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Well, I’m off to LA again soon. Not just for a vacation this time, I’m setting up some meetings. I’ve had this idea rolling around my head for a little while now, and I’ve decided it’s finally time to go do the thing and make it happen.

Here’s the submission letter I sent out…

[… I’m not revealing my great contacts, obviously]
Los Angeles CA

You may remember me as the guy who sent a long letter analysing your current hit series and explaining how it would be even cooler if you let me be showrunner on it. But hopefully that’s all behind us now – because I’ve got an even better idea.

It’s time for a new kind of superhero: a boy who looks like everyone else, but actually has a secret life where he fights, you know, aliens and monsters and shit. Of course the basic concept’s been done before – what hasn’t, right? — but not like this. Our kid is different. Our kid is called… NORMAL BOY.

Couple of teasers just to whet your appetite:

1. Normal Boy dresses not in a costume, but in regular clothes – the kind of garments a parent might actually wish to see their child wearing (and which are, coincidentally, easily and cheaply available from Gap or Target and so on, rather than at considerable expense and only on the internet).

2. He changes these clothes on a daily basis, seldom looking the same, rather than slavishly insisting on wearing exactly the same outfit for months and months at a time, even in bed, until it looks totally rank and starts to fell apart and his parents can barely remember what he looked like without it, or what it was like to go out in public with their child without other adults looking disapprovingly at them.

3. Normal Boy defeats aliens and monsters and the tide of ancient darkness via politeness, going to bed without a fuss, and by practicing his reading and writing – rather than through aggressively jumping on furniture, shouting, or striking odd poses and then haring off into the distance like a lunatic.

4. While he’s all about defending the universe and maintaining the age-old balance between good and evil, Normal Boy’s also aware of the timeless relevance of eating properly at the table and not dropping things down the stairs when he’s been told not to a million times, for the love of Christ.

5. He does not refer to anyone – much less parents, teachers or policemen – as ‘doofus’ or ‘butthead’. At no point does he (or anyone else in the show) drawl “Oh, man…” or “I’ve got a bad feeling about this…” Instead, once in a while he breaks off into brief inspirational monologues about the importance of a balanced diet, or simply falls silent in order to listen to the pronouncements of his elders and betters.

Cool, huh? Kinda out there – but in a good way. I haven’t actually got any of the plot worked out – I assume we’ll just hire a bunch of by-the-yard scriptmonkeys and plunder the usual sf classics – but I’ve got the ancillary stuff nailed, and let’s face it, that’s what’s going to rake in the moolah.

I’ve tried to make an appointment with one of your assistants, but they keep claiming you’re (a) in a meeting, (b) out or (c) dead. But I get it — you’re a busy guy, and you have to weed out the losers and wannabes. This is going to be so worth your time, as I’m sure you can see.

So let’s meet: let’s get NORMAL 🙂

Michael Marshall Smith

I’m very excited – I think it’s going to be huge.

Wish me luck!

There’s an awful lot of toss talked on the Internet. In real life too, of course, but it’s far, far worse on the net. The reasons for this are legion – lack of peer review prior to ‘publication’, the need to blog even if people don’t have anything new to say (and even if they never had anything to say), the social networking opportunities that beg to be fulfilled. It’s considered bad form to point this out or to question every human’s inviolable right to say what they want, all the time, but let’s face it – we are now surrounded by a whirling cloud of invisible bollocks.

(Example: there’s more than app, for the love of God, which enables you to tweet up a random quote, to help you keep up your posting rate during those periods when you don’t have anything whatsoever to say. Which is psychotic.)

Anyway. My point is it’s nice when you discover someone who isn’t talking toss, as I recently did in Dave Pell’s blog at (to which I was steered by Smoking Apples, another blog worth reading, assuming you’re rather too interesting in matters Apple-related). Pell’s blog is great: thoughtful, well-written and generally bang on the nail – and if you’ve got the time to spare, go check it out.

But do you, in fact, have the time to spare?

Real time, that’s actually spare?

I was at a kids’ party yesterday and found myself wondering: what on earth did parents do at these events before the advent of smartphones? Before they could while away the hours as their kids romped under the supervision of an entertainer and then stuffed themselves full of weapons-grade sugar while ignoring the statutory carrot sticks and humous (I have a fantasy about writing a novel from the perspective of a pot of childrens’ party humous, revealing that there’s only ever been one pot in London, which has been circulating around parties for the last ten years, never eaten, always scraped back into the container and then passed on)… what did they do? Presumably they talked. Or watched their kids. Or stared into space and thought about something else. But now they all stand staring down at their phones, finding they have no new emails, monitoring non-critical status updates from people they don’t actually know (in the old-skool sense of ‘know’, which meant to, like, actually, ‘know’ someone), or just catching up on… ‘stuff’. Information. Views. Facts.

And all this, as Pell points out in one post, is uncomfortably like a drug. TV was never this bad. We sit in front of too much TV because it’s easy, or a form of company – not because we have a twitching compulsion to know what’s going on there the entire time. The net is different. It’s far more addictive in quality. I’ve even found I’ve started to consume news merely because there’s cute apps for doing so. I’m reading about stuff that formerly I didn’t care about, just because I can do so in a GUI-lickable way. I don’t think this is making me a better person, or better-informed. I think it’s just plain bonkers, and I’m trying to reign back.

