Space vegetable purgatory.

Everyone’s got an opinion, but I think there’s one thing we can all agree on: in the developed parts of the world where cultural conditioning forces us to prioritize checking our very important emails before making sure we’re not about to be run over as we cross the road, things can be a bit messed up. Our so-called modern, sophisticated world, is one in which we live in a time of enormous political and social unrest, change and unnecessary, futuristic weirdness that we could all do without. It’s a simplification to say this, of course, but everywhere you look, things seem either overwhelmingly terrible, bizarrely horrific or needlessly progressive.

Watching the news, seeing the huge double-loaded boats full of migrants fleeing Libya, is truly awful to witness. There’s nothing I can do and the whole thing is such a shocking and depressing waste of life and it really does make you stop and think about how we came to such a crisis point. Then there are the bizarrely horrific things. For example, this morning I woke up and read a story about a young couple in which the female had shot and accidentally killed her partner, following a social media stunt which went more than a bit wrong. Then there was this: the other day, I tried to buy an apple at a supermarket using one of those self-service till things that usually don’t work, inevitably resulting in a disgruntled human member of staff needing to be called over, all blank face and could-not-give-a-shit. Just an apple, that’s all. All I wanted to purchase at that particular moment in time was a simple apple. But…I couldn’t find the apple anywhere in the fruit and veg section of the touch-screen menu, and the more I searched, the more I panicked, the more I began to think Is an apple fruit? Is an apple…fruit? Then followed a nightmarish day-dream scenario that must have only lasted the briefest time. In it, I was watching The One Show and Professor Brian Cox was sitting there all nonchalant as he does, smiling and lecturing in that endearing way of his, about how most people think that apples are a fruit but actually they’re neither fruit or vegetable, but actually a bizarre kind of space vegetable that isn’t really a vegetable at all. The presenters laughed heartily a—

“Scan it,” said a voice, snapping me back to the precariousness of modern life, and it wasn’t Professor Brian Cox, nor was it smiling. It definitely didn’t give a shit, however.

“What?” I paused. “…How…”

Just that familiar blank expression, like bloody always. I tried to engage with the face, doing anything I could, within my limited range of facial movements, to show that I didn’t understand. I really did not understand.

“…?”

“Scan it the apple,” said the cashier (what do you call them…the people who work the tills at supermarkets? Cashier feels too old-school, somehow.) “Apple scan it.”

I looked at the apple, turning it around in my hand, scared that I would find nothing and that, just maybe, I would always be standing there, just turning the apple, stuck in space vegetable purgatory.

And then I found it.

Turned out I didn’t need to find it in the menu, did I: the apple had its own personal bar-code, and it did not share it with anyone.

Fucking fruit.

Anyway, last night, my girlfriend and I discussed how we’d reached saturation point with watching the news on TV. We love watching the news and have a huge interest in current affairs, but recently it has felt like it’s all getting too much to take in. I’m not sure if things have genuinely changed as much as we decided they have done, but recently it seems like there’s been an enormous collision of old awful news reaching horrible conclusions and new sickening incidents occurring more rapidly than ever before, unravelling at frightening speed. For me, and many others, I suppose the really scary thing is seeing how the conclusions of the old awful news show a catalogue of problems, mistakes and human error which could surely have been avoided, and how the new news seems to be picking up exactly where the old awful news started, all those years ago. Time and time again, people speak about learning valuable lessons, and how this must never happen again. Then, as the next story about new news quickly develops, we’re treated to fresh mistakes and terrible speculation which suggests that nobody has learned anything at all whatsoever. In fact, of anything, it appears that the people in power have found even more new and innovative ways to fuck things up. And there it is, there you have it: the whole damn thing, tragic and horrible and damaging, starts all over again…

Aside from a love of observation and a hard-to-articulate desire to write successive sentences down, I think it is because of a need to emotionally deal with these things that I feel compelled to write creatively. I’m sure it’s a processing thing, like how some people have suggested that dreaming is our way of making sense of the stimuli we absorb in our waking lives. Or, maybe the answer is buried deep in our evolutionary code and consciousness: a need to record things in full, to keep ourselves immortal, to never be forgotten, to pass on our knowledge via the arrangement of data. Now I stop and think about that for a moment, it seems to compound an incredible sense of pointlessness and vanity. Thousands of news reports, literature, newspapers, books and video reports have already covered these subjects in immensely more detail. Why, then, do I feel the need to add to the mountain?

Why do any of us, in fact?

I can only speak for myself, but I suppose that the bad things also act as a trigger for me to write about the good things and the things that amuse me. Writing about silly things, and writing things in a silly way, is equally important. It brings a sense of lightness and allows one to escape. Aside from that, of course, it’s also a lot of fun to do. Wherever I am in the world and whatever I am doing, and no matter what is happening, I’m observing and documenting things in my mind, whether consciously or not. Making up stories, making mental notes, writing…in a strange sort of way. Most of the time these musings are fragments of full thoughts, fitted in and tucked neatly between the varying tasks that I do day-to-day. Some are echoes of memories, manipulated into stories that feel like I have written them. Some get skewered by a question at work, or toppled and erased by something more important. However the thoughts occur, there’s something really quite emancipating about just writing within the confines of one’s own mind, without a need or option to go back and edit what you’ve thought, knowing that it won’t and can’t be judged, that the thoughts remain free to roam, grow and evolve. I find that if I do this enough, I retain the thought patterns and can build on past writings, recalling or adapting them when necessary — or deleting them altogether, resurrecting them later or reusing them as I please. This, probably, is why I feel like I’ve been writing lots even when I haven’t actually been committing words to screen or paper. The fact that nobody else can experience those writings is not important — at least not to me. I think writing is about more than just the physical act of recording words. To me, it’s about documenting thoughts for a second or forever, not necessarily being able to pass those words on to anyone else.

