Idle Eye 174 : The Tic

I’ve developed a tic. Nothing at all to do with nits, lice or any other parasitic insect erroneously selecting my decomposing cadaver to lay their eggs in (if only!), but that of the more irritating, involuntary variety. As with the other ailments I seem to have accumulated this year, I’ve spent a bit of quality time getting to know and learning to live with it, but I’ll be straight with you: this one’s a hard baby to like, let alone love. Because the tic, unlike Samantha (who you may remember from a couple of months ago), thrives off everything I don’t:

  • Stress? Bring it on! 
  • Anxiety? Eat it for lunch!
  • Exhaustion? Fill my boots!
  • Heartbreak? Mine’s a pint!
  • Increasing awareness of the pointlessness of existence? Yum yum!

Anyway, I was in the supermarket earlier, loading up with few enough bottles of Pinot to avoid suspicion but a sufficient amount to get me through the evening, when I realised I couldn’t get the bloody things into my bag. I was shaking like Mr Stevens, and to make matters worse, quite visibly to the queue behind. At which point, as an unwitting performance artist, I had to make a decision: do I let them think I’m a chronic alcoholic, or do I go the route of a hapless somebody life has chosen to frown upon? The latter seemed disingenuous, the former too candid. So I went the extra mile: looking straight into the eyes of the lady closest to me and channelling my late father, I smiled winningly after having completed the task, and made an almost imperceptible bow. Combined with a slight wink. The look she returned was a cocktail of pity, incomprehension and disgust.

When I got back indoors, I wikied the DTs. Just for the sheer hell of it. Not that I can possibly have them, because they only kick in when you stop drinking. But oh my stars, it made for uncomfortable reading: nightmares, agitation, global confusion, sweating, fast heart rate, the list goes on – it’s enough to keep you on the wagon for good. Fortunately, the tic I have has nothing to do with the above, despite the similarity of symptoms. I’m under a lot of pressure right now, and I could do without the snide remarks, thank you.

Tomorrow, I’m up at 5.50am to take four trains to a town which sucks the marrow from my very soul. If I stayed at home, I’d be privy to the dulcet tones of builders improving the flat beneath me, or witness to the owner dry shampooing a dalmatian next to the bins. Is it any wonder I’ve got the shakes? Or that I occasionally take to the bottle in order to blot out such horrors? Judge me not, for the cause is greater than the effect.  And if you think that depression, paranoia and anger are part and parcel of the same, you can all fuck off. The lot of you. Seriously, take a hike…

IE Audio 4 : The Demon Grog

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.

https://theidleeye.wordpress.com/2015/06/10/idle-eye-156-the-demon-grog/

Idle Eye 156 : The Demon Grog

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.

Idle Eye 154 : The Twin Algorithms of Fame

I met someone famous last week. I’m not saying who, that would be beyond vulgar, but the reason I bring it up is to highlight the broader issue of celebrity and the effect it has on those within its orbit. For example, I like to think of myself as a man of the world, perfectly able to hold my own in conversation with people I don’t yet know, and the odd sprinkle of wit and charm adequately greases the wheels for the recipient to feel they haven’t totally wasted their time. It’s a game of badminton, in which the shuttlecock of decorum is gently rallied back and forth until someone cracks and heads off towards the canapés.

Throw in the curveball of fame, however, and these unwritten rules of polite discourse go straight out the window. Any joy to be had from chasing a sentence to wherever it may lead is countered by the suffocating fear of coming across as a bit of a tit. The celebrity in question can usually spot this, helpfully discussing themselves until you are able to regroup, but by now you’re already on the back foot and the vocabulary of gibberish is all you have left to draw from. The more you try to address it, the worse it gets. I often witnessed this with my father, who loved to ‘drop in’ to his local and chat away with verve to those brave enough to approach him. It more often than not culminated in a bizarre face-off, kicking up the following complex algorithm:

Shameless self-promotion plus apparent good nature divided by loss of will to live if he talks about agriculture one more time plus please don’t buy me another pint, I hate beer and I’ve got an expensive bottle of Pouilly-Fumé open at home which I’ll tuck into after you’ve shut up, is the square root of continued local and/or national prestige minus face if I bail too early

