Monday, August 31, 2009

The unbearable tiredness of Grampy

Blimey. My longest gap between posts ever I think. Sorry about that. Not that your lives are so rubbish that you await my blogposts with any kind of anticipation you understand. It's just that I know there is a small, possibly sad and lonely band of people who do get some kind of weird pleasure from reading this drivel and I hate to let you down. This post is for you and the psychiatric nurses that tend to your bizarre needs.

So, where have I been? What have I been doing? 'All over' and 'lots' are the answers to those questions. On the working front, there's the launch of the paperback of Joined-Up Thinking coming up and I'm girding my loins for the radio and press interviews currently being arranged by reading the book all over again. It's weird to think that this will be the first time that some people have seen it as I wrote it in 2006. I've written quite a lot of new stuff since then so I've had to remind myself of the content. I'll post details of interviews as and when dates are sorted.

I've also been working with my agent on the pitches for a couple of new books ... one or two of them may even hit the shops this Christmas. More on that as things develop. I'm also cranking out the illustrations for my book of Cornish faerie stories due to be released next year and done some illustration work for Plain English Campaign. So busy, busy, busy.

All of that pales into insignificance beside the job of being a granddad ... and I've spent the past couple of weeks doing just that. This firstly involved driving some 250-odd miles down to Devon to collect my two grandchildren from daughter Kerys and then driving back the next day.

My son Liam came along for the ride - it's not easy controlling two under fives from the driver seat alone - and I spent the next few days playing with My Little Pony, lots of toy cars, reading stories, getting splashed at bath time and enduring the dubious pleasures of Wonderpets on the TV. Have you seen Wonderpets yet? It's extraordinarily addictive. Animated school pets fly around the world, though time and even into fantasy worlds on a frisbee saving other animals in trouble. And all to a Gilbert and Sullivan-esque light opera score. The kids love it and I now know every bleedin' song and can't stop singing them. Here's an intro to the show.

As any parent knows, kids can be exhausting and they certainly wore me out. But this weekend I returned them home ... and then drove the extra 70 miles down into Cornwall to visit my folks. As I was only down there for a couple of days I tried to make the most of it by visiting a couple of very photogenic locations.

First up was Kennall Vale near Ponsanooth. This is a wooded valley in which the natural rainwater streams have been harnessed and directed to create rivers, waterfalls and pools. Originally this was done to power tens of waterwheels - all now sadly defunct - that in turn powered a dynamite making industry. Many of the old powder rooms and workshops are still there, overgrown with ivy and sporting the rusting iron mechanisms that once throbbed with industry. It's a magical place now managed by the Woodland Trust. But if you ever visit, wear your wellies.

Then I visited Camborne's Great Flat Lode. Once the site of the UK's most productive tin and copper mines, the area near Carn Brea is now a silent monument to the death of Cornish mining.

The old mine buildings, now made safe, are enormous and echo inside like huge empty cathedrals. It's a lovely walk and we enjoyed a little sun as we skirted the gorse and brambles, munching on blackberries as we went.

I also enjoyed the simple pleasure of visiting the smallholding of some family friends. They take in stray and unwanted animals and pay for their upkeep by stabling horses for owners who don't have the land. At the moment there are some 20 horses there, chickens, dogs, cats, an agoraphobic goat and a sheep that hides under a tractor all day.

The farm is on a hill and enjoys some spectacular views across Carn Brea towards St Agnes and St Austell in one direction - as seen in this photo of my brother Si and his dog Mya - and St Ives in the other. Glorious. I want to build a studio up there.

But all too quickly the weekend was over and I was in the car and driving the 300-odd miles back to Buckinghamshire. According to the odometer, I've driven 1324 miles this past 10 days. But I have some great photos to show for it. And, speaking of photos, while I was down in the westcountry my photographer brother Simon took some of me as I need a set for publicity-type purposes. He's a clever lad and managed to turn out several that made this old lump of unphotogenic lard look almost human. Thanks Si. One of them is my new profile pic on this blog.

And now, I shall sleep for a week.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

No more excuses

I joined a gym last week. First time ever. What was I thinking?

