If there was ever a sitcom where so little happens and where narrative is stretched to an unbearable degree, it’s Mum. I’ve blogged about series one and two before, and since Michael and Cathy finally – sort of – almost – get together at the end, I’d assumed that was it. But there’s more – and this time the tension comes from the fact that as a couple they are not ‘out’ yet, especially not to Cathy’s son Jason who, still reeling from his father’s death, is giving Michael a hard time. Cathy finds an unexpected ally in daughter-in-law Kelly who eventually tells Jason he’s being a ‘bellend’ but as always nothing is resolved until the final seconds when Cathy and Michael run away to frolic in the woods. ‘What a moment to put herself first!’ complains Pauline, who never does anything but.
They’ve cleverly gone for a new setting this time: the series spans a week away in a country mansion, hired to celebrate Derek’s birthday. Girlfriend Pauline has indulged her snobbery to the utmost in hiring the place for the week: it’s got towels in the shape of swans and when people arrive she tells them all she was ‘just about to take a dip in the pool’, despite it being freezing cold.
My main beef with this is that apart from Cathy and Michael who progress towards union at a snail’s pace, the other characters don’t change. There’s plenty of opportunity for small epiphanies but potential sub-plots such as Kelly’s unacknowledged pregnancy and whether Derek and Pauline will get married, are not developed. Even when Cathy gives Pauline a longed-for slap in the face and tells her to ‘go f*** yourself’ nothing changes: Pauline carries on treating Derek like dirt and he carries on taking it. In fact he abandons self-respect to such a degree that it’s embarrassing.
So on the whole it’s a bit of a Giant’s Causeway of a series. If you enjoyed the first two it’s worth seeing, otherwise it’s not worth going out of your way to see.
WordPress has just informed me that it’s eleven years ago today that I started this blog; which means it’s eleven years ago yesterday that I attended a workshop run by Hanif Kureishi and asked his advice on what aspiring authors should do to help the process along. ‘Start a blog,’ he said; and having conducted extensive research (well, I asked OH) I set up an account on WordPress and Bob was most definitely my uncle.
Eleven years, eh? You’d think I’d want to embark on some sort of retrospective; high points and nadirs, most popular posts, top comments, that sort of thing, but frankly I’ve no appetite for that. I would like, though, to think about what this blog has meant to me and what benefits it has brought to my life and writing.So here, for your delectation and entertainment, are my five best things about blogging.
Number One: Readers. As a writer (unless you are writing only for yourself) you need readers, otherwise you’re like an actor without an audience or a priest without a congregation. True, one of the best things about writing for me is that no-one can stop you doing it. I may be ignored by the whole world but as long as there’s breath in my body and sparks in my brain, I will carry on writing; and a blog has the potential to find you readers even if they don’t immediately hook up. Sometimes I get comments on posts I don’t even recognise because they’re so old. Once a post is out there, anyone can find it: I’ll never forget that early thrill of finishing a post and clicking ‘publish.’ At that time I’d hardly published anything in print, so that felt really good.
Number Two: Interaction. Most days I have some interaction with readers either ‘liking’ or following me, and I love getting comments. Reading and responding to comments can spark dialogues and often takes me to other blogs where I can like and comment and follow, and so it goes on. Even though OH is just a shout away, writing is essentially a solitary activity, so this interaction is valuable.
Number Three: Expression. For decades I wrote all my poems, ideas and stories in a series of A4 notebooks but now, if an idea is sufficiently developed, it can go on the blog. I used to suffer a lot from not having outlets and now I have one. It also encourages me to find new and more interesting ways to express myself.
Number Four: Development. A blog gives me practice in writing about all sorts of subjects: it’s primarily about a writer’s life but any topic which occurs to me can be the subject of a post. I’ve developed ideas about politics, I’ve described walking holidays, I’ve reviewed films, books and TV series; I’ve delved into philosophy and religion and I’ve transcribed dialogues between myself and OH for your delectation and amusement.
And finally, Cyril… Number Five: Routine. This may sound horribly worthy and dull, but it’s very important. Practice makes permanent, as they say; and as anyone knows who has suddenly retired from a 9-5 job, it’s hard to motivate yourself without structure. As it happens my working day has evolved over the years to mimic office hours. No fevered early-dawn scribblings or midday doldrums for me: I get to my desk at around 8.30 and work till lunch (12-1-ish). After lunch is usually a ‘dead’ time so I’ll do some gardening or walk to the shops; then it’s back to work between 2 and 3. Finishing time really depends on how it’s going: on a good day I’ll work till six but it’s usually around five as mornings are the most productive time. I don’t work evenings or weekends and I take Bank Holidays off, as I do the whole month of August. This doesn’t mean I don’t write anything – in some ways these are the most productive times – just that I don’t work at writing. There’s a big difference. But it can be hard to establish a routine, and in those early days, writing a daily blog post was an important discipline for me. Nowadays I don’t necessarily blog every day but I don’t like to leave it too long otherwise readers can drift away.
