April 2017

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It’s the cruellest month, you know?

I do sort of get the first line of the poem though: the onset of all things good puts all your misery and pain in stark relief. Or something along those lines. Although relief is probably a poor choice of word. Nevertheless, no matter what crap I’m currently having to deal with, a bit of sunshine and colour lifts me more than I can begin to explain.

I’m not going to talk about the weather.

My turning over a new leaf, getting fit and focusing on what matters most has got off to some sort of start. A major success has been that the running shoes are not only out but have put in a respectable number of kilometres. Settling down and editing my last completed novel hasn’t been quite so successful. I was concerned about distraction and since then have started two new projects. That wasn’t the plan. Nevertheless, the new projects are closely linked with the subject of my novel: alienation from society and homelessness. As I went about my daily twenty minute walk from where I park to where I work, I reflected on this. Maybe the new stuff isn’t a distraction but more of a continuation. Maybe it’s the same piece of work. Maybe I’m writing around the subject and giving myself a deeper understanding of it.

Procrastination works, folks!

Google Birthday This threw me for a second. I logged on at work and was presented with this happy little gif. My smile faded as it occurred to me that my computer knows more about me than most of the people I work with. All that talk recently of being snooped upon by governments and corporations and how someone can steal your babies and all your money simply by hacking into your toaster. I know it sold a few Daily Mails and Expresses but I presumed that most people with half a brain dismissed it for the utter tosh that it is. And there I was, looking over my shoulder.

By the time I’d got a few milligrams of Taylor’s caffeine in my system I remembered that my first job when I get into work is to log into my personal email – Gmail. Mystery solved. I might write the odd crime novel but it occurs to me that perhaps I should leave the whodunits to those who are probably more qualified. Maybe it’s my age?

It does raise the issue privacy though. Not something I think about a lot. As a writer, I am constantly exposing and revealing my thoughts and feelings and political leanings, whether I mean to or not. My social media sites are all pretty much open to anyone who wants to take a peek. I find it easier to assume that everything I type is public. Not all my friends do though. I have seen things written on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc. that I know is not intended to be public knowledge. The whole ‘who you share with’ and ‘what their settings are’ is just too complicated to nail down (unless you’re prepared to put in the time and effort, which I’m not). And we are all aware of instances where people have been pilloried in the press for their views or even found themselves on the wrong side of the law. We all have the ability to publish now but very few of us have even an inkling what should and should not be put out there. Posting racist, threatening, libel comments on Facebook are simply not the same as slurring some alcohol-induced drivel to your mate in The Queen’s Head. Not that I ever do that – I do it in the tennis club.

And thinking about all that nonsense got me onto the idea of misinformation and fake news. Fake news seems to be in the news quite a lot just lately (or does it?). Everyone’s going on about how we can’t trust what we’re told by politicians and we can’t trust what we read in the press or what we see and hear on TV and radio. And people are banging on about all this as though it’s something new. But it’s not, is it?

Think back over the years: Pregnant women were encouraged to drink alcohol and smoke, the belief in the four humors, phrenology, the eye beam, flat earth, the fake moon landing, the Piltdown man…

It goes on and on. And then there is similar political nonsense such as unions are bad for business (take a look at the German system where unions are respected by all), the number of wars that we have been fooled into supporting. Weapons of Mass Destruction jog any memories? Hitler’s vile assertion that Jews ritually killed Christian children and used their blood in the making of unleavened bread for Passover. It occurs to me that we are in the process of being subjected, once again, to a version of Hitler’s ‘Big Lie’. The idea that the bigger the lie, as long as it is repeated often enough, people will begin to believe in it. Here in Britain (and it seems in America, too) we are slowly being manipulated into a common hatred for ‘the other’.

At the risk of offending, the result of last June’s referendum appeared to be swayed by the insistence that foreigners are the cause of all our ills. I’ve met many people who insist that leaving the EU is the only way to beat ISIS. You couldn’t make it up, could you? And the idea that someone from a foreign country with no English can take your job away from you is a pretty foolish thing to believe, unless you suffer from seriously low self-esteem. We are being told, constantly, by our ultra right-wing press that we are in danger of being completely swamped by Johnny Foreigner. A few years ago I would have insisted that we are now too educated, too informed, too sophisticated to be victims of mass hysterical manipulation. No one is more surprised than me.

