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The Art of Derek Dohren

painting, writing, photography



Robots are Rubbish, and other stuff.

Posted on August 14, 2013 at 10:45 AM

As the ice caps melt, sea levels rise, and much of the planet's flaura and fauna hurtle towards extinction it seems only the relentless progress of science can save us now. Science, the very thing that got our environment into such a mess in the first place, is still the best bet to finding us a solution, some kind of technological trick to offset a runaway greenhouse gas disaster such as the one that befell the planet Venus.


We certainly can't rely on the good old human heart to do the right thing. Recycling waste and driving a hybrid car isn't going to do anything except salve the odd conscience. Capitalism and market force ideology are so well entrenched that it'll take years to turn around our collective way of thinking. Left unchecked we'll simply carry on burning oil until it runs out, continue chopping down forests til they're all gone, and plough on with concreting over the planet until we run out of, well, planet.


Finding alternative and sustainable energy sources, ways of feeding and watering a growing population, and ways to reverse the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are essential (and note I said 'reverse', not slowing down. Slowing down the rate at which we pump CO2 into the atmosphere is as pointless as turning a running tap down a little bit once you've filled up the bath).


Only in science can we find answers to these symptoms of our greed and short sightedness.


What about art? Well, certainly it holds a mirror to the human condition and can provide a different, and useful perspective on current woes but of itself it's not going to furnish us with any practical ways forward. Religion is patently in over its head. Let the warring tribes intent on suicide bombing one another to gory death go and argue the minor details themselves (but do please leave the rest of us out). If God existed she would surely have shown herself in all her glory by now. I mean, she's had over thirteeen billion years to make a swaggering, unambiguous entrance.


Only geeks can pull us out of the mire. Perhaps as recently as ten years ago the concept of a celebrated, heroic geek community would've seemed a tad unlikely but finally, and thankfully, being a nerd is now cool. And timing dear people, is everything. With more and more kids seeing the study of scientific disciplines as desirable it appears there is hope for the planet after all. Perhaps as I type, a physics student studying at a small provincial university, in a previously unheralded corner of the planet, is just about to stumble upon a neat way to suck all that CO2 out of the air (and give us a chance to screw up the planet a different way).


However, lest you think I have nothing but good things to say on the matter there are areas of science I find, shall we say 'disappointing'. Disappointing in the sense that the hype doesn't match performance.


To that end I'd like to present three areas of scientific study which irritate me enormously:


1. Artifical intelligence and robots

Rubbish, all of it. They've been waffling on about this for years. Computers will soon be much smarter than us and will make all those tedious little decisions that we've no time for. Robots will do all the manual grunt stuff that nobody wants to do. This is all going to happen by the end of the 1970s. Er, well no. Maybe by the end of the 80s. Hmm. So where are we with this robotic malarkey? Well we have robots (if you want to call them that) that can put cars together and there's those spinning disk things that don't vacuum your carpets properly but are good at falling down the stairs, and that's your lot. In short. Robots. Are. Rubbish. Always have been, and probably aren't ever going to be much cop for hundreds of years. I hate robots.

And AI? Well we have that Kubrik/Spielberg nonsensical film with Jude Law and Hayley Joel Osment. And that's about it. Yes there is more computing power in your mobile phone than was used to send astronauts to the moon blah blah blah but put the combined 'intelligence' (ho ho) of all the world's computers together and you have just about enough emotional savvy and cognitive capacity to engage in small talk with an earthworm. Boring subject. Budgets need to be cut and money spent elsewhere.


2. Space 'Events': Meteor showers, comets, eclipses, supermoons, being able to see planets

Overrated tosh. Anyone ever seen a spectacular meteor shower or awe inspiring comet? No, I didn't think so. Those who say they have are lying or have enormous telescopes at home and lots of time on their hands. Halley's Comet in 1986 was a no show. Supermoons look the same as ordinary moons. Being told that the tiny pinprick of light hovering over the supermarket for six nights on the run during November is in fact the planet Mercury does not float my boat in perhaps the way it should, and I try to get excited, I really do.


3. Space travel

Useless. This is important. We need to leave our planet and go and destroy somewhere else because soon the earth will all be used up and uninhabitable (for humans - whatever's left will be perfectly happy we've gone. And while I'm on it the earth doesn't give a toss about climate change or global warming. It's seen it all before). Ok, so I know we have to start somewhere, but people get so excited about flying about in space don't they? Every time a new method of space propulsion is proposed that will enable us to travel a few thousand miles an hour in 'hyperspace' (wooo) people think we're gonna soon be hopping from star to star, dropping in on distant planets and picking out new homes. Reality check. We're four light years away from the nearest star. We need spaceships that can travel faster than the speed of light. This is impossible. We're screwed. So, until someone learns how to open up and stabilise a wormhole, allowing us to travel from one end of our universe to the other (or to a parallel universe), for say the price of a train ticket to Malaga, and still get us back home in time for tea, there's little point in getting excited. I'm not.


1,114 and counting

Posted on July 9, 2012 at 11:35 AM

Tonight, in a bar in La Zubia, I shall impart my 1,114th English class. That means that in little under two and a half years I have given, on average, 455.72 classes a year, 37.97 classes a month, 8.86 classes a week, and 1.27 classes each day, every day, Monday to Friday, January 1st to December 31st, including Easter and Christmas. I have even managed three classes on that rarest of dates, February 29th.


Anyway, whatever. It's amazing to think back at the sheer amount of bum numbing drivel I must have spouted.


I've been paid, under-paid, over-paid, unpaid and frankly, robbed (yes, you know who you are you twats, and I haven't forgotten it). I've held forth in academy classrooms, schoolrooms, bedrooms, kitchens, living-rooms, bars, cafes, balconies, roof terraces, gardens, a corridor, a lecture theatre, an art gallery, a playground, a laboratory, a shop, a boardroom, the street, a mountainside, a river valley, and on one memorable occasion a rather splendid swimming pool.


I've been frozen to the core, scorched to a crisp, rained on and snowed on. I've mostly arrived to class on time, though have on occasion been a tad late, was once a day early and on one famous occasion simply decided to walk straight past the venue and go for a drink instead.


Somehow, I've survived, and will start the next 1,114 classes first thing tomorrow morning.


