Category: Proof


Yesterday, 25th May, was International Towel Day.

I’ve been harping on about this on Facebook for a couple of weeks and I’m quite sure no-one knows what the hell is wrong with me anymore, but that’s because many of them have yet to have their minds and hearts delightfully corrupted by the wondrous “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series of books, by the late great Douglas Adams.

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7556-hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxy-movie

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For other like-minded ladies and gentlemen, here is a profound explanation of the importance of towels, as found in Chapter 3 of Adams’ work The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)”

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There are five books in Adam’s original Hitchhiker’s series, and a sixth novel written by Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer, which I haven’t read and probably never will.  No disrespect to Colfer, but I have such a close relationship with the original books that any semi-official additions seem distinctly sacriligious.

I’m not the only person who feels this way.  These short, humourous science-fiction novels have brought so much joy to readers that they hold them close to their hearts in the way that only a genuinely funny, insightful author could achieve.  The bittersweet tone of the last two books in particular establishes Adams as a writer with great heart.

So what the hell is this Towel Day all about?

It’s a simple commemoration of the author, who was not only a great writer, but a proponent of environmental protection, technological innovation, as well as a respectful (and erudite) atheist.  Adams died suddenly twelve years ago to widespread grief.   The simple towel, as described above, is as good a mascot as any for his commemoration – not to mention that Adams would no doubt love the silliness of knowing that thousands, maybe millions of people around the world are all walking around with towels…

The dedication is huge.  The official Facebook page has some great stories and photos of people across the globe who are celebrating Adam’s life and work in this uniquely peculiar way:

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chile

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scrabble

Thumbing for spacecraft (https://www.facebook.com/towelday)

 

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kurdistan iraq

Wearing your towel for protection against solar radiation, in Kurdistan, Iraq (https://www.facebook.com/towelday)

 

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texas 2

Texas – With these towels they do wed! (www.facebook.com/towelday)

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This hoopy frood from Texas already has a ride (www.facebook.com/towelday)

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israel

The answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, from Israel (www.facebook.com/towelday)

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This couple has found the Answer (www.facebook.com/towelday)

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star wars

May 25th is also a Star Wars anniversary, so there are plenty of weird franchise-mixes going on … Stormtroopers celebrate (www.facebook.com/towelday)

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argentina

Group celebrations in Argentina (www.facebook.com/towelday)

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6WiQp6T

A towel as a cape in India (http://imgur.com/6WiQp6T)

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astronauts

Get this – astronauts on the International Space Station know where their towels are! (twitter.com/AstroSamantha)

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Most of these amazing photos are pilfered from the Facebook page, which I expect will keep running each year.  You can also read about the massive support worldwide at the official site.

There are also numerous shots of pets with their towels, so it’s great to see our quadrupedal planetary co-inhabitants joining in the fun (no dolphins yet though).

I also happened to come across this restaurant whilst taking a walk in Leeds yesterday, so I just had to take a photo:

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The 42 restaurant and bar in Leeds, England

A restaurant and bar, prominent at no.42 on a street in Leeds, England

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Why do I care about all this?

Not because I have an interest in towels, or even for the basic pleasures of supporting a much-admired writer and activist.

It’s partly because Adams suffered from crippling low confidence (not to mention writer’s block), as many of us do, but mainly because his books have always managed to make me laught out loud, even on my darkest days.

No other writer else has been able to do that before or since.

—db

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End of the world

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It is night.  Roving light in red and green filters through the cracks in my bedroom curtains, making me stir.  The colours play over my eyelids; I turn, semi-conscious, onto my side and feel my sweat-soaked hair cool and wet against my forehead.

I open my eyes.

For a long moment my brain works to interpret the play of prismatic light that pierces the humid darkness.  It can’t work it out: what could be green, shining through my curtains, and what could be red, in the middle of the night…?

First my right leg, then my left swings out from under the duvet.  My hypersensitive feet touch the gnarl of the old carpet; I flex my toes.  Then, walking towards the window with rainbow hues dancing an aurora on my bare chest, I breathe deeply with a twitch of anxiety between my lungs.

I open the curtains.  I feel my eyes strain in their sockets.  On the other side of the grimy glass the back garden is illuminated like a surrealist’s mixing palette: a low forest of herbs, the rough corners of a boundary hedge, and a garden shed with windows reflecting the celestial drama high above:

The sky is full of light and colour.  Where usually I would see only a smattering of pale, twinkling stars, I see now an immense array of pinks and greens, swirling across the heavens in thick gaseous swathes.  A centrepiece is the moon, but it is broken: shattered into a genuine crescent with splinters of pale rock still lingering in the primary orb’s diminished gravity. 

