Who Wouldn’t Want A Pat On The Back

“What’s that on your back?”

“That? Oh that’s just Pat.  She’s pretty tired.  Been running around all day climbing trees, eating bananas, picking parasites and eating them.  You might say she’s been monkeying around…”

“Ha. Very clever.” (deadpan) “She looks heavy.”

“Oh no, she’s just been on my back for a while is all.”

“She looks pretty dug in.”

“Yeah she’s like that – gets comfortable and then clings like a limpet.”

“Are you sure she ever gets off, because I’ve known you a while and I’ve never seen her running around.”

“Oh she does, she’s just shy around you is all. You can be pretty intimidating I guess.”

“I guess.  Look, it’s not really right you having Pat on your back all the time.  You shouldn’t have to cart her round all the time like you’re her minder.  It must get in the way of you living your life like you want.”

“It can do I suppose.  You must understand though – I never see you without all your baggage.”

“These? Oh it’s just a couple of weekend bags.”

“Yeah but they’re leather, must get pretty heavy having to cart all that around all the time.  Don’t you ever put it down?”

“Someone played a joke on me once and put superglue on the handles, so I couldn’t let them go even if I wanted to.”

“That’s awful, but I have some white spirit, which might help dissolve the glue.”

“That’s very kind of you but I wouldn’t really feel comfortable leaving them lying around – you never know who might be around thinking ‘oh I could do with a new holdall.’  I’m pretty used to lugging it all around anyway.”

“Fair point.”

“Ok, well if you need help getting that monkey off your back, let me know.”

“Will do.  Thanks; you’re a good friend. And likewise, if you want someone to help you let go of your baggage I’m always around.”

____

Bye-bye July – I never did really get the hang of you.  Maybe next year.

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Friday’s Fighty Mental Exercise

Inspired by what will go down in the history as the Comic Con where DC owned Marvel’s ass, (Days of Ultron? Push off, we’ve got BATMAN FIGHTING SUPERMAN), this week’s Mental Exercise is all about the question: who’d win in a fight between…

Marvel vs Capcom, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, videogames have shown the inevitable mash-up future.  As did I, here in this shameless plug (Editor’s note: it’s crap, I wouldn’t bother).

SO anyway.

Pick your fighters, then explain in your mind which one would win and why.

Some examples to get you started:

Darth Vader vs BA Baracus from the A Team.  Do you pity the fool that messes with Mr T, or does he end up fixing the breaks on the Death Star?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer vs Edward Cullen from Twilight.  It was going well until he cracked out his sad face and diamond skin, then Buffy totally killed him without breaking a sweat.  Because he’s a creep and a wetbag.

Wolverine vs Bugs Bunny.  Basically, bring a chair and some refreshments because neither can die so this one might take a while.

As ever, fighter combos, winners and reasons welcome in the comments below (don’t all rush at once).    

Star Trek: Into Darkness (And Then Straight Back Out Again)

One tries to avoid them, but there is potential for some spoiler action in the following twaddle. 

Partway through JJ Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness (ST:ID), I hear the voice of Dan Hedaya’s character from Clueless “CHER!! Everywhere in space takes 20 minutes!!!”

Willing suspension of disbelief demands that one accept that the needs of the plot outweigh the need for veracity – that’s why it’s ok that Othello takes place over about 2 days (yo, O, kill your wife, she’s been jeepin’ on ya. Hmm, jeepin’ you say? Ok, she’s dead; you’re a good friend Kenneth Branagh).

In fairness, ST:ID doesn’t actually involve that much trekking across the vast expanses of the galaxy.

The plot is simple: the Enterprise crew must hunt down Benedict Cumberbatch’s terrorist, John Harrison.  It’s a capture/kill mission stripped of the ‘capture’ – a critique of current affairs written in crayon.

We open at a frenetic pace with a set-piece to re-establish the character beats of the main cast.  A classy set-up for Cumberbatch’s antagonist follows – a nice juxtaposition of mise en scène (and cinematography) with what went before.  I apologise for such language; it has no place here on Frood.