Posted on April 4, 2012 at 8:05 AM

an extract from my forthcoming book, 'The Cats of the River Darro'

Dead? Dead at fifty? I can't believe it. It's not fair!

Why's it not fair then? Fifty's a good innings. It's more than I give most people.

Yes, but, I was just getting into my stride. I've got an exhibition next week too. Well, I had one.

It'll go ahead without you. They'll do one of those soppy posthumous things. You'll be well received so I wouldn't worry about it. Your abstracts seem to be very popular. It's not my bag to be honest but if the punters like them who am I to argue?

Er, well you're God aren't you? At least I kind of assume that's who you are?

Yes, yes, God, that's me. And you're Derek aren't you? I know all about you. Been following you for fifty years. Most interesting. Suppose you tell me how it was from your side of the fence.

Erm, well, I don't know where to begin. Uhm, I was born in erm, Liverpool and I …

No, no, boring, boring. I know all that. It's in your file somewhere. I mean today. What happened today?

Well, I died didn't I?

Yes but you didn't wake up dead this morning did you? So what happened?

I'm not sure I really know to be honest. I was just going out for breakfast, at my usual cafe, you know at 'Isabel's Ham Friends', and I suppose my mind was wandering a bit.

Yes, and why was that then?

I couldn't get onto the bridge.

Ah yes, Santiago Calatrava's bridge. It's rather a splendid thing isn't it?

Yes, I always enjoy walking over it, er always enjoyed walking over it. Well, anyway, it was cordoned off this morning. Apparently someone had tried to top themselves by jumping off it.

Yes, dreadful business. I put a stop to it. Sent one of our chaps down at the last minute. Do go on.

Well I saw the guy, the suicider, and it freaked me out a bit. He was standing there with the guardia policia. He was an English looking bloke and he was wearing a hat that made his head look a funny shape. We kind of made eye contact, just for a few seconds and it was really weird.

Why was it weird then?

I dunno really. It was like we both knew one another. But I mean it's impossible. He was familiar but I'm sure I've never seen him before in my life. It's hard to explain. It just freaked me, that's all. And there was another bloke standing there with him. He had dreadlocks.

Ah yes, Norman.


Yeah. Our man. Like I said, I sent him down at the last minute. It would've have caused a huge administrative foul up if the guy had jumped you see. It wasn't his time.

Oh I see.

Well, after that, I suppose I wasn't really concentrating much on anything.

No, I suppose not.

All I remember from then on is that I was crossing the road and suddenly, out the corner of my eye, saw this huge thing looming towards me at a rate of knots. Someone screamed, the whole world was spinning, and well, here I am. And come to think of it, where the Hell am I exactly? Is this Heaven?

No it's not Heaven but we'll come to that. You've got to get through immigration first. So, you were run over then?

Well I'm sure you know. I mean, you're God.

Yes, of course I know. I also realise all this is a bit tiresome but it's just for the books. We have to go through the formalities you see.

Okay, well I think I was hit by a truck because I wasn't looking where I was going because I was freaked out by some selfish suicidal idiot I saw on a bridge who was talked out of jumping by a dreadlocked man named Norman who, apparently, was one of your guys, whatever that means.

Hang on, hang on. Let me just write that down. Okay, yes, well it's almost right. It wasn't a truck. It was a segway. An only lady, ironically on her way to the same cafe as your good self. She hit you full on. She was very upset. Segway's a complete write off.

A segway? I'll be a laughing stock.

Yes, you will unfortunately. I can't do much about that. You have to admit it is quite funny. In fairness it wasn't entirely your fault. The old girl got distracted. She was looking off road at a couple of nuns eating ice-cream. Quite disgraceful I know, but taking holy orders doesn't seem to be what it used to be. Some of them have got iPods you know. Anyway, enough of all that. I need you to tell me your impressions, you know, of life. What did you think it was all about then? What did you make of it?

Well I don't really know. It's all devilishly complicated isn't it? Now that I'm here I'm looking forward to finding a few things out. I'm amazed that there's a Heaven for starters. It's great news.

Yes, well don't get ahead of yourself. There is indeed an after life and a Heaven but there's also, ahem, 'that other place' you've read about, down there, you know that place we don't like to talk about. You're in a holding area right now so I can assess you. I don't want to worry you, Heaven knows you've enough on your plate at this difficult time, but it could go either way.

I see. So this is my 'judgement' time?

Yes it is. And I always like to begin by asking newcomers to give me their thoughts on everything. Just now you said you found life 'devilishly complicated'. What did you mean by that?

Well, if I'm being honest …

Yes, I would be if I were you.

Quite. Well, it just seems to me it's so hard to understand everything. Why isn't it all simpler? You know this whole 'does God, er that is, do you exist or don't you' malarkey. And why can't there just be simple rules, a list of dos and don'ts that we can all follow? We'd all know where we stood then.

Ha, you mean like the Ten Commandments? I tried that didn't I but you lot couldn't hack it. Ten simple rules, written in stone no less, given to Moses clear as you like, but they were too hard for you. I must have used too many big words.

What? Well, some of them were okay, the ones about murder and adultery and that but some of the others, well they were a bit iffy weren't they?

Iffy? Whaddya mean, iffy?

Those ones about not coveting your neighbour's possessions or having false icons and telling lies and things.

What's wrong with them?

Well nothing, but well they're a bit hard to stick to aren't they?

Ha, so rules are okay as long as they're easy ones then. Is that what you're telling me?

No, that's not what I mean. I er ...

Yes it is. You can all do the big stuff – well most of you humans can most of the time – but you can't do the little things, the fiddly bits.

The fiddly bits?

Yes, yes, yes, the fiddly bits. That's why I had to do away with them, wipe the slate clean and start again.

What do you mean you did away with them?

They're too hard for you to stick to. Oh sure, you decided to enshrine a few of them into your earthly laws and so on, fair enough, but I reckoned you needed a better deal, something you could handle. That's why I sent Jesus down.

Yes, I see.

Do you?

Well I understand the basic idea. The New Testament. That was your new improved deal with us. Jesus took on all of our sins and died for us so we didn't, erm have to worry about breaking rules all the time. And uhm ...

Yes, go on …

Well it seems to me, to most of us, that it's a strange deal.

How so?

Well it seems a little unbalanced. Surely it doesn't mean people can go round murdering each other and stuff just because Jesus has taken on all the blame?

