I’m back. But is anyone else still there?

What a half-hour I’ve just had! Wait, allow me to start again — I’ve already gone and irritated myself: what a half an hour I’ve just had. It’s half-an-hour, not half-hour. I’m not American. I’m very much British.

There, I feel much better now.

So, as I said, I’m back. Back with this blog post. Back writing on this blog, and for the first time in 3 years, no less. And it nearly didn’t happen. Why? Because I couldn’t find my bloody freaking password now, could I. Actually, I couldn’t even remember the Username I have for this Blog. In fact, it was only down to my previous self’s total and utter obsession with writing down passwords and saving them on random, un-labelled memory sticks — fantastic habit, that is — that got me out of this hellish debacle. Feels like backwards time-travelling, in a strange sort of way. Obviously I’m better than I think. Clearly, at some point in the past I sensed that my future self would become utterly useless — something that was hardly a surprise, I suppose, given my previous failures. But still, I’m proud of my past more forward-thinking self, even if it was also a bit too negative, almost waiting for me to go and fuck up. And, who knows? Even today I might have done something incredible to future proof another mistake my future self is yet to make. I suppose I’ll find out in time like the rest of us. I just wish I had an inkling of what that mistake might be right now, as I’ve already lost half-an-hour. The way the world’s looking, I may not be able to lose another. There may only be a few hours left…

Got a bit sinister and dark there, didn’t I. It was bound to happen. I mean, Donald Trump? Anyway, enough of that.

The real question is…is anyone else there? Who knows, not me. And do I care? No, not really, not a bit. After all, it wasn’t like this blog and the writing within it ever made me any money and acquired me thousands of readers, was it? (No, no it wasn’t and it didn’t.) Not that money and having shit-loads of readers is important, but, well, you know what I mean, I’m sure.

Still, it’d be nice to know that just someone is out there. Is anyone? You don’t have to answer, don’t worry. Not that you are, or were going to, but, well…

Funny what triggered me writing this blog post and the existential despair of forgetting a long forgotten password, actually. I was just on that strange Twitter thing — also for the first time in absolutely bloody ages, but in a less stressful know-the-password situation — looking about, seeing if I had any Notifications, and then I found myself looking at a nice Tweet that someone called Tommy had sent me (age forces me to think that I must put weird new-fangled words in italics and there seems no way out. I can’t see it getting better. And now those italics have started to manifest in strange facial expression versions of physical italics whenever I’m forced to say a word like Snapchat). Well, sent the world. But primarily me, I think (I really don’t understand all the new technology, balls to it).

Anyway, this bloke, he was called @tommy66788. Tommy Lawn, as a matter of fact. And Tommy, this Tommy Lawn, he’d carefully used his limited number of characters to ask me if I once wrote a blog post about cowboy boots (something that seems to consistently occur every year or so, as it happens). Made me smile, it did. To this I replied that I did indeed write it, and, as is hard to comprehend for someone who still takes at least a day to reply to an email, Tommy wrote back almost immediately, crushing my mental capacity to fathom just how someone can be so incredibly fast and also live any kind of life. I’m not vain enough to repeat what he said here, of course, but it was nice, anyway. Tommy said that he’d bought some cowboy boots from Texas in America and that he liked the article. He also said that he wears his cowboy boots non-stop. Yes Tommy! To Tommy, I salute you. As mentioned in that post about the boots I bought, I find it and have always found it brutally difficult to turn corners while wearing my cowboy boots. Perhaps I have a special sort, I don’t know (or perhaps it’s me who’s special? Seems it’s looking likely). Or perhaps the corners round here are particularly challenging. Either way, I’ve inadvertently gone and said about 5 times more than Tommy did in his one single admirable tweet, and pretty much said almost all of what he said. Maybe it’s time for me to re-think how vain I actually am after all…

It feels pretty damn good, anyway, this writing a new blog post thing. Let me tell you.

Now I think back over the past 3 years, I’m struggling to really work out why I disappeared from this blog altogether. Were myself and my partner dealing with the miracle of bringing up quintuplets while I simultaneously ran a multi-national business? No. Have I found myself too busy to write words on a screen in rapid succession? Occasionally I have, but then again…somehow I’ve found the time to catch up with both Home & Away and Neighbours, usually one after the other on Channel 5. I suppose, then, the biggest thing that’s changed in the last 3 years is my work and the direction of it. I used to be exclusively a freelance copywriter, but nowadays I’m more involved in video and TV production.

