Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Violin: (Part the Last)

When last we left our intrepid protagonist he was poised on the threshold of a bad 'Carry-On' film, trapped in the abode of an voluptuous violinist for sixty minutes a week with no barriers whatsoever between him and an vicious montage of sexual frustration and faux-pas. What lurid misadventures will our terminally-needy-narrator encounter?  With a set-up like this, who knows what zany shenanigans and wacky antics are about to occur? So tell us 'Tears Before Bedtime', what happened next?

Well, in short: nothing really.

(See, that was a rhetorical device I just used. I got you all excited with the big sexy cliffhanger at conclusion of the last episode, left you a fortnight to imagine all kinds of bawdy hijinks and then comically subverted your expectations by describing the reality in an anticlimactic manner. Writing: it's all about the craft.)

(You just got served)
 Yeah. Even though my teacher is a very attractive young lady, I've gotta be honest, after a couple of lessons her looks completely failed to be a big deal. Apparently I'm not all id: good to know. Only 96% of all my decisions are guided by a pressing need to have my end away, as opposed to the full 100%. Positivity!

It's pretty hard to have squishy-feelings when you're concentrating as hard as you possibly can to play seven little bars to the best of your ability. Unless I'm in a hypnotic trance, chances are that I'll fuck it up. This doesn't give me much room for fantasies or erections; being the dirty-minded, desperate bugger I usually am. I'm paying a lot for these lessons, and I can be filthy-minded in my spare time for free. 

With this in mind, you'd think that the learning process would be all hunky-dory from that point on wouldn't you? Well you'd be wrong. My teacher wasn't a problem, but EVERYTHING ELSE was.

(Violin: serious business for ugly virgins)
 Let me elaborate. I'm a pretty bright guy. I'm never gonna be in MENSA or anything like that, but I'm clever. I can also be the most moronic, knuckle-dragging, pants-on-head-stupid troglodyte to ever draw breath when it comes to motor skills and co-ordination. I wasn't aware of this particular flaw in my character until I started playing violin. It's fun to discover new things about yourself. I've discovered that I'm retarded.

Before you judge, hear me out. For all of you smug bastards out there with the good fortune to actually possess some self-confidence, let me just dispel that cute delusion you have about your own aptitude with a little exercise. After you've finished doing something you're proud of: a two-hour gym session, a lab-report, a shift at work, whatever it is that makes you proud, just go an pick up an unfamiliar instrument.
(No, not that one, pick again)

Go for that cello over there. Yeah, there you go pal. Right. Now play something. Don't worry, I'll give you time. Alright? 1...2...3 ...4


HA! AWFUL! FUCKING AWFUL! Put that down before you hurt yourself you clod! You don't know what you're doing do you? You cretinous fucking wazzock. Are your fingers stiff? Does you neck hurt? Yeah, you bet it does. You're feeling pretty slow right now, huh? This isn't advanced biochemistry or army-training or amateur bomb-disposal bitch! THIS IS STRINGS WE'RE TALKING ABOUT! AND IT'S HARDER THAN A METRIC TON OF DIAMOND! IF YOU CAN'T STAND THE HEAT GET OUT OF THE OVEN! PUSSY!

This litany of abuse echoes through the inside of my skull every time I fail to play 'Little Brown Jug' with any competence. I am my own drill-sargeant. This is my violin. There are many others like it, but this one is mine.  

 If you don't know how lazy your own brain is, try learning something new. It's a sobering experience, and afterwords you'll feel like going back to kindergarten and starting afresh. My grade 1 textbook is for children. I mean, there's no getting away from it, there are pictures of kids from the nineties with appalling haircuts on the cover, and wee cartoons in the margins. My pet-hate is being patronized, but there's nothing quite as patronizing as having to count crotchets for the millionth successive time. 

I often need to listen to the music I play on YouTube to get a feel for what each piece should sound like. I'm not kidding, virtually every video features a nauseatingly sweet five-year-old fiddling away, a beatific expression adorning their rosy countenance, with umpteen-hundred comments complimenting the little prodigy. These kids don't even know what they're playing, and neither do they care. It's all operant conditioning by this point. They just want to finish the next phrase so they can be rewarded with McDonalds and watch Cartoon Network.

(And who wouldn't after all?)
Meanwhile I, 20 years old, labor over each tune for hours, screeching and scraping away, struggling to keep my posture poised, my tuning perfect, the rhythm sublime, and paradoxically the music will sound progressively worse as practice drags on.

It's frustrating, but you can't be frustrated because it's frustration you've brought upon yourself. It's not an act of god to find yourself trying to get this lump of wood and horsehair to make a gorgeous sound, it was your choice. But that doesn't make it any easier.
(So calm right now)
There is so much to remember, so many niggling little things to pay attention to that, if left unheeded, add up to a cacophonous din. The violin has to be held under the chin at exactly the right angle, with the thumb of your left hand just touching the end of the fingerboard where the pegs are, you have to bow gently as you move away from the bridge, and hard as you move towards it. 


You have to press your fingers down at exactly the right positions on the strings as you play, which is bloody sore before they've had a chance to callus, not too sharp and not too flat, and you have to bow without swinging from your shoulder and some pieces have you start on an up-bow and others from a down-bow and if you don't remember which is which then you'll get muddled as you go along. 


