named Philip, who I’ve called Phil from the day he was born. (I instantly knew he was a ‘Phil’ rather than the formal ‘Phil’. How I knew that? I have no idea. But I did. At once.).

He’s great. No, seriously, nothing I could say about him that would add to that. He’s lovely. OK, maybe one or two things. But he is. And after the usual ‘Daddy’ stage, he’s been calling me ‘Dad’ since then. (And of course, as parents throughout history have discovered, when they revert to a multi-syllable ‘Daddeeeeeeee?’ at the start of a phone all, it’s usually because they ‘want something’.)

I kind of like being called Dad.

(His girlfriends have never quite known whether to go with ‘Lee’ or ‘Budgie’ when talking to or about me. It’s more amusing to me than it probably should be that they go back and forth on which to use.)

Anyway, names… now you know mine.
 
 
The usual Tuesday ‘something else’ tomorrow.

One guaranted reaction these days to someone tweeting or blogging, or even putting on Facebook, something they overheard is the inevitable
 

“it didnt happen!”

 
or
 

never happened!

 
There are twitter accounts devoted to claims that this thing being reported, or that anecdote, didn’t happen, never happened, that it was being tweeted for the retweets, or to get notoriety, or just to get some exposure.

Now I’m sure that some of them didn’t happen. Let’s get that out there.

I mean, whenever I see someone report something that, purely by coincidence I’m sure was entirely a justification for, or an example of, a previously expressed political view, I’m… sceptical, I’ll acknowledge.

Say… someone who loves the idea of Brexit, and has frequently complained that it’s taking too long…. says they overheard someone complaining that ‘they just won’t let it happen, the politicians should just get on with it! It’s taking too long’?

Yeah, I’m not wholly and immediately convinced that the report is strictly accurate.

Or, say, someone who loathes the current benefits system excitedly tweeting that they “heard people on the train saying how horrible it is…

Again, not necessarily true. Could be. Might be. Might not be.

Or, say, something even less… heartwarming.

Say someone thinks all the reports of antisemitism inside Labour are smears, reporting they heard people at a coffee shop saying exactly the same thing. Or someone who thinks it doesn’t matter that Boris Johnson lies as easy as he breathes, saying that in the street they hear loads of people saying exactly the same.

Somehow, I’m able to withhold my immediate and complete acceptance that they’re repeating nothing but the unfettered truth.

Someone exaggerating on Twitter? Perish the very thought.

But all of these types of reportage are trying to suggest, are extrapolating to propose, that ‘the public’ think the same as they do. That the conversation they overheard was representative of a vast swell of public opinion.

That’s not what I want to write about today. Hell, that’s not what I want to write about any day.

No, what bugs me is the pissing all over the other type of ‘overheard…’

The silly. The funny. The odd. The bizarre.

Because what I don’t understand is people claiming ‘it didn’t happen’ when it’s not political, it’s just… odd, or funny. Or silly.

Because people, individually and in small groups, are odd and funny and silly.

And if you spend a lot of time in coffee shops, as I have, you do overhear people, as they tend to forget that others in the place can hear them.

And occasionally I, like others, will tweet an overheard bit that’s weird, silly, or just funny out of context. Not a whole conversation; a line or two. Because it’s fun. Not identifying the people in any way, not livetweeting an entire conversation, or the break up of couple. The odd line.

Taking a quick look through my blogs and tweets, here are some of my favourites.

I’ll put it in the diary
Just popped down to the car and overheard the following from two people walking past:
Person 1: You’re not serious?
Person 2: What? I’m just saying if Jesus was born on Christmas Day and died at Easter, then Christmas should come at the start of the year and Easter should come at the end…


 
Yes, that’ll work
On the Picadilly Line
“OK, but if anyone asks what you’re doing with a body, tell them you’re making a movie…”


 
Wait, what?
A selection of comments overheard from a group of what I presumed were either PR people or party organisers, sorting out a new Year’s Eve Party for a client.

“OK, well New Year’s Eve, we’ve got the fetish party thing. Who’s arranging for the cleaning afterwards?”

“Well, if we kill the project, do we have to kill the project originator as well?”

“Yes, I know sex sells, but who’d buy her?”

“Do we have to use green jelly? Can’t we use red for a change?”

“What do they mean when they say they weren’t happy with the ‘yuk factor’? Do they want more or less?”

And my favourite from that session:

“Well, tell her to go fuck herself. Oh, no you can’t, can you? She’s your mother…”


 
Mothers
Two weeks later; same coffee shop. Sitting on the next table to me were three people: a grandmother, mother and daughter, given the frequent exasperated mutters of “mother!” coming from the three of them, anyway.

Then the youngest fairly shouts out “I don’t believe it! I swear, it’s like living in a bloody soap opera being related to you two! I need a cigarette…”

And she walks towards the door very huffily.

And the two older women look very sheepish before the presumed mother says to her mother, “You just had to tell her, didn’t you?” only to get a ‘hard stare’ in return…


 
Einsteinian
Overheard on bus:
Person 1: …and that’s why time is relative.
Person 2: Yeah but the bus was late.


 
Always tell the truth
At the next table outside a coffee shop, young mum with small children.
Small boy: you’re lying!
Small girl: No, I’m not!
Boy: You’re lying!
Mum: Don’t accuse your sister of lying…
Girl: There was a dinosaur in the road


 
Coffee!
Again, outside a coffee shop, young mum with young child
Child: You can have coffee, why can’t I? Why? Why?
Parent: Yes, because right now, I need you more excitable.
Child. Yes! You do!


 
But this, this is probably my all time favourite:

Two women sitting on the table next to me:
Woman 1: I’m really sorry about last night.
Woman 2: That’s ok.
Woman 1: I just didn’t realise how late it was.
Woman 2: I told you, it’s ok.
Woman 1: But if I’d have known you were in bed with him, I wouldn’t have phoned.
Woman 2: Seriously, we didn’t mind.
Woman 1: Are you sure?
Woman 2: Yes. If anyone can call him late at night, it’s you. I mean, he is your husband…

erm, yes.

The ‘didn’t happen’ lot lead very anodyne lives, ignorant of silliness. And that’s very, very sad.
 
 
Anyway, something else tomorrow.

Yes, yes, I know, it’s been a long time since I updated the blog – almost a year – but you didn’t think you were getting away without an update, did you? Really?

No, I thought not.

So, time once again for the annual mocking and silliness to occur, with the 2018 update to A Life In Pictures.

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 with more recent pics. And people who haven’t seen them before get the unfettered joy of joining in the mockery…

So, here they are, bringing the photos up to date, as of December 2018. As always, I’ve removed a couple of shots from previous years, and added some new ones. There weren’t a lot of new pics taken in 2018, but as with last year, thanks to some newly discovered photos and some technical wizardry, there are some surprises awaiting below, like for example a new shot from my wedding, a shot of me holding my almost newborn son, and an extra pic of the two of us from his barmitzvah.

So, in rough order of age…


Those are the earliest photos I’ve got of me… looks like they were taken the same day; my older brother is in the background.


3 years old


Three brothers – must be around 1967 or 1968, so I’d be around 3½ years of age?


Aged 4


I’m five, I think, here in this shot and the next one.


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. I still remember the wallpaper; very, very odd gold pattern to it.


The main ‘man’ – my barmitzvah, August 1977


Three brothers – my barmitzvah, August 1977


Starting the dancing – my barmitzvah, August 1977


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 thirty years ago?


Three brothers – 1991, I believe


1994 – A nice one, from Laura’s and my wedding day – aged 30


A low res shot from the wedding that I discovered in the archives…

I love that I found this next pic. Laura’s still one of my favourite people on the planet. And this is another great pic of us on our wedding day. And yes, ahhh I had dark hair back then…

This next one’s an odd one for lots of reasons; first off, it’s obviously my BBC pass from when I was writing for WeekEnding on Radio 4; secondly, when I visited New York just after 9/11, it was better as ID for getting me into buildings, places, meetings than my actual passport… even though it had expired six years’ earlier…


The earliest pic I have of my lad Phil (excluding ‘scans’). Me, a new dad, aged 31. And so, so tired.


Me holding my son… he’s 18 days’ old here.


Yeah, another ‘Budgie plus baby’ pic, this time he’s three months old…


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. Three generations of Barnetts.


Not exactly sure when this was taken but would have been around now…


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.


Me in mid-2006, looking very serious for one reason or another.


Again, mid-2006.


Me in December 2006… looking slightly more relaxed.


May 2007, Bristol, Saturday night, at around 2 in the morning… very relaxed… aided by what Alistair Cooke used to call ‘The wine of Scotland’.


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


November 2008 – formal pic for Phil’s barmitzvah.


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


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


November 2009 – Me and Phil at a friend’s son’s barmitzvah.


April 2010, in Luton


July 2010, on Mastermind. No, not an illusion; you’re not allowed to wear black for the show…


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


October 2011, trying out a beard… not quite yet… but give it a year…


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

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

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

This final one attracted the title “… and all the woodland creatures gathered around, for they had never seen a creature such as this in the forest.”


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…

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…

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.


From late 2015. I think it was me trying out the new phone’s camera. It’s an odd pose, but as the foregoing shots more than amply demonstrate, that’s not a reason to exclude it.