One thing that I know has had an effect on my writing is having this massive iMac computer. See, I didn’t just wake up one day and decide I needed a 27 inch computer and a ridiculous amount of hard-drive storage. I needed all this stuff to do my video work, you see, that’s why I bought it. You might be sat there thinking How would a great big computer prevent someone from writing? And it’d be a fair question. But here’s the thing, my friends: the moment I got my big computer, something changed. Something got disconnected. Where once I’d been able to sit on the sofa and write my blog posts in leisure, blissfully ignoring all other responsibilities and delighting in musing about all kinds of inane crapola, I now had to sit bolt upright at my desk in a completely new position (my laptop had died by the time I got my new iMac). Gone was the connection I’d had with my laptop. With my laptop, there was something about the proximity of my hands on the keyboard and the small screen that seemed to create a kind of emotional pact between me and the small, uselessly underpowered machine. The new iMac was great for video and graphics work, but it was about as useful as a Ferrari if you wanted to grate some cheese when it came to writing long-form stuff (could you grate cheese on a part of a Ferrari? In hindsight I am sure you can. There’s probably a bit you can have custom adapted specifically for it. I feel ridiculous, in hind-hind-sight-sight, for even bringing it up).

What’s silly, in an even more elongated version of hind-sight, is that I’m writing this on my iMac, and it’s fine. It’s happening. I’m doing it. Clearly I am. But something is definitely missing. So I think a new laptop might be on the horizon. Actually, I think it needs to be. I’ve missed writing this blog too much for it not to be. I love creating videos and I love producing art, but writing…well…there’s just something about writing…and I need a small underpowered machine again. Who knows? Maybe I’m undergoing a kind of rapid backwards evolution of some sort. Maybe in a year or two you’ll find me with a bit of slate and a load of chalk.

3 years, eh? A lot can change in 3 years. Look at the UK! Look at the state of the world! So much has changed that I don’t know where to start. Which suits me well, as a matter of fact. Because I’ve written enough for one night, so I’m not going to bother. Yeah, that’s the spirit.

I am going to bother to write my WordPress Username and password down, however. I realise that it isn’t wise to do that, but then, what is it wise to do? Only last week we were on holiday and there was a really steep slope that wasn’t wise to drive up in a shitty hire car, in the ancient village where we were staying, and I went and did that and got stuck half way to the top, didn’t I? Yes, yes I did. And a whopping great nightmare it was, too. Ah, you have to love an ancient village. We really should have hired a horse instead.

This has been fun. It really has. I forgot how therapeutic writing is, when it’s not the most frustrating thing ever in the history of the world. My goodness writing is so frustrating but also so necessary. What a strange combination. And now I keep thinking Could I ride a horse? Probably not. Definitely not. I don’t know about you but I’m really quite scared of horses.

How to write without feeling intimidated by the blank page

Writing is and always will be an intimidating process – there are so many ways to go wrong and so few ways that instantly feel right to an inexperienced mind. Besides this, sitting down to write often requires the engagement of emotions which are not altogether comfortable, but are nothing less than essential in the deployment of all creative endeavours. Additionally, those who express an interest in learning to write face about a hundred enormous obstacles: will I be any good at it? Is there any fucking point? Will anybody actually read my bloody stuff? Is it possible to be a writer and not be poor and jaded forever? This is accompanied by a damaging cultural belief, in many societies, that in the age of the internet, absolutely anyone can be a writer. And if anyone can be a writer, writing must be easy. Writing, in the minds of many, is either a profession for mega-rich authors, journalists or students not yet at peace with their place in life, fumbling through until they no longer have to write any more. Yet the importance of written communication is a dominating force. Surrounded by such complexities and tarnished by the blight of a million terrible Amazon novels, it’s hardly surprising that putting words down can feel so difficult.

Reading this blog post probably won’t change any of that much – although it may illuminate a few things which help reveal ways to cope (a bit like this post from a long time ago on writer’s block).

Consider how incredible the concept of writing is

The controlled transfer of thoughts to paper or screen by way of fingers is a mesmerizing thing when you stop and really think about it. When we write in a way that can be accurately understood, we’re directly connecting our thoughts and feelings with those of everyone around us (or, at least, those who take the time to read them!). This is an incredible act of physical and psychological union – better than mind-reading, in a way, as the thoughts are pure and distilled and a reader doesn’t (usually) have to fight past an endless stream of consciousness to get to the good bits. So, if you’re feeling intimidated, consider that you are engaging in something fantastic and incredibly unique. Talking’s great and all, and painting a picture is a fine way to interact with others and share our thoughts, but writing is the honed and crafted direct observations of human beings. That’s quite something, don’t you think?

You can always write more

I don’t care if you’ve just finished writing your first novel and lost it – well, I do, I feel quite sorry for you, but you get what I mean – or if you’ve just wiped-out that blog post you’ve been working on for a week. You can always write more stuff. The preciousness of thought and time means that most of us get quite attached to our writing, often in an unhealthy way. We struggle to say goodbye to it, even when we know we can do better. Yet saying goodbye to it is exactly what builds stronger foundations. A better ability to cope with change and keep on going, past the constraints of rejection. The fact that you can just begin again a few minutes or hours later means that words are infinitely powerful.

