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Idle blogs of an idle fellow

Journeys from the fax

The last task when writing a Novel.

In the on-going series of making it up while going along, and I’m not referring to parenting, we find ourselves at the acknowledgments. It’s a moment to reflect upon how the seemingly impossible task of writing a novel was accomplished, and who helped, while avoiding being overwhelmed by emotion like a Gwyneth Paltrow at the Oscars.

As any writer with more than one published novel will know, the acknowledgments is a minefield that makes the previous 80,000 words look like a stroll on an escalator. It’s not exactly learning to play the three suites of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage on a harmonica, but it feels close. As someone (possibly) once said about maintaining relationships: it’s not what you put in, but what you leave out.

Established etiquette, not to mention the threat of law suits, demands a roll of thanks to the people who have bank-rolled, tolerated, and in one instance even carried the writer out of bars. And it ensures a renewed interest on their part to read at least 2 more pages of a book they hoped to never see again.

Because not quite believing your novel with ever get published means the acknowledgments are a hurried, yet important afterthought. You don’t want your joy at publication ruined by forgetting to thank your wife/husband.

One of the drawbacks of taking years to write a novel is that there are plenty of people who get forgotten. Ex-girlfriends, cab drivers, Scout leaders and that bloke who once foolishly sat next to you on the 44 bus and with whom you shared your first draft, leading to a subsequent retreat from human contact and culminating in a drugs and alcohol addiction that continues untreated to this day. I hear the other passenger also remains traumatised.

Of course the last thing a writer wants is names other than their own on the cover. Even the title is a compromise, unless you’re Jonathan Franzen, who’s recent novel you might be forgiven for thinking is called Jonathan Franzen as opposed to Purity. This is why acknowledgements appear stuffed reluctantly at the end. However, there are few clearer signs of an amateur writer than one who declines to recognise it takes more than one person to write a book.

However, once you start it becomes hard to stop, and avoiding the ‘Gwyneth’ becomes harder. If you find yourself listing family pets then this moment has probably been reached. Unlike a successfully established novelist, it’s inadvisable to thank your fans in your debut novel. The fans are essentially your parents, and Auntie Linda. So, at this stage it’s advisable to thank them by name. I know at least 13 office printers that have been decommissioned as a result of the volume of printing manuscript drafts, but they’ll be forgiving of their absence in the thanks.

The appearance of my 6th form English teacher Mr Blake took me by surprise. Regrettably he has died, so is ignorant to the subtle influence he had on my literary life, probably correctly thinking I spent too much time looking at the girls in class. We read so many plays that it grew apparent that he’d never read the syllabus, but his passion was clear.

I’m being woken up at night with names in my head I’ve not thought of for years. There are so many names appearing that I’ll need to do the acknowledgements for the acknowledgements at this rate. Now, where’s that harmonica.

To see who makes the Acknowledgements of the Life Assistance Agency it is available to buy here:

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Life-Assistance-Agency-Thomas-Hocknell/dp/1911129031/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1471849452&sr=1-1&keywords=life+assistance+agency

 

 

 

 

 

What people always say to Writers.

It was recently said I look like a writer, which I tried to pretend wasn’t shorthand for appearing socially inept, malnourished and skint. They then asked me what genre my novel is.

It’s a regular question, and in light of people invariably asking the same things upon hearing that you are a writer, it would be a good idea to have well-prepared answers, which makes my lack of them even more inexplicable.

The most common is, ‘Are you published?” like it’s something that inevitable happens to every writer. Of course you want to grab them by the lapels and scream ‘D’you have any fucking idea how hard it is to get published?’ It’s not something you choose as an option at A-level . If I was published I would be (even more) unbearable, and you’d not be able to enter my house due to piles of unsold copies of the novel. Plus, you WOULD have known about it. If the blanket promotional bombing across all platforms of social media hadn’t reached you, the airborne banner advertising and T-shirt emblazoned with I’M PUBLISHED! would have.

Once you’ve caught your breath, and the questioner looks less like they’ve stuck their head in a turbo jet engine during takeoff, they might add that they’ve had an idea for a novel too. This suggests that given the time they might bash out a draft too, but they’re too busy with more important things, but it’s there, on the back burner. You take a deep breath…

Are you published? is the most dreaded question, and probably the one driving most writers to pursue publication. So they can answer, ‘yes, I am actually,’ as though it’s an option chosen at A-level.  It validates writing, justifying your claim of being a writer; an admission that is otherwise whispered through cracked fingers like you’re admitting to having chopped someone up before leaving them on a Dartmoor roadside.

