It’s Saturday night and these are the outpourings of a disaffected mind.
I’m sitting here trying to fill in a job application form that would take me back into Further Education where I would be teaching English Literature at GCSE and A Level. You might wonder why a man in my station would choose this path but it’s something I’ve always considered taking up at some point in my life. It’s not as high as my qualifications would allow me to teach but it’s better than Channel 4 and is a unique opening for a man of my peculiar character. It would also be good money and security for when Alastair Darling’s financial crisis hits the hardest.
Yet as I sit here and write, I’ve got the TV tuned to Channel Five. I’m watching ‘Britain’s Most Haunted’ hosted by Paul Ross. And therein lies the reality of my life. Here is my problem writ large.
The Channel Five studio is filled with a sample of the Great British Public, eager to hear of haunted houses and the afterlife. For whatever reason, the GBP buy into the scam. A ‘superfan’ is interviewed. She’s bought all the videos and DVDs, hundreds of T shirts. She’s invested money into this show whose message seems to be that life is only made bearable by the promise that death is just another state of being. I respond with my usual outburst of swollen invective that human longing makes fools of us all. We dream for the impossible, believe in the ludicrous, and invest in the ridiculous.
Nothing gets me more agitated than seeing desperate people having their fears exploited. It feels like we’re back with Chaucer’s Pardoner and I want to cry something obscene about his relics. I was in a bookshop yesterday that was advertising a weekly séance with a nationally known psychic. ‘More popular than the book club’, I was told. ‘Less homework and a bigger payoff.’
I can’t be like that but it’s the reason why I’m such a bloody awful position.
I’ve never been good at making compromises. I fail to adapt to situations in which, to use the term I hear so often, ‘I need to bullshit’. Even if it means money in my pocket, I fail to jump through those hoops. It doesn’t make me belligerent in a bad way. I’m easy to get on with in everyday life. I am what you see. There’s very little facade, not too many pretensions; just a sometimes gruff, often serious, but usually likable chap who is likely to make you laugh. But in terms of work, I’m unemployable. I have so many transferable skills that I don’t know what I’m cut out to do anymore. I have no career, just an excess of ability. I have passion but no professionalism. The nation is constipated by professionalism.
Let me give you the example that’s making it hard for me to fill in this job application.
There are two students sitting down to take a GCSE in English Literature. One student is one of those intelligent, sensitive types that have always traditionally excelled at the subject. He has a genuine understanding for poetry, has an ear for the language and can analyse poetry on the go, tying meaning with lexical choices. The other student struggles. He doesn’t enjoy literature but there’s nothing wrong with that. However, I’ll be honest as say that he goes into the exam with barely an original idea in his head. Both students answer the same question about a range of poems by some modern darling of the examining board. The student with a good grasp of poetry writes intelligently on three poems he has obviously read, internalised, and thought about. His answers are original and stunningly good. The second student, the one who despises poetry but has memorised the right things to say, answers on four poems. His answers are rehearsed and staggeringly unoriginal.
No here are the rules. Here is the crux.
Student 1 can never get over a grade C. To get higher, he needed to have answered on four poems. No matter how intelligently he wrote about three or the reasons for limiting himself to that selection, the examiners wanted an answer based on four.
Student 2 answered on four poems. He gets higher than a C because he fulfilled the examination criteria. Accordingly to the results, he’s better at English than Student 1.
Life moves on. The results stand. The injustice is served.
Now, how do I write a covering letter, knowing this? How do I explain why I want the job but also why I don’t want to be accessory to the crimes committed in the name of education? It’s why I’ll probably fail to get the post. I’d speak up when I think something is wrong. Do I want an income so badly that I’d be happy to break the spirits of independent young minds? Could I programme them for the end of year exam? I’d work my hardest to see them succeed, encourage them to achieve something meaningful in life, to make the most of their gifts. Yet the sad reality is that students are probably better off without my advice. They wouldn’t fulfil the criteria.
And let’s face it: who even gives a damn about literature these days? I have learned the hard way that ambition leads to disappointment. The world teaches us that the path of least resistance is the way to go. And we’ve got ghosts to chase instead.
Saturday, 30 August 2008
It’s Saturday night and these are the outpourings of a disaffected mind.
Friday, 29 August 2008
Sorry for the late post. I’ve been down in Hastings where I’ve been overloading my gut with waffles. Not that you want to know these things but I’ve set my colon a few dilemmas for the coming hours and I wouldn’t be surprised if it found them a little too difficult to manage.
As patron of the East Sussex Waffle Festival, I always love to patronise the people down there on the South Coast. ‘You’ve all done a wonderful job,’ I told them over a PA system squawking like a bilious parrot. ‘With the limited resources of you rural folk, this is a top notch affair. I probably couldn’t have done much better myself, even if I was born locally and knew my way around a tractor. You must all give yourself pats on the back. I’m sure you’ll do even better next year. And never let it be said that you country folk aren’t civilized. Remember the Aztecs. They began in loincloths but they still managed to get into space.’
My patronising done, I set myself to the long and difficult task of picking the Best in Show. Judy normally does the waffle tasting and I’m just there to add handsome support and to keep the bluebottles away. Only, this year, Judy had gone overboard with some Rum Waffles earlier in the day and has to excuse herself from the judging in order to sleep them off in the back of the Range Rover. I was left alone to pick a winner from the Militant Waffle Brigade of the Women’s Institute.
‘Tasty,’ I said after trying my first waffle of the day. The woman, all pearls and tartan, looked at me as though I’d emptied the contents on my right nostril over her twinset.
‘Tasty? Is that all you can say?’
‘It was really tasty,’ I repeated. A second nostril couldn’t have upset her any more. She snatched the plate away from me and withdrew her waffles from the competition. I shrugged and moved onto the next entrant.
‘Mmm,’ I began. The woman’s eyes narrowed, anticipating insult. ‘Very...’ I began searching for the right word. ‘Waffly?’ She seemed to deflate a fraction but the smile on her mouth suggested I had found the winning formula.
‘I’ve never eaten a more wafflesome waffle,’ I said boldly to the third contestant after downing the whole of her Polish Cheese Waffle.
‘It’s the cheese,’ she said.
‘I’m sure it is,’ I replied as I wiped my mouth down and moved on to the next table.
‘It’s my own invention,’ said a hearty woman with big biceps and slight cheek hair standing behind a pyramid of waffles covered in honey.
‘And what’s in it?’ I asked.
‘My secret ingredient,’ she said.
I prised a waffle from the pyramid. The structure didn’t fall. Built better than anything by the Ancient Egyptians, I promise you. Those waffles will be around in a thousand years. Which is more than you can say about my teeth. My incisors sank half an inch into the waffle before they cracked against her secret ingredient.
‘Interesting choice,’ I said, after I’d managed to slide the waffle around my mouth, avoiding further contact with my taste buds and dropping it down my pipe. ‘Very meaty.’
‘It’s loin,’ whispered the woman. ‘I lightly fried it in lard.’
I smiled an appreciative smile and carried on with the inspection. But if I’m honest, after an hour, I was getting pretty sick of waffles.
‘And now Richard is going to choose the winner,’ said another tweedy twinset with a megaphone. She was inches from my ear and had the thing set to stun. And stunned I most certainly was when I grabbed the instrument from her.
‘You’ve all done exceedingly well,’ I told the gathering through the bullhorn. ‘Judy and I always looking forward to the East Sussex Waffle Festival, this unique event in the world of waffles. We’d be disappointed if we ever missed it.’ I gave a slight burp, the odour of undercooked loin reaching my nostrils as the noise of my indigestion echoed around the tent. ‘But now it’s time to choose and it’s a shame that there can only be one winner...’
A smattering of polite applause didn’t disguise the psychological warfare going on in that tent. Lest there be any innocent pearls out there thinking they’re having a hard time of it being rolled around some ocean bed, they need only look on shore in the area of the South Coast and witness the fate of their brethren. An oyster is a rough home but at least it’s not Hastings.
The rattle of pearl necklaces and the bristling sound of heavily hairsprayed wigs filled the tent as I took a moment before I announced my decision.
‘So, now the time has come to declare the winner... I think that it will be a long time before I forget Mrs. Kipling’s lard and loin waffle.’
Mrs. Kipling’s leap of surprise nearly put her breasts into orbit. Then she ran at me and launched lard scented lips built to orgy. I responded with elbows. After she was done kissing me, I handed her the five pound gift voucher as quickly as possible and backed out of the tent as the stunned losers began to come to their senses and turn on me. I wasn’t going to wait and put my faith in my heels.
Judy was snoring in the back of the Range Rover as I landed in the front seat and engaged the four wheel drive.
‘Can I smell lard?’ she asked, waking as I hit a cattle grid at over thirty.
‘Lard and loin,’ I corrected. ‘Lard and loin.’
Sorry guys. I thought I’d be able to blog this morning but Judy tells me that we’re due to attend the East Sussex Waffle Festival. As you know, both Judy and I have been great supporters of the English Waffle and have spoken out on many occasions against the Brussels waffle. I was once given a police warning after leading a protest against the prevalence of the American waffle in British supermarkets.
