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Monday, December 27, 2010

A letter home: 27 December 2010

My dearest Emma,

Last time I wrote to you it was a few days after Thanksgiving, aboard a First Great Western train speeding westward from Britain's ancient capital. Now, two days after Christmas, I write to you again from a train: carriage G of the 11:15 First Great Western Service from London Paddington to Cardiff Central. I am travelling first class, but seeking to consume enough complimentary tea, croissants, bottled water and biscuits that it effectively reduces the fare to standard class.

And as with the last time I wrote, I have spent the past few days visiting Jen and Dave, my family on this island of rain. I'm sure I've told you ad nauseam, Emma, how much I love them. Listening each morning to Minnesota Public Radio, filling their tiny but lovely flat with the smell of chai tea. On the shelves, books of philosophy and psychology. And tucked among the fiction of David Sedaris, Salman Rushdie and Steinbeck -- perhaps ironically -- is my own volume, Cwrw Am Ddim. That is what family do, isn't it, Emma? Proudly display one's works, even when unread.

I like to imagine Dave and Jen as removed from time. They have that look about them. Jen, especially, possess the classic beauty one sees when digging through yellowed photos of family members never met. Looking at her, one can almost hear a faraway offspring, many years into the future, pointing proudly at her image and saying: "Look at my great-great grandmother! Wasn't she beautiful?" She was, Emma. She is. I can personally attest. And that future child's great-great grandfather, with his indefatigable love of pun, possesses all the warmth and humour such beauty deserves.

Some part of me likes to imagine, then, that Jen and Dave are relatives who were somehow transported from the early decades of the 20th century. A great-great aunt and uncle. Unflappable, they have chosen to simply adopt to their modern surroundings rather than raise a fuss. They aren't these things, of course. Jen is just a girl I knew in high school and Dave a bloke from Canada. That makes them no less close to me, however. And they were good company to have in this season when ghosts of the past sometimes rattle their chains too loudly.

Jen and Dave are so close that I possess a set of keys to their flat. In that way, I have my own little home in London and, as such, can make a weak claim to feeling a sense of belonging in that ancient, unstoppable city. But it is still odd I should feel any strong connection to London, since I have never lived there. If you were to combine all my visits, Emma, I doubt the sum of all days would be even two months. But I have that connection to place that comes from connection to people in that place. Similar to the way I feel at home in Dublin.

I'm always slightly amused when my perceived sense of belonging is confronted by an actual lack of knowledge. I'll be walking along thinking: "I know this city. I am this city. This city is me. We are one. Every corner is... wait. Where the hell am I? Did I already walk down this street? Which way is north? Which way am I facing now? OK, I'll just walk in this direction until I reach a Starbucks, Costa or Pret-a-Manger. I hope it's a Pret..."

I am well-acquainted with the chain coffee shops of Europe's capitals, Emma.

Anyhoo, Christmas was lovely. I was poorly, with a sore throat and headache, through the whole of it but that didn't affect my mood. We ate exceedingly, watched films, talked and laughed and, in my case, cried. Once. I was very tired, Emma.

Adding to the mix was another American refugee, Alice, a sheep rancher from Northern California. She played banjo and told stories in that weird California way of not offering any background information about the players in her narrative. So, "Dan" would appear without any explanation of who or what he is. Instead of "my friend Dan," or "Dan my boss," or "Dan the guy who killed my father and whom I have spent these past 10 years travelling the Earth in search of in order to exact my revenge via the cold justice of a steel blade," it's just "Dan." Through the course of the story one may figure out who Dan is via context clues, but often that is not the case. I found Alice's blatant disregard of oral storytelling tradition to be rather off-putting, Emma. But she was otherwise lovely, and one can't really leverage too much criticism against a girl who plays the banjo.

I am sad to have Christmas come and gone so quickly. The gentle snow-covered hills of England blur past my window and soon -- far too soon -- I will be back in Cardiff. I'm not ready to go back; if not simply because there is not much to go back to. I suppose the biggest news from Cardiff since I last wrote is that there is no news. I am still doing nothing of worth; I am still poor; I am still looking for work; I am still relying on an allowance from my father to get by, as if some Victorian dandy.

Actually, phrasing it that way makes things sound so much more awesome. Perhaps I need not lament that I am unemployed, broke and directionless. I simply need to rethink my branding: European cafes! Living off Father! Keeping the company of burlesque dancers and stage performers! Sharing a house with a gymnast! Give me absinthe and paint me gold! I am a Bright Young Thing!

Yes, now that I think about it, Emma, things are glorious here. Though, I do still wish I could find full-time employment. Sadly, that is far easier desired than achieved in the Old City of New; jobs in Cardiff are few and far between. That is true of the whole of Britain, actually. And the scarcity of available opportunities is compounded by the fact that job postings are so cryptic. Positions are given frustratingly ambiguous names like "coordinator," which offer little insight into what a person would actually do. I generally apply for the position, anyway. So far, I have only heard back from one would-be employer, who offered rejection via form letter.

Regardless of employment status, I find myself eager to make some sort of major life shift in the new year, Emma. I'm not sure what I mean by that, except to say that I am unhappy with the man I am. I am not who I want to be. I am not who I am capable of being -- a reality that even friends are beginning to point out.

I have been in the grips of an apathy-induced writer's block since September, Emma, and I can feel it eating away at my insides. Not creating makes me ill. But I'm not sure what to do. I can't seem to find anything within me -- any desire or reason to connect. At night I will promise myself that tomorrow will be better, but in the morning I fail to see a point in getting out of bed. I am often too indifferent to daydream.

I don't want to be this way, Emma. I want to change. Maybe I will. Tomorrow.

There is at least one change coming in the new year that I have already set into place. I'll be moving out of my house. Primarily I'm doing that because I can't afford to stay. I know I've told you countless times how awesome my neighbours are, Emma, so I'm sure you can imagine how heartbroken I am about it. But there is no real money coming in, nothing with which to pay rent. I try to look at it positively. Perhaps it will kick me out of my malaise. That's hard for me to really believe, but telling myself the truth is just so depressing.

I hope all is well on your end. Say hello to your family for me. Please send nude photos.

I remain your humble servant,
Chris

They're (not) stealing jobs

"At a time of high unemployment, many Americans are convinced that [undocumented immigrants] take American jobs. As a test, this summer the United Farm Workers (UFW), the main agricultural union, launched a campaign called "Take Our Jobs," inviting willing Americans to work in the fields. In the following three months 3 million people visited takeourjobs.org, but 40% of the responses were hate mail...

"Only 8,600 people expressed an interest in working in the fields... But they made demands that seem bizarre to farmworkers, such as high pay, health and pension benefits, relocation allowances and other things associated with normal American jobs. In late September only seven American applicants in the "Take Our Jobs" campaign were actually picking crops."

- The Economist; Dec. 18, 2010; pg. 76

Friday, December 17, 2010

Yr eira mawr



I found myself suddenly thinking of Jenny Alme today; almost every time it snows she crosses my mind. Jenny and I went to high school together. I liked hanging out with her because when she laughed she would pull a face that made her look like the most proper lady in all the Upper Midwest. That's not to say, though, that she would let propriety stand in the way of a good time.

