Commentary

The Blank Page

What is writer’s block anyway?

I got up early this morning to write something for this blog.

But nothing came.

And as eight o’clock rolled on towards nine o’clock. And nine o’clock nudged ten, I was still staring at a blank screen. My mind felt empty as though my brain had been scooped out overnight and filled with soot. I wasn’t tired or hungover or ill; in fact, I’d been running the night before, and felt fit and fresh. And yet I was totally devoid of even the simplest idea.

I stared at the screen for ages. Then out of the window at the dirty sky wondering if it was going to rain. Then back at the screen. Then back outside again. Was this writer’s block? That mystical thing I hear other people talk about.

Surely not. I looked at the screen again. I’ve always got something to say, some rubbish to write about, even if it’s just nonsense. But today I was stuck, as though my hands were made of jelly fingers, unable to press a single key, incapable of typing a single word.

I briefly thought about writing about my summer holidays like I used to do at school. But as I didn’t have a holiday this year, or the year before, there wasn’t much to say. I could write about life on a rural French farm where I live and work, but I’ve flogged that horse to death enough times already.

Normally when I’m stumped for words, I write a short story starting with something like: ‘I woke up thinking I was Jesus.’ They generally fizzle out after a few pages, but at least I’ve written something.

JG Ballard, one of my favourite English authors, said he wrote a thousand words a day, every day. And I try to match this at least 5 days out of 7. But today nothing. And I hadn’t written for a week.

I almost flew into a mad panic and if it wasn’t for my wife I might have thrown something. A book against a wall. Luckily she arrived just in time and asked me what was wrong. So I told her. ‘I can’t write anything today. My mind is dead. I feel dead.’

She suggested I write about why I can’t write. Reminding me of all the novels written and films made on that very premise. ‘In fact,’ she went on, ‘there’s probably a whole genre in the film industry entitled: Writer’s Block.’

It was a good suggestion. Even though part of me thought it was a bit of a cop-out. Was I too dumb to think of anything interesting? And if so, what was I doing writing in the first place if I couldn’t write down a simple passage of prose, however banal?

A friend of mine who writes ghost stories for a living recently asked me if I’d had any more ideas for another novel.

I laughed. ‘I’ve only just finished my first,’ I informed him.

‘So?’ he shrugged. ‘Are you going to bask in the glory forever?’

I told him I wasn’t basking in any glory, but I understood his point. What he was really saying was, when are you going to write something serious? He knows me well so he can ask me these things.

‘I’m getting round to it. Slowly,’ I told him.

He nodded and we moved on to talk about football, which was a relief.

I actually have written about my life at boarding school and the death of my mother. The problem is, they don’t seem that interesting. The subject matter, however personal, is dull. I can’t make it come to life and I would much prefer to write about what it feels like to wake up as Jesus. Not that I’m in the slightest bit religious; it’s just that when I was young, I thought I was special — didn’t we all?

My friend would argue that all these, ‘Fantastical-what-would-happen-if-stories,’ are all well and good. But how about the ‘What-happened-in-reality-stories?’ Why don’t you cut the gags and get down to the real stuff? The meat. ‘Isn’t that why you write?’

It’s a good question. I probably write because I’ve always written. At school, I wrote an entire film entitled ‘School.’ I enjoyed it and even asked the drama master if we could perform it. He laughed at me and said maybe next year. We never did of course, and I’ve no idea what happened to the manuscript.

It was fun to write because it was just a load of stupid gags and pranks. More a sketch show than a full-blown movie. Of course, it didn’t contain any of the serious stuff: the beatings and the violence, but it was probably why I wrote it, to keep me sane.

But anyway, I’ve reached the 1000-word mark now, so it looks like I’ll have to stop. Just as I was getting started…

Photo by Pedro Araújo on Unsplash

My unserious novel Le Glitch is available here
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Feature, Observation

Playing Music With Tourettes

Over the past few months I’ve been writing some songs. My first for over twenty years, and I can’t really describe how good I feel. But I’ll try.

You see, I’m a twitcher. I find it difficult to keep still. At night I sleep like a baby. But in the day I can’t stop moving, twitching, spasming, ticking, hunching, spinning, gurning, jerking, convulsing. You might think I’m ill — some have suggested I’ve got Tourettes — (maybe I have), but maybe it’s just the way I am.

I’ve always been like this: I’ve always had a fireball of energy in my belly like I’ve eaten a plate of red-hot chilli ladened with extra chilli and extra cheese, and then some more. And then some more. And then some more. Do you get the picture?

I only did sport at school, not because I wanted to, but because I had to. And it wasn’t that my teachers forced me or anything like that. The total opposite in fact. My school promoted the arts and music over sport, but luckily they did have a PE master. So most mornings and evenings I was out running, or practising gymnastics or swimming. Anything that gave my body a chance to run off its unused energy.

