Idle Eye 155 : The Modest Proposal

Ever tried to sell yourself? Seriously, have you? You’d think it would be relatively straightforward, seeing as you’re pretty much up to speed with all things you, and it should be just a question of getting the good bits in line, right? Well, I beg to differ. This week I’ve been trying to put together a book proposal for literary publishers and agents, and it’s like pulling bloody teeth. Using a crib sheet downloaded from one of the Bloomsbury fat cats, I somehow managed to get through the early parts unscathed. But then they wheeled in the heavy artillery:

Q)  Please outline the main pedagogical feature you plan to include.

A)  Hmm…It’s a funny blog I want done as a book. That’s it. And the only pedagogical feature I can think of is that it serves as some kind of a caveat.

It gets worse:

Q)  Where do you see the main markets for the book, e.g. UK/Canada/Europe/Australasia etc? Please provide any information that would help us promote it in specific markets, e.g. international case studies/contributors/author profile/possible endorsements.

A)  Hold on, isn’t that what you do? It’s not like I go round to WC1 and say ‘I’m having issues with a recalcitrant paragraph, could you sort it for me’, is it? Or tap you for meals I had in the local café whilst attempting to sound coherent online. My remit is to write the stuff, yours is to put it out there. Surely?

But seeing as I’ve had diddly squit published in my life, maybe it’s time I learnt to play ball. The possible endorsements bit is simple, I’ll just make a call to New Zealand and be the acceptable face of the next thin-skinned grape juice they export. It’s just, well, how exactly are you supposed to know where your main markets are if it’s not out there yet? Perhaps I’ll develop the Downton Abbey effect in the Ukraine (by the way, hello Ukraine stats person. Could you let me know what my USP may or may not be in your country? I’m afraid I haven’t a clue. And good luck with Vladimir), or nag the two people I know in North Carolina indefinitely until they set up an injunction.

It’s not in the nature of creative types to do hard sell. That’s why we have agents and managers and accountants. The whole crux of this symbiosis hinges on the left brain/right brain theory, both parties doing what they do best in order to achieve a mutually beneficial end result. I could no more flog the fluff I put out than eat my own earwax, and that’s as it should be. But it works both ways. If they find me butt naked on a carpet somewhere, dribbling and babbling incoherent nonsense, I shall remind them it is my duty as an artist to push the envelope. So they don’t have to.

Idle Eye 143 : The Vox Machina

Is it just me, or does every superstore these days feel the need to talk to us customers as if we have successfully navigated a maiden voyage to the lavatory without sullying the floor, or caking ourselves in our own oomska? If you’re not sure what I’m on about here, pop over to your nearest supermarket of choice when you’ve read this. I can guarantee that within five minutes of entering the building, an intrusive announcement, broadcast to all by a Robson Green clone imitating Mick Jagger, will suggest you make a small diversion to the bakery isle, where freshly-made, three-for-two doughnuts will help you live well. For less.

It’s not the content that bothers me particularly though. It’s the delivery. That sudden plunge, from innocuous mid-range to deeply offensive baritone, has been cynically calculated to recall in every shopper the halcyon days of their childhood, when mummy would almost come if you managed to down a forkful of fish finger. This then triggers a rush of serotonin to the brain, and has us scurrying like insects towards whichever wretched product is currently on promotion, in order to keep the high going.

And it doesn’t stop there. Why not punish yourselves further by putting in a quick call to your broadband provider? Just for the sheer hell of it. If and when you manage to get past the teenage cheerleader and her plethora of unfathomable options, you can enjoy Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at tinnitus-inducing volume, until she starts banging on about the hash key should you fancy a few more. Has anyone ever done this? Actually opted for more options? The only reason to do so I can muster is because you have been lured, as if by sirens, into a perpetual loop of doom, seduced by the prospect of discovering the magic key that will end your purgatory once and for all. At a premium call rate, naturally.