Yes and no.


People can if they wish. That's why I give everyone free will. As long as you say sorry afterwards we're sweet.

What! That seems to be a license for everyone doing just whatever they want.

Yes it is. It's not the worst deal in the world is it but loads of you are still not happy with it. There's no pleasing some people. It's not as cushy at it looks though. There are consequences if you decide to do bad things with your free will.

Like what?

Well, we're coming to that. Let's take a look at your rap sheet shall we. I have it here. It's pretty big as you can see.

Ah well from here the writing looks like it's in quite a large font. I'm sure it's not as bad as it looks.

The writing's normal size, and this scroll only covers last Wednesday, last Wednesday evening to be exact.

What? I didn't do anything last Wednesday. Oh, no hang on, yes but everyone else was doing that as well. And I'd had a few drinks. Oh shit.

Yeah, and see that box over there? That's got Tuesday's stuff in it. I haven't had a chance to go through it yet. We've archived off the rest of your life. The IT guys are recovering it from backup now but it'll take a few hours. They've been having trouble with a new database or something. I don't know. They're always spinning me a line. Anyway, that's not important. The thing is there are consequences to be faced. You might have to do a bit of community service.

Community service?

Yep, on a parallel earth somewhere.

You mean there are parallel worlds? Wow, that's amazing. I always thought that idea was a load of bollocks.

Hmm, it's a lot of overheads, I'll grant you that. I'd have done it differently if I'd known the hassles.


Yeah, but never mind. We are where we are as they say.

So what will I have to do?

Oh you know, a bit of this, a bit of that. I might send you down to an interesting earth I've got where Chelsea needs another manager. You like footy don't you?

Yes, but I couldn't be manager of Chelsea. I'd only last a few weeks before they sacked me.

Yeah, well that happens on all of the earths. It's a software bug.

Would that be me done then? I mean, would that count as my community service.

Don't be ridiculous. You'd have to do a bit more time doing other stuff. If you behave yourself we could give you something a bit more comfortable, something up here in the office. We're always looking for IT guys. I see you've got a bit of previous in that field?

Oh God no. Send me straight to Hell now. I'm not doing that stuff again. Anyway, how much is a 'bit more time' exactly?


Infinity! That's ages.

Some infinities are smaller than others. Don't worry, it'll fly by.

And what are the alternatives?

Alternatives? Listen sonny, you're not in Starbucks.

No, I know I'm not. Sorry. Can I ask a question?

Go on.

Is Salvador Dali here? I mean, is he in Heaven or Hell?

That's none of your business is it.

No I suppose not. It's just that, oh nothing.

It's that painting isn't it, the one in the Kelvingrove? You want to know if it had any meaning, if he had any special insights or anything.

Well, I was just curious that's all.

Remember that student who slashed the painting in 1961?

I'm too young to remember but yes, I read about it. You can still see the scar on the canvas.

That was one of my boys, Howard. A good lad. Took an awful lot of stick for that he did. Bashed it with a brick on his community service. Not exactly what I asked him to do, but free will and all that, you know. We looked after him. Got him a nice job in the IT department. He's a shift leader now you know.

But why? Why did you try and destroy it? It's such a beautiful painting.

Oh the painting's marvellous, yes, but it was all that Glasgow palaver that was getting on my wick, that Catholic versus Protestant thing. I wanted to draw attention away from it. Make them all see what was more important. Now I'm told everyone in the city treasures the painting. They nearly lost it you see. Sometimes you have to nearly lose things to realise what you've, erm, nearly lost. We had to send someone else down in the 1980s though cos it was all going pear shaped again.

Oh yes I remember that. He shot it with an air gun didn't he?

Yes. There'd been a particularly niggly run of Old Firm matches. I'd had enough. Things actually got worse for a while after that. Graeme Souness has a lot to answer for when he gets here. And Frank McAvennie. I've got to be seen to be even handed of course.

Okay, but I'm not with you. Are you saying art's more important than religion?

Of course I am. Religion's got nothing to do with anything important. It's just a man made monstrosity. I don't want people shuffling in and out of dank Victorian buildings all week, squabbling over bits of doctrine and wondering what the vicar's wearing under his cassock do I?

No, I don't suppose you do. That painting though, I always knew it had some spiritual significance. There was always a feeling I had, every time I looked at it, that there was some hidden meaning to it.

Well there isn't really. It's just a good painting that's all. Just some paint on a piece of canvas. I've seen better to be frank. Even some of your stuff from a certain angle, with erm, the lights dimmed a bit. No, hang on, that's going too far. Anyway, we're rather getting off the point of all this. This is supposed to be your judgement. Now, what have you got to say for yourself?

Look, I did my best down there. Whatever skills and talents you gave me I used to the best of my ability. I tried to be a good person. I was kind to animals. I tried, I really did.


And I never really stopped believing in you.


I thought I had a bit more time you see, to work things out properly.

Peter. Fetch me my rubber gloves and the pointy stick. It's time for his medical.

Time Machine

Posted on December 17, 2011 at 3:25 PM

If you could have a shot in a time machine, what year would you travel to and where would you go? It's a question I sometimes ask my English students and it's always sure to provide an interesting array of answers. Instinctively most people think of a time in their past, perhaps that moment when they made a monumentally bad decision or did something really stupid and regretful. How we would all like to rectify those mishaps!

For some people it's more of a temptation to go back further in time, perhaps to a period in history that pre-dates their own existence, to an era that has always held a fascination. If I allow myself the time to ponder such a thing then, once I've returned and fixed those idiotic things I did as a young man (and no, I'm not telling you what they are) I find myself drawn like a moth to a flame to the city of Paris. It's April 1874 and I am standing in the studio of photographer Felix Nadar. A group of frustrated and unheralded artists are about to reveal the results of their labours to an unsuspecting and largely unenthusiastic Parisien public.

As they assemble their paintings I watch these men move anxiously from canvas to canvas, quibbling with one another over lighting and wall positioning rights. I am invisible, for that's a condition I allow with my time machine travel. Monsieurs Degas, Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Pissaro and Sisley cannot see me, but I can see them, and I can see all their pictures!