Even now, I can barely stay seated for more than half an hour, before I have to rush outside and expend some energy. Smash some bricks together or chop wood angrily with a blunt axe. It’s why I can’t watch TV, or watch a film without taking endless breaks. Luckily, I have a very patient wife.

So a few weeks after New Year, I pulled my old Washburn acoustic out of its ragged case, restrung it and set it up. If you’re not au fait with guitars, setting-up simply means, faffing around with truss rods (the bit in the middle), strings and fret distances so the whole damn instrument stays (vaguely) in-tune.

Once I’d done that (which took a month of procrastination), I strummed a few bars wondering if my fingers still knew what to do. Luckily, like riding a bike or swimming, you never forget such things, so for a few weeks I played a selection of covers I used to play live all those years ago.

Then I wrote a song.

Back then, I never really wrote songs. My friend Justin wrote the material and I played along, made up riffs and solos, and kind of chipped in.

After we split and went our separate ways, I wrote a few bits and pieces, but they amounted to nothing more than a tortured mess of mangled blues and wailing. So I let it go, and for twenty years, did very little apart from a few jams and a couple of open-mic sessions, most of which I don’t remember ( I was pretty drunk for most of my thirties).

I was therefore naturally quite surprised that by the end of March this year, I’d managed to pen about ten songs. I even bought some modest recording equipment to improve the quality of my efforts.

I was pleased with them. But most of all I’d stopped wandering aimlessly around the farm where I live, knocking down walls or chopping down trees. Finally, I had something real and tangible to put my energy into once again: Recording music in my makeshift studio on top of the chicken shed.

Here is one...
Insamia Revisited
© Philip Ogley 2020
Top Photo by Simone Impei on Unsplash
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Observation

Why I Hate History

And why I think school is a waste of time. Listen or read below.

I remember nothing from school. Except the Rivers Act of 1876: A tiny piece of legislation to try and clean up the waterways of England.

Why I remember this particular fact is not important. What is important is that I shouldn’t have been learning it in the first place. Or indeed any of the subjects I spent 15 years studying during my time at school.

When I was twelve there were a few things I was interested in: music, drama, cycling, nature and drawing. This is what I actually studied: English, History, French, Maths, Physics, Geography, Religious Studies, Latin, Chemistry and Biology. Out of all of those, there was only one I was interested in. Biology.

A damning indictment of the educational system, surely.

True, if I hadn’t been such a spineless schoolboy, I might have said something like, ‘Why am I study these subjects; I don’t even like them?’

It’s a pretty damn good point, don’t you think?

And yet avid supporters of the educational system — teachers, lecturers, governments — would insist I had a rounded education.

No I didn’t! I didn’t in the slightest. A rounded education would have consisted of me playing the piano while cycling around the UK for instance. Putting on plays in parks or woods, looking at the nature, and then drawing the whole damn thing. That would have been a rounded education.

Chortle chortle chortle, I hear from leather-elbowed-patched, pipe-in-mouth teaching brigade. ‘Such a dreamer this one. This Ogley character.’

I am as a matter of fact. That’s what humans are. Dreamers. Inventors. Visionaries. That’s how we got this far in the first place. We didn’t get here by sitting in a classroom copying out endless tracts of British history. Copying it out into an exercise book, then revising it and rewriting it out onto an exam manuscript so some stuffy teacher can cross bits out and then decide to give me a qualification that assesses my progress in life.

Because that isn’t progress. It’s a failure. It’s a failure of the educational system to actually educate. And I know this, because I’ve been through it. I’ve done it. School, GCSEs, A-levels, university degree, masters degree. In fact I didn’t stop studying till I was 26. What an idiot!

This may sound like sour grapes. That I haven’t made a success of all the education given to me.

It’s not. While I was revising for my GCSE exams at the age of 16, I remember thinking, this is a waste of time, isn’t it? All I’m really doing is memorising stuff other people have done or discovered or invented, rewriting it down in vaguely my own words so another human being, who knows all this stuff anyway, can read it through again. How stupid is that? Why don’t I go out into the world and find my own stuff to write about? That would be fun!

I should have said something. But as I said before, I didn’t, because I was spineless. I was a schoolboy. I was young. I was impressionable. I was an idiot.

So I’m saying it now, nearly 30 years later: Education is a waste of time. School. University. Degrees. Masters. Call it what you want. It’s a waste of time!

There, I’ve said it. Bye.

Photo, Museums Victoria (bottom/Feliphe Schiarolli (top)
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Observation

The Corona Borealis

If you look East tonight at around 11pm (UK time) you’ll see a semicircular arc known as Corona Borealis in between the large constellations of Hercules and Boötes.

I’ve become quite an avid stargazer recently and download a chart each month that shows me all the constellations and stars. I’ve become quite addicted in fact as I never knew there was so much up there. Some I knew like the Big Dipper and Orion, but most I’d never heard of. Including this small one, Corona Borealis.

When I was young I remember reading that the light from some stars takes so long to reach Earth, that by the time our eyes register it, the stars it came from don’t even exist anymore.

