Stuff From Nothing


It’s the Silly Season. Politicians go on holiday so the crap they say that usually take up newspaper pages is lessened and so the newspapers have more blank space to fill.

It must be my Silly Season too.

Normally I have a clear idea, from quite early in the week, what this weekly blog post will be about. I always write it in the days before it appears here. That just seems to work well for me. Usually my mind is clear what I will scribble about and I can then enjoy a couple of days of juggling lines-and-things in my head in prep for the writing of it.

Sometimes, though, it can happen that there is nothing. Nothing in my head that I feel I can do 800-1,000 marginally-engaging words on. That’s when I have to push it a bit. I have to come up with Stuff From Nothing. I’ve done this on previous posts like here and here, if you fancy a look.

Of course, I could throw together a blog post for this week without making up any Stuff From Nothing. I could review a film or a book or two. I could make up a bit of writing advice (emm… Ken, this might be turn out to be that one). I could do any of these things and get by. Sometimes, though, the lure of trying to make Stuff From Nothing is actually quite strong. It’s a lot like me going for a run; I’m afraid that I won’t be able to do it and that I’ll make an idiot of myself but I also reckon I can do it and that it will be good for me.

So, this week, mid-week, I had pretty much given myself licence to have no clue as to what this post would be about.

My mind goes to work then. It starts to look around harder. Something that might have just happened to me, is it funny/interesting? News, Olympics, Weather, Town, Home, Telly, Breakfast, Washing Up, Driving. What is the Velcro thing that will stick to my brain and grow fuzzily in the Agar Jelly there? It’s not even a conscious thing, the mind works away back there behind the work and the shopping, looking to see what sticks.

I can’t tell you all the options I must click through, mostly ‘cos it’s subconscious but, as time passes, there is a growing awareness of this Sunday morning deadline that I always set myself and that adds a little more grist to the mill. As the clock ticks down, the net gets sunk ever-deeper and stranger little fishes get caught in it. 

Anyway, what happened this week is neither earth shattering or, indeed, particularly good. A connection was made, here in my head, and I like connections. When linkage is achieved between two different subjects then, I personally feel, the possibility of creativity is increased. I could be wrong. 

I was in the shower, scrubbing away, and the mind was ticking over. It landed on a nursery rhyme and stopped there… Stopped. ‘Mary had a little lamb…’ Why? Why stop here of all places? What is there to see here?

I like ‘Mary had a little lamb…’ there are some funny variations on the original involving, in no particular order, Tommy Cooper, Lumps of Bread, Bear(s) Behind(s) and, em… Grunting but they’ve all been done to death so why did my Velcro, Agar Jelly brain choose to land here for a moment?

Explore further before you fly off again, brain. Cast around a bit. 

What, I wonder, does ‘Mary had a little lamb’ tell me?  Look at the verse in its entirety. She had a lamb, it followed her around, it even went to school with her. Wait a minute, how long could this have lasted, this ‘Status Quo’ of the ‘Mary had a little lamb’ verse?  It was a lamb, it was cute and white and a great novelty at the school on day one, I have no doubt, but what about day two and day three.  A needy, bleating, shitting little beast in the classroom, how long before the show-and-tell benefits wear off? How long before cuteness becomes a liability?

Barred from school the lamb was tethered in the back yard while Mary got her schooling. Crying and grieving for its imprinted mother, the lamb took to tearing at itself and rolling in all kinds of muck.

And it grew.

Being a Finsheep Ewe lamb, it reached puberty at four months and became adept at slipping its leash, jumping the gate and following Mary into town where she liked to go on Saturdays in order to meet boys. The sight of a fully-grown daggy sheep trailing at her heels made her a figure of ridicule and general social cruelty.  Then the sheep contracted a disease called ‘Orf’ or ‘Scabby Mouth’ which it transferred to Mary, further reducing her social-standing.

One day, seeing the trouble it was causing, Mary’s Dad took the scabby daggy sheep into the back shed and dispatched it quickly with a 12 bore up and under shotgun that he had unwillingly inherited from his paternal grandfather. The episode was over. Returning from town, where her scabby mouth and nibbled hem had done her no favours, Mary was distraught to learn of the fate of Bartholomew (for such was its name). She pined and suffered nightmares where she heard her father in the shed with the sheep. She heard the scream… As soon as she was of age, she moved away from home, got fit, changed her name to Clarice Starling and the rest is history.

