Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Perhaps I'm just getting old

I have a general rule of avoiding political talk on my blog. Because that kind of thing rarely interests me; because I don't want to be plagued by trolls who feel it is their responsibility to identify my every flaw; and because I have friends across the political spectrum. As J. Frank Dobie once said: "a sense of values is perhaps best imparted by those who feel them intensely but never mention them."

But this whole WikiLeaks thing (a) is a bit tedious, isn't it? The first thing that strikes me is that they are rather anti-climatic. North Korea is fucked up. Iran is fucked up. Exceedingly wealthy non-elected leaders are often pricks. Did we not know this?

The question I have, though, is: did we need to know this? Diplomatic cables are voices, not policy. The voices help to shape policy, yes, but do not determine it. In bigging itself up and attempting to justify fucking up more than 40 years of diplomatic relations, the WikiLeaks site claims: "This document release reveals the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors."

But, well, no, that's not true, is it? There is no hypocrisy here. The leaks simply reveal single voices of people who are not policy makers, but rather those offering their opinions and observations to the people who shape policy. Which is what we expect. Policy is not made in a vacuum, it is made by compiling the information given. The leaks actually just reveal that the State Department is functioning as it should. People send information, the State Department weighs the veracity and value of that information, and policy is formed. Via the leaks, we are seeing only the raw data and not how it was used or prioritised.

Stupid fuck-head Bradley Manning is not a hero for (allegedly) leaking the cables, he's an ass-hat. This hasn't exposed corruption, it's exposed the workings of a perhaps lumbering but functioning diplomatic machine. And in so doing, it has only made things more difficult for the United States. Firstly, it's likely that a number of diplomats named in the cables will become ineffective; paranoid individuals from other countries will no longer want to deal with them. So a huge swathe of diplomats will have to be replaced, costing the United States the wealth of experience and knowledge those people had.

But even after that occurs, those people from other countries will remain wary and untrusting -- fearful that their reputation or safety could be put in jeopardy by confiding in the United States. So, fewer voices. Good job, Bradley Manning. Way to go. In an uncertain world you've (allegedly) limited the number of voices the U.S. will get to hear, likely affecting the honest voices most. This puts the world's most powerful economic and military force in a situation that may loosen its grasp of what's actually happening in the world; what could possibly go wrong?
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(a) I linked to the Guardian there because, unlike the New York Times, it doesn't require subscription. Though, it should be noted that the British government has the power (not often used) to issue legal orders to prevent its press from reporting information deemed to be too sensitive. No doubt diplomatic correspondence would fall under that category, so it's possible that the Guardian would not cover all the leaked documents.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A letter home: 29 November 2010

My dearest Emma,

I miss you.

I suppose that's an odd thing to say to a figment of my imagination. You exist only in my head, Emma, and so you could not be any closer. But, strangely, the part of my brain that builds your narrative places you in the United States. Strange because I sometimes imagine you have an Irish accent. My picture of you is less than complete. You have a surname that simply comes from a town in Scotland. I have yet to solidly decide on your middle name -- Jayne, perhaps. Emma Jayne Carrbridge, breaker of men's hearts. You are a brunette. You smell wonderful. You wear long wool coats in winter. Why you would be in America, though, I'm not sure. Maybe the free cheese in Ireland just wasn't enough.

I'm not sure exactly where in America you are, either. In St. Paul, living in an old house on Cathedral Hill, maybe. Or perhaps you are living in the Sierra Nevada mountains, or the stunning great space of Utah. The exact where is unknown, but I'm relatively sure you're in America. And lately I have been missing all the real friends and family of my home country, so, by extension, I'm missing you, too.

As you know, Emma, Thanksgiving was last Thursday. I'm happy to say that although thousands of miles away from the life-affirming cold of Minnesota, I celebrated the day with an old friend who understood what it means to miss that chilly, flat place. Jen and I went to high school together, back when she was known as Jeni. We were in marching band. As cool as cool can be. Sixteen years later, we have somehow both landed on this island of rain -- she in London with her husband, Dave, and I in Cardiff with my endless thoughts.

I travelled out to London on Thursday and stayed to Sunday, so it felt like the true Thanksgiving experience of bundling and trundling to be with loved ones. In Britain, Thanksgiving is simply known as "a Thursday" and so the trains and buses were no more full than usual. But it felt authentic. I'll admit to suffering one short bout of terrible sadness and ache during the trip, walking through Camden markets, but I suppose I am fortunate to have been raised by parents for whom tradition is not all that important.

My parents went to a seafood restaurant for Thanksgiving. While millions upon millions of Americans carved up turkeys and passed around heaping plates of mashed potatoes and green beans and so on, my mother was eating haddock. I know I've told you before, Emma, of how Thanksgiving dinners of my teenage years were always prepared by myself. Rather than turkey I would make barbecue ribs. It would often be snowing as I stood outside by the grill, heaping more sauce onto the meat. Then I would run back inside to make sure the macaroni and cheese wasn't boiling over.

So, my heart didn't ache this Thanksgiving with the pain that broken traditions can bring. There was no terrible disconnect between what "always" was and what now is. And in the company of Jen and Dave I often feel more at peace than at any other time on this island of rain. My head is so full of stories, Emma, that I have actually been known to once or twice lose track of that which is real and that which is created by myself. I fear this affliction will only intensify as I age. So, for the record, Jen and I are not related. I am certain that with time, however, I will claim otherwise. Jen and Dave are family.

This letter was written to you in carriage H of the 10:37 First Great Western service from London Paddington to Swansea -- the distance between myself and my London family growing ever wider with each word. Though the feelings of hiraeth were already upon me before.

I think they have been since 21 October, when I turned in my masters degree project. It was almost 10 years to the day after I first discovered Welsh lessons on the BBC's website. Rarely does life tie itself into such neat little bows. I turned in the project at 11:57. Four minutes later, I was standing outside the Humanities building trying to absorb the sense of completion. The universe had not shifted. My Winnie the Pooh wristwatch -- the one that's outlasted at least a dozen girlfriends, a marriage and a journalism career -- kept ticking away. A bleached-blonde girl in expensive clothing designed to make her look poor almost bumped into me. I was not great; I was not unique; I was another of thousands; my name is writ on water.

What I felt more than anything was the incredible sense of being wholly un-incredible. As if I had stuck my head into that machine in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy that shows people their place in the universe. I suppose it's natural, then, for a little voice in one's soul to whimper: "I want to go home." Even if one doesn't know where or what "home" is.

In the academic department that was my home for four years, in a stall in the men's toilet, tucked behind the toilet roll holder and as such invisible to any cleaner, is a small bit of graffiti that has been there through the full of my Cardiff years: "Life is what you love, not what loves you."

There are better dispensers of wisdom than toilets stalls. But, as needs must, Emma.

My father says that home for him is wherever my mother is. He loves her, and all those things one describes in explaining "home" he feels in his love her. Whatever he feels for my mother beyond those domestic attachments, I prefer not to consider; he is, after all, my father. I used to feel the same toward Rachel. But then home moved to the desert and stopped replying to my e-mails.

So, I have been thinking a lot about the wise toilet stall of Cardiff University's School of Welsh: Life is what you love, not what loves you. I have been trying to think, Emma, about what I truly love. The Spanish refer to loved ones as mi vida -- "my life." What is it that I love so rudimentarily that it is my life?

I love writing, of course. I should hope that in my final years I will be as Papa was. The nurses will wake me from my confused sleep and ask me questions that I find difficult to answer, but when they ask: "And what do you do, Mr. Cope?" I will always reply: "I write. I'm a writer."

I love creeks and rivers and lakes, and all the scenery one would expect to see in connection with those things. I prefer to live in the city, Emma, where art, groceries and medical care are within easy reach. But if I go too long without wading into fresh water, or breathing in the smell of trees, I start to come undone. The city and everything in it start to feel like all the stories in my head. "Real" becomes blurred, and it's difficult to find interest in living in a world I'm not sure exists. In the outdoors I feel reconnected.

And I love women. That sounds superficial, perhaps. But it is a confession to the fact that I do not want to live forever on my own and without the feeling of being deeply, romantically loved. I am very lucky, Emma, to have friends on multiple continents who care about me. But few of them -- save Eric, perhaps -- want to have sex with me. I love being loved; I love having a "home" in my father's sense of the word.

Having spent a ridiculous amount of time working that out, Emma, I am now mired in the challenge of trying to figure out what it means. OK, I love these things; how do I apply that to my existence? How do I live a life that speaks to my loves?

Obviously, the first one is the easiest. I should be writing. Annie recently told me she feels I'm not pursuing that love with enough diligence: I should not just be writing, but writing professionally. She is right. My fear stands in the way. I get locked up attempting to do anything other than throw several thousand words down the bloggery memory hole.

"You have a talent, Chris," she said. "And you're not putting it to its best use."

I agree with her, Emma. But I am uncertain; I don't know where to begin. How does one get work writing articles for newspapers and magazines and so on? How does one come up with ideas for such articles? And what if one is no good? What if one loves being a writer so dearly that he is afraid of having reality negate his claims?

But the universe doesn't wait for people to get their shit together. Do or do not, says the universe, there is no sit and drink tea until someone shows up at the door with a book deal. With the masters work completed, the universe has put me into a situation where Action Must Be Taken. If I don't have a job by 21 January I will have no choice but to leave Wales. I need to be able to sustain myself. If I am unable to do so, I won't be able to renew my visa. I don't know what I would do back in the United States; I have no prospects or opportunities there. I would only be returning because I know they won't kick me out.

It's a possibility that fills me with sick panic. I miss you, Emma Jayne Carrbridge, but something in my heart says I should be here. I get angry and frustrated with its every facet, but I want to stay on this island of rain. I am applying for jobs all over, but there is not a great deal available. I'm worried. I have put so much into being here -- given up or missed out on more than I had ever imagined -- and it would break me to have it all come to a sudden, inglorious end.

