Hello 2013: Things I Will And Won’t Be Doing As The New Year Rolls In

LAMA

I will

…be celebrating the arrival of the New Year properly, like it really matters. As if it genuinely does mean something. None of this highly cynical It’s just another day like any other malarkey that nobody wants to hear and just drags everyone down. I’ve often taken this dragging-down approach and, let me tell you, it’s done me absolutely no favours. Not one person has ever said, “thanks Chris, really wanted to hear it!” while on their way to a state of clinical depression caused by me. So this year, things are changing. People will either love or hate my newfound teenage enthusiasm. In any case, it should seem highly authentic. I studied the behaviour of some textbook newfound teenagers on the train home this morning — not one of them could sit still — and now I feel ready to convey that precious New Year’s excitement to lots of adults who have forgotten what love is like and are cold and dead inside (a bit like people who hate the hit Patrick Swayze film Dirty Dancing. They are also cold and dead inside. No offense, but we all know it’s true). I’ll either love it or hate it. I hope I’ll love it.

I won’t

…be making any New Year’s resolutions. Not even one. I’ve always found them completely and utterly pointless. Instead, I’ll do my best to be enthusiastic about my friends resolutions instead. And Yes, that means unequivocally — even if the resolutions in question are deeply unrealistic and a little bit unsettling (for example: “I’m going to have colonic irrigation while listening to the soothing sound of dolphins mating!”).

I will

…be hugging that person at the party who looks a bit Woe is me! about things. Maybe. I should have said I may be, not I will, but there it is. Just because somebody has to, otherwise what’s the point in life…what’s the point in anything, really? Having been one of these hard-to-approach Woe is me! corner-loving people, I know what it’s like (you know the kind, I’m sure. Not making any effort to be enthusiastic about anything, and standing as far away from everyone else at the party as is physically possible without actually creating that I-hate-you!-Get-any-closer-and-I-will-do-a-Lama-and-spit-in-your-face! vibe). So if it comes to it, I am ready to make this unlucky yet actually quite lucky person’s life wonderful again by way of a hug. Hopefully they won’t think I’m strange (I would introduce myself first, but it’s probably better to just go straight in for the kill without warning. It sounds harsh, but I know they’ll thank me for it later, when they reminisce about the hug and how it made them think life was great again. At least, that’s the effect I hope the hug will give).

I won’t

…be sending any text messages just before or after the New Year arrives. Do this and you’ll only curse yourself. Depending on what pathetic and extortionate network you’re on, you just stand there for minutes, grimacing at your phone, hating your phone, while around you everyone embraces this rare occasion, somehow managing to ignore their phone for an incredible few seconds. By the time your phone actually manages to send the text(s), all the Happy New Year’s! are over. And being that person who wanders around searching for the last remaining remnants of them is just plain sad.

I will

…be hugging my girlfriend and my friends — separately, then together, so as to not mess up the order of ancient girlfriend/boyfriend hugging protocol — and reminding myself that I am a fortunate and lucky person to have them. Everyone go Ahhh! now.

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Get people interested: 8 steps to writing a successful Gumtree ad

Thanks to its global accessibility and appealing ease of use — aside from those fucking annoying Captcha word puzzle things that seem solely designed to destroy human patience, optimism and spirit — Gumtree has become arguably the number 1 place to advertise your services for free, or find a new job or apartment. Find anything, for that matter (often precisely what you don’t want and would never ever need, but still). Unfortunately, also thanks to its ease of use and global accessibility, it’s also a magnet for people who can’t spell, will never be able to spell, and apparently have never heard of spell-check, but have heard of words that I’ve never come across, let alone understand. That may sound more than a little harsh, but read more than a few ads like I have, and you’ll find it’s 100% true. If I see the phrase i hav diplomat in Enlish litrature one more time I may well think about screaming, then not bother, then go and smash something up instead. Only after all that might I actually have a good long scream. It’d depend on my mood and how many awful ads I’d seen that day.

If you’re new to this blog, you may now be wondering who the hell I am to be making such a bold claim. That all my ads have been successful. Well, to hell with it, I am actually making that claim. How very bold of me. I’m not saying that each and every one of my Gumtree ads over the years has been exceptional, but what I can say is that each one has been at least moderately successful (using the reasoning that success equates to receiving more than a couple of good replies which have, on the whole, led to the whole thing being worthwhile).

Now, let us begin…

Number 0: submit your ad to the right category

In many instances, Gumtree makes it simple and easy to select the right category for your ad. If you’re a self-employed computer technician, then you’ll find doing this simple, just as you will if you have a flat to rent and you live in London. But it’s not always this straightforward — eg I’m a self-employed cross-dressing consultant for Russian businessmen — and inevitably this means that some people end up putting their ad in the wrong category. This is a slightly different scenario from people who mis-post deliberately, spamming the system just to try and attract attention — which they do, for all the wrong reasons — but it has a similar effect: people don’t click on the ad, and all that time spent creating it proves to be for nothing.

Number 1: write a good title which isn’t identical to every other advert in your category

This one is universal, no matter what you’re trying to sell, or what kind of attention you’re attempting to get. Writing a good title is crucial, obviously, as it’s the very first thing that a would-be interested reader is going to see. So include all the relevant information and don’t make it overly long. Additionally, don’t go over-board with those capital letters. Humour, when used properly, can also be good. Just don’t use the title to crack jokes, and if you’re going to do a play-on-words, make sure it doesn’t sound like total shit.

Lastly, check and double-check your title for spelling mistakes and grammar issues, as well as problems with flow and overall cohesiveness. When I’m scanning ads, I often find the contrast between terrible ads and good ads very telling. Also bear in mind that even if you do write a good ad, the category you’re posting in may be saturated with similarly-sounding ads. In other words, be different and use the title to stand out, because doing so is the best chance you have.

