31 December, 2005

Back pages

31st December, 1986:

"...Went into town to spend some of my Christmas money. Bought two Asterix books, Whizzer and Chips and some mystery book or other. Read all afternoon. Had a nose bleed last night from 3am to 4am - yes, another one. Exactly the same tea as last night: mince, potatoes and toast. Didn't like it any better. Allowed to stay up to watch Big Ben. This is my last entry for 1986. I hope the new year will be like this one, hopefully better. Classic comment..."

31st December, 1987:

"...End to an exciting, tragic, sad, happy, joyful year (delete as applicable). Read an entire Dr Who book before spending the afternoon on my bike. Mince, potato and baked beans for tea. A new phone is being fitted tomorrow, so for the first time we will have two in the house - one in the hall and one in the kitchen. I don't see the point of this. It's not as if people will be able to make two calls at the same time. Had to go round to our gran's this evening, where I still am, at the precise hour of 10.30pm..."

31st December, 1989:

"...End of the decade. I feel I need to cling on to what of 1989 remains. Been such a nerve-wracking, anti-climatical, adventurous and enjoyable year that despite all of the frequent bad, undesirable events I'd still want to live it again. I don't speak with much hope for 1990, or the new decade. But of course there's always hope, and my life has in its way only just begin. But one sixth of it is already over and it's not a bad thing to look back and say I did enjoy it, never mind what happened. Amid reviews back to 1979, Clive James and Big Ben, I wonder where I will be at the end of 1999..."

31st December, 1990:

"...The diary labels today as Week 1. For heaven's sake! There are just over two hours to go. We all went down to London, primarily for shopping but after lunch we had to go round the National Gallery. Bought 'Revolver' from HMV, so it wasn't all wasted. Returned on a half-empty train arriving in Loughborough at 6.30pm. All in all, pathetic..."

31st December, 1992:

"...Of all the places to be tonight, we're at dad's brothers house. Which has meant casual swearing aplenty. The journey took ages - spent most of it asleep. In no mood to look back at the year. That can be done another time..."

31st December, 1993:

"...Been thinking about what to say here for ages. I've just finished re-reading this whole diary - I did it a month a day - and it's struck me how it's been a lot more honest, emotional and thoughtful diary than every before. And that's deliberate, not least because - hey - it's much more interesting to read. But it's 10.07pm and I've felt genuinely sad today, particularly this afternoon looking through The Guardian's review of the year. The only person who's spoken to me today outside family is Kate, and she was just about to go out. Everyone's out except me. Is that deliberate? This is the first year ever when I can say that this time next year I have absolutely no idea where I will be. This has never happened before. Fear of the unknown is one of my weaknesses and I don't want to leave my friends because I need them and love them all. I feel constantly in their debt for putting up with me. Especially three of them. This is possibly the year which I grew up, but I'm not sure because I don't know what being grown up is, and don't particularly want to. Yet I have so many good and bad memories that were created naturally and I don't want to force 1994 to be the same. But whatever will be will be - Christ! - starting with a bloody driving test on Wednesday. I'm deliberately going on writing because I don't want to end because that will mean the end of this year. I don't want to go away from all these pages, these memories, these people. But it's only another day tomorrow and everything starts again and it will show its own things and surprises and losses and gains. I've got to face it and stop writing. Because there's a whole lot more - in 94. See you later. I hope..."

31st December, 1994:

"...Why am I at university? At the moment it's plain to see I'm getting nothing out of it whatsoever. Coming back here has reminded me or how much I enjoy this place and all its associations, people, places and memories. Like this evening when I finally went out of a New Year's Eve and saw a load of people that were important and who were valuable tokens of a happier time. I'm in a vacuum of bewilderment that I can't see a way out of. People don't want me here, of course, they've all got separate individual lives to lead now, new commitments, relationships, goals, pleasures - all out of my reach. Fuck knows what's going to happen in 1995. But for the first time in my life I can find nothing to excite me about the future and go into it wearily, ignorantly, helplessly, pitifully. I'm ashamed but not enough to fucking do something. But...that's always the way of things. Aaaaahh!..."

31st December, 1995:

"...Party at Burton Street, courtesy of an invitation from David. On the way I was propositioned by some kids who wanted me to go and buy some beer for them. This was as ludicrous as it was embarrassing. I felt bad enough doing it for myself. We were the first to arrive even though it was later than before (9pm), and it took ages for things to get going and for any kind of mood and atmosphere to kick in and hide away in. Mainly because there were so few people there. Old faces surreally walked in then straight out again. People began to form their own cliques in their own rooms. Talked a lot to a scattering of names who it was good to see again, but things escalated towards 12am, as did the noise and the red faces. The last song of 1995 was 'Whatever', the first song of 1996 'Cigarettes and Alcohol'. There's something that'll datestamp this party for all eternity. Then everything somehow went weird. More people arrived after midnight than before - that's not right. An overload of unwanted baggage from the past washed in, including several shamefully drunk people I hadn't seen since secondary school. I don't think they knew who I was. Food and mess were everywhere. Fights and threats were brewing. So it was time to leave, and I wandered back through the streets about 1.45am. Cold, wet, misty, portentous. Crept in here as silently as possible and slept until 10am. Look at all this space in this new diary. All these bloody lines. Never fill them all..."

31st December, 1997:

"...Actually New Year's Day as I write. Was down at the Black Lion again, as it turned out at the invitation of Luke and ended up seeing in 1998 amongst the drunk and vomiting revellers there. Weird how the last 48 hours have seen me renewing contact and conversation with a collection of people I previously hadn't been in touch with for ages. Coincidence or conspiracy? The fact that such an extreme bout of socializing collided with the passing of another year is not entirely unconnected of course, but it has created a bizarrely sentimental and significant mood to these last days of 1997 - one entirely unlike the majority of those days that went before. I've enjoyed all of the respective meetings and reunions with faces and names from the past, but it's been different than before. My closest and dearest friends are still those with roots and residue in this town, my home town. But strangely I don't - or rather can't - envy them or their lives so much anymore. Am I finally beginning to be able to let go?..."

31st December, 1999:

"...Re-read all the New Year's Eve entries since 1989, when I caustically declared 'I don't speak with much hope for 1990, or the new decade' and wondered where I'd be exactly 10 years on. Well I'm still here, writing the entry on the same bed in the same room. Incredible how that 10-year is now just memories, regrets and reminiscence. Incredible the way it resonates in the entries I pen each New Year's Eve, and how of course they nearly all bemoan and decry and wail and gnash and flail at this bastard world. Why not? It's the truth, it's how I felt at the time. I find myself reluctant to change or do anything than grin and bear it because I'm afraid to - the normality of sorts and the routines/rituals which I have evolved are reassuring. But what sobering thoughts are conjured up when I review what other people have done by my age - and that's anybody, famous or not. At least I know what I'll be doing in 12 months time. And if that's enough, enough to cling to, to see me through another year, then fair enough. It's just started pouring with rain and this entry has gone on for too long. On it goes, then. I'll see you in the new one, same as the old one. Happy new year..."