Words are organic and unlimited. Aside from a few nightmarish notions fed to us by disenchanted people and critical self-esteem issues which beg you to do anything else instead, there is nothing stopping your words affecting people in the same way that the so-called great novelists of our time have – words are your chance to tell the world precisely what you think in any way that you desire. If that doesn’t act as an incentive to better one’s ability to communicate via the medium of words, I don’t know what does.

What you have written has been written before, but so what?

I often hear the argument – the bad argument, the terrible, meaningless argument – that writing has been done so well so many times before that there is no point pursuing it as an activity or occupation. It simply is not true. It doesn’t matter in the least. There will nearly always be someone out there who you know who is better than you, or more capable. It’s irrelevant. That a million people have attempted and failed to finish their novels does not mean that you will suffer the same fate. Even though the outcome for a new writer may be statistically likely to be similar, where writing is concerned, statistics are only worth the value we give them.

Know that the act of writing will bring about joy and self-growth, no matter what its end result

Contrary to popular misconception, the important thing about writing is not solely the act of committing words to paper or screen. The other very important thing is enjoying doing it. Out of all the times I have written blogs, articles or novels, I can only truly recall a couple of times where I in no way benefited from the process. Writing brings enormous entertainment, stimulation, inspiration and enjoyment. It’s a proven thing that those experiencing the flow state of writing are at one with themselves and, while being alone, are anything but lonely.

Unsure of what to write?

This is a subject I have covered extensively in a past blog. My best advice to those who are trying to write and feeling consistently daunted by it is…try and think about what you really want to say. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, it could be very small. It could be a seemingly inconsequential observation that leads to bigger, pivotal things. In writing, small things grow into big things with very little encouragement. The great thing is that it happens automatically, you just need to commit some time.

Failing that, consider what you don’t want to say. Writing does not always have to follow strict rules and regulations. If you’re completely unable to write anything at all, then why not ask yourself the question of why this is the case. Why not try to formulate this feeling of frustration into meaningful words?

Stop listening to others who say they find writing easy

Again, this truly is irrelevant to you. How does it matter how well someone else does something? Who cares if they’ve only been writing seriously for a year and have written their first novel draft, beginning to end, one-hundred-thousand words? It simply does not matter in any way to you and what you’re doing, and it never will. And again, be careful not to run away with yourself. Writing is a learned craft which cannot be rushed.

I remember when I first started to write about 10 years ago. Writing came very naturally to me, because I didn’t know what I was doing and it felt exciting to write without restriction. So accept that writers go through stages. Important stages that cannot be missed or circumnavigated. Those at the very beginning may find writing almost effortless, as they are naïve and lack the constraints presented by rules. Those who are well-practiced in the art may write in what appears to be a reasonably effortless way, owing to their growing knowledge-base and many hours of practice. If you’re somewhere in the middle, however, and a blank page is intimidating you, there is a possibility that this is all part of a very important process that must be endured and worked through. So try to relax and have fun when writing. If you can only do one thing, write stuff that makes you really smile.

Do you have any advice for fellow writers, or those who would like to begin writing but don’t know where to start? Feel free to leave a comment below, like it or share it on Facebook/Twitter. Let’s see what we can get together and learn.

 

 

How watching dogs interacting with sticks will substantially improve your life

Witness the wonder

Witness the wonder

Yesterday I saw a dog in a park carrying a stick – I think it was a Border Collie. Or attempting to carry a stick. The stick was as long as the dog was – assuming the mind-set of a dog for a moment, my guess is that this was probably the main attraction – and the dog was an old boy with a big shaggy coat. As soon as I saw him slowly approach the stick with his curious eyes and lovely colouring, I was confident that he was going to be enamoured by everything it had to offer. Another possible attraction of the stick may well have been its multi-faceted appearance. With an appealing smooth-yet-intriguing texture on the teeth and additional smaller sticks literally branching off from the main one, this particular nice stick, stranded in the greenery of the park and just begging to be picked-up, clearly had a lot to offer. Additionally, the stick was the only discernible object in the entire grassy field, which, surely, qualified as reason enough alone.

Here is how watching dogs interacting with sticks will substantially improve your life.

Mental wellbeing

As I believe I have just sufficiently demonstrated, watching dogs – young or old, age irrelevant – interact with sticks is a joyous activity for humans of all ages and dispositions. Some dogs simply carry sticks about, making humans smile almost by default (unless those humans are cold and dead inside like people who find no pleasure at all in films like Dirty Dancing, but we won’t bother ourselves with that here). Whatever a dog is doing with a stick, be it simply carrying it or trying to attack it, watching such activity makes for immense enjoyment and pleasure.

