New Car

Back in January, I reviewed my (then) current car: my Honda Civic Type-R. I also detailed the reasons that I would be swapping it for something else: corrosion, age of components, uncompromising ride, pain in the arse to do basic DIY jobs and so on. I concluded this post by stating that I was looking at the newer FK2 Type-R. However…

The FK2 musing came to nothing in the end. Partly because the cars hold their value so well which would have entailed some sort of finance repayments (which I really don’t want to have again after clearing it all on previous vehicles), and partly because I saw this as an oppurtunity to take a chance on something completely different…a car that I’ve gazed at longingly for several years now, and a car that I felt I should take the plunge with now while a) prices are right and b) it is still possible to run a fat-engined gas guzzler. So this is what I bought:

Now, you probably see these all the time on the roads, but this specific model was actually very hard for me to track down, especially in good condition. This is a 2007 BMW 530i M-Sport, and what that means is that this packs a big 3.0, naturally-aspirated straight/inline six petrol engine. For reference, there are LOADS of diesel models of this E60-gen 5-Series on the market (very well-specced I might add), and lots of “lesser” petrol models such as the 520, 523, and 525, but I specifically wanted this three-litre beastie and the 530i badge was surprisingly difficult to find here in the UK.

Essentially, this is the best model available underneath the (crazy) V10-equipped M5, and the 545i/550i V8 variants. Better still, the six-cylinder in the 530i is miles more reliable than any of those models, requiring only regular servicing and oil changes. In contrast, the V8’s can suffer with pricey valve stem seal issues, and the M5…well, you don’t buy a V10 supersaloon and expect it not to be an expensive, high-maintenance relationship.

The straight-six under the bonnet of this car is known to be one the best ever made, and it won a lot of awards too. It was also the end of an era as BMW began fitting turbos to their six-cylinder cars afterwards. Unfortunately, there was a massive push to get the public to buy diesel cars (a government promotion that has aged about as well as the Gollywog) when the E60 was on the market (2005-2010) which is why the majority of cars in the classifieds and trade ads are diesels, and why I had such a tough time finding a 530i. I also didn’t want to compromise and settle for something like a 520i so I persisted, searching for months until I finally landed on a car with history and low miles. The only compromise I had to make was the gearbox, as this is an auto – something that I’d previously considered sacrilege as a petrolhead. However, the auto ‘box is actually a positive for me, as I’ll explain in a bit.

But what originally drew me to this car, specifically an E60 with M-Sport aero kit, is how the car looks. It’s one of the biggest ironies of my life that the Chris Bangle styling of the E60 struck me as absolutely revolting when these cars first came out, taking over from the attractive E39 generation. Over the years though, my opinion has done a complete 180 and now I can’t get enough of how these cars (and other BMWs from the Bangle era such as the E85 Z4 and E63 6-Series) look. I’m forever looking back at mine in car parks from different angles. Take a look at the last few generations of 5-Series and you can see smart, but safe exterior styling that has evolved at a crawl between model generations. Never again has there been such a radical, sweeping change in aesthetic design as the Bangle era, and I don’t think we will see such a gamble by a car giant like BMW ever again.

In my opinion, it looks superb from all angles, especially with the M-Sport bumpers, skirts, and 19-inch “Spider” alloy wheels (the best-looking factory wheel option in my eyes, though the 18″ MV2s are also nice). The only thing dulling it’s impact is that there are still a lot of E60’s on the road! As more and more gradually shuffle off to the scrapheap, I think the E60 design will only continue to age well and turn more heads.

Inside, it’s all black leather with optional black headlining, and M-Sport steering wheel and sill plates. There is the infamous i-Drive system (which I’m not finding to be the headache that many BMW owners make out) and plenty of luxuries that I never had on the Type-R such as heated seats, parking radar, tinted mirrors, fully electric seats, DVD player, 6-CD changer etc. It hasn’t got all of the options unfortunately (there are so many that I doubt any E60 is specced exactly the same…), but that’s also less to go wrong, right?

The best of it is that waiting paid dividends, as this car has all the service stamps, Continental boots all round (with loads of tread left), and less than 70,000 miles – crazy for a fourteen year-old motor! There’s also evidence of a brand-new air-con condenser having being fitted which would have cost the previous owner a decent wedge. All of this set me back well under £10,000, even less after I’d traded the R.

I’m dead pleased with it and honestly still can’t believe that I have one of these. I’ve had a fair few strange looks in the work’s car park as I work a (to use the American term) blue-collar factory job so I guess it is odd to see somebody like me in an executive-spec BMW that overhangs the parking bay(s) by a considerable amount!

As for why I consider the automatic gearbox a plus point these days…well, that ties into another reason that I wanted shot of the Type-R: my intermittent back problems. On bad days, those Recaro seats and the rock-hard suspension setup really inflamed the issue, and long drives were just so unappealing with pressing the clutch in after sitting on a motorway at cruising speed for hours pulling on my lower back. Even though the 530i sits on 19″ wheels, the ride is infinitely kinder, and the seats are far more supportive with a lot more adjustment options. It’s no slouch for an auto anyway, and it shifts along incredibly quickly given the car’s size (no doubt helped by the ‘M’ setup). There’s also the option to flick the selector to the left and shift the gears manually too if I want.