Before I tear the film apart like a misanthrope bear with an impacted wisdom tooth, please understand that I think it’s actually pretty good.  Call that the power of zero expectation if you must.

The cast are more comfortable in this film than the 2009 reboot, Abrams’ alternate universe trick releasing them from the ghosts of Shatners past.  Zachary Quinto has to be singled out for praise if only because there aren’t many ways you can play cool logic with a side order of emotional conflict and yet his take feels very different than Leonard Nimoy’s.

Abrams’ aim from the start was to recapture the optimism and spirit of adventure of the original (1960s) rather than the more staid, antiseptic feel of the spin-offs (1980s+); albeit with the budget to realise more ambitious action sequences.

In Star Trek: First Contact, Patrick Stewart shows off his spaceship to a wide-eyed woman from the past.  When she remarks that it must be pretty goshdarn expensive he condescends “the economics of the future are rather different,” setting out in one phrase more or less everything wrong with the spin-offs.

As an aside, when I were a lad I took one look at Star Trek: The Next Generation and decided that if the utopian future involved quite that much beige I wanted no part of it.  But at this point in the space-time continuum the spin-offs haven’t happened yet, so let’s not get sidetracked by superfluous chat.

Where the films were once talky now they’re explodey.  Or put another way, where once the characters traded in a lot of pretend science to explain major plot weaknesses, now they mostly just hit each other.

But it’s not all back-handed compliments in these here hills, no siree bob.  So here are some of the more glaring problem areas:

Alice Eve’s Secret

At one point, for no reason, Alice Eve takes her clothes off.  Now I can’t honestly say I’m not entirely in favour of gratuitous shots of beautiful women in various states of undress, but even so there should at the very least be the vaguest effort to make ‘em relevant.  Otherwise it’s just a bit sad.

Maybe it’s another of the movie’s many call backs to the old shows, maybe the intention was to satirise the trenchant sexism that dominated the show even into TNG.

Whatever, at the time I heard Patrick Stewart in my head reprising his character from Extras: and then her clothes fall off and I’ve seen everything.

Might need to see someone about all these voices in my head.

What Character? (it’s a blockbuster, what did you expect…)

Such characterisation as there is largely focuses on the Kirk-Spock bromance.  There’s a lovely moment between Kirk and Uhura as they share exasperation at the John Wayne stoicism of their mutual boyfriend.

But the film crams so much action and nods to the back catalogue that there’s little room for character work.  The references are a nice touch – a little game of ‘what’s your Trek score’.  A cynic might suggest that it’s partly intended as a way of winning back wayward diehards who still mutter darkly about the other space franchise.

But if it’s ok to sacrifice a little character development from the main cast, it’s less so with the newcomers.  Alice Eve serves a plot function, but little else, and there’s almost nothing to her character (apart from her good taste in undies).

And then there’s Cumberbatch.  He’s good in it, oozes menace.  Great lower-the-face-then-look-up acting.  But his character’s ‘badness’ is taken as a given, as though we’ve all seen enough blockbusters by now.  So he’s vicious and campy and an all-round bad ‘un, but you’re not really sure why.

He simply shrugs it off as being in his nature: I’m a monster, dude, nuff’ said.

It’s perhaps inevitable in a film such as this, which crowbars in so much stuff that something has to give.  Nevertheless, it’s a weakness, and a pretty big one for those of us who prefer at least a pretence of nuance.

On Being, Like, Totally Topical

And speaking of nuance…

Here’s a question, your premise is set up, you’ve done a bit of action, some banter, a ton of nods to placate the trekkie/trekkers who hate you for making their beloved look like Star Wars (not the younglings!?!?!?!).

What now?  Hey, what was that thing that Nolan did in The Dark Knight?  Oh yeah – American foreign policy, let’s do that.