End of shower.

So ‘Mary had a little lamb’ is a reflection on the transience of happiness. How every wonderful moment in time must inevitably fester and rot.  Who would have thought it? Not me, not until I forced myself to.

I should also note that this little connection I made, between Mary and Clarrie, is probably not an original one. There are so many minds in the world, thinking about stuff, making connections, that it is truly hard to have an original thought of any kind.  However, I did make the connection myself and that allows me to invest something into it. It is what I do with that thought, that connection, that’s what can make for an original piece of Stuff From Nothing. 

It's okay, I think I already know what next week’s post will be about.

Thankfully. 

Ray’s Brother Johnny


Ray’s Brother Johnny is a Legend
Ray’s Brother Johnny all the way
Ray’s Brother Johnny is as cool as cool can be
As, of course, is Ray

Ray’s Brother Johnny flies a jet plane
Ray’s Brother Johnny drives all day
Ray’s Brother Johnny swims across the English Sea
As, of course, does Ray

The two of them are equal
The two of them are swell
They both are just the best that they can be
And each of them spends all their time
Respecting on the other
With them there ain’t no Sibling Rivalry

Ray’s Brother Johnny plays it heavy
Ray’s Brother Johnny loves to play
Ray’s Brother Johnny is the one we came to see
As, of course, is Ray


Ken Armstrong 2012

It's Not What You Know, It's What You Feel


It was forty three years ago this week that man first set foot on the moon and I was there. Well, I wasn’t ‘there’ there, of course, I was here on Earth watching it on our telly. I probably shouldn’t overstate how hard I was watching it on that telly either. After all, I was only six. 

I do remember the time being entirely focused around the black and white images in the corner of the room and I also remember looking out my bedroom window at the moon and marvelling that men were walking on it as I watched. Although I think that may have been on some subsequent mission.

My point about all this is that Neil said it wrong.

When he stepped out of that lunar module and touched the surface of the moon for the very first time, he had a thing all prepared to say but he said it a little bit wrong. I believe he was meant to say, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”  Which is a pretty good thing to say. Of course, what he actually said was, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” He dropped the ‘a’. It’s understandable, really. It was a high pressure situation, what’s an ‘a’ between friends? Nothing, as far as I am concerned. The boy did great. He is an Armstrong , after all.

What interests me, really, is what happened to that phrase afterwards. Despite being said wrong, despite just effectively saying the same thing twice in the same sentence, it became accepted. It became a truism almost. Something which was right and proper and full of wisdom even though it was said wrong and, as a result didn't really stack up at all.

It’s like that car stunt in Diamonds are Forever, where the red car goes up on two wheels. It seems to make sense but really it doesn’t make any sense at all and the more you look at it, the less sense it makes.

I tend to think the same thing has also happened with one of the most famous pieces of writing advice.

“Write what you know.” This writing advice states. “Write what you know,” and so many people mistakenly try to live their writing lives in accordance with that advice.

I don’t know who said it first. I could probably go and look it up but it’s not the point here. The point is that I think they had some really good writing advice to give but, just like with Neil Armstrong on the Moon, it came out a little bit wrong and it has since been adopted as some kind of senseless gospel.

You see, I don’t think the guy or gal who said this meant to say, “Write what you know.” I think they meant to say, “Write what you feel.” Perhaps they said, “Write what you know you feel,” and it got edited down too much.

I mean, what kind of books would we have if people only ever wrote what they knew?  What kind of films? I went to the shops, I bought the paper, I have a headache, the dog had a shit in the back hall… it wouldn’t be edifying would it.

We can write whatever the hell we want. We’ve proved this time and again. We can write murders without murdering anyone, car chases without crashing anything and sex… (blushes, ‘moves on). 

But here’s the thing.  All these murders and car chases and… (blushes, ‘moves on) don’t mean a thing if you don’t ‘feel’ them. That writing advice – that very good writing advice – is actually telling us to put our feelings into what ever it is we are writing. If it’s a car chase, we might think about how if felt when we banged our head on that kitchen cupboard door that time. We remember that and that’s how it feels when our car crashes and your character’s head slaps the driver’s window. 

