All the things I remember from GCSE English

“‘Above all, these poems are preoccupied with loss.’ To what extent do you agree with this view of Wilfred Owen’s poems?”

Of course they’re preoccupied with loss. They’re about world war bloody one, and the misery of the humans involved, and the scale and magnitude of half a decade of desperation and confusion, when the old order toppled leaving nothing in its place but the industrialisation of death – it is all loss. I cannot answer your question. I cannot breathe for all that blood and gas. I cannot demean that world or its desperate literature by farting out essays of my own.

Nor can I tell you about George and Lennie, plucked from Of Mice and Men thanks solely to its brevity. Their slim lives spelled out a world so foreign to me that I have no hope of commenting on Steinbeck’s use of imagery and metaphor because I cannot get the girl in the red dress out of my head, nor stop the shudders from those clumsy, oblivious hands.

I remember Simon Armitage burning a girl’s hand, the 6 o’clock news in a Scottish accent, and I have the vaguest sense of a poem about race, whose title, I think, has now been censured, and erased from modern vocabulary.

I remember not reading Macbeth, just the summary plots notes at the top of each page, and feeling uncomfortable at our teacher’s attempts to make Romeo and Juliet relevant by highlighting all the references to sex, in a class whose own tender sexuality was already producing enough poems and crude jokes by itself.

I remember being asked why I didn’t participate, and what I was reading behind my text book, and did I think that was appropriate for my age. And I remember thinking, none of this is appropriate, it is brutal.

Your demands are a betrayal of all the characters that support me, and the lines and plots that sing inside me and I cannot answer your question on loss because my loss would be too great. The words are too real, too precious to me, but yet could bare none of your artificial scrutiny, because in this hollowed out war of a world, with its adult themes of work and sex and death blowing in from every corner – they are all that supports me.

And I remember reading, many years later, that there are moments in reading where a hand reaches out and takes yours. And then, bound across the ages, we reach out together and stick two fingers to your question.

1001 albums you must hear before you die (Second edition)

“What did you get for your birthday then?”
“Oh, you know, the usual. Some bath stuff, a CD or two and a couple of bits for the kitchen. Oh, and a book.”

Dear Auntie Jane,
Thank you very much for your kind gift, 1001 albums you must hear before you die. It really is an excellent book. As I’m sure you’re aware, I love music and this book will no doubt help me explore that interest further, with the added encouragement of it setting a deadline.

I have begun at once with Adam and the Ants’ Prince Charming – after all there is no time to lose, as the potted biographies of John Lennon (Imagine, #475), Freddie Mercury (A Night at the Opera, #786) and Kurt Cobain (Nevermind, #613) so gently remind me.

I note with interest that this is the second edition of 1001 albums you must hear before you die. I hope I have not wasted precious time by listening to a record that is no longer an essential auditory experience. I have used the book voucher Auntie Chris so kindly sent to buy the first edition. I will double-check and let you know.

Sorry to hear you are still in hospital. I wish you a full recovery, but if not, don’t forget to listen to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust before too much longer. I am told it’s excellent.
Your loving niece.

Subconscious credit due to Finnemore for that deadline gag, I think.
Oh, and the people in question are made up in my head.

A hand has come out and taken yours

I wrote someone a letter today. An electronic one, obviously. And that reminded me of a moment – must have been a couple of years ago – when just for a second, the world caved in.

The letter was about depression. Something I have had in a number of guises and severity levels, and something which I generally live with today, unbothered except for a few dark hours. Though aware that it could change at any moment.

I don’t know the person at all who I wrote to, beyond a few basic facts about her life, and that we share a few common interests. One of those interests is BBC quiz shows and we chat sometimes about their interconnected hosts and guests. Victoria Coren (Mitchell), for example.

As I wrote to – let’s call her Julia – I recalled something Victoria Coren wrote in the Observer a few years back. It’s to do, slightly, with depression and it completely took the wind out of me. Here it is:

“Should I wait until I stop waking up in the night in tears for everything I might be screwing up in my own life, holding on to heartfelt faith but doubting my own hopeful actions and inactions, staring my errors and fears and faults and massive life-gambles in the face, praying daily that this risky, bumpy and winding path leads home, before I start judging other people?”

Those words, appearing in stark contrast to the otherwise light-hearted commentary on drugs and the Olympics spoke so instantly and deeply into the state of my own soul, that is, the state of my own wakeful nights, that even though I was in the middle of an office during a busy working day, I simply sat at my monitor and cried. Not just through sadness, but through… recognition?

Now, this blog has lain fallow for a few months, partly due to life taking over, but mostly because I’ve been having far too much fun on Tumblr. Fun laughing and fangirling and -new word coming up- shipping various combinations of fictional people who seem real and real people from whom we’ve extrapolated so much they’ve basically become fiction. I love tumblr, life ruiner though it is.