Dominating the sky is a half-risen planet, its diameter spanning the width of the horizon, a purplish-brown bloated monster.  It looms, surrounded by wisps of galactic mist and those meteoroids unfortunate enough to get caught in its massive fields yet lucky enough to survive, locked in endless complicated orbits.  Diaphanous swipes of frozen space-ice form broken rings around this fearsome dome, with stars shining through the thinner ribbons from behind.   This planet seems close enough to reach out and touch.

All around, broken pieces of shattered asteroids and distant moons plummet through the atmosphere.  They burn with low, scraping rumbles, the sound of massive engines.  As the scorched segments break up in the intense crucible of light and heat they flare up suddenly in blinding displays of orange and white.

It is the end of the world.  The universe has slipped into a jumbled chaos, drawn into itself, and the effects of this cataclysm are evident in the unravelling atmosphere of Earth that disappears from the stratosphere into cold space, letting in the biting teeth of frozen vacuum.   

I see all this from my bedroom window, and observe the microscopic fragments of human civilization rushing upward through the sucking tear in the atmosphere. 

The devastation sweeps closer, and the gargantuan planet grows larger as though on a collision course with our barely significant planet, and all is dwarfed by its relentless approach: heat and colour and the bass trembling of objects much larger than I colliding in boundless space.

So what has me thinking about fear this week? 

Is it because a few nights of heavy sleeping have brought on nightmares, in which fear is unconquerable; or that because there are going to be some big changes and challenges in my life over the next year?

I’ve always taken a certain approach toward fear: tackle it head-on.  All those years of kid’s fiction, comic books and video games have taught me something.  Run away from fear and you’ll be running forever, but kick it in the nuts and you’re gold.

It’s not always easy, obviously. 

          pho-bi-a

          noun

          a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it.

If you could talk yourself out of it, you wouldn’t be afraid.  But fear is one of the biggest obstacles to happiness: fear of the unknown, fear of the future, fear of what people will think of us, fear of failure.  These fears stop us from having new experiences, discovering new places and new parts of ourselves, and worst of all, from trying.

I have never blamed a person for being afraid of anything.  But I lose patience with a person who doesn’t try to master their fear.  Successful or not, that is a respectable thing.  It is the definition of bravery. 

Case in point.  My girlfriend has everything going for her: she is beautiful, brainy, stylish and ambitious.  And yet, if a house spider materialises in the middle of the lounge, she freezes up.  Her fear is literally paralysing. 

Some people aren’t afraid of spiders.  I can’t say I’m entirely comfortable with them myself, but I can snatch one up in a piece of kitchen roll if I have to and wash it down the sink if I have to. 

Nasty murderous giant that I am. 

There’ve been enough studies into why we have this irrational fear of such harmless, tiny things.  I presume most people agree that it’s an evolutionary throwback to when we were apes wandering through the lush forests of our deep past.  Those curious chimps who dared poke a venomous spider may not have survived to breed; those sensible or fortunate enough to stay away passed on some genetic predisposition toward creepy crawlies and this fear allowed the survival of their DNA to present day.

But we’re smarter than chimps (albeit marginally, natch) – so why can’t our rational minds defeat the notion that this spindly thing skittering against the side of the bath is something to be terrified of?

Fair enough, I live in the UK, comfortably far away from black widows, redbacks and camel spiders.  I’ve little to be afraid of (although there are a good dozen species in the UK capable of painful, poisonous bites). 

I can live with the little creatures if I have to, and my relatively shallow fear means that I can tackle them without acts of great bravery.  And yet to my girlfriend, whose fear is close to absolute, successfully capturing and releasing a spidery is supremely brave.   And capture it she did, setting the little blighter free in the driving rain of our front yard.

To her, the spider was two feet wide, with slashing palps and mandibles dripping with toxic venom, its bloated abdomen bristling with hair.  It was capable of leaping onto her face.  It was capable of 0-30 mph in about a second.  And it was most definitely a sadistic, predatory monster that would have taken great joy in sinking its fangs into her vulnerable flesh.

Fighting that takes bravery.  It has prompted me to tackle the fears, and to ask you to tackle yours.

Face them head on, don’t let them have any power over you, and post your success stories (however small) here on this board for your Bravery Points.

—dbx

My nan’s house

This week I had the unpleasant duty of clearing out my nan’s old house. 

Muriel died around 2007, having outlived her husband for nearly ten years, and left behind a small but sturdy house in Sprotbrough near Doncaster.  I was there to help lift some white goods out of the empty house now that it’s finally found a buyer.  Years of waiting through the recession had left the place faded, dry and lifeless.  No presence of my maternal grandmother remained, even in the few remaining possessions that littered the place.