Some time ago, the delightful Clara Benn took a shot which proved I was substantially smaller than Mitch, tiny in fact in comparison. November 2015, she proved it again…


isn’t perspective wonderful?

And so to 2016, and I’m not sure what this pic was for, in July, but it’s an odd one…

Never liked the next shot incolour, I do like it in black and white.

Anyway… Moving on…

Towards the end of the 2016, close friends had a baby, and I got to say hello both in October and November. I’ve never hidden how soppy I am about babies. I suspect these photos prove it.


And this is the shot, at the end of 2016, that convinced me that if I ever do get a hat, it’ll be a Homburg, not a Fedora…


Me and my lad, outside Distraction Club, December 2016

And in December 2017, this one of the new[er], short[er] haircut.

In June 2018, I got to see Pippa Evans; this is me waiting to go in…

In August 2018, my lad Phil was in town for a few days. We realised it had been a while since we’d had pics taken of the pair of us. So here are two.

And, of course since we had that pic, and I had a similar one from almost exactly ten years’ earlier, I was kind of obliged to put the two together. I really like this image.

In October, I attended the Brexit march for a People’s Vote. It ended up with 700,000 people… plus me.

Same march, with Mitch… No idea why, but I really like how my hair looks in this shot.

And the final shot from this year which answers the question “so, what did you do immediately after Christmas 2018, budgie?”

And, as I wish everyone a happy new year, the traditional benediction: Mocking may now commence.

2017 minus 01: A green light

Posted: 31 December 2016 in 2017 minus, life, personal
Tags:

As I write this, it’s about eight hours until 1st January 2017. And, right about now, people are either making or reviewing lists of potential new year resolutions, and then removing items until they’re left with a couple they think they can keep.

I’ve never gone in for the whole ‘new year resolutions’ thing; I’m not sure why, especially since I spent a chunk of my life making To Do lists at work and taking inordinate joy in crossing off the items one by one. 

But new year resolutions? No. Not since I was a kid and maybe not even then; the memories blur with some things until I’m not sure what actually happened, and what I think might have happened.

(And no, it’s not the “it’s just an arbitrary noting of the calendar, and even the calendar is arbitrary” concept that stops me. Oddly, I’ve noticed that people who do say that seem to have no problem accepting birthday presents. And for my mind, you don’t get to celebrate your birthday, or someone else’s birthday, or even the annual commemoration of a death but then also moan about other people making a fuss about one specific day like New Year or Christmas. Not without being even more a hypocrite than we all are in our daily lives.)

I think with me it’s more that while I’m ok with self-imposed deadlines and time pressures, I am – these days – less eager to subject myself voluntarily to other people’s deadlines.

But people make all sorts of new year resolutions. Like saying they’re giving up drinking alcohol. Or that they’re going to lose weight.

Or that they’re going to stop smoking. 

As long as anyone I’m still in contact with has known me, I’ve been a smoker. I started around age 18 and notwithstanding a couple of half-hearted attempts, I’ve smoked pretty much ever since. And, given the above, it won’t surprise you in the least that I’m not about to give up smoking in about 8 hours.

To be honest, there’d not be much of point since I stopped smoking about a month ago, on 1st December 2016. Well, half an hour before 1st December 2016 to be precise. But the decision was made even longer ago, about six weeks before that.

In early October. While in Liverpool.

As I say, I’ve tried giving up smoking before; the last semi-serious attempt was about four years ago. I went ‘cold turkey’ with an e-cig… for a few weeks, and I hated every minute of it. I told everyone at the time that I was stopping, announced it on social media , made a big fuss of it; I thought that peer pressure would help me if I wavered, would keep me off the smokes and oh, I pretended I was ok with it, but close friends knew I loathed giving them up and it didn’t surprise anyone when I returned to the Silk Cut. For whatever reason*, it didn’t work. 

(*Qute possibly, it was that I didn’t actually want to stop smoking.)

OK, skip forward to early October 2016; I was travelling to Liverpool for the funeral of a close friend’s father. I picked up an e-Lites Curv, more out of curiosity than anything else (though I’m open to the argument that I’m post-event rationalising a desire to give up.)  I thought I’d try it out for 24 hours and see. Within 24 hours, I’d come up with a plan that I hoped would work. It was basically this: figure out what didn’t work last time and don’t do that.

So, for once, I was sensible, and set myself weekly targets: I’d continue to smoke, just cutting down the amount of time every day I smoked cigarettes and slowly, day by day, increase the amount of time I used the ecig. The aim was to cease smoking around the house – not in it but even around it – by November 11th, and to stop smoking, to smoke my last cigarette… the night of 30th November 2016.

And so it was.

And so it turned out to be.

Around 11:20pm on 30th November, I walked back to the house, lit my last cigarette, smoked it, stubbed it out as I got near rhe house… and haven’t smoked a cigarette since. A few people knew, and I told a few more over the past month, but I didn’t make A Thing of it for several reasons:

  • Who knew if I’d manage a few days, let alone longer?
  • I didn’t want to tell anyone until I’d gotten over the cravings for a cigarette
  • If I did ‘fall off the wagon’, I could easily self-excuse it if no-one knew, and I could restart the following day, if I wanted.

Well, now it’s been a month, pretty much, and not once during that time have I missed smoking. Not once.

Oh, I’ve missed some of the habits around smoking. Over the years, friends who’ve given up have told me they miss putting the cigarette out. With me, it’s been the opposite: I’ve missed lighting a cigarette. Well, I’ve missed lighting lots of them, but that’s starting to fade now, I’ll admit, as I’ve delevoped new habits, like changing the battery and swapping over a new ‘butt’. And checking the green glow to see if it’s blinking and if the battery needs changing…

Am I an ex-smoker? I honestly don’t know. I don’t feel like an ex-smoker, to be honest. I still feel like I’m taking a break, and merely waiting for the inevitable craving to hit me; there’s a part of me that is convinced I’ll succumb to the temptation. 

But I’ve been waiting for the craving to hit me and it hasn’t. At all.

But yeah, I’m not smoking at the moment, and haven’t been for a month… haven’t been for almost half the time I’ve been writing this series of ‘countdown to 2017’ entries.

So, that’s something.


Thanks for sticking with me throughout this countdown to 2017. I hope I’ve not bored you too much. Not sure if there’ll be an entry tomorrow but there’ll probably be something new on the 2nd.

Happy new year, people, however you celebrate it.

2017 minus 11: Things past

Posted: 21 December 2016 in 2017 minus, life, politics
Tags:

While jumpstarting my brain writing today’s going cheep, a few things jumped into what I’m pleased to call my mind: things that were so obviously part of my if-not-daily-then-definitely-weekly life that no longer even peripherally impact me.This isn’t going to be a ‘things were better in the old days’; most often, they weren’t, and besides that’s the second most boring of these type of posts. (The most boring, of course, is that things are always better now‘.)

So, here are three…

Screen Savers Whenever happened to screen savers? Yes, I know they’re no longer ‘necessary’, but they persisted for quite some time after they ceased to be necessary. Then, in a quite astonishingly short space of time, they just stopped being a thing. Screen savers, for those younger readers, were A Thing. Not only A Thing, but A Thing about which you had to think quite seriously about. When someone saw your computer (never as many people as you thought might see it, by the way, sorry to demolish your ego), it was important for some reason or other that you had the right screen saver. Whether it was the flying toasters, or the never ending pipe work, or just a star field, you’d spend minutes – when it should have been seconds – choosing which of the screen savers you’d have on your screen. And – and this is true, I swear – if you were limited in the number of choices, I knew people who’d spend time figuring out how to get around the limitations… just so you’d have something on your screen that a) marked the computer as yours, and b) made you smile or at least didn’t piss you off.

One might suggest that it was solely the advent, and ubiquity, of flatscreen technology, and particularly the end of the cathode ray tube screens that ended the screen saver thing. I don’t agree. I instead wonder if what killed screen savers in the end was two things: firstly the rise of the laptop computer, and especially the immediate nature of the sleep/awake functionality. Suddenly, it didn’t take a minute or so to shut down your laptop, and another minute or so to start up, to resume, again. It was pretty much instant. So no need to leave the screen live; you could just shut the laptop and open it when you needed it. Secondly, and more importantly, the use of smartphones, and especially tablets. When batter power suddenly became the most important thing and genuinely instant access to a working screen/CPU meant that screens were never left on for more than a couple of minutes. 

Online psych tests Back in the days of Livejournal, it was a rare week when one of the memes doing the rounds wasn’t a psych test. You’d click on a link, answer anywhere between 30 and 100 questions and you’d receive an instant diagnosis of your mental state. No one took it particularly seriously, and as a consequence, people openly showed their results… because they were treated as a trivial thing, nothing more nor less important, nor more nor less accurate, than the “which Lord of the Rings character are you?” type things. Even if a result showed that someone was seriously ill and in need of medical attention, therapy and/or medications, readers of the results would usually assume that the result was flawed, or that the person doing the test had fucked around with the answers. 

Maybe it’s the lessening of stigma that has allowed people to be genuine about this kind of thing, and as a consequence, online tests seem to be ‘cheapening’ the work of therapists and psychologists and psychiatrists? I don’t know; I do know that I’m pleased it’s happened; the reaction in their presence, I mean, not the work of therapists and psychologists and psychiatrists. (For my my own personal issues with them, they do an important job, and I know many who’ve been=gutted from them.)