30 December, 2005

End games

Will Self and Ralph Steadman have produced their own review of the year.

The pair were commissioned by the Today programme, which itself is staging a poll to determine who runs Britain. The nominations comprise a fairly predictable bunch, but I'd argue there should've been a better distinction between who rules (Blair, Brown etc.) and who actually runs the country. From this perspective, the latter distinction should really go to someone like the person who gets to decide how much money the Royal Mint is allowed to put into circulation, the person who gets to draw up the national rail timetable, or even the person at the Office of National Statistics who calculates how many people there are who officially need to be "run" in the first place.

29 December, 2005

Little things

The annual opening-up-of-Government-archives under the 30 Year Rule has revealed its usual slew of the equally intriguing and trivial.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the fact that, according to the people at the National Archives themselves, 75% of stuff dating from 1975 is already in the public domain thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. Nowadays the documents that turn up at the end of each year are merely going to be those transfered as a matter of course, rather than those whose surpression has been ended by law. Expect the kind of revelations about the "real" story behind numerous national crises that have bubbled up since the Act was passed to continue surfacing on a monthly, if not weekly basis, from now on.

Of the batch of stuff that has just been released, the most alarming documents are surely those which refer to what was to happen were the country subject to a nuclear attack. Hospitals would be emptied, bunkers manned by civil servants, a state of emergency declared - but it'd all be OK because "art treasures from London and Edinburgh would be saved by being sent to slate mines in Wales." Never mind the welfare of the population - let's get those Constable landscapes underground, dammit!

By contrast, the most timely documents relate to Harold Wilson's 'Little Things That Mean A Lot' campaign, wherein the erstwhile PM tried to improve his standing and that of the country via cheap, specific, single issue initiatives like creating a new Bank Holiday, bothering to tell taxpayers how their rates were spent, using empty office blocks for other purposes like housing the homeless, and protecting local breweries from national chains - all of which are still relevant today and all of which would still rank as obvious votewinners.

Harold Wilson is often derided by historians and politicians as a cynical, gimmick-obsessed Prime Minister who did little to sort out the real state of the nation. In reality, as these archives show, he was more in tune with the real nation than most PMs of the 20th century, and was exceptionally smart when it came to using his office to do genuine good.

On top of that he fought five general elections and won four of them. Although he did almost lead the country into, according to another document, "wholesale domestic liquidation". I say almost. That actual honour was saved for Margaret Thatcher.

28 December, 2005

Sign here

There's no snow back here in Liverpool, but there is such a frost outside that the floors of my flat are too cold to walk on with your shoes off.

There's also a Christmas card waiting for me from an old friend who I've known for over 15 years. Except this year there's not only his name written inside - there are three names.

This comes as no surprise, but is still something that's pretty arresting to see scrawled right there in front of me, in print, completely unselfconscious and unashamed.

The second name is the name of his wife. That's right. I have a friend who is married. And yes, he was someone from my year at school. And now he is married.

I played the organ at his wedding 18 months ago, itself a pretty surreal occasion, seeing someone you used to swap Maths revision notes with and cadge a few crisps off at breaktime standing in front of a registrar declaring his undying love for somebody else from this day forward till death do they part.

I was flattered to be asked to play at his wedding - but somewhat bemused to then discover the number of people also attending the occasion who I would know totalled less than one. Discounting the groom himself. I wondered why he hadn't invited anybody else from my, well, "time". I also wondered who he expected me to make conversation with once the ceremony was over. As he never supplied an answer, and I could never come up with one, I left the wedding as soon as I'd finished the final piece of music.

I hope he didn't mind. He's not been in touch since, except to send Christmas cards. Last year, with his new wife's name in. And then this year, with his new son's name in.

Yes, I have a friend who has a son. Someone I used to lend 20 pence for a hot chocolate from the canteen; someone I used to flick bits of paper at in A Level Chemistry lessons.

Is someone you haven't seen properly for around seven or eight years - except for half an hour while you rattled out instrumental versions of 'Wind Beneath My Wings' and 'We've Only Just Begun' - still a proper friend? Should I presume to even expect him to treat me like a friend, given he's got his own family now?

He signs his own name, and that of his wife and child, with the same handwriting that once emblazoned "...A PENCIL AND A TOY TRUMPET" on the inside of my school folder. It's only his writing that connects the me and him of today with the me and him of back then and reruns of Blackadder Goes Forth and demented orchestra rehearsals and maths coursework and representing the school at the local town hall and half-price cakes from the canteen during an endless, aimless free period.

On a night as cold as this, perhaps that's enough. Or rather, perhaps that's all I should hope for.

27 December, 2005

White stuff (II)

It's been snowing really heavily ever since I woke up, and it's turned the neighbourhood into a wonderful giant blanket of soft, subdued Christmasness.

As if to anticipate just such an eventuality, I was sorting out some old photos last night to put online and came across this, one of my favourite ever:

This person is probably on the other side of the world right now. But more about her another time.

26 December, 2005

Domain man

Almost twenty years ago I was sitting in a classroom at school counting the minutes until morning break, when for some reason the teacher started a discussion about favourite things.

She proceeded to work her way round the room asking all the pupils in turn to name the one thing they prized above all else, and to explain their choice.

I'm not sure under what part of the curriculum this clumsy, collective exercise in net curtain-twitching nosiness fell - 'personal and social development' perhaps, that briefly fashionable catch-all term which even turned up in Inspector Morse as shorthand for "young people stuff". It certainly wasn't what'd now be called citizenship, or social studies, or - erk- humanities.

But it got everyone animated and off watching the clock, with responses coming thick and fast: a pet, a piece of clothing, their bike, a musical instrument and so on. Everyone seemed to get the idea instantly and talked with remarkably articulacy for 11 and 12 year olds about the day they purchased this or found that or mastered the art of playing the other.

Everyone except me, that is. I hadn't a clue what to talk about. My mind just went completely blank. It wasn't so much choosing something to talk about, it was choosing the right thing to talk about. What would show me in my best light? What would call least attention to myself - yet also demand attention from everyone else? What wouldn't make me sound like a twat? All absurdly trivial yet earthshatteringly crucial concerns for an 11 year old.

Maybe the bell for break would go and save me. Maybe some of the others would talk for ages and the teacher would run out of time. Maybe I should just say something glib or stupid and spend breaktime boasting about it. No. No chance. There was going to be plenty of time for my turn, and for me to humiliate myself in as protracted a manner possible.

