19 June 2011

Heartless spectacle-selling bastards

I'm moved to write about a TV advertisement which, every time I see it, chills me to the bone and causes whatever semi-digested meat-based snack is in my intestines to lurch upwards to my gullet in sour anger.

I refer, of course, to the Specsavers advert featuring the elderly sheep-shearer.

If you're not familiar with it, the story is as follows:

An elderly farmer on a windswept Scottish hillside herds his flock of sheep with the assistance of his faithful border collie.

Safely ensconced in the pen, he proceeds to shear them by hand, his rough fingers jerkily snipping the shears through their thick fleeces.

Finally, after all of the sheep have been shorn, the dog walks faithfully up and tentatively licks his master's hand.

Squinting, perhaps myopically, perhaps against the cold wind blowing across from the loch, the farmer snips away once more.

As the sheep hustle past the camera, we suddenly see the border collie, thin and shivering. It's coat has been snipped away by the short-sighted farmer.

The final image is of the farmer looking out across his land, grasping two fence posts to aid his balance. Across the centre of the screen, the words "Should've gone to Specsavers" appear.

Now, to many this advert will be an amusement. "Ha ha!", they will say, spraying Cornish Pasty crumbs from between their glistening, oil-smeared lips, "That stupid farmer sheared the dog because he can't see properly!" They will then attempt to brush the crumbs from the front of their acrylic sweatshirt, but only succeed in grinding the greasy short-crust pastry into the weave of the material, before continuing to watch Animals Do The Funniest Things! as a way of filling the fifteen-minute void in their lives before Britain's Got Talent comes on.

I, however, am not laughing. I will now take you on a journey to explain why. It will be a journey of imagination and supposition in which I make many assumptions and leaps of logic. Indeed, you may feel that I go too far and, at some point part-way through this blog post, we part company; I forwards to my aggrieved, entirely-manufactured-for-comic-effect conclusion, you to some other blog where the author isn't such a miserable, humourless bastard. If you do come with me on this journey, I can promise you nothing other than it will, eventually, end.

So, let's take a look at this farmer's story.

You will notice that there are no other people in the advert, just the farmer. We can reasonably assume therefore that he is all alone in the world. "Wait a second!", you may shout, "how can we possibly know that? Perhaps his wife is in the farmhouse baking a pie as we speak and warming his slippers* by the fire!"

*The vast majority of men's slippers are tartan. Is this the case in Scotland or are they rather more serious about tartan than we are? Would it be seen as a terrible faux pas to wear a generic, mass-produced tartan in Scotland, or are they relatively relaxed about the whole thing? Would they, perhaps, clad themselves in the Diana Princess of Wales memorial tartan as sold by Mackenzies of Piccadilly (available as scarves, capes & serapes) as a tribute to the Queen of Hearts? These are the sort of questions that keep me awake at night and prevent me from masturbating myself to sleep.

To answer the wife question, I direct you to Exhibit A, the full-length version of the Specsavers TV advertisement. I will embed the advert at the bottom of this blog so that you can watch it in all of its hideous, money-grubbing glory.

7 seconds in, there is a shot of an old church. Next to that church is a graveyard. In that graveyard are several graves. On two of those graves are very white crosses which contrast harshly against the general gloom of the black and white picture. I put it to you that these crosses are specifically being shown to suggest to the viewer that these are unforgiving highlands which only a fool would treat with disrespect. Life there is hard and many people have paid a terrible price for seemingly inconsequential errors of judgement, like going out without their coat on or trying to treat a persistent cough by sucking a toad, which I understand is a popular medical treatment in certain areas of Scotland.

Thus, we are drawn to the inevitable conclusion that the farmer's wife is no longer among the living. He is, to all intents and purposes, alone. We may never know what malady took his wife from him, but I shall certainly invent something later on in this post.

Now we must take a look at sheep farming itself.

After conducting in-depth research into sheep farming, I present to you Exhibit B. This is a question asked on 'Yahoo Answers' by a fledgling farmer who is eager to avail himself of the valuable knowledge held by the patrons of Yahoo. His question is as follows:

How much money can i get by selling sheep wool?
i am moving and becoming a sheep farmer but i don't know how much money i will make and how many sheep i need

You may be thinking, as I did, that this man is clearly a trenchant buffoon. Without knowing a single thing about the financial implications of becoming a sheep-farmer, he has already committed to move away from his loved ones and purchase a smallholding for the purposes of raising livestock. He will most likely get it all wrong, incur enormous bank charges, make himself bankrupt and unemployable, and spend the rest of his life stroking a curl of wool in the pocket of his threadbare jacket while reminiscing about those halcyon farming days.

However, that would be an incorrect assumption to make. We must give him some credit as, after some careful consideration, he followed that original post with some additional detail that I feel will enable him to be in full possession of the facts and pursue his dream more effectively:

and how much sheep would i need to make enough money to pay bills and get food and cloths and take care of the sheep with out getting a job

Oh, gloating Internet hoards; how you scorned him. Personally, I think he might be more suited to keepin' rabbits and growing alfalfa and livin' off the fat of the land, but whichever career path he chooses, I wish him the best of luck.

The answer provided by the thoughtful and knowledgeable Yahoo community is that "The price of wool for commercial use is way way down. In the UK it barely pays for the shearing."

Indeed, further research suggests that the fleece of a sheep is worth a paltry 10p. Our Specsavers farmer, of course, can't afford to pay for his shearing to be done so carries out the task himself, ensuring that each fleece is pure profit.

However, if you pause the advert at 0:19 you can see the farmer's entire flock which, according to my hasty count, is comprised of only about 35 animals. For the extremely specialised work that he carries out, he can expect to earn a paltry £3.50.

So far, we have learned that this farmer lives alone since the tragic death of his wife, and earns a pittance for back-breaking manual labour that most of us simply couldn't carry out. But what of his future?

Later that day, with the sun far below the horizon (I'm reliably informed that in Scotland it gets dark at about 1 o'clock in the afternoon and that's at the height of summer) the farmer enters his humble house and sustains himself with a meagre repast of thin Scottish soup; little more than lamb-bone stock with shreds of mutton and a misshapen potato. As he sits in front of a small fire which provides little in the way of either heat or light, he sees a slowly shifting blur of movement by his feet and realises that the dog has sat down to warm its weary bones by the faintly glowing sticks collected from the shores of the loch. Reaching down with a cold, gnarled hand, he strokes the dog gently.

He stops, a puzzled look creeping across his weather-beaten face, like the enormous shadow of a cloud moving across the craggy hillside of his home . His hand feels around the dog's neck and back and hind legs. The awful realisation hits him like a blow to the stomach. He places his other hand in front of his face and stifles a sob.

An avalanche of memories tumbles through his mind; memories of rain and wind, earth and stone, thorn and flower, and Morag...and Morag. His long-dead wife. She was his one, his only, his very first love.

They met at a ceilidh and danced the night away, inhaling the smell of whisky from each others breath. All the other lads were jealous and kept trying to cut in, but he laughed, pushed them away, and danced and danced, delighting in the sparkle of her eyes and the flash of her smile. He was the happiest man alive and knew, right then, that this woman would be his wife.

They were married within the month. The entire village attended the wedding. Morag looked so beautiful in her borrowed wedding dress that he thought his heart would burst. He clutched the brim of his hat so fiercely that he made a crease in it that never came out, but of course he never actually tried to remove it.

When his father died, he took over the family farm. He didn't have any choice in the matter, but even if he had, any alternative would have been unthinkable. For eight generations this little plot of land had belonged to his family. It was his birthright, his destiny, and he would tend the sheep until the day his own son took over from him, continuing their noble family tradition.

Six months later, the good Lord saw fit to bless them with pregnancy. Morag had good child-bearing hips and carried the baby well for 9 months. One night, he came into the farmhouse after a long days work and found her on the floor, a broken mixing-bowl next to her white outstretched hand, blood soaked into the material of her maternity dress and gathered in a thick pool on the rough stone floor, a stain that would never fade no matter how hard he scrubbed it.

Morag and their bonny wee boy were buried together in the churchyard beneath two dazzling white crosses. He would never cross the threshold of the church again.

The thought of finding another wife never crossed his mind. How do you replace your one true love? So, instead, he tended the farm; shearing the sheep, toiling in the soil, earning his living the only way he knew how. Even when the rest of the village moved away, tired of the daily battle against the harsh elements, he stayed.

He hasn't cried for forty years, since Morag's death, but as he sits there clutching the partially-shaved dog in his arms, he greets like a bairn*.

*Cries like a baby, for English-speakers.

He has no money for eye-tests. Sheep wool has fallen alarmingly in value over the last few years and he has no savings with which to supplement his income. With that one simple act, the accidental shearing of the dog, he realises that he can no longer look after the farm. With no son to pass the responsibility to, his livelihood is gone, his home is gone, his future is gone, his past is gone, and the countless thousands of hours of labour that he, his father, and his father's father put into the land are nothing more than wasted effort and folly.