So yeah…a completely different kind of car than the one I’d anticipated getting but, so far, I’m enjoying it. Naturally, any big, older luxury German car is a risk as far as potential issues and costs go, but these are still well-made machines with heaps more build quality than the Civic. Besides, sometimes you just have to take a risk and go for something, even if it might not end well down the line.

Loneliness: My Story

I’m not one for vomiting a personal sob story onto the internet but, fuck it, this is important to talk about.

It’s important for myself, and it’s important for anybody else going through the same shit. The truth is, I didn’t realise how important it was to discuss what is a growing social epidemic until I watched a video on Youtube with Karen Dolva – CEO and co-founder of the organisation No Isolation – talking at a Tedx event in 2017 about loneliness, and how it is more dangerous than most of us realise.

“Loneliness is not just a sad feeling that we need to get rid of because we want people to be slightly more happy. Loneliness is dangerous. People suffering from loneliness are in a constant fight or flight mode”

Karen Dolva

Some of the statistics that Dolva brings to the audience’s attention are shocking, and actually a little frightening to hear if you are a long-term sufferer of loneliness. The constant state of stress that your body is under (even if you don’t realise it) can lead to a 29% increase in the risk of developing heart disease (equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes every day), and a 32% increase in the odds of suffering a stroke. I don’t know the exact scientific reasons behind this, but I would presume that being in that fight-or-flight mode for so long, over a long period of years, places extra strain and wear-and-tear on a person’s heart, thus increasing these risks in the long term. According to Dolva, and the studies she quotes, loneliness is actually a larger contributer to heart disease than that big, bad monster of Western society that we know as obesity. Even more frightening, loneliness apparently doubles your chances of getting dementia.

Loneliness can also lead to depression. I know because I have been there, and I continue to go there on-and-off. I’ve had the thoughts of, “what is the point in going on?” and, “I just can’t do this anymore,” and I’m sure that I will have these thoughts again. Fortunately, I have not suffered to the same harsh degree that many others (who cannot function in society and go as far as to take their own lives) sadly do, and I somehow manage to find ways to pick myself up, but depression is still a serious problem that – ironically – is taken less seriously even as the focus on mental health increases. But why is this?

Continue reading “Loneliness: My Story”

The £400 “Stop Smoking” Bribe…

…is really something else. It’s one of those news stories that popped up and blew my mind with how ridiculous it is. In what dimension does, “hey, how about being paid to stop a voluntary bad habit that YOU took up in the first place?” sound like a sane proposal?

But perhaps you require some context. This is, after all, a UK thing so chances are – if you reside elsewhere – you are currently reading this and thinking, “buh?”

So here it is: a piece of proposed guidance (not yet confirmed) from the National Health Service (NHS) is suggesting that pregnant women should be offered £400 worth of shopping vouchers as a bribe incentive to quit smoking, in the interests of their own health, and that of their unborn child.

Evidence shows that offering financial incentives to help pregnant women stop smoking is “both effective and cost effective”, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and Public Health England have said.

Research suggests that for every 1,000 pregnant women offered vouchers, 177 would stop smoking.

Their guidance, which is open to consultation, said studies have shown “voucher incentives were acceptable to many pregnant women and healthcare providers” and are already in use in some regions.

itv.com

Now, before you consider me a ranting idiot, I can of course see the positives in this. While I’m not a anti-smoking crusader myself (what a person chooses to do is their own business, and the consequences are theirs to own), I do think that it is good for a pregnant woman to kick the habit, and that it is also a good thing for them to stay on that wagon post-birthing in order for the sake of their child’s health, to avoid passive smoking, and so as not to encourage smoking when said child gets older. I’m not debating this, nor am I debating the positive intent behind this proposal.

But I am questioning why a pregnant woman needs to be bribed with shopping vouchers to stop smoking. In my mind, there’s something terribly fucked-up with society if a woman won’t quit the fags for the sake of their child, but they will try harder if there shopping vouchers at stake. I’m not trying to downplay the difficulty of quitting smoking, but this idea still implies that the allure of £400 to go shopping with is more appealing than protecting the health of your unborn child.

I just can’t wrap my head around it, and I’m genuinely baffled that anybody would need a stronger incentive to stop smoking than the fact that they have a new, precious life growing inside of them.

And, if we are to take a deeper dive into smoking in the first place, we will see that cigarettes and the act of smoking managed to become a social norm (a “cool” thing to do, even) decades ago, when tobacco advertising was fully permitted and at it’s most rampant. There were even dedicated marketing campaigns carefully constructed to bring more women into smoking and to therefore vastly increase the consumer base for tobacco products. Society fell hook, line, and sinker (as we do so often) for these advertisements, that are designed to make us feel inadequete and left behind socially unless we buy/do what we are being sold, and we are where we are today – with the act of smoking still deeply ingrained into everyday life. We were manipulated, hooked on nicotine, and bred into cash cows for the tobacco giants.