And then there's some notes which are three beats, and one-and-a-half beats, which I can't even count in my head that well, and there's dynamics to take into account and you have to keep your wrist slack and your fingers curled, and remember to read ahead so you know what's coming next, and don't even get me started on slurring and eventually all this information is pureed into a nebulous hybrid of arbitrary rules and notations and your teacher's all like; "you just played this right, how can you not get it now?", which doesn't feel fair because she was probably on grade 3 when she was in the womb, and it feels like your cerebellum is melting and BLASTED FURNACES OF HELL WHY CAN'T THIS BLOODY THING JUST MAKE THE NICE NOISE - ARHJQSLSNEDBWHPI!@£*&£^TGDR£-!!!


So yeah, maybe the learning curve is so steep it's almost vertical. Maybe it's difficult to hold your violin steady when there's a cat in the room making you sneeze. Maybe sometimes it's like the relationship between you and the instrument is all-give and no-take. Maybe beauty is frustrating and hard and the exhausting struggle to attain it'll put you in a shitty mood most of the time.  

(Yeah, fuck you violin! See you in hell mate!)
But it's worth it. It feels good to make progress with something, even if it's only baby steps. Because we all need little victories in our lives. The world can be harsh and cruel and unsympathetic, so we have to make plans for ourselves. We invent obstacles to overcome to feel better about the ones we can't. Chaos governs so much of our destiny that those rare moments of power and control raise us to godhood. It's a natural human inclination; like Robinson Crusoe we make the best out of what we've been given. From the lumber of forests we build shelter, and reap fuel. From the earth and rainwater we grow and harvest food. And from out of silence we make music, from the dissonant discord we impose melodious order.

(I have no idea what he's supposed to be wearing here)
 I'm glad I found the courage to actually make a positive change in my life instead of whining and bitching about it. I'm usually too insecure or lazy to bother making progress. And learning a new skill changes you, so gradually you don't even notice, and if you make enough of them you end up a whole new being, separate and distinct from the person you loathed before. 

Think about it. What have you wanted to do but never got round to? What's on your bucket list that you could start today? Go on a trip, or learn a new language? Cooking, driving, shit I dunno, skydiving and gator-wrestling, there's gotta be something you want. I don't wanna get all preachy and life-coach on you, but it really is your choice. There's nothing holding you back but time, money and effort. Tell me about it; what is it that you want to learn?

I'm not a good violinist yet, not by a long shot. In fact in the last four months I've only really progressed from 'awful' to 'just-bad'. But that's okay, because all things strive. Even Mozart had to put in those 10, 000 hours somewhere down the line. There can be some dignity in failure, and the most important thing isn't that I'm practicing now, but that I'll still be practicing in ten years time, and with you guys with me that journey doesn't feel quite so arduous after all. :) 

So as a 'reward' (read; 'cruel and unwarranted punishment') I thought I'd treat you guys to a little performance for taking the time to stick with this blog so far. Don't tell me I'm good or I'll know you're a lying sycophant, and don't say I'm bad or I'll cry ... but comment anyway. Alright? Alright. 

(Today I read John Steinbeck's 'The Pearl', a book so short that it probably counts as a quantum event. It's Steinbeck, so the prose is peerless, the description sweeping and majestic, the characters downtrodden and hopeless. It tells the tragedy of Kino, a Mexican pearl-diver who is punished for the heinous crime of wanting his son to go to school after finding the eponymous ball of dried mucus. Don't get ideas above your station Mexicans. Go to school. Honestly, give them an inch and they'll take a yard.)
(Apparently it's ironic. Go figure)


Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Horror is Essential:

Horror, as a genre of entertainment, is one of those things that if it hadn't already been thought of you wouldn't make it up yourself.

I'm talking about real horror here, the proper stuff that leaves you a trembling whining fetal ball, drenched in cold-sweat, afraid to close your eyes for fear of what you might find upon opening them. Not some eerie pish about zombies you can see fifty feet away in broad daylight going 'ABOOGA-BOOGA-BOOGA!' Fuck that. That's not horror, that's a fairground ride that cost fifteen million dollars. 

(Even after you close your browser, I'll still be watching)

 Horror is an incongruous concept that verges on the masochistic; the idea that people get a kick out of psychological flagellation and willingly inflict stress, anxiety and discomfort upon themselves. Why? Are we just addicts chasing a fresh hit of adrenaline? Perverts intoxicated by that sick juxtaposition of fear and sexual arousal? Or is it something less trite and Freudian and more sophisticated? The ancient Greeks had no place for it in their binary division of trope and convention; they were happy to pigeonhole drama as comedy or tragedy and leave it as such. In fact it's only when the novel began to flourish as a medium that horror was given a place in literary canon outside of fairy tales and folk legends. 

(Aw man, Melty-Skull-Flying-Fetus; who invited you?)

 Yet it's continually dismissed as lurid adolescent nonsense by snobs, critics and intellectuals. But there's nothing truly intellectual or cerebral about it. There's no elitism. You don't need a degree or a doctorate to be afraid of something. It's a primal emotion; inextricably linked to basic Darwinian survival. The only benefit an analysis of scary stuff gives you is that you end up more frightened. Horror grants us a level of immersion other genres can only dream of, introspection and doubt lingering long after the credits roll or the book closed shut.

