Looking Forward to 2014

Writing this in a hurry on New Year’s Eve, having just remembered it is actually a Tuesday, I cannot help think that for me at least this has been a so-so year. Last year, 2012 was a weird mixture of great and the terrible, but last year… Well, nothing really bas new happened to me and it won’t go down as a classic. But then I am not sure I am the age now that the roller coaster rides than years can be is well suited. So maybe I will let my younger friends experience this for now and I’ll move a bit slower.

So what are my hopes for 2014?

Well, first off that the people I love are safe and those who are ill or under pressure from any source of attack find improvement and relief. I have several friends and family who are in that class and I hope that this time next year things look better for everyone one way or another.

For me though, I need to sort some stuff out that has been hanging around for too long. And I am not just talking about our pond, although that is one of the easier things to deal with. I need to start shedding a few pounds and a few bad habits, and we all know how difficult the latter one is. The problem with bad habits is that they are habits because we like doing them. But some are just not sustainable and need to change. For example, like a lot of people of my age I drink more than I should; and I am a terrible hoarder, so not only do I need to stop collecting stuff, I need to (shakes with horror) get rid of some of the stuff that has accumulated over the years and I know perfectly well I will never look at again… But its mine, you see. Sigh. This is going to be harder than it sounds.

Positively though there is much to look forward to this year, and I want to try and drag some of the holiday feeling from Christmas and New Year through the year, at least personally; I like this time of year but tomorrow is always a down day for me, and not just because of the late night and sore head. It is just that a lot of the nice things from the holiday season sort of evaporate, and while I don’t wish it could be Christmas every day at would be nice to have a little celebratory thing to look forward to each month… So let’s see how that goes.

I want to keep writing, and start experimenting with longer forms. I have been producing a short story a week all year and found it extremely enjoyable; some of my tiny readership seems to have liked them too (although as they are incredibly nice, maybe they are just being nice). But increasingly I am finding that some of the continuing threads I have need to go more to the novella format to do them justice so time to try and find the time to increase the word count while maintaining my Friday fiction club.

Part of that will have to wait until after the end of April when I – with luck – finish my Open University Humanities degree; it has been about five years and I have learned a lot about things and myself in that time. I’m very much looking forward to possibly graduating sometime this year. I was inspired to do it by a friend and I’ve never regretted it (although to do essays and exams “for fun” is truly weird).

The other significant event for me this year is of course our tenth anniversary – and if I am going to achieve anything at all useful this year it is with the support of the Lovely Wife. I’ve no idea what we are going to do to celebrate (it is her turn to organise) but I know it will be fun, because she will be there.

And, as always, I need to try and be there to encourage and support my friends – young and old – where I can. Love you all, and Happy New Year.

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Jumping into Christmas

Recently the Lovely Wife and I were in Coventry – a surprisingly charming city – and had a few hours to kill, so we thought we would do a little window shopping.

In Coventry city centre there is one shop building that dominates the area known as Broadgate, opposite the statue of Lady Godiva.

It is a giant Primark, at least three floors of cheap clothing (so really Lady Godiva has no excuse for her nakedness) and it was heaving, it being a Saturday near to Christmas.

I had a particular mission in mind. It was to peruse the selection of Christmas jumpers available and to see just how awful they could really be.

Last year I noticed that there was a bit of a silly Christmas jumper thing going on but refrained from buying one. But I mentioned it to the Lovely Wife and she offered to knit me one for this year. Then she made the mistake of asking me to choose the subject matter (other than having some form of Christmas feeling to it, obviously).

Of course, it had to be a penguin theme.  But it had to be a proper penguin, not one of these wide eyed, round birds wearing red hats that bear no resemblance to the bird in question. Undaunted, the Lovely Wife tracked down some 1970s patterns including one of an Emperor penguin and chick.

Well, I was sold straight away on that.

You see, an Emperor penguin is a man’s penguin. Male Emperors are the hard men of the bird world. No other creature is quite hardcore enough to face the Antarctic winter with the rest of the lads, while carefully babysitting their little offspring, while all the girls go off to warmer climes and stuff their faces for the entire winter.

If I’m going to have a penguin on my chest it is going to be this fine example of parenthood.

The process of creation of this bespoke Christmas jumper was a painful one – including a hiatus where an unpicking of the work to date almost resulted in abandonment of the project completely – but in the end the jumper was complete and glorious, and in time for Christmas.

Although it does, on reflection, have a lot of white in the design which considering my enthusiastic eating style does mean extra care. But I’m very proud of it and of the creativity and graft of the Lovely Wife.

So I knew this when we went into Primark and there was no chance that even the £12 price tag was going to tempt a garish Rudolf onto my chest any more than I was going to buy a Rudolf onsie (I already have one from last year anyway).

But we were not disappointed with, ahem, quality. A lot of the specimens in the messy piles of jumpers available were quite dreadful. It was interesting to note too that the taste and cost go hand in hand in this genre; the less tacky and more reasonable ones (including the subgenre that you might describe as merely festive, with snowflakes and the like rather than characters off a cheap advent calendar) were almost double the price (horror).