That blew my mind! It meant the universe was big. Very big. And when I look up at the sky now, I never forget that fact. It’s so immense, so utterly big, that even thinking about it makes my head hurt. And as you probe deeper and deeper, reading about the stars and clusters and galaxies, you realise how amazingly small we really are. Smaller than we think.

Which brings me back to Corona Borealis. I’ve read so much about the Corona virus over these last few weeks, that when I looked at my April star chart, the first thing my eyes picked up was the word “Corona”.

Corona, Corona, Corona. Once I knew it only as a beer. Now, it’s a virus and a constellation. What next?

I was planning to write a long sweeping piece on humankind’s folly. But I just don’t have it in me at the moment. Let’s face it, a lot has already been written on the subject; it’s unlikely I can add anything more.

Maybe the only thing I can advise is to look up at the stars tonight. See if you can see Corona Borealis. I mean what else are you going to do now the pubs are all shut…

Useful Links:

Corona Borealis info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corona_Borealis

Sky Charts: http://www.skymaps.com/downloads.html

Online Sky wheel: https://in-the-sky.org/skymap2.php

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Audio, Observation

Always For Hire – A journey into the hidden depths of my CV

With little else to do, I started thinking about all the jobs I’d ever done. All those wasted hours moving objects from one place to another. Then moving them back again. The definition of work according to the dictionary.

I starting writing them down on a page of A4. Then I found two more sheets of paper to finish the job. The results were terrifying. They say a league table at the end of the football season doesn’t lie. Neither did my list of jobs. My CV. My resume – Call it what you want. What a mess! More like some mangled piece of computer code than an ordinary life. I mean, who wrote this stuff? Was it me?

I thought of my cousin Paul, who I grew up with in Leeds. He was older than me by four years, but we got on well. We had the same interests: football, cricket, subuteo, and Madness. And so I naturally assumed that when we grew up, we would end up doing the same things in life. More or less.

How wrong I was.

Since those Sherbet Dip and orangeade days of the early 1980s, I’ve had over 60 jobs and even more addresses. My cousin Paul on the other hand has had the same job since he was sixteen and still lives with my aunt and uncle on the same road we used to play out on as kids.

Sometimes I think he got the better deal. Because the problem is, I’ve never really liked any of my jobs. I don’t know what it is, but a wave of indifference spreads over me as soon as I enter the factory gates or walk through the office door. Causing me to hand in my resignation within a few months. Or simply wait to get fired, so at least I can say it wasn’t my fault.

The few jobs I have liked are the ones where I’ve been left — totally and utterly — to do my work without some dick breathing down my neck. Which I have to say is very rare.

There’s only been one job that has ever come close to fulfilling this criteria. Do you remember the census of 2011? Probably not. Anyway, I worked as a census collector gathering information from households that had been missed off on the original lists. The work was pretty boring, but I had no boss, just an automated system that I emailed my results to each evening. And if I didn’t get any results on any given day, it didn’t seem to matter; I got paid all the same. It was fantastic and a great shame they only do it once every ten years.

This was in stark contrast to working as an order picker at Aldi in 2018. Here I had three different bosses telling me every morning at around eight-thirty the same information over and over again. If you’ve ever watched the film Office Space with those ‘TPS report cover sheets’, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Needless to say, I didn’t last long in that job either. Three months, I think; another entry on my already bloated CV. A CV I must add that I’m actually rather proud of. It’s rich and varied. It illuminates my personality, shows off my character and my abilities as a human being, not as a machine.

Naturally, I would never consider sending it out as it stands. God, no! — I’m not stupid! If I sent this CV out, it’d look like I’m auditioning for a part in the circus. I mean, who in their right mind would hire someone who has worked as a bookseller, a barman, a driver, a chef, and a Christmas tree seller in the same year? No-one. Which is why I stopped bothering with CVs years ago – and generally find a well written, persuasive email or letter is far more effective.

It’s been a good project though, writing them all out. Seeing my entire adult life drift past my eyes as I commit one job after another to paper. It might even become the basis for a book. Now I’ve got the framework in place – the scaffolding. Now all I need to do is build the walls and hang the windows. Fill in the gaps. And believe me, there are a lot of gaps.

