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Journeys from the fax

Writing in the local Cafe – How Much Work REALLY Gets Done?

Where do writers get their stories?

There are many questions writers ask themselves and the important one, after ‘Why did I bloody start this?’ is ‘Shall I work from home, or the local cafe?’ Cafes have long been presumed to be full of poets, artists and novelists so it’s a non-brainer; until you get there and its rammed with harassed looking mothers, their screaming pre-school offspring and architects working from ‘home’.

So, how much work actually gets done at home? I’m not even sure that much homework gets done at home anymore. I’ve talked before about how working from home mainly involves high-level pottering achieving little more than moving stuff that may or may not need to be moved from one room to another, and often then back again. And lots of pacing. I once walked five miles without opening the front door. Homes are best suited for lounging in waiting for vinyl to be delivered, and to escape the weather outside, not for working in.

I was always struck by JK Rowling reporting how writing in a cafe was some kind of hallmark of a breadline writer, when it’s actually far easier to write in a cafe than it is at home. There’s less distraction, and if you wander aimlessly around the cafe like a pottering field mouse looking for its memory you’ll be asked to leave. However, writing regularly in the same public space also has pitfalls.

It is amazing how much of writing in public spaces is actually spent talking to anyone who mistakenly makes eye contact. Not that partners, agents or publishers are informed of this. Even if they were one could claim it as research. One of the chaps I made friends with in the local cafe was Bob – who yes, used to be builder. He was born in South London a few miles away in 1929, left school at 14 and followed his father into the building trade. He passed away recently aged 86 shortly before Christmas in Lewisham hospital and it was a pleasure to have known him.

At his funeral so many stories were told of his so many narrow escapes with death that one was almost tempted to knock on the coffin to ensure he had indeed passed. I was told of one occasion when the health and safety wisdom of working a roof by tying your waist to the nearest chimney stack was challenged by the chimney collapsing, and taking Bob with it. He arrived soot-laden in a fireplace.

He recalled being evacuated to Wales, and the Blitz, during which a mobile Anti Aircraft gun was parked outside his house in west Dulwich. During the next air raid it opened up and blew out all the windows in the street; causing more damage than the Germans achieved. He was also narrowly missed when a fighter bomber strafed Goose Green, killing several school children; one beside him. My Dad, the same age as Bob, also recalls German aircraft machine gunning a children’s playground in Catford as they returned home.

Working in public you will meet writers. They’re the ones looking harassed at the harassed looking mothers. Generally you can’t swing a copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook in St David’s Coffee House without hitting a few scribblers. And words offering to read their book sound like your own because they are, and eventually more time is spent reading their manuscripts than your own.

There’s incredibly smugness in people who work from home, as though eating flapjacks for lunch in your pyjamas is a mark of success, and perhaps it is, but you don’t get to chat, and you don’t get the stories. Although you don’t leave with more manuscripts than you came in with.

R.I.P. Robert Hobbs.

My novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available for all homeworkers here – http://myBook.to/lifeassistance

and here

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Write a Historical Novel

…there’s plenty of history and everyone has some.

The first thing to do when writing a historical novel is to very seriously ask yourself if you want to. Actually, scrub that, the first thing you do is write a blog about your intention to write a historical novel. After all, staring down the barrel of imminent venture demands idling around the subject rather than cracking on, which basically defines blogging. It also defines writing a historical novel. I know a writer who planned to finish his novel on the Crimean war by the end of the year, 1998. He’s still researching it. He got bedded in at the Pattern 1796 Light Calvary Sabre, a sword used primarily by British Light Dragoons, and hasn’t been seen since he determined to find relatives of the swordsmiths who manufactured it.

There’s a healthy market for historical novels, although that’s poor justification for writing one. I guess there’s plenty of history and everyone has some. Before even writing a word sci-fi is looking appealing; you can ditch research and simply make it up, but it’s too late; my story already has shape. The novel starts in 1930s Poland (that’s Poland, not Poundland), which means clever popular culture/contemporary metaphors ‘as cutting edge as Steve Wright in the afternoon’ will be replaced by era-pertinent analogies such as ‘cutting edge as an electric razor, (which was invented in 1931 before purists squeal). You can spend weeks deliberating nothing more than whether book-keepers in the 1950s used an HB pencil or a 6B.

