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Bear Necessities, revisited.

Imagine hearing that your best friend is chained to a radiator in a small room somewhere. You don’t know where. And imagine the radiator isn’t really a radiator at all – everyone gets chained to radiators these days – it’s a grizzly bear. The grizzly bear is full of Etorphine and won’t wake until next Friday. When she does wake next Friday, she will groggily paw your friend’s knees and ribs and shoulders for a few minutes and then rip your friend’s face off.

Imagine that.

Now imagine that you have an opportunity to save your friend. This is what happened to me earlier when I woke up. God came down and told me about the room and the chain and the bear and the best friend, but also told me I could put a stop to it all.

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A radiator, earlier. 

“But how God?” I asked God. “I’ll do anything to save my best friend. Can I have a look first though? I’ve always wanted to know what a man chained to a sleeping bear in a small room looked like.”

“Always? That’s a bit strange. You can have a look later maybe,” said God.

“Why didn’t you chain him to a radiator?”

“Radiators are boring. Everyone gets chained to radia – hold on, who’s saying that I chained him to a radiator. I mean, a bear.”

“Sorry, you just seemed to know a lot about it. Okay, how do I save him? It doesn’t involve running does it? I can’t bear running. Ha, I said ‘bear’, that’s sort of a joke. Not a good one though. I should have said radiator. Let me have another go. Okay, how do I save him? It doesn’t involve running does it? I can’t radiator running.”

“Well done. And you wonder why your best friend is chained to a bear. Listen: You can only save your friend if you set up a copywriting agency by Friday.”

“That’s all?” I said.

“That’s all,” God said.

“That is quite a bit, though. And if that doesn’t happen then my best friend gets it? Well I can barely believe it. I mean: I can radiatory believe it. Doesn’t work so well the second time, does it? A bit much.”

“Yes, a bit much.” God said.

“Is this a metaphor?”

“Um, no. How do you mean?”

“Well, I’m thinking that my best friend isn’t my best friend, it’s me. And the bear isn’t a bear, it’s my writing career. I suppose the small room represents my life. So: I’m trapped in this small room, my life, and I’m chained – and I must say, I really like what you’ve done with the symbolism here God – to a career that is going to destroy me if I don’t make considerable progress within the next week. Oh, and at the moment the bear, my career, is sleeping. I wonder why I’ve made it a female bear. Is that it?”

“Yes, I suppose so. I didn’t really consider all that. I saw it more as a game you could play with yourself, to test yourself. If your friend really was chained to a bear in a room, and the only way you could save him was to set up a copywriting website could you do it. And if you couldn’t, should you just give up?”

“You’re right. And I will give up. Properly this time. Isn’t this a bit weird though, playing games with yourself like this at forty?”

“No, it’s fine.”

“You’re a bit bored now aren’t you God?”

“Yes, I am.”

“You want to go off and chain someone else to a bear don’t you?”

“Yes, I do.”

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A bear, earlier. 

And so began my morning. I’ve clearly had enough and am clearly going a bit tonto, but it’s good to set goals. And I know I’ve nearly given up on all this nonsense before, but God wasn’t involved then and that time was only really to elicit sympathy and gain readers (it worked), whereas this time I mean it and I need to stir myself because I’m really, really, really fucked off with it all. And pretty fucked up by it all too. Apologies for the fucks at the end. I was being all respectful and doing well with the fucks up until then. Enjoy your week.

Monday Afternoon Fuck Club

Battling with this terrier-like entity though, even after only a week of it, is wearing a bit thin. He always wants to do stuff. Bad stuff. Well, bad-good stuff. Good-bad stuff. Stuff. Often it’s pub-stuff.

“Oh come on,” he says, “Let’s go to the pub. Down the old pub. Pub pub pub. You like the pub, remember?”

“”I don’t want to go to the pub. I want to go swimming.”

“Swimming? What are you – five? Who goes swimming these days?”

“I go swimming these days.”

“Right,” says my terrier, “let me get this straight. You spend two decades in the pub. You whisk me in there before midday sometimes and then slope off well after it gets dark. You swan in there on the slimmest of pretexts at all hours – I barely know where I stand half the time – and feed me all of these treats and now…this? What even is this? You used to spend days in bed with a bottle of wine glued to your lips now you’re just snatching it away, now you’re giving me…fucking mackerel.”

“That’s right, now I’m giving you fucking mackerel. I’m giving us mackerel.”

“What about Fuck Club?”

“What do you mean, ‘What about Fuck Club?’ Now you’re just showing off. We’ve never been to Fuck Club.”

“No, but we could. People sell crack all around Fuck Club. We could buy some crack and smoke it and go to Fuck Club. And fuck in there, obviously. You’d be happy then. It’d be good for your writing, your precious writing. Monday Afternoon Fuck Club.”

The terrier has a point.

“We don’t smoke crack. And we’re not going to any sort of fuck club. We’re playing tennis instead. Then yoga. Then weights.”

“I hate weights.”

“I hate weights too. Now eat this spinach.”

“And that’s how it is?”

“That’s how it is.”