The Bloated Badly Coded CV of Philip Ogley, Aged 45
July—Aug 1990: John Smedley Ltd — Labourer
July—Aug 1991: John Smedley Ltd — Warehouseman
July—Aug 1992: Chesterfield Council — Dustbin man
April—Aug 1993: MAFF, Mansfield — Field researcher
April—Aug 1994: INRA, Cavaillon, France — Field researcher
April—Aug 1995: Zeneca, Bracknell — Field researcher (barley)
Sept 1996 — March 1997: Students Union, Nottingham — Cook
July 1997 — Aug 1998: Boulevard Sound, Nottingham — S/engineer
July-Aug 1998 Perth, Australia. Charity fund raiser.
Nov 1998 : Mission beach hostel, Australia — Hostel hand
Nov—Dec 1999: Hockley Organic Restaurant, Nottingham — chef
Aug 2000: Nottingham Language Centre, Nottingham  — teacher
Sept—Oct 2000: Papa Language school, Trikala, Greece — EFL
Oct 2000—June 2001: Cambridge School of English, Warsaw — EFL
July 2001: Nottingham Language Centre, Nottingham — teacher
Sept 2001—Jan 2002: Centro de Lenguas, Granada, Spain — EFL
Feb—May 2002: BRNC, Dartmouth, Devon — EFL Teacher
May—July 2002: Southgate Hotel, Exeter — Barman
Aug 2002—Aug 2003: Globe English School, Exeter — EFL Teacher
Feb—April 2004: Devon County Council, Exeter — Data Entry 
April—Sept 2004: Pavani’s Italian, Exeter — Sous chef
Sept—Nov 2004: La Vega, Venezuela — Field Researcher
Dec 2004—May 2005: Cafe Rouge, Exeter — Waiter
May-Aug 2005 Zizzis, Exeter. Drinks Man.
Aug 2005: Pizza Express, Exeter — Waiter
Aug 2006: Bristol City Council — Telephone Clerk
Sept-Oct: Ff Solicitor, Bristol. Post room clerk.
Oct—Nov 2006: Bristol Novelty, Bristol — Warehouse picker
Jan—May 2007: The Bristol Advertiser, Bristol — Editor
Aug 2007—Aug 2008: The Royal Mail, Bristol — Postman
Oct 2008—Sept 2009: The Bristol Flyer, Bristol — Barman
Jan 2010:The Golden Lion, Bristol — Barman
Feb—April 2010: The Mighty Miniature, Bristol — Bookseller
May—Sept 2010: Gibbs Catering, Bristol — Driver and chef
Nov—Dec 2010: Haines' Trees, Bristol — Christmas tree seller
August 2011 - Capita, Bristol - Census Collector
March—July 2011: Communicaid, Bristol — EFL Teacher
Sept 2011—June 2012: Linguarama, Lyon, France — EFL Teacher
July 2012—August 2012: IFIS, Bristol — EFL Teacher
Sept 2012—July 2013: Linguarama, Lyon — EFL Teacher
Sept 2013—Oct 2014: La Jouachere, Queaux, France — Caretaker
March 2015: Cetradel, Bordeaux — EFL Teacher
Jan — May 2015: Villa Tosca, Taussat, France — Pool boy
June 2015 — Sept 2015: Linguarama, Bath — EFL Teacher
Oct 2015: OTP, Marrakesh, Morocco — EFL teacher
Nov 2015 — April 2016: Chateau Dumas, France — Caretaker
April 2016 — October 2016: Holiday Rep, Souillac, Dordogne
Oct 2016 — Dec 2016: Kokopelli Camping, Italy — Nightwatchman
Jan 2017 — May 2017: Chateau Dumas (again), Caretaker
June 2017 — Sept 2017: Bicycle Courier, Copenhagen
Oct 2017 — Jan 2018: Aldi, Order Picker. Liverpool
May 2018–Sept 2018: Chateau Dumas (again) — Caretaker
Dec 2018 — May 2019: Real Food Kitchen, chef, Liverpool
June 2019 — Present: Farm Hand, Mesnil-Germain, France.

Further Listening and Reading

Listen to other podcasts here.

Listen to audio stories here

Read about my Aldi job: The Soulless Emptiness of a Warehouse Order Picker here

Or read my novel here.

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Audio, Short Story

Four Knots & Back

A few years ago, me and a friend swam to a yellow buoy in Falmouth Harbour. Read or listen to this short tale on fear.

‘There could be sharks down there,’ said Richard.

‘Don’t say that word! Never say that word! And stop splashing about!’

‘I’m not,’ he shouted back. ‘Hey! Shall we dive down to see how deep it is?’

‘Are you insane?’

Ever since I’d had to rescue my pyjamas from the bottom of the swimming pool when I was five, I’d been afraid of deep water. The thought of how small, hopeless and insignificant I became — even in a swimming pool — terrified me. The sudden look of panic in my eyes made my friend realise there would be no diving today.

Richard was forging ahead with a nicely timed breaststroke that propelled him through the water like a slow-moving frigate towards the yellow buoy with 4 KNOTS written on it.

It wasn’t just the depth or the sharks that frightened me. It was the chain anchoring the buoy to the seabed. The long, thick, rusted chain snaking down into the darkness. How far did it go? And what was it attached to?

We approached it but didn’t stop. ‘Fuck that!’ I cried out. ‘I’m off.’ So I simply prodded it with my fingers to register the accomplishment and turned back.

For a second, I thought of putting my head under the water to prove the chain really existed. Confront my fears. But I knew that one glimpse of the blackness would incite panic, and in the ocean, panic kills. Especially when there might be…no…don’t say it. SHARKS.