So there we are; eleven years of bloggy wisdom. Enjoy. Oh, and the picture is a rather gap-toothed version of me doing a victory dance after performing poems on the Fourth Plinth.
I’ve been thinking about the Archers lately. I went off it for a while during its ‘Eastenders’ phase and then went back. I’m still listening, but I can’t help feeling it’s an uphill struggle; there are too many characters, a proliferation of plots and I can’t keep track of them all.
Not only that, but there’s little diversity. Yes, I know it’s a village but in all the time I’ve been listening there’s only been one Asian character (Usha is hardly ever heard nowadays and might even be out of the series, it’s hard to tell) and no black characters at all. There is a gay couple and I’d like to know what’s happening with them and Lexi; I’d also like to know what’s going on with Helen and Lee, Brian and Jenny, Neil and – much as I dislike him, Justin – but like a merry-go-round with too many cars, you only see them once in a while.I lose track.
I’m not harking back to the days when the Archers was cosy: in fact those days never really existed. There were always murders, drugs, affairs, illegitimate pregnancies… many who are now pillars of the establishment (eg Elizabeth) were quite wild in their youth. What I miss is knowing the characters. I feel like a teacher with far too many pupils: I can’t get to know them all because I don’t see them for long enough. And don’t get me started on how many voices sound similar…virtually the only new character I recognise is Leonard, because he’s the one with the Yorkshire accent.
I miss Nelson and Jethro; I miss Walter and his elephants and the silly stories they used to have. I miss Bert Fry. Apparently still alive but how would we know?
It just doesn’t feel like it used to – but then nothing does. I expect I’m just getting old.
I’ve been thinking some more about this idea of continual innovation. It’s not, ironically, new: I think it was Trotsky who came up with the idea of perpetual revolution, and although communism as he and Marx intended was never actually practised (what do I think of Soviet communism? It would have been a good idea) I can’t help feeling it would be terribly wearing. Because what we have now is perpetual innovation; perpetual change, perpetual upgrading. Goalposts are moved daily. Targets are shifted weekly. Marriages break up or break down, people redefine themselves, those who deplored tattoos now have them all over their bodies – and so it goes on. When I look at the news I see names I don’t recognise, and it’s not only ‘celebrities’ (when I watch Celebrity Mastermind I rarely know any of the contestants) but also politicians. I had really no idea who Gavin Williamson was until he was sacked and half of the cabinet are strangers to me.
But could it be that I’m just getting old? Possibly. It’s very hard to know, though – I mean, how do you measure the changes you grew up with against the changes my children are experiencing? Douglas Adams had a very pertinent comment to make on this, and he’s right – but how do you tell if today’s innovations are speedier than yesterday’s?
I guess we have to go to history for an overview: in any case there does seem to be a consensus that change is speeding up. In all probability this won’t continue: history teaches us that periods of rapid change often give way to slower times with an absorption of what has gone before. Or we could look at nature: consider a river, say, running quickly as it starts, forging down the hillside and then gathering itself together, slowing down as it reaches the plains and then winding leisurely towards the ocean. Nothing that grows fast carries on fast, except for one or two plants and they’re generally parasitical.
It occurred to me today that although I grew up under the flight path near Heathrow and suffered all the attendant nuisances of that location, I never actually flew from there. It was not only after I had left home but also after my parents had retired and moved away, that I finally took a flight from Heathrow. I had suffered the endless screams, the pollution and the heat; I’d even worked there one summer in the airport shops, but I’d never had the money to get on a plane, not until 1993 when I used the money my grandfather left me to take a trip to India.
It is insulting in many ways to compare this experience with ‘Twopence to Cross the Mersey‘, the first volume in Helen Forrester’s autobiography of a calamitous childhood where help, in the shape of her aunt, was literally across the Mersey, had she only been able to find twopence for the ferry. These books are remarkably dispassionate and a salutary reminder of where many of us would be without state benefits.
Interestingly, I’ve just heard that campaigners have lost their fight to challenge the expansion of Heathrow which seems a mad decision. Parliament has just agreed to declare a climate emergency: this makes no sense at all. We should be shrinking airports, not expanding them and we all need to fly less.
Which reminds me, if you have local council elections today don’t forget to vote!