Now that I have an iPad (yes, they’re fabulous, and yes, you want one), I can – and do – set aside discrete chunks of time to consume the web’s rich bounty of information. That’s enough, I’ve decided. I’ve always had my iPhone email set so I have to manually check for new emails, and thinking about all this has inspired me to do something else that I’d been meaning to for a while. I’ve gone through my phone and thrown off (almost) everything that counts as a pointless diversion or too-easy time filler. I’m down to the apps I need to run my life, ones that work best or only at all with the portability of the phone, and a few other cherished trinkets (including a handful of games to occasionally yield a few minutes peace from my beloved child, of course: I’ve not gone totally insane).

I heart my iPhone. My iPhone and I are, frankly, sitting in a tree. But I don’t want my every waking moment sucked down the drain of checking things or monitoring things or reading things that I don’t need (or actually even want – there’s a sizeable neurotic component here) to be doing. The Internet is turning us into obsessive consumers of the unimportant. That’s not good. There’s no point saying it’s merely a matter of impulse control, either. If our species possessed that in large quantities, we’d all be physically fit, perfectly-sized, non-smoking and non-drinking automatons who never got distracted or had affairs or started wars. I’ve met people like that, and they’re no fun at all.

I’m aware this is not a novel observation, and I only really started this now over-long entry to recommend Pell’s blog. For all I know it may be hugely celebrated already – I tend to wander around the web like a rube in the big city, having no clue of what all the hip citizens of the place already take for granted (What are these wondrous buildings with more than one storey? What strange magic informs them?) And yes of course – oh, the irony! – I’m also aware that this post of mine merely adds more words to the great seething pile of toss already out there.

So if you’re reading this while out strolling, or at a childrens’ party, or when you could be doing something else… just stop. Put the phone/iPad/laptop aside. Go do that something else. Stare out that train window. People-watch outside that Starbucks. Stroke the cat with your full attention. Just be. These words are simply not that important – even to me. I should be working on a TV script right now. I’m only typing this because it’s occurred to me, because I feel like it, in the hope that it might be mildly interesting to someone. And I hope it has been, and no – I’m not going to stop reading the web either, and of course spending some time on it isn’t the end of the world. But there are people and things out there that are real, which matter to us, and that will die. The Internet won’t. It is the new vampire – immortal, life-consuming, indifferent to us – and it will be here long after we’re all dead.

On the day we die, we won’t wish we’d read more blog posts or status updates or RSS feeds. We’ll wish we’d spent more time strolling or sitting in a daze, emailing with (genuine) friends, or hanging out in an unencumbered and non-mediated fashion with the people we love… including our own, quiet selves. These are the things that are real. Information is not, views are ephemeral, and facts don’t matter. People don’t have to express themselves on a rolling ten minute cycle, and we don’t have to know what they’re saying.

Deal with the real, not the toss. Start now.

I’ll help, by… shutting up 😉

Anybody out there? Been a long time since I posted, I know. I doubt anyone cares, but the reason has been a headlong rush to finish the first draft of a new novel. That’s done (though an edit will doubtless occur soon, oh happy prospect). I’m doing some screenwriting in the meantime, and tomorrow I’m heading to Brighton for the World Horror Convention. But for now…

This may read rather like coming across a re-run of the snow-blown Christmas Special of some old sitcom in mid-March, but this lunchtime I happened to be leafing through old recipe cuttings (yes, my life really is that dull), and came across one of those features that magazines run like clockwork during the festive season:

“Why not try something different to boring old turkey this year?”

Indeed, I thought, as always — or, on the other hand, why not stop trying to establish some dreary measure of self-definition by opting out of well-established and non-harmful ways of being? Christmas and its associated culinary traditions are — for those not directed otherwise through parallel belief systems — one of the few moments of national or international bonding left (apart, of course, from those relating to the death of a ‘celebrity’ or the climax of some witless cultural cancer like The Gag Factor or Big Moron). And… it only happens once a year. How can something you do just once a year have got to the stage of being so unutterably boring? To be fair, allowance must be made for Americans in this regard, who may have eaten the same thing only a month before: but, for everyone else, let’s get this straight — can you only bear one pasta dish a year, or one pizza, or one Chinese takeout? No, I thought not.

So unless you’re actually allergic to turkey, suck it up and eat the bloody stuff. Share in the event. Join the party. Do what everyone else is doing for this one day: don’t try to prove you’re different and fascinating through smirkingly serving up boiled lark’s tongue or a remoulade of mutton with a tangerine foam. Nobody’s watching, my friend. Nobody cares. There is great peace to be found, once in a while, from doing what everyone else is, especially when the tradition has been around for a few hundred years. Take a few minutes off the endless battle to be an individual, from refining and promoting your personal brand. Melt into the undertow for a day. It’s actually a blessed relief.

Which brings me by a roundabout route to a book recommendation. I picked this up for my wife last Christmas, on a whim, and she enjoyed it so much she insisted I read it too. I’ve finally got around to it. The book is DELIGHT, by J. B. Priestly. Originally published sixty years ago — but available now, in the UK at least, in an attractive reissue from Great Northern Books — it’s a collection of over a hundred essays on things that happened to bring the writer ‘delight’. The subjects are extremely varied (I read entries last night on the sound made by an orchestra tuning up, family silliness, and the feeling you get the day after reaching the end of a long, hard piece of work), and all are short, two or three pages at most. The prose is superb (not flashy, just good-humoured, charming and very accomplished), and there are stirring insights into everything from the nature of friendship to the joys of procrastination, but what’s best of all is the project itself.