‘Stop splashing about. You’ll attract sharks,’ joked Richard.

Why did he have to say that? Why? It was all becoming too much. ‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’ I cried.

I looked to the shore hoping to see life. But all I saw were dots. People and umbrellas and kites and inflatable dinghies, just multicoloured dots painted onto a band of yellow.

We were miles away. Further than I thought. I felt a cramp in my left foot. Cramp kills in water. Keep calm. It’s just a bit of cramp. Lactic acid build-up in the muscles. It’s nothing, just chemistry, I kept telling myself.

‘Richard, are you cold?’

He nodded.

We kept swimming through the thick, oily water, battling against the outgoing tide which I could feel pushing against my legs and arms. Why did we do this? It looked so easy from the shore. ‘Let’s swim to the buoy,’ I’d said. What an idiot.

Keep going. Keep going. Keep calm. You came out here, so you are going to have to get back. Or you die. It’s quite simple.

‘Richard, are you OK?

He nodded, and I kept swimming while thinking of other things. Anything to keep my mind off the deep sea, the sharks, and that long dark chain disappearing down into the bowels of fuck-knows-where!

Then I felt sand on my knees. The dots came into focus. I breathed an almighty sigh of relief.

As we walked back across the beach I expected a round of applause. But everyone just ate their sandwiches and ice creams and talked to their friends and family just as before. They were all totally oblivious to what we’d been through. We were just two lads getting out of the sea after a swim, nothing more.

If we’d slipped below the water, drowned, or been eaten by sharks, no one would have noticed. They would have all finished their sandwiches, trotted off back to their cars, gone home, and got on with their lives. The Earth would spin, the tides would turn, and the yellow buoy would remain floating in the sea.

And that, now I think about, back home warm and dry, is the scariest thing of all. To be simply not noticed…

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Feature, Normandy

Why I Keep My Christmas Tree Lights On — All Year Round

A friend came to visit me last week and the first thing he said was, ‘Shit Phil, you’ve still got your Christmas lights up!’

I think what worried him most was that the offending lights were still hanging on the tree. It was nearly February.

‘Don’t you know it’s bad luck!’ he pointed out.

I explained that the tree was actually an indoor conifer and was there all year round. The fact that there were lights on it was pure coincidence.

‘Jesus, Phil,’ my friend swooned. ‘If I did that where I lived, everyone would think I was nuts.’

I smiled at my friend and reminded him that my neighbours were over a mile away. And even if they did visit me — which was unlikely seeing as they hated my guts — they wouldn’t even notice a Christmas tree. Most of the farmhouses around here are so full of mismatched furniture, broken lampstands, and stuffed animals, they look more like Victorian bazaars than places to live in. A Christmas tree, I assured him— even with sparkly coloured lights — wouldn’t raise a single eyebrow. Even in July.

‘Plus they cheer me up,’ I continued. ‘When I turn them on each morning the bright, festive glow makes me feel like it’s Christmas Day. Don’t you ever wish that?’

The way he looked at me indicated he thought I’d been living in rural France too long. But I wasn’t joking. I was deadly serious. I’d always found it rather sad watching my mum and dad ruthlessly pack away all the decorations when Christmas was over. ‘Why not leave them out?’ I used to whine.

‘Because,’ my mother always reminded me. ‘There would be no joy unpacking it all again next year.’

She had a point. But it might have been pleasant to leave a few lights up to combat those winter blues. Which is what I do. And only replace the bulbs when the dog chews one off. Which she does with a rabid hunger from time to time. How she hasn’t electrocuted herself, I’m not sure.

I thrust a bottle of Pelforth beer into my friend’s hand and tried to explain what life was like here. That the favoured attire this season for trips to the local shop was wellington boots, mud-splattered jeans, padded blue gilets, and thick filthy sweaters. In fact, if you made the effort to dress up, you’d probably get robbed.

‘No one here really gives a shit,’ I went on. ‘People drive without seatbelts, drive drunk, shoot dogs, shoot cats. Even shoot themselves when they get really bored — it happened to a guy up the road a few weeks ago. Boom…’

My friend edged towards the door, thinking of returning back to London as soon as possible. ‘It must be like living in the Middle Ages…’ he mumbled as he tried to get a phone signal while I stood there shaking my head, a mischievous grin creeping up the side of my face.

‘You’d be better off sending smoke signals,’ I mocked. ‘Or, if you’re desperate, trekking up the mud-clogged hill and trying from there.’

‘Do you have internet?’ he asked urgently, looking at me as though he was about to throw himself off a cliff. Maybe he’d forgotten to ask me before he booked his ticket if I actually had ‘The Internet’. My friend being one of those people who can’t leave the house unless there are at least a hundred mobile phone satellites pointing directly into his brain.

I feigned surprise for a few seconds just to get his blood pressure really racing. ‘Errr,’ I said. ‘Yeh. Sort of. But it’s unreliable and slow. And sometimes even goes off.’

