Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Mums say the darndest things

Today I received in the mail the tickets to my graduation ceremony for University (yes, I appreciate it is late, and no I do not know why), and with the news that teenagers up and down the country are soon to be disappointed with their A Level results, I feel I should relate one of my favourite tales. This, despite my mother's protestations, actually happened.

It was four years ago, in the summer of 2009. I had recently gone on holiday with my family and best friend to our grandparent's then holiday home in Spain, and having spent a wonderful week by the pool reading and relaxing, it was time for the ominous return to England to find out my AS Level results.

I waved goodbye to my friend at the airport, and we drove home in the car. I was, understandably, nervous. Though the holiday had in general been rather good, the last few days had been clouded by the realisation that my results were not, in all probability, very good. I tried not to let it dampen my spirits, and the Spanish sun generally banished those feelings. But in the oppressive atmosphere of the airport, much like any airport, those feelings descended like a fat man on a set of very sensitive scales.

The drive was tortuous. My sister, delightful though she may seem to be, probed, questioned and teased me on the way home about what my possible results, sending me further into my paranoia. I should mention my sister, as well as being a hellspawn, is younger than me, and my parents have gone on record saying that if they had her first then they would not have had a second child. Still, she broke her toe recently, which in the grand scheme of things I consider to be a form of karma.

We made a quick stop home first to deposit our luggage at the house, and then whipped straight out of the house to my school. It was only the afternoon, but the school having been open in the morning meant that everyone had come to get their results early and leave. The school was pretty much empty. Having said that, I was fortunate to be by myself in this instance, except for my mother who accompanied me.

At first we could not even find a teacher to give me the envelope containing my results, but eventually we found my English teacher who gave me my envelope. Naturally, my mother opened it. Out slid the first sheet of paper. Her eyes scanned across the results.

'Oh,' said Mum. This did not bode well. 'Tom, I'm going to be honest, that's crap.'

Words I did not want to hear, much less from my own mother.

I take the sheet and sure enough, I hadn't done very well. Mainly due to the arrogance of having done exceedingly well at my GCSEs, I thought I would breeze through my AS Levels with nary a finger out my arse. Instead, I had crapped out the results I deserved. It was very, very disheartening.

The next year, retaking some of the modules as well as completing the rest, I managed to pull my grades up to a much more respectable overall grade, and went to University for three, happy years. I will be graduating officially this October, though my result has come through and I gained my degree with a strong 2:1. I work hard, pushing myself to the bone to get something I can be proud of, and even then still strive to be that much better. I try to be a better person every single day.

But still I am haunted by the image of my mother, looking at my results, looking me dead in the eye and telling me I was shit.

Thank goodness it wasn't the end of the world. They're only A Levels.

This post dedicated to my best friend, Verity Johnson, who has received official confirmation of her place at University and will soon leave me behind forever. The bitch.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again

I am a man of many talents. Occasionally, I can utilise these to such an extent that they surprise people, and I come off looking very good indeed, achieving the very best I can.

I am available for work.

Anyway, many years ago when I acted as a hobby, I was a member of the Royal & Derngate Youth Theatre group. We weren't putting on a show at that particular time, having just completed our production of Vikings and Darwin. Instead, we were helping out the with Alan Ayckbourn season that the theatre was then putting on. As part of the festivities, three young writers had written plays in the style of Ayckbourn, and we were to do a reading of them in the Underground studio of the theatre.

Those who know me will not be hugely surprised to learn, but I was given the part of a character with a stammer. Not that I have a stammer in real life you understand, but I do have an unfortunate lisp that means I struggle with the 'L' sound when speaking. Not the 'L' word, though that may explain my current, crippling loneliness.

It was the only part in the show I had, so while the two other plays were being read I simply sat and listened.  I only have the word of the Friend, the same who always seems to always appear in this blog, that this next bit happened. When it came to our reading, we sat down in our rows and began to read our scenes. I start reading, and affecting the stammer. Initially, someone yelped a laugh, believing that I was affecting a comedy stammer.

However, as I was lost in the part at this point I did not notice and continued, doing the stuttering and control breaths I had seen other stammers use to control the speech. The woman who had laughed quickly fell into a shamed silence until the reading was over.

