So, farewell then

Poor Victoria Wood.

No sooner had Britain’s best-loved and most multi-talented female comedian passed away surprisingly from cancer at the ridiculous age of 62, who knew?, than the artist posthumously known as Prince has popped his platinum discs at the age of 57, during a bout of “‘flu”.

If there is a pandemic of ‘flu lethal enough to carry off a celebrity as wealthy and prominent as the little Prince, who must surely have had the entire global medical community at his behest, we are all in trouble.

As, clearly, most ordinary Americans are; at the mercy of a medical system as archaic and insane as their judiciary.

Fifty-seven, however, is one of those unpropitious, grey ages at which most of us wish we did not have to arrive. It is better to be 60, believe me, than 57. There is nothing youthful, sexy or promising about 57.

While I don’t think I have heard an entire Prince track from opening chord to coda, being just the wrong side of the right age, nevertheless I can see how important he was to the world of popular musicke. And judging by the encomia of his fellow celebs, he was a total groove; once putting on an arena concert with his band in a suburban living-room in the grimy north of the UK.

Respect.

It seems like celebrities are dropping dead at a rate not seen since the BBC website ran an article by a statistician two days ago, poo-pooing the idea that celebrities were dying in unnatural numbers this year.

Of course, it’s a generational thing. The 1960s and 70s produced an unnaturally large postwar crop of actors, musicians and comedians by the standards of previous generations, whose talents were exposed in greater numbers owing to the geometric expansion in entertainment channels in the West.

Unsurprisingly, many of them are in their 60s, 70s and 80s and are dying off within the statistical norms of people of their age. Celebrities, let us never forget, are normal people, only different. Perpetual, nevertheless they aren’t immortal.

And in some ways I am comforted. I have never understood why my first wife, a TV reporter and presenter, could not have been saved from cancer by virtue of being better connected with the medical establishment than yer ordinary Jane Bloggs. You’d think celebrity would provide some protection, some extra ‘two-year warranty’, some presentiment of immortality, but it doesn’t.

It’s in yer genes.

So there is our dear Queen, being upstaged on her 90th birthday by a mere Prince.

Ironic, or what?

 

 

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65: Passing the Post

So, thirteen fives make 65.

Not a very interesting number, then. Propitious, only in the sense that reaching the age of 65 has elevated me to a new social status as one of the Oldies, the pensioners, the invisible army of grey nonentities who travel on buses and get mugged by phoney telephone company engineers. No longer able to deal with the energy company, the phone company, the Work and Pensions department – any kind of commercial contract or flatpack self-assembly furniture – without copious swearing and recourse to handy teenagers, I have joined the ranks of the Doomed ones at the top of that final slope, where you realise your brake pipes have been severed and the steering wheel’s come off in your hands.

I was immensely touched therefore by the generosity of so many people I am generally fairly beastly to: members of the choir whose inability to grasp basic chord theory clearly infuriates me, fellow thespians who don’t turn up to rehearsals on the flimsiest of excuses, so it’s the mother-in-law’s 57th birthday, so what? who trooped round to my little house, that I can’t sell, last night, bearing cards and little trinkets and packets of Turron and pots of homemade jam and bottles of wine, and filled my kitchen with excited voices that were not the usual tired and repetitious ones in my head.

I was eventually moved to comment, as my endlessly forgiving friends packed themselves as tightly as anchovies around the groaning table, having arrived in unanticipated numbers (it’s an El Niño year), that I might have bought the smallest house in town but it did have other rooms they could use. I wanted them to go in my little garden, with its pretty lights and things in pots and its burbling water feature (lites up at nite!), my new table and chairs set. But Autumn has been slowly creeping up on us in its allegorical kind of way, and brought with it a little chilly night. We huddled together for warmth.