So, that is life at the moment, Emma. I feel directionless and fear I am a failure, I miss the United States but am trying desperately not to return. Some time this week I will set up a Christmas tree and begin my annual tradition of intensely wondering where I'll be next next year. Your guess is as good as mine.

I hope you are well. Say hello to your family for me. Please send nude photos.

I remain your humble servant,
~ Chris ~

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 13

This is a chapter from my book, The Way Forward. Buy the whole novel now from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
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We ate lunch at the Spice Island Inn, a pub that has sat -- under various names -- at the tip of Old Portsmouth since the 1750s, when it was home to smugglers, prostitutes, press gangs and all other sorts that dwelled beyond the city walls. The pub's current name recalled the exotic days long before its own existence, when the area was home to a healthy spice trade. It was here that the city of Portsmouth actually began, in 1194. In a fit of irony, Richard I gave Portsmouth its city crest -- "an azure shield bearing a gold star and crescent" -- just before heading off to fight Muslims in the Crusades.

There is a section of Moorhead, Minnesota, along the Red River, that was once home to an endless string of brothels. There is a shopping mall there now. So, too, had the rich and seedy past of Old Portsmouth been wiped clean. It is no longer set out by city walls. Where there were once dozens of brothels, pubs, and bathhouses, there are only two pubs, a newsagent, a bed and breakfast, and several nice homes.

The Spice Island Inn was overpriced for Portsmouth, but my favorite pub nonetheless. I was easily fascinated by the thought that people had been imbibing there years before anyone had come up with the idea for my country. I imagine the Spice Island had been host to a number of drunken conversations on what a terribly bad idea America had been. Actually, I know it has been host to that conversation at least once -- I was there. But you get my point.

In the summer, when the sun was shining, one could sit outside the pub and watch the ships roll in and out of Portsmouth Harbour: ferries to France and Spain, smaller ferries to the Isle of Wight and Gosport, military ships, fishing boats, pleasure craft, and occasionally, the massive Queen Elizabeth II cruise liner as she crawled up the harbor toward Southampton. Whole days could be happily lost watching the world sail past, sitting in the sun, nursing pints of beer. In late March it was still a little cool for sitting outside, but tables had been set up anyway to take advantage of the day's sun. Claire and I chose to sit inside. I felt bad about her paying, but took advantage of it, ordering Guinness.

I was stupid happy.

"You're bouncing," Claire said.
"I'm sorry. I'm in a good mood."
"You're happy?"
"Yes."
"Good."
"How could I not be happy? I'm drinking Guinness, it's a beautiful day, and I am having lunch with the most beautiful woman in the northern hemisphere."
"The northern hemisphere?"
"Yes. There is a woman in Australia who is more attractive than you. But she's incredibly flatulent."

Claire gave her soft laugh -- "Hmm hmm" -- and we stared at each other while I took a long sip of Guinness.

"Do you really think I am beautiful?"
"Yes, of course. You're not looking at you right now -- I am. And trust me, you are beautiful. Sometimes all I want to do is look at you, you are that beautiful. It doesn't seem real that I'm sitting across the table from someone so beautiful."
"You're laying it on thick. Finish up your pint and we can go for a walk along your little wall."

She was talking about the remaining section of city wall, built by Henry VIII, that had once separated Portsmouth from the sea, as well as the iniquity of Old Portsmouth.

"It's not my wall. It's Henry VIII's."

I then told Claire my joke about Henry VIII not being able to bring forth a son, but he could sure as hell fortify the sea. It was a line I had stolen from my Let's Go! guide, and it was never funny to English people. If something is worded as wit, Americans will happily accept it as such, but English people got hung up on the joke's historical inaccuracy.

"Henry VIII did have a son -- Edward," they would say.

"Henry VIII did have a son -- Edward," Claire said. "Actually, I think he had a number of sons. Six I think. They just didn't live very long."

I politely excused myself to go to the toilet.

When I came back, Claire was staring at something in her hand: a small orange piece of paper. When she saw me, still across the pub, she shoved the piece of paper back into her purse.

"What were you looking at?"
"My train ticket. I was thinking of tearing it up."
"Why?"
"Because I want to be with you this weekend. I go away every weekend, and more and more I find myself spending those weekends thinking about…"

She looked down at her purse. I knew what she was saying -- I felt it, too -- but I decided to give her an easy way out. I played dumb.

"Course work?" I said. "I suspect it can be hard to study when you're at home."
"Hmm hmm," she laughed. "You. I think about you, Ben."
"I think about you, too."

I wanted to keep talking. In quick flashes my mind laid out extensive plans of how the two of us could spend the weekend. We could go up to London, or to Bath. I really liked Bath, but perhaps that's because I'm American -- she might not be at all impressed. Well, we didn't have to go if she didn't want to. Maybe we could get all dressed up and go to a proper restaurant. There was that one Italian place in Southsea that looked good. And on and on and on and on; I wanted to tell her everything -- how crazy I was for her, how badly I wanted to do some ridiculous thing like make a T-shirt that said "Ben + Claire = 4-Ever." But I stopped myself from saying any of it. I realized I would just be making things more difficult. I would be pressing her to define "us." Things had been going quite well undefined.

"But, you know, you should probably go see your parents," I said. "They're expecting you. I'm sure they miss you during the week. And you've already got your ticket -- no reason to waste that money."

Her elbows were on the table and she stared at her right hand. She bit the nail of her left ring finger.

"I don't suppose I can just not show up."

She looked up and caught me staring at her. She smiled.

"But I don't have to go for a bit. Let's go on our walk."

...

At a memorial to the first shipload of Australians, sent 13 May 1787, Claire asked if she could hold my hand.

Wait.

I buried the lede there. Claire asked if she could hold my hand -- that's the important information. Where exactly it took place is pretty much irrelevant. I mention it only to give a sense of location, so they'll know where to put up a plaque honoring me: "This rather confusing sculpture is in memory of the boat loads of criminals who colonized Australia, but more importantly, it marks the exact spot where Claire Alton asked to hold Benjamin Stout's hand."

Like putting her arm around me, this holding-hands-in-public thing was new. This, too, made me stupid happy.

"Well, yes. Of course I'll hold your hand," I said, looking around.

There were other people walking along the wall. She was holding my hand in public. Other people could see us! Holding hands! Look at us! We're holding hands! It's strange that you can have sex with someone numerous times, but the day they ask to hold your hand in public is the day your head explodes. When I felt the warmth of Claire's hand, I felt short of breath. Now, suddenly I was as terrified and filled with joy as I had been at age 13 when Beth Tagan had dared me to kiss her at the Imax theatre in Valleyfair.

You know how at the end of Empire Strikes Back Han Solo gets put into a frozen state? Imagine if somebody had slipped him a few dozen Ecstasy tablets just before -- that's how I felt. I wanted to run and scream and jump up and down and pump my fist in the air and completely ruin the moment with celebration. But I locked it all inside and tried to walk normally, as trying to prove sobriety to a police officer. I couldn't breathe. I was unable to speak.

We walked in silence, hand in hand, Claire at my right side, until just before the start of the Southsea Promenade. Claire stopped.

"When are you going to kiss me?" she asked.

Again, this was new. But I responded to it a little better. I pulled her toward me, wrapping her left hand around my waist and bringing my hand around to the small of her back. Our lips touched and again my head exploded. Again I felt my breathing break into sharp, quick breaths. She was small enough that I could wrap my right arm around her and tap my rib cage with my fingers. Her hair danced on my face in the wind. I felt the warmth of sun on my neck and took in a deep breath, feeling all my muscles go loose and then tighten in excitement. I pressed her close to me. And I don't mean to spoil the romantic image, but I was sporting a powerful erection.

Claire seemed to be thinking along the same lines; her hands slipped underneath my sweater. Her fingers were cold from the early spring air, adding to the chills running up and down my spine. We were locked in our kiss and time and the world stopped for us. After several minutes, she pulled back and put her head into my shoulder, trying to ease the sexual tension.

"Oh," she said, letting out a breath. "I'll miss my train. Oh God. I shouldn't go. I should stay the weekend."

An intelligent man would have fallen to his knees and begged her to do just that -- stay. Don't go to Bournemouth. Don't go anywhere. Ever. Don't ever let go of me. Instead, I walked her back to Harry Law Hall, where we got her bag and headed to the station.

...

"The train arriving on platform 1 is for Fratton, Cosham, Fareham, and Southampton Central," announced a man's recorded voice at Portsmouth and Southsea station.

Claire and I were on the platform, still holding each other's hand. I opened the train car door and lifted her bag inside. She stepped in and looked at me.

"I know your birthday was last week," she said, smiling. "I'm sorry I didn't give you anything."
"You gave me a lot," I said, squeezing her hand.

She leaned forward and kissed me again. A conductor stepped out from a few cars down and banged on his door. I looked at him and he pointed at me with raised eyebrows.

"On or off?" he shouted.

I finally let go of Claire's hand, shut the door, and stepped back.

"I'll be here when you get back," I said.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Strictly week 8: More painful than ever



Blackpool is often billed as Northern England's answer to Las Vegas. Apparently Northern England is playing a game in which the goal is to answer the question as incorrectly as possible.

Blackpool, for those of you playing along at home, is a cold, windy, wet and miserable city littered with shit bingo halls and pub entertainment targeted at old people and those who have suffered severe head trauma to the frontal lobe, thus rendering them incapable of high-level thought. It's like North Wales, but with bingo halls and pub entertainment. It is, in fact, Northern England's answer to the Winstar World Casino in Thackerville, Oklahoma.

Actually, I take that back. That is a really unfair thing to say and I wholeheartedly apologise to the Chickasaw Nation, who run the Winstar. I've only seen it from Interstate 35, but I am certain that their re-creation of Britain's capital is a far more pleasant experience than being in the real British city of Blackpool. Quite honestly, I would be absolutely amazed if Blackpool could manage to draw such entertainment luminaries as Larry the Cable Guy.