I hope to report back from the festival later today but I wanted to leave you a note so you wouldn’t be wondering where I am.
Wednesday, 27 August 2008
I witnessed a traffic accident today and it cheered me up enormously. And not only me. It seemed to cheer up everybody else who stumbled across the pileup outside Manchester’s art gallery. I’ve never seen so many smiling faced since the Beijing Olympics, only these were genuine smiles. No botox was injected into any five year old’s cheeks. This was real pleasure, when strangers turn to look at you and their faces say so much. A few took photos and others cheered the arrival of the police. I just moved on. Happy to have witnessed such a sublime moment.
So, I’m sure I speak on behalf of everybody who was there when I thank the rich pin-stripe with the nice new Mercededes-Benz who so graciously ploughed it into the side of a Manchester tram this afternoon. I don’t know what he was thinking – the tram was hardly going to swerve out of the way – but it made my lunchtime, possibly my week, and the lunchtimes and weeks of a great many people who found that rarest of pleasures: a shared comfort in the misfortune of others.
Tuesday, 26 August 2008
Every night recently, I’ve had extremely vivid dreams. Some have been nightmarish. I can sometimes wake in the middle of the night rigid with the fear that some shape in the folds of the curtains looks vaguely human. A few have been comic and I wake laughing manically at some joke I’ve already forgotten. Some have been neither, just crazy jumbles of meaning that hide something deeper.
Very little of last night’s adventure made it through to morning. I do remember that it involved a day out to Sunderland in the company of Judy, Jeremy Clarkson and, for reasons that will become apparent, New York poet and songwriter, Suzanne Vega. At some stage of the proceedings, Jeremy found himself wearing a bronzed bikini which precluded him from returning home by train. Instead, he used his vast wealth to charter a luxury yacht and we all sailed home with Jeremy clinging to the mast a la Simon Le Bon from some Duran Duran video of the early eighties.
As I say, much of the dream is lost to me but there was a very clear moment when I was sitting in a art gallery’s cafe talking to Suzanne Vega about the novels of Thomas Pynchon.
‘I have tried to read them but I grow quickly bored of their prolonged insanity,’ I was saying.
Suzanne looked at me, her eyes twitching in that way she has when excited. ‘But he’s a master of prose and his surreal take on the world should appeal to you Richard. Isn’t that what you’re trying to do with your books?’
‘I don’t know if it’s surreal or just lacking a strong through story,’ I replied. ‘And I don’t know if I want to be considered as hysterical realist. What’s wrong with a good old fashioned plot?’
I fear that this is the point at which I disappointed Suzanne. She was immediately whisked off by some long haired bohemian type who could talk the talk about Pynchon and play the bass guitar. I paid for the coffees, looked up, and found myself emerging from Manchester’s art gallery and turning left towards the office.
Waking up this morning, I could see how the dream arose from my waning literary hopes and concerns for my future. When Suzanne Vega first burst onto the music scene, she was the woman whose love I wanted to win through my wit and artistry. I fell in love with her distinctive looks, but even more so, her dry humour, her introversion, her sublime lyrics, and that voice like a cold wind whipping down the aisles of New York. She was everything I wanted to find in a woman, everything I wanted from life; intelligence, poetry, an ability to fingerpick the acoustic guitar, a left-of-centre brilliance, everything that was out of the ordinary yet so very right for me. That she should appear at this moment in a dream is no coincidence. It was my heart telling me something.
That Jeremy should be there too is no surprise. I think the dream was my subconscious reminding me that wit skirts around success, fame, intelligence, passion, oddity, and art. Your kind comments have helped me recently when I’ve been feeling low and tired. Elberry sent me an email that cheered me immensely and Selena wrote a piece to which I’m too humble to respond except to say that she’s right in every significant detail. As for me: I’m going to look again at my novel that left me feeling so underwhelmed yesterday. I’m going to rededicate myself to it and it to Suzanne Vega and Jeremy Clarkson. I can see now that few things make sense and it’s better to embrace the unusual. I should thrive on it and make it my own.
The only thing that still worries me is Sunderland. Why Sunderland? I’ve never been there in my life and I can’t say I’m keen on starting now. Call me old fashioned but I really don’t want to visit a city that sells bikinis in Jeremy Clarkson’s size. Or perhaps that’s it. Sunderland was really Manchester, where I’ll be tomorrow and Thursday, where they do sells bikinis in Jeremy Clarkson’s size.
Monday, 25 August 2008
I’m looking for a good reason not to close this blog. Channel 4 was the end of an era and I think that perhaps now is the right time to move on.
You know me well enough by know to see that I’m as prone to Monday morning blues as the next handsome man in casual slacks but anybody who has witnessed the decline of this blog in the last three months will probably recognise that I’ve been struggling to keep it going. Unlike other bloggers who manage to write a paragraph of interesting facts a day, I’m incapable of brevity. It’s 2000 words or nothing from me. My weekly slog to Manchester is getting me down and I’m not getting any of my longer projects written. I want to exist in book length form and this blog is standing in the way of that. Add to this a growing panic over my life, difficult family issues, and a career meltdown, and writing becomes nearly impossible. I think it’s hardly unreasonable that I’ve lost my sense of fun.
As is usual when I think of quitting, a few days will probably bring me back to my senses. I’m going to begin by having a break from the blog for a few days. I hope to come back with more energy or a decision about how I'm going to change my life for the better.
Sunday, 24 August 2008
The past few days have witnessed the closing ceremonies to two significant World events, spectacular in their conception, stunning in the execution, and with far-reaching consequences for the people who will now try to follow them. I can’t speak for the organisers of the London 2012 Olympics but I pity anybody trying to fill the gap in the TV schedules left by ‘The Richard&Judy Show’ which ended so triumphantly on Friday. I won’t say that our last show will never be bettered but I do believe that Judy will never be happier than when those five pasty fat men wearing thongs dropped their hats and wiggled for her.
It was my idea to leave our viewers with a thong routine. Some weeks ago, I first mentioned to Judy that we might ask my old friend Chip Dale to do the honours and dance for us. My agent rang Chip’s agent only to discover that The Thonglateer is currently out of the country, performing nightly at the only Russian oil rig run by all-female staff. ‘Would love to, Dick,’ came Chip’s emailed reply, ‘but my thong is heavy with the stench of vodka and a sudden move to a warmer climate would put too much stress on my loins. Appreciate the thought. Gabby sends her love.’
Now the show is over and the Channel 4 contract a memory of better days, I’ve been thinking some more about my immediate future. I'm rather tired today so I’ve done nothing today but sit and watch the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, pondering the inevitable questions that need answering before we lend our support to the London Olympics. I think my answers show how the London Olympic organisers would be wise to seek my input.
How, for example, will the world to cope with the sudden glut of cheap Chinese grins that will now flood the market? Beijing has been a sporting success but at what price to the world valuation of the smile? I’ve never seen so many unhappy people grin incessantly for the cameras as though their lives depended on it. It was heartbreaking to see the youth of China forced to be so happy. I think that their rigid grins said everything there is to say about modern China.
The Madeley Suggestion: In 2012, let’s celebrate our freedom. I want to see London’s youth looking sullen and surely. We’ll do for the frown what the Chinese have done for the grin.
As Plácido Domingo was being hoisted into the air, I wondered if the same spectacle might be organised for London. What price the hire of a pneumatic lift for a day and what’s there maximum capacity? Would a Ginger Spice and a Will Young be too much? As soon as I’d put my mind to this question, I asked myself another. Why must the Olympics always life performers above the crowd? It’s become a rather tired cliché.
The Madeley Suggestion: Let’s make depth the new height. I want to see Tom Jones singing from a deep pit dug into our Olympic stadium.
I worry too that we won’t be able to man the Olympics. The only solution is forced labour camps or at least some nefarious scheme involving Polish workers and the promise of a better life. Of course, we might simply bring in the Beijing performers to do the same jobs over here for a couple of pounds per hundred feet they’re asked to climb on top of some unstable temporary structure symbolic of something or other.
The Madeley Suggestion: We should offer free passports to anybody willing to sign away their human rights and be worked like a mule for the next four years. In a way, it will be an extension to the current YTS and the New Deals Scheme for the long-term unemployed.
The BBC commentators might need extra training. They’ve enjoyed the spectacle of Beijing so much that it might be difficult for them to commentate on any ceremony that’s lacking similar organisational skills.
The Madeley Suggestion: We should send Huw Edwards to North Korea for the next four years to train in the art of political propaganda and to realise that not every spectacle is an innocent display of a people’s passion.
Which leads me to my final thought. Even though it’s four years away, we should begin to think about the closing ceremony. Shouldn’t it be our main goal to close the London Olympics with something that will leave the world amazed?
The Madeley Suggestion: We could do worse than hiring five pale and chubby male strippers in thongs. It worked for Judy. It worked for me. It could work for London too.