In my short and ignominious career as a short-fiction writer I've found that most of my stories constitute as mostly horror. I mean, they're mostly horrible but that's besides the point. In person I'm quite a friendly wee chap, eager to make people laugh and put others at ease. Yet for the past few years, in my writing my first instinct as an artist has been not to amuse or humor my audience, but to shock and disturb. My mother finds it especially bizarre; why aren't I playing to my strengths and writing comedy?

(An excuse for Christopher Lee? Gee thanks!)

Comedy does come naturally to me, and recently I've been embracing comedy writing, because it's more fun to write and ultimately just easier for me to do.
But again and again I find myself turning to the dark, twisted, morbid and strange. I can't help but read up on cold cases, haunted houses and stare at pictures of ventriloquist dummies. It's weird because I can't quite define what it is about all this creepy stuff that I find attractive. For me an evening spent flinching away from shadows and lying awake till dawn while my bowels turn to frozen numb slurry is quite an exhilarating prospect ... in a not-actually-very-fun-at-all kind of way.

I think my real interest is that horror forces us to confront uncomfortable truths, and if this blog's taught you anything it's that I love me my uncomfortable truths. Horror preys upon our own sense of powerlessness, the dreadful threats of mortality, disability and sickness, the callous indifference of the universe to the conditions of mankind. Thus, deep thematic issues can be expressed the most simple and direct way: via fear. Fear bypasses all prejudices and distractions and forces us to pay attention to the subject matter. 

(Happy thoughts, happy thoughts ...)

Blood, guts and gore are not intrinsically scary concepts; but visions of people hacked into flesh and meat are grotesque because it expresses humanity in existential terms. Reduced to base plasma and sinew and nothing more. Stripped of all pretension and laid stark as mere anatomy.

Similarly Dracula is more terrifying as a rape parable that takes a delicious advantage of Victorian insecurities. The story of the sinister predatory monster hiding behind the facade of the enlightened Slavic gentleman. Dr Frankenstein becomes far more disturbing, far more human, and far more monstrous if seen as an irresponsible father rejecting a deformed child, an egotistical fanatic intoxicated by the juicy creation of life (Sexual intercourse) and repulsed by the awakening and autonomy or what he has created (childbirth). The Cthulhu Mythos underscores a whole host of social phobias and racist sensibilities: the disgust and loathing of a Providence gentleman for the perceived threat of outside alien influences. Likewise the Alien franchise reflects a fear of rape, The Thing underpins paranoia, A Nightmare on Elm Street insomnia, narcolepsy and the demented surrealism of nightmares.

(He's scary cuz he's got like tentacles and shit yo)

In the age of rational empiricism, more and more we need the uncanny to remind ourselves that we aren't in control, that science and enlightenment have only taken us so far. Horror takes great pleasure in reminding us that we're not in control of our lives, and it doesn't lie to us about it either. It reflects the indiscriminate cruelty of reality in a way that other fiction is content to ignore. That's something I find somewhat comforting in times of misery; to not be patronized or mollycoddled. I don't want to know about how Nice Guys Always Get The Girl, or why Evil Cannot Understand Good, or how They All Lived Happily Ever After.

No. Sometimes dreadful, unfair things happen to perfectly nice people for no reason and that's it. No hugging or learning or growing, just viciousness and pain.

Horror is essential because it takes the control out of ours hands. It transforms adults into children. Adults drift through their lives, totally assured of their ability to subvert obstacles and exert control over the chaos that surrounds them. Children are helpless and frightened, the world is vast and unfamiliar and follows an idiotic set of conventions that adults seem to invent on a whim. Adults know they have vaccinations and paramedics and air conditioning and electric light and a whole smorgasbord of fantastic inventions that we take for granted, keeping us alive moment-by-moment.
The possibility that any of these miracles could fail to save them is unthinkable. Children are confident that there is nothing between them and a violent, painful death. Horror might deal with adult themes, but its audience are always children in the end.

Anyway, that's how I feel about it, but what do you think? I realize that a lot of these posts are me just yakking on about whatever shit interests me that particular night, but this is perhaps a more subjective post. Do you think horror is relevant? What do you guys make of the state of the genre today? And if you don't appreciate it, why not? Leave some comments, because honestly, peoples reactions to something so divisive is something I always find intriguing. And as always, thanks for stopping by.

(This week I've been reading '
The Necronomicon' - a collection of spooky stories by a spooky writer of spooky stories which inspired me to write a post about spooky stories. If you're sensing a pattern here, well done, you officially have at least one functioning brain cell. Don't keep that little guy too busy now!)

(Racist, AND he looks like a horse-faced pedo.)

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Violin: (Part The Second)

I bought my violin second-hand from a shop called Cash-for-Gold, which is situated in the town center of my hometown. Now I know the name might seemingly betray a reputable retail establishment, but believe me, Cash-for-Gold is anything but. There are only three distinct species of emporium in Bathgate: markets that sell things for £1, (e.g. Poundland, £££Store, Poundstretcher etc) charity shops, and Cash-for-Gold, although my dad tells me there's a new place opened down the road that's flogging gear for only 50 pence. Christ alone knows what this will do to the local economy.