Shall I tell you who I talk about most? It’s, in no particular order: Stephen Fry; Manic Street Preachers; Victoria Coren/David Mitchell; the BBC in general; Brideshead Revisited; Sherlock; Cabin Pressure; Monty Python… A collection of smart funny people whose public work I enjoy and whose private life I probably pay a bit too much attention to. And writing, music and books.

But, and here’s the point (FINALLY, you all cry), although I collect comedians, it’s not because they’re funny. Funny, I like. But things to knit my soul to… They come in the deeper moments, born when the darkness seems to sparkle. Moments, like the one above, when it feels as someone has been staring right into my very being, and shown me the reflection.

Here’s another one of those moments, which had the same flooring effect, and also makes the point far better than I can. From Alan Bennett’s diaries:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”.

That’s when I fangirl the most. Except in those moments I’m not fangirling or shipping, I’m holding onto something, anything, for dear life because it feels as if someone has simultaneously given me the world and snatched the rug from under my feet.

And, back to depression, it’s these moments that in part – I would not wish to do disservice to the friends, family, faith and prayers that also carry me daily – that get me through. The knowledge that I am not alone, and the wider narrative of their lives which indicates that this black dog is neither all nor everything. A reminder that the sun does come. So when I say ‘I like Victoria Coren’ or ‘Alan Bennett’s a really great writer’, I do mean it, but what I also mean is: thank you.

*klaxon* New hero *klaxon*

Excited, poorly edit post below.

Tommy Flowers was an engineer who worked for Bletchley Park during World War II. Along with people like Alan Turing he was instrumental in developing machines which could decipher German messages.

Previously message deciphering had been done largely by hand, but by WWII the ciphering techniques had become to complicated. Machines were needed, and Flowers invented Colossus, a valve-based semi-programmable computer which was the size of a small room.

His work lead to modern computer science techniques and the very computer you’re reading this on now. He should be famous but because of war time secrecy he was instructed to keep silent. Credit instead goes to post-war developments from America.

After the war Flowers sought a bank loan to redevelop Colossus but was refused because bank mangers didn’t believe that the system could work.

The most bitter-sweet part of the tale comes towards the end of his life. Long-forgotten by computer history, Flowers bought a home PC. He struggled to used it and so enrolled on a college course to learn more. The picture shows his course certificate, proudly displaying that Flowers was now proficient in DBase 3+, Excel and Paint.


Proper hero, Tommy, I love you. And thanks, from the bottom of my laptop.

More info:

Cruel Britannia

I tried to go home today. Back to the UK, I mean. I’d done everything properly. Last week I squeezed my belongings into two battered suitcases and even ventured to clean the oven. I shouldn’t like to leave an untidy flat for the next occupant.

Today, bag in hand and documents in wallet, I left the flat. I checked the post box, and descended the small flight of stairs to street level. The same as any day, except today I was going home.

Because Latvia is in the Eastern European time zone (GMT +2), and a flight from Riga to London takes two hours, it’s possible to make the journey in almost no time at all. If one is lucky it can take all of five earth minutes.

And so it was today. With little more than quiver on my clock, I arrived at the border, the last leg of my journey taking me across a junction, around the corner and past Queen’s – my local, and a pub as traditionally British as any you care to name.

The gate was locked, but in fairness, I hadn’t told them I was coming. Generally when I speak of going home, my fellow countrymen promise they will welcome me in at any time. I expected today to be no different. With cheeks flushed and a smile spreading at the thought of my green and pleasant land, I stood at the gate and rang the bell.

“Yes?” said a voice.
“Hello!” I said. “I’ve come home. Can I come in?”
“Who are you?” said the voice. “What do you want?”
“I want to come in,” I cried. “I’ve spent a year in Latvia and now it’s time to go home.”
“Do you have an appointment?” he crackled through the speaker.
“No, but I’ve got friends here. They said I should come and visit.”

There was a pause, then the electronic lock on the gate gave a clunk. I pushed the weighty frame aside and stepped over the threshold. I beheld not Anglia, but a security guard. The mystery voice.

“Do you have any ID?”

I handed him my driving license, hoping it would suffice as I’d carelessly left my passport in Latvia. The guard surveyed it briefly and asked me to wait. He then disappeared, leaving me trapped in customs limbo with a second guard keeping a watchful eye on my every move. What if Britain didn’t want me back?

Five minutes later he returned.

“Britain is in a meeting,” he stated. “Perhaps you should come back another day.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I will. Thanks so much for you time. Sorry to bother you.” Even if Britain is too busy to greet me, I will still maintain my customary apologetic politeness ‘wards her.