Friday, 22 August 2008
That excitable woodland sprite we all know as B. Appleyard was in an uncompromising mood on Tuesday night; his brow savaged by heavy thoughts and greasepaint. Sparks of consciousness have rarely come as bright. Nor have they ever breezed so supremely into the Madeley salon after their stint on the R&J sofa, demanding to stick their fingers in my extra large tub of face cream.
‘I wore cowboy boots so your makeup girl might remember to leave me pale and wan like some mid-Victorian poet on a laudanum bender,’ he declared as he began to scrub his cheeks clear of their pseudo tan. ‘Now look at me! This make-up makes me feel like some heavily bloomered dame in pantomime.’
‘You did exceedingly well on the show,’ I replied, thinking a compliment might pacify the only reason why a sane man takes The Times on a Sunday.
Bryan growled. ‘I did well? I don’t see how. I failed to get my point across.’
‘Nonsense. Judy said that you explained the stone age diet as though you were a real Neanderthal. Or if not Neanderthal, then at least half-Dutch...’
I could see by the look on the old boy’s face that Bryan had missed my crude attempt at a joke.
‘She was that impressed?’
‘More than impressed, Bryan. You could have cudgelled her around the ear and dragged her to your cave to feed her honey and nuts. I doubt if you would have heard a squeak of protest over the sound of her breaking Brazils.’
Bryan growled again. Two growls in so many minutes are not a good sign. I could see that I was faced with a man whose tonsils needed immediate immersion in something topping the scale in percentage points.
‘Scrub up, Bryan,’ I said. ‘I’m off for a quick jar. Fancy coming along? Ricky Gervais says he might pop in a bit later, once he’s finished autographing the make-up girls.’ I didn’t think it good to say that I didn’t for one moment believe that Ricky would make it. I know Gervais and I know the makeup girls. A good combination they certainly do not make.
‘Well, I could do with a tankard of natural mead,’ replied Bryan, finally calming down. ‘This whole experience has taught me the wisdom of controlling your medium. The daytime sofa is clearly not my natural habitat. I need something sturdier for my manly posture.’
He had a point. Some of us are bred for the sofa and there’s a degree of softness about the Madeley being that women find comforting. This, they say to themselves, is a man made to ingratiate himself with a snuggle; a large beanie doll of manhood, fashioned for frolic and with the stuff of fluff and frivolity hanging about his collar. To put it more succinctly: there’s not a hair on my head that hasn’t been slapped with the squeeze from the bottle labelled ‘Gentleness’.
I think it’s important to labour this point before I tell you the remainder of this tale. My weekly jaunt to Manchester has prevented me from telling you the truth of Tuesday night, so if I do emerge from the narrative sounding like a callous man, then that’s merely a problem with the delay; a glitch in the story-telling process that I hope to cure with the above example of my sentimental nature. The same might be said about my intelligence, which might also suffer from its portrayal in the following account.
I was in a state of some nervousness by the time the clock did the splits around the six o’clock mark and a dangerous build-up of genius was threatening to bust asunder the tank surrounding the Appleyard cauliflower. His brain had been working at its usual one hundred and ten percent but Judy had stuck her thumb up his outlet valve. There’s no chance to ask a chap about the lyricism of Marilynne Robinson’s prose when Judy is busy asking him to name his top three beans. By the time he cornered me in my dressing room, the poor fellow was a veritable top on a stick, a whirling powder keg of mixed metaphors and twisted similes. I’d had half a mind to stick him in a taxi with an instruction to the driver to spare no horses and deliver him back to Chez Appleyard so he might explode before his keyboard in a literary puff of a hundred thousand words.
Only, guilt is a snorting donkey of a ride. No sooner had I thought to pack him off than my conscience gave me a kick as if to remind me that I was to blame for his condition. I couldn’t leave him and inviting him for a sneeze in the local wine bar seemed the right thing to do. It’s how I ended up escorting this dangerous load though central London and getting him sandbagged behind my favourite snug.
‘Well, here we are at last,’ I said as I placed the first round of the evening down on the table.
Bryan has ‘journalist’ stitched into his underwear. He downed his first glass of mead before the long hand on my watch had hopped across to the adjacent minute. Bryan wiped his mouth and looked imploring towards me as though I might provide another. After another trip to the bar, I finally sat myself down and began the slow process of deprogramming the brain that had been so woefully underused over the previous two hours.
Twenty minutes later, Bryan was beginning to explain the similarities between nuclear fusion and herringbone tweed when the snug’s door opened and a familiar beard came into view. It was Bill Oddie, dressed in green, and looking like one of Robin Hood’s men; merry, to be sure, but a touch wheezy when it comes to shinning up an oak. He’s more like the loafer they’d leave in the clearing stirring some pot of medieval broth lest Marion bust a nail stirring the brewing hoof of some deer. I was pleased to see him, though less enamoured with the cardboard box under his arm.
‘Sorry about this,’ he said, sitting down next to Bryan. ‘I’m on my way to see a vet and thought I’d drop in for a quick gargle.’
‘That’s not a cat in there, is it?’ asked Bryan, looking anxiously at the box which Bill had parked between the two of them.
‘No, not a cat,’ said Bill. ‘It’s a squirrel. Found the poor little fellow in the back garden. Not looking too well so I thought I’d crate him up and get him checked out. Run him through a full squirrel medical on my BUPA.’
‘A squirrel,’ laughed Bryan returning to his pint of nature’s finest. ‘My good friend Nige once told me a rather ribald story about a squirrel, a nun and a large bag of sucking sherbets.’ He then proceeded to tell the aforementioned ribald story but, though I smiled, I could see that Bill was not impressed.
Pushing his pint aside, Bill proceeded to tell his own story about a squirrel, a nun and a large bag of sucking sherbets which was touching in its significant parts. Had I know that Bill’s experiences with squirrels and nuns ran to such tragic lengths, I might have stopped Bryan upsetting the fellow with all that cruel talk about sucking sherbets and heavy breathing. However, the damage was done and it was left to me to lighten things up by recalling an anecdote of my own involving a Volvo and Christopher Biggins. I was on safe ground with Volvos, which are built by Swedes to be boring, and the earth beneath my feet was like concrete when it came to Biggins. At the end of my tale, I looked to Bryan, hoping to see a few amused creases about his eyes.
Damn it now, I thought. What have I said?
The poor man was wincing. Not just a little wince. This wince had hair on it and was known to its friends as ‘Barry’. A large tear had gathered at the side of Bryan’s eye and ran the length of his face as he tried to utter something. I heard only a gasp.
‘You’ve not had a bad related incident involving a Volvo, have you Bryan?’ I asked. ‘Didn’t mean to offend, you know? Fancy another pint of fermented honey?’
‘Ahhaaaaa!’ said Bryan who I now realised was in some pretty significant pain. Another tear followed the first down the track of his cheek in gold medal winning time.
I looked at Bill and Bill looked at me. I was about to call for help when Bryan’s paralysis broke and he shot up in his seat, sending the table crashing. It was then that I saw his problem.
‘Squirrel!’ I shouted and pointed at the tail end of a big red rodent hanging out of Bryan’s pocket.
Has ever a Sunday Times journalist suffered at the teeth of a squirrel and a stone age diet? It was immediately obvious what had happened. Bryan had packed his pockets with mixed nuts and their close proximity to the cardboard box had revived the squirrel which had gnawed through the box and dove into Bryan’s pocket with a dreadful intent.
I can only credit Bill for having leapt forward to recover the squirrel and save Bryan’s dietary requirement of a nut in each pocket.
‘It’s alright, no need to panic,’ said Bill as the animal came clear. That’s when the squirrel tried to take a nip out of Bill’s finger and, as any chap might do when nearly bitten by squirrel, he threw it to one side. The squirrel landed on all four of its paws and turned to face us looking, as they say, unwilling to take criticism.
‘Do they always foam at the mouth like that?’ I asked.
‘Rabid squirrel!’ cried Bryan, who despite everything was still the sharpest among us, if you didn’t count the red fellow’s teeth. Indeed, Bryan knows about many things to which I’m an amateur and if he was saying it was a rabid squirrel, I was not a man to argue semantics when there were chairs I might leap onto. Bryan and Bill followed my lead and the three of us were soon balancing on chairs as we watched a feverish squirrel patrol the floor near the snug’s only exit.
It didn’t take me long before I realised that my two companions were waiting for me to do something. Natural leadership, I always say, emerges in a crisis. People look to the strong types when their gizzards are hanging in the fire, or, in this case, over a frothing member of the family sciuridae.
‘I’m not standing for this,’ I said. ‘Three grown men standing on a chair should have enough firepower to defeat a squirrel.’
‘What are you going to do?’ asked Bill. ‘That’s a wild and dangerous animal.’
‘It’s a squirrel,’ I replied and I slipped off my desert boot. ‘I’ve faced worse.’ And with that, I jumped to the ground and lashed out. The heel of my boot caught the squirrel firmly under the chin. The chin barely flinched as the book flopped back.
‘Damn soft-soled shoes,’ I cried as I retreated to my chair.
‘Stand back,’ said Bryan, who had recovered enough sense and was slipping off one of his cowboy boots.
