Friday, 30 April 2010

Superb Letter from Esquire

I've just been rooting through my Hotmail account and found something that I think could be blogworthy. In December 2008 I polished up a piece of creative nonfiction that I had written and sent it to a few lifestyle magazines. I emailed “Access Denied”, a tale of being booted out of a girl's house by her mum, to Dan Davies of Esquire UK.

Here's the story:

I was really pleased to even get a response. Here it is:

I really like it and wouldn't think you will be an amateur for much longer. I am not sure how or whether it could work in Esquire but I will show it to the editor and features director and get back to you. Thanks for the submission in the meantime.
Best wishes

Dan Davies
Deputy Editor

Obviously you're having to take my word for it that this is real, unless you fancy coming 'round and looking at my hotmail. Much respect to Dan Davies and his team at the awesome Esquire magazine.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

So Much to Do

Automatic writing exercise

I've started about twenty writing projects over the past year that have been left unfinished- mostly fiction pieces, sci-fi, dramas, stories where the realism needs checking- problems have arisen that have stopped me from finishing what I started, in a lot of cases.

I wrote a draft of a short story about a young man with a learning disability who finds himself in trouble with the law after he gets involved with a woman. It isn't finished, because I need to find out more about Social Services- how it runs, and what the man's social worker would actually do in that particular scenario. Hence, this is an open call for advice from anyone with social work experience.

This is only one of many items that I'm dabbling with. I'd finish them off, and be done with them, but in order to catch up I'd have to barricade myself in my room and speak to no-one for the next month. Otherwise I'd do things and see things- road trips, visit clubs, watch films, get myself into absurd situations- all of which would warrant blogging.

Hence, this piece is over. Done.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Who is Fluffy Oakes?

“A normal life is boring, but super-stardom's close to post mortem...”
-Eminem, Lose Yourself

His name is Fluffy Oakes, and the word is that he is some kind of pimp. He does not oversee the solicitation of sex, though, oh no. He's just a pimp in the sense that, wherever he goes, all eyes are on him. He is an alpha male, a strong, calculated leader. The locals say he has a glow, a radiance, like Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. Okay, maybe not like him. Fluffy's white and from Oldham. But he still has a bizarre, inexplicable star quality that draws everyone to him. I was equally drawn, and now I'm sitting sipping Aberlour ten-year-old scotch whisky with him in his Manchester penthouse apartment, trip-hop vibes pulsing, subtle, from the Bang and Olufsen speakers.

“I love animals,” he says, sank back in the couch. “I used to read animal encyclopedias when I was in primary school, and I was fascinated.” Fluffy seems totally relaxed, comfortable in his own body, yet this contrasts against his enthusiasm. He seems to have more fire in his heart than a Gaviscon advert. “I spent as much time as possible at zoos and safari parks,” says Fluffy. “I worked in a pet shop for most of my younger days, and now I'm a consultant at Oldham Zoo. I'm responsible for the welfare of the animals and act as a sort of translator between the animals and the management.”

Like a veterinary scientist?

“Sort of. There's more to it than that, though. I've got a knack for finding out not just what people are thinking, but what animals are thinking too.”

I really want to believe him, that he talks to animals. There's a child-like wonder inside me that Fluffy is propelling, enlarging. He says this all so naturally and off-the-cuff that I'm totally caught up in the moment. As outlandish as it sounds, I still feel like he's honest- and that it must be quite a beast of a job.

“Well, if a job isn't hard,” says Fluffy, “it's not a job.”

I still have Fluffy's business card that arrived for me at Power Towers last week.

Fluffy Oakes
BSc Hons
Zoological Interspecies Consultant

“It's my real name,” he admits. “People say it's weird, but I think the world is a weird place. Criminals are rewarded, families are encouraged not to work by the benefits system, animals can express valid viewpoints with considerable eloquence, the price of milk has doubled inside a decade... You buy a pirate DVD off some wheeler-dealer in town, and before you know it, you're funding a terror camp somewhere on the Afghan border. And nobody's any different. We all contribute to the state of the world. I've done a lot of weird things in my time,” he says, swilling his whisky. “I'd say I'm not proud of them, but I think everybody secretly loves telling their sob stories. I've got mine,” he admits. He smiles, melancholy, and his eyes shine like the array of city lights behind him.

