Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Lost Parade

Earlier this year, I was invited to be a part of a community art project. This was the brainchild of Sheena Dean, a very talented local artist. Sheena lives with borderline personality disorder, and her condition often informs her art.

A range of volunteers were invited to get involved, from Minds, Twigs, every local organisation that deals with the mentally ill, basically. Participants were encouraged to come up with a costume that represented them or their illness in some way. I chose Henry VIII, because my manic patches tend towards the grandiose and the tyrannical, but also because he reflected other sides of my personality. I've given him Lucretia, my B. C. Rich Warbeast guitar, because Henry was a musician and apparently composed Greensleeves. He also looks over his shoulder in the photo, gazing at his own reflection. This is not vanity but introspection: checking past behaviour for signs of mania and depression. As I've said elsewhere here, vigilance is everything.

As will be seen, 15 people ended up getting involved, with a wide range of costumes. This would have been really hard to organise: everyone had to commit to turning up for several discussions, fittings, etc, and then the final photograph. Working with the mentally ill can be challenging, but the final image came out very well.

For my creative writing course, I have been given an assignment to choose an image and write about it. Naturally, I chose this one. I think it's great. So I had to choose a syllable and line count and write a poem. As usual, I couldn't stop there. I now have 7 poems about this photograph, and they are below.

The Lost Parade - Part 1

Free verse - unrhymed and irregular metre
Do you see us
From the corner of your eye,
When you look through us?
Do you know we're there,
Beside you but not of you,
Living on a tangent,
Living on a scrapheap,
Hidden between the cracks and the shadows?

Seek and you will find.
We are there,
Fireworks awaiting the caress of a spark,
Dressing in the costumes of a pantomime
Or a history book,
So that you may see us
As we see ourselves,
Not wrong but different,
Not mad but not conforming
Except to the camaraderie
Of the Lost Parade.

The Lost Parade - Part 2

Blank verse (unrhymed but regular syllabic metre), syllable count 11, line count 5
The sojourner, the pilgrim, thinks the rapture
Is on its way. She holds her Bible tightly
And reaches out to God, hand above her head.
He has helped her out before, and now, this time,
She hopes he will come back to help her again.

She turns her back to what she sees in the room:
Who can blame her? Zombies and vikings, and worse,
Punks and skinheads, wizards and cats, aliens
And the worst kind of royal tyrant, a king
Who killed his wives and fought with all of Europe.

Truly an interesting group of people.
The zombie, attacking capitalism,
Extends a rotting hand, but Madam Commerce,
Impervious and proud, is not threatened by
The flaccid violence of one already dead.

Greed will live forever, and on her laptop,
Ones and zeroes coalesce, to form themselves
Into purchase orders and Word documents,
Balances in off-shore tax haven accounts,
And the occasional game of solitaire.

She doesn't see the viking: he won't see her
As his eyes do not look at anything here.
He doesn't want to fight though: like Ikea,
His Scandinavian heritage has died.
Dressing like a warrior isn't enough.

The elderly artist paints his masterpiece,
But both he and it are turned from view, hidden.
But not to the extent of Wardrobe Woman,
Covered by a blanket in the brown cupboard.
Photograph me, sure, but please don't look at me!

Modest, too, is Shoulder Girl, the arm on show
But nothing else, her back to the camera,
Underneath the heaving table on her own.
If the mirror had been moved, reflecting her,
All would see that there is no reason to hide.

Even the Green Man, proud spirit of the woods,
Is hidden by his creation, lit by leaves,
Darkened by the branches of the woodland trees,
Venerating the life force that nature gives
But wishing he could get there in his wheelchair.

The wizard wishes his magic was stronger,
Strong enough to help the other people here,
For everyone, king or punk, cat or angel,
Is afflicted by some malady of mind,
Some taint of blood that's dominating their lives.