So I thought and thought and tried to pinpoint the one thing above all else that meant most to me at that stage of my life. And then I thought around the subject to see if there was a different way of coming up with the answer. Perhaps it should be something that only held significance for me. Something that nobody else could appreciate. Something - or somewhere - that I could always come back to whenever I chose.

And then I had the answer. Nobody else had said it, which was a good sign. I was sure nobody else would say it, which was even better. It seemed so obvious, I couldn't believe the amount of effort I'd expended on frantically levering it into my brain. All the same, I announced it to the rest of the class with not a little pride and self-confidence.

The ensuing cackles of derision were only just drowned out by the bell for breaktime.

Thankfully the whole spurious discussion and bizarre lesson was quickly forgotten. Nobody remember what I'd said. But I did, and still do. In fact, I'm sitting in it right now. It's my old bedroom in my Mum and Dad's house, and it's where I've ended up every Christmas since I moved away from home.

It's been redecorated a couple of times in the last twenty years, naturally, but the essence of the place - a refuge, a sanctuary, a retreat from the rest of the world - has always remained. As has its appeal to me, for precisely those same reasons. It's still a refuge and a retreat, except from a different set of circumstances than when I was 11 years old. I rather suppose it'll stay that way until my parents decide to move or the place is finally emptied of all my old books, papers, clutter and possessions. Which won't happen, perversely, until I've a place of my own that's large enough to house them all.

Until then, these four walls will continue to be an indisputable part of my existence wherever I am in the world. And like they've always made a room for me, I'll always make room for them.

25 December, 2005

Who's there

As the good Doctor once said:

"And a very merry Christmas to all of you at home!"

24 December, 2005

Back stories

24th December, 1989:

"...Usual day. Wrapped the three Christmas presents while everybody else was out. This morning I stayed in watching The Return Of The Pink Panther. Dad's brother and missus were coming to lunch, or so we thought. They turned up at 1.30pm, five minutes after we'd already given up and started eating..."

24th December, 1991:

"...Illness haunts my nose, throat and head as well as ears. Watched Broadway Danny Rose and Rain Man, both of which I'd videoed last night and both of which were superb..."

24th December, 1992:

"...The Queen's speech has been leaked - ha fucking ha. Did some work on my arrangement of 'Ain't Misbehavin', watched Psycho, and decided to spend the afternoon copying up the Death Of A Salesman essay..."

24th December, 1994:

"...Spent the morning reading extracts from this diary, watching last night's Fantasy Football League, listening to the radio and shivering. Unfortunately I was then driven by my warped conscience to do some work - but at least it wasn't written, just reading more Disraeli shit. At least got 50 more pages through my head (and out again). Drove round to deliver some cards. Very calm - on my own, the roads fairly quiet, not many people around. In each case I parked the car away from the house in question and walked up to it so as not to draw too much attention to myself. David rang later and spurned me to ring Kate again since I'd been trying to get through to her all afternoon. And she was there, and there was so much to say to her I mumbled and erred and ummed before driving out to give her her present. Still a rushed encounter as she had to go out. Hopefully get to see her again soon..."

24th December, 1995:

"...Mum and Dad had some friends round for lunch. Hated the occasion and felt very uncomfortable, gladly retreating back up here as soon as I could to carry on re-reading this diary, finishing off jobs before tomorrow and later borrowing the car to go round to Kate's mums to briefly see her and give her my presents. David had rung to sort out plans for this evening and I headed down to The Griffin for 7.15pm. Town was dead - deserted, lifeless, windswept. But the pub was heaving and stayed that way all evening. We found a corner right by the fire exit which made it alternately very stuffy and very cold, and watched the day drift to its end in a boozy, festive, smoky binge which left me shattered. Even David, who was initially very pissed off with everything, ended up enjoying himself. Left about 11.45pm and raced home through the arctic streets. Heard some church bells toll the arrival of Christmas Day..."

24th December, 1997:

"...On the very edge of Christmas. Slept woefully last night due to the others staying up till almost fucking 1am doing god knows what. Kept me awake and made me angry, therefore making me even more awake and hard to switch off and settle down once everything was calm and quiet. It's happened before, this exact same set of circumstances, and it really pisses me off. Got up the same sort of time as usual. Christmas Eve is a ghastly anti-climax and I don't enjoy it anymore - it signals the end of the best period: the run up and anticipation, the preparation and the atmosphere and the music which nowadays really means more to me than anything else. Rained all day - horrible half-mild/cold weather with an absurdly strong wind that's now veering on gale force. Went out pretty early so I could make sure of getting a paper. My watch has stopped - the battery's flat, what fantastic timing. Wrapped all my presents which took ages. At least I had something arranged for this evening, to see David. I'm sure he was going out again afterwards, it wouldn't have surprised me. It was worth it, though, visiting him and exchanging present and chatting and watching TV. I got a biography of Bowie and - ho ho - The Vegetarians Of Love by Bob Geldof. Back here about 11.15pm. Oh, did speak to Kate on the phone, albeit very briefly. Compliments of the season, I guess."

23 December, 2005

Fall over

I've reached the end of Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal:

Sleep, the past, and wake, the future,
And walk out promptly through the open door;
But you, my coward doubts, may go on sleeping,
You need not wake again - not any more.

The New Year comes with bombs, it is too late
To dose the dead with honourable intentions.
If you have honour to spare, employ it on the living;
The dead are as dead as Nineteen Thirty-Eight.

22 December, 2005

School's out

I finished work today for the holidays.

There was an inevitable end-of-term feel to the place, though nobody could really make an effort to celebrate, more console each other with the thought that people had made it this far in (relatively) one piece. Nobody ran from the premises leaping with joy, nobody wept at the emotion of the occasion. Everyone pissed off as soon as they could, which suited me. The thought of 11 whole days away from the place was one that I wanted to savour by myself.

Which I did, by coming home, promptly falling asleep on the sofa, and dreaming of Wales.

21 December, 2005

Shortest day

Of course, it was nothing of the sort.

I managed to wake up too early, find the marauding shroud of darkness outside the bedroom window completely disorientating, fall back to sleep in the belief it was 3am, then get woken up again by my alarm - but find it just as dark outside as before.

There were a couple of Christmas cards poked through the front door from my neighbours. One was from the elderly driving instructor who lives at number four and who comes back late every night with one of his female pupils to give them a bit of "out of hours tuition". I wasn't sure at first if the card was even meant for me, as it bore no mention of my name anywhere. I felt unsettled when I spotted my flat number on the envelope. The thought of the man, with his voluptuous toupee and gigantic pot belly, scrawling this card surrounded by a bevy of nubile students lounging around what looks, from the outside, to be a manky apartment, made me shudder.

The other envelope was from the old woman who lives above the driving instructor. She'd simply marked the inside of the card "To ?", even though she knows my name quite well.