I don’t really think fake news is a new thing at all. I think it’s a bit like child abuse, we’ve only just noticed it. But what does puzzle me is, the people who have consistently benefitted from fake news, the establishment for want of a better phrase, were the people who drew our attention to it in the first place. Maybe they’re not as bright as they think.

See you in May.

 

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March 2017

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It’s all about motivation this month. Or rather, the lack of it. Hard to put your finger on what drives activity but, once the momentum begins to flag, there’s only one way to go:

Down.

But that’s not where it has to end. The winter months have a negative effect on me and I know I’ve moaned about it on here to the point of monotony. However, I’m bright enough to know that it’s more down to what’s going on in my head than the actual weather. I have to deal with that, which is why I took a trip to Mars (Photo above as proof). When things aren’t going too well the pot needs stirring. A change of scenery, a new task, a good long run (I’m still working on that one). Distractions take your mind away from the all too familiar set of problems that you are currently wrestling with but, at some point, they have to be faced.

A completed novel that’s gone through an MA that I’m still not happy with. It’s like Pooh’s cloud that follows him around. And a new novel, several chapters written, characters that buzz, a story that excites me and a theme that I’m passionate about. So, why can’t I get on with that either? It’s at times like this that I think maybe starting another project is the right answer. But that’s not true. What is required is fresh eyes to look at old shit.

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As well as not writing enough I also (as I mentioned above) am not doing enough exercise. As a result, I am much bigger and heavier than I am happy with. There is only one solution: exercise and diet. I’ve started cutting down on excessive food intake (much easier with the sun shining) and the running will follow. It has to. In the meantime, a change of perspective. Look at yourself in a different light. I’ve done that and quite like the result. All I have to do now is don my trusty trainers and make the illusion a reality. How hard can that be?

Other writers are brilliant for motivation. Chatting to fellow Alumni make me want to break open the laptop and start typing. Listening to a successful writer (no, I am not about to define what one of those is) can have the same effect. I spent an hour and a half, with about twenty other people, in the company of A. L. Kennedy. From the moment she said, ‘Of course, my real name’s Alison.’ I knew I was going to be inspired. Someone who, in my eyes at least, is of huge stature in the writing world took the time to show us just how normal she was and just how pissed off she was at all the niggling little ball-aching problems associated with making shit up in your head and transferring it to paper. We were all as one for that ninety minutes. There was absolutely no excuse to not go home and immediately write something amazing.

One of the main things that many of us noticed with our new friend, Alison, was the level of energy that seemed to flow through and out of her. It was like she’d been fitted with new batteries. And it’s easy to think, ‘Oh, I wish I could be like that.’ But the only reason that she and many other people seem to exude that vitality is that they are fully engaged. Fully and absolutely engaged in what they’re doing and what they’re talking about. And, of course, success can give you that energy but it’s not the only way to acquire it. On the many occasions when I read out short pieces to an audience I have always walked off the stage wondering why the hell I don’t do that every day.

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So, that’s the answer, I guess: get off your arse and get some work done. The downward spiral is always there and is always the easiest route (it being downward!) and hauling yourself upright and getting on with the important shit might take a little bit of effort but, in the long term, will make you feel so much better. Lethargy breeds tiredness, activity breeds energy. There’s no doubt about that. There is no finer feeling that sitting on the bed relaxing with a nice cup of tea after a five mile run. Not only have you earned the rest but you can wallow in the feeling of being utterly noble. And now here’s a couple of cocktails to cheer everyone up.

So, where did I put those trainers?