I seek out one piece of work in particular, Claude Monet's 'Impression, Sunrise', the painting that will lend its name to a whole new art movement, though not before it is roundly dismissed by one of France's leading art critics of the day as 'unfinished wallpaper'. I want to stand on the shoulder of that critic as he writes his notes and I want to whisper in his ear that he's wrong.

From here I can take in any of the next thirty years. I can stake out van Gogh as he marches into his sunflower field, observe Pablo Picasso take his steady steps towards cubism, or drop in on Paul Gaughin's tropical paradise. But should I ever have my fill of these late nineteenth century masters there are no shortages of pivotal moments in the history of art to which I can steer my time machine.

And yet, perhaps the thing to do is to glimpse the future? The past is the past and what really fascinates us is that which is yet to come. How far ahead would you dare go and could you possibly hope to understand whatever it was you saw once you got there? I don't know. For example, if I was able to show to the version of me that existed 20 years ago what he has become today, I'm quite sure he would be utterly flummoxed!

Flying on fast forward to a future time and place, without going through the necessary life experiences along the way, would be self defeating and futile. We would have no real understanding of why we were at wherever it was we had arrived.

For me, part of the power of art, and by definition life, is in making the journey. And it's why I love the thrill of a blank canvas. Often I have a strong idea for a piece of work and I know what I'm trying to achieve but every so often, I have absolutely no idea what will become of that white space staring back at me. That is a truly magical moment. To not know is somehow powerfully liberating. We cannot arrive at a destination unless we undertake the journey, and it is on the journey that our greatest adventures lie.


The Girl Who Is Isabel

Posted on November 17, 2011 at 12:05 PM

I used to teach a girl named Isabel. One day, shortly after we'd finished our series of classes, she got onto my bus but it turned out the girl wasn't Isabel at all. Oddly, over the next few days, I kept seeing other girls that weren't Isabel. I don't know why this happened. Isabel wasn't a particularly striking girl and I didn't think she had made the sort of impression on me that would mean I'd keep thinking I'd seen her when I hadn't.

Even so, after that first false sighting on the bus, it seemed that everywhere I went, I would see girls who weren't Isabel. But though girls who weren't Isabel were everywhere I always felt that the one who got on the bus that day was the best at being The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel. She got on the bus every day after that first time.

On the bus one day I found myself sat a few seats behind The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel. As we reached the city I glanced out of the window and saw another girl who wasn't Isabel. It was the first time I'd ever seen two of them at the same time; two girls who weren't Isabel. The shock of it was that this second girl really was Isabel! She was walking up Avenida Cervantes with a friend. Interestingly, her friend didn't look anything like her.

For a split second as the bus went past, the three of us lined up in a rather splendid isosceles triangle formation: The Girl Who Is Isabel, The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel, and me, as unlikely a geometric shape I ever saw. Since that day I haven't seen The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel as she hasn't got on the bus. Nor have I seen The Girl Who Is Isable as she hasn''t walked up Avenida Cervantes. I also haven't seen any other girls that weren't Isabel. These non-sightings haven't happened on the bus, the avenidas, everywhere. It's as if the triangle thing has finally settled something.

Except to say that it hasn't. Not totally.

Though I'm sure The Girl Who Is Isabel is fine I do find myself thinking now about the girl who used to get on the bus, The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel, and this has led to a worrying development in the whole sorry business.


This morning a new girl got on the bus. At first I thought it was The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel but it wasn't, it was a new girl, The Girl Who Isn't The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel. She didn't even almost not look like her. So now I'm pondering things. Am I going to start seeing loads of other girls who don't look like The Girl Who Is Isabel, and who don't look like The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel, but who do look like The Girl Who Isn't The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel? Or am I not?


If The Girl Who Is Isabel turns up again it could get very complicated.

And what if the three of them ended upon the bus? If The Girl Who Is Isabel, The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel, and The Girl Who Isn't The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel all ended up on the bus at the same time, with me. What would happen?

First question that comes to mind is, how would we form an isosceles triangle?

I'd like to think we wouldn't even try but it all makes me wonder if anyone's ever looked at me and thought I was someone else and not me. I'm not The Man Who Looks Like Isabel, I know that much, yet there may be girls out there who look like Isabel who have seen me and think I look like someone else.

I may well be known to some people, to someone or other who looks a bit like Isabel but who isn't Isabel, as The Man Who Isn't Manolo, or The Man Who Wasn't The Man Who Isn't Manolo. Or worse still, The Bloke On The Bus Who Doesn't Know Who He Is But Who Knows He's Not Isabel.

Changing my bus route won't fix the situation but I think I'll walk into the city instead from now on. I'll still take a very similar route, not the proper bus route but The Route That Looks Like The Bus Route But Isn't. I risk unwittingly forming a parallelogram with three other people as I hit Avenida Cervantes just as a bus is going past but that's a risk I'll take thank-you very much.

Should I see The Girl Who Is Isabel I will confront her, get it all out in the open. She's the one who started all this malarkey. I'll ask her what she thinks she's playing at and who the hell does she think I am. And what does she know about geometry, and does it freak her out that so many girls look like her, except her friend.

The problem is that I've now forgotten what The Girl Who Is Isabel looks like. How will I know if I run into her? My mind's so full of all the potential dramas that may occur whilst travelling on foot along The Route That Looks Like The Bus Route But Isn't. And I've got another student. Her name's Isabel. I haven't met her yet but I can't begin to imagine where this is heading.


The Cats of the River Darro

Posted on August 14, 2011 at 12:00 PM

The cats of the River Darro see

From ancient banks that lie

The passing of humanity

Alhambra’s glassy eye

Politicos in corrupted deals

Above that meal of bones

The English teacher dares that she’ll

Upon those cobblestones

And starry lovers are so surest

Down where this water laps

Near shopkeepers who rip off tourists

With their books of maps


The artist who paints despair

Sets up amongst the weeds

While in the Moor’s labyrinthine lair

Hang Catholic strings of beads

The Year of the Rabbit

Posted on August 9, 2011 at 10:20 AM

Ok, so this is my idea, right. You know the way everyone’s getting really fat?

Are they?

Yes you know, in general, people are getting bigger aren’t they?

Hmm, I suppose.

Well, it’s a story about how the whole world’s getting fatter all the time, you know, loads of people are overeating and putting on weight. It’s a story about that, so it’s really relevant to what’s happening now across a lot of the world, right, but it’s set in the future, maybe like a hundred years from now.

