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Where the wankers are.

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Wankers

Wankers

It has been 3 weeks, 1 week I was ill, the next busy and the last lazy. The bag hasn’t been touched for 3 weeks. I know it contains everything that is needed, towel, shorts, hat, goggles and a special surprise. Pre-swim breakfast typically consists of a banana purchased from the fruit shop. The  domain of the scowling mean-spirited woman who appears to share a nervous system with the brilliant yellow bunches of bananas, wincing and shooting me guilt encrusted barbs as I break apart a rather succulent looking bunch of seven into a two and a five. I used to take only one because I only ever eat one, but I noticed a perceptible softening of the aforementioned eye-ninjastars the more I took, so now, to placate the icy fruit duchess I take two yet only eat one.

I enter the gym heading straight for the men’s changing room, eyes down, locker selection is an art-form I haven’t yet perfected. Two things must be taken into consideration, 1- number of naked cocks in the immediate radius, try and keep it as low as possible but also not too low so as to give off the vibe that it bothers you. 2 – check lockers either side of the one you select for signs of use; padlocks, or lack of a key depending on the security system as these give an idea as to the location of potential, post swimming naked cocks, again apply the same criteria as in item 1.

As I place my purple gym bag (it looked blue in the shop) down onto the bench I notice a dark wet patch on the bottom. I stop and think to myself, maybe my water bottle has leaked, then I remember that I don’t have a water bottle. I gingerly open the bag, curious as to what I might find, yet mindful of my surroundings and the necessity to exude a certain latent manliness. I am greeted by a waft of branston pickle, for a moment I am taken back to the shores of the motherland, to cling-film-wrapped, soft white sandwiches of pickle and cheddar so mature it makes the roof of your mouth ache. Yet what awaits is a whole different kettle of fish, or more precisely a whole different plastic bag of 3-week-old rotting banana (take two, eat one). The mixture of such an appealing smell (I love branston pickle) and the keen sense of disgust and embarrassment is a difficult predicament. I cast my eyes downwards to contemplate my next move. I could stride back out purposefully and go home, pretend I’ve just finished my workout. Or I could don my vinegar-smoked swimming shorts and pretend that everything’s fine. They don’t even have branston pickle in this country, they have no frame of reference so the smell would be foreign to my fellow gym-goers.

As I stare down at the floor toying with each possible action plan something catches my eye. Under the plastic grid-floor designed to raise the gym’s clientele above the water that has fallen from their bodys there is a brown stain. Trapped between the mesh and the tiled floor there appears to be, wait a minute no there definitely is, a pool of runny shit, probably grade 3-4. This immediately makes up my mind, if someone else has shat themselves in the changing room why am I so worried about shorts that smell of condiments? I put on my shorts, grab my towel and lock my locker, luckily the toxic banana waste has only contaminated a small part of my bag and my towel has only caught an aroma of banana vinegar rather than absorbed any black sticky sludge. I rinse my body in the shower that is always set to skin-searingly hot, stretch my girlfriend’s swimming hat onto my head and enter the pool room.

Lane selection is difficult, my abilities hang in limbo between the two categories. My speedometer is stuck, hovering somewhere between the slow lanes, populated by the old and infirm, and the fast lanes which teem with greased, waxed, stretching, underwater-somersalting A-grade nobends. If only there were a separate lane, the “over-enthusiastic start followed my slow slide into manful struggle lane” I would feel more at home there, but it wouldn’t fit on the little yellow plastic signs. I take off my flip-flops and squint at the lanes, without my glasses it’s difficult to tell how many people are in each one, at times you think there’s just one but you don’t see the guy having a little rest at the far end. I stand at the water’s edge and fake a stretching regime. I don’t know which muscles I need so I do my football stretching regime. The lifeguard is probably chortling under his breath at my physiological ignorance but I don’t care, I can’t see him, or her, it’s just a blurry orange blob, in fact I think that’s a fire extinguisher. I enter the pool and quickly reel off 5 lengths but halfway through length 6 my forearms start to seize up and pain shoots through my left knee, pretend stretching does not work.

My heart lifts as I see him enter the swimming pool. The perfect tonic for all the preening, stretching be-speedoed wankers gliding up and down the pool effortlessly. He shuffles across the tiled floor, long shorts worn high on the chest, stretching down to mid thigh. Thin white legs tremble imperceptibly as he makes his way to the bench, depositing towel  edging close to pool’s lip. He is like a barrel, a barrel held up by spindly white, liver-spotted stilts. He comes most mornings and he is my hero. He eases himself with no preamble, no fuss, into the water. Not for him the carefully rehearsed warm-up session with eyes fixed to middle distance. He snaps his goggles over his eyes and he’s off, the first length an uneven flailing breast stroke with face set grimly, pupils boring a hole in the far wall. But he’s just warming up, for his second length he breaks out his specialty; the back stroke, he slides haltingly along the surface of the water with the twisted hypnotic grace of a broken umbrella being blown across a lake.

