Friday, August 25, 2006

The hypochondriac

So it's 1977 and I'm screaming while a doctor with a big pair of pliers proves that a local anaesthetic and a tourniquet don't make an iota of difference when you're having a poisoned nail and pieces of bone pulled out from your finger. When the bandages come off I have a three-quarter length claw with two malformed pieces of nail growing vertically away from the bone. I even laugh when they tell me that it's a good job I'm not a girl since looks don't matter to boys. But I don't think it's remotely funny because they hadn't been in that operating theatre and, anyway, appearance is important to me too. I'm only twelve but I'm shocked and furious.

Nobody could understand when I hadn't said anything earlier. Hadn't it been painful, what with my flesh festering and everything? Although (technically speaking) I had told someone. Which is why I went around for two days wearing my father's crazed sugar-and-soap poultice concoction which might have done some good if the soap had been of the type used in the the 1940s, but which just provided a cosy breeding ground for bacteria to gnaw away at my bone. You might have thought going to Hethersett Surgery would have been a better idea but that was all of four hundred metres walk and, frankly, my father just couldn't be bothered.

But I'd put up with the burst of pain with every heartbeat partly because I'd thought it would get better soon but mainly because I was desperate not to be known as the kid who keeps pretending he's ill.

Rewind to 1976 and I've just told Miss Girvin that I feel sick and she tells me that I'm a hypochondriac. I'm only ten but I know exactly what that word means. And I'm devastated because the only plus side of moving schools every year or so is that you can shake whatever reputation you might have had before.

Mr McEwan at my previous school was the first person to call me it, in 1974, when I told him for the umpteenth time that my stomach was hurting and I had a headache. He was totally unmoved, even though I was worrying I was going to spew up on his desk.

Thanks to the likes of Miss Girvin and Mr McEwan, I learned that real illnesses had spots and temperatures and anything else - even if I had just sicked up my lunch in the school toilets - was just pretend. So I learned to shut up and ignore the nausea and cramps and flatulence and eczema and knitting-needle-in-the-eye migraines. Only the healthy are popular.

At fourteen I realised my mother's chips made me ill and started cooking for myself, but it was much later before I stopped eating even tiny quantities of potato. In 1998, wondering why only one of two nearly identical packets of Lebkuchen gave me heartburn, I started looking at ingredients and saw that one had potato granules in it. Post-beer stomach ache went away once - most sadly of all - I said goodbye to crisps, alarmed at the way eating even a few left a tingling on my lips, now that I had learned about anaphylactic shock.

I have a potato allergy, and I was fed them every single day of my childhood. If you're being poisoned for a decade, you'll have endless stomach aches, an intimate knowledge of the inside of toilet bowls and sometimes - just sometimes - you'll probably want to tell someone else about it.

So can I suggest, Miss Girvin and Mr McEwan and anyone else who's contemplating it, that the next time a nine-year old says they feel sick, you don't call them a hypochondriac? Just don't do that.

Monday, August 21, 2006

It seems to me

That there is no sentence which can't be made to sound less pompous and much cooler by adding "and shit" on the end.

I rather hope I've caught the eye of Mr Swanage: the devilish cut of his dinner jacket and his cultured - though never humourless - airs have quite left me a quiver; however his family are mere tobacco merchants, and I fear my father would never permit me to marry a person of such reduced expectations: - unless it might be - how I wish it could be - that I can convince my mother that Mr Swanage is my one true, divinely inspired, love and shit.

I have read all the intelligence reports, and there is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussain has the ability to launch weapons of mass destruction in forty-five minutes and shit.

Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before and shit.

Sunday, August 20, 2006


Means sometimes you have to sit at work at 10:30 on a Sunday morning. Insane.

On the plus side, the bells at Loddon Church are ringing rather beautifully.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Thank you for your cooperation

We don't have much in our village. There's a school (mainly portacabins). A pub (being refurbished). A church (mainly pensioners). And a bus shelter (mainly people without driving licenses).

It's not a bad little bus shelter, actually, set back slightly from the main road so we don't have to hear the anguished shouts of car drivers forced - forced, I tell you - to brake to a snail-like 40 mph just because a few smelly, probably in-bred miserables might want to do ridiculous things like cross the road. Our bus shelter's not even particularly vandalised - probably because we don't particularly have any teenagers. It keeps us warm and dry and it's one of those little things that make you think, "Hey, maybe some people do give a toss about public transport".

