School politics

The days have been going by fast this week. It’s been varied as ever, and so unseasonably hot. This time last year it was snowing and I was up in Rochdale digging a path to Rob’s garage so we could tinker with a motorbike with freezing fingers. Today I was trying to get year 7 in a hot London school to engage with politics. I don’t go into schools that often. I’d agreed to meet an old mate after work, but I walked out of that place feeling like I’d run a marathon. Nearly 200 kids shouting constantly from morning until early afternoon. Of all things, we were thinking about Brexit today. They make a political party, decide what they’re minister for, think about policies and make a campaign including their Brexit strategy. At the end of the day they present their manifesto, and make campaign promises, and then there’s a vote for the winning team.

“We don’t have any policies,” whispers one kid to another as they go up on stage to give their manifesto. “I know. It doesn’t matter. We’ve just got to say something” comes the response. A teacher overhears the exchange with me. “That’s Westminster all over,” she says. “Theresa May probably said that to someone today.”

Some kids were re-inventing communism, others re-branding fascism. “We’ll make everyone have the same money,” says one group. Another says “Anyone who isn’t from here would just have to go home to where they’re from.” A third is defence secretary. “We should avoid using nukes unless we are provoked.”

A lot of what they’re starting with is received opinion. It’s revealing seeing them unpack it for themselves and for each other, and maybe question for the first time why they think what they think – and whether it really is what they think. Perspective takes time, and our unconscious motivators can frequently go unexamined for ever. There are millions of people online who are passionately defending opinions that they’ve never examined or questioned. Often people on both sides of the political spectrum vote in ways that don’t serve them due to inherited ideologies. We all need to question our opinions and the things we take for granted. We shift as the world shifts. A stagnant pond is death.

The thing I notice most often on days like this is that, when it comes to a vote, simplicity always wins. A great big flag pulls votes. A simple catchy slogan will snag them too, much more so than a thought through manifesto.” “We don’t have any policies.” “Doesn’t matter.” Nuance usually gets lost in noise.

People vote quickly and instinctively, and in the end they often vote emotionally. It’s how we get these demagogues with very little in the way of content but lots in the way of opinion, with passionate followers willing to fight to defend empty words they’ve learnt by rote because they connect to feelings. It’s why you feel good when you’ve been to a protest or a rally. Chanting in groups is lovely, and brings us together, as we start to breath as one. It can be “zieg heil” “no more war” “om” or anything really. The key is feeling connected with the people around us – briefly losing ourselves in the organism.

We do need to examine our content better, and take emotion out somehow. And we need to learn to debate again.

Today was unusual and at times very interesting. And completely knackering, although I got the best school lunch I’ve ever had so that made a difference.

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Dump

This morning I was at a recycling centre. Basically it’s a tip but they try to repurpose the stuff you drop. The van was full of mdf flooring that nobody we were able to find had a direct need for. It was heavy, and weight is money. I was paid to take it to a dump and pile it up. Almost £140 it cost my client, just to drop the stuff there based on weight, and not  counting my labour. They weigh your van going in and again coming out. You pay the difference.

They might well sell that flooring to someone. There must be people with business relationships with the dump. It’s branded as a recycling centre. It’s right next to a great big heavily branded prop store for my industry. Amazing.  That makes so much sense. It must have been going on for decades…

Say I’m making a film. I need a 1980’s household orange juicer for a scene, filming tomorrow. You can’t buy them on eBay, even though they’re everywhere. The job of finding it goes to a clueless production runner. Everyone else is dealing with other things. Nobody knows to ask Mrs Gabberney of 12 The Orchards, Penge for her one until the son throws it into a yellow skip after she’s gone.