I want to pry- and surely the reason he agreed to this interview was for the exposition of these “sob stories”. But there's no need to throw him in at the deep end. Besides, there's something he suddenly wants to show me. We leave the leather couch and walk back into the empty space of the lounge. There's no coffee table because, he says, he doesn't drink coffee. A valid reason, if you ask me.

We take off our shoes and he slings his grey suit jacket back onto the couch. He leads me onto a padded mat in his spacious lounge, and I realise why most of his home isn't furnished. It's a training area.

He's sitting on the floor with his legs open. “You kneel here,” he says, and pats the mat in front of him.

Fluffy describes an imaginary scenario. “You've knocked me to the floor,” he says. “You've come down with me and you want to finish me off. But I've got other plans.”

Before I can think to memorise what's happening, he has my arm locked. I can feel something on the back of my knees and across my stomach, and when he moves I land hard on my back. He's sitting on my stomach, one hand on my chest, keeping my shoulder blades on the ground. He still has my arm tied up. He could smash me to pieces right now, if he wanted.

“You okay?” he asks.

I'm fine- but I could do with another Aberlour. While he gets up to pour, I go to peruse his bookshelf. It's lined with James Ellroy, Don DeLillo and Tom Clancy. It occurs to me- and I let him know that I know- that the man is ridiculously, obscenely intelligent.

“I'm not, mate,” he replies. “It's absurd how long it takes me to read those books. I wouldn't normally admit that. I understand them, but I soak it up slowly.”

This is Fluffy's first solid admittance of weakness. He's keen to turn this interview into some kind of trendy, urbanite therapy session, it seems. I'm not sure where the interview is going...

“Same with the training,” and he nods back to the matted area. “It's taken years to learn, but now I could kill you in about twenty different ways.”

Despite the suggestion, I'm completely unintimidated. He doesn't have to tell me that this is a rhetorical statement. It's in no way a threat.

In another room, there is a wall filled with shelving. Each shelf is lined with lever-arch files. He opens one for me, and shows me hundreds of hand-marked DVDs. “I try and get a film in once a week, but there's rarely the time,” he says. “I've only watched a fraction of these. There's something about films that makes them so much easier to follow than books. And films speak to me in a personal way. There's a scene in Eight Mile, for instance, where Eminem's character is in a rap battle- it's kinda like a giant verbal bust-up but in rhyme. But Em turns it around and completely slags himself off on mic. After this, his opponent doesn't have anything to come at him with. That's the film's ethic.”

We walk back into his pristine lounge. The view from this height stuns me again as I look through his floor-to-ceiling windows- the concrete blocks of commerce interspersed with shining, neon towers- new and old buildings living together. The over-lit Printworks car park glows neon green. A couple of floors in the CIS tower beam out in white shafts. The Hilton hotel, Beetham Tower, has two red lights at opposite corners of the framework discouraging planes from smashing into it's blade-like roof feature.

Fluffy crashes down on the couch without spilling his drink. “I think I need to adopt this ethic, and let people know that even I have my challenges.” He leans back, and his oversized ego knocks down a CD rack on the other side of the room. He doesn't flinch as the albums scatter over the floor.

I recognize Royksopp, The Doors and The Goodfellas Soundtrack.

“That's what I want from you, my friend,” says Fluffy. “Just let them know that it's all relative.”

I'll do my best,
I promise him. All he has to do is dish out his stories.

“Oh,” he says, leaning forward again, animated. “I know a great one to start with.”

The tape recorder rolls. He closes his eyes, casting his mind back, finding the start.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Thoughts on The Assassination of Richard Nixon

“A man is only remembered for his work.”
-Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn)

This is probably best read with the background accompaniment of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

I've just re-watched The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Neils Mueller's stunning film set in 1974. Samuel Bicke, a struggling salesman, blames Nixon for the world's ills, including unemployment, racism and corruption and decides to take drastic action. I decided to come back to this film because there was so much about the Bicke character (played flawlessly by the amazing Sean Penn) that I empathised with.

For the record, I am in no way interested in killing myself or anyone else. I just wanted to lay that straight out. But bear with me here.

Bicke is a smart man. He's intelligent, eloquent and politically-minded- he disapproves of the government in charge. Maybe I'm blowing my own trumpet, but I see myself in all of that. What really correlates, however, is that Bicke is seen attending many sales interviews and only getting the one job.