So much writing these days, especially on the web — my own often included, I know — consists of whining and critiquing and showing just how jolly determined we are not to have the wool pulled over our eyes. We live in a universe where everyone prowls with itchy trigger fingers, searching gimlet-eyed for fault and insufficiencies, where the default review is one star. DELIGHT is just the opposite, and there should be many more books like it. Not eating turkey is not a sign of being grown-up — and neither is the adolescent carping that so many of us seem addicted to, this oh-so-sharp but oh-so-cheap trashing of everything in creation.

Saying that something’s crap is easy. Saying that something’s great… is bold.

Let’s be bold.

I’ve got one. A stonker, in fact. In an attempt to prevent the day from being a total waste — and to prove to myself that, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, I haven’t actually broken my brain — I thought I’d try to write something about them.

So. Hangovers:

1. They’re not good.

2. They’re not good. Christ, I think I’ve said that already.

3. There should be some kind of universally-agreed and internationally-recognised measurement of hangover, like the Richter Scale for earthquakes, or that one I can never remember the name of that relates to the hotness of chilies*. Come to think of it, I seem to recall that serious earthquakeologists don’t use the Richter scale any more, and have got some other new and groovier way of measuring the bloody things. But, Christ, you know? Why would they do that? Stop being greedy on the scale thing. Instead of chopping and changing over earthquake measuring, why not put your fertile minds to coming up with one for hangovers instead? That way people (by which I mean partners, mainly) would be able to see that the sufferer is really not very well at all, and needs to be treated kindly and if not exactly with sympathy, then at least tolerance. Maybe there could be a badge you could wear, in fact, or a digital read-out you could have installed in your forehead. That way when you went lurching out into the world to fulfil some unavoidable errand then other people would know to steer well clear and to do what they can to ease your progress, rather than just walking around and being themselves in a variety of challenging and unhelpful ways.

4. Alcohol should come with warnings that help. I don’t care about it being bad for pregnant women. I’m not one. Telling me to ‘drink responsibly’ is clearly a lost cause too. Instead they should describe the depths of pain, fear and confusion you will be wallowing in the next day, in quite small type, so you have to concentrate. Maybe every bottle of beer or wine should have a little mirror on it too, so you can see your face — and realise that instead of looking dashing and insouciant and man-about-town you in fact look like a leery buffoon whose features are in danger of sliding off his face.

5. Serious hangovers have a journey attached. You wake up feeling not too bad. This is because you’re still a bit drunk. Then slowly you start to feel really appalling. Then there’s a brief Indian Summer where for half an hour you think ‘Oh, okay, I’m feeling a bit better now, thank God for that.’ Then, sadly, it gets worse. It’s during this last stage that you will make fervent promises never to drink ever again. Then you’ll remember that you’re going out again tonight. Which I am. Oh lord.

6. I’m not sure there is a (6), actually.

7. One of the more distressing features of getting a little older is the advent of the two-day hangover. When I was young and full of hope, I used to be able to go out, have far too much fun, merely feel a bit pasty the next morning, and be back on form by early afternoon. Now I will be effectively in a coma for twenty four hours, and still feel ropey the next day. That’s not fair. Becoming wiser is not an adequate trade-off for this.

8. Here are two of my other memorable hangovers. The morning after my friend Zaz’s thirtieth birthday. She’s forty now. I can vividly recall how bad I felt the next day, a decade later. I should be able to learn from this that no evening is worth that level of discomfort. Have I learned this? No. Another would be a morning in Snohomish, Washington State. My wife and I had a fabulous evening in a bar called The Oxford, run by a charming couple who were extremely nice to us. I drank quite a few pints of some very cloudy local microbrew, and woke up the next morning feeling dire. Nonetheless we walked into town, and I checked out a second-hand bookstore I’d noticed the night before. It was big and excellent, and the presence of lots and lots of books made me feel a little better. But then my wife, who’d noticed they had some of my hardcovers, insisted on going up to the staff and asking if they’d like them signed. There was a long, long, loooooooong pause, before the guy said ‘Yeah, sure’ — which clearly meant ‘No, never heard of him, and why would we want some loser to scrawl his name on his books anyway? And also, just how frigging hungover is he? Look — he’s lying face-down on the floor.’ I signed the books, and left. I still feel a bit embarrassed about it now. And one day, my wife will pay.

9. I should probably have some lunch now. What do people have for lunch? I can’t remember.

10. When I come to power, people who get all smug and judgemental about other people’s hangovers will be put to death. Saying ‘Well, it’s your own silly fault’ or ‘If you’re going to be a man in the evening, be a man the next morning’ or ‘Personally I never get hangovers, because I only drink in moderation’ is not the sign of maturity. It’s a sign of being a knob.

I’m not going to go back and edit this because I can barely read. If there are any grammatical mistakes, keep them to yourself. I’ve got a hangover, in case that wasn’t clear.


* Aha – it’s the Scoville unit, that’s it. Just Wikipediaed it. See? I’m on top of my game after all.