But magic doesn't work, even though it should,
And so the Lost Parade went off to their homes,
To take their meds, talk to their psychiatrists,
Listen to their voices, analyse their dreams
And carry on trying to pass as 'normal'.

The Lost Parade - Part 3

Blank verse with syllabic metre, syllable count - 7, line count - 3, with much use of 'enjambment' (putting in unexpected line breaks to give a sense of tension)
The minister strokes the sky,
But doesn't reach the face of
God. Maybe he isn't there

In the skies. Maybe he is
In all of us. Maybe he
Isn't anywhere at all.

The zombie doesn't care, he
Wants to suck the brains of the
Businesswoman because rich

Meat tastes better. Maybe the
Brains of the rich taste like swan.
The alien almost chokes,

Wrapped like a Quality Street,
Breath misting the inside of
Her green plastic mask. Let's hope

The photographer does his
Job soon, or we'll have a death
On our hands. How we suffer

For our art. How we suffer
For our minds, when those minds
Turn against us and make us

Turn against those we love, turn
Away from the light and pass
Into a life of shadow.

But somehow, fifteen people
Who did suffer for their minds
Were brought together for art.

And like any veterans,
They compared war stories: the
Manic patch of ninety eight,

The PTSD issues
When a car backfires. He
Lost his leg on Ulster's streets.

And communities were formed,
A band of the dispossessed,
A Lost Parade of subjects

Proudly without a king, for
Though Henry was there he wore
No crown and lived like a serf.

The Lost Parade - Part 4

Rondeau redoublé - a formal French poetic form popular in the 13th - 15th centuries. It has five four-line stanzas and one five-line stanza where only two rhymes are allowed in a rhyme scheme of ABAB - BABA (repeat). The first line of the first stanza is the last line of the second stanza, the second line of the first is the last line of the third, etc, and the first half of the first line of the first stanza is the whole of the last line of the last stanza. It is in iambic pentameter, which is an example of accentual-syllabic verse. Very limiting and quite tricky!
The Lost Parade have gathered in their cell.
The painter turns his canvas into art.
The zombie shows a window into hell.
The laptop is turned on but doesn't start.

The Christian prays to God with all her heart,
She stands so very high while others fell.
And merged as one while others fell apart
The Lost Parade have gathered in their cell.

The wizard cocks his head to hear the bell
Telling when the incantations start.
And with the secret craft he'll never tell
The painter turns his canvas into art.

The punk sticks out his buttocks like a tart:
His glue bag has a most distinctive smell
And pulsing like his misbegotten heart
The zombie shows a window into hell.

He reaches out a hand, but just as well,
His palsied reach at least exceeds his grasp.
The businesswoman switches on her Dell.
The laptop is turned on but doesn't start.

The scene is set: the photo makes it art.
The speck of dirt inside the oyster's shell
Becomes a pearl, and everybody's parts
Are mingled like the water in the well.
The Lost Parade have gathered.

The Lost Parade - Part 5

Senryu / Haiku
Fifteen of the lost
Dress in their best disguises
So they might be found.

The Lost Parade - Part 6

This is a butterfly cinquain. Syllablic metre with an ascending and then descending pattern of syllables, so the first line has 2, the second 4, then 6, 8, 2, 8, 6, 4, 2. Number of accents also goes up and down in a 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 4, 3, 2, 1 pattern.
The Lost
Parade like stars
Dressed to the nines like Cher,
But she's dressed for the premiere
And they
Are mostly dressed for the film set,
Wearing costumes not frocks,
Giving themselves
To art.

The Lost Parade - Part 7
Bussokusekika - Japanese form similar to a haiku (but much older). It is in a 5-7-5-7-7-7 syllable configuration. This type of verse is named after 21 verses that were discovered in a statue of Buddha's foot, writen by monks at some uncertain time. This form was popular up to about 800 AD but fell into disuse afterwards.
Now the Lost Parade
Are lost no more. They are now
Immortalised in
Poetry and celluloid,
Heroes of Post Modern art,
Hanging on the wall of fame.

