A certain curtain.
A certain curtain.
A certain curtain.
I was having a couple of drinks at home, like you do, when the curtain suddenly billowed into the room. Despite it being a hot evening, I knew for certain that the windows were shut, so I went over to see what was going on:
Curtain: Say your prayers. Tonight, we fly.
Me: I’m sorry?
Curtain: I said, tonight we fly. This world is no longer your concern.
Me: Excuse me?
Curtain: I’m a metaphor. Work with me.
Me: A metaphor for what?
Curtain: FFS!!! I thought you were a reader?
Me: I am. But you’ve got to admit, it’s a bit odd to be having a conversation with my curtain on a school night. And besides, no one says FFS these days.
Curtain: I’ll spell it out: I’m Death. You know, as in The Final Curtain. Yes, it’s a bit literal but if I turned up in black with a scythe, you’d just think I was taking the piss.
Me: True. But, if I may be so bold, you probably need to come up with a more obvious visual clue. Most people won’t make the quantum leap, even if they like Frank Sinatra.
Curtain: Frank who?
Me: Sinatra! That’s the joke, right?
Curtain: Still not with you.
Me: Hang about. You just came into my flat, unannounced and uninvited, and said I wasn’t long for this world. Then you told me that you were a metaphor for death, and now you’re saying you’ve never heard of Frank Sinatra?
Curtain: I never said that. And of course I’ve heard of Frank Sinatra. Just not within this context.
Me: Surely that’s the deal? And so I face/the final curtain. Everyone knows that line.
Curtain: No, sorry.
Me: So what’s the point of you being a curtain then? If you’re actually meant to represent death?
Curtain: I thought it was funny.
Me: It’s only funny if you’re in on it! Anyway, the whole death thing is meant to be scary, so just blowing your way in here isn’t going to work. And even if it did, you need to brush up on your crooners: there’s an obvious simile you’re missing out on.
Curtain: I can do a bit of White Christmas.
Me: Doesn’t quite get the ‘you’re about to die’ message across.
Curtain: What about Release Me, then? I could do it in a sort of grindcore way, that would put the shits up them.
Me: Better. Have you got an agent?
Curtain: I’m working on it.
Me: I’ve got a couple of contacts in Charlotte Street, although you might have to dumb down initially.
Curtain: Great! Oh, and about what I said earlier; can we just brush it under the carpet and forget about it?
Me: That’s it! The Final Carpet, it’s brilliant! No one would expect that…
Curtain: I like it. What about a double act? The Final Carpet and The Underlay of Eternal Damnation. For one night only.
Me: Thanks for coming in.
The passing of thrusting alpha-manhood.
When you’re in the eye of an emergency, it’s extraordinary what the human brain chooses to act on. All the things you’d think might count when shoring up to a potential life/death situation actually don’t. Something else takes over, and you just have to run with it: the questions can come later. In my fantasy assault, I assumed I’d get a brief but vivid flashback of my pitiful existence, exalting the very few who thought my time on Earth worthwhile. But last Saturday night, sat on the top deck of a replacement bus, reading a book and minding my own business, I was threatened by a murder of youths at knifepoint. The consequent rush of fear and adrenalin threw up something entirely unexpected:
I thought of one person. Not family, not a partner or child (I have neither), not even a favoured friend. But someone I needed to conjure up when there was a strong possibility my days could end before a minute was through. I thought about her own family; I thought about the children she would have that I’d never meet; I imagined a scenario wherein I could communicate, as in The Lovely Bones, benevolent guidance from the beyond that would keep her on track. All of this in what must have been approximately five seconds.
At exactly the same time, more practical stuff was doing the rounds. My blood, viscous and cadmium red against the cobalt blue seats, would surely take a while to shift? I saw the exasperated staff at the depot, kept back on my account, at once grateful for the hours yet bitterly resenting their time away from home. I considered the poor unfortunate who had decided to end his/her days on the bleak strip of track between Waterloo and Clapham Junction, forcing me into my own predicament. I even wondered if we might meet (seeing as our time of departure would have been similar) on the great staircase leading to the afterlife. And I wondered which fucker would judge my piss-stained jeans in the celestial cloakroom.
It was over in a blink. One of the eight talked the brandisher out of it and they shot off into the night, no doubt giving the incident barely a second’s thought. But for me, it was the first time my fragile state of being had been put in serious jeopardy, and it has left dark matter I could do without. After they’d gone, I realised I was wearing an absurd Hawaiian shirt I’d bought earlier for my brother’s 50th birthday party. And that really got to me. Because that’s how I would have been found, clad in pantomime costume as inappropriate to the moment as Joni Mitchell’s The Last Time I saw Richard set to Hard House Techno. Listen up if you have to.