Number 2: writing your ad — the first draft

It seems to me that the reason why so many Gumtree ads are horrendous is really quite simple: for the most part, people who post on Gumtree — as with those who reply on Gumtree — are not, with the exception of just a handful of people, writers. That’s to say they may consider themselves writers, but they may only write creatively now and again, or write emails at work. There’s nothing wrong with either of these people, of course — many people who write lots of work emails write very well indeed — but the fact of the matter is that people who only write once every so often probably don’t show their work to too many people. This means that they likely receive — and have received — limited feedback on their work. The result of this is a few hundred-thousand people who write an ad, think it’s good, then submit it without a second-thought. They then wonder why they get limited replies, or why the replies they do get are a waste of time.

How to avoid this? Write a first draft and give it to someone — ask for their opinion. They don’t have to read a lot, they just have to be human and be able to communicate what they do and do not like about the ad. If they do read a lot, however, then all the better. And don’t be afraid: if someone hates your ad, or has l0ts of constructive criticism for you, it doesn’t mean you’re hopeless (usually). Even people who write all day and all night need feedback every once in a while.

Number 3: make sure you include all the relevant information

I won’t — and more to the point I can’t, because the list is endless and my memory is limited — tell you about all the terrible ads I’ve seen and specifically why they were terrible. But what I can say is that aside from horrific spelling — actually, borderline offensive is more accurate — a lack of relevant information is one of the major things I’ve noticed. From a job hunter’s perspective, when I search through the dozens of Gumtree ads out there, I’m looking for an ad that looks like it’s actually been considered by a real human being. It doesn’t have to be beautiful poetry, or even amusing, but it does have to tell me more or less everything I need to know in a relatively short period of time. If the ad is for a full-time worker, your readers are going to want to know how much the wage is per annum, or the specific skill-sets which you’re looking for, aside from the obvious things (like personality traits which you’d find appealing). If you’re advertising a new creative writing group, don’t forget to include what kind of writing you’ll be focussing on. If you’re advertising a graphic designer position in the heart of London, what about the kind of expectations you have? Is the role freelance or full-time? Will the job be a mainly solo one, or will it involve working as part of a team with a copywriter? If you’re asking for job seekers to apply with a CV, take the time to ask for references as well.

These are just a few things which you might need to include. If you’re not sure what needs including, organise a meeting with your co-workers or ask your friends what they think before you even think about writing the ad.

Number 4: the curse of you will…

I know that human resources departments, since the dawn of the fax machine, have favoured the You will be an astute, diligent worker with 5 grades A to C… approach, but let’s be honest: it sounds dull, vaguely regimental and, at worst, aggressive. The second I see an ad like this, I (often, but not always) feel talked-down-to, and as if the winning candidate would need to have been genetically engineered under strict scientific circumstances to even stand a chance. While we can’t rid the world of these ads, you can avoid creating yet another ad that seems a little too overpowering. There may be hundreds of people out there who could be suitable, so don’t rule 90% of them out by suggesting that they be perfect people with absolutely no flaws — that’s probably being more than  little unrealistic. Mainly because lots of not-perfect people make terrific employees.

Number 5: there’s a thin line between confidence and arrogance

Let’s say you’re an electrician, setting up on your own, and let’s, for a moment, forget what I just said about the You will thing.

So: you feel that you’re a skilled individual with a lot to offer. You’ve spent years working for an employer, and now you’re ready to go it alone. Gumtree is the ideal place to start advertising your services, what with it being either free or relatively inexpensive and with a large captive audience. How do you ensure you come across as an authority but don’t sound arrogant or full of yourself? State your skills with confidence, but don’t bend the truth — that’s always a good start. If you’re not sure what constitutes bending the truth, consider what you’re confident talking about with someone face-to-face. If you find yourself squirming in your seat, thinking No, that’s an outragous lie, that probably means you’re pushing it too far.

Number 6: nobody can see inside your head but you

Remember, as you write, or re-write your ad, that only you know how capable you are. With few exceptions, when a reader views your ad, he or she doesn’t know who you are, or why they should go with you and not someone else. Often, I find myself writing something, thinking that everything I need to include is already there. Then — and this is a familiar pattern I have come to both expect and predict — I read the ad a day or two later and discover that there are gaps. Facts missing, tiny question-marks everywhere, creating a general feeling of incompleteness. This is what you really don’t want. If a reader views your ad and is confused or wants to ask a question, they’re not going to email you and do so. Instead, thanks to this heaving and highly competitive job-market we’re all strangulated by, they’re going to be thinking I need to get that ad sent off as soon as possible! That’s not the frame-of-mind you want your job seeker to be in.

It’s frustrating when people reply to ads and they’re either the wrong people or not specifically skilled enough. Cut down on this by making sure that they have a good idea of who you are and what makes you different as a company/service.

Number 7: do upload images, but make sure they’re worthy of your viewer’s eyes

When you stop to think about it, Gumtree offer an impressive amount of creative freedom to everyone who wants to advertise on their platform. Despite this, and the fact that photographs can be uploaded with the minimum of hassle, a large percentage of people still don’t take advantage. You should. Ads with photos are intriguing, especially if they’re good photos, balancing nice composition with good lighting. The photo-thing can be a trap, of course: while the mysterious Gumtree staff do apparently vet images to ensure they’re not breaking the rules, they won’t suggest that you upload a better quality image, or tell you that a photo of you standing in front of that shelf — the one that your flat-mate vomited on a few weeks ago after a stag-do… — looks awfully off-putting. When in doubt, don’t add a mug-shot — they so often look frightening, as if you genuinely are a serial killer. Otherwise, always, always upload good photographs which have something to do with the context of your ad. Try to avoid photos that look childish, too, unless that is your intention.