Physical wellbeing

Facial muscles require a regular workout. Don’t ask me why – let us simply assume that it’s better to smile than to not, and that all those freelance writers who have written copious web articles on the subject over the years had a real interest and were not just following the incredible trail of money which writing for a living so obviously brings.

Here comes the science part. Smiling induces movement in other parts of the body. Hence the fact that when you smile, you generally tend to be interacting in some way which also works other parts of the body, thus making you fitter in a subconscious, holy-shit-I’ve-just-lost-2-pounds-and-all-I-did-was-watch-a-dog-playing way. It is therefore possible to say that watching dogs messing about with sticks is physically good for you, even if you find absolutely no mental stimulation in such an activity and still resent me quite a bit for mentioning Dirty Dancing in the above paragraph.

Laughter is great

Scientists reckon that laughter can be used as an effective pain medicine. Wow. psychologists believe, and have strong evidence for, the notion that laughter helps people to bond and engage in meaningful relationships with one another. No way! Another direct consequence of laughter is the inevitable release of endorphins, which we all quite love. So watching dogs interacting with sticks is beneficial in a breathtaking number of ways. Not to mention the fact that watching dogs carrying and playing with sticks does other things besides…

It gets the brain working

Watch a dog obsessing over a stick and you can’t help but think. Try it out and see what I mean. Take this example, in the mind of a woman whose a bit fed-up with her husband: look at what she’s doing with that stick! That’s ingenious, dogs are clever, I wish Dave was more ingenious…which reminds me…he really needs to Google how to fix the cupboard door like he bloody told me he would…maybe I should consider divorce after all…

While it could well be said that dogs carrying sticks is, in evolutionary terms, creating a disenchanting culture of misery for couples – specifically those with DIY shortcomings which could have been avoided had one followed gut instinct when a light-bulb needed changing and the partner in question was seriously flummoxed in a way that should really have made one think long and hard about the future of that relationship – it could also be said that it makes you think and have ideas. And if you have ideas, that’s brilliant, isn’t it?

All because dogs just quite like carrying sticks around. There. Thank you, dogs, and thank you for being there, sticks.

Endless fascination: Foo Fighters’ Everlong

GrohlI didn’t begin to appreciate Foo Fighters music until well after I’d left secondary school. A shame, because had I got there earlier, I would probably have been better able to relate to my class-mates. A select group of my peers were raving about this Foo Fighters band, treating angry Dave and his muckers like the originators of some kind of actual religion. Needless to say, this was something which provoked the attention of a sadistic RE-studies-despising-boy who went by the name of Big Terry (or Infamous Big Terry, depending on which people you hung about with). As was the fashion back in the early 1990s, Big Terry quite liked getting weaker pupils in horrendous looking head-locks, and he didn’t much appreciate groundbreaking rock music, either.

There was a boy in my form who had big ears and wouldn’t stop going on about Foo Fighters. A boy who, luckily for him, could also run fairly fast. Possibly the owner of the largest surface-area ears in our entire year, this immensely obvious physical characteristic went largely unnoticed to his class-mates as long as he was talking about Foo Fighters and successfully appearing cool. No wonder, then, that he kept up his adoration of Dave’s gang with punishing force – providing Big Terry was busy terrorising another victim, that is.

Everlong was one of those songs which instantly arrested my senses. There was no transition, no needing to get acquainted or even interpret the lyrics – the connection resonated instantly. Just like PixiesBone Machine would do, and just as Jeff Buckley’s mesmerizing song Grace would so effortlessly achieve, listening to Everlong was an experience akin to what could only be described as setting foot on another planet. At the time, I had heard nothing like it, nothing that even came remotely close. While other songs would come and go over the years, losing their significance and some of their magic, for me, Everlong still to this day retains the same powerful intensity.

The key to Everlong‘s astounding, multi-layered feel is, I think, an ability to completely consume a person’s senses. Grohl’s lyrics are raw and rampaging, while the song’s construction is a sprawling mass of high-energy which will have you receiving a speeding-ticket in next to no time. Everlong is a song to go crazy to, one to sing at the top of your voice or quietly embrace through ear-phones, isolated from the outside world.

When I first heard Everlong, I listened to it repeatedly. I listened to it for months, every single day, until the CD wore out. Each time seemed to bring something new and as yet unnoticed – yet so massively engaging that I struggled to comprehend how I had not acknowledged its significance before. Yet over time, I realised that something was happening. Everlong wasn’t losing its appeal, as such, but I was beginning to realise that, like very few songs, it was a song to cherish.

