Nick Hornby recently garnered vast critical success with his latest book, Songbook. In it, the cutting edge, pulse-fingering authorbloke explained how a collection of songs - tunes like Reasons to be Cheerful by Ian Dury and You Had Time by Ani DiFranco - changed his life, or at least how they fit in to his personality and consciousness. Perhaps the ultimate vanity work, it's made such a splash in the media world that everyone has at least heard of it, and most have formed some sort of opinion; not a bad achievement, considering the number of books published each week.
Therefore, because I yearn and crave for your attention, I will now list 20 things that mean something to me. I will also explain what they mean to me; it is important to note that while fifty writers have, I'm pretty much certain, already done this, my offering is by far the best. You will laugh and smile. Attend to me.
Few remember this triumph of television awfulness. Jonathan Chase, played by the endearingly-named Simon MacCorkindale, was a lawyer who fought crime by transforming into animals. Episode after episode, he'd spot some kind of wrongdoing or other, and creep into a corner, where he'd start panting furiously. Before long, we'd be watching with amazement as his skin turned black and hairs - hairs! - started growing all over his body. In the blink of an eye he'd be a panther or a hawk or some other groovy manner of beast, and the crime would be as good as thwarted.
I was four years old when Manimal aired (for a grand total of three months). Four-year-olds are impressionable creatures, and every night I would lie in bed, panting heavily, trying to turn my hands into claws. It was a fruitless endeavour. One day I succeeded in giving myself cramp, leaving me doubled over in demented agony, but alas I never became a great big crimefighting cat.
2. Baking Soda Toothpaste
I am a complete convert to that fresh from the dentist feeling of clean. My teeth tingle, my gums feel like they've been scraped fresh with one of those horrible pointy scalpels that dental professionals use; I don't know how I could do without. Did you know that most toothpastes have sugar in them? Sugar?
Baking soda toothpaste doesn't. It rules my pathetic, humdrum little world.
3. My Espresso Machine
I've written about this before, in the glorious morning of 2002, when the War Against Terrorism had ended and the world felt at least vaguely safe. Coffee has become a pretty much essential part of modern living, and espresso is like the nectar of the yuppie gods. The sound of frothing milk makes me grin like a puppy taking a dump on the carpet, and I make a point of acting surprised and disgusted when other people don't know that coffee's supposed to have a head.
Making your own using a paltry kitchen espresso maker isn't quite the same as buying one from your local overpriced emporium, but this way you can use Fairtrade beans if you like and include seventeen shots of condensed liquid joy if you like. My favourite espresso recipe involves a couple of spoonfuls of Ovaltine for good measure; really it's only a matter of time before I buy a Lexus and walk around in smart casual knits.
4. Virgin Trains
In the seventies, Richard Branson was little more than a bearded guy who ran a record company with a pervy name (which made him filthy rich through the popularity of Mike Oldfield's indescribably creepy Tubular Bells). In the eighties, he made himself an idiotic amount of money by buying up some unsafe propeller planes and building himself a transatlantic aviation empire; slowly the deathtraps were replaced with brand spanking new pieces of equipment, and Virgin Air became one of the most comfortable airlines around. Branson could do no wrong.
In the nineties, the British rail network was broken up and he took on responsibility for a couple of cross-country lines. As with Virgin Air, he bought some ancient vehicles and used them until he could make some money. Unfortunately, this turned out to take many, many years, during which time I went to university and spent over five hundred hours on the bastard things travelling between my campus and my parents' house. The lights didn't work half the time, the heating broke down, there was trash everywhere and a strange, smoky smell permeated everything. On one memorable journey, someone set fire to the toilets; the train staff evacuated the car, put the fire out, wafted the smoke about a bit and put everyone back on.
On another, the train stalled for over an hour over a very wide, imposing-looking river. "Do not worry," a voice said over the train's rickety PA system, "you have nothing to fear. Stay in your seats." At which point the driver walked down the length of the train, caked in soot and swearing to himself.
I hate Virgin Trains. They're rubbish.
5. Speak and Spell
The once-ubiquitous toy taught me to read and write. ET used one to phone home; alas, now they're nowhere to be found.
Well, I say nowhere. In fact you can spend a not insignificant amount of money and buy one on Ebay; however, to do so would be (1) an act of extreme sadness, and (2) a really disgusting thing to do, as the hand-me-down would most likely be coated in someone else's child's spit and vomit.