These prop store guys fished it out of a skip years ago. They rent it to the runner. You can find the prop store online, and they’ve got a huge great branded warehouse right by the tip, full of “authentic period props”. So for loadsamoney per day you get your period perfect scene critical juicer. Plus you lose your absurd deposit when the actor drops it on the first take and dents it, even though they’ll just buff the thing out and rent it again. These people notoriously take you for everything you’re worth. They understand supply and demand, but lack empathy. They price the same for Annie Leibowitz as they do for The Finborough. They could probably teach me a thing or two about pricing themselves…

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They must swing by the dump every day, from their neighbouring prop warehouse. “Anything new Harvey?” “Just the usual crap. Bunch of kitchen stuff. Take what you like. We’ll do it by weight. That’ll be £3.12.” AUTHENTIC 1980’s LEMON JUICER. THIS IS THE REAL DEAL. ONLY immortal soul PER DAY!!!

I left all the mdf in a neat pile, thinking someone might want it. It’s better it goes to use somewhere than to landfill.  But those props guys have got me thinking… I’ve got way too much crap. Maybe there’s a way to rationalise it and not be a dick about it. Just yesterday I saw someone asking to rent “random mystic  crap.” I’ve got that in spades,

We got talking to the man that works there. The sun is shining, so everyone is talking to strangers. “I used to have a van like that,” he says. “You can get all sorts. You wouldn’t believe what people throw away.” He illustrates with 200 cases of Budweiser. All in date. The American Embassy was moving and they didn’t have room or infrastructure or whatever, so some poor intern was employed to drive the surplus to the dump, and they took the job literally. “Dump the beer boss? Sure boss. Here’s my receipt boss. Didn’t keep nothing for myself boss. All done properly boss. Promotion, boss?”

I ask the question: “Are you allowed to take stuff out of here yourself”

“No no, it’s against regulations. But when I was driving a van … I’ve got a suit of armour at home, and all sorts. And a sword? I got a sword yesterday.” This man has a family, and kids. His house is likely to be completely full of random shit – (plus Budweiser I expect!). One day he’ll die and his estate will employ someone to take all the stuff he lovingly preserved from the dump, and … dump it again. The circle of junk. It happened to the contents of the house I grew up in, and I still feel the pull of some of it. It happened to my uncle’s old home in Scotland. All into skips. I’m off to Jersey to finish sorting my other uncle’s stuff in March. I can hopefully repurpose a lot of it. We will see.

Ghosts and writing

For the last few years of her life, my mother had a boyfriend. Leonine and intense and poised – a David Attenborough type, deeply involved in human rights. He opened my old Harrovian eyes to a new way of thinking about ethics. Teenage Al both hated him for not being my father, and suspected him for appearing to be a compulsive liar, but respected him for incontrovertibly good work in the world. He set up a functioning human rights charity, and they successfully lobbied for changes in the law which have helped untold thousands. He had a genuine claim in his own life for redress. He’d been tortured and he was always on the verge of some big payout. He and his charity helped land compensation for a great many people while his big claim never came in – and still hasn’t.

I didn’t mind that it never landed – none of us did. His financial status was irrelevant to me, but as my mother’s boyfriend he wanted me to know: “When my payout comes through…” X Y Z. There was a thing in his mind where money was really important. He kept his notional worth high to counteract how his actual wealth didn’t marry with his value system.

Mum looked at houses in the country with him. She hated living in the city full time. When the compensation came they could move away.

Meantime he lived with mum. He pretended to know bands that my teenage friends and I invented in order to bait him. Teenage boys can be buggers. My friend Cameron used to deliberately and creatively improvise band names in order to elicit “oh yes I know their manager.” He was a delight, and constantly full of stories.

He helped make my mother happy. A teenage boy is always going to resent a man that isn’t his father but lives with his mother. After I moved out he moved in with her.

She went a few years later and I lost touch with him, and with many of my mother’s friends, for decades. I was processing it. So arbitrary. Preventable, I told myself. I was leaving drama school. Filming Bright Young Things. Busy. Maybe he could’ve helped her, I thought, or given her something concrete to help anchor her.

Recently I’ve started shyly engaging with him again. He lives in the sheltered housing opposite me. I see him pottering around the streets I live on. I see him smoking outside Tesco. Occasionally, in one of my many vehicles, I wave as I drive by. “That’s my mother’s ex boyfriend” I tell people.