One evening, on our way back from a night out, I suddenly got it into my head to go sledding. That's the way I roll, homies. Sometimes playa's just gotta get his sled on. To that end, in those days I kept two plastic sleds tucked behind the bench seat of my 1969 F250 pickup truck. I can't remember what we had been doing that night. I think perhaps we had been to see the orchestra, because both of us were dressed up. In other words, we weren't exactly wearing sledding-appropriate clothing. This became most obvious when Jenny finished her first run down the hill. Turns out, it is really hard to walk up a snow-covered hill while wearing heels.

"Well, just get in your sled and I'll pull you up," I said, holding out my hand for her to give me her sled's rope.

"Don't be silly," she said.

She pulled off her shoes and trudged up the hill in stockinged feet.

"Whoa," I shouted. "Alme! You are so cool! I guess we'll give up this plan, though.

"Nah. Hand me your keys," she said.

My truck was parked right at the top of the hill (the one just south of 98th and Abbott, for those of you playing along in Bloomington Rock City). I assumed she planned to sit in the truck and allow me one more run. But upon reaching the bottom of the hill I turned to see her barrelling toward me. She had just needed to put her shoes away. The two of us carried on sledding for another half hour.

That night, a new rule was written for the sort of woman I go for. Before then, I had already established the rule that a love interest must be the sort of woman I can push into a creek. In other words, she has to be of good humour and pretty enough that she still looks good without makeup. But thanks to Alme, I added: A love interest must possess a certain hardiness. Be bonnie or be gone.

Platform 4


Today would have been a good day to head out looking for love, because the Snowpocalypse arrived in Cardiff. Unfortunately it was a day that showed a sizeable number of people to be wanting. If infrastructure networks were women, it would be time to move on to greener pastures. Early in the day, it took me an hour and a half to get from Penarth to Danescourt on the train -- usually a 47-minute journey. In the afternoon, Cardiff Bus decided to just stop trying. And most ridiculously, Cardiff's winter carnival was cancelled, because of winter weather.

A number of Cardiff drivers were also scratched from the list of possible sweethearts. Very few people managed to process that pushing the accelerator to the floor doesn't actually further your cause when on ice.

Admittedly, they were not helped by the fact that the British deal with snow on the roads by doing little more than staring at it. They do not plow it. From time to time they will toss about a bit of salt and dirt, but that product costs money; and councils are run by people who understand how to maintain a bureaucracy, not how to respond to variables. Since this snow was not scheduled several months in advance the country is flummoxed. Wales' snow-removal policy is to wait for it to melt.

Hey, Norway: y'all always do quite well at biathlon in the Olympic Winter Games. Now's your chance to invade Wales. Actually, please do that. I'm pretty sure y'all could run S4C more effectively than the buffoons we've got at the moment.

But whereas the weather caused all kinds of headaches for people with jobs, for the genially unemployed, such as myself, it was an opportunity to head outside and reminisce about snow forts, the kings and queens of St. Paul, and the awesome girls we once knew. I took a few pictures while out and about. My favourites are below, but you can find a few more on my Flickr page.

Reflection
The River Taff, near Llandaff Rowing Club.


River through the trees
Looking at the Llandaff weir through trees.


Private fishing
How one can claim private fishing in an area where the River Taff runs through public land, I do not know. I have long wanted to buy a fishing reel solely for the purpose of seeing if these signs are enforced.


Blackweir bridge
Bridge crossing over Blackweir to Pontcanna Fields
(For those of you playing along at home, a "weir" is a small dam)


Buried
The cemetery at Llandaff Cathedral.


Why I love Llandaf
Llandaff Cathedral hides at the bottom of a hill.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The best mince pies in Britain (maybe)

I worked at a grocery store when I was 16 years old. At that time, my primary responsibility was gathering shopping trolleys and occasionally performing such mundane and pointless tasks as polishing the chrome.

That sounds perhaps sexual, but, in fact, it is something I had to do once: polish small strips of chrome on the open-topped freezers filled with bratwurst and chicken and various other summer barbecue staples. These strips of chrome were roughly 3/4 inch thick and located at ankle height. I am willing to bet that the number of people who had ever actually noticed those strips of chrome could have easily fit in a 1986 Plymouth Voyager (a).

So, for me, "polishing the chrome," means: "a task that is beyond pointless." Whether literally or metaphorically, I rarely did anything but polish the chrome at that job. Other things I did were: "steal Sport Shakes (b)" and "flirt with girls." I believe the latter is what had led to my being inside the grocery store, rather than out in the boiling hot car park where I belonged, when a woman came up and asked if I could help her find mincemeat.

"I sure can," I said, and happily led her straight to the ground beef.
"No," she said. "Mincemeat. It would probably come in a jar."
"Meat in a jar?"
"It's not really meat. That's just what they call it. It's an English thing."
"I've never heard of that. The English are stupid."

In those days I was notorious for my inability to disconnect the things I thought from the things I said. The woman went off to find mincemeat by herself. I have no idea whether she ever found it, nor whether it was even sold at Cub Foods.

For those of you playing along at home, mincemeat -- also known simply as "mince" -- is, in fact, a pie filling. It consists of various fruits, Christmas spices and usually booze, and is packed into tiny pie shells to create the British holiday treat that is The Mince Pie.

I don't understand why we don't have mince pies in the United States. Perhaps branding is to blame, because little pies are the sort of thing that Americans can definitely get behind. The name comes from the fact that there once was meat in a mincemeat pie. But that was in the days of Henry VIII; they ate all kinds of awful things back then. For example: medlar, the fruit that looks like an anus and doesn't taste right until overripe.

It's unfortunate that Yanqui Christmases are mince pie-less, because them things is delicioso, yo! They are one of my favourite aspects of Christmastime in Britain. Mince pies are sold by the box in almost every grocery store and corner shop in the country. Since moving here more than four Christmases ago, I have long wondered which mince pie was the best. This year I have put some effort into finding out.

Over the past several weeks I have been taste-testing mince pies from five major retailers. For the sake of fairness, I decided it was important to eat an entire box of pies over a period of several days. That way my judgment was not dependent upon that day's particular mood. The pies tested were always the best quality offered at that particular retailer (e.g., Tesco's Finest). Each taste test consisted of a single pie consumed with a mug of tea. Here are the results of my efforts, ranked in order of best to worst.

1) Waitrose: You'd kind of expect that to be the case, wouldn't you? Waitrose's pastry was buttery and rich, and particularly addictive. I'd be happy to have just the pie crust on its own. The filling had a lovely orangey flavour that I'm not sure everyone would be crazy about but which I loved. The only drawback to these pies is that they are so rich and delicious you really can't eat more than one in a sitting.

2) Marks & Spencer: Close in quality to Waitrose but tasting slightly more like something that is store-bought.

3) Tesco: A standard mince pie that neither thrills nor disappoints. It is the Peugeot of mince pies.

