Tuesday, 22 July 2014

It's not who you go with, honey. It's who takes you home.

For people of a certain age, probably anyone over thirty, the very last week of secondary school was a bit different than it is for kids now.  I mean there'd be the standard 'Bring in a board game' or 'trip to local zoo / attraction (delete as neccessary)' type of thing, followed perhaps on the very last day by signing your friends' shirts, throwing eggs and flour around the place and telling the teachers what you really thought of them, then having a bit of a cry as you realised that you'd probably never see 99% of these people ever again.

That's what happened at my school at least... About thirty years ago, when the world was still in black and white and we wrote on slates, with chalk.

But things are different now though, even if you don't have kids, or a calendar, you can track the days leading up to the end of the final term simply by counting the increasing number of limousines driving around the local schools carrying teenagers who are waving plastic cups of Schloer out of their windows and squalking at the top of their voices like sadly undereducated Herring Gulls. (If you live in a particularly tacky area, feel free to substitute 'Stretch Hummers' for limousines)

I'm talking, of course, about 'Prom'. Now, proms have been going on in the US, amongst other places, for just over a hundred years, and anyone who's ever seen an American film that involves teens at High-School (Especially if it was written by John Hughes) will know what one is.  But just in case you don't...

Prom, or The Prom, or The Senior Prom is a dance held at the end of an American 'child's' High School education, when they are around 18 years old.  For weeks leading up to the event, post pubescent teens worry about asking, or being asked by, someone if they would like to go with them (cue multiple teen angst references that you can fill in yourself about self worth etc.) As 'Drivers Ed.' is taught in a great percentage of US schools, many of these kids are now able to drive the family car to such events (Insert here countless images of geeks driving their mom's station wagon to the cool girl with the heart of gold's house) The geek kids is then closely inspected by the father, and veiled threats are made, which are usually interrupted halfway through by a sharp intake of breath from the mother as the girl appears at the top of the stairs in either: A designer gown if the girl is popular, or a home-made, but somehow fit for a Vivienne Westwood catwalk affair if the girl is also geeky, but tiger-flayingly beautiful now that she's swapped her glasses for contacts. cue tears...

After arriving at the dance, several of the following things will probably occur:

1: There will be a confrontation with the girl's ex-boyfriend, which will end with the geek being saved by the girl
2: The lovable but wacky science types will 'spike the punch'
3: The not openly lesbian, but still quite lesbian girl will arrive in a sky-blue suit with navy blue zig-zag edging, and end up dancing with her best male friend. (Because blurred gender stereotypes are edgy kids, and make for good entertainment, but good old fashioned heterosexuality is what you should be aiming for in the end, praise the Lord)
4: There will be a fight, where the geek beats the jock by using guile, a previously stated scientific principle, or running as fast as his little spindly legs will carry him
5: Someone will lose their copy of Grays Sports Almanac 1950-2000.
6: There will be a slow-dance performed by the hero's favourite Metal/Indie band, who just happen to have been booked by the crusty old Principle, possibly due to some mix-up with his reading glasses.

Then all you've got after that is a quick trip to a local motel, some fumbling about with straps and fastenings whilst the room spins around uncontrollably, a quick Google of how to get sticky stains out of organza fabric, a couple of months of worriedly urinating onto a small plastic stick, and a lifetime of regret.

Sounds great,  I can see why we imported it to the UK.

Along with all the other things we've imported from the US (Gang culture, Rap music, McDonalds and Scripted reality TV shows amongst others) we've implemented it in a typically half-arsed fashion.  Most of our kids leave school when they're 16, and we don't have many motels.  Although in fairness, a lot of them do already have kids of their own by 16, so that's swings and roundabout really. And whilst 16 year old girls, with a minimum of makeup, can easily look 18 (or 25 in some cases...) 16 year old boys look like 8 rear olds wearing their dads' wedding suit (providing they're still in contact with their dads and that there was ever a wedding involved)

Then you find out that a lot of junior schools are now having a prom... That's ten year old kids, which is pretty horrific.