However, I am not going to be too hard on the Christmas jumper. There is one thing that we need to be thankful for.

It is only for Christmas.

Come the New Year they will go in the charity shops and/or boxes in the loft and the bad dress sense will return to normal, ahem, style (i.e. boys with half slung trousers that can therefore hardly walk, girls who think tights can be worn without the aid of a skirt or shorts etc. Feel free to add your own “What are you thinking?” example).

But I am very fond of my penguins.

If the weather gets very icy and cold, I might just use it to take a little bit of Christmas into the barren wasteland that is January to eke out the season just a little bit.

But for now, have a lovely Christmas, one and all.

The choir of children did not, I think, practice all year long

Now that we are well into Advent this year’s batch of Christmas themed records are coming out on a more or less daily basis.

 Bit of an odd bunch this year; I kind of get the feeling you have to take turns (unless you are Cliff Richard) to bring out a Christmas song (or worse, an entire album).

 So last year we had Rod Stewart and Ceelo Green, and Michael Bublé (or that might have been the year before, I have more important things in my life than to research that) and this year we have Leona Lewis.

 We can add to that singles from the ubiquitous Bellowhead who seem to be competing with Lilly Allen in the wall to wall presence stakes.

 On the subject of Mrs Cooper, we see before our eyes the elevation of a song with nothing at all to do with Christmas to the status of inclusion in every “Greatest Christmas Album in the World… Ever!’ from this point onwards with that (now annoying) John Lewis advert.

 The best example before this is probably ‘The Power of Love; back in the 80s, a clever bit of marketing by Frankie Goes to Hollywood to secure their third and final number one.

 At least that song means that fearsome tormentor of Penelope Pitstop – the Hooded Claw –gets an unlikely shout out each year to an increasing series of blank looks from people you are far too young to get the slightly obscure reference. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMtA8ahAwDI

 But I have to confess I like Christmas records. With Eurovision no longer as big a deal as perhaps what it once was, it is about the only place we are going to get songs that are either overly cheerful or sarcastic or sad (never subtle) that then allow many artists to get that bit of silly nonsense out of their creativity zone and hopefully go back to proper music for the rest of the year.

 I think everyone has their pet hates, and although they might not admit it, the few they quite like. Personally, I am a Slade fan; I look forward now to Radcliffe and Maconie’s radio show on 6Music just before Christmas as now it is tradition for Noddy Holder to come on to scream “It’s Christmas!” to officially open the festivities of the season.

 I also have a soft spot for ‘Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy’ from back in 1977.

 However, I am not sure that this is purely for listening to the most unlikely duo in pop history. In recent years I discovered the original film version from a Bing Crosby Christmas special, an atrocious and therefore hysterically funny presentation which has David Bowie turns up at some stately home to exchange stilted dialogue before launching into an impromptu duet. As you do. Apart from the staged nature of the whole thing it is quite obvious that the senior party has no idea (and no interest in) who David Bowie is. Treat yourself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DiXjbI3kRus

The only other Christmas video that makes me laugh so much is the Darkness’ Christmas Time (Don’t let the bells end) although that one should be viewed rarely due to the disturbing content.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQhuoY5h2kE

 New “classics” don’t seem to come along that often and most of them just seem to get (thankfully?) forgotten. Being a huge artist helps with longevity… George Michael’s ‘December Song’ and Coldplay’s ‘Christmas Lights’ seem to be hanging on there for example. Some I hope survive through just being of a higher quality, such as Thea Gilmore’s wonderful ‘That’ll be Christmas’ from (can I really believe it is that long ago?) 2009.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qQAE794uvo

 The one Christmas song I will recommend if you are in the buying mood this year is by 90s band Dodgy. The song is “Christmas down at the Food bank” raising money for the Trussell Trust who provides that service. At a time of so much gluttony for most in the UK, seems a small price to pay to help feed the poorest in our own society and, well, the song could be worse I suppose.

 Look for it in the usual download-y places.

Where have all the cars come from?

I am trying hard to get into the Christmas cheer this year and getting there slowly – the ritual of the erection and decoration of the Christmas tree helped of course. The weather refuses to behave in a proper winter fashion and makes me think it is still October.

And the Christmas music is not, yet, wall to wall, although it will be soon driving me up one I am sure.

What is keeping me away from the Christmas cheer most of all is the traffic.

I have moaned about the M25 before now. It is a bit of an easy target and it is the Road to Hell (aah, my Chris Rea love comes through, or indeed a giant satanic prayer wheel if the excellent and hilarious Good Omens – go read it, you’ll never look at a sherbert lemon in the same way again – is to be believed). Last year, in the run up to the Olympics there was a delicious period when the road had been widened considerably in preparation for the games and suddenly each journey seemed smooth and swift. Gradually, over the intervening months, the level of traffic has slowly crept up and up however, and the capacity has been filled. In fact, in over ten years of grinding out my thirty mile commute to work it has never been this bad, especially in the mornings.