I know this makes me seem like a terrible Luddite. Or one of those Grumpy Old Men you see on the telly who have already become versions of their own disdain. But hold up! If technology really is as smart as they make out, why can’t we get to choose the voice of whichever organisation is preaching at us? Based on preferences stored up there in the Cloud and fully configurable to suit our mood? All of a sudden, that dreaded Sunday excursion to Ikea doesn’t seem so bad, does it? Just as you begin to glaze over in the BILLY bookcase department, Mariella Frostrup virtually detects your loss of will to live, and purrs something suggestive about meatballs into the headphones provided. And before you know it, you’re making a beeline for the restaurant as your family struggles to keep up.

Not bad, eh? Maybe Apple should consider something along these lines when that watch of theirs comes out next month. And maybe then I’ll consider a third doughnut.

Idle Eye 134 : The New Kids

The heralding in of a new year traditionally allows the festivity-weary reveller to discard the old (a possible exception being the antiquities dealer), whilst simultaneously embracing all that is new, untried, untested and, to be frank, still in shorts. On this I beg to differ, particularly with regard to the contentious subject of foodstuffs. The last couple of weeks have seen all manner of horrors cross the threshold, charge up the stairs and vie for pole position in a kitchen already bulging with the decomposing stalwarts of previous months, quietly biding their time with patience, good grace and a certain dignity. The futility of their plight has not been lost on me and my heart goes out to them.

For example, a brattish bunch of dates muscled their way in the other day, flashing their knickers from inside a Taste the Difference box. And, not content with their star placement in front of the wine emporium, they demanded to be addressed as MEDJOOL DATES, all vulgar capitals and a Best Before date that had the longer-term residents wincing. The bravado of the wretched things was beyond belief, particularly as, on closer inspection, they bore a strong resemblance to a miserable collection of sun-dried testicles in captivity. I note wryly as I write this that they remain unopened and have started sucking up to the shallots.

Then there is the not inconsiderable issue of the cheese cracker. For years, we have been content with the only after-dinner companion wafer that has ever mattered: The Carr’s Table Water Biscuit. Fashioned in Carlisle for quality and durability, the CTWB has more than proven its worth and has no need whatsoever to jump about in fancy packaging. In fact, the bland blue/black box instills in us a sense of consumer confidence the new kids can only dream of. But still they come: Thomas J Fudge (with his faux-Victorian offerings and endless chummy waffle), the more austere Fine English Cheese Co (who put on a good show but are ultimately undone by a packshot of the product, gasping for breath from beneath a monstrous slab of Red Leicester), and many, many more too risible to mention here.

What these culinary contenders to the kitchen throne seem to have forgotten (or are simply to naive to comprehend) is that their time will also come, and the bitter pill they will be forced to swallow is that of humility. Either that, or suffer the slings and arrows of the green bin which will be only too happy to see them out. For there is no more pitiful a sight than seasonal goods preening themselves like they’re the cat’s pyjamas when everyone else in the room can see them for what they really are: Has-beens, like ex-footballers with a boutique restaurant or ex-rockers with a ponytail.

So, in light of the above, my lunch today will come from a tin containing one of fifty-seven varieties. It’s my small way of saying thanks for being right there at the back, going nowhere.

Idle Eye 126 : The New Suits of Bedtime

I was down the pub on Monday with a trio of men of a certain age and, in amongst the plethora of utter bollocks discussed, the subject of nightwear was gingerly raised. Obvs I plumped for the pyjama, but regrettably was riotously trashed at the post in favour of going commando, something I must confess I find rather disturbing in one’s advancing years. The very thought of all that naked flesh frotting away against raw cotton (or Crimplene – I do not judge) cannot in any way be conducive to a good night’s sleep. To say nothing of the potential for lewd thought or any derivative thereof: The filth and the fury, the filth and the fury.

No, it’s the pyjama every time in my book. The fact that they are restrictive is ironically at the very core of their genius. By wearing the things, we willingly shackle ourselves to such laudable values as propriety, comfort and common decency. And I’ll go you one further – It is no accident they have matching tops and bottoms. Move over, city slickers: These are the new suits of bedtime, and ones we can all wear with pride and dignity at a fraction of the cost of their daytime equivalent. They are truly the egalitarian attire of our age.