February 2017

The second of the darkest months. I usually start to get fed up around November, knowing that light will be leaving us for some time (god knows how they manage in the proper north) and I always feel as though a corner has turned once we hit new year. I forget that the next two months can be the hardest. But we’ve been lucky. Grey and miserable, maybe, and damp, but none of that white stuff. And now we’ve hit February, I know everything will slowly get better. Especially now I’ve spotted these little beauties:

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There’s something about them, isn’t there? The photograph was taken at an auction room in Gloucester on the last day of January. It was raining, a little cold, we were trying to kill time and feeling quite sorry for ourselves when, there they were. I got a great shot of a tree-full of white doves, too, but that’s out of focus so they are unlikely to make an appearance unless I start blogging while drunk. Maybe not a bad idea…

I’ve never really spent much time in Gloucester. There were four of us and we wanted to make it a memorable visit.

That’s where I came across this: one of those writing prompts that you so often see online suggesting that it might be something that will inspire you to write your first masterpiece.

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I just thought it said more about Gloucester night life than providing literary musings. It did strike me as odd though. Perhaps it should be shown in context:

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I mean, why would someone leave it there? It’s not even a pair. And it does seem somehow to have been ‘placed’. I thought about jumping down and moving it onto the paler boards where it would have looked a lot more striking but then I was already quite a way behind my friends. Then, as I stood staring at it, I was suddenly and inexplicably reminded of Theresa May and my day was ruined. Unless she’d stood there, toppled and fallen into the canal, leaving just one sad shoe to remind us of her, I couldn’t think of a way to cheer myself up. So I ran after my friends, said nothing about my new, emerging fetish and followed them into a pub. Political misery was temporarily avoided.

We trudged on to Gloucester cathedral which blew us away. None of us hold any strong religious views but me and my best mate are drawn to churches wherever we are in the world. There’s something about them: the grandeur perhaps or the silence or the atmosphere. I can’t put my finger on it. Gloucester cathedral did not disappoint.

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There was building work going on outside and archeologists were taking advantage of the opportunity to sift, photograph and record lots of stuff beneath an area that they would have struggled to get permission to access. I have a secret desire (not so secret now) to get involved with archeology but I can imagine how time consuming it would be. No idea where I picked up the bug; maybe time-team but certainly not from Tony Robinson. I only liked it when the experts told you stuff. I found his prancing about mildly irritating. The price you pay for getting a decent programme on the TV I guess.

Inside was another surprise: the cloisters (famous for their earliest vaulted ceiling and the filming of two Harry Potter films) were jammed with art. All from one guy: Russell Haines. The subject of the pieces was faith. Each picture was a portrait of a different person from all the faiths of the world. The paintings were staggering. I didn’t take any photos but some can be seen on his website Russell Haines and I can’t recommend a visit more highly. We were ready to go back to our cottage and thought we’d take a quick look. We were there for ages. A staggering volume of work and about as moving as you can get. Especially in this time of intolerance and nationalistic fuckery that we’re currently witnessing.

Having been told that a visit to Gloucester isn’t worth the effort, I’m very glad that we made it. See you in March.

January 2016

Yes, January 2016.

No, there isn’t one missing. The last Blog was November.

So, what happened to December?

November – November happened to December. Or rather, November happened so December didn’t. It had been a bad year on many levels but November topped it off. Or rather, Trump topped it off. In fact, I’m officially blaming him for my not achieving NaNoWriMo. Okay, I admit, it wasn’t going that well but November 9th just sucked all the joy out of me. It snowed in Sheffield on that morning which made it feel as though we’d woken to a nuclear winter. Everything I wrote, for days, descended into vitriol. I suppose I could have used it as part of my word count but that’s not really how it’s supposed to work, is it? It all resides in a folder in my Documents entitled Bile & Anger. And that folder was pretty full already.

I will hold my own NaNoWriMo at a later date. And, in all honesty, the Mo might well be plural.

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So, here’s a rather satisfying view of my old bin. I always think that, when times are challenging, it’s best to surround yourself with familiar and comfortable objects. I would have used a picture of a glass of gin and tonic in the sunshine but I couldn’t find one. I’m sure there is one somewhere. Maybe for  a different month. Anyway, onward and upwards.