His life is at an end.

And Specsavers think that's a suitable story with which to sell you some glasses. The bastards.

14 June 2011

My Father

This is a blog post that I've put off writing for a few weeks now. Primarily, I suppose, this is because I'm reluctant to manufacture a happy ending where one does not yet exist, but nonetheless I feel that it's important to let my thoughts tumble out onto the page.

My Father, after six months of harsh Chemotherapy treatment, has been given the all clear. Sort of.

The doctors at Kingston Hospital have stated that they cannot detect any leukemic cells within his blood using current medical techniques. This doesn't mean that he's completely cured, but rather that their devices are only accurate to a certain level. It's entirely possible that the leukemia is still in his body somewhere, hiding and waiting, eager to resume its battle against his immune system.

He is required to attend the hospital once a month for the next year so that tests can be performed. After this time, his visits become bi-monthly. This then continues for an additional 4 years and if, after that, no leukemic cells are detected then he will be given a clean bill of health.

I feel decidedly undecided about the whole thing. On the one hand, it would be absolutely unforgivable if I had the temerity to complain about the matter, after all it could have been a significantly different result. But I'm unable to totally relax and consider the issue resolved. Indeed, I find my heart faltering whenever my phone rings and I see 'Dad' appear on the screen. For a few seconds, I hold my breath until it becomes apparent that he's just phoned up for a chat rather than to impart some bad news.

Overall, this makes me feel like one of those insufferably precocious and spoiled teenagers on My Super Sweet Sixteen who howls like a stabbed alsatian because they've been given a $30,000 car two days before their birthday instead of on the day itself.

In my defence, I think part of the reason I'm so on edge about the whole thing is due to something my Father told me a few weeks ago. After visiting him in London, we went to his local pub for a couple of pints. On the walk back to his home, he said something that I'm having difficulty shaking from my mind. He spoke about how draining the treatment had been and how helpless it had made him feel. "I've got to tell you, Dan" he said, "if it comes back, I don't think I'm going to go through this all again."

It's entirely possible that this was merely him blowing off some steam and, if faced with a recurrence of the leukemia, he would be back in hospital like a whippet. But I fear that he was telling the truth and has no intention of receiving treatment should it reoccur. This obviously increases my fear that it will return, but I'm trying not to think about that. A phrase I like to smugly use on other people is, "Worry is like interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due." I continue trying to live my life by that tenet, but it's harder than I'd previously imagined.

I've had some amazing support over the last few months and this whole matter has certainly helped me to recognise those people who are worth hanging on to, whether it be for their care and attention in discussing my father's health, or for simply engaging me in normal conversation without feeling they have to walk on eggshells, allowing me to carry on with life as normal. I won't name names because these people already know who they are.

My Father is now at home recuperating and is hoping to get back to work very soon. Indeed, the support he's received from his employers has been astonishing. Despite being ineligible for contractual sick pay, they put him on full wages for two months. Then, after that, his colleagues continued to give him his share of the 'tips pot' right up until the present day. This is something they didn't need to do, but it has prevented him from worrying about how the bills will be paid.

On the subject of work, there's a story that I'm compelled to relay.

My Father works in a major London casino. Sometimes, if a big player has had a particularly fruitful day on the tables, they will engage in a ritual that involves lining up all the drivers, doormen and receptionists, and walking the length of the line handing over tips, usually £50 a head. A few weeks ago, this noble tradition was taking place when, upon reaching the end of the line, the Big Player said, "Right, is that everyone?".

One of the drivers replied, "Yes. Well, everyone except Ray."

The Big Player asked where my Father was and the driver explained that he was in hospital being treated for leukemia.

Without a moment's thought, the Big Player nodded, reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a plastic-wrapped bundle of cash. He handed it to the driver and said, "Give this to Ray with my regards."

It was a thousand pounds.

I have difficulty telling that story without crying.

It's been such a long haul, that it's easy to forget how lucky my Father has been and, by extension, how lucky I've been. A few weeks ago, for instance, it was my 38th birthday. My Father, for the first time in almost a year, was able to catch the train down to Southend.

We went to the local Wetherspoons and spent a fantastic 6-7 hours trying the guest ales, eating steak and kidney pudding, and just chilling out. Earlier that day, I'd been a little bit annoyed that I'd received no birthday cards, except from my parents, and no presents, except for some money from both of them. Indeed, a very good friend completely forgot my birthday, which I have not yet forgiven her for.

As we left the pub, my Father and I hugged and he wandered off to the train station. I watched him go, then walked in the opposite direction towards the high street.

Once there, I sat down on a bench and lit a cigarette, cogitating on the day so far and bemoaning my lack of presents. All at once, a moment of realisation came upon me and I actually laughed out loud at how stupid I was. Far from being 'the birthday where I got no presents', this was quite probably the finest birthday that I'd ever had.

The best presents are those that you never thought you'd get.

14 January 2011

A quick post about music

I was inspired last year to write a blog post discussing the music I'd been listening to during 2009. The original idea comes from Piley's blog. Indeed, you can check out his 'Music of 2010' here. It's worth a read and, of course, a listen.

This year, it's been a bit up and down for obvious reasons and I haven't managed to sort out a list of the music I've been listening to.

However, there is one artist that I want to mention.

Just before I found out about my Dad's leukemia, I was listening to Stuart Maconie's excellent Freakzone show on BBC6 Music and heard a magnificent song by a chap called Sufjan Stevens.

I immediately purchased a couple of his albums - All Delighted People and The Age Of Adz. On my travels between Southend, Putney and Kingston, these albums were never off my mp3 player. I found them soothing and beautiful and, somehow, transporting. Sitting on the train or bus, watching the world going by, these albums (particularly All Delighted People) became a source of incredible comfort.

Pretty soon I realised that, depending on how things turned out, these would either be fondly remembered and often played albums that represented an extraordinary time in my life, or music that I couldn't bear to listen to again. Either way, they've formed a sort of soundtrack to the last three months of my life.

I'm throwing a few YouTube videos on the blog so that you can have a listen and see what you think. Whatever happens over the course of the next few months, this music will have been an integral part of the whole experience, for good or bad. Hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

7 January 2011

The Last Two Months

The last two months have been very strange. For most of the time, I've felt like I was somnabulating wearily through a dream world, never fully engaging with anything going on around me. So successful have I been in compartmentalising my fears and feelings, that I've grown increasingly concerned about the dam eventually breaking and submerging me in an inescapable torrent of emotion. Fortunately, I've also managed to stow away that increasing concern as well.

I've spent a ridiculous amount of time sleeping uncomfortably on the sofa at my father's house, travelling to and from the hospital, watching both the leukemia and chemotherapy take their toll on his body. Despite his strength, composure and stubborn tenacity, not even he has been able to shrug off the effects, although I suspect the real strain has been psychological rather than physical. Confined to an isolated room for the best part of six weeks, he became petulant, grumpy and unappreciative of the efforts being made on his behalf. Whilst both myself and Carol, his partner, appreciated that it was clearly very difficult for him, it didn't make it any easier for us.

One particular incident involved his Public Carriage Office licence that was up for renewal. Due to his inability to attend the optician's, a particular form couldn't be completed so, in an effort to buy some more time, I wrote an email to the PCO explaining the situation and asking for an extension to the deadline. They acted with an astonishing lack of sympathy and promptly wrote to my father demanding the return of his licence and badge within 7 days or they would revoke it entirely.

This, of course, was entirely my fault. My father blamed me for sending an email to them and was convinced that he would now have no job to go back to. Although I understand that it's important for him to have something to aim for - a successful return to work - I couldn't help thinking that there were more important things to consider first, namely his return to good health. Nonetheless, I was angry at his disappointment with me, although I couldn't show it of course. I've made a concerted effort to be as supportive as possible and if I tore him off a strip it would help neither one of us. So I simply accepted the accusation and its associated guilt.

The first round of chemotherapy progressed and his body grew weaker. Hair started to come away from his scalp in clumps. He lost over a stone in weight in just two weeks. Weariness etched itself into his face. The words 'Leukemia' or 'Cancer' didn't scare me. They are, after all, only words and hold no power. Instead other words, and their physical and emotional manifestation, upset and terrified me: 'Frail', 'Helpless', 'Scared'. These things that had become such an integral and encompassing part of his time in the hospital room, were what frightened me the most. To see him shrink and wither was heartbreaking.

After another week and a half on the sofa, I decided to go home for a week to recuperate and make sure my flat hadn't burned to the ground in my absence. Packing my suitcase, I excitedly boarded a bus, then a tube and, finally, a train. As I sat down on the Southend-bound train, I was surprised to find my initial excitement had drained like someone pulling the plug in a bath. Watching the snowy countryside flash by outside, I realised that what had been pleasure at the thought of going home had become agonising guilt that I was abandoning him while he was at his lowest point.