We went for dinner this evening. “I need a ghost writer,” he put in randomly to the conversation. My head went to considering it: “He must know my work… I could use a first major project, and he’s almost family. Maybe he appreciates how 500 words minimum per day uncut and unedited has taught me how to hone ideas into words. I know his story, plus I’ve worked closely with human rights over the years. I know the laws a little.” Thinking he’s fishing. I bite. “Talk to me.”

He doesn’t take it how I expected. He’s not fishing at all. “No no I need a proper writer,” he tells me, unblinking. “Someone with … precedent.”

To be a ghost writer? My pride is engaged now.

“I write a blog,” I tell him, thinking it might lend weight. The idea lands on him like blancmange. Dismissively: “I need more than a blog writer.”

I’m livid. This honest and unedited content is by nature invalid because … because it hasn’t been externally validated by … something or someone that you attribute value to…? Gahh.

Pride is a funny thing, both ways. The rest of our conversation was just mutual confirmation bias, both wanting to dismiss the other, back to teenage boy and unwelcome boyfriend.

We passive aggressively insisted on splitting the bill.

When someone does what mum did, they do it despite the people they love. Even if you live with them there’s nothing you can do. I know that. But I need to stay alert to that truth when I’m with him. Even post Camino there’s some remnants of the old wounds. A little bit of teenage Al came into the conversation getting baity and announcing “You’re not my dad.”

Whether or not he’s my dad, he’s family, and dinner was proof of that. It’s always tricky seeing family. There’s so much more at play than what can be seen. Old ghosts. Old words. Skeletons.

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Park

Ahh Oscar Night. Ten years ago I was in a flat above a rat infested kebab shop in Peckham, staying up all night to keep up with the industry. When I saw the dawn I was so surprised I momentarily assumed it was a nuclear strike. Two years ago I was in a huge house in The Hollywood Hills, living it large with Bojack & co. Last year I was in Manchester, staying in a little home in Didsbury, teetotal so I could ride a motorbike, trying to stream it on my iPad and falling asleep. This year I’m going to bed in London without even trying, even though a friend is there and might well win for editing on Roma. A foreign language film, with Netflix money, looking like it’ll get heavily recognised. I’ll check the results in the morning.

These huge, ambitious movies of the past. Their impossible width. The sheer scale of Wind, Zhivago, Lawrence… even Marvel money isn’t making wide-screen films now. But if we dispense with width, how do we justify keeping the picture houses open? If all the cinemas turn into flats what happens to the film industry? Is convenience slowly shutting down expression? How long before we really are just those batteries in The Matrix, rolled over our telephones, utterly predictable, utterly trackable, utterly exploitable..?

My head has been in my other love today – unusual theatre. A career in making large scale feature films and unusual theatre. That would be a good headstone to aim for, so long as both mediums continue to exist. I went for a walk in Battersea park with Lydia and Tom. Lydia has just launched out of an MA in playwriting. Tom has been making it work for himself in this industry as a theatre director. We were taking in the unusual weather, walking in Battersea Park while the ice caps sweat and the world dies, enjoying the sunshine. Such a lovely day, here in the UK. It felt like summer, but for the fact we lost the light so early. The whole park was thronged.

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The guys who rent weird bikes in June had dusted off their stock. The solicitous young people in harnesses who usually only do corporate teambuilding for “Go Ape” were up in the trees smiling. Families with kids marathon trainers, fitness freaks, young couples, old friends, first dates, grandparents with grandchildren, ex-cons, old friends… Everyone was out in the park. It doesn’t take much. And very few were catching Pokémon on their phones.

I brought a huge bag of birdseed with me. It was leftover from the show. One of the many things I was giving people as The Marquis was birdseed, for them to throw for the little birds at a time when food is relatively scarce. “Give to the universe, and perhaps the universe will give to you. Not the pigeons though. Fuck the pigeons.” I had a lot of seeds leftover, so the birds and squirrels of Battersea Park will hopefully enjoy an unusual seed bonanza on this unseasonably warm Sunday. I was scattering them liberally as we wandered around.

God of War and Chill

Last night didn’t go quite according to plan. I woke up hungover and remembered a string of ubers and of questionable decisions. A lot of of fun though even if not the best economy move. I owe my friends some drinks, as they weren’t letting me get stuck into rounds. It turned into a cathartic night, even if it wasn’t the most restrained.