It’s like method acting for writers. Write what you know you feel. Use what you feel to make the writing convincing and real. It works. 

And if you know what you feel, then you don’t have to know all the surrounding stuff, you can easily research it or even make it all up and it will probably be just fine.  “Write what you know you feel,” they should have said, “then you could go and write anything.” 

You could go and write a war even though you’ve never been in one. You could go and write a love story in some distant country far away, using the things you know you feel right here.

You could go and write a man stepping gingerly down for the first time onto the grey dusty surface of a Moon.

And you could have him say exactly what you want him to say. 

On Following… and Un-Following


Okay, so this is probably another one of those 'Twitter posts'. But, if you’re not a Twitterer, please don’t go. The points I make here may well serve as a lesson to take forward into your life in general… (they won’t but, still, don’t go, eh?)

Twitter, as many of you know, involves following people and people following you. You choose whether you would like the public tweets of an individual served up into your personal twitter experience and they make similar decisions about you.

As with most things, there is also a converse in effect. Those people who choose to follow, may also choose to unfollow at any given time. As the ‘followee’, you will eventually become aware that they have unfollowed you  and you may or may not develop certain feelings as a result of that knowledge.

That’s the general gist of the situation and it sounds straightforward enough, I think.

However…

There is a lot of ‘stuff’ attached to this. Not so much the ‘following’ part, that’s generally pretty positive. No, it’s the ‘un-following’ that tends to bring down the rain for many people. When someone un-follows someone on twitter, it can cause pain and angst and not-a-little beating-of-breasts. Not all the time, of course, but certainly more often than the uninitiated might expect.

It’s pretty much impossible to generalise effectively about Twitter, although people try to do it all the time. It’s too big, too wide and too diverse to conform to any single set of expectations. So it’s difficult to speak generally about such matters as ‘following’ and ‘un-following. It’s more realistic for me to talk about my own practices, with as much honesty as I can muster. Perhaps, in that exercise, the person seeking a more general truth may find at least some form of insight and, as a side-effect, that person I unfollowed the other day might have less of a hump about it.

So… what is it that I do?

I’ve been messing about on Twitter for quite a number of years now. As a result, I’ve collected a few followers.  It’s not hard, if you hang around for a while and engage with it then some people will tend to stick. At first, I followed everybody back… well, everybody who seemed ‘real’. You get lots of ‘unreal’ twitter followers; ironing board manufacturers, fast food outlets, sheep, clocks, you know the type of thing. Eventually, I was following over a thousand people and I found I had reached a sort of a personal critical-mass, where twitter had become an unwieldy chore and wasn’t any fun any more. I tried cutting back on followers a little and it became fun again. From this, I deduced that my personal well-being, on Twitter, related directly to staying below the ‘following one thousand’ mark.  So that’s what I now do.

At this moment I am following (checks) 993. I am lucky enough to pick up a few new followers on most days. I often lose a few as well but the current trend is generally upwards.  Unfortunately I can’t follow all these good folk back so, what I do is, I follow some and I put the others on a list called ‘not followed’ and I check in on it fairly regularly to see who’s standing out. Those people who I end up talking to quite a bit, I usually follow over time.

Of course, if I’m regularly adding new followers in, and I need to stay below 1,000, then, obviously, I need to be taking some people out too.  Un-following  (dun dun dunnnnnn).  I have culled my virtual 1,000 pretty ruthlessly over the years so there are no bots or commercial accounts in there.  These are all real, breathing, feeling, people and I am about to cut some of them loose.  How can I?

Well first, I look to see which of them has already un-followed me. These are not an automatic unfollow but, if you’re gone and I didn’t really know you that well… well… see ya! Then I look and see who hasn’t been on Twitter in several months. This is a rich source of people to unfollow.  Every month, out of my thousand, there are six or seven who seem to have given up on Twitter. I un-follow them, to keep my number down and make room for new blood.  Sometimes they reappear and I follow them again.  More often they don’t.