Number 8: check and re-check your ad

For some people, spelling and grammar are everything. Conversely, spelling and grammar may not matter much to you. Either way, an ad that’s littered with typos is a bad ad. Not only does it make you look deeply illiterate, but it also makes you look untrustworthy. If you can’t spell, use spell-check. If you don’t know how words should be spelt, and spell-check confuses you, get someone else to help you out. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help.

Finally, submit your ad, but check it when it goes live to ensure that Gumtree hasn’t mangled the title and added unnecessary code. Check the ad, too, and if there are any obvious problems, go back into your account and edit it again.

The Mayans were right all along! 6 things that make me think the world really is about to end

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An artist’s impression of the end of the world. I really wouldn’t bother trying to decipher those symbols. It’s the end of the world. Even I don’t know. Even it doesn’t

Tonight, after much hard thinking and weighing things up — seeing my friends for potentially the last time in the world ever, I finally concluded, was slightly more important than staying at home and moaning to myself about buying Christmas presents — I decided to go all the way to the pub. Even though I didn’t really feel like it and getting to the pub meant traipsing through the rain and the wind to the other side of town. Even though many men with colds — not mancolds, but real, actual, proper genuine colds that women also get — wouldn’t have dreamed of even considering doing so while in such a state. Just in case. Because you never know, do you? At least I never know. Sadly, I am not a Mayan. (And if I was I’d keep it quiet, to be honest. During my last few hours on Earth, the very last thing I’d want is hundreds of thousands of people turning up at my door and asking me annoying questions about Mankind’s imminent destruction.)

So it’s like this: the moment I prepared to leave the house, ominous things started to happen. Really ominous, obviously weird/bad things that were clear warnings of the biggest and baddest apocalyptic thing on the horizon. I wouldn’t normally think of the following things as ominous — my friend Jonathan, who believes in almost nothing other than The Hobbit and bizarre theories, has attempted to drill into me that we may not actually exist, and more or less everything is pointless, etc — but I thought I’d get into the spirit of things. I wasn’t even trying to look for obviously ominous things, as I bet you thought I was. If you’d have been me then I’m sure you’d agree that they presented themselves to me. All I did was take a great deal of notice of them and attach value where 99% of people wouldn’t have bothered, because they were too stressed about the world not ending, and having to keep on paying the mortgage. I feel sorry for those people.

So yes, very worrying.

Here are those things…

1: my dog, Jojo, growled at me moments before I was set to leave the house. I was stroking her soft head and we were saying goodbye in that ancient of ways. She’s a dog, so it goes without saying that she’s growled at me a few times before — there was the time I made her wait slightly longer than usual for her treat, and that other time when she told me in no uncertain terms that she was feeling grumpy and existential — but this time it was different. There was that look of woe in her eyes, for example. This was no lovegrowl, as I have called these vocal showings of affection and loyalty which we have shared many-a-time, over the years. This was a sign which meant I may never see you again because I’ll probably be asleep when you get home. That’s a bit sad, isn’t it? Don’t stroke me when I’m sleeping, though. End of the world of not, I will bite you if you wake me up.

The signs had already started and I hadn’t even left the house yet!

2: upon leaving the house, things were to grow increasingly disturbing in a matter of minutes. I’m not just saying that in a Mayan-foreshadowing kind of a way — I really do mean it. There I was, just walking down the street, away from the train station, and what should I see but some carol singers engaged in a dispute with a woman. I couldn’t hear what either party was saying, but I knew then that Jojo’s growl held significant meaning, and I feared the worst for what was to come.

When do you ever see carol singers engaged in disputes with anyone?

3: a few steps down the road towards the pub, I was feeling emancipated. In the days before, I’d been panicking a bit, worrying about whether or not the world really would end on December 21st. Now, knowing with certainty that it indeed would end, once and for all — that there would be no more of those bloody property programmes where irritating young couples buy first homes worth half-a-million pounds while discussing technical-over-my-head-housing-things in a nonchalant, vilifying way, and that I’d never again have to endure anyone asking me why I hated Marmite, when it was obvious why I hated Marmite — I felt like anything was possible in those few limited hours.

This was when the third sign of doom came with brutal force: to my right, to my purest horror, I saw and heard two things simultaneously. Thing 1 was the familiar sound of music I despised — Maroon 5‘s annoyingly catchy Happy Ever After song — booming from a vehicle, and thing 2 was the driver of the vehicle being excruciatingly annoying…there he sat, also emancipated, but this time in a way which was surely causing offense to countless people aside from myself. He was dancing to Maroon 5 with his hands, mainly. Not just a bit, either. The guy was really going for it. He just didn’t care. Upon registering this fully, and coming to terms with it, I realised thing number 4: the man was also singing loudly to the music.

My God! I had never felt such pure, blatant doom. Apart from in the instances which I have described before this.

4: Hobbit-loving atheist Jonathan told me that all this meant nothing, of course. That I was doing that thing that all human beings do when word starts going around that the end of the world is just moments away: looking for signs, seeking out confirmation of my basically ridiculous notions which were based in no way upon any firm foundation. Yet Jonathan hadn”t been there, was he? He had not witnessed the Maroon 5 incident! Similarly, he hadn’t witnessed Jojo’s lovegrowl strangeness, or felt the general sense of foreboding in my body. Not that he’d of taken any notice of it if he had have felt it, by some miracle (which he also doesn’t believe, but actually that’s quite endearing, because most of the time, neither do I).

And this was when thing number 5 reared its ugly head. On this one fateful day, Jonathan was in a spectacularly good mood and smiling lots and not trying hard to convince anyone that it wasn’t really the end of the world. This was the final nail in the coffin. With that, and the freakish lack of discussion about the end of the world from other bar-goers nearby (number 6, which I really hadn’t been expecting) I knew that was it.