We should have known something was amiss when we lost Bowie in January. I know how ridiculous that sounds but it had a real sense of unreality to it. By the end of June there could be no doubt that we were in a downward spiral. Britain’s vote to Exit the European Union. (I refuse to use the ridiculous portmanteau that our stupid media forced on us.) Now, I don’t intend arguing the point one way or another here, though I have to hold up by hand as one who voted to remain. But… and it’s a big but, months before, when we knew it was going to happen, I couldn’t figure out quite why the general population would be given a say in something so complex and so entwined in… well, in everything. I’m of average intelligence but there was no way on earth that I could ever understand the pros and cons of the situation. They must have a plan, I thought.

And I guess they did. But it didn’t work. For a start, the most unpopular prime minister since Maggie was leading the remain side and a bunch of Muppets were leading the Leave campaign. I can see why Dodgy Dave was so stupidly confident. He didn’t think for a minute that the population would believe the most elite of all elite members of our society. But he was wrong. He fucked it up. He tried to save his own skin, blindly confident in his own beliefs, and he fucked it up.

I still don’t know if staying in would have been economically better than leaving and I suspect that no-one does even now. But what I do know is that the vast majority of people I’ve met who voted to leave did so because they don’t like brown people. Sad but true. And the brown people don’t even come from Europe.

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This is one of the nicest meetings I’ve had this year. Apparently, this little feller is unwelcome in the land he lives. There are signs everywhere warning people not to feed him or his kind with threats of fines and whippings. I watched him for quite a while and he was just going about his business, trying to live his life. He isn’t there to hurt anyone. He has no hidden agenda. And he made quite a pleasing little squeaking sound as he jumped from rock to rock. As far as I’m concerned, he’s very welcome. But then I’m a liberal leftie, so I would, wouldn’t I?

And then there was Trump. I’ve heard it said that the very same mechanism that delivered the leave vote also delivered the Trump win. People voting against the system. And I get that: voting against the system. I’m all for anarchy. But these twats are the system. Trump (named after a fart) and Farage (named after the stinking, insignificant sludge found at the bottom of a wheelie bin or an alternate spelling for the Malaysian word for vagina, faraj). Voting for these isn’t voting against the system, it’s voting for it, they couldn’t be more elitist.

Someone on the radio summed up the protest vote quite nicely. I can’t remember who it was so can’t credit them. If it comes to me then I’ll edit this. It wasn’t me. But they said, ‘Who, in their right mind, protests the rising petrol prices by divorcing their wife?’

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Here’s a door that probably leads somewhere. I found it on a walk and I could have just bust my way in and dealt with whatever horror lay on the other side. I didn’t do that though. Call me unadventurous if you like but I prefer to stick with what I know unless the alternative is completely and utterly and overwhelmingly seductive. Or maybe if I’m drunk, or have taken the wrong drugs, or maybe if I completely lose my mind.

The deaths keep piling up. Someone tried to convince me that 2016 hasn’t been extraordinary as regards significant deaths (as opposed to insignificant deaths; those little fuckers are just irritating, aren’t they?) but I don’t buy it. The latest few: Carl Palmer; George Michael; Carrie Fisher; Liz Smith; Rick Parfitt… it adds up to a year that seems to have lost a great deal of our past, our childhood. And I know that many people find the mourning of celebrity death somewhat distasteful but I think my reference to our past stands as good reason to be sad. Palmer and Parfitt and Lemmy are very much a part of my childhood, as Bowie was part of my adolescence and Prince marked my steps into adult life. Each of these people have an individual memory attached to them that is precious to me and other people have similar experiences. No-one has the right to undermine that, regardless of how qualified in cynicism they are.

Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Caroline Ahern, Victoria Wood, Ali… they are people who have been around us for years. I get that there are people all over the world that are suffering and deserve our sympathy more but that’s missing the point: we’re not feeling sorry, per se, for the victims, we’re feeling sorry for ourselves (something my nan always told me I shouldn’t do but hey ho). So, in a sense, there is an insignificance to their deaths in as much as our lives are not changed by them. But it’s like losing a favourite book or old vinyl album. Sure, you can download another and listen to it fresh but, you know? There is something comforting in the knowledge that familiar things are still out there, still around us. And these guys are not around us anymore. They’re on tape or DVD or CD or hard-drive or flash-drive but they’re no longer physically out there. And that’s why we miss them. We miss our loved ones, though we still have pictures of them. And, unless your family is significantly different to most families I know, some of our so-called loved ones will be missed far less than our heroes.