Obviously, this is subjective. If I were to be so bold as to suggest an pertinent alternative for those soon to meet and greet someone in the public eye, perhaps it would be something along these lines:

Anonymity plus alcohol plus neutral meeting place equals bolstered confidence minus mutual reference points minus self-awareness plus alcohol plus alcohol divided by inability to remember celebrity’s focal work is the square root of something to talk about in the pub later divided by time taken to achieve same*

A more accurate formula probably lies somewhere in between. Something to do with the synthesis of courage and generosity from both active parties, the onus being on the former. For he/she may still recall a time spent on the other side of the tracks, whereas the latter is single-handedly navigating terra incognita and trying not to blush. And adding another alcohol to the above.

*algorithm does not apply to current Duke of Edinburgh

Idle Eye 149 : The Road Less Travelled

There is a certain issue that instils terror into the hearts and minds of those of us who, for whatever reason, have failed to reproduce. And it stems from that most innocuous of sources, the supermarket, where we like to believe we can conduct our business from behind the veil of relative anonymity. Which, to a point, we can. However, just when you think you’ve come through the process unscathed, an atrocious ritual humiliation lies in wait at the tills. A poison bullet with your name on it. A five word bombshell that suggests that you are pitifully lacking as a human being:

“Are you collecting School Vouchers?”

It is a question both pertinent and unspeakably cruel, for it must be answered on the fly and will be absorbed by many. Rejection of the wretched things is tantamount to saying “I do not care for children. Consequently, I shall not be providing a brighter future for them with my wine purchases.” There will also be a phalanx of affronted mothers behind you, boring fiery holes deep into your soul with the sheer force of their unbridled contempt. At which point, you have two choices:

1)  Announce to the rapidly-assembling crowd that you were struck barren at birth after an unfortunate circumcision accident, and that collection of said vouchers will only add to the escalating mountain of angst you have already accrued. If you can weep a little, so much the better. Just don’t get out the goods if asked to prove it. You’re no Dustin Hoffman. 

2)  Take them. Take them and run out into the High Street in order to create a massive paper rick of lost hopes and dreams. Then light a match and sing ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’ in Scottish, like in the Wicker Man. No-one will like you for it but they probably don’t anyway. Sod ‘em.

When I was working in Egypt, I was asked on several occasions how many kids I had and whether they were boys or girls. Initially I tried to set the record straight, but soon found out I was on a highway to nowhere. To them I was, at best, a curio, so I decided to lie in order to get by. I invented a beautiful wife, four sons and two daughters, and by the end of the season had become quite jealous of myself. Why didn’t I have a life like that? And how would I keep my new-found family in the style which we had yet to become accustomed when I got home?

Standard existential stuff and nonsense. But in those frozen moments back in the supermarket, I often wonder how my other self would have felt, watching a middle-aged man bundling booze into a bag and denying the next generation a decent start in life. And if I’m honest, I’d probably be in the vanguard of those livid mums, silently berating myself for having taken the road less travelled.

Idle Eye 148 : The Eisenhower Matrix

It’s harder than you think, being your own boss. Try it sometime and see for yourselves. Traditionally I have been pathetic at organising my day, which is why I usually get other people to do it for me and hopefully throw in a few quid at the same time. But right now, I’m out of the plane without a chute and unless I sort something out pretty quick, I’ll be land pizza before you know it. There are, however, little tricks you can employ to create the illusion of structure, some of which I shall outline below for anyone in the same predicament:

1)  The old ‘leaving the flat’ ruse is a bit of fun – Get dressed in a hurry, swig down a mouthful of instant coffee (leaving the rest) and, if you’re feeling bold, give yourself a quick peck on the cheek. Then walk around the block a couple of times and come back in, panting and complaining bitterly about the inefficiency of whichever rail network you weren’t on.

2)  Create a few formal breaks. These will prevent you from atrophying at the computer and provide the added bonus of allowing you to catch up with all the latest gossip. It’s important to stay in the loop.

3)  The Reward System, albeit rather primitive, is a great incentiviser. That call you made to Virgin Media Customer Services took a while, right? Have a sweetie. Made it through thirty emails about erectile dysfunction and/or PPI? Have another sweetie. Anything whatsoever to do with the Inland Revenue or TfL? Crack open a bottle of single vineyard Central Otago Pinot Noir. Actually, make that two.

