Category Archives: Essays

On Scratchcards: The Correct Way To Scratch

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[There is an audio version of this essay available here and on YouTube]

Scratchcards – the most worldly and humble of the lesser gambles. Although I am far from being one of the people who are inexplicably and tragically addicted to them, scratchcards nevertheless maintain a power over me. I was talking about them with some friends recently and concluded that my enjoying a scratchcard has more to do with ritual than money. Although, let’s be honest, like all forms of gambling, the money is at the nucleus of its strange charm.

I like scratchcards because there is a very particular method of playing a scratchcard, which goes far beyond the simple physical act of searching for gold beneath the layer of coarse latex, scouring away at that grey scum of possibility. No. The correct – the ONLY – way to play a scratchcard is to adhere with fearsome loyalty to the Caldwell System of Gambling, which I will now describe.

Firstly, you must buy a scratchcard only as an impulse, when buying other things. Arriving one day at the checkout, with your hands full of milk, bacon, chilli-coated peanuts, you will glance absent-mindedly at the stand of colourful cards and be immediately shaken with the intense feeling that you are alive and that nobody can stop you from winning everything. Although, that is not to say you feel confident. This is a feeling more wistful and playful in nature than confidence. It stands to reason that what you are feeling is a sense of fatefulness. If you are an atheist, this is the closest you will ever come to detecting providence in your life. Put down your milk for a moment.

Now the decision comes: which card to choose? This is a simple matter. Do not make the common mistake of believing the £5 scratchcard is in some way superior to the £2 scratchcard, itself more honourable than the £1 scratchcard. This is wrong. All scratchcards were made equal, except the ones with money in them, which have been made rich. The people that create these cards have the most beautiful name – the Scientific Games Corporation – beautiful because such a name is one more glinting jewel of evidence that we live in the Future and that dystopia is redundant. In any case, the Aryan myth of the £5 scratchcard’s nobility of breeding probably stems from the increased odds of winning. However, as we shall see, these odds (fluctuating approximately between 1 in 4 to 1 in 3.5) simply do not matter, as success is mostly incidental to the following proceedings. In fact, to the untrained eye, the Caldwell System appears to want nothing to do with winning. The process can be more likened to ‘having the craic’ or perhaps theatre. Remaining mindful of the excess of customers forming behind you (carrying their milk, bacon, chilli coated peanuts) you should therefore choose the scratchcard with the most modest character, invariably of the £1 variety. This is a part of the story foundation process. If you should ever win big (the Top Prize on these purple ones says £100,000) you will want the story to begin thus.

YOU: I won £100,000 on a scratchcard!

MOTHER: Good God! Was it one of thon £5 behemoths?

YOU: Nay. Twas but a quid. A punt in the dark.

MOTHER: The purple ones! You don’t say?

YOU: I do, I do.

MOTHER: You are a meek one, to be sure. You won’t forget your roots as a rich man.

YOU: I certainly will not.

However unlikely this scenario may seem, it is important to stay honest by buying only the £1 cards. Any other species and a win – no matter how great – is inevitably  polluted by the grandiose gesture of spending five whole pounds on a single card, not to mention aligning yourself with the Übermensch bigotry of the more unsavoury scratch theorists. No. You will recognise the card for you very easily. The £1 cards are plain of colour and font, simple of conceit, sometimes adorned with ungainly mutant scrawls masquerading as cartoon pigs. You should buy only one.

The following phase is difficult for those to whom it does not come naturally. You must put the scratchcard into your back pocket (this is very important) and, as soon as possible, forget entirely that it exists. The reason the back pocket is used and not the front, despite the obvious disadvantages, is that, above all, the principle of fatalism must follow the course of this card for as long as it remains unscratched. This means putting it in your back pocket to allow for the slim possibility that bodily motion will cause the card to slip out unnoticed on the pavement, in the restaurant, in the restroom. Yes, you will lose the card in this case – but this too is a part of the process. Like I say, this phase is difficult for many people to grasp but allow me to put it to you like this: have you ever found an un-scratched scratchcard lying on the ground? (On the pavement? In the restaurant? In the restroom?) Did you pick it up? And did you smile to the blue and white canopy above you as if the sky itself had provided the card? And did you spare a brief thought for the man or woman who adhered to the back pocket routine, understanding all the while the possible costs? If the answer is ‘yes’ then you will understand this adherence to karmic fate – it is an almost Eastern feeling of universal destiny and the acceptance that one is subservient to Events. This includes losing the scratchcard, which you have anyway entirely forgotten about. Never mind, for someone else may find it and win, while the world spins on.