The photograph is
on permanent display in the Post Modern gallery, Swindon.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Masks and Perceptions

I saw a woman in a burqa today, the full on modest experience, everything covered except the eyes. I didn't personally feel threatened: why would I? She was clearly an elderly woman, carrying a couple of bags of shopping, walking with a stooped gait on the other side of the road. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a momentary flash of uncertainty.

I understand that in the Muslim culture, there is nothing negative in the perceptions of women in burqas. But in the West, we have been programmed by our culture to percieve a covered face as a threat.

When do we see people in masks, people that hide their faces? What sort of people are they? Well, generally they're the bad guy. Darth Vader. The Ku Klux Klan. Bank robbers in cowboy and gangster films, a handkerchief around their face or a pair of tights over it. Terrorists in modern day movies, playing with our preconceptions by dressing as clowns or Nixon so we don't know whether to laugh or fear. Psychotic killers with hockey masks and machetes at American teen camps in slasher flicks. Balaclava clad IRA members firing volleys of bullets over a coffin in a backstreet of Belfast.

Even if they are not definitively bad, they are at least sinister. Riot police who hide their faces (and their badge numbers) so they may continue to be above the law they are supposed to uphold. Genocidal Templars and Crusaders, slaughtering anyone who worshipped basically the same god in a different way, a different language. Medieval executioners with very large axes, whose masks are now popular with bondage practitioners (but that's a role of the mask I'd rather not get into). Scientists who wear their anti-contamination suits to sites of nuclear accidents or outbreaks of some infectious disease.

Surgeons wear masks, too, of course, but we never see them. By the time they put on the mask to operate on us, we are already anaesthetised, so they probably don't count. But if I did wake up in a hospital bed, and all the medical professionals were wearing masks, I would be very nervous about why they didn't want to breathe the same air as me. The mask does not really instill confidence.

There are a few masked people on the side of truth and justice, of course. Batman, Robocop, Spiderman, etc. But they tend to be fictional superheroes with secret identities to protect. Generally, if someone is wearing a mask, it is because they have something to hide. Our instinctive response is distrust and suspicion. Yes, people wear masks on Hallowe'en, but that's because the purpose of the exercise is to cause fear. Masks are good at that.

So when we see a person with their face covered, all of our conditioned instincts put us in an alert state. We perceive a threat, become defensive, in some cases become aggressive as well. This is not good for inter-cultural relations.

I don't have any answers. I think it's going to take time until Britain accepts Muslims, just as they came to accept Indians and Afro-Caribbeans. But we'll do it eventually. It might take a generation, but we'll get there. We've done it so many times already, and we're all the stronger for it. As any biogeneticist could tell you, strength comes from diversity.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Hope, Despair and Perspective

I have been helping out my wife with her final art project. This is called 'Where is the Hope?' and is a Facebook group that has been set up to collect images that represent hope and despair for the group members. Click here to see the group.

Over the course of the project, I have been considering the nature of hope and despair. I started off thinking of them as completely separate things. Then I posted something about Richard Nixon, and it completely changed my thinking.

I had started posting something about Nixon being the worst and least popular president in US history. He was the only president that had to resign, he was known as 'Tricky Dicky' because of his dirty tricks, Watergate started to shake the people's faith in democracy and one election seems to have shown that even the dead had voted for him. But as I did some research, I discovered a surprising number of positives for him. He got China to join the international community through his meetings with the notoriously isolationanist Chairman Mao. He maintained relations with Russia's Leonid Brezhnev throughout the Cold War. He oversaw Roe vs Wade, and legalised abortion. He brought the troops back from Vietnam. He was pro-civil rights and anti-racism. And as for being unpopular, he remains the only person elected twice to both the vice-presidency and the presidency, making him arguably the most popular American politician of them all.

So I came to realise that hope and despair are merely differences of perspective, attitudinal positions.