The point I’m trying to make is that this shopping voucher “solution” is simply curing one vice with another. Retail therapy and buying all of the unnecessary, unfulfilling shit that we don’t need (because are minds are still being artfully shaped and moulded by ad agencies) isn’t that far away from being encouraged to take up smoking. Admittedly, shopping poses no threat to your physical wellbeing (unless you get rammed by a trolley in a supermarket…), and can’t be considered a problem on the same level as smoking, but the irony of this incentive isn’t lost on me.

Back to the proposal though, you might be wondering how something like this can be monitored to prove that recipients of vouchers aren’t still smoking.

The experts said women should undergo biochemical tests to prove they have stopped smoking before receiving the vouchers.

itv.com

I guess that sounds good, right?

However they said that if testing is too difficult due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the vouchers should be given anyway.

itv.com

Look: I’m fully aware that I’m probably just blowing this out of proportion. Maybe I just REALLY wanted an excuse to add a new post to this blog after such a long period of inactivity. Perhaps this is just an inevitable reaction to actively avoiding the news for so long.

Regardless, I’ll close with a tl;dr: stop smoking because you WANT to stop. Stop smoking because you NEED to stop. Most importantly, stop smoking for the sake of your unborn child, NOT because there’s a fucking shopping voucher coming your way.

Quote of the Month: February 2021

“It isn’t about whether you can or can’t: it’s whether you do or don’t.”

Before I take a look at this month’s quote, I have a confession to make: this line is actually from a videogame. I want to point that out from the offset because, as a rule, I don’t like to take philosophical advice from videogames, especially anime-styled JRPGs which can be a bit wishy-washy and idealistic at the best of times. I’m also not a big fan of people who get all of their life advice and inspiration from fictional game characters, as I see such behaviour leading to a somewhat deluded way of living whereby a piece of fantasy becomes reality in some people’s minds, distracting them from real life.

All of that said, I liked this quote from Namco’s Tales of Xillia 2 enough to take it seriously as useful life advice…even if it was spoken by a chesty anime waifu.

And that’s because it really is a positive, take-action attitude that anybody can apply to their life.

And there’s no need to engage many brain cells and formulate your own interpretation of the quote either (this ain’t no Sun Tsu quotation). Essentially, this is about not getting hung up on whether you think you can or can’t achieve something, because that isn’t what’s important. What’s important is that you bloody well try in the first place. Maybe it’s a physical challenge, or an academic obstacle. It could be approaching that person you’re attracted to. Perhaps it’s that promotion at work or an interview for a new, better job. In all of these scenarios, it’s easier to simply give up and walk away without even trying – easier to make excuses and tell yourself that you surely can’t do it.

But how do we know without trying? Sometimes it’s down to a lack of belief in ourselves; other times it really is because it’s much easier and less strenuous to not try in the first place – to retreat to the safety of our comfort zone. In either case, we will never improve ourselves or get any closer to the life that we want, and our failure to act will, ironically, only fuel the poisonous convictions we reinforce in our minds about not being able to achieve things. Thus, a vicious cycle is born and the only way to break it is to take action and do something.

The thing is, we aren’t psychic: we can’t know the outcome of our actions and expeditions before we attempt something (otherwise we’d all be buying lottery tickets!). Sure, we can make probability-based predictions (using existing data or evidence) in certain situations, but most things are dependant on a) our willingness to put ourselves out there and try something in the first place, and b) how much we are prepared to work for something. It’s far better to take action and actually do something, than to live with regret and not know what could have happened if you’d tried.

I have big respect for people with failed businesses, for example. Because, while others are mocking and criticising the downfall of those who had a go, at least that person tried something new and invested themselves (as well as money and resources) into that business. And, as is often the case, those people standing on the fringes and passing judgment on the failed ventures of others have likely never tried to better themselves. Meanwhile, the owner of the failed business will have gained valuable experience, and the knowledge that they at least tried. After all, that person will have grown through trying, and have learnt new things, while their critics are stagnating and going nowhere.

The key word is “action”. A lot of people make the mistake of waiting for inspiration to strike in order to feel motivated enough to take action. This is an incorrect approach that will only lead to procrastination and a lack of action. In essence, you are waiting for something to change, or your life to improve, by doing the same thing(s) over and over. It is the very definition of madness. The correct approach is Action >> Inspiration >> Motivation.

And it doesn’t have to be something a momentous. If you are a writer and are suffering with writer’s block, for example, just tell yourself that you will write just the one paragraph. Chances are, that one paragraph will become two, then three and so on. It’s the taking action in the first place – and breaking of the cycle – that allows inspiration to strike, and the motivation to keep going to subsequently form. It calls to mind another quote that I often refer to:

“Do something – do anything.”

Momentum (or the snowball effect) is a powerful thing, but you can’t get any momentum going if you don’t get moving in the first place (think of a huge rock atop a slope that will certainly get moving once pushed over the edge: it won’t go anywhere without that initial action of being shoved). That’s where taking action comes in.