At home, it wasn't the oasis of peace and calm I'd expected. My usual pastimes of watching movies or playing flash-games on the laptop seemed to lose their entertainment value. I became acutely aware of just how much of my life I was wasting on unimportant, totally valueless activities. I only managed a few days back at home before I realised that I had no other choice than to go back to London to be with my Dad.

The chemotherapy did its work and stopped the bone marrow from producing blood cells. The next step was for the bone marrow to gradually start producing cells again. Unfortunately, this didn't happen. The doctor's explained that they would administer a drug to kick-start blood cell production but that this would very likely mean the bone marrow would go back to producing leukemic cells too. Essentially, this would put us back to square one. Strangely though, this didn't matter to us because we were more interested in one thing - getting him back home for Christmas. In the grand scheme of things, we felt this was more important to his psychological well-being.

On Christmas Eve, I left the office early and went to the hospital. As my father slept on the bed, I sat in a chair and did some work, waiting to hear that they were letting him out for Christmas. Several hours ticked by and then I received a work phone call which I took outside in the corridor. Re-entering the room, I was shocked to see my father dressed in his going-home clothes and packing a bag. While I was outside, the doctor had come in and informed him that he could go home. Armed with a bulging carrier bag of medication and injections, we left the hospital together.

Christmas, if I'm completely honest, was a rather boring affair. We all sat around, tired and listless. After so much rushing about, so much time and energy consumed, we were all exhausted. I cooked Christmas dinner and we ate it gratefully but with little real pleasure. It was, however, wonderful to watch my Dad enthusiastically demolish a bowl of ice cream, savouring every delicious mouthful. Despite telling myself that this was quite possibly the last Christmas he would see, I was unable to delight in the fact; something that I still haven't figured out yet.

To fast-forward to the present, I took the day off work today. I haven't been sleeping well, even though I'm at home and have the comfort of my own bed. Last night, I was unable to get to sleep until 2.30 am and, even then, what sleep I did have was fractured and did nothing to restore me.

Then, this morning, I received a phone call. My Dad informed me that the hospital had been in touch with him to discuss the results of his latest bone marrow test, an awful procedure where they literally corkscrew a sliver of marrow from your hip like Antarctic scientists taking a core sample. The test results showed that the Leukemia had gone into complete remission.

I sat in silence, stunned beyond the capacity for thought. From my initial stubborn refusal to accept that my father would succumb to this cancer, I had gradually started to plan for his death. That may sound morbid, but I deemed it the most appropriate course of action for my own psychological benefit. Pretending everything will be OK works for a while, but must eventually make way for common sense and reality.

Complete remission is a term that means no leukemic cells can be detected with current diagnostic methods. It doesn't, however, mean that there aren't some remaining. This is why he will undertake at least one more round of chemotherapy in a process called 'consolidation' which aims to destroy non-detectable levels of leukemic cells.

Of course, he isn't cured. With leukemia that simply doesn't happen. It may return, possibly in weeks, months or years. There is a hopeful possibility that it may never return for the rest of his life.

But right now, I'll take that wonderful piece of news on face value.

I sat back earlier and thought about my previous blog post, so full of bravado, dripping with optimism, and it made me smile in the same way that you benignly grin when you recall, fondly but with embarrassment, your foolish actions as a teenager. At the time, I had to look to the future and hope for the best, otherwise I was in danger of falling apart which I couldn't allow, for my father's sake. Now, a couple of months later, I look back on it with, to steal a phrase from the late Denis Potter, a tender contempt. And yet, conversely, I was right.

That imagined pint of beer with my father in a July pub garden is so close I can almost taste it.

28 November 2010

Toast, Ribena and Beer

Two and a half weeks ago, I padded into the kitchen in my pyjamas and proceeded to make tea and toast. Blinking myself awake like a sleepy bear, I spread butter on the first slice with my clumsy morning fingers and managed to rather expertly flip the piece of toast out of my grip. It cartwheeled through the air and came to rest on the floor...butter side up!

I deduced that this was a victory of epic proportions and surely signified my mastery of The Fates. Munching my now-salvaged toast, I swaggered into the bedroom and sat down at the computer desk, grinning broadly and thoroughly enjoying my new found status as a master of the universe, able to bend physics and accepted-wisdom to my will.

Unfortunately, when extraordinary good fortune comes your way, life seeks balance. Chaos theory, the Butterfly Effect, call it what you will, but a price must be paid.

At 7 am I received a telephone call. Lifting my mobile, I looked at the display and saw the name 'Carol' flashing up. My heart sank.

Carol is my Dad's partner and I could think of only one reason she would be phoning me at this time of the morning - something was wrong.

She explained to me that my Dad had been rushed into A&E the previous night with chest pains and extreme difficulty breathing. After various tests and an x-ray, they detected that he had pneumonia.

This was not the sort of news I wanted to hear.

Since then, it's been a hectic and upsetting fortnight.

My father's pneumonia was due to a severe drop in his immune system. That sort of thing doesn't just happen by itself, so tests were performed on his blood as well as a rather painful procedure that involved corkscrewing a small amount of bone marrow out of his hip, something that he didn't particularly savour.

A few days later, I received a telephone call at work from Carol. My father's condition had deteriorated and he'd been in a lot of pain, so could I leave work and go to the hospital? I didn't need to be asked twice.

It was a strange, surreal journey during which I juggled various possibilities around in my head, trying to find the best way to deal with it all.

Walking nervously into his hospital room, I found my Dad sitting up in a chair, pyjama'd and dressing gown'd, reading his Kindle and sipping a cup of tea. I almost cried with relief. Unfortunately, that relief was very short lived. The test results had come back, he explained to me. There was an underlying cause to his reduced immunity. The doctors had diagnosed him with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.

For the briefest moment, my face crumpled and tears sprang to my eyes, before something inside me sharply said, "No. Don't do that. He doesn't need your tears and self pity, he needs strength and support." I sniffed my tears away and nodded.

"Right," I said, "so at least we know what we're battling against. How are they going to cure it?"

Almost two weeks later, he's been treated with chemotherapy, which is still ongoing. I always envisaged large machines, white-coated serious-faced technicians and plastic tents like something from E.T. The reality, of course, is rather less impressive. Two to three times a day, they inject him with what looks suspiciously like Ribena, and then he carries on reading his Kindle, playing games on his iPod Touch or watching films on his portable DVD player - he really is a fan of technology, frequently purchasing items that I enviously examine with squint-eyed desire.

They've let him come home a couple of times on day release which has been a huge morale boosting exercise for him. He's reclined on the sofa, by a roaring coal fire, watching his favourite TV programmes on Sky+ and eating hearty cooked breakfasts. I can't begin to describe how important that's been for him, and I honestly think it will have an enormous impact on how he deals with this disease.

I've spent the last week and a half sleeping on the sofa at his house, whilst working from one of my employers offices based at Kingston, only a mile from the hospital (my employers have been fantastic and I'm so glad that we have various offices dotted around the country that allow remote working). The net result of this is that I now have the posture of an 80-year old man and an almost inexhaustible supply of cat hair on every item of clothing I own.

Early Googling of Leukemia revealed to me that recovery rates are 40%. Further Googling, once additional details were known, raised the probability to between 50-70%. However, the doctors completed further tests and, based on his general health, they've given him an 88% chance of complete recovery. When he told me that, I went outside and, for the first time, broke down in tears. I refuse to cry for the bad things that might happen, but I will shed a tear out of happiness when good news comes our way. One of my favourite movie quotes is from The Spanish Prisoner, a David Mamet film, in which the fantastic Ricky Jay says, "Worry is like interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due." Truer words were rarely spoken.

My personal coping mechanism has been to compartmentalise the whole issue. My father may die, but that has been put away in a corner of my brain because, currently, it's a possibility that I refuse to acknowledge. Instead, in my mind, the outcome is very simple. He will continue to receive treatment, and the cancer will be beaten into submission. He will then be released from hospital for a period of rest and relaxation. Shortly afterwards, he will return to work and everything will become normal once more. That is the only possible outcome because, quite simply, the alternative is unthinkable.

I'm uncertain whether my coping mechanism exhibits extraordinary reserves of personal strength that I never knew existed, or whether it's simply a case of obstinately refusing to accept reality, arms folded like a recalcitrant child, eyes squeezed shut, endlessly shouting "la la la la la, not listening, la la la la." I suspect the latter, but will claim the former.

And that's how it currently stands. This blog post is, of course, a much truncated version of events and I've decided not to bore you all with too many details. Hopefully, however, it explains why I've not posted anything for the last few weeks and, most likely, won't post anything for a few more months to come.

For now, everything is a blur of activity with little time for thought or relaxation. But one thought stays in my mind's eye, carrying me forward through this: By the summer, I shall walk into a beer garden, sun warming my face, holding two pints of bitter. I'll look over and there at a table my father will be sitting playing with his latest electronic purchase. He'll look up and grin, and then we'll sit down and drink our beer together; a father and son enjoying each other's company in the bright sunshine. I'm very much looking forward to that.

