An exercise in romance

I fully expect a letter from Jack Vettriano’s lawyer saying something like: “Please remove the shocking illustration of our client, Mr Vettriano, on your blog http://www.cpink.wordpress.com. He does not appreciate the terrible bump on the head.” To which I will reply: “If you buy me a lifetime’s supply of Wispa’s.” If you don’t know what he has to do with romance, Google his paintings.

Romance has been kicking around in my mind for a while now, and it has nothing to do with a relationship I am in — I’m single — or, in fact, anyone else whatsoever. It’s both more simple and more complex than that: a while ago I realised that although I could be romantic, I couldn’t actually define what romance was. Not really — not anymore than the obvious things which instantlysprang to mind, anyway, and romance seemed much bigger and more important to the world than that. As a writer, the notion of being so baffled by something that I couldn’t even begin to put it into words perplexed me. It was not the same as the so-called writer’s block either — which I don’t really believe, but that’s another story — and that was when I realised that I had unknowingly set myself a kind of challenge: write about romance and try and get to the bottom of what it’s all about.

It was a big challenge, but it has to start somewhere, so let us begin here.

Here are a few statements about romance which I think are generally held to be true by much of the world’s population (note: this is only my opinion — you are entitled to yours. This is not a competition):

* Romance is generally considered more feminine than masculine.

* Romantic men are considered inferior by male friends, even if this isn’t directly inferred.

* Being romantic is generally considered synonymous with being weak.

* Being romantic for too long is considered by some to be potentially dangerous.

* Being romantic means you are reliant on another person and thus weaker than if you were independent.

* Romantic people are generally more unlucky in love than un-romantic people who think logically.

Personally, on a deeper level, I think these make no sense whatsoever. If being romantic is considered more feminine than masculine, then how come many hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of men buy flowers for their girlfriends, wives and lovers each and every year, many of whom don’t actually like flowers? Don’t tell me it’s because these men solely believe their partner will appreciate it. I know from experience that buying flowers for someone feels like a wonderful thing to do, no matter what the recipient’s reaction will be; it is the act of giving flowers that holds the raw power — the surprise, the sudden shock value —  and not just the pleasure of the receipt of a physical thing which is really quite beautiful. It’s not so much to do with the flowers themselves, as far as I can tell: it’s something much more than their material value (though how much more depends, I think, on the reason you’re buying the flowers…and if you feel your face warming now, then you know better than anyone what that reason is!).

Romance, it baffles me. Just when I think I have a handle on it, something radical happens. Romance twists and bends. It never stays still for long. It’s odd, hard to identify and makes me feel strange. I can be a romantic one morning, but by midnight I’m another man.

I once knew an old jeweller who was the most romantic man in the world. Well, maybe not in the world, but in my world, my experience, my life so far. Every time I met him — his shop was next to the shop I worked in and I’d inherited his friendship from my boss, who’d introduced us — he saw the beauty of life in a way which seemed too surreal to actually be happening; too naive for this modern world, somehow — or that was my by-turns naive conclusion. Standing in his shop, listening to the energy he had for my experiences and things I told him, his eyes would glow with delight and enthusiam for life events which had nothing to do with him. Things which couldn’t really have been that important. It was almost as if he had some supernatural power to perceive what I was feeling. To feel and re-live precisely what I had felt. It was nothing to do with femininity, and it wasn’t always about his wife either (he did love his wife). To be honest, half the bloody time I had absolutely no idea what the hell it was about. I often walked out of the shop feeling both bemused and exhilarated.

It was a bit scary actually. I was in my early twenties then, and though I didn’t think it at the time, now, romantic is the only word that really makes sense. It seemed more than just something he was — instead, I consider it now as an approach he had to the world: a state of mind.

Far as romance being synonymous with weak, there are doubtless hundreds of essays, books and websites out there which can shed much more light on the psychology of this — and the other points here in this blog post — than I can or ever could. Even without venturing into that, the conclusions are quite obvious, no matter what depth you explore the idea of romance at. Either way, the point still remains: you do not generally hear romance being held in the highest regard as a personal attribute. When was the last time you heard someone — man or woman — described as strong, organised, assertive and romantic? I’m reasonably confident that in any situation other than concerning a lover or a gorgeous work of traditional art, romantic would be the last word to include when speaking of anyone or anything else.

The hopeless romantic, of course, fares even worse. Die hopeless romantic, die! If you’re considered one of these then there really is very little that can help you. You probably spend every single Friday night watching and re-watching Bridget Jones’s Diary and crying into your pillow while pouting. I could go on, but being a hopeless romantic, you’d probably only wet yourself.

As for being romantic too long…well, in a way, I can’t argue with that. It really can be dangerous. But for me, this isn’t something inherently the fault of romance. Actually, in some ways I think the opposite is true. If you’re romantic for a while then chances are you’re more comfortable, and if you’re more comfortable then you’re more likely to feel happier and thus be more at ease. If that’s the case then surely life should go smoother and easier? Decisions should happen seamlessly. Life should be in flow.

Which is where the trap is — the one you almost certainly fell into if you bought into that last statement: if we feel more confident then we also let our guard down massively; gone is our ability to judge right from wrong and all its many shades of gray. Failure becomes an option but we just can’t see it. Is that romance’s fault? Of course not. You should be more wary, lock yourself in a room and forbid yourself from any human contact (joke!).