And that is how it is. Bit of a battle, this, but one I appear to be winning. Sometimes I have to talk to the terrier as if it’s a convalescing grandma (“Come on, twenty minutes in the sun and you’ll feel a whole world better”) at other times like an errant schoolboy (“Look, this is getting silly. One way or another these push-ups are getting done…”) but we’re making good progress.

Monday afternoon Fuck Club does sound fun though. Much more fun than tennis and spinach and industry. Updates to follow.

This is Forty

Monday.

For days now (I have no idea how many) every minute of every waking hour I’ve either had a drink in my hand or been within three feet of one. The only times I haven’t had this luxury of proximity is when walking to the pub. I say walking, but the sheer elation I know I’m going to feel at getting inside one of those things, coupled with body and mind screaming out for alcohol means it’s less walking and more half-shuddering, half-body popping. I know, not ideal.

Yesterday I was forty. Today, I woke up thinking I was a Greek fishing village. I didn’t feel like me. I didn’t feel like anyone else either. I felt like a Greek fishing village, thought I was a Greek fishing village and contained everything that was going on there. There is no other way I can put it. 

Naturally, I’m both simultaneously fascinated and terrified by this peculiar turn of events. Wine helps to ease the struggle of getting through the day as a geographical oddity. Later my brother says, “I once thought I was the rock of Gibraltar,” which immediately thrills and comforts me, before adding, “But that was in a dream.” I crumple.

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A Greek fishing village, earlier.

Tuesday.

Everything aches. I sit in a hot tub in the rain. I almost fall into the hot coals in a sauna, then almost wish I had. I drink.

Wednesday.

Wake up with almost unbearable tinnitus: a deep, whirring hum in one ear and a high-pitched yelping in the other. I’ve had years of this. I’m not sure I can take much more of it. If there were a nest of vipers at the foot of my bed I would happily slither in and join them. If a canyon full of broken glass, shards of metal, and wild animals existed outside of my bedroom window I wouldn’t think twice about leaping in there. Unfortunately there isn’t, so I settle for attacking my mattress and beating up my pillows for ten minutes. The rest of the day is spent drinking. 

Thursday.

Trying to get off to sleep on Thursday night I soothe myself with thoughts of that time I worked out in Singapore, or that time I worked in the Caribbean, or that time I took a train with my then wife through the centre of Australia and how much I enjoyed seeing the seemingly endless miles of scorched red rock. I feel calm thinking of having lunch under a jungle canopy.

Then it stops calming me. I don’t think of it as me going having lunch in the rainforest, but my brain. It’s not me slicing through the centre of Australia seeing things, it’s my brain interpreting light waves and sound waves and making sense of things. My brain is making my fingers punch numbers into a phone and it’s making sounds come out of my mouth, then it’s making my limbs carry bags and whisk it off to the airport and it gets me to feed it booze and gets me to stick my hand up my then wife’s dress to give it pleasure. My whole sense of self dissolves, and I’m just this terrier-like entity, this mush, this interpretation-machine, existing in my skull. I take quadruple my usual amount of sleeping tablets.

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A nest of vipers, earlier. 

Friday.

Friday is better. I eat fish and plants. I play tennis and win. I swim. I try not to think about my brain. I drink one beer. When you’re better, I say to myself, you should spend the rest of your life being nicer and kinder to people. This thought pleases me. You should also, I add almost unconsciously, try being nicer and kinder to yourself. This one scares me. Have I ever been either nice or kind to myself? I meditate on this for a while until I realise that, not for the first time this year, I’m in danger of crying myself to sleep.

Saturday.

I play tennis and win. Without having to give it much thought, I play poker and win too. I eat fish and plants. I lift weights. I do some yoga. In the evening I buy an avocado in the rain. I turn off my phone. I drink one beer and wash the grill pan. Saturday.

Sunday.

Busy for a Sunday: Internet-taught yoga, internet-taught Shaolin Kung Fu, winning at poker, swimming, sauna. I feel, possibly for the first time, that I’m beginning to work as a person. Colours are sharper than normal. Flowers leap out at me and I sit and stare at them for hours. When I go to the toilet, it no longer smells of corroding metal. I stop feeling scared in my own body and in my own mind. 

People in Boscombe are buying crack cocaine and heroin when I leave the health club. People in Boscombe are on their way out for the night, happy. People in Boscombe are sitting outside drinking and look to be enjoying themselves. Temptation is everywhere here. Part of me wants to join them, to get into trouble. Part of me wants more physical and psychological scars. But another part of me – a bigger and better part – doesn’t. That part of me is intrigued by how far I can take this: this plant-eating, this exercise, this non-drinking, this new-found industry. I feel as if I’ve been on the fringes of my mind’s unedifying canyons this week and, well, I don’t want to be on those fringes  far too often. Let’s see, shall we. 

How to Pitch to FHM Magazine

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To: Joe Barnes, FHM Editor

From: Pitching the World

Subject: Poker/Other/Better

Date: 12th May 2015

…………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Hello Joe Barnes,

Here I come, crashing into your life again. It’s been a while – I hope you’re in rude health. I sort of am.

