Sunday, 22 March 2020

The Prize

It was a beautiful day, day number 1984. The sun drew lines through the branches of the trees that surrounded the apartment block. The rays fragmenting through the tape that held the glass in place, making rainbows in the dark room. Only broken by the bright orange Alibaba liveried grocery drones that criss-crossed the sky overhead.

Nearly 2000 days ago, I closed the door for the last time.

I was lucky, I had a skill that easily translated to the new modular online work-space, I was a teacher and while my subject had changed from English that now had no use, I now taught social skills to those who had little memory of how we used to interact with others, how to look the webcam in the eye, how to understand the difference between web-lag and a pause waiting for an answer, how to make questions and wait for an answer, how to feign interest in others. I had been saved from the fulfilment centres, that was a one-way career, 30 days quarantine then confined to the centre.
Shortly after Lockdown and the beginning of the Days of Safety, the virus had swept through the governments in most countries and being a bunch of old self-abusing narcissists, it took them all. Amazon was the only organisation that had on-the-ground supply networks, so it was only logical that it take over running most countries. Shortly after Alibaba took over the rest and then took over Amazon.
The 2000 days of quarantine were approaching and there was talk of a celebration, we would celebrate anything these days.
The quarantine came quickly, one day we were hearing about some flu virus that was sweeping the Chinese away, I mean, who was really worried, there were billions of them, still are hundreds of millions, I guess, hard to be sure. Next thing, we are stockpiling toilet rolls. The schools were closed and the only life left to us was our online life. I had just got my first tinder account when it all started, I still have it but the geo-setting don’t exist anymore, nor the language, quarantine takes care of one and Google translate takes care of the other.
The screen flashes, I scan my eye and fill in the Amazon Wellness questions before it’s time to start my morning sessions, “intermediate social skills” his avatar springs onto the screen with a huge smile, I still haven’t seen his real face. We are working on compliments today. I had brushed my hair especially but I doubted he would notice. I sometimes have a shower for this module but it wasn’t worth the effort.
He talks for nearly ten minutes about a game he is playing. His avatar blinks and smiles in tune with his voice. I manage to ask him how he is today, then he goes back into the game. There will be a test in 8 days but he will pass, they always do, as long as he gives me thumbs up, we’re okay. They usually give you thumbs down only if you insist on covering the course material, I let him explain his victories and conquests. I don’t even umm and ahh anymore.
After four almost identical hours, I break for lunch. I scroll through the choices and tap. About 15 minutes later I hear the delivery drone in the corridor and my mouth waters. It stops and I hear the characteristic clunck of the delivery flap… in the next apartment. I look at the app and it flashes delivered! with a branded smiley. Third time this 10-day, I hit the contact tab then the challenge tab, not the problem tab, not the complaint tab, these are no longer words, we don’t have problems or complaints anymore just challenges and opportunities. Then the reason for challenge, then delivery, then my finger hovered over the greyed-out unreceived button. A pop-up informed me that delivery was complete with one button confirm, I try to back-step but the button remains Please confirm delivery I tried to swipe it but its “Confirm” button began to pulse gently, I close the app and the confirm button remains. I looked for the contact button but the confirm continues to pulse. I tap it then hit the contact button, the call connected and a voice told me that my delivery had been confirmed, then thanked me for my order. My screen flashed with my next avatar.
When my shift finished I watched a movie about a guy who wakes up after a pandemic has swept through the city of London, the hero finds some people who have wisely stayed at home. They hear about another house to go to and have a harrowing adventure along the way before they reach another big house where the residents have confined themselves. Everyone who leaves the house dies and our hero lives out the rest of his days in the security of the house. It was called 28 days Later, I found it in the classic films directory. I looked around my flat and felt lucky.
The next morning I confirmed delivery of my coffee and went to the window to watch the cats in the branches outside. Its sweetness came as a surprise, I was sure I hadn’t ordered sugar. I put my hand to the glass, it was warm, sure sign that warmer days were coming. The cats leaped through the branches, one had a rat in its mouth. Down at ground level I could just make out the shapes of the dogs, one jumped and grabbed a cat from the low branches before running away. A mass of others snarling and chasing it then a yelp and the mass changed direction. The cats gathered in the high branches watching helplessly as the cat was torn apart beneath a circle of wagging tails.
My screen flashes URGENT MESSAGE! I tap it and read the message.
To celebrate 2000 days of safety, Amazon Wellness will announce great prizes for some lucky subscribers click here for participation in the biggest competition ever!
I clicked, last time I won a free movie and meal for one from Wagamama.
My screen flashes and I begin my shift.
“Greetings, my teacher. You take participation in wellness competition?” I could tell from the translation that this was one of my Asian students. I began to answer but was cut short. “I win a kitchen skin for Minecraft up or down 300 days before!” He, maybe she told me of the wok he had bought to compliment it and the hours he spent cooking exotic dishes, like in the old days that his or her grandma had told him of before the virus took her.
I ordered noodles for lunch but enjoyed the crispy locust that arrived.