Some time later (days, a week?) something will occur or some words will be idly said and your brain will crack like a sparkplug. The scratchcard! The sensation of reaching into your back pocket to feel the thin sliver of theatre and hope and finding it still there, with all its attendant possibilities, is remarkable. Do you see now? It is for this intense (if short-lived) smile that the previous phase is indulged. This is an important point: the practice of deferred gratification can apply even to the gambler. A person imbued suddenly with a fateful and dreamy impulse at the checkout can also contain within them the most wonderful cornerstone of discipline – a calm forgetfulness. Only now, when the mixture of remembrance and delight has compelled you into your back pocket for the card, is it time to scratch.

The mathematics behind the scratching drill itself are difficult to describe in any brief way. You should be aware that this is a very precise, mechanical operation. The preparations are the easiest part to detail. You will need to find a penny, or a two pence coin. It is IMPERATIVE that you use only these coins. No other coin will do. As an American or other nationality, the smallest equivalent denomination is to be used. The reasoning behind this is similar to that which prohibits the purchase of £5 cards under the system. In fact, a disdain for all ostentation (buying multiple cards, scratching them with gaudy £2 coins) runs through the whole process. Scratching with your house key or car key is certainly out of the question. Using your thumbnail or fingernails is allowed but only if they are not glossy with bright paint or adorned with tiny jewels. However, should the fingernail paint be flaking off, days or weeks after application, then by all means: scratch away. Ignore these caveats and conditions at your own peril.

Get your brown coin or plain fingernail ready. Many minds will have tried to reduce the optimum order of scratching to its base mathematical formula. Yet, there is no perfect ‘Tic Tac Toe’ solution to these flaky grids, and the system I am prescribing cannot be said to be perfect by any means. Nonetheless, it is rooted in a simple emotive idea: that you must keep yourself in suspense for as long as possible, especially while scratching. In the spirit of this suspense, it is perhaps wise to put down your coin so that we may take some time out to describe the ‘Ten Percent’ rule.

The ‘Ten Percent’ rule is simple. If a family member is in the room when the scratchcard has been remembered and retrieved, then etiquette demands that you agree to give them ten percent of the winnings, should Fortune rule in your favour. However, they should refrain from demanding their cut outright, as it is impolite. Still, it is equally, if not MORE offensive to play the card without any comment at all, or with a brusqueness that implies you did not care who won anything. Please practice caution if there is more than one family member in the room, as things may become dangerous.

Now that royalties have been mostly covered, the scratching can finally begin. Take the brown coin, or unembellished fingernail, and scratch the card’s grid methodically, taking time to consider each revelation separately. Remember that suspense is the key to the technique.

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Since there are likely to be onlookers and the process involves a certain air of theatricality, it requires statements be made (“Let’s do this thing!”), updates be given (“Oh! We have two £1000s!”) and summaries be provided (“Okay, we’ve got a £10 and a £100 as a possibility”). This is all not to mention the final flourish when the last possible digit is scratched and revealed, which should always be accompanied with a gambler’s battle-cry – a guttural, growling “come ooonnnnNNNNNN!” descending to a “NNNAAaaghh fuck it” when loss is incurred.

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Should you win, remember to honour the Ten Percent rule, but beyond that the celebration is yours. I know of no process for winning, nor for being rich. Fate has either delivered you to riches, or placed you back in the line for the checkout. If you have lost, look over your card one last time and remember the final act of the ritual, more important than any other. You must tear the scratchcard directly in two.

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The Tear is colossally significant. In this way you have dismissed it all. You have dismissed the riches, the consumption, the possibilities. All the energy of the process may have led up to the point where a gruff cry of hope resounded throughout your home. Yet a shrug and a single swift tear is all that is needed to dispose of it. Do not tear the card again, into quarters – you do not need to. Once is OK. The cars, the holidays, the clothes, the things. They are not for you. You did not want £100,000 anyway. This is perhaps the most necessary part of the process. The final salute to Fate. At the end of a scratchcard, as in all of life: remember the Tear.