At no point at all did I process the concept of survival. Make of that what you will.
I’ve been having insane dreams of late. Seriously out there. One of them had a friend of mine serving sandwiches in a cricket pavilion as it filled up to the ceiling with water, and another saw me crossing an Egyptian desert, half-starved, bug-eyed and decomposing under the relentless heat. I may be mistaken, but I’m pretty sure the subconscious is kicking off big time and I have no idea what it’s trying to tell me. The fact that I’ve been off the tuck for a while could be a contributing factor, but let’s be honest, that’s why we have cigarettes. No, it is surely something more sinister, possibly to do with the grim reaper approaching, and I’ve done next to nothing to prevent my untimely demise. And when I say next to nothing, I mean nothing.
The trouble with getting stuck in this mindset is that once you’re there, just about everything becomes an augury of one’s own final exit. My recent trip to the doctors is the most obvious, but less pertinent events can still give me the willies. A black cat looking at me funny doesn’t mean I’m going to cop it, or at least it shouldn’t. And when two crows run off like the clappers across the park, it’s highly likely they’ve seen a worm or mouse in the borders and are not the harbingers of doom I’ve concocted in my head. Even the washing up can get ominous, particularly when a knife clatters to the floor, spins around a few times and gurgles “Redrum!!! Redrum!!!” from the back of its non-existent larynx. It’s a miracle I get up in the mornings.
I mentioned the above to said friend (who happens to be interested in the significance of dreams), and she put me at ease somewhat. Fortunately, that room filling up with water does not represent imminent death. Not at all. Rather, it suggests deeply suppressed sexual anxiety and an unsuccessful struggle to resist evil, foreshadowing trouble, sickness and misery. Phew! And as for the other one, well that says something or other about my dissatisfaction with present companions and employment. Yeah, whatever. At least I’ll still be around to hate them when I get sacked.
Just before my great-grandmother passed away, I remember visiting her bedside in a small suburban house in Surrey. She was on the verge, but still pretty lucid. And we were having a chat, like you do when you’re six and talking to an old lady who smells of cabbages, when she suddenly sat bolt upright and pointed at a speck on the opposite wall. Her eyes were blazing, her hand trembling. I never found out what it was that irked her (she died shortly afterwards), but as I march towards the same place at breakneck speed, I do wonder if these visions become more real than life itself at the end. Or if you just need a good wank and a sarnie.
Impending death kind of makes you get your skates on. All that time you spent dicking about doing nothing of consequence will eventually appear at your door tapping its watch. Which is no biggie if you happen to have chalked up some of the stuff you set out to achieve, but if, like me, you’ve tried and failed too often to even care about, you have to ask yourself two pretty searching questions:
Do I keep going, or do I shackle myself to the yoke of submission and admit defeat?
The death thing is quite a major pisser, but when you boil it back to basics it’s not actually life-threatening; just an expedient reminder for you to get off your arse and get on with it. If it bothers you, you can always hop over to deathclock.com (the internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away), where they kindly work out how long you’ve got until you are reclaimed by the Grim Reaper. I did briefly consider this, but thought better of it after browsing the search criteria and calculating for myself that I was already living on borrowed time.
I weighed it up. Yes, I could go back to a job that looks good on paper to those who don’t really understand what it entails, or load my bollocks back into the wheelbarrow of endeavour and run with it/them once again. To where there’s no safety net if things go a bit tits. Where the odds are stacked against you because you should have done it twenty years ago. Where the contenders are younger, media-savvy and hungry for that rapidly diminishing slice of the pie. And then, just as I was beginning to cave, someone introduced me to Jonathan Ames.
If ever an ageing, unpublished writer needed a tonic, it came then in the form of this man’s work. A self-deprecating, pushed alter-ego, doing (and penning) things most of us would ordinarily shun, in the tradition of the great American humourists but with a filthier edge, Ames was pushing all my buttons. The greater irony being that the exaggerated failure he casts himself as is, in reality, exactly who I am now. Although I too am writing as an exaggerated failure, and shall continue to do so despite any inconvenient impending success. It’s a headsmoker, make no mistake, but a glorious one nonetheless.
So where does that leave us? My newfound admiration for Mr Ames will almost certainly draw comparisons, the most apposite being that despite sharing a birth year, I am in South-East London writing drivel for 350 people and he is about to launch Blunt Talk (which, from the trailer, appears to be the sharpest comedy to come out of the States in decades) and is probably rather busy. But it is comforting to note that we have been singing from the same hymn sheet for quite a while. Independently, I swear.
Doubt, get thee behind me.
Bit of back story here. Not all that funny either, but at least it demonstrates we can pull something out of the bag if pushed.