Media platforms were awash with anticipation for the coming prizes. Each had their own idea of what they might be, a better-than-life wall screen, a virtual porn centre. One suggested a car, posting a photo of a bright red Ferrari, sitting on the bonnet was a tall old man with a smug grin on his face to ensure others understood what he was referring to. This provoked a backlash of trolling.
This man caused the virus!
I hope those things can climb trees
Didn’t Greta Thurnberg kill him?
Greta Thurnberg had been a great influence since the Days of Safety began and one thing was for sure, climate change had abated. The word was that Beijing air was pretty much breathable now and the weather had been much better behaved. But now I think of it, it has been hundreds of days since I saw any new announcements from her.
I enjoyed the trolling but I could feel the tension growing so I plugged into tinder for some relief. I couldn’t be sure who I was connected to but I sent her a gif with flowers and a “thanks” emoji.
The sun was still high so I watched the cats for a while. A kitten shuffled along the branch that pushed against my window and I stroked it through the glass with one hand, filming it with the other. Then shared it with all my friends. Hundreds of Pings of approval followed.
Day 1990 and the great prize had still not been announced, there were rumours that it was a big hoax. I checked Snopes but while it recognised this, their investigations were still inconclusive.
Some said it might be a holiday in Barbados, no one knew where Barbados had been but some low-def pictures looked good. It looked good but how long would it be before the virus got you and you coughed yourself into early incineration. I think I’d be happy with a new better-than-life wall.
1991 was a rest day, I took my wellness test and went back to bed to play LockDown IV on the Mibox.
I ordered coffee and donuts, which came exactly as I ordered. I chatted about the big prize with some of my friends, I had a couple of sessions on tinder. It was a good day.
1992 and the chat about the prize had changed. Over four billion entrants, what’s the chances? Others said that it was just a way to keep us happy, placated. I’d be happy to get my noodles when I order them!
1993, there was an announcement from Thurnberg foundation, not Greta herself, just an anonymous spokesperson. It said that global warming was showing signs of slowing, vast areas of the Amazon had been reforested and air pollution levels were at the lowest since the time of the industrial revolution. Official figures and a full report would be ready for the 2000 celebrations.
1994,I ordered crispy locust but got chicken noodles.
1995, I got a health warning from my tinder app. The run up the the great prize must have been causing me more anxiety than I realised.
1996 and rumours started of a new strain of the virus that had broken out in a place I’d never heard of. I couldn’t help wondering how. If we were all quarantined how had it “broken out”. The report noted that all Amazon fulfilment centres were free from infection. A spokesman for Amazon was proposing the expansion of the Fulfilment centre model as a new model for residential and industrial centres.
1997, and China Broadcasting Corporation ran a story about maybe as little as another 1000 days and we may be able to probably begin to lift quarantine, but it was early days and further studies needed to be carried out. I got a message from the agency saying that for the celebrations, all sessions would be cancelled, a day off for everyone. I received invitations to cyber-raves, concerts even tinder was organising a free-love day.
1998, I got a message from Amazon Wellness to tell me that “As a precautionary measure” to check my logs and change my access codes. Probably hacked again. That’s why my neighbour keeps getting my food orders! I made a mental note to do it later, after my morning sessions.
1999 and my screen flashed URGENT MESSAGE, I opened the message and punched the sky, I had won! I danced around the room until my chest hurt then sat down. What had I won? I had no idea but this little detail was not going to cool my enthusiasm. I went to the keyboard to share my joy.
“This is a very special prize,” the message read. “Any disclosure will result in immediate disqualification.”
I couldn’t sleep, well I did for a while, when I dreamt that the prize was the latest tinder hardware. The connection with the other was uncanny, like really being with someone, I could feel her, see her face, touch her skin. I awoke in elation, tinged with shame.
The sun was drawing rainbow lines into my room. My screen flashed, “YOU HAVE WON, your prize is courtesy of the Anonymous Foundation!” The screen shut down, the room fell dark with the only light coming through the taped window. My front door clicked then swung open. The light in the hallway flickered then lit brightly. I ventured to the threshold and took a step into the corridor where only drones had stepped for hundreds of days. The lights in the stairwell flickered and lit, I followed their light, some way down I had to hold the banister for support, I couldn’t remember walking so far, even before the days of safety, I had never been a fan. There was a big window looking out into the courtyard where the trees had grown through the concrete, reclaiming their dominion. The dogs were spooked, running in circles, chasing each other. I continued down. The door to the building had swung open to reveal the path through the trees, beaten by the drones. I looked at my feet, I was going to leave the building and all I was wearing was my iron-man slippers. Not that I had any shoes. I leant on the door frame to catch my breath and plan my route. I could see the trees, a forest had grown through the concrete and asphalt of the road, birds chirping in their branches. I shuffled toward the road where there seemed to be a break in the canopy. I stopped, a dog was moving in the undergrowth, breaking branches under foot. It was no dog, too upright, too clothed. I called out but there was no reaction, I pulled deep down in my chest to find some volume.
“HEY!” I called.
He, she turned. It was a man, judging by the hair around his face. He opened his mouth but I heard nothing. I shuffled toward him.
“HEY!” I heard from another direction.
Behind me, from my own building bodies moving. I walked toward the figure.
“I won the prize!” I heard a female voice, behind me.
We gathered in the clearing in the canopy.
“I won the prize!” another cried.
“Me too!”
“And me!”
“But what is it?”