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On Craic: I’m Telling You, There Is No Word For ‘Yes’ Or ‘No’ In Irish

This essay is mostly about the 'craic', not to be confused with the 'cráic'

This essay is mostly about the ‘craic’, not to be confused with the ‘cráic’

At school I disliked learning Irish. Mostly because the teacher was stern and angry. When I discovered that he moonlighted as Santa Claus in a local shopping centre at Christmas, I was pretty much done. He clashed with my traditional concept of a kind and joyous St Nick, so that was me finished with Santa and, subsequently, the Gaelic tongue.

Not that I would have necessarily carried on learning it anyway. Gaelic as a language was so obviously ugly, guttural and unwieldy that everything sounded like it was the same foreign, unpalatable dish of intestinal slop. With its ‘fuinneog’s (windows) and ‘peann luaidhe’s (pencils) it isn’t a language that appeals to vain schoolboys, unless those vain schoolboys are fans of Lord of the Rings for whom Elvish proves too tricky. As a teenager this dislike was compounded by the observation that everyone associated with the language was infested with patriotism or an intense religiosity – and often both. Since the time of the Celtic Druids, Ireland has been the victim of a priest class who interfered with superstition in the political and social life of the country. Inevitably, this religious influence has found its way into the nation’s dictionary. The Gaelic language shares with Arabic, among others, the puncturing of sentences with religious sentiments. You can’t even formally say ‘dia duit’ (hello) without technically having just said ‘God be with you’. (The characteristically verbose response to this welcome is to say ‘dia is muire dhuit’ – God and Mary be with you).

But then I got a bit older and, maybe, a little more forgiving of spiritualism. I still find the priest class to be a void of moral authority – but I no longer extend that lack of credibility to the Irish language, even if it does pay homage to a Christian god every once in a while. As an adult, I’m interested in the language, not because I think it pleasant – it still sounds brutally unattractive – but because its quirks and cogs more than make up for its uninviting tone.

For instance, there are no words for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in Gaelic. It’s the truth. If you want to answer somebody in the positive or negative, you actually have to refer back to the question itself in the form of a positive or negative statement. So, when somebody asks you ‘ar mhaith leat cupan tae?’ (would you like a cup of tea?) you cannot just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – there simply aren’t any words for that. You have to keep up the chatter by answering: ‘ba mhaith liom cupan tae’ (I would like a cup of tea) or if you’re feeling lazy you can reduce this as far as ‘ba mhaith liom’ (I would like) but absolutely no further. Never mind the possibility that you could just answer with the word ‘please’ and nod your head – because this course of action is just as long-winded by English standards, requiring you to say ‘le do thoil’ (literally: with your will).

The concept of possession is a similar peculiarity. The common way of saying you can speak or talk in Irish is to say ‘ta Gaelige agam’ which means ‘I have Irish’ – as if you carry the language around with you in your bloodstream as a kind of benign infection. This possessiveness doesn’t restrict itself to pursuits of knowledge, obviously, but becomes more confusing when talking about things which actually are attached to you. To say the colour of your hair is black you would say ‘ta mo chuid gruaige dubh’, which translates to something like ‘my share of hair is black’ or ‘my portion of hair is black’. The same goes for teeth: ‘mo chuid fiacla’ (my portion of teeth).  This word ‘cuid’ is used when there’s an indefinite quantity of something in the world over which you do not have full ownership. Which makes it seem like hair is only ever spoken about in its ethereal Platonic Form, and it is everybody’s ‘share’ of it which differs in colour, probably according to personality. All of this adds to the impression of exuberance and lengthiness which the Irish language leaves on the non-speaker.

The suggestion is that, historically, the Irish people often had nothing better to do but talk to one another, and as a result have developed an unusually long-winded mode of speech. To adopt a single word for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ during a conversation with me as an Irish person would be bordering on rudeness – I would instantly accuse you of ‘being awful short’ with me. You impolite fucker.