I can remember a conversation with a good friend, had some time after writing and publishing my novel, The Number 3 Mystery Book, a few years ago. He was a good friend and someone I hadn’t seen in years, and he was chuffed for me about the realisation of my book. One thing he said to me has stayed with me ever since, and every now and again I go over what he said, coming to a slightly different conclusion each time. And what he said was this: “I’ve always wanted to write a book, but I always felt like it was too self-absorbing and vain. I just couldn’t justify it”. I can remember at the time thinking Self absorbing and vain? Spending hundreds of hours with one’s own thoughts? What the hell is self absorbing and vain about that? Looking back at the odd collision of those mini-thoughts that made up the main thought, I still find myself perplexed and amused. It’s worth noting that my friend and I had that kind of special say-anything-it’s-fine relationship, and that bar a small moment of total disgust on my part which was over before I even registered it being there, in the moments immediately following the comment, there was no awkwardness, and no change in the tone of our conversation. No noticeable change in the atmosphere. I remember being confused, but beguiled by the confusion and wanting to understand more. It was all positive, and sent us headlong into one of those deep conversations which you find yourself getting lost in, losing track of time, exchanging words, clarifying things, laughing, finding out as much about the other as your own thoughts that spring up out of nowhere. I just wanted to understand and appreciate why he felt like that and why the contrast between our two world views was so staggeringly different. I also recall that I didn’t come to any kind of confusion about this, either while we were chatting or in the time well after. Because the writing of the novel was so fresh in my mind, I suppose the impact of his words was greater than it would have been if we’d met just a few weeks or months later. I took it very personally, but in the best possible way.

Analysing what he said, as I write this, forces the invitation of a range of new mental findings: I wonder if he realised, as he said those words, that everything we do in life is, to a degree, very self-absorbed. It’s the nature of being human, isn’t it? I wonder if the thought he’d had was one he’d been pondering for years, or if it was something that had just cropped up without much prior consideration. I suppose the answer to that would potentially change my perspective. But either way, I guess what he was saying was that writing a book often doesn’t involve anyone else — at least, at the initial creation stage — and means thinking a lot on one’s own, without anyone else’s opinion. That the fact that it doesn’t is somehow bad and too lonely, somehow. And I can see his point there, obviously, because writing and isolation go hand in hand. From that perspective, if I’m representing it correctly, writing is incredibly vain: you’re in your own little world, not seeking approval, forging your own opinions and not asking for any kind of validation for those opinions, and you’re expecting other people — assuming you want the work to be read — to enjoy reading this and give you compliments. What if your opinions are misguided, formed in the wake or flow of a bad mood, or just plain wrong altogether? What if you can’t write well? What if your thoughts are attacking someone else, are biased, or loaded with a violence which is the reaction to something that was, at the time, unfair? However you justify it, writing, at the creation stage, is always one person and one person’s opinions, against the world. Or at least aiming towards it, squarely, taking aim, not apologising. Writing is a mental war.

It’s no wonder, then, that when someone reads your work and you receive criticism or feedback for the first time, it really fucking hurts. Wow, does it sting. It’s hard to explain how painful it can be to receive harsh criticism for the first time or even within the first few years of writing. Within it there is so much…else. You attack yourself for being crap and you berate your attacker, judging them for the opinions they have formed, asking them what right they have to criticise you, but trying to be polite and not be irrational. But that’s the thing that all new writers — and a lot of people who have been writing a long time, too — have to learn in order to move forward. We write and we put stuff out there, and it is the reader’s duty to form their own opinion and give you brutal, honest feedback, however it may come. Look at it from a reader’s perspective: why should they be nice about it? They’ve just read something which they potentially disagree with, and they feel like they have been in some way attacked. When they’re writing their criticism, they’re not thinking about all the time that you laboured over your masterpiece, and why should they do so? Within them, if they strongly disagree, is the weight of a life lived in, perhaps, direct proximity to the weight of your comments. If people don’t like your writing then, sadly, it is just tough shit and nothing else. It hurts me as much as the next person when I hear back from someone and they didn’t like what I wrote, but it is something that we, as writers, simply must learn to deal with. Because, in truth, negative reactions to your writing can only serve you for the better in the long run. And besides all these things, we did decide to send them out into the world now, didn’t we?

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that you should listen to all negative criticism and immediately initiate an attack on yourself. I don’t think that is how it should work (I am also not suggesting that it’s OK for someone to tear someone else’s work apart for fun, just because a writer has decided to push their work into the pubic domain). If you spend some time processing the comments and find yourself in agreement of any kind, then that is something different. But very often, it is just a case of you cannot please everyone all the time. I’ve sent writing to multiple people — like when people read drafts of my novel to test read it as I was making changes — and occasionally received completely polarizing responses. This is probably one of the most confusing situations that can occur, as the horrible truth dawns on you that you will make some people happy and others very angry, often for what feels like no particular reason. In some writing personalities — and I’m sure in almost all, to some degree — it can create a perfect fusion of alarm, confusion and immense insecurity that goes far beyond just a small dilemma of conscience and self-esteem. You sit there, broken, wondering how the fuck you can please everyone, sure that the most popular and successful of writers have mysteriously found a way. The reality, of course, is that they have not, and have always struggled with the same identical problems as the rest of us. The only thing successful writers have done differently — other than the success, obviously — is learn to process the feedback and continue in the face of all of it. And, when you pause and really confront what they must have faced, it’s really quite impressive, isn’t it? They’ve literally received dozens or hundreds of personal insults, intended, it would seem, to stop them from committing any more words to paper or screen. Some people, like Stephen King, have received many thousands of very personal attacks, been vilified by the press, have been harassed in the street and have even received death threats. Death threats. All because of words. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, how they managed to continue? Can you imagine going to your full-time job and then, on the walk home, being subjected to horrendous insults and death threats, just because you mis-spelt someone’s name incorrectly, or forgot to fill out a piece of fairly inconsequential admin? I admit that I’m being slightly facetious there, but you get my point, hopefully. It takes guts and sheer dogged determination to keep writing when people say that your writing is terrible, offensive, pointless or just a massive waste of time. It can feel like the attack is not just an attack on your ability to configure sentences and paragraphs: it can also feel like a direct attack on your perception and how you see the world…an attack on your identity and personality and in every way personal. In some ways, it seems to be saying “you don’t see the world in a worthy way”, and that can be horribly damaging to an individual.