Will you fail? Possibly. Inevitably, even. We all fail at things throughout life but we learn from our failings and grow as a result. It’s quite possible that you can’t do something, or that things don’t work out, but those are bridges to cross and outcomes to deal with when – if – you reach them. What matters is that you take the advice of that big-boobed, unsuitably-garbed anime girl, and at least try in the first place.

Book Review: Mythology – 75th Anniversary Illustrated Edition (Edith Hamilton, 2017)

Year: 2017 // Format Reviewed: Hardcover (75th Anniversary Illustrated Edition) // Publisher: Black Dog & Leventhal // Pages: 371 // ISBN: 978-0-316-43852-0

Greek mythology is a subject that has always fascinated me. I think it began back in primary/junior school when we first covered ancient Greece in history. I was immediately captivated by tales of Gods and heroes, awe-inspiring architecture (such as the Parthenon), and the real-world history of the country. I didn’t actively pursue my interest in Greek mythology afterwards, but I have invariably gravitated towards any sort of entertainment media that uses Greek mythology or Greek history as its subject matter. The movie 300, for example, or the God of War videogames.

A few years ago, I thought that it was about time to get hold of a book that chronicled the Greek myths in a comprehensive fashion so that I could properly read about them all. Of all the books I looked at, it was Edith Hamilton’s Mythology that constantly came out on top as THE book to have. Me being me, however, I didn’t get around to ordering a copy. Fortunately, I received the 75th Anniversary Illustrated Edition as a gift for Christmas. Aside from being a very thoughtful present, from somebody that clearly knew me and listened, it was a fantastic book that I bumped up to the top of my reading pile (I must apologise to my re-read of 11.22.63 which was immediately put on hold…) and wasted no time getting stuck into.

Mythology is a very well-organised book. Hamilton transcribes the original works of the likes of Ovid and Hesiod into easily-readable stories that are more suited to the modern reader – work which still holds up today considering that Mythology was first published back in 1942. More importantly, each story is prefaced with an explanation as to which of the ancient poets originally told said tale, the variations in their writing styles, and which of the accounts is used as the basis for Hamilton’s version. This varies between stories, as explained in the prefaces, because one poet might be more reliable in one instance, but another may have gone into greater detail in another. Different ancient poets also added their own personal touches of bias or vulgarity, which is either noted by Hamilton or filtered out in order to maintain concise storytelling without unnecessary, excessive detail or the sensationalism of depravity. Hesiod’s style, for example, is described as sometimes being naive and childish, while Ovid was a cynic.

The book begins with an introduction to classical mythology, how it tied into the culture of the time, and the various writers/poets who are quoted throughout the book. Profiles of all the Greek gods follow, including “family” trees, and an explanation of how the Greek Gods and their names “convert” to their Roman counterparts i.e. Zeus = Jupiter, Aphrodite = Venus, Athena = Minerva and so on (an especially useful reference when some of the stories are only told by the Roman poets and thus the Roman names for the Gods are used).

From here on, the stories are grouped together into categories (Hamilton states that she avoided trying to unify all of these tales, preferring to keep them separate – an approach that makes sense): Stories Of Love Qnd Adventure; The Great Heroes Before The Trojan War; The Heroes Of The Trojan War; The Great Families Of Mythology; The Less Important Myths. A detailed contents at the outset of the book makes it easy to find any of the stories within each category should you wish to come back and revisit a specific one at a later date.

I really enjoyed journeying through Mythology. The reading was easier than I expected, but not at the expense of detail. I also learnt quite a lot including the origins of names and fables, and the truth about certain mythological figures who have – in some cases – been heavily stylised by various entertainment mediums over the years, or had their personalities subtly modified. For example, I had no idea that Jason (of the Argonauts) turned out to be such a tool in the years following his successful quest for the Golden Fleece!

The book itself is also of good, solid quality, presented in the hardcover format with a stylish dust cover and excellent interior illustrations by Jim Tierney that really shout “Ancient Greece”. One of my (very few) criticisms are that there just aren’t enough of these illustrations! I think about half as many again would have been spot-on.

My other criticism is that the final section on Norse Mythology is so tiny. Granted, I don’t know a whole lot about the Norse Gods aside from their names and their domain, but I’m sure that there has to be more than what is detailed here. As it is, the Norse mythology section feels like a tacked-on afterthought and little more than a flirtation with the subject. It has no direct relevance to the Greek and Roman branches of mythology, and its presence in this book feels further out-of-place given that its lack of synergy means that all other forms of ancient mythology may as well have been included since they are equally as irrelevant (though such a book would be obscenely huge!).

My Norse grumblings aside, Mythology is an essential book for your shelf if Greek mythology is your thing. It’s a comprehensive voyage through the exploits of mythical Gods and heroes. Other books may offer more imagery and dramatisation but Edith Hamilton’s work is a no-nonsense compendium that stays close and true to the original source material.