For one thing, you cannot reasonably talk about romance as an entity which moves around freely like air, affecting everyone in the same way that oxygen does as we breath it. The truth, I believe, is that romance is in everything we do, to some extent — and not just the typical things which come in tones of pink and smell all girly. It’s not a feeling, exactly, and it also isn’t a hunch. Instead, I would say it’s a collection of a billion tiny moments — most of which we don’t even realise when they happen, other than we know they feel good. So maybe romance is only something which happens in the mind after an event, I don’t know — something mixed-up amidst a tornado of human emotions: something which we can only recall.

Or some such pretentious bollocks. Maybe I’m over-thinking it? But surely, that’s the point.

Of all the statements in this list which irritate me, though, the biggest one is this: Being romantic means you are reliant on another person and thus weaker than if you were independent. Maybe it’s just me, but I think this is nonsense (which of course it literally is — I just made up that sentence. The same theory existed as a general belief before I wrote it, but that doesn’t make my sentence any less so). What’s worse is that for many thousands of years, people have been writing similar sentences and suggesting human minds; telling us how to think, perceive and feel. You see it and you start to believe it; the more you think it, the more it seems like truth. It’s not your fault of course, it’s nobody’s — we all can’t help but think like that.

As for: Romantic people are generally more unlucky in love than un-romantic people who think logically…I don’t even know where to start with this one. Yes, people who are more romantic may be more willing to go with their feelings rather than think logically — and yeah…this can certainly get you into big trouble — but does that mean that every date or relationship forged in romance must be instantly consigned to doom? I somehow doubt that. Feelings can be a hell of a guide when you’re lost in the world, and thinking logically can sometimes get you into more trouble than you’d ever have believed. Both have a downside. Think logically too much and you’ll find a reason to not do anything whatsoever. Logic kills us inside and procrastination is always lurking, ready to derail hopes and dreams, so you really can’t blame people for letting their emotions guide them through this difficult journey we call life.

Chick-flicks really don’t help romance’s cause, of course…many films paint women as naive angels and men as stupid ignorant know-nothin’ arse-holes, and all this does is make us laugh at romance. Belittle it on every level. Mock it when really, it’s the one thing which unites us all and makes us feel warm inside. You can try and deny it, but do you think you’re really capable of feeling intensely romantic in the best possible way and also feeling entirely cynical with it at the same exact time? Somehow I doubt that — in my experience it’s always the cynic in me which comes out after — but go ahead and try!

On the subject of chick-lit, I’m completely and utterly split on this subject. The why is easy: because many chick-lit books are beautifully written, engaging and hilarious; there is nothing generally wrong with them (aside from being labelled in the most condescending way known to man — a title which is condescending in itself). Though many get it wrong, plenty of writers also manage to get it very right. That leads me to believe that the issue isn’t with the writing itself, or often even with the plot (unless the plot is terrible, unrealistic and insulting, in which case it’s a big issue). My conclusion: that we don’t appreciate, like or look forward to how romance makes us feel vulnerable. Or maybe the idea of romance; the many levels leading up to it. The idea that if we’re not careful, we could end up in a mental state where we might like someone a lot or maybe even fall in love. And it isn’t exactly like you have a choice in the matter. If you’re feeling deeply romantic, chances are you’re vulnerable, no matter how in-control you believe you are.

As for the notion of romantic and un-romantic people — I’m not sure it’s as simple as all that. How can you divide the two so easily and so confidently if romance, as with love, cannot be measured or even remotely quantified? Where do you really begin, when in every second of every day, our emotions tumble and evolve in an endless procession of good, bad and amazing? If romance is a moment, a rapid heart-beat, a glance across a room or a sensation within one’s body that total peace and solitude has momentarily been achieved, then surely it’s as likely to happen on a ball-r0om as in  a crowded prison yard.

Don’t give me statistics. They may dictate a number, but a number isn’t people. A number cannot contain and explain the tiny imperceptible nuances in a trillion happy, sad and elapsed lives.

We think of many things being tabboos, yet what I find really strange is that unlike romance, we accept them as tabboos and openly talk about them, making them real, making them subject to the same laws and reasoning as everything else. I don’t see people around me talking about romance in the same way. Instead of questioning what romance actually is, I see the mocking tones of too much drink down the local pub. I hear romance being skirted around, or being talked about as if it had been buried long ago and there is no hope of a return. All I really hear is nonsense: men cannot be romantic, women are too romantic. Surely we’ve come further than this?

As for people who say Romance is dead! I get it. We all get it. You can’t avoid it. I get how you can be so hurt, feel so damaged and used and pissed-off that the mythical entity of romance has deserted you and whisked away to only surround all those walking-smiling-couples who could only ever be happy unlike you. Who am I to say it isn’t, anyway? I guess it all depends on your perspective.

Think about it: do you feel more or less romantic now than when you started reading this blog post? If psychological theories are correct then, thanks to reading about romance a lot — and not just reading about it, but thinking about it, both consciously and unconsciously, leading to a chain of impossible-to-trace emotions and question and answer sessions deep within your mind — then you should now be feeling more romantic than you did before you read this article. Do I believe that? Not really. Maybe. Sometimes. No. It all depends. Nothing is that simple and even if it was, romance certainly wouldn’t be…

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A very serious announcement from the Worldwide Society For The Protection Of Beards (WSFTPOB): Never, EVER let your girlfriend cut (maim, mutilate, TARNISH) your beard

Meet Pete Hickey, a dedicated beard enthusiast whose photo I found and thought That’s amazing! — read about his fascinating beard-experiment here Thanks for the photo, Pete

This post has been a long time in the making, although it actually took a relatively short amount of time to write. In fact, you could say I’ve been refining the idea behind it ever since 1998 — the year when I realised that I had turned a tremendous corner: I could grow a shoddy and pathetic but still very genuine man’s beard. My life had just dramatically changed. I was no longer a boy, I now had a man’s concerns.