I went into town a week or two ago (by ‘town’ I mean central London), to have dinner with someone I’ve known for over twenty years. I emerged from the stygian depths of Tottenham Court Road tube and turned right into the top end of Charing Cross Road. I do this pretty much every time I come into the centre, because I generally need cash for the night and I habitually acquire it by taking a cut-through behind the hulking presence of the Astoria theatre, and thence into Soho Square, at the bottom end of which lies Frith Street, which holds a couple of ATMs.

But that evening, the Astoria wasn’t there. Instead there was just an empty space, surrounded by hoardings.

The Astoria was just plain gone.

I realised, as I stood there open-mouthed, that this has been coming for a while. A very long time, in fact. Fifteen years ago I worked for a slightly pointless association whose members were already up in arms about the proposed ‘Crossrail development’, which involves — for some reason I still don’t quite understand, and probably never will — an additional tube line being built under this very central area of London. As part of the process the block which previously held the Astoria (in days of yore a significant theatrical locale, more recently a battered and pleasingly seedy gig/club venue) has been demolished. It’s… history.

If you’d asked me ahead of time, I probably wouldn’t have thought that I would care much: but as I walked past the void its destruction has left — on the way to dinner, and back to the tube station afterwards — I remembered a few things:

The Astoria was the only venue in which I’ve played guitar to a sizable audience. Twenty-some years ago I was part of a four-man comedy troop, which (back when it seemed we might be, like, famous and stuff) were featured on a big TV show recorded in the venue. I got to play my Strat very loudly on the Astoria stage (actually it wasn’t my Strat, in point of fact, which proved to have a major shielding problem and fed back like a bastard; I had to play a replacement Strat rapidly hired from a place on nearby Denmark Street, instead). The show got cancelled a year later. So did our performing careers, eventually. We’re now a barrister, writer, writer and writer, respectively — and probably much happier for it.

It was also where I saw a band called Gun, twice. Both occasions were with one of my oldest friends, Howard (not the person with whom I went out to dinner, as it happens). Both were astonishingly good gigs. I remember the band strolling onto stage one by one, already casually rocking out, in a manner which will always define rock and roll for me. Later in the evening I also recall getting outlandishly stoned in the higher tiers of the venue. At the second gig, both my now-wife and my then-and-still editor came along. Gun were key to my listening life for a few years (Gallus remains one of the greatest rock albums of all time, according to me), then had a big hit with their cover of Word Up (previously a live favourite, which Howard and I heard morphed fabulously into Enter Sandman, at the first gig), became a bit shit for a while, and then vanished .

The Astoria was also the only venue where I’ve seen a gig from the VIP area. I’m fortunate to know the keyboardist of a certain band (I say ‘fortunate’ because I like the guy, and his wife, very much, not because I got to score a VIP ticket as a result). I don’t care how vapid this makes me sound, but being in VIP areas is cool. There’s space for more of that in my life, now any vague dreams of rock stardom are long-gone. Other bands, take note.

The Astoria was finally the place where, a couple of years ago, I went to see another gig with an old college friend, William Vandyck (again, not the guy went to dinner with on the night I’m talking about, but he was one of the guys in the comedy group (the one who became a barrister), and thus on stage at the same time I got to play my guitar). We went to see Bowling for Soup, the pair of us feeling about a bazillion years old, surrounded by excitable teenagers — and realising both that we really needed to get a grip on our music tastes and that some bands are far more acceptable on record than they are in real life.

These were all nights that mattered, but the truth of it is that I’ve only actually been inside the Astoria a handful of times. Its main role has been as something I navigated by or around. Were I a stone age man (rather than just behaving like one, sometimes), the Astoria would definitely have earned its own petroglyph in my mental map of London. It’s a building I’ve walked past hundreds and hundreds of times over the course of a quarter of a century — glimpsing posters for bands I’m not cool enough to like, or upcoming club nights I’m not gay enough to wish to attend. A place that had a significant physical bulk and heft, and behind which lay one of my quietly treasured little short-cuts, a quick duck-and-dive that doubtless looked scary and I-don’t-fancy-that to passing tourists, but which actually led to a sudden haven of quiet through a couple of dank side streets which threaded like narrow canyons between towering Victorian buildings, before re-emerging into a side road which led into leafy Soho Square. It was a secret corner of the very centre of one of the most amazing cities in the world, which few people knew about — a rat route than made me feel I knew the city in a way others did not. That made me feel like a Londoner.

That cut-through has gone. My secret way has disappeared. All of the above events have gone, in fact, at least in terms of the physical space in which they occurred. I have another very good and very old friend (the writer Nicholas Royle, who, predictably, was also not the person I went to dinner with on the night in question; but whom I met while working for the association whose members cared about Crossrail; and who was also the first person to accept a short story of mine for publication), who I’ve accused of having ‘emotional routes’ — geographically-dubious means of getting from A to B, which have very little to do with spatial efficiency and a lot more to do with ricocheting between locales of previous emotional significance. I realised only on the night I went to dinner that cutting around the back of The Astoria was one of mine.

I guess this is simply what getting older is like. Places go, demolished in the name of subway routes which you can’t see and have no need for, but which, you assume, are generally agreed to be a good thing for someone else. And that’s fair enough. People go, too. Dreams dissolve. Relationships die and friendships fade away. And yet we go on living, and keep on doing the best we can with what remains of what once was… and with what cool new things may come.