On Captain Tom Moore and Britain’s “Greatest” Generation

Captain Tom Moore has dominated the news here in the UK over the last week, following his passing on 2nd of February, at the age of 100, after a short battle with pneumonia, and then Covid-19. Tom has became a recognisable, endearing national figure here since last April but – for those not in the know – who was Captain Tom Moore, and why was he so popular?

Born in 1920, Thomas Moore served in the military for the duration of World War II, from 1939 to 1946. He served in India before taking part in the Burma campaign, fighting the Japanese invasion as part of the Fourteenth Army (also referred to as the “Forgotten Army” due to the war in Burma being overlooked by both the contemporary and modern press who were more focused on the war in the Europe, and America’s war in the Pacific).

What Tom became most famous for, however, are his fundraising efforts in 2020. Beginning on the 6th of April – then aged 99 – Tom aimed to complete one hundred lengths of his 25 metre (27 yard) garden – with the assistance of his walking frame – by the time he turned 100, targeting ten lengths a day. Proceeds from his walk were to go to the National Health Service, specifically the NHS Charities Together – a group of charities that support staff, patients, and volunteers across the NHS. Tom wanted to raise the money to help support those on the frontline of the Covid-19 crisis, battling to save lives in Britain’s strained hospitals, and initially aimed to raise £1,000.

Continue reading “On Captain Tom Moore and Britain’s “Greatest” Generation”

Reviewing my Car (Honda Civic Type-R FN2)

Cars are one of my main interests yet I haven’t written too much about cars (or motoring in general) here on this blog. I suppose this is partly down to the fact that I don’t consider myself any sort of expert, partly because I tend to talk about cars quite a bit at work (and am “talked out” after that), and – to a lesser extent – because the future of motoring simply looks bleak in my humble opinion. I have no interest in electric cars or current trends, for example, and it’s difficult to talk about current/future cars without broaching into these territories.

[Friendly note: I do, however, have SOME previous car posts, under the category of “Car Talk”, which you can find in the “Old Shit” drop-down on the right >>>>>]

So, with that in mind, it’s no surprise that I have owned my current car for just over five years now but have yet to review it, despite having a firm grasp on the pros and cons in my mind. On the upside, a Civic Type-R never really goes out of fashion, so there’s no such a thing as a “late” review, is there? Plus, it’s always better to read a review of a car from somebody who has ran it long-term.

Continue reading “Reviewing my Car (Honda Civic Type-R FN2)”

Knowledge: Power and Curse

I’m sure that you have come across the sayings…

“Knowledge is power”

…and…

“Knowledge is a dangerous thing”

These two nuggets of philosophy are both brimming with truth, yet appear to be in direct contradiction to one another. How can something that is beneficial to us also cause us great harm? The simple truth is that there are many such dualities in life – many double-sided coins. On a surface level, there are the obvious addictive substances and pursuits which are perfectly harmless (and sometimes healthy) in moderation, but have the capability to ruin us if we fail to exercise self-control and restraint. This is what the saying, “too much of a good thing is bad for you” warns us of.

The aforementioned saying can also be applied to the subject of knowledge…to an extent. History is littered with tales of those who pursued knowledge doggedly, their thirst for information isatiable. Some of them were driven mad or into extreme seclusion. However, this is pretty much as far as the relevancy of “too much of a good thing is bad for you” goes with regards to knowledge. Why? Because a single item of knowledge could prove to be too much. Knowledge – depending on its form – can be dangerous regardless of its size or the time taken to obtain it.

Continue reading “Knowledge: Power and Curse”

Book Review: If It Bleeds (Stephen King, 2020)

Year: 2020 // Format Reviewed: Hardback // Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (UK) // Pages: 369 // ISBN: 978-1-529-391534

“In January of 2021, a small padded envelope addressed to Detective Ralph Anderson is delivered to the Conrads, the Anderson’s next door neighbours. The Anderson family is on an extended vacation in the Bahamas. Printed on this envelope, in large letters, is DO NOT FORWARD. HOLD FOR ARRIVAL.

When Ralph opens the package, he finds a flash drive titled If it Bleeds, presumably referring to the old news trope which proclaims ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. The drive holds a kind of report, or spoken word diary, from Holly Gibney. The final words are from an entry dated December 19th, 2020. She sounds out of breath.

“I have done the best I can, Ralph, but it may not be enough. In spite of all my planning there’s a chance I won’t come out of this alive…””

It’s been a few years since we had a short story collection from Stephen King so If It Bleeds was very welcome indeed. That said, I went in warily given that some of the author’s recent standalone short stories (Elevation, Gwendy’s Button Box) have fallen a little flat with me personally, leaving me hanging with – what I considered to be – abrupt, unsatisfying conclusions to their tales.