Cash-for-Gold is like a pawn shop for things that nobody wants. You know the stuff: a Battlestar Galactica VHS cassette, a mountain bike sprocket, the odd moth-eaten cardigan hanging off the shoulders of some faceless wax mannequin. You might find a games console with about a tenner knocked off the high street price. There's always a suspicious absence of any actual gold anyway, apart from in the proprietors fillings. The decor is dull and the staff are hostile. These are places which the discerning consumer would do best to avoid. Yet it was here that I stumbled upon my dear wee instrument.  

(It seems legit, right?)
 You know how in children's novels, a kid always finds the seemingly-innocuous artifact at the beginning of the story by serendipitous chance? I felt like of those kids. This was my Box of Delights, my wardrobe, my Hogwarts letter, all rolled into one ... only, you know, expensive. I was on my way back from Subway when I spied it through the unwashed shop window, a humble little wooden thing sitting on its battered case looking very neglected.

Now readers, I’m going to confide in you: I’m not a very good shopper. I think this stems from the fact that I’m quite a shallow and materialistic person, but in all the wrong ways. Whereas others covet the latest shiny gadget or fashionable designer clothing, and concurrently save up for weeks to acquire it, I’m only satisfied by cheap junk that serves no utility whatsoever. I seem to have made it my mission to cultivate this gaudy detritus. This is why I sometimes think I’m lucky I’m unemployed. Otherwise I’d been scouring Amazon right now, going; “Blimey! An inflatable dartboard! Christ, that’s what I’ve always wanted for the last five seconds! How much is it? £300!? A trifling fee! Ho ho ho!”

(They're a one-use-only kinda deal)

Thus, upon spotting my violin, so very near and yet so tantalizingly unobtainable, I had a meltdown. I bought it then and there.

My violin is second-hand, so it was not in very good nick. I think it belonged to a small child who'd clearly treated it with as much care as I had lavished upon my piano. Furthermore, the folk in the shop had not looked after it at all. It was covered in stickers, two strings had snapped, it was hideously out of tune, even the bridge wasn’t attached. I didn’t care. In fact I was too ignorant to know that these rudimentary details were even important. To me it was an instrument worthy of the Berlin Philharmonic. I bought it for £60, which was actually an alright deal. Your average new violin costs around £200, £140 more than I had, which was just as well really. Its low-quality, coupled with the years of abuse it had suffered meant that it sounded shit, but then again I reasoned, so would I. I was going to sound gash no matter what I played on, so I might as well start off with something cheap and dreadful to begin with.

(To the ears as this thing is to the eyes)
 I spirited my proud purchase home and hid it in a sequestered nook above my wardrobe as though it were the Maltese Falcon. I was well aware that if my parents found out about the violin, my hopes would be met with scorn, derision, and worst of all, heavy sarcasm. I resolved to keep it hidden until I could move back into the flat in Glasgow, where I thought I would have a better time keeping it secret until I was at least competent enough to declare that I owned it. 
This plan worked well, right up until the point where I moved into the flat, when my mum of course discovered it the very next day. I think she was annoyed that I’d spent money on it more than anything, and I can sympathize with her there: the thing was mutilated. But my mother dealt with the violin in the same way she currently deals with my father’s firearms fetish; by disapproving with the hope I might somehow injure myself and give it up. Astute readers who have already enjoyed my previous post will note that these hopes are not entirely unfounded.

(To be fair Dad's not quite as bad as this guy ... yet)
After consulting expert opinion (Google) I nipped to a tiny wee boutique for stringed instruments in the west end, and bought new strings and had the bridge fitted. My knackered new toy had gone from a device I used to frighten the dogs to a fully-fledged music-making instrument. I was chuffed, and I spent a good few hours playing with it in much the same way as I had done with the old recorder, before I remembered that I was twenty years old and had a flatmate. There’s only so much shrill screeching most people can take, myself excluded that is.

I was giddy and manic by this point. I felt like I was standing on the brink of a vertiginous precipice, about to topple into some grand and life-altering chasm, and so all at once my instincts were to shrink away and retreat into the secure and known. I was about to join the ranks of the People Who Could Played Music: finally I would be one of the chosen ones, the cool kids to whom I had been an envious pariah for most of my life. Maybe this would be it, I thought, maybe I would become casually brilliant and my new-found talent would solve all my problems! I could be anyone with the violin ... I’d be a violinist for a start. 

I’d be able to do anything once I was musical. Maybe I would start taking notice of deadlines and remember dates. Maybe I’d suddenly gain the ability to recall where I’d left the vitally important thing that I’d put down for just a second. Maybe I’d be able to actually talk to the lassies I fancied instead of hiding and hoping I’d bump into them again. That whole confidence thing would just happen naturally. I mean, girls are attracted to musicians, who isn’t? They can probably smell it on you. This violin thing was a great idea!

(I'll be an Ubermensch in no time!)
 Of course, a violin is not a fairy godmother, it’s not a remedy for disorganization, neurosis or insecurity. But in some way I sensed that it would be good for me anyway, and not good like the inflatable dartboard or the golden triforce wiimote or any of that other cack. I was sure, and to an extent I was right about this, that this would help calm me down a bit.

I’m often a very anxious, you might have noticed in between all this angst and trite simile. I think this is because I’m a very verbal person. My real talent lies in writing, and because of this I live the majority of my life introspectively, through imagination, speculation and conjecture.