I've not heard that any infant schools are doing it yet... But I can't see it being long before we're being cajoled into buying Kardashian styled dresses for our seven year olds so that they can ride a stretched Little Tykes Cosy Coupe to their school with 'Fiddy Cent' blasting out of their brand-new iPhones.

The word for what you're feeling now is despair, or at least it should be...

Although, I say that... A friend of mine who actually lives in the US tells me that back in May, her dog, Waffles, 'graduated' from Puppy training... He wore a mortar board, and there was a certificate, and a cup and everything.  So, we've got that to look forward to.

Now, where's my old Service Revolver?

+-+-+-+-+-+-+ UPDATE +-+-+-+-+-+-+

I've just, via the medium of Facebook, seen that a good friend of mine's daughter has just Graduated from nursery, with a cap and a gown and everything... This begs the question, why is this butterknife so blunt? it's hardly making any headway on my wrists at all.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Unpaid Review: 99 Station Street, Burton Upon Trent

OK, so what's the first thing that springs into your mind when someone says 'Burton'?

Is it Marmite? The salty, yeasty exudate (Stop making your own jokes up at the back) beloved of those with anaemia and those vegetarian types who still hanker after a cup of reviving Bovril but can't be bothered with all the buggering about with flying saucers and Nazis.

Or perhaps do you think of Burton's most musical son, singer, songwriter and pro-smoking activist Mr Joe (Well, Dave) Jackson? - What do you mean 'Who?' He did that song in the late 70's "Is she really going out with him? Is she really gonna..." Erm... Yeah, well that's pretty much all I can remember myself, as it happens.

No, I guess that anyone who's heard of Burton would think of beer, which is understandable I suppose, they've been breweing beer there for at least 300 years you know.  Wherever you go in Burton, you're never more than a deep inhalation away from a brewery, especially if it's a hot day.

But from now on, when anyone says Burton to me, I shall initially think of the very splendid evening that I had on Friday. (18th. July 2014)

I don't know about you guys, but I think Groupon is great.  It can let you try things that you might not ordinarily, either because of cost or because you didn't know they actually existed in the first place.  It's also handy for helping you think of original places to take your wife on your wedding anniversary. 

I must admit to never having heard of 99 Station Street before, despite knowing Burton pretty well after a protracted period of 'Working' for the Council.  It's but a mere hop, skip and a jump from the railway station (as you could probably have deduced from its name - I don't think you're going to need a huge amount of assistance with figuring out its exact address either, it's pretty much exactly what it says on the tin). Although saying that, the venue is only a single-width shopfront, so if you blink, you might miss it like we did the first time, and end up in the Devonshire Arms (Which is no great hardship as they do some great real ales, and I'm a bit of a bumpkin so I enjoy that kind of thing.

Anywho, we eventually made our way to the restaurant and were greeted by a positively Falstaffian gentleman, whom I think was the owner, who may or may not be called George, who proceeded to show us to a selection of tables, once we had chosen our favourite (Force of habit made me choose the one nearest the door) he relieved me of my suit jacket and took our drinks order.  If there's one thing I find uncomfortable about Groupon offers, it's actually telling the person who's serving you that you're only favouring their establishment because you're getting it cheap.  I know that they chose to run the promotion themselves, and I know that having my bum, and that of my dear wife, on their higly polished seats was exactly the outcome they'd hoped for, but I still feel like a bit of a cheapskate, it's me, I'm a bit Victorian about things like that.

So, I plucked up the courage and said something like "I should probably infom you that we're here with the Groupon offer."  He smiled and replied that he would definitely consider himself informed, with the kind, gentle, voice usually reserved for dealing with someone who had just claimed that he had a giraffe in shoebox, under the table.