4) The Co-Operative: Below par crust and not enough filling. The Co-Operative labelled these mince pies as "truly irresistible." Clearly they failed to finish the statement. It should read: "Truly irresistible, if you've not eaten in roughly a week."

5) Sainsbury's: Surprisingly disappointing. The crust had a certain plastic quality and the filling tastes like someone's grandmother. I felt let down. This mince pie was only slightly more enjoyable than the Battle of Antietam.

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(a) The automobile choice of Minneapolis' Somali community.
(b) A whole stick of butter in every can!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Yes for Twibbons

It's established fact by now that one does not truly care about an issue unless he or she adorns their Twitter image with an icon expressing support for said cause. There is truly no more powerful declaration of one's ideals; and it hurts a lot less than self-immolation. Pity those Buddhist monks didn't have Twitter in Vietnam.

Out here in Wales, the Twitter feeds have seen an increase of profile images being adorned with a somewhat phallic-looking check mark. The bulbous end of the check is supposed to make it look like a dragon's tail, but, well, it kinda looks like something else. The purpose of this Peyronie's-affected image is to encourage us to vote 'Ie dros Cymru' (Yes for Wales) in the 3 March referendum on additional powers for the Welsh Assembly.

Admittedly, three months before a vote that could forever alter governance in Wales and eventually lead to the nation's independence is a really long time. So, it's no surprise that the "yes" side of the argument has not yet set up a website to support its case. Three whole months. That's ages away. Besides, the most important work has already been done: someone designed a Twibbon.

True, the campaign against further Welsh Assembly powers has a website, demonstrating a clear understanding of the necessity of WRITING IN CAPS LOCK and using exclamation points in political discourse! But they don't have a Twibbon. They are, therefore, doomed to fail.

Not having been born in Wales, and as such lacking an innate sense of Welsh patriotism, I've found myself struggling to understand what the arguments for further devolution are. I mean, I understand the general idea of wanting self-governance. I'm originally from the United States. Self-governance was so important to us that our forefathers valiantly duped British soldiers into dying of dysentery in New Jersey swamps -- all for the sweet joy of being able to tax ourselves. But in a state as small as the United Kingdom, is this kind of hyper-localism so necessary or beneficial? Especially considering how financially reliant Wales is upon that of its immediate eastern neighbour.

So far, I've not been able to find any real discourse on the issue. Perhaps because the word "devolution" uses up too many characters in Twitter. Whatever the reason, non-rhetorical answers are so difficult to find that some part of me feels treasonous for asking. Maybe there's something wrong with me that I have failed to realise that -- much like democracy, cupcakes and One Direction -- greater power for the Welsh Assembly is just an inherently good idea. After all, its supporters have a Twibbon.

And apparently that's really all one needs. In a recent poll, 53 percent of those asked said they would indeed vote in favour of more powers for the Welsh Assembly. Admittedly, however, only 37 percent of those asked said they actually intend to vote.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 15

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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Andrew refused to clarify exactly how the trees were being loud. He simply made it clear he no longer wanted to be in the park. We decided we would take in the waning afternoon on the steps of the Portsmouth Guildhall. Host to such entertainment luminaries as Roy "Chubby" Brown and Australian rock band Thunder (What? You've never heard of them? My point exactly), the Guildhall was an impressive building nonetheless. Impressive to American eyes, at least. The main entrance was an enormous series of steps leading up to a set of elaborate doors and massive Roman columns. If I were scouting a film, I would choose the Guildhall to serve as a sort of royal palace. It was also a good place to sit and watch people as they passed through Guildhall Square.

Andrew and I bought four cans of Heineken each at the off-license and sat high on the steps, taking in the warmth of the late afternoon sun. Andrew was calm. He was still drooling and still had a mad look in his eyes but he seemed to be coming down off his drug high. Well, a bit.

"Do you ever look into the sky?" he asked.
"Sure."
"Not enough, though, Benjamin. No one does. All of this beautiful space just sitting on our heads and hardly anyone ever takes the time to look at it. I've been a few places. I went to Africa. And your America. Florida. I met Donald Duck. I had no idea who he was -- I was rather young -- but he was very friendly, and he and a giant chipmunk signed their names in a book my parents bought for me. In every place I've been the sky is never so big and so close as it is in England. We have a very beautiful sky."

He was right. It's not all rain and misery in England. On sunny days, the bright pale blue of British sky is unbeatable. Strips of cloud tear across it like the contrails of jet airplanes and the sun shines from every direction. The sunlight doesn't peek from clouds, it cuts through with heavenly force. When the sun is shining in England you start to understand all those deeply patriotic and religious songs they sing at soccer and rugby matches. It really is the land of hope and glory, the dread and envy of them all. Why wouldn't those feet in ancient times walk upon England's mountains green?

It wasn't just an issue of good weather. Anyone who lives in a climate that is regularly cloudy or cold learns to appreciate the sun. In Minnesota, where there are seven months of winter and five months of bad ice hockey weather, warm spring days would send us all running from the dorm rooms at Macalester, shedding as much clothing as legally possible. Girls would lie out in bikinis, or just panties and bras -- the open areas of campus became fields of sex. We all walked around feeling as if we were in the midst of a religious revival meeting: Praise the Lord Our God for sun and warmth. People drove down the street shouting out their windows at anyone they saw just because they wanted to shout out in exaltation of good weather. But the sense of energy was even greater in Britain. The sun felt as if it were shining with more intensity; the air felt richer in oxygen. I didn't feel like a part of a religious revival, I felt like leading one. At times it didn't even feel real.

On warmer sunny days in Pompey, I liked to lie in the soft grass of Southsea Common. I would listen to the world around me and stare up and feel almost as if I were flying, or clinging to the very top of the world and that if I jumped up I would tumble all the way back to Minnesota. I didn't tell Andrew this. He was so involved in what he was saying he probably would not have let me, anyway.

"We all look rather insignificant from up there," he said. "Actually, after a certain height, we can't be seen at all. It's just waves of earth, mountains and rivers and farms, lines and curves and patches of color. And the occasional building. That's why I'm studying architecture, you see. I want to make something that people can look at after they can no longer see me. America's rather far away, isn't it?"

There was quiet as he waited for the answer. I had expected him to just keep talking.

"Oh, yes. It's pretty far away, Andrew."
"How far? How far away is your Minnesota?"

I tried to pretend I didn't know exactly how far it was (4,014 miles) and shrugged.

"Few thousand miles, I guess."
"Would you say 4,000 miles?" he asked.

The fingers of his right hand were outstretched and pressing against my chest. He raised his fuzzy eyebrows and flashed a drooling grin; he was having fun interrogating me.

"About that, yeah."
"Four-thousand miles from Minnesota to Pompey, then. Can I ask you a question? Why? Why come all the way here?"
"I came to Portsmouth to be close to Allison. I've told you that."
"The ginger bird? I thought she lived in France. If you want to be close to someone in France, why not go to France?"
"I don't know French. Portsmouth is as geographically close as I can get and still speak English. There's a ferry port here and the university lets me use U.S. student loans."
"That doesn't mean it makes any sense. You go to all the trouble to come here, then you have to go to more trouble just to see her. What makes her so important? Why go through all that?"
"Boobies."
"Boo-Bees?"
"You know," I said, cupping my chest with my hands, "baps, mammaries, hoo-hahs, bumbledybobbins, breasts -- Allison's got a lovely pair."