And then the other day, a woman in a big fat people carrier parked up at our bus stop, got out her two-year old, went into our bus shelter, pulled down his trousers, and encouraged him to deposit a big pool of urine on our floor. She had unwittingly misinterpreted our enclosed, safe, warm, usually unsmelly, shelter as a public convenience for weak-bladdered car users.

So you're driving along the A146 and little Jeremy or Georgie or whatever the hell rich women in fat people carriers call their offspring is yelling that he needs a wee. Where do you have him do it? In a field maybe? Whatever about behind an oak tree or a hedgerow? Maybe you could turn down a side road or nip into a wood or even (this being harvest time) in a field?

But, no, that wouldn't be a sufficiently contemptuous gesture towards users of public transport, would it? Why not piss in their bus shelter? It's not like Georgie and Mummy are ever going to spend lengthy periods of time in it, is it?

Now you may have guessed that I'm a bit of a dove on law and order issues, but would it be so much to ask that a leather-clad policeman on a fusion powered hoverbike might zoom down from the sky, administer a crisp Zidane to her face, declare "Urinating in a bus shelter in the United Kingdom is a crime punishable by annihilation, Ma'am" and then flick the switch on his Punishment Rod to reduce her to a blackened, twitching, smoking corpse?

Monday, August 14, 2006

It's true

If you live to a hundred and twenty, you will never ever encounter a comic book character worse than The Highwayman.

He was a biker with a monacle. A monacle that fired stun blasts.

He was the worst. The very worst.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Dear Dr Gibson,

Where do I begin, after your charming comments about people in Norfolk being "quite in-bred with many not leaving the county". Apparently "if you look at the names in Norfolk, there's a lot that are the same. There is an inbreeding complex in villages - people inter-marry. That might mean more of them have got the same gene which predisposes them to it". Where "it", from the context of the article, means obesity.

So we're in-bred fatties, are we, Dr Gibson? Are we congenitally stupid too? Maybe we have more than the average number of toes, as well.

There is a regular stream of insults aimed at our county - all the normal patronising city-dwelling crap: in-bred, country cousins, fucking our sisters, you know the stuff. Well, you should, given you're the Member of Parliament for Norwich North. This is coming from our elected representative. You should be glad we don't riot the way we used to.

You have a degree in genetics, haven't you? So have you ever wondered why geneticists go off to the Faeroes or Gozo in search of genetically distinct groups, rather than just pop up to Norfolk? Do you have any peer-reviewed papers showing that we are an isolated population?

Perhaps history isn't your speciality. Forty per cent of Norwich used to be foreigners (or "strangers", as we like to call them). Nine different languages were spoken here. We have Dutch and Danish words in our dialect - there's even a theory that the extreme regularity of our verb conjugation (I go, you go, he go) goes back to our immigrant populations settling on a simple, mutually comprehensible form. Great Yarmouth and Norwich were important trading ports, and there has been a centuries old flow of immigrants into our county - including your family and mine. Norwich was the second city in England, built on its wool trade. Kings Lynn was a Kontore of the Hanseatic League. We weren't always a backwater, and we were never isolated.

I see you were born in Dumfries. By a happy coincidence, some of my ancestors came from Dumfriesshire, and I've wandered around a good number of Dumfriesshire graveyards, staring at the endless lines of Johnstones and Irvines and Murdochs and Bells. In my experience, Norfolk graveyards have a larger range of surnames than your own backyard. Perhaps you should look in the mirror if you want to see inbreeding.

But it's not about science, is it? It's just narrow bigotry of the type which, if you tried shouting it in the away end at Carrow Road, would get you ejected from the ground. You hate the same people who have elected you to Parliament at the last three elections.

I think you've outstayed your welcome.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Man or the Spider?

Spider-Man is a coming-of-age story. Peter Parker, the teenage geek, is given wonderful powers, but has to master them while dealing with all the standard adolescent problems - bullies, relationships, over-protective relatives, bad skin. The specialness of Spider-Man is that it's set in a transitory phase of life: Peter's low ranking in the Daily Bugle food chain, say, or his inability to pay the rent, are excused by his youth. If Peter were thirty-five and yet still allowed J Jonah Jameson to push him around, if our credibility let us to believe that Spider-Man would allow anyone to treat him that way, we would conclude that Peter was a weak fool.

