Monday, February 6, 2017

A Basic Bert

I have realised that I am more Bert than Ernie.

Despite what my autobiography may one day refer to as 'the questionable cider decades', I am not a wild child. I am no rebel. My spirit is not free. My spirit wears a cardigan and insists on strong tea. My Fitbit told me so.

For those who don't have one yet (they are an inevitability), the fitness tracker gives your arm a buzz when you reach the daily target of steps. My daily target is 10,000 steps which I always reach on the way home... outside the exact same Spar.

This may not seem surprising (or lets face it, even vaguely interesting). I take the same route to work and home so it adds up to much the same and YET this also means all my caffeine-addled dashes to the kettle, my impromptu consultations with colleagues (aka bad office flirting), toilet trips, lunch-break wanders, and any free-style jigs I partake in all add up to the exact same amount, give or take a margin of five steps. Sit down Alan Partridge, that's world champion level dull predictability.

Further evidence of this bludgeoning of spontaneity came with a recent trip to Topman. I bought two fresh identical plain black jumpers as the two identical plain black jumpers I already have are sometimes in the wash. These are always worn with one pair of my six pairs of identical plain black jeans. Topped off with one of two identical plain black hats. To add a cheeky dash of excitement to this outfit  I chucked in two identical plain black t-shirts because why the hell not? I was thrilled with myself. Or as thrilled as someone who dresses like Goth Rosie from Corrie (2005-2006) can be.

I have previously talked of my love off being a cafe regular and so it could seem my lust for ordered routine is turning into a mild obsession. But I just prefer to run the background bits of life on autopilot as much as possible. I know how some folk embrace the challenge of assembling a statement outfit and can imagine how creating and stepping into a fresh character each morning sparks joy as they strut the pavement. I whole-heartedly admire a put-together 'look at me' look in others. I'm just not arsed myself. I was not put-together, I hit the snooze button three times and nodded off again in the shower.

While I still have an Ernie side (yes, I have had spontaneous fun, reasonable night transport home allowing), I will always champion the Bert. The Bert side is old enough to know what it likes and how it likes it. The Bert side welcomes buying the same jumper again because the last one went bobbly in the wash. The Bert side shamelessly orders the same lunch five times a week because it's what you like to eat. The Bert side savours getting to bed before midnight. The Bert side doesn't need every banal life choice to be a whizzbangpopper of an adventure.

If you don't know (and secretly love) your own Bert side yet, you will. He's coming.

I'm on Twitter @theroryjohn

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Don't Have a...Cow!?

Some phrases are stealth nonsense. They creep into daily speak and hide in plain sight for generations. Accepted, maintained, and passed on without assessment or particular affection. But one day you might catch their shifty eye and see them for what they are - gibbering bullshittery.

Which brings me to, as ever, my bone-achingly dull commute to work. Somewhere between Mill Hill Broadway and Hendon I wondered where 'Cor Blimey' came from (I was fondly reminiscing over the rooftop sunset scene in Mary Poppins "...the rooftops of London, 'cor what a sight!", as you do)

With a quick google I discovered it's a corrupted pass-me-down of 'God blind me', which is an odd way of saying 'I'm quite surprised' to begin with.

Slipping down an etymology Google hole, I discovered that 'Crikey' was a mid-1800s substitute for 'Christ!'. It seems a decent chunk of our vocab stems from that familiar scenario of beginning to curse, catching your mum's eye, and swerving the end of the word - "Oh shhhhhhhh... ugar".

Another prominent example of a cursing u-turn is Bart Simpson's 'Eat my shorts'. A phrase the show trumpeted back when Bart was a t-shirt slogan spewing rebel and 'The Simpsons Sing the Blues' was THE cassette album to have.

(Note: Once I casually mentioned this album to a work-experience college student. They had never heard of it. Nor 'The Bartman'. To be fair this is because the album came out 27 years ago. Darkness fell across my emotional landscape.)

'Eat my shorts' was not a Simpsons invention and had previously been used in 1985 classic 'The Breakfast Club'. Looking at it afresh it's a very obvious censor-appeasing swerve on 'Eat my shit'.

And what of Bart's "Don't Have a Cow Man"?

Roughly speaking it means "don't freak out like you're trying to push a calf out of your down-below bits". It stems from "to have kittens", a more familiar phrase on this side of the Atlantic which means 'freaking out' as cats are notoriously nervy during kitten-birth. 'Don't have a cow' became the US adaptation, because Americans just had to go one bigger.

