Thursday, 24 June 2010

Comic Behaviour

So-called “newspaper” the News of the World recently published an article bleating on about how a new comic strip in The Beano has upset mental health campaigners.

The strip in question - Si Co - features a young schoolboy called Simon Coe who is, well, just an angry child really.  In these stories Mr. Coe generally loses his rag in the usual comic-book fashion over all sorts of subjects, such as receiving a Dandy instead of a Beano from the newsagent who had, in fact, wrapped the latter within the former to protect it from the rain.
All of these evil dastardly goings-on are, according to the campaigners, prejudiced against children with “mental” and “behavioural” problems and encourages other children to “mock or poke fun at” them.

It is important to note that, apart from the play on words in the title, at no point does the strip actually suggest that some kind of mental disorder is at work.  As a spokesman for The Beano has pointed out: “He is just a guy who over-reacts dramatically to the annoyances in life that niggle us all.”  One would hasten to suggest that the inane warbling of these campaigners is another of those annoyances for Mr. Coe to get annoyed about.

I read with interest a quote by Marjorie Wallace of the mental health charity SANE: “Laughing at people who behave in a strange way which is not their fault may cause incredible hurt.”  One feels that she has hit a very large nail on the head (sadly, not her own).  The only people who are behaving oddly are those who think a character in a children’s comic is going to set back the fight against mental health discrimination by decades.  So, yes, Marjorie Wallace, we are indeed all laughing - at you and your fellow campaigners.

What is even more disheartening is how anger is being classified as a “behavioural problem” or “mental disorder”.  If I ever lost my temper when I was a child I was simply told to “shut up” by my parents and banned from watching television for a week, which seemed to do the trick.  At no point was I, or any of my chums for that matter, ever diagnosed with some kind of mental or behavioural dysfunction.  It was simply known as “sulking” or having “shit on the liver”.  I do recall a time when the television punishment didn’t work, however.  I can’t remember what I’d actually done but it must’ve been serious because after my father had finished with me I never did whatever it was again.

God forbid should anyone have suggested that I’d performed the greatest of sins by reading copies of The Beano under the bedclothes and been influenced by the terrible deeds of Dennis when he really was a menace.  Yes, even he is now nothing more than a softy and a pale imitation of his former self - possibly another of Marjorie Wallace and her army of campaigners’ victims.  In the 70s and 80s Dennis was behaving far worse than Simon Coe, and no-one batted an eyelid.

So if Simon Coe is such a bad influence on society then why are there no campaigners claiming that Minnie The Minx misrepresents flirtatious young women, Billy Whiz makes a mockery out of professional athletics, and a spiky black dog with a huge abnormal grin is giving people with false teeth a bad press?

I happened to grow up with The Beano and used to read it religiously.  Little did my elders know how it was gradually sending me off the rails.  It’s why Matron became locked in the stationery cupboard and Teacher ended up in the classroom dustbin with his trousers round his head during Latin.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

It’s Only A Cliché

Last week I was reading a magazine article about the making of Sergio Leone’s The Dollars Trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns starring Clint Eastwood.  Just as it was getting interesting, and I was looking forward to acquiring some previously unknown behind-the-scenes information, the paragraph cut short with the line: “And the rest, as they say, is history,” leaving me to wonder what the rest of it would’ve been if someone had bothered to write it.

Then, a few days ago, I was watching a documentary on some DVD (or the other) about the making of some television show (or the other).  About three minutes into the programme a man said: “I know this is a cliché but we really were a family.”  Minutes later somebody else - completely unrelated to the first man - said exactly the same thing.  Then a third person popped up - a woman this time - and said that, in her opinion, they were a family back then and still are today, but she knew it was a cliché.

Subsequently, I was stopped in the street by someone collecting money on behalf of the planet.  I politely declined her offer of conversation and promised to look at her organisation’s website, to which she replied: “I’m not being funny but everyone says that.”  I’m not sure why she expected me to deem this comment “funny” but I left her to it and walked on.

The sad fact of the matter is that clichés are one of the worst parts of modern-day language.  They have become so mindlessly ingrained into our psyche that the whole concept of using them has become a cliché in itself.  Even the extraneous snippets of dialogue like “as they say” have become clichés in themselves and are treated as some kind of justification for using them when, more often than not, there is a much better way of expressing yourself in the first place.

If using clichés is accepted so lazily in today’s society then it occurs to me that I could have prevented myself a great deal of educational stress if I had applied this principle to my school exams.  History was never my strong point and I feel writing tiresome essays about World War II or Alfred The Great burning his buns would’ve been a lot simpler if I’d just chucked in a date here, a place name there, then rounded it all off a couple of paragraphs later with: “And the rest, as they say, is history.”

People working in television who say they are part of a “family” should rethink their lives.  It is certainly not the kind of family I would ever want to sit down to Christmas dinner or play a game of Scrabble with.  Can you imagine a family conversation where all you hear is: “Well, I’m in pre-production,” this, and: “I need to call his agent,” that?  It makes childhood memories of my family’s annual Monopoly game seem trivial, even though certain relatives were so hell-bent on taking it seriously that they insisted on setting their own rates of return and charging fellow players Poll Tax.

The interesting thing about people who precede everything they say with “I’m not being funny” is the fact that it is usually an indicator that they are not.  Thus, anything they say afterwards which raises even the remotest of smiles can be considered a bonus.  What’s more fascinating is the usual blandness of the phrases which follow in which any intelligent human being would struggle to understand why clarification for the absence of humour is needed at all: “I’m not being funny but I went down the pub last night and had a drink;” “I’m not being funny but the batteries on my TV remote have run down;” “I’m not being funny but people generally find me utterly humourless on a number of levels, including myself.”