If you are a man with a beard, embrace this post and pass it on to your girlfriend or girls you know who are others’ girlfriends (just not to angry looking female strangers…unless you’re in dire need of a good hard slap). Print it out, copy it, spread it far — I don’t care. Just don’t sit back and do nothing. Countless future man beards rely on you making a stand right now. This kind of debauchery just cannot go on any longer!

Note: this is going to offend some women out there who believe they are genuinely remarkable when it comes to cutting, trimming and carving beards. This post is 100% not aimed at them — well, unless they really are hopeless at beard cutting/trimming — or those who are truly talented individuals with portfolios bursting with humorous beard success stories. Instead, it is aimed very firmly at those women and girlfriends who believe they can cut a beard and yet can’t in any way that might be deemed acceptable. Someone needed to say it, and I suppose today it is me. And why shouldn’t I? There are endless female magazines which speak of the problems with men.

Second note: I don’t have a girlfriend right now. This post is made up of past memories which will remain firmly in the past!

A very serious announcement from the Worldwide Society For The Protection Of Beards (WSFTPOB):

Never, EVER let your girlfriend cut (maim, mutilate, TARNISH) your beard

There are variations, and sometimes it goes better than others, but it usually goes something like this:

“Can I cut your beard?” Your girlfriend says.

“Of course you fucking can’t,” you blurt back, instantly laughing at the sheer absurdity of the question (The fucking is optional, of course — you never really consciously think I have to say that but some deep man-reflex inside you, something right and smart enough to know what’s coming, makes you blurt this out: the bearded man’s primary defense mechanism — a very hairy manimal, backed tight into a corner.)

“Fine,” she says, in that classic it’s not fine, why am I with you? way. And she crosses her arms.

“Babe, I’m sorry, that just came out,” you say, and because you’re feeling hopeless. “Babe…”

She looks all offended now: the second Babe was a mistake. Bollocks. Not good — especially seeing as it’s getting near bed-time…it’s time for emergency tactics.

“I mean…” you say, floundering, trying to re-wind the moment. “…maybe. Just maybe.”

Her eyes — something crazy, magical, beautiful happens in them and then is gone. Feels a lot like love, except it also comes with a fair bit of pity for yourself. You need to somehow turn this around, get her to drop the subject, but also somehow not piss her off even more. It’s going to be a challenge.

“Maybe?” She’s smiling again. Makes you feel happy. “I like the sound of maybe.”

You look at her with your bestest most serious face. This? It’s an art-form. “Maybe as in maybe,” you say, and it’s optional, but if you’ve been through this before, you might come up with some really good excuse like a) I’m late for work or b) haven’t you had a couple of drinks? Shaky hands are not good for the beard. Be very careful how you say “haven’t you had a couple of drinks?”

She smiles. It’s not a full smile — she has her arms crossed even harder than  before. This is just the start.

You look in the mirror. The both of you look good in the mirror together — opposite versions of your true happy selves. Opposites that look not quite right but in the best possible way. One of those moments. Sad that you’ll probably forget it because you are scared.

You say: “You’re never going to give up, are you?”

She giggles. Or maybe your girlfriend doesn’t giggle. Either way, it’s sinister.

Your girlfriend looking at you in the mirror with that look in her eye…that look somewhere between devious and angelic…that look that has you trapped, cornered, not quite frightened, yet, but numb and giddy…that look that says I love you. [or maybe just I like you; it all depends on how long you’ve been going out, where you’re both at, if you’ve recently had a fight and you’re in the dog house — that kind of thing] You can trust me. Nothing  bad could ever come of this. All you have to do is trust me implicitly and it will be alright. Everything always is.

Do–not–believe–this. Try not to count the times it was not alright — such as the time that she said she’d be ready in 10 minutes to go to the airport (you very nearly missed your flight) and the time when a tramp asked you both for money and she said you should give the tramp that £5 you had because you got a bonus recently and he looked like he really badly needed it (as you walked away, he pulled a brand-new mobile phone out of his pocket and you noticed, horribly, that it was a much better mobile phone than either of you had).

“I’m still not sure,” you say, holding back on the strength of the words so she won’t be offended. “I can’t help it. Us men are programmed to be like this.”

“Uh-hmm.”

Yet you are sure. Jesus Christ, if there’s anything you were ever sure about, it’s damnwell this! Deep within you, you know you’ve never been sure of anything quite as much in your whole entire life.

Scissors, demented from years of abuse at the hands of a woman who couldn’t cut beards. Feel sorry for them

This is your face. More than that, if you’re anything like me, within your beard lies much of your male identity. It being messed with, tampered with, mutilated or approached with naive beginner hands, is not a good thing for you, the world, your job or your relationship or your soul. But you don’t know this right now — like a fish with a spear through it, you’re just existing and coming to your senses and trying to feel your way towards safety. A safety that you know isn’t going to come, but what the hell, there’s not enough time to debate this and the words won’t come out right.

You look in the mirror and your girlfriend has now moved to the other side of you. She’s the ghostly whisper in your left ear, and with the way she has her hands on your shoulders — and she has the scissors in her amateur possession now, you notice out of your disturbed peripheral vision — it’s as if she’s always been there. Waiting. Watching. Ready.