The Big Beasts of UK Politics At some point during my adult lifetime, UK politics ceased to have ‘current’ big beasts. Back in the days of Wilson, and Callaghan and even Thatcher, those who sat around the Cabinet table, and those who faced them across the House of Commons chamber, were acknowledged at the time they were doing it as ‘big beasts’, the powerbrokers in the parties, and in the country; people who through either force of personality or of accomplishment deserved to be regarded as such. At some point during Tony Blair’s premiership, that changed. Blair and Brown remained the big beasts but everyone else was a lesser species of politician. The Torres didn’t help matters in that respect by again seeming to reduce anyone who wasn’t leader – and in IDS’s case even then – to some lesser respected and lesser able category of politician. (I almost typed ‘some lesser kind of politician’ but that’s a bit too on the nose where Tory politicians are concerned.)

While this demotion almost certainly helps the leaders of the party, it does nothing beneficial for the country and indeed arguably damages it. While no one wants a cabinet or shadow cabinet riven with disagreement, torn apart by plots for the succession, by allowing the leadership to be seen as the only grown up around the table, it pretty much buggers the succession for years to come. And in the case of Labour now, the only big beast worthy of the name is probably the Shadow Chancellor. Certainly the leader doesn’t deserve the appellation, though he might do in a year’s time. But not yet.

Three things that it always used to be an article of faith that they’d be there. 

Today was “Things past”. Tomorrow “Things present”. You can try and guess what Friday’s will be…

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

James Burke makes the point, fairly regularly, that the biggest crises happen when something that people are so used to relying upon that they don’t even think about it… stops working. Also, that when things do stop working, the assumption is that it will, soon enough, start working again. There’s irritation, not worry, nor panic. It’s irritation rather than panic because there’s a temporary inconvenience, not a permanent end to it.

Similarly, I think that the biggest non-recognised events come when people begin to not think how amazing something is, and start to accept something as part of everyday life. 

I used my contactless card to pay for coffee today. OK, yes, I’m still old fashioned enough that I prefer to pay for small items in cash, but that’s slowly changing. But, as I was queuing up, I saw people pay by four different methods:  one person paid by cash, another used NFC via Apple Pay on their iPhone, someone else used their ‘contactless’ bank card, and yet another used Chip and PIN. And as new methods come into play, older ones vanish. While cash remains a useful method of payment*, use of personal cheques in retail shops has plummeted. 

(*worth pointing out that intent out that in London at least, you can no longer use cash to pay for busses; it’s contactless or tfl’s Oyster card.)

But whereas even I thought it was ‘wow’ to use contactless when it started, now it’s just ‘how I sometimes pay for stuff’. It’s not even fair to describe my attitude as blasé, because if I did think about it, I’d probably still be a bit ‘wow’ over it. But I don’t. I don’t think about it, any more than I think about the genuinely modern miracle of constant access to… well, to everything, via the wonder of constant internet access. As Chris Addison puts it: it takes roughly thirty seconds for the modern miracle of the Internet to become, if it’s ‘down’, a basic human right. 

There’s so much I use and experience every day, from my iPhone and my iPad to my bluetooth keyboard, from text messaging to the large digital displays by the bus stop, to the fact that the London Underground keeps running, somehow. 

That’s something else I’m used to and don’t think about that often, if at all: the systems that keep working. Whether it’s the National Health Service (no matter how bad, I know I can turn up at Acciednt and Emergency and I will, eventually, be seen) or the street lights or – as I say above – the London Underground.

Those trains, hundreds of them, running roughly to timetable, thousands of drivers and staff just keeping them moving. And, when there is a problem, (the Piccadilly Line has severe problems at the moment… and will do so for some weeks to come) somehow, the system copes, manages. Except it’s not just the system itself; it’s the people who work there, working harder than anyone realises, but that’s the truth of most jobs: no one realises how hard any job is unless they’ve done it.

It’d blow my mind if I actually thought deeply on what it takes to keep the major infrastructure systems running.

But I don’t think about it.

I probably should.


This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

2017 minus 49: London Zoo

Posted: 13 November 2016 in 2017 minus, life, London
Tags: ,

When I started this blog, I’d intended to write some entries about the city in which I live. Yeah, things kind of got away from me, what with the… now, how does John Oliver put it? Oh yes…

That said, this afternoon I got to spend some time with birthday girl Greta Benn and family at London Zoo. I should say upfront that I’ve no strong views either pro- or anti- zoos, but that if you’re very anti- them, then this entry is probably not for you, and you should probably stop reading at this point.

Similarly, if you’ve a problem with looking at spiders, then, yeah… probably best you skip this entry and come back tomorrow.

While you’re deciding, here’s a nice video I took of a long necked turtle.


OK, still here? Good.

So, yeah, Greta, her sister Astrid and friends, together with us adults went off to London Zoo today. Was a fun afternoon, looking at various animals, learning a lot in my case. Seriously. Those little information signs outside the cages or glass fronts? I learned stuff I didn’t know.

I didn’t know, for example, that a rattlesnake’s ‘rattle’ grows with each shed of skin, and that baby rattlesnakes are silent, until their first shed. I didn’t know that London Zoo have a gorilla named after one of our parrots at home. (Yeah, yeah, you can say that it’s just a coincidence, but I know better.) 

I also didn’t know that the Slender Loris is one of the cutest animals on the planet. (It was too dark to get a shot of own, but this is a Slender Loris. Tell me it’s not cute; go on, I dare you.)


I also discovered that I’m surprisingly all right around big spiders, including a tarantula. I should note that friends took great delight in introducing me to this young lady, a bird eating spider…

Here, have some monkeys.

And a gorilla, a new daddy apparently. We could just about see the baby gorilla…

To show my expert zoological knowledge, I confidently identify the following as a bird.

Whereas, again showing off my knowledge of the animal kingdom, this one is… a bird.

This one is definitely not a bird. I’m fairly sure of that.

I’m equally sure that the smaller ones are recently born cubs. (Or midget tigers. I’m not entirely sure.)

Here, have some monkeys.

Yeah, here come the spiders…

I’m 90% sure this isn’t a spider.

I’m not convinced about this one, though.

And this one…. yeah, this one’s a snake. A big snake. A REALLY BIG snake. No, I’m not kidding, how fucking big is this snake? Run, for fuck’s sake run…

Huh. I was going to write more about the zoo, but you know what? You’ve got pictures.

More on… something else, tomorrow.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

Twenty-one.

It’s an important number, you know.

For example, you may or may not know that twenty-one is a semiprime number. Also that it’s a Fibonacci number. But were you aware that it’s the sum of the first six natural numbers (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 = 21), making it a triangular number?

It also has an important role in Blackjack.

None of which is particularly important today, or at least they’re of far less importance than the fact that today is my son’s twenty-first birthday.

Yeah, I know. Twenty-one. I’m having some problems processing that fact myself, and I’ll let those of you who’ve known him for some years take a second or two to do a mental brain-flip while you accept it.

Philip Samuel Barnett – known to almost everyone bar his mum as ‘Phil’ – was born on 2nd November 1995; at half past nine in the evening if you’re curious. And today, it’s 2nd November 2016.

In 1995, he was 8lb 3oz, and 21½” long. He’s a bit heavier than that now, and a whole lot taller.

Twenty-one years old. And engaged to his girlf-, no, his fiancée, Rhiannon, who – in one of those sparks of synchronicity that makes you wonder – is twenty-one herself, tomorrow.

Twenty-one years old. Wow.

I’ve said many times – and it remains as true today as it was the day he was born – that being a father is the most fun thing I’ve ever done, bar none.

Now let’s get it straight: anyone who says being a parent is easy is either ignorant, lying or a masochist. It’s not easy, far from it. It’s not meant to be easy, but it is a responsibility that I love performing and undertaking, and the reason for that is simple: it’s solely because it’s Philip who’s my son.

As I’ve witnessed, helped (and hopefully not hindered too much) his progress through life, from baby to toddler, from toddler to child, from child to young adult, alongside wonder, my emotions have been, and continue to be, those of pride and pleasure in the young man he’s turned into. The credit for an incredible amount of that must go to Laura; she’s a wonderful mother. And I’m constantly filled with justifiable hope and confidence for the adult he’s become, and the adult he will become in the next few years.

He’s currently studying at Aberystwyth University with Rhee, and I don’t get to see him nearly as much as I’d like. But fortunately, I got to spend last night with them both at The Distraction Club – which I’m going to write about more in a later blog entry – and it’s time I wouldn’t swap for anything… 

As always, however, I have no idea how he went from:

to

to

to

to

to

to

in what seems like an astonishingly short space of time.

‘Appy birthday, Phil. I love you, son.

Dad
x

[Feel free to add your birthday greetings and wishes here, or tweet him at @phik_vicious…]

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

2017 minus 65: Q&A

Posted: 28 October 2016 in 2017 minus, life, personal
Tags:

Haven’t done this for a lonnng time; I guess you could say it’s a thematic sequel though to “Who…?” from last week.

Here’s one of those Q & A ‘memes’, questions I’ve been asked over the years, with today’s answers.

OK.