Fun last night didn’t translate into fun this morning though. I woke up with a head on. I stamped around injecting coffee and being negative and shoving Hot Cross Buns into myself while Brian tried the fix his bike audibly outside, sadly to no avail. Both of us have machines that don’t work. My jaguar is in Sussex. I can’t afford to fix it and insurance is still massive every month. Probably the battery is done by now. At least the soul van is parked outside safely, but it’s not really a runaround. It’s useful for big jobs, that van, and I’ve got it for a few weeks yet. March is filling slowly, but there’s still some space in my calendar, particularly next week, if anyone needs haulage.

Randomly this afternoon my client for a house move on Thursday pulled the job out from under me. Fuck it. It’s the only van job I had lined up right now and would’ve helped tick things over. I can’t book too far in advance as I don’t know when I might have to return it. But she just pulled out of a simple job with no good reason. Maybe I’ll get an audition on Thursday and thus retrospectively be grateful for it. But right now I’m properly pissed off with her. I’ve never even met her – she’s a friend of a friend – but therefore I’m just an idea and you can mess people around when they’re just ideas. Likely she’s got a mate with a van who is getting the same rate but she knows them. Still annoying and leaves me with another negative day in the expenses book.

I was supposed to be going up to Richmond to watch the rugby with Tristan but canceled myself, partly as I was in a bad mood after she pulled the Thursday job and partly because I knew I’d end up spending. Instead I sat at home. I cooked a good healthy lunch and felt too sick to eat it. I played PS Now and finally finished the first ever God of War game, which got my appetite back for real world food.

I’m only a decade or so behind the seminal games… I read, played with the cat, watched Netflix and chilled (the non euphemistic version.) And after such an aggressively pedestrian day I sunk into the bath to write a blog about how little I’ve done, unless you count defeating the God Ares and taking his place in the pantheon, which you can do by hammering a load of buttons for about 11 solid hours of gaming. Who knew the deification process was both so repetitive and so achievable.

Now I’m in the bath with wine and Kindle using my ingenious bath shelf. Maybe tomorrow I’ll do something…

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Rose and Crown

This week has been slow, and my Friday night plans have been interrupted by my state of mind. You have to be in the right headspace to go out in London on a Friday. This evening I’m not feeling like getting stuck in to the throng. I was going to go to Vault before this mood descended. If I lived in the countryside, I’d bolt the doors, put a few logs on the fire, apologise to the dog, and blow the dust off one of the tomes in my library. As it is I’m just going to avoid getting on the tube. But I’ve dragged myself out into Chelsea. This mood was partly brought on by aggressive letters from creditors. Spending money is not high on the agenda. But it’s a Friday night. I’m meeting a friend in the local cheap boozer. We’ll take it from there.

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The Rose and Crown. My very very local boozer. It’s a miracle it’s still open and long may it continue. They’ve got a Thai chef that fell through a wormhole from the ’90s. The landlord probably still thinks the food’s Chinese. “All that noodles and shit.” There’s  weird memorabilia on the walls and an absorbent red carpet on the floor. Wood panelling. Black and white photos of bygone heartthrobs, green flock paper and stains. Irish music on the jukebox. A couple of old guys playing pool. Terrible stinky loos. A varied crowd, mostly sitting on stools round the bar. Lots of strong London voices cutting through the air. Vests and tattoos next to three piece suits. The hum of conversation and laughter cut by the creaking of the door hinges that haven’t been oiled since 1965 when Roger passed on. The occasional dull *ktic* of the pool balls, the occasional *kchunk* of the cash drawer. “Mumble mumble semi-final *ktic* *creak* got to live on it *kchunk* don’t you worry about *ktic* *creak* ha ha tell you summink.”