Not the usual blather this time though I’m afraid, I may actually have something half-decent. Since the turn of the year I’ve been travelling around the country playing live poker. Prior to that, I spent two years trapped in a room playing online poker and writing about it. So far I’ve played in London, Southampton, Brighton, Nottingham and Aberdeen. Have you ever been to Aberdeen? Oh, you really must. I cried with happiness up there. I was so happy up there, in fact, that I booked two Megabuses to come back down to London and cheerfully missed them both.

By the dog-end of the summer I want to have played in every casino in the UK that offers live poker. Why? Lots of reasons, really. First, to make money. Second, to see if I can compete nationally in live cash games. Third, to go parts of the country that I’ve never been to. Fourth, because no-one has ever done this before. And finally (and crucially) because I think it could make me a better, stronger person. I’ve been reading a ton about Stoicism over the last few years and trying to practice it, too. The central tenet, I think, is this: Many (if not all) things in life are out of our control, but what is in our control is how we react to things. The philosophy is very much centred upon character-building. The other day I lost a week’s wages (£750) in a couple of hours and walked out of the casino beaming because of the way I dealt with it. Before, in my more shambolic days, I would have buckled. I wouldn’t have walked out of anywhere beaming, I would have walked into the toilets and curled up in a ball and moaned. 

Is there anything in this? Not in curling up in a ball and moaning, more in what I’m proposing. Could there be a feature where the framework is about playing poker in all the casinos in the UK but it’s actually also more than that: part-UK-travelogue, part-philosophical treatise, part-something-else? 

No need to reply for a while, the whole project (if you can call it that – and you can’t, not really) won’t be wrapped up for a few months. But it would be splendid if you would at least consider it. I’ve been wanting to write for FHM since I was 16. It’s good again now. Some of the features are a lot more in-depth and interesting than they used to be, hence why I thought this could possibly fit. If not, no bother. You’re doing a damn fine job there regardless. I hope you’re happy. 

While I’m here, a link to one of my poker columns. Initially the column was going to run for 2-3 months but ended up lasting 88 weeks. It’s just to show I can write about poker, really. And about other stuff: [LINK REDACTED]

Ace,

Steve

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

That’s how you pitch to FHM. Well, it’s certainly one way of pitching to FHM. It’s far from perfect – possibly too long, cloying in places, not as funny as it likes to think it is – but it worked. A couple of weeks later, the editor replied saying “we would love to have you writing for FHM” and “that the tour of UK casinos sounds like a goer.”

Yet it’s a few months down the line and I haven’t written that feature for FHM. Something went wrong. In fact, two somethings went wrong. One, the editor left. Two, I went broke and had to put the project into hibernation. Still, there is hope. There is always hope. I am in contact with the features editor, still want to write it, and I have been broke plenty of times before and managed to mend myself.

It’s heartening though. That’s the first pitch I’ve sent in years and it was more or less accepted. Imagine what could happen if I pitched more than one feature idea every 2-3 years. Imagine how many more projects I could abandon – I mean, put into hibernation. Imagine how much more hope I could have, then lose. That’s right, reader: Fuckloads.

Until then.

The End of the Beginning

You’ll never guess what I found a few days ago. Go on, have a guess. You probably think that I found myself living in a bin, perhaps even turned to your partner and said, “Haha, bet he found himself living in a bin,” through a mouthful of toast before clicking on to the Guardian website.

But you’d be wrong. I haven’t found myself living in a bin. Not yet at least. No, I found this little beauty:

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Life-wrecking equipment, earlier.

Whoops, what do we have here? Well, what we have here is the 2010 edition of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. I bought it in September 2009. My plan was simple: (1) Pitch all of the 642 magazines listed in there with ideas for features, (2) write features, (3) make money, (4) write book, (5) make more money, (6) sell film rights to book, (7) make yet more money, (8) live on an island.

Regular readers will know that it hasn’t quite worked out like that. Very, very close, granted, but not quite. It worked out a bit more like this: (1) Pitch hardly any of the 642 magazines listed in there with features ideas, (2) write very few features, (3) make no money, (4) write no book, (5) make less money, (6) sell everything of value I own, (7) make even less money, (8) live in an office.

Admittedly it was a very thrilling and heartfelt attempt at the whole thing, but I fell ever-so-slightly short. I think I know why. Here’s why:

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Aeroplane Monthly and friends, earlier.

This is the first page of the section, “Magazines UK and Ireland.” See what a spirited and industrious start I made? I’ve scribbled all over it – have made all kinds of notes. I’ve written “FLYING DOCS” next to the entry for Aeroplane Monthly, presumably because a month or so earlier I had visited the Flying Doctors museum in Alice Springs, Australia, and I thought that would make a good feature. Me visiting a museum. That the editor of Aeroplane Monthly perhaps wasn’t even aware of the Flying Doctors and it was down to me, a hard-nosed go-getting journalist who had visited a museum in Australia but left after about ten minutes because he was bored to highlight their fine work to both him and his readership. Underneath “FLYING DOCS” I’ve written “BRYSON GUY” but I have no idea what this means.

Elsewhere on the page I’ve written “Tax?” next to Accountancy and also “Stress?” I know, another pair of mind-blowers. Next to Acumen Literary Journal, a publication focussing on “Poetry, literary and critical articles, reviews etc.” I’ve written “Poem?” Clearly, I was on fire in early September 2009.