Alcoholic drink of choice?
Single malt whiskey, neat. I can’t really afford that regularly, so a decent blended will do.

First thing you ever got paid for writing?
A short sketch on BBC Radio 4’s Weekending. As I recall, it was about Boris Yeltsin.

Ever have a near-death experience?
Yes.

Name an obvious quality you have.
Well, according to several people, a very skewed perception of how I’m regarded by others. That’s their opinion of an “obvious” quality, not necessarily one with which I agree.

What’s the name of the song that’s stuck in your head right now?
A Night Like This by Carl Emerald

Favourite toy as a child?
Lego; boring, but true.  

When was the last time you visited the street where you first lived?
Well, I was born in Luton; haven’t been back to the town, let alone the street, in years.

Do you read your horoscope?
No; if I want to read fantasy, there’s plenty of better written stuff out there.

When was the last time you googled your own name?
Can’t remember; I set up a couple of google alerts way back when I had a reason to check; I get a digest every so often.

Do you like having your photograph taken?
Generally? No, I really don’t like it. I don’t mind if I know it’s being taken, but I really, really hate it when I don’t know it’s being taken. The chances I’ll like the pic if I don’t know it’s being taken are miniscule.

What time were you born?
11:10 pm

Ever seriously questioned your sanity?
Yes.

How many phone numbers do you have remembered and can say off the top of your head?
Over my lifetime? Many, many. How many could I remember now? Half a dozen, possibly.

Have you ever killed your own dinner?
If you mean, have I ever killed something and then ate it, the answer’s no. If you mean, have I ever destroyed a meal I was making, hell’s teeth, you’re asking questions of someone who could burn corn flakes. I’m a terrible cook. Abysmal.

What phobias do you have?
Bees and wasps; spiders that are bigger than they should be. And to save you asking, spiders shouldn’t be any bigger than a quarter of an inch diameter.

What’s your ideal breakfast?
I rarely if ever have breakfast.

What book or movie title best summarises your personality?
What is the Name of This Book? by Raymond Smullyan

If you could suddenly get the skill to play any single musical instrument, which would you choose?
Mouth organ – that way no one would ever ask me to sing. (A couple of years ago, friends bought me one. I started to learn, then put down; I really should get back to learning it. I’d actually quite like to.)

Do you have any prejudices you’re willing to acknowledge?
I tend to assume that someone who’s intelligent in one area will be equally intelligent in others, and I’m biased in favour of intelligent people.

What’s the longest time you’ve stayed out of the country/where?
1980, from mid-July to mid-August. On a BBYO/youth group tour of Israel.

And the furthest you’ve ever been from where you were born?
Singapore. Flew there, stayed six hours, flew back. Long story. Not as long as the flight, though.

If you were another person, would you be friends with you?
The temptation is to say no, but I honestly don’t know.

Why do you write?
Either because I have a story I want to tell, or to meet a challenge, (self-imposed or external), or something occurs to me that I have to get down… in order for it to make sense to me. And sometimes, the format itself gets in the way. A story won’t work in prose, but it will as poetry, or only as a scrupt.

Why are you such a grouch?
It’s obligatory. Comes with my membership of the Curmudgeonly Club.

Why do you pretend you don’t know when someone’s interested in you when you obviously do?
Erm, we’ve obviously never met.

Do you think of yourself as “Budgie” or “Lee”?
These days? Always the former.

If you could change one thing about yourself whether it be physical or not, what would it be?
Physically? Full body transplant.
Mentally? An injection of “grow up” serum.

What is your favourite word?
Poltroon.

Which writers do you find inspiring and / or influential?
I can’t think of any writers I’ve found inspiring as in emotionally inspiring, but ‘inspiring me to write’? Warren Ellis, Peter David, David Morrell, Irving Wallace. ‘Nagging me to write more’? Neil Gaiman and Mitch Benn.

Influential? Oh, a bit from everyone above, I think.

Please pass on an important piece of advice about life.
Two pieces of advice: (1) Learn from your mistakes; regret ’em, but don’t brood on them. (2) Accept completely and utterly that life is an ongoing series of ‘well, it seemed like a good idea at the time’,

Who would you most like to meet?
There are any number of people with whom I’ve corresponded online that I’d like to meet, including some that have become friends. Celebrities? Stephen Fry, Peter David, Jon Stewart, Jeremy Paxman, in the main so I can tell them how much I’ve enjoyed their work.

Would you ever consider running for political office?
Absolutely NOT!

What is the first thing you notice about people?
Their face. I’d like to say their eyes, but it’s their entire face. It’s their eyes that ‘get’ me though; I’m a sucker for communicative eyes.

Do you believe in ghosts?
Nope, not at all. I think that those people who do are… misguided.

Which is your favourite song that you would choose to sing at a karaoke bar?
I wouldn’t. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

If you were to be famous, what would you like to be known for?
As the disreputable and slightly embarrassing father of a very talented son.

Pretend you live in a world where everyone wears real, physical masks all the time. Halloween masks, masquerade masks, and so on. What would your favorite mask look like?
Completely blank, like that of THE QUESTION.

What do you do if you forget the name of someone you’ve just been introduced to?
I’ll usually apologise and admit it…

Tell me: One strength. One shortcoming. One plan of action. One goal. One fear.
One strength: determination, not stubbornness.
One shortcoming: stubbornness, not determination.
One plan of action: under no circumstances ever say ‘next year has to be better than this year’; I’ve been burned before on that.
One goal: make it through this series of blog entries relatively unscathed.
One fear: the confirmation of other fears.

What’s your favorite black and white movie?
Always have problems with favourite movies, because I have different favourites depending on genre. So I’ll say probably Casablanca as a ‘serious’ movie, and Duck Soup as a comedy. (And as we’re less than. two months from Christmas season, and as an aside, I’ll add that I can’t stand It’s a Wonderful Life. At all.)

What do you wear to bed to sleep?
A duvet.

What song always makes you happy when you hear it?
Not sure about ‘happy’, but Walking on Sunshine by Katriona and the Waves always makes me smile when I hear it.

Are you afraid of the dark?
Not at all, but then it’s never given me a reason to be afraid of it. So far.

What’s your favourite music to dance to?
Even when my foot allowed it (long story), I loathed dancing. Hated it. Not only cannot I not dance, I’m far too self-conscious – I cannot get it out of my head that everyone’s looking.

Do you think writers are too in love with themselves?
Oh hell, no. I think many writers don’t like themselves very much at all.

Can you recommend a coffee?
I always recommend a coffee.

Who is the strongest person you know?
Couldn’t narrow it down to one person; so many people I know have triumphed – or are struggling to do so – against horrible things that have happened to them, that I couldn’t narrow it down to one person.

Favorite Number?
1729

Can you speak any languages other than English?
A smattering of yiddish, and absolutely fluent rubbish.

If you could live in any past time period, which would it be?
If I had to pick, 1960s, but I’d probably be enirely useless living there. I’d miss too many of today’s comforts, and tech, and the social norms? No, I don’t think I’d get on well, living in the past.

Do you dream in color or black and white?
Honestly, I’ve never noticed. Is that a thing?

Are you tolerant of other people’s beliefs?
I’d like to respond “as long as they’re tolerant of mine”, but honestly? Depends on the beliefs.

Have you ridden in a hot air balloon?
No, and I’m in no hurry to do so.

Which hurts the most, physical or emotional pain?
For me? Physical.

Would you rather visit a zoo or an art museum? I’d rather visit neither.

Do you have a middle name?
No, my parents couldn’t afford one

What medications do you take?
Anything that I need to. Other than that, nothing

Have you ever ‘done drugs’? Yes; smoked dope occasionally, never anything stronger, though I’ve been offered on many occaisons. Just not my thing.

What do you think of hot dogs?
I think it’s cruel, and the owners should be prosecuted for not leaving the car windows open.

Do you own a knife? Well, does a Swiss Army Knife count? If so, yes.

What characteristics do you despise?
Intolerance and arrogance.

Where in the world on vacation, where would you go?
Toss up between Bermuda, Antigua and New York

What did you want to be when you were little?
Older… and taller.

79. Favourite Candy Bar? Don’t have one.

Would most people say you look older than you are, younger or approximately the ‘correct’ age?
Younger, usually, which still always surprises the hell out of me.

What is your hidden talent?
I’m genuinely unsure whether I have one. I’m not usually one to hide any talents I have…

Is there any subject that should be off limits for humor?
No. None. However, just because a joke can be made about a subject doesn’t mean it should be made. Context is also important – where and when the joke is told.

Are you a hypocrite?
Yes. Next question?

Just curious – what’s your type?
Arial Rounded MT Bold.

If you were one of the Endless, which one would you be?
I think like most people, I feel like different Endless at different times… As a general rule though, never really feel like a character created by someone else. I’m more of a self-made person who has a healthy disrespect for my creator.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

2017 minus 74: Who…? 

Posted: 19 October 2016 in 2017 minus, life, personal
Tags:

Some housekeeping and information before today’s entry. 

There are 74 of these entries to go and even I – who am not short of a few words on most subjects – would probably find writing 1000 or more words a day for this place a stretch; moreover, no doubt you’d like a bit of novelty in format, and subject matter. 