Goodbye, then. Thankyou for visiting my blog. It’s been fun on Earth. I hope you liked it.

The Daubney story: would you lock your child in their room?

Once upon a time, the Daubney’s three-year-old child, Sonny, was a total pain. And I do mean PAIN. He just wouldn’t sleep. In fact, he wouldn’t stay in his room unless physically restrained by one of his parents. Refusing to spend more than a couple of minutes in bed at night – or any other time for that matter – on the surface, this enthusiastic little boy who couldn’t sit still doesn’t sound particularly unique or different. Most of us have, at one time or another, been told that we were unbearable as children, or teenagers, or maybe even adults. Yet at night, when most little boys and girls were tucked-up safely in bed without as much as a murmur, Sonny was out on the rampage, making sleep for his parents impossible and defying the baby-gate at the top of the stairs like some kind of crazed miniature escape-artist. If day-time was difficult for Diana, Martin’s wife, then night-time was, at times, almost impossible for the couple to deal with. At night Sonny would wander the house doing the kind of things that inhabit every parent’s worst nightmares: turning the cooker on and off, knocking over the knife stand, running around and generally being a little bloody mischief – what sounds a lot like the living embodiment of Chucky from the horrific yet amusing Child’s Play series, to be honest (but not this thing also named Child’s Play). Understandably, concerning all this, some people can’t help but think: it’s their child, so whatever he’s doing then it must be their fault for bringing him up that way. Yet the real world isn’t always so easy to unravel and analyse, is it? (Or maybe it is, perhaps I’m just a bit thick.) Plenty of people who were brought up with model parents turn to a life of crime for absolutely no explanation. The mass murderers who had kind, loving, loyal parents, are only half as interesting as the more grisly stories which make better TV.

The point is this: after six-months of patiently following the experts advice, Martin Daubney was pissed off, tired and he’d had just about enough. According to him, both he Diana had tried everything reasonably within their power to keep their three-year-old boy, Sonny, in his bed, and nothing worked. Nothing made a tangible difference. They loved the boy with all their heart, but nothing made things easier. And listening to Martin talk openly about this controversial subject on This Morning today, it was clear that he wasn’t exactly expecting everyone to applaud him and say what a nice guy he was. The Daily Mail online — as with other papers and online sources — had simultaneously published a story which had seen scores of nasty comments, and by the looks of it, public opinion was anything but on the couple’s side…

The Daubney’s problem was a common one which, up until now — thanks to it having nothing to do with Gangnam style, iPads or the end of the world as predicted by the Mayans, presumably — hasn’t exactly been front-line news for the nation. Now, thanks to lots of welcome and unwelcome media attention, the country — or the world — seems to be utterly divided. It’s even got to the point where bloggers without children, like me, have become interested enough to start getting on their high horses (or just giving their take on it, as I’d much prefer people saw it).

Either way, some understand the Daubney’s plight and sympathise greatly, having been there and witnessed this predicament first-hand, while others think it was foolhardy and downright dangerous — at worst, serious child abuse worthy of criminal prosecution. Could locking a child in his or her room cause long-term psychological problems? Is it possible that the Daubney’s decision to make this issue public — if it indeed was their decision — might trigger a landslide of irresponsible parenting, the likes of which we’ve never seen before? Maybe. I suppose it could. I’m not sure. It’s very hard to say.

Personally, after both listening to what Martin had to say, and reading about what the couple have been through, I doubt it. The following are some key conclusions I have come to, which you may or may not agree with.

1: Parent or no parent, one thing I realised as I started writing this is very simple and has almost nothing to do with having children: not everyone — and this is obviously not their fault — really understands what it means to not be able to sleep for a prolonged period of time, and not understanding this means that it’s incredibly difficult to put yourself in the same headspace that the couple were in when they were forced into a corner. Most of us have had colds or insomnia at one or more point in time, but not everyone knows what it’s like to actually go without sleep for days or months on end — something which can cause hallucinations, a dangerous build-up of depression and a severe decline in decision-making ability, among many other things (I know this because, when I was seriously ill between 2006 and 2009, I went a full 9 days with only a few minutes sleep). The fact is this: the Daubney’s were in a very difficult position when they – or Martin – decided to lock their child in his room at night, and they weren’t thinking straight. Unable to operate normally and falling asleep at work, among other things, Martin didn’t have lots of different choices open to him, and internet research proved to be polarised at either end of the spectrum, further adding confusion. What would you do, really, if you were in his/their shoes? He’s admitted numerous times that he’s not proud of what they felt they had to do, and at no time has he said that it’s a solution which every parent should seek to follow.

2: There’s been an awful lot of talk about the damage this might do, or might already have done, to the child in question. Yet, much as this is worth considering and should be researched, what keeps coming to my mind is: what might have happened if the Daubney’s hadn’t taken this decision when they did? (A decision that many parents may have taken but not made public, for fear of what might be said.) Would the stress have become so bad, so difficult to manage, that something terrible might have happened either to them or to Sonny? And if it had, let’s be honest: plenty of people would have been asking why the couple didn’t just lock the child in his room, which, it has to be said, does sound like the simplest solution. Maybe not the right one, but the simplest and obvious, under the circumstances. I suppose it’s a case of you really had to be there.

3: Really, what is this a debate about? Is it about how best to keep a child safe at night – a family safe – or a debate about unlawfully imprisoning a child? Both? I wonder what the public reaction might have been if the boy, Sonny, had taken a knife from the kitchen, marched back upstairs and stuck it in his sleeping father. Extreme, yes, but not impossible, surely. Would it have been the parents fault for not having put the knives out of the way, or the parents fault for not somehow predicting that this might one day happen, even though there were no real clues that such violence could take place? Or would it have been the local GPs fault for not having seen the danger signs from way off, months in advance? At what point does it become responsible parenting to lock your child in his or her room? Clearly parents need more help with this kind of thing. If this story highlights anything, it’s that parents have long been left to their own devices when it comes to this kind of thing.