The sequel to the Life Assistance Agency is completed, bar a few sweeps behind its sofas and plumping the cushions, so what an ideal time to kick back and enjoy some sense of achievement. But of course that isn’t how writers approach the world. If there isn’t a novel to wrestle with we fight other things, like people or shop loyalty card help lines. We pace about and look for problems that aren’t there. It’s better these remain on pages. I already have seven internet windows open with various searches of interest that I’m loath to minimise in case one holds the rosetta stone to my story.

Writing a novel is hard enough without depriving yourself of a familiar world in which to set it. It also means I need to visit Poland, hire a car, and investigate clues to the old border with Germany in September 1939, which doesn’t really define family holiday – it’s not exactly  what children have in mind when then get excited about holidays. Mildewed concrete gun emplacements are poor substitute for Centre Parks even during peak season.

It is significant departure from the light-hearted PG Wodehouse influenced Life Assistance novels, which is unsettling. It’s rather typical that a humorous writer wishes to write a serious novel, and is even already (mentally) accepting prizes for the first post-Brexit novel. I’m confident my fans will cope, particularly as I’ve rung then to warn them. Once I got my Mum off the phone and promised to visit more frequently, I spent the rest of the break deciding upon my protagonist’s name. You have to like the name of someone you intend to spend the next two years with, particularly when you are able to choose it.

So, it’s Aleksander, and not just because it was the first name I reached in the A-Z of Polish names, but because it can be abbreviated from the Polish to the anglicised Alex. OK, it was the first name I found in the A-Z.

Alex spends a lot of time in the countryside, which helpfully avoids need for exhaustive knowledge of technical or social aspects of 1930s Europe. The countryside doesn’t change much. It’s something of its appeal. The trees Alex sleeps beneath are the same as those which the crusaders tethered their horses to.

The new novel feels like a considerable challenge, but one of the best things about historical fiction is that you can sit around reading. It might appear lazy, but is actually research, just so long as I avoid the 1796 Light Calvary Sabre. Someone has that covered.

My novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available here – http://myBook.to/lifeassistance

and here

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 

A new year – Happy 2018

Just a super quick blog, note to self might be more accurate, to wish all idle followers of my blog a very fantastic, lucrative, and well-moisturised 2018. Or anodyne, cash -strapped and dry,  depending upon you proclivity.

I hope you have a good night tonight. I would be watching Ski-Sunday, but it finished years ago, so instead will be viewing last year’s Jools Holland Hootenanny, starting from  8pm, which means it should be finished by 9:30 and I can go to bed having already celebrated midnight.

I’m also anticipating knowing what actually day it is from tomorrow, you know, with a number as opposed to a name.  Any new year resolutions are achievable – basically keep my job, get the sequel to the Life Assistance Agency edited and published and start a new  book. And maybe get a dog. And stop liking stuff on Twitter which is bound to bite me on the arse in years to come. Mmm, I thought I’d said achievable…

If you are stuck for activities tonight then feel free to leave a review of the novel on Amazon (!). And thanks to all those that took the time to in 2017 – they are very much appreciated, as are the visits and comments on here.

All the best, see you next year.

My novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available to alleviate Sunday feelings here – http://myBook.to/lifeassistance

and here

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 

 

 

 

How to Survive Christmas

Nothing says visiting relatives at Christmas quite like wheel-spinning out of a cul-de-sac at the crack of dawn heading for home. Most writers hate Christmas, as their alluringly private work finds itself exposed and appears to look more like sitting around doing nothing at a time when you should be acting busy, or at least wrapping presents. It’s hard to slope off to the local cafe when it’s shut.

It’s also hard to know the worst thing about going away at Christmas, at least it is until someone books an 9am ice skating slot. I mean who wants to go ice skating at 9am. What’s an ice rink even doing open at 9am? Admittedly it defines first world problem and the staff are having an even worse time, but still, this is volunteered fun. And everyone knows how hard fun is to spell before lunchtime, particularly when it involves clutching to advertising hoardings to stay upright. This is the sort of entertainment I left behind at university, although that involved far thinner ice.