Please subscribe to this blog if you like the stories I write and if you like them, share them with your friends and people you troll on facebook. I guess i'm going to have more time to do this for the foreseeable future. 



Be safe and stay sane!



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Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Why Coronavirus will be the most Significant event of 21st Century...

... and it's not the death toll.

The Novel Coronavirus has hit pandemic status and, I believe, will become the most significant event in 21st century history, as significant as WWII was to the 20th century. 

Covid-19, the infection caused by the coronavirus has affected 109,632 and killed 3,802 globally according to latest WHO figures (click the link to see the latest). But, this is not the significance of the epidemic, not even close! Did you know that seasonal influenza, the flu infects 3–5 million people each year, and that is only the number of people who seek treatment. How many times do you seek treatment for the flu? You may have known that but did you know that it claims the lives of up to 650,000 people each year from illnesses related to seasonal influenza. In fact, 79,228 people this year have died of flu-related illnesses. Nearly 1.4 million from cancer, 274,207 deaths from AIDS/HIV, 220,194 from road traffic accidents and 174,922 from suicides. Corona virus is not nearly the biggest threat to our lives today. Now, you may say that it is not, because of the draconian measures taken by China to prevent the spread of this disease and you would be partly right but it is these measures that will prove to be the most significant event of this century and we will see their impact develop in the coming years.
China has shut down most of the country to contain the infection, factories, offices, public transport and schools and with this it is learning a lot.
Ecommerce
China has been leading the way in ecommerce through its cheap products sold through Alibaba, wish.com and even its growing domination of eBay listings. Cheap goods, copies of western goods and subsidised postage have given the Chinese a strong hold on ecommerce. Amazon may be the biggest ecommerce platform but no one has fully tapped the biggest growing market, China. Amazon will not be able to and it will not be long before domestic platforms do and grow far larger and dominate the market worldwide. The Chinese middle and upper economic strata have been early adopters of ecommerce but there are still hundreds of millions who have not. The quarantine measures imposed by the Chinese government have forced those who may not have been used to buying online to get connected and get a liking for one-click purchases. In 2015, the banks shut down in Greece and the number of credit and debit cards issued shot up as the lack of access to cash made card payments more appealing, card payments are now rewarded by the Greek government or punished for not, and are part of their strategy to reduce tax avoidance. A crisis raised a wave that is still rolling now. This epidemic will see the rise of a tsunami that will give Chinese platforms unprecedented leverage, worldwide.
Home schooling
For nearly 2 months now Chinese children have been taking classes at home through the internet. This was a measure that was put into action no more than a week after the schools were closed. Of course, the Chinese strategy relies heavily on education, something that seems to have been lost on many western countries. They could not allow this epidemic to slow down their hot-housing of the young. They started by placing themselves as the production centre of the world which allowed them to learn how the west makes things. The amount of Chinese students in Western universities has spiked in the last ten years and they are taking all that knowledge back home. They are now learning how to educate their children at home and since the abolition of the one-child policy in 2016, this is going to be a lot of children. In the west there have been reduced birth rates for many years but many areas in East Asia and Africa would welcome solutions to their education systems. Online schooling can be cost-effective, less teachers and buildings are necessary, many elements of grading can be automated. Existing school buildings could service many times the students that they now do by becoming studios for the teachers to record and broadcast their classes to hundreds of students, labs for practical lessons used on a rota basis by thousands of students and examination centres. Of course the child-care and socialisation aspects of schools would be outsourced back to parents but China has already proved that this is a barrier that can be overcome with the right legislation.
Working from home
Many of you reading this will have some days each month when you can work from home, some of you may work from home all the time. For those of you who have a couple of days here and there when you can, it may be so that you can look after the kids or save some commuting time or just work in your pyjamas. It has been predicted that we will all be working from home for many years but it still hasn’t happened for many of you. There are still many advantages to being in a collaborative environment. There are still many practical advantages to having the equipment or facilities to deal with clients, but just imagine if 30–40% more work hours could be done without leaving home.
Megacities have some huge problems when it comes to mass transit and pollution. A megacity will be familiar to fans of Judge Dredd but they are very much a reality. A megacity is defined as a city with more than 10 million inhabitants and China has 15 of them, the biggest with over 30 million and 36 of the world’s 47 are in the east. Yes, the economy has suffered and will continue for some time but lessons are being learned, not least by the workers themselves who in the beginning were eager to return to the office and have now gotten used to zero commuter times and working in their pyjamas.
Companies would relish the opportunity to reduce real estate expenses, city planners would relish the need to extend road networks, workers will appreciate the reduction of travel expenses and the country will leverage the reduced dependence on oil producers. This brings with it political benefits. Not to mention the environmental benefits which are long overdue.
China built not one but two hospitals in ten days, this is something that the west could not do. Bureaucracy, financing, compulsory land acquisition is significantly impeded by democracy. This will be the envy of many world leaders
China’s strategy is one of building infrastructure in the east, the belt and road initiative, what Peter Frankopan calls the New Silk Roads in his book of the same name, they have invested heavily not just in their own country but in their neighbours too. They have financed projects in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, in fact all around Asia through The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and even Africa, $299 billion between 2005 and 2018, to build political alliances with the developing world in a bid to unite and influence.
This virus may just have been the catalyst that they needed.

The Coronavirus was foretold and not by Nostradamus...

Impenetrable prophecies

Why are predictions only relevant after the fact, why are profits only recognised after they are dead? 


You will all be familiar with the predictions of Nostradamus, the 16th century French seer who published his book of prophesies, Les Prophéties in 1555. The book is a collection of 942 poetic quatrains, almost impenetrable four line stanzas that when interpreted with the power of hindsight “foretell” significant events in history and the future. The point is that his “Predictions” are vague and so open to interpretation that they only seem to be of any value after the event. The same cannot be said of this prediction from the 2008 book, End of days.

     “In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”

This comes from Sylvia Browne’s End of Days: Predictions and Prophecies about the End of the World, originally published in June 2008. And, I think you’ll agree, it is pretty specific.

Sylvia Browne was an American psychic and fortune teller who gained huge notoriety for her predictions. She used her ‘gift’ to help in numerous missing persons cases and murders.

She was challenged by many, not least James Randi, stage magician and scientific sceptic who offered Browne $1 million to prove her skills under controlled conditions.

Of her own life, Browne predicted that she would live to the age of 88. She died in 2013, aged 77. I  guess you could say that she didn’t see that coming.  


Why it will be the most significant event of the 21st Century... and it's nothing to do with the death toll. 

Sunday, 2 December 2018

The Story So Far... part 2

I had decided that a new batch of short stories needed more than a page to take them to their audience. But, deciding is only the beginning.
I knew exactly what I wanted, I wanted to put on a show. I wanted to share my stories up close and personal but I just couldn't see how to fit them into a format that would work. I didn't feel that I could carry an hour and a half show. I had half-convinced some other writers to collaborate but this would make the whole process so much more complicated. Some of the would-be collaborators are in other parts of the country and all have different obligations and time constraints. This would become an enormous monster of an endeavour.
I have always loved stories and literature and music so it follows that many of my favourite songs were narrative songs. When I was a kid, my Grandad used to play Johnny Cash and ‘A boy Named Sue’ fascinated me. I'm going to list some of my favourites simply because I want to say them out loud.

  1. ‘Devil Went Down to Georgia’ The Charlie Daniels band
  2. Hotel California by The Eagles
  3. Eleanor Rigby The Beatles
  4. All of Bat out of Hell by Meatloaf
  5. I loved Ian Dury ‘My Old Man’ about his father was a fave
  6. Jeremy by Pearl Jam
  7. Central Reservation by Beth Orton
  8. Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega
  9. Stan by Eminem
  10. Love Vigilantes by New Order
  11. A Whole bunch by Amy Winehouse
  12. Jim White, The wound that never heals, a dark tale of love and murder
  13. David’s Last Summer by Pulp (I so often think it's about me)
  14. The Wild Rose by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, another who loves to tell a good tale.
  15. Love Detective by Arab Strap. Again a band who liked to tell stories more than sing songs.

