Thursday, 28 January 2016


The Department of Work and Pensions aren't doing a lot for this middle aged job seeker.

Diary entry for today reads: 'Bugger.'

Being 50 and unemployed is a funny place to be. On Monday I was told by, I’m sure, an otherwise nice lady at my local Job Centre that, having been out of full time work for over sixteen months, I have to do a 30 hours a week work placement. That’s as well as an additional 10 hours a week job searching.

That’s 40 hours all together, when the average working week is 35 hours for people in employment. So, already I’m feeling victimised, particularly as I was explicitly told that, after a certain amount of time, the government will not tolerate people on Job Seekers’ Allowance not working. In other words, I’m being forced to do a full time job for the pittance of £62 a week I’m already getting while I’m looking for work.

And I really have been. The people who know will tell you that since I lost my regular work in 2014, I’ve been unstinting in trying to find something else. I’ve got a degree in Graphic Design and I worked in that profession successfully for over twenty years, working on everything from Car magazine up to an official calendar for David Bowie. I’m a published writer of five books and numerous articles on film and television, and I’ve produced documentaries for the Doctor Who DVD range. To keep myself socially interactive, I’ve been volunteering at my local library, the Centrepieces Mental Health Arts Project and an Ellenor hospice charity shop. On top of that, last summer I scraped together the money out of my JSA to do a web design course – hardly the definition of a work-shy fop, I’m sure you’ll agree. Yet, despite all that, I’m now expected to accept about £2 an hour for effectively doing a full time job, an hourly rate WAY below the minimum wage.

This is exploitation, pure and simple. If people on Job Seekers’ Allowance are working for Tescos, Primark, B&Q et al, they’re clearly contributing towards the turnover and profits of those businesses, and those businesses are getting free labour courtesy of the government. (For more on this, check out the Guardian story at Just imagine what working for free will do to your confidence and self-esteem, as you toil next to someone doing exactly the same job who’s getting paid a living wage for doing it.   

Someone I know recently said it’s a much harsher world these days and I tend to agree. It’s not just the establishment’s attitude to the long-term unemployed: getting a job interview is harder than it’s ever been. Companies now apparently use something called ‘Sift’. This means that if a computer – which most job applications go through before reaching a human being; well Human Resources, anyway – doesn’t detect between 10 or 15 words in your application the same as the ad you’re responding too, your application gets binned. That’s on top of it being junked because you don’t agree to work evenings, weekends or unsociable hours. And if you disclose a mental illness or a minor offence, which some applications ask for, you might as well throw your application away yourself and cut out the middle man.

It’s a shame that Resources Plus, a private company that’s supposed to help you find work, didn’t earn the money that the government is paying and tell me about Sift sixteen months ago. If they had, I might be in a better position by now. RP did suggest I start a business, but the majority of start-up loans have to begin being paid back almost immediately. If what you’re doing doesn’t take off instantly, you’re stuck with paying the money back out of your own resources, and for me that means my JSA. God knows, I don’t want to ask my loved ones for any more financial help I can’t repay.

Back at the Job Centre, the lady I saw was rather concerned that I didn’t have the internet at home, as this means I can’t keep my job searching going during the evenings. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I can’t afford it, which is why I use the library during the day.’ She appeared not to hear my response as she regarded my cheap mobile with equal concern, recommending that I invest in a smart phone so I could act on jobs advertised on Twitter. ‘OK, but would you like to suggest how I pay for one?’ I asked. The lady was deaf again. When I inquired where the government initiatives were to help the over 50s back into work, it looked like the deafness was becoming permanent.

There aren’t any, of course. It’s part of the same problem as trying to batter your way back into a job market that doesn’t favour the middle aged. We’re all living longer and remaining productive longer, but as far as I can see society in general isn’t adapting. I nearly laughed out loud when my lady at the Job Centre said that companies like ASDA and Sainsburys like older people because they were more reliable. Fair enough, but why not the BBC, Virgin Media and many other companies where my own particular experience would be more relevant and useful?

So that’s where I am at the moment. It’s an unsettling feeling, knowing you’ve got so much life and work experience to offer, but being presented with what seems to be a diminishing set of employment options. All this is before you consider the recurrent feelings of loneliness, isolation and just plain hopelessness – the love of friends and family notwithstanding – that come with being out of work for a long time.

However, I try not to look back in anger. I go to bed, get up and, as ever, keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s all you can really do.

Monday, 11 January 2016

DAVID BOWIE, 1947-2016

So long, Ziggy.

'He's a little fat man with a pug-nosed face...'
(Image copyright: Radio X

It’s like when John Lennon died. The Beatles changed music forever in the 1960s and David Bowie changed it forever in the 1970s. On a positive note, even today he’s still changing it and will continue changing it more than 100 years from now.