Rather unbelievably however, it only gets worse. There are oceans of empty space where I’ve written nothing at all. Six years I’ve had that book. Six years. I look at the F’s. The F’s aren’t good. Please don’t look at the F’s. Oh come on then, let’s have a good old look at the F’s. On one page I’ve written one thing. It’s a page containing magazines I could actually write for: FHM (I’ve written at least eight features for the current editor), Film Ireland (I’ve been paid to write film reviews before), Film Review (I’ve written features – features for god’s sake – about films), I could have even potentially have written for The Field, focussing on “The British countryside and country pursuits,” if I had sat down and thought about it for a bit.

But no. No, I seem to have bypassed all of that and made one note in this section, adjacent to Family Tree Magazine. Next to Family Tree Magazine, I’ve written “OUR FAMILY TREE?”

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Inspiration, earlier. 

Nothing for FHM. Nothing for any of the film publications. Nothing for any magazines that might have paid me reasonable money. Nope, instead I’ve plumped for Family Tree Magazine, despite having practically zero interest in my own or anyone else’s family tree.

And not only that, it’s not even an idea. I don’t know what it is, but it’s certainly not an idea. Really? “OUR FAMILY TREE?” I’ve even gone an underlined the “OUR” as if to stress what a precise, unusual and original idea this is, as if when the editor gets my pitch (which I imagine wouldn’t have been much more developed than, “Dear Editor, I’d like to write about MY family tree…”) she’s going to summon her co-workers and say, “You’re not going to believe this. You better all sit down. This is going to blow you away. I received an email this morning from a writer and he wants to write about HIS family tree. That’s right: HIS OWN FAMILY TREE. How could we have been so stupid? Why are we not running this sort of stuff? It’s been staring us right in our fucking faces all of these years but we’ve just not seen it…”

Wow, the editor of Family Tree magazine is certainly sweary and colourful. Maybe I should try and write for her. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I should just get rid of the book, draw a line underneath it, much like the line that I drew underneath “OUR FAMILY TREE?” But how? The obvious answer, and one you are no doubt all thinking, is: “Ceremonially burn it. You know, as a sort of cathartic experience. Go on, burn the fucker. Burn its bastard brains out.”

Well, I hear you. I really do. I love the sacrificial burning of books as much as the next man. But I’d want it to be dramatic, would want to take the book down to the beach late at night in a metal flower pot and set fire to it whilst barking at the moon. I don’t have a metal flower pot though, and don’t really have the means to buy one. Plus I’d need a beard. It would take me two months to grow a good one. If you’re going to set fire to a book in a metal flower pot late at night on the beach whilst barking at the moon you have to have a beard. Anything less is amateurish.

Or I could leave it on, say, a bench in the park. But then it could fall into the wrong hands, it could fall into the hands of a writer and, well, I couldn’t live with the responsibility.

So I think I’ll just throw it away. Just let it go and move on. Yes, I think I’ll do that. Tomorrow though, after I’ve had a proper think about Family Tree magazine, Flying Doctors and poems.

Am I Living in a Box?

Check me out. Go on, I dare you. Check out where I’m living these days. Guess where? You probably think a bin, may have even mouthed “bin,” or perhaps turned to your partner and said, “Haha, bet it’s a bin,” through a mouthful of sandwich before clicking on the Guardian website.

But you’d be wrong, I’m not living in a bin. I’m living in an office. And not only am I living in an office, I’m living in an office in an entirely illegal fashion. Have you ever lived in an office in an entirely illegal fashion? Oh, you must. You really must. It’s liberating. And not only liberating, but the thrill of the illegality coupled with the cut-and-thrust of business in Bournemouth makes for an ideal creative environment.

The only worry is that I’m not sure quite how illegal it is. I think I need it to be more illegal than it really is, if I really want to get all nice and pumped up creatively.

I tested the legal waters earlier. There’s a woman downstairs on reception who oversees all of this cut-and-thrust. When I first met her she stared right into me, gave me the sort of look that said, “I’d like to have sex with you.” At least I think that’s what it said. At the time I was feeling a little squashed-head-on-tracks so I didn’t attempt a fuck-stare back. A week or so later I was back to gliding around rather than stumbling around and so when I saw her I gave her my best fuck-stare. I don’t think it worked. I think she just thought I was really angry with her about something, that perhaps I was a bit demented.

So I’ve been avoiding her. Until earlier. Earlier I glided down to her office. I couldn’t make eye contact, so my eyes were just darting around the room as if a tiny bird had somehow got in there and I was following it.

“Is everything okay?” she said.

“Yes, yes,” I said, perhaps a little too aggressively. “Fine. I was working late in the office last night and, um, I fell asleep for about half an hour. Late at night.”

“Okay,” she said.

“That’s probably bad though, isn’t it? You know, against the rules. If I was to sleep in the office – that would probably be against the rule of the…building.”

My eyes kept following the imaginary bird.

“Yes, if you were intentionally going to sleep the night. You’re not allowed to sleep in the offices overnight. Are you telling me you’re sleeping in your office?”