31 October 2010

Trick or Treat

It's Halloween and already the doorbell has rung three times in the last half hour as avaricious, pig-eyed children demand I fill their bright orange buckets with sweets.

They stand there clad in cheap polyester costumes and shiny plastic hats, hands outstretched in supplication, expecting me to scatter free confectionery upon their tiny pink palms like God distributing manna from Heaven.

You might think that even a hard-hearted curmudgeon like me wouldn't begrudge handing out goodies to rosy-cheeked kids, but you'd be very wrong. I think it's appalling for two very distinct reasons.

First, this is not America.

Americans have seized upon Halloween in a big way and it's now a major holiday for them. Indeed, they are expected to spend $5.8 billion on it this year alone. Yes, that's right, $5.8 BILLION. That's probably more than they spend on feeding homeless people.

It seems to be a particularly American concept, taking a fairly inconsequential occasion and turning it up to 11. Shrove Tuesday, for instance, is a rather forgettable affair here in the UK. A small percentage of the population buys some ready-prepared batter mix and a Jif lemon of pasteurised juice, then spends half an hour in the kitchen rustling up a vast quantity of poor quality pancakes before retiring to the living room, rubbing their groaning bellies, and vowing never to do it again.

In some parts of America, on the other hand, Shrove Tuesday somehow metamorphosed into Mardi Gras. Pancakes are relatively low on the list of Mardi Gras celebrations which tend instead to focus on dancing ladies with big feathery hats, pitchers of beer, and women being photographed with their breasts out. To be fair, I'd happily choose that over a plastic lemon any day.

But we're not American, damn it. We're British. We don't celebrate lavishly, we smile and nod, hands behind our backs, shoes shined and hair parted, careful not to 'go overboard'. Pleasure is a sign of weakness. Stop it at once.

The other reason that I don't like this Trick or Treat nonsense is because I think it's a shocking imposition.

For 364 days of the year, I'm treated like a paedophile. That seems a strong statement, but I can and will justify it.

If I noticed a child lost in a shop, wet of eye and lips a' tremble, and knelt down to ask the child where his parents are, I'd most likely be wrestled to the ground and beaten with handbags until I soiled myself.

Should I desire to sit in a public park and read the newspaper, I have to make sure I'm not overlooking the children's playground lest a telephone call be put in to the local police.

Heaven forfend that a youngster should actually fall over in the street and I stoop to help them up. I'd be kicked to death by a group of angry adults, flecks of spittle flying from their snarling mouths.

In a world where a man is unable to so much as smile at a child without being reported to the authorities, I find it astonishing that once a year parents actually bring their offspring to my door and expect me to dish out treats for them.

My thoughts on this matter are quite succinct: Fuck you. Either I, as a single man, am a threat to your children or I'm not. I refuse to be labelled a potential paedophile one day, then a charity the next.

If you have kids, I hope they enjoy Halloween. I hope they have lots of fun, maybe a party, some costumes and cake. But don't bring them to my front door and demand that I feed them in an act of forced altruism.

Yes, I have sweets. Yes, they're for me. If your kid wants one, I shall fork it over once they've danced like a monkey for my amusement. Otherwise, try next door - the bloke there looks a bit dodgy so I'm sure he's invested in a stock of flumps for just such an occasion.

22 August 2010

Of course, you realise this means war?

I've just had to go downstairs and change the battery in my elderly neighbours smoke alarm after she plaintively rang my doorbell asking for help.

For most people, this wouldn't be a problem. A sweet little old lady asks for your help - how could you possibly refuse or, indeed, feel any animosity or anger towards her?

Well, in this particular case, it's because she's an arsehole.

"Wait a second there, Dan" I hear you caution, "that's a bit strong isn't it?" The answer is, no. No it isn't. In fact, I was going to use a rather more colourful word to describe her, but decided it might be considered misogynistic.

In order to convince you of my position, I'll have to give you some background...

Dolly (not her real name) lives downstairs. She's an elderly widowed woman who does little else except potter around relatively harmlessly and occasionally speed off on her mobility scooter to buy cabbage which she then boils for approximately 4 hours, filling my flat with an absolutely delightful bouquet that lingers, on average, for about 2 days.

Occasionally, in a moment of absent-mindedness, Dolly will lock herself out and then immediately knock on my door expecting me to help her. I have no problem with this.

Yes, it can be an inconvenience sometimes, but that's the price one pays for being a decent human being. Indeed, some of you may recall the occasion on which I had to clamber over a four-foot fence into her garden and sustained painful injuries in the process, all to get her back into her little cabbage-flat. Again, I have no problem with this.

Many times, Dolly has knocked on my door and, when I've trudged downstairs in my jim jams, explained that the light on her fridge has gone off and she thinks it's a problem with the electrics. I have then dutifully clambered into the cupboard under her stairs, poking my way about in cobwebs, and tinkered with the fuse box until it's worked properly again. Once more, I have no problem with this.

What about the time a spate of strong wind caused her garden fence to bow and hang at an alarming angle, threatening at any moment to crush her under several pounds of wood and overgrown plants? Who ended up with a mouthful of nails and a hammer attempting to shore it up whilst ferociously spiny rose branches whipped mercilessly at his face and hands in almost apocalyptic gales? That's right, muggins. As stated before, I have no problem with this.

Earlier in the year when we had several weeks of reasonably heavy snow, her telephone stopped working. I spent the best part of two hours on my mobile - at heavy cost to myself - contacting the phone company and arranging for someone to come out.

This was a mammoth task that involve me having to remind the idiot on the other end of the phone (please note, they're not ALL idiots, just this particular one) that this phone line was connected to her alarm system so that should she fall and not be able to get up, she can press the button and a signal will be sent. Accordingly, should she be unable to get that signal through, she could conceivably lay there and die in her own house, alone and afraid because THEY were unable to get someone to come round and sort the bastard telephone line out. Not only would this be a failure of their duty of care but it could, by a reasonably good lawyer, be successfully classified as corporate manslaughter if it was demonstrably proven that they'd failed to take appropriate action.

Eventually, they saw my side of things and leaped into action. This involved telling me an engineer would be there by 7 o'clock that evening, and then later claiming he'd "made it as far as the local junction box but couldn't get to the house due to the weather conditions". A completely understandable claim if the junction box was several miles away, surrounded by six-foot drifts of snow and the house was only reachable by navigating a lethal maze of razor-sharp icicles and black ice so dangerously sheer that you could comb your hair whilst gazing into it. A slightly less understandable claim if, as is actually the case, the junction box is 20 feet away from her flat.

But I digress. The problem was resolved, normality reinstated and Dolly was safe once more, even though it cost me an arm and a leg in telephone calls. In case you've forgotten my philosophical mantra when confronted with such incidents - I have no problem with this.

Lest you think I'm being overly critical of this poor, frail elderly woman, I should point out that her daughter lives only ten minutes away and she is on very good terms with the people over the road, so she has no shortage of help - it's just easier for her to knock on my door. And you know what - why the hell not? I'm her neighbour for God's sake. It's all about give and take. Although, to be honest, she does most of the taking.

To give further background, let me briefly tell you about my other neighbour.

She is a homely woman, living with her husband, who has an irritating habit of shrilly and pointlessly attempting to call her cat into the house about twenty-five times a sod-bastarding day, particularly in the summer when I'm sitting on my balcony trying to relax and bask in my glorious solitude. It's now reached the stage where as soon as I hear the word "Monty!" delivered in that insanity-inducing tone of voice, I start to chew the inside of my cheek whilst grinding my teeth and muttering under my breath, a feat of oral dexterity and multi-tasking that Jenna Jameson would be rightly proud of.

In fact, I've been so angered by my cat-beckoning neighbour that I was prompted to write a fictional short story about the matter which is available here and, I think, sums up my feelings on the matter very aptly indeed.

To cut a long story short, Cat-Neighbour is a pain in the hole. There's no need for her to make the noise she does, but that's life. I've never said anything to her about it because, frankly, who needs the hassle?

Sure, if a stranger in the street doesn't bother acknowledging me when I hold a door open for them, I'll happily bellow "You're welcome!" at them, sarcastically, safe in the knowledge that I'm unlikely to ever meet them again. But if you do that sort of thing with your neighbours, it can quickly escalate into the sort of decades-long war of attrition that would cause even Don Corleone to say, "Bloody hell, Dan, just let it go, eh?"

Neighbours, it would seem, are put there to try us. But, throughout all of these tribulations, I've never said a bad word to them, not once. Why? Firstly, because of the aforementioned bad feeling it would cause, and secondly because they're just living their lives as they want to, the same way I am.

Instead, I nod politely, do what is required, turn the other cheek to the strangled yelling of Cat-Neighbour, pull on some clothes when Dolly has managed to do something ridiculous like drop her teeth into a food processor, and go about my business.