Viva Thackerville.

But packing up the Strictly juggernaut and shipping it to Oklahoma for the week probably would have been cost-prohibitive. Additionally, Blackpool's Tower Ballroom is said to be something of the spiritual home of competitive ballroom dance in the UK. It's their Cooperstown. For our friends in the Soggy Nations, Cooperstown (in New York state) is the spiritual home of baseball.

The upside of the show being away from boring old London for the week was that the Tower Ballroom holds roughly 1,300 people. Or 3,000 people, depending on your information source. Ricky Groves claimed it to be 1,300 in the video piece he did for "It Takes Two." His also claimed, however, that the studio in London holds 600 people. This figure blatantly goes against both the reality of what a person can see when watching the programme and the fact that the bloke who built the studio set said it seats 150 people.

It would appear that Strictly follow the Karl Rove mantra: "we create our own reality." But in the reality that I know, it's at least certain -- or, rather, my senses of sight and sound as applied to that which I was able to perceive through a television led me to believe strongly -- that this week's audience was larger. The building and dance floor, too, appeared larger. And these combined elements made for an added sense of excitement. So great was the excitement, it caused Alesha and Bruno to flash 10s like college girls showing their tits at Mardi Gras.

And in the embarrassing hangover of the next day, Britain found itself once again stuck with the ugliest girl at the party. Widdy was voted through. Her curse continues. Falling victim to it this week were Felicity and Vincent.

Felicity & Vincent ~ American Smooth ~ 30
There was a lot of walking and grinning and, in fact, a lovely little lift, but Felicity and Vincent did not actually dance one step through the first 55 seconds of their 1:40 routine. I realise the judges don't have the ability to go back and count exactly how many seconds someone was not doing something, and the American Smooth by its nature allows for a certain amount of not doing anything other than standing around trying to look glamorous, darling, but sweet baby Jesus on a kangaroo there was a lot of not doing something.
I'm not sure whether my neighbours read my Strictly updates, but if they do, it was during this routine that you probably heard me screaming: "Why are you not dancing?! What is wrong with you?! Dance! You're supposed to be dancing!"
Admittedly I scream that same thing on nights when Strictly isn't on but in that case you probably don't want to know why.
But I digress.
Whereas technically Felicity should have stayed in Strictly one week more because Widdy should have left before her, it was getting about time for the actress to pull the curtain on her Strictly experience. She graciously acknowledged as much Monday night on "It Takes Two," and then scored major points with me by saying: "I think it's about time for the people who can't dance to step aside."
When asked who she'd like to see winning the competition she said: "The couple who are the best dancers."
You hear that, Widdy?

Ann & Anton ~ Wasting Everyone's Time ~ 13
What the fuck was that? They had a six days to rehearse that. Six days. SIX DAYS. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and much of Saturday. What in the great and wondrous fuck were they doing in all that time? Clearly they weren't rehearsing. The average person could have plotted out that mess in 30 minutes.
And what was it even supposed to be? There's no way you could call it a samba. You couldn't even call it dancing; it was just moving around while music played. Actually, it was Widdy standing still while music played and a man in gold trousers destroyed every ounce of his dignity before an audience of roughly 10 million people. Then it became her being dragged around while music played.
I find myself now feeling so depressed for Anton, for what he has allowed himself to be. Anton first started dancing competitively way back when he was 14 years old. That means he has dedicated 30 years of his life to his craft. In that time he managed to win a number of major competitions and titles. Now he's doing this. Widdy is not even trying. For the samba she patently refused to do certain steps because she felt they were too suggestive (what the fuck are you doing in a dance competition if you don't want to dance?). So, Anton is left to do nothing but move about, feeling every tiny bit of his soul die as he grins madly to the braying cheers of fools who ridiculously see Widdy as a national treasure. Perhaps Nick Griffin, too, should slap on a big yellow dress and waddle around to disco hits in order to improve his public image.
In case you missed it (and bully for you if so), Widdy wore a dress that looked to have been made from the hide of Big Bird. After standing unsteadily for roughly 80 seconds, she fell to the floor and was then picked up, swung around and dropped in a move that I can only describe as: "unfortunately not causing serious injury."
Rightly so, Craig gave her a 1. Len has stated before that he gives people an automatic 4 for simply turning up, but his score of 5 was still far too generous.

Gavin & Katya ~ American Smooth ~ 27
Wales v. Fiji is a metaphor for Gavin Henson right now. Wales struggled to maintain form throughout a performance that really should not have been the challenge it turned out to be. I am a fierce supporter of Gavin, and I recognise that all his excuses are legitimate (I wholly accept that the fear of dropping Katya on her head can be unsettling), but I am growing weary of his almost-but-not-quite-ever getting it. He should be better, he can be better, but he's not. I'm pretty sure it's almost time for him to go. Almost. Because Widdy should go first.
When he does leave, I shall miss his quotes most: "Mondays and Tuesdays put me in a dark place."

Patsy & Robin ~ Samba ~ 28
Whoa, hey, what happened there? I was not expecting Mad Patsy and Big Gay Robin to wind up in the bottom two. Admittedly things got a bit hectic in the middle. It was sort of the dance version of this video. Not really. That video just makes me laugh. In truth, Mad Patsy was perfectly acceptable through much of the routine; it was just a boring routine.
One of the problems, I feel: I'm not sure Big Gay Robin is all that great a dancer. He doesn't seem to have the same snap of movement that other male dancers have. Also, he has the face of a builder from the Midlands.
What I'm getting at is that I feel Mad Patsy and Big Gay Robin will have to go pretty soon. But I was still surprised to see them sitting in the bottom two on Sunday; I thought she had a fair amount of public support.
Perhaps, like me, people got distracted by Mad Patsy and Big Gay Robin's music, "Copacabana." Rather than pay attention to the dance they were thinking of the Muppet version of that song. Ah, the good ol' days when children's television involved scenes of murder and alcoholic stupor.

Scott & Natalie ~ Samba ~ 32
Someone feed Scott. The boy is wasting away. He looked a bit apprehensive this week in his dance but perhaps that was just one of the signs of advanced level starvation. He's starting to get a wild-eyed look to him. Soon he will come running to the judges' desk after each dance, like a Dickensian street urchin, and rifle through their belongings for candy bars.
Or perhaps he was nervous because Natalie is beating him. If you watch the dance, you see that she slaps him in the chest two or three times during the routine. But, then, that old line from Jake Blues comes to mind: "If women kill me, I don't mind dying." Because, oh, Natalie in her dress made of tea towel and tinsel is the sort of thing I would happily be run ragged and slapped around for.
Something about Scott and Natalie in the last few weeks has made me unsure of their ability to carry through to the final. I think it's even possible they could make a shock exit if they aren't careful. The only benefit of that would be a massive backlash against Widdy. People need to realise that Widdy is to blame for everything. The collapse of the Irish government, North Korea coming close to starting a big clusterfuck war that absolutely no one wants, Wagner staying on "X-Factor" -- all these things happened while Widdy has been on Strictly. You're trying to tell me it's coincidence?

Kara & Artem ~ American Smooth ~ 35
First off, I'd just like to express how heartbroken I am that Kara and Artem are now an item. This almost certainly means I will be spending Christmas alone. I blame Widdy. But even still I can't help liking Artem just a bit. I love his Russian pessimism. He and Kara will pick up a load of 10s and he just sort of mumbles about having to focus on next week. I wonder if perhaps I am Russian; I do the same thing about writing projects. People will tell me that something I've done is good and I'll think: "Yeah, well, that's something I've done. Past tense. What I'm doing now is probably shit and everyone will be disappointed because it doesn't match up."
But, if Kara's into that sort of self-hating man, then perhaps there is still hope for me.
Their dance Saturday was incomparably good, to the extent that I found myself watching both dancers rather than just the celebrity. They work so well together that there is little sense of the amateur and the professional. One wonders how Kara and Artem would match up against Jennifer Grey and Derek Hough. Kara and Artem's dance was so good that I have watched it again several times, picking out new, small things I like: Kara's hands, the kick she does that just barely misses Artem's head, the way she is still acting out the routine and "dancing" even when sliding across the floor. The chasm between Kara and Widdy is Grand Canyonesque, so the fact that Len gave the former only one point more than the latter was bullshit.

Pamela & James ~ American Smooth ~ 37
Quite possibly the highlight of the entire Blackpool night was the fact that James Jordan picked up his first 10s in the five-year history of his being on Strictly. Admittedly those 10s came from Alesha and Bruno, who were throwing 10s like Brett Favre throws interceptions (For our friends in the Soggy Nations, Brett Favre is the 197-year-old NFL quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings who has a bad habit of throwing the ball to the wrong team). But a 10 is a 10 and you have to be happy for the Double J.
In my mind I had written off Pamela some time ago, so I really wasn't paying attention to her and James when they took the floor Saturday; their scoring two 10s meant I had to go back and watch it again. And it was, in fact, pretty good. James has some magic, evil power to bring out the cougar in women and that was in full display Saturday. At the start of the routine she was even prowling toward him with pawing motions. Pamela does quick spins and acts the dance with reckless abandon (early in the dance when she pulls Double J close you half expect her to bite his lip). But I can't quite get myself to agree that it deserved two 10s. However, I will accept it if the knock-on effect is that we all now decide we love Pamela for "having a go" and representing older women and whatever else it is that Daily Mail columnists would probably say in support of Widdy.