Of course, if I really did want to call you an impolite fucker ‘as Gaelige’, I would literally be lost for words. This is because there are no swearwords in Irish. Like ‘yes’ and ‘no’, they simply don’t exist. Every Irish teacher I have had has been adamant about this point, even proud. Although if you turn on TG4 – the Irish language TV channel broadcast throughout Ireland – you’ll probably discover the occasional soap opera character saying ‘cac naofa!’ (holy shit!) or even ‘bud ceann’ (dickhead). Strictly speaking, these aren’t swearwords either, because the words involved are the anatomical words. ‘Bud’ is the word for penis and doesn’t really hold the same forcefulness as ‘dick’ or ‘cock’. ‘Cac’ is likewise closer to the English word ‘poop’. All this means the words are funny in their own way, but it’s a silly kind of humour as opposed to anything tinged with anger or playful aggression. (If you’re curious, the Irish word for vagina is ‘pit’ – pronounced ‘pitch’ – and you can have as much or as little fun with that factoid as you like). Ultimately, if the English language is a vulgar one, with all its ‘cunts’ and ‘shits’ and ‘bollocks’, then Irish is a prudish language, in which it is impossible to summarise your absolute distaste without seeming like a clown yourself.

At least, it is impossible to show your disdain for someone in any terse way. Once again, the talkative nature of the language comes out. Should it be necessary to curse at someone, you would have to do just that – curse them. There are any number of websites that will tell you the phrases to use in these circumstances: ‘Imeacht gan teacht ort’ (may you leave without returning), ‘go n-ithe an cat thú is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat’ (may the cat eat you, and may the Devil eat the cat), ‘Go mbeadh cosa gloine fút agus go mbrise an ghloine’ (may you have glass legs and may the glass break). Sadly, such elaborate cursing is more common as part of the explanation of the ‘no swearwords’ rule. You’d be hard-pressed to actually hear an Irish-speaking person say these things. They’re far more likely to simply switch languages and swear at you in English, possibly because – as the film Lord of War pointed out to us – people tend to revert to their first languages in moments of pain, frustration or ecstasy, and the first language of many Gaelgors, though they might be loath to admit it, is English.

Of course, it is the opinion of many linguists that language is a malleable and generally untameable thing, and although swear words might not be recognised by purists, that doesn’t mean they won’t find their way into the language. Any language is in constant flux – always evolving – and new words will insert themselves into our vocabulary as irrustobabrously as they please. It’s just that, so far in Gaelic, no swearwords have seemed to stick. Possibly this is because forceful swearwords are a very English Thing. And the Irish are nothing if not ‘Not English.’ The language’s dislike for English loan-words or general English influence is noticeable in the creativity with which such loan-words are destroyed. When the escalator was invented, there was no Irish equivalent for the word, so it became the barely-altered ‘escalator’, pronounced esh-cah-lah-torr. But this was much too close to English for comfort and was soon replaced by an Irish substitute – ‘staire beo’ – which literally means ‘living stairs’.

Which brings us to the unusual case of the word ‘craic’. The origin of this unmistakably Irish word isn’t Irish at all, but Anglo-Saxon. ‘Crack’ was a slang term for ‘news’ or ‘gossip’ in England as far back as the 19th century and only became really popular in Ireland, primarily in Ulster, in the 1950s. As late as the 1970s it was still spelled the English way in songs and writing. For whatever reason the word has recently been Gaelicised and then re-borrowed into English, giving the distinct impression that it is an Irish word through and through. Most young Irish people today are convinced of its Gaelic purity. If you’re English, why not try writing ‘what’s the crack?’ on your Irish friends’ Facebook walls, and when they indignantly try to correct your spelling, you can give them a lesson in etymology. Your Irish friends will be very grateful for this.

That being said, craic is now an Irish word, simply by virtue of its quintessentially Irish definitions. It no longer simply means ‘news’ and is distinct from English counterparts. You can still ask somebody ‘what’s the craic?’ to ask what the news is, but ‘having the craic’ has come to encompass a wider concept of ‘good times’. A direct English equivalent doesn’t exist. Having ‘fun’ is too frivolous and civil, while having ‘a laugh’ is close but still too limited in its meaning. ‘Banter’ is sometimes put forward as an equivalent, being a similar mixture of conversation, joking and story-telling. But this doesn’t work either because there is a subtle difference between the two – banter involves jibes and insults and is more frequently practiced between work colleagues, who might not necessarily have been friends otherwise. Whereas real craic is more common among very close friends or family members, contains a lot more story-telling, anecdotes, reminiscing and fewer jibes at each others’ expense. Banter is essentially combative – craic is essentially co-operative. When having the craic with your friends, you ‘pass’ the laugh on to somebody else, who then keeps it ‘flowing’. When indulging in banter, you ‘serve’ a laugh like a tennis ball and wait for the rebound. Neither of these concepts is restricted to one culture – there is English craic and Irish banter – but my experience is that each culture appears to prefer its own particular blend.