I like to think that now, after a decade as a professional writer — I began working as a freelance copywriter in 2007 and have written in excess of over 3,000 blog posts in that time, only slowing down in the last few years — I know what I’m doing. Well, enough to get by. I can process and I can handle. That’s what I tell myself. But the truth is that I am still learning, and will likely always be.

Ebola outbreak: there is no hope for us if we cannot first overcome our striking arrogance

Seems to me, the favoured way of starting an article like this appears to be a harsh reality check presented by way of a difficult-to-fathom collection of numbers. In keeping with that, I could start with a series of shocking statistics about ebola related death rates. But I won’t. Aside from saying that the current death toll stands at something like 4,447, with as many as 10,000 people per-week likely to be infected in various places across the world very soon – whose figures do you trust? – I don’t really feel there is much point. The fact that the word outbreak is now openly being used in both the media and the medical community should tell us everything we need to know. Of course, the definition of outbreak varies depending on the thing that happens to be outbreaking, but in this case we’re talking about a disease that is more expansive in its reach than what medical experts believe to be normal or has historically been the case. Either way, over 8,000 people across our globe are believed to be harbouring this nasty, deadly virus, and there will be more deaths on the way very soon. We can play it cool and manipulate the figures as much as we like, but one aspect of the truth is difficult to argue with: if we were ever expecting ebola, we were looking the other way when it finally arrived. Now it’s here, it’s becoming obvious that if we do know what to do, we’re not in agreement about how to do it, or even if we should bother to at all. Lots of weighing-up is going on, yet some people’s scales are more wonky than others.

By today’s social media and Google-won’t-load-my-page-and-it’s-been-a-full-5-seconds-I’m-considering-going-to-another-network standards, ebola is, of course, nothing particularly new. The mysterious haemorrhagic fever first cropped up back in 1976, in what we now call the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ever since then, it’s more or less silently been wiping out unfortunate poor people who never stood even the remotest chance against ebola to begin with.

Then it came to the west, and people started to actually give a shit.

For me, the worst thing about something like this – aside from the obvious worst thing, which is that innocent people are losing their lives daily in a horrible virus atrocity that cannot be stopped – is just how much there is to think about. And it’s not like that information is forming an orderly queue, either. It seems each facet of it is vitally important for us to not only know right now, but act on, delegate and decide.

Do we start with worrying about closing borders? Or should we focus on a cure? Should we do both simultaneously? Equally, it would seem sensible to accept the fact that ebola is in full-flow and fight the symptoms, rather than just leaving people to rot in a room while we figure out how not to catch it – to accept that only by trying to help those who are sick can we truly understand the thing in its demolition-heavy active state. Keep looking, though, and you tend to see the same thing rearing its ugly head, time and time again: wherever your starting point is, not even the experts in ebola seem to really understand exactly how it can be transmitted. For me, while swiftly dodging the tricky subject of border closing, etc, this is a very good place to start.

Since the outbreak’s beginning, we’ve been told that ebola can do this or does do that. Not possibly, but more or less definitively. For example, it can’t be transmitted through the air – don’t be silly, it doesn’t have wings. It can be transmitted by direct contact, however…whatever that actually means. Aside from stating how ebola can be passed by infected bodily fluids, nobody is keen on specifics here. But in a world where every new day begins with a new contradiction – in the past few days those contradictions have become so striking and obvious and dominant that it is hard not to darkly laugh – it’s no longer possible to have an accurate idea of what we’re talking about. As I type these words, I wonder if ebola can be transmitted through layers of plastic, or if its next mutation will present in different, unexpected symptoms that are entirely invisible to all and utterly without any warning whatsoever.

One look on social media, and across the news, will tell you that steadfast limits have already been set for the ebola virus. In what can only be deemed an act of pure human arrogance and immense scientific indulgence, alleged experts who don’t even understand how precaution-taking-people are getting horribly ill are saying that deaths in the UK are possible but not likely (at the time of writing). Worse, it sounds a lot like these experts haven’t even seen the film Outbreak – if they had I think they’d be much more worried. This comes merely days after ebola claimed various people in other parts of the world where the exact same thing was also said to be true.

Then there’s the evolutionary standpoint, which is downright ugly. To say that viruses have the upper-hand on us would be something of a major understatement. And, in truth, it could – and very likely will, unless I’m being arrogant – genuinely be the thing that kills us all. Viruses don’t care much for limits, and they don’t really ever die, either. The best that can be hoped for a virus is that it will transfer to another less-fortunate species who will then have to deal with it for a few hundred – preferably thousand – years before passing it onto something we consider even less worth having around us. Who knows exactly how the hell ebola got here to the human population. The point is that our magnificent arrogance is standing like a massive brick wall between us and any kind of positive progress.

Nowadays, we are all ebola experts, and that saying could be taken a little more literally than I intended – thanks to the fact that, by the looks of it, the average non-expert person has about as much chance of recognising someone with ebola symptoms as a WHO professional. Not to devalue their (the experts in question) hard work and supreme understanding of what’s going on here, but only a few days ago people seemingly in-the-know were shouting adamant that someone with ebola could not get on a plane without being noticed as an obvious threat by those around them.

That was fine, and it sounded comforting for a while, but then we learned that a nurse had displayed signs of ebola just the day after getting off a flight to the United States. More alarmingly still, the authorities are now monitoring x amount of people who were on that flight for possible ebola symptoms. Thing is, with the influenza season now teetering upon us, it’s going to be tough to tell the difference without dragging each and every one into a booth and performing an awful lot of expensive blood-work.

One of the most irritating things about all this, for me, is that we have seen infections and viruses spread a million times before. Every year we all put as much distance as is possible between those who are sneezing all over the place, and many of us still fail miserably to not become targets. So, in theory, we should be well-practiced for this kind of outbreak, should we not? In a way, when you simplify things, ebola is like the common-cold but a million times worse. Look up the symptoms if you want. Or just watch the film Outbreak.