Apart from all this, why is it good or preferable to have a child’s bedroom door unlocked when there are so many dangers in a house environment? Co-sleeping is a fine idea, but what if the child refuses to stay in bed?

Ask yourself this. Could you call the authorities and say “We’ve got a problem…we need help,” and not fear that they’d take your baby away?

4: I suppose all this has made me think what I might do if the same thing happened to me. If I’d been in their position and now had the world watching me, judging me. To that, it’s easy for me to say I’d call my doctor and demand to get some help for my son or daughter. I’d fight for someone to help us, so that I wouldn’t have to lock my child in their room for a single minute – something which might increase their fear or anxiety and do genuine harm to them. I’d like to think I would say that, at least. I just can’t be sure I would, had I not read about the Daubney story.

5: Obviously, though, let’s make one thing crystal clear: there are many flaws with locking your child in his or her room at night. Look closer and there are lots of other smaller – but no less important – arguments that rapidly spring to mind. For example, what if something was to happen to the parents and the child, locked in, couldn’t escape his room in order to both help them and raise the alarm? What about fires? Valid as these points are, perspective and context are equally crucial: the Daubney’s aren’t and never have been advocating that all parents blindly do this, and it would have been far easier for them to keep quiet and avoid the hassle. When Martin Daubney spoke on This Morning, you could see he wasn’t proud of any of this. That appearing on TV wasn’t fun or comfortable (Diana argued against the decision to lock the door, to begin with, until Martin made it plain that it was either that or he move out). After five-months the bolt on the door was gone and now, the family are better than they’ve ever been – Sonny included.

So as they say, hindsight is a wonderful thing. It’s easy to see someone’s mistakes when they’ve made them and they are not you. I for one think that whatever your opinion, the Daubney’s have done an important thing by making their mistakes and story public. As some have said, it’s hardly groundbreaking news – and I do agree with them on this – but at the same time, we all need reminding every once in a while. I do think we — all of us, not just the parents — should be asking these questions. After all, if the future parents of tomorrow can benefit from past mistakes, that has to be a good thing, surely.

Maybe it’s all the stories that have appeared on the back of this which are swaying the argument, making the couple out to be the poster-adults of awful parenting. Maybe it’s just that the Daubney’s are actually talking about it and that feels…weird, or wrong. Maybe that’s why this story has attracted such rage and concern. On TV, on radio, in the papers. Hardly the done thing, in a time where it’s much easier to go online and keep complete control of what you write in the comments sections. I wonder, above all else, if locking a child in his or her room in very exceptional circumstances is any worse than shouting loudly at them in the supermarket (which I have seen countless times) or threatening to smack their bums if they dare to scream again (which I’ve also witnessed) or smoking around children (I’d be shocked if someone said they hadn’t seen this)?

I may not have children of my own just yet, but show me one parent who hasn’t shouted at their child or children and then regretted doing so. I’m not looking forward to making lots of hideous parental mistakes if I ever have a family, but maybe, just maybe, that’s the way things need to be.

Naughty naughty Instagram: that thing I’ve never used because I just never understood what the hell it was supposed to be for (and don’t tell me. I don’t want to know)

I once had a boss who was confusing and odd and was, it now occurs to me, a bit like Instagram. This was back when I was a lowly cooked-chicken-counter servant at Waitrose. Ah, the good-old days of woe!

In many ways, I liked my job. I mainly liked my job because I only worked 2 hours Monday to Friday, and I worked in the middle of the day, which meant that although I had to put up with the often-horrendous lunch-time rush – never had you seen more people who couldn’t clear up after themselves – I could get up late and go home with plenty of time left before Neighbours started and Paul Robinson attempted to kill someone, or just deeply upset them. At the time, being an artist and trying to navigate my way through the mysterious world of selling paintings at galleries, this enabled me to both keep my dignity and my sanity (everyone who knew me saw that I was making a proper traditional artist effort to not get a real job so as to allow my art to prosper as much as it could in the face of evil modern adversity, but also recognised that I understood the world and that I had to at least work a bit so I wasn’t freakish and alarming to be acquainted with). Working on the cooked chicken-counter was exceedingly hard going, what with so many different characters trying to fight their way to the top and avoid going out the front to serve the dreaded hate-filled customers, in particular that bloody annoying one who always asked for a variety of cooked chicken that we hadn’t and would never ever have in stock. It was all about politics, you see. Providing you kept that in mind then you’d make it through OK. It wasn’t quite as bad as over at the Freshly Baked Goods counter – this was where the dog-eat-dog world of supermarket politics often spiralled completely out of control, with the effects rippling through the Confectionery Department and even sometimes Customer Services – but things could get pretty heated at times. Christmas time was by far the worst. All of us, in our Santa hats, annoyed, hot and bothered.

But like I was saying, I once had a boss who was a bit like Instagram.

Take November, for example. When it got to November – which I only made the mistake of allowing to happen once – rumour started to circulate about a big meeting coming up. One of those meetings where all kinds of staff members who never normally mix would surely be allowed to stand near one another for the very first time, fuelling the social side of the politics further and giving yet more weight to the popular argument that men in suits aren’t capable of empathy or humour (I have since had to revise this statement, as sometimes I have myself been a man in a suit). And, sure enough, within days of the rumour starting, official-looking notes were put up in all the departments by invisible strangers who came and went almost as bizarrely as crop circles. Many of us suspected it was the usually innocent-looking Janet — an early morning cleaner, sent to do the management’s dirty work for them. We never did find out, although once, years later, Janet was a bit off with me when I bumped into her in the street. Hmm…

Then the meeting came and we all assembled out the back, in that hallowed place beyond the dirty plastic hanging strips in the door-way where customers always looked in but weren’t allowed in because it was for staff only. It was even worse than I’d thought: men wearing suits which cost more than all of the teenage shelf-stackers collectively earned in one year were standing perversely on one side, and there was a general feeling of someone having just badly farted or taken a covert dump on the floor. David from General Household Products was a pain all throughout the meeting – that I do remember. He was leaning up against an abandoned trolley and it kept creaking menacingly, and everyone knew it was David from General Household Products except our boss, Mr Herbert, who you could tell was getting more and more pissed-off.