While I'm writing this I'm remembering so many more but I really have to stop somewhere.
What informed my vision was mostly the last three in this list. Pulp and in particular David’s Last Summer because it breaks out of the 3 minute pop song limitations and tells a story that could just as well be a chapter from a book. Actually most of Pulp’s songs were stories, Common People being the most successful but I could name Babies and Disco 2000 off the bat. Nick Cave tells a good tale but its strongest point is the musical mood and use of Kylie’s voice. 
You may be less familiar with the last one, Arab Strap, they are from Glasgow and although Love Detective is my favourite they tend to narratives in their songs told in Glasgow patter usually with no attempt to sing a hook. Love Detective is a seedy tale of secrets and suspicion, I love the way the beat drives the story and not the words filling the tune as in most songs. This is what I wanted.
I imagined a DJ or computer based setup with loops and samples to drive the atmosphere. Behind me on the wall would be evocative images to set the scene. At last, I had a plan. This would be the show and it would hold an audience’s attention for as long as it needed. Don’t get me wrong, I've been to some incredible solo performances but I really felt the experience need some extra dimensions.
One minor problem, though. I could not find a DJ/musician. Basically, I wanted someone who would know exactly what I want and be able to realise that in a way that I would be happy with, easy.
Actually, I did have exactly the musician I needed, I just didn't realise it. I had known him for years and we had talked about music many times but a Venn diagram of our tastes would have looked like this…
Then one day he invited me over to his place to figure out if we could work together. He had a bedroom studio with all we would need but I still wasn't sure that he could see the music in my head.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Lover, Mother, Other


I recently met a guy at a conference and he described a lady he was travelling with, incidentally one of the keynote speakers as his partner, then clarifying ‘Life’ partner. Of course, I understood what he meant, at least I thought I did until I ruminated on it. What did he mean? Did he mean partner as in associate, did he mean that they had each tendered their CVs and been selected from a number of applicants. Now, this is not an unusual way to categorise a person with whom you have chosen to spend your life with independent of matrimonial ceremony but this time I found it quite jarring. Maybe it was the clarification. Maybe it was the American accent. It struck me how uncomfortable I am with this word to describe a romantic partner.

For me ‘Partner’ is a business word, it conjures images of contracts, budgets and plans, which may be part of a stable relationship but it is sterile, devoid of warmth and emotion. I found myself searching for a more satisfactory epithet. I was at a loss.
There are plenty of euphemisms for wife; such as ‘My better half’ or ‘her in-doors’ many are far less flattering as are the labels for husbands, such as ‘My ole man’. Boyfriend/girlfriend which is not heterosexual specific are pleasant but feel a little awkward when used by more mature couples, they remain the domain of teenage apprenticeships in love and do not tackle the matter of living together and sharing responsibilities. Fiancé is warm, succinct and French and while it is often used by optimistic couples who have an dream of being married, it should be used when some form of formal engagement is in place. It is a pre-cursor of marriage and along with it carries the religious connotations. Shame, it has all the qualities of a good candidate but as so many others it already has its meaning well-defined.
I like the word ‘Lover’ it is warm and spicy but it can no more be disassociated with its synonym of ‘Mistress’ or extra-marital distraction than ‘Partner’ can from business. ‘Soul-mate’ could be a good contender, ‘mate’ is used to describe couples in the animal kingdom, which I see as a positive but when coupled with ‘soul’ it does come across a little tie-dyed and crystals-under-the-pillow.
We live in a time when romantic models come in so many forms and society it going a long way to catching up with this but language is dragging its heels. You may think that this is not an issue but the words are pervasive and the way we label something affects the way we think about it. Words are a network of semantics which colour our attitudes. The use of the word ‘Partner’ blurs the lines between love and labour, it is part of the same attitude that gave us ‘personal branding’ and brings business practises into the home. In an interview with the writer Jonathan Franzen, I read that he also has issue with this term but he chooses to call his lady a ‘Spouse equivalent’. I think this has more to say for his feelings toward convention than the feelings for his lady.
So, what am I looking for? A word, preferably a single word that encapsulates intimacy, sharing and commitment without the endorsement of any ceremonial rite. It needs to embrace all gender preferences. It could be borrowed from another language, let’s face it, languages are franchising words from each other all the time and just as fiancé serves its purpose well, we have moved on and need a secular word that communicates a simple, natural, mature choice complicated only by the flaws and frailty that make us human.   

Sunday, 4 November 2018

The Story So Far... part 1


Recently I wrote a batch of short stories that were different, they were truer, deeper and despite being some of the quickest stories I've ever written, they were hard. I achieved ‘flow’ this is a state that many artists crave and few reach, when it feels like you are a conduit for something that pre-exists, somewhere. After writing them I had to sit and recover, just imagine some flunky old medium after a séance. There is something about these stories that’s different, honest (unlike the flunky old medium). I realised that these were not my stories and they have to be shared but I didn't want to trust them to paper. I had to share them face to face, eye to eye.

My first attempt was My Reward,which you’ll find on YouTube. I had a strong idea of how I wanted to present it but what I didn't have was the skills, equipment or even a decent place to film it. With my phone and a darkened bedroom I produced what you’ll see if you haven’t already. It received very strong reactions from everyone and I've subsequently met people who've seen it and got some very encouraging feedback. The most humbling was when I was with a friend, her phone rang and she told the caller that she was with me. When she hung up I asked who it was and if I knew him, “No, but he knows you!” she said.

It isn't an easy watch and the subject is maybe not the most popular at the moment, men in power are being vilified by the #MeToo movement and barely a day goes by without someone being accused of some predatory act. I'm all for that and I know my kind and we are a flawed species, but I think that the “in power” part is more toxic than the “men” part. You know, many of us are just trying to get on with doing the right thing while the goal posts are dancing around the field.