What a contradiction he was. Singularly outside the mainstream, avant garde and restlessly swinging between and fusing musical genres, but at the same time someone who’s music touched nearly everyone. Looking at social media today, it seems everybody has a favourite Bowie song. The future soul of ‘Young Americans’, the industrial rock of ‘Station to Station’, the operatic plea for hope that’s ‘Under Pressure,’ the sunny pop of ‘China Girl’… there’s something for everyone.

When I saw the news this morning, I had a chill down my spine; it’s that Lennon comparison again. Even though I only knew The Beatles in 1980 from the films on Christmas television, when Lennon died you still felt something important and life affirming had gone from the world. One look at the glum faces of my teachers and the subdued atmosphere throughout the school that day told me that. That’s because, like the Fab Four, Mr Jones really did change the world.

A lot of people are going to talk about his influence on music, fashion, gender politics and popular culture in general, but the great gift of his music was that it brought so many different types of people together. My ex-wife’s dad was classically trained musician who played First Horn for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but he was potty about Bowie. When he was on Desert Island Discs with some other members of the LPO, he was the only one who chose a rock track, and that was ‘Space Oddity’. Later on, he came with us to see The Man on the Sound and Vision tour in 1990. Like on the Glass Spider and Serious Moonlight tours in 1987 and 1983, the audience was a cross section of mums and dads, old hippies, goths, punks, teenagers and young professionals, together with at least one member of the LPO. I can’t think of many musicians that almost everyone likes and Bowie was one of them.

I remember seeing the Top of the Tops performance of ‘Star Man’ where David famously put his arm around Spiders guitarist Mick Ronson. I was really young at the time and just thought brightly coloured, toothy pop stars behaved like that and that Bowie seemed like a cheerful chap. When I was older, I discovered that this seismic moment of gender challenge was a pivotal moment for people like Steve Strange, Siouxsie Sioux and Adam Ant, who went onto have their own, not inconsiderable impact on popular culture. That was the thing about Bowie: he somehow made all the way-out stuff he did reassuring, acceptable and often funny (have you seen the ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ video?), in a very English way. If you’re going to change the world, that’s the way to do it.

Because of that, and because he was around so long, it goes without saying – but I’m going to say it anyway, because it is important – that he was part of the soundtrack to significant moments in so many people’s lives. For instance, on the Serious Moonlight tour, I remember driving down to Milton Keynes Bowl with friends Ian Westbrook, Debra Redfern and another girl whose name now escapes me. We wanted to get there early, so left Lowestoft around 5 in the morning. When we got there it was just getting light and discovered that the gates didn’t open until around noon, by which time we were all lobster red. It was my first open air, festival-scale show and Bowie was theatrical and fantastic. We were so exhausted by the early start, heat and great atmosphere that on the way back Ian pulled over into a lay-by and we all collapsed into sleep.

After that, I found Glass Spider a let-down, but what I do remember is support act Big Country breaking into a cover of ‘Rebel Rebel’, which I thought was the highlight of the gig. When the Tin Machine gigs were announced, after a tipsy night in the pub I turned up to queue for tickets outside the Town and Country Club (now the Forum).  Emboldened by alcohol, I thought a t-shirt and shorts would suffice as overnight wear in the summer, but around 2 in the morning I found out how bloody wrong I was. The whole thing developed into a kind of mini Glastonbury, with people in the queue lighting campfires, playing Bowie tapes and someone with an acoustic guitar playing his songs. Because of the way concert tickets are now sold, you couldn’t have that experience any more, which is partly why the memory of it’s so special. I have to say that I wasn’t overly struck by the Tin Machine oeuvre, but seeing Bowie – or ‘Jones’, as he announced himself – in such a small venue was still a thrill, and I do cherish the memory of moshing to ‘Under the God’ only two or three rows from the man singing it.

One more memory that I think sums up how unique he was. Looking around the Bowie retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013, in the final room there was a selection of videos playing. One of them showed him and his band performing my favourite Bowie song ‘“Heroes”’ to, rather incongruously, what looked like an audience of uniformed police officers. With a shock of recognition, I realised that this was from the concert put on in New York for all the emergency services who helped in 19/11. As soon as you know that, ‘“Heroes”’ becomes a completely different song, but the lyrics still fit. Incredible.

These are inadequate words, but the very fact I’ve been moved to ramble at length on Bowie’s passing shows just how inspiring and remarkable he was.

I don’t know what else to say, except: safe journey to another star, David.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016


I was turning cartwheels over the New Year's Day Sherlock Special, but my mum 'couldn't make head nor tail of it.' Therein lies the rub...