“I may or may not be asking more members of staff from various departments to work during our extended Christmas opening hours period,” was one of the memorable unthinkable things that Mr Herbert came out with, and instantly all of us part-time and semi-part-time workers were struck with fear and resentment and revulsion and too much more to write here, but that’s plainly obvious. We weren’t prepared for this horror, and I hated David from General Household Products for playing his part in making Mr Herbert more angry in his typically unnecessary overweight way (David was overweight, Mr Herbert wasn’t). Unlike the hardcore full-time workers and tragic people who actually volunteered to do over-time, we had never been conditioned to perform this oh-so-specific supermarket role, and we felt our human rights were being trampled upon. That Christmas was nightmarish on a number of levels: firstly, I was teamed-up with Jordan from Dairy, who everyone knew was a bit thick and attracted trouble at every possible turn – you couldn’t leave him with a crate of semi-skimmed for fear of what might happen – and secondly I was told I would have to work an unfathomable extra hour a day during the upcoming Christmas period. An hour-a-day might not sound like much to all you hardcore full-time workers – and indeed it sounds like almost nothing to me now – but back then, with my reputation as a rebellious young artist to uphold, it spelt the kiss of death that I knew I sort of needed to become a real artist, so as to overcome it heroically, but at the same time would do anything to avoid (apart from working for the man). And so it was that I left the cooked-chicken-counter for good that following January, making my own personal protest with it. Into the big-wide-world I went, expectant, hopeful and looking forward to many years to come where I wouldn’t be forced to interact with customers or a till (a combination that nobody with a problem with numbers should ever be exposed to, I think you’ll agree). Or Jordan from Dairy. Man he was so fucking annoying.

So we’ve established that my boss was a bit like Instagram: he would say things that sounded not just incredibly vague, but were also worded in such a way that they could be extremely specific – if you read between the lines and spent a ridiculous amount of time actually analysing what the words meant or could mean. Since Instagram revised their terms and conditions to say that they could basically do more or less as they pleased with all their users’ photos and data, you and I know there’s been a massive public outcry. And for good reason: we all see our photos and data as our own private property.

Yet the more philosophical people out there aren’t banging their heads against walls or reverting to drilling holes in their heads just yet (it’s an ancient technique I suggest you never try at home, called Treppaning. Please do head on over to Trepan.com for some interesting reading on the subject…if you dare). Because whatever the reason for Instagram‘s latest-latest announcement – they’re allegedly not planning to sell anyone’s photos to advertising agencies, and apparently respect all our basic human rights to own our own property and not have it used without our permission, more or less – the fact of what it means is still the same. Instagram may or may not be planning to use our photographs and sell them on, but other people out there most certainly are. Ever since the arrival of Google, people have being stealing things that don’t belong to them and making money off the back of others: images, text, illustrations, novels. I’ve even had my own novel stolen and made available for download, so I know how bloody irritating that can be. For me, all the news about Instagram really highlights is how clueless the majority of the population are to copyright infringement and similar things. Which isn’t their or your fault of course. Like Jordan from Dairy or David from General Household Products, most people never have to deal with copyright or worry about these things, so it’s bound to be a shock.

Without wanting to defend Instagram – I’m thinking they have enough money and people to do this on their own, so I’ll not feel too guilty about it – just remember this: naughty as Instagram were for making out that they could do whatever they wanted with our images – the phrase massive U-turn after a crazy amount of people closed down their accounts does come to mind – they did at least tell their users that this was what they were planning to do in January of next year. People who steal images, novels, text and data don’t generally have a habit of doing that, especially when it’s on a grand scale, so it’s not just Instagram and Facebook and the FBI who we need to watch out for.

So, as pointed out by numerous people in the comments section of every major online news source which has published this story, it comes down to one thing: if you don’t want Instagram using your photos without your permission, get off Instagram and stay off it for good. Doing so doesn’t mean you’re completely safe, of course, it just means that the likelihood of your images becoming someone else’s property via Instagram is somewhat reduced. As for watermarking your images and that being a bullet-proof solution, as some have suggested, you might want to rethink that before you start gloating that you’ve tricked the system. Software is easily available that can take a rubbish looking image and boost its quality, not to mention remove the watermark and make it extremely saleable. Instagram might have promised that they don’t intend to sell your photographs, but what’s to stop them licensing them? Yes, it’s time to read those terms and conditions again, and that goes for anything you sign up to online. Because privacy is dead. Privacy online doesn’t really exist anymore, save for online banking and password protected services — or so we all hope. It died the moment the internet started, and it’s not coming back any time soon, so it’s time to start planning for the future.

Keeping Perspective: Things To Remember Following The Tragic Death Of Jacintha Saldanha

Yesterday, while drinking tea and pointlessly wishing my desk was big enough that I didn’t have a scattered mess of papers everywhere almost all of the time, I was contacted on Twitter by one Stephanie Hegarty. Who is this Stephanie Hegarty character? I thought (sorry Stephanie, it only lasted a couple of seconds, and you can be sure that everyone gets the exact same tweetment…oh dear), while secretly hoping that she might have a solution to my desk-is-too-small problem (if you didn’t know, thinking pointless thoughts is a fantastic way of wasting work time). Well, she was a journalist for the BBCs World Service channel, as it happens, and today she was contacting me – like she had many other bloggers, writers and other people ending in ers, but not all people ending in ers, obviously – to see if I wanted to get involved on tonight’s installment of World Have Your Say, the popular current affairs programme where real people from all over the world get to…well, have their say about lots of newsworthy things. And I did want to get involved, so I said, “that sounds good.” It was nice to say a whole sentence on Twitter without having to resort to abbreviations, for once, that’s for sure.