Star Trek always had a liberal agenda, Roddenberry using the campy space show as a vehicle to sneak in political views that the tv networks would have frowned upon in any other context.  Just one of the reasons why the original series was actually pretty ace.

But.

In TDK, Batman spends a great deal of time worrying about the effect of his actions.  He worries about how far he can go in the name of ‘the good’ before he becomes what he was fighting against, or whether he’s just making things worse through his actions.  The rest of the cast join in, each throwing in their points of view.

The result is to touch on the notion that, whatever one’s conclusions, this stuff is pretty complicated.

By contrast there are a couple of different viewpoints in ST:ID, but one is from a stand-in for hawkish Republican types who’s so clearly into the idea of offing folks with extreme prejudice in the name of security that his viewpoint can be safely dismissed (he’s a straw man to tear apart).

Scotty gets upset, but that’s to serve the plot.  Kirk is vaguely conflicted but that’s because he is, to steal a phrase, sort of a dog chasing cars – it’s only when he’s forced to confront the issue that he thinks ‘hang on a sec’.

Cumberbatch doesn’t think – he just does, because it’s his nature, dawg.

Which leaves one character to make The Point: Spock.  To pop back into TDK for a second, Morgan Freeman’s character describes a course of action as just plain wrong, and makes a personal moral decision.

That’s ok, because the decision is grounded in Freeman’s character, in one man who may or may not be right.  And it comes against a backdrop in which everyone has had his or her say.

Because these issues are by their nature extremely complex.

But when Spock makes The Point – that a course of action is morally wrong, as he puts it, he’s doing so against a vacuum – his is the only real voice.  Further, because it’s Spock, he’s coming from a position of more or less pure logic, not emotion.  Yes, we’re playing by the rules of the story-game.

When he makes a point, it’s not an opinion, it’s the right answer.

And that’s not right.

__

But then again, maybe that’s the point after all – there’s a trend in cinema post-TDK to make things relevant, to engage with the darkness of modern life rather than stick to pure escapism.

Maybe the pointed, topical stuff is just another homage to a tv show no one thought would outlive the 60s.

By the end of the film they’ve dipped a toe in some darker, topical areas, resolved them and headed straight out of the pool.  The film ends where you might expect it to – on the brink of adventure, the sense of optimism restored:

Mission accomplished.

My Pitch For Man Of Steel 2: Superman vs Batman

By now the coffee bean of news has percolated through the interweb so y’all will be aware that Superman 2 will feature Batman, probably in some sort of face-off-then-team-up-against-a-common-foe storyline.

Some of you may have met said news with weary resignation.  Of course ‘they’ did, even though it’s probably advisable to keep ideas under wraps at least until one has explored the feasibility of actually making them work.  And it’ll tie into the Justice League movie too no doubt.

Because Kal-El does journalism (it’s a make-believe world in which journalists can still make a living) and Batman is the world’s greatest detective.  So they can pool their resources and find the one who runs really, really fast, the camp one with the green jewellery and the one without a Y chromosome.

Conventional wisdom has it that in a fight betwixt the grumpy one and the underpanted one, the winner would be the one who gets the drop – if Batman can prepare and choose the venue he might well best Superman because he’s a) more intelligent and b) he fights dirty.

But otherwise…it’s over Bats.

Of course in movie terms they’ll have to end on some kind of draw in case they upset fans of either franchise.  Like in the Avengers.

Rather than get into the ‘merits’ of the mooted sequel, here’s my pitch for it:

“You know, I just hold her and think ‘I made this; I! Made! This!”

“Yeah, babe, you, a fifth of rum and that guy you met when your husband was out of town on business.  Am I right? World’s greatest detective, of course I am.”

Superman sighed – Batman always got this way after a successful patrol.  “I’m sorry, ma’am, my friend didn’t mean to cause any offence.  May I say she’s a beautiful little baby girl.”

She sniffed and turned back to her friend.  The superheroes joined the line for coffee.  Batman seemed to fumble with his utility belt, ‘every time,’ thought Superman.  He said “Couldn’t we just wait in line this one time like responsible citizens?”

