Home Entertainment

He could almost hear his late father say “there’s nothing on the telly!”, mimicking some long gone radio presenter.  So right, whoever it had been.  D switched off the TV and threw the remote at the wall, missing the framed photograph of his disapproving parents peering down at him.  A snort of disgust blew through his untrimmed nostrils and the room plunged into a post-entertainment gloom.


He climbed the narrow stairs carefully, not letting the arthritis get the better of him. In bed, he tried to weigh up his options now that he had been out of work for a few months.  Despite having the word “communication” in his job title, he could not communicate, at least not in the way his employers wanted.  They had no quarrel with the technical excellence of his labour but the distance he seemed to put between himself and his colleagues, his managers and the customers meant that he was unlikely to survive an appraisal system that placed more importance on bland personalities and blind obedience to bizarre work targets than in actual performance.  


When they told him that he was surplus to requirements, he stole from the bank accounts of the board of directors.  This was a pragmatic move in his way of thinking.  Vengeance had been exacted against an employer that had never understood him, never tried to understand him.  Also, as the Welfare State had been dismantled a few years ago, he really did need the money.


He was bored of a life of emails, liking, sharing, live chats, help desks, activation codes, usernames and passwords. Spam mail was the highpoint of his day.  He had created an online fake identity and gently berated officialdom in this guise.  Thoughts of bitterness and rebellion churned his mind.  Listening through earphones to an early rock and roll album, Hüsker Dü’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories, he fell asleep.


He woke in the middle of the night with a start.  An idea had taken hold of him, a method of registering his contempt for a self-satisfied, self-congratulatory world and providing his own home entertainment. He chuckled, went into the garden, and, by torchlight, unlocked the many padlocks that secured the large metal, single storey structure that abutted the house next door.  This had originally been a storage container and the legend Findus Crispy Pancakes was still visible on its side though faded now and invaded by ivy.  He turned on the lights and surveyed his workshop.  All seemed in order and he swung carelessly on his chair, dreaming.


D spent several weeks perfecting his technique, making adjustments to computer programmes and hacking into the production departments of those broadcasting companies that interested him the most.   His equipment was linked to a 25 metre high antenna camouflaged among a group of plane trees that shielded the building from curious gazes.


One damp autumn Sunday early evening, he was ready in his lair, tuning in to his target, a particularly decadent antiques TV programme.  His software scanned the fawning over antiquities, and each time the word “worth” came up, it inserted the word “nothing” as a replacement to whatever immediately followed.  He giggled, happy that the slowed-down, anonymous voiceover had succeeded, at least in the local transmitting region.  It was pure comedy, observing so-called experts smugly pronouncing on the various items that members of the public had brought hopefully to the location and the delighted response by them to the revelation that their treasures were in fact worthless.  The show was taken off air when the remix was noticed and D shut down his apparatus to minimise the chance of being detected.  He allowed himself a little dance of celebration, then sat down, embarrassed by his unusual display of emotion.


The following day he bumped into his neighbour whilst retrieving his wheelie bins.  Ilyich was upset as the police had called that morning and had searched his house on some unspecified security matter.  He ran a small business from his home, dealing with communication solutions.  D was even more convinced that the authorities were clueless.  An apology was issued by the producers of the show, explaining the incident away as a technical hitch and there were numerous complaints from outraged viewers. In a news report, the head of the Security Service described the “nothing incident” as a cyber attack, an assault on the right of the ordinary citizen to enjoy without interruption a “national treasure lovingly crafted by the greatest television industry in the world”. The game was on.


D laid low for a few weeks, studying, mixing audio tapes and boosting his mast.  He decided that he would next activate his “studio” for a late night screening of the vintage movie First Blood on the lesser known Testosterone network.  He managed to replace the vocal of the character Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) by overdubbing it with excerpts from the opera songs O Sole Mio and Lolita, Serenata Spagnola in the scene in which he enters the command tent set up in the search for his former soldier, the fugitive John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone).  The dialogue of the sadistic Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) in this exchange was altered to a touching admission, in a shrill voice, of his undying romantic love for his quarry though the face and body language spoke of revenge, hunting dogs and hatred of outsiders .  This was a more ambitious act of civil disobedience and usurpation and D felt that he had actually improved one of his favourite films with his slick, competent and imaginative editing.  There was little feedback to this intervention due to the lateness of the hour and the irrelevance of the film.  However, some enthusiasts had noticed and an online cult emerged, seeking to unearth similar occurrences by trawling back through thousands of hours of films, good and bad.