His aim was true. One moment there was a squirrel hopping cockily around the legs of my chair; the next, there was just a red stain the shape of a Cuban heel.
There was a moment of silence in which hearts eased off the throttle and two men jumped to the ground.
‘You’ve killed my squirrel!’ said Bill, still stood in shock atop his chair.
‘I’ve killed your rabid squirrel,’ corrected Bryan.
Bill teared up and I knew I had to say something to settle him. The last thing I wanted to see was a red stain the shape of the other of Bryan’s Cuban heels on the spot where the nation’s favourite Oddie had once stood.
‘Bryan did what was necessary,’ I told Bill as I lifted him down from the chair. Bryan went off to recover his boot as I began to stroke Bill’s beard. ‘Any sign of the squirrel?’ I shouted.
Bryan waved me over from the corner where his bloodied heel lay.
‘Squirrel meat,’ he said, nodding sadly to the remains of one arrogant rodent in the corner. ‘Such a waste. High in protean, low in carbs, makes splendid sausages.’
I gave him one of my more rueful looks. Renaissance Man looks on Stone Age Man. Two specimens of the human race. Two differing ideas about what sits well on a sandwich.
Thursday, 21 August 2008
Wednesday, 20 August 2008
Can anybody explain how the British public have more choice now we have to pay another subscription to watch the England match on TV tonight? Sky Sports are showing a match involving Northern Ireland, while Setanta Sports (an Irish satellite channel) is showing the England match.
Wasn’t it just easier when all England matches were on the BBC?
A good evening ended on a depressing note as I found myself up to my elbows in idiots over at the Internet Movie Database. I had gone there to find the name of an actor who had impressed me in a film I’d just finished. The actor’s name was Chiwetel Ejiofor and the film was ‘Redbelt’, the newest directorial feature by David Mamet and, I thought, one of his best.
Ostensibly, the film is about martial arts but on a more significant level it’s about art. It’s about the purity of a craft and how the commercial world too readily distends the strict limits of craft in order to make it more accessible to a larger audience. It’s how the swollen obscenities of WWF and cage fighting have replaced the traditional martial arts but the same concepts might be applied to any discipline. I suppose that's why I was attracted to the theme but I was also relishing some great Mamet dialogue (‘There's no one here but the fighters’ gave me a real shiver). However, the depressing part of this whole experience came when I foolishly began to read the comments appended to the ‘Redbelt’ page over there at the IMDB. Accusations that the film is 'slow', 'a mess', 'pointless', and 'full of plot holes' left me wondering why people, that great body of barely uninformed opinion, must always be so vocal when being so ignorant.
Now, I know this sounds arrogant of me. Who am I to say that they don’t understand film? But criticism is a craft and the great fallacy of ‘user created content’ is the assumption that anybody can create good content. It’s quite evidently wrong and for every two dozen ill informed reviews there are one or two worth reading. No great film has ever been made based on the opinion of an audience (as was demonstrated by ‘Snakes on a Plane’) and the Internet Movie Database project probably fails for the same reason. There are too many people who walk this world wearing their pretensions like a vulgar suit. I dislike the cut of their jackets, the garish clash of tie and sequinned cuffs. More disturbing is the way that people given a chance to criticise indulge themselves with an enthusiasm that wouldn’t go amiss in some Revolutionary mob. The lust to destroy what others set up is latent within us all but the true critic has tamed that unwholesome part of themselves. I wish that other people would do the same and approach art – whether it a film, novel, poetry, painting, play, or even blog – in a more gracious manner. Do we really need another fifteen year old American high school student giving Mamet advice on how to structure a plot?
This, I suppose, is one of my more unstructured posts. I’m tired and not looking forward to two days in Manchester, which start in less than six hours. But it is a way for me to say that I hugely enjoyed ‘Redbelt’ and recommend it to anybody who appreciates great screenwriting.
Tuesday, 19 August 2008
‘Well,’ I said to Judy, ‘this is it. The Big Day. After all these years on terrestrial TV, it’s taken me until the last week of the show before I get to invite a real guest to share our sofa.’
She looked at me, her nostrils flaring half an inch above a piece of toast. There was a momentary look of confusion as she bit down and then began to chew but when it came to wiping a crumb from the side of her mouth, she was back to normal and the crumb was dispatched with a flick of her cruel finger.
‘You’re not going to go on about this all morning, are you Richard?’ she asked. ‘The man is flesh and blood, just like you or me or even Bill Oddie...’
‘Yes, but this is not just ordinary flesh and blood,’ I replied, ‘and certainly not as much flesh as there was only a few months ago.’
‘Which is why we’ve asked him on the show,’ said Judy. ‘I just hope you’re not going to spoil things.’
‘Spoil things? I’m finally getting a kindred spirit onto the sofa, a man cut from the same cloth.’
‘And he’s going to be discussing his stone age diet,’ said Judy. This was clearly meant as a warning.
‘Well, we’ll see,’ I said and left it at that.
The truth is that this will be the first blogger we’ve had on the show whose blog I read daily. Bryan Appleyard might think he’s coming on to talk about weight loss but I have other plans. This will be a far ranging exploration of the man’s mind and if Channel 4 don’t immediately sign us up for a new series of ‘The Richard & Bryan Show’, I won’t have done my part for the intellectual development of this country of ours.
I was already sketching out the format of the show which included self defence sessions led by Elberry and Nige’s Magical Owl and Cravat Half Hour. They were ideas which proved that my mind was already firing on all twelve cylinders so I took my bowl of muesli into my office and began to prepare facts and questions that I’d be able to throw into our interview. Would Bryan know, for example, that Wallace Stevens was a trained juggler who wrote some of his best poems while balancing a stool on his chin? Would he know that it’s impossible to electrocute a cat or that 92% of all clowns are diagnosed manic depressive? I have hundreds of facts at my disposal but I really wanted to be prepared for whatever Bryan could throw at me. Channel 4 would struggle to constrain such a battle of intellects and I imagined us bursting through the scenery of the ITN News as our battle continued over on ITV. Katie Derham would flush at the sight of two thin but muscular men in such a titanic struggle.
I think it was thoughts about Katie Derham that made me worked feverishly away until noon when the telephone rang. I expected the call but wasn’t prepared for the tone of the enquiry.
‘Richard, it’s the newly slim-line Bryan,’ said Bryan. ‘I just thought I’d check that you’re not planning on surprising me with any difficult questions this afternoon. A man who has recently lost fourteen pounds in two weeks can’t take the strain of difficult questions.’
‘Difficult questions?’ I scoffed even as I shuffled my pack of fifty seven fiendishly difficult questions and obscure facts. ‘I don’t know what kind of man you think I am, Bryan. I’m looking forward to our interview with the excitement that I normally reserve for Angelina Jolie.’
‘Oh, I don’t have any tattoos,’ he muttered. ‘I don’t believe in them.’
‘Damn,’ I muttered, as my fifty seven difficult questions and obscure facts became fifty six. ‘Well, not to worry, Bryan. Judy just wants to chat about your diet. It will be a piece of cake.’
‘No, no,’ he replied. ‘I don’t touch anything made from grains, legumes, dairy products, salt, refined sugar, or processed oils.’
‘Well, to be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t know what a legumes is,’ I said, wondering if I should scribble that question down on a card.
‘It’s an erect or climbing bean or pea,’ replied Bryan.
A lucky escape, I thought. The man has an answer for everything.
‘Well, don’t worry, Bryan,’ I continued as I prepared to hang up the phone. ‘I’m sure it will go swimmingly...’
‘It’s a diet, not one of those moronic exercise routines. I don’t believe in those either,’ he replied. I could see that I would have my work cut out. Yet in all fairness to the man, I could also see that Bryan was getting nervous and I thought it only right to give him a clue that I had prepared the odd difficult question.
‘Relax, Bryan,’ I said. ‘Remember that you’re with friends. I’ll ask you a few questions to put you at ease. Perhaps something tricky about Wallace Stevens, cats or clowns. I’m sure you’ll know the answers.’
Bryan sighed a thin avuncular sigh. ‘That’s very good of you, Richard,’ he said. ‘Just so long as you don’t go trotting out those old clichés about Wallace Stevens juggling, that it’s impossible to electrocute a cat, or that 92% of all clowns are diagnosed manic depressive...’
‘Wouldn’t dream of it,’ I answered as the last of my cards slipped to the floor. ‘Wouldn’t dream of it at all...’
Monday, 18 August 2008
My constantly sunny disposition suffered a rare moment of eclipse this weekend. Some long dormant weariness overcame me and I retired to bed for two days of sleep and constant Olympic rowing action. I really don’t have much to say about the rowing except that I’ve never seen so many well brought up young men wielding paddles since I was once accidentally hunted by a pack of Young Conservatives who mistook my bohemian style for causal vagrancy. About sleep, however, I have far more positive things to say. It really is the great healer. I don’t know what had laid me low. I think it might have been emotional exhaustion brought on by the continuing concerns for my friend’s father who has now been moved from Intensive Care and into a High Dependency Unit. I do know that, for me, sleep was the answer. I’m feeling better today and I intend to spend this time on my blog explaining Friday’s paranoia and why Manchester is such an important part of my weekly routine.