Peter has to grow up. But when he does, the adolescence elements that make his story compelling evaporate. Granted, most of our early-twenties peers haven't been dropped off bridges by the Green Goblin, but the incremental loss of Stan Lee's great cast does reflect what happens in real life. Friendships may endure, but people disperse and get married and change, and once you're married that becomes the primary relationship (or should be, anyway). And people do take jobs that don't fulfill their erstwhile promise as bright spark of the 7b Physics class.

But if Peter Parker has grown up, the classic early-adult elements of Spider-Man remain the same. The inability to square this circle means that Spider-Man has been in a low-level crisis for a couple of decades now.

It's not that Marvel is unaware of any of this. The Clone saga and the Byrne-Mackie relaunch - two storylines which between them almost killed off the series - were both ham-fisted attempts to haul Spider-Man back to earlier times. The Clone saga's plan was to reveal Peter as a clone before replacing him with Ben Reilly, the true Spider-Man who would be younger, poorer and have lots of woman problems. Byrne-Mackie simply threw Mary Jane Watson out of a plane, moved Peter in with Randy Robertson and had him start acting like a seventeen year old. Or maybe seven year old.

It's to J Michael Straczynski's credit that he's stabilised the ship, though his big idea (that Spider-Man is some or other mythical insect totem) hasn't ever looked like filling the void in this series.

And now comes Civil War, and Peter's secret identity - the last standing cornerstone of Stan Lee's series - is gone. Peter is now a grown-up hero who lives in a mansion with his supermodel wife and surprisingly healthy aunt, who hangs out comparing biceps with his Avengers pals and trolling after a right-wing billionaire.

Now I have to acknowledge that this may not be a status quo, and would hope Civil War might shake things up. But there are some big problems here.

Abandoning a secret identity is a short-term device. You'll get stories featuring the reactions of pretty much everyone who knows Peter Parker. On Newsarama recently, Joe Quesada was saying that they thought they could get a couple of years of stories out of this. We can compare this with the editorial team that allowed Peter to get married. Often derided for their naivete in thinking like fans, not writers, I think they've been misjudged. They saw a huge potential for Peter-and-Mary Jane stories: he'd never been married before, after all. For a while, they were right. The fifty or so episodes after the marriage were as good as they get.

But once the novelty's worn off, the marriage was the new status quo, and it quickly became a bicker-fest. The quarrelling has now stopped, but only at the expense of a near-total neutering of Mary Jane Watson's once rebellious, fiery and utterly irritating personality. Mary Jane is the new Gwen Stacy.

So what happens once the novelty wears off? I expect the next year or so will have some good storylines, but, once Flash Thompson and JJJ and Betty Leeds and Curt Connors and Jill Stacy have had their moments in the sun, what then? You've resolved a pile of conflicts which have accumulated over the years, but at the cost of eliminating any more secret identity problems.

Then there's this armour business. I'm not one to worry much about powers, since they're just plot devices. But a few months ago, we have this whole The Other business, where Peter turned into a big insect and got a power upgrade, which mainly consisted of having webs shoot out of his wrists, rather than shooters. If Spider-Man needed anything extra in order to survive with the Avengers, this was the time to do it. But, no, a few months later and Peter is presented with an altered form of Iron Man's armour. Two power changes in a year is a sign of an uncertain editorial team.

Without a secret identity, will the dual-personality of Peter (neurotic, insecure, bit of a loser) and Spider-Man (confident and funny) tend to erode now there's no difference between them? There is effectively no difference between Logan and Wolverine, or Reed Richards and Mr Fantastic. The secret identity is a powerful device to perpetuate these differences. We may be losing something important here.

And then there's other things that disappear - the shabby flat, the day job, the relationship with JJJ, the worries about money. A great clump of Spider-Man stand-by's are being cast away here.

Meanwhile, the other two Spider-Man titles are cut adrift while the big boys get on with their revamp. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is bumping along retrying the whole mystic-Spider scene, while the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man of Peter David (the man who once wrote the superb "Death of Jean DeWolffe") reads like a cry for help, bringing back Flash Thompson's long-gone and unmourned jock personality and beaming in Uncle Ben from some alternative universe in a rehash of an old Spider-Man 2099 plot.

Losing the secret identity is a big step. If it goes wrong and Spider-Man slides down the pan again, Quesada will probably lose his job, and Marvel will have to patch it with idiotic retcons. I want it to succeed, but right now, whatever the new Spider-Man is, I just can't make it seem like Spider-Man.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Remember that feeling?

Did you get that feeling at school when your last exam was over and you thought, "no matter what's happens in future, I'll never feel as pressurised as that ever again in my whole life"?

If you did, you were probably mistaken.