My son arrived with a many-pocketed backpack, and in each pocket was a gift. He was sorry he couldn’t find birthday wrapping-paper as it’s all Christmas now. It was touching, inasmuch as my present to him on his 21st was £20 worth of download vouchers, so broke have I been lately. (Although I then demonstrated my meanness by using up the last of my credit to make myself a present of a long-planned digital keyboard. And I don’t even play. Not yet, anyway.) But he sweetly put his student loan on the line by buying for me: a coffee-maker that makes more than one cup at a time, packets of interesting single-estate coffee, some decent bottles of wine and a fresh copy of MS Office that I can try and load on his old laptop, that he has also kindly donated to me, with its garishly glowing special red-eyed Dragon gaming mouse and its Kabbalistic inscriptions carved into the lid.

His sister of course completely ignored the whole occasion. Which is fine, she gets it from me. I’ve never been known to remember anything important, or do anything unselfish or say anything tactful or encouraging in my entire life. I get that from my dad. He used to be charm itself for about the first half-hour. But she knows I care, she got some download vouchers too for her 25th just last month. In an Amazon giftbox, naturally.

Not long to go now.

 

Taking an app: Armageddon in the e-book trade

As it happens, the prognostications of Mr Russell Grant and his syndicated columns of horoscopy have a direct personal relevance to me.

Some years ago, I managed to find a maternity-relief job on my local newspaper as the person who typesets the Classified advertisements. The position was so poorly paid that my children qualified for free school lunches.

After a month of deteriorating relations with the bossy women whose job was to sell the ad space – the principal cause of friction being my insistence on correcting their spelling mistakes – someone higher up actually read my CV and realised that I had been a card-carrying journalist long before the editor was squeezing into a size-16 gym-slip.

Accordingly, I was promoted out of the line of vitriol of the sales harpies, and put instead to sub-editing the safer parts of the paper itself. The showbiz column. The local history page. Urgent news from around the Women’s Institute branches. What’s On? at the local fleapit cinema.

And, the horoscopes. The mighty Universal Grant machine supplied our paper, as many others, with weekly advice for those who half-believe that their destiny lies in the stars. The horoscopes would arrive in monthly batches, and we would quite often print them in the wrong date order, but it didn’t seem to matter.

My problem was that the copy was invariably too long, and I would have to chop bits out of each star sign to get them all to fit the available space. I began to worry. Which bits wouldn’t be important to somebody?

What if the reader was relying on Russell to advise them what to do under certain vital circumstances, the circumstances had arisen, but the advice was not there; important aspects of people’s lives, Sagittarius, Leo, that they would not be forewarned of, digitally binned, as it were, by my uncaring editorial hand? What if they died?

I began to feel as if it was me, rather than the rising and conjoining constellations, Pisces, Aries, that was shaping human destiny.

“If you press yourself too hard, you could get a headache. There’s nothing wrong with taking a nap when you get tired. Career opportunities could be few and far between. Treat yourself to… a new electronic e-reader.”

Now, this is uncanny. In my horoscope for today, carried on the Yahoo! homepage, Russell has put his chubby, beringed finger precisely on the nub of the problem.

I did press myself too hard last night, and this morning I do have a bit of a headache. Sometimes, I find (don’t you?) that I have to force myself to knock-off the last third of the bottle, as I can get tired of drinking cheap supermarket wine and need to take a nap. I often fall asleep in the afternoons too, feeling that there’s nothing wrong with missing out on a few minutes’ worth of career opportunities, given that there don’t seem to be any this week.

But it’s the electronic e-reader bit that’s so fascinating.

Russell obviously was not to know that I don’t have an old e-reader to replace with a new one, or indeed any money to buy one, career opportunities being so thin on the ground, but I have been thinking a lot about e-readers recently.

One of the many forms of suicide I have been practising in recent years is cultural. I did read one book last year, on a personal recommendation, but found it so tiring that I got headaches and had to take several naps.

Because I can’t seem to grasp information and hold on to it right to the end of the paragraph. Consequently I have no idea what the author is on about, and so feel that buying books in the first place, in whatever format, is a waste of money. I prefer reading these, my own Posts, which are fascinating, informative, companionable and well-written – but above all, easy to understand.

A few days ago, the Big Beast of the e-reader jungle, Amazon’s Kindle division, kindly sent me a four-page letter outlining their case in their well-publicised dispute with the French publishing empire, Hachette. (I think that’s French for ‘axe’?)