First thing’s first though: the blurb on the back of the book (as quoted above) is a bit misleading and I feel that I should address it for anybody who hasn’t yet picked this book up. First of all, it gives the false impression that the entirity of If It Bleeds is one big follow-up to 2018’s The Outsider, failing to mention that the titular story is actually one of four short tales. Secondly, Ralph Anderson – The Outsider‘s lead character – doesn’t actually feature in If It Bleeds. I get why the publisher focused fully on marketing this book as the next chapter in the Mr. Mercedes saga, including name-dropping multiple characters already known to the Stephen King faithful, but I thought it was worth mentioning that If It Bleeds is actually just the headline act of a four act show.

Starting off with the main reason that many will purchase this book, If It Bleeds is indeed the next part of the ongoing Mr. Mercedes ‘series’, although it is more of a direct follow-up to The Outsider than the preceding Bill Hodges trilogy. The glue that binds all of these stories together is, of course, Holly Gibney, who is still running her own private investigation company as we saw in The Outsider. If It Bleeds is Holly’s first solo story, which sees the endearing investigator stumble upon the existence of yet another eery, supernatural predator – another ‘Outsider’. The story itself is compulsive reading (as all of the books featuring Ms. Gibney have been guilty of), but the real draw of If It Bleeds is being able to catch up with old friends again, including the recurring supporting cast of Jerome, Barbara, and Pete. There are also plenty of references to events past that make all of these books feel like one continuous series, even if The Outsider and If It Bleeds are somewhat separate to the Bill Hodges trilogy.

Holly herself undergoes plenty of personal development throughout If It Bleeds, and she has a lot of interaction with her controlling mother which encourages said development. In classic Stephen King fashion, her personal battles run parallel to Holly’s pursuit of the latest Outsider creature, but both plotlines ultimately cross over in a satisfying way towards the story’s conclusion. It’s perhaps only correct then that the marketing gurus chose to focus on If It Bleeds alone because this is easily the best of the four stories here. It’s extremely moreish and I was genuinely disappointed that it couldn’t have been a longer, standalone book. I’m sure that we haven’t seen the last of these characters though – King seems to enjoy them as much as his audience – so I’m not too worried.

Thankfully the other three stories hold up on their own merit, even if they must live in the shadow of If It Bleeds. The opener, Mr Harrigan’s Phone, was my favourite of the supporting acts. It begins in 2004 when nine year-old Craig starts helping out retired billionaire businessman Mr. Harrigan, forming a friendly bond with the man. Fast-forward to 2007, and Craig becomes the proud owner of the brand-new iPhone, a gadget that he can’t get enough of. Mr. Harrigan however – a man with a somewhat luddite attitude towards new technology – isn’t having any of it. Four times a year, Mr. Harrigan sends Craig a two-dollar scratch card and, in 2008, one of the tickets finally comes in for Craig, netting him three thousand dollars. As a gesture of thanks to Mr. Harrigan, Craig buys him an iPhone of his own, which he initially rejects before Craig demonstrates the power of the internet and instant access to real-time business information. As the story progresses, a chilling supernatural thread – that follows Craig through his adolescent years – is introduced but, without spoiling the story, it didn’t really seem to go anywhere. What DID resonate with me, and got me thinking (always dangerous), were the philosophical questions raised about the effect of technology on society, the consumption of instantly-accessible information, and how it would change us all.

“”We may be looking at a huge mistake here, Craig, one being made by people who understand the practical aspects of a thing like this – the ramifications – no more than I do. An economic earthquake may be coming. For all I know, it’s already here. An earthquake that’s going to change how we get our information, when we get it, where we get it, and hence how we look at the world.” He paused. “And deal with it, of course.”

“…if I were the Wall Street Journal…or The Times…even the damn Reader’s Digest…I’d be very frightened by this gizmo.” He picked up the iPhone again; couldn’t seem to leave it alone. “It’s like a broken watermain, one spewing information instead of water. I thought it was just a phone we were talking about, but now I see…or begin to see…””

Additionally, it’s pretty cool to be cast back to a time – the mid-2000’s – that doesn’t feel that long ago, and to be reminded of how much simpler things were, even then, before the iPhone blew up and technology/social media really got us all – as Mr Harrigan would say – by the balls…and squeezed.

The Life of Chuck was the weak link for me. It tells the story of a man’s life in three acts, starting at the very end, travelling in reverse. Each act feels completely different though, and somewhat disjointed when put together as a whole. That said, each part is excellent as a standalone mini-story, and I really enjoyed the twist at the end of the first act that explained the crazy apocalyptic events unfolding for a group of characters that you assume are going to be the main cast. The third and final act sort-of ties it all together, although the new supernatural element introduced here felt slightly unnecessary when the story was being told in reverse. It IS clever though, and was certainly a different way of telling a story. I have a feeling that I might enjoy The Life of Chuck a little more the second time around.