Even my speech patterns are a little egregious in this regard; I have a pretty expansive vocabulary and this means I can use quite stilted and archaic language to get my point across. I’m often so anxious to articulate my point that I’ll over-compensate with a stream of verbosity, which goes right over the heads of those who don’t start every day with a hearty breakfast of dictionaries. It’s because I’m wired this way that I do so much thinking and very little doing in my life.

But music is different. You can swot up on all the theory you can get your hands on, but at the end of the day it’s a discipline intertwined with raw feeling. It’s almost instinct, instinct honed by hours of hard practice, but instinct nonetheless.

Maybe that’s why we deify our songwriters and guitar-players and vocalists. Maybe that’s why we find musicians so attractive, fall in love with them so easily, mimic their attitudes, style and habits. Because we know that these people can speak to us in a language that bypasses etymology, semantics and syntax, and opens up a dialogue that communicates on a primal level. The beauty of music is stark and plain, legible to all, the rightful lingua franca of this earth. Even the Great Detective, a violinist himself, seems to agree. 

In A Study in Scarlett Sherlock reveals that music is one of the few skills outside of chemistry and criminology that he’s intimate with. He says;

“Do you remember what Darwin says about music? He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at. Perhaps that is why we are so subtly influenced by it. There are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood.”

(If you won't listen to Holmes then there's just no hope for you)
So with all this in mind, I jumped the last hurdle and arranged for weekly lessons. I found a teacher who lived about ten minutes away from me who sounded ideal. I pictured an elderly spinster, a sweet old lady who wore knit jumpers, and baked cakes and owned a couple of affable terriers. Perhaps she would turn out to be a blitz survivor and we would strike up an intergenerational friendship before she died under tragic circumstances. You know, like in films and stuff.

So I was a little perturbed when I turned up for my first lesson and an extremely sexy twenty-something with sapphire blue eyes and fine legs opened the door to greet me. Oh dear. I’d been expecting Mrs Doubtfire, not this fiddling Venus. I mean, I already knew that she could play the violin masterfully, and that alone multiplied the squishy feelings by 1000%.

(Oh god, not the squishy feelings! -HGGGNNNH!)

 She sat me down on her sofa (My teacher conducts lessons in her flat by the way, we didn’t just throw our clothes off and start rutting right there on the couch) and explained to me her rates and where we would start etc. Yet all I could think was:

My god you’re a lot hotter than I thought you’d be.
My god how am I going to learn to play with you in the room with me?

Some of you might be offended by this randiness, but you have to remember that these were the post break-up days. Anything with a pulse would have done for me; and even that last part was negotiable.

I was concerned. I find it difficult to form complete sentences if I’m attracted to someone, so trying to concentrate on learning an instrument already seemed downright impossible. It seemed I was at an impasse, my delicious plans scuppered before they’d even been set in motion ...  

(Today I've been reading the love poetry of John Donne, studying how he skillfully employs metaphysics, paradox, hyperbole, an often discordant meter and incongruous analogy to dialectically persuade a host of Elizabethan sluts to get off with him. I'm taking notes ... very carefully. Ahem. In all seriousness it's exquisite. Puzzling and colloquial verse that's hard to get your head around, but every so often he'll express an extended conceit with such a perfect flourish that it hits you like a freight train. But his erotic work can be totally filthy at times, yet it's all endearingly relateable and grounded in the mundane. Useful stuff to know if you want to pull if nothing else. Cheers Donne!)  

(Ladies, please, contain your orgasms)

Monday, 7 January 2013

A Promotional Post:


You guys might hate me for this - I'm doing a bit of advertising here, but bear with me ... 

You remember in the post 'Violin (Part 1)' I mentioned a friend with an angelic voice? Course you do, you guys clearly hang on my every word and take these posts as gospel. Weeeeell, her brother also happens to be extremely talented and is in a band himself. Anyway, what is this blog for if not a platform for shameless promotion, and I've had a listen to a few tracks and enjoyed them a great deal. If you enjoy a varied palette of rock made with a lot of heart behind the music then you should check them out for yourself. You never know, you might love 'em. You could become a groupie ;), or at least start a fan club. Work with me here.  


Facebook Page:


(Today I listened to Joyshop, which is a band that my friend's brother is- ... oh, sorry did I mention them already? Oh I did! Silly me, it's just I probably wouldn't have talked about them unless it was important. Okay then ... ahem ... there's some links just up there. Dunno if you noticed them ... )  

(I kinda want you to go away and listen to them right now)

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Timor Mortis Conturbat Me

One of the weirdest feelings I experience these days is something which the medical profession terms 'A Sense of Impending Doom.'  No really, they call it that. 'A Sense of Impending Doom.'

It rolls off the tongue nicely, like some kinda movie tagline about psychics that can predict the apocalypse. If any amateur filmmakers out there are considering directing a biopic of my life thus far, then I for one would heartily endorse the title 'Callum Henderson: A Sense of Impending Doom!!!' 

(The multiple exclamation points are mandatory)
Unfortunately in practice, despite the amusing terminology, experiencing a sudden sense of impending doom is no fun whatsoever. It's like having sudden, intermittent bouts of hypochondria, usually at 3 'o' clock in the morning, for roughly about 15 minutes. You become obsessed with the fact that you're going to die and the knowledge that it could happen at any time. The utter inescapable truth of you own mortality becomes as distracting as a tennis ball to a puppy with ADHD.