The wine arrived in swift order and we selected our starters and mains from their Summer set menu (Not their Somerset menu as I had first thought)  I had the Homemade Chicken Liver Pate, served on a curled-up tablespoon that Uri Gellar would have been proud of, whilst the Mehmsahib had the Flaked Salmon, bound with Homemade Mayonnaise and served with Chive Blinis.  Both of these were excellent... So excellent that they might well blow the ears off a passing rabbit.  After a respectful pause, the main courses arrived. This time, both of us had plumped for the Chargrilled Rump Steak with a Mushroom, Bacon and Red Wine sauce. I took mine rare, (bien sûr) and the current Mrs Dandy chose medium rare. Both were very good.  In the interests of a balanced review, I would have to say that they weren't the best steaks I've ever had in my life (Remind me to tell you about the meal I had at The Bleeding Heart in Farringdon one day - There's a story...) But they were still very good, excellent at the price in fact.  For dessert we both had the White Chocolate Panna Cotta, which was astoundingly good.  In fact, after taking our first mouthfuls, we both stopped and looked at each other with raised eyebrows whilst the creamy effulgence disappeared from our mouths like the after-image of a particularly scrummy dream about ponies.  Then we nodded, knowingly, and continued to demolish the rest.

The (I think, Husband and Wife) front of house staff were friendly to the point where I actually wished they were my friends, the food was excellent, the surroundings were understated but stylish and the general dining experience was one which I would repeat with such regularity as would stun a goat, as and whenever finances allowed.

Would I visit 99 Station Street again? Yes, I would.
Would I pay full price for the experience? Yes, I would, in a heartbeat.

"Was there anything you didn't like, you simpering buffoon?" I hear you ask.  Well, yes there was... On the table directly opposite from us there were two couples, who were not, I think, on their first bottle of wine.  Most of them were amiable enough, except the one gentleman, who carried himself in the manner of a Geography Teacher, or a travelling Radiator Salesman perhaps, he put his opinions forward using a tone of voice that was just on the obnoxious side of vociferousness.  He struck me as something of a cross between a loudhailer and Charlie Brown's teacher from the 'Peanuts' cartoon.

So that was it, the only mar on an otherwise perfect evening was nothing to do with the restaurant itself.

If I assigned stars to my reviews, I would give 99 Station Street one more than my normal maximum number of star.  So consider it a six... Or an eleven, depending on what you think my maximum number of stars normally is.

99 Station Street
Burton Upon Trent
DE14 1BT
Tel: 01283 516859

Actually, did you know that a 'Marmite' is a French, earthenware cooking pot?
No, me either.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Well, have you got one inside you?

Christopher Hitchens, Political commentator and columnist for Vanity Fair (amongst other famous publications) once famously said:

"Everyone does have a book in them..."

And he was right, we've all got a story to tell.  It could be factual, maybe things that have happened to you that you think other people might find interesting, The sort of things you say when you've had one pint of Creme-de-Menthe too many and you suddenly stand up, throw your arms wide and shout "I once painted the CND symbol on a sleeping pig using a spray-can of orange icing and a wallpaper brush!"

Or, they could be made up, you could have an idea for a great story about a talking weasel called Chip McFlinders who can wave his little fingers and create a mirror, that can take him back in time to visit historical situations... But all the people have been replaced by other, improbably named, time-travelling weasels.  I don't know, although I think "Chip McFlinders and his waving mirror fingers." might have been the working title for one of John Grisham's books... Think it was The Pelican Brief if I remember correctly.

Fact or fiction, funny or serious, uplifting or horrifying - It's the germ of an idea that eats away at you. The more people say "You should write a book." the more you start to agree with them.  And you really should, it's wonderfully theraputic.  Whether you choose to cram it all down in a spiral-bound notebook that you've managed to liberate from work when the person with the key to the stationery cupboard wasn't looking, or tap it away into a hookey copy of Word that was on a CD that came with the laptop when you bought it from eBay.

Both equally valid, and I know people who call themselves 'Writers' that do both quite happily (Not at the same time though... That way madness lies).

But you, the people reading this, the ones that don't even call yourselves a writer, certainly not an author, will look at that blank piece of paper, or that snowy-white screen with the slowly blinking cursor and go a bit dry in the mouth, or a bit pale, or a bit cold.

Then your mind'll go blank.  Then you'll wonder what you were thinking ever imagining that a snot like you could ever write a book and you'll slam the lid/cover of your chosen writing media, make yourself a coffee and watch Jeremy Kyle, whilst all the time looking at your laptop/notebook as if it's in some way its fault.

This is the point where a lot of people give up.