“You tell me,” I wanted to say, while lighting a cigarette. But I didn’t, I just said “Hfft, of course not,” and semi-stumbled out of there.

So it’s definitely not allowed, which I’m absolutely delighted by. You know, creatively speaking.

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This was probably my fuck-stare, earlier.

The other thing about this office, is that it is not my office. And not only that, but the person whose office it is doesn’t even know I’m here. If you haven’t lived in an office that you’re not allowed to live in, that isn’t yours, and the owner doesn’t know you’re there…well, you’ve barely lived at all.

The owner could find out of course. He could read this and then email me saying, “Hold on – are you living in my office?” Naturally, I have a ready-made reply. I’m going to tell him that of course I’m not living in his office, that his office is a literary device – a metaphor.

And if he comes back one night? Comes in after a late night flight to catch up on some paperwork and there I am on the floor in the dark, covered in towels and cardboard boxes and shirts?

“It’s okay,” I’ll say, gesturing around the room. “This isn’t what you think it is. This is all very…metaphorical.”

That’s the plan, at least. One thing I’ve learnt from illegally living in an office is that you have to have a plan. More on that next time, my house and flat dwelling chums.

Why I Started Writing Again*

Many things over the years could have got me writing again: gnawing poverty, misshapen emotions, a sense of doing something beyond myself, boredom, envy, borderline homelessness, getting older, getting madder, dressing in rags – the list, unfortunately, goes on.

It was none of those unsavoury things, though. It was a Soreen Cake. For well over a year now, I’ve been wanting to write about one. I saw a Soreen Cake in a cupboard in a house I was living in and it immediately depressed me. An image landed in my head. That of a middle-aged woman, alone, on a Friday night watching television. In front of her sits a slice of Soreen Cake. She eats the Soreen Cake and tries to be buoyant and unalone but the buoyancy of Friday night television only serves to strengthen the cloak of loneliness she wears. Still, she perseveres. She shoves more Soreen Cake down her  throat and thinks about that time last year when one of her male colleagues felt her up in a car park after they’d both had too much to drink. He was married and she sometimes thinks…well, I don’t know what she sometimes thinks because I became simultaneously bored and depressed thinking about my imaginary Soreen Cake woman and I stopped thinking about her.

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A car park, earlier. 

I’m not sure why all of this depressed me so much. Perhaps it was because I too sometimes wear the cloak of loneliness that my imaginary Soreen Cake woman wears. Perhaps it was because I too want to get felt up in a car park after work by a married man. Perhaps (although there is no perhaps about it) I too want to much to drink. But it wasn’t any of those things, not really. It was something else. Something I had seen written on that Soreen Cake wrapper had annoyed and frustrated and depressed me. I went to read it again but suddenly lost all interest in anything other than lying on the floor and moaning and so I lay on the floor and moaned.

A few months later I decided to start writing again. It had been a while. But what to write about? I sat and thought. Nothing came. Find something then, I said to myself. I tried to find something. Nothing could be found. Then, bliss. I know, I thought, I could write about that Soreen Cake and about that woman getting felt up in a car park. That would be something.

So I sped off to the supermarket. In there I felt I should buy other stuff to overshadow the Soreen Cake buying: spinach, any kind of tablets, canned fish – anything, really, to cover up the Soreen Cake horror. Yet I didn’t. Emboldened by my decision to start writing again I just bought the Soreen Cake on its own, didn’t even take a bag, and strode flamboyantly out of the shop.

Outside, I immediately regretted my flamboyancy. Everyone knew. People could see the garish yellow and purple Soreen Cake and knew what I was all about. They could see my cloak of loneliness and could tell I was on my way home to stuff cake down my throat whilst thinking about getting fingered in a car park. “It’s not that,” I wanted to blurt out, “Honestly – it’s for this thing I’m trying to write.” But I didn’t say anything. I tried to shove the bastard thing into my jean pocket but it wouldn’t fit, it only highlighted what I had in my possession and made my cloak billow out behind me so I just ran home in near-tears with the whole town laughing at me.

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A bastard-thing, earlier. 

At home I was happier. “You may well save my career, dear thing,” I told the Soreen Cake as I cuddled it. “You may well be my muse.”

I read the packaging. “The secret’s in the squidge,” it began. “Give it a squeeze. Come on. Don’t be shy. There. Feel that? That’s delicious chewy fruitiness, that is.”

Fuck, I thought. I thought “fuck” because the writing wasn’t at all bad – was actually pretty good for what it was – leaving me nothing, seriously nothing, to write about. And I also thought “fuck” because I found the writing slightly erotic. If I’m getting turned on by that writing and by squeezing a malt loaf, I thought, then perhaps I need to get out more.

The Soreen Cake went back into the cupboard unopened and I went off to bed in my cloak. A few weeks later, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about giving that Soreen Cake a good old squeeze. I opened the cupboard. There it was, all yellow and purple and sexy. I read the packet again. Good stuff, I thought. Then I lifted up a bit of flap – as you can tell, this was all getting a little heated – and there it was. “Slice me, tear me, chop me.” Oh yes, I thought, this is what I wanted, this is what I’d been looking for. “Why not toast me? Grill me, smother me with jam, or just enjoy me as I come…” OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A cloak, earlier. 