It got weirder. (Image copyright: BBC)

We’re five days on from the first day of 2016, so I don’t think I’m giving too much away in outlining the plot of the Sherlock New Year’s Day Special. On a private plane, inside his ‘Mind Palace’, our favourite consulting detective imagined himself and Watson investigating a crime in the 19th century, in which the so-called ‘Abominable Bride’ apparently survived death. It was a tactic to discover how – at the end of the last series – Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty had seemingly done the same.

Happily for me and other people who enjoy a good genre mash-up, the story wasn’t presented straightforwardly. It was put together in perhaps the most joyously, outrageously, self-aware collision of styles that I’ve ever seen. I love this sort of thing; have done ever since I saw The Prisoner playing around with Western and spy fiction conventions and archetypes to great, surreal effect in ‘Living in Harmony’ and ‘The Girl Who Was Death’.

‘The Abominable Bride’, however, took this approach to a whole new level of complexity. Like those two Prisoner stories, the Conan Doyle-style strand wasn’t there as self-indulgence, but as a story in its own right: the reveal of a clandestine suffragette order behind the bride’s killings was refreshingly authentic to the 19th century setting. It also served as the modern Sherlock’s way of discovering how the contemporary Moriarty ‘cheated’ death: ‘once the idea exists, it cannot be killed.’

Watson and Holmes. the real thing?
(Image copyright: BBC)
Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s genius is that they weren’t content to leave it at that, gleefully drawing attention to the artificial nature of what was going on. Among the witty nudges was Mrs Hudson (the ageless Una Stubbs) commenting that she was Holmes and Watson’s ‘landlady, not a plot device,’ while Watson ‘had to grow [a] moustache so people recognise me,’ as the illustrator of his Holmes stories in The Strand Magazine had drawn him that way. Throw in the anachronistic phrase ‘the virus in the data’ and, if you’d been watching carefully, you could anticipate the jolt back to the 21st century Holmes waking up in Mycroft’s private plane half way through the Special (a scene which, I suspect, was at least partly there to inform casual viewers what was going on). By the time Holmes and Moriarty (the brilliant Andrew Scott) were playing out their Reichenbach Falls duel – ‘It’s always you and me at the end’ – both narratives had intertwined to the point that Watson could say, ‘I’m a storyteller: I know when I’m in one.’ I was punching the air by that point.

On top of all that, if you were a Sherlock fan you could have a lot of fun discovering what the 19th century versions of the supporting characters were like. The most striking were an obese Mycroft (Gatiss himself), one pudding away from expiring in the Diogenes Club, and Molly Hooper (the underrated Louise Brealey), a suffragette disguised as a man so she could work in the police force. I might have been imagining things, but among all this fun and games, it looked to me like Mrs Watson (Amanda Abbington) was dressed like Leela from the Doctor Who story ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’. As Moffat and Gatiss both work on that series, there’s a good chance the similarity was intentional. For me, this was all self-aware bliss.

Mind you, if you were looking for some obvious, comforting, post-hangover New Year’s Day pipe and deerstalker shenanigans in the classic Sherlock Holmes style – as the publicity suggested – then chances are you’d have been confused and, quite possibly, annoyed. One viewer on Facebook frothed about his family either ‘falling asleep’ or getting ‘very angry’, while my mum, tactful as ever, observed ‘that Mr Cumberbatch is very nice, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of it.’

The problem is, mainstream British TV drama rarely does this sort of experimentation with narrative form any more. The most recent example was Ashes to Ashes, and that finished in 2008. Before that, you have to go back to when Dennis Potter was alive to find a writer who played around with the conventions of TV drama, most notably and successfully in The Singing Detective (1986). Television has shrunk from when it could comfortably incorporate theatre, surrealism and songs in one production. Today, nearly all TV drama looks like a Hollywood film: impressive, but often unadventurous. Significantly, the only series still playing around with form and structure in the way that ‘The Abominable Bride’ did is Doctor Who, and that’s written by both of the Sherlock Special’s authors – it’s also classed as science fiction, where this sort of thing is permissible. Back in the day, that didn’t bother Potter. He employed the same techniques to social drama, thrillers and autobiography as he did to fantasy.  

So, the expectations of the transmission time and a disappearing form of television may have nobbled ‘The Abominable Bride’ for some viewers. Just as significantly, the Special expected you to remember what had happened in a series last seen two years ago on BBC1, something that the recap at the beginning didn’t really cover. This Sherlock was written very much as the fourth episode of the 2014 series: a treat for fans, then, but hard work for people not in the know.

I loved it, though.

The arguable misfire of showing ‘The Abominable Bride’ on New Year’s Day aside, I’d like to think productions like this will pave the way for more challenging television in days to come.