Over the coming months he paid close attention to the domestic political scene, especially the vocal styles of the Cabinet members.  When the tragic story broke of fourteen slaves dying in a fire at their accommodation, he sensed his chance.  He would expect from the Home Affairs Minister, Ms Serena Todd, a suitably solemn, studied response to include a rejection of the growing practice of slavery, a commitment from the Government to stamp it out again.  But when her statement was repeated in a later bulletin, he had inserted the sentence “of course, we don’t care about the lower orders…I would love to have slaves working on my estate..”  The broadcast was cut almost as soon as it began but it was too late.  Even though it was apparent that she had little control over the hijacking of her interview, she had been made to look silly and, in some people’s view, honest. Todd resigned that night.  Riots had broken out in six major cities, many districts were ablaze and a mob had cornered the family thought to be the owners of the dead slaves in a secluded part of the Eastern sector, lynching them from their own apple trees.


D sat back, wide-eyed at what he had unleashed, taking in the breaking news on a bank of monitors.  He opened a bottle of champagne and raised his glass to the assembled TVs which at that moment switched to a Security Service spokeswoman announcing that they were close to making an arrest on charges of terrorism, inciting insurrection and theft of intellectual property.  D froze, spilling his drink when there was a loud banging at the door and Tech Police forced their battering ram into his shed, his world.  As the handcuffs shut, he went into a kind of fit, curling into a tight ball, speaking in tongues with guns pointing at him and the cameras rolling.



The Visitors

It’s funny what you remember and what you forget.  Is it a choice or an accident? Or somewhere between the two?  I don’t know but I can’t forget that night and its aftermath though, if I’m honest, I would choose to.


It had been a fairly ordinary Friday in late April, a day of work and of fitting in those things that have to be fitted in around work.  In those days I earned a living of sorts in a seafood processing factory several miles away from my home.  The commute took me past flinty escarpments with their suggestion of standing stones and down a blackthorn valley with sparse, ancient cottages like the one I rented.  I parked my car on the grass behind a make-do building covered by corrugated iron sheets the colour of port in a former port town.  The equipment for processing the produce of cetaceans had been inserted into the vacuum left by the decline of traditional farming that was due to a series of bad harvests, a collapse in trade deals and the foot and mouth epidemic that had led to the mass cull of cattle and pigs.


In the stench of dead dolphins and over the searing buzz of the mechanised knives, a rumour arose, first debated in the morning ten minute break, developed during the twenty minute lunch and fully formed by the time the last mugs of tea of the shift were empty.  One of the migrant workers had asked if any of us had seen strange lights in the area over the last week. He claimed to have observed white, yellow and red lights both above and below the horizon, moving at enormous speed.  A couple of the smokers nodded but then they always did when they were smoking.  One colleague said that she thought she had seen something not quite right in the sky while driving recently but it had happened so quickly and whatever it was had gone by the time she’d stopped.  Cigarette smoke spiralled upwards to a cacophony of seagulls. I looked for these birds and wondered when they would be available on supermarket shelves.


I had nothing to contribute to the debate and kept to myself the conversations I’d had recently with some sheep farmer neighbours of mine. Several of their animals had been found dead on the moor which was not that unusual but these beasts had been marked with strange geometric shapes gouged into their corpses.  This had been kept out of the news as no one paid much attention to such small fry now that the new agriculture was dominated by massive conglomerations and horrors dressed up as opportunities.


The workplace emptied with a palpable feeling of relief and expectation and a haste that always impressed me.  I waited for the cars of the others to leave and I started on my way home.  My first call was to a market where I picked up some flowers, wine, and two packets of horse burgers.


I pulled in next at the care home, a former mansion, where we had installed my mother when she had become too much for us.  I entered the impressive but dismal hallway and signed my name in the visitors book. There weren’t many staff members around at this time of the day.  I found my mother on her own, tiny in a large chair, looking out over the gardens. I kissed her, introducing the flowers.  She was not interested in them so I left them on a nearby table. The conversation was a struggle but her eyes still shone. I was happy that she was well cared for but I couldn’t shake the thought that this was a pointless exercise.  I said goodbye and drove the last few miles home.