Anyway, I took another of my stories, Hungry and tried to film it with the help of a friend. It was tough, we both have jobs and families but we worked late into the night trying to realise a plan that wasn't that clear in my mind. And he had only really used his camera to document his kids growing up and the odd social gathering. It is him I have to thank for the name I gave my vision. We were having a few beers after filming and he asked what the bloody hell I was trying to do. I told him that it wasn't poetry, it wasn't monologue, it wasn't theatre, it wasn't...
"Yeah, yeah! Now I know what it isn't. BUT what is it?"
"So, it's literature with performance," I explained. "It's Performance Literature!"
My friend opened his eyes wide and exclaimed, "Oh right!" and that was it. 
The video for Hungry remains 85% complete but I promise I’ll regroup with the experience I've gained and get it done.

There was also the matter of the music, I used a fabulously atmospheric piece for My Reward by a band called This Will Destroy You then I received a terse message from the representatives of the band and a red strike on YouTube. I would need to have original music.      

So, I had a vision, some stories and little else. I organised a storytelling event for World Storytelling day at a local hotel. I would invite people to tell their stories and I would present one of mine. Now, I don’t mind telling you, I was a wreck. I have spoken to crowds, given lectures and seminars, I even did some theatre back in the day but this was different. These stories were different, I couldn't fail them, the stories that is. I took a deep breathe, a big gulp of adrenaline and did it. It wasn't all I wanted but it did make me realise what I wanted. I wanted to do a live show.

I knew I wanted to perform these stories, reclaim storytelling from little kids, they get enough things already. You know storytelling is one of the most ancient forms of communication. Once it was news, morality, entertainment. Once, storytelling was Netflix. No! storytelling WAS the internet. I wanted a new age of storytelling.

But, I didn't yet feel that I could carry a whole show on my own. I spoke to other writers, one in particular I know could carry a live performance (you know who you are!). I knew I wanted a show, a performance, not just a reading. And, the more I knew, the more I knew nothing!

Until it all clicked into place, I knew exactly what it would be. And all I would need to realise this was, well, just about everything. So, I went shopping for a musician…   


... Part 2  

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Hard Sell: From the archives

Here's a story from the archives. It was written around the end of the 90s (I originally wrote it in Comic sans!!!) so some of you may find the cultural references go over your head. If they don't, you are in good company. It followed a period when a colleague had systematically pitched me to join AMWAY, for those of you in the prior category, it is/was much like HERBAL LIFE, A pyramid selling system that monetizes your friends. I'm sure they have another way of putting it but many of you will have had some experience with their like. Enjoy...