Once the whole thing was over, the lights came on and we started to pack away the chairs. The audience did not seem sure it was over, so I joked, in my normal speaking voice that the show was over and they were free to go. This got a bit of a laugh, except from the woman who had earlier laughed at my stammer. She looked utterly horrified that she had been fooled twice.

I took more pride in that than being later informed that Ayckbourn was also in the audience of that particular reading.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Strangers on a Train

There are times when the universe aligns perfectly. If it is to happen to us, or if we are even to bear witness to it such events, we hold these moments in our hearts forever, knowing for one brief moment that if there is a God, he is indeed working to some kind of plan.

Readers will guess that this event did not actually happen to me. But I was a witness.

My friend and I were returning from a day at the theatre in London, for we are Massive Wankers. It was a play called Peter and Alice, starring Ben Whishaw and Dame Judi Dench. It had been a long day, so we sat on our train bound from London homeward early, so that we could get comfortable and relax.

That day happened to be also the day of Vidcon, a kind of festival for popular YouTubers, so the train was full of teenagers coming back from seeing Emma Blackery, TomSka, or any number of popular YouTubers.  As we are sat down, a young man gets on the train wearing a Pok√©mon trainer outfit, cap and all. My friend and I joke for a bit, for we are Massive Wankers, but let it pass

Then a girl wearing a Pikachu onesie gets on board the same carriage. 

These two were completely unrelated in every way besides their similar taste in animated franchises.. 

As my friend and I watch, open mouthed, the Trainer leans over to the girl in the Pickahu onesie and whispers to her '... hey - I choose you.'

I feel as though I bore witness to the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The Duke Wellington

In the same week that I saw Neil Gaiman, I surprisingly returned to London for reasons that upon contemplation elude me. Nevertheless, I was there, and this happened.

I had gone with my father and his... Girlfriend? Concubine? I've never been entirely sure how to phrase this, but at least that should give you an idea of the relationship. And also her son. First, we had gone to the theatre in order for my father and his mistress to essentially 'audition' their production of a play to the director of the theatre in order to get a venue to perform in. After which, we went o a restaurant that served what can only be described as a n ungodly amount of meat. From here, we split off.

The Woman Who Happens To Be Seeing My Father and her son went off to see Les Misérables. The stage version, not the film version. I, having no interest in ever seeing such a long musical, went with my father to the cinema instead, where we passed the time in a gentlemanly fashion viewing World War Z.

The film over, we still had much time to wait for Les Mis to finish. Our initial plan was to retreat to the car, wait there, then pick them up once the show was over and retire homeward again. However, father realised that he did not actually have the car keys upon his persons. We were, essentially stranded.

Not to worry. The interval was coming soon, and we figured we could catch them at the interval, get the keys, and continue with the initial plan. While we waited, we decided to retire to the nearest pub we could find on the Shaftesbury Avenue.

We quickly found around the corner called The Duke Wellington, a pub that despite looking as busy as a supermarket at Christmas we slipped into with relative ease. We go inside, get as close to the bar as possible and get two pints of beer.

I noticed something was odd. In our rush to get beer, we had not taken note of the fact that my father and I had in fact entered a gay pub by accident. In fact, we merrily had our drinks in our hand when it suddenly dawned on us that the majority of the clientele were male. Looking up the pub on Google Maps reveals that in street view at the time the picture was taken, there was a sign hanging over the corner entrance advertising popular gay dating app, Grindr.

This struck us both as uproariously hilarious. We went outside to where it was cooler, and stood amongst what we had first mistook as a queue to get inside, drinking our pints and discussing the matters of the day until such a time where we could retrieve the car keys.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Scary Trousers

I am, in many ways, very lucky. By a freak of genetics, I am actually not a hideous monstrosity of a human being. By a quirk of brain matter, I am actually an intelligent, if astoundingly naive, fellow. I also have a weirdly good knack of meeting people I am a big fan of, usually writers. This came to a head when, last night, I met Neil 'Scary Trousers' Gaiman.