Nobody was in the mood for doing anything at work and the hours seemed to last forever. It was the boss's last day before Christmas and when he finally showed up (late, as usual) he made this great show of carrying a huge carrier bag into his office, locking the door, covering up the windows, and quite patently wrapping some presents. It was all somehow very undignified. Couldn't he have wrapped them at home? I wasn't at all surprised to see the carrier bag was marked 'Oxfam'.

I don't know if there's some bad news coming in the New Year, but it was the first time he's ever given us Christmas presents. Last year we got bugger all, the year before that an already-opened packed of Kendal mintcake. This time we all got DVDs and a pocket diary (from Oxfam). The forced joviality was dreadful. I can't bear to be in my boss's debt, even when he's purporting to act generously.

Then there were pointless meetings to attend (meetings that could've easily happened after the holiday), the usual stuff to sort out, the usual problems to overcome. When I went out for a walk at lunchtime the sun was already setting. It was dark by 3.30pm. I just wanted to come home and go straight back to bed.

Still the agony continued. At 5pm we all had to troop off to a function room and have a mince pie with the real boss, i.e. the head of the company. She was already pissed - lurching around the room, blurting out profanities, shouting at the top of her voice. She's only been with the company a few months, hence we all had to be "introduced" to her and clasp her clammy hand. She won't remember any of our names. Indeed, she most likely won't remember anything of the whole occasion.

I escaped just after 5.30pm, caught the bus to Tesco, got some stuff to see me through to the end of the week, had to wait ages for a bus back, it didn't come, had to walk half the way home and by the time I was in and settled it felt like - yes - one of the longest days ever.

20 December, 2005

Cold comfort

Earlier this month the Today programme on Radio 4 held a competition to find the best photos of Britain in winter. David Holman won.

19 December, 2005

Scrooge mentality

Someone who sits across from me at work boasted today of how they wouldn't be getting up on Christmas Day "until at least 2 or 3pm". My jaw silently hit the floor. "How can you waste so much time, on that day of all days," I asked as politely as I could. "Because I can," he snapped, and went back to guessing the scores of the opening round matches in next summer's World Cup.

There's no answer to that. It's the same retort someone I knew at university used whenever I queried the motivation behind him staying up all hours the night before an exam, or wearing the same pair of socks 10 days running, or starting the day by polishing off the dregs of a can of lager he'd forgotten about 24 hours earlier. Then, as now, I had no comeback.

This kind of reaction makes me sound like a right Scrooge and, to be blunt, a miserable bastard. In fact, a fair few entries here paint a picture of me as somebody who'd like to deny as many people as many of their pleasures as possible. It's not meant like that, honest. It's just my way of articulating how a lot of what other people seem to enjoy I don't seem to enjoy, and how that manifests itself in an unhealthy degree of uncertainty and suspicion. More fool me.

I should say, though, that I wasn't alone in registering disbelief at my colleague's lazy designs. And surely Christmas Day is too precious to while away doing what you can do just as well on the other 364 days of the year. It is, after all, the only day when everything, absolutely everything, stops. The one day in the year where normal routine and ritual are not just allowed but positively encouraged to be put on hold. The one day when you can get away with motoring the wrong way up a one way street, as I discovered when I was learning to drive at Christmas 1993.

As a footnote, and to further dispel perceptions of me as a grumpy sod, the security guard on the gates at work this morning greeted me with a loud:

"All right, smiler!"

18 December, 2005

Noises off

A man gets tied up to the ground
He gives the world its saddest sound

- Paul Simon

I used to have a friend who worked the other side of the city and who'd sometimes come round of an evening to visit. I'd always go to meet him off the train - a local metropolitan service, not the mainline network, and one that joined up all the suburbs with carriages that looked more at home in a bus depot than on a railway.

I met him at the station a number of times, and each occasion I remember the anticipation of his arrival being heightened by the sound of the railway line humming in advance of the approaching train. But the same ambience, over time, became imbued with a deeper notion, one to do with transience, of things arriving then departing, and of how impermanent much of what we come to value in life can be. All because the noise a train makes when it's approaching is identical to that of it disappearing.

So an otherwise humdrum buzzing became, for a period, an evocative tone signalling, in essence, the way people arrive in my life but always depart sooner or later. I heard it again the other day when I was walking past a railway line, which reminded me of the Paul Simon lyric above, and hence led to this list of, in no particular order, ten of the saddest sounds:

- a train in the distance

- the needle of a record player stuck in the runout groove

- a ship's foghorn echoing across a foggy river

- snow falling on a provincial town (it's more the complete absence of sound that's poignant here; try standing in your street in the middle of a snowfall and see how overwhelmingly silent everywhere becomes)

- a flute player busking in a subway

- the wind in the aftermath of a London Underground train

- soft rain falling in the early hours of a morning

- an Em9 chord on an acoustic guitar

- a crackly recording of a 1940s popular tune

- a couple laughing behind a closed door

17 December, 2005

In abstinentia

At this time of the year I'm always more conscious than ever of the abstemious lifestyle I've come to lead.

I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't eat meat, I don't gamble, I don't like parties and I don't own a mobile phone. This litany always provokes hoots of derision at work, as if a) this particular set of circumstances couldn't possibly be contrived by someone themselves and must therefore have been visited upon me against my will, or b) nobody could seriously wish to live like that, and therefore I am to be pitied. And mocked.

The fact is I've chosen to refrain from all of the above because I don't enjoy them. Simple as that.

I've never smoked, but used to have several friends who did, and while their habit didn't bother me when they were off elsewhere, long periods of time in the company of profusive smokers always made me nauseous and triggered a recurring nightmare of being trapped in a small room slowly dying of asphixiation.

I also used to share a house with two people who smoked, and every evening they always made great play of getting their cigarettes out as soon as I'd left them all in the living to go upstairs to bed. In the morning I was always the first up, and hence always the one to empty the ashtrays. Another person I used to live with was a virulent anti-smoker, but who was always first in line when one of his mates turned up with a joint. I could never understand this hypocrisy, same as I don't understand those "vegetarians" who eat fish. You either are or you aren't; there's no middle ground.

I hate going to clubs or loud parties so I just don't bother. Not that I get many invitations, but sometimes there'll be some do on at work, for which we are all notionally asked to attend. I just don't go. I reckon I've reached a point in my life where I don't have to put myself through stuff I don't like. Nobody misses me anyway.

A year spent in a hall of residence at university put me off meat for life; they used to serve stuff with the veins still poking out. I've never needed a mobile phone, so I've never bought one.

That just leaves the one thing that intrigues people at work more than any: the fact I don't drink. They think there's some big secret in my life, that I'm a recovering alcoholic, or used to have a bad drinking problem when I was younger, or that I'm just fibbing. It's nothing of the sort, of course. I just never liked drinking. I felt I had to do it because everybody else did, and the culture of - in particular - university invites, if not demands, the excessive intake of alcohol or else you're ignored, shunned and generally socially excluded.