So, this is what I’m planning. To make it easier for me – and you –  of the seven posts a week, four will be brand new prose material, my thoughts on a subject or news event, or even some ‘slice of life’ stuff. One post – on Saturdays – will be deliberately lighter in tone, what I used to call “Saturday Smiles”. And since the name isn’t being used at the moment, I might as well do so.

Fiction for the two remaining days: one brand new story, one I’m pulling from the archives, from when I wrote for Elephant Words. I’ve linked to them in the past, but they’ve never appeared on the blog and since I have about three dozen to choose from, that most have never seen, I’ll put some of them up here. That ok with you? Good.


How do you answer the question “who are you?”

I’ve been watching the first few episodes of HBO’s Westworld and – no, don’t worry, I’m not about to spoil it for you, nor predict what’s going on. I wouldn’t do that without very heavy warnings.

But the question “who are you?” and its associated question “what do you do?” have always fascinated me. I mean, they’re not as daft as “how are you?” which, unless it’s a doctor asking you the question, is universally understood as requiring “fine, thanks” as an answer.

But “who are you?” 

It’s not a question that in and of itself informs you of the answer required. Instead, the circumstances in which it’s asked shape the answer required. At various times, I’ve been “Lee”, “Lee Barnett”, “Mr Barnett”, “Laura’s husband”, “Laura’s ex-husband” and, of course, most of the time over the past twenty or more years, “budgie”. And that’s ignoring the responses that cover “what do you do” equally well: “I’m the writer”, “I’m the financial director”, “I’m the lodger”, etc.   

But none of those are themselves good answers. They just give the person asking something to call me, something by which to refer to me. Fantastic tales notwithstanding, knowing someone’s name isn’t necessarily (I’ll grant you that caveat) giving you power over them. 

Who am I? I’m the result of millions of life experiences. I’m a firm believer in people being the sums of their own life experiences. (Also that life is a consecutive series of ‘well, it seemed like a good idea at the time…’, but that’s a diferent blog entry.) Change the experiences and you change the person. I lost a brother at 38. Had he been around for another ten years or more, my life experiences would be different, so I’d be a different person. Had I not married when I did, or had the marriage lasted shorter or longer than it did, I’d be a different person now. Better? Worse? No idea, but I’d be a different person for sure.

Who am I? I’m someone equally interested in the process by which a decision is reached as the decision itself. I like to know why things happen as much as how they happen. I’ve no interest in pretending they didn’t happen though.

Who am I? I’m a 52 year old man, who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, using slang and colloquialisms that I now detest, cracking gags at school of which I’m now ashamed. That they were “of that time” might explain the causal misogyny, racism and homophobic attitudes, but it doesn’t excuse them. I have no distinct memories of me being racist or homophobic, but I can’t in all honesty pretend it’s not likely I was. And yet, those childhood experiences made me – in part – the person I am today. Change them, and you change who I am. 

Who am I? I’m a Jew who has faced antisemitism, has been called jewboy, kike and hebe, who has been described as vermin and as an infestation. 

Who am I? I’m the boy who was a coward at school, who was regularly beaten up by bullies, and didn’t believe the “they respect you when you stand up to them” then, and I’m none too convinced now. What stopped me being bullied at school was a combination of a) me growing six inches in height in my fifth year at secondary school, b) getting some upper body strength, and c) hitting back and knocking down a bully, the last of which surprised both of us equally. It stopped almost overnight. It was the combination that stopped it, not just the last.

Who am I? I’m someone who I hope has learned from my own experiences and from those of others. I’m someone who tries to think before they speak, listen before I interrupt, and acknowledge that others’ experiences are often not only more relevant than my own but carry more weight.

Who am I? I’m a former accountant who still thinks that that’s a worthy profession, that business is not inherently immoral, and that neither is that business making a profit.  

Who am I? I’m a physical coward who somehow got used to ongoing pain from a foot with a couple of bones dying inside it.

Who am I? I’m someone with friends who forgive me when I fuck up, and understand me better than I sometimes appreciate. 

Who am I? I’m someone who enjoys history but dislikes museums; who enjoys music but can’t play an instrument; who enjoys rhetoric, but loathes demagoguery; who doesn’t enjoy sport on the whole, but quite enjoys others’ enjoyment of it.

Who am I? I’m someone who’ll happily accept a compliment for what I do, but almost never for who I am.

Who am I? I’m someone.

So… who am I?

I’m me. 

Who are you?


See you tomorrow. With either some views on the US election and the debate, or an odd tale or two. We’ll see.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

Eighteen Years

Posted: 9 January 2016 in family, life
Tags: ,

Eighteen years. Almost two decades. Or to be more precise, eighteen years and four 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 eighteen years gone? Eighteen 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 twenty, an adult, and he’s studying at Aberystwyth with his fiancée, far more interested in spending time there with her than with his old man. And I don’t – and won’t – blame him for that.

Still and all, where have the years gone?

Eighteen 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 eighteen 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.

I’m a huge fan of the work of the late Alistair Cooke; it’s rare that a month will go by when I don’t load up the iPhone with some Letters from America and listen to them while out on a wander. Though I’d been listening to his work – and reading his writings – for some twenty years before he died, I was never under the impression that I ‘knew’ him, nor that I would ever be fortunate enough to meet him. I would have liked to discuss politics with him, and the media, and the colours of the trees in the Fall. I suspect, however, that we would not have personally liked each other that much. Biographies of the man, and articles written about his after his death show a man utterly dedicated to his work, and a warm, wry companion, but someone without that big a sense of humour about the work. 

It may be a fault of mine, but I find it hard to genuinely like people who don’t have a sense of humour about their work. That’s not to say that such people work any harder or less hard at their chosen trade or profession than those who can tell the best jokes about their jobs. And of course, I’m excluding those who are having a rough time of it at their work, or who are doing a job they really don’t like, which can happen for any number of reasons.

One of the primary requirements for someone being invited onto the panel for hypotheticals, the panel which Dave Gibbons and I ran at the main British comics convention for over a decade was to have that sense of humour, an innate sense of the ridiculous about what they did and do for a living. And I don’t think it a coincidence that the most successful panellists were those who exhibited that during the panel.

About two-thirds of the way through the run, a very famous writer was supposed to be attending the con. This man, a very famous writer, I remind you, looked to be the perfect person to invite onto the panel; he’d written a critically acclaimed and popular SF series, and had written some well received comic books. I didn’t know this man, but in the old phrase, I knew a man who did. So I dropped my acquaintance – another comics writer, also very well known – an email. They knew all about hypotheticals, and in fact had an open invitation to appear any time they were over. My contact didn’t exactly warn me off inviting the very famous writer onto the panel but did earnestly the recommend I read some interviews with the writer. I did do and quickly realised that although the writer had a warm sense of humour about many things, he did not seem to have one about either his writing or the craft of writing itself. I never invited him onto the panel (and as it turned out, he didn’t show at the con either; personal circumstances got in the way.)

For most of my adult life, I worked either as an accountant in the entertainment industry, either as a practicing accountant doing other people’s books, or on the commercial side in a finance department. I’ careful to say that I was an entertainment accountant, not an entertaining accountant; there are many of the former and precious few of the latter. To my constant delight, I found that almost all of the ‘talent’ I encountered was genuinely as nice in person as they appeared on screen, often nicer. However, there were always the exceptions, as there are in every field of human endeavour. There are lots of people supremely gifted at what they do, who are absolute shits as human beings, whether that’s because they hold and express racist, sexist or homophobic options, are quick to anger and use their fists, hold political opinions that are – to be kind – less than progressive, or are just very unpleasant people.

It’s in politics and sports however, that it strikes me as most jarring. I follow the first with great interest and the second hardly at all. (Although I have a fond feeling for ‘my’ football team, it goes no further than being pleased when they win and displeased when they lose. I’ve seen only a handful of matches in my life and have no great wish to see any more.) But it’s within those two spheres it seems where the tribal nature of ‘fandom’ and support coincide to allow people to ‘excuse’ the personal behaviour of the ‘stars’. 

If the lead striker of, say, Manchester Athletic (yes, I know they don’t exist, I’m just using an example) a footballer of astonishing talent, came out with a comment that was at least arguably racist, many fans of the team would excuse the comment or seek to lessen its impact merely because the man is good at scoring goals. If he said something homophobic, fans would say he’d been misinterpreted at best, or agree with him at worst. If he commented on the Middle East, no matter what he said, no matter how well sourced and intelligent or ignorant and naive, fans would excuse him merely because the man is good at scoring goals. I believe this firmly, because when a footballer made a symbol widely associated with anti-semitism, the fans did excuse the footballer in question, saying he’d been misinterpreted, saying he didn’t mean it, excusing his actions.

A boxer, a man who to be honest, I’d never heard of before last week (told you I don’t follow sports) made homophobic statements. His name is Tyson Fury, and yes, that’s his real name. He’s not denied making the comments but insists their neither sexist nor homophobic. (They are.) It may be that he genuinely believes they’re not. (They are.)  It could be that he’s genuinely so unintelligent that he doesn’t realise they are. (They are.)

And his fans excuse him. His fans say he’s being treated unfairly. His fans say everyone’s overreacting. 