I’m not saying they’re for everyone, mind. There is a certain build of man that insists on the elasicated waistband, a more vulgar thing one could not wish to see, let alone wear, despite its obvious practical advantages. Fortunately, modern manufacturers have taken this on board and come up with the button fly/drawstring combo. This cute little trick simultaneously gets you out of the shit whilst somehow keeping you fashionable. And, more importantly perhaps, avoiding the phenomenon that is ‘Ankle Island’, an exposed tundra no man beyond his fortieth year should ever have the misfortune to frequent. I take my hat off to these people. Just my hat.

To drive the point home, I purchased a classic striped PJ set from an expensive Chelsea retailer on my way home the very next day. Not for one moment that I imagined my friends would catch a glimpse of me gliding around my bedroom in those generously cut trousers with their two side pockets, or the timeless jacket with its full 5oz of cotton flannel. No no no. The exquisite pleasure gained here is not for sharing, which may explain why there is a paucity of targeted marketing on your social media. Access to such hallowed portals comes either by word of mouth, or from those bizarre mini-catalogues that drop out of the subscriber magazines. You know, the ones from which it is actually possible to buy salmon pink corduroys or a watch which apparently you don’t own, despite having shelled out twenty grand for it. The beauty of a quality pyjama can only be genuinely appreciated by the man inside.

Tonight, and for the foreseeable future, I am that man.

Idle Eye 125 : The Sos Age

In days of old, when knights were bold
And Bowyers sausages stood the test
I’m glad to say that still today
That Bowyers sausages are the best

This curious little rhyme was drummed into my subconscious relentlessly by my late stepfather pretty much every weekend in the 1970s. Partially to whip up a kind of inter-family bonhomie, as we would chant the thing together in the car on the way to the shops, but mainly because he was the chairman of Bowyers sausages, cynically utilising a primitive form of subliminal advertising for his own ends. I would be lying if I told you I didn’t join in with gusto, but even then I could spot the flaws:

Thrust instantly into a medieval context, the reader is presented with a given that all knights back then were actually bold, as opposed to the more likely premise that they were shit-scared, metal-clad servants of whichever fanatical despot that happened to own the land upon which they lived. Next, there is the contextual leap we are expected to take, in which the Bowyers sausage is inexplicably time-travelled to the period in order to stand a test. Exactly what test is not made clear, probably for reasons of economy, but already we are none the wiser and hunting for clues. 

There are none, for the second half has no correlation whatsoever with the first. For starters, the introduction of the possessive noun only serves to confuse, and the whiplash suffered from being thrown back into the present weakens us so conclusively, we are unable to challenge the outlandish supposition that the Bowyers sausage knocks spots off the competition. Consequently we take it for granted, bereft of any insight as to who the narrator may or may not be. These four lines are, at once, a travesty of continuity, credibility and impartiality. I am eleven years old.

Obviously, I didn’t let on in the car. I knew how ruthlessly I was being exploited yet somehow I was complicit. How could I tell a man fifty years my senior that his grasp of language was at best rudimentary, particularly as I had not yet received my pocket money? So I let it lie. To the point where I taught the very same to the equally exploited workers of a slaughterhouse in which I worked over the summer of 1980. And they loved it too.

I kept shtum for ages when I became a vegetarian. It would have made a mockery of all the ideals we held so high as a family which were built on the foundations of the very thing I had so vehemently rejected. And besides, I wanted Bill Newton-Clare to meet his maker without doubt, which he almost certainly did. But not before leaving us another salient reminder of the mark he made when he was around:

Q:   What came before the Ice Age?
A:   The Sos Age

Idle Eye 114 : The Tyranny of Sex

One of the (very few) advantages of getting on a bit is that you are no longer governed by the incessant demands of your wretched, truculent body. Back in the day, you could be contentedly getting on with your life with a hobby of your choice (let’s say, for argument’s sake, gardening) and the next thing you know, an inappropriate stamen is frantically transmitting lewd signals to the pathetic pink pudding between your ears, which in turn sends an emergency klaxon to the privates which instantly shuts off the master logic valve, leaving you rudderlessly navigating your way to an inevitably messy conclusion. You have no say in this. You are putty in the hands of a force deliberately cooked up by nature to humiliate you at all costs. This will pass, trust me.