Matt & Aliona ~ Samba ~ 38
How good is it to be Matt Baker these days? He's on three of the BBC's best-rated shows right now -- Strictly, Countryfile, and One Show -- and he gets to spend several hours a day wriggling about with a girl who clearly has an aversion to being fully dressed. One wonders if/when he sleeps. I suspect he doesn't. Aliona's dress Saturday brought to mind a number of activities but sleeping was not one of them. Whereas Natalie's dress had been made of tea towel and Christmas tinsel, Aliona did not even have the tea towel. Her "dress" would not have covered the paddles upon which were displayed the 10s she and Matt got for their dance.
God bless you, Aliona Vilani.
Yes, I have completely changed my opinion of her since the beginning of the show. Yes, that probably is due to the fact that she's gorgeous. Yes, that does make me shallow. Let's just acknowledge that fact and move on.
Obviously you should watch their dance again. Admittedly, this routine to "Young Hearts Run Free" could never live up to the one performed by Mercutio when Romeo is tripping on acid in Romeo + Juliet (still the best Shakespeare adaptation ever), but it was pretty stunning. The thing I like is that in eye contact and facial expression and often body language, Matt and Aliona seem genuinely comfortable in the routine. They have managed that aspect of making it look like it's something they know how to do and that little flicks of wrist or looks are simply things they are throwing in at the moment to amuse themselves.
It reminds me slightly of when I was a stage actor and how we would keep ourselves focused through the dozens and dozens of performances by adding little tiny things. We knew our lines and where to go and so on, but to keep it fresh and fun for ourselves each night there were tiny, tiny differences that we improvised. Somehow Matt and Aliona manage to portray that level of confidence and knowledge of routine within just a week. Again, the space between them and Widdy is so incredibly vast that they should be on a different programme. Or, rather, they should be on Strictly and Widdy should be sitting at home, alone, wishing she weren't so awful a person and wondering what it must be like to feel another's touch.

Elsewhere in the show:
- Tess seems to have hit a particularly rough patch with her choice of dresses of late. This week she looked like a disco car mechanic.
- Len was on fire with one-liners: "I'm as confused as a baby in a topless bar." "Because you can do something doesn't mean you've got to put it into the routine -- a boy at my school could fart 'God Save the Queen.'" "Ann, it's like haemorrhoids; you keep coming back more painful than ever."
- On a side note I find it interesting how various recaps I've read have consistently failed to accurately quote Len. They get the basic feel of what Len said but what they put inside of quotation marks are not the actual words he used. I have long found this to be an annoying aspect of British journalism. In the few times I've been interviewed for stories, I've noticed that what I said is not what ends up being written down. British reporters: what you put into quotation marks is supposed to be what the person actually said, not what you heard. If you don't remember what the person said and you didn't record it, summarise their words. Don't make shit up and then slap some quotation marks around it.
- I suppose, though, the total lack of disregard for accuracy in quotes is part and parcel of British tabloid journalism. Many papers in the UK simply make up the whole story. For example, the Mail Online reported that Kara and Artem had a "lover's tiff" outside her apartment recently. But Kara pointed out later that, in fact, Artem was not even there that day.
- That dance in the results show? Yeah. I most certainly approve of that sort of thing.
- I was less fond of Duffy's caterwauling. I realise that I am violating a major rule of Welsh citizenship by saying that, but, crikey, she gets on my nerves. Her voice makes my ears hurt and her most recent single is the sort of thing I would play to prisoners at Guantanamo to get them to talk.
- The United States version of Strictly, "Dancing with the Stars," had its own problems with the continued success of someone who can't dance (although, compared to Widdy she's did incredibly well). But in the case of Sarah Palin's daughter you can at least see she was trying. She wasn't not amazing but at least she was trying. At least she was willing to put out -- though, I guess we already knew that.
- Speaking of "Dancing with the Stars," how good is this routine?
- In light of the above, has anyone ever considered an international Strictly Christmas special? You get the top-scoring couples from a handful of the 75 countries that have versions of Strictly, put them in front of a large British or American audience that will cheer at anything and, shazaam, in the cost of making one programme you've got something you can air in several countries. Damn, I'm a genius.

Who's going to win:
This week I am supporting Matt & Aliona in a final with Kara & Artem and Pamela & James.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 12

This is a chapter from my book, The Way Forward. Buy the whole novel now from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
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The electric tea kettle rattled and hissed, then shut itself off with a click. I opened my eyes and saw Claire sitting at my desk, reading. I rolled to my side and silently watched her make two cups of tea as the sleep ebbed from my brain.

"It's hot," she said, extending a steaming mug of tea.

I sat up in bed, leaned against the wall and sipped my tea. It was sweet and seemed to lift the weight from my eyelids. Somehow every cup of tea she made was perfect. She opened the window and the morning air was cool on my bare skin. My muscles ached. I warmed my hands on the tea mug and felt the warmth of its steam on my face. I took in a deep breath and looked up at her.

"Thank you, Claire, for making me tea," Claire said.
"Thank you, Claire, for making me tea," I said.
"You're welcome, darling. Now thank me for this."

She handed me a small white paper bag with "Southsea Bakery" written on it in red letters. Inside was a piece of carrot cake -- quite possibly the best carrot cake made on the planet.

"Superb! Thank you."
"Does it rock?" she asked, smiling.

I had only once used the overly American exclamation, "This rocks!" around her, but she had teased me about it ever since.

"Yes, Claire. It rocks. It rocks hard."

She giggled in her soft, wonderful way. It was more like a hum -- "Hmm, hmm" -- that was light and beautiful and made you feel good when you earned it. This was how our life had been for the past few months.

...

After the Christmas holiday, Claire and I had been talking and drinking Bombay Sapphire in my room one night when suddenly my arms were around her, then we were kissing, then I was taking off her clothes, then we were having sex -- incredibly good sex, with her on top, and me (after years of highly orchestrated frustration with Allison) able to satisfy a woman simply by being there. I needed only to lie back and enjoy the show.

She slept in my room that night -- the two of us cramped onto a twin-size student bed -- and we had sex in the morning. It, too, was incredibly good. We had incredibly good sex yet again that night. We had a lot of sex -- all of it incredibly good -- and within a few weeks I was using more delicate phrases like, "making love." But Claire was always honest.

"Fancy a shag?" she would ask.

Soon, she had the key to my room. She would come up to escape her drum-and-bass-music-loving next-door neighbor and do her studying at my desk.

She was beautiful, and I loved to stare at her while she read. She would chew on her pen and twist strands of her sandy blonde hair as she thought, then attack her notes; scribbling with a sort of madness that seemed desperate to get down every thought before it escaped. She was left-handed and wrote by grasping the pen in her fist, yet her handwriting was the flowery sort girls develop for themselves when they are 14 years old.

I would sit on my bed and pretend to read, but she knew I was staring at her. She would at first toy with me, not making eye contact. She liked to torture me by playing with her hair and running her fingers across her lips. I'd look at my book, read about three words, look up at her, shift, cough, stare some more and repeat the process a dozen times. Finally, she would set down her book and acknowledge my staring, and I would kiss her and we would make love. Or, shag.

Afterward, she would press her body against mine and fall asleep with her head on my chest. I would run my fingers through her hair, touch her neck, kiss the top of her head and hold her close to me until I fell into a happy deep sleep. I never shook in my sleep or dreamt about fighting as I always had and sometimes still do -- and my heart felt full.

In the mornings, if one of us didn't have to go to lectures, she would make tea. Sometimes the two of us would make a full breakfast together or walk down to a bakery for some pastries.

Claire was wonderful to me in all ways, and I did my best to be unquestioning. It seemed the only condition of our relationship was that we not discuss it. I had only once brought up the subject. It was in early February and I was trying to determine what she wanted for Valentine's Day. We were lying in bed and I was kissing the fingertips of her right hand.

"This is nice," I said. "Whatever 'this' is."

She patted me on the jaw in a playful slap and said something that at the time I found to be so profound I wrote it down: "Definition ultimately leads to clarification. Clarification ultimately leads to redefinition."

I bought her a teddy bear, anyway.

...

"You'll want to finish up," Claire said, pointing to my tea. "I'll need you to take me to Tescos."
"It's 8 in the morning. I was out late."
"Yes. I know, I came 'round at about 11 and you were still out -- jumping off piers, apparently. Why were your clothes wet?"
"Andrew was whacked out on drugs or something. We ended up chasing him into the water."

And I told her the whole story of Andrew's misadventure and his nakedness and how when we returned to the pub where Andrew had stripped down, his clothes were nowhere to be found. So we wrapped him in Jared's enormous flannel shirt, making him look like a child in his father's work clothes. And we had to walk 30 minutes home because no taxi would take four soaking wet guys, one of whom was naked but for a flannel shirt.

"Andrew is the ugly one, yeah?" Claire asked.

I gave a quick snort and nodded slightly as I took another sip of tea.    

"I don't like him," she said. "He's a bit funny, you know? His eyes are set back in his head and he just sort of stares at people. You know what I'd do if he got near me? I'd rip off his ear. No, really. My uncle was in Royal Marines -- he says you can just grab hold of a man's ear and fall to the ground, and it'll pop right off. That's what I'd do to your dodgy friend."
"He's alright. You've only met him once."
"It was enough," she said, smiling now. "I should have your ear, too, for going into the sea. Your clothes smelled awful when I came in this morning. I should have thrown them out."

Instead, she had washed them, as she did with all my other clothes. Sex, tea, and free laundry service; she was quite a catch. But it unnerved me that she had taken to washing my clothes. It made me feel like one of those psychologically abusive husbands you would see on "Oprah" before she decided to focus exclusively on diets and celebrities.

I've never understood how Oprah got those guys to be on her show. If you're male and your wife wants you to go on Oprah with her, things are not going to go well for you. Don't do it. But I could just see myself somehow being dumb enough to show up, and sitting in front of an angry studio audience, getting verbally torn into by Oprah. Then I would be like all those stupid men and offer up weak arguments in my defense: she likes doing my laundry, it gives her a sense of purpose; the Lord Our God commands that women do my laundry.