Texas Instruments, I beseech thee: make Speak and Spells again, so that when I have children I can inflict on them the joy and excitement I experienced as a child.
Hoummous is the world's most amazing dip, made with tahini (itself a sesame seed paste), chickpeas and garlic. It's also something like 50% fat, but here in Edinburgh we don't worry about such things. Hell, most of Scotland appears to live on steak pies alone, so I think I've gone one up on them by eating actual vegetables. Although I suppose a chickpea is more of a pulse than a vegetable. And I'm not sure it's any healthier.
Anyway, look, the point is that it's nice, and I eat it a lot. It's at its best when eaten with pita bread, alone or as part of a falafel-based meal, and it's harder to make than it sounds. In fact, I've broken a whole battery of kitchen utensils trying to do just that.
7. The Space Super Heroes
One day when I was eight years old, I found myself sitting in the office of my school's headteacher, Mrs Greenstreet. There had been some kind of fight or other, which was something I wasn't known for; I'd always just been the boy who sat at the Story Table and wrote things. Confrontation had never been my forte, but today there had been an incident. I had been egged on.
"Who encouraged you?" Mrs Greenstreet said, in that kindly voice only authoritarian teachers at Church of England schools seem to manage. (Earlier that week she had coaxed me to tell the school about the She-Ra doll I'd got for my birthday, and specifically that I liked it because she had pink wings. In retrospect, I think she was out to get me.)
"My gang," I said.
She looked aghast. "You're in a gang?"
Yes, I was, but not the kind of gang she had imagined. We were the Space Super Heroes, the SSH, who came from the planet Play and fought against the evil and injustice of the bird-like alien Emms wherever it occurred throughout the galaxy. (Or playground; we strived for good wherever we could.) My superhero name was Firetank - a moniker I stole from a Transformer - and the second in command was Firewhirlwind, so called because he liked to spin round and round. Other characters included Zax, named after one of the title characters in Benji, Zax and the Alien Prince. We played, we drew comic books, we wrote stories, we made camcorder movies about our characters. They were us and we were them.
That day, Mrs Greenstreet forbade us from playing together as a group ever again. But we did, every day, behind corners and under concrete playground equipment, until primary school ended and we were forced against our will to grow up.
8. Charlie Brooker
More of a person than a thing, the cartoonist, satirist and C-list Web celebrity came to light a decade ago, doing the adverts for a second-hand computer store. These weren't your traditional "we're wonderful, buy our depressingly beige line in clunky computer equipment" affairs, however; they deftly satirised computer games and the people who played them. Being a spotty teenager with more interest in keyboards than actual people at the time, I thought this was very funny. Particularly Pimp of Persia with Huggy Bear.
Latterly, Mr Brooker has been responsible for the remarkably genius TV Go Home, a spoof TV guide that's more or less Britain's answer to The Onion with Tourette's. Regular shows include Cunt, the real adventures of a vaguely unpleasant man.
Blokes drink beer. That's their main source of alcoholic sustenance; five bottles of Bud, Miller, Becks or Stella Artois will get them through even the most punishing night out. The problem is, most commercial lager tastes like urine drawn from a cat with malfunctioning kidneys, and although excellent beverages like San Miguel and Budvar do exist, they're usually ignored by the testosterone-flaunting world. Even if you did stray from the core set of lagers, one should certainly stick within the realm of hops-based drinks if you don't want to be ostracised or ritually tortured with a fork.
Not I. I refuse to be a part of any world that thinks Foster's is any country's word for beer; if I'm going to be drinking something, it might as well be something that tastes nice, and damn the consequences. Cocktails, as it happens, taste nice. Some of them taste very nice, and although they're often pink and come with little umbrellas, I'd rather suffer the indignity of being paraded naked through the streets and shat on by dogs than have to drink a Miller.
This may be an exaggeration.
10. The Point, Oxford
It no longer exists, but The Point was one of the best gig venues in Oxford. Although it's comparatively small, the famous academic town has an incredibly rich and diverse music scene. Radiohead are from the area, and played their first gig at a pub in the north of the city; Supergrass are from a suburb, the Candyskins spent time in the city and Thea Gilmore was born in the vicinity. I lived there until I was eighteen.