The carpet of the hallway was worn thin and made filthy by muddy boots.  I was shocked from seeing the hall so dirty after years spotlessness.  The little kitchen was lined with brittle-looking cupboards, old fashioned surfaces.  The only gleam came from the murky water on the floor, no doubt spilled from the recently disconnected washing machine.  The lounge was not empty, but it was not the place of rest and comfort that I remembered it to be.  Two bedrooms felt totally unoccupied, barren, and like all the rooms, too small.

I helped our fine removal guy (www.andysvan.com, 07917011765) haul the white goods, wardrobes and bedside tables into his van.  There was a writing bureau, probably as old as the plot the place was built on, filled with dried-out biros and papers crisp with dead yellow Selotape.  We did this as quickly as possible.  I wanted to get away so that visions of the house didn’t make it to my long-term memory. 

I needed to remember the house as I used to.  Years ago, following nan’s death, I wrote some notes on the place so that I wouldn’t forget.  I intended to compose a poem.  The note is lost now, or maybe trapped in a scrapbook I keep full of random fiction ideas, clippings and mnemonics.  But I remember how it felt to be in that house back when it used to be a home.

The first thing to strike a child was the hallway chandelier.  It wasn’t the grand construction you might think of when you hear ‘chandelier’, but a narrow ‘lampshade’ made of strips of plastic jewels.  To a child they looked like diamonds, and I routinely stole two or three of the refractive gemstones to marvel over at home.

The kitchen had a deep larder choc-a-bloc with cereals (Scots Oats), fruit cordial (lemon and barley, orange or lime) and endless tins of fruit which in the 40s would have been a luxury.  There were Kit Kats by the dozens, and tins of butter biscuits and ancient fruit cake.  From here we would make tea to drink out of china cups and sample these snacks from a gleaming three-tier caddy.

Across the hall would be the lounge, where books in leather were protected within glass cabinets.  A plastic banzai tree in a tray of polished stones was a wonder I still can’t shake.  The TV was in a cabinet, attached to an electronic magnifying device for reading the newspaper.  There would be a cassette player with one or two books on tape nearby – Agatha Christies or other harmless thrillers.  The mantelpiece had photos of my mother and uncle, my sister’s graduation snap, and three wooden gazelles of ascending size beside a chromed mantle clock.

My brother and I would routinely annoy the household by touching the speaking clock beside the turntable in the corner.  BING!  The time … is … three … twenty … three … pee em.

Upstairs was a forbidden place, with bedrooms concealed by closed doors.  A few sneaky trips revealed the plush master bed (which shamed the narrow flat spare bed in the second room).  Cupboards and cabinets, shelves with books on native wildlife or painting.  The carpets were think, pinkish, well-kept.  Curtains had a faint perfumed smell.  A light catching mobile in front of the front-facing window, when illuminated by the sun, cast colours that my near-blind nan could see.

Even the bathroom holds distinct memories.  I’d never been in a carpeted bathroom before, which seemed luxurious (if slightly insanitary).  One week I spent a night or two in that house, jealous of my sister who’d had the same privilege, and in the morning felt the carpet with my bare feet.  It wasn’t cold tile or mat.  As a boy pees, he can see a porcelain heart hanging on the wall to his right, filled with potpourri.  To his left, a gleaming bath and mirrored medicine cabinet, and a modern wonder: a two-sized shaving mirror on a scissored extending arm.  What is it for?  It’s a marvel of engineering!

The morning of my first sleepover I had porridge for breakfast.  Scots Oats ain’t Ready Brek.  And jam should not come in an apricot flavour.  What is this?  These people are strange.  Granddad takes a pin to his thumb to check his insulin levels.  Nannan cleans the place, and looks out at the garden with its sloping lawn, potted plants, and sycamore tree that casts its beautiful spinning pods across the lawn.

Granddad calls them “spinning jennies”.  Nannan has names for the blackbirds that pluck worms from the dewy lawn: Henry and Henrietta, who entertain us through the peaceful morning.  We leave the house to take a walk along the canal.  Back then I missed home.  Now I miss my nan’s house.

— db

I experienced a sense-memory this morning.

They aren’t unusual.  I won’t be the first person of a creative bent to marvel at the power contained in a single minute smell or sound.  Like the strength of a déjà vu – probably caused by something as mundate as a random transmission error between eye and brain, or misfiring synapse – these tiny things can trigger sudden expected responses.  Is it mundane?  Or is it amazing?