Oh, ok.

Yeah, and there’s this guy in the story, he’s the main character right, and he’s really important, ok, only he doesn’t realise it.

Why’s he so important then?

Well, I don’t wanna say too much but the point is this guy’s dead ordinary except he’s nowhere near as fat as everyone else, and that’s because he has a secret. But like I say he doesn’t realise he has this secret and that it’s important.

It sounds pretty lame to be honest.

No, no it’s good. But rather than me waffle on I’d prefer you to read it and let me know what you think. I don’t wanna give too much away.

Ok, but this guy, the one with the secret, is the secret just that he doesn’t gorge himself on junk food all day?

No it’s not that. You’re over simplifying things.

Am I?

Yes, this important bloke, he’s not actually that slim. In fact, he is a bit on the plump side but he’s just not as fat as most people that’s all.

And this is because he has the secret to staying slim?

Well, partly yes.



So if he only partly knows the secret how come he’s slimmish? Is having part of the secret enough to make you not as fat as everyone else or is there another reason why he’s not so fat?

You’re being a bit pedantic mate to be honest. It’s not like that.

Pedantic? No I’m not. Why’s he not as fat as everyone else if this secret is only part of the reason?

Well, he does a bit of jogging as well.

Jogging? So they still have jogging in the future then?

Yes of course they do.

Well it doesn’t seem to be working for them does it? I mean if they’re all really fat and that.

Yes, but hardly anyone does it. The main guy does it a bit and it helps a little but it’s not really significant. We’re getting a little off the point. It’s not important.

Well I think it’s relevant. How often does he go jogging then?


Well, if he only does half a mile, once a week, it isn’t going to help is it, but if he’s putting a good few miles in, say three or four days a week, it’s bound to make a difference.

Well yes ok, he is doing a few days a week.

What days?


What days does he jog? Does he go often?

Erm, only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Iptdays.

Iptdays? What’s one of them?

It’s not important. As I’ve told you, it’s set in the future. I don’t wanna give too much away but there’s been a new day added to the week and they decided to call it Iptday.



Have we lost one of the other days or is it now an eight day week?

I just old you, it’s a new day that’s been added. They have eight day weeks, but it’s not really important.

Well I think it is.

No, it’s not. Look you’re missing the point. Forget Iptday, it’s about this guy and he has a secret and it’s really brilliant the way he discovers it.

How come the only bits that sound mildly interesting are the bits you keep saying aren’t important? I still think it sounds crap. I wanna know about Iptday. When does it come? Is it between Wednesday and Thursday, is it an extra weekend day, or what?

I’m not exactly sure to be honest.

Ha, what do you mean you’re not sure? That’s ridiculous, you wrote it. You must know.

Well, once again, it’s not really important.

But why do it then? I think it is important. It’s crucial in fact.

Well I was trying to make the future seem a bit more interesting, you know. We didn’t always have days of the week did we, and now that we have them, there’s no reason to suppose they’re just gonna just stay the same.

Yes there is! That’s garbage. There’s only the same number of hours in a day, and days in a year and so on. You can’t just go adding days to the week. It’s all to do with the sun and the moon and the earth and all that. You can’t just add days.

Well what about cavemen and that? They never had days?


When we lived in caves, people weren’t like really p1ssed off because it was Sunday night and they had to go to work in the morning because it was going to be Monday were they? They didn’t really bother about what day it was.

Maybe, but that’s not the point is it? They still had days. They were still living under the same sun, in the same solar system with hours of daylight and darkness and so on.

Well, whatever, you know what I mean.

No I don’t. You can’t just add days, and you can’t take them away either.

Well I think there’s been a nuclear explosion or something.


In the story, there’s been a really big terrorist explosion and the earth’s rotational speed or something has shifted and they’ve had to bung in another day because all the hours are cocked up.

You’ve just made all that bit up haven’t you?

What bit?

About the nuclear explosion.

No I haven’t.

Yes you have. Ok, where and when did this explosion happen, and why?

In Greenland, about the year 2059.


Yes, melting ice sheets revealed huge oil reserves and the Chinese invaded it.

The Chinese?

Yes, look, it’s not important. We’re getting bogged down. This bloke, right, he does a bit of light jogging but that’s not really why he ...

No sorry, I don’t care about this guy now. I wanna know why the Chinese are in Greenland, why there’s been a nuclear explosion, and who’s idea was it to bung in an extra day, and who decided on the ridiculous name of it. I mean all the other days of the week are planets or something aren’t they? What’s Iptday supposed to mean?


The days of the week, they’re named after planets. We did it in school. It’s about the Latin names, so you have Saturn is Saturday, Monday’s to do with the moon, erm Friday’s Venus or something...

Listen mate, I’ve no idea what you’re on about and look, it doesn’t matter. It’s not the point.

Are the Chinese fat as well?

What, you mean like now or in this book?

In the book! They don’t strike me as a race of people who are prone to getting fat, even in the future.

Well that’s where you’re wrong see. We’re all just people aren’t we? We’ve all got the same organs and stuff. Even the Chinese. And like I said, in the book the whole world’s got this obesity thing going on, a bit like what’s happening now, only more so.

Why don’t people just eat less?

It’s not as simple as that is it?

Er yeah, I think it is really. This guy, the one who’s a bit slimmer, I bet his secret is that he doesn’t stuff as much saturated fat down his gob as everyone else. And he does a bit of jogging, a mile or two on Mondays and Wednesdays and perhaps a tough five miler on Iptday.

No, that’s not it at all. You’ll have to read it. Listen mate, it’ll blow you away.

It doesn’t have time travel in it does it?

No, I can’t really do that. It drives me round the bend. And it’s clichéd.

Oh aye, you’d never write anything clichéd.

So will you read it for me then? Check it over and see what you think?

Will it take long?


Will it take long, you know, to read? It’s just that I’m supposed to be going out for a Chinese.

You’ll get fat eating that stuff.


Waiting for the Spring

Posted on July 23, 2011 at 5:26 PM

July’s a horrible month in Granada. The sun beats down mercilessly from dawn til dusk and if you happen to allow yourself to get caught outside mid-afternoon then it’s damned unpleasant.

But the weather’s not the worst of it.