There’s no real narrative to this, let alone a moral. It’s just an event in my life, and I’m marking it in the only way I know how. The past is the past and nothing more, and the kicker is that I had a lovely evening that night — with great food, a good friend, and several hours spent bantering about stuff that matters now, rather than wallowing in back-in-the-day. That’s what life is really for — the endless now — and the loss of the Astoria made me realise how much I do have, especially when it comes to friends, and not just the ones whose lives have happened to once meander with mine through a place which is no longer there. You’re a bunch of utter bastards, but I’m very glad to know you all.


ps: On a tangential note, the Nicholas Royle mentioned above has recently started a publishing imprint, called Nightjar Press. He’s kicked it off with a couple of chapbooks, one of which is written by me. Don’t feel you have to buy that one — buy the other, by Tom Fletcher, which is excellent — but do check the site out either way. Nick is one of the very goodest of the good guys, and small presses like this have long been the lifeblood of genre fiction. If there’s a one run by Nick Royle, you definitely want to be reading what it prints.

DAVE 2.0b2
A man

Customer Reviews for current version:

Woot! A new version of Dave! Going to install now!! LOL!!!

Glad to see an upgrade at last, but I don’t like the new icon or interface changes. Dave seems to have put on weight, and has more lines around the eyes.

Dave sucks! There are lot’s beter people around than him.

I like some of the new habits, and actually think the few grey hairs are an improvement. I would have liked to see a little more wiseness (I have submitted a NUMBER of requests for this via the forums), but overall, a decent upgrade.


Hey – I’m Dave’s developer. Thanks for the comments… It would help a LOT if everyone would submit proper bug reports (with log files), though, instead of just saying Dave doesn’t work. For example: “Has tendency to get dogmatic after four beers [16/10/2009]”. Cheers!

I like Dave, and will continue to support his development, though like some other long-term users have been disappointed by his tendency in recent iterations to lack the verve and optimism of previous versions.
REPLY from DEVELOPER: The optimism plug-in proved hard to maintain due to underlying features in Dave’s Reality, and has been dropped. I’m working on increasing the Defeated Resignation options for the next beta.

Not the upgrade I was hoping for after all this time. The audio monitoring and response functions still don’t work as advertised.
REPLY from DEVELOPER: Increased Empathy is on the request list, and I’m working on it. For the time being, please use workarounds like not talking to him when he’s tired.

This should be FREE! Check out the open source John 0.4.6 instead. Can’t stand up or speak or breathe dependably, but its FREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!

I tried to use Dave to do my accounts and it got everything wrong. I want my hard-earned cash back.
REPLY from DEVELOPER: Dave has never understood accounts, and never will.


Dreadful evening. Just dreadful [log attached]
REPLY from DEVELOPER: Yes, I’m aware there are some compatibility issues with Dave 2.0 and YourFriends 3.1. Please try to use them at different times while I work on a patch.

Does exactly what it says on the tin!!!

Does this upgrade have Telepathy powers?

I have absolutely nothing better to do with my time, and so have just read every comment ever made about this software. I don’t specifically have anything to add. Christ I’m bored.

I just tried to run the exercise mode in Dave 2.0b2 and it crashed out after 20 minutes. FIX THIS, YOU BASTARD.
REPLY from DEVELOPER: Try using the “Walk” setting rather than “Run”.

I’m sorry but this just isn’t good enough. I’ve been a long-term supporter of Dave, and have paid the upgrade fee every time, but I’m just not sure I see evidence of meaningful development. Dave 2.0b2 is prey to increasing feature-itis (ability to make basic dinners for the children, occasionally remembering to pick his trousers off the bedroom floor, retention of endless trivia gleaned from the History Channel) but the basic flaws (lack of flair, decreasing libido, being generally annoying) remain – and are getting worse, if anything. Unless these are fixed in the next beta I’m tempted to try Co-Worker 1.0.
REPLY from DEVELOPER: Please be patient – and see the changelog on the website for under-the-hood improvements that should bear fruit soon. Also, be aware that Co-Worker 1.0 has a virus.

Seems to sigh a lot more than he used to. Is this deliberate?

What??? Dave is a man? It shuld say so here. I pade good money for this and wanted a Lady. Money back!!!
REPLY from DEVELOPER: It *does* say so here, you fucking muppet.

I have consulted with someone I met on FaceBook, who says he is a great lawyer, and he says Dave is not fit for purpose, specifically he can’t do my accounts for me like I want. Therefore I am suing you. To avoid this send me all your money now.
REPLY from DEVELOPER: I don’t *have* any money. Dave 2.0 is shareware, relying upon the honesty and decency of users. You do the math.

I’ve been using Dave since the early days back at college, and generally found him a good fit for my workflow and socialising goals. Well, times have changed, and after test-driving Bob 1.4 for a couple of evenings, I think I’m going to switch. I will keep Dave on my hard drive and XmasCardList, but won’t ever use him again.


Okay, fair enough, Co-Worker 1.0 wasn’t the solution (though I’ve had worse snogs). But I’m not getting any younger, am I, and I’m tired of living with a man with no drive, who never seems truly happy, and who never touches me any more. I’m downloading a trial version of Friend of a Friend right now.