Bringing up the rear is Rat, the latest in a long line of Stephen King tales that focuses on a writer, no doubt drawing inspiration from the author’s own life experience. This story was the closest one of the four to the classic, old-school King flavour of the 80’s that I wish we saw more of in the modern era. It tells the story of Drew Larson, an English teacher with a few published short stories, who dreams of being able to finally go the whole hog and successfully complete a novel. His previous unsuccessful attempt ended in a mental breakdown so it’s no wonder that his wife is absolutely not in favour of Drew heading up to his father’s old cabin, alone, in the remote woodlands of North Maine, so that he can seize the opportunity when a crystal-clear inspiration for a Western strikes him like a bolt from the blue. What happens next has shades of Poe’s The Raven, as Drew comes down with a bad case of the flu, his inspiration begins to run dry, and a powerful storm traps him in the cabin. A rat appears to him and offers him a macabre deal: the ability to finish his novel in exchange for the life of somebody close to Drew…

“The rat cocked his head, as if unable to believe a supposedly smart man – a college English teacher who had been published in The New Yorker! – could be so stupid. ‘You were going to kill me with a shovel, and why not? I’m just a lowly rat after all. But you took me in instead. You saved me.’
‘So as a reward you give me three wishes.’ Drew said it with a smile. This was familiar ground: Hans Christian Anderson, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, the Brothers Grimm.
‘Just one,’ the rat said. ‘A very specific one. You can wish to finish your book.’ He lifted his tail and slapped it down on the manuscript of Bitter River for emphasis. ‘But it comes with one condition.’
‘And that would be?’
‘Someone you care for will have to die.’

I really enjoyed this one. It was psychological, and the isolated nature of the cabin paired with Drew’s obsession, and his fever-induced delerium, had shades of The Shining. Plus, I always enjoy a deal-with-the-devil scenario, where a desperate protagonist makes the mistake of bargaining with dark forces, only to find that they have been hoodwinked by said force(s).

All in all, If It Bleeds is a most enjoyable collection of short stories. I would happily recommend the price of admission for the titular story itself, but all four are worth your time. True, I may have been a little critical of The Life of Chuck, but even so, these stories are – in my opinion – the best short stories to have come from the pen of Stephen King in a good while. A very strong collection indeed.

On lockdowns

I didn’t want my first post since my return to this blog to be about Covid-19 but here it is anyway.

What I’m going to talk about is something that pretty much everybody is chewing over, and that’s the topic of more fucking lockdown measures and rules. A few disclaimers before I get going though. Firstly, I smile when people in my country (the UK) use the term “lockdown” and cry about how difficult the spring/summer were for the country. Yes, it was shit and, yes, reality has been altered for the worse in every way, but I would hardly describe what we had as a REAL lockdown. I see what happened in other, more authoritarian countries (maybe some of you reading this are familiar with it) and said, “THAT’s a lockdown.”

The second disclaimer is that I’m not trying to promote money or business above lives. This post will have an anti-lockdown flavour but be more focused on the bigger, more uncomfortable picture, and some questions that I have. I’ve heard a lot of calls for another lockdown to contain this second wave of cases – people in support of tightening the leash once again. I could get into the discussion about willingly handing over our rights and freedoms to people who certainly don’t care about preserving or restoring them, but I won’t because that’s a different can of worms for a different time.

The observation that I DO want to make however, is that the people who strongly support such a course of action are the people who aren’t likely to be affected by economic disaster. Scientists won’t be put out of a job. Ditto for the government and MPs. And the civilians being vocal about shutting everything down again are those in middle/high tier jobs that can comfortably work from home with laptops, video conferencing and all that stuff. Unfortunately, not everybody is able to enjoy such occupations and the larger safety nets that come with them. If you work in a shop or the hospitality sector, further lockdowns could mean the end of your employment. The government dished out some bloody generous financial aid earlier in the year that kept such business afloat and countless jobs secure, but the magic money pit isn’t bottomless. Furlough schemes have long since stopped paying 100% of wages for example, and there will certainly come a point where the flow of “free” money simply dries up. Businesses are already going under and unemployment is already rising.

But there are those in well-paid office jobs working from home who couldn’t care less about that. It’s not them that will lose their jobs or be directly affected. “Tough titty,” they think. “It’s their fault for not having a better career,” they say. Likewise, the people in government making these decisions won’t have to worry about paying the bills. For anybody living from paycheck to paycheck, with little savings in the bank, and no way of transferring themselves into a different, more secure field of work, these are incredibly stressful and unsettling times.

It’s not my intention to divert onto an us-versus-them rant because that doesn’t solve anything, and it’s a lack of unity amongst us as human beings (push all that class nonsense aside) that historically causes most problems, but it would be a nice thing if the more affluent members of society remembered that the people working in warehouses, the retail sector, and hospitality venues are crucial cogs in the economic machine. I saw it during the initial lockdown period in the summer while working in the wholesale sector: well-off people having a blast, being paid 100% of their wages to have barbeque after barbeque, and guzzle crates of alcohol. There was a definite divide between the haves (said customers) and the have-nots (those of us still working to keep everybody else going, despite the threat of the virus in the workplace, and the rotten attitudes of customers). It should be noted that I didn’t mind the work as it gave me an ongoing routine and sense of normality as well as job security, but I witnessed bitter attitudes from co-workers not happy about others being paid by their employers to relax in their gardens, eat food, and drink, drink, drink.