"You just don't understand," I would say. "This is just the way English girls are. The way men and women deal with each other -- their understanding about each other's place in society --- is just a little different than in the United States. It doesn't mean that Claire isn't quick or intelligent. This is just the way she is. She also won't go to the shops alone most of the time. It can be noon on Saturday, but she won't go to city centre by herself."

"I don't understand?" Oprah would say, raising an eyebrow.

Then, having insulted Oprah, I would spend the rest of my life being spat upon by every woman I encountered.

It would have been useless to tell Oprah that Claire was doing my laundry against my will. Claire collected my clothes while I was in lectures and would have them clean and fresh-smelling upon my return. She even pressed my shirts. Once, in an attempt to convince her to stop, I created a set of specific instructions for the way my clothes had to be folded, my trousers hung, and my shirts pressed. But she simply acquiesced to these methods, making me feel even worse.

It's quite possible that I spent far too much time thinking about laundry.

It's also possible that I simply didn't see the hook of the thing.

"Why is it," I asked from the shower, "that you will go down to the bakery on your own, but you have to wake me up to go to Tesco with you?"
"Carrot cake weighs less than my shopping."

Claire was sitting on my bed, reading, when I got out of the shower. She had put on fresh sheets -- the slightly sea-smelling sheets of the night before now piled in a corner. She wore a pair of comfortable old blue jeans, a white cotton blouse that tied together at the top, and a red button-up sweater. She had a number of handmade bracelets on each wrist and a bead necklace. She made cheap, old clothes look sexy. Her hair hung down a little past her shoulders and frizzed out in cute, bouncy curls. She rarely wore makeup -- her face was clean, athletic and naturally beautiful.

She swam every day -- sometimes more if she was stressed -- and her body was a testament to the benefits of regular exercise. Her muscles were toned, and the bead necklace seemed to highlight the strength of her neck. When I say she had a strong neck, it makes her sound like a Hungarian weightlifter -- that's wrong. She was small, about 5-foot-5, and I envisioned her gliding through the water, otter-like, with unmatchable speed. On land, she moved with a sort of fluid grace that I figured came from swimming.

She was sat with her right elbow resting on her knee as she read. She held the book in her left hand while her other hand played with her hair. She looked like that first picture in a Playboy photo shoot: the picture that sets the tone. Most of the time, the girls in those shoots are in a barn. Barns are apparently great places to get naked.

I could have spent all day looking at her.

"Stop staring at me," Claire said without looking up from her book. "I've got more planned than just a trip to Tescos; you need to get dressed. I'm going to buy you lunch. I'm going to miss your birthday tomorrow, so we're going to celebrate it today before I have to make my train."

Claire was from Bournemouth and went home every weekend. I decided not to tell her that my birthday had, in fact, been the weekend before. In her absence, I had gotten very drunk and thought about Allison for the first time in almost two months. I cried so hard, sitting in a heap and leaned up against a lamp post a few hundred feet from a chipper van at 3 a.m., that a number of fellow drunken lads sat down to console me.

One of them was named Alan. He had a shaved head, a tattoo of the Portsmouth Football Club crest on his left forearm, and a long scar on his right cheek that had come from being "glassed" -- having a broken pint glass shoved in his face during a fight. He was missing his upper right incisor and canine teeth. His voice had been turned to gravel by years of beer, cigarettes and shouting at soccer matches. He put his arm around me and shared one of his cans of Tesco lager. He had three kids by three different women, he explained, so he knew and understood the opposite sex.

"This bird, she's of no use to you, mate," Alan said. "She's not worth this. You've got to sort yourself out."

I think that's what I had been doing. I was finally letting go of Allison -- feeling her piece of me finally die away.

In every relationship, that other person holds a piece of you -- a sort of timeshare in your soul -- that exists solely for them. When that relationship ends, you have to let the part that once belonged to someone else die away, so new relationships can grow there. Allison had held a large stake of me. Without her, though, that part of me was useless. That vast, empty, unused plot of soul tormented the other parts. It was an emotional brownfield.

I had been afraid to let it go. I had tried to block it all out and pretend that it wasn't there, that it never had been there. I wanted to believe that if I ignored Allison's piece of me it would somehow cease to have ever existed. But it was there. And by trying to look away, I kept myself chained to it for months. I nurtured it and tried to drag it along all the way to my birthday, when something clicked and let me know that I had to finally admit it was over. Some people might have done such a thing quietly, possibly sitting in front of a journal and pouring their heart onto a page, or staring thoughtfully at a sunset after a long walk. I chose to get very drunk and find solace in the sturdy but surprisingly tender embrace of a Portsmouth soccer hooligan.

...

"Last night Emma and I went into that Firkin pub you sometimes go to," Claire said.

We were walking back from Tesco now. I was carrying all the shopping while Claire shouldered the burden of a chocolate bar.

"It was full of Chinese people," I said, finishing her sentence.
"Yes. That was sort of odd."
"Thursday night is their night to go out. I think I may be to blame."

I told her of how Anne and Tony had brought me soup when I was ill during the Christmas holiday. When I got back from Paris the second time, I insisted upon taking them to the pub. They became exceedingly happy and unintelligible after just two drinks, and eventually gave up on English altogether, leaving me to smile politely and play with a matchbook.

Ever since then, I had noticed an increasingly large contingent of Chinese/Hong Kong students -- Anne and Tony among them -- making the Fleet and Firkin their Thursday local. I would like to think the tradition persists to this day. What better legacy than to be the guy who introduced Chinese students to English culture?

Claire laughed out loud.

"Sweet Benjamin -- doing his part to improve race relations in Britain," she said, swinging her arm around mine.

That was new.

One of the unspoken rules of our happy, undefined relationship was that we pretended it did not exist when we were outside the tiny worlds of our rooms. Now, still with her arm around mine, Claire violated the rule even further and pulled me close to her.

"Fancy a shag?"
"I thought you were going to buy me lunch."

I'm romantic like that: a woman asks me if I want to have sex, and my immediate response is to worry about the loss of a free lunch.

"One can do both, you know. We can shag and then have lunch. Come on, I'm up for it. Get going."

Those last words were whispered in a soft purr. They danced in my ear and sent shivers down my back. She tickled my ribs and teased me all the way back to halls, where we didn't so much as put away her shopping as throw it at the shelves and refrigerator. Then I picked her up and carried her to her room, where we had incredibly good sex.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Strictly recap week 7: Kiss of the Saracen

Is karma punishing me for actually liking the way Katie Waissel sings? Is that why Widdy is still on (and destroying) my favourite show? Her continued presence undermines the programme; it means that the quality of performances are not relevant.

Perhaps, in that aspect, Strictly has become a metaphor for the randomness and cruelty of life; it has become the most real of all reality shows. One of the great challenges for religion is answering the question of evil: explaining why bad things happen to good people. You can work hard, treat everyone with respect and love, but still be wiped out by some screeching fat catastrophe. In his roundabout way, Thomas Aquinas said that evil helps us to identify good; we need the dark to identify the light. And indeed, Widdy's dancing before Kara Saturday made the skill of the latter all that more obvious. I personally feel Kara and Artem were under-marked by two points. Kara deserved full points simply for ho well she fit into her dress.

Thomas Aquinas also said that happiness is the greatest good -- happiness being defined in part as the fulfilment of will. That which is contrary to said fulfilment is evil. I want (it is my will) for Widdy to leave Strictly; she makes me unhappy. She is, therefore, evil.

Falling victim to the Voldermort of ballroom this week were Michelle & Brendan.

Michelle & Brendan ~ Paso Doble ~ 24
With her frilled white dress and scarlet bra, one thought of the glorious death romanticism of the Spanish Civil War era and before, when it was far better to die magnificently than, you know, stay low to the ground and not get shot. The red bra was symbolic of a creature stabbed through the heart. Her nothing-inside blank stare, talking to herself and aggressive stomping through the routine gave it the feel of a woman marching stoically to her certain end -- urging death to take her sooner than the fear of death. It made for an effective (if not necessarily good) paso doble, itself a Spanish dance glorifying the bullfight, but also an appropriate way to embrace the inevitable truth of her leaving the show. Michelle had been in the bottom two thrice before; it was only a matter of time. I tend to think she and Brendan were under-marked in this routine. But it wouldn't have mattered. Her time had come.

Ann & Anton ~ Foxtrot ~ 20
Earlier in the week, as part of Remembrance Day, dancers Kristina Rihanoff and Ola Jordan visited some WWII soldiers in a veterans' home and allowed themselves to be groped for the common good. I'm all for this sort of thing, by the way. Military personnel have and continue to put their lives in terrible danger for the sake of their country's will and I think the very least we can do to repay them in old age is sending big-breasted women 'round to dance with them.
On Saturday, I was reminded again of those tottering men in their 80s and 90s as I watched Widdy and Anton stumble through a foxtrot. The veterans were far better dancers. Widdy's routine had all the style and grace of a wedding dance with grandma after someone's made the mistake of leaving a bottle of sherry in her reach. Stop voting for her, Britain, or I will strangle you all with my bare hands.

Felicity & Vincent ~ Salsa ~ 26
I thought salsa was supposed to be fast. I also thought it was supposed to involve dancing. Clearly I am wrong, or perhaps -- thanks to Widdy -- it just doesn't fucking matter, because Felicity and Vincent spent the first 50 seconds of their routine standing still and slowly waving their arms. That was probably for the best, though. Once they got moving it looked like Felicity was taking part in the cheese-rolling festival. Clearly they should have followed the advice of one of Felicity's grandsons, who said in a video piece: "Perhaps he could just carry her."
It's a good bet that Felicity is next to go from the programme. She was in the bottom two this week and seemingly resigned to her fate, saying in the results show that she hadn't expected to make it past week 4.