Granada’s a university city with a fluid population and July happens to be the time when the bulk of the students studying here leave, returning to homes in all corners of Spain. Some of them of course leave for good having finished their degrees. Working here as an English teacher makes it inevitable that these students provide us with much of our work and it’s equally inevitable, that some student/teacher relationships morph into real friendships as the seasons roll on through autumn, winter and spring. Saying goodbye to a clutch of such friends all in one go is profoundly depressing.

And of course it’s not just students who flee the city in their droves at this time of year. Longer term residents also like to get away, up into the hills or down to the breezier fresher coast for the summer. Gap year travellers and tourists also know it’s not the best time to be here. The weather may be pretty intolerable but it’s the loss of friendships and the breaking up of routines that hits those of us who remain hardest.

Mad dogs and Englishmen it seems, are the only ones dumb enough to still be trying to eke out an existence here just now. I went through all this last year and vowed I wouldn’t do so again, yet here I am, trapped and vowing once more to make sure it doesn’t happen next year.

The cumulative drip drip of lost friends now means that when I walk through the city I feel a poignancy at every turn. Here is where I hugged a good friend goodbye, over there is where I last saw so and so, and that plaza over the road is best avoided lest I get all teary eyed again. Daft I know, but July here is like that.

By the time we get to August it won’t seem so bad. The heat will be slightly more bearable purely because we’ll have become hardened to it and the knowledge that autumn is looming will concentrate the mind. In September new students and potential friends will arrive and the city will renew itself. It’ll be a kind of ‘spring’, a human spring. Nature’s seasons will find themselves out of step with the seasons of the city.

But next July, really, seriously, I want to be somewhere else.

Happy New Half Year

Posted on July 1, 2011 at 7:52 PM

The wheel of change has spun once more for me here in Granada and as usual I’m left trying to make some sense of passing events. It’s not so much that things change (and they do, whether we like it or not), but more the way these changes manifest themselves that has me holding up my hands in surrender at life’s vagaries.

My recent financial meltdown has meant I’ve been unable to make trips back to the UK for my nephew’s wedding and for my daughter’s graduation, two of the biggest waves in a turbulent sea of change. Though losing my apartment was also a difficult break I’m hoping I can soon view it as the lowest point in my current fortunes. The only way is up as they say.

Not that it’s all been so bad, not by a long way. In the past couple of weeks I’ve also gotten myself covered in fruit fly bites, acquired a rather natty new hat, lost 12 students but gained 14 new ones, given up my two cats for adoption though hopefully a better life, made a clutch of new friends, moved house twice and lived in three different pueblos. Through it all I’ve had confirmation of just how many true friends I have in the world. There’s nothing like a crisis to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Not all bad by a long way.

Many of these happenings seem to run par for the course in my life these days but the confluence and timing of all these tumultuous events staggers even me. I’ve always felt an odd fascination with June 30th, pivoting the year as it does and this year it’s come and gone in prefect synchronisation with my topsy-turvy life. Coincidence? Well, not totally. Of course, I wouldn’t make any claims for such an arbitrary date on a calendar having supernatural significance, but it’s a fact that summer time here in Granada is a time of decay and renewal, and perhaps marks the city’s real ‘new year’. Maybe there’s been way too much of it for me but this is a natural time for change.

Though, on balance I’ve much to be happy about my overriding emotion as I type all of this up is sadness, sadness because tonight I said goodbye to my favourite student. We’ll keep in touch for sure, but life rolls on relentlessly and our paths are set firmly in different directions. And as I look back over these past few weeks I can count three other friends who have moved to pastures new. It’s very much a case of out with the old and in with the new and on top of all the other shenanigans in my life it’s difficult not to get a little depressed.

It’s been a tough year and May and June in particular will not go down as two of the best months of my life. I do however rather like the idea of June 30th sitting astride the year as a kind of watermark, splitting the year into two. For me, I’d like to read this split as marking the not so good half of the year and the really good half that’s still to come and as the wheel of fate remorselessly turns I will continue to face the consequences. I’ve long since ceased however, to worry about trying to make any sense of it.

Happy New Half Year to you all.

The Executive's Speech

Posted on June 14, 2011 at 5:30 PM

I recently watched the Oscar winning The King’s Speech. For a story with such a thin plot, little or no action, and grating upper class English accents, it was an utterly absorbing and strangely compelling film. I loved every minute of it and would happily sit through the whole thing again.

I assume the intention of the filmmakers was to firmly align the sympathies of the viewers with Lionel Logue, the king’s Australian-born speech therapist. If so, then it certainly worked in my case. Whether this was more so because I now work in a vaguely related field I don’t know, but I found myself recognising one or two of the dilemmas faced by Logue in the face of the hugely demanding task he found himself landed with.

This week I was called upon to provide a crash course in English conversation to a high flying executive who has to make a business trip in a fortnight’s time and who wants to ‘make a good impression’ with his pronunciation. He doesn’t stutter but though his basic vocabulary knowledge is reasonable his pronunciation and use of grammar is poor. In many ways it’s an impossible job, and one that you can only do so much with.

But like Logue I found myself summoned to the side of a very busy man who appears to have little room for manoeuvre.

Where to start? At the beginning I suppose, but normal rules are out of the window. There just isn’t the time and I found myself like Logue, trying to establish some kind of cross cultural rapport to smooth the waters a bit. If my man gets through his business socialising without causing an international incident or insulting the Germans then I’ll consider it job done.

I don’t have a tricky stammer or the Queen Mother to contend with of course but then Lionel Logue never had to coax consonants out of a Granadino. I’m not sure which is the easier task.

Wonderful Life

Posted on June 2, 2011 at 7:42 AM

Have you ever seen the classic Jimmy Stewart movie It’s a Wonderful Life?

No, you haven’t?

Oh, ok then.

Well, anyway, Stewart plays a character called George Bailey. When his father dies George takes over the family building society business and continues to provide financial assistance to the residents of the small town they all live in.

There’s a great scene in the middle of the film when, owing to fall out from the Wall Street Crash, a run on the bank sees the business in imminent danger of total collapse. The unscrupulous fat cat leader of a rival, much larger bank, is hovering to hoover up the pieces but George refuses to lie down and accept the apparently inevitable.

He talks to each of his customers in turn and virtually begs them one by one not to withdraw their entire account but instead to just take what cash they really need to get them along in the short term.