It reminds me of nothing so much as the excuses offered by supporters when politicians from the right, from the Conservative Party, from UKIP, from the BNP, make racist statements or by their actions attempt to reduce the severity of racist behaviour. (Yes, as I’ve mentioned previously, there’s a fair amount of anti-semitism on the left, but the home of anti-semitism, of racism, of homophobia, and of sexism, is on the hard right.) Whether it’s a UKIP MEP saying he wanted to join an EY committee on Women because “they don’t clean properly”, or another UKIP politician saying floods are attacks by God because of legalisation of equal marriage, or many, many other examples, Conservative MPs delighting in stopping Private Members’ Bills to make life better for less fortunate poeple (so many examples)… Tyson Fury is merely the latest example of a person very good at what they do, who’s also apparently a horrible, horrible person. 

I once queued up to get something signed by one of my favourite comic book artists; despite my fairly immediate discovery that he was an arrogant self-entitled shit, that doesn’t stop my admiration of his work. It certainly put me off him as a person though. 

No one is obliged to be a nice person. It’s better if they are, but no one is obliged to. No one is obliged to agree with all of my positions on anything (though I do wish they’d do so on some of them) but I’m always disappointed when someone whose work I enjoy is not a nice person. 

I’ve been incredibly fortunate that in comics, however, almost every talented person I’ve met – almost – is an equally nice person. I don’t know many politicians, and I don’t know any sportspeople. I hope I could say the same about them, but I’m less convinced than ever that’d be the case. 

I know, I know – I’d planned what I was going to write for today’s entry; I even hinted at it yesterday, but no. Not today. I need to do some more careful thinking on it. And yes, I know that me thinking carefully about things is not always the best plan, but hey, I should at least try it on occasion, nu?

So, instead of that, this… something else for a Sunday evening. A while back, in another place (Livejournal, I used to do Q&As fairly often. For whatever reason – in part because the fashion for them has thankfully if not died, then at least suffered a setback – I’ve rarely done them here. But why not, for a change? Why not indeed. So below are a number of question asked of me over the years, and my current answer were they to be asked of me now. Fair enough?

OK… let’s see how this goes. 

Call me curious. Why do you write?
Either because I have a story I want to tell, or to meet a challenge, (self-imposed or external), or something occurs to me that I have to get down… in order for it to make sense to me. And sometimes, the format itself gets in the way. A story won’t work in prose, but it will as poetry, or only as a scrupt.

Who will play you in the film about your life?
No one would be daft enough to take on such a career-ending role.

Why are you called ‘budgie’?
A long story that you used to have to get me very drunk to tell, but now…? The full story’s here.

Why are you such a grouch?
It’s obligatory. Comes with my membership of the Curmudgeonly Club.

Furthest you’ve ever been from where you were born?
Singapore. Flew there, stayed six hours, flew back. Long story. Not as long as the flight, though.

Biggest regret of 2015?
Having low expectations, and failing even to live up to them.

Where did the idea for the Fast Fiction Challenge come from?
I hadn’t written anything for a while, and I was chatting with a well-known writer friend, saying I needed something to get me “hungry” about writing again… I came up with the idea for the fast fiction challenge and he said it would certainly get me writing… but I’d hate myself after about twenty… but I’d still write them. Well, I didn’t quite HATE myself but after about 100 I wondered whether I’d burn out. 700 of the buggers later, I’m still wondering.

Why do you pretend you don’t know when someone’s interested in you when you obviously do?
Erm, we’ve obviously never met.

Do you think of yourself as “Budgie” or “Lee”?
Oh, good question… Depends on the circumstances; with comics people, or people who I’ve met via online contacts, almost always as “Budgie”. At work, it was “Lee” or occasionally “Mr Barnett”, which I loathed. I’ve never really liked “Lee” as a name; as an androgynous name, I occasionally got letters addressed to “Miss Barnett”. Amusing as an adult, painfully embarassing as a teenager.

If you could change one thing about yourself whether it be physical or not, what would it be?
Physically? Full body transplant.
Mentally? An injection of “grow up” serum.

What is your favourite word?
Poltroon.

Which writers do you find inspiring and / or influential?
I can’t think of any writers I’ve found inspiring as in emotionally inspiring, but inspiring me to write? Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Peter David, David Morrell, Irving Wallace. Influential? Oh, a bit from everyone, though something longform I wrote was described by a friend as being heavily influenced by Douglas Adams’ style.

Please pass on an important piece of advice about life.
Two pieces of advice: (1) Learn from your mistakes; regret ’em, but don’t brood on them. (2) Accept that life is an ongoing series of ‘well, it seemed like a good idea at the time’,

Do you have any prejudices you’re willing to acknowledge?
I tend to assume that someone who’s intelligent in one area will be equally intelligent in others. And I become unfairly (and obviously) disappointed when it proves not to be the case.

Who would you most like to meet?
There are any number of people with whom I’ve corresponded online that I’d like to meet, including some that have become friends. Celebrities? Stephen Fry, Peter David, Jon Stewart, Jeremy Paxman, in the main so I can tell them how much I’ve enjoyed their work.

Would you ever consider running for political office?
Absolutely NOT!

What is the first thing you notice about people?
Their face. I’d like to say their eyes, but it’s their entire face.

Do you believe in ghosts?
Nope, not at all. I think that those people who do are… misguided.

Which is your favourite song that you would choose to sing at a karaoke bar?
I wouldn’t. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

If you were to be famous, what would you like to be known for?
As the disreputable and slightly embarrassing father of a very talented son.

Have you ever had cosmetic surgery?
Heh, no. You think I’d choose to look like this?

Pretend you live in a world where everyone wears real, physical masks all the time. Halloween masks, masquerade masks, and so on. What would your favorite mask look like?
Completely blank, like that of THE QUESTION.

What do you do if you forget the name of someone you’ve just been introduced to?
I’ll usually apologise and admit it…

What is your favorite pizza topping(s)?
Sweetcorn, Pineapple, Extra Cheese.

Tell me: One strength. One shortcoming. One plan of action. One goal. One fear.
One strength: determination, not stubbornness.
One shortcoming: stubbornness, not determination.
One plan of action: under no circumstances ever say ‘next year has to be better than this year’; I’ve been burned before on that.
One goal: make it through this year relatively unscathed.
One fear: the confirmation of other fears.

What’s your favorite black and white movie?
Always have problems with favourite movies, because I have different favourites depending on genre. So I’ll say probably Casablanca as a serious movie, and Duck Soup as a comedy. (As it’s the Christmas season, and as an aside, can’t stand It’s a Wonderful Life. At all.)

What was your favorite TV show when you were growing up?
Had loads – I was a telly addict growing up; ’twas a family joke. But my earliest memories of ‘must-watch’ tv were Doctor Who, Magpie (a kids’ magazine programme), The Banana Splits, Thunderbirds and H R Puffnstuff.

What do you wear to bed to sleep?
A duvet.

What song always makes you happy when you hear it?
Not sure about ‘happy’, but Walking on Sunshine by Katriona and the Waves always makes me smiled when I hear it.

Are you afraid of the dark?
Not at all, but then it’s never given me a reason to be afraid of it. So far.

Have you ever used a gun?
A ‘real’ one? No, and no eagerness to do so.

What three television characters do you wish were real so you could hang out?
The characters I most like on tv are almost without exception characters that I’d really not like to spend that much time with in real life, and I’m pretty sure they’d not want to spend time with me either…

Name three things you hate doing.
Rarely ‘hate’ doing anything, but I’m a lazy sod – hate doing anything the “hard way” if there’s an easy way of doing it…

But, as a general rule of thumb?

(1) Even when my foot allowed it (long story), I loathed dancing. Hated it. Not only cannot I not dance, I’m far too self-conscious – I cannot get it out of my head that everyone’s looking.

(2) I hate seeing photographs of me, or to be precise, I actually don’t mind it when I’m posing for a photo, but I detest being photographed when I’m not expecting it or when I don’t know about it. I think that in my adult life there’s maybe, MAYBE, been four ‘candid’ photos taken of me where I look anything approaching ‘ok’. The rest? I’d rather they never existed.

(3) I hate having to be polite on occasions when I know I should be polite but I really don’t want to have to be, including when I receive a compliment that I either know or suspect is ‘fake’.

Can a man and a woman who find each other attractive (physically, intellectually…), be just friends and stay friends?
Yes, they can. Finding someone attractive, mentally and/or physically does not mean you desire them sexually. I’ve several female friends I think are incredibly attractive, intellectually and/or physically; that doesn’t mean I want to take them to bed. There are all sorts of entirely valid reasons why even if people do find each other attractive, the relationship will stay “friends only” or “just good friends”, or however you want to describe it: one or both people being attached, being separated by distance, etc. (Of course there’s always the possibility/probability/likelihood* that while they both find each other attractive, one or both won’t have a clue the other DOES find them attractive.)

[*delete as appropriate]

And also on that note: is it possible to be friends with someone you’ve got a crush on?
Yes, as long as they don’t have a clue you’re crushing on them. If they know? No, I don’t think it’s possible, or at least advisable, at least not for me. There’s a BUT coming. And here it is: BUT I’ve always considered “crushing” as unrequited. The moment it becomes reciprocated, that’s not crushing… that’s fancying each other, and you’re foolish if you don’t do something about it, circumstances allowing. But unrequited crushing? If someone wants to let me know they’ve crushed on me, fine… I won’t stop them, but me? No, I’d never let someone know.