In the end I sat there waiting for a phone call which never transpired, and never got my chance to go on the radio and do my best radio posh voice (yes, I’m doing a sad face right now). Nevermind. I dealt with it by thinking about consuming far too many Wagonwheels. So instead of letting all my thoughts go to waste, like so many of them do, I thought I’d write this blog. Being totally serious now, for a change, here are a few things I think we need to stay aware of following the tragic death of 46-year-old London nurse and mother and wife Jacintha Saldanha (previous blog here).

1

Following the onslaught of newspaper articles, tweets and blogs concerning the strange series of events which have led to the unfolding of this horrendous news story, it’s extremely tempting to draw a number of simplified conclusions. The obvious ones are as follows: A) the prank phone call which the two Australian DJs made caused the death of the nurse in question, or was pivotal in influencing it. B) the two presenters should have known better and should have known that the prank could have dire consequences. C) The two DJs — as well as the radio team behind them, who were all responsible for creating the prank-call hoax — wanted to humiliate the person they were calling, and, thus, they are evil and deserve to suffer. And suffer some more.

Except there are a few very large and complex problems with this argument. Hence them being simplified, as I said before. The first is that right now, as it stands, we still know very little about why Jacintha Saldanha actually killed herself. What we do know is an edited version of the truth presented to us by the papers and online news (that Jacintha felt devastating shame as a result of the call, etc, as has been widely reported). Was the prank call the sole reason for the nurse and mother killing herself? I highly doubt it, although of course it’s entirely possible and impossible to discount. The chances are, we may well never know for sure. Was it pivotal in inducing this tragedy? Another difficult question. Sadly, that does seem to be the case. But, again, right now it only seems to be the case…until we know more – make that much more – we don’t really know anything for sure. Lastly, as for the DJs wanting to deliberately humiliate anyone, this seems somewhat unlikely. 2 Day FM may have a worrying track-record of similarly foolhardy on-air stunts, but the video which appeared today — the presenters talking more openly than must have been easy — shows this story in a new and yet more unsettling light. According to the video, the DJs never intended for anything like this to happen and are quite clearly broken. It’s your choice to believe their plight or not.

2

We live in a culture of blame. We can all jump on Twitter, shove a hash-tag in there and blame people and be heard, and many of us do so with ruthless certainty to tens-of-thousands of followers. Nowadays, we’re all armchair journalists, even grandparents and people who are barely literate enough to spell their own name (which is handy or even helpful on Twitter where every character counts and correct spelling is a burden). And it’s tremendously empowering to be heard and believed, isn’t it? Yet, not everything is a simple matter of one person – or two people – doing one thing and there being one single catastrophic result. Many things can and do happen in-between to divert and spread the blame, and in this case we know very little about what did or did not occur. One thing that’s always been true is that it feels awful to not have somebody or something to blame. Nearly always, this triggers hostility and rage.

3

Now look at probability. Probability is one of those amazing things, and probability, as far as I am concerned, says that if this same situation were to play out 1,000 times, it would play out in 1,000 different ways, all of them unpredictable and surprisingly unique. How many of those 1,000 people might take their own life as a result of the exact same prank call? It’s impossible to say without staging a mass unethical experiment. It might be 12 or it might be zero. But let’s do some massive assuming, shall we? Chances are that of those 1,000 people, many of them would think positively about the joke and none would take their own life. Maybe at least several-hundred people would think the joke was at least mildly amusing. Be honest: a lot of people, one hell of a lot of people, would surely find the prank amusing, and many of those might go on to try and make money off of it. They would likely succeed, too.

With no death to worry about, a joke feels infinitely more amusing, does it not?

4

Think what you like about the DJs, but don’t forget that the hospital have been exceedingly vague in the wake of this disaster, in particular about their role and what happened in-between the prank and the nurse’s death. Here’s a good question: why wasn’t protocol in place to prevent just anyone from ringing through to the nurse’s station? It seems crazy to believe that there wouldn’t have been at least some obstacles or rules there as a matter of logical prevention. After all, this is the Royal Family we’re talking about. It’s not like this couldn’t have been predicted.

5

Pranks are funny. Not all pranks, but some — even Prince Charles thought this one was funny at the time. No matter how nice you think you are, when something unfortunate happens to someone else — you drive through a puddle, for example, soaking an overweight pedestrian, making your day 10 times better — and they don’t end up killing themselves, you might laugh or say “brilliant!” yet it’s only when someone goes and kills themselves that we learn about the deep dark things inside. That it hurt them so horribly. With all the other pranks we never usually find out. So what do we do? Ban all pranks? I don’t want to live in that world and I am willing to bet that you don’t either.

Yet clearly something tangible needs to be done to protect at-risk people. Some kind of psychological/cultural profiling, perhaps, or some sort of legislation that everyone follows. Yes it’ll ruin the spontaneous nature of pranks forever, but people staying alive is clearly infinitely more important. In the future, more care will surely be taken in hospitals and institutions, as a result of this nightmare — that much is almost sure. I just hope we haven’t got too short a memory to learn from the mistakes and keep them in mind in the future.