Aha. Now THAT’S what I’m talking about, right there.

Earn$300 from home!! Click HERE!!!!!!!

It is with great regret that I am ceasing development on Dave. I’m simply not gaining enough satisfaction to justify the amounts of time required, and to be honest I think there are problems in the underlying code which will never get resolved. I’d like to thank everyone for their support. Dave should continue to function for some time, but will eventually succumb to an ever-increasing sense of pointlessness and doubt. No flowers, please.

Amongst the many changes I’m going to make when I come to power is this: replacing all of the information on the outside of spaghetti packs with a single, large numeral, indicating how many minutes the pasta needs cooking for.

Why don’t they do this? I don’t need all the other information. I don’t need a logo, or a cheery life-affirming slogan, and I certainly don’t need an ingredient list for the product. I know what’s in spaghetti — spaghetti. I don’t need recipe ideas, either: I evidently already have a dining plan, or I wouldn’t have bought the frigging pasta in the first place, would I? I don’t go out and speculatively buy random ingredients in the hope they’ll come in handy some day, nor do I skittishly swerve at the last minute and make something completely different to what I’d intended, just because the pasta manufacturer’s marketing department decided to fill up a bit of space with a recipe from an entirely unknown and untested source. For all I know, it could have been made up by the knuckle-dragging intern working in the post room. Do they have post rooms in pasta companies? I don’t know. Presumably the process requires some kind of communication with the outside world, but maybe they do it all via email now. Anyway.

It’s not just the pasta guys, either. You buy a little jar of Thai green curry paste, and guess what? There’s a recipe for Thai green curry on the side, as a kind of “Hey — why not consider making this?” gesture. What the fuck did you think I was going to do with the stuff? Spread it on toast? Give it to the cat? Use it as an ointment on intimate regions of my so-called body? Do you really think I’m the kind of person who’ll enter the kitchen without having some kind of game plan in place? Do I look like that kind of a asshole? Yeah? YEAH? Do you want a fight?

I don’t need this. I just need to know how long the sodding stuff needs boiling for. The figure given will be wrong , of course — no pasta ever actually takes the amount of time that’s claimed on the packet, the true period being a factor of some ineffable intersection of pasta quantity, water density, room temperature, size of pan, cast of the moon and god knows what else — a combination which St Peter whispers in your ear when you finally approach the pearly gates, but that is up until that time utterly unknowable. And yes, of course, the real test of pasta’s done-ness is always going to be in the taste and texture, I know this, I really do: but it’s still reassuring and helpful to have a guideline before you start, and the bottom line is this is the only piece of information I or anyone else needs when squaring up to pasta preparation.

So… get onto it. Don’t make me get my chainsaw out again. Nobody needs to get hurt over this. Whoever out there has control of these things, make it so. Now. I’ve got a dinner to cook.

When I was a kid, bin men had an aura, a mystique, something of the night about them: fierce, semi-mythical beings who came with the dawn and hefted sacks of household trash into the grinding back-ends of their trucks, before rumbling ominously away. Their speech was a sequence of impenetrable grunts and howls; their clothes looked as though they had been worn for decades, or secreted like outer skins. The only contact normal citizens had with these creatures was the ‘Christmas box’: a seasonal cash offering given to the member of the tribe that walked most convincingly on hind legs — this ritual having (to my childhood mind, at least) the flavour of a bribe to ensure that the bin men not sneak back in the night to wreak havoc upon the houses they serviced, stealing one of the occupants (or their children) and dragging them away to a dread kingdom given over to the very hungriest of ogres and trolls.

These men were known and recognised, however, components of the landscape and hard-working members of the community, doing an unattractive job with a sense of purpose and pride — or at least, resignation. That’s all gone now, evidently.

We’d noticed during the week that the pile of trash at the side to the house was getting bigger, rather than smaller, and when the truck swung by, my wife went out to enquire why this might be. One of the new generation of bin men — a sour-faced runt wearing a nice, clean fluorescent jacket — told her the bags hadn’t been taken because they were ‘too heavy’.

The bags in question were a little bulkier than usual, and my wife had struggled slightly carrying them out to the bin (it’s my job normally, obviously, but I hadn’t been around at the time). My wife is a woman, however, and not a husky one. Not a man, certainly, and not a bin man in particular — someone whose job might, you could think, occasionally involve lugging things heavier than cotton wool.

To make her point, I pick up two of the offending bags at once and carried them to the back of the bin cart (withstanding a deliberate attempt by the driver to move the vehicle away from me). It made no difference. The bags were staying where they were. At some point one of these men had tentatively tugged at one of the sacks, muttered ‘Ooh no, health and safety…’ in an injured, self-righteous tone, and left it there to rot.

So what were we supposed to do? Call the council, we were told. And do what — ask for them to send some men instead? Or command them to use the big rusted key to open the shed at the back of the depot, where lurks a last remnant of old skool bin men, chained to a post in darkness, fed with scraps of carrion, kept for the occasions when a profligate household needed a slightly-heavier-than-usual bag carried a few feet from curb to cart?

