Monday, 28 March 2016

Aphorising #1

Inspired by Aphorisms on Love and Hate, a Penguin Little Black Classics collection of Nietzsche's musings that I read recently, I've decided to come up with some of my own. Maybe if I misattribute them to somebody famous I can put a book together and cash in.

Here goes:

Life has a number of painful lessons to teach you, and it goes on teaching you long after you've taken the lessons to heart.

I don't think I've pinched that from anyone... It's inspired in part by my recently having read - I forget where - an aphorism attributed to Jim Thompson: Life is a bucket of shit with a barbed wire handle. But mostly it's inspired by my early afternoon: having just got over a highly debilitating neck crick, I was just starting to work up a good mood of the at-least-you've-got-your-health variety, when damn me if the remnants of storm Katie didn't whip a little chunk of grit in my eye as I was walking down the street, which proceeded to knuckle me, and I it, for the next two hours.

Anyway, that's number one.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Flaked, a Netflix Original

It was more than just the seemingly endless grey skies dulling London throughout 2016 and a sick-leave-severe neck crick (you know things are bad when you have to bend from the waist to eye your stream when urinating) that caused me to watch all 8 episodes of the first series of Netflix's Flaked in about 4 days recently.

Those skies were part of it, though: Flaked is set in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, a place where such unpleasantries as clouds and sweaters are apparently unheard of, and watching it feels like spending 30 minutes on a sunbed and then getting an icecream, too.

That brevity was part of it as well: the episodes are short enough that you don't feel you're doing the programme an injustice if you watch it when less than fully sharp - unlike with, say, the superb Peaky Blinders, the second series of which I've yet to build myself up to.

But also there's a likeably roguish main character, Chip, played by Will Arnett (who also produces and co-created), a warming / strained (i.e. interesting) best-friend relationship, quality dialogue, and an unusual overall tone that balances feelgood slacker with the threat or promise of something slightly sour. Most of the characters are coping(ish) alcoholics, and the tone is redolent of red wine on the cusp of going bad that gets drunk anyway cos it's all there is and what the hell.

That threat of something not-quite-right slowly builds and realises as the series develops, such that the compulsion to keep watching morphs away from wanting to catch up with friends and get some vitamin D to wanting to know whether Chip really is the nice guy most people think he is and whether, nice or not, he's going to do or suffer something awful.

This is, I think, the first Netflix Originals series I've watched more than a few episodes of without giving up (Jessica Jones seemed to aim for a similarly adult-ish tone,  but was more troubled-teen faux-attitudinal, plus it was taking forever to go anywhere), and has for the first time got me thinking that my Netflix subscription could become a permanent fixture, rather than something to wring dry then toss away. If Netflix produces more Originals like Flaked, based on interesting characters and good writing, and not just more sub-par superheroes, I might start to think of it less as a slightly soiled bargain-basement outlet and more as a rare premium service I can actually afford.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Book review: How to Live in the City, Hugo Macdonald, Macmillan, 2016

There's a chapter in How to Live in the City called How to be Hard and Soft. I'd hoped before starting the book that this chapter might cover aspects of urban living that are seldom acknowledged, like whether it's a good idea to make eye contact with strangers, whether you should give money directly to people who beg you for it, whether you should respond to substanced-up geezers who start talking at you on the night bus, how you should deal with neighbours practicing their MCing at 4 in the morning, how not to be psychologically scarred when removing human shit from your doorstep, whether you should try to rouse the guy lying maybe lifelessly on the pavement at the end of your street, etc etc.

But How to Live in the City is a self-help book from the Alain de Botton-founded School of Life, and as such it's more concerned with things like - that old standby - how to retain your zen when your commute involves trying to avert your nose from the armpits of fellow tube-users, and how to find time for yourself when there's just so much to do.

To be fair, I should have guessed as much from the cover. And more importantly, HtLitC is framed in the context of not only the opportunities but also the costs of urban living, opening and closing with a quote that warns "big cities have difficulties in abundance".

But even if I shouldn't expect grit from The School of Life, it would have been nice to have more personality from Macdonald - or rather, from his writing, since he seems like an interesting bloke. His affable, at-times blog-like, writing makes HtLitC an easy read, but far from a distinctive one.

And though the advice seems largely sound, albeit geared towards the affluent, there's little in HtLitC that you won't already have read elsewhere or thought of yourself if you're at all reflexive.

That said, it rarely hurts to be reminded of good advice, and Macdonald is an agreeable enough benevolent spirit - and a well-read one, if a little too ready to recommend the works of former mentors and employers. It's hard to be too critical of a book that exhorts you to be a radiator of warmth rather than a drain of life, and impossible to dislike an author who uses an addendum to recommend both Madonna's Ray of Light album and Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror TV series - I hope at least a few of the book's target audience give that latter a try...

Besides, Macdonald seems better at life than me, so what do I know?

Friday, 11 March 2016

Book review: You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat], Andrew Hankinson, Scribe, 2016

A second-person present-tense (mostly) account of the last eight days of Raoul Moat, who in 2010 murdered the boyfriend of his ex-girlfriend, shot his ex-girlfriend and then went on the run before killing himself, and while on the run shot in the head a police officer who subsequently also killed himself.

So a strange book, then. Hankinson's reason for using the second-person present tense wasn't entirely clear. The only other books I've read in that tense are those adventure gamebooks for kids that are chopped up into randomly-arranged sections and require you to choose between different sections to read next to determine your fate. Those have the effect of making you feel that you're actually involved in the action, whereas here that seemed only minimally true, and mostly only in the first chapter, which is how Moat ("you") filled out a psychotherapy questionnaire two years prior to his rampage. ("It asks about your family history. You write that your father is UNKNOWN.")