Pamela & James ~ Cha Cha Cha ~ 32
Tear-away clothing for the win. Pamela started out wearing a business suit and ended up looking like a showgirl. I have no doubt that there are any number of City workers also wearing show girl outfits beneath their pinstripes. An amusing little thing to note is that both Pamela's business suit and showgirl outfit had a poppy.
Beyond the instant costume change, however, the dance was plodding. I think in part because the dude singing "Money" was doing so with the least amount of enthusiasm possible. He didn't want money, he wanted a nice kip. The video piece that ran before the routine of Pamela and James chatting with Scottish children had been far more exciting.

Patsy & Robin ~ Viennese Waltz ~ 32
One of my usual complaints about the Viennese waltz is that it's just a load of twirling about in hold; not much happens. Patsy and Robin attempted to answer this complaint by dramatically chasing each other around the floor for the first third of the dance. They didn't go into hold until 38 seconds into the routine. I was shocked and amazed that Len said nothing about this, but perhaps the presence of Widdy has caused him to lose the will to live. Sure, fine, spend a third of a dance that is all about hold out of hold? Why not? Nothing matters. We are all just specks of dust in a vast and cruel universe.
That said, Mad Patsy and Big Gay Robin did alright once they actually started dancing. The story of the routine was done well and gave you a sense that Mad Patsy might be able to act. Also, it is worth it to have her in the programme simply for her insane reactions to being put through to the next week. The internet has failed us that there is not already on YouTube a compilation of Mad Patsy reaction clips put to music.
Needless to say, Widdy is to blame. She's slowly killing all the joy.

Gavin & Katya ~ Quickstep ~ 33
In this godless Widdy Age the most important aspect to a dance, it seems, is managing what the professional wrestling world would refer to as a "spot pop" -- pulling off a move that gets audience reaction. There seem to be a lot of them this series. Widdy has created a situation where dancing well is not as relevant as getting a huge cheer for doing something difficult (other people) or ridiculous (Widdy). Obviously, I like spot pops for the most part, but I do recognise them for what they are: tricks designed to draw one's attention away from lack of actual content.
Having Gavin run up and kiss Bruno full on the lips was one of the best spot pops of this series. I'm willing to bet that no one remembers any other part of the dance. I personally spent almost the whole of the dance clapping and shouting at how hilarious that move had been. It easily scores a place as one of the most memorable moments in the show and deserves kudos if for nothing more than the fact that it stole attention away from Widdy. The next day, homophobic Telegraph readers were pissing and moaning over a "gay" kiss on a family programme (Really?) rather than cawing about Widdy being some sort of national treasure.
I didn't notice until watching the dance again later that it was surprisingly slow for a guy who makes his living running very quickly and weaving about. I remember a commentator once describing Gavin as having "ghost-like speed" for his ability to move quickly and suddenly through gaps in defence. Surely this would make for the ability to perform a pretty stunning quickstep. Apparently not.
But I still like the guy. Last week I got in an argument with a couple over whether Gavin is, in fact, an idiot. The vast majority of people I know believe that he is but I don't agree. If you listen to him speak, yes, he will say some dumb things but always in a very dry way. He rarely, if ever, says "uhm" or "ah" and doesn't repeat the same phrases over and over, as one expects from a stupid athlete (for example: Peter, who used to play goalie for England). He displays no other characteristics of a stupid person but for the things he says, which are said in a dry, sarcastic tone. I really do feel that Gavin is often being ironic and that people are interpreting him as stupid or self-centred because they are not giving him enough credit. Obviously if he's going to win the public's heart he'll have to stick to kissing judges.

Matt & Aliona ~ Rumba ~ 35
In these tough economic times, Strictly was not able to afford a dress for Aliona this week, so she was kitted out in some glittery duct tape and a napkin. Worked for me, mind you.
The rumba is a particularly tricky dance, I think. Due primarily to the fact that it is impossible to tell when someone is dancing it correctly. If I understand the history of the dance (more accurately known as bolero són), it comes from clubs in Havana in the pre-revolutionary period and was -- as is the case with a number of dances -- just a sneaky way of getting a chance to rub up against another person. How are you supposed to judge that?
"Well, are they shagging yet? Nope. This thing's definitely not going to get a 10."
But by the standard of feeling each other up in public I thought Matt did a pretty good job, especially in tiny actions. At the start of the dance he moved his head in that erratic "I'm going to kiss her neck, no, wait, I'm going to nibble her ear" way one does when making out with a girl. Then later in the dance, standing behind Aliona he buried his face in her hair as if breathing in her smell. When they were doing the sliding doors step, though, or anything else that didn't involve groping Aliona, it lost fluidity and looked like two people caught between heavy petting and modelling appliances.
If I am ever on Strictly, I promise that will be the story of my rumba: torn between wanting to show you the great features of a new washer-dryer and wanting to get naked with my dance partner.
On a side note: in looking up YouTube videos that would explain what I mean by "sliding doors step" I found this video, which takes every possible ounce of sexy out of the rumba.

Kara & Artem ~ Argentine Tango ~ 38
Would you like some awesome with your awesome? I didn't actually hear the judges' comments after Kara's dance because I was too busy pointing at the television and shouting: "You are so awesome! I love you!"
And I do. Ours is a complicated love, admittedly, due primarily to the fact that Kara has only spoken to me once -- via Twitter -- but I could tell we had a special something, a certain connection. We belong with one another.
But it's fine that we're not together right now. She's focusing on winning the Strictly trophy. We'll be together for Christmas, and that's what counts. Just the two of us by the fireplace -- the Strictly glitter-ball trophy reflecting the fire's warm glow -- doing the rumba in a sleeping bag.

Scott & Natalie ~ Jive ~ 39
Boxing Day, of course, will be spent with Natalie. She and Scott were undeniably good on Saturday. A part of me was annoyed to see them earning one point more than Kara but it was well-deserved. I think perhaps Craig would have given the dance a 10, as well, had it been later in the season; he seems to have a moral objection to handing out 10s too early.
If you watch their routine you'll see that they managed to add not only spot pops (when Scott stands up and she slaps him) but actual good dancing. It is so good that I think it may take over Jill Halfpenny and Darren Bennet's jive as The Best Jive In Strictly History.
Perhaps Natalie has simply been blessed with good partners, but as it becomes more obvious that she will at least be in the final for the second year in a row, one wonders if perhaps she is a Strictly genius. She seems to be able to get the very best out of her partners; have you noticed how much weight Scott has lost? Fella's probably dropped two stone since the start of the series.
Maybe Natalie has secret dance powers. If so, this means a confrontation between herself and the anti-dance, Widdy, is inevitable. The fate of Strictly is in Natalie's hands.

Elsewhere in the show
- The most important bit of information from this week's show is that Tess' area has a name: Tess' Tinsel Tower.
- Tess went for some odd dress choices this week. In the main show she wore a black dress with feathered shoulders that made her look like the bloke from Raven. In the results show, she was wearing a weird number with shoulder pads so intense you imagined the outfit to have been stolen from the set of Alexandra Burke's "Broken Heels" video.
- Admittedly, Tess need not try very hard for the results show because she is always stunning compared to Claudia Winkleman, who seems to prepare for the show by having herself fired through a charity shop.
- Annie Lennox was the lamest musical guest ever. Thankfully they put in Alesha as a second guest. I don't remember Alesha's song because her dress was quite low in the front. Needless to say, then, Alesha's performance was my favourite part of the results show.
- Next Saturday is the Blackpool show, yo. Ah hells yeah. Last year, Blackpool was the best show of the series. All kinds of mad additional shit took place (Jill Halfpenny dancing in a sparkling Union Jack dress, for example) and everyone stepped it up just a bit for the occasion. With Matt, Kara and Scott all performing amazingly I am really looking forward to Saturday's show. I am heartbroken at not having been able to get tickets to see it live. I have put my name into the random draw for tickets to each of the live shows and have thus far been unlucky. I had thought my chances would be better for Blackpool considering that the audience is bigger; the Strictly studio in London holds about 150 people, whereas Tower Ballroom has space for roughly 2,000. No such luck. I will be at home in front of my cheap Asda-bought TV, port in hand. If anyone tries to disrupt me, I will stab them in the face.

Who's going to win:
This week I'm torn between Scott & Natalie or Matt & Aliona to win in a final with the other couple and Kara & Artem. My gut says it will be Matt & Aliona because they have more personality.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 11

This is a chapter from my book, The Way Forward. Buy the whole novel now from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
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We did not have sex.

I just want to get that out of the way.

Even if I were to have sex with a man, it would certainly not be with Andrew. He seemed perpetually three days removed from a shower. He had short, heavy black hair with a permanent greasy quality, a long face, a checkered three-day beard that covered splotchy red skin, and large tea-stained teeth that he flashed with a mad-looking grin. When he looked at you with his sleepy eyes, it was always slightly to your left, as if he was staring at your ear or someone directly behind you. Most of the time he looked at the ground, or at his beer, or at a matchbook, or anyplace else where he wouldn't have to make eye contact with a person. He was shorter than me and that kind of skinny where one still looks pudgy. He seemed to slobber when he laughed -- a stuttering, breathy laugh that came from the back of his throat -- which he would do excessively when anyone belched. And he had a thick Northern England accent that was at times hard to understand.

He was a good guy, though. Just not a good guy to have sex with.

Besides, he wasn't very well endowed. I know this because I've seen him naked. If you were that person driving on Southsea Esplanade, the road that runs along Portsmouth's pebbled coastline, on a particularly warm March evening several years ago, you, too, might have seen all that Andrew had to offer. You would have seen him running full speed across the road, his pasty nakedness illuminated by your headlights, followed closely by three screaming Americans. If you hadn't sped off, you would have seen all four of us scrambling down the beach into the dark, freezing water of the English Channel.

...

"Holy shit!" Connor yelped.

We were still only knee deep, but he had lost his step and fallen in completely. He stood there contorting his body and making high-pitched noises while Jared and I chased Andrew into deeper water. When we were waist deep and the water seeped through our jeans to that most delicate of manly areas, Jared and I also started yelping. The water was painfully cold and already my toes were starting to numb.