Swimming_dog_bgiuYet who am I to criticise? My swimming style is not good. My head never goes under the water, I swim like a dog, a dog that has learnt breast stroke. I tried doing the whole rhythmic breathing thing but just ended up drinking lots of water, and seeing as the pool is also used by herds of school children probably a fair quantity of piss too. My feeling is if I’m swimming in a less aqua-dynamic way then I’m working harder and therefore getting a better workout, so there.

I watch our friend the mythical flailing barrel man while I rest my knee and wait for the feeling to return to my forearms. My concentration is broken by a face full of water helpfully administered to me by the posing, skintight prick I’m sharing a swimming lane with. Gym’s are chock full of wankers, this is a given, if I stay here too long I will become one, maybe I already have. I joined the gym 3 months ago, I started out in the weight and fitness room. Weight room wankers are genuine top class wankers, my friend Al has developed a system for classifying cunts which I have never managed to grasp but I think he’d call them a number 1. Yet in truth swimming pool wankers aren’t really wankers, they’re just people who know how to swim properly, unlike me. No wait a minute this guy is swimming in oven gloves, he’s definitely a wanker, and there’s another one with flippers on, dick. I aim a kick at his head as he passes but cowardice snaps it back.

Super Market

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As far as I can tell there is one friendly check-out girl (or boy) in Barcelona. I can’t help but feel a certain pang of guilt that her name escapes me, emblazoned as it is on a chunky plastic badge on the ill-fitting white with orange pin striped shirt. Let’s suppose her name is Montse, I’ve met a lot of Montses since moving to Barcelona and were I a betting man my chips would be in the Montse corner, or lane or little section of the roulette (it depends which game you’re playing). Anyway, picture Montse scanning goods, cheerily requesting my Consum club card, inquiring if carrier bags are necessary. Montse’s beaming smile as the transaction is completed. Montse’s glittering eyes as she sighs happily and shifts her attention to the next customer.

But Montse isn’t working today, in her place a harridan, cold glazed eyes peer out of a face of greyed skin, listlessly flicking over the conveyor belt of brightly coloured packaged produce. She takes her greyness out on the vibrant artifacts that pass before her, treating them with a roughness and contempt that actually seems to take an effort. Egg boxes dropped corner-first onto bagged salad, litre beer bottles allowed to slide into vulnerable plastic wrapped tomatoes. Loaves of bread manhandled and swiftly prodded and poked by corners of unwitting fruit juice cartons. The poor produce shoved, scanned and herded into the bagging area like bewildered prisoners of war.  The man whose shopping is being pulped winces slightly, pays apologetically and leaves, only stopping to check for egg leakage when he’s hidden from view.
I glance over my shoulder at the queue of fellow shoppers waiting behind me, to gauge their reaction. I catch the eye of the woman immediately behind me and she immediately breaks my gaze, flinching as if I’d seen too much, as if I’d run my finger nails down her chalkboard spine. I sense shame emanating from this woman, I can’t think what it could be, I surreptitiously scan her for shame inducing features but find none. She’s a middle aged, Catalan woman, maybe early 50′s or a weathered 48. She wears nondescript clothes, a purple jacket done up tight against the early November cold, 2-3 month old hair dye job struggling to hide more realistic silver grey shoots. But nothing to be ashamed of, nothing worth pitying, she looks like someones Mum. Then I look down at her shopping, and everything becomes clear. She’s buying a 50 cent carton of red wine and jumbo bag of supermarket own brand crisps.

This explains everything, my judgement is swift and damning. Images of her chugging back Don Simon Tinto straight from the carton while grasping for more salted potatoes flash through my mind. Suddenly the purple coat makes more sense, I wonder what colour it used to be. Or maybe I’ve got it wrong, maybe her husband, or boyfriend, or son, or brother, or father is the boxed-wine-fiend. Maybe she’s charged with the daily trudge to the supermarket to stand in line and face the snide looks and muttered ridicule of fellow shoppers like me, her thirsty relative brooding at home pacing back and forth in expectation of the 50 cent purple liquid breakfast.

Or maybe it’s cooking wine, maybe she’s having a party, she needs nibbles. Maybe she always looks like that. We’ll never know.