Batman pulled a face beneath his mask.  He nodded to Superman but threw down a small smoke bomb anyway.  

By the time the smoke had cleared Batman was smirking at the front of the line.  He ordered a black coffee for himself and asked Superman what he wanted.  The question was redundant, for Kal-El was a creature of routine and habit.  “May I have a regular cup of joe, which is good enough for the good citizens, and therefore myself, and in keeping with my socially conscious roots in the 1930s.  With a little milk but no sugar, please? Sugar gives you cavities.”  Superman liked his little homilies; he felt they put others at ease.

Batman reached into his utility belt to pay – Superman had nowhere to keep change.  On the rare occasions he did have money it was always refused, even though he insisted. 

“Sorry, I haven’t quite got enough.  But y’know, we keep your streets clear of garbage, so…” he trailed off.  Superman felt a stab of annoyance.  This happened every single night – Bruce was easily the most tight-fisted person he’d ever met.

They took their customary booth by the window – after Batman had used a taser on the couple already sitting there.  Superman had tried to intervene but he knew that if he did Batman would sulk.  And he was unbearable when he was moody. 

“Tell me, Batman, why do you have to be such an A-hole all the time?”

“It’s more fun to be an asshole.  You should try it some time.”

Batman took a long swig of his coffee.  He pulled a face – being billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne on his time off meant that he had developed a taste for finer coffee grounds. 

“So that Lois is a tight piece, you hit that yet? Man I’d love me a slice of that action.”

“That’s a very derogatory way to speak about women, Batman.  And no.  Lois understands that she’s too fragile for me to risk it.  Besides, we’re unmarried.”

“You’re such a fu…” Batman was interrupted by a coughing fit (‘he should speak less when in costume,’ thought Superman).  Wordlessly Superman passed him a throat lozenge from the packet he kept in his boot. 

“Thanks.” The heroes sipped their coffee in silence.  Superman was impressed – this was a great cup of coffee, and they were always so consistent with it too.  He smiled with an easy homespun charm at the waitress toting a refill jug.  She immediately came over and filled his cup.  “Why thank you ma’am.” He said.  She turned to Batman who grimaced at her. 

Some unruly teenagers wandered in.  ‘It’s far too late for them to be in here,’ thought Superman ‘they should be at home in bed – young people need their rest.’  He looked back at Batman but Batman wasn’t there.

Superman looked back up to see Batman with the crowd of teenagers.  He flirted with the girls and made like he was playing nice.  Suddenly without warning the smile fell away – the boys were in for a beating, which took a few seconds.

Batman sauntered back. “Man I hate kids.  Goddam Robin always whining in my ear.” He affected a whining, effeminate tone, “Batman why can’t I have a car, why can’t I go out alone, why won’t you let me bring any girls home? Little bastard never shuts up.  Of course there’s that other one, whatshername.  I tell you Superman – when she’s 18…” 

Superman shook his head sadly – Batman had gone easy on the kids tonight. For once. Even so, they’d done nothing wrong – they were just in high spirits.  But they’d had that argument too many times before: it was one of the reasons that Batman always kept kryptonite studs encased in lead in his utility belt.  Just in case – flip a switch and bye-bye Superman.

They finished their coffee and left.  Batman said “I gotta’ use the can – don’t worry about the tip: I’ll deal.”

Superman thanked the proprietor and the waitress profusely for their service.  He stood outside in the fresh city air.  Batman wouldn’t leave a tip, he knew that much. ‘Just get through it, Kal-El,’ he told himself, ‘Just say goodnight, then you don’t have to see him until the next patrol.’

It was the only way he could keep calm.

“Here’s a tip – next time make better coffee – I got enough explosives here to level this entire block,” Batman shouted on his way out.  He turned to Superman “By the way, Kal, you’ll hear about it at work, but I thought I’d give you advance notice.  I bought the Planet.  Things are gonna’ be a little different – don’t worry, your 401K is safe, but maybe we’ll need to streamline.  Anyway, we’re gonna be work buddies for a time while I work out who to fire.”