And that is probably the apposite phrase - "My business". My business is mine, their business is theirs. Thus, we mutually enjoy our respective homes and don't get on each others tits - or at least if we do, we don't mention it.

Until, that is, a few months ago when my elderly neighbour fired the first salvo in what could potentially signal the breakdown in our previously peaceful existence.

I had my friend Ben over for a few days. Ben and I have known each other for over ten years and occasionally he'll come over for the weekend and we'll spend our time playing on the xbox, watching DVDs and eating a variety of takeaway foods with low nutritional content. This happens, on average, about three times a year.

On the Saturday evening, we invited another friend over, Sarah, whom we hadn't seen in a very long time, and proceeded to make merry. Vodka, beer and wine was consumed, along with some rather good home-made burgers. We had a good time and when Ben fell asleep on the sofa at 1 am, myself and Sarah continued chatting until 3, when she left and got a taxi home.

In all, it was a successful evening of chit-chat, alcohol consumption and music. A rare treat indeed.

Now, ever cognisant of my neighbour downstairs, I made sure that the music was at an acceptable volume so that it could be heard, but not intrude on the conversation. Once the clock reached 11, I turned the music down. At midnight, I turned it down further still. At one, the music volume went so low it was barely audible.

I was displaying appropriate consideration for my neighbour, Dolly.

The following day, Ben and myself were up until a little after midnight playing Modern Warfare 2 on the xbox, working ourselves into an impotent fury trying to finish a particular level, aggravated to a degree that only middle-aged men trying to successfully guide virtual jet-ski's down an icy ravine will understand. Suddenly, I heard my letter box snap shut downstairs, so padded down to see what was there.

It was a note.

Opening it, I curiously read the contents:

Dan, can you ask your mate to cut that noise out. It's non-stop. I was up until three in the morning. You don't expect it to be dead, but he doesn't know when to stop.

I blinked. Once. Twice. I re-read the note. I re-read it again.

I was furious, and I'm going to explain why.

My neighbour's bedroom is directly underneath my living room. It makes no sense that she would have the bedroom at the front and the living room at the back, but that's her choice.

Because of the position of her bedroom, I never watch TV in my living room after 10 pm, concerned that the noise may disturb her. In fact, most of the time I consign myself to the bedroom and watch TV there out of consideration.

In my living room I have a five-speaker surround sound system. It has never been plugged in. Why? Because I think it would be very unfair on her to have deep bass sounds rumbling through her bedroom ceiling. The speakers sit gathering dust because I'm too considerate to use them.

I live alone, rarely have visitors, and make it a priority not to make too much noise and disturb those who live below and to one side of me.

For that reason, as I'm sure you can imagine, I was absolutely fuming about the note.

What also annoyed me is that because she made the assumption it was Ben making all the noise, she'd obviously gone through the following thought process: Normally, Dan is alone and he is quiet. His friend is here and it is noisy. Therefore, the noise is from Dan's friend.

The important part of that thought process is "Normally, Dan is alone and he is quiet." Yes, I am quiet. I go out of my way to keep noise to a minimum and not intrude on my neighbours quiet enjoyment of their homes. I have someone round for the first time in four months and all of a sudden I'm getting spidery, handwritten notes pushed through my door. It simply won't do, you unspeakably aggravating old crone.

I gave much thought to what the correct response should be in this situation and had decided upon the following.

1. I will never answer my front door to her again. Locked out? Fuck you, get a locksmith, you awful human being. Your fuse box is playing up again? Oh deary fucketty dear, get an electrician, you old boot. Garden fence need mending? My heart bleeds for you, get a...fence mending man.

2. Next time Ben comes round, I will put a note through her door a few days beforehand giving her ample opportunity to either a) spend the weekend at her son's house, b) invest in some ear plugs, or c) move house.

3. Umm, that's it. It's a rather sparse but effective plan.

We all want to experience quiet enjoyment of our homes, but guess what? Life isn't perfect. Occasionally we must put up with a bit of noise and try to get on with our lives as best we can. Sometimes it's the people four doors down having a party in the garden until 1am. You don't phone the police, you don't go round and bang on the door in your string vest, you sit back and think about it for a minute, realise that in the five years you've lived here they've never had a party before, and then you try to go back to sleep, mindful of the fact that next time it might be you having the party.

You see, being a neighbour is about compromise. You can either be the considerate kindly one who looks at the bigger picture and says nothing, or you can be the spiteful fuckwit who scrawls little notes and puts them through other people's letterboxes at midnight. It's your choice, but take it from me, if you choose the latter, it's going to cost you a fortune in electricians and locksmiths.


Of course, within a week or two of formulating my battle plan, I received my first knock on the door because Dolly's fuse box was playing up again and, begrudgingly, I clambered into the cupboard under the stairs. Yes, I have my principles, but at the end of the day, no matter how gruff and grumpy I may be, she's still an old lady that needs my help.

I really wish I had no scruples whatsoever.

20 August 2010

The Death of Cinema

I have a lifelong love affair with the cinema.

I remember vividly how, on my 10th birthday, my brother took me to see Return of the Jedi at the cinema with tickets that I'd won by doing a 'Spot The Difference' competition in the local newspaper.

We arrived a few minutes late and the first thing I saw on the screen was the gloriously grotesque face of Bib Fortuna, Jabba The Hutt's tentacled manservant (try getting that euphemistic image out of your head).

I sat inside that modern day cathedral, ornate plasterwork ceiling curving majestically far above me, plush red seats both soft and coarse at the same time, total darkness around me, with a huge, glowing screen reflected in my wide, young eyes.

At once, I was hooked. Whenever possible, I would go to the cinema, ravenously devouring whatever was being shown.

I remember sitting moist-eyed and amazed at the denouement of Carlito's Way; missing half of Tim Burton's Batman because I was too busy fiddling with my date's impressive breasts; getting up and walking out of Made In America because it was possibly one of the worst films ever made; stifling numerous sobs during Babe (that'll do pig, that'll do); and inching forwards on my seat, mouth agape, as I watched a herd of diplodocus mill around the edge of a lake in Jurassic Park, absolutely enthralled and amazed at this new age of digital effects.

In short, cinema is the great love of my life.

Or at least it used to be.

Now, I can count the number of cinema visits this year on one hand. Don't get me wrong, my DVD collection increases on a weekly basis to such an extent that I now have a worryingly large pile of films that I haven't even watched yet, balefully glaring at me every time I walk into the living room, accusation hanging heavy in the air. I still love film and believe it to be an incredible art form, bursting with passion, insight, and pulse-quickening excitement. But I have, at 37, had to make the difficult decision never to go to the cinema again.

Yes, you read that correctly - I am never going to the cinema again.

At the beginning of August, I went to see Christopher Nolan's Inception. I'd read the glowing reviews and my expectations had built accordingly. I then read some bad reviews just to redress the balance and lower my expectations, which I consider to be a sensible course of action.

Arriving at my local cinema, I bought my ticket and my cinema buddy bought hers.

Astoundingly, they actually had staff sitting at the ticket counter which is a minor miracle as, due to shortages, the last couple of times I'd been there I'd had to buy my tickets at the ice cream counter, walking straight past the closed, derelict ticket booth to stand behind an indecisive couple very carefully, very slowly picking which flavours of over-priced creamy confection they wanted to scoop into their gaping, slack maws as they gazed impassively at the screen.

The lift had an 'amusing' sign on it "This R2 unit has a bad motivator!", which was their way of explaining to patrons that the life was out of order. I believe it's been this way for 3 months. Disabled customers are very clearly not being catered for here and I do wonder if they're failing in their duty under the Disability Discrimination Act. I can certainly attest to the fact that they are discriminating against overweight, wheezy smokers who can't be bothered to trog up the stairs.

Because the lift was unavailable, we had to ascend up six flights of steps to get to our screen. My cinema buddy, oblivious to my painful struggle, engaged me in conversation as we climbed - a difficult task as I clambered higher and higher, drawing mouthfuls of air into my withered lungs. Somehow, I managed admirably, although with noticeably shorter sentences than normal.

The old days of a cinema usher with a torch directing you to your seat are long gone. Instead, a bored teenager tore our tickets and pointed us in the general direction of a pitch-black room full of stumbling hazards.

Finding out seats, we settled down for the main feature, after enduring a raft of advertisements for films we had no interest in seeing and which had clearly not been tailored to the viewers of this movie. The 'Piracy is killing the movie industry' segment has replaced the wet-eyed Matthew Horne (a man who, when I look at him, impossibly appears to have the phrase 'punch me' written across his forehead. I know it's not there, but I swear to God I can see it. I don't know how) with a similarly aggravating woman whose name I do not recall nor desire to know.

In the same way that I despise the unskippable piracy ads that I have to watch on a DVD that I'VE ACTUALLY COCKING-WELL PAID FOR, these cinema ads invoke a powerful Pavlovian reaction in me that involves clenching my jaw so tightly that I fear my teeth may explode in my mouth with a noise like a sheet of bubble wrap being trodden on by a clumsy elephant.