I didn’t understand much of what they were saying, and have forgotten the rest already, but it seems Amazon was attempting to justify its policy of blacklisting Hachette’s authors in order to persuade the publisher to accept that e-readable versions of their books ought to be a lot cheaper than the cardboard-sandwiches people buy in bookshops, and so Kindle should pay them less for the publication rights. (I’ve just had to read this paragraph again, twice, but I think I now understand it.)

This seems logical, and Amazon’s argument, that if e-books were cheaper more people would buy them and so Hachette would make bigger profits, sounded utterly reasonable. Imagine my distress, therefore, to learn that no fewer than nine hundred authors had signed a letter in the New York Review of Books, telling Amazon to go fuck itself.

But how much good have traditional publishers ever done for the majority of their authors?

Before becoming a lowly typesetter, I had a number of editorial jobs, notably in publishing, where I produced over a hundred and fifty new titles in a career spanning five years.

And, before that, I had had a number of somewhat higher-profile jobs in advertising. So, being the creative, imaginative sort, I tried to apply a little thinking from the latter category to the former. I simply could not understand why my employers in the publishing business were so utterly crap at selling books?

The answer, I believe, is that it is because they sold books; or hoped to, rather than selling what was in the books. They were selling the wrong product: the outer packaging, not the contents.

Their marketing ideas seemed to have ossified early on in the Victorian era, about the time Mr Dickens was cleverly maximising his sales by going out on the stump, giving highly dramatic readings of his lurid serialisations to gasping and fainting audiences of hundreds of adoring fans around the country.

It was a brilliant display of multi-medial marketing, in which the content took pride of place over the outward form. Who cared what the cover looked like, when Little Nell was at stake? It’s a lesson publishers seem never since to have taken on board. Book signings aren’t quite the same thing.

To give just one example of what I mean, behind the foyer of one reputable independent company where I worked, that specialised in History books, was a room lined with shelves, a veritable literary ossuary in which rested the dusty bones of a few samples each of the hundreds of meaty titles previously published by us, long before thought to have reached their expiry dates.

I looked at them in a very different light.

Here were yards and yards of re-usable, marketable content: information, opinion, ideas, painstakingly researched and paid-for, put into comprehensible, entertaining formats for the reading public, now just sitting there, doing nothing, waiting in vain for new media to release them once more into the world and make celebrities of their authors.

While, upstairs, the marketing department struggled to obtain bookshop sales for a never-ending stream of expensive new products, in competition with large publishing groups supplying chains like Borders and Waterstones; who in turn were soliciting higher and higher margins, outright bribes, from ‘favoured’ publishers to display their wares and nobody else’s, in panicky flight from the power of the supermarkets.

My imagination reeled! Just what couldn’t we do with all that scrummy content, re-edited and re-packaged in a variety of ways for new readerships, audiences, user-groups – content we already owned, that we could market outside the increasingly profitless world of conventional book publishing!

Instead, most of those books, having failed to reach their initial sales targets for one reason and another, had been ‘remaindered’; which is to say, the unsold copies had been boxed-up and sold for 10p each to a Nigerian entrepreneur, who shipped them out to Lagos and sold them on in the trade, at a hefty premium.

Several of my own books were hardly off the press before Marketing gave up on them. If they didn’t hit their modest sales targets in three months, they weren’t worth spending any more money on. It was Armaggedon in the book trade; as if, having made a hundred cans of baked beans and sold only eighty, Heinz had abandoned beans as a good idea without any research to understand why, and switched instead to selling pickled pimentos; and when they didn’t sell out, had moved on to boiled beets and curdled cabbage, stabbing blindly in the dark.

Why didn’t we just cut-out the middle-man and create outlets for our own remainders? It was a conundrum. The old Net Book Agreement, that had for decades operated a closed shop containing book prices that could not legally be reduced, had gone under the Heath government. Why did we not just sell books for 10p, if that was what they were fated to be sold for anyway? At least we would keep the money. And I had plenty more ideas where that came from.

I put some of them together on paper, took them to the Marketing Manager. I showed him one: how we could increase the profit-per-publication by 10% by producing accompanying low-cost audiobook versions of the texts; how we would market them in the trade.