Finding the reality amongst all the carnage is proving to be more and more difficult as time goes on. Just how deadly is ebola? Just how much should we be worried? Locking down entire countries is a nice idea in theory, but are any of us actually prepared for the result of that? Surely a complete lockdown would be enormously damaging to our economy just as much as everyone else’s. A true, total lockdown might involve nobody coming in or out of an awful lot of countries for a very long period of time. It sounds over-dramatic to say it, but who would deliver the precious ebay goods that many of us constantly bid for, if it got to a stage where only health experts could go in and out? Stop trade and you don’t have much left aside from an awful lot of angry citizens and not much to do. Remember, the internet relies on international commerce. If we do have to stop the wheels turning, it may cripple us, and ebola will still be there to live another day when we re-open the borders. That’s the really aggravating thing about ebola, and the kind of miserable bastard illnesses it hangs around with: ebola, quite literally, has all the time in the world. In fact, it has much more. If the going gets tough and the world does finally explode into stardust, it’ll just transfer to the nearest piece of flying space rock and wait around for a billion years or so until it finds a suitable host. Perhaps one of the most freaky things about viruses is that they always find a host, yet care nothing for finding a host. Ebola, as far as I can see it, is just hanging around, waiting to drain the life out of anyone it comes into contact with and it doesn’t even know it. How do you combat an enemy who does not even know it’s the enemy…a brilliantly adaptable enemy that (probably) doesn’t have a brain and is infatuated with taking something whole and making it zero?

A partial lockdown may be preferable, but is that any better than no lockdown at all? In truth, is there such a thing as a partial lockdown? Or is that like having a partial wee? Try having a partial wee, I dare you. It’ll only end in tears when you walk away. Tears of more than one kind, I tell you that much.

Ebola is now a pop-culture phenomenon. The Jimmy Saville of infectious diseases, if you like. The way we perceive as humans means that we have no choice but to consider ebola a vast enemy that knows only too well what it is doing. Just like Cancer, and all the other horrible fuckers out there that routinely make the human race’s lives a collective misery, ebola is malevolent and knowing and lots of little angry people seen through a microscope and that’s the way we like it – yet if this is a fight, it’s like the hand of a God smacking-out a tiny, defenceless squirrel that was never the one to gather all the nuts. Thinking about ebola this way normalises it and makes it flawed (bringing a low IQ squirrel into it just ridicules the argument, but too late now…). Yet, so far, we haven’t detected too many flaws. That’s because ebola has been around for a very long time already, and it’s had about a million more years than us to evolve. So it doesn’t particularly do flaws, or so it strikes me. It’s a hard thing to remind ourselves of, but we will never catch it up, because by the time we catch up with where it is right now, or even where it was a hundred years ago, it’ll be so far ahead that we’ll be dead in the ground and turned into carbon.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s thinking it, but I personally don’t know what to do about all this ebola worry. And I feel like I should do something, seeing as we’re all in this together. One thing is for certain: I will not be volunteering to go and fight ebola. I make no apologises for that, either. I’m scared to death and I have plenty of first-world excuses, so don’t even try me.

So the real question is…what do any of us do? Should we riot and demand to know what the authorities know…if they do, in fact, know anything? Or is the fact that we are being protected actually good for us? Can any of us outside of a very few people actually handle the truth? What if this is the end? Is it good for us to really be aware of what we are fighting?

And about that – there’s a lot of talk about us getting over-excited. Over dramatic. It won’t be the end, it can’t be, we have this under control. That kind of thing.

Now, I hate to break it to these people, but it can be the end, and there probably isn’t a great deal we can do about it if it is. If it’s coming, it’s coming, and no amount of posting over-confident statements on The Guardian’s comments sections is going to change that fact. What’s probably better is to be grateful to and for all those people who have been – and are presently – volunteering to help keep this thing in-check. They are the ones bringing the wall down, even if only in mouse-sized pieces.

There is another side to all this that’s even more troubling, and so far I haven’t read much about it: ebola could just be the warm-up act. The half-decent-but-not-amazing support gig for something far more deadly and catchy and easily transmittable. If that’s the case, we can look forward to one hell of an encore. One we will not be here to see, think or feel about. There will be no refunds, so don’t even bother to ask.

Looking at the symptoms presented by ebola does not make for a very smiley picture, if that really needs to be said. The picture is, instead, extremely dark and very grim. People who get ebola usually die a horrible death which involves lots of blood leaving the body and lots of mess you can’t so much as go near without worrying about contracting the virus yourself. If there is something out there and it is more deadly than ebola, we had better wisen up, and quickly.

So, instead of speculating and turning the other way when we hear something we don’t like the sound of, I say we face up to it. I say we explore what’s being said and listen to every argument fully before we decide it’s invalid or misled – it may be just what saves us, or saves others. Maybe the authorities will listen if enough people question the status quo. Ultimately, in the grand scheme of things, we are running fast out of time to be arrogant and headstrong and thinking we know everything. Let’s get our bloody heads together. This one could just be a biggie.

Katie Piper: new life, new baby

Katie PiperYou meet someone in a bar, you smile, you laugh, you fall in love. It is perfect and effortless, the way things ought to be. Then, one day, you’re walking down the street and, completely out of nowhere, your entire body feels like it’s on fire. You’re not sure what’s going on, exactly, but the feeling is so strange and terrible – so otherworldly, unfamiliar and desperate – that you know it’s bad. You realise you are in serious trouble. In fact, when you wake up, you realise you might die, and that’s just the beginning. There is so much more to overcome.

Many know Katie Piper as the ever-smiling TV presenter and former model. The face of numerous documentaries. Many more will know her as the acid-attack victim and subsequent creator of the Katie Piper Foundation. The woman who courted an over-zealous Facebook fan, without knowledge of his sinister past.

Back in February 2008, Katie was living a normal life with the same common concerns of many people her own age. She was doing well on her path to success in the world of digital media, and thrived on the new challenges she was being given.  In March, all that changed when Katie’s ex-boyfriend Daniel Lynch hired someone to carry out a vicious attack. The guy who threw the sulphuric acid at Katie went by the name of Stefan Sylvestre. Both men, unsurprisingly, are now serving life sentences in jail.