Superman felt his fists begin to bunch of their own accord. 

“Oh, and the Ritz down there is a complete rip, so I’m gonna’ need a place to stay.  I was thinking we could be roomies.”  Batman put his arm around Superman’s shoulder, “I’m gonna’ teach you how to live – the casino, get some cigars, maybe some hookers.  Then after we can arrest them for solicitation – the looks on their faces when you do that.  Gets me every time.”

Superman made a decision.

“It’s go time.”

In the end it took no time at all.  And as Superman looked down at the pathetic, bleeding strip on the ground he thought ‘he’s right – it is better to be an asshole.’

2am

“Your problem is you don’t know how to start your stories,” he said, pushing his wire frame glasses up his nose with a nicotine-stained finger.  “You need to start with a bang, a hook; a mystery.  You need to grab the reader’s attention immediately, not a few paragraphs down the page.”  He dropped my dog-eared manuscript in front of me.  It was covered in livid red ink; deconstructive feedback.

I sat there feeling mildly humiliated by him, yet again, but then again I’d joined a creative writing class for the criticism.  He moved on to the pretty girl to my right (the one who never knowingly left the house without a low-cut top) “Great work as ever, Julia.” A generous glimpse down.

The difference between a smile and a leer is drool.

He moved to the front to deliver his sermons to the class; he’d started the first class with “Most writing is banal, most writers at best merely proficient. With my help, someday you might be proficient.”  Was that a meaningful glance in my direction?

__

2am now and my vision is still fuzzy from embarrassment, mind still fizzy from the output of my internal chemical factory – fight, flight or fright.  Old, clammy sweat clings to my forehead reflecting the brutal bathroom light in the mirror.  It’s too hot to sleep – too hot in the room and too hot in my brain.

A fly buzzes forlornly against the window that’s never touched a drop of cleaning fluid.  The bare light bulb blinks so I pull the string and loiter in darkness peering at the space where my reflection used to be.

__

Each lesson had a theme: ‘conflict’, ‘character relationships’; today’s was ‘mystery’.  “The example piece I gave you opened with the protagonist’s reaction to a photograph he’d received, which caused shock and revulsion.  But really it opened by showing the reader a mystery: what is it a photo of? Then immediately: why is it so shocking?  Why 2am?  The revelation that it was blackmail raised more questions than it answered – who, how, to what end?  Why the withheld number?  Each reveal in fact increased the mystery, until the final twist that the message had come from his wife – the person he most wanted to keep in blissful unawareness of his philandering.”

To give the man his due, it was a fantastic story, profound despite the mundane subject matter.  It takes a special talent to breathe life into calcified clichés.

In reading aloud extracts to us his obvious passion for words really came into its own.  He was never more animated than when quoting himself.  He wasn’t good-looking but charisma trumps all.

This short discussion, more a monologue, had been followed up by passing a copy of an anonymous new work for the class to critique with our own indelicate tools.  “I’ll give you a moment to read through this piece and take some notes.”  But of course we knew he couldn’t wait for long to begin explaining everything the author had done wrong.

“This short story explores the father-son conflict through the conceit of two vampires: the master and his pupil, competing for the same victim,” he said, somehow affecting a quizzical eyebrow through speech alone.  My heart sank with the realisation that the story to be torn apart was my own.

“Any thoughts, anyone?”  The class shuffled collectively and avoided eye contact; as ever, no one wanted to be first.  “I’m disappointed…” he tailed off, casting a coolly appraising gaze around the room before it alighted on me.  “What about you Mark?  Any thoughts?”

From a distance it can be hard to distinguish the flush of embarrassment from that of blind rage.  “I quite liked it,” I said, “maybe…too many?.. Adjectives?”

“Too many adjectives,” his eyes blazed, “Exactly right, Mark.  Any idea why the adjective use is a problem in this story? Anyone?”