In the end, it was neither. We spoke to a woman at the council — who promised she’d send an Incident Investigation Team around. (How did we survive, in the old days? How did we cope when ‘incidents’ like this went un-investigated? How did they spend our taxes?) And, to be fair, the very next day a man came round and ‘investigated the incident’. He rapidly determined that the bags were not excessively heavy, and they were later removed by a crack squad of Slightly Heavier Bags Than Usual Specialists, wearing protective suits carved from the finest topaz, their cart a golden chariot that shone so brightly it became almost invisible in the slanting morning sun.

One by one, our archetypes are being eroded. Cooks are no longer fat, mercurial men and women in blood-streaked aprons — but slim ‘chefs’ in spotless whites, who spend more time on media training and business studies than in learning ingredients: only ever taught by another chef, never by their mother or grandfather or wayward aunt. Pop stars aren’t lean misfits determined to carve their names in in our aural memories, but sleek performance school graduates looking for a reality television boost straight to HEAT magazine stardom. And in this context, it probably makes sense to have bin men too feeble to actually carry anything.

But the reason why we had archetypes is that they structured the world, helped it to function and make sense. They worked. The bin men in our street evidently… don’t.

And the class warriors out there reading this can pipe down: I’m very aware that I write this from the position of being an effete over-privileged bastard of a novelist, who does nothing more strenuous most days than type, and wouldn’t know hard work if it slapped him in the face. Do I want the bin-man’s job? No, of course I bloody don’t.

But if I had the job, I’d be doing it. I’d be wearing the layers of clothing and bellowing weirdly at my workmates as we hurled bags heroically into the truck. I’d regard a little muscle strain as a sign of how butch I was, rather than grounds for landmark legal action in the European Courts. I — or one of my fellow bin men, who could speak a little more clearly — would be turning up at your door come the festive season, too, expecting something in the way of a Christmas bonus. And we’d deserve it, and you’d better hand it over — or you really might find one of your children carried away in the dead of night.

Assuming he or she wasn’t too heavy, naturally.

Well, it’s 1:40 am and I’m awake. No real idea why. Could be delayed jetlag, I suppose, though I’ve been back a week and I don’t like the idea of jetlag anyhow. I feel I should be able to hop insouciantly between continents like some some globetrotting gazelle, a citizen of the world not bound by trivialities like time zones. Maybe not. Either way, for something to do, as I sit here in the study listening to a fox making disquieting noises in the street outside, I thought I’d make another list — and this time it’s of some of the best places to sit and have a cup of coffee.

1. Bryant Park, New York
My most recent haunt, and a pretty well-known one. I happened on it as a result of mere hotel-proximity, on my first grown-up visit to the city four years ago, and have sunk many a happy coffee in it since. I don’t know what it is that makes Bryant Park quite so restful. It’s basically just a large square of grass, with beds and paths and trees on three sides and stairs leading up to the rear of the Public Library on the other. It could be the presence of very tall buildings on all sides, which gives something of the quality of a hidden garden. It could also be that, standing bang in the centre of Midtown as it does, it’s the New York park that contrasts most strongly with the streets around it. I have even toyed with wondering whether the fact this block held, for the second half of the nineteenth century, a reservoir, has something to do with it — a large body of water somehow changing the energy field. Though that just sounds like so much new age bollocks, really, not least as throughout 1970s the park was by all accounts an excellent place to score drugs or get cataclysmically mugged, which you might expect to have muddied the energy waters somewhat.

Anyway. There’s lots of places to sit, and a bar in the evenings, and free wifi too, though I can’t always get that to work. This actually makes it even better. I like places where I can’t be in contact with the outside world. They’re increasingly few and far between.

2. Outside Les Deux Magots, Paris
Another non-controversial choice, unless you’re achingly cool. People have been knocking back café crème outside this St Germain hotspot for a long time — it was a popular haunt for Satre and Simone de Beauvoir, not to mention Hemingway and Camus. I tend to wind up spending a good few hours outside the Magots whenever I’m lucky enough to be in Paris, not least because there’s a great bookstore just behind it (the name of which I forget: maybe I’m more tired than I thought). Yes, it’s a tourist trap, but you know what — when I’m in Paris, I’m a tourist. Actually, outside pretty much any Parisian café will do, so if you’re worried about not seeming cutting edge enough, why not hop on the Metro to the outskirts of town and find somewhere there instead. Don’t feel that you have to come back, either.

3. Outside the Seattle’s Best opposite Pike Place Market, Seattle
Especially early in the morning, so you can watch the market swinging properly into life.

4. The Meeting Place, the seafront, Brighton
The fact that the coffee here is actually pretty dire possibly indicates that the quality of the beverage on offer is not of paramount importance. With the sea, gulls, and the teetering remains of the old West Pier to gaze upon, it’s a good place to be. If the weather’s dire (which is far from unknown in Brighton) then outside the Starbucks in the Lanes is a decent second choice. (And don’t give me any crap about Starbucks not being proper coffee. Of course it’s proper coffee, you muppet. It’s not the best coffee in the world — but it’s good enough. Disliking things just because they’re popular does not make you cool. What are you, fourteen? Get a couple of extra shots in your drink like a grown-up, and go peddle your angst elsewhere.)