I can’t lie: I too was guilty of the occasional flash of resentment, largely due to the fact that work was busier than ever, we were getting a heap of abuse from non-compliant customers due to stock shortages and restrictions, and I genuinely felt ill through the stress of it all at times. But, all of that said, I couldn’t blame the others. After all, would anybody say “no” to being paid in full to stay off work and just chill out?

But, now, I get the sense that those capable of working from home – and those whose employers won’t go out of business as a result of new restrictions – would happily support another lockdown, even if it means job losses. I have read comments online from people who claim they are sick of bars, restaurants, and retail outlets complaining about the fact that they will go under if their doors must once again close. To me, it’s a very narrow-minded and ignorant attitude to take for I’m sure that these same people would see things very differently if they were forced to switch places. Thinking, “Ah well, sucks to be them” when another business goes under – taking hundreds or thousands of low-skilled jobs with it – isn’t actually very intelligent. We all saw what happened in 2008 with the banking crisis and the resulting cataclysmic domino effect. And it’s with this point that I will move away from people’s attitudes, and onto the topic of whether another full-fat lockdown is actually a good idea.

The scientists are saying that it is the most effective way – the only way – of dealing with a Covid-19 resurgence, and that we only have to look into our history at previous pandemics (the Bubonic Plague, Spanish Flu, Cholera etc.) to see that this is how those diseases were stopped. But I don’t see how the same approach can be so easily applied to the world in 2020. We are so globalised now, and the world economy is ridiculously fragile – far more so than it was hundreds of years ago. The slightest imbalance or sudden shift in demand for a product/service can send huge, damaging ripples through the markets and trigger a mind-blowing butterfly effect that can grow exponentially and cause untold damage further down the domino chain.

But I’m putting business in front of lives again, aren’t I? Well, you can look at it that way, and I can’t blame you for seeing it like that. I guess there’s no way around it.

However, I believe that we will reach a point where we can no longer avoid the possibility that Covid-19 will never go away. Covid-19 is a Coronavirus (many mistakenly refer to the former as the latter), and do you know what else is a part of the Coronavirus family? The common cold. I’m not at all playing down Covid-19, but think about it: colds never go away. There is no cure for them (due to how quickly they mutate and shift forms) and they stay with us all year. For more dangerous examples of a Coronavirus, see SARS and MERS, two more diseases that have no vaccine for either the treatment or prevention of infections. So it seems crazy that the world is banking on a forthcoming vaccine to bring all of this to a neat end. I just don’t believe that there will be a vaccine for Covid-19, or else it would have been possible to vaccinate against SARS, MERS and colds by now.

And without a vaccine, and an inevitable dehydration of financial handouts, I believe that we will ultimately be forced to try and return to normal because there will be no other choice. Lockdowns will temporarily suppress the virus but it only stalls infections. As the T-101 stated in Terminator 3, “You only postponed it. Judgment Day is inevitable.” Unless it can be 100% eradicated, then it will never go away. If even a single person remains infected with Covid-19 (and that is inevitable given how many asymptomatic cases there are), it will simply once again spread out into the community, just as it did when the first infected individual set foot on the doorstep of a Covid-free country and set it loose when this all began in the first place.

A functioning vaccine is the only the way but – as I have just pointed out – based on the evidence that no previous Coronavirus has been successfully vaccinated against, should we really be putting so many eggs in that basket?

Otherwise, we will soon not have the luxury of hiding away and keeping everywhere closed. Not unless we wish to face mass unemployment and the dire social, economic, and mental consequences that such a scenario would entail. And the thing is, unemployment is a much bigger issue than many believe. For starters, you can forget the stats and figures that governments and their agencies put out as they are so skewed by false reporting, technicalities, zero-hours contracts, and a host of other variables.

Travel back in time hundreds or even thousands of years, and you would find that the majority of people’s jobs were classed as essential. Farming, warfare, construction, the manufacturing of clothes – all of these were essential jobs that needed to be done. Fast-forward to the modern day, and so many of us work in utterly non-essential industries and service sectors that have nothing to do with basic living and basic survival. Anything to do with leisure, entertainment, the arts, non-food retail, hospitality, travel, e-commerce and much, much more…all of it absolutely non-essential if an economic situation is so bleak that paying the bills, keeping a roof over your head, and eating are the only things that matter. Our ancestors probably could weather quarantines as they were a) more self-sufficient b) less reliant on income from non-essential trade and c) not living in such complex and easily damaged economies.

To that end, anybody currently working in a non-essential role can consider themself “unemployed”, since a major disaster will render all of those jobs irrelevant and all of the people in them with no income. And it isn’t as if they could all suddenly transfer into essential jobs because the sheer volume of roles isn’t there, and the population of working-age people is much too large versus that of our ancient ancestors.

I’m not proclaiming to have the answers but I am concerned that the world seems to be going all-in on the vaccine solution when there is ample reason to suggest that a truly effective vaccine will not be possible. In the meantime, there will be tough choices to make if we wish to strike a balance between protecting ourselves and protecting our ability to keep a roof above our head.