Mary was waiting for me at the cottage.  We caught up with the day’s news and thoughtlessly switched on the TV. We fried the burgers and sat down to eat as the sun was sinking from view. I had the wine to myself as she had just started maternity leave.  We didn’t say much as we were tired and we had already said most of what we wanted to say.  We both lifted our heads, however, to follow a news item concerning an incident in which a car had crashed off a road in our locality the night before, its driver apparently dazzled by a light approaching from the sky.  The motorist was uninjured but spooked, barely able to look the reporter in the eye.


We collapsed onto the sofa, exhausted, me a little tipsy.  We must have fallen asleep soon after, leaning into each other.  I awoke briefly a couple of times and half-noted on these occasions that the light was switched off and that I couldn’t see the TV standby light. I was too sleepy to realise that we had not caused this.


Mary woke up, murmuring that she wanted to go to the toilet.  She was about to get up when I pulled her back by her arm.  The room was bathed in a light coming from outside the window.  I knew that there was no moon that night and that vehicles could not access the building from that side.  I very carefully peeped over the top of the sofa and gasped when I saw a tall figure dressed in some kind of illuminated space suit standing completely motionless at the window. I saw no identifying marks on the clothing and could not see the face through the helmet.  I quickly ducked back down and whispered to Mary what I had seen, exhorting her to stay quiet and not move.


Our hearts beating almost audibly, we clutched each other and remained tensely still, holding sweaty hands.  I  prayed that no harm would come to us or the baby and tried to summon up the courage to confront the intruder.  However, the motive for the watcher’s visit was not clear and as time passed it became more and more possible, and hopeful, that our presence had not been detected.


A little before dawn, the night visitor at last moved away from its position and the room was immersed in the kind of darkness that occurs for a short time after a bright light is extinguished. As the day was about to begin to break, I regained my confidence and rose cautiously, keeping an eye on the window and taking my shotgun from out of its cabinet.  I nervously crossed the threshold to patrol the exterior, gun at the ready. I poked the barrel into bushes, around the car and aimed it futilely down the rough track that led to that place.  Nothing greeted me save the barking of the awakening dogs of the nearby farms and the chill of the morning of the night before.


I got back inside and tried the lights.  They worked. I gave Mary the biggest hug my dwindling energy reserves could muster.  She put the kettle on and we drank a cup of tea in silence and relief, me with the weapon across my knees as the world stirred around us, a world that had appeared to have changed forever.


Later that morning, we packed a bag or two and left for the in-laws in the town. She would stay with them while we tried to work out what to do for the best.  I left them and walked the short distance to the police station to file my report. To my amazement, I was not met with incredulity as it had been a busy night for unexplained sightings.


On the following Monday, two officials who claimed to be from a Government Department I had never heard of, The Ministry of Mystery, called on me at work. The manager allowed us a cramped storeroom and they interrogated me about what had happened. Both had the same unidentifiable accent and were polite enough, asking the type of questions I would have expected.  There was something awkward about the whole exchange, however. Maybe it was me, maybe it was them.  When they had finished, they shook my hand and left.


They would return a number of times over the following weeks to ask the same questions at my home, also interviewing Mary at her parents.  I had the impression that they would have liked me to retract my statement.  I told them that I knew what I thought I had seen and very definitely felt, at which they just smiled.  I noticed on at least two of these occasions that they had to make their excuses fairly early in the meeting as they both appeared to be either fatigued or ill.  After a while, I became suspicious of these unnamed and enigmatic bureaucrats. When a couple of phone calls revealed no record of such an organisation, the visits suddenly stopped.


Mary was worn out by the whole thing and lost the baby. She blamed me and we grew apart. I stayed on at the cottage and remained at the factory until I could no longer stand the smell, the people, the place, the memories.  I left the area and took a job on a ship in the resurgent whaling industry, making good money working out my disappointment and rage in the slaughter of huge animals, and keeping away from UFOs and their occupants.