This is the way males feel we must talk to each other; we can't allow ourselves to talk about our emotions for very long in conversation. I had come to Portsmouth because I was -- or at least I thought I was -- madly in love with Allison and wanted to be close to her. But I couldn't say this outright because I am a guy and I was talking to a guy. It is male code that when talking to another male, one must occasionally make childish references to female body parts. We do this for fear space aliens might be listening in and think we are homosexuals for discussing our feelings. As we all know, aliens only abduct homosexuals.

"That's a lot of effort for boobies," Andrew said.
"I really like boobies."
"Are there no other American women with breasts?"
"There are. But, you know, when you find the pair you like you should stick with them. I followed Allison's breasts more than 4,000 miles and probably would have followed them further if she hadn't cut out my heart and shit on it."
"You see? That's just the thing. You don't ever say anything nice about your ginger bird," he said. "Why get so upset over her when you didn't even like her?"
"I don't say anything nice now because she slept with another man. She fucked me over. But I was crazy about her. Part of me still loves her, though, and I suppose it always will."
"Are you sure?"
"That I'll always love her? I think so."
"No. That you ever loved her at all. You have a very shit memory, Benny. I can't think straight at the moment -- the fog won't lift -- but I can still remember your carrying on about this girl. Do you remember me and my friends, Aled and Sanji, carried you up to your room?"
"No."
"I suspect you wouldn't. The caretaker came round and had us carry you up to your room. He did that a number of times."
"Well, thanks, Andrew. I didn't know that. You should have told me."
"No need. Yanks are so eager to express their feelings; you probably would have wanted to have sex with me if I had told you. Especially you. You just go on and on. I've sat and listened to you. And I will tell you: I don't think you ever loved your ginger bird."
"I did."
"No. You loved the idea of her: Your Ginger Bird. I know this. I've heard you carry on. You wanted her as a thing -- something you could call your own, like a television. You wanted to possess her so much that you've convinced yourself that you were in love with her."
"You're wrong," I said.

But he wasn't.

Even before Allison had cheated on me the first time she and I would fight. Once, on the way to a concert with a friend, Allison and I screamed at each other with such venom that our friend, in the back seat of the car, started crying. And after every fight I would think to myself: "What happened to my sweet and funny red-headed girl? When did she become so eager to attack everything I say?"

Now I realize she had always been that way. She didn't become a bitch, she had always been one. On our first date she told me she was annoyed by my "thinking that (I) know everything." But I had this vision of what we were and who I was that clouded what was really there. I wanted to be the hero in one of those feel-good films who saw through the bitchy manipulative exterior to the girl inside. I envisioned that she had been made bitter by life and circumstances, and that my charm and patience would draw out the sweet beautiful girl she truly was. But behind the bitchy manipulative exterior was a bitchy manipulative interior. There was no sweet beautiful girl. I was not a romantic hero.

I wanted so badly for those things to be true that I tried desperately to make them be true. Sometimes we wish so hard for things that we are able to ignore truth. When I was a boy, I asked for a robot for Christmas -- one that would follow me around and do all sorts of household chores and even be my friend. To my knowledge, no such robot exists today; it certainly didn't exist when I was 6 years old. And if it had, it would have been completely beyond my parents' financial capacity. Regardless, on Christmas morning I was heartbroken. I can still remember that feeling of being kicked in the chest when I ran downstairs to discover Santa had only left more toys than I could possibly play with, but no robot.

Allison was beautiful, there was no denying that, but she was not the sweet and funny red-headed girl I told myself I was in love with. And her failing to be the person I wanted her to be caused endless heartbreak.

Of course, it took me years to figure this all out. When Andrew and I were sitting on the Guildhall steps, I was still pretty sure I had been a simple victim, guilty only of loving too much. Somewhere inside of me I knew Andrew was right but I certainly wasn't going to admit it. I was silenced by the fact that I had been summed up rather quickly by a guy who thought trees were too loud.

Across the square, some kids were attempting skateboard tricks on the steps to the city offices. We have these kids in America, too. They spend hours flinging their boards into the air without ever landing a single trick, and they never stop. It's almost inspiring -- that level of dedication to failure.

I took a few long gulps of beer, feeling the cold lager against the back of my throat, and let out a chest-rattling belch. Andrew and I laughed, drawing the attention of an office worker walking by. Andrew took an enormous gulp of his beer and let out an equally impressive belch. Thus we emptied our first cans of beer in an effort to out-belch each other.

"I will tell you what I hate about you, Benjamin," Andrew said, cracking open his second beer. "It all worked out didn't it?"
"What?" I said, following his beer lead.
"With the ginger bird."
"She took a shit on me, kid, and left me fucked up for a long time. I'd hardly say things worked out."
"Want to know who I saw walking along the sea wall today -- holding hands with a very cute blonde girl named Claire?"

I tapped my beer can to his in toast.

"Hmm, I suppose it did sort of work out."
"Brrrraaaap," Andrew belched again and giggled.

I leaned back on my elbows, felt the sun on my face, looked in the direction of the train station -- just behind the building to my left -- and felt good. I did that sappy thing of wondering where Claire was at that exact moment, and whether she was thinking of me.

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Strictly Come Dancing Week 10 recap: Dalek in drag



It has been icy cold here in the empty halls of Cope Manor of late. Add that to the fact that I am sick, in financial ruin, have no job and am now a only month from my deadline of having to find work or leave Wales, and I feel like some sort of Dickensian character boarded up in a crumbling home while everything falls apart. The departure of Ann & Anton from "Strictly Come Dancing" brought a spark of warmth this past weekend, but then suddenly came the realisation that the semifinals are here. The Strictly journey is nearing its end. Woe. Moan. Ache. Sorrow. How ever shall I carry on?

But let us not yet mourn, good friends. There is cause for rejoice: two bespangled weekends to look forward to, and the glory of Widdy's downfall to look back upon. This week's recap will be extra short because I'm writing it just minutes before the Friday semifinal episode.

Ann & Anton ~ Almost but not quite falling down ~ 14
I don't imagine that a person just released from a brutal prison camp actually rejoices. He or she probably is too emotionally exhausted, too beaten down to express joy. There is relief, but not the energy to show it. That's how I feel about the departure of Widdy. She genuinely sapped my enthusiasm for the show. One can see that in the way these recaps have come later and later in the week. I will hopefully be able to enjoy the semifinals this weekend, but right now I just feel tired. To that end, I will again abstain from commenting on Ann & Anton, leaving it instead to judges Bruno and Len.
BRUNO: "Ann, when you were on your own, you looked like a Dalek in drag."
LEN: "Well, dancing in its basic form is movement to music. And you did move; and there was music... I don't want to be nasty because you've given me fun, but, the snow gives you fun to start with but eventually you just want it to go away."
By the way, did you notice how Widdy's exit was met with cheers by the audience?