Now, did anyone get Amazon’s Alexa for a present? Even if you didn’t, you’ll know who she is. She’s a personal assistant, who promises the world, without moving, like a fortune teller. In dulcet tones she claims to not understand perfectly reasonably requests, while arranging unrequested Amazon deliveries with liberal use of your bank details. Humorous interactions throughout Christmas are gong to look less funny when Elton John’s entire back catalogue and sixteen spare chairs arrive in January. She’s basically a parent that when is asked to turn your music down, actually does.

It’s all gadgets these days, making one feel like having been thrown forward in time without paying attention to what year was entered into the machine. One young relative spent the day with a virtual reality plastic box over his head. At least it means he couldn’t see enough plastic toys and wrapping destined for landfill to speed up planet Earth’s demise by a decade.

Christmas obliterates the week and the hardest thing is not knowing what day it is. You can ask Alexa, but she’s too busy negotiating musical requests that barely give a song longer than its opening 4 bars, before someone yells for Chris Rea again. When asked ‘Who’s round is it?’ she claims to not understand, so in some ways she’s more human than is comfortable. It might be funny to ask her bra size, but she’s likely to delay answering this until someone rejoins you in the room.

Not only is finding the time to write a struggle, but you’re surrounded by so many cliches that it’s hard not to think in them. Of course Christmas is all about the children, even the one who got a new recorder without any previous knowledge in how to play it. Strangled notes of Three Blind Mice played with the musical prowess of a whistle stuck in a vacuum cleaner prevented any adult from recovering the 5:00am Christmas dawn start, although probably saved the elderly relative from dying on the sofa.

Staying with people means you need to be sociable (not a leading characteristic of writing, which mainly involves swearing at yourself for poor plot turns). And you don’t know where anything is. Even the port. All you want to do is take your bloated cusk to the gym, although your gym is a 100 miles away, which is probably for the best, as they would be invariable refuse entry to anyone smelling that strongly of stilton and surplus crackers., while calling everyone within earshot Alexa in the hope they’ll do what demanded.

The WHSmith Fresh Talent novel, The Life Assistance Agency is available now and can be purchased with book tokens, hard cash and by asking Alexa to order it.

available here –  

and here

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Star Wars – The Last Jedi – A Review.

For anyone wondering why Paddington 2 missed the festive season need look no further. Pitching a film against the Star Wars franchise is a gazelle holding back an elephant stampede.  This is something the Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s follow up to the massively successful The French Connection and The Exorcist, will never forget, as it was bounced out of cinemas in 1977 by some low budget unheard-of Episode 4 – A New Hope.

Star Wars is becoming as synonymous with Christmas as James Bond and bouncing credit cards. It’s a relationship that’s certainly improved since the 1978 Christmas TV special Star Wars spin off that George Lucas wishes was destroyed in the Death Star, as opposed to being habitually used as benchmark for profound loss of quality control.

The Last Jedi is the sequel to JJ Abrams The Force Awakens, in which Kylo Ren inadvisably took off his chilling Vader-citing mask and goes from uber-villain to Vidal Sassoon in less par-secs than it takes the Millennium Falcon to reach light speed. So, what does the latest film have in store, beyond the flightless Porgs; cute creatures with one bulbous eye on dividing opinion, the other on mechanise?  I hope, like George Lucas, they’ve opted for a percentage of toy royalties in lieu of appearance payments.

Of course nothing will ever compete with the experience of a ten-year old in the late 1970s encountering the first film’s title crawl, ducking as the gigantic Star Destroyer slides ominously overhead. The 1970s was a decade of trade unions and a country adjusting to globalisation, so the worn-out universe of battered droids and spaceships was instantly recognisable, making it even more seductive.

As the Star Wars universe expands it’s becoming increasingly difficult to accurately place Ewoks: Caravan of Courage in the cannon, while memories of the prequels – exploring the intricacies of tax and trade federations – wake me when Darth Maul arrives  – thankfully fade by the day. The problem with the prequels (and CGI in general) is that it makes films look busier than Jon Bon Jovi’s pants. These days less is definitely now more, as spectacle outstrips script. So, in this competitive blockbuster filmic world Star Wars was pivotal in creating, how does its latest instalment fare?