 Now we all know we're going to die, in the Zen sense anyway we're all dying right this minute, (Unless you actually are immortal, in which case I'd love to hear from you. Read, comment and subscribe!) but apart from the unfortunate souls who know for sure that they have only a limited time left on this earth, it's not really a problem. It's like your bank balance: there's always more money there if you just never look at it: if you don't think about death, it's almost like it'll never happen ... except not really. In fact, not at all.

Either that or people have little coping mechanisms in place to stop themselves going insane, sly distractions from the ultimate inevitability. Like religion or marriage or jobs and houses.
Pets are an especially clever and insidious method for dealing with the horror of death. For example, I might decide to purchase a potted Spider Plant for my flat and call it Terence. Now Terence has a great deal of aesthetic and botanic appeal, but the main reason I have him is so I can become emotionally attached to something that's dependent on me. 'The universe can't possibly let me die right now,' is my reasoning; 'because then who the hell would water Terence?'

This is obviously ludicrous, because I've not actually done anything to prevent myself dying. The universe doesn't give a fuck about me and it doesn't give a fuck about Terence. 

(Shit man, even Terence doesn't give a fuck about Terence)
 But in a morbid way children and spouses and friends are just like Terence only on a grand scale: a poor man's Philosopher's Stone. Even love and sex are physical responses to the inevitability of death. I think that, on a subconscious level at least, we know that though our lives are finite we can, in a sense, live forever by procreating and passing our on genetics to a new generation. Obviously this argument falls apart if you consider homosexuals, or at the very least sodomy, neither of which results in babies happening, and my response to this is: Never Mind That Now.

This perspective on intercourse might disturb some of you, and so I apologize for being such a spoilsport. These are just the kind of thoughts people like me have about sex when we're not getting any. Sorry.  

It's especially grim for me to have to go through this unique brand of latent paranoia, because I'm an anxious-avoidant personality as it is. I try and run away from everything: believe me, if a problem exists I'll do anything to not have to deal with it there and then. Unfortunately death is something that even the best of us cannot put off for ever. There's only so much running I way I can do before I end up like Lord Voldermort.

(I mean look at that dental work. I couldn't live like that)
 All this memento mori makes the day-to-day routine of life somewhat troubling, because my brain is not designed to cope with the enormity of mortality. Such metaphysical contemplations are best left to the great French Existentialists: Sartre, Camus, Marcel. You know: wankers. The scope of my intellect is best left to dwell on more humble themes; videos of fat people having trampoline accidents, online pornography, and remembering the name of a children's novel I read ten years ago about monsters made of farts.

So I'll be doing something mundane, like making myself scrambled eggs for brunch or something, and it's all hunky-dory, and my thought process will go something like this:

ME: Stirring eggs, stirring eggs. My god I love scrambled eggs. I wonder if I pretended to be comatose nurses would just have to just feed me scrambled eggs through a tube all day? That would be a amazing, although the flatulence would be hard to cope with after a while. Better add the bacon-bits ... 

(But suddenly an idea occurs:)

ME: Fuck what if I went into a coma right now, or had an aneurysm? I mean, it could happen. I could just keel over while I was making these eggs and no-one would be able to save me. There's nothing I can do to prepare for that. That would be me finished. 
Oh shit I'm going to die now. I'm going to die NOW and all I can think about is the music from the Kia-Ora adverts with the crows and how unattractive my corpse will look covered in scrambled eggs. How the hell will the pretty young nurses take pity on me if I'm covered in egg!? 

(The tension begins to escalate:)

ME: I'm going to die any minute now and this will have been my whole life. My whole life will have been: hopes-and-dreams, books, internet, internet, internet, Netflix, DEATH. I'm almost twenty-one and I have nothing to show for it. I'm unemployed, I'm single, I've got less friends than a Big Issue salesman. Oh god, now the eggs are burning-I CAN'T EVEN COOK A PLATE OF FUCKING EGGS?! MY LIFE HAS SPIRALED OUT OF CONTROL! I'VE GOT TO SUCCEED AT SOMETHING BEFORE I DIE! OH GOD I'M DYING! I'M DYING! LET ME REGENERATE OR SOMETHING! WHY CAN'T I STAAAAAAAY?!?!?

Usually at this point my flatmate will enter the room and ask something innocuous:

HIM: Hey. Makin' eggs?

ME: (Desperately trying to keep a lid on the boiling pot of horror and anxiety) ...Yup.

HIM: Cool.

ME: (Jealous of his casual indifference to the transience of life) ... Yup.

By now I'll be so overcome by it all; the smell of smoke, the squandered opportunities and missed chances, the Kia-Ora advert, and in time the fire alarm, that the whole exercise of making eggs seems like an impossible one. They'll only sustain me for a few short hours; in the long run they'll solve nothing. The only solution to my dilemma is to lie face-down on the couch making groaning noises.

This is how I manage to accomplish so little during the working day.