The trick to getting past this point is simple, just DON'T stop! Write something, anything...

Write 'Once upon a time.'
Write 'It was a dark and stormy night.'
Write 'Though brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning was overcoat weather again, not just topcoat weather.'
Write 'We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert.'
Write 'Call me Ishmael.'

(There are people who might think you weren't taking things particularly seriously if you used the last three though in fairness)

But the fact is, once you start, it's difficult to stop - It's addictive, like snorting cocaine, having tattoos or collecting Pokemon.  You'll find yourself sat on the train, congratulating yourself for remembering to charge your laptop so that you can write a few hundred words.  You'll find yourself on the bus, wishing that it wasn't too bumpy a journey for you to write anything and wondering whose still warm urine is sloshing against your new Manolo Blahnicks.

Most of all, you'll be kicking yourself for not starting sooner.  The sooner you start writing, the sooner you finish the book.  The sooner you finish the book, the sooner you can get it published.  The sooner you get it published, the sooner you can print out your sales figures and customer reviews from Amazon and rub them all over your body like a literary hippopotamus bathing in a sea of Kindles.

"But getting a book published is difficult and what if it's not any good?" You think to yourself when your initial euphoria has died down.  It's true, not everyone's good at everything... I mean, I am, obviously - But then you all knew that already, you read this blog.

But there are a plethora of people around and about that are more than willing to help...

*Take a deep breath and hold on to your bear-skin balaclavas, there's an advert off the starboard bow!*

People like The Penguin's Head, a group that I'm proud to be able to say that I have some small stake in.  It's three normal guys (Well, two normal guys and me... Actually it's one normal... Thinking about it, it's three pretty odd guys) who love writing and think that more people doing it will drive standards up.

We're probably monumentally wrong about that, but its gotta be worth a punt, hasn't it?

TPH will try and help get your idea out into the big, wide world.  We'll take your first-born manuscript, take an look at it and give you some feedback FOR FREE! And what do you get for free nowadays? (apart from that notepad you nicked in the fourth(ish) paragraph above) I'll tell you... Bugger all! That's what you get for free nowadays.

Once we've given you the feedback, and we've all decided whether we want to work with each other, then we talk about the services we can provide (editing, proofreading, formating, design, publishing etc.) and how much it's likely to set you back.  You're still under no obligation at this point obviously.  We haven't done anything except read a bit, and who in their right mind would charge for that?

If you carry on the relationship from that point, eventually the world officially becomes your lobster... You're an author, you'll have a book you can hold in your hand, or a series of electrical impulses you can read on your Kindle at least.

And you'll feel smug.

And you can tick off another thing on your bucket list.

And you'll never have to think "I wonder if I could write a book?" ever again, because you will have done so, and it doesn't matter that your significant other used it for swatting a fly and it's got a greasy smear on the back because it's got your name on the spine, and that is a pretty immense feeling.

But don't take my word for it.  You should ask this lady... She's 'Gone through our mill.' and come out the other side reasonably unscathed.  You should go to Amazon and buy her new poetry book right now.

It's available in both good old-fashioned paperback and for the new-fangled Kindle HERE 

You should buy it, it's great.

Then you should buy a couple of my books from HERE

Then you should review them all (favourably) and settle back into your favourite reading chair and give yourself a big hug... You've just made an independent author feel good about themselves.

And THAT'S what life is all about.

(P.S. Christopher Hitchens finished his quote with, "...but in most cases that's where it should stay."  I chose to gloss over that part.)

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Almost Famous? No, not really.

OK, if you know me at all, you will be thoroughly bored with me going on and on and on about the reading 'gig' I had on Saturday.

But, in case you were sat in a bibliophobic void for the past couple of weeks... On Saturday I ventured into the Wild West (Midlands) to visit Southcart Books in Walsall during their festivities for Independent Booksellers Week.

It wasn't just me, obviously... I mean there were some real writers there too.  Ones with talent and imagination and money and everything. All very imposing.