Yes. You are indeed screwed.

“I’m still really not sure,” you say. This time there is a much more obvious sense of woe and negativity in your voice — us men, we’d call it heartache, but we’d never admit it out loud. This emotion, it couldn’t be more deliberate and obvious. This, my friend, is your inner self reaching out desperately in a fight it’s never going to win, in a state of play so deluded that it almost makes you laugh. You know this was only ever going to go one way.

For a split-second, you genuinely wish you were single.

“But you don’t need to be sure, because I am,” girlfriend says, kissing you on the cheek. The way she messes with your head in this precise moment of time, it blinds and confuses you…like you’ve been bitten by one of those snake’s you always see infamous fearless Australian dude Steve Irwin (RIP) toying with on re-runs on Dave. The assurance surrounds you both, and you remember why you love her — or like her; I mean…you really should have decided this by now — and it’s fading, fast. That security blanket of insane paranoia that you once had is fading fast like a dream. You remember and recall the urgency of its calling, but it doesn’t feel the same. The grip is lesser. You almost don’t feel scared. I said almost…

Now, when she takes the scissors and holds them up near your face — that playful look in the mirror, that bribe of love handed down through the generations — you don’t flinch quite as much as you did before. You know you should, but the struggle is done. It’s over. It’s not that you’ve given up, it’s more that you’ve simply been disarmed.

“Do you promise to stop when I say so?”

This is you: your voice, getting you deeper into trouble and you don’t even know it.

Girlfriend, she nods.

“And do you promise that you’ll follow my instructions?” you say. “It’s important. I need you to follow my instructions…or–”

“Ssshh,” says girlfriend, and she’s already started cutting. The weird thing? It’s not as bad as you feared. There is actually something really nice about being taken care of in this way (and the fact that she also whispered in your ear something naughty also does not hurt — bribery, but what the hell. You are in this now, and as a man with a beard to lose, it’s wise or at least ethical to take everything you can get. That doesn’t sound particularly ethical, reading it back, but I think you catch my drift).

YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN WATCHING EVERY SECOND AND YOU WEREN’T.

NOW YOU WILL PAY THE MAXIMUM PRICE.

MAXIMUM.

I SAID MAXIMUM.

Your girlfriend, she’s gotten a little carried away — she just took too much hair off the side of your face. But she kisses you, and the feeling of terror dissolves and returns, dissolves and returns. You start to relax again. You promise yourself that if this happens again, you will stop her. You have to stop her. You will end this (the beard cutting, not the relationship — but then, it all depends on how much she just cut off. I have heard some horror stories…).

Before she goes to cut your beard, you stop her. Grab her wrist gently, hold the scissors away and kiss her.

This is your good sense surfacing very briefly.

Ushe crushes you with her eyes, again.

“Be careful,” you beg her, but smiling and laughing and playing this all down. “There’s a lot at stake here…I mean, I know it’s just a beard to you, but to me…to me…I can’t explain…to me…to me…”

Just give up. You’ll never find the words.

“Seriously,” she says, going in for the kill again but not looking properly as the scissors hack off a massive chunk which falls lifelessly to the floor like some huge Bigfoot shaving. You protest, but she silences you with a kiss. “Don’t make such a big deal out of it.”

You whimper.

“It’ll grow back, and besides, how hard can it be if you can do it?”

Then nothing.

TEN MINUTES LATER

You are very angry.

The drinks cabinet

It’s too illegal!

My brother Maff and me, when mum & dad went out shopping or driving or wherever it was that adults went, and Natalie, our older sister was left in charge — ha! or so she thought — we’d go to the drinks cabinet; it was so illegal. Keeper of secrets and with a big heavy oak smiling lid, it made a hell of a noise when you opened it; it creaked open first, and all the bottles went clangalang inside. Like they’d been waiting for us, all a part of our secret plan. My brother on one side, me on the other, no idea what we were really doing, laughter, much laughter, but investigating was fun. So many bottles, all different colours of liquid inside, colours on colours, bright green and red and orange and blue. Every time we looked inside the arrangement was different — them peskies, they’d been doing them! I remember the labels the most. This was back when we all had shell-suits. They were the-coolest-thing, and when we were out as a family we always won the multi-coloured competition (mine was bright purple and green and it was too beyond cool).

Sometimes we tasted the drinks, but not every time. Are you crazy? It was way too illegal to taste them everytime. Just sometimes, and only for a second. No glasses, no time to re-think this, we just raised the bottles and readied ourselves. There was clapping from one of us, which was like the sign. Then we took a sip. The Cinzano bottle was the one that I liked the most, mainly because I didn’t like it. It tasted weird and strong and like breathing in another dimension. In this dimension, everything was funny and the world went faster in a way that made you feel like you were walking on your head.

Leave the youth alone

This young girl drank so many alco-pops that she spent all her money on having her ears made elfish. It also messed with her eyes. Two great reasons not to drink

I feel for the youth of today, I really do. Mainly because it doesn’t feel like too long since I was one.

I said feel.

