Thursday, 8 March 2012


He sat in what might once have been called a waiting room, but was now known as a patient lounge. He thought the patient lounge was very much like a waiting room; both in function, in that it was a room in which people were waiting; and in appearance, festooned as it was with information leaflets, posters, uncomfortable-looking mal-upholstered chairs, and a smattering of people he assumed must be patients. They all looked miserable. He had long since realised that hospitals were not necessarily miserable places in themselves, but that the nature of their business meant that innumerable miseries passed through their doors, and that after a certain amount of time the gloominess, suffering, pain and despair were bound to seep into the fabric of the place. There had been too much loss, too much unhappiness, not to weigh the entire site down.

Even the success stories, the recoveries and the miraculous cures that took place here amongst the apparently randomly scattered yet uniformly ugly buildings full of sterile and unfriendly-looking rooms, even they were outwardly-focussed – a celebration enacted by being able to be elsewhere, and by not having to return. In that sense, he reasoned, the hospital could even be described as a place of hope, albeit the hope to be in another place. But there wasn’t much hope in evidence this afternoon: just gloom, some poorly-stocked vending machines (one of which was out of order), and an untidy pile of magazines that looked as though they had never been new.

Like most people, he had never liked hospitals. Even trivial visits for routine and unthreatening procedures were tainted by memories of past, less benign trips, and of course by the prospect of lengthier visits to come. A visit to the hospital, he concluded, was at once an echo of past anguish, and an uncomfortable glimpse into an uncertain yet inevitable future. The hospital was a place of contrast: the environment was sterile, everything was clean, hard, shiny and efficient, yet the people within were fragile, diseased and broken in various ways. The restaurant did offer an excellent rhubarb crumble on Tuesdays, but it was impossible to enjoy it whilst surrounded by pallid geriatrics, worried-looking relatives speaking in hushed tones, and medical professionals looking anxiously at pagers and watches. To make things worse, the custard was usually lumpy.

He left the patient lounge and followed the red line on the floor back to the reception and main entrance area. “I really must stop coming here for no reason” he muttered to himself.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012


Happy fifth Wednesday in February! We haven't had one of those in twenty-eight years, in case anyone was wondering. On Wednesday 29th February 1984 I was deep into a my second term at junior school, in the class of a delightfully old-school, cardigan-wearing, blackboard rubber-throwing, quiffy-haired teacher who has long since departed this world. I had a full complement of grandparents (now none), a new-found love of the most wonderful sport known to man (still have that), not a care in the world (no comment), and no idea why I had no desire to join in the games of kiss chase that took place in the playground most lunchtimes (worked that one out now). I occasionally wore jeans.

I haven't worn jeans since I was eleven years old. I had never liked them, a fact which I had made very clear to my parents on a number of occasions. But one day the following leap year, 1988, I was presented with a new pair of jeans. I was annoyed - upset even, and decided to draw a line. Over a period of a couple of weeks my protests about the jeans became repetitive and ferocious; both qualities I rarely exhibited. One day the conflict came to a head and I was forced to wear the new jeans. Exhausted, exasperated, but not defeated, I played my trump card - I cried. This was partly calculated I suppose, but the tears were borne of genuine frustration and anguish. This was an event so rare that it shocked my parents, who, realising they had underestimated the strength of my feelings, never asked me to wear jeans again. I think the offending garment made its way to a charity shop some time later.

The thing is, I'm not sure why I don't like jeans. I think other people can look fine in them - attractive, even, but the idea of wearing them myself has alarmed me for as long as I remember. Other clothing aversions (shorts, certain types of shirt) have come and gone over the years, but this one persists. In recent years I have worn trousers which are not dissimilar to the jean in style, yet crucially, nothing resembling denim. I can, I think, categorically state that I will never again wear jeans. I don't think it was ever a stylistic objection, and it certainly isn't a phobia. My family and friends wear jeans and always have done, so there was no apparent reason for me to develop such a strong aversion to them. Perhaps it was merely an extravagant way for the eleven-year-old me to prove a point to my parents, which has grown into a lifelong habit. Either way, I'm jeans free since 1988, and staying that way.

Monday, 20 February 2012


I don’t know why I haven’t posted for a while. I’d like to say I’m lacking in inspiration, but that’s something of a default state for me, so can hardly be used as an excuse. If anything I’ve felt lately as though I ought to be coming out with something weighty, something profound, maybe even something worthwhile. I’d like to move or inspire people rather than provoking a half-smile and another whimsical exchange (that’s not to say that I don’t value the whimsical exchanges – they are frequently the highlight of an otherwise uneventful day).

It’s very chicken and egg, this whole civil service business. Does the nature of the work and the reputation civil servants have attract dull, lifeless individuals who can not imagine any life other than forty years behind a desk; or does the grinding repetition and endless procession of bland days, trips to the photocopier and cups of tea chisel away at the will, the individuality, the very soul of those who strayed too close to the flypaper and became stuck?