Acid attacks, horribly and surprisingly for some, are actually not that uncommon. The savaging effect of sulphuric acid – which has been used for metal cleaning, the production of explosives and fertilizers, amongst many other things – makes it the perfect weapon…if your goal is to destroy somebody’s facial features, confidence, self-believe and entire soul. And with acid attacks, burns are far from the only concern. Because acid corrodes skin so effectively, it leaves open the possibility of secondary problems: infection, cardiac arrest, multiple organ issues. The list goes on and on, and is compounded by the fact that skin is the largest organ of the human body.

Having followed Katie’s recovery with a reasonable degree of attention over the years – a recovery which has been all but dominated by a string of complex surgeries, including that which was needed to restore her eye-sight – I found myself smiling as I turned my computer on this morning and scanned the news. For today, Katie got the chance to do something she once would have thought impossible: to show her new baby off to the world, with a great big smile on her face. Belle is her name, and she was born on the 14th March, 2014.

Amongst spiralling concerns about the welfare of the Earth and as-yet unknown technological inventions which look set to make our current social media enterprises look weak by comparison, great things await Belle. Belle will get to grow up and see her mother truly happy, in a world where unthinkable medical progress can now make a real difference to not just physical wellbeing, but emotional wellbeing also. Thanks to the pioneering work of Mr Mohammed Jawad – the leading reconstructive plastic surgeon at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London, who was instrumental in Katie’s successful recovery – there is now hope for burn victims which simply did not exist before. This is a tremendous thing for any of the approximate 1,500 people who are affected globally every year (statistic courtesy of Acid Survivors Trust International).

All this is something which is particularly poignant right now, just two days after 22-year-old Mary Konye was jailed for 12 years. Naomi Oni, once a friend of Ms Konye, suffered serious burns to her chest and face when Miss Konye decided to throw acid in her face. All because of an alleged comment she made about her friend being ugly.

What’s to come from Katie? I’m looking forward to seeing more. Katie Piper is an inspiration, so, if you have the inclination, feel free to click the above link and see what she’s doing at her foundation.

 

Because it’s better than Splash! and Take Me Out put together: The Undateables – Series 3, Episode 1

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This is supposed to be Mary from the show. Sorry Mary, it’s 00:47 am and I’m tired and I really need to go to bed. I’m not sure which part of your face/body I’ve done a crapper job of, but rest assured that you won’t be the last victim of my mouse-pad ventures. Best wishes, Chris. PS it’s now 00:50 am — I spent another couple of minutes on your chin. I hope it shows.

When I started seeing the TV adverts for Series 3 of The Undateables – the Channel 4 show which arguably can claim to be the first of its kind – it actually took me somewhat by surprise. Given the show’s popularity, which exploded all over Twitter and made everyone an instant expert on who should and should not be allowed to enter the perilous world of dating, I shouldn’t have been surprised, yet there it was. Concerned was another thing I was feeling. As the adverts grew less mysterious about the show’s new cast, and those classic moments-to-come began to reveal themselves, I wondered: can Series 3 give us anything we haven’t already seen? Anyone who has visited this blog before will know I’ve always been a big fan of the show, but irrelevant of this, 3 series is starting to push it. However good you are, you’re always going to have to bring something new. Not an easy thing to do – particularly when the format is one which works so well and doesn’t require changing.

Then again, perhaps that’s being unfair. The very reason why I rated the show so much to begin with was the fact that it went places that TV previously had never dared to before. Maybe 3 series isn’t actually that much for a show about dating and disabilities? I began to think. Not to mention the fact that there exists many different kinds of disabilities and really, we’ve barely even scratched the surface.

So, I was decided: in truth, The Undateables has infinite appeal. Especially when you consider that despite the previous series’ success, of these things, there is so much more to be said.

Predictably, as today’s first episode of the series grew near, I started to get excited about it all over again. I remembered how touching the first 2 series had been, and recalled the many conversations – both online and off (also known as real life, of course) – I’d had with people who’d watched the show. Smiling and wondering exactly what was in store, I careered down the M11 at speed earlier today, even once taking our Renault Clio 1.3 into the fast lane, where it has no right to be. Half-an-hour later there I was, sat in front of the TV eating the remains of the Thorntons white-chocolate snowman that my lovely girlfriend had bought me for Christmas. I had my hot chocolate and had, obviously, ensured that anyone in the house knew not to disturb me for the next hour or so. Then the show started, the introduction began to play, and…well, the first thing I noted was the updated music. This panicked me for a second – if they’ve messed with the music, what else have they messed with? – but I soon calmed down. I was more than ready.

Daniel was first up. All 6 foot 4 of Daniel, with some outgoing eyebrows and a love of song-writing. We heard that Daniel was from East Sussex – causing me to say out-loud “I bet anything he’s from Brighton” – and that he was one of those people who buys DVDs at every opportunity. Autism was Daniel’s issue, and mum Carol explained it as only a mother could do when she likened her son’s condition to someone inside his head, cutting up random words from a newspaper and splurging them forward randomly at every opportunity. I liked Carol immediately. Clearly she was going to do whatever it took to help her son. Romantic and sweet, Daniel signed up with a dating agency. The man was ready to hit the streets and had two great role models to inspire him: his parents. Sometimes it seems like every older couple I know have been married at least 33 years and it’s no big deal, but still, you have to admit, it’s a bloody long time.

44-year-old Mary, from London, appeared next on the screen. Single for 4-and-a-half years, Mary’s love life had been made difficult by her genetically acquired Achondroplasia – a kind of dwarfism that affects about 1 in 25,000 births across all races and genders. Much as that was true, I couldn’t help but struggle with seeing why she had never been able to find love. Really? Mary came across as sweet, funny, interesting and entertaining. Saying that, if you’re going to be brutally honest about disability then jokes will be inevitable also. I could already see Mary’s 4 gold medals at the World Dwarf Games being a source of much amusement that would surely go viral. Then again, I could also see a thousand people retaliating and saying Stick It Up Your Arse, so I wasn’t too bothered.

Before it was 29-year-old Hayley’s turn to appear on-screen, there was some fantastic news for Daniel: Stars in the Sky dating agency had found a match for him, and it was the by now recognisable Lydia who gave him the good news. Holly was the girl who was interested, and Daniel went ape-shit with excitement, which made for great TV. And who could blame him? If you know someone with autism, you’ll be aware of how difficult it can be for those with the condition to read other people’s emotions and feelings. Daniel’s parents were overjoyed too. The show was once again coming into its own. I mean, I’d nearly eaten my chocolate snowman and had barely even noticed.