I was in the train station at Sheffield, where I catch a train most mornings to work in Leeds about an hour’s commute away.  Like most stations, it’s as much outdoors as in: everywhere you look you can see trees and grass banks through the pillars down the length of every platform, or stone walls built a few hundred years ago, or snatches of grey sky.

The trigger for the memory, I think, was earth.  Maybe a fleck of half-dried mud on someone’s boot, or a pile of mushy loam brought in from the rain outside.  For just a second that rich smell mingled with something else – maybe the wet, cool air, or a particular pattern of pressure across my face from the breeze.

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Twelve or fifteen years ago, my Dad took me fishing.  I think it was on the River Wye.  If I have the right river, the source of the bubbling water running beneath those overarching trees was about 150 miles away in Wales.  Dad was part of a club, or friend-of-a-friend to some Duke or other, who controlled fishing rights of the water.  Anyone else would have been poaching those trout.

We trudged maybe half a mile from the van to the riverbank.  In those days it will have been an NDT van – the company Dad worked for testing metal.  The white van had no seats in the back, but a working space big enough for tools and equipment.  My brother and I would sit on fold-down shelves, facing inward and bickering or joking, strapped to the inner chassis by black seatbelts and unable to turn away from each other.

The road to the river was muddy; it had recently rained.  Birds twittered in the trees around us.  At the river, which curved at either side, I examined the different fishing lures we’d brought with us: tufty red ones, tufty brown ones.  They were designed, Dad said, to look like flies so that the fish would try to eat them.

The rod seemed a work of art.  The pole was polished to a chestnut hue but made by Dad himself from, I reckon, split bamboo.  According to Wikipedia:

“Split bamboo rods are generally considered the most beautiful, the most ‘classic’, and are also generally the most fragile of the styles, and they require a great deal of care to last well.”

The handle I remember was cork – because it absorbed the sweat from the fisherman’s hands.  It squeaked as he slotted it onto the bottom of the pole.  The line, fed as everyone knows through the wheel on the rod, felt like nylon but may, knowing my Dad a little better now, have been varnished silk. 

The reel made a unique chattering sound that I’ve never heard since.  To turn it by its tiny handle, Dad had to make a delicate pinching gesture with his hand.

There was some teaching of technique that involved slow sweeps, a flicking of the wrist.  The line is almost invisible.  The ‘fly’ lands on the surface of the water.  Underneath is brown silt and smooth stones, mostly obscured by light reflecting off the surface.  The fly makes ripples, the line does not. 

We wait.

I don’t know if he thought I might be bored.  It was very peaceful.  Probably once or twice we heard someone walking a dog on the other side of the trees and bushes, but if there was any real disturbance I don’t remember it.

Dad drew in the line.  He’ll try another spot.

We wait.

Maybe it was here that he told me that he made the rod himself.  I’m amazed by this.  He said that he’ll make me one, too.  A shorter one.  I say yes please.  Because I don’t ever mention it again, the rod never got made.  I don’t mind this.

No fish.

Maybe we tried another lure. 

I had a go with the rod.  It was harder to balance that I imagined, probably twice as long as I was tall.  I flicked the rod back.  The line got caught in a tree, like in a Goofy cartoon.  Dad took back the rod and retrieved the line.

Later we landed a trout.  It wasn’t large.  I looked at its glistening scales and weird translucent mouthparts.  It gasped with the hook lodged in its face.

I asked if it hurts.  The answer wasno.

I asked how come?

Maybe I learned then, or learned years later, that there are no pain receptors in a fish’s mouth – or if there are, the fish isn’t capable of processing that kind of pain.  I’m not sure if this is the case.  I looked it up online.  See what this internet wanker has to say on the matter:

“i never had one complain when i am getting the hook out. next time i have one in the boat i will be sure to ask it. but why would you ask this? … it really don’t mater because we are on top of the food chain and there are some things you just have to over look … if you worry about these kinds of thing than you are not going to eat much.”

Still, whether or not the fish feels pain they soon appear to forget about it and carry on feeding.  We threw the trout back and it disappeared with a flick of its tail.

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My train arrived at 07:47 and departed at 07:51, direct from Sheffield to Leeds.

— db

December now.  Can’t avoid Christmas.

Staff at T K Maxx yesterday:

“I’m fucking sick of these wank Christmas songs, I want to kill myself”.

A hundred outlets called “XMAS £1 SHOP” already packed with people buying:

  • Extra thin wrapping paper
  • Degradable stockings made of pressed felt
  • As many tiny sparkly reindeer you can shake a candy cane at

The rest of us try to shoulder down the high street without getting press-ganged by righteous charity collectors or buskers.

Seriously, who plays an acoustic version of “Mad World” at Christmas?  It’s only the most depressing song of all time.

With the exception of everything written by David Gray in his entire career.