And I remembered. That’s what had annoyed and depressed me all those months before, that infantile series of me’s. And not just on a Soreen Cake, they are everywhere. Buses are people. Boxes of tea bags are people. Towels are people. Car parking spaces are people. All these things are telling you stuff: Please don’t park in me. This is where you open me. Are you sure you want to wash me? I remember seeing all this and the Soreen Cake wrapping and thinking, “That’s why I want to start writing again, to help put an end to all of the cutesy, whimsical bullshit.”

But I’m not sure I do. Having had time to think about it, I could barely give half a fuck about what makers of malt loaf choose to put on their packaging. Do I think “SORRY I’M NOT IN SERVICE,” on the front of a bus is any better or more palatable than the taut and muscular, “NOT IN SERVICE”?  Obviously not. Are we being treated like infants? Probably. Do I give many fucks about it, so many fucks about it that I decided to start writing again?

No. But I do care about writing, even though I’m not sure why. And if I can stay in on a Sunday night (on a bank holiday, no less) to write about not writing about what is written on Soreen Cake packaging, then the future could end up not being as disastrous as it once looked.

* Beadier-eyed readers will have noticed that this post is not called “Why Online Poker is Ace.” Nor is it about why online poker is ace. I know I promised that. It’s forthcoming. Thank you. 

Why Online Poker is Grim

Firstly, a warning: This is probably going to be grim. And it’s probably going to be long, too. Grim and long – not a good combination, especially after such an extended sabbatical. Buoyant and snappy would be a good combination, or, at the very least, just ungrim and unlong but it looks like we’re stuck with grim and long.

But hey, you only have to read it: imagine having to write this stuff (ah, just for once I wish I was the sort of person who used exclamation marks – I’d bung in at least three at the end of “Imagine having to write this stuff” and it would feel so delicious).

So, grim. Why? Well, I suspect there will be a bit towards the end about me feeling calm whenever I think about putting my head on a railway track and letting a train squash my head into the metal (wow!!! I did warn you it would be grim!!!) and another bit about cancer (grimosaurus!!! but it’s okay, I didn’t even have it!!!) although there will be some chinks of light. The bit about having the bowels of an 80-year-old man, for example, is a particular bright spot and there’s an hilarious trip to the Genito-Urinary Medicine Clinic. Plus, tomorrow I will write and post, “Why Online Poker is Ace” so, you know, that’s something.

Secondly, then, some background. Towards the dog-end of 2011, a man named Dan Fitch approached me with an idea. I like your writing, he said (incredibly, this was even before I’d discovered how amazing it was to use these zingers!!! – okay, that’s more than enough of that for now) and I’m going to be overseeing the content for a gambling website. How about you write a poker column from a novice’s point of view? It will run for around three months. It will be a brief journey into the online poker world. You’ll make it entertaining, I’m sure. So I said yes and a few months later started writing a weekly column. The column lasted for 87 weeks and when it eventually came to a slightly slapsticky end I found myself spending far more time playing online poker than I did writing. Sometimes I suspected I enjoyed it, so just carried on doing it more or less for a living.

Here are five reasons why it is grim:

1. Your Boss Is You And He Hates You. So Does Everyone Else. Imagine working perfectly all week – better and more efficiently and more smartly than you have ever done – and then at the end of the week your boss coming up to you and saying: “Not only am I not going to pay you for this week’s work, but I’m going to go into your bank account and take a further two week’s pay from you. This is variance. Deal with it.” You probably wouldn’t like that. You probably wouldn’t like it either if, during this beautifully-executed week’s work people were interrupting you constantly to threaten to cut your throat (this has happened to me in a chatbox whilst playing online poker) or to call you “a thick piece of shit” (this too) or to hope all your family dies from cancer (ditto). Welcome to online poker.

2. It Can Fuck Up Your Shits. Without wanting to get too scatalogical – and clearly I don’t want to, otherwise I would have called this second point something like, Ooh I don’t know, something like “It Can Fuck Up Your Shits” – I have the bowels of an 80-year-old man. Frankly I don’t want the bowels of an 80-year-old-man, I want my own bowels. I don’t really know what goes on in there and nor do I particularly want to know, but I imagine the stress, anxiety, sedentary nature of online poker and the hoofing up of a packet of cigarettes a day to help with the pressure, coupled with the downing of booze and pills to help calm me before sleep could have – and it’s only a could have – led to me swapping my bowels with an 80-year-old man.

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An eighty-year-old man (bowels not pictured), earlier. 

3. It’s Not Fair. Poker is a game of mathematical, psychological and emotional skill. There is also a huge dollop of luck involved. Let’s take a very simple example. Suppose you have £100 on the table and I have £100 on the table. You are dealt the second best starting hand in Texas Hold’em (the form of poker that I predominantly play): two kings. I am dealt the first best starting hand: two aces. Now, supposing all of my £100 and all of your £100 goes in the middle before the remaining five cards are dealt. Roughly 80% of the time I will win the £200 in the middle and 20% of the time you will win it. Over time, this is great for me. If we were to run these hands a million or even a thousand times I would be making a lot of money. But short term, it doesn’t necessarily work like that. Short term, I have been losing a ton of times for a fair amount of money when a 60% or 70% or 80% favourite or I’ve been winning my fair share of times in situations where it doesn’t matter (small buy-in tournaments, say, where I don’t necessarily care about winning your chips) and losing when it does (in more prestigious, financially rewarding tournaments where I do care).