Back to Hayley. A nursery nurse from rural Herefordshire, Hayley rode on to the screen a-top one of those big scary horse creatures (I can’t see me ever not feeling this way about these). Within just a handful of seconds we learned a couple of important things. The first was that Hayley has Apert Syndrome – a genetic condition which causes distinctive features attributed to bone-growth, and something which Wikipedia beats me hands-down in a game of how-much-do-you-know. The second was that she had, amazingly, managed to get through the entire Fifty Shades trilogy. Of which I have precisely no comment (other than Like I can say anything…I’ve just gone and read all The Hunger Games books and I am 33!).

Hearing that Hayley used to go out wearing headphones so she couldn’t hear the cruel comments being said about her made me die a little death inside, it’s true. I soon put that right though. In my head I walked down the street next to Hayley eating lots of raw garlic, breathing the horrendous fumes into the path of these cruel silly muppets. That showed ’em, I can tell you.

“Not all the male population are nasty, Hayley,” I said to the TV. Then I regained my focus.

You had to admire Hayley. Or, if you’re a silly billy who’s yet to watch The Undateables on 4OD – should you really be reading my blog?! – you have to admire her. I mean, imagine growing up with a younger sister who beats you to every single bloody milestone there is in life, including starting a family? As gracious and kind and thoughtful as Amanda was about her sister’s dating issues on-camera, that’s got to be difficult. Yet Hayley was only ever very positive. A wonderful character trait indeed. If there is any justice in the world, Hayley has to find some love.

Back with Mary, she was dreaming of the day when she’d be with her new man, who doesn’t give a toss about what people say. Mary had, by now, joined Flame Introductions, who’d come round to take her photo and get it up online. A keen footballer and lover of keeping fit, Mary was after a bloke with a bit of confidence about him, who also likes a bit of sport every now and again. Luckily for Mary, good things were about to happen.

Then we were back with Daniel, who was undergoing the borderline questionable activity of practising dating with his very own mother Carol (sorry, Carol). Not that there was anything questionable about Carol’s standards and knowledge of etiquette. Carol was determined to show her son how a woman ought to be treated, and considering how tough he was finding it, I thought Daniel was doing pretty damn well.

I could go on forever about the rest of the show, and if you scroll down the page you’ll see that I more or less do. But still, there’s so much to bang on about. That bit when Mary’s eyes lit-up as Jet appeared on the screen…the five-foot-eleven personal trainer who seemed to have been created directly from Mary’s imagination. Of course, from that moment on all I could think about was the hit TV show Gladiators, but I didn’t mind one bit (I really loved that show. Wolf was my idol!).

And what about when Daniel agreed to go on a date with Holly, without seeing her photo first? That was mighty impressive (at this point we were also told Daniel came from Brighton, and I said “I knew it all along!”).

What wasn’t good was when Daniel and Holly really really struggled to make conversation in the café. That wasn’t good at all – ah, it was cringe! Until it was good, of course, and conversation started to flow and things rapidly improved. Fortunately for Daniel, coming from Brighton very much saved the day. Daniel even blew Holly a kiss and Holly gladly accepted it. For the first time, I could see romance in the air.

One month on for Hayley, I had the feeling that, intentionally or otherwise, she was being a little bit left out of the show. Then the phone only went and rang, didn’t it! The agency had a match and his name was the best name ever – Chris. Coffee was soon to be on the horizon…seeing Hayley thrilled may me feel thrilled too. It was like the first time I saw Gladiators, only without me being told off for swearing when Wolf appeared. My God I wanted to be that man.

What can I say about Mary’s date that a million other people haven’t already thought? Having seen this Jet personal trainer character on the screen and everything he was supposed to be, I’d thought of him as the male equivalent of one of those Spam email Russian brides I see in my Inbox once a year (sorry Mary!). Yet in reality, the man was alright. Better than alright, actually. Oh, go on then, he was good! Crap at ice skating mind you, but otherwise a decent fella. Seeing Jet all nervous as he waited for Mary to arrive was a nice turn of events. It couldn’t compare to the moment when Mary made absolutely no secret of checking out Jet’s crotch live on TV, of course, but it was still good.

Anyway, you know and I know that if Jet entered an ice skating competition, bad things would be said. Unless it was in a parallel dimension where being on your arse is considered a good thing. If it exists, I hope to one day go there.

Who gives a shit, though? Fact was, Mary and Jet had serious chemistry together. Laughing and joking, Mary said she couldn’t have asked for a better date. Well done Jet.

One week on from When Daniel Met Holly, Holly was almost like a brand-new person. Holly talked about watching films in bed endlessly, and her love of eating breakfast in bed. She talked a lot about bed really, which can surely only be promising. Daniel was the gentleman the entire time, and although he was quite hurt when Holly refused to have any kind of physical contact at the end of their date – how exactly does a person reject a hug from the ever loveable Daniel? – things were to soon turn around.

It was the day of Hayley’s date, and Hayley, well, she had the big-time nerves.

Chris turns up, and within mere seconds the two are locked in intense competition…in a bowling alley,of all places. All I kept thinking about as I watched this was how I’d once seen a couple arguing like fuck in a bowling alley. I mean really going for it – people holding them both back like wild dogs, that kind of thing. If I remember rightly, it ended with the guy being ejected and some kind of scrap which made for really fun rumours at school the next day. Granted, there was a good chance that they’d carried their relationship difficulties into the alley, and that bowling wasn’t the sole catalyst for the girl’s awful screaming, but still, bowling could do bizarre and sinister things to people. I just hoped these Undateables people knew what on Earth they were doing…

Turned out they did. There was to be no violence or mud-slinging, as you know, and afterwards they sat down to have a good old-fashioned chat together. This chat included one of the World’s greatest awkward silences, but I needn’t have worried. It all turned around in the end, and soon Chris and Hayley were laughing. It even made me think a bit differently about English bowling alleys. Not to mention Chris said he’d had a cheeseburger with Eddie The Eagle Edwards, and Hayley said she’d met not only Princess Diana, but Tony Blair too (personally I thought Chris trumped it when he said he’d spoken to Boycie from Only Fools and Horses, but that’s just me).