I have to face facts, and feeling is not a fact, no matter what Christina Aguilera says. What is a fact is that I am a 31-year-old man and even though time could technically start reversing, taking me back through the years and un-doing all the things I have mucked-up and all the people I have agitated — mum is at the top of the list, swiftly followed by a teacher who I can’t recall at primary school — and all the snails I have accidentally crushed on my way home in the dark it probably won’t (actually I’m glad about that…I’d rather not experience a reverse diarrhea situation as a result of a bad curry I had in 1996…). I may think and often act like a child – or at least be tempted to…I flippin’ can’t be within 25-feet of a pigeon without wanting, no, needing, to throw my arms in the air, scream “Argh!” and chase them – but I AM A MAN. I must be. Everyone says so — no ex-girlfriend jokes, please — including the law in every country in the world, where in some I may well be considered the equivalent of a pensioner. It is undisputable, even for someone like me who loves nothing more than a good-old-fashioned dispute/debate. Even if you don’t take any of these things into account, half-my-life-ago I started being able to father children – we won’t get into that here, and anyone getting into it in the comments will find their comment swiftly deleted! – and that must mean one simple thing which I cannot avoid any longer: I’ve actually been a man for a very, very long time, I just didn’t want to admit it to myself.

It’s all a bit annoying, really. But then again, as a man I can handle it. I have no choice…

No I can’t, I’m lying. Still — I’ll just brush that aside. That’s one of the benefits of being an adult, actually: you get to ignore things for absolutely ages and rationalise them and justify them in a way which no child could ever do (apart from those creepy funny-haircut-funny-clothes-high-IQ children you sometimes see on TV, who are so smart and well-mannered that they have actually gone full-circle and may well technically be disabled).

Ah, the youth. When it comes to being attacked for being lazy, useless, unappreciative and generally hopeless — among just some of the insults I have heard being bandied around the old-corner bus sometimes — few things or people receive quite as much abuse as the youth of today. What have they done to deserve all this shit? Well, a selection of minority youth did quite a lot if you live where the London riots happened a while ago, but let’s overlook that for now. Let’s overlook it because that really wasn’t just the youth, was it? OK, it probably mainly was, but the statistics show that a lot more people were involved in stealing XBox 360s — and socks that were the wrong size for them — than you might at first think, and, more to the point, many of these people were about as able to claim the youth tag as I am now. And I have a beard which you don’t see any youths sporting (and yes, I’m proud of that fact — took me bloody long enough to grow! I just wish I could transport myself back in time to the school changing rooms when I was an early teen, when this one boy was parading his brand-new overnight-growing-pubic-bush around, making everyone else feel both a) terrified of how this had happened so quickly and b) curious as to what it might feel like to possess (own) such a bush themselves, as in attached to their person. Now, confronted with my beard — a damn good distance away, that is — he’d stop in his naked tracks at once and find himself the owner of a wimpering, pathetic bush that a boy could only barely be proud of! Then I’d set light to his bush and watch it go up in flames, while me and my younger, creeped-out class-mates clapped and we all did what should have been done way back in time. But I’ll leave it at that, because I’m a pacifist, you know).

Far as I can tell, the main thing which the youth of today come under attack for is being alive at this very specific time in history: under fire for not being brave enough to fight a war that doesn’t exist between us and another european country. Not really their fault, then. Even more stupidly, when they do try and start a war on the streets, they get told off for it! Come on older people, where’s your fighting spirit?

Enough now, I promise. No more stupid jokes. This is actually quite a serious blog post, at the core.

An old man, bitter and proud

So look here, dear older generation who just don’t understand and who can’t, who never could, through no fault of your own, anyone would be the same: it’s really not the youths fault that there’s no decent venge-filled war going on right now. If you really think that the youth aren’t courageous, then take a look at the world they are living in — a world which you may not fully grasp, but still one that presents a multitude of problems easily akin to those of any other generation. So much pressure, so much temptation, so much financial insecurity and all of it compounded by information overloading in their brains as they try, desperately, to make sense of their place within the world.

It’s not the same as fighting, and buildings collapsing, and bombings, and watching your loved one die in your arms. It isn’t, and it never could be. The wars must have been horrific to endure, of that there is no doubt, and I have the utmost respect for the older generation who were forced to go through that. It’s different but it is hard for the youth all the same, even if it’s in a way which doesn’t look like it from the outside. We live in an age of no direction, of must-have-everything. It’s a serious pressure. It kills, it hurts, it maims — physically and emotionally. We’re all told we’re unique, but we’re all heading the same direction and nobody, not nobody, seems to have any real answers to any of it.

Or maybe it’s that we have access to too many answers now? It’s hard to know either way…

Our youth, they live in the age of confusion. But many of them are trying hard — they’re working, they’re raising money for charity, they know the value of life and they’re actively looking for jobs. They are doing their best and in large, large numbers.

Jealousy has to also play a huge part in all this, too. This is just me guessing here, writing out loud, but when you’re elderly, or approaching elderly — or are surrounded by elderly people who make you feel elderly, and like you wish the elderly-ness would just hurry the hell up already because all this waiting for it to come and get you is just pure plain torture — I can imagine that seeing loads of youthful people around, some in hotpants with perfect legs and arses, really gets you down sometimes. All that vitality, all that life ahead, all that sex being had, all those orgasms being so blissfully enjoyed. The choices, the choices, the choices you never had and life all mapped-out for you. That kind of thing. I mean, even I find myself cringing as I walk past kissing teenagers, and philosophically speaking I am barely out of my teens!

Well…

And I guess seeing all this youth, having it thrust in your face, is somewhat of a reminder of deeper issues as well. Makes a person introspective, which can be a frightening thing when you think you have it all worked out, in the time of your life when you’re supposed to have done all the finding out and now be something like at-peace. You see the youth and you remember your youth and you get frustrated; live in Wales and, even if you’re the most placid person in the world, you probably want to tear the nearest sheep’s head off, and who could blame you? You get annoyed that they’re having this time now — the youth, not sheep — and the passage of time is strange, isn’t it? Does funny things to a person. It’s passed and left you feeling jilted and sad and like nothing existed between now and back then. Feeling young but being old, and remembering all the past mistakes. All the things that you wish you’d done differently. The youth, they must look all the same. Technology and fashion and modern living…it gives the impression that these individuals are regenerating. An army of youth that will never grow older, who will always exist in this simple, pure, perfect state.