The number of nights I had to play host to people getting pissed was mindboggling. It wasn't so much what they were doing to their lifestyles that bothered me; it was how they were impinging on mine, and demanding I live my life on their terms. The irony is that most of them ended up getting better exam results, better degrees and by far better jobs than me (they were mostly scientists and mathematicians).

As soon as I left university and lived on my own I rarely found myself in the context where I had to drink, so I gradually drank less and less, until I decided I might as well make a virtue of it and stop altogether. I'm a bit of a hypochondriac as well, so I reasoned the more I can do to make myself healthier, and the more things I can refrain from, the better.

Hence my teetotal condition, which my work colleagues regard as tantamount to an illness. They quite happily boast of getting through half a bottle of wine every weeknight. Don't they get bored of it? Don't they run out of money? I guess I'll never understand, and it's not really my place to try to. Out of sight, out of mind. Or as Lorca puts it in Blood Wedding, cry if you want, but do it at the door.

And well, they do say abstinence makes the heart grow fonder. Or so I've heard.

16 December, 2005

Anorak songbook

A jaw-dropping collection of alternative versions of the Doctor Who theme by a load of uber-fans contains, amongst others, a Michael Nyman pastiche, a Band Aid pisstake, one called 'If Cybermen Had Rhythm' and another worryingly categorised as 'shoegazer'.

The best, however, is the one entitled 'Who Am I?', tastefully rendered by a bloke and a phased acoustic guitar, sung as the Doctor in the first person, bewailing how "a solitary touch/can hurt twice as much/when breaking/double hearts." As Christopher Eccleston would say, fantastic.

15 December, 2005

Season's bleatings

Today was the day of the Christmas lunch at work.

To give you an idea of how preposterous a conceit this actually is, even the phrase "Christmas lunch" is wrong. It's a three-course free-for-all which is served in no particular order (it's true - you can get your pudding before your starter) and which comprises such wholly obvious festive delicacies as fruit salad, boiled potatoes and apple pie.

It's the only time in the entire year I eat in the canteen; I usually bring lunch into work, eat it at my desk then go out for a walk. I break this rule for the Christmas lunch because it's a stupid novelty and the boss never takes part and it only costs a pound. Yes, a pound in total for three courses of stuff that each Christmas threatens to resemble a proper seasonal feast but each Christmas always fails at the final hurdle. Or rather the first mouthful.

I suppose I also enjoy taking part because it gives me a chance to moan about how much I hate taking part. The food is served from midday - a stupidly early time - but you have to be in the canteen five minutes to twelve or else you won't get a table and won't be served until 1.30pm. You still have to queue for ages, then take your plate back to your table where, with your colleagues from your office, you grumble about how crap the food is, slag off the other departments sitting at all the other tables, pull a few crackers, read the shit jokes inside, get bored waiting for tea and coffee to arrive, give up waiting for the tea and coffee to arrive, then return to your office and do bugger all work all afternoon because you're too sleepy.

This year I got away without even paying the pound. Well, there was nobody there to collect it. So I actually went one better than before and ended up in profit.

Ironically, for all I'm slagging it off, the company Christmas lunch is the only seasonal thing I ever do nowadays. There are no parties where I work (a wholly Good Thing), there are no big family gatherings to attend, I haven't got any decorations to put up in my flat, I don't do anything religious, I do my Christmas shopping online, and there's no turkey to be eaten anywhere because I'm a vegetarian.

I'm happy with that at the moment, but I do wonder if I'll become more prone to indulging in some self-conscious yuletide trimmings as I get older. I suspect trivialities become touchstones with advancing years, and what with the Christmas and New Year holiday traditionally inviting emotions of the rawest kind, even boiled potatoes and apple pie might mean something of substance some day.

Only if they're a pound, mind.

14 December, 2005

Balance sheet

Yesterday witnessed another desperate milestone chalked up in the neverending war in Iraq. It was precisely 1000 days since America, Britain and a few other countries that never seem to get mentioned (stand up Australia, Portugal, Mongolia et al) invaded.

To mark the occasion, George W. Bush decided to croak out a few statistics about the number of people killed in the country since the conflict began. 30,000 was his figure - "more or less". More or less a further 70,000, according to some sources.

Such numbers become sadly meaningless after a while. A jump from, say, 1000 Americans killed in combat to 2000 is the sort that gives much transglobal pause for thought and has all the world's commentators scribbling away to produce suitably insightful, corruscating criticism. But a notional jump from, say, 19,000 to 20,000 has far less resonance. When the number killed in the tsunami last Christmas hit 10,000 the planet was appropriately agog. Beyond that, though, and the scale became much harder to delineate (how do you visualise up to 275,000 dead?) and to mentally quantify. This is because, simply, so many thousands will always be so many thousands. When it comes down to it, when you're being brutally and nakedly honest, what's the difference between 120,000 and 121,000? Both sums are far too high to mean anything. They're just the same row of noughts with different numbers at the beginning.

Our inability to inwardly process and synthesise incremental gigantic numbers of any kind makes tragedies on the scale of the Iraq conflict all the more unbearable. Like a fly caught down inside your eyelid, the war is always there, just out of our line of vision, forever irritating, forever gesticulating, but impossible to truly ignore or remove from sight or mind. Until somebody in the British government answers for the fact we went to war on a false prospectus, until there is some kind of legal judgement passed on those who cooked up the WMD sham and those who wheeled it out as an excuse to invade, until the balance sheet it totalled up and someone somewhere foots the bill, we'll never be able to perceive ourselves for what we truly are, and this country will never be able to sleep the sleep of the just.

13 December, 2005

About face

Walking through the gates at work today, I was momentarily thrown by a comment from the security guard on duty:

"Cheer up son, it'll soon be 5.30!"

Which was true enough, except I wasn't aware I was frowning, or scowling, or pulling any kind of disagreeable face whatsoever. It's correct I never enjoy having to walk through those gates every morning, but not to the extent of making me screw up my face with rage.

Do my features naturally settle into a frown when I'm going about my business? On this evidence it seems they do. This state of affairs dismays me, as I always thought I was quite good at hiding my feelings on the inside while being quite adept at adopting a mask of indifference on the outside. Perhaps not. I remember my mum once telling me the only time she'd seen me smile was when I was asleep. I glibly replied that was because that was the only time I was happy.

I'm not sure what I should do. If I marched into work tomorrow sporting a big grin, the security guard would tell me to take that stupid look off my face. If I tried even harder not to frown, I'd undoubtedly just appear insincere. Maybe I should just avert my eyes and look at the ground. At least that doesn't answer back.

12 December, 2005

Smoke screen

Of all the photos capturing the scope and drama of yesterday's explosions in Hemel Hempstead, this is surely the most awe-inspiring:

It's how you'd imagine the world would look if it was to come to an end. At 6am on a Sunday morning.