I had been looking forward to this event for a long time. I somehow fluked getting myself a ticket and got a pretty good seat, pretty much the centre of the stalls. The ticket also entitled me to a signed copy of his latest book The Ocean at the End of the Lane (I am currently a hundred pages in and it is making me emotional about things I had long since forgotten - or buried - since childhood in a wonderful and melancholic way), but my main joy was to see Scary Trousers himself.

I waited outside for the doors to open at six, and was pretty much the second person through the door. I saw the mountain of books (a literal mountain - I like the image of finishing a book being similar to climbing a mountain: this made it somewhat more literal), and quickly purchased my copy.

I now had a choice. I could go to the bar, buy a drink and start reading, or head to the auditorium, find my seat, and start reading. Either way, I was going to be reading, and it would be wonderful. As I had only just come from a pub opposite the British Museum anyway, I felt I could skip the drink and head straight into the theatre.

There were five other people in there. Two women sitting near the back, another on the left hand side and a couple to the frontish right side. And there on stage was Claire Armistead and Neil Gaiman performing a sound test.

I had brought my camera with me on the off chance, the improbability that such an opportunity may arise, and here it was. Neil was less than fifty yards away, checking his mic with such witticisms as 'I am talking, I am talking, I am still talking and now I am rambling,' white I had his new book, a camera and the urge to at least get some proof of having been there.

So, naturally when faced with meeting an idol, I sat down and quietly idolised him further.

The mic test finished, he left the stage. Not through the back into the wings you understand - off the front steps, and through the auditorium in my general direction.

Well, might as well.

I grabbed my camera and walked over to intercept them, like the spy from Stratego, though not nearly as debonair.

'Hi,' I squeaked. 'Would you mind if I grabbed a photo?'

'No, of course not,' said Neil. He's so dreamy.

After a brief kerfuffle with the camera, Claire Armistead took the picture. He asked my name, and I told him (thank goodness it is only a single syllable). We checked to see if the picture was okay, and Neil made a crack about his hair not looking it's best. Having only recently had mine shaved for Art, I replied that mine was not much in a better position, and he disappeared. Or I may have blinked for a very long time.


I return to my seat and now positively vibrating. I text my friends the event and start to read my new book. I get to about Chapter 3 (it is a very quick, digestible read, to its credit), just as the auditorium is filled and he reappears on stage to talk about future Neverwhere stories, colour blind Daleks and of course, The Ocean at the end of the Lane. He was of course, wonderful. And a very weird thing happened, purely by coincidence.

I stopped reading at page 35, just as Neil came on stage and we applauded. When Claire asked him to read an extract, Neil jumped at the chance and read from a bit he had not yet read aloud yet in what must be a long, hard book tour. It was from exactly where I had finished reading. I had the pleasure of having Neil Gaiman read the next bit of the story to me in his wonderful, Neil Gaiman-y way.

Claire Armitstead is not a natural photographer

One final thing. A friend of mine on the same day, funnily enough the same for whom I had my head shaved, was going to Disneyland for a few days. Many years ago, when I was first reading Sandman, she was the first person with whom I shared my new favourite comic book, and when she did her study on comic book art I supplied her with everything but Sandman, simply as I couldn't bear to part with my collection for a few months. Just before the talk was to begin, I receive a text from her. Here is the following exchange:
Her: I'm going to have my picture taken with Mickey Mouse!
It was like the quickest game of Top Trumps ever.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

For Art

There comes a point in many a man’s life when he must go bald. For many, it comes later in life; for some unfortunates, it comes early. I took mine by choice. For Art.

It began two weeks before the actual event. It was at a point where I had too much hair: it was unruly, messy, and though as a student it made little difference to the outside world, its length was beginning to annoy me. I was considering getting it cut to an acceptable length again.

Out of the blue, I receive a text from my best friend. It was an odd request. She was in the process of creating her final art installation for her Foundation course, and was curious as to whether I’d be willing to help. As she is my best friend in the world, I was immediately up for it.

She proceeds to explain her pitch. It’s a short video segment, inspired by a David Mamet play called Vikings and Darwin, with overtones of 1984 as well. It would feature me repeating a few choice phrases from the play in the midst of being tortured.

What larks.