(Just picture the theme from Jonathan Creek as you look at this)

All this was especially irritating when I was in a relationship. I remember I had one of these crisis when I was in bed spooning with my ex. I panicked because I was extremely pleased with my lot in life just then and feeling all very content with my amazing flat and my amazing girlfriend and my job at the bookshop. But then I wondered if things were going too well for me. If I deviated at all at that point I realized, I would fuck things up completely. Then I got scared that if I closed my eyes I would never open them again. So I went all rigid and I had gooseflesh all over and I started breathing rapidly. Now by this point my ex, who always thought my heartbeat was too fast anyway, became concerned and woke up. She kept asking me what was bothering me and I tried to say nothing and get her to go back to sleep and she tried to kiss me and hold me and get me to tell her what was wrong, but because of the gooseflesh I'd experience this weird sensory overload and it would feel unpleasant and I'd want to throw up.

So picture this; I'm in bed, it's 3am, I'm having what looks like some kind of stroke, and my girlfriend's trying to caress me to calm me down. Even though I all I want is to be hugged and reassured and looked after, every time she tries to do so I feel nauseated and weird and I don't know what to do because I know that just at the point at which I'm happy: I'm going to die.

In the morning I had to make her a lot of scrambled eggs to make up for that little incident.   

(They couldn't save our relationship though. Damn eggs)

 On reflection, I don't think I'm actually all that afraid of death. There have been horrible periods of my life when the thought of oblivion has been almost comforting. When my time comes, I honestly don't think I'll be raging at the dying of the light. What I'm really terrified of is the fact that my life seems directionless and unfulfiling, the fact that I feel that I can't justify my existence to myself is what makes me afraid of it ending.

It could all be because I'm obsessed with stories, and spend long intervals of time immersed in fictions and fantasies. Because of this I feel that life should have some kind of plot: I don't just want the experience of the world, I want a freaking character arc along with it. This year is the chapter of falling in love, this year is the chapter of depression and cynicism, this is the chapter of growth and self-discovery, and so on, building this sort of teleological spiritual progression with death acting as the neat climax that resolves all the dangling threads at the end. If I died now there would be no closure, no resolution.

Of course, life has no sense of dramatic convention; it's not like a novel, or a TV series or a film.

This is the point where I have to do something you might find pretentious of me, because so many blogs and Tumblr pages have one of these printed in Helvetica against a sepia backdrop, without any thought whatsoever. But I'm not doing this to show-off, it's just that The Bard puts this the best with a soliloquy from Prospero in the 4th act of the Tempest:

"Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."

Life is not a story; it's a dream. It's a weird, unexplainable series of sensations; of sounds and smells, music and images juxtaposed with each other, with no rhyme or reason, no true resolution or satisfaction, no real narrative to act as a spine to hold it all together and give an meaning. Then, just before you can work out what it was all about you wake up. That's it. You just wake up.

I think that makes sense. I think that's alright. I'm okay with waking up. You could call it; A Sense of Impending Morning ...

(Today I've been reading Christopher Marlowe's classic play 'The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus' -which is an intoxicating piece of Elizabethan drama by the way - because I have an exam on it coming up and I needed to revise. Actually the funny thing is that Faustus also suffers an Impeding Sense of Doom in the very last scene, when he monologues in anguish in his study about how he sold his soul to Satan for the sake of trivial earthly pleasures, and now faces an eternity of damnation for not repenting when he had the chance. He ends up getting dragged to hell by gibbering daemons to be perpetually tortured ... let's hope life doesn't mirror art in that respect at least.)   

(Enjoy the company of Beelzebub bitch)

Friday, 4 January 2013

Violin (Part The First)

Recently I decided that I was going to learn to play the violin. 

Really, actually, properly learn to play. 
Not just thinking about it for a while before giving up.  
Not just watching a few YouTube 'How To ...' guides. 
Not just going into shops and browsing Amazon.

I was going to practice for hours, and make some money, and practice some more, and pay a teacher for lessons, and practice extra more, and all the other minutiae involved in learning a new skill. I was going to play a musical instrument before it was too late, or die trying ... or give myself tinnitus. My new hearing aid’s working wonders by the way.

(Turns out it's hard work. Who knew?)
 This has been a dramatic imperative for me, because I consider myself the least musically gifted man in the British Isles. No prodigy I dear readers, and not for want of trying. Musical aptitude was something both of my schools took very seriously, so various teachers and tutors tried and failed to get me fluent. Well-meaning souls they were, but they proved ultimately ineffective. I remained stubbornly useless, despite the best laid plans of mice and men.

I was introduced to the recorder at the age of seven; and I remember being quite excited by the flimsy stick of plastic. Yet even then I demonstrated nothing but fundamental misunderstanding: for about five days I paraded about the house, tootling away at my shiny new toy for hours on end, substituting tune for volume. My early compositions could be described as a form of post-modern acid-jazz improv, the effect of which was akin to having your ears water-boarded. I’m surprised my family still talks to me.  

(I looked just like this kid, only slightly less psychotic.)
But I wouldn’t be silenced. I was definitely making a noise, with the recorder no less, and anyway I liked the sound of it. Who were they to tell me any different?

My childhood self also doubted the effectiveness of practice, which was often suggested to me by individuals who’d lacked the foresight to invest in earplugs. I think the reason I mistrusted it was because I felt that it was just learning the same thing twice, which seemed illogical to me. When you solved an equation in maths, you didn’t solve the problem better because you did it multiple times. Why should music be any different?