Nowadays, I tend not to listen to Everlong very often. If I hear it more than three times in 6 months then for me, that could be considered an exception. If I hear it in a cafe, I will, almost subconsciously, do everything in my power to put space between me and it – while also feeling cheated that I am doing so. If it comes on while I am driving, or accidentally finds itself pouring out of my MP3 player, I will shut it off without a second thought…unless I am truly in the precise right mood. For me, Everlong is a very special song which I like to listen to only from time to time. To savour and enjoy when I need that extra-special something (so much so that I didn’t even listen to it while writing this blog post).

While it’s possible that I will one day get fed-up with this classic song, something tells me that if that is to happen, it won’t be for some time yet.

Channel 4: Live From Space, just for the hell of it

My girlfriend and I ended up watching the first of Channel 4s Live From Space series by total accident. Jen, fuelled by enthusiasm to see first dates flourish and fail miserably, was absolutely certain that everyone’s favourite new dating show First Dates was on Channel 4 at 9pm last night. It wasn’t of course. We were an hour too early. As it was then announced that, instead, the first episode from this new Space series was to begin, both of us sat there a bit pissed off and deflated and wondering what to do next. We had good reason to be annoyed, it’s true. I had my treats ready (one of which was a big fat bar of Dairy Milk) and Jen had her pack of blueberries at the ready (a real bargain at just 34 pence on special offer from our favourite supermarket, The Cooperative). In a very short period of time, we had to decide: do we watch this Live From Space thing or not bother? After a bit of debate, I decided to make an executive decision. We were going to give the show a chance. Probably it was going to be crap, we both thought, but whatever way you looked at it, it would at least be intriguing to see how people do poos safely in space.

But you know how it goes. No sooner had Dermot O’Leary appeared on screen than my phone went off in my pocket. I was tempted to not answer it, as Dermot had just started to speak – there he was, standing in front of Mission Control in Houston, looking happy to be doing something other than X-Factor – but it was our friend’s birthday and we had tried to call him a few minutes before (which, when he failed to pick up, saw Jen and I singing Happy Birthday onto voicemail like a right couple of silly goons). Selfishly, I had thought at the time that the amount of effort we had put into singing that famous song would somehow blow the mind of our friend enough that he would need at least an hour to take in the wonder of it all, thus giving us just enough time to first watch Live From Space episode 1. So as to concentrate fully on the chat with our friend, I turned the channel over. That was when I knew that I was more interested in learning about Space than I had first thought.

I tell you what, I loved learning about Space with Dermot. I really thought it was brilliant. Although it was at no point in time mentioned how astronauts safely do a poo in Space, we did learn plenty of other interesting things. For example, anyone who has often thought What the hell do people actually do in Space? would have been delighted to discover that, mainly, astronauts do bizarre experiments which are recorded in every way imaginable, apparently for the sake of it. Us viewing public witnessed this first-hand as ants were released inside a small container, live from Space. It sounds dull, I’ll admit, but watching the ants attempt to go about their business was strangely mesmerizing. It’s just a shame the ants can’t speak for themselves.

Another high point came when one of the astronauts shared with us a routine daily task that most of us with decent running non-diseased water take for granted: that loveable daily event of washing one’s own face. As Koichi Wakata explained how good it felt to put a warm towel upon his face, I turned to Jen, initially unimpressed and said, “I didn’t start watching this to see astronauts wash their faces!” My initial opinion soon proved to be hasty and wrong, however, as we learned that astronauts don’t have showers or use running water in Space. Knowing this, what we had just witnessed took on a whole new dimension of importance.

As the show went on, my imagination couldn’t help but go into over-drive. I just kept thinking: what experiments would I do if I was spending six months hanging about in Space? I decided these would take priority:

1: technically it’s not an experiment, but it is exciting. I’d go on a bit of a rogue Spacewalk. One day, when everyone else was asleep in their quarters, I’d wake up and go out into Space on my own, like a renegade! Probably I’d try and walk to a star or something daring like that. Forever, scientists and know-it-all people have said without question that stars are light years away from each other, but what if they’re not? What if there really is one just a couple of miles away and we’ve been lied to all along? You’d feel utterly foolish for not trying, wouldn’t you? It would be a great thing to say when you got back from Space, that’s for sure: “it’s not true that stars are light years away from each other. I came across one on a rogue Spacewalk. Beat that.”

I did have a load more ideas – doing falconry in Space, or maybe tricking the other astronauts into thinking that a secret astronaut existed on the Space Station who was hiding away somewhere and hell-bent on sabotaging the mission, etc – but I have decided to not go into detail about these here. On second thoughts, it seems very cruel on birds of prey and possibly a waste, quite literally, of Space.