4)  Stay focused. Tempting though it may be to stray with another episode of Inside Health and discover you’ve probably got shingles/leg ulcers/something irritable going on with your bowel, you’ll only spend the rest of the day on the med sites and give yourself PTSD to boot.

5)  Draw the curtains. Because the people you can see outside are almost certainly having more fun than you, will be rich in Vitamin D and couldn’t give a monkey’s that your delete key has packed up again. For them, life is one big picnic. For you, it’s an eternal game of chess. Against Magnus Carlsen.

6)  Nothing of interest will come through your letterbox and no-one of interest will ring the doorbell. Ever. Hold your nerve.

7)  Facebook and Twitter are not your friends. They are the Trojan horses of the internet, willingly invited into the workplace where they bed in and beckon, stealing your time and reason. Like Mata Hari. With cats and babies.

After these, you’ll need an endpoint. Something to neurotransmit a strong signal to the brain, telling it to pack in the chores and loosen up a little. Sex, recreational drugs, alcohol and repetitive pop tunes have always been popular with the young, but if, like me, you find yourself in your twilight years, The Archers seems to work okay. In conjunction with the above.

Idle Eye 140 : The Blood Test

In May 2013, I made an appointment with a certain Dr Nunn for a routine blood test. Apparently you’re meant to do this sort of thing when the ratio of your years left on the planet versus years already used up, tips unfavourably towards the latter. I made light of any reasoning behind it, of course, suggesting that my request was purely investigative and of no great consequence. However, Dr Nunn is no fool. Looking straight past the saffron-tinted jellies through which I decipher the world and deep into the very core of my being, he offered me a seat next to the computer. Then he made me wait. For eons.

Time slows down to a crawl when you know you’ve been rumbled. The skinny document containing my records was theatrically scrutinised, and accusatory glances from over the top of his half-moon glasses were staged for maximum gravitas. I knew what was coming next:

Dr Nunn:  Smoker?

Me:  Er…Not really. The occasional puff, perhaps.

Dr Nunn:  How many?

Me:  Hmm…Depends on my week, I suppose! (laughs nervously)

Dr Nunn:  I’ll put you down for twenty. Sound about right?

Me:  Absolutely. (rapid blinking)

Dr Nunn:  What about alcohol? How many units per week?

Me:  Units? I’m not really sure, to be honest. How do you…

Dr Nunn:  Someone of your age should be looking at no more than one or two small glasses of wine a night. Preferably with breaks in between. The liver isn’t a miracle worker.

Me:  I see. I think it would be fair to say I do drink a little more than that. Not always, and I do try to keep it to…

Dr Nunn:  I need a straight answer. Or we’re both wasting each others time, aren’t we?

Me:  Yes, I’m sorry. Well, on the odd occasion it has been known for me to get through half a bottle of red wine in the evening, and sometimes a beer or two.

Dr Nunn:  How often?

(long pause)

Me:  Every night.

(long pause)

Dr Nunn:  No more than that?

(long pause)

Me:  No. (swallows)

Dr Nunn:  Right, I need you to come back next week. Give this in at reception, they’ll make another appointment for you.

Me:  Thanks very much for…

Dr Nunn:  Goodbye.

I looked down at the printout thrust into my hand. There, in a little box marked ‘Relevant Clinical Details’ was the evidence statisticians and the red tops pay top dollar for, no doubt to keep social pariahs such as myself out of the surgeries: ‘Screen: High Alcohol.’  And it works. Because I never went back. If half a bottle of pinot and a hop-based aperitif counts as alcohol abuse, my return visit would have seen Dr Nunn strapping me into some kind of detox seat, like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, forcing me to watch endless loops of waterfalls and Bavarian milkmaids until I recanted my feckless ways. Do me a favour…

Idle Eye 135 : The Thing About Charlie

Have a look at the mast drawing above. That’s me, that is. Drunk, scribbling unrecognisable nonsense as per, wide-eyed & tousled, inappropriately attired for a man of my age and surrounded by semi-mythical beasts which may or may not represent the muses I wrestle with on a weekly basis. All contained in one simple statement with the site name teetering on the verge of collapse above me. How very apposite. When I briefed Dan back in 2011, I knew I wanted a sketch rather than a designed header with slick typography, because the best ones condense all the relevant information into a single visual hit. No frills, no waste, and therein lies the power.