My friend’s eyes glazed over as the word OFF almost sent him into a coma. In his world, nothing was OFF: TV, Phone, Internet, Laptop, Radio, Coffee Machine. Always ON. Always ready to GO.

‘But most of the time,’ I finally declared. ‘It’s OK.’

He let out a long, drawn-out sigh, as though he’d just found out his mother was going to live after some complicated brain surgery.

Later, over dinner and wine, he asked me why I’d swapped a life of London cafes and bars, for a life of Normandy cows and barns. ‘I find it odd you came here,’ he ventured, gently sipping the pricy Bourgogne I’d bought especially for his visit, to save him drinking the gut-churning stuff I normally drank.

‘Don’t you get bored?’ he asked gravely, as people do when what they mean to say is: I would be bored out of my fucking mind if I lived in this rathole!!

‘Not really,’ I answered. ‘I know I’m not going to be here forever, so I just try and enjoy the moment. Plus the stuff I do, like herd cows down country lanes, is the sort of shit people do on those stupid self-discovery courses. Or corporate away-days, where all those morons try to get closer to themselves.’

My friend reminded me that he was one of those corporate morons, and had actually been on an away-day, abseiling down the side of a 50-storey building for no reason whatsoever.

‘And did you enjoy it?’ I quizzed him.

‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘But I wouldn’t want to do it every day; I’m scared of heights for one.’

After my friend had gone back to the capital, I thought about taking the lights down from the tree. Some deep-buried guilt ordering me to conform to some absurd custom I didn’t like. Maybe it was because my parents were coming in a few weeks time, and I was nervous about what they would say.

‘Shit Philip! You’ve still got your Christmas lights up! We took our decorations down weeks ago.’

‘Yes Mum, I know…’

And so I would have to go through the whole conversation again. It was draining enough explaining it to my friend. To my parents, it would be like trying to find a pulse in a corpse.

So what do I do? Lights off, or on?

Difficult decision.

Luckily, I’ve got three weeks to decide. And if you want to find out what happened, you can reread this in about mid-February. You’ll know the outcome because I’ll have changed the title.

Why I Keep My Christmas Tree Lights On All Year Round — Except When My Parents Visit


(Photo by Rodolfo Marques on Unsplash)

My Novel Le Glitch is out now here
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Feature

Still off the Pills — Why I Haven’t Gone Back to Social Media

A few years ago I wrote a piece called Why I Canned Social Media. This is a follow-up piece – Like one of those What are they doing now? programmes you get on crappy daytime TV.

So how am I doing? Well, I’ve probably lost most of my friends and I don’t get invited out anymore. But apart from that, I’m fine.

To be honest though, most weren’t my friends anyway. They were just people I said YES to when a friend invite came up on Facebook. Luckily, I have my real friends, many of whom, I’ve developed a better relationship with since leaving social media, simply by using email. Or even seeing them in person. Remember that?

I’m also better humoured than I was before. And I laugh more. Especially when I read about 24-hour social media strikes. That gets me laughing! People protesting because they don’t like something Facebook or Twitter are doing, so they don’t use it for a day. Only to rush back the next to see how many LIKES they’ve got for advertising the fact they were going on a social media strike in the first place.

It’s nuts! It’s like boycotting a supermarket. But for one day only. And on the day you wouldn’t do your shopping anyway — like a Tuesday. I mean, if you’ve got a gripe about Facebook, why don’t you just delete it?

I sound like an ex-smoker haranguing smokers to stop smoking. And I know how utterly tedious it is, because I used to smoke, and hated people telling me to stop. I stopped purely for health reasons. Twenty years on the cigs hadn’t done my lungs any good, so I made the decision. And even though I still miss smoking nearly seven years on, I don’t regret leaving social media one bit. In fact, it’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done. For one, I’ve got more time, and secondly, I don’t get that horrible sense of dread of wondering whether I’ve said the wrong thing. Or offended someone.

I’m quite a sensitive person, and sensitive people should not use social media. If you’re bullish and don’t give a shit about anything, fire away, comment like crazy, LIKE people’s lunch for eternity. But not if you are a fragile soul like myself. You’re just going to do yourself an injury.

The main reason I left Facebook was that I had the audacity to criticise my school (it was an old fashioned boarding school). I wrote a piece on my blog about bullying and advertised my thoughts. God! The vitriol I received from people I thought were my ‘friends’ was terrible. Sullying the good name of the school seemed to be the common thread. Being ungrateful, another. Being spoilt, another one. It was insane. Who defends a school? I mean, if what I was saying was a total lie, that might be fair enough. But this was the truth, and yet they couldn’t handle it.

I couldn’t handle it either. So I left Facebook. And I feel so much better now. And even the small things I miss on it, are far outweighed by not having to be conscious of what people might think, or might be saying about me. Not that it should matter. But if it does, and you are vulnerable, I really would advise deleting it.

I guarantee it, you’ll feel better. That’s a promise.

