Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Death of Van Dine

I recently came across a rather fascinating list published in 1928 by S.S. Van Dine entitled Twenty rules for writing detective stories. He remarks with a self-assured certainty that "for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws - unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them."

Ignoring for the moment that Van Dine's detective fiction has fallen completely out of favour, and that the man is now little more than a footnote of the sort he was so fond of using in his novels, it takes such a staggering amount of chutzpah to decide that you're the man to define an entire genre - and to compose a pompous and patronising list of rules that you expect people to take as read - that I'm almost in awe of him. Almost.

As it is, his way of thinking was incredibly restrictive. Even literary rules are there to be broken. Any attempt to escape the supposed limitations of the detective genre - even if it were to end in failure - would be more worthwhile than anything written using Van Dine's mindset. With this in mind, I am undertaking a new project, a self-imposed literary challenge: the writing of a crime fiction story that goes against every single rule Van Dine drew up. You can find it here:

The Death of Van Dine

Monday, 20 August 2012

Adventures in Modern Literature #2

Skios by Michael Frayn

Although my intention to read all of the novels on the 2012 Man Booker Prize longlist may well be commuted to "most" or "some" depending upon various factors, the award has captured my attention in a big way. This year's dozen are an interesting cross-section of the work emerging from the Commonwealth, with an impressive variety of styles and genres represented.

Take Skios, for example, in which Michael Frayn offers classic farce of the sort that has fallen out of favour in the 21st century. On a fictional Greek island, the lives of a varied cast of characters are thrown into complete disarray following a series of mishaps at the local airport. Charming conman Oliver Fox picks up the wrong bag, and feeling a profound dissatisfaction with the way his life is panning out he decides to assume the identity of Dr Norman Wilfred. Meanwhile, the real Dr Wilfred finds himself without his suitcase and without his ride to the Fred Toppler Foundation, where he is supposed to be giving a speech the next day. From here, everything falls apart, with the sense of confusion escalating at every turn and only the reader being fully aware of the full picture.

In this sense, the novel acts as a mediation on order and chaos, and how quickly and thoroughly the latter can destroy the former. Indeed, it fully embraces the chaos theory concept known as the butterfly effect, whereby a small change can result in massive differences at a later point. It also questions the nature of identity throughout, asking what it is that make us who we are: is it our actions or simply our names? Characters lose sight of who they are or opt to play the role of someone else, and sometimes even find themselves happier in their new identities.

As with most farce, Skios is plot-driven rather than character-driven, and the players of the piece are archetypes deployed for maximum comic effect. Frayn isn't concerned with developing them, or with watching them change and grow in keeping with their varied experiences; he simply wants to see how they react when they're placed outside of their element. Fox is an infamous gadabout who plunges himself into disastrous situations with such gusto it's difficult not to like him, even if his actions are usually both self-destructive and harmful to others; Dr Norman Wilfred is a typical buttoned-down academic, who veers between delusions as to his own importance and crippling self-doubt; Nikki Hook is a dynamic personal assistant with an obsession for order and her eyes on a promotion; and Georgie is simply looking for a bit of illicit fun with Fox, even though she knows he's bad news. The cast is rounded out by a sprinkling of gangsters, oligarchs, taxi drivers, and disgruntled ex-lovers, all of whom make for very easy company. Frayn certainly succeeds in creating a world you'll enjoy spending your time in.

However, Skios is not without its faults. All of the material focused on comical misunderstandings due to language barriers falls flat, partly because the trope has been beaten into the ground and partly because it has certain xenophobic connotations that do not lend themselves well to comedy. At points it becomes a little difficult to juggle the extensive cast, particularly once identical twin taxi drivers are introduced to the narrative and more characters are given a starring role. And for such a light story to end in such a violent fashion feels unnecessary, meaning the ending reads as though it were taken from a different novel altogether. Whilst such a twist puts an exclamation mark on the novel's points about the often random nature of life, it also undermines the lightness of the events that precede it, damages several of the protagonists (either by letting them get away with murder or punishing them unfairly), and ultimately feels needlessly cruel, which is jarring after all the silliness.