Like most teenagers, I dreamt of standing on one of the city's stages, singing at a crowd of adoring fans, but like most children forced into music, my ability was limited to playing the piano badly. I was forced, therefore, to live vicariously through the musicians who passed through. Be they Sepultura or Kenickie, more often than not they played at The Point.
The club itself was just a room above a pub, but to describe it thus would insult the cosiest, friendliest gig venue ever. The floor bounced a little under the weight of the moshing audience, and the acoustics weren't great, but isn't that the way with all great theatres? Nothing beats running out that door after the encore, crossing the street and flopping on the Magdalen College School grass.
11. The Pink Book
They tell children that it's important to talk about sex with your parents. They tell parents that it's important to talk about sex with your children. This rarely happens.
In the case of my parents, the "talk" was achieved using a great big pink book called something along the lines of All About Sex. The pictures were oh-so-graphic, and it was so full of detail it might as well have been the Kinsey Report. All the statistics and traumatic pencil sketches aside, the advice therein really boiled down to the same stuff you find out anyway:
1) Whatever your body's doing, it's normal. Unless there are hard lumps or something's turned a funny colour.
2) Nobody cares how big your penis is.
3) Or your breasts.
4) Don't have sex with people if they don't wash.
A great big portion of the book was devoted to pregnancy, which may have been an early attempt to scare me out of any funny ideas. That and the pictures of gonorrhea.
12. Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Before Hat Trick Productions kicked off Clive Anderson in favour of some unfunny ex-soldier and shipped the production to America, Whose Line was the funniest show on TV. It was on late enough on a Friday night that the censors had fallen asleep, and as such it was like anything could happen. It appeared to be pure improvisation, with no rehearsals; anything could be said, or mimed. British comedians mixed with the American ones, creating a cultural mix which resembled my family with more references to sex and drink.
In fact, there was only one censor in Britain: a stern old Christian woman by the name of Mary Whitehouse, who had dedicated her life to being annoying and hindering any cutting edge television from actually getting made. The second funniest show in my early teenage years, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, was jokingly named after her. I suspect she wasn't amused, but who gives a shit?
13. The Atari 130XE
Okay, okay, I come clean, I'm a geek - my mother taught me to program computers when I was just five years old. By the time I was eight, I was capable of writing simple games in BASIC, and the Atari 130XE was the computer I used. Almost nobody bought one, which led to a shortage of specially-written software - but there was a cartridge slot in the back that let me play Atari console games. Therefore, at the age of nine, I could play Joust without dying long enough so that the score wrapped round and started again at zero. (This is cool, admit it.)
Perhaps more importantly, I wrote my first short stories on that computer; childhood epics about love, about adventure, and in one memorable case about a little ginger girl trekking across the Alps to find the magical cup of hot chocolate that would cure her from AIDS.
14. Other People Called Ben
Unfortunately, when I was born Ben was a very popular name. Okay, so not a single other Ben Wombly exists to the best of my knowledge, but it was nonetheless taxing to wander around the school playgrounds with four other people called the same thing as you. Especially when I was much taller than anyone else, which naturally led to the nickname Big Ben. Note: none of the other Bens got prefixes. Except for Dog Ben, much later, but we don't talk about why he has that nickname.
These days, if I were a single sexist, I'd use the nickname as a chat-up line: "Hey baby, what's your name? They call me Big Ben." Back then, however, it was simply a reference to a bell in a tower above the seat of government. People would ask me to make "bong" noises, and I would, and it didn't occur to me until about a decade later that I was a figure of fun.
15. Picking My Nose When I Think No-One's Looking
Well, don't you?
16. New England Clam Chowder
We were never rich, but somehow we always managed to get a good deal on plane tickets and fly over to Cape Cod for the summer. The rest of the extended family - much richer than us, as a rule - made it too, and we'd settle down in a decrepit old house on the banks of a beautiful river rife with crabs and sewage. This experience, although potentially life-threatening, has always been better than it sounds; the river is beautiful, and the adjoining bay only kills its fish inhabitants every five years or so. We fear the red tide.
But we also sail, swim, enjoy each other's company - and eat. Clams are virtually impossible to get in Britain except in cans, and they're surprisingly tasty fresh. Fried, they're pretty good, and clam linguini should be tried by everyone but the most ardent vegetarians. However, clam chowder may be the single most delicious seafood ever created by humankind.