11 December, 2005

Past masters

In a shoebox on a shelf in my spare room, I keep a collection of cassettes dating back 12 years or so. They're all compilations or home recordings of one kind or another, and together they represent a kind of aural inventory of my changing tastes, fortunes and moods since the early 1990s.

I'm going to dip into this shoebox from time to time to see which particular tapes come to hand and hence which particular memories come to mind. Suffice to say the box becomes more precious to me as each year passes, as its contents become less reminders of recent times and places and more the preserve of history.

So, delving inside today brings forth...

- 'Rehearsal (Union Basement) 6/3/96'
This is an appallingly embarrassing tape of a rehearsal (in the loosest sense of the word) by a band I tried to start during my second year at university. I'd just bought a proper acoustic guitar replete with a plug-in for amplification, and was convinced I was equipped both practically and mentally for the business of making music - something I'd put on hold since leaving school. How wrong I was.

My judiciously placed tatty appeals for personnel around university buildings yielded up a limited response: firstly a 40-year-old plumber (I knocked him back on the phone), then a 55-year-old beatnik (ditto - what was going on here?), then finally a fellow student who claimed he was a singer-songwriter looking for somebody to set his "prose poems" to music. Fortunately he wasn't nearly as pretentious as he sounded; unfortunately he thought he was Michael Stipe and insisted on singing everything in an American accent.

We got as far as writing a few original things and choosing a profusion of cover versions. I suppose I enjoyed the actual process of performing, but knew deep down all along nothing was ever going to come of it. It took the arrival of two more people, a bass player and lead guitarist, for the whole thing to collapse into inevitable recrimination. The bassist kept turning up for rehearsal boasting of how he'd been "doing speed all night". The guitarist thought playing acoustic stuff was "for dickheads".

Anyway, I insisted on recording what happened the one time we all met in the rehearsal room in Liverpool University Student Union basement, almost as if I knew it'd be the last chance I had to tape the burgeoning madness. Sure enough after that night we never played again. The other two pissed off, never to be seen again. My fellow songwriter insisted on trying to secure a gig for the two of us somewhere in Liverpool, we got as far as getting a booking…then he disappeared. No warning, no telephone call, nothing.

It'll be a fair few more years before I'm ready to listen to this tape again.

- 'Chris Morris 26/12/94'
An off-air recording of the man's Boxing Day show for Radio 1 in 1994. This was back when Morris was more interested in scoring points through jokes rather than simply scoring points, it also being the year of the superlative BBC2 series The Day Today. This particular show will never ever be broadcast on the radio again, thanks to it featuring, among other things, Johnnie Walker shooting up in "the next studio" and Chris "waiting for more news" on the death of Jimmy Savile.

- 'The Beatles: Anthology Compilation'
I made this from the three double CD Anthology albums released in 1995 and 96, as a way of cutting out all the pointless filler stuff (ooh, an instrumental version of 'Within You Without You'! A version of 'Don't Pass Me By' with a longer introduction!) and instead creating a new sequence that told the same story on two sides of a C90 tape. I enjoyed making this, putting stuff like the two versions of 'Ain't She Sweet' (from 1961 and 1969) side by side, dropping in bits of studio chatter all the way through, and ending with the Anthology take of 'Across The Universe', which I reckon is easily the best version of that much-released song.

- 'Voices - Radio 3, 17/5/95'
An off-air recording of a programme showcasing different songs and music, both classical and popular, to do with sleeping and the night. I taped this during a period in my first year at university when I was in halls of residence and hating pretty much every minute of it, thanks to all the noise, drinking, loneliness, regimentation (meals at set hours, buses to and from lectures at set hours) and the feeling of being shut away in my room with nowhere to hide and no-one to talk to.

- 'Untitled - Spring 1994 (?)'
This was a compilation tape made for me by David, my best friend in the 6th form, just a few months before we were to leave school for good. I'm not entirely sure of the date, but I've kept the track listing he supplied on a sheet of A4 lined paper, which gives a good snapshot of the kinds of music he was keen to get me into at the time:

'I Know The Reason', The Boo Radleys
'Like Someone In Love', Bjork
'Way Up There', The Charlatans
'I Can't See Your Face In My Mind', The Doors
'Wild Child', The Doors
'Bang', Blur
'Ten Years Asleep', Kingmaker
'Find Out Why', Inspiral Carpets
'My Insatiable One' (piano version), Suede
'Home Again', The Auteurs
'She Might Take A Train', The Auteurs
'Sonic', The Charlatans
'Wish I Was Skinny', The Boo Radleys
'Lazarus', The Boo Radleys
'Sideways', Dinosaur Junior
'Atmosphere', Joy Division

Fine tunes, all. It was the second of many compilations David made for me, and continues to make to this day, every single one of which I still own and play regularly. And as far as this first one went, he scored notable successes in that off the back of hearing it I invested in stuff by The Auteurs, Blur, The Boo Radleys and The Inspiral Carpets. A palpable hit, as Sherlock Holmes might say.

More from the shoebox another time...

10 December, 2005

Lighting up

The streets round where I live have suddenly burst into a unfettered cavalcade of exotic illuminations, as if there was an unspoken law that a) no decorations could be put up until this weekend but b) when they did they had to be as ostentatious as possible. And involve the maximum number of inflatables.

I know I should be used to it by now, having become a regular feature of Christmas during the past five years or so, yet every time it happens I still can't get over how shameless some people are when it comes to advertising their opulence and taste, plus the lengths they're willing to go to upstage their neighbour.

One inflatable Santa, eh? Here's three - and one's on the roof. Fairy lights around the door? Here's some lights around not just the door but every window, along every roofbeam and, hey, around the garage to boot. A solitary Christmas tree peeking out of the front room window. Bollocks to that - let's put lights in every piece of foliage we can find! Now just plug it all in, throw the switch, and fuse the entire street.

Buying a box of mince pies in Tesco earlier on did more to get me in the Christmas spirit than all the Everest-sized neon trimmings bedecking every free-standing structure in the district. Well, it's just all too much. Some houses have more lights on their exterior than interior. How's that work? How can you go about your business inside what is, in effect, a giant flourescent bauble? It'd be like living inside those parts of the Arctic Circle where the sun never sets. And there were at least a couple of houses that didn't bother taking all their lights down the whole year. Didn't bother, maybe, or rather didn't dare, for fear of losing face.

Ah well. As with hepatitis, Weird Al Jankovic and the war in Iraq, I guess America is to blame. I remember how, when someone in my class at primary school got his dad to put a few lights up outside his house for Christmas, it was a story on the local news! The fact the kid in question was, unfortunately, not to put too finer point on it, the stupidest person in the school, a trait he shared with the rest of his family, just made the news story all the more painfully memorable.