I don’t mind Christmas.  I like the trimmings and firelight reflected in tinsel and foil, the promise of snowfall and carollers and warm nights in when the nights are cold out.

It makes me think of school.  Baby school.  Normally you’re home by four o’clock at that age.  In winter it’s already getting dark.  A week before Christmas Day you’re with all your friends at school (during night time!?) putting together your costumes for the dress rehearsal of the Nativity play. 

It was strange, being in school when it was dark.  You see your own reflection in the window, behind which is the blackest night.  Inside the room, teachers are supervising the use of blunt scissors and PVA glue.  I remember glitter everywhere.  Did we have to make our own costumes? 

Miss I broke the elastic on my mask.

Miss I need a wee.

Miss Tommy just farted.

Miss I glued my nose shut.

Laughing.  Some nervous silences, sometimes.  A coincidence of sound when conversations come to a natural end but all at the same unnatural interval.  You remember why you’re there.  You’re going out on stage.

On the night it’s even worse.  Mums and Dads are there.  I vaguely recall not being able to find Daddy in the audience one year.  Fluffed my lines looking when I should have been concentrating.  Then as I walked off stage after the performance he was there in an isle seat, surprisingly me with a big moustachioed smile.

Some Dads still had moustaches then.

Usually in the plays I was a narrator.  You always knew what parts everybody would get.  There were outgoing, good-looking kids who would get the lead roles every year.  You learn at an early age what you really need to get ahead in life.  Usually it’s the same kids who spend half their playtimes in detention making an early start on their homework.  Where’s the fairness in that!?  Come on, teacher!

The bookish kid in the massive owlish glasses gets to be narrator every year.  I kind of liked it anyway. 

It’s funny that now, I work in a job that requires me to type up meeting minutes every now and again, as the main players go about the real work.

I’m still the fucking narrator!  But … I kind of like it anyway.

 

Christmas is about a great big tree with mismatching baubles and little chocolate ornaments that disappear after Day 2.  It’s about seeing members of your family you don’t get to talk to very often.  Bring out the comfy chair for grandma.  Tot of sherry?  It’s about people handing presents to each other in a melee of good will.  Arms crossing over, cups of tea going around.  Doesn’t matter if you had to ask what they wanted beforehand. 

It’s about Christmas fucking dinner.  You know it.  Oh god, we love Christmas dinner.  It’s Sunday Roast Plus.  It’s three types of meat AND those little sausages wrapped in bacon.  Cranberry sauce and stuffing.  Gravy smooth like caramel.  Christmas crackers banging all over the place.

Sleepy afternoons.  Gathering scraps of paper, plastic packaging, twisty ties off the carpet and stuffing them into carrier bags to throw out.  Boxing day with nothing to do.  Go for a watch.  Watch one of those new DVDs.  Eat hot leftovers. 

Maybe it’ll snow?

—db, 2nd December 2011

The 2-Step Kerfuffle

People moan about moving house, as though it’s some huge terrible chore something like a nightmare.

I don’t know why.  I think moving house is great.  And although I’ve only ever had a flat’s worth of stuff, rather than a massive semi-detached-plus-garage’s worth, it’s still pretty easily distilled into two steps.

1) Find a new place to live.

2) Get all your stuff from your old place to your new place.

Easy!

But seriously, I like all the endless searching (don’t you always see places of your hometown you never knew existed), the awkward meet-your-neighbouring (I found out that I live opposite novelist Marina Lewycka the other day) and those first few days sitting on your new settee, eating takeaway food surrounded by higgle-piggle towers of cardboard boxes.

Although my new place currently has a notable cat deficiency, I’ve still enjoyed warming it up and getting things straight.

Mainly this is because it appeals to my OCD side.

Naturally the following will probably be offensive to those with actual OCD, so to keep those guys distracted I’ll just say this: how people people used your bar of soap BEFORE YOU DID this morning!?

Whilst they’re hyperventilating somewhere, I can explain that what I have isn’t a disorder, obviously – It’s just nerdism.  I like to organise things.  I like to arrange them in ways that please some weird, weird part of me.

Books.  People who know me know that I have a lot of books.  I require a large amount of bookcases to house them and unloading boxes of books onto said bookcases makes me stupidly happy.  I organise them into a way that makes regulated sense out of the chaos of size, shape and colour that a bookcase may potentially be.  By author: naturally.  But what about the large editions of new books?  THEY STICK UP COMPARED TO THE OTHER ONES.  I don’t like this.  What about the hardbacks?  They’re deeper than the mass-market paperback ones!  THEY STICK OUT OVER THE EDGE!  I don’t like this.  The stygian interplay of shadow and perspective.  The SHEER UNTIDINESS OF IT.