A friend of mine showed me the 'Lost Generations' video (found here). This was very clever, a poem that if read forwards gave one interpretation and if read backwards gave another. I thought this so well summed up my experiences of hope, despair and the perspective that separated them, it summed up the aims of the group and the project as well. I had a go at writing one of my own.

This is below:

Where is the Hope?

Where is the hope?
Because now I know
Where the despair is,
I have forgotten
That there is a bright side to life.
I now understand
More than I want to.
And if the dark side takes over
I cannot stop it
And if the sun comes out
It is not for long.
Storm clouds fill the sky but
Aren't they supposed to go soon?
Despair and gloom came to visit but
Seem to have moved in.
A new perspective, a new outlook
Will never happen
Despair taking over:
It is inevitable.

But almost nothing is really inevitable, and everything is just a matter of perspective, as reading this upwards will show...

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Happy Birthday, Mr Pacman...

Well, it's now Pacman's 30th birthday. It's been three decades since Pacman was first released in Japan, and the yellow circle, the hungriest entertainment icon since Shaggy from Scooby Doo, is now into his fourth. If he's anything like me, he's got some problems ahead. One thing that really hit me when I hit 30 was the slowing down of the metabolism. It was simply not possible to eat as much as I used to without either taking more exercise or putting on loads of weight. When you consider that all Pacman does is either eat or run around a maze, I can see trouble ahead. He can't really eat any less, because that's kind of the point of the game, and he can't exercise much more because he's running around all over the place already.

So why not build his changing life into the game? How about a Pacman game where he puts on weight as the game progresses, kind of like Snake but getting wider rather than longer? A game where he gets stuck in the maze occasionally because he's got too fat? You would be able to lose weight by running around the maze and not eating anything, of course, and this would become part of the strategy. After a good eating binge, you have to use the energy it gives you to run around and get thin enough to deal with the next load of food. It would be irresponsible to suggest that anyone can maintain the food / exercise ratio of their twenties into their thirties. I wish someone had told me.

And speaking of irresponsibility and gaming, TV garden gnome Alan Titchmarsh has now waded into the debate on kids becoming dead-eyed killers because they play too many videogames. No, Alan, you fool, kids are being allowed to play the wrong kind of videogame. Why do people think that all games are suitable for everyone? Why do they think that games are just there for kids? They wouldn't believe it for any other entertainment medium.

If you let your 12 year old watch a movie with an 18 rating, they will probably be exposed to violence, language, sex scenes, drug use or a load of other things that just aren't suitable for their maturity level. Most parents, I'm sure, would look at the age rating on a movie and tell their kids they couldn't watch it. But because games are considered to be something made exclusively for kids, they don't use the same standards when deciding what they can play on their xBox or PS3. This is ridiculous.

I have read that that the average age of a gamer is 34. Most games are therefore targeted at an adult audience. 18 rated games are based on the same kind of storylines as 18 rated movies. Grand Theft Auto Vice City was largely based on Scarface, GTA IV on Eastern Promises, the Resident Evil franchise on films like Dawn of the Dead. They are not in any way intended for children. Yes, children like playing videogames too, the same way kids like playing with water pistols. But you wouldn't give a child a real gun because it's kind of like a water pistol, and you shouldn't buy them buy them Condemned 2 because they like the Harry Potter games and both games are about exploring a big scary looking house and getting into occasional fights with people. There are no similarities with how the combat plays out. Or how scary the house is.