Craic can also extend far outside of a single group in a way that banter cannot. Say a group of young men and women (mostly English-speaking but culturally Celtic) gather in a house for a drink. They sit in a circular fashion, enjoying the chatter and tales and generally catching up with whatever misadventures have occurred. At this juncture there is ’some craic bai’. This is not a diminutive phrase. ‘Some craic’ is still a good amount of craic. But it’s at this point the drinks are finished and the group must move from the house to another venue, almost certainly The Pub. Here, the group will undoubtedly split off into several cells, mingling with the other patrons and night-outers. Intermittently, these cells will meet up or run into one another, trade members and generally shout amusing things. Of course, the other patrons and groups in the bar have unwittingly brought their own craic to the bar. The usual effect is that all the craic becomes compounded until somebody stands on a chair or something and gives an impassioned speech about nothing in particular and everybody laughs and shouts ‘yerrrooo’. It can now be said that the craic is ‘mighty’. It is no longer simply a conversational concept, but an atmospheric one. The danger now is that somebody ‘kills the craic’ by saying or doing something sorrowful or aggressive. But for the sake of argument, let’s say this doesn’t happen. Instead, somebody’s cousin arrives through the door with a violin and a friend of his follows with a bodhrán (an Irish instrument – a handheld drum). The bar is small but packed and yet somehow there is room for the cousin and friend to sit on a stool in the corner and play what will be referred to tomorrow as ‘a blinder’. When the music reaches its peak and everybody is enjoying themselves – but not necessarily dancing – it can then be said that the craic is ‘ninety’. This, the consensus goes, is the craic at its absolute peak. If the craic has ever passed this point, it has never been documented or recalled. Thankfully, ninety is the optimum level of craic. Craic is at this point an atmosphere and, simultaneously, an experience. The craic cannot be killed at this level – it will only fade away slowly. Furthermore, it continues to exist as a moment in history long after the fact.

Retrospectively, you might expect the craic to be nullified by the force of the resultant hangover – but this is not so. Craic is simply cemented and preserved by a hangover, so long as the hangover is sustained by a large enough group and the night’s oracular chronicle set straight. The previous night’s craic now exists outside of space, time and the group(s) in which the craic was conceived. At this point, the craic has ebbed gently and the language used to refer to it must be reflective and respectful, usually in the manner of the previous night’s pre-drinks. It hereafter reverts to its conversational form. The collection of young men and women have had ‘some craic bai’, which, as I have said, is quite some craic, let me tell you.

*

With thanks to Colly Madden for the language lessons. Most of the Gaelige here is Ulster dialect.

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The Not-Quite-Underclass of ‘Sheila’

*

I once went to a pub in Battersea with my girlfriend of the time, who had worked behind the bar. She introduced me to her friends who were working that night and to some of the regulars.

I met a girl who had had a kid in her teens and who later rejected an offer to study at Oxford because they were snooty to her in the interview. Instead she decided she was going to be an air stewardess because she had developed a fear of flying after being on a plane journey that nearly crashed. She said she wanted to get over that fear.

I met a guy, pulling pints, who moved from South Africa with the love of his life, who later abandoned him to the English weather, leaving him only his clothes and the mutual tattoo they got dedicated to each other on his hand, which read “Two against the world.”

And I met an old man, who was dying. He consistently refused to go into hospital and get treatment for his illness because his wife needed his care, since she was even more ill than he was. An old man to whom the pub and the people in it were his only leisure.

*

It’s been a while since I wrote about a song that really gets to me. Sheila by Jamie T is a song that really gets to me. Periodically, I will listen to this song and, for all its twang and catch, a lump will form in my throat. A sadness, a little tumour of melancholy. Because Sheila to me is not about the amazing music – the steady rhythm, the coalescence of Jamie’s register and the quickfire, bleeping melody (which my big sister insists is some sort of homage to Disney’s ‘Under the Sea’). To me it’s more about the characters contained in the lyrics. Sadly, thanks to Jamie’s hasty vocal style and the shadow cast by the great music, so few people have ever stopped to listen – to notice the tragedies unfolding underneath the brilliant, flippant tune.