I’m about ninety-three per cent certain I would have been more fulfilled doing something else, yet I have very consciously decided every day for sixteen years (the anniversary is this week) not to do something else. It’s difficult to say whether my creative faculties would have calcified in this way had I sought employment in a different field. I’m sure I was brighter twenty years ago than I am now. I can see that it’s alarming, yet I am totally relaxed about it. It only occasionally annoys me very slightly, and even then only because I am aware that other people think I ought to be annoyed by it. In truth it feels natural, and comfortable. A kind of self-medication, if you will. And I don’t think I’m settling for what I have because of the effort that would be involved in changing course (although I concede I wouldn’t relish it). Neither do I think I’m scared of failing in any attempt to start afresh (although now there’s a high probability I would). Neither do I categorise my attitude as defeatist, or as being resigned to my fate (no caveat needed for this one – I’m really not). No, not any of those. In the end it always boils down to where I assign importance in my life. Up to this point the answer to the subconscious question “am I happy enough?” has always been “just about”.

There’s certainly no shortage of people here who claim to have joined ‘as a temp for the summer’, only to remain a decade or three later. I am here because I’m from a time and place where that was what people did when they didn’t know what they wanted to do. That time is gone, and it no longer applies in that place, but thousands of us remain – relics of a time when you could wander into employment, dull as it was, without so much as a decent A Level to your name, let alone any kind of higher education. And yet even in these austere times, relatively few of my colleagues seem to value their career here. Applications for recent voluntary redundancy schemes have been massively oversubscribed, and not entirely due to the ageing workforce. These peoples’ experiences here are very similar to mine, but their tolerance levels obviously differ from mine. They have decided to leave in search of something different, something better than the life I continually choose to endure.

There was a stat doing the rounds a while back claiming that civil servants ‘enjoyed’ the lowest average post-retirement lifespan of any profession, at roughly eighteen months. I have no idea if this is true, but I suspect some jealous pensionless individual in the private sector made it up. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop me from writing ‘have a good eighteen months’ in one or two retirement cards. It’s in my nature to trivialise. That’s my defence mechanism. I convince myself the things which matter to other people don’t matter to me. I’m brilliant at it. I whistle so that people think I’m cheerful. I am always on hand with a flippant remark, laced with just the right amount of black humour. If I were to release a fragrance, it would be called ‘Futility’ ™.

Despite dismantling and restructuring this post more than once (okay, twice), it still flows not. Fairly apt, I suppose.

Monday, 30 January 2012


I've had a flurry of cinema attendance since the turn of the year, with mixed results. For anyone who feels they might share my taste in films I thought I might jot down some thoughts.

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The

This being the English language version starring Daniel Craig. Ridiculously, I have yet to see the original film (which even my mother-in-law has seen!), so I came to this without a bias towards either that or Stieg Larsson's novel. I did come to it with a less-than-healthy opinion of Mr Craig, who despite someone once telling me I look like him (I don't), has to date struck me as possessing the emotional range of a common house brick. Not that that quality isn't suited to this particular role - I just don't think he needs to be THAT understated THAT often. Mara Rooney comfortably outshines him here in the title role, and Christopher Plummer's typically assured performance is worth a fair chunk of the admission fee by itself. As remakes of Scandinavian films go, I get the feeling that this isn't as successful as the 2002 Pacino/Williams version of Insomnia, but that doesn't mean this is a bad film - just a slightly pointless one, perhaps. I should warn that some of the action is fairly graphic, but although I don't think it quite reaches offensiveness (though one or two scenes do come close), I wouldn't recommend going to see it with your mother-in-law. Take mine instead.

Iron Lady, The

This has ignited an interesting debate about acting versus impersonation. Meryl Streep is apparently nailed-on for Best Actress at the Academy Awards, and hers is undoubtedly a superbly observed portrayal well worth seeing no matter what your views on Margaret Thatcher. However, it seems to me there is some merit in the view that acting is really about creating a fictional character from scratch, or at least from a personal interpretation of the vision of a director and/or screenwriter. After all, Michael Sheen's performances as David Frost and Brian Clough (possibly Tony Blair - not seen that one) are equally remarkably caricatures, but I don't see any Oscars on his mantelpiece. On the other hand, I wouldn't dare to suggest that Ben Kingsley or George C Scott should be stripped of their acting awards for Gandhi or Patten. Not that Scott accepted his anyway. And on another other hand, those films were conventional biopics whereas The Iron Lady certainly is not.
I triple-digress. It's a good film. Could be better, but still good. I don't know how successful the dementia-angle they took with the film was - it makes for one of Jim Broadbent's more superfluous appearances as the hallucinated Dennis - and I think I'm with those who would have preferred more focus on 1979-1990.