After the first chapter, the book reads more like an account for Moat, as though he might read it in the afterlife. This is particularly true where Hankinson adds square-bracketed inserts containing information not sourced from Moat's own accounts (the parts that are more-or-less transcripts of those accounts are in the first person): "Probably it's a relationship through the internet, something on Facebook [she met him while he was handing out flyers for karate lessons]."

It could simply be that the choice of tense was intended to intrigue, and it did intrigue me: I don't often read true crime, but everything about this book is intended to intrigue, from the title and its length to the cover, which is simply that lengthy title superimposed over a childhood photo of Moat in uppercase block red caps. The cover caught my eye from across the bookshop, and the tense hooked me in further.

But it could well also be that the tense is indeed intended to work like in those adventure gamebooks, placing you firmly in the action and, in this case, making you empathise with Moat. I was unclear whether the reader was intended to empathise with Moat or not, but I suspect Hankinson's intention was to let the reader decide that for themselves but to do everything possible to give them the full facts and feelings necessary to make that choice, including by putting them in Moat's shoes as far as possible. And if that was indeed his intention, I'd say he succeeded pretty well: the account does strike me as mostly impartial, although the placement of those inserts is an authorial choice, and they do slowly build to a rather negative accretion: "I never jumped on Sam's belly [she says you did]. There's been pushing and shoving ... [she says you dragged her by the hair and throttled her].

Possibly the reader isn't expected to sympathise with a man who murdered one person and shot two others, and who was convicted of hitting a child, but Moat's accounts of alleged police harassment, however paranoid and delusional, and of childhood bullying and of absent family members do evoke sympathy, and I think that probably is intentional. As if for further balance, at the end there's a rather heart-tugging account of how one of Moat's relatives did apparently try hard to be involved in his life when Moat was a child, but also a couple of rare leakings of authorial judgement: "You did that." "You killed him."

The treatment is unusual and impressive and thought-provoking, and the reading experience perhaps unique; certainly uncommon. It isn't an enjoyable experience, though. At best it's sordid (and I do mean at best, since making the reader feel sordid is surely part of the point) but at worst it's inane: there's a lot of repetition, and quite a lot of the sentences are sentences like: "Sean goes shopping." "You eat a burger." "Sean drives to Blythe."

(Sean was a friend of Moat's. One interesting aspect of this crime that the book's format does not allow to be explored is how Moat was able to convince two people to assist him on his rampage, who subsequently received lengthy jail sentences. There was a pretense that they were held hostage, but actually they were willing accomplices, which does raise the question of their motives. Were they extremely close friends, or merely also murderous characters themselves? How rare are such friendships?)

So not a great read as you'd typically define one, but strange, compelling, uncomfortable, provocative but controlled and apparently fair-handed. Challenging, in other words. Accomplished, in reviewer-speak.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The machines are winning

There was a time, after self-service checkouts were first introduced to supermarkets, that you would walk into your nearest branch of whichever one and enter a nightmarish auditory realm, as maybe a dozen of these machines would be chanting and echoing their pre-recorded messages in not-quite unison: Th-th-thank you for sh-sh-shopping at S-S-Sainsburys" (or wherever).

If you rarely saw the same staff members more than two or three times, you assumed it was because they'd gone insane from the hell's-fairground-theme bombardment and ended their misery by chain-swallowing ketchup bottles in aisle three.

Thankfully, most of these checkout machines seem to have been muted now, but that only throws an even starker light on the plight of their squishier counterparts: checkout people.

Stopping off at an M&S in St Pancras station at about half eleven last night after a day of talks, a two-hour flight, a connecting bus, a train and before my tube, the only person who seemed wearier than me was the solitary woman on the checkout, with bags under her eyes bigger than those under her counter.

I knew how she professed to be feeling, because when each of the seven or so people ahead of me in the queue reached her till, she would ask them how they were, and they, each wanting to be polite, would, after first dutifully delivering the obligatory "Fine thanks", ask her the same question in return. And she, of course, would have to respond: "I'm fine, thank you."

Was she fine? This woman, being made to parrot this same customer-service babble every 30 seconds, hour after hour until midnight or beyond?

I greatly doubted it.

Until last night, I'd always thought I was being nice in reciprocating when checkout staff ask me how I'm doing. Sure, I knew they were unable to answer truthfully - "I'm shit thanks, I have a killer hangover and I'd rather be in the bath" - but I still smugly thought I was a better person than anyone who didn't ask.

No more.

Last night, having heard this woman say she was fine thank you seven times in the space of four minutes, I, when my turn at the checkout came, said "Hi" but, when asked how I was doing, said nothing in response. Not even "Fine, thanks": nothing.

I won't pretend that she looked at me gratefully and we shared a moment. She didn't, we didn't. She just carried on looking tired and scanned my mini roll selection. If she thought anything at all, it was probably "Fuck you, dickhead".

But I didn't care then, and I don't care now. I stand by my taciturnity. Why, when supermarkets have taken pity on shoppers and staff in one sense and silenced self-checkout machines, do they still insist on forcing staff to engage in phony niceries?

If a shop is quiet, it can be nice and even genuine to pass the time of day in a friendly exchange. But near midnight on a Friday in the middle of a train station when everyone would rather be in bed, hello and thanks are all that's needed.