Twitshot


I couldn’t say it had been an eventful first week at Intasat communications but I had managed to make a lunch-mate. Paul was a likeable bloke, a little pre-occupied with the X-files but on the whole easy to get along with. He sat at the desk opposite me and did, well I’m not entirely sure exactly what he did but he apologised a lot on the phone and came up with conspiracy theories. It was one lunchtime while sitting outside on the grassy verge of the Intasat car park listening to Paul’s theory about nano-tracking devices being introduced into food so we can all be traced at any time, that I first saw her. She breezed past us and her perfume infected my very being, it wasn’t love at first sight or anything I just had to get close to her. She, of course, didn’t notice us at all. She wafted past in a way that said that distances between deeds were a terrible inconvenience and god help anyone who inadvertently prolonged transfer.
“Paul, look” I nudged him purposely, my elbow interrupting something about sugar-puffs. “Who the fuck is that?”
“Who the fuck is who?”
“White blouse, brown hair, arse!”
“Looks like Scully” Paul replied in a way that dispelled my notion that he had been chemically castrated. “That’s Kim from retentions, she stops unsatisfied customers disconnecting, very good she is too!”
“Mmm, yeah but any boyfriend, married? What’s the score”
“So the rumours go there’s no significant other but she’s only friendly when she wants something”
“Christ on a bike! She only needs to ask.”
I didn’t see her again for two days. I can’t say that she monopolised my thoughts but I had tried on several occasions to find an excuse to pass retentions.
It was one evening as I was leaving work that I actually made contact with Kim. I was heading for the door with my jacket slung over my shoulder she was overtaking me while putting on her sunglasses, my elbow struck her in the left breast sliding under the shoulder-strap of her bag sending it to the floor with a rattle and clump.
“Oh you tw…” she cursed as she crouched for the bag. Then as I fumbled an apology she looked up at me and smiled. “You’re new aren’t you.”
“Well a week or t…” but before I had a chance to take the bull by the horns she was gone, like a vampire in mist mode slipping through a keyhole. I followed her out the door with no real hope of catching her. I did manage to see her getting into her car, a little red hatchback, sporty and quite new. No sooner had the door closed than she was speeding off.
“Put ya tongue away Mike” I turned to the owner of the deep, overloud voice, as he was readying to pour his equally oversized body into a Nissan Micra. His name was Bob or Bill or something, I saw him from time to time at the coffee machine
“While the good lord blesses us with gifts like that, my friend, I’ll do more than smell the roses”
“You couldn’t afford it Mike, trust me” he smiled a chubby smile and put himself deftly into the car.
Friday came around with no definite sightings. She either shot out on the dot of five or worked late enough for me to feel sufficiently foolish pretending not to be waiting for her in the car park. I tried, but even after a dry spell of biblical proportion I still had some shame.
I tried to rally a ground force to lunch at the pub, just a short walk from the office, but it was mid-month and beer money was thin on the ground. Paul had gone to a Star-Trek convention in Birmingham, so all alone, I decided to go to the pub, sit in the garden and sup a well-earned Guinness. It was a warm July afternoon so I stopped at my car to fetch my sunglasses. As I was locking the car door, farcically considering that my cars main security feature was the fact that few people would be seen in it let alone commit a crime for the honour, I felt a voice, yes it was almost subliminal.
“Don’t tell me, BMW’s in the shop” I looked up to see her, and she was moving slower than I had seen before.
“No,” I gulped “I just haven’t got one” I put on the glasses and went to lean on the roof of the car instantly realising the folly of this, physical contact with the outside of my car could be fatal, I jerked back upright.
“One day, I’m sure” her hair caught the sun in an ‘is she or isn’t she’ way “I can see it in your eyes, hunger” I knew the hunger she could see and it had nothing to do with BMWs.
“Yeah, one day”
“Kim” she thrust a finely sculptured hand at me with all the fluidity of a martial artist.
“Yes, Mike” I intercepted her strike catching her cool porcelain hand. While I shook her hand I tried to look her in the eyes, I failed! Her white open necked blouse made a feeble attempt to contain her mutinous breasts. Her taut tanned skin clearly visible through the thin fabric of her bra. I’m sure, in retrospect, that these observations are greatly exaggerated but I believe that every boy has x-ray vision, he just has to look hard enough. I must have got away with the gawp because when I looked up she smiled at me.
“I’m going to the pub” I ventured.
“Oh good, have one for me” then, I was so fixated on her undulating arse I failed to notice that she was walking away. “Something long and cool!” she tossed at me over her shoulder then slipped into the red Golf.
That lunch time I spent in a daze, “could I really have a chance?” I asked myself, “Why not” was the only answer I could handle.
That weekend I thought of treating myself to a new suit, but a quick look at my balance on the cash machine steered me toward a new shirt and tie instead.
On Monday I had to endure Paul’s endless Trek quotes and promises to show me the video of him being beamed-up from a paper-mache planet to a cardboard spaceship. It was while walking to the sandwich bar, getting ever closer to the point where I would tell Paul to “fucking Trek off!” that she appeared again. She came up behind me, I smelt her first, visual contact merely verifying her presence.
“Hi, Mike. New tie?” she took the tie and turned it label up at the same time giving my chest a glancing touch.
“Mmm, nice.”
“Where are you off to?” I asked nonchalantly, feeling confident
“Me, oh, I’m just going to get a quick sandwich then back to the office”
“Well” I began bravely “you might as well come with us”
“OK, why not”
I could not believe how easy that was. We were all walking together and although our slow strolling pace seemed to cause her difficulties I hadn’t said anything too stupid and even Paul had shut up. We exchanged small talk and even a little innuendo; things were indeed going well.
As we entered the sandwich bar the proprietor’s face lit up.
“Kim” he sang, her face reciprocated smiling radiantly.
“Franco, how are you?” she sang back.
“I am very well. And so are you I can see.” Why is it that no matter how badly Italians speak English they always know the right things to say. “ You will have the usual, Kim?” He instantly produced a white paper bag and passed it to Kim over the large display counter, she responded by opening her handbag.
“No, no, Kim” he gestured by touching his lips with one stubby finger and pointing it at her “We speak later, huh?”
“Later Franco, ciao!”
Then once again like an extra on the set I was watching her backside, leaving. I made a move for the door and stepped out with her, “Now or never” I goaded myself.
“What time you finishing tonight?” I spurted out before my yellow belly could swallow the words.
“Not tonight Mike” my heart sank, “Thursday, maybe” then flew again. I was still left with the feeling that she was fitting me in for a dental appointment.
“Drink?”
“Great!” she smiled obviously eager to depart.
“Dinner”, whoa there cheque book!
“Maybe”
“Great!”
“Bye” then I watched her swiftly wiggle away.
I walked back into the sandwich bar; Paul was having a huge roll constructed. When Franco had finished he turned to me, I looked through the glass at the cooked meats and various mayonnaise-based fillings, my hunger no longer panged. I ordered a Coke and Franco looked at me with knowing eyes.
On the way home I saw a sign at a petrol station CAR WASH SPECIAL-£2.50 FULL SHAMPOO I pulled in and purchased a token. The windows wound and the aerial down I inserted my car, then through the remaining open window the token in the slot. I quickly closed the window; the machine whirred into life. As the rotating brushes hit the bodywork I flinched with every creak and clatter, soap started to infiltrate the sunroof but for the most part the experience was quite painless. I parked the car on the other side to take a look, I then remembered what a nice blue she really was and promised myself I would do this more often.
Thursday came, I had cleaned and ironed a tie but it just wouldn’t look new so I put on a lesser-worn one instead. I kept a little bag for just such occasions with a sample tube of toothpaste, a folding toothbrush, and a sample spray of Calvin Klein that had come with a magazine, I brushed the dust off and took it to work.
I sneaked out of the office a little before five to perform my ablutions, showed my face back in the office to casually bid my good byes. I looked at Paul and winked.
“The truth is down there!” he paraphrased predictably, then smirked at his own wit.
“Make it so number one” I replied. Ok so there’s a little anorak in all of us!