Review (Spoilers) – 

Initial reviews look promising, and after all, all a Star Wars film needs to do is not feature Jar Jar Binks and people are happy. However, The Last Jedi is hard to place. It’s as though the director Rian Johnson has never seen a Star Wars movie. It’s also impossible to review without spoilers. We certainly meet Luke, who has an extensive library of four Jedi books on his island, which are inexplicably stored in some weird Lord of the Rings-type tree. It’s busy pointless detail. His island was deserted in the Force Awakens, but presumably the Porgs, fish nuns (!) whose purpose in life appears to be doing Luke’s laundry, (and not very well in light of his appearance) and an obese lactating creature which is frankly too much info, were camera shy.

Perhaps that’s the best tag line for this movie: it explains too much. Meanwhile Supreme Leader Snoke, who is an arguably better villain than the Emperor, is killed. I know! What a waste. It’s a shock that the film struggles to recover from, despite the First Order achieving something the Empire failed to do; genuinely threaten and decimate any resistance. The film has more in common with Rogue One, and by the end of the film the entire Resistance has been reduced to a similar rag band of rebels – although who would have bet on Nien Nunb surviving? When your entire army can fit in the Millennium Falcon you know things have gone tits up.

There are a series of stunning set pieces, particularly the space fights, as ponderous bombers struggle to take out the new Dreadnaught class of Star Destroyer, but at times it’s so hard to keep up that I suspect even the script writers were lost. The half-baked casino scene could be lost entirely, as could the stupid horses that are able to run up a cliff simply because CGI can. It’s far less swashbuckling than even the recent films, unless you count BB-8 somehow operating an AT-ST without any explanation as to how he was able to climb 30 feet.

There’s a great twist with Luke (who’s turned into Oliver Reed) at the end, although why this finishes him off it needless. He certainly deserved a good lie down, but dying seems to have needlessly amputated a future story line. Perhaps in its effort to kill characters as indiscriminately as Game of Thrones, this goes too far. And as to the last Jedi, well, it’s clearly plural. Two remain.

It was entertaining, although while the most appealing feature of the Star Wars universe is how worn out it is, you’d prefer this not to extend to its script.

My novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available to alleviate that Sunday feeling here – http://myBook.to/lifeassistance

and here

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 

 

 

 

How to Survive the Midlife Crisis…

Is the midlife crisis in crisis?

During a recent radio interview promoting my debut novel (cue: promotion alert klaxon), I was asked about the Life Assistance Agency’s theme of longevity. That, and the advisability of driving to the Antarctic in a family car, after Ernest Shackleton’s great-grandson drove a stocky Hyundai across the South Pole, which is certainly one way to grow tired of children asking ‘are we there yet?’

It has been a long-burning ambition of humankind to live forever, but humans have also been responsible for Smell-o-Vision, along with Clippy, the MS Word Office assistant who offered even less useful assistance than the Life Assistance Agency, and only ever helped by minimising itself. Just because there’s been an idea doesn’t necessarily make it a good one.

I was being interviewed on BBC Radio Drive Time, and I now question declaring the inadvisability of eternal life, due to it resulting in watching the people you love age while you don’t. However, I fear they are still winching cars from hedges throughout Kent, as drivers lost their will to live. Thankfully the interview picked up. However, it did raise the question of aging, and how the raging against the dying of the light was once best expressed by purchasing an unsuitable soft-topped sports car with an acceleration faster than your reaction times, which you write-off within a month of buying. That and an extramarital affair. Or taking up golf. But people don’t get old anymore; they just keep on keeping on. If millennial fashion for high-waisted jeans is an indicator, midlife appears to start at twenty and stops at some point during a Saga Holidays Pete Tong cruise to Ibiza when you accidentally take more than your usual ‘cheeky half’ and plummet into the Aegean whilst inadvisably demonstrating your windmill, which you last successfully managed as a 18 year-old.

Why is this? Perhaps it’s because we all live online, where we’re all the same. We can be everything to anyone (within reason) without the obvious giveaways of walking sticks and involuntary afternoon naps to expose you. There used to be time when you’d only get to flirt with someone on a date, yet now we’re all hiding under the table while sending up notes and flattering selfies, and NOT touching anyone’s knee.