Of course, I still use the internet — I’m using it now — but I like to try and use it in a way that fits in with my personality: Unintrusive and quiet. Even the thought of that stupid red symbol Facebook has when you’ve got a like or a reply, makes me shiver. I don’t even have a Smartphone for the same reason. I don’t want to be connected 24/7. (I even wrote a piece about that too called Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone)

I’ve often thought of canning the whole internet thing. It’s very difficult to escape. But not impossible. To have nothing. No email. No bank. No online tax return. All possible, people do it all the time believe it or not. You just don’t read about it.

It’s a funny world we live in. And I’m thinking there might be two types of humans evolving side by side. The connected and the unconnected. Two sub-species of humankind, who don’t speak or communicate with each other, and who are totally oblivious to one another’s existence. Which is exactly how I feel when I enter a public place these days. You’ve only got to go into any bar, cafe, restaurant, town centre, shopping arcade, to see that most people are on their phones. Doing what? I’m not sure. I guess they are on social media or looking at the football, or the news. I mean what else would they be doing? Reading a book? Possibly. But unlikely.

In truth, I’m not sure what will happen, or where it will all go. We might just split into two species after all. One with a hand. The other with a phone.

(Photo by Marc Schaefer on Unsplash)

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Feature, UK

Why I Can’t Talk About Money (Ever!)

(Image/Josh Appel/Unsplash)
During my early thirties, I made the stupid mistake of completing a Masters degree in Creative Writing. I thought I was doing myself a favour, instead I just got into debt.

After I’d finished, I started writing small ads for a local newspaper in Bristol while the bills mounted up. I occasionally changed jobs, but my wages couldn’t keep up with the payments, so I filed for bankruptcy. Then my father found out.

‘Why didn’t you ask?’ he inquired. ‘I could have helped.’ He wasn’t rich, but generous enough to help out when someone in the family needed it.

‘Because I can’t talk about money, Dad.’

Still can’t.

Only last week during a job interview, I couldn’t get round to talking about money. And because my prospective boss didn’t mention it either, the matter seemed closed.

When I got back home and my wife asked me about wages, I just stood there like a dummy. ‘I don’t know,’ I mumbled. ‘I didn’t ask. The minimum I guess.’

This wasn’t the first time. Years ago, I’d worked for a guy selling Christmas trees. And yet three weeks into the job, I still didn’t know how much I was getting paid for standing around in a freezing cold car park selling half-dead conifers.

As time passed, I became more terrified. Each morning I wanted to ask, but as soon as I saw him thumping about the yard like a bulldog with his equally terrifying son, the fear overtook me, and I got on with the job.

I mean, who does this? What loser works for three weeks without knowing how much he’s getting paid? True, my boss was a fierce bastard you wouldn’t want to be up against in a bar brawl — unless you wanted your arms and legs broken. But was I always going to be the coward hiding under the table?

By the time Christmas Eve rolled around (it’s amazing the number of trees sold on the 24th), I still hadn’t asked, and the matter was only resolved when he palmed me a nice roll of twenties. ‘Bet you thought I wasn’t going to pay you, eh?’ he ribbed me.

‘Ha! Not at all,’ I laughed it off, practically fainting from exhaustion and mental fatigue.

When I recovered and started looking for another job after New Year, I vowed never to let the same situation happen again. And yet here I was, almost ten years later, doing exactly the same thing. Attaching no more worth to myself than a man walking up the thirteen steps to the gallows. Even killers had a price on their head — I didn’t even have that.

I had to fix this situation. The thought of starting another job with this kind of uncertainty would kill me — I may as well start knotting the noose myself. Which was why I was standing outside my new employer’s office the following morning knocking on his door.

‘Come in,’ came his reply.

I waited a few seconds, then walked in. He was at his desk, looking straight at me as though he’d been waiting for me all night. I hadn’t slept a wink either due to the worry, so I told him why I was here.

My boss eyeballed me. ‘I’m sorry, didn’t I mention it? It’s the minimum hourly rate. Is that OK?’

I was about to say, ‘That’s fine.’ When a thought opened up in my mind. Was I meant to wrangle here? Was this what normal people did? Negotiate?

On the few occasions I’d bought something at a private sale, the vendors had always looked shocked when I’d paid the asking price. I once bought a van for 900 quid. It was a total wreck. I knew it, the seller knew it, everyone in the entire world knew it. But I paid the owner anyway. Four months later, I sold it for scrap.

‘Could we go for twelve?’ I asked my boss. I was sweating now, this was new territory for me.

‘I could do ten fifty,’ he proposed.

I breathed in. ‘Eleven.’

The boss paused, then shrugged, then pretended to look at some data or chart on his desk, which I saw was actually a blank sheet of paper. ‘OK. Fair enough. See you Monday.’

As I walked home, I felt elated, my pride restored. For once I wasn’t walking into a job with a rope around my neck. And even though I’d only negotiated £1 more, it felt like a million. As though all my numbers had come in at once. I’d overcome something big. Some error in my programming that I’d been carrying around with me for years, had been miraculously rectified. Just like that. Just by being bold.