Back in 2005 when I finished my media degree, I knew that there would be no jobs whatsoever in TV or Radio- and I was right. I went to recruitment fairs, read newspaper ads, checked job websites, visited the job centre- the only positions available for people with no useful qualifications were in sales. So I applied for these jobs. And just like Bicke, I bluffed my way into sales positions and failed miserably. I wasn't prepared to lie to make money. I stumbled on my words when I tried to sell to customers. There is even a scene in which Bicke discusses previous failed employment with a prospective manager. “They expected me to lie,” he says. That kind of awkward transparency is something I've experienced- and I hope I won't ever again. In short, I was too honest. Penn's stuttering, delicate portrayal of Bicke has all of these traits. Watching this film is like looking back in time.

Bicke is a rookie office furniture salesman. I once worked as a newspaper advertising salesman, and the two businesses were strikingly similar. The furniture store was run by a father and son, Jack and Martin Jones (Jack Thompson and Martin Henke). The newspaper was run by a woman; her daughter was part of the sales team. I was surrounded by people who were more confident and successful than me, but I knew that they were no smarter. I couldn't grasp why they could achieve sales results and I couldn't. Bicke was in a similar boat. I was advised by a sales trainer to read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Jack Jones lends Bicke a copy of this book. Jones then tells him to listen better, a criticism I received when I was in sales.

Outside of work, however, Bicke lies to girls for their attention, despite refusing to do this for an employer. I've been guilty on both counts of this. He also apologises way too much, both in work and out, something that I eventually learned to keep to a minimum. He generally makes all the big mistakes when it comes to women- self doubt, overt niceness, awkwardness. He lies to his estranged wife, played by Naomi Watts, who even looks like a girl I dated in 2006. The wife is polite but thoroughly bored of him and is waiting for him to lose interest and leave her alone. She's also latched on to the fact that he's in trouble (“You're going to lose this job, aren't you?...”). In 2008 I dated a girl who could sense that I hated my job and that I might not be there much longer. Our conversations became difficult and eventually she was just waiting for me to ditch her. The nice-but-bored tone in Watts' voice was just like the tone of my ex in 2008. Bicke's wife divorces him. He finds out when the “Dissolution of Marriage” letter drops on his doormat. My 2008-ex ditched me by text. Bicke is devastated. Fuck it, so was I.

Bicke's hands, like mine, tremble when he's under pressure.

Noticing that things aren't going his way at the furniture store, Bicke decides to set up his own business. He submits his business application to the authorities, who tell him it will take a number of weeks before he hears back. He then returns to the authorities within a matter of days in the hope of 'speeding up' his application. The receptionist tells him the same thing- wait for us to call. The newspaper job that I had was telesales- selling advertising space over the phone. I dealt with hundreds of secretaries numerous times, who each repeatedly told me “we're not interested. Don't call back.” So I'd call back. Just like my manager was telling me to. Bicke deals with the same tired disdain that I did. On one occasion, the manager took the receptionist's phone off her and shouted, “WE ARE NOT INTERESTED. GOODBYE.”

Likewise, Bicke eventually speaks to a boss at the council who tells him the same thing as the secretary did but in a deeper voice.

Bicke eventually resigns. I got the push after four weeks. They were paying me a basic wage- it was better than being on the dole- so I saw no reason not to string it out as long as I could. Not long after this Bicke loses his mind. Well... if you read this blog regularly, you can draw your own comparisons.

The film ends with Bicke attempting to hijack a passenger plane with the intention of taking out President Nixon, who he sees as the instigator of the world's ills. As mentioned, I'm not going to take things that far. I am disappointed in the Labour government for a number of reasons- the spiralling crime rate, the lack of rights for teachers, the dumbing down of education and the increase of high grades, tax rises, the lax immigration rules that do not correlate with the UK's lack of jobs- the list goes on. But I'm not going to do things Bicke's way. I'm just going to sit here and write about Labour until they are ousted- which shouldn't be too long. Then I'll bitch about whoever else is in power. Unless it's me in power, which... hey, you never know.

I did actually write a screenplay about an unemployed graduate who is unwittingly inducted into a terrorist faction, and who is so furious about how his university and the government had let him down that he starts to empathise with his terrorist associates. I'm still polishing it off, so stay tuned. But writing is as far as I'll go in terms of political activism.

The most interesting thing about Bicke's intentions was that, on the 11th September 2001, a group of people tried to fly a jet into the White House. I now realise that the attacks on 9/11, although horrific, were not that unheard of. People had been thinking up these kinds of atrocities for decades.