Another favourite is ‘How do you find time, with kids, job, etc, etc?’ This is a slightly judgemental intimation of ‘Are you still doing that?’ dressed up as a good-natured question. It’s also impossible to answer without sounding conceited, (Yes-aren’t-I-amazing that I manage to juggle everything), and although it’s said with good intentions, you wish the earth to swallow you up. You start mumbling something about the fact they could do it too if they tried, before releasing that you sound like a total wanker. The worst thing about being a writer is that some people think you are clever, whereas in actuality it takes you 2 months to draft a sentence you are happy with.

As any writer knows, the real question is what would you do with your time if you weren’t writing. Mind you, never declare this in earshot of any partner, who will produce a suggested list of things you could be otherwise doing with the sort of speed more associated with stopping a child from running into traffic.

The ‘what genre is it?’ is a popular response to you admitting that you write. It’s another tricky one, as it’s only something you realise to be important too late, and posthumously try to squeeze your script into Horror, Adventure or Chick Lit (is this still allowed?). Although I spent my teenage years reading novels, these would now be labeled YA.  Apparently there are such specific genres as cat fiction, which isn’t novels written by actual cats, but probably even worse.

What’s it about? is also common, like they are deliberately attempting to publicly shame you into realising that despite having written 80,000 words, this isn’t a question you have adequately asked yourself. This realisation occurs half way through explaining what it’s about and you need to fake a coughing fit to avoid looking any more stupid. That’s if they haven’t wandered off already. Agents like an elevator pitch, but for the first 4 years of writing my novel there was no building with a lift high enough to describe it, not even in Dubai.

I’d like to add that my novel The Life Assistance Agency is to be published next month, and I know exactly what it is about, which is the cover quote I’d put on the cover, if the author was allowed to comment. I’d also say it’s more fun than a threesome on a trampoline. If you buy it and it’s less fun that that I’ll refund your money, IF you have evidence of having tried the trampoline thing.

It can be purchased:

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 

 

It could happen here – Pet Shop Boys@ Royal Opera House

In the Pet Shop Boys career of curve balls, the first was probably Ennio Morricone co-writing, with Angelo Badalamenti orchestrating, It Couldn’t Happen Here from 1987’s Actually. What were the masters of loitering, moodiness and the one finger keyboard riff doing amongst such majestic classical surroundings? Of course the same could be asked about tonight, but over the past 30 years Pet Shop Boys have ingratiated their perfectly crafted pop music with the classical world with ease. Their gigs have visited Sadlers Wells, Savoy Theatre, The Astoria. Tower of London, and Trafalgar Square, so the Royal Opera house is logical. And it knows it’s not an opera night because it’s sold out.

Their recent album Super may have joyously embraced Italo-Disco, but sadness still resides at the heart of their tunes. However, not tonight. Well, not much. To be honest the tug between dancefloor and pop radio has always created tension in their music. Two men, their lives committed to music. They stand as equals; it’s implicit, one is simpler happier behind a tron mask.

Nothing builds pressure like £60 tickets selling for £800 the night before a gig. Not that it bothers Tennant and Lowe, a song writing partnership that would match that of Lennon McCartney in respect if they didn’t operate with machines as opposed to the authenticity of rock music – as the recent Pop Kids grinned – “Telling everyone we knew/That rock was overrated”.

From the moment two large eggs arrived on stage to join a sparse keyboard and mic stand, we are prepared for a minimal set amongst such regal surroundings. They emerge to the already playing Inner Sanctum but it’s the last indicator of any prerecorded music. It shamelessly moulds Faithless and Kraftwerk to their own ends, before West end girls (once contemporary record, now historical document) and the Pop Kids strut by. As the delightfully unexpected early B-side In the night introduces us to Paris during the German occupation of World War II, two percussion kits and another keyboard arrive, bolstering the band to five, reminiscent of their finest tour (2002’s Release), marking a vast improvement from the sterile Electric shows.

The live percussion and extra keyboards provide immediate impact. The violinist sets up the strings to the pretentious pop of Love is a Bourgeois construct. It’s frenetic, erudite and only latex masks away from Spitting Image parody, as the protagonist gives up the bourgeois life to slob around. It’s one of their harder songs to love, but they’re clearly enamoured with its bedsit flattery. If there’s any flaw it’s that this could have been replaced by Young offender, So hard or twenty other better songs.