But still, after all this, there are still some twitterers who are following me, twittering away, who I just let go. These are the hardest ones. Here are some reasons why I have chosen to unfollow people in the past: tweeting in huge bursts of tweets, filling up my screen with their stuff, constantly telling me where they are - via third party applications such as Foursquare, not really engaging with people, becoming over-enamoured with selling whatever they have suddenly decided to sell, over self-promotion, being over-argumentative., too many so-called hashtag games, too many bad jokes. Interestingly, I myself have been guilty of many of these sins, at some time or another.

Sometimes I just start to feel that my following of somebody has run its course. They’re nice, they do nothing wrong, I’d just like to read somebody else’s stuff for a while.  It’s not a marriage we engage upon, on this twitter thing. It works better if we allow ourselves to be like those proverbial ships that pass in the night. It would be better if we didn’t have to be so damned sensitive about it.

Can I also say that I am not speaking about being hurt by an ‘un-following’ without some experience of it myself. I have looked and found valued people have up-and-gone.  Make no mistake, it does sting.  But I’m pragmatic about it.  I have my own serious twitter failings. I tweet a lot so, if you have a couple of hundred followers, you may see my mug in your timeline much more that you might wish to. I also swear and complain about things.  I am a fine candidate for un-following and I know it so, when it happens these days, it doesn’t sting as much as it used to.

One final thing I’ve learned. I’ve found that it’s important that I don’t sterilise my twitter feed too much. If it’s all chocolates and flowers, then it wouldn’t half get boring pretty quickly. I need to keep some annoying people around, some argumentative, contentious types, even some of you Foursquare goons too. I need to keep the feed enjoyable but not bland or ‘same’ey. I think I do it quite well. My ‘thousand’ are a great thousand. Together, every day, they show me the world.

So if I’ve unfollowed you, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. I’ve been hurt myself so I know how it feels. 

It wasn’t really you.

It was me. 

Honest.

Pick It Up, Sunshine


If we ever meet upon a street, me in my car and you on your feet and you are desirous of crossing said street and I wave you across then, at that moment, you may actually learn something about me. On the other hand, you may not learn anything at all. It depends largely on how you conduct yourself  as you cross the street in front of me.

If you cross speedily with perhaps a small grateful acknowledgement to me, the ever-so-polite driver, then you won’t really learn anything about me at all. A painless transaction will have simply taken place, one which was beneficial to both parties with regard to expeditiousness and general bonhomie. We both move on unaltered by the experience.

End of story.

But supposing it goes another way? Supposing you take the opportunity to cross the street but you do it more slowly than you could, with no care or regard for the driver who so kindly stopped to let you cross?  We’re on the learning curve then, mate. Or supposing you’re some droop-trousered post-pubescent acne-sporter who takes the opportunity to glare menacingly into the car at me as you drag yourself across the thoroughfare? You are in danger of learning a lesson then too, mega-star.

The lesson is that the nice guy who just waved me across the street is maybe not-so-nice after all because now he's glaring and snarling at me out of his window and he almost looks as if he might do me bodily harm if he got out of his car.

What you will have seen is a demonstration of one of my very worst personality traits. One which I have identified over time and which I am trying, rather unsuccessfully, to improve upon.

It’s this.

I like to do nice things for people. I often go out of my way to do them. I’ll carry your bags or help you reverse your car into that parking space or give you copious directions to the petrol station. No problem.  My pleasure. “The man’s a bloody saint,” you might well be saying as I vanish over the horizon but I’m not, I’m bloody not at all.  I seem to crave some acknowledgement for my little good-deeds, that’s the trouble. If I do something for you and you don’t say a little ‘thank you’ then I can become quite annoyed… and you wouldn’t like me when I’m annoyed. If I had been Jesus (a stretch, granted) and had cured those ten leper fellas and only one of them had come back to say a quick ‘cheers mate’ then I would have tracked the other nine down and I would have kicked their newly-lily-whited-arses for them. Maybe not quite but you get the gist of what I’m saying.

It’s not an attractive trait. I’m working on it, like I said, but it’s pretty deeply ingrained.