I reattached the arm of the chair after I'd wrenched it from my seat in fury and, soon, we got to the film itself.

For the next two hours, my viewing enjoyment was ruined by the chattering, squealing and fidgeting of a dozen barely pubescent teenagers in the second row. They were, so it seems, completely incapable of sitting in silence and displaying a modicum of respect to the others in the room. I can only imagine this is what it would be like to sit in a car at Windsor Safari Park with a troop of baboons skittering across the windscreen, screeching and pressing their scarlet genitalia against the glass.

Major plot points were missed as one of them made an asinine comment at an inappropriate volume causing me to glare in their direction and take my eyes and attention off the screen for a few vital seconds.

In this way, the movie was completely bollocksed for me, my cinema buddy and countless others.

I wistfully remember when a member of staff used to enter the auditorium and sit at the back, on the look out for any noise or troublemakers. If they encountered any nonsense, they would walk to the offenders and either tell them to shut up, or order them out. Of course, that doesn't happen any more. We customers are left to fend for ourselves and risk getting into abusive situations.

I have a particular memory of one film when a couple started smoking in the back row. I stood up, walked over to them and politely informed them that they couldn't smoke here. One of them was male with a neck thicker than his head and, impossibly, his chest too. He fixed me with a steely glare and simply said, "Sit. Down." I regarded him for a moment and, filled with anger at his complete disregard for the other patrons, went and sat down, fearful that he might use my face as an ashtray. And toilet. And doormat for his heavy, muddy boots.

Mindful of hidden weapons and aware that these gibbering apes in the second row already seemed to have adopted the philosophical stance of 'Fuck everyone that isn't me', I was unwilling to say anything to them.

So I sat there and, pathetically, put up with it, as did everyone else.

At one point, some youngsters sitting a couple of seats away from us made a loud comment to which I blurted out "Jesus Christ, is EVERYONE in this cinema fucking talking?!". The look of terror on their faces was quite wonderful and my pleasure was only slightly abated by the fact that they were probably about 9 years old. Sod 'em, everyone has to learn some time.

I left the cinema having enjoyed what little I'd seen of the film, but possessed of a deep sadness because, in that moment, I knew that I would never go to the cinema again. Not just because of those chattering imbeciles, but because the cinema experience has changed irrevocably. That cathedral of dreams, that monument to art, is gone forever, replaced by a dingy room of yabbering simpletons, a broken lift, staff who aren't paid enough to care, playing films that have the artistic merit of a coil of dog shit nailed to a wall. (I don't know if you can nail dog shit to a wall. We'll assume, for the purposes of this rant, that it's entirely feasible).

The film industry, including the cinema chains, bemoans the fact that it is being destroyed by piracy despite the fact that their profits increase year on year.

For me, the film industry is not being ruined by piracy, it is being ruined by the cinema chains. They simply don't care any more. Gone are the days when a visit to the cinema was a deep pleasure; something to look forward to and treat with reverence and respect; an opportunity to lose yourself completely in a thought-provoking masterpiece or an enjoyable piece of action hokum.

Now it consists of disappointment, anger, and wasted money. For that, we have the cinemas to blame. When they put profit above love of the art-form or customer enjoyment, they do us all a grave disservice.

I fondly think back to the ten-year old me, bright-eyed, filled with excited expectation, agog at the spectacle unfolding before him, and I wish those days could be recaptured. But they're gone, never to return.

On the plus side, the 37-year old me gets to watch porn, so on balance I can't really complain too much.

15 August 2010

My ongoing battle with Odeon Cinemas

We've been here before, I'm afraid.

Odeon Cinemas has let me down on numerous occasions with regard to the choice of films available and now, sadly, they've let me down again with their rather inconsistent approach to customer service.

I decided, back in June, that I'd like to see a couple of films. Unfortunately, the Odeon in Southend has a track record of showing very little other than money-hoovering blockbusters, animated fluffery, and anything in 3D because, you know, everyone loves 3D (and we desperately need to make our money back on all the new equipment we had to buy, which has become an even bigger problem now that the appetite for 3D movies appears to be waning already according to a variety of sources).

I went to the Odeon website and, noticing that the films I wanted to see were not playing here in Saaarfend, I decided to use the feedback facility and ask them a question.

4th June 2010

I would like to know if the Odeon Southend are planning on showing either Four Lions or The Ghost at any point. Thanks in advance.

Now, Four Lions is a comedy from Chris Morris, one of the UK's most controversial and talented writers/directors. I do not think it outside the realms of sanity that the UK's largest cinema chain might support home-grown talent.

Additionally, The Ghost was directed by imp-faced sodomite Roman Polanksi who, whatever you may think of his historical sexual preferences (and subsequent flight from justice) can sometimes direct a rather good movie. Setting aside my personal feelings about him (and my astonishment that certain people in the entertainment industry are effectively saying "Yes, he raped a child, but it was a long time ago. Let it go." , I was rather interested to see the film.

Later that day, I received a reply.

4th June 2010

Thank you for your enquiry into films at your local ODEON Unfortunately it is impossible to say whether or not this film will be showing at your local cinema in the future. If the film is not scheduled into the cinemas weekly listings, then it is currently not available at the cinema. ODEON would love to be able to show all the latest releases and for as long as possible unfortunately, due to print availability, the amount of screens the cinema has, public demand and competing releases, this is not always possible. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.

I re-read the message with no small amount of disbelief and quickly penned a response.

4th June 2010

Thank you for your generic template response.

It's a shame that Odeon Cinemas Limited does not consider their customers important enough to either send a bespoke response, or at the very least amend the generic template so that it mirrors the question.

I asked about two films and the reply said "this film".
I'm perplexed as to how it's "impossible to say whether or not this film will be showing at your local cinema in the future."

Impossible? Really? Or just 'difficult'?

Perhaps Odeon has a weekly draw where it puts a number of film titles into a hat and then randomly assigns them once they're picked out. Under those circumstances, I can imagine that it would indeed be impossible to ascertain whether a certain film would be shown at a certain venue. However, I'm reasonably sure that isn't the case and there must be something vaguely approaching a system or strategy at work which decides, in advance, what films will be shown where.

I think it's a lazy response which fails to answer my question. Once again, it would seem that because I have the unfortunate bad luck of living in Southend, I'm forever destined to be offered nothing more than the latest big-budget, 3D, special-effects-laden nonsense, 8 times a day on two different screens while lesser known films are, if they're lucky, given a single screening tucked away on a Tuesday night.

As for actually being able to find out in advance what those screenings might be this is, sadly, "impossible".

Very poor customer service I'm afraid.
I would, however, be interested in your comments.

I sat back and awaited their response with interest.

A couple of days later, it arrived. However, it contained a rather fascinating disclaimer at the bottom which reads thus:

"The email (and its attachment(s) if any) is intended for the named addressee(s) only. It contains information which may be confidential and/or privileged and/or exempt from disclosure under applicable law. Unless you are the named addressee (or authorised to receive it for the addressee) you may not read, copy or use it, or disclose it to anyone else."

Now, I'm not an expert in matters legal, so I really don't know whether I'm allowed to disclose the contents of the email here. It says that the email is intended for me only. But it then goes on to say that you may not read, copy, use or disclose it to anyone if you're not me. As I am me, does that mean that I can read, copy use and disclose it? Oh, the tangled web of confidentiality. How confusing it is to a simple soul such as myself.

Worryingly, by reproducing the disclaimer have I already committed a heinous act of breach of confidentiality for which I will be banged up in blogger's chokey? Who knows. Further, who cares.

So, I've made the decision not to present their email.

However, I can show you my response which should, hopefully, allow you to fill in the missing pieces.

6th June 2010

Thank you for your email. It's pleasing to receive an actual response as opposed to a generic template.

I'd also like to thank you for your thorough explanation of how to locate a film on the Odeon website. Unfortunately, I was already in possession of this knowledge and it really does nothing to address either of my previous emails.

Additionally, although I appreciate that both films did not go to national release, I note that in the case of Four Lions it is currently showing at Huddersfield, Leeds, Kingston, Manchester, Sheffield, Worcester and Edinburgh, amongst other towns. That seems like a reasonably 'national' spread.

Is there any particular reason it can't be shown at Southend, even as a Director's Chair special?
The previous email from Odeon Cinemas Limited stated that it was "impossible" to tell if a particular film would be shown at a particular cinema. Is that actually the case? I find it very difficult to believe that Odeon Cinemas Limited is completely unable to clarify which cinema a film will be shown at.

All I really want is to be told whether or not either of these films will be shown at the Odeon Southend. I think it's a very simple question and I hope that, after sending three emails, I may finally get an answer.
I look forward to your response.

I waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally...

28th June 2010

I note that I haven't yet received a response to my email of 6th June. Are you in a position to answer my question please?