And about other early 90s tshirt-friendly-cartoon-slogans? (And nothing is more early 90s than a tshirt-friendly-cartoon-slogan.) 'Cowabunga' long predates Michelangelo. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Michelangelo that is.

The pizza-loving 'party dude' brought it to a new generation but surfers used it when catching a 'narly wave' in the 1960s, and it debuted on the 'Howdy Doody Show' in 1953. The wild-west puppet show featured some questionable Native American stereotypes, as was the fashion at the time.

On some lowly corners of the internet it's rumoured to be derived from the actual Native American exclamation 'Kwa Bungu', though it seems to be a neat coincidence considering 'Howdy Doody' writer Eddie Kean says it was pure nonsense babble he made it up.

If you can think of any other familiar slogans or phrases you'd like me to investigate just give me a shout (because let's face it, this is what I do with my weekends now).

I'm on Twitter @theroryjohn

Sunday, January 29, 2017

It's Still Good To Talk

I got a Whatsapp from a friend asking if I was in fact going to come and to witness his debut DJ set. I had accepted the invite on Facebook but he was unconvinced. I suspect he was cynical as I fire out ''I'll absolutely be there" replies to everything but cannot make a firm decision about anything that isn't happening within the next three minutes. The future beyond that is an unknowable darkness we should not try to impose order on.

He was right too. As work is an gluttonous time-stealing beast there's little to absolutely zero chance of me transporting from Shoreditch to a 90s pop filled Reading pub by 8pm. I was going to give him the highly-expected 'sorry i'm a flake again' text but realised it's been months since we spoke. This is a friend I could, and would, talk to for days on end about aggressively silly things, mostly while impersonating the two Edies from Grey Gardens.

Yup we were those 'wacky' folk. At least we entertained ourselves.

So instead of sending a quick message before getting on my train, I rang him. And felt nervous about it. I know I hate getting unexpected phone-calls when a message would do, especially as I get panicked over how to wrap it up politely at the end (I really should adopt every Irish parents' method of "Well, I'll let you go..", which my own have been using more and more frequently of late). I was worried he would see my name flash up and feel that punch of dread. 'Uffff just text me you utter dickplant'.

15 minutes later, my whole day was lifted with a huge happy reminder of just how very funny my friend is, how solid friendships always pick up easily from where they left off, and how he sees right through me like no other. For example on the subject of Disney World...

Me "I thought I'd really hate it... "
Him "...because you pose as a cynic who is above popular things..."
Me "...yes exactly! But actually it was the most fun thing ever."
Him "Yes. That's why it's popular."

What could have been a 16 character text was a brief but happy chat about random shite, a friendship refresh button, and a good laugh to boot.

Warning: here comes the 'ugh sweet suffering jaysus, another social media think-piece' piece... Facebook likes and Twitter favs don't keep us in touch with each other, they just mean we're keeping tabs. It says 'I know you're still alive, I am too, we used to know each other, and kinda still do, but not really, let's all stay in our lanes '.

Which brings me to my favourite TV ad campaign of all time. In 1990 a meeting was called to make the idea of paying phone bills not such a scourge for men (still a time when execs said men paid bills and women made phone calls). They came up with Bob Hoskins, a seemingly gruff's man's man with a twinkle of sentimentality, telling the nation that 'It's Good To Talk'.

(Before that, here's my friend's DJ night, do check it out!)

I'm on Twitter @theroryjohn

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Monday, January 23, 2017

When Funny Goes Sad

Yeah alright. I've already succumbed to doing one of those video list articles. I had a wee think on the train home about what to write and something struck me afresh as I listened to Desert Island Discs archive podcast.

(Yes I'm still wanging on about Desert Island Discs and, full disclosure, may well continue to do so.)

The 'tears of the clown' could be dismissed as a stinky stale old cliche but it exists for good reason and listening to  Johnny Vegas and Frank Skinner talking candidly about their pissed-up problems between records reminded me that those who make us laugh can all the quicker make us cry.

Perhaps it's because like many creative folk (and despite some unconvincing protestations) comedians are usually sensitive 'outsiders' who, despite a childhood of wanting to belong, can never quite hop over that observation line. That acute but lonely perception creates a tinge of tragedy around what becomes great work - the child who wasn't picked to play notices much more about the game from the sidelines.

But also as an comedy audience, we're more emotionally vulnerable than we are with any other genre. Our stress-tightened chests open up after a few laughs and we're giddy to be carried along by a comedian. We roll over and want to be tickled, leaving our soft squishy bellies exposed. So when they carry us somewhere unexpectedly dark, sad, or sentimental it's all the more shocking. We're have no stoic reserve to protect us.