You know you’ve come through the cloud layer and are approaching terra firma when you begin to consider options:

“Yes, I could bust a blood vessel in a locked room upstairs in broad daylight at my eldest son’s graduation party, or I could eat my own body weight in artisan cheese, neck a couple of bottles of Waitrose top shelfers and pass out on the sofa as his mates search underneath me for a cab company flyer.”

This, although far from perfect, at least suggests that something is seeping through to the mainframe. But don’t get out of your prams, there’s still a long way to go.

To be fair, it does take a while for the pointless juices your reproductive system will insist on brewing, to simmer down enough for you to make an educated decision over what exactly to do about them. Over-compensation in the alcohol department is statistically a popular choice, as temporary stasis is infinitely preferable to the half-meant apologies one is forced to make the morning after whatever it was you did when you were slavering like a bull. Saga Magazine understands this implicitly, which is why they kindly start sending you a bewildering gadgets catalogue not long after your fiftieth birthday, championing electronic butter dishes and secure solutions to keep your soap dry. By the time you’ve worked out exactly what you’re meant to do with the bloody things, any urges you may once have been slave to in your prime will be long gone. It is a stroke of marketing genius.

Based on the above, my advice to the young people is this: By all means, persevere with that sexting/Tinder/anti-social networking thing you all seem to like. It’s just harmless fun and your body won’t know the difference between this and the real thing. And the salient point is that it serves as a useful segue between the tyranny of sex and liberation thereof you have yet to experience. Cyberfilth is the only working prophylactic you will ever need, protecting you from your revolting selves 24/7. Embrace it. The alternatives are far, far worse.

Idle Eye 74 : The Illusion of Intimacy

One of the clichés that gets endlessly bandied around by the self-help books when you embark on any form of writing is that you have to find your voice. Presumably because if you don’t, you’ll be using someone else’s and we can’t have that. Right, Noel Gallagher? Well, fortunately for you lot, I don’t seem to have that problem and I shall briefly demonstrate why:

Have a quick re-read of the above. Done it yet? Good. That’s my voice, that is. Right there. And the best bit is I didn’t even have to look for it! It was there all along. What a stroke of luck!

Perhaps what they mean by this is that there is a development of some kind of trust, a bond if you will, between donor and recipient. If the latter believes the former is credible, they are more likely to roll over & have their stomach tickled by somebody they have faith in. Which, sadly, leaves the donor in a position of power and the recipient vulnerable to exploitation. Are you with me? No? Ok, let me put it another way:

Has anyone noticed the rather toxic surge of informal fonts in advertising of late? And if so, ever asked yourselves why? Well, hear ye: It’s the printed equivalent of dress-down Friday, when the message can be pushed just as ruthlessly but in an ever-so-casual stylee. Take those wretched smoothie/ice cream cartons, all lower-case and loved up like they’re your slightly nauseating mate from back in the day, when anyone who went to school knows they just want to get into your wallet. And yet we buy this stuff despite ourselves because the alternative is brutal hard-sell, an even less authentic technique that went out with the ark.

Nibs and I have differing opinions on the above. His signature scrawl at the bottom of your menus could be construed as the same but in his case I’ll look the other way: He’s not cynically getting you to fund a second Tuscan villa (mainly because he doesn’t have a first one), and I do reluctantly admit that the colloquial approach he has adopted suits his one man and a pub business MO pretty well. But, for the most part, I find the whole ‘hail fellow well met’ corporate thing deeply disingenuous because it gives the illusion of intimacy where none exists. A bit like American tellers wishing you a fervent good day when they wouldn’t bat an eyelid if you got struck by lightning in the car park afterwards. Sorry, parking lot.

Anyway, that’s enough rhetoric for today. I’d like to use the last paragraph to thank you all for joining me on this little journey of words. Without you it never could have happened and you know why? Because you’re special. Each and every one of you. So keep telling yourselves that. Because you are. Really. See you next week xxx