I turned to leave, all the time regretting that my beleaguered nation no longer runs its embassies like it used to. I walked all the way down the road and everything. A long road. And I was humming Jerusalem at the time.

Mind you – political territory or not – I’m not sure that little compound was truly our Great Isle after all, in soil or in spirit. Among other things, a sign on the gate indicated that no umbrellas were allowed.

(Fret ye not. I will actually return to the UK, properly, on 1st August.)

Eyes wide shut

I’ve written a book. Past tense.

It’s a novel about split identities and what happens when they collide. It’s about how the internet may or may not be ruining your life. It’s about faith and love and other Big Things that plague us to the grave.

It’s currently resting in my draw. I’ve read it so many times I can’t bare to look at it for a while.

So maybe you’d like to look instead?

I’m after a few people to read it and give feedback. Honest feedback.

If you’re interested I’ll send you a copy if you think you can
a) read it within the next few weeks, couple of months.
b) tell me what works and what doesn’t, and be specific.
c) not laugh at me for too long afterwards.

I’ll send anyone who does a little thank you in the form of a book token so you can buy something decent to read.
(If I get bazillions I may not send it to everyone, but on the basis that that’s not at all likely to happen, don’t let that put you off.)

Comment below, email me on or find me on various social networks.


This one’s for the freaks

Version A
In an attempt to evaluate the user experience of the popular blogging platform Tumblr, I have undertaken to publish a work of my own devising, thus experimenting with its user, admin and customisation features. Because, apparently, we’re all so short of spannable attention, I’m going to publish it scene-by-scene three times a week, till the end. I will attempt to gain followers (gasp). The result of this experiment will also influence when and how I publish my novel Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland.

Version B
Because of reasons I am uploading Star Cross-dressed Lovers a spoof jukebox show, a Manic Street Musical, if you will. (It’s built around Manics songs. Of course it is.) It’s got James eating pies, Nicky nearly destroying the world, Sean being evil and best of all, Richey isn’t dead (much).

If Tumblr and I get on, I’ll use it to publish my completed (in the sense that I’m not bloody doing it again) typo-ridden novel which is NOT called Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland, but it probably should be.

You can visit the Manic Street Musical site any time you like.

Stamp collecting

I thought since my own National Health Service is being roundly decimated* I’d write a bit about my recent exchange patient experience in a Latvian hospital.

Slow down, beating hearts! I wasn’t ill – I just had to prove it. Because I volunteer for a charity that works with disadvantaged children – day to day, this involves a strenuous workload of losing at Uno for five hours in a row – I had to acquire some offical documentation which stated I could breathe, had a blood pressure, and didn’t have TB. Apparently my ability to move and talk, and the massive vaccination scar on my left arm, was not evidence enough.

I had been directed to a health centre a few minutes walk from my house. After some preliminary investigation I decided the best course of action was to pay them a visit, wearing my best Latvian. You will be pleased to know that since we last discussed the matter, my Latvian language skills have progressed a little further down the road to fluency: I can now add to my list of essential phrases ‘I work with children’ and ‘Please can I have this?’, the latter accompanied with a hopeful gesture. With these two phrases waiting on the tip of my tongue and a bit of paper stating the exact form I required, I approached the receptionist.

She was the first and last person I met in the health centre who spoke any English. This was not unexpected but it certainly added a fissure of unwanted excitement to the proceedings. I performed my piece for her; she told me to go ‘over there’. I duly went ‘over there’ where about twelve other people were sat. I joined them, dug out P.G. Wodehouse’s Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen from my bag – could you find a book less Latvian, or rather, more conspicuously English? – and waited. An hour later, when I’d all but reached the end of Bertie’s adventure (he got engaged, had some comic japes with an animal, a fight with an aunt and was right in the pit until Jeeves came to his rescue – who’d have thought?) everyone else was gone. I had not been looked at once, never mind twice.

Wondering if I had gone to the right ‘there’ after all, I approached a doctor and recited my little speech to her. (As well as not speaking English, every professional I encountered from doctor to telephone answerer was a woman.) She gave me a variant on the classic Latvian Death Stare – more benign, but mixed with flushes of ‘you’re an idiot’ – and took me back to the receptionist.

Yes, my instinct proved right. I was not meant to be there, but there. There turned out to be a previously undiscovered room just to the right of reception. I creaked open the door having no clue what to expect on the other side. There were two woman who looked liked some degree of administrator. Time for that BAFTA awarding-winning recital again. This time my performance was met not with directions or death stares but questions.

Questions! I had not bargained on questions. I had my name, personal code (like a national insurance number, needed to do anything official here) and bit of paper with Precise Document Name on. What else did they need to know? Quite a lot apparently, so here I caved and rang the wonderfully bilingual head of the kids’ centre, and asked her to do a spot of interpreting. I know not what they said, except at the end of their brief conversation I was issued with an A6 booklet, a sheet of A4 paper and two small slips of paper barely a few inches square, and a demand for 10 lats (about £12). All my bits of paper had been photocopied to within a smudge of their life. I completed some personal details in my book, and in return I was given a stamp on one of the pages.