Sheila is a song populated by shades of London’s not-quite-underclass. Boisterous alcoholics, jilted drug dealers, addicts, abused daughters. Not every hue of the downtrodden is depicted but neither does it need to be. In Sheila three tragedies are laid out, like bodies recovered from the sea, and analysed with a forensic focus so sharp that it would rival any lauded book of short stories.

Take Jack – a.k.a “Smack Jack the Cracker Man” – whose drug dealing and dodginess (the result of being “dealt some shit hands”) has led him to a life of lonely bitterness, whose only viable way out of a spiral of misery would be the direction, fortitude and love of a decent woman. Sadly, his romantic interest, Lisa, has only gone and had a child with another man. Now Jack dives head first into a deep pool of drink and resentment.

“Well done Jack, glug down that cider,
you’re right she’s a slut and you never fuckin’ liked her.”

His friends are likewise gone from him, being “dependant mans upon the heroin” (pronounced by Jamie with an incredible broadness – “her-oh-waan” – to rhyme with the name of Jack’s old mate Dan). All Jack thinks there is to life now is getting into fights and buying the cheapest clothes he can without endangering his ability to get “glad-ragged up” in an attempt to pull – always unsuccessfully. The only girls that hang on his shoulder are “fag-hags” who have no intention of sleeping with him and who he ends up resenting as “slags” just as much as he resents his old girl Lisa.

The most tragic thing about Jack is that if he’d take the time to look around, he’d see every other fella in the Wetherspoons as identical to him, stumbling down the same bitter, woman-hating hole.

“But this sounds original, superficial’s the issue,
for one dear Jack, there’re 35 doppelgangers.”

Jack is simply joining the ranks of the unhappy alcos and drug users.

Then there’s the Sheila of the title, whose penchant for soap-like drama leads her on binge after binge of alcohol-fuelled misadventure. She is confident, loud, coquettish, a leader among her friends. She can talk to anybody, so well versed is she in London’s spidery dialects.

“Her lingo went from the cockney to the gringo,
Any time she sing a song, the other girls sing along,
and tell all the fellas that the lady is single,
fickle way to tickle on my young man’s ting.”

She brings to mind a vision of a loutish student, friendly to those on her good side, cutting to those on her bad. But ultimately, like so many of Jamie T’s characters, she is also crippled by her alcohol abuse. We are often told that all good tragic characters in the Shakespearian mould have a fatal flaw. It just so happens Sheila’s is melodrama. It’s no coincidence that the chorus starts with her dumping her beer (Stella Artois) over the head of her current love interest.

“Sheila goes out with her mate Stella,
it gets poured all over her fella,
cos she says ‘man he ain’t no better,
than the next man kicking up fuss.’”

Reeling from this drunken argument she stumbles down to the banks of the Thames, falls in and drowns. With a bleak sting of humour, Jamie addresses her weakness by lamenting that nobody heard her screams.

“I guess the carpet weren’t rolled out.”

She is not one of the C-list celebrities she tries so hard to emulate. Sheila is ordinary and thus unworthy of the attention of the media. This is a story that won’t get told in the papers. Only in songs.

But the most difficult story to handle is the third – that of Georgina. Her tragedy is the most innocent and her own character the most blameless of all the darkened semi-hooligans that swagger through the streets of the Jamie T-verse. It’s also the easiest story to understand. Out of respect or kindness, or maybe ‘just because’, the singer dispenses with his more cryptic rhymes and sings her tale in a much more linguistically lucid way. It’s probably worth just quoting in full.

“So this a short story ‘bout the girl Georgina,
never seen a worse, clean young mess
under stress at best, but she’s pleased to see ya,
with love, God bless, we lay her body to rest.

Now it all dear started with daddy’s alcoholic,
lightweight, drinking down, numbing his brain,
and the doctor said he couldn’t get the heart there started
now beat up, drugged up she feelin’ the strain.

She says in a rut ‘What the fuck I sposed to do
suck it up, start, stop, keep running through?’
True but you try, it ain’t easy to do,
she been buckle belt beaten from the back like a brat.