As many of you know, every week since February, I’ve been forced to make a two day trip up to Manchester to work on a new series of ‘Eye of the Storm’. I didn’t want to take the job but those in charge of my finances told me that my dream of writing for a living was not going to earn anything like a wage. Not even the wage of a one-legged paperboy with a part time round during a time of dwindling newspaper sales. Yet whatever my doubts about the job, I still believe it will be the TV series to end all TV series. Never before has the documentary form been used to investigate weather with the same rigorous attention. We’re not just focussing on the dramatic weather systems like hurricanes and lightening storms. We’re looking at all the less glamorous forms of weather, such as light precipitation, drizzle, summer nips, and winter flushes. We have three programmes on Indian Summers and intend to launch a spin off series that deals with every kind of snow, from crispy white to yellow mush.
Recently, however, I’ve begun to have reservations about my life. The end of our Channel 4 contract was always going to make a sensitive man re-evaluate his future. Should I continue to write? Should I continue to blog? Should I retire from the public eye and devote myself to my inventions? I came to the conclusion that Manchester is slowly ruining me as both a man and a writer. These trips are making me deeply unhappy. I have tried to blog my way through them but that has to now stop. Simon Merfalanger, our producer, has spotted the way I’ve been sneaking off to my laptop and returning in a much chirpier mood.
‘Richard,’ he said after he called me into his office on Thursday afternoon, ‘we’re paying for your wonderfully rich melliferous voice. We don’t pay you to write this tedious blog of yours...’
‘What do you mean tedious?’ I snapped.
He turned around his monitor and then pointed to the wall next to my desk outside his office. ‘You’ve been taking pictures of our walls again,’ he said. ‘Only this time you’ve been posting them to the web.’
‘I did it once,’ I replied. ‘But I was bored. Bored. Bored. Bored. So utterly bored! You make me sit on the same uncomfortable office chair for eight hours, giving me only thirty minutes for lunch. The only view I have is of a wall painted cream and the exciting diversion of some plastic electrical conduit. And the work is not stimulating for a man of my many qualifications and talents. I’m a creative man with imagination. You can’t expect me to enjoy fixing margins and proofreading copy. The weather just doesn’t interest me in the same way as it does you.’
‘You don’t really want to be here, do your Richard?’ tutted Simon, sadly.
I thought it only right to be honest. I’m a man who hates deception and nothing gives me greater worry than when a person has misjudged me.
‘To be honest, Simon, you’re right. I really don’t want to be here. This is not the life I would have chosen for myself yet now I can’t find a way out of it. I once had so many hopes for my future... Ronnie Corbett once told me that he’d only ever wanted to be a dentist but the height restrictions came into play. I now know what he meant when he said that I should never trust a man holding a diamond tipped drill who has to stand on a wobbly orange crate to see into your mouth. Well, Simon, not being published is my wobbly box of oranges. And I’ll never overcome that obstacle so long as I’m being dragged up here every week. Do you know how many books I have sitting unfinished at 30,000 words?’
‘But you have a book coming out in October,’ he said.
‘And believe me, I’ll review it on my blog as soon as I receive my complimentary copy from the Richard&Judy Foundation.’ I explained how they had authorised some other chap to write the thing for them and that it would probably share very few characteristics with my blog. ‘I bet there are very few laughs in the whole volume and not a single mention of Bill Oddie’s owl fetish or my beating Stephen Fry at Scrabble.’
‘So it’s not even written by you?’
‘Only the blog is written by the real Dick Madeley,’ I said. ‘Ask yourself, Simon: how can I find time to write a book? I’m in this office two days a week and recovering for another two days. I lose four good writing days whenever you pluck me from Judy’s arms for two eight hour shifts parked behind a desk and proofreading scripts.’
The man was clearly moved. ‘I didn’t realise that we were standing in the way of literary greatness,’ he said.
‘Well, now you know, Simon. Literary greatness has been left bound and tethered and dumped in an alley somewhere between Manchester’s Chinatown and Gay Village.’
‘I didn’t mean to be so hard on you, Richard...’
‘Think no more about it,’ I said. ‘We’ll carry on as though nothing has happened. Just so long as you realise that my presence here is depriving the world of the funniest series of books since PG. Wodehouse’s slippers went cold.’
‘Just no more blogging during office hours,’ he warned me.
I agreed though it went against every fibre of my being. ‘No more blogging,’ I promised.
‘And Richard,’ said Simon. I paused at the door. ‘Just so you know: there are other men with rich melliferous voices out there. If I catch you posting from work one more time, your rich melliferous voice will be left bound and tethered and dumped in an alley somewhere between Manchester’s Chinatown and Gay Village.’
My heart sank. Judy has such hopes for ‘Eye of the Storm’ that losing this job would destroy her.
‘I understand,’ I muttered as I slid away.
So, from now on, whenever I’m up in Manchester, expect only silence and think of me sitting staring as a slightly off-white wall and a length of plastic electrical conduit.
Saturday, 16 August 2008
... but I’ve decided to have today away from my desk and to write nothing.
I hate these self-enforced breaks. I’m not a man given to taking holidays and even Judy never rests when we do take a break. She spent most of our last holiday in the Caribbean helping the locals to pick coconuts.
As for me, I work even when I'm on the beach. When I’m writing, I want to work for long hours. Two days up in Manchester changes everything. I come back so exhausted that by the time I’ve recovered, I’ve lost at least three days of my week. A broken routine is no routine. Perhaps I need a holiday from work so I can do some serious work. It would allow Judy to help strengthen her knee by shimmying up a few palm trees. It would also make a welcome break from this incessant rain.
Thursday, 14 August 2008
I often wonder what people look at when they work. Here in the heart of Manchester two days a week, I enjoy the above panorama. This isn't a meme but feel free to share the views from your desks. I doubt that any of your can top this but have a try.
[Chicken update: I have thought of three chickens today and I'm happy to report that one of them was brown.]
Bill Oddie once told me about the Lesser Tufted Mallard which, when faced with a life of office drudgery, will choose to peck out its own eyes and then begin to waddle indifferently in heavy traffic. Lacking a beak but stuck in Manchester, I have to find my escape elsewhere. Which is why Nige’s recommendation of the work of B. Kliban has me smiling even more this morning. It’s rare that I post something on this blog which isn’t my own work but this cartoon has had me smiling for two days and made me determined to hunt down some of the great man’s work in my lunch hour in Manchester’s woefully few second-hand bookshops.
Wednesday, 13 August 2008
Just in from cutting the lawn, I’m struck by how completely pointless it all was. Judy’s knee meant that there was no way she could drag the old mower around our patch of demi-paradise so it fell to Yours Truly to get down there and take up the yoke. I should never have left it so long. The grass was so deep it was almost achieving sentience. If I’d given it much longer it would have been marching down the road and claiming state benefits. It’s all now on the compost but no doubt the stuff has started to grow and reassert itself on the garden. I have a mind to let it grow into one of those natural gardens which BBC2 types go on about all the time; all untrimmed bushes and creeping weeds with the occasional frog or rat doing a jig across the patio. I can feel Judy glaring at me, even as I typed that sentence.
The worst part was trimming the edge, which defied all logic. For two or three days, we can live with the satisfaction that our grass is growing according to some arbitrary straight line. An hour it took me to go around the bloody thing straight, snipping it away with the trimmer. And what this means is that I’m too exhausted to write. However, judging from recent comments, perhaps that’s no great loss.
Tuesday, 12 August 2008
I think that Amazon's automated system for making book recommendations has hit a new low with this one, which just dropped into my inbox...
"Dear Amazon.com Customer,
As someone who has purchased or rated books by Geoffrey Chaucer, you might like to know that The Squink (Dingles Leveled Readers - Fiction Chapter Books and Classics) is now available."
Can anybody explain how you get from Chaucer to this in one easy move?
An anguished wail went up in the Madeley household last night. It wasn’t a typical cry of pain or even the scream one would associate with an inquisitive man playing with Judy’s nail gun and putting a tack through his thumb. No, this was a howl of protest able to sear flesh over a quarter of a mile. This was a splintering of a soul; as though a shard of man’s being had been torn from his body and sent skidding across the room before disappearing up the chimney.
‘Richard? What’s wrong?’ asked Judy a moment or two later as she came hobbling to my office door.
‘Faux intellectual!’ I cried. ‘Faux intellectual! I’ve been called a faux intellectual!’
‘Ridiculous,’ said Judy coming into the room and perching herself on a chair next to my desk. ‘Who on earth would call you faux? There’s no man alive whose less faux than you.’
‘Some American,’ I said. ‘You know that post I wrote about coffee shops last week? It was the piece I wrote in an attempt to cheer myself after one of the most traumatic weeks of my life. Only, now some chap has read it and says “NOTHING however is more suburban, and faux intellectual, than clever prose construction, the substance of which is a mere complaint.”’ My brow creased an inch below my laughter lines. ‘I’ll show him,’ I said and hammered out a curt reply.