Gavin & Katya ~ Foxtrot ~ 33
Ah, Gavin, if only your dancing were half as good as your banter.
Our Gav's performance last Saturday was standard but tentative -- the sort of thing that would have served him well in the first weeks of the competition. At this stage, though, well, again Gavin is reflecting the nature of the national rugby team he often plays for: they always perform slightly under the ability of their competition and they have a ridiculous habit of suddenly, frantically making an effort when it is far too late. I will not be surprised Friday if I see an out-of-the-blue incredible performance. I will not be surprised, either, if he fails.

Scott & Natalie ~ Paso Doble ~ 35
Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Natalie in a bikini. Scott was alright, too.

Matt & Aliona ~ Jive ~ 35
Backflip off the motherfucking judges' table, yo. Matt could have at that point just sat down and still scored higher than Widdy. But instead he and Aliona performed one of the best dances of the night. Matt Baker is the new British National Treasure.

Kara & Artem ~ Tango ~ 38
Unquestionably the best dance of the night. And the fact that they did not score a 40 is ridiculous. Go on, watch the dance again; explain to me how it is not awesome. On "It Takes Two" this week Karen Hardy commented that she feels Kara has been consistently under-marked this season. I agree. I think perhaps the judges fear awesomeness.
Conspiracy theory: If Kara were to be scored as she should, she would probably end up having the highest cumulative score in Strictly history, thus undermining Alesha's legitimacy as a judge. So, perhaps the underscoring of Kara is deliberate.

Pamela & James ~ Viennese Waltz 40
The Viennese waltz is one of those dances that always picks up good scores, even for less than stellar performers. It is also one of those dances that I usually don't pay much attention to. Perhaps the Viennese waltz is a bit like soccer -- more fun to do than to watch. But whatever the judges saw, they liked, earning Pamela & James the first perfect score of the season. In racing metaphor this puts them in position to suddenly break from the pack and win the competition in the last stretch.

Elsewhere:
- Albeit long, I really enjoyed the movie-themed opening number of the show, particularly Artem and Katya's Pulp Fiction bit. Admittedly, though, it wasn't as cool as when Jeff Nelson and his roommate, Tom, used to simulate surfing-style anal rape to the same song. But probably more family-friendly.
- The couples are each dealing with three dances this week. Although the swing is a pretty easy dance. Any dance that I can do is an easy dance. All five couples will be performing the swing at once, being eliminated one at a time by the judges. The last couple standing picks up the most points. I'm anticipating Matt & Aliona and Kara & Artem will come out best because they are able to do more tricks.
- This weekend of Strictly -- Friday! Saturday! Sunday! -- will result in two couples leaving the competition. I expect to see Gavin & Katya go, but I'm not really sure about the other couple. Possibly Scott & Natalie.

Who's going to win
Unfortunately, I'm predicting a win for Pamela & James, with Kara & Artem being the actual better dancers -- similar to the Ricky Whittle & Natalie situation last year against Chris Hollins and Ola.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 14

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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"Where the hell have you been?" Jared asked.

I was walking back to Harry Law from the train station.

"Out, Mom," I said, trying to sound like a dejected teenager. "Why do you care?"
"Sorry. We can't find Andy. He wasn't in his room this morning. We've been looking for him all day."
"You check that arcade?"
"Which one?"
"The one on the pier -- near where we went swimming last night."
"No."
"If I were whacked out on a two-day drug binge, that's where I'd go."

Pause.

"You want me to go, don't you?"
"Yes," Jared said. "I'm sick of this shit. Listen, Connor had the caretaker call Andy's parents and they're on their way down from Newcastle. So we gotta find our boy."

Our boy. That was the way he talked. He would also emphasize the seriousness of his statements with hand gestures that made him look as if he were frisking a bear.

...

I found "our boy" at the arcade, being chased away by a very angry woman wielding a broom. He was laughing as she took swipes at him, seemingly enjoying taking blows to the head. I was still several hundred yards away, walking up the promenade, when he saw me and ran full speed in my direction.

"Hello, Benjamin, my good comrade."
"Andrew, what'd you do to piss off that woman?"
"Who?" he asked, panting and showing his big teeth.
"The woman beating you with a broom."
"Ah, her. I think she's a lesbian. I've been on walkabout today, but no one seems particularly keen. Now you're here, though, we can go on walkabout together."
"Walkabout?"
"Yes. Like the Aborigines. That's what they do, you see? They just get it into their heads that they are going to have an adventure and then they go and find one. It's all to do with lines, you see. I've been to Africa."
"Aborigines aren't from Africa."
"I didn't say they were."
"OK. And you're not in Africa now, are you?"
"I could be. Although, if you think you are in Africa now, I assure you this looks nothing like it. Perhaps we are both in Africa and dreaming of Portsmouth."

His face was bright red -- he had been out in the sun all day. His hair was messed and I could see caked, dried blood in his nose. At least he was fully clothed. He needed to get out of the sun but I was immediately happy he had rejected my offer to go into a pub. We would surely have been kicked out and I had already had enough pub fun with Andrew the night before. We decided instead to go to Victoria Park. By "we decided" I mean to say that Andrew announced that's where he was going and I chased along after him.

If I were to re-create Andrew in a movie, I would insist the actor walk like Groucho Marx. Andrew didn't actually walk this way, but something about his upright and stiff gait portrayed the same sort of wandering madness. His face seemed to be warning people that even he did not know where he was going, so they should give him wide berth. And he moved fast. I had to jog to keep up with him.

"Andrew, what did you take yesterday?"
"Eh?"
"What drug did you take? Or drugs? You're on something right now, aren't you?"
"I'm not, not, not, not, not on drugs," he said, laughing.

As it turns out, he was telling the truth. I wouldn't learn this until later, but Andrew had, in fact, lost his mind. And he had, in fact, been to Africa. The two were connected. Andrew's family had traveled to the African continent the summer before, fulfilling his childhood dream of going on safari. It was an exotic trip that required exotic vaccinations, such as the one used to prevent malaria. In one of life's notoriously cruel turns, Andrew became a statistic -- one of the very rare cases in which the malaria vaccine sparked a serious and lasting side-effect. In Andrew's case, the side-effect was manic depression. The vaccine permanently altered his brain chemistry.

His condition was so cruelly severe he didn't just swing from happy to miserable but would lose touch of reality if not on medication. That medication was lithium, about which Kurt Cobain so famously sang. Cobain's song, though, neglected to mention that the major problem with lithium is that it makes you sleepy. That's good if you've got a long flight to Bangladesh, but not so good when you've got a university project due in a few weeks. So, Andrew had chosen to skip a dosage or two. He had, indeed, not taken any drugs -- including those prescribed to him -- and slowly reality had slipped from his grasp.

Now he was speed-walking through traffic and clambering over the road barrier in the middle of Winston Churchill Road. I stood at the crosswalk and shouted at him to stop, but refused to follow. I suspected that Pompey drivers might tolerate one lunatic in their path, but they would take aim at the second.