Forced Public Wasp Murder

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I never wanted any part of it, I hate wasps. Yet, if pushed I would definitely put myself in the t-rex tactics (Keep absolutely still – - it’s vision’s based on movement!) camp of sting prevention, as opposed to the bloodthirsty berserker red mist approach.I hate wasps in enclosed spaces, it follows that I hate wasps in crowded metro train carriages.  I was blissfully unaware of the black and yellow horror terrorising my fellow commuters as I was absorbed in my book. Blissfully unaware until the man sitting next to me took it upon himself to start batting said insect with his rolled up newspaper, he only succeeded in wafting the aforementioned airborne bastard into the face of a fellow female passenger who squealed in fright and implored him to stop as the beast was clearly getting a little riled.

All this occurred just as I was stowing my book in my bag and preparing to disembark. I rose from my seat just in time to see the wasp buzzing frantically between two apoplectic female passengers. The man, desperately trying to claw back a shred of masculinity took one final swipe, succeeding in hooking the murmuring menace onto the floor. Time seemed to slow, the wasp hit the floor, bounced, flipped through the air and slid to a halt against my right foot. I looked up into the glare of 4 sets of imploring eyes, glanced back down at the wasp, struggling to right itself against the sticky beige floor of the carriage.

“Quick…….” urged a voice, and without a second thought I shifted myself half an inch to the right bringing the edge of my shoe down on the beast’s writhing body. I sensed an unspoken whoop of delight and relief from my fellow passengers, as if we’d stuck one to nature, yet I felt hollow and complicit in a grimy little crime. As I said I never wanted any part of it.

An English Dungeon

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“We want to put on the special shoes and sneak past the sleeping Vampires to the window and open the curtains, the sun will shine and all the Vampires will die.”

Said 11 year old Hugo after a brief and heated discussion with his 10 year old sister Gemma. For the last 3 weeks of my weekly hour and a half English class with the two Spanish children we have been playing English Dungeon adventures. These comprise a Microsoft Paint map like the one shown below and a set of different target verbs; for this particular map they include swing, sneak, open, lock / unlock etc. The aim of the lesson is for the children to use the target structures and vocabulary in a context which feels as far away from the classroom as possible. The maps contain a series of simple puzzles for example using the sunlight to kill the Vampires, or the silver bullets for the Werewolves. The children must explain to the teacher exactly what they want to do or try to do in English and then achieve these aims through the rolling of dice. The idea being that as the children are caught up in the excitement of the story and adventure they begin to use English in a more natural and instinctive way.

I find these classes work best with small groups of children up to the age of 13 when they tend to become “too cool”. They can be adapted for different levels, you can demand more complex structures from more competent students or for weaker students you can preteach more vocabulary and structures before entering the Dungeon. Possible follow activities include working back through the adventures in the past tense; “what did you do in this room?” “we opened the treasure chest and found the…” etc. With a little imagination new maps and adventures can be drawn up in minutes on MS paint, with letters to represent different monsters or objects and the activity has a huge scope in terms of broadening vocabulary, and improving fluidity. So any English teachers feel free to use this map and instruction sheet and let me know how you get on. Who said all those hours spent playing Angband in my youth were wasted?

Dungeon game instructions

Students start game in room one, they each have 10 hit points.

Room 1

Question monster – What is the capital of Germany?

1 chest contains special soft shoes for sneaking.

2nd chest contains a delicious hamburger.

Room 2

Contains 4 sleeping vampires and a closed window, it is sunny outside.

Solution: Put on special shoes and sneak past vampires to open window and kill them all. Must roll higher on dice. If they roll lower the vampires wake up and bite them -1 hit point

Room 3

Contains a very fat man and a locked door.

Solution: Give hamburger to Fat man, fat man gives you a gold key, unlock door.

Room 4

Contains a pit full of snakes and a rope.

Chest contains 2 gold coins.

Solution: Use rope to swing over pit of snakes, must beat the teachers roll on a dice if they roll lower snake bites them -1 hit point.

Room 5

Contains 2 question monsters and a shop. Shop keeper has a gun with 6 silver bullets and a big block of ice, they cost 1 gold coin each.

Questions:

Who is the fastest man in the world? Usain Bolt

What is 24 X 4?   96

Solution: Answer questions and buy gun and ice with coins.

Room 6

Contains a huge fiery breathing dragon! There are lots of bones on the floor.

Solution: Give the dragon the block of ice to cool his fire. SS must roll higher than teacher.

Room 7

Contains 3 Werewolves!

Solution: Shoot the werewolves with the silver bullets. SS must roll higher than teacher.

Room 8

Contains lots of small hungry dogs, If SS try to enter the dogs bite them, and a big treasure chest.