November was a month that started with huge disappointment and ended with personal tragedy (which I’m not going into on here) and I was hoping that December would see an improvement. Well, that hasn’t been the case so, I guess we’re going to have to rely on that tired old cliche of January being a fresh start. That always works, doesn’t it?

Happy New Year Everyone.

Let’s stay positive.

November

 

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Do you know what? I’m so bogged down with editing my last novel and struggling with where to go with my new one that I just might give this a whirl. 50k words in thirty days is the target, which isn’t quite a novel but I suppose it’s close. If I do take the plunge then it will be seventy thousand for me. That’s two thousand three hundred and thirty three words a day, two thousand three hundred and forty three on the last day to make it a nice round figure. Not impossible, but damned hard.

The main problem would be that I would still want to work on my other two. That means that it has to be a simple but firm idea. I think I know how to go about that. It’s been a while since Frank Vine was on a clean page.

 

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On a different note: I often get asked about earning a living through writing, as though that was some kind of measure of quality. Avoiding bitterness, it really isn’t (Listen to Kanye West’s version of Bohemian Rhapsody). However, it is necessary to do something to earn a crust and we all have different methods. I tend to drift from one unsuitable job to another, earning less than is practical in each case. I guess it’s the Welsh Gypsy in me.

There is a point to this: My son was recently asked, ‘What are you aiming to do with your life then?’ He was stumped. He has a similar work ethic to me: avoid at all costs. But it made us talk about the issue. And I realised that the conversation that used to take place when I was young no longer applies. What do you want to be when you grow up? We all had an idea but now, well, there just aren’t any jobs that would be for life other than the obvious ones: doctor, solicitor, fireman, policeman, paramedic etc. Most jobs now are short hours and often casual with no real contract. Or even worse, a zero hours contract.

It worries me. The loss of stable work for young people gives them no realistic vision of their future. What should they be aiming at? As a young telephone engineer I could work my way up to a Technical Officer, the highest engineering rank before management. What do our young people do now for ambition? They can’t all win X Factor. It will continue to worry me.

Out of my four kids, three have what I suppose would be considered proper jobs: postman, biomedical scientist & CNC Machinist. It is my youngest with whom  I had the conversation. He suffers a creative bent. You can’t even get tablets for it. Nevertheless, he already has many musical performances and theatre performances in the bag. No money but plenty of kudos. I think this is a completely valid way to conduct yourself nowadays. Why stock shelves for forty years? It makes no sense. And we all end up as a pile of dust in a plastic bottle at the end of it all so let’s enjoy ourselves while we’re here.

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Hope you like the seasonal photos. This last one shows where my youngest gets his creativity from. It’s a picture of a cake his mum made last November. All sugar, all edible. Astonishing. She has a proper job, too.

October

I’m not going to moan. I’m not. I promise.

October is the month for Sheffield’s Literary Festival – Off The Shelf, and my writing group will be launching its twenty sixth…

I’m going to say that again… twenty sixth – Anthology.

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It would appear, going by the cover of this year’s programme, that Off The Shelf is in its twenty fifth year. So, almost as old as our Anthology. (I’m assuming that Off The Shelf won’t object to me using their graphic as I am promoting their event)

Our launch will be on Monday 10th October at The Lescar on Sharrowvale Road. Members of the group will read out some of their work and we will be joined by our special guest: Gavin Extence (The Universe versus Alex  Woods; The Mirror World of Melody Black and his new book: The Empathy Problem) It should be a good night. £3 entrance fee which includes a free Anthology. The evening starts at 7.30 and we aim to be away by 9.30. That doesn’t always happen though but The Lescar is a very nice pub so it’s not a terrible sacrifice to stay longer.