This makes me whine, sometimes, and complain that poker (and life) isn’t fair. I feel like an adolescent. I don’t want to feel like this, like a thirteen-year-old boy trapped in a thirty-nine-year-old man’s body. Actually, the stress and inertia and poor diet that online poker allows has given me – or helped to maintain – a thirteen-year-old boy’s body as well. So what does that make me? The mind of a thirteen-year-old boy mind trapped in a thirteen-year-old boy’s body? Surely that just makes me thirteen. Hold on, is this what the problem is and has always been? Am I somehow stuck being thirteen?

4. It Can Lead to Phantom Illnesses. In early 2013 I felt a lump in my mouth that I hadn’t noticed before. Immediately I went cold. This, I thought, is it. This is oral cancer and you deserve it for your recklessness and the way you have lived your life and you are going to die from it. For months, I carried my cancery-secret around with me. My brother was getting married later that year, and I didn’t want my dying of cancer to overshadow it. I’ll gather my family around shortly after the wedding and tell them, I thought, once I had received the diagnosis (the lump, it seemed, had been getting bigger). I planned a speech. It was a good speech: funny and poignant and wise and don’t-worry-about-me, all the good things an I’m-about-to-die speech should be. Eventually, after about a year, I summoned up the courage to get the lump checked out. The lump, it turns out, was just a lump. That’s what they said: That lump is just a lump. I’m still not convinced. In fact, after staring at the words “That lump is just a lump,” for too long I’m not sure that phrase actually means anything, it just looks like garbled nonsense.

Shortly after the diagnosis of my lump being just a lump, I found a different, almost imperceptible lump on my penis. I had been meaning to go to the GUM clinic for a while because someone who I once had sex with had chlamydia and they thought that I too might have chlamydia. She even thought that I may have been the one who had given her chlamydia. So I went to the sex-clinic and went through my recent sexual history (laughably barren – I had to make some stuff up so I didn’t feel embarrassed) and confessed to unprotected sexual encounters and they looked at my lump which wasn’t really a lump – you could barely see it, it was more of a non-lump – and they too said that the non-lump was just a non-lump. When I found out around a week or so later that I didn’t have any sexually transmitted diseases I was ever-so-slightly disappointed. Welcome to online poker.

5. And to Real Ones. Yeah, the real ones. The real ones like anxiety and depression and insomnia and having a noise like a fucking air conditioning unit whirring around in your head all day. The real ones like a jaw that feels like it soon will have to be prised open to eat because it’s wired too tight from the stress. The real ones like suicidal thoughts pinging around your head all day and the only way to deal with them is to surrender, to imagine actually going through with it and the thinking it through is calming. I think about going down to Pokesdown station and putting my head on the tracks and about my soft head being squashed by hard metal and I relax. Or I think about eating shellfish (which I am highly allergic to and it may well kill me if I ate it) mixed with tranquillisers and I sigh deeply and my shoulders stop being up at the sides of my head. And I worry that one day these thoughts will just consume and overwhelm me and worry too when I look back at my notebook and see references to it like, “Just do it and it’s done and you’re done,” like a nasty father admonishing a not-too-bright son. I think of these things and I think online poker hasn’t ruined me, but it very nearly has.

And then, gradually, I think something else: I think online poker has saved me, and saved me in a way that I could never have quite imagined. More of that tomorrow in, “Why Online Poker is Ace.”

Wow. Wow, wow, wow. Squashed heads on tracks? Lumps not lumps? What is going on here? And how on earth do we get out of it? This is a bit like the end of one of those adventure stories that they showed in the cinemas in the 1950s where the hero is chained to a railway track (how appropriate – add screamers at your leisure) with an oncoming train hurtling towards him and you’re thinking, “How is he going to free himself from this little pickle? I’ll just have to wait until next time to find out.”

At least I think it’s a bit like that. I didn’t go to the cinema in the 1950s, being as I am only thirteen.

Soreen Cake Blues

Throughout September I had three writing projects on the go. I know this, because when I opened my notebook this morning I saw I had written down: “PROJECTS – SEPTEMBER.”

Grand, no? You’ve probably imagined (you probably haven’t imagined) that since abandoning Pitching the World a couple of years ago that I’ve just withered, that I’d given up on doing anything whatsoever and just – oh, I don’t know – evaporated or something. Clearly not true. Clearly I’m not the sort of man who just withers then evaporates. Of course I’m not, I’m the sort of man who, in September, had three – THREE – writing projects  “on the go.”

