Category Archives: Phil

Finding my funny bone

Phil: It’s very strange at the moment isn’t it?

Like most people, my mood has been very up and down recently. Every so often a wave of “the fear” comes over me and I’m pretty much useless.

(I will be ignoring any comments Nolan)

I’m worried about people I know becoming ill, or even worse. I worry that I might get ill. I worry about my job. I worry about the future – will there be any sort of economy left after all this? I worry how long it will be before things get back to something approaching normality. I worry that they might not.

Add into this worries about the day to day essentials of life such as buying milk and teabags and it’s not surprising that I’ve been struggling to find the enthusiasm to write anything.

Humans are adaptable though. The longer a situation persists, the more we find ways to work with it and make the best of things.

Panic buying in shops for example. The supermarkets have started to adapt. Shorter hours, desperately recruiting more staff to stack the shelves and deliver goods have removed the “all the shops are empty” story that most of the media have been running with. Heck, I even bought a pack of the rare toilet roll a couple of days ago, and I could have done the same yesterday.

(Yes, I know this makes me an ace hunter-gatherer and all the women looking at this are wondering if they should ignore my gormless photo at the top of this blog, instead forming an orderly queue…)

All being well, we’ll one day look back on these times with nostalgia and remember what we were doing during the great bog roll drought of 2020. I’m sure some rose-tinted spectacles will be donned by some.

However, I’m now finding it easier to write. I still worry, but perhaps not in such a paralysing way. Not so often anyway. The optimist in me looks for the promising news stories the media do their level best to hide in the scaremongering. I’m starting to see some chance to get back to writing stuff in the book, and that stuff being funny.

Fingers are crossed, but legs don’t need to be anymore.

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13 home working tips for newbies

Phil: It seems that thanks to a virus named after a fizzy drink from my childhood, everyone who can is being advised to work from home. As someone who has been doing this for several years, perhaps I can offer some advice.

Everyone at home thinks you aren’t working.

If you share your home with other people, they will be utterly incapable of understanding that you are working, not just messing around on the computer. Requests to help, chats, suggestions of nipping out to a pub/garden centre/shop will be pretty much continuous and when turned down, resulting in a bit of a huff. After all, you’re at home, not work aren’t you?

Set up an office.

Pick a space and mark it out like a tomcat peeing on its territory. I know the adverts show people casually using a laptop while sitting on some stone steps in the middle of a busy city but that’s basically b****ks. Those steps are hard and cold. Get a proper chair or a sore backside and piles.

You’re going to generate paperwork and stuff. The same stuff that appears on your desk at work. The paperless office is a myth. Anyway, we all need our favourite pen pot handy. At least you don’t need to write your name on your stapler to stop it being nicked by a colleague.

Become task focussed, not time focussed.

The only way to work is to have a list of jobs. Write a to-do list. I have 3 – long-term, medium-term and short-term. I like crossing things out. I also like keeping them handy for non-work time so I can add stuff and then forget about it until work time.

When do you work best?

I used to think I was a morning person. I’m not. It takes me ages to get going, but after lunch and into the evening, I’m at most productive. If you are task-based, you can work when work works best for you. If that’s 3 o’clock in the morning, go for it. You are weird, but go for it anyway.

Take some breaks

One of the great benefits of home working, you can do other things at the same time. Want to put some washing on? No problem, it only takes a few minutes and provides a handy screen break.

Talking of breaks, all the trades, and most of the home workers top for Radio 2’s Popmaster quiz at 10:30. We all need a bit of a mental workout and what better than trying to name 3 Lloyd Cole hits in 10 seconds while making a cup of tea? Colleagues will probably try to organise conference calls at this time. Refuse those invites, they can take place anytime. It’s only work.

Turn the radio on. Turn the telly off.

I can’t work in silence, I need the radio. Generally Radio 2 (Candice prefers something rockier) but never at lunchtime when radio clickbait host Jeremy Vine fills the air with a phone in full of people that make you despise your fellow humans.

iPods for real concentration.

There is science to say that if you really need to concentrate, listen to music that you’ve heard many times before. It allows your brain to keep focus but lubricates your mental processes. Both members of team NolanParker find iPods ideal if we really need to get things done.

Avoid the news.

At the moment, the media are competing to be more apocalyptic than each other. Forget it. The temptation to dwell for hours on the BBC News website is strong, but it will only make you miserable. If you must look, try to keep it to once an hour.

Social media can be work.

Seriously, some of us have to use social media in our jobs. It’s not ideal as distractions are always present, but it’s part of the job. Maybe do friends stuff on your phone and work stuff on the computer. Or just get some willpower, something harder to find than hand sanitiser at the moment.

Get on the phone.

Working from home can be terribly isolating. Try to arrange phone calls with colleagues. This isn’t wasted time, you’d chat in the office, let yourself spend time doing the same remotely. We have the technology for video conferences and all sorts of ways to stay in touch too. Use it.

Mind you, most people e-mail each other in the office, so things aren’t that different…

Use local shops.

Getting out and about is important. Get to know your local shops so you have a purpose going for a stroll. Since you can’t carry a ton of stuff, there is an excuse to get out several days a week. Who knows, you might even get to meet the rest of the local community!