But to be fair, it's not just the fault of the parents. I am an avid reader of the PS3 magazine. It sits by the side of my toilet, and by the end of the month, I will probably have read the reviews section many times. So I've noticed a pattern. Since I've been reading the magazine (about 3 years) every game that has got the 10 / 10 rating (or even 9 / 10 rating) has had an 18 rating, except the occasional piece of cute genius (Little Big Planet), some other novelty appeal (Guitar Hero) or has been an annual update of a sports game franchise (Fifa 10). It seems impossible to be taken seriously by the gaming industry without the realism only possible with an 18 certificate. If it's going to be good, it really needs people to swear convincingly, have drugs or murder as storylines, show injuries realistically, and basically, do everything that films do so well. For the same reasons: we want to be entertained, and there has to be at least the essence of realism for that work. It doesn't matter if the game is set in the real world or not, it has to be convincing. If we stab a unicorn, even if it has green and purple blood, it still has to gush like real blood from its wounds. If we're dealing with a gangster, there's an excellent chance he will be selling drugs, or running brothels, maybe doing some people smuggling. These are all parts of that gangster's character, all things that we need to see so we can know him better, become more immersed in the story, make the victory sweeter when we finally find a Stinger missile and blow his helicopter out of the sky.

This does give a game with a less than 18 rating something of a disadvantage, of course. Personally I would never get as excited by the chaste, harmless thrills of a Harry Potter game, where no-one dies, just faints. Clearly the kids share my opinion and somehow get their hands on the 18 games they crave. Whose fault is this really? Probably the parents who don't investigate what their kids are getting into and don't know about the automatic age lock feature, that prevents (say) any games over a 15 rating from being played. And is it all bad anyway? My kids learnt how to read a map from playing videogames. They had no idea what all the North stuff was before, and the maps in most games rotate to suit your direction, so they give it all in context and they learnt without knowing it. There was something on the news not long ago that 1 in 5 ten year olds couldn't tell a cow from a pig, but I bet they can all tell an Uzi from an AK47.

But I guess the big question is this: can kids actually be harmed by playing videogames outside their age range? I guess they might get into trouble at school for swearing more often, depending on which games they play, but as for a killing spree, I'd have to ask how? Where would he get his guns and ammo from? This is not America, where apparently you can get a free gun for opening a bank account (according to 'Bowling for Columbine', Michael Moore's documentary on gun availability). A 12 year old hitting people with a cricket bat would be a mercifully brief killing spree.

Personally, I've found the opposite to be true. When I was working, it was liberating at the end of a stressful day to boot up Quake or something and just shoot stuff. It was a completely harmless way of relieving stress, and far more diplomatic than arguing with the people who caused the stress in the first place.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Thanks For (Some Of) The Memories

I've been thinking about memory. I read somewhere about the relationship between sleep and memory, how sleep is the time that short term memory gets filtered and moved into long term memory, and how this is the reason that those who don't sleep properly have difficulty remembering things. Dreams are apparently the result of rounding errors in the process, as memories don't quite fit into their allotted places and random visual images are generated.

If only there were a way of defragging long term memory, purging it of things that are no longer relevant and re-ordering it to make finding the relevant files more efficient.

I think there are three main categories of long term memory.

Firstly, there are one-off events of significant emotional content. The sight of my wife on our wedding day, swathed in black lace on a beach in Hong Kong, flanked by seven bridesmaids in the colours of the rainbow. The feel of my new-born daughter balanced on my arm (she didn't reach from my hand to my elbow), crying with virgin lungs (I would never again be so relieved to hear her cry). The involuntary loosening of the sphincter as I wore a Confederate flag T-shirt at 10 (I liked 'the Dukes of Hazzard') and a bunch of 18 year old skinheads told me how they liked beating up rockabillies (I had no idea what one was, but assumed they were talking about me). The sound of 'I want to know what love is' playing at a school disco, as my 15 year old self finally got to dance with the long-adored Diane Bradley. They're all big moments in someone's life, and will always be in long term memory, whether you want them or not.

Then there are memories that just stay because of repetition. I dread to think how many advertising slogans and jingles are here. I know that the current 'Go Compare' one will do the same, and the meerkats with their 'simples'. Without having any control over it, these inane adverts will be added to the mnemonic file already containing 'nice one Cyril', 'watch out, there's a Humphrey about', 'choc ice and chips? Don't tell your mother', 'if you see Sid, tell him', 'it's too orangey for crows' and a thousand others, even the family who base their entire existence around a humble stock cube. These are the ones I'd dearly love to get rid of, to make room for things like when the dustmen come, or when my direct debits come out of my account. I'd love to know those things.