On the way to the airport, Bicke is listening to some motivational tapes that his boss had given to him.

“Remember: power is a state of mind,” the tape says. “You have as much as you think you have. If you don't think you have any, you don't.”

When the film first came out, I found some advertising postcards, probably in the lobby of a cinema somewhere. The title of the film was tiny, written in the corner, but the arresting thing was the giant phrase in red block caps.


There was something about the phrase that I liked. It made sense. I blu-tacked it to the front of my diary so I would see it every day. Every September I buy a new diary and I transfer across the now dog-eared, battered postcard. When I opened a Blogger account for people to see my best work, I couldn't think of a better name for the blog itself.

Throughout the film, Penn portrays the helpless Bicke as being close to tears until the closing scenes when his character becomes psychotic. Mueller uses a variation of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata to heighten the pathos, and it works so well that from that moment on, you will only ever think of this film whenever you hear either the film's composition or the traditional melody.

My only hope now is that I haven't given away too much of the film for you. If you haven't seen it yet, I recommend you do.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

On Days Like These

Automatic writing exercise

On days like these, when the clouds are sparse and the air is just about warm enough to go out in a t-shirt, certain parts of life alter for the better. Driving seems less of a chore. Music plays out better on the car stereo. Good-looking women appear on the footpaths, as if they’ve been in hibernation through the winter months. I can actually wear parts of my wardrobe that I couldn’t before- the beiges, the whites and of course the Matrix-stryle wraparound sunglasses that I never fail to lose annually.

So far I’ve not had my first pollen-induced sneeze this year, and my eyes have not begun watering. So until then, I’ll enjoy the great British summer. And I’ll turn the radio up.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

February's Blackpool Absurdity

“Everything I do is either illegal, immoral or fattening.”
-WC Fields

I think the only noteworthy thing this month is the trip to Blackpool for Apone's birthday, where we all got steaming during the day, dressed in an array of ridiculous outfits- Me: Fireman, Ferro: Julius Caesar, Hudson: Nun, Apone: Nurse (a guy in the girl's outfit, with a wig) and Hicks: Knight. Drunken banter was out of control. The Nun took offence to something someone said, and stormed off on his own down the promenade like an angry sister of God.

When we made it back to the hotel, the manager told us The Nun had left to get a taxi: he had started his pilgrimage back to his convent in Oldham. We prayed for the sister's safe return.

Outfits off. Trendy shit on. It was at this moment, in the hotel room, that the booze hit me. Unfortunately, like any other normal human being, the lack of control that alcohol causes is something I cannot deal with. I had what can only be described as a panic attack. Alcohol accentuates my weaknesses and exacerbates my fears, and sometimes it can break me. That's why I was staring at myself in the hotel room mirror, forcibly gripping the sink, close to tears.

Hicks noticed.

“What's up with you?”


For the record, I don't mind being encouraged to have a few drinks. People know that I love my whisky and that, if I'm not driving, I'm on it. Only there is a line that we all cross after a few drinks. For most people, once that line is crossed, it's happy days. They don't care about anything. Unfortunately, wild paranoia ensues after I step over that line.

We then only needed one taxi to get us to Sanuk. Money was practically pissing out of my wallet. Ah, I thought. This is the other reason I don't normally drink. It costs too Goddamn much. Now I remember.

The entrance to Sanuk has a bar area, a smaller reception-type room to walk through and buy a drink before you reach the main halls. I was stood with a small glass of coke, offsetting everyone drinking pints.

“What the fuck is that?”

Ferro pointed disappointedly at my drink. The lack of bown froth or the surface of the coke indicated that it contained no alcohol.

“Dude...” I say, unsure of where to start. “I really don't like being pissed...”

Weve discussed this before, but I just can't seem to hit the nail on the head.

How do I describe this without wussing out?

“Nothing's going to happen,” Ferro said. “We're all looking out for each other.”

Of course, what I wanted to say was that every time I get pissed, I forget twice as much as I usually do, which is already a lot. This leads to me feeling like a clueless pissrat, a liability and a pain in the the arse for everyone else in the group. In short, I feel like a powerless child, not a man that any woman would look at. If I cross a certain alcohol threshold, I know I'm not going to meet any women. And it hurts to know that.