At the end of a very long day the bank is left with a single dollar bill and the business has survived the crisis.

Today is my George Bailey day. I have settled a couple of urgent bills and each of my bank accounts have just enough in them to stop whining for the time being. I have food in the kitchen, money on my bus card and still have two weeks of rented accommodation to live out. I also have four Euros in my pocket and I have a class to teach this evening which will add a few more – so in that sense I’m even better off than old George was.

Sure, the next crisis is probably already winging its way over and I’ll have to deal with it as when it arrives but for now there’s a sense of calm – a lull between storms maybe, but a lull nonetheless. And I’m going to have a nice cup of tea to celebrate.

In the film the bank workers dance around the office with the dollar bill before lovingly putting it into the safe, where they hope it’ll reproduce. It does, and they all survive long enough to deal with the next crisis.

It’s a rare film that actually makes you feel sympathy for bankers but I guess that was the genius of its director Frank Capra. Whither the directorial genius today who could make us feel similarly enamoured towards the greedy, faceless breed who run our modern banks?

Where the streets are paved with gold

Posted on May 26, 2011 at 6:33 PM

It’s odd. I now have more luggage carrying capacity than I have actual luggage. My meagre worldly possessions consist of, amongst other things, a couple of suitcases, a rucksack, a laptop bag and a roll of plastic bin bags capable of taking the bulk of my tired and washed out clothes. When I move out of this apartment next month I’ll be able to shove the whole Dohren estate into the back of a family sized saloon. All I need to prove it is a family sized saloon. I do have a stash of exceedingly dodgy early paintings in my daughter’s Glasgow flat – but perhaps the less said about that the better.

Does it get me down? Yeah, course it does.


But on the other hand it’s kind of good to be able to travel light. I was always fascinated by the Dick Whittington fairy tale figure who walked to London, where the streets were paved with gold, with what little baggage he had tied to the end of a stick slung over his shoulder. For a penniless hobo I can’t think of a worse destination, yet he became Lord Mayor, and several times over, unless I’m mistaken. Good for him then, but I think most people nowadays would prefer to be a homeless vagrant than a politician.

I feel no worse off for a lack of ‘stuff’. In fact it’s very liberating.

Not for me the worries of how I’m going to find time to bubble-wrap the family silver or how to find the best method of decommissioning, transporting, and reassembling the laboriously catalogued library. No, my biggest concern is agonising over whether I should celebrate the move by buying a new toothbrush or maintaining draconian austerity measures and keeping the existing one. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re rich or you’re poor, there are still heartbreaking decisions to be made. That toothbrush has been a fine servant.

And it has to be said, the less you have, the more you appreciate what little you do have. I’m pleased to announce that the spare pair of shoe laces I’ve been using as a washing line will be making the trip with me. Fellas, it wouldn’t be the same without you.


When those early Glasgow paintings are discovered in some godforsaken Gorbals attic, say in 2080, they’ll be worth a fortune. The lucky owner will witter on about the ‘tragic life’ of the artist. My story will be made into a panto, starring the foremost D-list celebs of the day. In this panto I’ll be seen trudging to Granada with all my worldly goods tied up in a Mercadona bag.

In the Dick Whittington story they gave him a cat. I hope they give me a shiny new toothbrush. This one’s gone all splayed.

50 Not Out

Posted on May 20, 2011 at 5:58 PM

On the face of it things are pretty grim. I’ve turned 50, am divorced, homeless, jobless and bankrupt and find myself living in a foreign country where the natives speak with forked tongue. I smell of cats and could do with a visit to the dentist.

Yeah, I guess I’m quite a catch. Girls, please form an orderly queue, and hey, no pushing at the back.

But these things are relative. Three years ago I was 47, in a high earning job I loathed with a passion, and married to someone, who it transpired didn’t wish to be married to me. As for the foreign country bit, well, as an Englishman who had then lived in the west of Scotland for 17 years, I fancy there aren’t many people who can teach me much about being an outsider.

Thing is, I’m happier now than I’ve been for years.

As I ready myself to move out of my apartment (can’t afford it any more) and wonder casually how I’m going to afford that new pair of shoes I badly need, the one thought that occupies my mind is how lucky I am.

On the surface I appear to have reached the half century mark in appalling disarray, but scratch below it deeply enough and you’ll find a contented soul. Let’s be frank: there are billions of people worse off than me on this planet.

I know a lot of people who moan about how they’d do things differently if they had their chance again in life and here I am with that very opportunity at my feet.

For me the slate is wiped clean and I have a blank canvas on which to scribble a new life. As I stare out at what unknowable length of time I may have left I get to start again with the benefit of 50 years experience behind me. Grim? I think not.

I have friends, and I still have my health. And I have two wonderful grown up daughters who I’m hugely proud of. Yeah, I’m luckier than most.

So, as from tomorrow, my task is to paint that sunset I saw melting over the Alhambra last week. Then I’m going to the pub and spending the last of the money I have.

The fates can take it from there. To paraphrase Lister in Red Dwarf, if any more misfortune comes my way, I'm gonna rip its nipples off.

La Cukaracha

Posted on May 17, 2011 at 7:46 AM

Cockroaches can live for ages after their heads have been cut off. They only die because they eventually starve. They can also survive high doses of nuclear radiation. All well and good, but frankly, no one likes a smart arse insect, and although running around without a head and basking in some post-apocalyptic hell-hole might sound cool I have it on good authority they don’t like it one bit if you pour boiling water on them, then twat them with a size 8 walking boot. It doesn’t kill them but it really pisses them off.

To rid yourself of the beast you then have to scrape the soggy mess off the floor, bag it, then bag it again, throw it in the bin and set fire to it - to the whole bin. You then have to find a priest, have the house exorcised, abandon it for two years, go and live in Florida, and then come back. It’ll be dead by then (it may be quicker and cheaper to cut the heads off but then you’d have to actually touch them).

It was with all this in mind that I watched, transfixed in horror, as one of the hideous creatures skittered across the hallway floor last year. By the time I came round it had gone and I’d no idea where to. I took the approach that it had clearly been around for some time and it hadn’t bothered me unduly and as long as I didn’t have to look at it again we could agree to live and let live. I mean, these things are like rats, or solicitors. We know they’re there, and they know we know they’re there, and as long as we all stay out of each others’ way we can get along kind of fine-ish can’t we?