I explained that I had spent ten years in the broadcast industries, fifteen in marketing service agencies. I showed him market research, statistics. I offered to set-up and manage an audiobooks production department at no extra cost to my current, dismal salary. His flaccid reply: “But we are not in the business of producing audiobooks.”

Six months after I left the company, it had vanished without a trace.

Who would have predicted that? Or that, within a few years, people would be reading books on their phones, books supplied by Google, and have no more need for Amazon’s frankly nerdy little plasticky one-function Kindle readers – panic being the real reason they sent out that weaselly letter?

Wake up, Russell. I’ve got a Smartphone, I don’t need an electronic e-reader, thanks.

Nice try. But I feel a headache coming on. Think I’ll take an app….

 

 

Taking the measure of Christmas

A solitary Christmas card arrives by fourth post, bearing a kind message from one of my ex-sisters-in-law. At last, my mantelpiece breaks its duck: I had been thinking of going out and buying some cards to put up around the room – doing a ‘shelfie’, perhaps?

As the letter-flap flipped, I was coincidentally musing (while bathroom-bound) on a thought concerning the Christian religion. I don’t think people generally notice that, while the majority do not (by definition) believe that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and returned from the dead, although many do, most of the world seems quite happy to operate on a calendrical system that takes as its starting point, the supposed date of this unusual individual’s birth.

Right-on archaeologists have recently adopted the ecumenical euphemism ‘Common Era’ to define the period of, as of next Wednesday, 2013 years that counts as post-Birth and used to be known as AD – ‘Anno Domini’, the Year of the Lord. Time prior to AD was called BC, or ‘Before Christ’, and even people who do not worship Christ as the Son of God (I have never understood quite what that phrase actually means, if anything?) went along with the system for many years.

BC is now called ‘BCE’, or ‘Before Common Era’. What no-one has explained, to me at least, is what is meant by ‘Common Era’? Common to whom, given that the turning-point remains a matter of religious doctrine? Not, surely, to Buddhists, whose non-Christian belief system dates from approximately 500 years BC, or to Muslims, whose religion was dictated to the Prophet by an angel in 625 AD, and who privately amongst themselves deduct the difference when referring to the current year?

And what of the Church of Scientology, now sanctified by order of the UK Supreme Court? Surely they date their puerile Sci-Fichobabble from the night the Blessed L. Ron decided to invent a new religion as a literary joke?

Nor have I quite grasped the necessity for scholars to date all events to times either before or after the miracle birth of the Saviour? What is wrong with dating past events from before lunch today? Or perhaps setting some other arbitrary fulcrum for Time’s lever? Weights, lengths and distances seem to be reified by lumps and rods of metal preserved in various, usually French, institutions; longitude begins at Greenwich, currencies are valued in terms of the US dollar, time by the decay of isotopes, and we happily go along with it, rather than insisting on all measurements being stated in Biblical cubits, talents, candles, the movements of stars or the weights of angels.

Whatever, Christian or n0, the vast majority of people in the world set their watches and depart from airports and agree to meet and marry each other, sit down to feasts, lie down for fasts and hold elections at dates and times that are based on the Gregorian calendar. It says quite a lot about humanity, that we do at least see eye to eye on some issues, even if we differ on the fundamentals.

Perhaps that is the message of Christmas.

Four, the new three

Positive Characteristics: 4s are disciplined, strong, stable, pragmatic, down-to-earth, reliable, dependable, hard-working, extracting, precise, methodical, conscientious, frugal, devoted, patriotic and trustworthy!

Negative Characteristics: 4s pay for their stability and pragmatism by tending toward the boring side. This may express itself with a lack of imagination, emotions, empathy. 4s may not bother to put much care into their appearance, and their social awkwardness can make them seem vulgar, crude or jealous.

I make no apology for Posting this quote on the occasion of my 64th birthday, and I’m happy to attribute it to that invaluable website, Numerology.com (make sure you have the volume down, there’s an annoying soothsayer on a sales video that kicks-in automatically.)

If you have taken the time to read the extract, you will know pretty much all there is to know about me. Even the bit about me being a boring old arse.