The dance/pop pull is unending; no matter how hard they charge the floor, pop wistfulness pulls them to shadows, none more than the lushness of too-rarely played Love comes Quickly. Its freshly minted bell line is so gorgeous that anyone would struggle not to weep. The live percussion and backing vocals perfectly addresses criticisms of the over-programmed Electric tour, while the lasers, smoke and lights create an otherworldly beauty.

Tennant looks trim throughout, admirably appearing his age as an omnipotent projection as he gazes down upon the maelstrom of hypnotic Inside a dream, that creates such a spell over the audience that its ending comes too soon. That is forgiven as Tennant takes to his keyboard for the gentle stabs of what turns out to a surprise airing of the romantic Home & Dry. If this neglected song was surprised at its return then the oft-maligned Winner probably had to cancel dinner plans. However, it attends in the superior happy/sad remix. The gentle ooo-ahs both bring a respite of warmly quiet romance to the room. It’s followed by a a return to the early 90s raves of Vocal, with it’s lonely and strange singer far from abandoned as 303 synth squiggles shamelessly mine those DIY years of dancing in now forgotten fields.

Sodom and the Gomorrah Show makes a surprise appearance in an welcome electronic rework, while It’s a sin takes the roof off, even if Neil struggles to keep up with backing track. Somehow there’s more to conquer, as a cowbell laden remixed Left to my own devices arrives. It might be a nod to New Order’s True Faith video, but even when expecting the unexpected, the stage invasion of asexual jelly baby telly tubbies takes everyone by surprise, as Tennant, and particularly Chris Lowe doing what he likes best, become one of the crowd. That Lowe even succeeds in a crowd of oversized jelly babies says it all. Devices frankly reclaims Go West as the perfect closer. Perhaps, aware of this, Go West than arrives to stake its claim, and its hymnal bonhomie accentuated by the jumping jellybeans is so hard to resist that the Royal Opera house doesn’t.

The stage light racks lowering alla Kanye West at Glastonbury shows they don’t miss a pop trick, leaving only one logical ending. Domino dancing continues the audience’s vocal participation after Love Etc’s ‘You don’t have to be’s’, leaving only one logical encore. Hoodwinked by its barnstorming grinding riff, the majestic Always on my Mind has happy couples crooning sexual doubt at each other, until everyone is grinning.

Pet Shop Boys have never sounded more relevant. That they continue to write songs and so carefully consider their presentation is staggering. This isn’t the ‘me’ of contemporary pop, it resides with their characters: of pop kids in love with the possibilities of London, of the pseudo-intellectual not wanting to compete, the sad old dictator who’s ‘too weak to be strong’, the young boy faced with difficult choices at a difficult age. the East End boys and West End girls and the glorious hope of Se A Vida A finding companion in the abandonment of the New York City Boy out in the ticker tape. This is the most modern show out there. Pet Shop Boys have somehow done it again

More Important Life Lessons

Rather foolishly I’ve already blogged Important Life Lessons in the mistaken presumption that it was an exhaustive list. However, life keeps throwing more things to remember. And I don’t just mean other people’s birthdays. So, it until Life stops, Life lessons will be a recurring feature on Idle Blogs of an Idle Fellow . The main problem will be looking for further titles: More Life Lessons, Even more Life Lessons. Yup, more Life Lessons I’m afraid…So

1.  When writing a blog post, don’t entitle it Life Lessons. You’ll be stuck for future titles

2.  Be aware of where you are in life. Timing is everything. If you stand by a pedestrian crossing do not be surprised if cars stop

3.  When abroad, always speak french, they’ll think it’s the french that have been too rude to learn the local lingo

4.  Do not spend too long writing your novel or you won’t remember parts of it. There are jokes in mine I’ve never heard before

5. Being a parent basically legitimises listing things that you can see aloud, often in a soft, patronising voice. ‘A tree’ ‘a bus.’ On days without children you still do this but it’s best to keep it to yourself.

6.  The chances of the driver in an SUV towing a trailer with jet-skis is likely to rate very highly on the Twat scale.

8.  Continuing on this tip, Audi Q7 drivers can actually save money, while achieving the same effect, by wearing a sandwich board reading ‘I’m an arrogant dick who needs a car too big to park to compensate for my diminished sense of self-worth’.