Set solitaire to easy.

The most popular computer game in the world is Microsoft Solitaire. It’s on your computer and perfect for procrastination or messing around with while on a less than a riveting phone call. Hard-core workers will delete it. The rest of us will play until we win a game – so set the level to “Idiot” so you win nearly every time. Try a harder level and hours will be lost as you decide “One more until I win”.

Bargain Hunt will become a fixture in your day.

Daytime telly. Just don’t. No-one needs the sort of show where Caprice is wheeled out as an expert on the spread of a virus. However, Bargain Hunt is perfectly situated at 12:15, about a quarter of an hour past the point you’ll decide it’s acceptable to eat your lunch.

The trick is to remember that the good stuff happens in the last 20 minutes. You can make something to eat while the contestants are arguing over ugly bits of china and then nosh while they discover how worthless the stuff is at auction.

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Middle England – These aren’t my people

A comedy for our times – The Guardian

Phil: I’m middle-class. I work in magazine publishing. The only manual labour I do involves making model trains. I have been down coal mines, but only at museums. Years ago, I could even follow the plot of The Archers.

It seems I’m not the right sort of middle class though.

Proper middle-class people earn mahoosive amounts of money doing jobs even more pointless than mine. They then spend their lives spending money without any visible means of financial support. Ideally, they will have made a killing in the London property market, sold up and bought a rather nice converted mill to live in somewhere less fashionable. They drink posh wine and eat the sort of nibbles that I’ve read about but would probably ignore in preference to sausage on a stick.

I really wanted to like Middle England. It’s set in the Midlands for a start. There are mentions of places I know like central Birmingham (the library is being built) and Solihull.

Sadly, the characters might occupy the same geography as me, but they live in another world.

Look, our book is set partly in central Solihull. All the characters have jobs. Jobs they do to earn money. We set it there because we didn’t want to set it in London and Solihull is a nice place. Nice enough for Kate anyway. She doesn’t want to jump into the pool that is London. Better be a big fish in a smaller pond than just another in the capital’s shoal. Besides, when she needs to go to the big city, there’s a perfectly good train service with at-seat coffee and WiFi, so she can have the best of both worlds.

Maybe the author lives in a rarified world of London journalists and politicians and so struggles to connect with the rest of us plebs. I’ve long been a fan of the idea that our capital needs to be hived off as a city-state, leaving the rest of us to do things our own way. It’s not that I don’t like London, far from it. It’s just that I know it’s very different from elsewhere, something the inhabitants don’t grasp much of the time.

Anyway, Middle England is supposed to be a satire on the newly formed coalition government (something we also satirise) but it’s not very subtle. A government adviser pops up every so often as a caricature who keeps changing his story without bothering about facts or the truth. I should be right in tune with all of this, yet I didn’t get it.

Talking of story – I couldn’t actually find a plot. There are lots of words, the pages seem slightly more densely printed than normal, but nothing actually happens. I didn’t get the feeling that we were on a journey anywhere. Mind you, I gave up 1/3rd of the way through. Even reading on a train, normally something that gets me into any book didn’t help. All I was left with were characters I didn’t care about.

A pertinent, entertaining study of a nation in crisis – Financial Times

Middle England is the novel about Brexit we need – Daily Telegraph

Insufferably smug – Phil Parker

 

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Evil word counting

Phil: Imagine a world very like the one we live in, but where women have no passports, money of their own, jobs – and are limited to speaking 100 words a day.

That’s how America looks in Christina Dalcher’s novel Vox.

The word limit is enforced by a wristband every female is fitted with at three months of age. Each word spoken is counted and when you reach 101, you receive an electric shock. Keep talking and the shocks become stronger until you “learn your lesson”.

All of this is enforced because of a new brand of “Pure” Christianity that has taken hold. Spreading from the bible-belt, it’s now controlling the White House and everyone else.

As you read, it becomes obvious that people are adjusting to the new normal. Jean McClellan is the main character and we see through her eyes as her sons tell her that according to their lessons at school, a woman’s place is in the home. Chillingly, her daughter wins a prize for not speaking at all. Women haven’t just lost their place in society, they have literally lost their voice.

I found this a scary read. OK, it turns into a thriller towards the end, but the scene-setting is very, very effective.

What makes it especially uncomfortable is that you can see how this sort of thing could happen for real. Vice President of the USA, Mike Pence, won’t eat alone with a woman and has been applauded for this by the religious right. His boss isn’t exactly known for his consideration towards women either.

Don’t think women would all stand up and fight – the rise of the #tradwife movement is sending women back to the 1950s and while they might not be queueing up to wear an electric word-counter, they love the idea that women should stay at home doing what their husband tells them they are allowed to do.

Like all good sci-fi, Vox is a commentary on the present day. It holds up a slightly distorted mirror to our lives and the reflection acts as a warning to things that could happen if we don’t pay attention.

Mind you, I think the Nolan acts as a perfectly effective word counter when we meet, there is a look far more potent than any electric shock that says, “Shut up Phil, and do some work!”

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Killer blurb

When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other..