Simply a milk-based soup with potatoes, flour and clams, they traditionally serve it in Boston from a bowl made out of bread. Even with the ceramic kind (although they are distinctly less edible) nothing fills a mid-summer stomach better. This is probably best followed up with a starlit walk - at least if you're a sentimental summer-lover like me.
Summer is the King of Seasons. I will prove this to you by a process of elimination.
Winter is beautiful, but freezing cold. If, like me, you live in Scotland, it's below freezing and it feels like your throat is freezing up when you go outside. Your head starts to hurt and your teeth don't so much chatter as convulse. The world is like that old science fiction story by Fritz Leiber, where the Earth has drifted away from the Sun and it's so cold that people have to go outside and collect air in buckets. To like that you've got to be some kind of masochist.
Autumn doesn't even have a distinct identity. Many Americans refer to it as "fall", although technically this is just the period of time when the leaves are falling from the trees. (Imagine if you were an American living in an evergreen forest; you'd never see the season at all.) Really it's just a transition from summer to winter, which is unremarkable except for the slow progression from warmth into the aforementioned deathly bitterness. Also, if you're a student, the school year starts in autumn, and that's never good.
Spring? Pfah, don't give me spring. "April showers bring May flowers," goes an old rhyme (May flowers, incidentally, bring Pilgrims). In other words, yes, the tail end of spring is nice, but that might as well be summer. The beginning of spring is essentially winter, all cold and blah, and the middle bit is rain. Nobody who's anybody likes rain.
Which brings us to summer, which is the King of Seasons. When else can you take long walks in the middle of the night without a coat? When can you lie out on a beach, or gaze into the cloudless sky for hours on end? When can you go anywhere or do anything you like because you know the weather's going to be nice?
I reserve this for that moment when you fire up Microsoft Word, or load a piece of paper into your typewriter, or open your pad of paper onto a clean sheet. Blankness stares at you, and you don't know what to fill it with, but you know you've got to do something with it because you're not going to forgive yourself otherwise. Nothing happens, and you just sit there, slowly beating yourself up until you say "sod it" and turn the telly on to one of those shopping channels.
The best shopping channel ever, by the way, is Bid Up TV. Whoever thought TV auctions were a good idea was probably catatonic; about five people in the whole of the United Kingdom bid for each item, and the despair on the faces of each and every Bid Jockey is excrutiating. They don't know what they did to end up on this entertainment hellhole, and neither do you.
So you switch off the TV, go back upstairs and write something in that blank space. It might not be much, but at least you're not standing in a cold studio trying to sell a cheap watch to six people you can't see, remembering all your old hopes and dreams.
Don't let the overlong infomercial with Chuck Norris - certifiably the world's hairiest man - put you off. The TotalGym really works, it's fun, and you don't have to suffer the disapproving stares of the scary spandex people at the gym. It uses your own weight against you, which means there's always enough resistance to give you a good workout.
I mean, don't get me wrong. I don't want to look buff or anything, and a fear of people in spandex would be utterly ludicrous. (At this point I make a hollow laugh.) But sometimes it's nice to be able to eat what you like and not look like someone's stuck a pump to your anus and hit the "on" switch.
Alas, the city I now live in isn't called auld reekie because of the stink from the breweries on the edge of town which permeates the air. Reek means smoke; it's called that because there's a cloud of the stuff hanging overhead. I ask you to ignore this little fact, and ask who can honestly blame me for living in a city that smells of beer.
Drinking is part of the Scottish culture - behaviours that in America would be considered dangerous alcoholism are perfectly normal here. A couple of pints of lager after work might even be good for you, some would argue, and there's nothing like staying out with your friends in a Victorian drinking hole until the small hours of the morning before stumbling home under the gaze of the magnificent architecture. Did I mention how beautiful it is? There are gorgeous, multi-level streets and gardens everywhere.
Of course, in the middle ages it was a plague-ridden shithole. Those streets are multi-level because they built over the sickest parts of the city with the plague sufferers still alive inside. The shit and bodies from the castle flowed into a valley, which are now picturesque gardens. If you look closely in the churchyards you can see stone carvings of skulls and grim reapers look out from the many city tombs.
Edinburgh may well be the most gothic city in the world. Eat that, New York. Eat it all up.
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