Ironically, In Sanuk I pulled some girl from Bolton or somewhere, and she asked me to come to Syndicate with her. Syndicate is the UK's largest club, with a capacity of 4,300- apparently a series of interconnected halls playing various styles of music. I think I only saw one of the rooms, partly because I was too drunk to venture around and partly because I didn't want to leave the girl. I was also fascinated by the giant spinning dance floor and the girls using it to do the splits on the circumference of the slowly-rotating disc.

On the dance floor itself, the girl I was with crumbled up an ecstasy pill and stuck half of it to the end of her tongue. I sucked it straight into my mouth and swallowed it with a swig of water.

This was my first E. The sensation reminded me instantly of some song by The Streets.

And I'm thinkin'...
(Lights are blinding my eyes)
That's proper rank, that tastes like hairspray
And I'm thinkin'...

I must have spent ages with her at the back of the club, because eventually the music stopped and the lights turned on, dazzling me. We swapped numbers and I left the club. My ears were ringing loudly, as if I'd been stood right next to a speaker, and when I got outside I noticed that it had started to snow again. I was in jeans and a t-shirt. I ran out onto the promenade and flagged a taxi down, but the driver told me that the hotel was a short enough distance to run. So that's what I did, as fast as I damn well could, past the now-quiet amusement arcades and crowded, steaming chip shops. Ahead of me, the streetlights blurred with tiny comet-tails, bouncing in-synch with my footsteps.

Talk about “Duality of Man”, I thought. Matt, you're an idiot. First off, you should have stayed with her. Second, you hate what alcohol does to you. So what do you do? Drink all day, then go to a super-club with a girl you don't know and ingest narcotics straight out of her mouth. You think that's going to make you any better? But then, what is life without experimentation?

We drove back the next morning. The fact that I didn't spew in Apone's Jag half-way down the motorway is nothing short of a miracle.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Why Not?

Automatic writing exercise.

I'm staring at a blank page. There should be words scattergunned all over this piece of paper right now, seeing as I've been sat here for the last five minutes with this pen in my hand. But no- it is now only, what, fifty percent covered? And does any of it mean anything on this page? No, I didn't think so.

Why not?

A fellow writer, a man from Scotland, once wrote: “There are days when extracting words from my brain is akin to setting upon a paperclip with a JCB. Or eating soup with a fork.”

But lo- look what I have! Boom! I'm on side two! A bit of pressure can help you produce, erm, anything.

Jesus. I only hope this noteboook was made from a sustainable forest. I'm imagining a lobby of displaced and very literate squirrels stumbling upon my scribblings.

“Well, that's just great, Matt,” the alpha squirrel says. “I get booted out of my tree so my home can be turned into a giant pile of Sainsbury's notebooks, and this is what you use it for? I'm appalled. If you were writing a journalistic, informative piece about the depletion of Britain's woodland, I'd be at least sympathetic. But no. This is just random.”

Well, you have a point, squirrel. There's nothing in this notebook to suggest it is recycled. It's apparently not even made from a sustainable forest. But that doesn't mean I'm going to stop writing on it. I have the remainder of my thoughts to shovel out and dump on this page, like it or not. After all... why not?

Saturday, 10 April 2010

My Little Eye and Snowcake- Meeting the Director

'He stops for one second and he's totally overwhelmed by how big the world is and how small and unimportant he is. And as he turns around, we see his face look to the sky. And he says, very quietly, so that no one can hear him: "Dazlious". '
-Linda Freeman (Sigourney Weaver), Snow Cake

I've just skimmed through the TV guide to notice that the nerve-jangling thriller My Little Eye is on ITV1. I'm watching and typing- I've got the mirror next to my monitor so it reflects the TV behind me.

When are we talking here...? I think it was 2006 when I met the film's director, Marc Evans. The Scotsman was a guest at the screening of his then-new film, Snowcake, at Manchester's Cornerhouse Theatre. Snowcake stars Sigourney Weaver as an autistic mother who takes traveller Alan Rickman under her wing after he is in a devastating car crash. It's a real tear jerker and a world away from the claustrophobic tension of My Little Eye. I recommend both movies.

After the screening, I found Mr. Evans in the bar downstairs. He signed my Snowcake flyer that I picked up in reception. He also signed the leaflet that came inside the My Little Eye DVD; I thought I'd bring it just for the signature. The leaflet is back in the DVD and safe on the shelf.

Check these films out if you haven't already. Much respect to Marc Evans.