7.  The quickest way to work is likely to be the same route that you rush home.

8.  At the risk of upsetting his fans, you can never leave it too long not to play ‘Are you gonna go my way?’ by Lenny Kravitz

9.  One of the most important things a middle-aged man can learn is when it’s time to stop wearing T-shirts

10. One of the most important things a woman can learn is how to tell a man he’s too old for a t-shirt emblazoned with a band no one under 30 has heard of.

11. Another sign of being a parent is when seeing the phrase Ninja Turtles. The cool part of you recalls the cool hip-hop and soul label Ninja Tunes, but you’re mostly preoccupied with how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are inexplicably still-surviving, to make scriptless, unwatchable films, and undoing any 5-a day advice by surviving entirely on pizza.

12. As a parent you end up saying things you’d have never imagined, such as ‘stop throwing crisps at me.’

13. Nothing is the same anymore. There are even under-stimulated rocket scientists sitting around in laboratories moaning ‘well, it’s just not rocket science.’

14. The most important tip here is if you are having a BBQ, but can’t be bothered to cook. Light the BBQ, get the meat ready, hold some of those large scissor clampy things for turning, and stand there. Within 5 seconds an ‘expert’ will come up and start giving advice. Subtlety hand him the tongs (I knew I’d name them eventually) and slope off. Any BBQ is always surrounded by at least 4 ‘experts’ who think they can do a better job than you- so let them

15. If your knife is too blunt to cut hot cross buns it’s time for a new knife.

16. Unless you want to spend your entire marriage with the pressure of being interesting and charming, do not drink alcohol on your first date.

17. When a blog annoys you, such as hopefully not this one, a good suggestion is that they blog on.

18. Never go camp. There’s no good weather for it.

19. The best way to find any missing sunglasses is to sell your car. You’ll find more sunglasses than you remember buying, and some you clearly didn’t and that would be better suited to Timmy Mallet’s holiday.

20. Always dilute your children’s fruit juice. It lasts longer, and when they leave home they’ll be spun out by the pure intensity of unadulterated Copella ™ apple juice, replacing the need for any class A narcotics for at least the 1st year of independence.

 

How to work in an Office – a guide.

With so many people blogging, napping and reading Polly Toynbee articles through their fingers, sorry, I mean working from home, traditional office life feels somewhat neglected of late.

There are various skills in negotiating life in the office environment. The most important being to ignore so-called colleagues constantly moaning it’s cold if the room heat dips below temperatures generally associated with New York heatwaves. This is best achieved by flinging open the windows upon your late arrival, turning down the air conditioning and suggesting they put on a jumper. After all, this is what I do at home, until I can see my breath and admit defeat by putting the central heating on.

I’ve been working from home for so long now that life has moved on elsewhere without me. Any encounter with rush hour commuting is like being deposited into a dystopian future of overpopulation and automatons programmed to pick up free newspapers for which the carriage is too cramped to read.

At a recent interview for an office job, I was asked what I might bring to the team. I presumed they didn’t mean a weekly Victoria sponge, although I suspect one of the interviewers might have instantly given me the job had I offered one. Instead, I froze. ‘Humour’, I ventured, instantly regretting it, aware the only immediate demonstration of comedy would involve a joke I had recently heard that belonged to after the watershed. I wanted to add ‘playlists’, ‘casual sexism’ and a healthy disregard for authority, but thankfully managed to stop myself. I’m good at organising the milk whip? They nodded non-commitedly, like you only ever see during interviews.  What could I bring to an office that didn’t involve anecdotes about how much I used to enjoy working from home?

I remember office politics and the slow clocks. The day peaked at lunchtime, because there was food, with another highlight at 3:30 for afternoon tea, if there was milk, but repetition had little else going for it. Of course there was the opportunity to chat, and I miss that, but the postman is a good stand in, even if it’s clear he needs to escape. The screeching of van tyres as he finally leaves always reminds me to take less of his time in future, after all, I’m starving other local home-workers of his company.

In offices there are meeting rooms with whiteboards containing words such as Targets or Planning, with arrows pointing to some forgotten conclusion. To be fair there were probably people in that meeting who forgot where it was going 5-minutes after it was started. Being in a meeting is bad enough, but walking past one and looking in, well, it’s like seeing human beings robbed of their soul.

I have still found no answer as to what I might bring to a team environment, other than using the printer to churn out countless drafts of a novel to edit during lunch breaks, but I know what not working in an office brings, and I don’t just mean having somewhere designated to sit. It’s about doing your work without also having to socialise with people you otherwise would cross the room to avoid. And having milk and teabags without having to send a group email requesting funds.