Dunno where she goin’ but she know where she at,
so Georgie, it’s time to chain react,
but the truth is you know, she probably fought back,
tears stream down her face,
she screamed away,
‘When I fall, no one catch me,
alone lonely, I’ll overdose slowly,
get scared, I’ll scream and shout’.
But you know it won’t matter she’ll be passing out.”

Georgina’s story is brutal. Her alcoholic father abuses her until the day he dies of a heart attack. You might think that as the victim of parental abuse she might find some relief or at least some freedom in the death of her abuser. But he is still her father and the death weighs heavily on her. She becomes strained and drugged up. On anti-depressants or something less legal, we are not explicitly told. But her sensitive nature, history of abuse and inclination to stress and tearfulness suggest the former. Eventually, she commits suicide by overdose. And as sad as this is, Jamie’s final word on the matter are as sardonic as they are sorrowful. We can practically see him standing by the ambulance, shrugging dolefully.

“I say giggidibigidiup, just another day,
another sad story, that’s tragedy,
paramedic announced death at 10.30,
rip it up, kick it to spit up the views.”

*

On my last visit to that bar in Battersea with my girlfriend, the dying old man, convinced that he would never see her again, gave her his necklace to remember him by. I walked away and left them alone to speak, under the cover of a trip to the toilets. Mostly, I did that because it felt like a private moment. But also because if she had started to cry, I would have nearly started bawling myself. And I don’t intend to do that in a bar until I’m a lonely old lech.

Later, after I had been sitting quietly among them, listening to the chatter, gossip and reminiscing, my girlfriend had me alone and asked me what I thought of her friends. I didn’t have to think for very long before saying, “I love them.” She seemed surprised and asked me why. “Because they’re…” I thought for a while. “I don’t know. Because they’re real.”

I’ve always had this feeling like I don’t know any real people. That I’ve been sheltered from the harsh reality of people who “dance and drink and screw, because there’s nothing else to do”. And it’s my own snobbishness and shyness that is to blame, really. But sitting in that bar, I felt like I had infiltrated a reality that was beyond Dickens or Orwell. That there was more character in ten square feet of that pub than I, or anyone else, could ever put to paper, no matter how colourfully or plainly we wrote.

And that’s why I love Sheila by Jamie T so much. It feels like he has done what I couldn’t fathom. In just over four minutes, he has musically presented the character and sorrowfulness of London with a richness and depth that rivals great theatre, if not life itself. It is a song that I genuinely rank alongside Dubliners for giving me a window into a world where fiction can be as hard-hittingly real as waking up in the morning from a demented dreamscape. A world where colour exists but only among dominant shades of grey. Where sadness is a blessing. Where people are defined by their strengths, yet made real by their misfortunes.

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Why ‘Time To Pretend’ is the Greatest Song You Must Never Listen To

[Sunny day out. Contemplating drinks on the doorstep. Got no work to do. Both good thing and bad thing. Like life. Contradictions make my stomach feel unsettled. Great. Can’t drink now. Article follows…]

It ends with the image of a man choking on his own vomit, for one thing. But then, you do not hear that bit. You never really hear any of the words. From the moment the first few beats of MGMT’s most popular track bubble up unstoppably from silence, your faculties of negativity and scepticism dissolve. Music that is so undeniably hopeful, that the heel of every happy-drunk hero at the bar taps and turns in quick succession. Yes, you’re at a club. Why wouldn’t you be? Even if that normally bothers you, it won’t tonight. Because the unconstrained happiness of a hundred people flowing onto the dancefloor like milk into a bowl, matching the tune with lipsticked and non-lipsticked o-shaped mouths, is an infection. Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP! There’s a cheer in the air. But it’s hard to make an O shape with your lips when you are smiling this much – just like you can’t whistle and smile and the same time. That’s not how lips work. You can have one or the other. But you’ve made your choice tonight. Tonight, it’s O shapes all the way. Tonight, you join the happy people, this nutty bowl of Cheeri-os.  Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP! Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP!

You sing and you sing. But you must never, ever listen. You are happy and you want to stay happy. The lyrics to Time to Pretend are not happy. They aren’t exactly sad either. They straddle the line of ambivalence, a line that in the real world would manifest itself as a single yellow line on a Central London side street, in that it makes everyone feel ever-so-slightly negative even though nobody agrees about precisely what it means.

At the beginning, it sounds like an unashamed celebration of youth, fame, money and success.