‘You’ll regret that in the morning,’ said Judy.
I didn’t care. I hit the publish button and then turned off my computer.
‘Blogging!’ I spat. ‘Sometimes I wonder why I even bother. I just don’t understand it, Judy. What possesses a person to leave an comment that will only hurt a stranger? Never in my life have I done that and I don’t intend to start now, even if this is the perfect opportunity. Why are some bloggers so rude? It can’t just be because they’re American can it?’
‘It’s because they are real people living in the real world,’ replied Judy, ‘and the real world is full of people who look to do more harm than good.’
Despite the wisdom of Judy’s words, I slept an uneasy sleep last night. Judy woke me around four to ask me to stop muttering ‘faux intellectual’ under my breath. I really only dozed after that and I dragged myself up at seven this morning to catch Fry before he began his morning yoga routine.
‘Ah, ’tis I Fry,’ said Stephen on the third thing. ‘I’m currently holding the pose known as the lotus of the dipping moon.’
‘And this is Dick Madeley,’ I said, leaning back in my office chair, ‘currently holding the pose known as the suburban faux intellectual.’ I then proceeded to tell him about my recent attempt to write myself out of a bad mood, my general thoughts about blogging, and then about this most recent comment which had created such a deep fracture in my normally impenetrable confidence.
‘Oh dear,’ said Stephen. ‘There really is nothing so condescending than being called a faux intellectual by an American. And for a man with your background there can be nothing as galling. It is a shame that more people haven’t read your quite breathtaking metrical analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnets.’
‘You know me, Stephen. I don’t like to boast about the mere idle puff I write in my spare time. When I’m done putting the finishing touches to my collection of essays about Nabokov, let’s see what they say then.’
‘Indeed,’ replied Fry. ‘But I’m afraid that this is another example of that constant battle we men of wit must wage with those of sullen demeanours. Any fool can write a miserable little story about metaphysical angst but it takes a man of real character to mine the veins to those deep places where humour is to be found. You have to remember, Dick, that the pose of intelligence is really quite different to the genuine article.’
I understood what he was saying. I’ve come across many fine intellects in my time but the finest have always understood that true intelligence resides in something more than convoluted prose, tortured angst, and an obsessive pursuit of difficulty. God knows that the world is a troubled place, full of petty egos squabbling over petty disputes. The last thing it needs is another intellectual.
‘I think you’re right, Stephen,’ I said, feeling the irritation of the night before finally slip from my body. ‘I’m quite happy to be called a faux intellectual if it means that my writing gives a few people a little pleasure in their lives.’
‘It’s your moral calling,’ said Stephen before he gave a wince. ‘Now, if you don’t mind Dick, I’m going to hang up. The lotus of the dipping moon has just become the lotus of the inflamed sciatica. Heavens, shudder, and marmalade!’
And with that the phone went dead. I hung up the phone and immediately switched on the PC. I had a long day of being a faux intellectual ahead of me and I was relishing the prospect.
Monday, 11 August 2008
There are times when the very existence of Stephen Fry seems to defy every known law of physics. I swear that the man has been cast by the Gods from some molten greatness that has hardened into a six foot nine inch monument to human potential. Poet, scholar, critic, actor, director, writer, stuntman, comedian, quiz show host, charity worker, environmentalist, after dinner speaker, technology expert, pipe smoker of the year: there is nothing that the man can’t do to perfection. He has saved my life on many an occasion and is now the first person I turn to when reduced to tears by the constant toils of this bad old world.
‘Ah, Richard,’ said Stephen, nestling my head against his great waist-coated breast and stroking my hair with those large fingered mitts of his. ‘There, there, indeed. Hush now. Calm yourself. Were I less compassionate man, I would say that this has been a long time coming and that it’s only right that you worry about your future. Cast out into the world of those horrid little satellite channels, I too would fear for my future. What if nobody watches me? What if I become a “has been”?’
I felt myself go rigid in his arms before he cooed and soothed me by flicking my earlobes.
‘However, being a man of great compassion, your Uncle Stephen would never dream of being so blunt. He would never compare you to Bobby Davro or Les Dennis, men who have realised that satellite TV is a boneyard filled with the remains of once glittering careers. Instead, I will gird you for the trials ahead with a few well chosen words of encouragement.’ With that he cleared this throat. ‘Indeed, Richard!’ said he. ‘You will be a star on satellite! You will be a veritable viewer magnet, attracting them in their tens of dozens from channels as far afield as Horse & Country, UK Gaming Plus and The Baby Channel. Who would choose to watch the British Sausage Awards hosted by Roland Rivron when they have you and Judy just ninety seven channel hops away?’
I wiped away my tears and tried to stand up. My legs felt like two strings of shop-soiled pork bangers with fractional meat content and plenty of buttock and beak.
‘That’s not why I’m crying,’ I said. ‘It’s just that I’m a little afraid of this altitude. Can’t you take me back down?’
Stephen stood back, smiled and reached for the cord leading up to the three gas nozzles. The basket was suddenly filled with the noise of rasping flames as Stephen encouraged his hot air balloon to even greater heights.
‘Ah, ’tis I, Fry, at ten thousand feet!’ proclaimed Stephen, his green cape flapping in the breeze that was pushing us towards Kent. ‘You must learn to soar, Richard. A man must know what it is to reach for the heavens, by whatever means. Look up and admire the firmament. Gaze upon its points sprinkled like glazed cherries on the not so small trifle of heaven. Above us is the Astra 2D satellite which is soon to become your new home. Reach for your destiny. Let destiny pluck you up as it once plucked me!’
‘I never agreed to plucking,’ I muttered, gazing down the thousands of feet towards Mother Earth where I’d left Judy sitting eating cheese and pickle sandwiches in the back of the Range Rover. I had started to regret accepting Stephen’s offer two minutes after lifting off. That’s when the large Richard&Judy banner advertising our new satellite show fell from its hanging place beneath his balloon and blanketed a housing estate. Now I wanted nothing more than to get back down to my wife and her rapidly improving knee.
Only, Stephen was too enchanted by the power of the burn. His hand kept pulling the cord and we kept climbing until the air turned so chilly that my nipples stood erect beneath my shirt. I feared that they’d never go soft again.
‘I think we should really begin to think about home,’ I said.
‘The majesty!’ cried Stephen, his eyes glazed with that look that all geniuses get when they are doing something beyond the normal. ‘The radiant firmament of heavenly splendour!’ Again he pulled the cord and I felt the balloon give a kick as it again began to climb.
‘I want Judy,’ I whimpered as we climbed towards the upper limit of the troposphere.
‘Ah, ’tis I, Fry! Godhead made manifest in comedic flesh on high!’
The man had clearly lost it. Or, at least, I thought he had. The truth is that I don’t really understand geniuses, however they come wrapped. I might leave the occasional comment over at ‘Thought Experiments’ but I know that the other readers pity me more than they respect me. And it was this inability to understand genius that served me so poorly hanging beneath Stephen’s balloon. It made me leap for one of the many ropes running up into the hot canopy. I gave the cord a pull thinking I might put a stop to this mad ascent. The noise of ripping fabric did nothing for my nerves but it did break Stephen’s rapture. I felt the sudden change from ascent to descent at the base of my stomach
‘Oh, Richard,’ said Stephen, shaking his head. ‘Were I a man given to angry outbursts I might say that you’ve consigned us to doom more terrible than UK Living Plus. Instead, I will merely say that you should not have done that. Tut and the full pish! And might I also be so bold as to say: damn these cheap Chinese hot air balloons...’
And what more can I say about Stephen? In a crisis, he’s a touch more reliable than a superman. With a calm and an agility that shouldn’t rightly be his own, he jumped over the side of the basket and clung onto the netting.
‘Don’t touch anything while I’m gone,’ he told me before he began to climb, his last ‘bless’ falling away on the first hint of the jet stream.
I leaned out and watched Stephen make his way up to where a three foot hole was gaping in the balloon’s fabric. Stephen worked a miracle in the next few minutes and he’s the only reason I’m sitting here today able to tell you this tale. If you’d been in the South East of England yesterday and looked into the sky, you might have witnessed a rapidly descending hot air balloon with a modern Icarus in tweed hastily using a green cape to fill the large tear in its side.
‘We’ll have to make an emergency landing,’ said Stephen a few minutes later. He swung back into the basket and took control with only a thousand or so feet to go. I wanted to reply but Stephen pushed me down into the bottom of the basket. ‘Hold on,’ he said. ‘This might be rougher than a night at the British Comedy Awards.’
His was no idle threat. The trees rushed us like Caroline Aherne on whisky chasers. Branches snapped around the basket and I witnessed one swipe Stephen from the basket. He gave a yell of ‘shudder!’ before he disappeared over the side. Then there was the heavy impact as the basket hit the ground. I recollect being thrown out and doing a prodigious amount of rolling before I blacked out. I remember nothing else until I opened my eyes some minutes later and saw an unmistakable shadow standing over me.
‘Almost a perfect landing,’ said Stephen, apparently unharmed by his fall. ‘I would congratulate myself on a job well done, only I have absolutely no idea where we are.’