Andrew made a hooting noise and dove into a wave, but he popped back up with a screech. He wasn't completely gone, then; the water was too cold for him, as well. He spun back toward us. I sloshed forward to intercept him. I was too slow, and, to be honest, had no idea what I was going to do with a wet, naked Northerner once I got a hold of him, so he was able to slip through the gap between Jared and me. He was turned back toward us when he saw Connor closing in on him, in a rage and able to move with a little less delicacy since he was completely wet.

Andrew turned a few circles, slipped, went under, and popped up into the grasp of Jared. Jared wrapped his enormous arms around Andrew, pinning his arms to his side, and lifted him out of the water with a bear hug. Andrew flopped and kicked like a big ugly white fish but couldn't break Jared's hold.

"Don't you fucking kick me, Andy," Jared shouted. "If you kick me, I will fucking drown you, man. I am not shitting you."

Connor caught up and drove his fist hard into the left side of Andrew's face, making a loud, wet smacking sound.

"You little bitch," Connor screamed. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"

Jared turned Andrew away from Connor and shouted at me to step in. Not keen to take a punch intended for someone else, I simply grabbed a handful of Connor's soaking wet sweater and pulled him back.

"I'm fine, Ben," he said, swatting away my hand. "Just… What the fuck is up with you Andrew?"

Andrew wasn't listening. He was giggling and wheezing from the chase that had started a kilometer away. After a moment, he stopped wiggling and nodded toward the sky.

"Is that Hale-Bopp?"

The three of us looked up at a bright object in the sky.

"What's Hale-Bopp?" Jared asked.
"It's a comet," I said. "It won't come around for another 2,400 years. And I think you're right, Andrew. I think that is Hale-Bopp."

Jared set Andrew down and the four of us, standing waist deep in the oily black stinging cold of the English Channel, stared into the night sky. Silence rolled in from offshore. The world was suddenly quiet and peaceful, with just the sound of our breathing slowly returning to normal, and the waves lapping at our stomachs. It was a beautiful surreal moment.

...

Jared Anderson and Connor Anderson were not related, but they might as well have been. Both were tall and muscular, and far better looking than you would expect from two people who did little more than drink and smoke.

Jared was particularly tall, about 6-foot-10, and moved with a lumbering happiness. He was a sort of enormous farm-boy male model, with a special fondness for worn baseball caps and smoking with style. He owned more plaid flannel shirts than could possibly be practical.

Connor seemed to only own one T-shirt -- white -- along with a sweater that he bought at a second-hand shop, and a pair of corduroy trousers. He wore sandals, of course, and carried his things in one of those hemp bags you've never seen in any shop, yet strangely every marijuana smoker on the planet owns. He, too, had a developed routine for smoking: tilting the cigarette into the far right corner of his mouth and shutting his eye as he lit it. He made the same Popeye face when he exhaled. It amused me that someone who smoked as much as he did could be bothered by smoke.

Jared was from northern Minnesota, Connor from North Dakota. The two of them had been friends in college and decided to come to Portsmouth through an exchange program, figuring that a year in Europe would equate to a year of heavy drinking and having sex with countless women dazzled by their American charm.

Their visions of life in England had been partially correct -- they drank a lot. With women, however, their success had been a little less grand. Connor was locked into a very serious relationship with a very serious German girl who had all the attractiveness of a very seriously angry bear. Jared was involved in a tumultuous on-off relationship with a short-tempered young lady from Turkey who had a scar on her cheek from a bar fight.

Jared, Connor and I were friends due to geographical familiarity -- all of us from the American Midwest. And they lived down the corridor from me at Harry Law Hall. I had nothing in common with them, but sometimes you find yourself hanging out with someone because they are familiar to you, and simply because they are there. I sometimes wonder if this isn't the same reason Allison stayed with me so long, or part of the reason I stayed with her so long. But this is an unfair comparison to make. There were no drunken tear-filled nights when Jared and Connor and I eventually went our separate ways. All the beautiful little points of life had bumbled us together like the people in a train car and it was alright by us. We weren't thinking about the different directions in which we would eventually go.

Wherever we were going, Andrew seemed to want to come along. He shared a kitchen with Connor and Jared and had somewhat exaggerated views of the greatness of Americans, which the two were happy to entertain and I was too slow to reject. He tried desperately to win our approval, did Andrew. He was always ready with lame jokes and puns, to the extent that I suspected he studied joke books before going out with us. He was too eager to please and occasionally found himself at the butt of jokes he did not get, but would slobberingly laugh along to anyway.

It was my guess that his desire to fit in was to blame for his now degraded mental state. I suspected he was on drugs. I am very boring that I have never been anything but drunk, so I wasn't certain. He had been agitated for most of the night and his mood would shift from melancholy to wild-eyed laughter. Now at the pub, he was telling his rehearsed jokes to himself.

"What's brown and sticky?" he asked, not waiting for us to answer. "A stick!"

He burst into spitting laughter. He was clearly wearing on Connor's nerves.

"Andy, I think that chick over there is checking you out, man."
"Where?"
"The tall brunette over there," Connor said, squinting as he drew on his cigarette. He was looking at me and Jared and trying not to laugh. "She's been checking you out all night. Go talk to her, Andy."
"Go on, baby," Jared said. "Work that Andy magic. Work the Andrew-doo voodoo on her, man."

Andrew jumped from his chair and started making his way across the pub. That really should have been our first clue. Normally, he would have mumbled something and insisted upon staring at a beer mat. Instead, he was making a direct line for the girl. When she saw him coming, the look on her face alerted anyone within a 15-mile radius that Andrew didn't have a chance. But he kept swimming toward her through the crowd.

We exchanged a round of high fives and Connor thumped his chest in coughing laughter. We were glued to the action, eager to see Andrew's inevitable defeat, when I noticed a largish bloke in the pub balcony. He was wearing the largish bloke uniform of shaved head, dark blue jeans and strangely effeminate button-up shirt -- neatly pressed and un-tucked. His shirt's color was "thistle." He looked like a Care Bear, but one capable of unspeakable violence. He looked at the girl, then at Andrew, slapped a mate on the shoulder (his shirt's color was "lemon chiffon") and the two started making their way to the stairs.

"Not good. Bad. Wrong," I said, pointing to them.
"Shit," Connor said, stubbing out his cigarette.

And the three of us were wading through the crowd, trying to catch Andrew.

"Gonna need your accent, Benny," Jared said.

I could fake a London accent. Jared seemed convinced that simply by sounding English I could get us out of scrapes where a broad American accent might only make things worse. There was some truth to his theory. Britons think of Americans in the same way New Yorkers think of Kentuckians. That perception doesn't help much if the listener is angry, as the defenders of Andrew's would-be conquest were sure to be. We had never legitimately put my fake London accent to the test; I wasn't wholly confident it was believable. But I didn't have any better ideas, so I started working out in my head how I wanted the words to sound.

We were a good 20 feet away, the largish blokes now on the stairs and Andrew was at his target. Time froze for a just a tiny moment as I watched him grab the girl and attempt to kiss her. He hadn't even said anything to her! He just grabbed her and went straight for the snog. In most situations, we would have cheered this act and proudly taken credit for Andrew's sudden lecherous behavior. But this was not one of those situations.

Noise and time came rushing back and we were moving at hyper-speed. All of the following things happened at exactly the same time: The two blokes leapt over the last bit of railing and scrambled toward Andrew; the girl blocked Andrew's advance by swinging her arms up into his face, starting a nosebleed;  Jared shouted, "Easy, Romeo," at Andrew, trying to sound cool but coming off panicked, and grabbed him by the shirt; Connor pushed through the crowd toward the door, clearing an escape route; and I brought up the rear, apologizing profusely to the people we were pushing aside and sounding a bit too much like Hugh Grant.

"Oh, uhm. Oh, terribly sorry. My friend is quite drunk. As perhaps you can see. Those are my cousins from America. Ruffians. Terribly, uhm, sorry. Very sorry."

There were, in fact, six largish blokes (thistle, lemon chiffon, azure, alizarin crimson, coral, and lavender blush). We learned that once we got outside the pub. When I reached the door -- behind everyone -- I almost immediately wondered why I hadn't simply disappeared back inside. I had actually gone undetected by the offended party and could have avoided the whole thing. Connor now had Andrew by the collar and Jared was holding back two of the blokes.

"Little help, Benny?" Jared said.

Everyone turned to look at me.

"Yes, ah, well. He's clearly on drugs, isn't he?" I said, again sounding too much like Hugh Grant. "Let my mates take him home and I'll buy us all drinks, alright?"

Andrew, blood dripping onto his shirt, started laughing and pointing: "Listen to you, Benjamin. What's that accent about? You sound like a complete tosser! "

"You startin', you fuckin' Geordie?" shouted Lemon Chiffon.

Fantastic. The accent had worked. And that was good to know, but now the blokes thought Andrew -- with his thick Northern accent -- was deriding the whole of Southern England by laughing at my (fake) London accent. We had managed to draw the North-South divide into a simple pub altercation.

Suddenly, Andrew, displaying a newly developed talent for turning bad situations worse, pulled out of his shirt and broke free of Connor. He started dancing away and singing, his skinny-pudgy white body glowing orange in the street lights.

"Keep that shit up, Andy. I'll beat your ass myself," shouted Connor, uncharacteristically losing his cool. "Seriously, Andrew. Come here. You wanna take off your clothes? I'll strip you naked and beat your ass."
"Oh, that's a good idea. Let's all get naked! Like Aborigines," Andrew said.

I started to make the "N" sound for this sentence: "No, Andrew, just put your shirt back on and we can all go home."