I guess what I was thinking is (a) I am a fat bloke and I'm not getting any younger, and (b) I have no more excuses such as 'I don't have the time'. Soon, I'll have plenty.

Just after Christmas I'll be 'retiring' from the 40 hours per week day job that I've been doing for the last 30 years. It'll be a bit scary; there's a lot to be said for a regular wage packet and the security of knowing what to do and where to be day to day. But having a day job means that my writing and drawing have always been relegated to my spare time where they have had to jostle with the rest of my life - bringing up three kids, having a partner, dog walking, garden maintenance, veg and fruit growing, visiting relatives, DIY etc. Consequently, my days are very, very full. But come January, the writing and the drawing will become my day job. And suddenly, I'll find myself with time to kill. I'll need some kind of a hobby - something I've never really had for three decades.

As a kid I made model kits, collected various things - fossils particularly - and played a few sports badly. These days I have no hobbies at all. I guess the closest thing to it is signed books. I have a lot of those (including some real treasures like Douglas Adams, Willie Rushton and Kenneth Williams) but there's never been any kind of plan or deliberate collecting activity. They've just ... arrived. I don't go to signings - unless it's someone I know - and I don't buy signed books. It's simply that I know a lot of writers and I get invited to events where I meet other authors.

Which brings me back to the gym. I really need to trim some flab and get myself a lot fitter. That way I'll probably live longer and have even more time to fill with new activities.

No more excuses, Mr Colgan.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Gentlemen Broncos - This Autumn

This looks to be the film of the year for me. To be honest, almost anything with Sam Rockwell in it is worth watching these days.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Is it me or is the world getting dumber?

Following on from my little rant about dumbed-down BBC science shows and the recent allegations that degrees are getting easier, how about this from today's Daily Telegraph?

Teenager given 'council certificate for getting on bus in Greater Manchester'

A teenage boy, Bobby McHale, has been awarded a certificate from a holiday scheme in Bury, Greater Manchester - for getting the bus. The 15 year-old got the certificate from exam board AQA after attending a three week holiday scheme run by Bury Youth Services earlier in the summer. Some of Bobby's friends also received the qualification although others, including Bobby's younger brother Joe, 13, missed out it. The teenager, from Bury, Greater Manchester, wasn't even aware he had sat the test and admitted he was surprised to be awarded the certificate.

"It just seems really silly to me," said Bobby, who is set for A grades at GCSE. "At first I thought I'd got some sort of GCSE early. When I read out the details to the family we all fell about laughing. The Bury Youth Scheme is excellent and we get the chance to a lot of different activities but I can't see the point of the certificate at all. I haven't bothered framing it."

His father, Andy, 44, who runs his own marketing company, said the family were bemused by the episode. "Bobby's face was a picture when he saw the certificate," he said. "To be honest we are all a little bemused. I can only suppose this comes from some box they have to tick in order to get funding. As part of it Bobby certainly travelled by bus. Maybe it's boosted his confidence because he was nominated as head boy. He was particularly surprised because he doesn't look out the window. He listens to his music instead."

A spokesman for Bury Council, which operates the scheme, was not available for immediate comment.

The full AQA certificate reads:

Bobby McHale (date of birth 22.5.94) a student at Bury Youth Service has completed the following unit of work.

Using Public Transport (Unit 1)

In completing the unit the student has demonstrated the ability to:

1. Walk to the local bus stop.
2. Stand or sit at the bus stop and wait for the arrival of a public bus.
3. Enter the bus in a calm and safe manner.
4. Be directed to a downstairs seat by a member of staff
5. Sit on the bus and observe through the windows.
6. Wait until the bus has stopped, stand on request and exit the bus.

Bloody hell. Has the world suddenly suffered a huge IQ recession? Oh hang on.

1. Breathe in.
2. Breathe out.

Yay! I've now successfully completed my Respiration (Unit 1).

I'll expect my certificate in the post.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Friendship is not a commodity

Last week Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols - head honcho of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain - expressed the opinion that social networking websites like Facebook, Bebo and MySpace lured teenagers into 'transient' relationships that could leave them suicidal. In an interview with the Telegraph newspaper he said, 'Among young people often a key factor in them committing suicide is the trauma of transient relationships. They throw themselves into a friendship or network of friendships, then it collapses and they're desolate. It's an all or nothing syndrome that you have to have in an attempt to shore up an identity; a collection of friends about whom you can talk and even boast. But friendship is not a commodity, friendship is something that is hard work and enduring when it's right.'