I bring this up for two reasons: Firstly, and primarily, because current news events that cannot have escaped anyone’s attention have brought it into sharp focus. And whilst I won’t be drawn into spouting cause and effect rhetoric (this is not the place), it does demonstrate just how incisive the pen can be. Satire, by its very nature, apes and distorts its targets to drive the point home, which is why it sits so (un)comfortably with the cartoonist. Perhaps photography is too ‘real’ to get under the skin in quite the same way. Charlie Hebdo knows this all too well, hence their medium of choice. It’s quick, brutal and it takes no prisoners.

On the exact same day of the attacks in Paris, I was with six artists (amongst others) in a wine bar in central London, revitalising an idea that has been in limbo for a year or two now. It was also my birthday, and fuelled by copious quantities of Hungarian Pinot Noir (the kind that strengthens the resolve the more of it you have), I dared to ask for contributions towards an illustrated book of this here blog. And, no doubt for the same reasons, they were granted. In less than a week, the number of pledges has swelled to sixteen and they’re still coming in, brilliant, disparate and from all over the planet. I am simultaneously humbled and terrified.

As outlined in the first paragraph, in my head I’ve always seen the book as illustrated. Anyone who has ever read the bilge I come up with every week will interpret it differently, and what better way to represent that than a bunch of artists doing their thing. I pray the fact that I am the common glue does not put them off any. My default setting when things start going well is to run for the hills and hide until it’s all over, but not this time, not this time. With an apolitical nod to Charlie, this time I’ll commit. If you believe in something strongly enough, show some balls. And show them I shall.

I will, of course, let you know as and when things start to happen. But, in the meantime, there’s stacks to moan about and I’ve lost a bloody week now. Thanks for that.

Idle Eye 132 : The Christmas Special*

*with 312 festive bonus words

Desert Island Discs – December 2014

Kirsty:  Due to swingeing cuts the BBC has suffered recently, my castaway this week is alcoholic and sometime blogger Idle Eye. I know, me neither. His pithy and often self-deprecating blog has been read by an ever-decreasing audience since its inception in 2011, and he claims to be a mouthpiece for the very few disaffected, middle-aged misanthropes he manages to connect with. Good morning, sir.

Me:  Good morning, Kirsty.

Kirsty:  I understand that you no longer make any money whatsoever from your work. Is this true?

Me:  That’s correct. I started by writing for my brother’s pub, but it soon became pretty clear that the stuff I put out was having an adverse effect on his clientele: They stayed away in their droves. The rest is history.

Kirsty:  So what’s the incentive, if you don’t mind me asking?

Me:  Well, Kirsty, the strapline for the whole shebang is “Getting it off my chest and onto yours”, which I suppose is the main thrust. And I nicked that from Peter Cook. Sadly, there isn’t an original bone in my body. But I soldier on.

Kirsty:  Let’s have some music.

Me:  My first would have to be Instant Street by dEUS, which hit me like a bullet when it came out in 19…

Kirsty:  We don’t have that one, I’m afraid.

Me:  Oh…Well, how about Heavenly Pop Hit by The Chills? The flagship band from New Zealand’s Flying Nun stable when they were at their…

Kirsty:  Nor that.

Me:  I thought you had these things lined up beforehand?

Kirsty:  Look, Sarah Millican asked for Wham! if that’s any help. Work with me.

Me:  Ok.

[You Drive Me Crazy – Shakin’ Stevens]

Kirsty:  Thank you. Now, tell me about your drinking. You profess a disturbing reliance on Marlborough Pinot Noir in order to get your ideas onto the page. Would you describe yourself as a writer with a drinking problem or a drinker with a writing problem?

Me:  I like to think of it as both. Although it’s clear which one would have to go if push came to shove.

Kirsty:  I see. And do you think you could manage without?

Me:  To be fair, there’s a lot of crap out there. And the telly’s getting better and better. So yes, I think so.

Kirsty:  Let’s have your next disc.

Me: Can I have…

[We Are The Champions – Queen]

Kirsty:  You mention your family in several posts. Tell me about the early years: Did they spot the signs of your forthcoming invisibility or was it something you had to work at alone?