But it was too late. His trousers were at his ankles. He kicked off his shoes and started running. On the bright side, it instantly cooled the largish blokes' desire to so much as touch Andrew, let alone pummel him. And it meant that I would not have to buy the blokes drinks -- something I had instantly regretted offering to do as I did not actually have enough cash.

And we got to see Hale-Bopp.

All in all, not that bad an evening.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

The Way Forward: What people are saying

I've now published the first of the four sections of The Way Forward on the blog, and already the second section is under way. Just for the sake of making myself feel good, I thought I'd take the opportunity at this point to draw attention to what people have said about the book. Below are some actual reviews written by actual people who are not me. If you have read the novel, I would definitely appreciate your going on Amazon and leaving a short review of your own.

- "The opening episodes of The Way Forward are dramatic. Ben is injured, covered in blood and takes a trip to hospital. He voyages across an ocean to visit his love Allison whilst bruised, sick and broken, to be stood up at the Notre Dame. It is Christmas Day, Ben is 5074 miles away from home and his only comforts are a burly Frenchman named Jaques and a bag of Chestnuts to keep his hands warm. Reader, you are hooked. Chris Cope's enchanting fusion of heartbreak, comedy and vivid lively description lures you in to the tale, keeping you firmly ensconced as further adventures unfold, cementing your allegiance to Ben. This is a shrewd skill employed by the author, as it compels you to care. You care about the romantic, brave yet vulnerable Texan-Minnesotan Ben as he experiences a somewhat tumultuous exchange year in Portsmouth University. You will him to succeed. You will the evil Allison to fall off the Eiffel Tower. The characterisation is the strongest part of Chris Cope's writing for me, with attention to detail a close second. As Ben journeys around his memories, the present, the UK and France, the descriptions allow you to travel with him, enjoying his quirky encounters, living his escapades, and experiencing a genuine sense of each place and time. This is a book about identity, relationships, and, essentially - coming of age - adding Cope to the tradition of American authors who explore this theme. It's a book you'll want to keep reading to find out what happens next, and will read quickly as it's so engaging. Ben eventually, and touchingly, wises up to the soul-corroding side-effects of Allison's heartlessness, discovering more of a sense of himself and many realisations along the way."

- "I thoroughly enjoyed The Way Forward. In fact, I couldn't put it down once I started reading, which meant an exceedingly unproductive weekend for me. But I'd do it all over again.
Chris Cope does a great job of bringing his characters and settings to life. Over a few days, I found myself laughing out loud as I read in public and feeling all the story's heartaches and disappointments, as well.
I won't give away the storyline beyond what's written elsewhere on this site, but I will say Cope has put together an amazingly well-told, fast-moving, touching and fun story. I look forward to reading more from him in the future."

- "Plenty of nudity. Some French."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Eight things I loved about October

~8~ Completing my MA: I have to admit to having mixed feelings about finishing my MA. Obviously, I am pleased at having done so. Not so long ago, when I was living in St. Paul, a part of me felt I would never actually earn even a bachelors degree. So, I am quite self-pleased at having completed a masters. But ever since noon on 21 October, when I handed in my project, I have felt a frustrating lack of direction. What do I do now?

~8~ Skype: Obviously I've joined the Skype party quite late; the free VoIP service has been around for several years. Indeed, I was already using it to keep in touch with friends and family in various faraway locales. But up until getting rid of my iPhone I was simply using the Skype for iPhone application, which didn't have video.
When I switched to my new phone I discovered there is no official application for Android phones (a), so I downloaded Skype onto my laptop. And suddenly I was able to video conference.
Up to that point I had thought the video feature to be unnecessary; why would I want to stare at a grainy image of someone staring at a grainy image of me?
Because they are thousands of miles, away, yo, and seeing someone -- even in bad light -- makes the homesickness hurt a little less.
The award for Best Use of Skype easily goes to my friends Paul and BK. In a recent conversation, Paul set his laptop on a table and then went about the usual Sunday afternoon routines of cooking dinner with BK and occasionally ensuring their daughter, Sophie, was not consuming whatever object she had managed to get her little hands on. The effect was one of my being in the house with them, the laptop placed more or less where I might have sat were I there visiting. And I started feeling, in a way, I really was there. At one point, my arm half moved because I was instinctively reaching out to poke Sophie in her little baby belly.
As silly as I thought video conferencing would be, I now find it vital. I like chatting with Siân and feeling I am there in her poorly lit Parisian apartment, or talking to my parents in their study, or sitting at the dinner table with Paul and BK on a Sunday afternoon.

~8~ Having parents who are awesome: Money has been anything but readily available lately. The fact is, if I can't find a steady source of income by 21 January (when my current visa expires), I will have to move back to the United States. If it weren't for my parents helping to prop me up, I wouldn't even have that long. I sometimes wonder whether perhaps I would be a better writer if I had a distant and overbearing father, or an aloof and alcoholic mother, or whatever other cliché it is you so often see in the personal histories of great artists. But for the most part, I am quite happy to have been cursed with parents who support me and do so much to help me achieve all the ridiculous things I dream.

~8~ Visiting Westonbirt Arboretum: In light of the above items -- feeling directionless and without footing, and missing friends and family -- homesickness has been a major theme in my personal narrative lately. One of the things I've been missing most has been the autumn colours. In October in the Twin Cities (b), the Minnesota and Mississippi river valleys are awash with the red and orange and gold of autumn leaves. And it doesn't matter how many times you sit and look at it, nor how long you do so, the experience is always one of intensity. It is one of those things that helps you understand why people would think there is a God and why they would believe him to be kind and good.
The climate and incredibly populous nature of Britain mean that such displays can be difficult to find. Or, at least, they can be difficult to find within driving distance of Cardiff. I have seen some incredible pictures of Perthshire, but getting there presently exceeds my budget.
But thanks to the Twitter collective I was directed to check out Westonbirt Arboretum, only an hour or so drive from Cardiff and deep into the kind of English countryside that makes you understand why the WWII generation fought so tooth and nail to keep this island as their own.
I managed to take a handful of pictures at Westonbirt but soon got lost in just the simple contentedness of wandering amongst trees. I felt slightly reconnected to the universe, as stupid as that sounds. Cardiff feels at times like a city that is not real, a city of my imagination -- incongruous and jumbled. And whereas some part of me grows increasingly attached to the old city of change, I find that escaping her from time to time helps to keep me sane.
The biggest drawback to Westonbirt was that it cost me £9 to go there. For those of you playing along at home, that's $15 to look at trees. There's a cautionary tale there for Minnesotans, I think. We too often don't realise the value of something because of its incredible abundance. Keep voting for Republicans and allowing them to zone forest for commercial use, and soon you, too, will have to pay to see what God created.

~8~ Reading at Bay Lit: A big highlight of the month came in my being asked to do a reading as part of a literary festival held in Cardiff Bay. Getting to stand in front of a crowd and read one's work is the sort of thing writers put into their writerly fantasies.
One of the most brilliant quotes I've ever heard about writers came from Donal, who once said: "I can't help thinking I'd have written a novel by now if only I had a large oak desk and a jacket with elbow patches."
Basically he was observing the fact that writers are terribly guilty of idealising and fantasising their lives. We want to carry around Moleskine notebooks in our worn leather book bags, occasionally taking notes whilst sitting in the coffee shop at midday, then returning to our old house with creaking wooden floors and wall-to-wall books where we sit at an old oak desk wearing a scarf and jacket with elbow patches, tapping out a novel on the same old typewriter our grandfather used during the war. Conveniently overlooking the months and months of isolation and self-hatred that is the writing process, we envision our novels completed, our editor fawning over us and then our begrudgingly appearing at launch parties where turtlenecked fools tell us how great we are and women half our age swoon. We dream that the day after the launch party, bleary-eyed, hungover, and with the taste of an 18-year-old girl's perfume still in our mouths, we embark -- via train -- on a worldwide tour of lecture halls and book shops where people cram to hear us read the great things what we wrote.
I've published two books but so far none of that has happened (hope springs eternal). Occasionally, though, I get asked to write a piece for a literary magazine. And even less occasionally I get asked to read some of my work.
I wrote an all-new piece for Bay Lit and put the whole of myself into its performance. At one point in the reading, acting out a character, I twice threw myself to the hardwood floor. I had bruises on my hip and and arms for a week afterward. But an attractive blonde told me I had made her laugh, so I felt justified.

~8~ The return of 'Strictly Come Dancing': In case you hadn't picked this up from my rather lengthy Strictly updates, I'm delighted to be sitting through another season of low-level celebrities dancing. There are versions of Strictly in 75 countries around the world but I wonder whether any of them quite capture the camp panto feel of the original.
Admittedly, though, our version doesn't have Sarah Palin's daughter. Also, the U.S. version adds all kinds of wacky things like theme music weeks and ridiculous additional challenges. If I understand correctly, this dance was performed only 45 minutes after Jennifer Grey and Derek Hough heard the music for the first time.

~8~ Penarth: Officially not part of Cardiff but so obviously just one of its neighbourhoods, the village of Penarth is located on the western edge of Cardiff Bay. It's got two train stations, old houses with a sense of character, a particularly posh-looking tea rooms, a Victorian pier and far fewer chavs than any other Cardiff neighbourhood I'm aware of. I've found myself heading down there a lot lately, and thinking quite seriously about moving there.
Assuming I find a job and am able stay in the country.

~8~ Thoughts of doing something different: With the masters degree completed, I don't really know what to do with myself but seemingly each day I think of something new. Some different direction I might like to take, some different part of Cardiff or Britain where I might like to live. Sometimes, especially when frustrated by fruitless job searches, I like to sit in the kitchen drinking tea and daydreaming about what I could do.

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(a) Correction: There was no official Skype application for Android phones. One was released in October.

(b) For our friends in the Soggy Nations, the Twin Cities refers to the metropolitan area of Minnesota's two largest cities: Minneapolis and St. Paul. It is a misleading term because it is one that, in fact, encompasses roughly 190 cities and townships.