With all this in mind, is Skios the sort of novel that should be winning literary awards? The simple answer is "no." Although Frayn takes the reader on one hell of a ride, he doesn't push the boundaries of the form or the genre, delivering instead a farcical tale that is rather traditional in its leanings. But what it lacks in innovation it makes up for in entertainment value, and the pace the story moves along at means you're never likely to be bored reading it.

Worth reading? If you're looking for a holiday read that's a cut above the usual offerings, Skios may well be the perfect choice. A lighter-than-air farce that ramps up the ridiculousness (occasionally at the expense of plausibility), it is never less than entertaining, even if you're likely to forget it almost as soon as you put it down.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Adventures in Modern Literature #1

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

With the 2012 Man Booker Prize longlist recently announced, what better way to start this series than with last year's winner. Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending is a slight novel that deals with weighty themes, and for the most part does so effectively. The first chapter tells the story of a group of young men who stand on the precipice of adulthood, narrated in the present day by Tony Webster, who has retired and thus has plenty of time to think about the past. However, it turns out these breezy recollections are but a precursor to the second chapter, which suggests that everything we thought we knew may be wrong, with the twist being that due to the inherent unreliability of memory, and the tendency we all have to shape past events to suit the narrative we most want them to tell, Tony may not have told the story to a very high degree of accuracy.

It's a clever move that questions the way we remember our lives, offering an interesting take on the unreliable narrator trope. The shift in gears between the two chapters is pronounced, with the novel switching from an amiable ramble through one man's adolescence to a thriller (albeit a sedentary one) with a mystery at its heart. The story becomes more and more engaging as its true nature slowly unravels, with Barnes masterfully building suspense ahead of the final revelation.

Alas, the ending doesn't live up to the build. The tales hinges so entirely on what is best described as an adolescent mistake (of the sort that all of us have or will make from time to time) that its impact is dulled. Of course we'll one day look back on the actions of our younger self and think "wow, I was a bit of an idiot when I was younger." I'm 27 years old and am already plenty familiar with that feeling. If you're going to worry about actions or words some 40 years removed, they need to be earth-shattering, and a nasty letter doesn't meet the criteria. The words he penned were cutting, and more than a little cruel, but they were also fuelled by emotions he was only just learning how to process. The events that unfold (unbeknownst to him) after he sends the letter are unfortunate to say the least; however, he was but one small player in a much wider story, and didn't force anyone to make the choices they did. Put simply, whilst I fully believed that the character felt his past actions were unforgivable, I didn't believe they were myself, which rather fatally undermined my reaction to the revelation.

And then there's Veronica. An ex-girlfriend of Tony's who re-enters (and massively complicates) his peaceful retirement, Veronica is a thoroughly unlikable character whose actions both as an adolescent and as an adult have an artificiality that grates every time she's called into action. She keeps up the pretence of being unknowable for so long that the question becomes not "what happened to make her this way?" but "why would anyone stick around her long enough to find out?" Aside from being a cheap narrative device designed to maintain suspense, having someone repeat variations on "you don't understand and you never will" is a surefire way of turning the reader against them, as it casts the character in question as an irritating barrier to plot advancement (1). By the time she finally becomes knowable (when the reason for her present day coldness is made clear) I disliked her so much that it didn't really matter; it was going to take one hell of a reveal to explain away her vast pettiness, and the reason given wasn't good enough. All of us suffer over the course of our lives, but few can justifiably cling on to hurt revolving around one specific incident for 40 years, and in the end Veronica had no-one to blame for her unhappiness but herself.

So does a denouement that falls flat completely undermine everything that preceded it? In this case, I'd argue not quite, that the journey is as important as the final revelation, and although the behaviour of Tony and Veronica is at times ridiculous, it strains suspension of disbelief rather than shattering it. Barnes offers an interesting take on both memory and the aging process, crafting characters that for the most part are recognisably human and marrying them to a tale that starts off deceptively light before moving on to heavier themes. And in one respect, its brevity works in its favour; had the revelation come at the end of 300+ pages, it would have been a crushing disappointment. Instead, it is merely a minor note in an otherwise impressive work. The precision and economy of the writing stands out above all else, with Barnes rarely wasting a word on unnecessary flourishes but still creating something that is, at times, almost lyrical (2), and rarely less than engaging.