What’s the favourite fast fiction you’ve written
It changes every time I think about it

Do you think writers are too in love with themselves?
Oh hell, no. I think most writers don’t like themselves very much at all.

Do you like being your age or would you rather be a different age? Why?
I don’t mind being my age; I just don’t like FEELING my age.

What would you like to see written on your gravestone?
Seriously? Merely my name and the dates of my birth and death.

Jokingly? “To Be Continued…”

Do you have a partner/significant other? Does s/he support your writing?
No, I don’t. I’ve been single for some years; many, many years in fact. Many, many, many… you get the point, I hope.

Can you recommend a coffee?
I always recommend a coffee. It’s a rule.

Would you like to know what your future holds or would you rather wait and see what happens ?
There are times I’d like the former, but on the whole, overwhelmingly the latter.

Can’t see the point in knowing what’s going to happen; either you give up the concept of TRYING at that point, of effort itself, OR if you genuinely saw the ultimate consequences of every action you took, you’d go insane… OR you’d constantly seek to change the future.

I think either way, you’d go nuts pretty quickly, in one way or another.

What’s the furthest you’ve ever traveled?
Travelled for work to Singapore… was there six hours and flew back again. It’s… a complicated story.

This is a question from my 3 year old: Can dogs fly? I’m guessing his next question will be: Why not?
It depends how hard you throw them.

If you could write any comics character (Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc.) which one would it be?
This is the genuinely the first answer where I didn’t recognise the person who wrote the answer last time around. My answer now (‘about bloody time,’ I can hear a Mr Ellis of Southend growl) would be my own characters. That’s who I’d like to write. There’s one graphic novel adaptation I’m working on which is someone else’s character and it’s enormous fun. But yes, my own characters please.

Are you a good friend?
I suspect not, but you’d have to ask my friends about that.

If I lived in the UK would you date me?
I’ll even date you if you’re not in the UK. Neolithic? How close am I?

What is your idea of a truly romantic evening?
I’m not a romantic person. Really.

Which Doctor is “your” Doctor, and do you think the ‘new’ Doctors live up to their predecessors?
“My” Doctor is the Third Doctor. I barely remember the Second Doctor; it’s John Pertwee’s Doctor who was the first I watched properly and yeah, he’s “my” Doctor. I think all of the ‘new’ Doctors have lived up to their predecessors and then some. Mind you, I’d had loved to have seen the earlier Doctors with the production values they have now. Wow.

If you had another child, what would you name him/her?
No idea – I don’t intend to have any more children. By the time I’d want any more, I think I’ll be “too old”, in my opinion. I don’t think it’s fair to children if the parents are too old; you’re increasing the odds massively that you won’t be around when the child is still relatively young. However, had I had another child, a boy would have been named after my late brother, Michael.

Who is the strongest person you know?
Couldn’t narrow it down to one person; so many people I know have triumphed – or are struggling to do so – against horrible things that have happened to them, that I couldn’t narrow it down to one person.

What song do you want played at your funeral?
I’ll likely have a traditional Jewish funeral. At those, at least in the UK, there’s no music played.

Who’s your favorite Star Trek Captain?
MacKenzie Calhoun

What are you reading at the moment?
THE LAST DAYS OF JACK SPARKS by Jason Arnopp and TRIGGER WARNING by Neil Gaiman.

Would you ever do a bungee jump?
Not even if world peace depended upon it. I have a distinct fear of, you know, dying. As Jack Dee said, there’s no ‘grey’ in bungee jumping if it goes wrong… just a big red smear.

Favorite Number? Season? Jewish Festival? Day of the week? Month?
Number: 1729
Season; Spring
Jewish Festival: Probably Chanukah, but no real favourite.
Day of the week: don’t really have one
Month: November, because it contains my son’s birthday.

Do you like your handwriting?
Depends which handwriting you’re talking about. When I deliberately write neatly, yeah, I quite like it. The rest of the time it’s a scrawl that I’m faintly embarrassed about.

Atheism is becoming more acceptable. If God doesn’t exist, why did the concept of his existence become almost universal?
Well, while not entirely accepting the premise of God not existing, but for the sake of argument: because early man needed SOMETHING to explain why the sun came up and what the lights in the sky were.

Well, that was nice.

Not for the first time, far far from the first time, I’ve been made aware this weekend that children today not only don’t understand what it was like to be children in the UK in the 1960 and 1970s, but literally can’t imagine it. How can they possibly do so? And no, I’m not neccessarily talking avout the tech that’s now available nor the utter complete difference of ‘being online’, although I’ll state for the record that children are exposed to more genuine ‘bad news’ on the news than we ever were simply by virtue of the sheer ubiquity of news sources.

Further, this isn’t any kind of ‘we ’ad it tough back then’; in many ways, us kids growing up in the 1960s and 1970s had it far, far easier than children do now. There were some things that were tougher, but an awful lot that was easier. For all the comments about schools and exams ‘dumbing down’ and ‘grade inflation’, I don’t recall us having one-tenth of the genuine pressure on us to learn for the test that seems to exist from a terrifyingly early age. I can’t comment upon the overall quality of teachers since I was lucky enough to have almost exclusively excellent teachers, almost all of whom I look back on with fond memories. And from what I gather from children I know today, at primary and secondary education, often the same applies now. I’m old fashioned enough to think that the best measure of whether a teacher is good or not is how the children regard them after the teachers have finished teaching them. It may not be the most objective, but as a measure, it works for me.

For various reasons, and with various children, I’ve seen a lot of childrens’ television over the years and it occurs to me to wonder how many of childrens’ televison today will be remembered fondly by those same chidlren in thirty or forty or fifty years time. Because, of course, mine was if not the first then close to the first generation to grow up with childrens’ television.

And thanks to youtube, there’s plenty of example of opening credits to aid failing memories and in which to wallow. Here are some of the childrens’ TV programmes I watched as a child. It might explain a lot…

Catweazle (Currently, and for a couple of years, my mobile phone ringtone)

The Banana Splits

H R Puffnstuff

Hector’s House

Follyfoot

Ace of Wands

The Freewheelers

And, of course, Doctor Who. Huh. Wonder if anyone else remembers this programme.

See you tomorrow with something else…

It’s not often I write a letter for publication. It happens, but not that regularly. Occasionally it’s to Private Eye but as often as not, it’s to the Jewish Chronicle in response to a columnists’ outpouring, to reply to a letter or to comment upon a news piece. There’s a columnist there named Geoffrey Alderman who distinguishes himself to me on a regular basis by being like Melanie Phillips, someone with whom I disagree to such an extent that if I do agree with him, I immediately and urgently review my own thoughts to see where I’m wrong.

He wrote a column in this week’s edition on the “Christian bakers” law case. Now, there are those who think – with good motives and understandable arguments – that the wrong decision was reached in that case. Andrew O’Neill, a very clever, very funny man, is one of those, believing that the state, via the means of the law, should mind its own business; after all, the people wanting a cake could go elsewhere with no inconvenience to anyone.

Alderman on the other hand reaches that conclusion via very different reasoning and imputes nefarious motives to the customers, and their supporters.  So I wrote a letter to the JC. Now, I should say that when I told my lad that I’d written a letter, he – with no knowledge of the contents – softly swore half in admiration, half in dread as to what I wrote. Well, this is what I wrote:

Sir,

I am constantly grateful for the opportunity to read Mr Alderman’s weekly musings, since knowing his column awaits me as I progress towards the middle pages of the JC allows me to play Shrödinger’s Alderman every week.

Will the column’s contents be contemptible or merely offensive? Of course, they are both… until I read the column and the possibilities collapse into one or the other.

Long may Mr Alderman’s writings appear. Should I wish to show someone who does not read the newspaper an example of how one can be both wrong in content and tone I only have to present them with his latest column regarding the “gay lobby” which is insulting to the intelligence and morally indefensible. A commercial organisation can either be open to serving the public or it can discriminate. It cannot do both, not without accusations of hypocrisy and justified criticism. To suggest that only “the gay lobby” believe in non-discrimination insults the intelligence and his readership. As for Christianity being “persecuted” in the UK, maybe I’ve missed that in a country with the monarch being its defender of the faith, where its legislature opens every day with Christian prayers and 26 bishops have seats in the House of Lords by right. Yours, etc.

Someone once told me that they enjoy reading me when I write from either frustration or anger. I think I got both there.

This was going to be a going cheep but it got away from me a bit. So, you get to read it here.

I was talking recently to a friend about how much I’d enjoyed WALL•E, and how I forget each time I watch it just how damned funny it is. I’m not sure why, but WALL•E himself (itself?) reminds me of V.I.N.CENT from Disney’s The Black Hole. Except that I realised that I’sd been spelling it wrong when I tried to remember for what V.I.N.C.E.N.T. was an acronym. I looked it up and discovered both the correct acronym, and also that it was a pretty crap acronym at that: Vital Information Necessary Centralized? Please…

Of course, it’s far from the only crap acronym; sometimes you absolutely know that the acronym came first and the explanation followed when whoever thought of it was asked what it stood for. Something similar happened when I was at Manchester Poly – the student union’s newspaper was called PULP, which was so named because the then editor (years before I was around) loved the name and only reluctantly some time later had to come up with something entitled Polytechnic Union Literary Publication.