I’d even enjoyed it and was secretly looking forward to the next interview. Which, if my past job record was anything to go by, wouldn’t be too far away. What would I say? Something like this perhaps:

‘Hi, thanks for inviting me in for the interview. Look, I don’t want to be rude, but before we start, can we please talk about money.’


My novel Le Glitch - a story about getting lost - is out now! Click here for details

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Feature, Normandy

The Dead Art of Letter Writing

Last Saturday while reading What am I doing here by Bruce Chatwin in the bath, I was struck by the thought: When was the last time I wrote a letter?

When I lived and worked on a farm in Provence in 1994, I had no phone, no radio, no TV, and of course no internet. Only a guitar, cigarettes, wine, and a cat, whose name I can’t remember (Pascal, perhaps), to entertain me. I used to write regularly to my parents and my friends, and always looked forward to receiving a letter back. It was an incredible event.

I remember the yellow La Poste van rolling slowly up the rutted driveway at about ten-thirty in the morning to deliver the mail to the farm’s owner and some of the other workers who lived there. About once a week (strangely it was always on a Saturday) there would be a letter for me. Either a brown manila envelope from my father, posted from his office, or small, cheaply-made white envelopes from my friends.

I used to save it until the evening and open the envelope under the ancient olive tree in the yard, reading it many times over. Laugh and reminisce and sometimes want to be back in Nottingham with my friends going out on the town, drinking and meeting girls.

Then I would go into the cavernous kitchen of the farm to cook some strange Anglo-French concoction — normally a steak sandwich with brown sauce — and settle down to my reply. Sometimes writing five or six sides of A4 about my life on the farm or things I was looking forward to on returning to England. I would then address it and get excited about posting it in the village on the Monday, which I went to anyway to buy cigarettes.

Now I think about it, it wasn’t really the news or the puerile banter in the letter that counted, but the process of sending the letter. The writing of it, addressing it, sticking on the stamp, walking to the post office in the village. The routine was far greater than what I had to say to my friends— I could have drawn doodles for all I cared. True, I may not have got many replies, except for, ‘Are you OK out there?’ But the ritual of traipsing down to the post office to converse in my mangled French with the postmistress once a week was priceless.

For my brother and sister, who are fifteen years younger than me, the idea of communicating by letter with their friends, is utterly ludicrous. They’ve never done it; there’s never been the necessity. So why would they?

By the time they reached the age of nineteen (the age I was in Provence), the internet and the smartphone ruled, and letter writing became something their parents did — or their older brother. The very time-consuming process of writing on real paper, addressing it and walking down to the post office belongs, in their minds, to the Middle Ages.

The only exception I guess is the Christmas card. But rarely do these contain any pearls of wisdom except a photo of a robin and Happy Christmas scrawled inside. Love Bob and June xxx

When I did return to England after my adventures in Provence, email, texts, and mobile phones were much more in abundance, and I never really experienced that joy again. I wrote letters, but the frequency decreased until one day I must have written my last letter.

And that’s what I was thinking about in the bath last Saturday. When was this? When did I write a letter addressed to a person I know? To be honest I have no idea. Bar job applications, paying bills, or sending documents out, it must be twenty years since I wrote a personal letter. And I miss it.

And brings me back to a topic that floats around my head most days. Has technology made life better?

I can actually make a good comparison here. Because as it happens, I’m living on a farm in France right now. Alas, not in Provence, but in rainy Normandy. But I’m still on a remote farm, and if I was here in 1994, things I guess would be very similar.

Except now I’ve got the internet, TV, films, and two mobile SIM cards (although I haven’t got a Smartphone). True, the reception and internet reliability isn’t great, but I can still phone, write and converse with people pretty much instantaneously

A yellow La Poste van still comes up the lane a few times a week (not the same one obviously), but it isn’t carrying handwritten letters anymore. Oh no, today the postman’s arms are filled with supermarket advertisements, bills and Amazon parcels. There are no badly scrawled letters from my friends giving me the latest news and gossip. No firm instructions from my father to keep working hard and keep learning French. Now it’s just photos of people’s lunch on Facebook.

I blame myself though. I could write a letter, and I often ask myself, why don’t I? But it would feel strange, wouldn’t it? People might actually think I’ve gone crazy (again).

They might ask: ‘Philip? Why are you writing letters? Haven’t you heard of the internet?’

‘Yes, I have,’ I would fiercely reply. ‘That’s why I’m writing you a letter.’

I’m 45 now and a long time has passed since those letter-writing days of Provence — pre-email, pre-mobile phone, pre-social media. Sitting under the olive tree in the sunshine looking at the ants crawl over the baked ground reading letters from my friends. Now I just get an annoying beep to read someone is going to the movies or a new restaurant. Great, I think! Why don’t you tell me about it in a letter, it might be more interesting?

Le Glitch by Philip Ogley is out now. Click here
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