Chris said they should see about doing it again, and my big soppy heart melted, it did.

A week after Mary and Jet’s first hot date, things were considerably hotter. Hot like when you burn yourself on the oven and you have to hold your hand under cold water for a full 2 minutes or else you get a nasty burn. Yes. That kind of hot. Not only did Jet confess to having texted Mary every day, but they’d been speaking too. Holy shit! I love this show.

It wasn’t all over with Holly and Daniel either. They might not have set the world on fire like Mary and Jet, but they were hanging out at least. Holly even had some big wellies on and was smiling loads. Great news for Daniel, who’d always seemed like a really nice bloke.

As we saw an exclusive preview of next week’s episode, I thought again, for what felt like the millionth time: If they’re OK with all this, why shouldn’t we be?

 

 

 

How to sell yourself

PLEASE NOTE: the following post contains some swearing, in places where I found it necessary. If you’re offended by swearing and would rather not subject your mind to such things, then I strongly suggest you a) stay inside the house for quite some time until the novelty wears off for everyone (the novelty of swearing, not the novelty of you staying inside the house for years, although that is very novel) and b) do not read this post past this paragraph. If you are offended by swearing and read this post past this paragraph anyway, even though that’s a very silly thing to do, then you email me to tell me I shouldn’t have published this post, then I’m not going to respond to your email. Or I might, but I’ll probably swear.

Nowadays, everything you write has a double-meaning, and even a simple blog post about marketing and selling yourself can be misinterpreted, making you wish you’d been born in a time when sarcasm was a novelty, rather than an epidemic. So, just to be crystal clear, if your profession is prostitute then reading this post is unlikely to explain to you why you can’t get any work (I say unlikely, but the internet is a very big place and all kinds of people seem to end up here — someone found it the other day by typing in the unfortunate phrase manky penis, for example — so, who knows, you just might be a veteran hooker whose starting out selling baked-goods and giving up the game, in which case you may find some helpful tips below, maybe). If you’re in any other business, though, the following might be of interest.

This blog is about the mistakes that people make when trying to sell themselves professionally. There I go again. What I mean is, it’s about people who are offering a service – wait! – and are going door-to-door with leaflets. Or people who are selling online. Or selling anywhere, for that matter.

Because, just to the right of my keyboard as I type this is yet another flyer from a tree services company. Allow me to explain…

Fuck me is the first expression that comes to mind. Yes, I swore in words and I don’t even care — the mark of a true blogger, writing on his personal blog where, for once, he is also the editor (and no, I don’t swear when I am writing for other people, with the exception of when they say it’s appropriate or necessary, which is not very often). I use this expression here not to try and shock, but because, very simply, it’s the best and most accurate expression to be used. Like I’m sure many atheist and even naughty religious freelancers do, I say the words Fuck Me probably half-a-dozen times a day, for a wide variety of reasons. No jokes, please, and let’s not be smutty — I’m talking about when something annoys me, and only those two words together seem to do. One of those reasons might be when our dog snatches my Birthday card off the table and chews it into un-recognition, and I only discover this when it’s much too late, and I can hardly blame her, can I, because it was all my fault for leaving it there, and the other reasons, well, you know: you forget something critically important which then triggers a chain of annoying events which delay you further and make your work day one hour longer. Or you over-cook your pasta. Things like that.

Anyway, today I said that expression for the first time when a man appeared outside my ground-floor office window. He had that curiously vague way about him where he was there for a purpose, and so rang the front-door bell, but didn’t seem to be sure of what that purpose really was. From my chair, looking in the mirror to the right and above my desk, I could see that he was wearing a dark green and yellow all-in-one suit, which then gave the game away. When he rang the bell again, I said the aforementioned phrase-of-despair once more. I knew as I went to the door that I was about to be confronted by a man who was selling tree-pruning, lopping and various other services. Which, as I will explain, was irritating.

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If you’re going to try and be amusing, at least use spellcheck first. Otherwise you’ll be amusing and look like an absolute idiot

On marketing websites and in numerous other places, both online and off, the mythical they say you have just seconds to catch the attention of someone you are trying to sell to. The man I opened the door to looked uncomfortable or indifferent and had clearly taken this advice to heart: within mere seconds of my opening the door he was facing away from me, not really looking at me, and then he opened his mouth and said “you need any trees cutting.” Lacking any question mark, it took me a second or two to realise he was actually trying to sell me something. That maybe, just maybe, he had a mortgage to pay and this was what he did to pay it (unbelievable as that seemed at the time). The problem was…that was his fourth or fifth or six mistake, so by the time I saw him holding the leaflet out, I wasn’t interested, I was feeling a little bit grim towards door-to-door humanity. Not that I was interested before that, I mean – as I told the guy, we only had 3 trees out the back and every single week 3 or 4 companies vied to cut them or lop them, whatever the hell that actually means – but I was especially not interested now. In fact, I felt a bit offended. Yeah, I was never going to take the leaflet, and yeah, he was the worst person to send out to sell anything to anyone door-to-door ever, but it would at least have been nice if he’d not looked at me like I had I’M A MASSIVE RAPIST! tattooed across my forehead.

The weird thing was that, at this point, even after telling him we didn’t and wouldn’t need any of his company’s services – politely and accurately, mind you – I was still willing to give the man a second chance. I thought If he can tell me why we should have one of our 3 trees lopped or pruned or chopped down, I might say Yes, just for the hell of it. I’d have been happy with anything, really. “Because two trees is the optimum number of trees to have in a back garden,” would have done it, I reckon, but “you need to because your trees may be diseased with a dangerous alien bacteria that may well get inside your lungs and kill you within days,” would have really done the trick.

Not that I should be condoning that kind of illegal behaviour from tree service companies. It’s just, well, I wanted the guy to liven up and at least seem like he had a passion for something, even if it was being illegal.