I caught up with him in front of O'Neill's pub, where I could look up and see Harry Law Hall. I'd like to say that at that point I was smart enough to steer him back home, where we could keep him out of trouble until his parents arrived. But I didn't. I was amused by what I perceived to be Andrew's drugged-out haze. I had been reading a lot of Jack Kerouac at the time, and the idea of following around a nutcase seemed cool to me (damn you, Jean-Louis Lebris).

Andrew and I zipped across Guildhall Square, past the war memorial, and through into Victoria Park. The park had once been voted "Best in Britain." I actually bragged about this fact in letters home. I was easily impressed. I was filled with wonder that it could earn such a distinction. Portsmouth alone has some 67 parks and open spaces -- think of how many there are in the whole of Britain. Yet, somebody, at some point in time had sat in Victoria Park and thought: "This is it. This is the best park in the country."

Winston Churchill famously said: "Don't talk to me about naval tradition. It's nothing but rum, sodomy, and the lash."

Churchill's line is one that a number of tourist books use when they write their one or two paragraphs about Portsmouth. But clearly it is inappropriate. The story of Pompey is rum, sodomy, the lash, and the BEST DAMN PARK IN THE WHOLE OF BRITAIN!

I forget now which year Victoria Park earned its distinction, but there is a sign that tells visitors all about it, along with a series of monuments to just about anyone and anything. There are monuments to groups of people who died of cholera in the early 20th century, plaques dedicated to ill-fated lifeboat crews, and statues of people for whom a historical reference cannot be found. It's been a while since I last visited the park -- there may now be a memorial to Crazy Andrew and His American Friend.

"I am quite fascinated by black people," Andrew said. We were sitting on a bench under a large, flowering tree. "They just seem to know things more than we do. They are more in touch with the earth. More a part of it. Especially your American black people. Have you noticed they can wear anything? You can wear a clock around your neck if you are a black man. Or pull one leg of your track suit up to your knee. Or wear your cap back to front. Or do anything you like, really. And no one points at you and says, 'You look foolish.' I wear normal clothes and they do that to me all the time. It must be something in their skin."
"Melatonin?"
"I suppose. You know what I dislike about Americans? You fit in. You fit in here better than I do. How is that fair? You don't even speak English."
"We speak English, Andrew."
"No. No, you do not."
"If I don't speak English, how can you understand me right now?"
"I am incredibly intelligent. I have that little fish in my ear. You do not speak English. English-English -- that's what I am speaking to you right now. You -- I do not know. I do not know what language you speak. It is not English. English-English -- that is what I speak. Girls say I mumble. They will speak nonsense to you but will not speak to me. I'm speaking English-English and they won't speak to me."
"I think it may have something to do with your approach, Andy," I said. "Like last night -- you can't just walk up to a girl and start snogging."
"Why not? I've seen you do it."
"You've got me speaking languages I don't speak and doing things I don't do. Who am I, Andrew? What's my name?" I said, waving my hand in front of his face.
"Ben. Ben. Benny Hill. Ben in the cat house. That spells 'bitch,'" he said, giggling in a high-pitch voice. "You snogged that bird in the red dress at O'Hagan's."

He had me there. In fairness, I have absolutely no recollection of such an event. But he was telling the truth.

...

I had actually been OK for the first few nights after Allison dumped me. With the holiday still on there wasn't much to do, but I developed a little daily routine. I would wake up at 7 a.m. and listen to the Radio 1 Breakfast Show whilst lying in bed. When the show was over, I would shower, get dressed, and walk to the news agent to buy a Toffee Crisp and The Guardian. I would return to the warmth of my room, eat my candy bar with tea, and read the paper. Then I'd spend an hour staring at something: the construction scaffolding across the way, a wall, American Foreign Policy in the Nuclear Age by Cecil V. Crabb Jr. -- all held equal interest. Then I would make lunch.

After lunch I'd go for a walk through town centre, or down to Southsea, or over to the Hard; anywhere there were people to watch. I would stop into a pub or two along the way to warm up. According to student legend, Portsmouth has more pubs per square mile than any other city in England -- there were six within a one-minute walk of Harry Law Hall. After my stroll/one-man pub crawl, I would return to halls, fix myself dinner, spend another hour or two staring at something, then lie in bed and listen to Radio 4 until midnight.

This was a nice pattern of living that held up until the fourth day, when the something I chose to spend the evening staring at happened to be a picture of Allison holding a sunflower and smiling, her hair dancing in the wind.

"Especially if you're alone tonight, we wish you a safe and peaceful goodnight," the presenter said as Radio 4 signed off the air for the evening.

I clicked on the light, sat up in bed, fished the picture of Allison out of the trash bin, broke the seal on a bottle of Smirnoff and poured myself a shot. I left the radio on and took my last sip of vodka directly from the bottle in toast to "Prayer for the Day," five hours later. Then, weakened by heartbreak and Russian booze, I reached for Elvis' Aloha from Hawaii album. The alcohol had pretty much done away with my motor skills and I pressed my face close to the stereo to read track numbers as I skipped forward to "An American Trilogy."

When I was 4 years old, I saw a TV program about reincarnation. Most of it was lost on me, but the element that resonated most in my preschool mind was the idea that I could have been someone famous in a previous life. I decided I had formerly been Elvis Presley. I spent the next several weeks sitting in front of my dad's stereo, listening to his Elvis records and perfecting my speech pattern to mimic how I thought I had sounded before being reborn into a small industrial Texas town. Eventually, my father grew concerned by my behavior and informed me that Elvis had died in 1977 -- a year after I was born -- so it was impossible for The King and me to be one in the same. I gave up on reincarnation, but Presley's music stayed with me. I turn to it most in hard times.

"An American Trilogy" is my song of last resort -- a nuclear weapon for the soul. I listen to it when I need to fight off the urge to put rocks in my pockets and find the nearest river. Sure, the song is over the top, and, yes, I know it was supposed to have been ironic but Elvis didn't get it. I don't care. When he strains to sing "Glory, glory halleluiah," and that bass trombone hits, oh, man, there's something wrong with you if you don't start crying.  

I collapsed into the chair at my desk and was shaking as Elvis' voice went soft.

"...all my trials, Lord, soon will be over."


With tears streaming, I wrote a 15-page letter to Allison to let her know she had completely destroyed me as a person. She had broken me. And I wanted her to feel like shit about it. If the guilt caused by my letter didn't drive her to take her own life, I was certain she would come crawling to my door and beg me to take her back.

I spent the next few weeks in varying states of minimal sobriety. I was trying to numb myself to the pain of losing Allison, but only making things worse. Thoughts of her would smother me like a lead blanket. That's a stupid simile, and inaccurate -- what I felt was more immense, like being trapped in tectonic plates of frustration and grief.

I had planned my whole life around the assumption that Allison would always be a part of it. In the narrow thought tunnels of drunkenness, the absence of Allison in my future meant the absence of a future. I was like those people who refuse to believe in evolution because if one part of the Bible is wrong, the whole thing is wrong. I could not see myself finishing university because Allison would not be at the graduation. I would never get a job because Allison wouldn't be there to come home to. No Allison, no life.