I have to produce something to read out at the event. This is always a problem as I write novels. As such, I really could do with more than the three or four minutes that are allocated. However, restriction feeds the creative process (try writing a story in fifty words – a great exercise), so I  will be needing something new. I will heed the recent advice of my friend Conor O’Callaghan and ‘keep it spooky’. October is definitely the month for getting spooky as the dark nights draw in and Halloween approaches…

That’s it, I need some light relief.

I was here only three weeks ago.

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There, that’s much better. I can feel the sun on my face and the beer in my belly.

I’ll try not to digress again.

So, spooky. Where was I? Oh, yes! So, it needs to be short and, by their nature, spooky stories really need a bit of time to build. There’s a problem right there. But I have a solution. Or at least I think I do.

There was a short event in my past that was instantly spooky. I was walking up a lane in Derbyshire, away from a relatively well-off, large housing area. In the distance, I could see a family walking down towards me. Mum, dad and young son. As they approached I noticed that they were rather old-fashioned in the way they dressed. Sort of fifties-ish. The boy wore knee-length grey shorts, a knitted jumper and a cap. In addition, as we were about to meet, I realised that the child bore a striking resemblance to myself in the early sixties (when I would be five or six, the same age as the boy approaching). The gap slowly closed and the boy stared at my face as we passed. A little perplexing.

I continued up the lane, amusing myself with the idea that perhaps the boy was thinking, ‘He looks just like I will in twenty years time.’ After a minute or two I stopped and turned around. No idea why. At the bottom of the lane the family had also stopped and were trying to urge the boy on. He was standing stiff and resolute, facing up the hill, his stare was still locked onto me.

Obviously, it meant nothing. But it did give me a turn and I’ve never forgotten it. And the idea of Doppelgangers is a powerful one. So that’s where I’m going with my very short story. If it works, I’ll post a link to it on here in November.

DSC01476And now…  a seasonal image more in keeping with Halloween and things that go bump in the night. Only it was taken exactly five hours after the picture above.

 

September

Thursday 22nd.

The first day of Autumn.

Bugger.

I know, I know, negative. But I can’t help it. It’s supposed to be all Winnie the Pooh wind and brown leaves and healthy fresh air… but all I envisage is:

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I mean, the kids are all back at school (I still get depressed about that and I’ve been left forty years) and we’re rehearsing for the panto round the tennis club. The conkers are big on the trees and I see a distinct change from the vibrant green leaves to more of a deathly, sallow yellow.

And apart from all that, this year has been utterly shit: Bowie, Prince, Lemmy, Brexit, Trump, Jeremy C Hunt; an increase in racism that seems to match 1936 Berlin levels; mad bastards blowing shit up and shooting kids that are out enjoying themselves.

I’m making myself feel worse.

All I really want is:

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Is that really too much to ask?

A bit of sunshine?

A ray of hope?

Another holiday?

 

I apologise. I’m just going to leave the room for a moment and have a quiet word with myself…

Right, I’ve sorted that. I’ve had a walk in the sun; I’ve read a poem; I’ve bought two books (Red Queen – Christina Henry’s follow up to the amazing ‘Alice’ and Fellside – M. A. Carey’s new novel); I’ve strummed a song on my guitar (Space Odyssey) and I’ve edited a bit of my own drivel. I also talked to two old ladies, a gentleman in a wheelchair and felt fresh air on my skin for an hour. It strikes me that it’s the simple things in life that keep us sane.

So, enough of all that negative bullshit. The fuckwits of this world are not going to affect my mood (although cold weather might just break through my joyfulness). The daily frustrations and petty irritations can kiss my proverbial. The good things in life truly are free (although the books cost me sixteen quid).

And that’s the point of this post really. It’s all about art. Art is what matters. Whether you’re consuming it or making it, you are contributing to the well-being of humanity as a whole. And it makes me very proud to be in a position where I can produce some of this mind nectar for the masses. You don’t have to like what I write but at least it’s a distraction from all that utter nonsense that we are expected to treat as reality out there.

As if to prove my point, I got so engrossed in what I was doing to distract me that I forgot to even post this until three days later. See you all in October.