And that reminded me of my favourite ever episode involving acronyms, the inspection of the firm for which I was working by the dreaded JMU. No, that’s not the acronym. That’s not even an acronym, really. It’s just an abbreviation. Anyway, the JMU, or Joint Monitoring Unit to give it is proper name, used to be the guys that came in to check you’re following the rules of auditing, and to confirm that all the bits of paper that should be there… are there. (It’s been replaced since 2005, but this predates that…)

The JMU were not checking whether you were right or wrong in the opinion you form as part of the audit, you understand, merely that you can back up with paperwork and tests any opinion that you have formed. And if you’re not 100% perfect, they can shut you down as an auditor. Just. Like. That.

We’d been expecting an inspection for a year or so – it was our ‘turn’ to get one – so for some time, me and my then boss commenced, once every couple of weeks, a final review on all audit files we’d completed in the past year, and all current ones we were now completing. In order to ensure we didn’t miss anything, I developed a one sheet summary that was entitled something like “Final Review Sheet”.

You know me, Mr Original.

Of course, it wasn’t known as that inside the firm.

No, inside the firm, the final review during which we made sure all the boxes on the Final Review Sheet were ticked was known as the F.O.A.D. review. Yes, quite obviously, since this was the last time we’d see the files for a year while they were in archive: the Fuck Off And Die review. But it was always called simply the F.O.A.D. review. Or, sometimes as a verb. As in: “Lee, don’t forget we’ve got to F.O.A.D that client’s files before the weekend…”

Of course, the acronym was never actually written down anywhere. I mean, that would just be asking for trouble.

(That’s called blatant foreshadowing, by the way.)

Comes the day of the JMU visit; everything’s going fine and dandy, and the sample files they’ve chosen at random are all passing muster. We’re about 20 minutes through the review meeting at the end of the day and one of them asks me and my boss, “Just one more thing. What’s an F.O.A.D review? Only on the notes and queries for [name of client]’s last year’s audit, there’s a note in your handwriting, Mr Dales [my boss], noting to ensure you completed it before Mr Barnett went on holiday.”

My boss looks at me, and only someone who knew him very well would have detected the look of panic in his eyes. Barely a second later, I say “Oh, that’s the Financial Operating and Asset Development review. We do them every three years or so with clients to check they’re neither over- nor-under capitalised and also to compare their return on capital employed against the market sector in which they operate.”

The two blokes from the JMU look at each other and for a moment I think they’re going to say “Oh, come on!” but they just nod, write it down and then ten minutes later, they thank us for our time, apologise if their inspection has disrupted our work… and they’re off.

As they leave, my boss just looks at me in sheer, unfettered admiration. “Where the fuck did that come from?”

I just smile and silently thank the gods of inspiration…

It’s not often I’ll cross-refer to GOING CHEEP, but the other day, I wrote about my different taste to most of my friends when it came to television series we respectively enjoy.

It occurs to me that in the list of things where people differ, I gave politics and religion short shrift.

I wanted to get the quote right, so I dug out my collection of Alistair Cooke’s Letters From America and came across the following passages, taken from one of the letters from 1956 (apologies in advance for the length):

I have , for instance, a close friend, a merry, kindly and simple man, very able in his special field of finance. I feel agreeable in his presence and I admire his human qualities. At the shabbiest period in recent American history, when the fear of domestic Communists was most paranoid, this friend was a strong, even a devout, McCarthyite… You might guess, therefore, that my friend’s admiration for McCarthy marked the parting of the ways for us. Well, it was an embarrassment, but not to our affection or our continuing association. Of course, if by some convulsion of history, McCarthy had become an American dictator, my friend and I would probably have said goodbye and retreated to opposite sides of the barricades. Nobody has sharpened this point better, in my opinion, than the late Justice Holmes when he said that the purpose of civilised argument between friends is to arrive at the point where you agree that some day it might be necessary to shoot each other. Until that day is unavoidable, ‘the democratic process’ both in public and in private is no more but no less than an acceptance of the notion that in important issues, you may be wrong.

and

My first mentor in journalism in this country was a man who had no use for democracy at all, except in this crucial belief. ‘Democracy’, he once wrote, ‘is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.’ But he also wrote, ‘What I admire most in any man is a serene spirit… when he fights he fights in the manner of a gentleman fighting a duel, not in that of a longshoreman cleaning out a waterfront saloon.’ We had a tacit understanding that while I allowed him to shoot off his face about the fraudulence and guile of Franklin Roosevelt, I should then be allowed to go off and vote for him. This division never interfered with a friendship that was amiable at all times.

I believe this to be not only a sane approach to politics but essential to all things that lie outside politics.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a great deal recently, since I saw a column online from someone complaining – only semi-jokingly, I suspect – about all the things his friends do that irritate him. It made me consider friendships in general and specifically: where is the line drawn?

When a friend, acquaintance or whatever holds a view that’s not only in opposition to your own, but something that you can’t understand how anyone with the intelligence of a retarded slug could hold, or is something that you actually find offensive (personally or in general)… what do you do?

Do you accept that they hold the opposite view, or do you walk away?

Are you like Cooke, i.e. you allow them to proselyte their view to you, as long as they allow you to do the same? Or do you just agree never to discuss it?

As an example, as I’ve mentioned before, a friend I’ve somewhat lost contact with over the past decade or so genuinely regards the Jewish practice of circumcising male children as child abuse; we’ve kind of agreed never to discuss it. it didn’t affect our friendship that I know of. Another friend from long ago and I agreed never to discuss Cromwell; he may have let Jewish people back into England after 350 years’ worth of exile, but his policies towards Ireland made him not far short of a genocidal maniac. Again, it didn’t – at the time – affect our friendship.

On the other hand, there are others that hold views in opposition to mind where it undoubtedly has affected the friendship, lessening it. Only mildly in some cases, but noticeably nonetheless.

And now that I think about it, I’m damned if I know how I feel about it.

But back to the thing with which I started this piece; are there things that friends of mine do that piss me off? Well, my immediate thought was “if my friends are my friends, they already know what pisses me off about them… and there’s no reason to further piss them off any more than I already do, deliberately or otherwise.”

Moreover, on second thought, to a certain extent, I hold to that – if they are my friends, I don’t really want to piss them off any more than I already do, and if they’re not my friends, they won’t give a damn anyway.

However, on pondering the question, I figure I want to write a little more on the subject.

Well, there’s at least three problems with the question as stated.

The first is that ‘friends’ has taken on a whole new meaning over the past few years because of the whole blogging and social networking issue.

At one point, on Facebook, I had about 300 friends, before I reduced that down to 150 and then to a couple of dozen, and then removed myself from the site. When I had a Livejournal blog, there were over 150 people reading the blog, or at least people I’d marked as friends, and a similar number of people who’ve marked me as a friend. Were all of them actual “friends”? Hell, no- most of them I’d never met, and were never likely to; more than a few of them I wouldn’t have recognised had I walked past them in the street. There’s a large number of people who follow my Twitter account, or this blog where I genuinely don’t have a clue (nor have I attempted to discover) what their ‘real name’ is. There’s even quite a few where I have no idea what gender they are.

In most cases, these people aren’t friends; they’re acquaintances at best, and ‘online contacts’ (what a horrible phrase) in reality.

So now we come to the next thing: what is a friend? I’ve always been struck by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s comment of:

A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud.

But does that imply that one can be completely open with a friend, or merely that one never has to worry about watching your words in front of them. Because I know many people that would qualify as the latter, but precious few that would fall into the former category.

And there are, to me, other attributes that seem inherent in friends, and friendship.

With friends, I kind of figure I should want to spend time in their company, and vice versa. Whether I do spend time in their company (and vice versa) is almost irrelevant; do I – and they – actually want to spend time with the other? Do I, and they, get pleasure from seeing the other person; is there a genuine welcome, or is it merely toleration of their (or my) company?

Can I rely on them (and them on me) in times of need, and not just in terms of presence; would I pissed off at them if they called me at 3am just because they needed to chat to someone? Am I sympathetic to their hurts, and they to mine? Even if I think they’re wrong (or they think I’m wrong), will either get upset/angry at that disagreement? If it matters to them, does it matter to me, and if not to the extent of what they would regard as callousness, isn’t there something seriously wrong there?

This is the thing I’ve come to realise – friendship (or at least the depth of it) isn’t always a two way street. Oh, I’m not saying that you can have two people where A regards B as a friend, but B regards A as his most hated enemy. Well, not outside soap operas. But the depths, and importance, of friendships, they vary in reality and in perception.

C considers D one of their closest friends, but D regards C as just “one of the crowd”. Or E considers F as someone so important to them that they’d do pretty much anything for them, while it doesn’t even occur to F that they owe E anything more than sharing a phone call or a drink every so often.

I’m utterly convinced that for the sake of humanity, people should never – ever – discover exactly how reciprocal in depth and importance their individual friendships are… or are not.

Finally – for the moment anyway, I may add to this – there’s the small thing there’s no one thing that pisses me off in common about people I regard as friends. Different friends piss me off in different ways.

But what those ways are? Naah, I go back to what I originally said:

“if my friends are my friends, they already know what pisses me off about them… and there’s no reason to further piss them off any more than I already do, deliberately or otherwise.”