Achievement unlocked. I had now progressed to level two. I was instructed, in Latvian, to pay my money and then ‘come back when I was done’. So pleased was I that I had understood this instruction that I forgot to ask the crucial question: done what?

Paying I could do. I went to the receptionist. She relieved me of my cash and put two more stamps in my book. Uncertainly, I turned my attention to my bits of paper. Through the dark haze of photocopier ink I could just about make out a room number on each of the smaller slips. Not knowing what else to do, I decided to try my luck in the first, Room 214.

I eventually located this in the depths of the building and knocked on the door. No answer. But my earlier unnecessary waiting was instructive after all. I knew that whoever lay behind that door was with another patient and I simply had to wait, but this time with a magic appointment slip. We’ve been here before I thought, and dug out P.G. Wodehouse. About 10 minutes later it was indeed my turn.

I was gestured in, and Laurence Olivier himself would have swooned at the way I gave my ‘I work with children’ lines in perfect iambic pentameter. I was, however, entirely uncertain what the doctor was going to say or do to me. I sat in the patients’ chair at the side of her desk and tried to give a look that was a mix of amenable and expectant. Before long I had been examined and it was confirmed that I could breathe and my heart was beating (but not too fast). At least, that’s what I assume. The important thing was that I got two more stamps and was allowed to leave.

It was a similar story in Room 19, though I have even less idea what happened in there. I knocked and was called in instantly. After a standing ovation for what I hoped would be my final performance, the doctor invited me to take all my clothes off. The consulting room was a long rectangular affair on the ground floor. Along one of the long walls ran pane after pane of glass windows with no frosting or curtains, looking straight out onto the street. Or to put it another way, the street was looking straight in. There were some blinds, but as the window sill was lined from left to right with pot plants, it seemed unlikely that they were ever used.

I decided to defrock one piece at a time until she was happy. Surely she didn’t need me quite as God made me? Luckily not. (But if she did, how many stamps would I get?). In the end my state of undress was about 50% – I will not trouble you with the details – and I stood in the middle of the room while she answered the telephone. I turned my back to the window and waited, wondering if I could just reach over and stamp my slip myself.

Before long, we were back to me, but I still had no idea what I was meant to be doing, or even where I was. It is a very odd feeling indeed to be standing semi-naked on public display and have no real idea why, or any way of asking. The doctor took matters, and me, into her own hands and guided me towards a large brown plate with metalic lines across it that was pinned to the wall – right by the huge window, of course. She arranged me face first against this cold sheet and then ran away. There may have been a flash, but in my bemused confusion I can’t be sure.

She came back a couple of seconds later from a closet at the other end of the room. I can only assume I was x-rayed. If so then, teeth excepted, I’ve just had my first exposure to the revealing rays and I barely noticed! Ah well, all she has to do now is stamp by book and then –

Except she didn’t stamp my book. She told me to come back the next day. Return I did, only to find a different doctor in Room 19. Brilliant – an encore! This doctor stamped my book and slip, and victorious I returned to the admin people with all my ink and paper and did the hopeful/expectant look that features so prominently in my repertoire. The admin person looked at my vast collection, then promptly went back to the x-ray person to get a couple more. By this time, I estimate, I had about 11 stamps.

On her return she gave me a couple stamps more for good measure and then, the magic word – viss! All is done. You may go, officially certified as unharmful to children. So here I stand now, with all manner of awards and decorations. Now no one may doubt my Uno-playing qualifications, or, it seems, my ability to negotiate the unfamiliar world of post-Soviet healthcare. So far.

(I should say this much – despite my diversions into exaggeration and irony, all the staff in the health centre were helpful and understanding, slowing down their speech and gesturing where needed to help me to comprehend what delights I faced next. I don’t mean to demean them in any way. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised about how conceding they were to me. So, in the unlikely event that you go to the effort of translating this, thanks.)

*For those of you struggling with this assertion, I refer you to the Guardian Style Guide entry on use of Latin phrases: Some people object to, say, the use of “decimate” to mean destroy on the grounds that in ancient Rome it meant to kill every 10th man. [However] as our publications are written in English, rather than Latin, do not worry about any of this even slightly.
Secondly, I would note that the NHS, and everyone it serves, would suffer greatly from being reduced by even 10%. (I am not a supporter of the cuts that are currently being inflicted on the UK in the name of government.)
For those of you trying to work out what ’roundly decimated’ looks like, just understand that 10/π looks decidedly unhealthy and we’ll leave it at that.