It's those sad comedy bits that make your dad pretend to blow his nose to cover that he's tearing up.

Here's a brief list of some 'when funny goes sad' moments that immediately came to my mind. If you have other suggestions please let me know below.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Scariest Film Scene Ever?

Pennywise the clown luring little boys to their doom in a rain gutter, the Grand High Witch peeling off her mask and frying a disobedient witch, this cheery Chupa Chubs rep...

Cinema has happily provides kids with a lifetime of nightmare fuel but one particular scene has stuck with me more than any other. And it only gets scarier the older you get. 

The other night I flicked over to discover Terminator 2: Judgement Day had just started on ITV (accidentally coming across a brilliant film on terrestrial TV now feels nicely old-fashioned, these whipper-snappers with their Netflix have it too easy).

As anyone who has seen the 1991 sequel can attest, this is a Pringle Can of a blockbuster. You cannot stop. You will not. Amazing iconic set-piece follows amazing iconic set-piece. There's always 'ooh that cool bit when..' just around the corner.

Halfway through, the film takes a breather (between breaking out of an asylum and blowing up the Skynet office) and Sarah Connor has a well deserved doze on a picnic table. Then this happens....

To add a bit of spicy fuel to that apocalyptic nightmare, experts agree that it's a pretty accurate depiction of how it would all end. Lovely stuff.

To slip into a gravely morbid mood for a moment, surely I can't be alone in seeing this scene more frequently in my shuddering mind's eye recently? As world affairs free-fall further into a credibility-stretching dark comedy, I idly wonder what would happen if IT happened. Would #apocalypse trend on Twitter before a blinding light swallows me into nothingness? Would we become eerily calm and walk outside to enjoy a last moment of birdsong? Would I be able to contact my parents? What would I say if I could? Would we come to a profound peace or scream and poop ourselves into oblivion?

Sorry for the dark thoughts but I have a very long commute in the morning and my mind does tend to wander down some grimy cul de sacs.

But that arse-ache of a commute's also providing me with a soothing balm to my gnawing end-of-the-world worries. With the recent 75th anniversary of  'Desert Island Discs' I read plenty about how fantastic and moving and joyous and life-affirming people talking about their favourite songs can be. I wasn't convinced but downloaded the archive app just in case I was missing out.

I'm addicted. All I want in life is to hear Kirsty Young jerk tears from celebs like Victoria Wood, Noel Gallagher, and Tom Hanks. You will laugh, you will cry, you will feel like a 69 year old widower called Majorie who listens to the wireless as she scrubs limescale from her kettle. It's bloody great.

Sir Michael Caine proved a highlight with his surprising picks of chillout trance tracks ("What you expected some old duffer to come on and pick something pre-war?"), with his sad family history (after her death he discovered his mum paid weekly visits to a secret son in a care-home), and with his cheering closing words "I am the wold's ultimate optimist, I think everything is going to be alright."

Maybe it's because of his ol' London town smoke-honey croak or maybe it's because he discovered the meaning of Christmas in Kermit the Frog's kitchen, but I took some comfort from him.

Perhaps in this grim times we need someone who's been around the block to tell us we'll muddle through somehow. Perhaps, if Michael Caine says so, things might just be alright.

That said, Caine did record this in 2009 and has probably revised this attitude drastically since.

I'm on Twitter @theroryjohn

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Go Greek & Opt-Out

Just a few days into this month of deluded self-flagellating ambition I realised without too much surprise that I'd already slipped on my 'one post a day' resolution. Slipped so badly family members would say in a concerned hush "he's had a bad fall, bless him".

But in other resolutions I'm doing fairly okay. On the diet and exercise front I've read two articles whole  about Joe Wicks aka The Body Coach and passively watched him do a YouTube tutorial. I also walked out of my way in a train station to find and skim through Tom Daley's lifestyle book (it's mostly ambitious recipes and putting anything more elaborate than 'cheese sandwich' together is a dark art I do not care to learn). It was returned to the shelf.

This is how I do not look. 

I've also had a vegan day today. It was entirely by accident but it counts*

One self-helpy impulse buy I have found to be actually practical is 'The Daily Stoic' by Ryan Holiday. A glossy weekend supplement told me that Ancient Greek Stoicism is the most fashionable philosophy of the Spring/Summer season. As a newfound Vegan, I am not one to miss the tide of a popular movement.