I made my way slowly down to the lobby running over and over my opening line; she wasn’t there. Then I smelt her, she came up behind me and touch me on the shoulder.
“Hi!” she said through a smile slipping her sunglasses on.
“Hello, I thought you might have…”
“Forgotten? No how could I?” 
We decided to go to the pub near the office but Kim insisted on driving. Her Golf GTI was only a year or so old with a personal plate A11 MYN, it had a mild smell of coconuts inside. I noticed her watching me from the corner of her eye for some sign of approval.
“Nice car” I felt this was the correct comment.
“Sure,” she tapped the dashboard “don’t get these on Intasat money”
But surly she had, I thought. I was starting to feel out of my depth but Kim put me at ease by saying that she thought it wouldn’t be long before I started to have some of the things I desired. I felt definite stirrings from my trouser regions, looked out at the scenery to focus my thoughts away from exactly what I desired. We arrived at the pub and I alighted the car carefully. When we entered the pub I made straight for the bar, ordered myself a Guinness and a white wine spritzer for Kim. I steered us to a quiet corner. We began by talking about work then feeling a little more comfortable I pushed on to something closer to my motives.
“You must get asked out at work all the time” my heart paused for a reply.
“No!” she laughed out loud “Not many men at work have the balls, you’ve got that” I was suddenly glad I was sitting behind a table.
“You’re teasing now, I’ve seen the way men look at you” I tried to play coy.
“No, I’m serious. You asked me, most men are mice”. The light in the pub was dim but I could see now her eyes were green, an emerald green.
“So what makes me so unmouse-like” blatant fishing but it was the best I could do.
“Hunger!” I began to squirm again “Tell me Mike. What do you want, what you really want?” I want to take you to…I thought.
“Well, I, want lots of stuff”
“Nice car, big house, swimming pool” she offered “beautiful girlfriend”.
Rap it up I’ll take it home thanks shopkeeper, I thought. “Well, who doesn’t?”
“Yes but how many actually go for it Mike” Yes I thought, I’m here and they ain’t.
She proceeded to tell me about what had paid for her car and that she planned to give up Intasat in less than two years.
“Network marketing Mike, it’s the way forward,” she told me how by cutting out the fat-cat middle men there was enough profit for everyone, she told me of how the guy who had introduced her had a six-figure income and so could I with the right motivation.
“Mike you got to see the way this guy lives, gold, cars, house in Florida” her eyes were wide and glazed,” I’m gonna do what ever it takes to get there”
She could have been telling me about freelance dung-clearance and I would have listened, but even so it did make a hell of a lot of sense.
When we left the pub it was still light, I wasn’t quite sure where we were going but it was soon clear that she was taking me back to my car. We stopped in the car park in an empty space next to my car. She leaned over, I pursed my lips ready, she dug in the pocket behind my seat and produced a blue box.
“There’s some tapes and a book in there” then from her handbag “here’s my number” she handed me a card, which read KIM STEVENS-SILVER DISTRIBUTOR then under a telephone number and mobile number. I said I would call her and didn’t try to kiss her.
As I opened my car door her window powered down.
“This time next year a BMW, eh Mike?” She quipped.
“Yeah, sure thing”, if the celibacy don’t kill me first, I thought.
The next day at work I didn’t see Kim and I was glad for it I needed to reassess the situation if indeed there was a situation. Did I have a chance with her or was I some sort of business proposition. Was she playing hard to get or was the playing getting hard. I couldn’t believe that all was lost, after all she hadn’t told me I repulsed her, I simply hadn’t closed the evening with a snog.
On Sunday with little else to do I took out the tapes and book that Kim had given me. In the book it explained with diagrams and cartoons how the huge supermarket chains had emasculated our manufacturing industries and by cutting them out of the equation there would be rewards for all. It was so vehement in its reasoning that, it said, network marketing, as it called its methods, was the only logical way forward. I was impressed, if I recruited a few people to sell the products and they in turn recruited others I could be home and dry in a few years. I picked up the phone and dialled Kim’s number an automated voice answered, I hate speaking to machines, “Kim its Mike I read the book, gimme more” then I left my number and hung up. I looked at the mobile number but decided that if I spoke to her and then she found the message it may sound a bit too eager, plus I was a little worried I might catch her with a boyfriend or something.
Later that night she called, I was a little embarrassed that she had found me so easily. I asked her how she was and she responded with a comment about the book. I told her that I was impressed, which I was, then she asked me how much I wanted to be rich.  I told her I was hungry, she said hunger was what I needed to get on. She told me that Americo had changed her life, as it would mine. There was a meeting at a hotel nearby on Tuesday for new members and did I want to come, of course I did, we arranged that I would drive to her house and we would go in her car. She urged me not to talk about this at work just yet as private life should remain private.
I didn’t see her at all on Monday but on Tuesday we had lunch together. It was a short lunch as she had to get back to the office but it gave us time to talk in private about the meeting that night.
“Mike,” she looked at her watch “ I really have to go” she got up from the park bench where I was still sitting and gently took my tie “ you look wonderful, remember shirt and tie tonight, very formal these people” then she was gone.
That night I left work full of fervour for the evening ahead. I got home and showered, I was going to shave but I had shaved that morning and five o’clock shadow doesn’t really mean the same day. I mixed the blue jacket from my suit with a pair beige chinos to look like blazer and slacks; everyone loves a sailor.
Looking good and feeling lucky I set off. Kim lived in a street of Georgian terraces most of which had been converted into flats. No sooner had I arrived and parked behind her red golf than she was scurrying down the garden path towards her car. She was wearing a taupe suit with a very short skirt the shape tailored to please the eye, high-heels and glasses. Her hair was tied up and her officiousness excited me more than ever. I got out of the car and buttoned my jacket as I greeted her close up I sensed a trepidation that had not been evident before. I suddenly felt empowered by her anxiety, leant towards her and kissed her cheek low near the neck.
“You look gorgeous, and smell better” I certainly was feeling brave.
“Oh, thanks, you look pretty good yourself” she replied. There was definitely a quiver in her voice.
We got into the car and drove purposefully to the hotel, Kim spoke very little and when she did it was about how wonderful the people at the Americo were.
“Everybody helps each other, we even applaud each others success!”
“What, sort of stand up and clap and cheer?”
“Yes, Mike you wouldn’t believe how good it makes you feel. The English are so reserved and negative”
“So, what if you do really badly do they all get up and boo and jeer you?” I laughed.
“Only if you really deserve it!” she returned dryly serious.
Something in this last comment made me uncomfortable. I looked down at her legs, her skirt had ridden up and her panties were just visible; all was well in the world.
We parked in the hotel car park and got out the car. Kim adjusted her skirt seemingly oblivious to the fact that I had for the last third of the journey been looking at that which had preoccupied my thoughts, these last weeks. When she was happy she turned her attention to me, straightening my tie, which I had successfully ironed the night before. She stood back and looked at me.
“You look quite handsome,” she said almost surprised.
 “And you look barely preferable to a camel’s arse too” I tested the bed with humour.
“If you’re not going to take this seriously Mike, we can go home now!” my god what a threat.
We went through the main doors, passed the bar, which I made mental note of, and on toward the function hall. We reached an area at the hall’s entrance where two well-dressed women sat at a desk furnished with a big book like a ledger and a cash-tin. My eye was caught by a table full of cups and saucers at the end a white-board on an easel with a simple message TEA AND COFFEE £1.50. I turned to see Kim with her purse open.
“Two? That’s £6.00, please” one of the well-dressed women was saying up to Kim.
“Kim, I didn’t realise” I dug in my pocket.
“I got it Mike,” she said firmly without turning.
The moment we entered the double doors I felt like I had entered an Osmonds reunion, there was more enamel on display than at the Electricity board shop. A tall black guy, wearing a huge grin, thrust a firm hand in my direction; I grabbed it and wrung it in the sentiment that it had been offered.