 

 

 

Robbie Williams – Take the Crown. A review.

Sometimes it’s worth revisiting albums that slip from the public conscious. Despite its title and reaching no.1 in the album charts, 2012’s Take the Crown might even have slipped the memory of its maker Robbie Williams.

It could be argued that Robbie Williams’ star had waned before his reunion with Take That; making the appropriation of his Rudebox template for the boys-to-men-band’s successful return with Progress somewhat ironic.

But Take the Crown, Robbie’s first solo set since 2009’s Reality Killed the Video Star, aims to reclaim his position as one of pop’s foremost solo artists.

This ninth album opens with saxophone, revisiting the reflective tone of Robbie’s Take That stint; and, indeed, much of his previous solo material. Accompanied by stabbing synths and nostalgic lyrics, Be a Boy is an effortlessly victorious beginning.

Gospel also mines the past for inspiration: “I used to be so excited on my own,” he sings. Few people have blurred the line between self-therapy and pop success quite like Robbie, and Gospel is typically bombastic; although an unnecessary “go f*** yourself” torpedoes the track’s warm sentiments.

The presence of producer Jacknife Lee (R.E.M.EditorsSnow Patrol) demonstrates that Robbie’s search to replace Guy Chambers and Steve Power has grown less urgent and more interesting; he’d previously roped in Stephen Duffy and Mark Ronson.

Lead single Candy Girl is catchier than Velcro, although it’s unclear why anyone needs to own it – after the second listen it owns you. It’s eager to please, certainly.

Different is aimed at fans missing Angels, but it isn’t that interesting. The album comes to life, though, with All That I Want and the hypnotic Hunting for You, while Into the Silence is evocative of Joshua Tree-period U2.

Things close with a group-hug of a duet with American singer Lissie, a cover of Belle Brigade’s song Losers. But its “I don’t care about being a winner” lyric is seemingly at odds with the spirit of the album.

Despite these highlights, Take the Crown finds Robbie sounding rather too serious, rather too often. It’s safe, something of a retreat from past endeavours to a sound more suited to commercial returns in the present. Those with a penchant for slightly unhinged pop might do well to listen instead to a certain band called Take That.

the politics of sun tanning

 

It’s easy to know when Summer arrives  – let’s not quibble about Spring – it’s when temperatures remain above 16 degrees for longer than twenty minutes, you’re not wearing a jumper,  Sunday evenings smell of BBQs and Boots start 3-for-2 sun cream. The television news announces Summer with gratuitous footage of bikini-clad women on Brighton beach – which to be fair makes a pleasant change from reporters standing knee deep in floods while sodden locals flick V-signs in the background.

There can be few nationalities keener on tanning than the Brits, which is probably explained by spending five months a year in damp darkness being sedated by ITV light entertainment while developing type 2 diabetes.

Spending the entire winter in what feels like the gloomier side of the moon means that T-shirts are torn off at the precise moment the sun breaks the clouds. Moaning about the cold and self-inflicted high heating bills are instantly forgotten, as that most pointless, yet hazardous, pastime of tanning begins. It seems an excellent opportunity to consider the different tanning social tribes.-

-One of the initial tans of the season is the Pushchair Tan, which for stay-at-home fathers is the metrosexual version of a trucker’s tan only there are less truck stops and CB radio handles, at least where I live. You also get both arms tanned.

-The Office Tan. This involves the careful timing of lunch breaks with the sunniest time of day. This might mean lunching at 4pm, but always means finding a park distance enough from your office so not to alarm your colleagues as your suit gets torn off like Superman late for a mugging.

– The Yo-Yo is the tanner who strips to the waist at the barest glimpse of sun, only to find it disappearing behind clouds and slicing an immediate 10 degrees off the temperature, requiring a hurried dash back indoors; at least until the next flash of sunny promise. Ad-finitum until dusk. The Yoyos are often slim and never read more than half a book page at a time.

– The opposite is the Costa. which is the tanning equivalent of a bungie jump, only with the cord cut. These people want you to know they’ve been on holiday. This results in spending the entire holiday sunbathing until they’re a bronzed ebony. Some don’t even read whilst doing so incase this causes a book-shadow. What they should probably be working on is a personality, but that’s what reading is for. They are also easily spotted in airport arrivals wearing white suits/dresses.