There is more to be said, so I’ll get on with that.

Do you ever wonder about TV in the future? I do. As a result, I predict – and this is a very serious prediction with absolutely no humour – that the future will see millions of us tuning-in to an X-Factor style TV show where contestants are beamed-up to the ISS for incredible galactic singing competitions. It sounds crazy, but I’ve decided it’s extremely likely (the adverts would probably mention the phrase intergalactic fun at some point, but to me that seems a bit inaccurate, seeing as in Space terms the ISS is barely out of the Earth’s atmosphere. But maybe that’s just me being a bit anal, I don’t know).

There were so many things which amazed me as we watched the programme elapse. One thing which freaked us out all the way through was how the astronauts looked when floating about. They didn’t look normal at all! Instead of stomachs being where they ought to be, they appeared to have floated upwards by several feet. People’s shoulders, for example, were up by their ears, and I’m sure I saw an arse round where their shoulder blades used to be. Everything appeared to have floated upwards. This observation quickly grew into a rapid, escalating fear for the safety and location of the men’s genitals. I just kept imagining myself in Space, going to the toilet, and looking about for my genitals, only to discover them where my nipples used to be, swaying around upon my back.

Then there was the whole thing about what these so-called experiments were really for. Considering the United States’ love for experimenting in secret locations on Earth without telling anyone until caught absolutely red-handed, I struggle to believe that Mission Control are experimenting in purely innocent ways. And let’s face it, if there are places on Earth where rules can be completely ignored, Space is going to be a million times better. I’m not sure I want to know what other experiments they are doing in Space and not telling us about. Then again, I’ve banged on quite a bit about it here, so maybe I am lying. Perhaps I do.

The Spacewalk that Rick and Mike Hopkins had to do was fantastic viewing, though. Widely considered to be the most dangerous thing you can do, this one was to see Rick and Mike Hopkins (they’re not brothers, by the way, I just haven’t bothered to research Rick’s second name) go out to replace a valve on a coolant pump. For me, being asked to do something like this is my absolute worst nightmare, so it’s a good job that you can’t be called to go up into Space like you can be requested to partake in Jury Duty (as of yet, anyway). I bet I’d break something which would inadvertently cause the death of a fellow astronaut. I just know I would. I consider myself to be a good person, but still, I am in no doubt that this would probably result in me going back inside the ISS only to say “guys, Jason sort of fucked up the valve and died…the idiot. I did everything I could but it was too late. I told you you shouldn’t have trusted me too – I did make a very big point of saying that changing valves is not my forte, and you still bloody sent me out there.” I’d love to tell the truth in this situation, but what might happen then? It could be bad. Spending 6 months in Space with just a load of other men must do funny things to you. For mental wellbeing it cannot be great.

Which reminds me…how come we didn’t see any women on board the ISS? Could that be mere coincidence, or is that by design? The more I pondered this question, the more confused I got. In an age of (supposed relative) equality, surely women are just as capable as men when it comes to Space stuff? I concluded in the end that probably it was – is – by design and for safety. While I’m fairly confident that most men would be able to work with a woman in Space for months on end and not violate them in some way, I suppose there is no way of knowing how people will react once they get out there (a bit of research at this link has led to something of an explanation which is worth reading, and which also shows my naivety and lack of knowledge up in quite a dazzling way. It would appear that tradition plays a large part: astronauts were originally fighter-jet pilots, and since the military didn’t used to allow for the consideration of female fighter-jet pilots, the resulting lack of female astronauts – combined with a lack of wanting on the US Government’s part to adapt or change their selection criteria – was the inevitable tragic and downright hideously unfair result).

So there you have it: Space is so much more than just the worst place to get lost (unless you want to get really lost, in which case you couldn’t have been more fortunate). It’s not a place for lazy people, however. Did you know that in Space it’s mandatory to do a couple of hours of intense exercise every single day? You could float about all day in awe of Zero-G and do absolutely nothing but smile, but when your wife asked you to go shopping or even stand up for several seconds when you got back home, you’d wish you hadn’t, because your bones would probably break. A smile wouldn’t be much good then, obviously.

Much as I enjoyed the show, I have decided that I have no ambitions to go to Space any time soon. None whatsoever. Once I’ve finally seen Gravity, I have a feeling that the inclination might be even less, but still, I am willing to remain open-minded.

Life is great when you finally “get” cats

catBeing a new cat lover is an interesting place to be in my life. A surreal place, for someone who grew up only with dogs. A place that, at one point – a point which has stretched on and on for most of my adult life, it has to be said – I didn’t think I would ever be. Being a new cat lover brings a wide range of challenges, but it also brings joy, inspiration and feelings of contentment (like the first time I picked a cat up and it didn’t appear noticeably threatened, for example). When I’m not clearing up cat sick, the contentment bit tends to be much higher, it’s true.