I’ve been catching up with a series on death and dying presented by Miriam Margolyes (that’s Mar-go-lees, not something that rhymes with gargoyles). She’s a very entertaining presenter, seemingly unconcerned with image and reacting genuinely and spontaneously as she tours care homes and other facilities to discover different attitudes to death. She visits a brilliant place where song and laughter are used to facilitate good mental health and hops across the pond to encounter a group of whacky folk who believe it’s possible to live forever if you just find the right formula. I’m highly sceptical about this: all things are subject to age and decay (though OH annoyingly had to point out some exceptions to this; creatures with long telemeres apparently) but there are other objections. First, this ‘therapy’ is available only to the rich, and in conversation some practitioners expressed views dangerously close to eugenics, suggesting that the poor and criminal classes would die out leaving only the worthy surviving. Right after this Margolyes visits a poor area where the homeless hang out and most people die young; the contrast could not be greater. Frankly I found the picture of the youthful elderly utterly repellent; most of them looked more grotesque than Mick Jagger and altogether they were such an unnatural bunch that I’d rather die tomorrow than resemble them. But there are other, deeper objections to this philosophy.
First, what matters is not the amount of time you have but what you do with it. We all know the problem of procrastination when a deadline is far away; but give most of us an imminent cut-off date and we’ll crack on. It’s salutary in many ways to act as if death is just around the corner (though not like this). History is full of examples of people who died young but achieved lots: Mozart only lived 35 years but he composed so many works that they are referred to by a Kochel number (after the guy who classified them.) In fact he wrote 68 symphonies, 27 concertos for piano alone and so many other compositions that I can’t begin to list them; more than six hundred in all and most composed over a 24-year period. Keats also died young but managed a significant body of work; Hendrix didn’t see 30 but changed the face of guitar music; and though it’s tempting to wonder what they might have achieved had they lived, maybe they wouldn’t have achieved much more. I’d rather have a short, fulfilled life than sit twenty years in a reclining chair (though I think that ship may already have sailed.*)
I think the acceptance of death is a necessary check to the ego; the knowledge that there will come a point where ‘I’ am no more is a salutary one. In any case the way to prolong life is not to postpone death, it is to live every moment. In every moment there is the possibility of interacting with eternity, and when we do that we are in every real sense outside time.
*the short life ship, not the twenty years in a chair ship
I went to Doncaster yesterday and of course the first thing I did afterwards was to see if it’s mentioned in The Meaning of Liff. It isn’t, but in the process I discovered that there’s a Yorkshire Meaning of Liff inspired by the great Douglas Adams/John Lloyd volumes, and I have to say it looks like a belter. But I was there for a much more serious purpose, to visit Daughter and Bump and to see their new house.
She warned me the place looked like a bomb site and it wasn’t much of an exaggeration: the roof has been done but practically everything else is stripped out and remains to be filled in with better components. Rewiring needs doing, the kitchen and bathroom require fitting, fireplaces filling and replacing and – oh, gosh, just about everything. And they need to move in before August.
Anyway, it’s a good solid house, built like me in 1957 (an excellent year.)
Doncaster as a place is a little ramshackle. I was trying to get some sense of when it dates from but the feeling I get is that it’s like Leicester and only really took off in the 19th century, reaching its peak in the mid-20th when lots of industries were thriving. They’ve now all gone of course, and this was one of the main reasons Doncaster as a whole voted for Brexit; because there are no proper jobs, only crappy ones in the catering and service sector.
I remarked to Daughter as we walked around that the place seems full of Brexit bulldogs; macho men with mean faces and houses sporting flags. She agreed. But this video gives another perspective on the Brexit debate, offering what is generally called the Lexit perspective. I realise Corbyn has annoyed many by sticking to his position on Brexit, which is that the vote must be honoured, but I can’t honestly blame him: after all, he’s doing what most people admire him for; sticking to his principles.
But back to Doncaster, and one of the things I noticed was what turned out to be the Minster; a huge imposing building which sadly I didn’t get a chance to visit. Next time I hope to rectify that – but we did see the old Wool Market, now a covered marketplace with small shops inside, and the centre of the old town which again reminded me of Leicester. Yorkshire was of course a centre of the wool trade: an uncle of mine worked in that trade and did business with mills in Bradford and other towns.
I’m now going to look up the history of Doncaster and see how much I got right. Well! Turns out comparisons with Leicester were spot-on because there was a Roman camp (should have guessed that from the name) and a medieval town (mostly burned down in a fire) and it grew in the 19th and 20th centuries to roughly the same size as Leicester. The Minster, originally medieval, burned down in 1853 and was replaced later in the 19th century by the present building, though it only got Minster status in 2004. I’m not sure of the difference between a Cathedral and a Minster – I’ll have to look that up some time. In the 14th century Doncaster was the wealthiest town in South Yorkshire, which gives added irony to its current situation.
Anyway I look forward to seeing more of the place (and the Daughter, of course: I met the in-laws while I was there who were lovely people.)