Getting old always used to be so obvious. My Grandpa wore an old suit and brown shop apron his entire working life, and on retirement hung up his apron and simply stopped wearing the tie. Now men are wearing T-shirts into their 50s without anyone advising them not to, while women are borrowing their teenage daughter’s dresses.

For most men, the midlife crisis is something that happens to someone else: laughing at the mate who starts competitive cycling as a socially acceptable way in which to wear lycra, while they themselves stalk their first girlfriend on Facebook, or sign up to Rightmove alerts for old pubs to transform into a B&B adorned with a DJ room and vinyl on the walls.

However, there are some clear signs: needing to diarise the next day’s hangover after a few pints in the pub is one, as is signing up for triathlons, getting excited about the News and setting up direct debits to charities, but mostly it’s happening so gradually that no one notices, until you finally discard the roller skates you bought at university because they invalidate your life insurance. It’s probably a healthy denial, but perhaps when the time finally arrives we’ll be less prepared for it, like getting to the South Pole to realise you’ve left the flag at home.

My novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available to alleviate that Sunday feeling here – http://myBook.to/lifeassistance

and here

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 

 

 

 

Albums of the year – 2017

 

Is it that time of year already? Did I say that last year? It seems only nine months ago when the release of a decent album in 2017 seemed as likely as transgender politics not being divisive. Then there was a flurry of releases, which saw more money leaving the wallet than the latest EU demand. As ever it would appear that in answer to the last song on the recent Killers album Have all the songs been written? The answer is no, they haven’t.

One of the worst things about aging, apart from not taking sugar in your tea, is watching new bands flinging about gender fluidity to derivative new wave pop as though they’re the first ones to truly understand Bowie, clearly ignorant to the thousand of bands who’ve already done the same thing since 1976. I’m not sure when bands became so conformist, but for someone they all fight to hate, Trump seems the biggest influence on pop music since the Beatles.

For anyone still listening, the album of the year is easily GENTS. This is a band everyone falling in love with pop’s bedsit heroes Pet Shop Boys in 1986 has been waiting for. At least that’s what I told the band, several times, until was dragged from their dressing room after a rare live gig in east London.

Gents – About Time 

They are frustratingly un-Google-able, but once you get past listings for barbers and a Yorkshire band of the same name you find lustful imagining of neon urban nights, with the sort of wistful dream-pop that shuns irony by aiming straight for the heart. They’re a classic synth duo, with singer Niels Fejrskov Juhls adding guitar to unfeasible tall partner Theis Vesterlokke’s synth stabs and ambient washes. They’ve already released an EP, and About Time is a stunning collection of understated electronica. And TUNES.

Few enough bands nail it; even fewer hammer it home with the ease of GENTS. It’s the suburban blues that never needed guitars. It’s as raw and romantic as the Pet Shop Boys in their innocent prime. GENTS are utterly perfect.

Shout Out Louds – Ease My Mind 

GENTS are not the only scandi-pop to feature, as it was also the return of these lovable indie disco moppets. This album was in the list before I’d even heard it. In fact ever since the sublime Optica of 2013. Four years is a long time to wait for a band that barely charts their own Sweden, much less London, but a new Shout Out Louds LP has been sorely needed. Contemporaries of the Strokes and Magic Numbers, they’ve never fully crossed over, but Capital radio’s loss has been intimate gigs with resplendent cowbell breakdowns and stage invasions gain. From the epic romance of Jumbo Jet to the hopeful No Logic it’s a master class in harmonies and the bitter / sweet vagaries of love. For any fans of the Cure’s poppier moments, or the effortless melodies of Steve Mason or the Concretes they are not to be missed.

War on drugs – Deeper Understanding 

So, here’s an album you might actually find on NME’s yearly list. There’s been no better album this year for the open road. This is dad rock at its best. All hypnotic jams that remarkably maintain focus, propelling rhythms and searing guitar solos. It’s perfect for that wanderlust, the soundtrack to the imaginary road, as you press your foot-to-the-floor, gently, as you leave for Co-op after dropping the kids off at school. It has that immaculate production of John Hughes and Stranger Things. It’s Neil Young’s Harvest gorged on Phil Collins and Dire Straits.