According to my notebook, the first of these projects is (1) PITCHING THE WORLD. “Get it back on track,” I’ve written, overlooking the fact that it was never really on track. “Promote. Continue. Thrive,” is added underneath: undoubtedly a bold, vigorous collection of words but words that, whenever written by me, become essentially meaningless. The final part of PROJECT (1) to be completed in September was “Write Soreen Cake Blues.” This post, it seems, is Soreen Cake Blues. I’m pretty sure this thing isn’t what I meant to write when I wrote “Write Soreen Cake Blues” back in early September.

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A writing project, earlier.

(2) THANK YOU, MR SPIELBERG, FOR RUINING MY LIFE. This was my second project for September. I was supposed to be making lengthy notes for a book I want to write about Steven Spielberg ruining my life. And he has ruined my life. I haven’t ruined my life, Steven Spielberg has. My lengthy notes – and therefore the subsequent book – were going to be centred around “Stoicism,” “Parallels with jobs etc.,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark (!!!),” and “Other. Lots of other.” Some book that’s going to be.

The main problem with PROJECT 2 is that I spent so long staring at and thinking about the words “Other. Lots of other” that they began to lose all meaning and became gibberish. This led me to spending a lot of time staring at and thinking about my life which too began to lose all meaning and become gibberish. Plus, I don’t know where to put the commas. Thank you, Mr Spielberg, for Ruining my Life? Perhaps: Thank you Mr Spielberg, for Ruining my Life? Or a more breathless and ranty: Thank you Mr Spielberg for Ruining my Life? Once I’ve found out where to put (or not put) the commas – and I’m determined not to find out – then work on PROJECT (2) can begin.

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A life-ruiner, earlier.

PROJECT (3) Is my favourite. RADIO 4 PLAY ABOUT AN ACCIDENTAL SERIAL KILLER,” I’ve written. Then added, “OR OTHER.” Love that “or other.” Wish I’d written “OR LOTS OF OTHER” so I could stare at it and it would lose all meaning and I’d not have to write it. Although my radio play about an accidental serial killer wouldn’t work. There are no other ideas so my “other” radio play wouldn’t work, either.

Still, according to my notebook, there are things I can do to help my writing for Radio 4 career. These include “Keep up-to-date with competitions/deadlines etc.” (I haven’t done this, and don’t quite know what it means), “Read radio plays” (I haven’t done this, but at least do know what it means), “Listen to plays on Radio 4 more often,” (this is easily done as I’ve never listened to any plays on Radio 4, but at the time of writing I haven’t listened to “more” Radio 4 plays than I used to), “Contribute to comedy programmes” (I refuse to even comment on the absurdity of this) and “Mike Rampton?” (This bit I’ve actually made progress on. About three months ago I sent Mike Rampton a message asking for his email address. Mike Rampton is funny and writes well and writes funny stuff well and I liked the idea of collaborating with him on something – possibly even a Radio 4 play. But I didn’t get around to emailing him, possibly for the same reason that I have never got around to running which officially is ” That I don’t have the right tracksuit bottoms” but is obviously something else. Eventually Mike Rampton got in touch with me – he has got the right tracksuit bottoms – and we may well collaborate on something in the future.)

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Mike Rampton, earlier

So, September. Not great. But where it once read: PROJECTS – SEPTEMBER in my notebook, it now reads: PROJECTS – SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER. October could be better. October is always better.

I want to fuck all the computer breaking gods in bins.

So I’ve come to Mallorca to write a book, a hare-brained fuckfaced scheme if ever there was one. And there was one, last year in fact, when I came to Mallorca and failed to write a book after failing to write three books in Paris. Prior to that I spent a decade not writing books in lots of places. There may be something wrong with me – something terrible. Wonderful, yet terrible.

So I’ve come to Mallorca to write a book. Naturally, I’m not writing a book. You probably knew that, knew it before I did. This non book writing isn’t down to laziness, a lack of moral fibre or shrinking inspiration. Not really. The gods must have been smiling at me because they beat up my computer the minute I arrived.

“The hard drive has gone,” explained the man in the computer shop.

“Oof,” I said, playing along. “Tricky.”

“Yep.”

“Does that mean it can’t be fixed?” I said, hopefully.

“No, no, I can fix the hard drive,” he said, as I started to go for his throat, “but the fan has gone. And this bit here” – I looked at that bit there – “and this. You need a new machine, really. It’s not worth fixing this.”

“But I can’t buy a new machine,” I beamed. “I mean computer. A computer machine. I can’t afford it – I HAVEN’T GOT THE MONEY.” And off I danced, like a maniac.

So I’ve come to Mallorca to write a book and have ended up building flowerbeds and spreading clay on tennis courts. I have no idea how this has happened, but am delighted by the turn of events. Who the hell wants to go around writing books? Not me. Not yet. I want to be building flowerbeds and spreading clay on tennis courts.

Where does this leave us? I mean, it’s been a while. (In case you’re wondering, the air conditioning unit is still there, still whirring away.) Well, I write things now and again and have managed to drudge up a weekly column every week for the last six months. That’s something. And if I somehow manage to summon up a computer from somewhere then I suppose I’ll have to write that book. That’s something, too. And once I get tired of building flowerbeds and spreading clay on tennis courts – tomorrow, probably, or Monday – then I’ll no doubt have the appetite for writing for a living again.

Good this, isn’t it?