Solution: Go back to room 6 and collect the bones, give them to the dogs. SS open the treasure chest and get lots of treasure, congratulations.

Depending on level give ss verbs before playing.

There and back again (with a year to sell action figures in between)

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“I feel thin… sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

Proclaims Bilbo Baggins in J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Although referring to the life prolonging powers of the “One Ring” his words take on a new significance in light of the decision to split the forthcoming New Line Cinema / MGM adaptation of Tolkien’s earlier work The Hobbit into two films. The decision seems less a question of bread and more a question of dough (sorry), and there are valid arguments from New Line and MGM’s perspective. The production costs are likely to be high, with a huge cast of established actors to pay, months of on location filming in New Zealand not to mention a huge special effects budget. So for all this outlay the studios want to ensure they get a big pay day especially taking into account MGM’s well documented financial problems. What better way to achieve this than by splitting the story into 2 parts and effectively doubling the box office takings. However from an artistic stand point just how can the original text be spun out over two feature length films?

Now as you know from my previous post I am all for film adaptations being given the screen time to do justice to the text, but in the case of The Hobbit, its modest 320 pages can easily be told in a 2 ½ – 3 hour feature. Peter Jackson and New Line deserve all the credit they have received for the LOTR adaptations. The films captured the grandeur and scope of the book. With near faultless casting and astute editing Jackson and his team delivered the best adaptation we could hope for. However, The Hobbit is an all together different kettle of fish with an entirely different focus and feel. To re-imagine the earlier book and shoot it in the same epic, bombastic style just to make it fit cinematically with the earlier films would be a mistake.

Stylistically The Hobbit is very much a children’s book, whereas LOTR links complex, simultaneous narrative strands, jumping thousands of miles across the face of Middle-Earth The Hobbit is very much Bilbo’s story and rarely does it leave his view point. This is what makes it such a wonderful story for children. Bilbo is whisked off from his peaceful uneventful existence on a magical adventure involving magic, dragon’s and treasure. In contrast to the huge burden of responsibility placed on Frodo’s shoulders in LOTR, Bilbo’s and the reader’s adventure in The Hobbit is a much more light-hearted affair, untainted by the doom and hardships of the events that are to follow. To over stress the significance of the ring and put more emphasis on other events taking place in Middle-Earth would betray the wonderful innocence of story.

Christopher Lee will reprise his role as Saruman despite the character not appearing in the original text.

A glance at the cast list for the production can lead to much speculation as to where the narrative can be expanded to take in the books background events. Casting recalls for the likes of Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee as Galadriel and Saruman respectively give clues as to the nature of said expansion, despite the fact that these characters were probably nothing more than twinkles in Tolkien’s eye at the time the book was written. As much as I, and other Tolkien aficionados, would like to see these background events brought to the big screen they do not appear in the original text and their inclusion would surely skew the focus and impact of the film.

More casting news that gives me trepidation is the return of Elijah Wood, whose wet-blanket Frodo from the LOTR films was one of Jackson’s few mis-castings,  and Orlando Bloom in the roles of Frodo and Legolas respectively. Neither character appears in the original text. Jackson’s adaptations of LOTR are weakest when he strays from the source material. So any attempt to shoehorn in extra characters to pad the story out over two films should be met with unease.  The script is rumoured to contain a framing device of Bilbo recounting his adventures to his nephew. Such filler is not needed and will involve more deviation from the original manuscript.

Of course there is every chance that Jackson will deliver a faithful adaptation that both captures the essence of the text and appeases the studio and the cinema going public. However, I cannot help but be apprehensive when I see a much loved story subjected to the whims of the Hollywood money machine.

The Sopranos in Middle-Earth

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HBO’s Game of Thrones flies the flag for faithful fantasy adaptations

Game of Thrones HBO's new fantasy epic.

For any established novelist with aspirations of making the leap from page to screen the process of realising this goal is a treacherous one akin to crossing a minefield. This is especially true in the fantasy genre. One false step and great chunks of your precious tome can be blown off to land with a splat on the cutting room floor if they’re even filmed at all. Your precious printed publication may limp through into the light of the multiplexes or straight to people’s television screens but the chances are it will be horribly disfigured along the way.

Witness the majority of the Harry Potter series -with the notable exception of the excellent Prisoner of Azkhaban and the most recent Deathly Hallows Part 1- So nipped and tucked by the constraints of shoe horning over 600 pages into two and a half hours that they are rendered completely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t read the books. Little wonder that Hallows part 1 has garnered more favourable reviews as the decision, almost certainly a financial one, to spread the book over two films has allowed room for such minor things as a plot and character development.