– However they are not the Amateur. This is the ‘I’m too stupid/young/pissed to put sun lotion on.’ We all once suffered from this – when using any factor larger than 2 was sneered at. If you hadn’t fainted from heat stroke and spent a week lathered in yoghurt or in Spanish A&E, then the holiday was considered a failure.

-The Tanorexic – often appear to work in sun-bed salons and are paid in either free tanning sessions, or in those strange circular eye protectors. They are the Costa only without the anecdotes of having turned over once an hour.

-The Builder tan. This is the tan that sits on the skin with an air of rugged entitlement. The builder’s tan has been a little compromised by EU requirements to wear a hi-viz jackets for any endeavour that involves leaving the house, but it remains a perk, along with shoving the Sun (see what I did there) down a white van’s dashboard.

– the Elizabethan: This is the anti-tan, and is making a comeback, at least in London’s Shoreditch. After all, who wants to look like a sunburnt builder. This look is best suited to a game of arctic hide & seek, and models itself on the chalk men of Kent and Sussex. It’s a look best achieved by rolling in white powder, although these days people prefer to inhale white powder and spend the following day in bed, which has the same effect.

–  The Maintainer  Tan: Of the sort that quietly suggests you own a yacht in the south France, but probably  don’t. They come back from holiday looking healthy and yet still appear like this 4 months later. It’s a combo of carefully applied self-tan and the occasional actual blast in the sun.

– The fake . This is for people who are colour blind to orange, and are often friends with the  Tanorexic, or belong to both categories. It’s the healthier version of the sunbed, but you don’t want them sitting on your white sofa.

-The Trump. It seems unfair not to mention a man who might become the next president of USA, yet looks like someone’s asked him to sniff some brown paint, before slamming his face into it and running off.

 

 

 

Mad dudes and Englishmen!

 Are English Males better than Americans?

Having briefly lived in the United States, and travelling no further than San Francisco, I feel confident enough to consider common perceptions of US males to those of England. The first American I met worked in a bar, and the most lingering memory of the States is the professionalism of its bartenders.

English bartenders confront packed bars with a ‘Who’s next?’ like someone exciting the crowd at a bear baiting. Of all people given responsibility to explore basic social etiquette, those competing for drinks shouldn’t make the list. American bartenders not only know who’s next to be served, but allow you to turn your back on them; to be alerted that it’s your turn with a gentle tap on the shoulder. No wonder they get tips, they bloody deserve them.

The American horseshoe bar is as classically appealing as the English pub, while attracting a similar sort of barfly that prefers talking about doing things than actually doing them. However, the American man tends to drink 10 oz pints as opposed to full ones, and doesn’t need to ignore any irony in throwing foreign lager all over himself during patriot celebrations of St Georges day while wearing red-flag hats made in China. This is a good thing, as no one in America understands irony or sarcasm. Mind you, you’re never further than an arm reach from the comfort blanket of a Stars and Stripes.

That’s not to say American men don’t enjoy drinking. It would appear their college years are spent learning or inventing increasingly idiotic drinking games called Beer Pong or Death Ball, presumably to distract from the tasteless American beer. These frat boys consider flunking as a badge of honour, preferring to lock nerds in their high school locker before filling it with shaving cream, and overusing the words faggot or douchebag, while ignoring the homoeroticism of constantly slapping one another on the back and doing moonies at passing traffic. America does brew decent beer, but I’m unsure anyone has told the typical male. The English drinking game consists of drinking lager until you fall over.

The US male need to drive an SUV with at least a V8 6 litre engine that shakes windowpanes from frames as it passes is something they never tire of, and is a growing phenomena in the UK, despite requiring planning permission to park such super trucks in narrow Victorian streets. Reactions to being asked to perhaps drive a vehicle that isn’t single handedly reducing global oil supplies is met with derision suggesting that such consideration contravenes some God-given right to be a total dick.

Traditionally the young Englishman prefers a souped-up hatchback bought at auction approximately two hours after passing his driving test. It’ll have a rebored 1.1 engine and drilled exhaust pipe, which sounds like a Vulcan bomber following you, until a glance in the wing-mirror confirms it is a city runaround originally aimed at the senior market. Once he’s wrapped it around a few trees and survived, he buys a middle of the road family estate car and tuts at anyone going faster than the speed limit. That is until the mid life crisis demands a powerful sports car he no longer has the instinctive ability to drive, and wraps that around a tree.