I press for more details, and she’s a bit… vague. It’s clear that though she has ideas, she’s not sure how far she can push it. She reels off a list of things she would like to do: water-boarding, shave my head, blindfold me…
I latch onto the shaving. It strikes me as a great money saving opportunity. We arrange a date when we’re both available.

I meet her in town, ready to get shaved up. We go to her sister’s flat, who fortunately is never in and I believe still has no idea to this day what happened there. We film the first bit, pre-shaving, with my screaming at the camera various phrases. We then wait for another friend to arrive with his clippers. She asks one last time if I’m sure.

I’m not afraid to say it hurt a little. As I was playing a renegade of the state, my hair was not exactly neat. As the clippers cut through my hair, it yanked and pulled its way through knots and tangles, pulling on my scalp and making my eyes water, for half an hour, by which time my head is very cold and the batteries are running down on the clippers. I am grateful they did not run out before the job was done.

Next we filmed the water-boarding sequence, where my head is dunked in the water and I have to gasp choice phrases. It was all very safe, and I was in complete control the whole time.

What a jolly soul I am.

Job done, with around an hour’s footage, we retire to the pub for a few pints.

The weeks pass, and I regularly text my friend to see what progress is being made. According to her, it’s very effective. I withhold my judgement. Yet what happens next certainly raises my expectations.

Before the piece is put on for public display, it is marked by her tutors and seen by her friends and colleagues on the course. Many of them cried.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Noodles of Fire

I have left University, and with it I have also left the places I knew I could rely on for a decent, quick lunch. Though this has saddened me to a degree, returning home has provided me a new opportunity to try new places for lunch, attempting to find a cheap and tasty alternative to one of the various meal deals on offer.

I decided to try a noodle shop. Not for any particular reason, especially as at that moment I was specifically craving a burger, but having seen it the other day when walking with a friend it seemed like a good option. I would also add that the location that it is in has been notorious for holding many other food shops previous, and all have quickly died. I thought it best to try this while it still lived.

So I enter. It being around lunchtime, it was understandably busy. I did not mind. I am currently jobless, and though I had an interview today it was not a pressing concern at that moment. However, the woman working behind the counter was sometime kind of noodle god. I hesitate to say Spaghetti Monster, because as an atheist, that particular concept makes me want to punch things made of Science.

Due to her speed, I was almost immediately served as I ambled over to the counter and study what meal I wanted to have. Naturally, I panicked and chose the first thing I could see.

'A small chicken and black bean sauce please,' I blurted. She pointed to the noodles. I nodded, not daring to say anything else though quietly thinking at the same time it was odd that she would question my choice for noodles in a place that primarily served noodles.

I said I wanted to have it in, twice, as it was raining, which as a concept seemed to mildly disgust her. Again, I'm not sure why. There were tables available, and as I was by myself I wouldn't take up any room really. Nevertheless, she gave me my box of noodles, graciously putting them on a damp tray.

'Four pound.' I noted the lack of please. I gave her a five pound note.

'This has a rip, you have another?' My patience was beginning to be tested, and having had previous retail experience and some knowledge about currency (such as Scottish money not being legal tender in England, no matter what Salmond or Boris may think, the pillocks), I insisted that the note would be fine. She took it, reticently, and I sat down to eat my noodles.

Meanwhile, out of the corner of my eye, I could see her trying to repair the note for its tiny rip. I could feel her judging me. Still, I had noodles, and began to eat.

I found it to be nasty, but required a little kick. Next to me, I see a big bowl of what appears to chilli in oil, but as I was later to discover was actually anti-tongue sauce. Figuring it should be okay, I put about a teaspoon of it into my food, mixed it up, and began eating.

At first, nothing. And then it began. I started to sweat, and tears were building in my eyes. Spicy food is fine when it's tasty. When it is spicy simply for the effect of causing pain, it loses its allure somewhat. I could tell the Noodle Woman was judging and enjoying the fact I had made a tit of myself, but I refused not to finish it. I had, after all paid for it. So there I sat, for the next agonising five minutes, eating tendrils of fire and spongey chicken. I left, eyes streaming and mouth throbbing to see the Noodle Woman smirking in my wake.

I did not buy any water from her however. I'd be damned if I'm spending more than I need to.