Another notable and lamentable casualty along the way is Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Production of the rest of the trilogy seems to have stalled following the insipid travesty that was The Golden Compass adapted from Pullman’s Northern Lights by New Line Cinema. Faced with the threat of boycotts from Christian groups in the US, New Line lost its nerve and hastily removed all traces of the atheistic spine of the books in a botched last minute operation. All that remains is a bastardised patchwork quilt of over-egged CGI set pieces. In the words of Hanna Rosin, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, New Line kidnapped “the book’s body and left behind its soul.” With the third book in the series containing the death of God (the Authority) it is difficult to see how the series will ever be completed.

New Line's sanitised adaptation of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights

But hope still remains for fans of the genre, the torch bearer for this hope being HBO’s new fantasy drama series Game of Thrones. Adapted from George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones being the title of the first book) GOT is a fantasy adaptation like no other. Immediately A Song of Ice and Fire (SIF) and HBO seem a perfect fit. With themes of political intrigue, internal power struggles, and the balance between professional and family life GOT shares a lot of thematic common ground with the HBO canon: The Sopranos, The Wire etc. the principal difference being that GOT is set in the fictional land of Westeros rather than the streets of west Baltimore or New Jersey.

Martin received many offers for filming rights to his books off the back of Peter Jackson’s award winning and huge-grossing adaptations of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the early 2000’s Hollywood studios were sniffing around the rights to many prominent fantasy books in the hope of another box office smash. However Martin, a former teleplay writer for numerous US television companies, knew “right from the start that it couldn’t be done as a feature film” due to the length of the books and the huge cast of characters. Thankfully he resisted the urge to cash in on the rights and held on to them until HBO came knocking.

A key plank during rights negotiations was Martin’s insistence that the production team were given the time to do justice to his books. Whereas Warner Bros attempted to cram the 734-page Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire into just over 2 and a half hours, HBO granted an entire 10 episode series (50 minute episodes totalling 8 ½ hours) to the 835 pages of Game of Thrones.  This has allowed the production enough breathing space for proper pacing and plot development.

The result is a rich and vibrant fantasy adaptation the likes of which has not been seen on the small screen before. Martin describes the Song of Ice and Fire series as “fantasy for people who hate fantasy” and the first episode alone swiftly distances GOT from the works of Messrs Rowling and Tolkien. Featuring a couple of juicy beheadings, an incestuous romp and attempted child murder the series quickly sets its stall as slightly more grown-up fare, Hogwarts this ain’t. Furthermore whereas Tolkien’s little people smoke pipes, have quaint fireworks displays and have epic bromantic adventures, those of GOTare of an altogether different ilk. The smooth tongued, whoring playboy-dwarf Tyrion Lannister (an excellent scene-stealing turn from Peter Dinklage) quickly puts paid to any hobbit-based comparisons. The aesthetics of the production strike a good balance between sumptuous locations ranging from Malta to Scotland and CGI trickery for the sweeping scenery of Westero’s capital city “Kings Landing” and the foreboding wall of ice which separates the civilised world from the wild lands of the north.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister

GOT features an enormous ensemble cast, mainly made up of newcomers or jobbing supporting actors promoted to meatier roles, with the odd C-list Hollywood star thrown in for good measure. HBO’s Westeros is a land peopled chiefly with British actors, whether this is an artistic or financial decision (British and Irish actors are notoriously cheaper than their American counterparts) it is hard to say but the results do not disappoint. The majority of the action revolves around Lord Eddard Stark, the grizzled yet honourable governor of Westeros’ northern realm, and who does “grizzled” and “northern” better then Sean Bean, Martin calls Bean his “first and only choice” for the part.  Other notable actors from this side of the pond include Mark Addy in a magnificently blunt portrayal of the drunkard king Robert Baratheon. Another is HBO favourite Aidan Gillan, following on from his breakthrough role as Tommy Carcetti in The Wire Gillan clearly relishes the role of the scheming, duplicitous advisor/ pimp Little Finger.  Aside from the more established stars GOT features impressive turns from its child actors; Isaac Hempstead Wright, Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams (as Bran, Sansa and Arya Stark respectively) hold their own amidst the large cast and are doing their chances of a bright future in the industry no harm.

Despite the authors assurance that this “anti-fantasy” I do feel it may be a bit of a jump for some viewers, especially due to the large, but necessary, amount of exposition in the opening few episodes. However, the viewer’s perseverance is rewarded as the series explodes into gruesome life once the scene is set. With a second series of GOT already commissioned, with a reported budget increase it looks as if George R. R. Martin has successfully negotiated the minefield thus far, fingers crossed his luck continues.

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