So I looked at him. Come on, I thought. Seriously. Now’s your chance. Besides that, I’ve got children’s toys to write about so I haven’t got all bloody day. Do something. Make this worth my time.

What happened next was marginally offensive, looking at this from a marketing and sales point-of-view. Instead of telling me one good reason why we ought to even consider using them in the future, he just stared at me blankly. And tried to pass me the leaflet. No words came out of his mouth. I suppose when you’ve handed over about ten-thousand leaflets or flyers, your hand just does this without you knowing. Obviously I didn’t take it. If the bloke can’t even give me one good vocal reason why I ought to consider him or his firm, then I’m not going to waste my bloody time hanging about on my own cold door-step. Fact!

So that was his second major mistake, or maybe his tenth or nineteenth, I’d lost count of these by now: if you’re going to sell anything at all to anybody, no matter what it is, you need to speak the hell up. You don’t need to shout or be a weirdo, but you do need to actually care about what you are doing. If you don’t, nobody else will. With one exception: if you were to suddenly break down and fall on the ground and start moaning “woe is me! I hate my job! I want to become a dentist! I will become a dentist!” I might start to care a bit. Because at least that’d be something. When you’re selling, even desperation and crying and tragic sadness is better than nothing, you know.

That was almost the end of the shockingly-inept-tree-services-man-incident, but later, going back to the door to see if there was any post – which there wasn’t – I was to be proven wrong about the man. Yes he’d been clueless, but there, caught in the letter-box, was a white leaflet with green lettering. “You…you sneaky tree service man!” I said. “Well, it worked. I am going to bloody well read it.”

And read it I did. Being a copywriter and freelance writer, what I held in my hands here was nothing less than amateur gold. There I stood, braving the draught of the open door-way, gazing at the leaflet flyer thing, and actually, if I am honest, it was quite good. It definitely hadn’t been professionally conceived or written, but that didn’t matter, because there were quite a few things about the leaflet that really got it right. They’d used thick-ish card, for instance, and the quality was alright, too.

The first main thing was the typeface. I could read it easily. That’s absolutely crucial but still something some people manage to totally fuck up. If you start out with a typeface or font that nobody can read and even the person who invented it truly doesn’t know what it meant when they had the idea for it, this is very bad (hello to you wingdings). Bold and green, it was alright. The only issue was the number of different fonts that had been used, which made it look a bit confusing. I counted five in all, which, in my opinion, if that’s worth anything, was at least 3 too many.

Something else the tree people had got right – and this they usually didn’t, I’d seen enough to know – was the amount of white space. There was a fair bit of it between the lines and the words and it worked quite well. The use of logos and pictures was also under control, which made a nice change. From a design point-of-view, you do want to show that you’re creative, but at the same time, you don’t want to come across as a child who can’t draw for shit and who really loves trees.

There were two more things which immediately stood out. The first was the 10% DISCOUNT THIS MONTH across the middle of the flyer. This was in white writing on the same formulaic dark green background and did stand out. Additionally, the phone numbers were in bold white on dark green and there was even a 24 HOUR EMERGENCY CALLOUT NUMBER, along with street name of the business. Not bad. I was semi-impressed.

But it wasn’t all good. And this isn’t just me being picky. In fact, the eagle-eyed among you may already have picked the following up.

First up, although it said 10% DISCOUNT THIS MONTH, it didn’t state the actual month or year concerned. A minor thing, really, but in 4 months time when we finally decide that one of our 3 trees badly needs lopping – I’l have Googled what it means by then, maybe – I don’t want to call up whoever it is — there was also no name on the card — and be told that they were only doing it in December 2012. By then, I may have got confused about time, thanks to the crazy world of children’s toys I write about. By then, I may think that the leaflet had only recently come through the door. All that could have been avoided if they’d printed the month that the discount was valid for. That’s another thing to make note of: if you want people to buy from you, make it easy. As easy and simple as you possibly can.

Next up, we have the 24 HOUR EMERGENCY CALLOUT NUMBER, which I thought was a nice touch. Only problem is, I know precisely jack shit about trees and emergencies, so having it really didn’t help me much, and spun me into a kind of crazy daydream. So when I read this, I thought What, I should call them if a tree attacks me? which I assume wasn’t the response they were after. If they’d have given me a firm example of a tree-based emergency then it would have saved me panicking about being attacked by trees, such as in the film Evil Dead when a young woman is raped by a particularly savage one. Ugh. This is a common trap that businesses fall into, of course. They assume that everyone who reads their advert is as clued-up as them, and this inevitably leads to confusion. Just don’t do it.

The last thing which really could have been avoided was mucking-up the address. OK, they’d printed the street number and name, but they hadn’t put the town or the city where the firm was based. I couldn’t tell from the mobile or free phone number where they were located, either. Obviously, if I ever found out what a real tree emergency was then I’d like to know how long it’s going to take them to come and help me out. By then I could have been molested by numerous kinds of trees. You just never know, do you?

I’d love to say that this was all the flyer got wrong, but there were one or two more things. Obviously. Let’s focus on one: the bit that said Book Your Trees In For A Makeover NOW!

A makeover? I thought. Sorry…you mean, a makeover?! As in…an actual makeover? No. Just no.

I couldn’t help it, could I? I knew nothing of trees or lopping, so it was perfectly reasonable to imagine one of our 3 trees sitting in a kind of tree salon, having it’s branches done. It’s leaves waxed. It’s roots polished. This vision conjured-up a sensation of unsettling tree perversion which the flyer hadn’t prepared me for. And with that I was decided: this new fad of giving trees makeovers might be the next big thing, but I wasn’t going to allow any of our 3 trees to be subjected to it.

I still have no idea what the hell a Tree Makeover is. If they’d just given me an example of what this might entail then I’d never have had such a horrifying vision where the tree at the end of the garden was crying and feeling left-out because all the other trees in the village had had makeovers and she hadn’t. It really wasn’t nice.

So there we have it: if you don’t have a clue about writing or designing a leaflet, flyer or poster, do some research first. It makes sense. Not only will it give your customers a much better idea of what they can expect from using your services, but you’ll actually get people ringing you up and wanting to spend real money — instead of reading your leaflet, writing a blog post about it and then chucking it in the bin.