Charlatans – Different Days 

So, this is a bit cooler. The evergreen Charlatans, who tragically lost their drummer in 2013. This is not Dad rock, but Dad dance. On this LP they have dispensed with recent albums sounding like New Order to actually recruit their drummer Stephen Morris on several songs (along with Peter Salisbury from the Verve). From the gently plucked guitars of the Balearic opener Hey Sun Rise we find baggy shuffle and sultry organs all present and correct, with added handclaps and sunshine.

The unmistakable chime of Johnny Marr follows the Spoken word of Future Tense by Ian Rankin on Machinery.  It’s a good tune, albeit drawn from a stronger place than Marr’s own workman-like solo LPs. But it’s side two that soars, with the scat backing vocals of There will be chances and the loping Over Again mingling the synth flourishes of New Order’s Gillian Gilbert with funk. It’s unlikely, but it’s probably their best album yet.

Cut copy – Haiku from Zero 

Their last album Free your mind was such a shameless celebration of Italo-disco and rave that it was hard to look in the eye the following day. It was a flawless shiny masterpiece and quite adrift from the scratchy indie disco of their earlier years. There was barely a guitar in sight behind the breaking banks of synths and piano. This is a retrench to their indie roots, while not entirely losing eye contact with that night. While there’s nothing quite so ecstatic as Heart’s on fire, it’s a slow burning masterpiece.

Killers – Wonderful Wonderful 

The new wave abandonment of Out of my mind is a surprising highlight, as it cheerily echoes the synths of Mr Brightside. It’s more throwaway than they’ve recent dared and it works. Meanwhile there’s a dusty bar room band somewhere missing the Calling as its late night sleaze set closer. You can almost hear the bottles spinning through the air before a car park brawl and home to bed. But it’s splashed with enough electronic flourishes to maintain its pose.

There’s a blur developing between Flowers’ solo albums and the Killers, but if Wonderful wonderful is the sound of a crisis in confidence then there’s more fuel in the band’s tank than recent problems suggest.

Some other honorary mentions –

The Horrors also mined the 80s with the enthusiasm that the 80s mined the 60s. It’s a schizoid album of discordant guitars and blemish-free synths.  XX was easy to admire, but hard to love, while Rag n Bone Man appeared to have studied Adele and the cross-generational appetite for safe modern soul. Meanwhile, for Future Islands – the Far Field redefined more of the same.  They have always succeeded in making no lead guitar, indecipherable lyrics and never varying tempo interesting, as their recent live shows demonstrated, but there was the sense that even the band knew they were treading water in following up the perfect Islands album.

Unlikely Song of the Year – Shake it onby Jamiroquai – who’d have thought it. A thoroughly modern shimmer through electro synths that the once west London jazz-funkateer might have once baulked at. If guilty pleasures even exist then this its definition.

And book of the year is of course the Life Assistance Agency – thanks to all who have reviewed it, and if not then please do – the more the better.

 

The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available here – – 

A farcical road trip around Europe. ‘This is what would happen if the Blues Brothers went on a search for the Holy Grail.’

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 

 

The politics of Central heating – Thermostat Wars.

It’s hard to believe the idleness of Idle Blogs in not bringing up the contentious issue of central heating. For some people switching on central heating while returning from stashing away the BBQ in September is a matter of pride. For others the opposite is true, for whom even glancing at the thermostat before Christmas Eve epitomises modern mollycoddled existence,. Where once we broke the ice off morning taps, we now swan around barely-dressed in flats heated like nuclear reactor cores.

 

Heating is something difficult for anyone who grew up without to accept. It certainly fuels angry opinion hotter than the house I grew up in.

As a social worker I visit a lot of homes, and the best advice I can give to newcomers to the profession (that is neglected on the diploma) is to wear a warm coat with a vest underneath, unless you enjoy a personalised 4-layer sauna, while staring at the selaed window wiling it to open.

I grew up in the countryside, and not only on the north side of a hill, but surrounded by woods. No, it was not a gingerbread house, but looking back at old photos the woods were densely dark. You could barely see further in than a 10 feet. Who knew what lurked within? Well, actually it was foxes, deer, and squirrels and to my young mind hordes of German soldiers. I was not scared of the dark, or Germans, and I’m still not.