War Horse

Once again, I must declare that I haven't read the novel, nor have I seen the play. Sorry about that. Actually though, I'm almost glad I haven't, since I'm reasonably sure this film would have been a disappointment to me. As it was, I thought it was watchable enough, though utterly ridiculous. Rural pre-war Devon was full of hopelessly depicted cartoon-like characters, the events of the film seemed to span a couple of months at most as opposed to the more than four years of the war, and in general Mr Spielberg's schmaltz-meter must have suffered a spectacular malfunction. For sheer unbelievability in a semi-historical yarn, I'm not sure I have seen anything to touch this. On the plus side, Jeremy Irvine. Yes I did mean to conclude that sentence quite so abruptly.

Descendents, The

This is the kind of film I get on with. No far-fetched stories about murder or adventure, or even romance. No special effects. No fluffy animals, talking or otherwise. Just actors acting. Pretending to be real people and telling a human story, of events that could conceivably happen to you or me, albeit probably not in Hawaii or in the context of a multi-million-dollar land deal. Well, I didn't say it was perfect, did I? The theme of past (and now irrelevant) infidelity put me in mind of Death of a Salesman, which has to be high praise, doesn't it? The child acting is remarkable, Clooney is excellent, the locations are at times spectacular. My pick of these four by a distance.

I suppose there was a spoiler or two amongst the above. Sue me.

Question: One of the four films mentioned moved me to tears three times. One (just) did so once. The other two did not. Can you guess which is which?

Thursday, 5 January 2012


(The time is now. The setting: a pseudo-converted farm building on the edge of an unfashionable overflow town close to a fashionable city. We can see two rooms. The first is a multi-purpose living space, with a TV and sofa to the left foreground, and a dining set and shelving to the right foreground. Behind is a kitchen area, delineated by a breakfast bar and stools. There is a high window on the back wall. On the left-hand wall are two doors, the nearest of which is open, and leads through to a bedroom. In the bedroom, a man lies on the left side of a double bed. He is dressed in a t-shirt, propped straight-backed against several pillows; his lower half beneath the bed covering. He is reading a book, and has a drink in a mug beside him on a small bedside table. There is an identical table on the other side of the bed. The bedroom also contains two wardrobes, but is otherwise large, and empty. It is evening, and each room is lit only by a single standard lamp.)

(Two men enter the living area. The younger of the two removes his coat, and hangs it on a stand beside the right-hand wall. He points the other man towards the rear door on the left-hand wall.)

YOUNG MAN: It’s just through there.

(The two men make their way across the room, until they draw level with the bedroom door. The man in the bed looks across at them, but does not get up.)

YOUNG MAN: Andrew just needs to use the bathroom.

(Andrew and the man in bed exchange simultaneously awkward ‘Hello’s. There is a momentary pause, before Andrew continues to the bathroom door and enters, closing the door behind him.)

YOUNG MAN (hushed): What are you doing in bed?

MAN IN BED (also hushed): I just thought I’d wait for you in here. How was I supposed to know he’d be coming in? (He gestures in the direction of the bathroom. There is another pause.)

YM: He’s using the toilet, that’s all! He’ll only be a second.

MIB (frosty): Well why didn’t he use the one at the pub? Or wait until he gets home? He only lives fifteen minutes from here, doesn’t he?

YM: I don’t know. What difference does it make? He’ll be gone in a minute.

MIB (still suspicious, but warming): Okay, well….. did you have a good time, anyway?

YM: Yeah, fine. It was only a couple of drinks. He’s having a hard time at the moment.

MIB: Where did you go?

YM: That new place in town. It was fine, pretty quiet.

MIB: And the rest of your day?

YM: Yeah it was alright. Went shopping after work, watched some TV, went for a run – normal stuff. How about you?

MIB: We had a nice time. I left work early so got to my parents’ around four. I opened my presents, then later we had a takeaway. I got back about nine.

YM: Oh yeah, happy birthday again by the way. What did you get?

MIB: Cash from my parents. (He picks up the book from the bedside table and shows it.) This book from my brother. Clothes and vouchers from the minor relatives. Just like any other birthday, really.

YM: Okay.

(The bathroom door reopens, and Andrew emerges to stand next to the young man.)

ANDREW (to both of them): Thanks for that. I’ll be off. (To the man in the bed) Nice to meet you.

MIB (with badly feigned sincerity): You too. Bye.

ANDREW: See ya.

YM: Okay, see you tomorrow.

(Further ‘bye’s are exchanged as the Young Man sees Andrew out of the house, before returning to the bedroom door.)

YM: That was rude.

MIB: I was not! You took me by surprise. I was half-asleep and a strange man walks past the bedroom door. How am I supposed to act? I was polite.

YM: You call that polite?! And it wasn’t a strange man, it was Andrew. I’ve told you about him loads of times.

MIB: Yes, but I’ve never met him, have I? And from what you’ve told me, he’s pretty weird anyway.

YM: I’ve never said he was weird. He’s just confused, and really upset at the moment.

MIB: Perfect drinking companion then!

YM: He needs someone to talk to. Anyway, it was better than staying at home by myself!

MIB (guilty): I suppose.

YM: You didn’t even get out of bed!

MIB: Well I don’t have any trousers on, do I?