But you have to exist somewhere, so I existed in Portsmouth -- the pubs and nightclubs of Portsmouth, usually. For the most part, I have no real recollection of that time. I remember little flashes, and I learned about some other things second hand. That month is littered with tales of drunken exploits: the time I drank two bottles of Wild Turkey and wandered into a Japanese girl's room to vomit on her bed; the time I picked a fight with a bloke three times my size; the time I found an office chair in a London alleyway and insisted upon dragging it back (via Tube, train and bus) to Portsmouth; the time I passed out on the toilet floor of the student pub; the time I decided everyone from Canada was my nemesis; and, of course, the time I made out with the girl in a red dress. But again, I don't actually remember doing that.

I remember going to O'Hagan's that night. I remember smoking several of Connor's cigarettes, and I remember lying on the concrete outside Harry Law Hall. I had only worn a T-shirt down to the pub and had fallen to the ground in such a way that the shirt was midway up my torso. I remember feeling the cold of the pavement in the small of my back and shivering, but not being able to move. I remember that a group of blokes carried me up to my room and all I could do was laugh as they accidentally ran me into walls. I remember, also, that just before going out that night, I received a thick envelope in the post from Allison.

"This is it," I thought. "This is her response to my letter; sure to be filled with her overwhelming remorse and pleas for forgiveness!"

Instead, it was 15 pages of scribble, none of it coming close to so much as forming a single legible word. I recognized the graph paper as my own. In blue marker, atop the first page, was a note in Allison's handwriting: "Ben, what is this supposed to mean?"

In my drunkenness I had sent her pages and pages of completely unreadable wobbly lines and dots. And I had no idea what it meant, either. Even if I hadn't been drunk, my memory is crap -- I had allowed myself to remember it as a brilliant essay on the state of my insurmountable grief, but I didn't actually remember what it said.

So, I was well on my way to being able to write another 15 pages of nonsense when I reportedly met the red dress girl. According to Connor, he had chased me away from his table after I smoked all his cigarettes. I found a spot in the corner and struck up a conversation with the red dress girl and her very large boyfriend. After some time, the red dress girl had become very touchy-feely with me and somehow managed to convince the boyfriend to go and get us all curry from a nearby takeaway. As soon as he left, the girl in the red dress and I locked in passionate embrace and the exact location of each other's hands could not be determined.

There are conflicting reports as to how things ended, but I know that the next morning I woke up with about two dozen scraps of paper in my pockets (still a mystery, that), but no red dress girl by my side.

...

"I deserved a good kicking for that, Andrew."

He was standing halfway in a shrub now. I was pretty sure he was urinating, but he seemed to be moving around far too much.

"She fed you. Did you know that? She sat you up and fed you," he said.
"I had heard that."
"You're a bastard that you can get away with that," he said. "Connor and you and Jared -- you can get away with anything because you're American."
"It's not all like that, though, Andrew. When Allison dumped me I went through some shit times. That's just one good story out of a dozen bad ones. Most nights I just cried like a pussy."

You have to use phrases like "cried like a pussy" when talking to men. You can't just admit you were torn up, that it felt as if your rib cage had been cracked open and your heart ripped out, that you had been left feeling empty and hollow and the idea of even having to live until next Tuesday was terrifying. You have to make it sound like you're upset at yourself for having ever cared about the girl, in the same way you'd be upset at paying someone $200 to replace spark plugs that you could have put in yourself for $12.

"I drank so much during that time that I have probably screwed up my body for life," I said. "It was not a happy time, man. I was really shattered over her."
"My pee looks like a fine single malt scotch. Care to have a look?"
"No."
"This girl, this is the ginger one? The one you were drinking over? She had ginger hair, yeah?"
"Allison. Yeah, she had red hair."
"Is it true what they say about ginger birds? You know, down there?"

I had been asked this question a lot. The idea that pubic hair can be some other color than brown or dark brown captivates the male imagination. The vaginas of red heads hold a mythological status among men, and I had been to the Promised Land. Other men may become world leaders, make millions of dollars or even become prophets of the Lord, but I have seen and touched the vagina of a red-haired girl.

"Yeah, it's the same color as up top," I said. "I think the popular phrase is 'fire crotch.' It was more of a wildfire, really -- she didn't shave."
"Was she supposed to shave? Oh, am I supposed to shave? Do you shave your pubic hair, Benjamin? Is this what Americans do -- shave their pubic hair? Is this how you pass the time?"
"No. I don't shave. And she doesn't have to; it's just nice if she does. It makes it easier if you're going to be doing any work down there, know what I mean?"

He stared at me. He didn't know what I meant.

"I had sex in the front seat of a Fiat," he said. "That was my first time. When I was 16 years old. It was terrifying and uncomfortable. I still get nightmares about it. I was so nervous that I am certain I did it wrong. I'm rather sure she was completely disappointed. These trees are too loud."

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Friday, December 3, 2010

'Strictly Come Dancing' Week 9 recap: Vote for Matt


Last weekend saw the removal of three insufferable reality show contestants: Wagner Carrilho, Katie Waissel (though, I actually like her voice) and Gillian McKeith. Sadly, Widdy survives. To the chagrin of even her partner, it would seem.

After a routine that featured Anton screaming, "Iceberg!" at Widdy (perhaps because she is large, frigid and wrecks things), Anton was beleaguered standing in Tess' area. His iron smile seemed especially forced and he was talking to himself, seemingly unable to comprehend why people had applauded the one-minute-forty-second poo-fest he and Widdy had just produced. Out of nowhere, he shouted: "Vote for Matt; he's lovely."

Listen to poor, soul-destroyed Anton, Britain. He wants you to vote for Matt & Aliona instead of him and Widdy. He wants out.

Perhaps it was the continued presence of Widdy, but everyone seemed weary and off their game Saturday. That often happens when the show gets to this point. The contestants are tired and there are still enough weeks to go that the end doesn't feel close enough to build up energy for. Different people are handling it in different ways. Matt Baker is handling it by becoming increasingly charming. Scott Maslen is handling it by slowly coming undone.

Falling to the curse of Widdy this week were Mad Patsy and Big Gay Robin, which was a surprise to me. I thought they were well-liked by the public.

Patsy & Robin ~ Argentine Tango ~ 30
There's that old Strictly line of thinking that if one must leave the show, it is ironically best to do so on one of your better dances. That feat was accomplished by Mad Patsy and Big Gay Robin on Saturday with an Argentine tango that -- while perhaps not the most technically brilliant routine ever -- was transfixing.
I will miss Mad Patsy, if not just for her crazy need to kiss everyone and tell them how wonderful they are. It was as if she was always being led away to be thrown into a volcano. Rather than weep, she was choosing to face her doom with aplomb: "Farewell, my dearest Brucie. We shan't meet again, I'm afraid. But do remember always how I adored you so. Au revoir, Tess. Remember us as happy. Oh, the times we had, darling. And sweet, sweet Kara -- I shall miss you most. Think of me when the smell of honeysuckle carries in the wind..."