Bizarrely, my new found love – what started as a new found ability to tolerate cats in the same space as me – began one day when I almost tripped and fell down the stairs in my girlfriend’s house. Seeking sunshine, the younger of the two cats had cunningly decided to wedge herself against one of the steps at the top, hidden in such a way that I only noticed her in that terrible moment when forced to make a choice: either sacrifice the cat’s life for the sake of my own, or shift my bodyweight and miss the animal entirely. Surprised to find myself doing the latter, I stopped there, on the stairs, where the cats had made an obvious attempt on my life, and looked at them both. They looked back up at me, sprawled out and reckless and, it has to be said, not seeming  particularly bothered in any way at all. Sitting down on the stairs, I pondered what to do with these strange new feelings I was having. A cat had almost caused me to fall to my doom, and there I was, not hating this cat, more curious than irritated…not resenting its freedom and incredible ability to make a full afternoon out of doing absolutely nothing.

“I think I might be a new cat lover,” I said to the cats. “I’m not sure if I’m ready or not, but I promise you I’ll try.”

This initial foray into cat appreciation was to be short-lived, of course. After a second and more crude attempt on my life later that same afternoon – this time resulting in a near-fatal bum-slide that had me acknowledging half the stairs with my ancient relic of a tail-bone – I was in a decidedly foul mood. I was in a stinker. The kind like when you’ve just picked up a pack of biscuits in the supermarket, and you drop them, smashing about half of them, and then feel obliged to buy the pack, because an assistant was watching you at the time. But it was then that a second event occurred which would have me questioning, once again, the place in my consciousness where the feline ones reside.

The cats were following me, meandering around my legs, mewing – this wasn’t me-owing, this was mewing – making it clear that they wanted something from me. Exclusively from me! From me? Yes. It was unmistakable. Not being any kind of expert, and concerned that I was reading more into this than was realistic, I asked Jen for her expert advice. Watching this display as I attempted to get a glass and fill it up with water, Jen confirmed what I’d been thinking: the cats wanted food from me. Not her, but me. The cats had chosen me as their one and only leader (for the day).

Now this was a revelation. I had gone from genuinely disliking cats to being their leader of the day! And while there were other more enthusiastic leaders around in plentiful supply, too!

Upon feeding the cats, however, any kind of bond between us seemed to vanish. I was clearly no longer their leader. Only bothered about the new slop I’d so kindly bequeathed them, the cats went back to their usual business and sauntered off in search of their new leader. I didn’t see them again for the rest of that day. Once again, I pondered how I had been used and thrown-away. Just another gullible human, tricked into doing the only thing the cats considered him good for.

Damn it.

It was to be several full days until the final episode in this catalogue of cat escapades happened, changing forever my viewpoint of the furry sack-like shape-changing critters.

We wanted to go to bed, but we couldn’t. Well, I couldn’t. Because beneath the bed was the older of the two cats. Clever, devious and conniving – it might seem like overkill to use such a spread of similar words, but I tell you it isn’t – the cat villain had planted herself beneath the bed in an impossible-to-get-to place. Again. And once I had seen her, there was no way I could simply get into bed and drift off to sleep, pretend like this had never happened. Anyone who has slept in the same house as a cat for any amount of time will understand why: either that cat is going to end up with its bum in your face at 5am, or they’re going to be scratching at the door to get out at around 3am, and the only way that’s going to happen is if you get up and physically let them out (call me sick, but at that point, a cat’s anus in the face almost seems preferable). After a quick consultation with Jen about this, which saw Jen amused and me less amused (by far), it was decided that it was my task to evacuate the cat from her den. I searched about the room and soon discovered a broom which was, by chance, broken and could have its head easily detached, making for a prime poking tool. This was to be my weapon of choice for coercing the feline from out, under the bed.

Obviously I couldn’t get her out though. For ten minutes I tried my best, jabbing at her and trying to swipe beneath her furry, sack-like body. But every time I was foiled. Either she got the best of my good nature by mewing and crying out in mock pain and anguish, or she swiped the broom handle with considerable force, attaching her claws to it and engaging me in a battle of mini tug-of-war that I would be foolish to try and win.

I went to bed in a vile rage, concerned for my imminent sleep’s welfare. I don’t think Jen got much sleep that night either.

Then something truly inexplicable happened. I awoke the following morning, only to find myself…having slept all the way through the night! Confused and scared for my life, I ferreted about for a few awful minutes, attempting to uncover the truth of my reality: was I awake? Was this some cruel dream? I looked under the bed and saw that the cat was no longer there. She must have escaped the room on her own sometime during the night. Elated, I got up and went downstairs. I felt like a new me. It felt like the start of an incredible new chapter where I could co-exist peacefully with cats.