But there has been one time where I've appreciated a surfeit of Christmas lights. When my mum and dad got an extension put on their house in 1999, for some reason it had to happen during winter. The wrong side of winter, that is. When I went back for Christmas the place was in a state, the extension half built, and no front door or windows on the front of the house. Not at all the environment for a nice, seasonal, festive holiday.

But my mum had nonetheless trailed a few spare lights around the husk of what was supposed to be a new hallway, kitchen and spare room, and laid a few carpet tiles down on the bare concrete floor. When darkness fell all the clay and cement and mess became somehow magically invisible, thrown into shadow by a few cheap bulbs and some imagination. That was a weird Christmas, but perhaps the most magical and memorable in my whole life for being so unusual and so against-the-odds.

No such tact and discretion can be found here. Which region will triumph in the quest to amass the most number of 'Santa Please Stop Here' signposts nestling in sprawling front gardens?

09 December, 2005

Mug's game

I use this for at least six cups of tea every day at work. It's a fine statement against intake of tobacco; perhaps not so positive about intake of caffiene:

08 December, 2005

Opinion prole

Five easy steps the Government can take to restore some interest and credibility back to British politics:

1) Admit that going to war with Iraq has made the UK a less safe place and more likely to be attacked by terrorists.

2) Admit that relaxing pub opening hours will lead to people drinking more.

3) Say something critical about Britain's relationship with George W. Bush.

4) Use some of the millions of acres of the Royal Family's private land, rather than the public countryside, for developing new power stations.

5) Introduce at least one bank holiday somewhere between the end of August and Christmas.

07 December, 2005

Dreamless bed

One of my all-time favourite films is 'The Long Day Closes' by Terence Davies. It takes its name from a poem by Henry Chorley, later set to music by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), and which I reckon I'd like to be sung at my funeral. Well, we're all allowed to think upon such morbid a topic occasionally - particularly when, like me today, you're off work ill and have plenty of legitimate brooding time:

No star is o'er the lake
Its pale watch keeping,
The moon is half awake
Through grey mist creeping.
The last red leaves fall round
The porch of roses,
The clock hath ceased to sound,
The long day closes.

Sit by the silent hearth
In calm endeavour
To count the sounds of mirth
Now dumb forever.
Heed not how hope believes
And fate disposes
Shadow is round the eaves,
The long day closes.

The lighted windows dim
Are fading slowly.
The fire that was so trim
Now quivers lowly.
Go to the dreamless bed
Where grief reposes.
Thy book of toil is read,
The long day closes.

06 December, 2005

Stupid party

So the Tories have elected a new leader, and he's already being hailed as the next big thing, the great hope, a Prime Minister in waiting.

I doubt he'll prove to be anything of the sort, chiefly because David Cameron is trying to make out like he's the next Tony Blair, and it's probably safe to assume the last thing the British public want is another one of him. If Cameron's age, attitude and language come over as being fresh and unusual, that's only because they're all qualities we're not used to seeing associated with a Conservative. If the man was a member of the Labour party, there'd be nothing out of the ordinary for someone so young to presume so much having experienced so little.

Cameron is the fifth person to lead what John Stuart Mill famous dubbed the "stupid party" in the last eight years. That is an appalling tally by any standards, one that is unequalled in political history and one that would've been unthinkable even just a decade ago when John Major was five years into being Prime Minister, having followed on from Margaret Thatcher who'd been leader of the Tories for a decade and a half. Conversely Tony Blair has now led Labour for 11 years. It feels much longer, however, because of the degree of permanence Blair's always been careful to contrive, and how the people around him never seem to change.

Consider the top people in the present Labour government: Blair, Gordon Brown, Jack Straw, John Prescott, Margaret Beckett, and until a couple of months ago David Blunkett. Now consider the top people in the very first Labour cabinet in 1997: exactly the same list.

Conversely, take the big hitters in the last Tory Government on the point of its demise in 1997 - Major, Ken Clarke, Malcolm Rifkind, Michael Heseltine, Michael Howard: all still well known, all pretty much still involved in politics. Except none of them are running the Tory Party anymore. Rewind back eight years previous to 1997, and you come up with a epic list of the disappeared: Thatcher, Nigel Lawson, Douglas Hurd, Nicholas Ridley, Peter Lilley, Norman Fowler, John Selwyn Gummer... All gone. Did they really once run the country? Thankfully they've all long passed from the scene, if not from memory - yet it wasn't as long ago as you'd think.

Here's the crux of it all. Latterly the Tories seem to have an incurable inability to not only get their house in order but also to keep it in any order for any period of time. Faces come and go with astonishing rapidity, never permitted long enough to become known, never staying long enough to make a mark. David Cameron only became an MP four years ago. By the time he took over the Labour Party, Blair had been a shadow minister for seven years. It's all in the maths.

Unfortunately the implication of all this is double-edged: while Cameron is going to fail, Blair's just going to go on and on and on. And on this point, an article in yesterday's Guardian by Max Hastings sums up perfectly how Blair has frippered away his time in office to the extent that no matter how many more years he drags out his premiership, he'll still be remembered for only one thing: the Iraq war.

To paraphrase, if Blair ever saw a member of his Government actually changing something, he'd abolish it. And them.

05 December, 2005

Ready salted

My walk to work takes me past two schools, one primary and one secondary. I've got pretty used to seeing all the typical displays of antics and bravado you'd expect from children intent on doing anything other than focus on the day ahead. I've also grown accustomed to weaving my way through any sudden outbreaks of whooping, fighting, namecalling or good old-fashioned casual swearing. One thing I've never got used to, however, is the sight of kids eating crisps first thing in the morning.

Even on the coldest of days, it seems the allure of potato-based snack treats is enough to make most of them through caution and gloves to the icy wind and tuck into bag after bag. It's a near-universal phenomenon, and it was one of the first things I remember realizing separated my generation from the next one down.

It is not my memory playing tricks, I'm sure, but when I was at school hardly anyone turned up having just filled their face with junk food (let alone still filling their face when they walked through the classroom door). Equally, and on this I'm also quite convinced, there were less fat children around when I was at school. It's a simple fact. There just weren't many of them about. Even those who ate a lot rarely did it ostentatiously, or to excess, and usually worked it all off through PE or playing football at breaktime.

Now, though, when I wander down the road to the shops during my lunch hour, I pass the same dozens and dozens of children who opened the day with a few bags of crisps now gobbling huge portions of chips down their throats. And most of them have the extra body weight to show for it.

I know this is a far from scientific survey, and my conclusions are based wholly on presumption (when are conclusions based otherwise?), but there seems to have been a whole psychological shift across generations about eating. Kids have always been, and always will, be lazy; but when I was younger the prevailing unspoken mentality was that you ate to live. Nowadays, the prevailing and very loudly spoken mentality appears to be you live to eat.