The worse thing about it for me is not the time wasted stuck in a slow moving jam, or boredom – I’m a good radio and podcast listener so I can catch up with things I would otherwise miss. I can think about new short story ideas (though I am usually too tired to write them down when I eventually crawl into the office) or even (gasp) think about work.

Nor is it the waste of fuel (although that does concern me and the hybrid does help a bit).

No, the thing that I hate the most is what this does to me personally. When eventually I get out of the queue of traffic my level of patience with my fellow drivers is an all time low. I refuse to let people out (even the pretty girls) when normally it would be with a smile and a wave. I drive too close to the old dears who for some insane reason have decided to take the road at the same time as everyone else is, instead of sensibly waiting to a quieter time.

Finally, when I do get into the office or home, I am in a foul mood ready to snap the head of any unfortunate who may stray into my path before hot cup of tea or a stiff gin can begin the transition away from the malicious, twisted troll I have become and back into my preferred incarnation of bemused puppy.

I was thinking about it this yesterday as I stomped into the office, slammed my bag down and aggressively plugged in the laptop. I am still thinking about it now, having had the cathartic experience of writing this. In the end, with anything you want to change, you have to really want to do it and make some effort.  At least I can recognise the problem, and will try and stay away from becoming a road ogre in future.

But I am looking forward intensely to the days when our situation means I do not have to do this commute every again.

For now I have to rely on happier things; on a lovely wife, great friends, a snowman made out of gingerbread and marshmallow for lunch and the knowledge that, once again, The Christmas Duck will be tied helplessly to the top of a tree for a few weeks. And tied pretty tightly poor thing; the journey home wasn’t great either.

Still, the tree is now flashing (if leaning somewhat worryingly) and  after a morale boosting watch (OK, quote along) of The Princess Bride (and yes, it is a Christmas movie too, which we only realised last year, Fred Savage’s bedroom has all sorts of Christmas decorations up) and I’m finally feeling a bit more seasonal.

Time to dig out my sleigh bells I feel (not joking, my lovely wife is rolling her eyes as she reads this…)

Past and Presents

I have always enjoyed Advent. I find it a little odd as from a Christian tradition this is a time of preparation for the festival and feasting of Christmas, but unlike Lent, which is much the same for Easter (at least in theory) where those who observe go through fasting and deprivation of some sort of another, Advent seems to be an excuse to do exactly the opposite. As a child, I had no problem with that. I don’t have a problem now, but I do find it funny. I guess at this increasingly dark time of year chocolate is more comforting than fasting, while at Easter we are looking increasingly at the late spring and summer to keep us cheerful.

I guess the only problem I do have is that the slow build up to Christmas allows for a rise in excitement which makes coming down the other side – once the presents are opened, the turkey consumed and everyone is asleep in front of the Queen (well that was how it worked in my childhood) – that much more depressing.

At least these days I have a Doctor Who special to look forward to.

But while it lasts I used to enjoy the build up that Advent presented. I was terribly spoilt though. As an only child of a giving set of parents I was not limited to a mere Advent calendar and a piece of chocolate supposedly shaped into a robin or a snowman or whatever (honestly, who are they fooling?). No. I had my very only Santa every day.

Well strictly speaking it was “Little Santa”, either to differentiate from the real one or as some kind of nod to dear Little Ted (who is still lurking around the house, Big Ted having been relegated to the box that where toys that you cannot bear – ho ho ho – to part with but could be blown apart by a minor draft lie in perpetuity). Little Santa was made of a toilet roll, red felt and cotton wool. More impressive was Rudolf, who also started life in the toilet but even had twig antlers (nice touch, mum).

From as early a time as I can remember they would be standing out on the snow field – OK, the piece of cardboard with more cotton wool stuck on it – from December 1st. Little Santa was never without his own little hessian sack. And in the sack, joy of joys, a perfectly wrapped little Christmas present, with the date stuck on it with tape.

Every morning as I listened in vain to the radio in the hope that my school would be closed in the inclement North East weather (it wasn’t, as it happens. It never was. To the youth I know – I have no sympathy for a lack of Snow days whatsoever) I could at least have the consolation of something wrapped up for me. Alright, we are usually talking the level of a packet of Refreshers, but a present is a present. As any child knows, the more presents, however small they might be, the better. After all, most kids do not understand the concept of money anyway so why waste cash on something ridiculously expensive if you can get them in to paroxysms of excitement with a whole mountain of junk you bought in Wilkinson’s for a tenner (in total)?

Save your money for when they are in their teens and they actually start to be more selective.

Actually I think my daily Advent present probably generated more Christmas excitement than the day itself, present wise. Possibly because I felt I was getting something unique when others only had misshapen chocolate fragments. Possibly because my dad always threatened that the only present I would get on Christmas day was a matchbox with Smarties in it. I usually got that as well, although thankfully there was always a pile of other stuff.

I still enjoy Advent, although Little Santa (and Rudolf) is long gone. Now we have the Christmas Lemur (he’s actually Irish, but you wouldn’t know) and he never has anything for me, but that is fine. I have always enjoyed the giving rather than the receiving and I have my lovely parents to thank for that, for teaching me that giving is something which does not always need a lot of money, but does need a lot of heart.