Worth reading?: Yes. Whilst no classic, The Sense of an Ending raises some interesting questions, and is likely to linger in the memory for some time after you put it down. Just don't assume you can trust your recollections of it.

(1) Another problem: after about the third time of Veronica repeating the words, Tony's refusal to tackle her on it became infuriating, and made him more unlikable too.

(2) It could be argued that this becomes distracting on occasion; critic Stephen Lee had a point when he suggested that it "occasionally feels more like a series of wise, underline-worthy insights than a novel."

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Adventures in Modern Literature

Introducing Adventures in Modern Literature (1)

Like myself, I'm sure that many of you out there have picked up novels by the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Egan having been told they're monumental literary works, only to be left disappointed. Both writers are impressive enough, but their efforts to date have done nothing to suggest that they'll one day produce a truly great novel. A Visit from the Goon Squad was fine for what it was (a collection of decent short stories dressed up as an ode to Proust), but I found myself bored by the events that were unfolding on more than one occasion. Franzen, meanwhile, seems to equate length with worth. With some judicious editing, both The Corrections and Freedom could have been every bit as thematically dense without the meandering passages, but instead wound up as sprawling books that never quite justify the page count. (2) I suppose these are my feelings toward modern literature in a nutshell.

Of course, a cross-section of two is hardly sufficient when contemplating the last 12-and-a-half years of published work, and isn't what I'm basing my apathy on. I've crossed paths with plenty of modern authors, and enjoyed some and loathed others, but I'm yet to find anything that will stay with me forever. That's what I'm looking for, because at its best that is what the form is all about: efforts that are worthy of being passed down from generation to generation and regarded as classics of literature. (3)

This is a voyage of discovery, one I'm partaking in because of my general disdain for or disinterest in 21st century novels and my desire to change. It's unreasonable to be a student of literature who dismisses the era they're living through out of hand as minor or irrelevant, so I'll be reading through supposed modern classics or highly lauded (or awarded) efforts published from 2000 onward in search of novels that reach the glorious heights the form achieved in centuries gone by. I would be delighted if you'd join me.

(1) I briefly considered calling this Modern Literature is Rubbish (possibly with a question mark at the end), because it'd make for a snappier, more provocative title. But that would be unfair on the thousands of 21st century books I haven't read (and don't intend to read/will never find the time to read), and besides, this is supposed to be a positive exploration rather than an extended condemnation.

(2) "It's too long" is often fingered as one of the weakest criticisms a person can make about a novel, but it really isn't. It's a perfectly valid way of attacking a plot that takes too long to deliver too little, and often speaks of an author's vanity. As far as Franzen is concerned, you can feel the strain he puts himself under to write a Great American Novel whilst reading his work; he reaches for epic but doesn't achieve it because a not unreasonable proportion of what he writes is best described as "padding."

(3) I know the notion of a canon is a tad ridiculous, but then so is the suggestion that "people like what they like" (true enough, but if you take the statement at face value then you render all forms of criticism redundant). Just because opinion is subjective doesn't mean it cannot be useful.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Tales from Barcelona 4

Chapter 2: Under the Shadow of the Arc de Triomf, part one

Living in Manchester means the novelty of tapas wore off many years ago, once a glut of establishments realised they can sell piddling amounts of food for massively inflated prices to gullible customers convinced they're trying something exotic. For example, the following is a list of what £25 of my hard-earned money got me during a recent trip to a tapas restaurant in Chorlton:

1 chunk of chorizo
2 chunks of fried potato
2 bites of chicken stew
2 bites of lamb stew
1 calamari ring
Some bread
2 pints

Money well spent, I'm sure you'll agree. So is eating tapas in Spain a revelation that words can barely do justice? Certainly not in terms of taste; despite my varied slurs, Manchester is capable enough of delivering delicious tapas (and it's not like many of the dishes are particularly complex to put together in the first place). It's just that it always feels so forced. You can replicate the food, but you can't match the experience of actually being in a foreign country, nor can you benefit from the decent weather, and whilst it would be foolish to assume that eating tapas in Barcelona is as authentic as it was before the place became such a massive tourist hotspot, there's still a value to sitting outside in the sun, drinking beer and eating what are essentially bar snacks as the city bustles around you.