Of all the relationships I’ve ever had, perhaps the most difficult is the one I still hold with the booze. It’s pretty shit, to be frank, and I didn’t choose it either. My namesake grandfather died of it before I was born, as did my own father indirectly, and it will probably see me off prematurely if the snout doesn’t get me first. Its claws are pan-generational, way outside the boundaries of logic and reason, and conveniently, a quick re-read of the above somehow absolves me of any absolute guilt, thereby allowing me to persevere with more of the same in order to write dispassionately about it. As if that makes it okay. The obvious, entry-level question filed by those close enough to be concerned, is this:
‘Do you drink alone?’
And the most honest answer I can give is:
‘Yes, I do. I drink alone out of preference. Because then, finally, the ever-present critical voices (which extend into every cranny of my existence) shut up long enough for me to be able to do the things I actually care about. Until I go down the opposite slope and couldn’t give a toss any more. Can I get you a top up?’
It’s not what they want to hear. And those I’ve upset along the path (trust me, there have been a few) will see it as a romanticised excuse, along the lines of Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, very much the architect of his own downfall despite every gift life bestowed upon him.
Someone kindly gave me a book last Christmas. Called ‘The Trip To Echo Spring’ by Olivia Laing, it discusses the troubled link so many writers have with the demon grog. Not that I have ever considered myself a bona fide writer, and thereby lies the problem. The very term has such powerful connotations that the unsure are crippled at the starting blocks, pitifully reliant on whatever it takes to be taken seriously. Until the crutch becomes counterproductive, by which time it’s usually too late. Between these, I walk a fine line: If that glorious moment ever comes about when something I have created becomes a thing, I’ll probably be too mullered to notice. But maybe you will, and I’d be grateful if you could let me know. We’ve been around the block together for nearly four years. You owe me.
I have a rule. When I spew this stuff out, usually late at night and alongside a bottle of Pinot, I resist the temptation to hit the publish button until the following morning. Because, no matter how cathartic it may seem at the time, the unforgiving light of a new day will invariably reveal my incisive efforts to be little more than a muddled, steaming pile of cack. But ask yourselves something: You’re reading this. Does that mean it’s through quality control, or am I slumped comatose over the return key?
I’ll leave that one with you.
This week, it’s the contentious subject of foodstuffs. Practical solution to the endemic crime of celebrity chefs also included at no extra cost, along with convincing dystopian alternative for those who prefer their lunch to take three minutes and come from a pot.
Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that the humble gerbil has graced the dailies once again, but not in a good way. Turns out our furry brethren can no longer be considered impossibly cute playthings of the very young (and, on occasion, my good self), being as they are conveyors of misery, disease and quality herbs and spices brought in on the Silk Road. And we’re also expected to believe that in 1347, in between exercising on their little wooden wheels and nibbling whatever they liked nibbling back in medieval Syria, they found time to pop over to London and give us all the Black Death.
It is a monstrous slur, cooked up by some Norwegian boffin with too much time on his hands, and fails to digest some pretty basic facts. For starters, there is no evidence whatsoever that gerbils took up residence in the UK until comparatively recently. Why would they? If your thing is copious quantities of sand and sunshine, you’d probably give it a bit of a wide berth, right? To say nothing of the logistical issues if and when you finally made it to Calais. Absolute nonsense.
Furthermore, architectural clues only date back to the 1950s. Before Rotastak, the Nottingham-based pioneers of affordable rodent housing, there were slim pickings to be had if you were small, hirsute and over here. Rats understood this implicitly, so they made alternative arrangements. But they were also fat and greasy enough to hack it. Their smaller, more delicate cousins wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. You can take Syria out of the gerbil etc…
Clearly we are being whipped up into a collective state of anxiety. It’s what the media does when it wants us to go to war, or sanction the spending of taxpayer cash on something unpalatable the government has shares in. What on earth can the gerbil have done to get them wound up so? And why are we being told that the more sinister rat is the fall guy? It smacks of Andy and Rebekah, the former taking the hit so the latter can persist with her satanic craft. Something stinks up there in the corridors of power, but what?
And then it struck me. Helen Perley’s exquisite 32-page tome Enjoy Your Gerbil (The Pet Library™, 1971), clearly states that the same is no ordinary rodent, and frequently refers to him as a ‘Superpet’. Probably the exact kind of pet that could radicalise British teenage girls into making the arduous pilgrimage to his homeland. And guess where that is? See? By demonising the critters, we surreptitiously put the brakes on the next wave of IS recruits and no-one gets hurt. No-one, that is, except these innocents abroad, and who speaks for them? Who will fight their corner after the first spate of distressing pet murders? And which sick individual will be the first to expand their perspex property portfolio at the expense of the less fortunate?