Two lads are in conversation with a woman who I think is Eastern European but occasionally speaks with an Irish accent. She has so many scarves and she keeps going to the loo and coming back looking even more immaculate. When she goes to the loo, the lads sit completely silent, arms folded, waiting. When she’s back they are falling over each other to speak. Behind me a couple speak in a language I don’t recognise. I think it might be Thai. Maybe they’re the chefs. At the bar near me, two old geezers reminisce, while now the two lads have suddenly gone to the loo together leaving the woman to vanish into twin pink telephones while topping up her lip balm. She’s trying to persuade a friend to join her. But nope. They’re all off somewhere “I’m going to pretend to be Alex’s girlfriend” she says as she gets up, and the lads ripple. Immediately an infectiously smiling elderly couple have appeared in their place to drink their pints with two hands and to do the Times crossword. And the buzz continues.

A place like this, it’s very easy to be alone quietly. I can sit and not be seen if I choose, and I do choose. If I wasn’t meeting a friend this would do. A bit of human nature, a bit of curiosity. Then back to a peaceful flat and a cat, for tasty cheap food…

Video games

There’s an old friend of mine who I haven’t seen much of in the last decade. Today reminded me that once you’re really friends with someone, you’re just… friends with them. We went to Hawksmoor with his dad. His dad very kindly picked up the bill, which I’d been quietly worrying about but rolling with the idea of. We were having steak ahead of the main event: A computer game exhibition at the V&A.

I got banned from the computer room at boarding school aged 10 because I had a pirate copy of Strykers Run. No way I could afford a real one, obviously, and no way my parents would pay for a computer game. There was trade going on frantically at school around pirated floppy discs and I had a huge advantage in a brother who was four years older than me at a secondary school who could provide me with excellent contraband.

I was sneaking into Mr Wimbush’s classroom out of hours to play Saber Wulf and Repton and Manic Miner and Chuckie Egg on the BBC. This was a boarding school. Think Brideshead and then take out all the chins. There was a BBC Microcomputer in most classrooms. God. Just imagine if the BBC had kept up!! They were at the cutting edge at the start. And there were loads of games being made for these simple 8bit computers.

Those early expressions of game design… Mister Wimbush just hated them. He was a complicated human being, in retrospect, and a bore. He was the maths teacher, but he also randomly directed the Shakespeare play in the brand new theatre. He looked like a starving and unhappy frog. He’d ban me from things as a way of avoiding conversation because I would always debate him like an equal and he didn’t know what to do with that. He expected pure and blind obedience. He was essentially a comic character to my childish imagination, and his hard-line anti computer game stance was worthy of mockery and also red rag to a bull.

When he suddenly directed Macbeth I was floored. Suddenly this idiot had something I wanted. He already didn’t like me, and I hated him, but I wanted to be an actor so I applied to be in it. People who were good at maths got the leads, and he put me in as Seyton (sounds like Satan). To his credit he got me to do loads of the set changes. That taught me early that theatre is more than what happens on stage. He cut all my lines but “The Queen my lord is dead,”  which I had to say “as fast as you can.” But I attribute my enduring love of computer games partly to his gulping and ill informed distaste for the medium when it was young. Maybe he was a lovely man. He was atrocious with me. I’d have to stand outside most of his lessons because he “sent me out.”

But computer games – the battleground for us… Repton eventually led the industry to Minecraft. Strykers Run eventually to The Last of Us. Dan has made his money in that industry for decades now, and he’s one of my closest friends. We went to an exhibition that celebrates the ability of the industry to disrupt expectation. Beautiful thought pieces like Journey, continuing experiments like No Man’s Sky. I watched three teenage boys play “Graveyard”, a thought piece where all you have to do is control a very frail old woman through a graveyard until she can sit on a bench. It’s honestly done, and it’s frustrating just because she can’t move very well and the bench is visible from the start. It’s one of many examples of this new industry working to produce a reaction for a reason, even if it’s just frustration. This industry that has burgeoned into a huge part of the economy, and has seeded its language into common parlance. Achieved.

I had a great day thinking about the nuts and bolts of gaming with my old friend and his dad, and then I went home and spent three hours playing Fallout 3, one of the many games that was released after life made it harder for me to justify spending time playing games. It still holds up. I should properly activate my voicereel so I can contribute properly to these glorious stories. They really are the most remarkable medium, invented almost entirely within my lifetime…

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