In the mornings, wrapped tightly in blankets, I’d draw pictures in the ice on the inside of my bedroom windows with my warm fingers. The hot water bottle from the previous night lying on the floor frozen solid enough to hammer nails home.* This was before the dash across the arctic wastes of the hallway to a warm bath. We’d abandon that once the water cooled, to press our backs up against the sitting room storage heater that my father swore worked, while eating toast until it was time for school. It was that or cuddle a spaniel.

It is only with hindsight that I realise how integral the dogs were. In a house in which you can see your breath in the upstairs bedrooms, a dog basket holding two dogs the cosiest place to be. Crammed into the backseat of a VW beetle going on holiday to the west country was a little too cosy; it was like travelling with the two-bar radiator that you worship in winter and trip over in summer.

These days people complain about fuel bills in such stifling heat that house plants are wilting. I was advised to put on the heating once you run out of jumpers, by which point you’re so constricted by wool that you gain the dexterity of the Michelin man in a soft play area and can’t operate the boiler. Perhaps that was his point.

“It’s freezing” say people in lieu of conversation, simply because local climate fails to match that of the Caribbean. These people have presumably exhausted their vocabulary by the time local temperatures actually drop below zero. There must be an Icelandic word for people who think it’s cold simply because it says October in a calendar.

Turning the heating down saves money, saves the environment and I swear stops illness, which breeds in sweltering homes with the ease of athletes foot at public pools. This is based upon the fact my father was never ill, whereas the sight of modern fuel bills is likely to kill him.

* there is some artistic licence here

My debut novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available here –

 

It features no bears.

and here

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 

Paddington 2 – review.

Reading reviews of Paddington 2 you might be mistaken for thinking reviewers were dishing 5 star reviews after too many marmalade sandwiches. The lack of dissenting opinion might be due to recovering from them writing up the apparently deadened Murder on the Orient Express, or that criticising Paddington is akin to hating crumpets or tripping old ladies over in the street. Not only is he the only bear we allow to store sandwiches under his hat without judgement, but he represents an innocence we all lost. Apparently the director Paul King walked around the block rather than sit through the original’s preview screening with Paddington’s creator Michael Bond in case he disliked it. He loved it and so did everyone else.

Both films are gorgeous, switching from animation, to stop-start, to traditional illustration and pop-up books, to CGI and 2d drawings with the abandonment of an anniversary party marking early a-Ha videos.  Much like the population of London, you don’t question the existence of a duffel coat wearing bear for a moment, and that animating a bear that once had two dots for eyes and a little smile is something my grandmother would have fainted at after asking how they’d trained it.

So, is the new film any good? The first film was watched through the hands of childhood memories, before revealing itself as charm personified, as the Peruvian bear negotiated the modern world with the comedic competence of Crocodile Dundee . When I say modern, the films depict tranquil west London streets without an agitated deliveroo rider, clueless Uber driver or over-congested roads in sight. The seconds it takes the refuse truck to negotiate Ludgate Hill outside St Paul’s would take twenty minutes in real life. The existence of Notting Hill’s victorian architecture will be a revelation to easterly hipsters rarely straying beyond Old Street roundabout, with barber quartets on every corner and wood panelled barbers. It looks more like Paris, another over-romantacised city. Yet it works. It understands the importance of escapism.

You might expect bigger bangs for a bigger budget and there is a car stunt involving driving through a small black board. It’s not exactly the Fast & the Furious. Otherwise it’s much the same, other than a steam train chase, which I’m sure most viewers noticed involved the Class A1 Peppercorn 60163 Tornado: the first steam engine built in Britan since 1960.

Although it’s a lesson in tight scripting there are fewer set pieces than before and could have benefited from more. Laughs are sharp and mannered,  but not wrung perhaps as dry as they might be. Hugh Grant hams it up, but again perhaps not to the peaks reviewers suggested. That his Phoenix Buchanan hates working with other people is something most people on a bad day can relate to. Otherwise it’s a gentle romp involving the restorative main of marmalade.

I certainly missed any Brexit references that the New Statesman rather predictably read into it, unless it meant a prison break reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s Budapest Hotel. Every toffee apple from previous scenes counts, and perhaps the film’s only flaw is that expectations are high. Already having been awarded 5 stars it feels more like 4.

My debut novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available here –

 

It features no bears.

and here

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 

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