As a struggling writer I recognise the importance of exploring our rich and diverse language without resorting to bland, common and meaningless phrases.  And I implore any fellow writers out there to follow suit.  Meanwhile, I have more important considerations.  I’m not being funny but recently I reconnected on Facebook with some relatives who I haven’t seen for many years.  I know it’s a cliché but we really are a family.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Carry On Up The Amazon

I read with despair in this month’s edition of The Oldie magazine that an author called Orlando Figes awarded himself a glowing online review of one of his books listed on Amazon, along with a five-star rating, whilst simultaneously slamming the books of his fellow writers.

It then turned out that hundreds of other authors were doing the same thing when an electrical breakdown at Amazon towers temporarily revealed the true identities of its book reviewers.  In order to boost their own profiles and sales, authors were systematically spouting negative bile about their fellow authors’ books whilst giving saintly recommendations to their own.

There is scandal afoot in the world of book writing!

What puzzles, nee slightly amuses, me is that Orlando Figes’s identity was revealed because he used the name “Orlando” in his publicly viewable online profile, and the reviews he submitted were for a number of books on history, including his own - which was the one that got the only good review.  If there was ever a time when putting two and two together made five, this is it.

It is disgraceful to think that respectable authors should behave in such a way.  As we say in England: it’s just not cricket.  Actually, we don’t say that, but one’s American readers always seem to get a kick out of the phrase and think English people say it anyway along with things like “Anyone for tennis?” and “Strike a light, Mary Poppins,” which we don’t say either.  But I digress.

Setting aside the scandalous nature of such behaviour from the writing community, this whole sorry affair does raise certain other issues: namely the apparent stupidity of the people doing it.  Like sheep, these authors seemed to follow a pattern of submitting terrible reviews to a large number of books of a similar subject except for one (their own) for which they made spectacular comments.

Electric Writer would like to suggest to his corrupt fellow writers a revised strategy for future reference.  Rather than solely reviewing books, it would be a much more intelligent idea to disguise your identity by reviewing other things as well, such as, say, toys and games.  This alone would suggest that you might be something other than an author, and knock any suspicious individuals or online investigators off the scent who would interpret your review for a Captain Pugwash doll as coming from your average every-day working mother with a newly-born infant.

Once you have built up a good collection of intelligently-written and impartial reviews - and this need not be limited to toys and games; gardening equipment, electrical items and facial care products would all have a role to play in one’s clever plan - you could then go in for the kill and ravage your rivals’ books to your heart’s content.  With so many eclectic reviews attached to your online profile, the book ones would just merge in with everything else and no-one would be any the wiser.

Oh, one last thing: get a friend to write glowing reviews of your own books, don’t do it yourself.  And don’t register at Amazon using your own name, whether it’s publicly viewable or not.  That’s really, really dumb!

Friday, 11 June 2010

Neighbourhood Botch

A mini crime wave has hit my quiet little London village.  By “mini” I mean that the criminals in question fall somewhere in the age bracket of 5-15 years old, and they are currently running riot in the streets clobbering and stealing from anyone who takes their fancy.

So it was with a certain degree of optimism that I attended my local Neighbourhood Watch meeting in the village hall recently.
It was an interesting experience, not least because someone had accidentally double-booked the date with a local group of gospel singers who were practising at the top of their voices in the room above the main hall for some kind of religious X-Factor competition.

Chairs had been laid out by a policeman to accommodate approximately 150 people, but only nine turned up.  This instantly triggered some kind of defensive mechanism in the resident grumpy old man.  He is sort of like Victor Meldrew, the only difference being that he walks around with a small fluffy white poodle which he apparently keeps with him at all times “for protection”.  In a rather loud and aggressive voice he pointed out that no-one had turned up to the meeting because no-one except him had seen the notice posted in his building’s communal foyer.  The policeman apologised for this and said he’d do better next time, then introduced himself and the purpose of the meeting.  Victor Meldrew shouted at him again, insisting that the purpose of the meeting was because people were too scared to walk down the street at night, and what were the police doing about it.  The policeman said that Victor Meldrew had “hit the nail on the head” and he wouldn’t keep us for more than 45 minutes.

Two-and-a-half hours later we were still there, and I was wishing that someone would hit Victor Meldrew on the head rather than a metaphorical nail.  An argument had developed over crime statistics.  Someone told the policeman that his statistics were wrong, but the policeman said they were right.  Someone else said he’d read the same statistics in the newspaper so they must be right, but thought they were more likely to be wrong.  And the remainder of the people had no idea whatsoever because they hadn’t been able to hear anything over the sound of the gospel singers.  Meanwhile, Victor Meldrew roared that, statistics or no statistics, people were too scared to walk down the street at night, and what were the police doing about it.
It’s at times like these that I really wish I hadn’t left my living room, let alone walk down the street, and I’d have rather been at home watching Junior Apprentice than listening to a group of mindless people arguing over statistics, nails, and invisible notices.

The meeting eventually drew to a close and, deciding to be a willing neighbour, I introduced myself to the local bobby on the beat who is responsible for my part of the village.  Unfortunately, I discovered that Victor Meldrew and his fluffy dog also live in my part of the village and he came over demanding the young chap give him his mobile number, then started rambling on about pointless statistics and asked what the police were doing about broken street lamps.

I left the village hall to the throngs of the gospel singers chanting “Rock Me, Jesus, And I’ll Drive Your Car” (possibly, it was “play your guitar”).  When I got home I turned on the television to discover a news report about how areas of the police force are likely to be cut.  Whether this means a reduction in numbers on the city streets, I don’t know, but I went to bed reassured that, if nothing else, we’ll always have Victor Meldrew and his fluffy poodle there to protect us.