I’m ashamed that I felt grateful for the pat on the head.

Hesitant theories were proffered until the professor heard one he liked. “Yes, Nina, the adjectives make the reader too passive – and unlike with TV, the reader is active.  You need the space to draw your own picture, your own conclusions.  Well done, Nina.”

No mistaking her blush for anger.

The class warmed to the task – Antoine (not his given name) disliked the pacing, Sarah thought it would have been better written in the third person.  Ben thought the vampire idea was “lame”, Chris said he just didn’t really get it.  Antoine felt that the “lexicon was too gauche for the subject matter”.  Rachel thought the character names “weren’t very vampire”.

With each incision I sank lower in my chair, the crude cuts as painful as the sharp: my grammar was off, too much dialogue and not enough action, the victim too idealised, and on and on.

__

A fact is just a prejudice confirmed by others

A fact is just an opinion with poorer manners. 

I am a bad writer.  This is a fact.

__

Then Julia put her hand up.  “Yes Julia?” the professor gave her an amused-bemused look.  All eyes turned to her.  “I really liked it; I thought the author captured the dynamic really well.  And I didn’t feel spoon-fed.  In fact I thought it was beautifully written, adjectives and all.”

He nodded slightly then raised his voice for the class, “Julia liked it, everybody.  And that’s the point!… It’s not just about what I think – it’s what you all think too.  I am only here to show you the way to good taste.” His words dripped with the charming sincerity of the chronically insincere.

“All good points, well done.  But despite this story’s over-reliance on them, don’t be too hard on adjectives.  After all, if we never used adjectives they would die out and our language would be all the poorer for it.  However, as I’ve always said, a few go a long way.”

“My own impression of the story is this: there were some strong details – the dilation of the victim’s pupils, his quickening breath.  All very ‘bodice ripper’ as though part of him is turned on by the inevitable.  Adds a slightly sexual element to the violence.  And the writer cleverly resisted the urge to tell us this too explicitly. It’s also quite interesting that he made the victim a male when they are so often women in this sort of fiction.”

He broke off for a sip of water from the bottle he always kept full on the desk.  He believed in good hydration.

“But the fundamental flaw with this story is the characterisation.  A writer must neither idealise nor demonise his characters, which can be tricky as space is so limited and exposition so dull.”

“Likewise, in real life we might take an instant dislike to someone for no apparent reason.  But in writing we must at least imply one.  Jealousy, for example.  This also helps flesh out the players.  In contrast, in this story, the elder was ultimately too cruel to be believable.  And before that, the younger had no apparent motivation to hate him – their conflict was merely competition for the sake of it.  In your writing you must go deeper.”

He paused, bathed in the applause of 20 pens furiously scratching.

__

I stumble blindly to my bed – must clear out the hall – to a sticky bed framed by the hunter’s moon.  Nothing yet from Julia, my writing partner for the task.  After a few weeks of class it became clear that my writing wasn’t improving, that whatever he had to teach me wasn’t going in.  But I kept going. 

I’d noticed she had a habit of biting her lower lip, an endearing display of shyness at odds with her outfits.  She was the type of girl other women dismissed as ‘pretty in an obvious way’ – she hit the male libido with the subtlety of a nuclear warhead.

Julia had held out her hand politely that first week.  We’d exchanged the odd word since, nothing you’d call a conversation.  I’ve never been shy with women but with some you just can’t help yourself.  But this was the opportunity to get to know her, preferably biblically.

“He’s a bit up himself, but I suppose you can be when you’re that good.  I still can’t believe he’s teaching us,” she’d said.

“I suppose being a lecturer doesn’t pay that well, even if you’re also a novelist.”  She’d ignored my bitter barb and exchanged numbers with a promise to text a date.  Left me in my misery to clarify some points with him.  