When I first read this I was a trifled irked. There's nothing I dislike more than a holier-than-thou holy man. But then I realised that I actually agreed with what the Archbish was saying. And that, believe me, is a first.

I have opined frequently about social networking sites and have used this blog to vent my spleen on a number of occasions. My biggest beef is that they encourage people to to offer far too much personal information about themselves and give up their right to privacy. Most worrying of all, is the fact that these sites are run by some quite unsavoury characters (you should read this previous post) and there are some quite serious copyright issues around the images and info uploaded by unwitting networkers. On a personal note, I simply don't have the time to run a virtual farm, throw a sheep at someone or take a compatability test. The one exception I've always made is Twitter, which seems to have got it right. Just 140 character entries and no personal data surrendered. I now use Twitter in preference to email or texting a lot of the time as it's quick and instant.

The first teenager

The question the Archbishop raised was about transient friendships and the harm they do when they collapse. While I can't argue with that, I wonder whether we can justify taking the simple, easy option and blame social networking sites? I suspect that alienated teenagers have been committing suicide since the first teenager evolved. It's certainly not a new phenomenon but, if anything, it has been on a downward turn recently. In the United Kingdom the suicide rate for males aged between 15 and 24 rose substantially between 1976 to 1991 (when it peaked at 15.8 deaths per 100,000 people), but then declined by 28% in the seven year period from 1997-2003, according to a study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. The study, carried out by researchers at the University of Manchester, showed that the decline was particularly marked in young males, where rates declined by 35%. It would be interesting to see if there's been a significant rise since social networking sites appeared.

Many teenage suicides are copycat suicides. Again, this is hardly a new phenomenon. Copycat suicide has been around for so long that it even has a academic name: The Werther Effect (Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) was published in 1774 and its publication was followed by many reports of young men shooting themselves. It was widely believed that these suicides were copies of the death of the novel's hero). It's well-known that suicide rates rise a little every time a teen idol or a role model takes their own life. But it is more common among peer groups. Which is why social networking sites were blamed for the seven copycat suicides in Bridgend, South Wales recently. In this tragic instance it seems that tributes left on websites such as Bebo had a significant impact. David Gunnell, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Bristol, said that research had shown a connection between reports of suicide in the media and copycat deaths, and it was likely that discussions of suicide on websites would have a similar effect: 'Young people are more likely to see and read items concerning suicide on the internet than they are in newspapers. One can extrapolate from wider research on responses to newspaper reporting that a medium like Bebo will have an impact on suicidal behaviour in young people.'

It's claimed that copycat suicidees take their own lives because they identify with the person they're copying. That's a lot easier to do when the person is a peer and not a millionnaire rock star. As Daniel Finkelstein points out here: 'The internet allows peer-to-peer publication. It allows the transmission of news about people very similar to you. One would expect it to be a stronger means of passing along the suicide bug. It is, of course, ridiculous to "blame" the internet, even supposing we were certain of the exact circumstances in these terrible cases. You can't talk about the internet as if it were a person able to bear moral responsibility. And we do know that these sorts of deaths have been happening without the internet for centuries. Yet there is a reason to hypothesise that in the internet era we will see more of them.'

What we need to look at is not the vehicle - the internet - but the atitudes of those who use social networking sites to bully and cajole. And the mental state of those people who use these sites as an alternative to real-life encounters. And, indeed, society as a whole. I was born in an age before mobile phones and computers; consequently, I still value personal contact above all other kinds of contact. I use social networking as a tool for business ... and as a way of meeting people I might never have met before. The photos that appear throughout this post show some of my friends on Twitter. I knew some of them before I joined Twitter. Several of them I've met solely through Twitter. I have, I believe, struck a good balance between real-life and virtual life.

As I said at the outset, I do agree with what some of what Archbishop Nichols says. However, we mustn't blame the internet. Rather, we should be looking at the lack of lifeskills that drives a young person to live their life behind an avatar.