Repetition would also cover work-based things, once you learn the system of doing something, and do it for long enough, you never forget it. It also covers numbers. People I rang regularly when I had to dial a number I still remember and probably always will. The sterling / Hong Kong dollar exchange rate on 31 December 1989 was 13.983. I will never forget that because I worked at the HongKong and Shanghai Bank and had to convert every single balance to Hong Kong dollars so I could report back to Hong Kong for the year end. So I typed that number into an old electric calculator literally thousands of time.

I think the third type of memory is those where you really think about something in a highly focussed way. When I used to write computer programs for a living, I used to get totally absorbed by them. It would be a physical effort to come back to the real world. But because I put so much of myself into them, I never forgot anything about them. I had sites where I would go back and change something I'd written 5 years earlier, and as soon as I saw the code, it would all come flooding back.

I think the reason kids seem to have good memories is that they have less to remember, less irrelevant crap to wade through before they find an answer, less competing opinions to make them doubt they have the answer. How much happier would we be if we could just jettison some old and irrelevant memories and give us something more like the memory of a child, still keeping our adult experience but letting us view the world with a child's simplicity and directness. And if brains really are like computers, they will certainly run better if they aren't filled to capacity.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Soaps, Suds and Bubbles

I've been watching the British soap awards, in lieu of anything vaguely entertaining on TV. It wasn't a bad impression of more famous award shows, like the Oscars or the BAFTAs, but as actors are generally chosen for character rather than appearances, it was somewhat less decorative. So I've been musing a little on the nature of soap operas, and what they actually tell us about ourselves.

Most American soaps, like Dallas and Dynasty in the 80s, and things like 90210 now, are aspirational, a glimpse of a high life that most people will never see otherwise. Everyone is beautiful, perfect hair, teeth and clothes, a cast made of models, twentysomething teenagers with thirtysomething parents, waking up in the morning with perfectly coiffed hair and full make up. Presumably this is so little Americans have something to aim for. Unattainable personal standards are so important to the psychiatric industry.

Australian soaps like Neighbours and Home and Away tend towards a more realistic approach, vaguely 'normal' people doing normal jobs and living in houses within the reach of an average Australian. I lived in Australia for 5 years, and the world of Neighbours is a reasonable reflection of life in a city like Melbourne. The town of Erinsborough was actually based on a combination of Melbourne and Sydney. Australians are probabaly more likely to see someone like themselves on screen than anyone else.

Soaps in Britain, however, tend to be based around working class people living depressing, catastrophe-ridden lives on the brink of poverty, presumably so that everyone has a chance to watch the shows and think, 'oh well, at least I'm not doing as badly as {insert name here}'. Most British TV entertainment remains class based, not just the soap operas but also most of our comedy shows as well. 'Have I Got News For You' is largely based around the interaction between public school boy Ian Hislop and people's choice Paul Merton, 'QI' gets a lot of its humour from the headmasterly Stephen Fry talking down to the working class Alan Davies and guests like Sean Locke and Mark Steel, etc. To quote John Lennon: 'they keep you doped with religion and sex and TV / and you think you're so clever and classless and free / but you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see'.

But back to the soaps... I must admit I felt vindicated tonight. 'EastEnders', the only soap opera I watch (probably because it reminds me why I don't live in London anymore) swept the board at the awards. Best soap, best actor, best actress, sexiest actor, etc.

Scott Maslen, who was voted both best and sexiest actor, plays a character called Jack Branning, who was the subject of a poem of mine. Some of you may have seen this, as it was published on the EastEnders website, but for those who haven't, it's below:

Knowing Jack

Jack had loved his brother's wife,
The black girl
And the blonde one
And her sister (who got pregnant)
And their cousin, who, if anything,
Was even blonder still.
I've seen him in the club
And in the Square and in a coma
But I've never really met him:
I think I never will.