After arriving at the hotel and dumping our bags that's exactly what we set out to do. The nearest spot for it was Rambla del Poblenou, which proved to be everything La Rambla isn't; quiet and unhurried, the closest point of comparison in Manchester would probably be Burton Road: an area with all the local amenities you need and an abundance of food and drink options, albeit somewhere you wouldn't want to spend every night.

The winner of the evening was La Buena Vida (which translates as "the good life," I believe), a little bar and restaurant helpfully subtitled Oh My God Tapas! that delivered us artichoke crisps and an inexplicable dish of gyoza-style liver dumplings with a strawberry, paprika, and creme fraiche dip (all of which worked very well together). Before that, we'd sampled various Spanish sausages; afterward, we made a decision that in retrospect might have been influenced by our alcohol intake, strolling into a fish place and ordering a platter of deep fried seafood. After the trauma of our Ryanair flight, it was the perfect way to unwind.

*   *   *

The next day we mooched around the city, collected our festival wristbands, and ate and drank plenty more before making our way to the Arc de Triomf, where a free gig marked the opening of Primavera 2012. We caught the majority of Jeremy Jay's set, which was entertaining enough, proving a solid accompaniment to the slowly setting sun and the cold beers we'd bought from a nearby shop filled with revellers who'd had the same idea, eschewing the expensive on-site stalls. His brand of alt-pop is probably best described as "infectious," given that a few of his songs are still stuck in my head over a month later, the highlight being "Caught in a Whirl," which is basically a Wes Anderson movie distilled into four minutes of evocative music.

Having seen The Wedding Present tear through Bizarro in Berlin a couple of years back, I had pretty high hopes for their latest run-through of a classic album. In comparison, Seamonsters is a much slower and heavier affair, the sort of thing Lou Barlow sang about in "Gimme Indie Rock." This worked against it in the early going, with the sound a little muddy to begin with, but things quickly improved, allowing the material to become as powerful and imposing as it is on record. Gedge was as on as ever, singing songs of heartbreaks twenty years gone, breathing new life into their meaning and validating their existence by holding on to them.

*   *   *

I first caught The Walkmen, when they supported Idlewild at the big Academy in 2002, and was so impressed I talked one of the members of the band into selling me a copy of their debut album Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me is Gone at a slightly reduced price due to a lack of funds on my part. Since then, it's been a case of diminishing returns; neither that record nor any of their subsequent efforts have ever lived up to that transcendental first experience. I give each new album a shot upon release, typically enjoying it but not being moved by it in any way. I like the idea behind the band more than the execution, the way they're described on paper more than the music they produce. To my ears there is an emptiness at the heart of their music that I just can't move beyond, and with a few exceptions their output leaves me cold. Still, in marked contrast to my All Tomorrow's Parties 2010 experience (stay for "The Rat," leave immediately afterward), they struck a chord with me this time. The vastness of the setting gave their songs space to breathe, allowing their grace and elegance to shine the way it deserves to. Maybe I'll come to love them yet.

*   *   *

Deciding to call it a night so as not to burn ourselves out before the festival proper, we headed to the nearest Metro station, where we were lucky enough to hear a busker play the most approximate cover of "You Shook Me All Night Long" of all time. Meanwhile, on the station platform a big screen played basketball highlights, and under the influence I decided that I missed my calling coaching the sport. Before heading back to the hotel, we couldn't resist another trip to La Buena Vida, stuffing ourselves with Iberian kebab and the most delicious chicken strips in the world. Even though we didn't need the food, it seemed ridiculous to order drinks and not grab a bite to eat. It's what they do in Barcelona, after all, and why go against tradition?

Sunday, 1 July 2012

5 Reasons I Haven't Watched Any of Euro 2012

1. "Come on England!"

How can any reasonable human being not hate everything to do with the way we support England? People hanging flags from their windows or attaching them to cars. Tabloid newspapers rehashing World War II with lame, offensive humour every time we're drawn against Germany. The ecstasy of victory and agony of defeat suddenly becoming crucial to national self-esteem. People talking about "the mood of the camp." England's Brave John Terry, possibly the most unsupportable man to ever have represented his country. Post-mortems that last for weeks and yet always reach the same conclusion: the players simply aren't good enough. Even people like me, who rebel against this common cause and support whichever team England are facing. These three words - and all they entail - make fools of us.