Miraculously, 2 days later I received a reply, again with the legal disclaimer/threat. I'm unable to reproduce it here, but it may possibly have said something about having no plans to show the films but that the Director's Chair season starts in September and they'll add the films to the list of possible showings. It might have said that, but I couldn't possibly confirm or deny either way.

Brilliant! So, come September I can, potentially, pay £7.50 to watch Four Lions at the cinema with £3 for a drink and £4 for some sweeties, totalling £14.50 or, alternatively, pay £10.99 to Play.com on 30th August to buy the damn thing on DVD. As for The Ghost, I can buy that for £9.99 on 20th September. I wonder which of these things I will do?

Just for the hell of it, here's the list of what the Odeon Southend is currently showing, along with my thoughts on each:

Cats and Dogs 2 - 3D (Fuck off)
Step Up 3 - 3D (Fuck off)
The Last Airbender - 3D (Double Fuck off)
Toy Story 3 - 3D (Brilliant! No, wait...Fuck off)
Inception (Hooray! Already seen it though and I shall write a blog post on THAT troubling experience shortly)
Karate Kid (Christ on a bicycle...)
Knight and Day (Oh dear God, why?)
Marmaduke (I refuse to even comment on this)
Salt (Angelina. Mmmmmm. OK, I'll pencil this one in)
Shrek Forever After (I don't think so, do you?)
The A-Team (Shudders)
The Expendables (Might be quite good fun actually. I'll let them have this one.)
The Sorcerers Apprentice (Apart from giving me the opportunity to snigger at Nic Cage's hair, I'll give this one a miss.)
Toy Story 3 - 2D (See: Toy Story 3 - 3D)

So there we have it. As a movie buff, my local Odeon has virtually nothing to offer me in the way of entertainment. Score 1 for turgid cattle-fodder, score 0 for the discerning customer.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, Odeon Cinemas needs to change its tagline. In my opinion, it is not 'Fanatical About Film' it is 'Fanatical About Making A Large Profit From Mainstream Frippery, Artistic Integrity And An Ethical Duty To Support Independent Films Be Damned'.

4 July 2010

A Brief Return

I've been on a lengthy sabbatical.

Invariably, that short statement will conjure up images of long thoughtful walks on windswept cliff-tops; deep contemplation whilst sitting on a stony beach, powerful waves smashing against the shore and flinging spume into the biting air; or silently regarding the comings and goings of passersby, inhaling the steam from instant coffee in a cup so thin you can see your hands through it, as you huddle in some quiet out-of-season seaside cafe, condensation fogging the windows, chipped Formica table cold to the touch.

The reality, however, is somewhat different.

I've actually spent the last few months sitting on my balcony reading, playing Red Dead Redemption on the xbox and whiling away the hours pointlessly clicking my mouse and arrow keys on a varied selection of free webgames in a tragic attempt to gain some sense of achievement or self-worth.

I should explain why this is. You see, for the last ten years I've suffered from depression.

My depression is, fortunately, quite manageable although it does manifest itself in different ways. Every now and then, I will feel a bout of depression descending and I'll immediately do something about it - this usually involves taking the day off work and just laying in bed trying to sleep my way through it. I've found this to be a successful strategy.

Some people assume that when I'm going through a depressed period, I must feel sad or desperately unhappy, but it doesn't quite work like that with me. It's probably best described as 'the absence of emotion'. I'll feel something gradually power down in my mind and all feeling will drain from me, sometimes within minutes, sometimes hours. I'm left an empty husk, completely incapable of emotion.

Henry Rollins once described his depression thus (and I'm paraphrasing here) - "When I'm like this, I don't remember feeling any other way."

I absolutely understand what he's talking about. It's an odd sensation, the absence of emotion and the absence of remembering what emotion is like. Sometimes, you look back on the times you were really happy and it feels like you're observing someone else experiencing something you can never understand. "What is this 'happy' that you speak of? Can you eat it? " you might ask if you weren't laying in bed staring at the ceiling and wishing it was tomorrow so you could get back to normal.

On other occasions, my depression manifests itself in a different and longer lasting way. I'll experience lengthy periods of either 'high' or 'low'. When I'm on a high, I'll be more likely to interact with people socially, happily going to the pub or visiting a friend. I'll be more creative, making notes on a screenplay that I'll never quite get around to writing, or churning out blog posts.

When I'm low, however, I'll withdraw. I won't want to go out or mingle with people. I won't feel compelled to write, being utterly convinced that I simply don't have anything of worth to say.

And that, dear reader, is why I haven't written a blog post in three months - I've simply had nothing to say.

Well, that's not quite true actually. Things that have happened recently include:
  • Becoming involved in a war of silence with my downstairs neighbour after she wrote a snotty note and pushed it through my door at midnight because I had the extraordinary audacity to invite two friends over;
  • Embarking on a lengthy exchange of emails with Odeon Cinemas Ltd on why they don't appear to want my custom, and whether they're ever likely to show a film that 1) isn't animated, or 2) doesn't have "3D" in the title;
  • Buying something in a junk shop that led me on a journey involving a dead circus strongman, a monkey on a bicycle and a man called Khramov from an organisation in Russia;
  • Spending numerous hours in my kitchen emptying buckets of soapy water from beneath the washing machine outflow because I have a blockage in the pipe that cannot be removed by either industrial strength chemicals, the sort of frenzied plunging that would be more associated with birthing an elephant calf, or twenty quids worth of flexible steel drain rod that uncoils itself without warning and thrashes around on the floor like a python trying to digest a hedgehog.
So things have happened, yes, but I just haven't felt that they were worth talking about.

I'm hoping that within the next week or two things will return to normal and I'll resume blogging. But I'm not going to make any rash promises.

17 April 2010

The Idiot's Guide To Libel

This week, the world of logic, rationality, science and evidence enjoyed a small yet important victory.

Simon Singh is a British author whose impressive body of work covers a range of subjects including advanced mathematics, cryptography, big bang theory and alternative medicine. His books include Fermat’s Last Theorem, concerning the world’s most notorious mathematical formula (which Singh himself later made a documentary about in 1996, winning a BAFTA in the process), The Code Book about the history of cryptography, codes and ciphers (accompanied by a five-part Channel 4 series called The Science of Secrecy presented by Singh himself) and the excellent Trick or Treatment, a fascinating exploration of the world of alternative medicine, co-authored with Dr Edzard Ernst, the first professor of Complementary Medicine in the UK. The book is dedicated, tongue placed most firmly in cheek, to HRH The Prince of Wales, a man whose love affair with alternative medicine has been well publicised.

Simon Singh is, in short, a rather clever and successful man.

However, in 2008, his world was turned upside down when he published an article in The Guardian about Chiropractic.

For those unfamiliar with it, Chiropractic is a branch of alternative medicine which suggests that the root cause of most diseases is imbalances in the spine. These imbalances have been given the name ‘subluxations’, a rather meaningless phrase used to describe something that, frankly, doesn’t exist.

The founder of Chiropractic, Daniel David Palmer, posited that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”, and immediately set about supposedly curing deafness, heart problems and goodness knows what else. In the credulous 1860’s, this was seen by some as a major medical breakthrough.

Since then, modern medicine has advanced enough that some chiropractors now distance themselves from Palmer’s ‘cure-all’ theory and content themselves instead with merely trying to resolve troublesome back pain. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that Chiropractic therapy is effective in this narrow field.

Other chiropractors, however, have made some rather extraordinary claims about their treatment, stating that it’s effective for a sizeable list of ailments. There is, of course, not a shred of reliable evidence to support this assertion, no matter how many poorly conceived trials the chiropractors pull out of their back pockets.

To commemorate Chiropractic Awareness Week in 2008, Singh published his aforementioned article, which contained the now infamous statement: “The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

The BCA immediately threw all of its toys out of the pram and demanded a retraction and apology from Singh who, obviously, declined to provide either. In the spirit of honest and open debate, The Guardian offered the BCA the right of reply so they could present their own side of the argument. Tellingly, the BCA declined. What they did next, beggars belief.

In July 2008, the BCA sued Singh for libel.

Their case hinged on the phrase “happily promoted bogus treatments” as they believed the wording implied that they knew certain Chiropractic treatments didn’t work, but still knowingly supported and encouraged them. As such, they felt they were being accused of acting dishonestly.

The intention of Singh’s words was to say, effectively, that the BCA were blithely promoting treatments that simply didn’t work. Sadly, his choice of the words ‘happily’ and ‘bogus’ had backfired as he now found himself embroiled in a completely unnecessary, and arguably unethical, legal quagmire that has subsequently consumed 2 years of his time and something in the region of £200,000 of his money.

There were a number of milestones throughout the ensuing libel case including a High Court ruling by Justice Eady that Singh’s article “is in my judgement the plainest allegation of dishonesty and indeed it accuses them (the BCA) of thoroughly disreputable conduct. Eady therefore upheld the BCA’s pleaded meanings and classified Singh’s comments as “factual assertions rather than the mere expression of opinion”.