Nigh on a year has passed since that sighting and so far so good. I keep the house clean and I have two psychopathic cats who I hope have a penchant for insect extermination, though in fairness the signs relating to these skills are not good. They knock seven bells out of one another for fun but to see them scampering after house flies or wasps is like watching a pair of toddlers (or, come to think of it, the entire Real Madrid defence) trying to take a football off Leo Messi.

Still, the nefarious unfolding of life’s events is such that I shall be leaving this domicile very shortly, (largely against my will), but no matter. I shall consider it an achievement of the highest order should I negotiate the remaining time here without seeing another one of those scuttling little savages from Hades. The kettle’s on and I have a walking boot at the ready. Does anyone know a priest who does exorcisms?

Azerbaijan 1 Europe 0

Posted on May 16, 2011 at 7:00 PM

I plugged the telly in and watched the Eurovision Song Contest last Saturday night. It’s only occurred to me in the days since to wonder why on earth I tune in every year. I mean, I know it’s a load of phoney baloney, but finally I think I understand.

I love the voting.

And it’s not in any sort of ironic, ‘love to hate’ kind of way, no. I just enjoy it for what it is.

Let’s face it, any voting system that cheerfully and unashamedly makes FIFA’s process of selecting nations to host the next two World Cup finals look like a paragon of virtue has to be a hugely fascinating thing. In my opinion the brutality of the dishonesty is in itself disarmingly honest.

So Cyprus gives Greece its vote. What do you expect?

And here’s the rub. There ain’t no point bleating on about fair play in life because nothing in life actually is, even if we like to pretend otherwise.

Why else do we pepper our language with such idioms as ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’, ‘all’s fair in love and war’ (an oxymoronic, twisted piece of perverted logic), ‘only the good die young’, and ‘a fair crack of the whip’? Additionally we often bemoan the lucky sod who has had ‘more than his fair share of ...’ this fair share being something or other that we haven’t been getting (money, sex, or those little free sachets of barbeque sauce at the local burger joint). In fairness (see, even I’m doing it now) this last phrase can also be used with negative connotations, as in ‘he’s had more than his fair share of bad luck’.

Fair play and decency, it’s the very cornerstone of what we like to think of as Britishness. It’s what the Victorians invented team sports for. I mean what better educational model in life has ever been designed to teach youngsters the basics of fairness than a good hard game of rugger, footy or cricket?

Er, well...

By the time you’re reading this the Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester Utd may have been played. If so, I cannot guarantee that a fair and equitable result ensued, and that the best team won, but I can guarantee that the team that scored the most goals did – be them in normal play or from the penalty spot. There’s fairness, and there’s rules you see, and they aren’t always the same thing, much as we’d like them to be.

Thus it’s reasonable to speculate from my position here, pre-Champions League final, that one half of Europe will spend days bleating after the game about how corrupt the referee was and/or how incredibly unfair the result was. The other half won’t.

People, you need to get a life.

Aside from its inbuilt and immutable unfairness, the other problem with sports is that once we work out the rules, we work out how to bend them, break them and in many cases, utterly disregard them. And so it is in life. We can’t help it.

Our great British Empire was built on these fundamentally flawed tenets of fair play and decency – the sort that allowed us to march into other people’s countries and steal all their land and resources. There was nothing unfair about this. They had stuff we needed. It wasn’t fair they had it and we didn’t, etc etc.

But let’s not get pernickety. Or overtly political. Hardly anything’s actually fair at all when you think about it. In fact, nothing is. And really, once you accept it, you realise there’s no problem and that a system of blatant unfairness is actually a pretty good one with which to orchestrate life on a planet. Life is, to the very core, inherently unfair: life and everything that’s in it, all the way down to sachets of barbeque sauce and Joe Bloggs winning the Euro lottery.

Problems occur only when we start believing in the delusion of fairness. You’re as likely to hear a Frenchman at Eurovision say ‘and our twelve points this year goes to [dramatic pause] the United Kingdom ...’ as you are to expect anything in life to actually be kosher.

The prettiest girls get the richest boys and a football team can slaughter another yet lose a match one nil. Yes, even Jedward can finish as high as 9th in a singing competition. It’s called life.

So my advice? Accept all this and you’ll be fine. Don’t gnash your teeth next time Germany gives Austria maximum Eurovision points and don’t rail against the unfairness of the world next time you see Peter Crouch’s incredible new girlfriend.

Azerbaijan may or may not have had the best song and it mightn’t even be in Europe (is it?), but whatever. It’s irrelevant. They won coz they scored the most goals. And they had the prettiest girls too. It all seems fair enough to me.

a grain of sand on a beach

Posted on April 9, 2011 at 9:35 AM

A grain of sand on a beach.


A beach on a coastline, with many other beaches. The coastline of a nation, spreading many miles in all directions. A nation with hundreds of beaches. A nation that's part of a continent. A continent that's part of a planet.


A grain of sand on a beach.


It has multiple facets. It is made up of different elements and chemical compounds. Under a microscope you can see chains of crystals and strings of molecules. There are millions of such molecules in a grain of sand. And these molecules are composed of billions of atoms, and atoms are built with particles, with electrons and neutrons and protons, and each particle with it's component forces and energies yet to be uncovered.


A grain of sand on a beach.


And one of these atoms is the earth. The grain of sand is the Milky Way. The beach is our little section of the universe, housing our galaxy amongst the billions and billions of other nearby galaxies that exist in this place we call the universe. Billions of grains of sand. Billions of galaxies.


And the universe we inhabit is nothing too but a bigger grain of sand. Countless parallel universes sit side by side, splitting off add-infinitum at each decision and crossroad of life.


Our wonderful planet is an atom, in a molecule, in a crystal, in a little grain of sand on a beach.


And humans are particles, inside atoms, inside molecules on a grain of sand on a beach.


Humans talk of travelling to Mars. It's the equivalent journey to the next fleck of mineral deposit on our grain of sand.


A grain of sand on a beach.


A planet in a solar system in a sea of galaxies in a universe amongst an infinite array of universes.


The impact of a footprint on the sand, the effect of a crashing wave upon the shore. In one second of time our grain can be shoved aside, or washed away. A neighbouring beach will not even notice.


A grain of sand on a beach.


It is nothing and it is everything.