Night Shift

It had been a long, tail-chasing day as they all seemed to be those days.  He left the building where he earned a minimal wage as a desk jockey for the Department of Inclement Weather and walked towards the side street where his car was parked.  When he got there, he slumped behind the wheel in a robotic motion, took a deep breath and started to drive through the neon glare of fast food outlets, petrol stations and streetlights to join the country road home.


The traffic was light as the hour was late and he settled into the comfort of seating, air-conditioning, music and the gentle rise and fall, rise and fall of the way.  The occasional flick of the wiper blades punctuated the uneventfulness and hinted at more persistent rain.  The lights of settlements gradually grew less frequent as did fellow travellers.  He occupied himself in thought patterns concerning his employment, his twenty-five years in a black suit and, more urgently, a last-ditch attempt to win back the mother of his children.


He had to slow down when he approached a dirty estate car.  He saw the scarlet of his brake lights bleed briefly over the hedges behind and he knew that he would not be able to overtake this vehicle for several miles.  After a few minutes, his attention was drawn to what looked like a photograph taped to the inside of its rear windscreen.  He had difficulty in making it out so inched a little nearer then allowed himself to fall behind. He did this several times until he was fairly satisfied that the image was of a local woman who had been reported missing recently. He tried to recall the details that gossip and newspaper reports had half-taught him about the case.  The photograph reminded him of an icon as rain, now falling heavily in a formidable side wind, also hampered identification and aided mystique.  He seemed to remember reading that the woman had been found dead in a wood that lay a few miles from his present route but thought he may have been thinking of someone else.


A few minutes later, both cars were diverted by roadworks onto a narrow, twisting road which led through this wood.  Travel was slower now and the trees, whipped up by gusts, reached out their branches to touch the cars, scratching, scraping.  He sensed that they were the bony arms of witches trying to seduce him, to drag him into the undergrowth and leave him covered with moss, leaves stuffed in his mouth about which a horse-bit would be ritually arranged.  He laughed and shuffled in his seat, screwing up his eyes to see rain like arrows falling down on his wild imagination.


A cigarette butt was tossed from the other car and hit the wet tarmac in a brief, tiny show of embers.  He felt his hopes were becoming like this last breath of a drug discarded in a lonely place with only him as witness.


Suddenly, it became much darker with the sound of a storm replacing that of his vehicle.  He shivered and put his foot down but the car coasted to a halt at a crossroads.  He tried to restart the engine without success.  The trees, bent into contorted gestures by the wind, appeared to have moved nearer in a bridal train of leaves. In the gloom, he tried his mobile phone but there was no signal just the image of the woman in the photograph in the long-gone other car. He could see her smile knowingly at him until the battery expired in a brief blue steel blink and total absence of light reigned.


Night Shift image



I Thought I Had More Time


A camera I had last used nearly 15 years ago and thus effectively antiquated reminded me that learned procedures are not always remembered. I accidentally destroyed a 36 exposure colour film on a rainy hillside last weekend by forgetting that a certain minute dial had be turned clockwise in order to rewind the film.

(Turning one’s head in bed in darkness in a certain direction because you feel that there’s someone there though you know it can’t be true. You expect to see it but prevent it from being seen by daring it to appear.)

One day words will come alive. Literally. They will decide whether to change their meaning. Thus they will become even more senior partners in the realm of the emotions, philosophy and science. People will live under a tyranny of syllables, unable to remember what any word means, used to mean or know what they will mean. The experience of thinking, speech and writing will have the intense second-guessing feeling of being forcibly subjected to a universal sort of predictive text of the mind at all times. Words will have this mobility and independence retrospectively, in effect rewriting history. But they will rule their letters benevolently?


What goes through people’s minds when they are choosing a name for a child? Mohammed, according to a free newspaper, is the most popular boy’s name in the UK. Do people name a child after a parent, grandparent or another important family member? Or after a contemporary singer or actor? Is there anyone alive today called Achsah, that name I see on the gravestones of 19th century Biblically-educated Welsh-speaking West Wales?

Black Friday or rather the 1st Black Friday of December. A woman hit by a falling television set in a Tesco store. Melees break out over discounts and people raid the trollies of others, haggling taken to new extremes. Watch out for the rain of 50 inch smart TVs.