This meant that Singh was now, bizarrely, backed into a corner whereby he had to defend a meaning implied by his article that he hadn’t intended in the first place.

In June 2009, Singh’s legal team made a paper application asking for permission to appeal Justice Eady’s ruling on the article’s meaning. This was rejected by Eady in July 2009, so an oral hearing on leave to appeal was heard in August 2009.

In October 2009, that leave to appeal was granted. Over a year into the case, and after an extraordinary amount of money had already been spent, the arguments over the intention of Singh’s words continued and the case proper hadn’t even started yet.

After much contemplation and discussion, a decision was announced on 1st April 2010 by the Lord Chief Justice.

In his judgement, the Lord Chief Justice said “We consider that the judge (Eady) erred in his approach to the need for justification by treating the statement that there was not a jot of evidence to support the BCA’s claims as an assertion of fact. It was in our judgement a statement of opinion, and one backed by reasons.

The appeal was allowed, and Singh could now claim that the paragraph in question was ‘fair comment’.

This changed everything. Singh no longer needed to defend a meaning that he hadn’t intended. This was a small, yet important victory, but the journey was seemingly far from over.

Libel law opponents

During this period, interest in UK libel laws grew at an incredible rate and, soon, an impressive band of supporters had grown around the case. The independent charitable trust Sense About Science, set up to promote respect for good science and evidence for the public, joined English PEN () and Index on Censorship in a coalition to campaign for Libel Reform. The resulting project ‘The Libel Reform Campaign’ organised a petition urging libel reform within the UK and, within a few months, had over 50,000 signatures, including some from high-profile individuals including Ian Hislop, Stephen Fry, Ben Goldacre, Jonathan Ross, Shazia Mirza and Marcus Brigstocke.

On 14th March 2010, The Palace Theatre, London was home to The Big Libel Gig, a fundraising benefit for the Coalition of Libel Reform. I was fortunate enough to get a ticket and enjoyed a fantastic evening of conversation, comedy and song which featured such people as Robin Ince, Dara O’Briain, Tim Minchin, Dr Evan Harris, Dr Brian Cox and Simon Singh himself. The building was full to the rafters with ordinary members of the public who supported Singh’s case and, more importantly, wanted the introduction of major reforms in Britain’s libel laws.

Suddenly, libel law was becoming a hot topic, and with very good reason. Libel laws in the UK are reviled and feared throughout the world. You see, neither the defendant nor the claimant need to be resident in the UK to be prosecuted here. Indeed, they don’t need to have even stepped foot on our soil. All that is required is for their supposedly libellous comments to have been available in this country.

One example involved the American author Rachel Ehrenfeld who published a book entitled Funding Evil: how terrorism is funded and how to stop it. Ehrenfeld’s book was published in New York, but not the UK. Within the book, she made reference to a Saudi billionaire, Khalid bin Mahfouz and his financial activities. Bin Mahfouz decided to sue Ehrenfeld through the UK courts. But how was this possible when the book was not available to read online and had never been published here?

It transpired that 23 copies of the book had been purchased in the UK via Amazon.com. This meant that, technically, the book had been made available in our country and, accordingly, the case could be heard here. Ehrenfeld refused to travel to the UK for the case and, in her absence, a judgement was made in the amount of $225,000, which she has refused to pay.

Cases like this are part of an extraordinary upsurge. The United Kingdom has become the world leader in what has been termed ‘Libel Tourism’.

The MP Denis MacShane states, “The practice of libel tourism as it is known – the willingness of British courts to allow wealthy foreigners who do not live here to attack publications that have no connection with Britain – is now an international scandal. It shames Britain and makes a mockery of the idea that Britain is a protector of core democratic freedoms.

With the ever-present threat of libel action hanging over the head of anyone who makes their content available in the UK, some organisations have already started to take matters into their own hands to mitigate the risk.

Click on this link for The National Enquirer, an American tabloid with a weekly circulation of almost 800,000. Go on, click it now.


You should see the words ‘Page unavailable/under construction’. Are they having trouble with their website? Have they forgotten to pay their hosting bills? On the contrary – the problem is that you are trying to visit their website from a British IP address and The National Enquirer, fearful of prosecution under our draconian libel laws, has made their online content unavailable in the UK.

Other major US newspapers, including The Boston Globe and The New York Times are actively considering halting the publication of their media in the UK due to the threat of libel. How long before larger and larger chunks of the world-wide-web start winking out of existence for readers in Britain?

A sudden change

After Simon Singh’s success in the 1st April ruling on the meaning of his words, his legal team were busy formulating the next stage of his defence whilst Singh himself presumably wondered how much longer this would take and what it would cost him.

Suddenly, everything changed once again.

On 15th April 2010, the British Chiropractic Association discontinued its libel action against Simon Singh.

In a press release, the BCA stated that the ruling by the Lord Chief Justice “provides Dr Singh with a defence such that the BCA has taken a view that it should withdraw to avoid further legal costs being incurred by either side.

Some might suggest that the BCA, faced with the prospect of having to fight Singh on a level, evidence-based playing field, simply couldn’t compete and decided to bow out ‘gracefully’ before losing any more money. One could, in theory, postulate that this in itself actually supports the skewed meaning the BCA applied to Singh’s words – they will knowingly promote treatments that they know to be bogus, acting in a dishonest fashion until they are asked to provide evidence that they know simply doesn’t exist. Some might say that, I couldn’t possibly comment.

In fairness, the BCA has previously tried to substantiate its claims by providing evidence of the efficacy of chiropractic for various diseases. In a June 2009 press release, it stated “In the spirit of a wider scientific debate, and having taken appropriate professional advice, the BCA has decided that free speech would best be facilitated by releasing details of research that exists to support the claims which Dr. Singh stated were bogus. This proves that far from there being “not a jot of evidence” to support the BCA’s position, there is actually a significant amount.

The ‘evidence’ provided was a laughable collection of 29 citations which as Martin Robbins clarifies in his Guardian article of 1st March 2010, “was ripped apart by bloggers within 24 hours of publication, before being subjected to a further shredding in the British Medical Journal. It emerged that 10 of the papers cited had nothing to do with chiropractic treatment, and several weren't even studies. The remainder consisted of a small collection of poor-quality trials.

Robbins goes on to say that, “More seriously, the BCA misled the public with a misrepresentation of one paper, a Cochrane review looking at the effectiveness of various treatments for bed-wetting, claiming that the authors had simply concluded that, "there was weak evidence to support the use of [chiropractic]."

In fact the quote in full reads as follows:

"There was weak evidence to support the use of hypnosis, psychotherapy, acupuncture and chiropractic but it was provided in each case by single small trials, some of dubious methodological rigour."

Now even the General Chiropractic Council has disowned the claims of the BCA – the same claims that lie at the centre of its libel action against Simon Singh.


The BCA’s 15th April press release said, “Simon Singh has said publicly that he had never intended to suggest that the BCA had been dishonest. The BCA accepts this statement, which goes some way to vindicating its position.” Of course, Singh made this comment way back at the beginning of the libel case, but the BCA, perhaps entirely coincidentally, did not find this acceptable when there was still a strong chance they may use the UK’s seemingly biased libel laws in their favour.

Contrary to the BCA’s words, it is Singh, not them, who has been vindicated. Science, fair comment, logic and reason have won the day, despite, not because of, the UK’s notorious libel laws. One of the most worrying aspects of this whole debacle has been the fact that there is no guarantee Singh will ever recoup his full costs. An allegation of libel is made, two years of legal to-ing and fro-ing take place, the libel case is withdrawn, yet Singh is still potentially out of pocket.

Despite the cost to Singh, the case has had some benefits, most notably that the subject of libel reform is in the public spotlight. All three of the UK’s major political parties have pledged to radically overhaul the existing laws. The Liberal Democrats gave their support at a very early stage, with Labour and the Conservatives jumping aboard later in the game, presumably when it became clear how strong public feeling was. Singh may not get his money back in full, but his trials and tribulations may yet prove to have a significant effect on our country, its laws and our Internet freedoms.

The big question is this: was the BCA right to sue Singh?

The answer, according to many, is ‘No’. In the world of science and medicine, disputes are resolved by discussion, examination of evidence, testing, peer review and other methods. Legal action has no place in the realm of scientific debate. I can do no better than quote Judge Easterbrook, now Chief Judge of the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, himself quoted in the judgement of the Lord Chief Justice:

[Plaintiffs] cannot, by simply filing suit and crying ‘character assassination!’ silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to plaintiffs’ interests. Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation. … More papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of damages – mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us.

In their haste to silence Simon Singh rather than engage him in meaningful, evidence-based discussion, the BCA has thrown the reputation of itself and all chiropractors into disrepute. The damages the BCA has been ‘awarded’ are not those it had in mind two years ago, but are, arguably, extremely well deserved.