Hopefully the suicide rate for technically-minded elderly bloggers won’t go up within hours of me publishing this post.

On the plus side though, with age comes experience. Think about that next time you pass a gang of youth passed-out in an enormous pool of vomit!

,

The eternal troublemaker

This is all about commas: what they are, what they do, what they’re for and why they are so crucial. But, just to be clear, this post isn’t going to be a how-to. In my opinion, using commas is an intuitive thing which cannot be taught — the basics can, of course, but to my mind, saying much more than that is like telling someone how to speak and when to pause, and I don’t believe in that (and besides, most people have a basic grasp of what a comma does and how it is used, even if they’re not sure why and sometimes make mistakes). What this post is about is pointing out the things I have noticed over the years. Some may seem obvious. Others are more complex. All of them are things which help me understand how writing benefits from them.

Number 1: commas aren’t essential, but understanding their effect is.

In life, when it comes to commas, I guess there are 4 main groups of people. You have those who can’t live without them and stick them in everywhere, knowingly, enjoying the process of dividing up their work, and then you have 2) those who avoid them at all times because they prefer simpler prose, and 3) those who fall somewhere in the middle, and can’t work out what the hell is best. Lastly, you have group 4) people who haven’t got a clue where to use a comma and just shove them in where it feels right. I often find myself in the 3rd category (and hope I have not recently been in the fourth!). I like experimenting with both commas and no commas, and how much/where I employ them — an apt word, I think, seeing as they’re doing a hell of a job — depends on the POV I’m using, the tone of the work, and the effect I want to convey. It’s all about effect. That’s why in thrillers you sometimes see long comma-less sentences dragging you through some hellish situation usually involving murder and mayhem, in an attempt to rack up the tension. Equally, punctuating a paragraph with lots of commas is great if you want to stall the reader slightly in certain places. Like a slight pause to take a breath. Think of it like walking down a corridor, and the comma is a wall which drops down out of the ceiling every few steps, making you stop before it slides back up to reveal some hideous monster, or a romantic moment. There are many different kinds of corridor so I’ll let you choose your own.

One thing which I think confuses people about commas is the fact that they’re not always there to provide a slight pause. Sometimes they’re there for purely technical reasons — rolling commas for creating a list — and s0metimes they’re there to separate words from one another so that sense can be mad and clarity can be had. Other times, still, commas dictate a critical rythm to a novel or book and changing this formula part-way through can be as worst disastrous, at best irritating. To make it even more confusing, occasionally, a skilled author might change the rate of comma usage deliberately to mess with your head, making you read faster or slower, depending on what is coming and what has been before. And the list goes on…

There is no comma school that I am aware of. You can’t go and stay at The Comma Academy and learn it all and then come home and feel content in the knowledge that you now fully understand and are as capable as the next person. The best thing you can do is read books and re-read books. Read your own work and re-read it, moving commas and mentally noting why it does or does not work; how things are different. The key is to know the effect commas have on your work, because without giving this due thought, you are writing blind. Worse, your confusing your reader, forcing them to go back over your last paragraph. Something you don’t ever want a reader to do — unless they enjoyed it so much they felt compelled to.

I found my copy in Oxfam and it cost me £2. Great price for an amazing book which every writer needs to own

Number 2: if you want to write books which matter, understanding the comma is your all-time best-friend

Because writing is my job, this tends to have a knock-on effect with my friends and family. For example,when writing to me, some people seem to feel the need to be more articulate than they might be with someone who doesn’t write all the time — I have been told this by friends — and others write emails which seem unnaturally perfect. When I cross-check these emails with the person I know in real life, it’s easy to notice that this person has spent much longer formulating their email than they usually would do. This unnerves me and I always tell people this: I couldn’t give a monkey’s if friends write to me in that fast-paced, slightly incomprehensible way which is so common in the social-networking world. Actually, I’d welcome it! As long as I can understand what the hell they’re on about, that’s all that matters to me.

Writing a novel is completely different. If a subject matters to you — and it surely must, damn it, as you’re dedicating hundreds of hours to it which could be spent doing anything else — then your ultimate goal should be to create the most clear vision of your work that is possible. The ideas on that page shouldn’t just be good, they should, instead, be a direct representation of precisely what you mean and think. And it’s sentences like that which make me panic: this post is full of commas. Is it saying what I mean? Yeah, I think so. Although we all have to accept that just like a painting or a sculpture, a creation is never exactly what we set out to achieve at the start. There are always gaps where more thoughts should have been, and every book ever written is just one possible version of that work. Had each sentence been written in a different time, in a different place — even just a few seconds later — then the work would have been different. It all depends on so very many things: mood, blood pressure, what someone said to you at work the day before; the hopes and dreams which surprise us daily and the things which take place which are unexpected, lunging us into a different train of thought.

Number 3: putting a comma in the wrong place can alter the reader’s perception forever.