2. An international tournament without South American and African teams is a waste of everyone's time

The truth is that modern international football tournaments are almost always a letdown. Think about it: since Euro 96, which competition has stuck in your memory as a great sporting event? Certainly nothing that has taken place in the 21st century. If you don't believe me, think about the victors, which include probably the worst Italian and Brazilian sides to ever win anything. Face it: the few great games are vastly outweighed by interminable dreck that punishes a person for taking an interest in the first place. But at least at the World Cup there's always one or two South American teams with genuine flair, and one or two African teams capturing the hearts of neutrals as they chase the continent's first ever World Cup, in both cases playing exciting football. Meaning we get to enjoy spectacles such as Uruguay vs Ghana at the quarter-final stage of the 2010 tournament, an instant classic that had just about all the drama you could hope for. Who was the non-partisan viewer supposed to root for this time round?

3. Spain are the new Greece

On that same note: when Greece won Euro 2004, it was pretty much mandatory to laud their achievement: massive underdogs overcome the odds to lift their first ever international trophy. It wasn't mandatory to actually enjoy their achievement, though, nor was it possible, given that their tactics essentially comprised of boring the opposition into submission and nicking a single goal somewhere along the way.

When Greece adopted this approach, it was understandable; after all, their squad was entirely lacking in quality. Spain, however, have any number of word class players in their ranks, including a midfield that at Barcelona outpass and outplay almost every team they go up against AND score an abundance of goals in the process. Whilst Spain's Euro 2008 success felt like just desserts for a great footballing nation,
 their progress through the 2010 World Cup was essentially one massive prolonged yawn, and by the end I was hoping Holland would butcher their way to victory. Despite their very best efforts to do exactly that, Spain proved triumphant, and in the process validated their approach to the game.

It would be unfair to say that Spain are like watching paint dry. I think of it more like staring at a metronome for 90 minutes. Which of course is an equally dull way to spend one's time. Never again do I want to subject myself to sitting in front of the television as they eke out a 1-0 victory against a side they could put five past if they were willing to shoot a little more.

4. Almost all pundits and commentators in this country are awful

Let us consider that statement in greater depth. Naming a favourite out of hosts Gary Lineker and Adrian Chiles is like Sophie's choice, if instead of her two children she had to pick between a sack of shit and a bottle of piss. Alan Hansen gave up trying years ago, shortly after "you can't win anything with kids" destroyed his professional credibility forever. Roy Keane is too filled with contempt for all mankind to offer anything in the way of insight. Lee Dixon: if by any chance you're reading, being described as "the best of a bad bunch" really isn't a compliment. And the parade of unemployed or unemployable managers on display is like walking through an animal sanctuary: it breaks your heart just a little, especially since you know that most of them have no chance of finding a new home.

Dreadful though they may be, none of the above are the worst offender. That honour is shared between Alan Shearer and Mark Lawrenson. Can you picture anyone sat at home as Shearer offers his patented brand of talking a lot and saying nothing whatsoever in the dullest voice in recorded history and thinking "that's some spot on analysis, Alan"? As for Lawrenson, his asides on commentary often paint him as a man who has not only lost touch with the modern world, but is slowly losing his sanity. When he insults Twitter users, or cracks jokes with racist or homophobic undertones, remember that your license fee is paying for him to do so.

In the battle of the networks, ITV "wins" by virtue of the fact that a) it doesn't employ Alan Shearer; b) it doesn't employ Mark Lawrenson; and c) at least adverts truncate the amount of time the viewer has to spend listening to jibbering inanities delivered by idiots. But the only true winner is the person who opts out.

5. Between live blogs and Twitter, actually watching football is pointless

Despite my refusal to watch any of the tournament, I've still retained a passing interest in it. Not enough to read the infinite number of think-pieces it has inspired, but certainly enough to follow the BBC and Guardian live blogs. For the uninitiated, they provide minute-by-minute coverage and analysis, with plenty of humour thrown in too. I'm free to check in on them as and when I please, and read over what's happened when I've not been paying attention, all the while doing more productive things with my time.