“I’m feeling rough, I’m feeling raw, I’m in the prime of my life /
Let’s make some music, make some money, find some models for wives.
I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars /
You man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars.”

The entire song can be read like this, as an unapologetic chorus of success and all that success brings. Heroin and all, there is nothing to be sorry about because it is “our decision” to live fast and die young. It’s a celebration of autonomy and the triumph of the ambitious individual over a life of menial jobs and a bleak future of shitty nights out down at the school disco after your shelf-monkey work shift, trying desperately to pull off knee high socks.

This triumph of fame and fortune over an everyday life in the lyrics explains the music’s bounciness then. Oh wait no it doesn’t ha ha I set you up it was a lie. The yellow-line ambivalence finally leaks in quietly through the next few lines (but only if you’re listening, and let’s face it – Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP! – you aren’t).

“Yeah, it’s overwhelming but what else can we do? /
Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?
Forget about our mothers and our friends, /
We were fated to pretend.”

But what else could we do, man? We were fated to pretend. MGMT seem to want you to think that personal autonomy had nothing to do with chasing success. Success is a train that drives itself. Like the DLR line. There’s no fucker at the wheel, getting paid absurd amounts of cash because of the poor air quality. You decide one day that this is the train for you, you get on and it just goes whether you want it to or not, unstoppable and unmanned. This is your “morning commute.” The only decision you get to make is whether you get off near Canary Wharf and climb to the top of Citibank like King Kong, swatting down all the other bankers buzzing around you, or whether you get off in Blackwall and hang out in the Marina with all the bohemian boat-owners, making art, darling.

MGMT chose the Marina. The words “fated to pretend” is the giveaway. Art is about pretending. And an artist is just a person who makes things that aren’t real seem real. Artists are pretenders and successful artists are just the best at it.

This makes a lot of art seem like a con. But some art is also lovely. Like this song for instance. Time to Pretend goes quickly from a celebration of a rock and roll lifestyle, to being a selfish fame-chase with the excuse that: “We had no choice, man. Fate made us do it.” And in no more than a few beats it hits us with the hurt and the ambiguous tone of the lyrics becomes all the more serious, in total contradiction to the upbeat tones hammering away in clubs all over the world.

“I’ll miss the playgrounds and the animals and digging up worms /
I’ll miss the comfort of my mother and the weight of the world /
I’ll miss my sister, miss my father, miss my dog and my home /
Yeah, I’ll miss the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone.”

Listed here is everything that could ever be important to any human being who has suffered a loving family. Childhood, a sense of home, a sense of belonging, genuine companionship, your brother, your sister, your mum, your dad, unconditional love and liberty.

“But there is really nothing, nothing we can do /
Love must be forgotten, life can always start up anew.”

To sacrifice one happiness – your family – for another happiness – success, is among the hardest decisions an average person could ever make. With difficult decisions like these, people engage in a curious (but sometimes ultimately necessary) self-imposed mindfuck. They tell themselves that they had no choice. No decision after all. They were fated to pretend.

This decision – whether it feels like one or not – is both empowering and crippling. The last few lines reveal the pragmatism that now affects the mind of the successful.

“The models will have children, we’ll get a divorce /
We’ll find some more models, everything must run its course.
We’ll choke on our vomit and that will be the end /
We were fated to pretend.”

Though it reads exactly like it, these lines are not delivered as tragedy. The mind of the success-chaser is already made up. The DLR has departed. And maybe there really is no way out now. These lines are delivered matter-of-factly, with a youthful (if messy) death as the final and foreseeable end but not necessarily a sad one. This is the verse that is sung unapologetically. Fame has a heavy price and the famous do regret the loss of all that was once simple and normal, the loss of family and real friends. But this fare: it is non-negotiable. If it must be paid, then it must be paid. Having learned of all the things the successful sacrifice, it becomes crass to judge them as selfish or self-indulgent. Things are much more complicated. Time to Pretend is not a celebration of fame, nor is it some simple excuse-laden floor filler. It’s a complex and frank plea for empathy, an open letter from the “successful” to all the regular people left behind, stacking shelves and serving drinks and having Sunday dinner with their family.

The choice between one form of happiness and another form of happiness is never an easy decision. You can’t whistle and smile at the same time. You can only have one or the other.

(Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP!)

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