Is this a bad thing? After having been imprisoned in school all morning, the prospect of breaking free and going down the chip shop at lunchtime is obviously one of the best things in the world. And everybody I see who's eating junk food, whatever time of day, is clearly enjoying themselves. I wonder, though, what circumstances have led to some chips being the highlight in any kid's day, and what the kid will do when they've grown tired of them and will want something more.

Ah, everything's relative. After all, winning a free bag of crisps during a Walkers promotional campaign in 1993 was a talking point across my entire 6th form common room.

04 December, 2005

Dawn chorus

I've come down with a bad cold, one of the symptoms being an inability to lie flat without coughing. Hence I barely slept at all last night.

Down the years I've developed various strategies to cope with insomnia, but I've found the most tried and tested one is listening to the BBC World Service. Tuning into a music station is no good; I get too distracted and involved in what songs are playing. The World Service, which Radio 4 always switches to when it closes down at 1am, is far more agreeable: a low hum of remote chatter, lots of strange mysterious voices and dialects, stories and reports that don't demand too much attention, and above all a somewhat surreal quality prompted by the globe-trotting schedule that helps to lull you into sleep.

So last night, between getting up to make mugs of tea, endlessly blowing my nose or going to the toilet (why do you always have to do this, no matter how many times you wake up?), I learned unrelated facts about:

- a Presidential election in Kazakhstan
- a film that's just been released in India about the making of the Taj Mahal
- somebody from the United Nations making an inspection of Zimbabwe
- the World Health Organization's campaign to get three million people inoculated against AIDS by the end of 2005
- what a journalist from the Financial Times thinks of another journalist from the South China Post
- some sheep in Canada

Of course I could easily have got further information about all these online, but I haven't, because I feel they all belong to the muffled conversation and burbling static of those bleak hours just before dawn, and as a result should stay there.

I just hope I won't have recourse to seeing if they're still there tonight.

03 December, 2005

Brass tacks

There was a Salvation Army band playing carols in Liverpool city centre this morning. What with the decorations, the cold and their music, the whole place felt infectiously Christmassy. I can't remember precisely what they were performing, but that really didn't matter. It was simply the sound of the brass band, coupled with the environment they were in, that was enough to create an almost hopelessly cliched seasonal tableau.

Just how instantly evocative this cliche was caught me off guard. Christmas carols in and of themselves don't usually move me to feel anything at all. Well, almost anything. They always have an undeniable resonance with innumerable assemblies at primary school, and with having to sing words that didn't seem to mean anything or sound like they were even part of the English language ("Once in royal David's city stood a lowly cattle shed" - eh?).

Regardless of anything of an ecclesiastical bent (ho ho), I've always enjoyed the run up to Christmas far more than the day itself, probably due to the way once religious but now wholly secular rituals can strike a chord within you when you're least expecting.

All the same, it's Christmas songs - proper, non-religious, mainstream pop songs - that have always and probably always will typify Christmas for me. And that's because, quite simply, they have been manufactured to do a job quite different from Christmas hymns or carols, and that is to appeal to as many people in as many ways possible. We're talking masterpieces of popular culture here, songs that have been meticulously crafted to sell millions but to possess the secret of all ace tunes: universality. They pass through time unfettered by changing tastes and seasons; they never become redundant; they never seem out of date.

So apropos nothing, apart from everything I've just written of course, five of the greatest examples of such songs are:

* 'Stop The Cavalry' by Jona Lewie - for being about atomic war, finding a rhyme for the phrase "nuclear fall-out zone", and for that bit with the brass band in the middle;

* 'I Believe In Father Christmas' by Greg Lake - for mentioning how it always rains at Christmas, which it does, for the bombastic orchestral interludes, and for the crafty sign-off "the Christmas we get we deserve";

* 'The Christmas Song' by Mel Torme - not the version by Nat King Cole, which is too syrupy, but the original one sung by the bloke who wrote it;

* 'I Was Born On Christmas Day' by St Etienne and Tim Burgess - an impossibly catchy catalogue of the protagonists' year, taking in for good measure the summer, Halloween and "mid November"; and

* 'Wonderful Christmastime' by Paul McCartney - for being effortlessly hummable, deceptively simple, and for not having any choirs of kids or the missus wailing in the background.

02 December, 2005

Twilight time

I had to work late tonight.

I know it must seem like an offensively trivial thing to most people, and I know everybody's been lumbered with it at some point in their lives, but I have to say that when you're stuck in the middle of it, trapped, unsure how long you're going to have to stay, hungry, desperate to get away, equally desperate at the predicament which caused you to stay late in the first place, it's one of the worst undertakings in the world.

Why did it have to happen on a Friday of all days? It's common sense to instinctively start winding down for the weekend mid-afternoon, and by 5pm to have all but packed up. But no, not this time. Some fucking stupid deadline had to be met, but it was a complete waste of time because the people to whom the work in question had to be delivered had - quite sensibly - pissed off at 5.30pm. It was purely down to the fact that an agreement had to be honoured, circumstances beyond anybody's control had prevented the work being completed earlier, and hence no-one could go home.

It'd be a different matter if I liked working where I do, and hadn't spent the best part of the last two years trying to leave. I think I must have applied for almost 100 jobs in the last 20 months or so. Most of the time I can rationalize my failure to get out and into a new job, but not on days like today, when I'm so trapped I can't even get away and escape back home on my own terms.

Of course the boss wasn't even in to witness it all, merely barking orders down the phone. I've had to work late before, and there have been times when camaraderie has helped ease the pain. There was none of that to be found today. Rarely has the office been suffused in such a smog of gloom.

When I finally got out, the walk back home in the pouring rain in the pitch dark was one of the nicest feelings. But it was a transient one, because it wasn't an act of properly getting away. I have to return, yet again, as ever, on Monday morning. No matter how many times I make the escape, I'm on a piece of elastic, forever drawn back to that bastard place, both physically and mentally.

It can't go on. The time's fast approaching when I'm going to have to cut that elastic regardless of where I'll fetch up.

Isn't there a point in the calendar particularly conducive to the making of such, well, resolutions?

01 December, 2005

Ted Cunterblast

All the scripts from every episode of A Bit Of Fry And Laurie have been reproduced online, together with extracts that were never shown and stuff which only ever turned up in the long-deleted tie-in books.

Given how ABOFL remains the best sketch show of the last 20 years, and how it's never been repeated by the BBC since its first transmission (although Paramount are rerunning it at present), this site really is an enormous boon. And you've always got to be on the look out for enormous boons.

Ted Cunterblast, of course, was the author of 'The West Indies: A Nation Of Cricketers' and a name mentioned almost half a dozen times in a Fry & Laurie sketch that was later shown, totally uncut and to much retrospective bemusement, in a round of the completely innocuous daytime quiz Today's The Day.

"Yes, I remember precisely where I was when I heard the news. I was listening to the news."