I rubbed mud from my chest where my altitude hardened nipples had punched holes through my silk shirt and scooped up dirt. I was surprised to find myself in a corner of England untouched by the twentieth century. Greens were of a greener hue, the trees lined up to form the edge of some great oak forest. I too had no idea where we were until I peered into the middle distance and spotted a bush occupied by an old friend.
‘Isn’t that a Purple Hairstreak?’ I asked.
I knew that Stephen would know. ‘I believe it is,’ said the man last year voted Butterfly Hunter of the Year by ‘Which Butterfly’ magazine.
‘Then I know exactly where we are,’ I replied. ‘This is a small private estate in an undisclosed location of South East England. And if I’m not mistaken there should be an obscured entrance to a cave just beyond those trees.’
We walk the hundred yards to where a clever bit of topiary blocked off a path into the dense woodland. Fortunately, I knew the area and found the handle that drew back the old piece of wooden fencing disguised with branches. The entrance to the cave was where I remembered it from my last visit and Stephen followed me cautiously as I began to negotiate the long descent into the dark underworld.
We emerged in a brightly lit chamber, the sound of light classical echoing around its natural gothic aisles. High in the dark corners of the cave, eyes peered out from the many owls roosting there as though overseeing the small work area in the centre lit by bright lights. There a signed photograph of Bryan Appleyard was hung over a series of prints of UK moths. To the side, a picture of Petula Clark was pinned to a dartboard by a large hunting knife, while working at a desk at the centre of this tableau, sat the owner of the NigeCave there in the heart of the NigeCorp Country Park and Beetle Sanctuary. There sat the man known by criminals as ‘The Owl’; that genius who has created this sanctuary where butterflies have equal rights with sparrows and where otters frolic in streams of pure spring water that have risen through layers of English sedimentary rocks. There’s no German schist or Russian granite down there. Just pure English limestone, the purest chalk of old Albion and a chap in tweeds called Nige.
‘Hello Nige,’ I said. ‘Just crash landed a Chinese hot air balloon in your back garden. Hope you don’t mind me letting myself in.’
‘Richard!’ said Nige who I could see was holding a hunting knife with loving tenderness. ‘You’re just in time to help me put the finishing touches to this rabbit pie I’m preparing for supper. What on earth happened to your eye? And have you seen the state of your nipples?’
‘Hard to explain, Nige,’ I said and gestured towards Stephen. ‘Let me just say that I owe my life to the last of the great English Frys. Do you know Stephen?’
Stephen stepped forward and gave a bow. ‘Ah, Nige. I’ve heard so much about you.’
‘Nice tweeds,’ said Nige, slipping the knife back into his belt. ‘Reminds me of lines from Betjeman. “I used to butt my head into his tweeds / To make him hurry down those languorous miles.”’
Stephen gave a shudder of delight. ‘Ah, indeed, the man had neat of a turn of phrase. Butting tweeds indeed. Gracious me!’
‘Can you two forget turns of phrases and butting tweeds?’ I replied. ‘I need to get back to Judy. She goes toxic if she’s allowed to eat too much pickle.’
‘Fear not,’ said Nige, picking a throwing knife from a bandoleer over his shoulder and aiming it at a bell. He hit it plumb in the centre. His butler arrived moments later. A diminutive man with Asiatic qualities, we know little about the man except that Nige brought him back from his last trip in the East. ‘Ah, there you are Hung,’ said Nige. ‘Is the Nigemobile ready?’
Hung paused to pick up the knife. ‘I’ve just primed her with a new bucket of coal, sir,’ he replied to Nige’s evident satisfaction.
‘Nice to see you again,’ I said to the butler. ‘I take it that you’re are you well Hung?’
The man gave me the usual rueful smile as he handed the knife back to Nige.
‘Right then,’ said Nige, taking a leather driving helmet and goggles from a desk drawer. He bowed and crossed himself before pictures of the moths and the photograph of Bryan Appleyard before he waved us to follow him to the back of the cave. That’s where Stephen was surprised by a most unexpected sight.
‘My!’ said Stephen. ‘A 1924 Stanley Steamer. And with customised knife holders!’
‘Climb in,’ said Nige, who hopped into the driver’s seat and began to pump the controls of the steam powered engine. ‘I’ve had it modified. Can hit a top speed of nearly nineteen miles an hour on a straight.’ He lowered his goggles as I settled myself in the back seat, Stephen taking the passenger’s side. ‘Here we go!’
What a rush! The next four hours flew past as we raced back the three and a half miles to where I’d left Judy with her sandwiches. Occasionally, Nige would stop by a hedgerow to chop back some new growth with his favourite Bowie knife or hack a limb off a tree for future whittling but other than these few delays, we made good time. I was soon back to the car park where the sound of Judy loudly singing Dancing Queen warned me that she’d already gone too far with the pickles.
‘Thanks for the ride, Nige,’ I said as I reluctantly climbed out.
Stephen remained seated. ‘If you don’t mind,’ he said. ‘I think I’ll go back with Nige. I really couldn’t miss a chance to enjoy a 1924 Stanley Steamer for just a little while longer and I really should recover my balloon and cape.’
‘Well I’ll open the throttle this time,’ promised Nige, dropping his goggles down over those keen eyes of his. ‘We’ll take the long route back and we’ll be home for breakfast!’
‘Hooray!’ said Stephen.
‘Hooray, indeed!’ said Nige.
I waved them off. Two of the few reasons why I choose to stay in the forsaken mire of a country. Two of the reasons why I’m so certain that God wears tweed.
Sunday, 10 August 2008
This is what’s known as a quiet weekend. I’m sleeping and trying to regain my strength for the week ahead. I can’t remember the last time I felt so exhausted, nor had so little time or energy to write. I'm hoping that a rest will do me some good. I hope to be back on Monday.
Friday, 8 August 2008
My thighs know polyester even if the label says 100% cotton. I swear that there are unnatural fibres in these trousers of mine. Perhaps even something ungodly. It teaches me to buy pants on a whim. I’m enduring a terrible day here in hot sweaty Manchester. My skin can’t cope and the pain of the chafing is enough to give me religious visions. I swear I saw Saint Sylvester nearly getting clipped by a tram on the road outside the art gallery. Soon I’ll be heading for lunch in search of a shop that sells ointments and balms. There must be something to extinguish the fire that’s burning below my beltline.
Thursday, 7 August 2008
It always surprises me when people hand me compliments. I don’t mean small compliments. Those I usually deserve and I take whenever and wherever I can. I mean big compliments; praise that’s heavy in the packaging and with the postage to deliver it across the dense hinterland of my vast and incalculable ego. Compliments of this sort are a powerful drug. They are overwhelming gifts of generosity that leave me believing every flattery. Or, at least, I did until quite recently when I realised that it’s only my fame that these people enjoy.
This type of compliment says more about the people giving them than they do about the object of their praise. I know that my fame is the reason why some people read what I write. And that’s the only reason. Celebrity is like that. The candle never fails to attract a moth or two that come fluttering into its flame.
I address these thoughts to the latest moth to singe his wings on the glow of my fame. ‘Arthur’: I appreciated your email but I would prefer it if you loved me for who I am. The photograph of your latest tattoo was a touching but I share your wife’s opinion. It must indeed be a shock for her to roll over in the middle of the night and see me staring at her from beneath the duvet. In other words, I appreciate the compliment but I strongly advise you to start wearing pyjama bottoms.
Tuesday, 5 August 2008
Having rightly given my blog over to the concerns of my friend, I had plenty of time last week to put my mind to some serious thinking. Mental cogitation and the name Dick Madeley are siblings, if not closer than siblings. They are the working prototype of a body / thought hybrid, joined at the hip and sharing the same pair of trousers. Each leg of this well articulated beast is as significant as the other. Their gait both effortless and strange.
Without a blog to write, I spent much of the week in my favourite seat in my favourite coffee shop. I’m sitting there, right now, engaged in some real ‘mobile blogging’, except that I’m not actually mobile and I’ll have to wait until I get home before I blog this post by broadband. Yet it’s only after working here for six consecutive days that I have come to realise that our coffee shops have devolved in terms of their intellectual life. Once home to great thinkers who could shift continents with the power of an idea, the coffee house has become the rationalist’s nightmare; inhabited by men and women who believe that coffee beans have emotions and that there’s no fruit that can’t be squeezed into an oddly shaped bottle and priced higher than the glandular extract of the Honey Bear.
These are not my people. They are bull-necked fathers sucking at straws almost as thick as their hyper-extended veins; business women jacked thin on espresso and tapping away at their laptops while checking account books balanced on adjacent tables and holding meetings via their bluetoothed mobiles. A table of white middle class cornrows loudly discuss the stopping power of handguns as they drink their environmentally friendly bean curd from hemp cups. There’s no fizzy drink to be had. Bad for our teeth, I’m told. Only I’m not so sure what a freshly squeezed Patagonian yam will do for my dietary tract. I’m not sure what my dietary tract will do to the juice of the Patagonian yam. I just know that my coffee shop is no longer about coffee. It is about alleviating the suffering of the poor Patagonian farmer and his mule while I suffer Tracy Chapman who is always singing about revolution while I’m trying to enjoy my beaker of green antioxidant. Tracy Chapman does not agree with my dietary tract. My dietary tract does not agree with Tracy Chapman. It’s an inconvenient truth that even Al Gore is afraid to mention.