To supplement that, I have wonderful Twitter, and the people who dedicate themselves to cracking jokes. Enjoy shots at Spain not naming a recognised striker in their team, jibes at the obvious futility of England's efforts, or ribs at the cameramen and their propensity to spend a rather disproportionate amount of time lingering on shots of attractive Sweden fans? Twitter has you covered. It's difficult to imagine that any of the actual football could've provided more entertainment than, say, the Betfair Poker Twitter account, a surrealist masterpiece that described the Spain-Portugal match as a "bleak, humourless restaging of Waiting for Godot" and claiming that an iPad wielding Joe Hart was preparing for the penalty shootout against Italy "by watching a DVD of season 2 of Breaking Bad." Or how about News Manc taking the piss out of UEFA's practically unfathomable system for group qualification: "If Denmark manage a victory by two or more goals over Germany and the Dutch beat Portugal, Tottenham still only go into the Europa League." I haven't watched a minute of the tournament, and yet I feel confident in saying that nothing on the pitch topped the online humour it inspired.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Schrodinger's Mailbox: Epilogue

Today I decided it was finally time to check the mailbox. Inside were seven letters containing bills from utilities companies, an absurd number of flyers and circulars, and one dead cat.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Schrodinger's Mailbox

Life as an adult can be difficult, and there are still certain responsibilities I haven't gotten used to. Paying for the likes of water, electricity, and gas is one of them.

But before you think I'm getting all #firstworldproblems on you, let me put your mind at ease. I don't hate or resent having to pay bills; such transactions are entirely reasonable in nature. No, it's the act of paying bills I hate or, more specifically, can't be bothered with. The typing of endless information into an online form, or else the phonecall to a line that starts off automated before plunging you into human interaction without warning, or else trying to locate a Post Office that is open at sane hours of the day: each choice a task so arduous it could be chronicled by Tolkien. They haven't yet devised a payment option that doesn't strike me as the biggest inconvenience of all time.

The solution to my woes came to me by accident, in the form of a well-known thought experiment that I've unknowingly been carrying out for the last two months, the same amount of time that has passed since I last checked the mailbox. Partly because the tiny little key that opens the box is missing. I know that it is somewhere in the flat, but its exact location is unknown and its absence unlamented, so the search was called off before it even got started, largely because of a nonsensical complacency: I'm so certain that I could find it within two minutes of looking that it's like I've already found it, and if I've already found it, why would I need to look for it?

Because of this attitude, I find myself in the perfect situation. It goes without saying that nestled in the mailbox are several letters from utilities companies, all requesting money. It's been two months: of course the bills are mounting. However, because the box has not been opened, and the letters containing the bills not retrieved, it is impossible to say with absolute certainty that such letters exist. So at the same time they exist and do not exist, a glorious paradox that both critiques the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and means I do not have to contend with the reality of my debts.

I'm sure Erwin Schrodinger could only dream about such a practical application of his theories.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Tales from Barcelona 3

Interlude: You Get What You Pay For

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary hates you, your friends, your family, and your favourite childhood pet, and will continue to do so no matter how often you pay to use his airline.

Every time someone books a Ryanair flight, Baby Jesus cries.

Ryanair's terms and conditions includes sections dedicated to its "right to cancel flights on whims and fancies," its "right to fly you to an airport other than the one advertised, or to a different country altogether if the mood takes us," and its "right to plant drugs in your luggage if Ryanair staff are bored." The terms and conditions document runs some 500 pages, and is designed to rob customers not just of their rights, but of their dignity.

Ryanair specifically requests that airport security frisks its customers particularly roughly, regardless of whether or not they set off the metal detector.

Ryanair pilots spend the entirety of each flight idly daydreaming about anally fisting you without lubrication. Ryanair co-pilots think about what deep fried kitten would taste like.

It is forbidden to look Ryanair stewards and stewardesses directly in the eye. Any breach of protocol regarding this rule will result in the guilty party being ejected from the plane. Whilst midair.