I won't bore you with the details of the trip down, it was reasonably uneventful.  Obviously the SatNav let me down a couple of times by suggesting some completely fictional lane choices at junctions that caused the DandyMobile to cover about twice the mileage that she had to.  Oh, and there was a bus that tested the very limits of my military defensive driving training on the Lichfield Road. (It was a good job that the Mehmsahib had convinced me to leave the Desert Eagle at home I can tell you)  Other than that, it was a pretty sweet trip.

We arrived about two hours into the event, which turned out to be a bit of a mistake as far as the official publicity pictures were concerned, and everything was in full swing.

Here's the group photo, can you spot who isn't there? (Photo by Craig Beas)

The shop was brimming with interesting people and I treated myself to a quick game of "Try to figure out which of these people are other authors and which are just clinically odd." - I lost, which is strange when you realised that I was just playing with myself... I mean... No, nevermind, you get the gist.

I introduced myself to Scott, the owner, and The MicroDandy introduced himself to Amy, Scott's partner and co-owner, by asking for a cake - This is one of his three standard opening gambits when meeting a new person, and the only one that involves food.

We mingled for a while, scanning the laden shelves of the Fantasy & Sci-Fi sections (Which in fairness, mainly consisted of me whispering "Goddit, Goddit, Goddit" under my breath and Mrs Dandy sighing.)

I managed to catch the end of Lucy Onions reading from her new book, Good for Nothing (Which obviously, you should all go out and buy) - We like Lucy Onions, as well as being a great author, she's a fine photographer AND the lead female vocalist of Northern Soul/Motown Party Band Soul'd Out - She also used the word 'Surreal' to describe my writing, which made me do a big grin.  She also wears great shoes.

I missed the next author's set, (This was a huge ommission on my part, see below) as my good friend and fellow Penguin's Header, Neil Sehmbhy arrived and we did some manly fist-bumps and talked about marketing strategy and cupcakes.

Then it was my turn to address the teeming throng...

Here is me, before my head went purple (Photo by Lucy Onions)
As I sat there, in front of a dozen or so people and spied the nice lady whose set I had just missed. "Feels strange sat up here, in front of all of these people doesn't it?" I said.  She looked at me oddly, which was the correct reaction as she didn't know who I was in the slightest and replied that you got used to it after a while, especially when you did the amount of shows and Cons that she did. (That might have come across sounding as if she was being a bit curt, she really wasn't) I later found out that she was Theresa Derwin, author of Horror, Sci-Fi and Urban Fantasy (You should buy all of her books too, obviously)

I'd planned to read a post from each 'Volume' of the collected Chimping Dandy, which I did.  And then I was going to finish with the famous 'Library Scene' from Windspider... But I didn't have time, you know why?  Because real people were asking me real questions about both my writing and The Penguin's Head.  I'm reliably informed that not all of my answers sounded like I was pulling them out of my rear end.  Some did obviously, but there were applause and laughs so I consider that it was all a bit of a success.

The MicroDandy, Bless his little black heart, filmed both of my readings on his KiddieZoom camera.  I present them for you below, should you be interested.

Above is me reading 'Thermodynaimcs, it's the law', the story about the relationship between my Dear Old Dad (TM) and a frozen pigeon.

And the other one is me reading 'The Price of Everything, but the Value of Nothing' which explains how money isn't actually worth anything and may as well not exist.

You'll notice that my head went purple during the performance, this is nothing to worry about and is completely natural.

During this time, the remaining third of The Penguin's Head arrived in the form of the literary Demigod (or do I mean Demagogue?) James Josiah and the rest of the afternoon dissolved into a bit of a bro-fest.

I did however, manage to hear some of Ian Billings' set, which managed to keep the MicroDandy enthralled. No real surprise as the gentleman in question was once a scriptwriter for Chucklevision. (amongst a huge list of other amazing things - Buy his books too, if you have kids that is, or if you're infantile... I'm not one to judge)

All in all, a day well spent.

If you find yourself in Walsall with a spare five minutes, you could do a lot worse that moseying down to Southcart books and taking a look around - Tell them that I sent you and you'll get a free "What are you talking about? Who's the bloody Chimping Dandy?" from the owners.

Southcart Books
20-21 Lower Hall Lane (You know, the white-painted one that used to be the hairdressers?)