For each day of the year the book gives a wee snippet of something an ancient Greek philosopher said and then re-frames it in a useful way for modern life. Even for this sneering cynic there are really useful and interesting little prompts for pause and thought. Like most philosophies and self-help books this one boils down to one central idea, the Greek lads were basically saying...

"Seriously. You need to calm down and just chill the f**k out."

Two passages that really jumped out at me as particularly relevant are...

"We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and to not let it upset our state of mind - for things have no natural power to shape our judgements" Marcus Aurelius.

Ryan re-frames this as; you don't have to have a burning opinion on everything. Just because there's some outrage that you could get riled up about doesn't mean you have to. Twitter has become an anger engine. By the end of a scrolling session I usually find I'm blindingly furious about a rainbow of issues that I knew nowt about a few minutes before and will have a sum total of zero impact on my life. They're just passing clouds of other people's hot air. So why bother?

If you're fighting a particular corner do it out of genuine passion, not because you're addicted to being offended or need to be part of the this hour's Most Virtuous Tweeters. And as ever, if you don't know what you're talking about just shut up and sit it out.

With that in mind...

"If you wish to improve be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters - don't wish to seem knowledgable."

On this one, the book suggests that "I don't know" and to a greater degree "I don't care" are powerful and shocking things to say these days. We're expected to know about and have formed opinions on every news story and scandal, and to be fully versed on every new dark TV drama. You don't.

As Ryan notes, it's almost a  duty to keep generally aware of current affairs and culture but a small bit of ignorance can be bliss too. It's exhausting trying to consume everything purely out of a fear of missing out. If you're not bothered seeing something, don't. It's still okay if great stuff passes you by.

And so today I'm using Ancient Greek Philosophy to excuse the fact that I'm just not arsed following Celeb Big Brother or that must-see but dingy Tom Hardy drama, and am only allowing myself to get angry about Trump for 7 to 10 minutes each day.

I feel better already.

*Realised I was eating a chicken and cheese sandwich as I wrote this. It no longer counts.

I'm on Twitter @theroryjohn

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Should Scarlett be Sacked from Gogglebox?

Bear with me. Scarlett Moffat is an orange telly genius I want to see more of. But not on Gogglebox.

Reaction to Durham's Gogglebox lass has become a personality litmus test for me: Madonna is said to have a Frida Kahlo painting in her hallways so she can judge newcomers based on their response, if they don't love it, she don't love them. Similarly if people think Scarlett is 'a bit thick' I am assured that they themselves have the IQ of a Yop.

She's not thick. She's sharp but comically dippy. Her seemingly naive questions sometimes punch through to an "oh... actually, fair point" response from both her dazed parents and viewers. Dumb people aren't curious about the world, Scarlett is.

So why the sacking question? I raise it on the back of some very good news - 'Streetmate', a street dating show hosted by Davina McCall from 1998 to 2001, is coming back and will be hosted by Scarlett. This come hot on the heels of her becoming Queen of the Jungle on 'I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!' - beginning to see the problem?

How can our 'lovely folk next door' Gogglebox families give an honest reaction to programmes when they themselves are spread across the TV schedules? The show slips deeper into danger the more popular it becomes; new families blatantly know they're auditioning to become quirky favourites while the established families either play up their 'schtick' or are becoming too big for the format. How could Scarlett slag off say a new Philip Schofield vehicle whilst having had a lovely time with him on the This Morning couch only last Tuesday?


There's also the issue of the show breaking the fourth wall. Producers are caught in a bind where they have to ignore big programmes because they feature Gogglebox stars. They barely gave 'I'm A Celebrity' a sideways glance this year because Scarlett was there. Her crowing moment was featured briefly but it felt like it was done with more than a little sense of teeth-gritted duty.

Interestingly while most of her co-stars cheered her on, the Michaels dad looked distinctly unimpressed by the win - which brings me to wonder how much jockinging for 'break-out star' status there is amongst the families. Scarlett has proven it can be done, should Louis Michaels screech his way through some cake-baking, should the much-revered Mr Sadiqui have a go at very slowly making his way around the Strictly floor? They've seen over the telly's Berlin Wall of opportunity and now might also want a piece of that freedom, money, and attention. None of our younger stars will want to be left behind.

With all this in mind, is it time for Gogglebox producers to re-enforce their policy of 'our show alone or nothing' (George and family were dropped when he took part in Celeb Big Brother). This would mean they have to sadly drop some break-out favourties, and instead focus on a mix of reliable stalwarts with some (fingers-crossed) natural newcomers?

If not, Gogglebox is in danger of becoming the show that ate itself.

I'm on Twitter @theroryjohn