I’m not sure about ‘patriotic’, in fact I have no interest whatsoever in nationalism of any sort, being too insular and self-absorbed to care about where I was born. Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner? Frugality is only a way of life that has been forced on me from time to time; as now, when I have but 60 pence in my pocket to last until Sunday and I have run out of olive oil.

Not sure I lack imagination, it’s just that my imaginative side is totally devoted to building defensive strategies: I will work through the probable consequences of my and other people’s actions many moves in advance and am very often accused of negativity as a result (although I am invariably proved right!).

Otherwise, it is an astonishing litany of qualities and deficiencies I would ascribe to myself. Certainly, I lack empathy. My usual question on meeting with an injured person, a child perhaps, is not: Poor you, where does it hurt? but: Why have you done this to yourself? And while my dress sense is advanced, I have been wearing the same chinos-and-T-shirt combination for months.

The only question I have then is, why am I a ‘four’? I don’t understand that part.

Whatever the reason, last year was a ‘three’ year, 63 being made up of two-threes-and-a-three, or three times three, times the lucky number seven. And, to be frank, although it has passed quite quickly, it’s been a frustrating year, with nothing achieved or changed for the better. They say that ‘time is money’, and 63 was just running out of both.

I blogged (Posts: 63, October 2012) how, on my 63rd birthday, no-one even remembered it. I spent the entire day delivering my son to a remote provincial airport, four hours away; got completely lost on the way home; then the lights in the house blew, leaving me in the dark without spare fusewire just as the garage closed. (I didn’t mention the urinary problem, that meant I had to keep stopping every twenty minutes to find a tree.)

Well, some people remembered me today, happily, though not my daughter; my mobile phone service provider sweetly sent me a birthday video featuring some minor celebrity I’ve never heard of, but it isn’t shaping up to be nearly such an eventful occasion as 63. Sixty-four is a ‘four’ number, I guess, being the cube of four, or the square of four-times-two. And judging by Numerology.com, ‘four’ sounds pretty uneventful. Dependable. Boring, even. Sigh.

Well, the old bladder (I christened it Blad the Impaler) is behaving itself today; otherwise, it’s predictably pouring down rain outside; no gardening work, there’s nothing in the diary except an all-evening rehearsal of a pantomime I rashly agreed to act in before reading the script. So reliable, conscientious, hardworking, etcetera am I, that I haven’t the heart to back out and let the director down (he’s a bit of a ‘four’ himself).

And still no-one buys my little house; my guitars. It’s incomprehensible.

Four, in short, is already beginning to look a whole lot like just more three.

Postscriptum

Oh, goody. The boy thoughtfully arrives through the rain, bearing birthday gifts: butter, for my bread; 750ml of olive oil, for my nightly fry-up of special-offer-priced onions and potatos.

Post-postscriptum

Two days later, the boy’s mother arrives for tea, bearing quite a decent wine, cheese and – oh, joy! – Turron. My 65th year is shaping up nicely.

Post-post-post, etc.

14 April, 2014…

Do you know what 64 is? It’s four-times-sixteen, that’s what. By my calculation, were I to have fathered a child at 16, and a subsequent family habit of feckless abundance had persisted down the generations, so that all my descendants had their first child at 16, then this year I could, both biologically and legally, be  anticipating becoming a great-great-grandfather.

Think about your great-great-grandfather. I bet you don’t even know who he was! I am lost and wandering, a shade flickering dimly in the mists of someone’s future genealogy. I’ll even bet he was a veteran of the Crimean War – the last one, I mean.

Bloody hell.

63

Numerologists will tell you, 63 is a propitious number.

Three is the Trinity representing Completion (or an old man leaning on a stick?) and six is twice three and so clearly twice as propitious, being the actual number of days on which God laboured to create the Earth. Sixty-three is also three times twenty-one, which in turn is three times seven, which is the most propitious number of all. I feel just incredibly fortunate to be 63, at long last.

A week ago, 63 looked very much like the final curtain, a harbinger of loss, loneliness, despair and decay; the end of all ambition. It didn’t help that I had reached the age of 63 on a dismal, dank and rainy October day at the end of a dismal, dank and rainy summer, whose meagre sprinkling of sunny days had served only to remind us of the better life to be found above the clouds. Or, that I had completely run out of money and ideas, and could see no further prospect of getting any.