And yet I know him so well.

I know his family, his history,
Assorted tales of woe,
A man of mystery,
James Bond with an E20 postcode.

I know Jack better
Than some of my closest friends
Because they don't come into my home
Four nights a week,
Telling me their stories,
Giving me a window to their lives
And emphasising significant moments with a drum roll.

Or do they?
I was forgetting about Facebook.

I've come to think of Facebook
Not as a telephone but a television,
Not a communications tool
But an entertainment medium,
Each 'friend' a channel,
Each post a programme,
An episode of the soap opera of their lives.

Yes, I have friends who are like Newsnight,
Like Horizon or Arena,
Discussing high-falutin' ideas
From a position of authority.

But I also have friends who are like EastEnders,
Like Shameless or Skins or Jeremy Vile,
Car crash TV reduced to bile,
Misspelt polemic
And relationship status updates
On an hourly basis
Long into the night.

Do I really know them?
Or is this like applying graphology to a signature,
Doomed to fail
Because the public face of someone
Only shows what they want to be seen?

Do I know Jack?
Or do I 'know Jack'?

Darren's Adventures in Scaffolding

I have had a team of scaffolders working outside my bedroom window for the last week or so. Not actually outside my window - they're on the other side of the road - but the road is so narrow they might as well be plugging their radio and kettle straight into my place.

Every day, at about 7 AM, I have been woken by a cacophony of clanging, as scaffolding poles bang against each other, a dawn chorus of shouted conversations as builders ask each other repeatedly how many sugars they all want in their tea. And once I'm awake, it's impossible to get back to sleep again, as the radio breakfast show they seem to like plays an unceasing diet of high energy pop songs and inane adverts, specifically chosen to get people up in the morning. Thanks guys. Would it kill you to play the occasional lullaby to help me get back to sleep again?

But it's not all bad. It may even be considered inspirational. I'm doing a creative writing course at the local college, and my assignment was to come up with a character portrait of someone and then use them in a story. So, I chose one of the scaffolders at random, studied him like David Attenborough would a particularly interesting howler monkey, and decided what his name was, his mannerisms, his taste in music and clothes when he wasn't working, his relationships with friends and family, basically everything that made him who he was.

I called him Darren Roberts. Why not? Who he really was didn't matter. He was a cipher, a construct, and his story is below...

Darren's Adventures in Scaffolding

Darren lay in bed and thought about his plan. It was so simple it had to work. Why had no-one thought of it before? Builders always liked shouting compliments to attractive women that walked by, but none of them got anywhere. Not even a phone number. Everybody knew women liked getting compliments, even if they are bellowed across a road by a plumber, so what was the problem? The reason that women weren't attracted to builders was that they dressed like, well, like builders. If there was a builder who looked like he was ready to go clubbing, then he might have a competitive advantage... there was only one way to find out.

Darren had got a couple of day's work doing scaffolding for a mate of his dad. It wasn't work that required much skill but a bit of muscle would be helpful. He fell a bit short in this department, but lifting the scaffolding tubes wasn't too bad – at least they weren't solid. It didn't pay much but it was cash in hand, so no need to get his benefits stopped. Double bubble.

So Darren prepared for work, choosing his most splendid clothes. The black tracksuit bottoms with the gold stripe. The thick black hoodie, specially stolen from the Outlet Village. The trainers, as pure and white as good cocaine, not the shit Darren gets. Over the top, a few gold chains, for the subtle enjoyment of ostentation. Some rings. And on the very top, a baffling variety of hair products, especially for one whose hair was so short. It was not so much absorbed by his paltry locks as stratified like the layers of a trifle, cream on custard on cake.

And looking like this, he left the house, ready to face Swindon's world of women.