Commas are madness. They matter so much (and we haven’t even started on the full-stop/period). The fact that comma placement matters so much can be savage on the mind of a writer. Hear the comma roar! Savage, I tell you. It causes procrastinaton and makes us second-guess ourselves — something us writers are already notoriously bad for. To make matters even worse, commas can seem to be in the right place for months, and then later on you can re-read the draft of a novel and decide that actually…they’re all in the wrong fucking place. There’s no way to change this, of course — fucksticks! — and this is where we come back to accepting something is as good as it gets (or as good as time will allow us to get it).

I can’t speak for everyone in the world, but for me, personally, when I read anything and the commas don’t make sense, it completely throws me and gets me thinking. OK, so I’m analysing this more than a lot of people would ever do, but the difference between a writer and someone who doesn’t care for writing isn’t so severe, I don’t think. The only real difference is that a writer will be able to work out why a comma’s usage is wrong, whereas a reader will struggle with it, and this confusion may lead to their mood changing, and their opinion of the work/author being tainted. This is absolutely what nobody wants to happen — it could mean somebody putting down your book. Unless that’s your plan and you’re being smart and messing with the reader’s head. In which case, you had better be aware what you are doing!

My signature is awful. But it’s OK because I bet yours is too

The first half of my horrific signature. I’m not thick, you know. There was no way I was going to post a picture of the whole one up. I’ve seen programs on TV with people going through bins and copying signatures! Instead, I made it all small. That way, I think it looks less impressive. Not something I ever thought I would say…

Few things are as unique as the signature, right? My own personal signature is certainly unique. Actually, it’s a non-stop-visual-horror-fest which I regret every time someone makes me create it (fortunately for me and them this is rare, as even when the post-lady delivers parcels, she’s always in a rush and that suits me. Anything to avoid mutilating another signature). I often think to myself I wish I could go back in time to the moment when it started to go seriously down-hill. Start again. Get it right. Maybe not right, but righter than it is. Because at one time way back, just for the smallest amount of time, maybe, it must at least have said CGP, instead of 2012s version, which might be xdfgtyuk or poiugfc!

See, much as I try and stall my signature in time and hold onto a legible version that makes some kind of sense and looks half-decent, it never bloody works, so I’ve given up. I tried it once a few years ago and managed to hold onto that formation for about 3 days. But then I woke up one day, crushed an exceedingly unfortunate snail bare-foot — I’m sure it was the same one I’d moved two deays earlier, I have no idea how it managed to be in the exact same place again — and came back in the house all angry and had to sign for a parcel five minutes later. Big mistake. Ever since that incident, it’s all been downhill from there. I don’t even try and make my signature look good anymore, or legible. My signature: grim and bold like a man flashing while engaging in Twister. What’s the point? Signatures are like viruses: they just keep progressing and progressing and you cannot keep up with them…

But then, maybe the problem is that I am someone who doesn’t take pride in his signature. I would have to be forced to take pride in it. Because if I exist, which I feel sure about, then there must also, probably, be people at the other end of the spectrum. Men, women and teenage geeks who either spend countless hours obsessing over the correct articulation of their Ns and Bs, or those who just have a natural gift for recalling their signature at will, the same each and every time. I’m not sure I believe that theory, is the thing. A signature in a time-warp seems wrong to me. Seems un-natural. Maybe, if a signature is recreated the same each and every time, it is not really a signature. After all, nothing maintains personality like a horrendous indescribable signature, right?

Course, another good reason for having a terrible signature is more practical. This will surely make other perfect-signature-obsessives start to re-think their whole anal hand-writerly campaign. And it is this: if I have an ever-evolving signature, let’s see someone copy it in any precise way! That’s not a challenge, by the way. I really would prefer it if you didn’t go through our bins.

So today I learned that my useless signature makes me copy-proof. It feels really good to be copy-proof, but I’m sure you’re like me or know someone like me, so you probably know what I mean. Perhaps. If I don’t know what the hell my own signature’s gonna look like the next day, then good luck to anyone else. Not that they’d want to copy my signature. Unless they were doing an MA in Worst signatures of all-time. In which case I’d be offended if they didn’t at least try.

Speaking of horror, in this photo, tan meets mental crucifixion in a battle of the strange. Just think yourself lucky I spared you his mahogany forehead


Maybe you’re thinking, now, that because I don’t really care much for my own signature, I don’t really care much for other peoples. And you’d be 100% correct about that — although in my defense I will say that I do appreciate why they would get just a little bit excited. Yes, some of them are interesting and you can spend many hours wondering what the hell was going through a person’s mind in order to create something that looked so un-like their name or initials — not that I would, I don’t need to, I am one — but generally, to me, they’re just squiggles. I should probably be interested, seeing as I’m an artist — or used to be, to be honest I haven’t painted in ages, I’ve been too busy writing novels and making anatomically correct Great White Sharks — but I really am not. If I needed to tell you. And the one thing I am even less interested in than that is collecting signatures as a hobbyist. I suppose you could get all nostalgic and feel all faint knowing that a certain once alive and very famous person held that same piece of paper, or at least sort of leaned on it, or breathed in it, or slept in the bed next to it, but to me signature collecting seems bizarre. It’s just paper, with ink or pencil on it, and a highly unique squigglething that defines it as what some perceive to be special. Don’t get me wrong, I can be nostalgic with the best of them, but give me a blackbird singing on a roof any day.

But then again, who knows? Maybe one day I will get really into signature collecting. My dad always used to be indifferent towards antiques, but now he’s always watching Bargain Hunt with David Dickinson’s turbo-tanned face, and he bloody loves it!