So tall ones go together.  Short ones go together.  Deep ones go together.  What if this separates some books by a particular author from his others?  THIS CANNOT BE.  So I have to be inventive.  Okay, maybe they won’t run in chronological publishing order from left to right.  But at least the tall deep ones are at the left and the little ones are in the middle.  Then someone else can fill up the other side in a symmetrical, mathematical pattern that calms the nagging neatfreak within me.

This is a particular problem with some authors, say P. K. Dick, whose fiction is slowly going out of print and whose old third-hand Amazon editions are notoriously difficult to collate into a reasonable approximation of order.

Colour is important.  I don’t want my shelf to go black-orange-white-pink-blue-green-black-brown-white-white-grey.  I want it to go pink-white-white-white-grey-blue-green-brown-black.  A smooth Crayola regulation. It just makes sense.

I also don’t want my trashy Stephen Kings in with my literary J G Ballards.  So they are separated, thank-you both, and rearranged thematically so at least the China Mievilles and Jeff Vandermeers go together, and the Frank Herberts and Isaac Asimovs have a shelf of their own.  Woe betide the popular Richard & Judy bookclub trash that weedles its way inbetween the poets and the best of the non-fiction.  BE GONE WITH YOU, resigned to the narrow shelf two up from bottom, which is practically invisible when you look down at it from a lofty, judgemental 5-foot-11.

Why do I let myself do this?  Because I enjoy it.  Do I like it when somebody picks up a book, takes a look at it, and then puts it back on the shelf SIDEWAYS ON TOP OF THE OTHER BOOKS?  Not really.  I’ll put it in its proper place when they leave, or when they recover from that mysterious and sudden blunt-force head trauma.

People like to call these little quirks of theirs OCD, like organising your DVDs by director – but it isn’t.  It’s just basic nerdiness and those people should just admit it and embrace it.

It feels good.  Mmm.  Like warm PJs fresh from the drier.

So anyway.  This is one of the reasons why I like moving house.

— db

I walk through town, I think about things.

I think about how quickly a city can fill with people.  I wonder what it would be like to live in the city centre, with all these people.

I buy freshly baked warm bread and sit on a stone bench.  Although the sun is out, the centre is always in shade except around noon: the buildings have crisscrossing shadows that mean it is always cold in the morning.  Sitting on the stone bench for too long eventually gets painful.

I eat my bread and throw crumbs at the pigeons.  I wonder if it’s really illegal to feed pigeons in Sheffield city centre.  I imagine that this is because some arse at City Hall got fed up of having his car shat on, and for no other reason.  There is a simple pleasure that comes with providing food for another living thing.

I like about fiction.

My story KASHKEI AND THE FIREBIRD, AT PEACE, one of the thirty stories I wrote during my 2010 November Challenge, was this month published by Mirror Dance magazine, a prestigious publication I’ve wanted to get into for a while.

Another story, THE TRANSDIMENTIONALIST, was picked up by Estronomicon to be printed some time this month or next.  This is a kind of successor to BLEACH, printed in Aphelion back in 2008.

Sitting on the bench, I realise that I’ve neglected to update the website with these.  This is now corrected.

I think, ‘What if I had my own fiction magazine?  Could I edit it?  Would I have the time?  Would people want to read it?  Would I be able to get enough people to contribute to it?  What kind of fiction would it showcase?  What kind of writers?  Would it have illustrations?  Would I showcase artists?  Who would make awesome covers for me?  How do you go about publishing an e-zine?  How much would it cost?  Would I be able to advertise so that I could pay my writers?’

I think I’ll give it a go.

If you’re a writer, reviewer of literature or artist, get in touch.

–db

Through the mists that move in slow tides around the mountains, the Nian descends upon the village.

This is ancient China.  The village is small, bordered by rice paddies and low fences that encapsulate the slow-grazing herds upon which the villagers rely.

The Nian is a horned beast, nubs of smooth bone protruding from a shaggy knotted mane.  Its teeth and tusks are striated yellow; its breath reeks of the furnace in its belly where a cocktail of acids has been eroding its stomach walls.  It is ravenous.

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We step out of the hotel room onto rain-browned pavements.  Umbrellas bob up and down behind rows of parked cars or crawling buses.  We head up Portland Street, then turn down Princess Street towards the town hall.

This is modern Manchester: cosmopolitan, restless, crowded.  It is January 6th 2011, the first Sunday after the Chinese New Year.  It is the day of the festival.