6

All this madness about the DJs having blood on their hands needs to stop now. It’s not on. When the nightmare image is reflected on ourselves, it’s not a pretty thing. You may not wish to try out the following example, and if that’s the case you’ll want to skip this next bit after the colon and go straight to the next paragraph:

you may have heard about a school friend who recently killed themselves. Let’s say you don’t know why this happened. In that case, it’s easy to speculate and forget about them. Especially if you never really knew them and were not ever close. Yet, how can you be absolutely certain that you or a friend of yours didn’t play some small part in their later death? What if, many years ago, you were one of the bullies and that thought — the thought of what you had done to them — went round and round and eventually led to their demise? It’s a horrifying thought. It’s nasty to even consider or visualize that something we’ve done may have caused someone else to physically hurt themselves, let alone end their own life. I’m having that thought even as I write this. What if somebody read this blog post and hurt themselves…or worse? I’d be absolutely devastated. Yet I’d like to think that if that did happen, I wouldn’t be hauled off to prison for making someone think about something they’d rather not have.

7

The DJs and the team involved in all this aren’t going to be forgetting about Jacintha any time soon, that’s for sure. Chances are, they’ll always feel like they have blood on their hands, even if it ends up turning out otherwise when more information eventually comes to light.

royal panic: when a phone-call prank becomes not very funny…

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and the breaking news about nurse Jacintha Saldanha’s death – reported as apparent suicide, following a telephone prank by two Australian DJs at the London King Edward VII hospital where the nurse worked in close proximity to the newly pregnant Duchess of Cambridge – will, no doubt, be triggering an onslaught of grief, remorse and dread for the two people at the centre of the storm. Radio DJs Michael Christian and Mel Greig probably never thought the prank would initially work as well as it did. Now it has, they’ll be wishing it didn’t. And it goes without saying that they’re not the only ones…

Personally, my mind is still boggling and trying to make sense of all this. Like everyone else, I heard about the prank, in which the DJs pretended to be the Queen and Prince Charles. At the time, although I didn’t actually hear it over the radio, I thought it mildly amusing and a bit bizarre. Neither then, nor after, did I consider that it might have such grave side-effects.

Emphasis on the might. Because while the newspapers and online news sites are already out in force, painting a picture of cruelty on behalf of the two DJs, I think we need to keep some perspective on this before things spin wildly out-of-control — that is, unless things already have and already are. There’s no doubt about it: looking at what we presently know to be the facts, the hoax surely contributed to the nurse’s death. Yet that’s simplifying things a bit too much, isn’t it? I mean, think about it critically and logically: these two DJs, for whatever reason, pretended to be two very famous people, who were then believed. Following this the nurse, presumably in shame — if what we read holds any truth, which is hard to say with certainty when such huge journalistic mistakes have been made in the past — apparently committed suicide. For me, the facts don’t add up. Without knowing any more about what actually happened, or, for that matter, Jacintha Saldanha’s state-of-mind in the weeks, days and hours leading up to this event, it feels wrong – and I think is wrong – to go pointing the finger and casting aspersions. All of which I expect will happen with relentless force over the next 48 hours and beyond. I am bracing myself, and that’s tragic: a woman has died. Surely that’s what we should be focussing on?

One thing that is, apparently, a fact, is that the Sydney radio station in question is already in trouble for breaching its regulator’s code. Then again, show me one single big radio station on the face of this Earth which hasn’t been in trouble for violating something at one time, whether it be it’s code or the Law. It all adds up to a very murky picture. My sympathy is with the family and close friends of Jacintha Saldanha at what must be a truly disturbing and horrible time. With some luck, the internet will think before it speaks and we’ll be given a bit more information first, before we start issuing rights and wrongs. It just all seems a bit premature to me.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the fact that this was clearly a misjudgment on the part of the radio station itself. After all, it’s their responsibility to vet and control its employees, and this could so easily have been avoided — surely by now we’ve heard enough radio pranks to last a bloody lifetime? Yes, undoubtedly it was their fault for making the phone-call, but could they have foreseen it would have such dire consequences so soon after, if indeed it was the call which induced the nurse’s decision to end her own life? I find that extremely unlikely, and I know that because I’ve seen what happens when people play pranks. Most of the time it’s a spontaneous event. Most of the time, you could never have seen the bad news coming.

You can probably think of a prank or a hoax or something that went horribly wrong, so this may well seem like nothing very unusual, even if it did at the time. I recall one particular prank that happened when I was at sixth-form-college, and, as pranks go, it was a good one: that old classic, wait until the person goes to sit down and then pull their chair away quickly…to much embarrassment and a huge round-of-applause from the rest of the class. Only what happened didn’t play out quite like the person who was playing the prank expected, or as any of us could have predicted, either. One moment the boy was sitting down, the next he fell backwards, all of his weight driving his inertia. The sound of his head cracking against the side of the table is something I’ll never truly forget. Entirely oblivious to the prank, he’d fallen with all his weight in one solid mass. There was no warning. From the colossal impact, it was more or less a miracle that he didn’t break his neck.

In the days and weeks that followed, my friends and I often sat about and joked about the prank. We were kids, young adults thinking we knew the world, and we thought it funny. But, much as we knew that the boy was alright – aside from a gigantic bump on the head and a serious case of distrust in anyone who was standing behind him – there was always the nagging feeling that air could have been expanding in his brain. That the prank might have had some long-term side-effects that would take months or years to fully come to surface. As it happened, there wasn’t. Years later, that same boy came out as gay, but despite what some might say, I highly doubt that has anything to do with what happened to his head.

So…how do you punish two radio station DJs who made a mistake and probably should have known better? Throw them in prison for a while to beat the life out of them? Send them to a rehabilitation clinic to learn the perils of having fun? Scotland Yard may have launched an investigation, but what, if anything, is it an investigation into? Once again, I’m confused…

There’s no doubt that it seems right that someone should pay for the nurse’s death, I’m just not sure it’s going to be easy figuring out who that might be, especially when we presently have no idea about what happened after the prank and how this connected with the nurse’s fatal decision.