Nor did it help that nobody had sent me a present, a card or even an e-mail — except for a computer-dating site I once signed up to and then cancelled in embarrassment when I  sobered up the next day and found that more than twenty women of a certain age had already ‘winked’ at me, an image that brought on one of my panic attacks. ‘Paul, do you know what day this is?’, the algorithm asked, coyly. It’s nice to have software that cares.

Yes, I do. It is the first birthday of my life that absolutely no-one near and even a little bit dear to me has acknowledged* (although my mother later complained that I never answer the phone. Well, neither does she!). I am alone in the Universe.

So what did I do on my birthday? Thank you for asking.

I drove my son to the airport, a four-hour slog away when you know how to find it.

Now, in most third-world countries every big city has a grand avenue leading straight to the airport, proudly named after their beloved Leader. Not so Bristol, whose city fathers have settled for anonymity in a warren of unmarked back-lanes. Peter has one of those talking maps on his phone, that tells you every 150 yards to turn left onto the next rutted track. After we had seen enough of North Somerset, I insisted on reverting to the antiquated system of roadside runes that had for several miles been mutely advising us of the benefits of turning right…. By this means I eventually deposited him and his massive laptop full of games at the Express Pick-up and Drop-off point and, with a curt nod and a manly handshake, dispatched him into adult life.

From the Express Pick-up and Drop-off point there is no escaping, other than via an automated toll-gate. The airport extracts a minimum £1 ‘parking’ fee (No Change Given) for using this facility, even though your wheels may not have stopped turning for even a second while you shoved your passenger brusquely out onto the tarmac, their luggage bouncing along after them. I emptied a pound in small change – all I had – into the bin.  With a contemptuous clatter, it spat out all the 5p coins. I tried again. No joy. Next to it, a box displayed fading mugshots of various payment cards you could try instead of money, among them a Visa Debit logo. Ignoring the insistent clamour from my inner pessimist, I thrust my Visa Debit card into the slot. It stuck there, tantalisingly out of reach. The barrier remained shut.

Happily for the travelling public, there is an emergency button connecting the box to a remote control centre, where a tin-man answered promptly. I explained what had happened. ‘That machine doesn’t take 5p coins’, sighed the man, a certain customer-focussed irritation creeping into his tinny voice. ‘Where does it say that?’ I asked. No reply. ‘Or debit cards’, he went on. ‘I’ll send someone to let you out. Stay with the car’.  I looked around at the uninviting vista, the immobile barrier. ‘Okay, I’m not going anywhere’, I said.

Ten minutes later, an elderly moustache pulled up in an airport van. While he set about dismantling the card machine, we discussed how much we both disliked airports. Nevertheless, I felt a tinge of envy: airports had given him a job, a little van and bounteous opportunities to rescue people. I was just another unpaid blogger, 63, stuck at an immobile barrier.

The ancient town of Nailsea is nowadays a suburb of Bristol, and I spent an hour driving round it, looking for a way through to the motorway, which I knew to be nearby; stopping occasionally to let Hunzi out for a wee. Without my son’s talking map I could navigate only by the sun, and there was 10/10ths cloud cover. All roads seemed to lead to the industrial zone. Occasionally, a fingerpost would point unhelpfully back towards Bristol, where I knew I also did not want to go. At last, we arrived back at the airport.

***

Entering the kitchen,  celebratory bottle of late-night-garage Merlot in hand, I switched on the light. The cheap supermarket bulb, rimed with dried-on cooking aerosols, exploded with a sharp pop, and all the house lights went out. Of the 3A fusewire needed, we had run out. I drank the wine, and went to bed in the dark. I was 63.

*To spoil a good story, a week later a book has reached me from the Amazon, which my son seems to have thoughtfully ordered for me as a birthday gift before leaving. ‘The Game’ claims to be a best-selling manual for making oneself irresistible to wealthy and eligible women. I am saying nothing except that, obviously at my age, the type is too small to read with the naked I.