Told what to do…by cheese

As a freelance writer, I spend every single working day of my life being told what to do, more than most people. I say more than most people for good reason, I think: most people only get told what to do by one person, or manager, or boss, or set of children, or wife — unless you have lots of wives, which you clearly brought on yourself you greedy, greedy man — whereas every client I have is telling me something different, and I have dozens of clients; a list that’s growing all the time (I’m not complaining about any of them, by the way — generally speaking I’ve been really lucky with who I’ve worked with. Besides that, this is all my choice so I have absolutely no reason to complain, really).

So the last thing I need is to be told what to do after work. Especially by cheese…even though I have no wife, wives, children or single manager, being told what to do by cheese is just demeaning.

Stay with me. Please. You’ll get the idea soon.

It was the middle of the night. I was tired. Wow, I’m impressive when it comes to stating the obvious. Anyway, when I flopped into bed I was sure I’d fall asleep within minutes, but then, out of nowhere, I started coughing and couldn’t stop. It was the floating spore-like evil hovering over from the oilseed rape fields which I’m always going on about on Facebook, of course (they pretty much surround the village where I live just like the plot of some Maine-themed Stephen King novel, intimidating hayfever sufferers and torturing them callously; you’d go on about it too, believe me). So I was all in a conundrum: shut both windows and attempt to get to sleep in stifling heat, or leave them open and hope that the coughing would pass. Both terrible options, but great training for real life, which is full of terrible options, so it wasn’t all bad.

It refused to pass. Every time I started to fall asleep it — my stupid face — awoke me abruptly. Then followed about 10 minutes of intense procrastination where the cough maliciously disappeared without a single bloody trace, where I found myself sitting on the edge of my bed singing, very quietly, I’m like a bird by Nelly Furtado, except replacing it with hate-filled lyrics directed at my cough, which I had now come to view as a kind of malevolent monster living inside me.

It was time to leave the bedroom.  I just had to get out of that damn bedroom. And try and forget about Nelly Furtado. For now, at least. That would be difficult, though, for she was presently all over the media like a rash, promoting the hell out of her latest musical offering (which was nowhere near as good as I’m like a bird, but then, nothing ever is).

On the way downstairs, I smiled, as the event which so often grew into some-big-thing passed without incident of any kind. What a relief. Usually, you see, when venturing downstairs in just my boxers, a hell of a situation ensues when Jojo, our dog, sees my pale skin and grows quickly vicious and agitated (she always sees me, even when I creep downstairs and make absolutely zero noise, or what my ignorant ears deem to be zero noise). Greyhounds are rarely vicious dogs, but Jojo — as with many Greyhounds, I suspect — has never been able to grasp the concept that clothes are clothes and skin is skin. She just cannot separate the two! Not that that’s her fault, what with her limited worldly knowledge. I can only speculate about what she thinks when she sees me coming down the stairs, but my guess is that she is horrified and truly believes that someone has skinned me, one of her most beloved human beings, alive. The obvious speculation, I guess, when you see someone you live with wearing what you assume has to be skin all the time, but is actually garments and you could never know it. Oh, to be a hound. I wish I could just explain to her what clothes are, it’d make life so much easier…

I found myself, then, in the pantry. In no way whatsoever was I hungry, but it made sense to do something with my time, and hunting for food and being all manly and primal seemed the obvious thing. I knew there was hardly anything in the way of goodies, of course, but that didn’t stop me. Something about being up in the middle of the night always makes me believe that there might be something hiding somewhere, that the normal rules of daytime life have been suspended, somehow. And so I searched, until I came across some Cornish Wafers — kind of like cream crackers except softer and more round. So actually nothing like cream crackers at all, then. Yes, they really are an anomaly.

What looks like cigarette ash, mummified pick ‘n’ mix and congealed stomach bile (or a close-up image of some unspeakable atrocity as seen on Channel 4s Embarrassing Bodies?). Call me a pessimist, but suddenly it looks unlikely that Philadelphia will call me back about that copywriting campaign I pitched for…

Philadelphia made them come alive, I tell you! On their own they’re a bit dry and boring, but with Philadelphia — which is a soft cheese you can buy here in England, if you didn’t know — they’re something–

Something was wrong with the packet. It was confusing me. Confusing me because I was a) wandering around somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness and b) the packet, the lid to be precise, wasn’t like it should be. I like my Philadelphia simple and normal in the packet it has always come in. Don’t get me wrong, I can handle a new typeface or change in graphics…but this…this wasn’t just a slight change…this was something more fundamental.

When I leaned slightly to the left or the right, the word on the top changed from Philadelphia to Macaroni cheese.

At first I smiled, thinking it clever. It was one of those holograms I remembered from childhood, where the image morphs into something completely different.

Then, I started to feel unsettled. Much as I like my macaroni cheese — home-made, I can be a real snob about the crap ready-made stuff, but so sue me, I’m the one who’s gotta eat it! — I don’t want anyone putting thoughts about in my head. And that was precisely what the big boys at Philadelphia HQ were doing here. It was being thrusted upon me and in the middle of the night, all tempted and with nothing much else to do, I was helpless. I was right on the verge of just making it there and then like some kind of midnight-cooking-renegade (fortunately my good senses kicked in, though, as I remembered what a nightmare pans are to wash-up).

Here are some more reasons why I don’t want to be coerced into making macaroni cheese:

1) I may not feel like it. I may have already had macaroni cheese that day and eaten way too much of it; in which case, coming across a should-be innocent tub of Philadelphia becomes a nightmare scenario which makes me feel sick.

2) That’s about it. I think I’ve just run out of reasons. I actually really love macaroni cheese…