This ‘crossing the road’ thing is the most basic demonstration of it, I think. People need to get across the road and, on our main street in town, there aren’t too many formal crossings and the cars keep coming-and-coming so, if you’re standing there waiting, I’ll probably stop and wave you over. A little nod and a  smile and we are goddamn friends for goddamn life. But walk-slow, preen, strut, stop in the middle of the road for a look-around and, although I won’t say anything directly to you, I will now suddenly be seething, Basil-Fawlty fashion, behind my steering wheel.  “Pick it up sunshine, come on come on come on, for fuck’s sake, is that the best you can bloody do?”  Stuff like that, beneath my bated breath, behind my clenched teeth. My moment has been ruined by an unknown person’s inability to reciprocate my largely-unsolicited kindness.


Now that I’m older, the rather-obvious solution to this problem has suddenly become quite clear to me. Both metaphorically and figuratively speaking, I have got to stop letting so many people across my road. If I’m only going to let you across then hate you when you fail to acknowledge my kindness, then it is better that I don’t actually let you across at all.  Better that you go your way (or not, as the case may be) and I go mine and we simply do not get involved with each other.

Sometimes, I now realise, particularly in the smaller affairs of our lives, it may be better to ‘never have loved at all’ than to have ‘loved and lost’.

If you see what I mean.

Summer Holidays


My son Sam got his summer holidays from school last Thursday so I went to the school gates at exactly twelve noon to meet him and to take him home. He came down the steps, a little over-burdened with books and several of those pieces of artwork which always seem to deteriorate as soon as they get out of the school walls.

He looked happy but not overjoyed, just happy.

My boy’s school summer holidays are a big deal for me because I remember my own so well. As a person who has always relished being left to my own devices, that day when summer holiday arrived was, for me, a glorious moment of release and almost infinite potential. So Sam’s looking just happy was not good enough, I wanted to make it better.

But before I could even think about how to start, we were accosted, Sam and I, by a lady and her son, right there at the school gates. Apparently, Sam had agreed to sell her son his school books from last year and it had fallen to this last minute to sort it all out. Because some of the books were still in the school, we had to go back in and search around for a bit. We wandered up and down the suddenly-deserted corridors in search of the elusive books and eventually it all worked itself out.

“There,” I said to Sam, “all done.  We can go now.”

But in my drive to resolve the book issue, I had missed how distraught Sam had become. The normally stoic little man was, I now saw, on the very edge of tears. Large wet pools loomed in his eyes.

“What is it, little-dude, what’s up?

“I don’t know, I’m sorry I don’t know.” He always says this before he gets around to knowing exactly what it is and telling me.

Sam had been out.  He had done everything, got to the front gates of the school and marched out into his very own summer… and I had brought him back inside. When everyone else was free, he was still there, still trapped. He was right, it was almost too much to bear.

Something had to be done.

We got out of there, consoling each other on the terrible trial we had just endured, and we hit the local cake shop. We grabbed a little table by the window and pondered over our selection for a long while as the patient counter-lady looked on. Sam had a chocolate muffin and a Coke and I had a coffee and my ‘Bun of the Week’ pushed forward one day out of necessity.

Sam had been issued with his school report on this last day and, as we sat and feasted, I got it out of its envelope and had a read while he looked rather anxiously on.  This was not a dangerous thing to do.  Sam is a mild-mannered studious fellow and his report was never going to hold any major bombshells.

“There’s only one thing to do with a report like this,” I announced, “we shall have to go over to Gamestop and get that game you’ve been hinting about.”

The rest of our little snack was better. The hurt had been healed.

And, as I sat there, finishing up my suddenly-excellent coffee, the cake shop seemed to sharpen into an almost high definition focus. Everything, the condensation on the window pane, the uncleared table towards the door, the smiling man in the back booth, everything seemed to be more vivid than normal.  I had one of those moments, a little like what Nicolas Cage experiences at the end of ‘Raising Arizona’ but more far-reaching. Because, where Nicolas only saw himself as an old man, I saw further. I saw Sam, as a grown man, many years down the line. I heard someone ask him, “Your dad, what was he like?”  I saw him strain to remember.

“He went before his time, of course, and that was sad, but he was good. I remember he used to pick out good books for me in the library, he was nice to just sit on the couch with, under the quilt, and watch a DVD, he liked it when I did stuff myself instead of having always been asked to do it.

Oh and, once, on school-holidays day, when things were really going pretty badly, he brought me to the shop and bought me a bun and made me feel like things were all right again.

I remember that.”