__

“Ok, sermon over.  Now there’s a bit of a change for next week – you’ll be writing in pairs to try and learn from one another.  And don’t forget we’ll be looking at Roald Dahl’s short stories, so do try and actually read a couple.”  A wolfish smile before besotted sheep.

I sat there in misery while the class slowly dispersed.  The professor remained perched on the desk at the front fielding questions wildly and flirting mildly.  I wanted to speak to him in private but could feel the tightness of tears at the back of my throat.  Instead I blankly packed my things to the damp, ambient soundtrack of hero worship and trudged off with concrete feet.

__

2am and I stare dumbly at my phone, willing it to go off.  It does, but it’s not from Julia.  It’s from him.

A photo message, surprisingly well defined (another of his apparently limitless talents). 

Dilated pupils in kohl-rimmed eyes, a face flushed with pink.  And falling away the eye is drawn to firm, swollen breasts, down to a supple waist and beyond that… Julia’s nakedness hits my solar plexus with all the subtlety of a nuclear warhead.

And below that a caption: all the best, love Dad.

 

__

 

 

How I Flip-flopped On Flip Flops

The internet roared and I was listening: have you ever flip-flopped on an issue, DO you ever flip-flop?

Well no, I’m not an American presidential candidate – where I’m from we just call it changing your mind.  But then, where I’m from we’re suspicious of anyone who changes his mind – anyone who takes such a cavalier approach to holding opinions must be a spiv and a cad, and possessed of unsettling weaknesses of character.

And he must be avoided at parties.

Or at the very least one must make a wry comment at his expense over one’s dry martini.  It’s our way of saying ‘I don’t like you, you make me angry.’

Where I’m from we don’t need oppressors – we censure ourselves.

But, to my chagrin, I must admit to being one of these charlatans – for I do in fact flip-flop.  Not for me the granite certainty of opinion.

Thusly:

At first I wasn’t fussed, then I liked them, then I hated them.  Then (again) I softened up, and then one gave me a blister so I threw it in the sea.  Then I felt guilty about its partner, now devoid of both companion and purpose, so I fashioned it into a boat for a wandering group of anthropomorphised animals who were seeking the way back to Toad Hall.

Clearly I was possessed of a mercurial temperament, and if I wasn’t careful I might incite the wrath of my society and end up like Anna Karenina (ie Keira Knightley would someday play me in the movie of my life).

So nowadays I hide my shame and simply steer clear of that whole flip flop debacle;

I wear espadrilles.

Real Men Don’t Dance

An Evening Of The Blues Feat Ben Harper Plus Charlie Musselwhite, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 16 July 2013

Some kind of venue, Shepherd’s Bush and the lights go down.  This is no rock n’ rolling blackout, but I like it.  The Empire strikes back on a Tuesday.

Sideshow Bob’s seedy uncle takes the stage to bang the drum.  They begin with the bassline and feel of Who Knows by the Band of Gypsies.  A savage child of Chicago blues, this.  Ben Harper on vocals with an old harmonica legend name of Charlie Musselwhite.  Bobby D gulps at his beer without spilling a drop – this old man’s a pro.  The girls in front of us take pictures of the band.

Charlie sings with a classic bluesman’s roar, a guttural take on the Howlin’ Wolf school.  Harper exchanges his Telecaster for a square-neck resonator, played like a lap steel with a slide.  The other guitarist plays Stratocaster solos that drown out the sound of the harmonica break.  He’s not really much cop, this guy.  Got no chops, this guy.

I could do what he does and with more balls, and if I could do it, it ain’t all that.  The girls in front log in, one on Facebook the other on Twitter.  No experience is authentic unless it’s shared online with strangers.  Welcome to the gestalt groupthink.

Getting down with the minors and the sevenths.  Charlie lets off a howl – the sound of coming back swinging with everything you’ve got (even if it isn’t much).  I feel the kick of the drum and the thrum of the bass in my ribcage.  Bobby D hands me another beer – first one nailed in seconds flat. Don’t look twice, ‘cause I’m in, and I’m out, and I’m gone.