Phil: When I read this on the back of My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite while browsing the new books shelf of my local library, it did its job, grabbing me enough I wanted to read the story. With three books in my hand, I left it but came back a couple of weeks later and searched for it on the shelves.

Set in Lagos, it tells the story of Korede who keeps having the clean up when her sister murders her latest boyfriend.

As a nurse with a cleaning compulsion, she’s ideally placed to help, but when the sister hooks up with a doctor Korede facies herself, things get complicated. She can’t tell anyone about this except a patient in a coma.

Through the story, we learn some backs-story about the girls’ abusive father and his death (not their fault, but they were present) and this might give an insight into Ayoola’s behaviour. That, and she’s a little princess who’s never heard the word “no”.

The book has won awards, but I wonder if this is down to a metropolitan art crowd being excited by a book set firmly in Nigeria and making good use of the rules and traditions of that country. You are immersed in a way no non-native could ever do and some of the characters’ behaviours are appalling by Western standards. If you think the British class system is bad, the Nigerian one is far worse. It troubled me that the “house girl” never seems to warrant a name, nor any consideration for her constant servitude by the main characters for example.

I’m not sure the story every really gets going despite two deaths and a third close-call. The coma patient wakes up and remembers some of the stuff he has been told, but nothing happens with this.

The premise is really strong, possibly stronger than the book itself. Having said that, the setting fascinated me and I’m tempted to look up many of the foods mentioned. Maybe this is the best part – I was really taken to a new world, and that’s what reading should be about.

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Do you read reviews? I really should.

Phil: I’ve just come back from the Tutankhamun “Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” exhibition in London. I shelled out good money to get in and for my ticket to travel. Sadly, by the end, I was disappointed and felt cheated.

We were promised 150 artefacts, many leaving Egypt for the first and last time. That much is true, but my motivation was to see the iconic golden mask of Tutankhamun – the thing everyone pictures in their mind’s eye when you say the name.

I gazed at many amazing and fascinating objects, gradually nearing the end. Turning in to the last room, I was faced with….a stone statue. An interesting statue with 3000-year-old paint, but not the golden mask.

Querying this with a steward, it became obvious that I’m not the first person to ask. The reply about the mask being “too delicate” to travel from Egypt came out very quickly and with much practice.

Looking back at the booking, I realise the organisers had never said the mask would be there. They had simply used an image of one of the other objects, a miniature version of the coffin used for holding some of the King’s internal organs. It’s beautifully made and from the picture, you wouldn’t know the thing was about a foot tall. I simply saw the picture and assumed, something the Daily Telegraph’s reviewer guessed would happen.

Now, if I’d taken the time to read some reviews beforehand, I’d have realised I wasn’t going to see the mask. On that basis, I’d have given the exhibition a miss.

This makes me think, I’m a bit rubbish at checking this sort of thing out in advance. I don’t generally read book reviews in advance either.

Is this just me?

Maybe authors can stop worrying quite so much about a bad review. Most people have better things to do than research a book in advance – a nice over and slick synopsis on the back probably sells more.

OK, there will be some who pore through reviews, probably looking for the bad ones. A slew of good reviews can’t hurt either, but maybe we can afford to be a bit more relaxed. And maybe, I need to be a little more prepared in future when planning a day out.

 

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The worst Deus ex machina ever?

Deus ex machina: A plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected and seemingly unlikely occurrence, typically so much as to seem contrived.

Phil: I like nerdy reading. I like sci-fi. I like space ships and I love the TV show Thunderbirds. Not for the plots, which are mostly rubbish, but for the models and whizz-bang stuff. The twenty-first century doesn’t look as good as it did when Gerry Anderson designed it!

Anyway, I was browsing in an especially nerdy (even for me) shop and spotted book for a couple of quid.

Thunderbirds Lost World isn’t a novelisation of one of the TV shows. No, it’s a brand new (for 1966 when it was published) novel offering a thrilling tale.

Investing the disappearance of two airliners over New Guinea, Thunderbird One and pilot Scott Tracey find themselves crash landing after his craft is hit by a mysterious invisible force. After some escapades that would be impossible to film with puppets, he is rescued by Thunderbird Two.

Separately, a boffin is planning an expedition to the island. He disappears and Scott heads off to find him. They suspect International Rescue’s arch-enemy, The Hood, might have something to do with it all.

Spoiler Alert.

Anyway, it turns out there is a race of being hidden on the island who are using alien technology to do bad things and are planning to take over the world.

Things look sticky for our heroes – they are trapped in jail with no hope of escape or rescue.

Then there is an earthquake, the jail doors fly open, the baddies disappear and everyone gets away to live happily ever after.

Seriously?

Pretty much an entire novel-worth of buildup, the ground shakes and everything is OK?

How on earth did author John W Jennison get away with this?

I had wondered as the bookmark was nearly at the back and we seemed a long way off a plot resolution, but I didn’t see this coming. Can anyone name a more blatant ending thrown in because the author wanted to go down the pub or was just close to their deadline?

(Nerd note: If you have a copy with a dust jacket, it shows Thunderbird One flying over a dinosaur. There are no dinosaurs in the story.)

 

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