Downstairs. Where I found the cats had been sick at various times during the night. One of them, all the way down the long, thin fridge, in an impressive cascade of bright yellow and brown muck. Lovely.

Despite the horrible sight – presumably a catty protest about the limited choice of slop available to them, contrasted with the stupendous choice which us humans so enjoyed – I smiled as I walked into the living room and saw the cats sitting there. I realised, then, that I had been fighting a losing battle all along. The cats weren’t my enemies, we were just from different worlds, is all. It was time to start new. Providing the cats didn’t keep on sabotaging my new open-minded approach to their existence by throwing-up all the way down the fridge, things would be good.

Do the Hawk Walk

Hawk 2

Several years ago, for my birthday, my brother Matthew — we’ve always called him Maff — bought me a truly incredible gift: yes, a voucher for me to go and hang about with a bird of prey for the afternoon, at The Owl Experience Bird Of Prey Centre in Risley, Derbyshire! I grew up absolutely obsessed with fossils, dinosaurs and birds of prey, so I was instantly thrilled by this thoughtful surprise (uncharacteristically thoughtful, if we’re being brutally honest, and hopefully Maff won’t take offense at that). I’m only going to hold a bloody Harris Hawk! I thought. It’ll be just like when I was a boy…

(Except with a beard.)

Anyway, I sort of messed it up to begin with. Really messed it up, actually. In fact, Maff frequently wondered why he’d even bothered getting me the stupid voucher to begin with. As the weeks wore on, I promised myself that I’d soon arrange going to meet this Harris Hawk (he was to be called Steve), but every time I wanted to sort it out, something happened and I failed to arrange the appointment. You know how it is when you’re really busy with life and stuff. This pathetic show of indecisiveness went on for over a year. As you will know if you have also failed to do something for over a year, it’s hard to come up with valid excuses after the year-and-a-half period is up. You just feel like a bit of a wally by then. So it was time to get my act together. To finally go and meet the hawk you see in these dramatic pictures…

Steve, elegant, predatory and clearly not a fan of stereotyping

Steve. Elegant, predatory and clearly not a fan of stereotyping. See below for an explanation of that

When I finally arranged it, the Hawk Walk was amazing, as predicted. Bob Morley was our host for the day. An experienced falconer (what you’d hope for, obviously) and a bit of a character (Bob didn’t mince his words), Bob knows his birds and, for the safety of us and Steve (more us), gave us some helpful advice before we set off. One of Bob’s best pieces of advice was, I thought: “whatever you do, don’t stroke him”. This came at precisely the right moment, just as I was imagining what it would be like to stroke Steve’s soft, feathery head. To rub my face upon his, like I had always wanted to. It’s a good job I didn’t do either of these things. At the end of the Hawk Walk, Bob would go on to tell us a truly grisly story of what had happened when Steve, in a fit of birdy rage, had lashed-out at him one fateful day. The attack had resulted in Steve’s talons going all the way into one of Bob’s thumbs. Right down to the bone. Tough as Bob clearly was, even he said he had been close to crying. And it’s not often you hear a falconer say that. These are folk who are used to being attacked by birds.

I couldn’t look at Steve in the same way again after that. But at least I could look at him, and look in general. I probably wouldn’t be able to look at all if Bob hadn’t given us that advice.

Steve was a reasonably sized male Harris Hawk, renowned for his mischievous attitude and uncanny knack for getting electrocuted by landing on pylons (Bob said this had happened twice over the years, and didn’t rule out it happening again). He was also a big fan of landing on people’s heads (the less hair, the better. He even landed on Bob’s! That was ace because Bob had confidently said a bit earlier that Steve knew not to do that).

For over an hour, Jen and I wandered about through fields, with each of our group getting a chance to have Steve elegantly glide across the countryside and land effortlessly on our special big fat glove (and me ask loads of questions, probably annoying the other people in our group with my child-like fascination that went on without end). My favourite part of the walk was when our falconer host said “Harris Hawks rarely kill other birds”. Hearing this, Steve immediately swooped on a pigeon sitting peacefully in a nearby tree. Within seconds, the rascal had murdered the unfortunate animal and was busy tearing it to pieces in front of a stunned audience (in Steve’s defense, Bob reckoned the pigeon, which hadn’t made any attempt to fly away, had been sick. Or maybe that’s just something they tell us so that us bird of prey beginners can go to sleep at night?).

Thanks for making it memorable, Steve.

The Owl Experience in Risley is thoroughly recommended by this blogger. Just make sure you wear a hat if you’re a bit thin on top, and be prepared for moderate violence. Rated 18 (depending on Steve’s mood, of course).