Me:  When you say ‘forthcoming invisibility’…

Kirsty:  That, by your own admission, your efforts are widely ignored. “Like farting into a wind tunnel”, as you once put it.

Me:  It was a symbiotic arrangement, I seem to remember. To have your ‘efforts’ overlooked as a young man does stand you in good stead for later life. In many ways it was a gift, for which I am profoundly grateful.

Kirsty:  Forgive me for bringing this up, but we’re running out of time and we need a hook. Your father, a much-loved television and film actor, died last year. How did his tangible success, first realised when he was less than half your age, affect your confidence as an artist in your own right?

Me:  Well, Kirsty, I see it like this: Success is very much like wine – Some of it can be enjoyed young (and some of it can be very good), but I think most of us would agree that in order for it to be at its very best, it needs to have sat around for a while.

Kirsty:  But if you leave it too long, it gets tipped down the sink.

Me:  There is that.

Kirsty:  Let’s have some more mu…actually, let me do it.

[Do They Know It’s Christmas? – Band Aid]

Me:  I hate that one, by the way.

Kirsty:  Me too. But it’s your show.

Me:  And I normally write 500 words, preferably less.

Kirsty:  Just say it’s a Christmas Special. You can do whatever you like with them, trust me. Now, I’m going to give you The Complete Works of Shakespeare and The Bible to take with you. And a book of your choice: What’s it going to be?

Me:  Well, it’s a toss-up between…

[Sarah Millican’s Support Group audiobook – Sarah Millican (signed)]

Kirsty:  And a luxury too. You can have one thing on the island to make life more bearable.

Me:  I’d like…

[You’re Never Too Fat For A Handbag – Sarah Millican white cotton tea towel (signed)]

Kirsty:  And if you had to pick just one…ach, forget it.

Me:  I already have.

Kirsty:  Thanks for coming in.

Me:  No, thank you.

Idle Eye 123 : The Right Stuff

Someone called William rang me yesterday. Before he got through, I screened the number: Unfamiliar, but at least not one of those 08547 deals which you instantly know will come with a three second delay, over which you politely say “Hello” twice despite your better judgement, followed by an upbeat recorded message giving you just enough info on that accident you had to prevent you hanging up on the spot. Which you do anyway.

In short, William’s prefix looked legit so I took the call, thinking it might be confirmation of my bank details from a new Nigerian business partner. His opening gambit was along the lines of “How are you?” Now, as this particular question rarely arises, be it from my siblings, employer or accountant, I was already putty in his hands. Next came the introduction. Apparently he is my personal wine advisor and was making a courtesy call based on the preferences made with my online account which, you may be surprised to learn, comes in at less than £200 per annum. He accurately noted that I enjoy wines from New Zealand, bless, and proceeded to suggest a few others that may have escaped my radar. And despite all prior knowledge of the ruthlessness of marketing and cold-call grooming, I began to warm to him. And he’s from Norwich.

How we laughed at the vulgarity of your supermarket Shiraz. And how effortlessly he dropped in the buyer’s sweet spot, being that place on the quality curve when you are no longer paying off taxes, duty and whatnot. The one when you go “Hell, I’m worth £2.50” and buy a couple of blue labels, as opposed to the plebeian red. And, in case I was in any doubt whatsoever, he reminded me that I would be fully refunded if his recommendations fell at all short. Geezer! I wanted to French kiss him down the phone, or at least ask him out for a pizza. This man knew more about me than my teachers from the 1980s or, dare I say it, my parents. And in my loved-up state, I saw us enjoying a mutual glass of an astonishingly rare Pinot under a wide Andalusian sunset.

But then came the crash. I nipped round to my friend Nick’s house not long afterwards who just happens to be a marketing guru and I told him about my new love, William, and how it felt to be understood so completely. “It’s not what you think”, I protested. He gave me the skunk eye, then the lowdown on Cute Brands and Upselling. You know, the sort of thing that companies like Innocent use to get you on team. And in an instant, the wonderful man-love I had experienced but hours before evaporated like the morning mist. I felt cheated, violated, abused. I thought this was different. I thought this was special. I thought this was personal. So I bought some more wine. The right stuff.