Ann & Anton ~ Obliterating Anton's Dignity ~ 13
I'm so tired of Widdy that I refuse to comment this week. I will leave it to other people.
Bruno: "The Ark Royal follows the Titanic and sinks the rumba into the deepest and darkest depths of dance disaster."
Len: "It was the daftest dance I've ever seen."
Craig: "It was awful. Truly a testament to bad dancing."
Guardian Strictly blog: "I cannot bear this... I've reached my limit now. This makes my soul hurt. MY EYES THEY BURN!"

Gavin & Katya ~ Jive ~ 22
We learned after the fact that Katya had been poorly for some of the week, so Gavin had been rehearsing his jive with Katya's boyfriend. Mr. Phin, meet your match.
A few years ago, Mrs. Phin was particularly ill and so Mr. Phin woke in the Ungodly Hours to travel to the school where she taught and lead a group of teenagers on a field trip. That is dedication to one's partner, yo. I'm relatively sure I could beat Mr. Phin in a fight (if not simply because of his particular aversion to violence), but when it comes to attentiveness to one's partner he is without equal. Or, so I thought. Heading in to dance the jive with Gavin Henson just so one's girlfriend can get a bit of rest is definitely above and beyond the call of duty.
Nah, who am I kidding? Hell, I would jump at the opportunity to teach Gavin how to dance the jive. Even though I don't know the jive. Judging by Gavin's performance on Saturday, though, Katya's boyfriend doesn't know it either.
The whole thing seemed like a series of ideas loosely strung together rather than an actual routine: "In this bit, Gavin shows Katya how to dance. In this bit, Gavin decides not to do a cartwheel. In this bit, Gavin shakes his ass for the judges. In this bit, Gavin falls down."
Like his trousers and glasses, none of it fit or made sense.
The Gavin highlight of the week came in the results show when Claudia Winkleman was unable to understand what he was saying due to his Welsh accent and dry delivery. After he finished talking about his dance, she said: "I did not understand a word of that."
He quickly repeated himself and she turned to the camera, making a face and saying: "Literally. Not a word."

Scott & Natalie ~ American Smooth ~ 31
Natalie is going to kill Scott. Over the past few weeks we've seen him grow more and more gaunt; now he's not sleeping. The cumulative effect being that Scott is going mad. Training footage showed him to be like some kind of prisoner of war (the sexiest war ever), wandering deluded and babbling through his routine. Then he came out and did the same thing in the performance.
Alesha and Bruno scored the dance scandalously high because they love Scott, but it was, in truth, a dance-floor train wreck. It was hard to watch. I did so through my fingers. If you dare watch the dance yourself, you'll see it goes wrong within seconds. The highpoint of fuckery comes at 1:16, lasting about 10 seconds, when Natalie is forced to drag him around by the scruff of his neck. Scott just stands there babbling at Natalie and she grabs on even tighter, her smile turning from graceful to: "I will stab you in the face if you don't pull your shit together."
The routine ends with a spot move involving Natalie spinning on Scott's shoulders. It should be impressive but its actual effect is to make you think: "Oh, fuck! Natalie's about to die!"

Matt & Aliona ~ American Smooth ~ 33
Matt has also been working nonstop as of late. He's performing on "Strictly Come Dancing," travelling to the outer reaches of the British Isles for "Countryfile," and serving as host for "One Show." Soon there will be no television but for Matt Baker: "Coming up next on BBC 1, join Matt Baker as he explores the outer Hebrides. At 9, Matt Baker stars as Mr. Darcy in a new interpretation of 'Pride and Prejudice.' Then it's the 10 o'clock news, read by Matt Baker. Afterward Tinie Tempah performs on 'Later Live with Matt Baker.' Meanwhile, over on Radio 4, Matt Baker is reading the shipping forecast..."
But rather than go insane, Matt seems to be adapting to all this stress by becoming an even more delightful chap. In interviews, he crosses his leg in that old school British chat show way and responds to it all with grace and charm.
And he dances well. I don't really get what the judges didn't like about his and Aliona's performance Saturday, and Erin Boag is right that it made no sense they should have received 8s while Scott & Natalie got 9s for fucking up. Aliona -- with whom I am more and more in love each day -- choreographed something different and unique from the usual, tired, "Fred and Ginger"-style American smooth. And it worked, in my opinion.
I think Matt and Aliona were under-marked because they didn't come out and do what the judges expected. From Matt they were probably anticipating acrobatic leaps to 1940s big band or Rat Pack-era swing. Like children opening a Christmas present that is not the thing they had in their head, they failed to be aware of what was actually in front of them.

Kara & Artem ~ Jive ~ 34
To some extent, I think the same thing happened in Kara and Artem's jive. The judges were expecting a lot more crazy shit. When presented with a dance that was slick and stylish, rather than reckless and insane, they just sort of stopped watching. But also the couple scored a little lower than we've come to expect because there were parts where Kara forgot what was going on. She managed to cover it up, though, with her actual dancing ability and a wry smile. So, one had no idea of any problems until she missed the timing of a handstand at the very end of the routine. That's how awesome Kara is: she can blag her way through a dance and still get good marks.
Actually, the more I think of it, that routine was filled with lessons on how to be awesome. From the very start of the dance, Artem has trouble with one of his braces ("suspenders" for those of you playing along at home) constantly falling off his shoulder. Does he let it bother him? No. He just continues being awesome. Kara doesn't know what she's doing. Does she let it bother her? No. She just continues being awesome. And gorgeous.
I mean, really gorgeous. Have I mentioned that I love Kara? Because I kind of do. A lot. A whole lot.

Pamela & James ~ Charleston ~ 38
Meh. Charleston. It's a dance that always seems to earn high scores but not one that I particularly enjoy. With the exception of Kara and Artem's Charleston. I liked that. But mostly for Kara's outfit. Mmm... Kara in her Charleston outfit...
Back to Pamela and James, though; I wasn't all that impressed. I think they were over-marked. The dance wasn't bad but it definitely wasn't better than Matt & Aliona and Kara & Artem.
Kara & Artem.
Mmm... Kara in her Charleston outfit...

Elsewhere on the show
- On Saturday, Tess managed to regain her fashion sense but then lost it again on Sunday when she wore a grey dress that matched her grey eyeshadow, thus making her bright red lipstick seem mildly disturbing.
- But both days she outmatched Alesha. The Guardian's Strictly blog described her Saturday as "wearing her Viennese waltz dress from back in the day." Though, I liked Jenn's comment that Alesha looked "like a child playing dress-up."
- Next week is "Movie Week." I can't really picture what this means, but I kind of like that "Strictly Come Dancing" is picking up a trick from its American offshoot and incorporating themes. Obviously, the appropriate movie for Widdy is Misery. We can only hope for a role reversal, and Anton is the one to break Widdy's legs.
- I found myself looking through the comments on the official Strictly blog this week. There's nothing of interest, but I loved this utterly random comment: "Polar bears are born autocrats."

Who will win
This week, I'm putting my money on Matt & Aliona to win, in a final with Pamela & James and Kara & Artem.