There's nothing smooth or innocent about an Innocent Smoothie except the way they get the money out of your pocket. Yet matters are made worse because the whole charade takes place inside a book shop. Coffee and books should make for the perfect combination. There’s nothing that gives me more satisfaction than sitting in the corner with a latte and a novel newly introduced to the Madeley Mastercard. Occasionally I gaze up at the large cut-out of my handsome self, itself casting a satisfied look over the shopping public buying this week’s book club selection. Yet I find it increasingly difficult not to become somewhat chagrined. In fact, it’s more than chagrin. Chagrin would be a mere skin complaint, quickly cured with a dab of ointment and a day spent wearing well ventilated cotton shorts. I’m thinking of something more than chagrin. Perhaps ‘mortification’ is a better word. I feel mortified that I’m somehow part of this great conspiracy to fool you all into believing that you’re a new Richard Steele or an improved Samuel Pepys.
I have to ask. How many of you are really a Jonathan Swift in disguise, or a poet with the wit of John Dryden? Have you ever out-MacFlecknoed his ‘MacFlecknoe’? I would bet that there’s not a single Alexander Pope amongst the lot of you, nor a man or woman who has penned a rhymed epistle or an ‘Essay on Man’. Yet, still, coffee shops try to convince us that we’re there for some greater reason other than the caffeine hit. Written on the wall of my local coffee shop is a daub of prose which runs (and I paraphrase): ‘The smell of fresh morning coffee drew me into the coffee shop. I sat down, opened my paper, and sipped my first cup of the day. I suddenly believed that life is full of great promise.’
What nonsense. What roasted dross, percolated through flam. What a deceitful way to imply that we’re all living some great inner life. What a shameful assumption that we’re merely passing through on our way to Paris or Geneva. Pseudo cosmopolitanism is almost as shocking as pseudo environmentalism that encourages us to take the old coffee grinds home to dump on our begonias. It’s almost as shocking as the greatest embarrassment to be found in a coffee shop and that arrives in the form of the off-centre saucer.
There’s a reason why centuries of culture have placed the cup in the middle of the saucer. It has to do with balance. Yet carrying a modern cup and saucer across a shop crowded with tykes and their toys is a dangerous business. A man is always likely to list heavily to one side. We’ve clearly moved into a new age of refinement where our coffee cups are pushed to the edge of the plates, marginalised in favour of the biscotti, which smells like almond biscuit but is priced about the same as gold and is so dense that is has its own atomic number. Beside the biscotti on this off-centre saucer, there usually sits a spoiled spoon which the dishwasher hasn’t washed clean of the previous customer’s scarlet lipstick. A frisson of sexual excitement passes through a man as he imagines some Monica Bellucci Italian breast previously nudging up against his handle. Perhaps a touch of Beatrice Dalle gap-toothed eroticism as she bites into his cup. The reality is more likely to be that gathering of pensioners that is just finishing their Tuesday morning adventure into the meaning of Alexander McCall Smith’s latest.
And yet the frustration isn’t this as much as it is the cup. You spend most of your time trying to overcome your natural tendency to put the damn thing in the middle of the plate. And there it sits: uneasily rocking on the edge of the off-centre indentation, another of life’s small annoyances, insignificant in itself but contributing to a greater frustration with the world that incapacitates those of us with mild forms of compulsive behaviour. It’s like knowing that the bathroom towel is hung at an angle and that at some point in the night you’ll simply have to wake your wife in order to ask her to get up to re-hang it. It’s like trying to present the nation’s favourite chat show while knowing that a sock has fallen behind the immersion heater and that no matter how much you chat with Gene Wilder the sock still needs saving.
You might say that I’m obsessive, difficult, hard to please. You might even believe that coffee shops have improved dramatically over the last ten years. But is it really too much to ask for a sensible range of drinks, some edible biscuits, and the solace of peace and quiet only punctuated by the talk of the nation’s best thinkers brought together under one roof to change the world’s economic, social, and aesthetic order? If Starbucks can’t provide me with that, I don’t think it’s right that they even call themselves a coffee shop.
Being the man who gave this blog it’s name, I’m so glad to be back and I would like to begin by thanking everybody for bearing my absence with such good grace. It’s been a difficult time in the life of this blog but I hope we can now find our smiles again. This is especially true given that the world beyond the Real goes on. Celebrity life rarely wilts, never ceases to amaze, and is always prone to a surprise or two; a fact which wasn’t lost on me when Bill Oddie attacked me with the serrated edge of his stuffed pelican last week. A disagreement about the feeding habits of the puffin led to the fight but it was a relief when it was settled. I am wiser for the experience, less likely to confuse sprats and sardines. Life, I suppose, has a way of surprising us and helping us; strengthening us even when it looks like it’s trying to bring us down. These last seven days have helped me to discover many things about myself and I intend to work even harder and promote my cause more widely. No longer will I write in obscurity. Literary agencies across London will soon have to check their foundations after they suffer the impact of my latest manuscript landing on their doorsteps. Producers will soon feel the force of my ideas. Politicians will quake at the very mention of my name.
Ladies and gentlemen of the blogosphere: Richard Madeley is back. And this time it's personal.
Monday, 4 August 2008
"Although I think it’s important that I pass this blog back to my friend and employer, the peerless Dick Madeley, I want to post one more time to thank you all for the support you’ve given me over the last week. It has been as unexpected as it has been a welcome and real source of comfort to both myself and my family. As of this afternoon, my father remains in intensive care but he is being prepared for a move into a ‘High Dependency Unit’ which, despite the name, is apparently a step down from the ward he’s currently on. Although a nurse told us yesterday that my father has spoke, he hasn’t yet spoken to any of us during our visits. But, as they keep reminding us, it is still only three days since his operation.
At the moment, I still feel a natural unwillingness to move on. The traumatised mind is easy prey for superstition. I have been living each day unable to do the things I did before. However, I now need to get back to my old habits and allow Richard to get back to writing his blog. I need to spend time, on my own, helping him to complete his next novel. Time, we have been told, is the best thing for my father. In the case of a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage, it is supposedly a matter of months of recovery and therapy before a person can return to anything like the life they previously led. There is nothing to say what kind of a recovery a person will make, there being a difference between a person’s medical condition and that more ambiguous type of healing involved in cognitive skills, memory, personality. All we can do is wait and be there for him.
Not having a blog of my own, I’m just grateful that I had a chance to write about these things here. Although not a personal blog in the traditional sense, it has been enough to help me get through this difficult week. I intend to come back and write about any further developments if I think it helps me. But for the moment, I think it right to allow the Appreciation Society to return to the job for which it was originally tasked: to make people smile, occasionally think, but ultimately, provide a forum, a soap-box, a large crate recently stuffed with Satsuma, from which the great Richard Madeley can set forth his vision for this country of ours."
Friday, 1 August 2008
A friend to Richard Madeley Appreciation Society writes:
"Satellite Navigation was created to send four highly stressed individuals the wrong way up a one-way street in the middle of a place called Atherton. Being only a friend of that saintly presence that usually writes this blog, it falls to me to admit such folly. Such human failing. I still couldn’t find Atherton if you paid me in Nigel Short t-shirts (he apparently grew up in Atherton), except, perhaps, by beginning how we began: by taking a slip-road from the East Lancs. Either that or by using a voodoo doll set to ‘traffic hell’.
Being latecomers to the world of cars, slip roads remain a mystery to us. I was navigating. I was the one who said, ‘keep to the left and we can’t go wrong’. One moment the Mini was on the East Lancs and the next it's on a motorway (another new experience) heading north towards Bolton. Only a few good things come from Bolton so it was blind panic that made us turn off the motorway and land in the middle of this Atherton hell-hole. Then Sat Nav suggested that the wrong way up a one-way street was the way to go. I'm ignoring how close we came to a crash, how we found ourselves on a new housing estate that according to Sat Nav didn’t exist. Ignoring too how I threw myselg in front of a post van or how the driver saved us by setting us in the direction of Lowton and the East Lancs again. I'm ignoring the fact that we got home and that we’re going by train in the future.
I’m just concentrating on one fact: my father briefly opened his eyes today and looked at my sister. She says there were tears in his eyes as he tightly gripped her hand."
"Being positive is almost as hard as writing about bad news. There’s a sense that I don’t want to tempt any kind of fate. I must (and have) prepared myself for the worst.
We now know that my father suffered an aneurysm. He underwent an operation (the main difficult operation) yesterday morning at a neurological unit in Manchester. The doctors have expressed satisfaction with how things went and they say that today they might try to wake him. He’s been heavily sedated for days. There is a long way to go and many things could yet happen. However, I wanted to pass on this news and to again thank everybody who has written in support."