Practice was also hard work, so it had to be avoided and abominated at all costs. Thus my teachers would prescribe simple melodies for homework, but once I’d been given the photocopy the sheet music would be stuffed into my rucksack, where it remained undisturbed for the duration of the semester. When questioned, I would claim to have lost the photocopy, and another would be printed out for me, and the cycle would continue ad nauseum. As a result of this, my only memories of my time with the recorder are of cleaning dried spittle out of the mouthpiece. Lovely.

At the age of nine I moved on to the piano. The piano, readers, is not a good instrument for the casual learner. It is large, it is loud, it is cumbersome and it is expensive. Yet my parents, in a display of generosity they would regret for years to come, bought me a piano and arranged for weekly lessons.

Since the recorder had caused such strife, I endeavored to pay more attention to the piano. I think in my own idiotic way I was earnest about wanting to become a pianist; I thought it would be fun anyway.

Nevertheless things didn’t work out. I did practice this time, and I understood the component parts of each piece I was assigned; the value of each note, the tune, dynamics and rhythm, but I was too scatterbrained to remember them all-together, and to combine them into a harmonious whole. Not only this, but in classic boy-who-cried-wolf fashion, I actually was constantly losing my sheet music this time around. Because I had nothing to bring with me to lessons we’d have to resort to scales for want of things to do. We did scales and arpeggios every week. Consequently I became adept at scales and arpeggios, but nothing else. To be honest I think my teacher gave me up as a lost cause after about a month, and was afterwords happy to have me around as a source of steady pay-cheques.
I can’t remember what happened to my piano ... 

(Not pictured: the £1000 this bad-boy costs)
From then on, music was just something that happened to other people, and what little I knew of the mystic arts faded away. Until now, the only music I practiced in the last decade was whistling. Whistling is not a form of expression appreciated by the public at large. It isn’t cool, or profound or sexy. The only time it’s commented upon is when people ask me to stop doing it.

My friends were the talented ones. One of my friends has a positively angelic voice, one of the loveliest you’d ever hear, and so she was always performing in choirs and the like, and she’s currently studying proper music with nobs on down in Manchester. I have another friend who can sing AND play guitar AND play the keyboard, he’s been in about three bands since he was sixteen. Or is it four? It’s hard to keep track. I’ve another mate who plays the drums, another who plays electric guitar, a flatmate who sings in musicals, listing their abilities will take all day.

The point is that music was quite simply a mystery to me; it might as well have been magic. I didn’t understand how it was composed, or adapted or improved. I had no ear for style or genre, could grasp only the most unsophisticated of movements, and only struggle to appreciate the complex. It was something above and beyond my intellect, a mode of expression so scintillating, addictive, passionate and beautiful and pure and good as to be almost divine. And I couldn’t do it. That sucked.

(They're all at it, the smug bastards)
So why have I decided to pursue the violin now you ask? (Or you would if you’re actually interested. You might not be of course, I don’t know, but I’m 793 words into this tirade already so you might as well let me carry on) Well there are a few reasons. I think I should learn to play something before I die, music's a part of the rich tapestry of life. It’s an elegant, beautiful instrument, and it seems like one of those things which, if played very well, can make anything sound exquisite ... but it has to be played VERY well, I cannot stress that enough. 

But mostly it was because I needed something to do in the wake of an extremely traumatic break-up, which you’ll all hear more about in the coming weeks as I continue this catalogue of neurosis. I imagine “lose the girl =  learn instrument” is the kind of reaction to heartbreak stereotyped by shit rom-coms, which you must all find quite pretentious and gauche. I suppose in that regard getting dumped is at least conducive to new experiences.

I won’t get onto the specifics of the incident just yet; those will be saved for more sombre posts later on. The gist of it is that during the summer I was dumped by someone I cared about very deeply, someone I was profoundly attracted to. In the aftermath of the catastrophe I realized, to my complete horror, that without my girlfriend I had nothing. She was the only thing that gave me any sense of validation. I’d been so comfortable in that safe little affair, playing at houses and all the usual lovey-dovey shit, that I hadn’t cultivated anything else in my life, and now there was just this vast empty space between me and death and I had nothing to fill in the time: just nothing at all. 

(Insert Morrissey lyric where appropriate) 
I was miserable of course, but for once I realized that I couldn’t just let apathy overcome me. Yes I’d fallen, but I’d only fallen so far because I had no other safety nets. Oh there was university of course, and friends and family, my flat and the car, and I’m not ungrateful for any of these wonderful things. But without my girl there wasn’t much to me; a scrawny, insecure wannabe-author with mental problems and a big library, and the chances of me having affection reciprocated ever again, as I was, seemed infinitesimally slim.

The only way forward was via self-improvement. So I got my hair cut, and highlighted and started to try and tame it with gel and a comb. I went to the gym three times a week, and drank all sorts of ghastly protein concoctions to put on muscle. I had my teeth whitened and straightened. I read as much as I could, and wrote more, and I spent more time in the library and reading notes, and I got a part-time job.

And I decided to learn to play the violin.

(Yesterday I watched the cult horror/sci-fi/dystopian Japanese film ‘Tokyo Gore Police’ with two of my favorite people ... It was grotesque ... I don’t want to talk about it.)  

(This happened. I can never unsee this, and now neither can you)