But first, he had to face Swindon's world of scaffolders. They were not enamoured of his new look. They laughed themselves red when Darren arrived on site.

“What you laughing at?” said Darren, feeling the anger rising.

“I don't know, ain't never seen one before” gasped one scaffolder. If he'd remembered when he'd started, turning up on site in Ziggy Stardust make-up because he'd been too hungover to remember putting it on the night before, he might have reacted differently.

“Ah, give the kid a break”, said the foreman. “We're all young and stupid at some point, and better young and stupid than old and stupid”. He winked at Darren, who gave him a grateful smile in return. Maybe this is what having a dad is like, someone to watch out for you? Darren shook his head to clear the thought, and climbed the ladder as he'd been told, to start assembling the scaffolding above.

The day drew on, and after three hours in the hot April sun, Darren started to wish he'd worn a T-shirt under his hoodie. At least that way, he could take it off and not be naked underneath. But there was nothing to be done about it. He wished too that he wasn't attracting quite so much attention from the street. He didn't look like a builder, that was true, but anyone on a building site that didn't look like a builder and was working like one looked very out of place. He'd put up his hood so people couldn't see him so well, but that just made his head sweat and the layers of hair product now seemed to be melting into one another. He could stand it no more, and ran his hand through his hair, getting the sweat out of his eyes.

If only he'd remembered that his hand was now slick with product. His next attempt on the wrench saw it slip from his grip, fly away, and with the slowed-down time common to a disaster in progress, he saw it rotate 3 ½ times before it fell from view, his only indication to its position now given by the scream and the thump from two stories below.

He ran to the edge and looked down, seeing the woman, seeing the blood, seeing the crowds starting to form, like white blood cells around an infection, but less so because none of them can actually do anything at all to help.

Darren slid down the ladder like the Prince of Persia, purpose adding grace to his usually ungainly mannerisms. He ran to the woman, knelt down beside her and smiled at her reassuringly.

“Ah, don't you look lovely” she said.

Click here for Chapter Two

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Prologue to a Blog

Welcome, one and all, to my first ever blog. A few people I know from Facebook had suggested I get into this sort of thing, so I thought I'd give it a go.

I've called it 'Ravings of a Madman' because I'm bipolar, and 'Ravings of a Service User' just sounds wrong, despite 'service user' being the approved term. I hate being called a 'service user': it makes me feel like a kerb crawler, the self-loathing customer of a self-loathing Ukrainian whore, shagging her way through Swindon's lonely and desperate male population until she gets her passport back.

Bipolar is a big part of my life. In fact, if I had to define myself by one word, it would probably be bipolar. Either I'm depressed, feeling my bone marrow turn to osmium as I struggle to get out of bed, not remembering a time when the dark side didn't consume me, not believing in a time when it wouldn't. Or I'm manic, despairing of the mortals who try to slow me down as I bounce off the walls, not eating, not sleeping, thinking at the speed of light and believing myself a god. Or I occupy the no man's land between the two, being told I'm stable but looking over my shoulder for symptoms of the other two states, eternally vigilant, fighting a cold war with myself.

It's all a bit shit really. But it's not without its benefits. Like a lot of mentally unstable people, I am drawn towards poetry, and I've been quite lucky recently to have got some recognition for it. I am the reigning Poetry Rivals Slam Champion and my prize was a publishing contract. My first book (provisionally entitled 'Hemp Fandango') will be out in the next few months. I doubt if I would be able to write in the same way without this 'taint of blood' (in the words of Tennyson, a fellow sufferer). Keats, Shelley, Byron, Sylvia Plath and a great many other poets had some form of mental illness, and some were considered bipolar. Suicide rates for published poets are 7 times the national average.

Is this a price worth paying? Would I give up the bipolar and all that comes with it if I had the choice? No, I don't think I would. As Roger Waters said, 'all you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be' and even if I'm not defined by my condition, it certainly is one of the things that makes me who I am. And I'm happy enough with that enough of the time.