The stomp and the shuffle continues, subsides.  Harper’s crazy talented, why have I never paid him much heed?  The next one’s a little bit country.  Maybe that’s why.  The girls log in to email and Instagram, eyes never leaving the comfort of tiny screens.

This heat makes men crazy, makes me want to shed my skin.  The atmosphere grows ever more fetid, beer down my back spells welcome relief.

Later on Bobby D and me will watch a blubbery man in an ill-advised hat argue with the security.  One of them pushed him, he says, and that’s illegal; worse: it’s a crime.  He’s talking about a common law assault, and yes it is technically a crime albeit only in the minds of law students and whiners.

We’ll try and talk him down but there’s nothing doing when someone is this angry and middle class. 

A woman next to us dances more and more exuberantly, trying to draw focus like the guitarist on the stage.  She sneaks regular glances in our direction (Bobby D’s a devil mix of Irish and Italian).  But we don’t respond – real men don’t dance.

But the less attention you get, the more you seem to crave it.  The guitarist changes guitar again between songs – he’s not played the same one twice.  Spinal Tap rang: they want their schtick back.

He straps himself into a double neck Gibson, wine red like the one Jimmy Page used to play in the 70s.  He plays a decent riff on the twelve string neck, but it’s too chuggy and the tone too distorted to get the benefit of extra strings – it’s all about the look.

Charlie sings again, he sings the blues like a simile in a drain.  He’s clearly more of a traditionalist – twelve bars, down with the minors and the sevenths – but this old bird is game.   Harper harmonises beautifully and the impassive giant to Bobby D’s right finally cracks a smile, a crack so wide it could swallow the world.  He nods his head to the music (somewhere across the globe he’s probably caused a hurricane).

The girls make some videos, but one has to break off to have an email scrap with her boyfriend.  It’s a quiet sort of domestic.  Guitarist gets his Les Paul back – must be heading towards the finale.

This afternoon I received an email from my bank.  Someone tried and failed to log in to my online account 5 times and they need personal details to set me back up.  Security reasons.  Only thing is I tend to avoid online banking (poor memory for passwords), I don’t bank with Santander and that ain’t no Santander email account. 

Snake oil and con art. 

Harper and co come back for an encore; we hit the bar for another.  A new couple has Brownian motioned to our vicinity.  He’s stocky and short with a huge beard.  Looks like a bulldog with male pattern baldness.  He’s having the time of his life with a tall brunette with whom he’s clearly in love.  She pretends not to notice but dances and cackles with him til’ their feet are sore.  But real men don’t dance.

Harper coaxes a tune out of a resonator – his style is simple and unhurried.  London’s the hardest place to play, harder than New York, he smarms to the crowd.  Even us embittered cynics of the seething metropolis love a bit of BS.

Harper wants to get his gospel on.  He edges to the end of the stage and bellows out a vocal with no mic.  The crowd goes nuts – he gestures impatiently for calm.  This is what a voice sounds like, no twiddling across the octaves cramming as many notes as possible until even the cat looks impressed.

You imagine he wants to say something like ‘we don’t need no autotune, we got soul,’ and you’re a little embarrassed on his behalf.

The rhythm section cranks into overdrive.  Harper plays a lap steel solo and Charlie plays the gaps, an echoey sort of call and response.  Guitarist waits his turn, perhaps I’ve been too hard on him.  It’s not easy when the bass takes the accompaniment and the singers take the flash and you’re left exposed like that old lie about how real men don’t dance.

The music leans a little to the south, to the swamp and the delta.  It’s hot, it’s sweaty and time was they said it could kill a man.  And that’s just the music: in the venue it’s so humid I’ve more liquid on the outside.

It’s too emotional and raw for the technique-cliché – modern blues is too polite, but here we’re all too crushed for manners.  It’s got a beat and you can dance, but real men don’t, it has rhythm and it stinks with personality.  It is swing and soul and jazz and rock and blues.

But what it mainly is, is old.