All products sold on Ryanair flights contain nuts. That includes duty free items such as alcohol, perfumes, and stuffed toys. In addition, the stewards and stewardesses rub every seat with nuts before take-off. O'Leary has hated people with nut allergies ever since a classmate's condition forced the cancellation of a promised school trip to a local cake factory.

Ryanair charges its customers for breathing, with one complete in-and-out cycle costing 10p. The cost rises to 50p per cycle if the oxygen masks drop (supply and demand in action). In the event of the plane plummeting to the earth and wiping out everyone on board, passengers' billing information is recorded on the black box, and the debt is passed on to the deceased individuals' families.

O'Leary caused controversy when claiming the ash clouds that disrupted travel in April 2010 were "mythical." In the past, he has made similar statements concerning armadillos, table tennis, Margaret Thatcher, the Great Fire of London, and Lithuania.

There is at least a 50% chance that the next time I fly it will be with Ryanair. My greatest hope in life is that one day I'll be able to get that percentage down to zero.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Tales from Barcelona 2

Chapter 1: Me and Barcelona

It started six years ago, as I exited the Metro station outside of Sagrada Familia to be confronted with the most amazing structure I have ever seen with my own eyes, an insane church straight from the mind of one of the few men worthy of the tag "genius." It ended with a classical version of "The Winner Takes It All" playing in the underground, followed by the ABBA version soundtracking my last minutes in the airport a few hours later. Of course, that's assuming that the story has come to a close, which seems unlikely. Chances are I'll find a reason to return to Barcelona.

*   *   *

In many ways, Barcelona is something of a mess, a perennial work-in-progress, the spirit of which is best embodied by Antoni Gaudi's aforementioned masterpiece, which started construction in 1882 and won't be finished before 2026 at the earliest. A sprawling mass of high rises that seems eternally stuck in the 20th century, punctuated only occasionally by breathtaking architecture and the odd modern glass structure, still trapped beneath the weight of a dictatorship that came to an end less than 40 years ago. The constant regeneration that has occurred since then has had a relatively limited impact, and in many respects Barcelona is a relic.

But a city should never be defined solely by appearances. Barcelona is one of the most alive places you could ever hope to spend time in; not in the "never sleeps" sense, like New York or Berlin, but in the sense that during the peak hours of human activity it is absolutely relentless. It hasn't been neutered like so many major cities; tourist traps exist, but wandering off the beaten track pays off big time, and any given back alley can be a hub of activity, home to an amazing restaurant or a blink-and-you'll-miss-it bar. I could spend an entire post elucidating about the grid system much of the city was built in. And although the regeneration moves at a slow pace, it remains a sign of the constant evolution that is likely to continue well into the future. Barcelona has a character completely of its own, and for that it should be cherished.

*   *   *

On my first visit I fell in love with the place, even after accidentally finding myself on a date with another guy, being assaulted by a prostitute whilst walking along La Rambla, and spending the early hours of one morning asleep on a bench. Or maybe because of those things; a city isn't worth much if you don't have stories to tie you to it. I tried to fit everything in - the Picasso museum, the Joan Miro Foundation, the Nou Camp, Parc Guell, Montjuic - and despite my best efforts only managed to scratch the surface. Still, the impression I was left with was overwhelmingly favourable.

That goodwill was wiped out almost entirely by my second visit, although I'll be the first to admit that I got the mechanics of the trip wrong from start to finish. Much like this year, the primary reason for flying out was the Primavera music festival. However, at times it was disastrous: flights with Ryanair at ungodly hours of the day from Liverpool to "Barcelona" Reus, which is actually close to two hours outside of the city centre; a ridiculous schedule of moving from hostel to apartment to hotel to hostel; the combination of the above conspiring to deny me the time needed to enjoy the beats and rhythms of the city. Add in some poorly thought out food choices and some truly brutal hangovers, and the good times - the actual festival, basically - were contained in one tiny part of Barcelona, rendering the rest of the holiday superfluous. Still, Primavera was enough fun to convince me to return.

What follows is primarily the story of my third visit, although I reserve the right to veer from a linear path in order to ramble on about other experiences - and about nothing in particular - whenever the mood takes me. Hopefully you'll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed living it.