Hmm. Four isn’t many. I notice that I don’t actually have one for London, for example. Perhaps you need to not be local, for the perfect coffee-sipping experience… Or maybe I just haven’t found it yet. I notice also that all these places are outside. This is partly due to the smoking thing — I like a cigarette with my coffee, and there ain’t nowhere in the civilized world they’ll let you do that any more. But it’s also that I associate coffee with watching the world go by. Tea is for drinking indoors. Tea is self-referential, a medicine. Coffee is for turning outwards and taking in the other: and therefore part of the essence of a classic coffee-drinking spot is it allows you to observe a corner of the universe — without necessarily feeling that, right at this moment, you have to be an active part of it.

Christ, it’s half past two. Better try sleeping again, not least as tomorrow I have a day designing stuff for WHC2010. May your Fridays be golden. And if you’re at a loose end…

5. […]
Suggestions, please.


I’m still in New York, and hacking up and down the streets for a few days has reminded me just how much I love good food stores. I can browse in these places for hours, even if I have no intention of buying — doing so with almost the same level of beatific absorption I attain in bookstores. A quality food purveyor reminds you just how wonderful it is that we have to eat (and also how lucky we are to live in privileged countries, where what we eat can be an existential choice, rather than a matter of bitter existence). Finding an awesome food emporium is like discovering a tiny, wood-paneled and coffee-infused independent bookstore that somehow happens to stock as much as a big chain, only in far more interesting ways, and studded with prizes the big guns don’t even know exist. Wandering around these places is a kind of meditation, and time spent there will find your heart rate slowing and brain waves settling into a contented hum.

Or… maybe I’m just a pig.

Either way, my top choices in this very provisional list come from America, possibly controversially. The rest of the world — and even many Americans, it seems, certainly the ones living near the coasts — tend to portray the United States as a country where the ill-informed and massively-sized chow merrily down on any old crap, so long as it comes by the bucket-load, and are never happier than when stuffing a burger into every orifice. Yet the average Publix or Ralphs will have deli and meat and fish counters that would put European specialty stores to shame, not to mention acres of choice in more prosaic departments. No self-respecting American supermarket is going to offer you just one of something, be it a tin or jar or packet: they will have a choice of nineteen different brands, and many of them will be good. Unless you’re specifically looking for patés, cassoulet and the like, you’re a lot better off here than in the average French hypermarket…

1. The Westside Market on 7th Avenue (at 10th), NYC
New York is, of course, one of the great food cities, with food supplies in breadth and depth. An unassuming deli can turn out to have hot and cold food choices stretching for ten yards, not to mention a perfectly competent sushi chef beavering away in the corner. The Westside Market actually did my head in (more so than the oft-lauded Garden of Eden chain, excellent though they are). I went into near-catatonia with Opportunity Cost Anxiety at Westside, wandering round open-mouthed, like someone in town not so much from the sticks, as from the 8th century — painfully aware that I’ve only got one stomach and only had so many self-catered meals ahead of me. So I settled for buying merely seven times what I needed, and walking with a pronounced list for most of the time. It was worth it.

2. The Broadway Market, Seattle
A big, spacious store, this doesn’t have quite the sense of lunatic crammed-in cornucopia as the best New York markets, but you still want to check it out. As an added but unrelated bonus, in side streets nearby there are some extremely attractive Arts & Crafts bungalows, if you know where to look (or, like me, wander around like a lost dog until you accidently come upon them). Broadway is a bit of a hike from downtown, but it’s worth it. While you’re in the city, don’t forget Pike Place Market. It doesn’t count as a food shop, but is a cool place to walk around (especially early in the morning, watching tough-looking guys bellowing weirdly about fish) — and there’s lots of other food-related goodness in the surrounding alleyways. Seattle’s not just about depressed bands and perpetual drizzle: the food there is good.

3. Hédiard, Paris
I find the much-vaunted Fauchon (just across the Place de la Madelaine) a bit pretentious: there’s a lot of nice food there, of course, but it’s too mannered and arch, packaged as if to be part of some grandstanding gift basket. Hédiard feels more homely and comfortable, and has more game on the savoury stuff, too. There’s another great general food store in Paris, just the other side of St Germain, but I can’t remember what it’s called. Feel free to remind me. And yes, if I was including food markets, then France would move up the list, as it would if I was talking about the effortless ability of just about anywhere to chuck together a simple meal of greatness. But I’m not. Nor am I talking about indoor multi-outlet food markets of the kind Toronto has, fan of these places though I am (and I’m receptive to tips as to where to find others, too). I’m just talking about food shops here. Read the title of the blog, and don’t give me grief.

4. Selfridges Food Hall, London
It’s very good — by all accounts Harrods’ is even better, but that’s too far West for me, and I find the whole idea of Harrods obscurely annoying, for some reason — but it’s not really a patch on any of the above: and oh my God it’s expensive. Deciding to buy a picnic in Selfridges Food Hall is like picking up a copy of the Guttenberg Bible to read while you have a poo. It does have European items like rillettes, however, which can be tough to find in American stores. Though not in France, obviously. Duh.

Four is a weird place to stop, but I’m missing a number 5 for the list — not to mention 6 through 173. So — what have I missed or not yet encountered? How have I been stupid and wrong-headed and completely like a nutbag fool? If I should be in your (or any other) neck of the woods, where should I go to stare longingly at stuff?

Tell me. And be quick about it.


Says Who?

Michael Marshall (Smith): novelist, screenwriter and sitting-place for cats.

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October 2021

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