Interestingly, many American and English men share the same names. A glance at the top 10 US names is surprising; not a Chuck, Randy, or Butch in sight. Although it’s reassuring to know there are over 1.3 million Donalds, it’s not in the top ten, which consists of Michael, James, John and David, sounding like the roll call of King’s College Cathedral choir, or the potential line up of a Store Detective 5-aside football team.

Of course sport is where men like to express themselves, or at least get overpaid haircut models to do it on their behalf, while sitting in La-Z-Boy chairs in permanent recline (or is it decline?). In the UK, there is a similar correlation between frequency of wearing tracksuits and the infrequency of doing any actual physical exercise.

Football is where differences between the nations are most pronounced. American football requires enough armour to necessitate cranes to lift them following a tackle, and pauses for TV ad spots at such regular intervals that mistimed blinking might result in home-viewers missing the entire match. It’s unclear if college football also stops every five minutes to sell local products, but watching it feels likes experiencing a game that has not yet worked out its own rules. English football has the advantage of being able to be played with nothing more than a wall and a ball, as opposed to requiring access to the Transformers movie prop cupboard.

The right to carry arms is of course another defining difference between the nations. The closest most English men get to carrying a firearm is a cigarette lighter, a biro or one of those inflatable green hammers while inexplicably celebrating St Patrick’s day. He also doesn’t get to say ‘bro’ every five seconds, which would be a good thing were it not replaced with ‘mate’, as though life is a daily nautical reenactment. As to actual tea, most American males think it’s something to balance a golf ball on, while most Englishmen can’t start work unless they’ve drunk tea strong enough to stand the spoon in.

However, it’s not all bad for the US male. He’s probably more inclined to pursue a 6-pack, than the English male’s contentment with a 4-pack, of strong lager and a takeaway curry, although the English do always have that accent with which to mesmerise American women to the extent that they’ll date any idiot with a plum in his mouth. However, in all likelihood, were the stereotypical American and English male meet they’d either hate each other, or be buddies, that’s friends, for life.

 

Book review: Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne

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This is the sort of novel writers dream of writing, at least those hoping to loiter in cool bars with ceiling fans and be the next Hemmingway. It’s continents from the current popularity of  misery-lit and its ‘families with a secret spanning generations’, and girls on trains. Osborne’s protagonist Robert Grieve is actually running away from such dramas; from the conformity of his teaching job and daytime ITV, to the sunbaked streets of Thailand and Cambodia. It captures the sort of atmosphere only novels can. It might make a movie, but never a computer game, this steaming cocktail of history, lust and hate only truly breathes on the page. Anyone with unresolved wanderlust would be ill-advised to read this book.

Plenty of travellers plan to write. To sway on hammocks between the timeless palms, but few ever do (probably for the best). But, most significantly they return home. Majority of travellers simply collect some anecdotes, and a STD, before accepting their fate to swap oysters for an Oyster card and a career in marketing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but some people stay out there. And write. As Lawrence Osborne has done; both he and his protagonist Robert Grieve, are lost out there in the haze. It’s as inspiring as it is depressing for those of us who aren’t.

The most striking element of Hunters in the Dark is Osborne’s disregard for writing rules advising against describing weather. The muggy heat and storm clouds hang overhead as rain explodes in the road, and the narrative builds like the monsoon heat; without its weather they’d only be half the novel, and this is not a criticism.

As with his previous novel, The Forgiven, the story involves the darkness at the fringe of the road, beyond the pool of unreliable streetlight, where the jungle begins and civilisation wobbles. It explores the possibility of Robert Grieve taking another man’s identity, one that has been forced upon him, and how that affects the world around him.

Osborne’s prose is effortlessly poetic without you hating it: ‘The river ran between mud and chalk banks and in high summer there was a feeling of death and stillness upon it, abandoned tankers rusting in the shallows…’

He’s compared to Graham Greene so frequently that it’s a shock when Osborne actually
mentions him, but anyone thinking of escaping needs to read this, to taste the embrace of aimlessness and the danger of drifting into night’s shadows beyond the sun-scorched days. As he falls deeper into the country with a keen memory and a harsh violence that belies the idyll. The changing PoV is sometimes disconcerting but it escalates the tension, and you’re left with a sense of justice that could have so easily have gone wrong. It reads like a lost classic, yet it’s contemporary. It feels good to line the pockets of a living author, rather than his estate. Osborne is a  precious find, and as with many good authors, feels like your secret alone.

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