Christmas shopping. Droves in streets which used to welcome and channel drovers. What to buy? The shops seem so replete with unnecessary objects which still are attractive to the buying throng. Giant illuminated red stars hang over the main roads, an ironic, unconscious nod to the former Soviet iconography. What appears to be a massive, stylised bolt of lightning has embedded itself in tarmac between a brand new insurance office block, a retail centre and the place I work. In all of this colour and activity I try to locate a music venue whose name is a reminder of my minority language in the capital city of the country whose language it is. I can’t find it…..


My journey to work takes me past a mental hospital (“not A and E”). It looks like a Victorian construction, like an overgrown church with the tall, thin chimney of a crematorium. My drive is on the valley road, virtually the only road in and out. Local speed limits, traffic lights and a light drizzle add to the feeling of tedium. I am a little anxious as I am still getting used to a car which replaced one wrecked at one of the roundabouts on this road a few weeks ago.


I catch a train in a polite queue and find a seat. Most passengers are reading the free newspaper, books, their mobile phones or laptops. There is little conversation. One of the guards seems to have a voice a little like Dylan Thomas but then again maybe they all do in this centenary year. I look out at the fields, surprised at how green this formerly industrial area has become, at how tired I have become.


My reverie is ended by my arrival in the city to crowds of people carrying takeaway coffees as if they were lanterns, showing the way. The entrance to the station has a casual guard of three chatting policemen.


A short way from these officers, six street drinkers sit on steps descending to a car park. They look brown, happy and worn. A discarded rail ticket lies pasted onto the damp pavement as does a card with the flag of a country I can’t identify at the pace of the pack I am in, trying to do up a broken zip on my coat as I go.


At traffic lights, people take risks when the red man shows, when death could arrive in an instant from one of five directions.


In the shiny shopping centre, an old man with a white and yellow beard sits slumped next to a restaurant which is based on recreating USA youth music and food of the 1950s. He uses two sticks and talks to himself, the very antithesis of what this eating place trumpets.


I reach my office, a fairly large, squat building now being slowly dwarfed by the office block rising on legs of concrete across the road.

In The Spirit of Crazy Horse

Recently I heard of the death of Peter Matthiessen, the American author and naturalist at the age of 86. When I say “heard” I more properly mean “read” as it was on the internet that I obtained this sad news. One is more likely to receive news from this source nowadays rather than hearing of events as in former days or so it seems.

Like so many I had been introduced to Matthiessen’s writings by “The Snow Leopard”, a stunning physical and spiritual adventure set in the Himalayas. This is one of those books which remind me, in my godless state, of something other out there. I recall blue sheep, the incredible remoteness of destinations and Matthiessen’s strong, craggy, browned face staring back at me from the book’s cover like a latter day Saint Francis of Assisi.

I salute Matthiessen for his tireless work in the world of wildlife, his vivid travelogues, his skills as a storyteller able to engage, thrill and inform his audience, and his intelligent longevity. From the perspective of my cultural circumstances I felt there was something about him of the learning, the purity and the reverence for Nature of the early Celtic Church. It is the loss of a keen focus in a world where much does not get even a second glance.

Lunch Hour

It was Friday and the countdown to The Promised Land that promised to be the weekend was well under way. Ironic that Biblical concerns still had relevance in this age. It had been a difficult period of changing procedures and low morale and a colleague suggested we did something, went somewhere different in our lunch hour.

We waited for the traffic to stop then headed for a scarlet building hiding behind its much newer and taller surroundings, mostly hotels and South American restaurants. My friend said that it had been described as the city’s “forgotten” market. Climbing four storeys, we briefly took in the myriad of antiquities for sale until we were stopped in our tracks by a Bren Gun, big, lean, brown, with a light patina of rust, perched on a sustained firing tripod. We wanted this weapon though we knew we lived in homes too cramped for such supposedly unnecessary items.

We excitedly discussed this antique over tea and scones in a rooftop glass structure with views of railway tracks. My friend pronounced “scones” as in “cones”, I as in “cons”. I fantasised about a use for this inert gun, proposing that we would volunteer, as a developmental opportunity, to attend the next senior managers meeting. We would present the Bren gun wordlessly to the Area Manager and only briefly hang around to view the bemusement. We of course would expect to be dismissed though we suspected that the reason for this would not be fully understood by the decision makers. We chuckled, enjoying the last moments in this oasis in the heart of a city winding up for Friday night.