At first the crowds are thin – normal weekend crowds.  But from this direction the square in front of the town hall is hidden by the city library; turning the corner, we see dense groups of people, young and old, piled against the barriers erected in front of the hall’s entrance, around another specially-prepared stage, and clotted in front of the row of stalls selling steaming food and nick-nacks.

The air smells like spring onions.  In another direction, the wind erases all scents and the air is only cold, but clear.  Lanterns, in red, are strung above our heads.

Everyone awaits the dragon.

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This is ancient China, the stalking ground of the Nian.  It is not the colourful creature of today’s parades; it is an animal, thick with the stink of matted belly hair and claws sheathed in ages-old dried blood.

It strikes down like lightning, taking up a goat, scattering chickens.  Feathers only partly muffle the strangled bleating.  Wooden doors slam open against huts as the villagers become aware of the beast’s resurgence.  They can smell its arrival in the still, damp air.  Its low growl turns over in the mist like a thunderhead, rolls away, rolls away.

There are children planting rice in the waterlogged fields.  The dead goat lies uneaten in the muddy thoroughfare.

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This is modern Manchester, where the rampage of a 175-foot dragon is curbed by the use of a hypnotic sceptre.  It is hard for us to see the dozens of men and women supporting the undulating body of the grinning dragon, but we can spot the tag-team method they use to replace tired puppeteers with eager, rested ones.

A gong beats rhythmically amongst the booming of drums.  There is no melody, only rhythm.

To the pulse of the drums the dragon is lured away, out of the fenced arena, out of the square, to shimmer down street after crowded street with its entourage of costumed associates.

In its wake, dancing lions make a cheerful chase in front of the crowd, ringing bells and shaking their ribbons, blinking lazily like idiot courtiers.

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This is ancient China, where the Nian steals away a screaming child, screaming child, silent child, and distantly a family mourns.

The village, through experience, has grown used to the Springtime visits of the monster – here the Springtime comes in the first month of the year.  But there is sometimes no stopping its vengeful, hunger-driven attacks on the children of the village.

Night falls.  The villagers await its return, but they are prepared.  When next it arrives, galloping down the slopes of the mountain under a milky moon, they have made it small in their minds and hearts.

Through the sudden application of gong and firecracker, they drive the beast back.  It is also, they have discovered, afraid of the colour red.  The hue of blood ripples in the cool night-wind, a wave farewell to the fearful thing.  But even as it bellows and lurches away, they toss food to pacify it.

They know that it will be back next year.

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We are moving towards the narrow grid of streets that is Modern Manchester’s China Town, proudly organised behind its impressive Ming-style arch in concentric squares around its open centre.

It has growing dark.  It’s too easy to get crushed in the barely-moving crowds.  Pressed in on all sides, we try to glimpse the wares in each of the stalls that line every street: red lanterns, red ribbons, lucky coins strung together with red, red, red.  One of us buys a charm, the other a painted gourd.  We both have tiny paper dragons.

Where the congestion is worst, we see signs of activity and good humour.  Two figures in rounded demon heads are running in and out of doorways; they dance within the restaurants and shops of China Town until they are pelted with bits of cabbage or beans.  The two Nians twist away, perturbed but bobbing smoothly in the doorways, and find another place to invade.

This is the evolution of the legend.  It is believed, I’m told, that the Nians still exist.  Unseen by man (the firecrackers, the gongs, the colour red were all too successful in driving it into hiding), they prowl the fog-laced mountains.  Some live under the sea, water-dragons subsisting on fish or clumps of seaweed.

Above China Town, the sky explodes with light and colour.

This is a new year.

— db

Parade About Town

I have already pointed out some of the highlights and lowpoints of Sheffield.  Like pretty much any other city in the world, it has its contrasts.  It isn’t without its attractions however, many of which come clustered in the summer season when we expect it to rain, but only does most of the time.

The “Lord Mayor of Sheffield Day” this month began with a parade from the Peace Gardens.  The Gardens were built as part of Sheffield’s ‘Heart of the City’ project apparently in the 1930s, but only officially given the Peace Gardens moniker The Year of Our Lord 1985, when this constructor of painful sentences was born.

Parade in Blue

OOM-pah OOM-pah OOM-pah (etc)

The parade begins with the arrival of a marching brass band.  It’s the police – with trumpets.  They all look rather pleased to be out and about, dressed in their finest.  Instruments glinting in the rare sunshine.  Cheeks pink and lacey with veins.  The bompah-bompah-bompah sounds vaguely familiar.  Competant at least, right up until their arrival at the Gardens, where classes from something like thirty schools are waiting in costume.