“Hi, nice to see you!”
“Good evening to you too,” I replied. Then from nowhere another, I readied my grip.
“Hi, nice to see you tonight”
“Nice to be here” I retorted with irony; no reaction.
One after the other I shook hands attached to grey suits with grins. I got the feeling I was in a sequel to the “Stepford wives”. At last Kim was there by my side, she was close enough for me to need to button my jacket.
She turned to me and whispered close to my face, “They’re great aren’t they,” her breath was sweet and her lips momentarily so close my English reserve waned.
We took our seats forth row back and off to the left of the speaker. I looked around and quickly calculated a rough total of over three hundred and fifty. There was a hush and up stepped a stocky man in his late thirties, Kim wriggled and grabbed my knee.
“Oh great, he’s my favourite”
Some people around us had big open notebooks others had Dictaphones. The man introduced himself and asked who among us would like to be our own boss, to have our own business, almost all raised their hands. He then asked who among us had our own businesses, were their own bosses, just over a hundred hands went up, most being the Osmond’s henchmen among us, one being Kim. The speaker told us how six years ago he was a builder who was experiencing a lean period during the recession then he discovered Americo. He now had a big country house in Suffolk and he hadn’t touched a brick in over three years. He explained how we could all start to climb the income ladder by simply paying an £85 subscription to be able to buy Americo products and convincing our friends and neighbours to do the same; easy! He did stress that this was not pyramid, but net-work marketing. At one point the speaker’s wife stood up, she wore a gaudy turquoise suit and had obviously had something done to her hair recently. She seemed to speak mostly about what she had and how good life was when you are rich. The man stood again and proceeded to pull numbers out of nowhere, put them together in dubious calculations and marvel us with the results. Kim watched transfixed. I did pick out at one point something about reaching targets to earn your bonuses but my mind began to drift toward Kim’s thighs.
When the speaking finished we were invited to go and have a good cup of coffee. Everyone began to mill about shaking each other’s hands and smiling, I took Kim’s hand.
“Do you fancy a drink?” I made it clear that I did.
“Yeah, ok Mike” she looked a little shocked that I should want to leave.
We went to the hotel bar and I ordered a Guinness for me, and a white-wine spritzer for Kim.
“So, what did you think? Blown away huh. I was a little taken aback first time but now I just can’t wait for the next meeting.” Kim was now back to her old self but some of the enigma had gone. I quite enjoyed her being a little more open; a kind of regression seemed to have taken place. I asked her if she was hungry, when she said she was I suggested a nice Indian restaurant close-by. We finished our drinks and went out in to the clement night air. At the entrance were the speaker, his wife and other assorted grinners. The tackily attired wife was climbing into the passenger seat of a huge dark green Mercedes, the speaker preparing to take the driver’s seat. With my arm around Kim’s waist I clearly felt her flinch as we passed them.
The mood progressed better than I could have hoped at the restaurant. Kim asked me if I intended to subscribe to which I replied without hesitation that I would. At the end of the meal the bill came which I duly paid by cheque and dug for sufficient coinage to cover a respectable tip. I then felt Kim’s hand grab my thigh very nearly reading my thoughts.
“ Hey businessman, you wanna come back to my place for some business.”
“Erm, yeah corse” Kim’s approach took me unaware but more than willing.
We arrived outside her flat and half of me expected her to laugh shouting “gotcha, you little twat!” but she didn’t, instead she lead me into the door and up the staircase to her door and in. Boxes bordered the passageway but the light was too dim and my vision too tunnelled to notice any details. The bedroom smelled undoubtedly of Kim, I was nearly wetting myself with anticipation. All I could have wished for was accelerating into my face like a babe laden BMW, I was in danger of being run over and I didn’t give a flying scrote. She led me into the bedroom threw me on the bed then fell on me her clothes flying off into the ether. I could feel her swollen breasts against my now bare chest her nipples like pebbles indenting my skin. We thrashed around and at one point I found myself on top, my excitement in danger of running prematurely away with me. I closed my eyes trying to think of something that would retard my ardour, Maggie Thatcher, no, Dame Edna Everage, no! Suddenly I had it, Mimi Mapandreou! I had waited so long for this I couldn’t let myself flash in the pan. After the ear piercing climax we laid still, entwined and winded. Then I gave in to the all-enveloping lethargy.
The sun began to flood through the curtains, I looked over at the clock by the bedside 6.17 it pronounced. Kim was still in my arms, I pulled her close and she began to stir and so did my loins. 6.30 the alarm squawked, Kim leapt from the bed naked and glorious in the sunlight.
She walked toward the door, ”I’m going to take a shower,” she said sleepily.
I looked around the room, there were boxes all around marked AMERICO MARKETING. I got up to find the kitchen; I found it at the end of the narrow passageway also littered with Americo boxes.
“Coffee?” I shouted in the general direction of running water.
“Yes please” came the muffled reply.
A sudden image of her lathered-up in the shower came to me; I resisted the urge to join her. In the kitchen I filled the kettle boldly labelled AMERICO ELECTRICS, in the cupboard I found the AMERICO CHOICE BLEND all the containers had a similar motif. When I took the steaming cups into the bedroom Kim was in her underwear, she smelt fresh and I wanted her again. I put the cups down and approached her from behind and kissed her neck.
“Not now Mike, we gotta go to work,” she said abruptly.
“I’ll take a shower then”
“There’s a guest towel in the bathroom” she motioned to the direction I had heard the running water come from.
In the bathroom I saw more Americo labels, in fact I saw little else. I emerged from the bathroom refreshed, Kim was now fully dressed. I dressed hurriedly and joined Kim in the lounge. She was standing in front of a picture frame mirror adjusting her make-up. Across the top of the mirror were the words LOOK-NOBODY LOVES A LOSER then the Americo logo. I put my arms around her waist and gave her a squeeze; she looked up at me with knowing eyes.
“We’ll meet up after work and go through the paper work to get you signed up “
“Ok, we’ll meet after work” I smiled smugly and sat down to finish getting ready.
 She smiled at me as I put my shoes on.
“Have you got sixty quid, Mike?”
I paused a little confused “but I thought the subscription was eighty-five”
“Not the subscription, silly,” her smile fell momentarily. “You did enjoy me didn’t you?” 

From Under Dark Clouds

The Century of DIY