Each school class has been designated a country, and together they represent a united world.  Somehow they all manage to avoid cringeworthy stereotyping – it would only spoil the mood if the Krauts showed up as lederhosen-wearing bratwurst-munchers and pissed off half the city’s European visitors.  Their interpretations are occasionally rather inventive, and manage to accommodate recognisable traits whilst side-stepping any serious cariactures.

Parade - Brazil

"What's that, Crow?  Eat a banana!?"

Hanuman approves of your celebratory attitude

There are numerous floats and puppets.  The first to turn the corner is a giant pinwheel crow-bird, which follows the procession as it swoops down West Street.  Later, when the bands start playing at Devonshire Square, this crow will hover and do some muppet-style dancing with its wings.  A few constructions even more giant, though faintly bewildering in the mounting summer heat.

A giant marionnette of an Indian god moves through the crowd on a wheeled platform. His arms and legs move via a system of pulleys.  His head turns and his mouth opens and closes. His blue-faced shepherd produces lilting, playing music from his clarinet.

I realise with a grin that the familiar tune coming from the police brass band is the Police Academy theme tune.

Pinwheel Crow

King of Borg Represents No Particular Country

Eventually the tuneful procession makes its way to Devonshire Square, and continues with live music and festivities into the baking afternoon.  Hundreds of people have gathered in this green arena, where there are stalls and activities for the kids.  Make a wicker fish on a rod.  Paint your face.  Buy buns and eat them.

The bands play some choice tracks from the original motown and funk era.  A soulful sister belts out ‘Preacher Man’.  A guy who sings fit to burst in the style of James Brown kicks it with some Marvin Gaye.  There are some seriously good acts providing, admittedly, mainly cover tracks, but they are local and they are not, thank fuck, the Arctic Monkeys.

The sun makes us take a layer off.  The afternoon wears on, turning.

Mayor of Sheffield (and wife/consort/mistress)

Parade - Band

Dancing Man danced like a hopped up Kermit

Do you like fishsticks?  Do you like to put them in your mouth?

There is a Fruit Cow.  Note the strawberry nipples on the udder.  She is rather marvellous.  There are a man and woman on stilts, striding through the crowd.  The woman in a salsa dress smiles and chats with the youngsters ten feet south.  The man stalks after children with a long-limbed stride,  Jack Skellington and Timothy Mouse with a human face.  When he dances, he’s actually rather good.

Stiltwalkers

Fruit Cow - See Her Marvellous Strawberry Udders!

I find my attention returning again and again to the Indian marionette.  The mighty Hanuman has two blue-faced operators. The lady wears white tights covered in butterflies.  At the moment he stands tall and revered in the rippling shadow of a tree, open-mouthed.  One of the operators and the eat apples.  Fruit Cow is distracted by something to the east.

Mighty Hanuman

An apple a day keeps devaloka at bay

It is easy to get distracted here, with children running around your feet near the thumping stage.  Dance acts are intermittently enthralling and embarassing.  Rap artists try too hard, as a row of children watch the skaters performing basic ollies in the half-pipe behind the stage.

Turning, Hanuman has travelled.  He is up on the paved path by the festivities, moving slowly and deliberately on his wheeled platform.  Occasionally the shepherd’s clarinet produces tunes that match the cover songs drifting up from the stage speakers.  He is fond of approaching kids and tootling off a few slow, quiet notes. Hanuman will approach the children with patient grace. His dancing and tinkling bells delight them greatly.  He floats high above the ground, sceptor balanced on one shoulder.

The blue patterned material of his legs part to reveal the intricate workings of his insides, a wire-frame god with bells in his knees.  A toddler reaches in, taps the bell, runs away giggling.  Hanuman, hollow, paper-thin, inanimate, is still an impressive eight or nine feet tall.  Another child takes a picture.

Hanuman Shepherd

Hanuman Controllers

Hanuman's platform

How many gods do you know have bells in their knees?

A girl takes a picture of Hanuman, then runs to hide behind her parents' legs

Delighting the ladies

It makes me wonder if the city has a spiritual side.  The cathedral is always empty, but there are cliques of Jews that sometimes can be seen laughing behind curls and beards on the benches around town.  There are rumours of underground extremist Muslim groups operating aruond the university.  I happen to know that there are weekly tea mornings in many of the smaller, more select churches dotted around the city.

So there is faith in this town.  But faith can be dry and more like a tradition, expected by family or community rather than adopted by those who want or need it.  Spirituality is the word.  Is there spirituality here, or are we a grey urban settlement filled with bodies rather than a crucible of desire and faith?  I would be interested to hear any thoughts and news of events around town this year.

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Parade

This costumed dude had to walk around with someone holding his hands.  He threw out some hot moves to the rap guys later on, though!

Parade - Jazzman

Parade

Parade

Parade