This is Robert Llewellyn's personal blog. The views contained in here are mine alone and do not reflect the views or opinions of anyone else I work with or for. Just thought I ought to make that clear.

Monday
Jan032011

Charity

Very early on in my Twittering I received a tweet asking me if I would re-tweet an announcement about a charitable event, I believe it was a sponsored bike ride across France. It took me 3 seconds, click re-tweet, click send. Bosh. Done. End of. Move on.

However this simple act turned out to be less than straightforward. At the time I had maybe 15,000 followers, so the person who asked me had seen that I could get this message to a few more eyeballs. The next time I checked my twitter feed I had a couple more. Same thing, Please RT, my friend is raising money for sick children. How can you not, it takes seconds as I said before. I duly obeyed.

Then I got ten such requests, then twenty, over the next week or so I must have had at least a hundred. I worried about it, I fretted and twisted myself up into a classic muddle class ball of guilt.

So I made a decision, I would either have a blanket policy of never re-tweeting any charity request, or, I would have to re-tweet them all. It’s very hard but I chose the former. I feel very guilty about it because it takes such little effort on my part. However, if I did endlessly re-tweet all of them my tweet stream would be a constant flow of charity announcements.

What it must be like for people who have millions of followers I can’t imagine. I know they don’t re-tweet them because I follow a few twitter millionaires and they don’t send thousands of re-tweets out every hour of the day.

This guilt is of course is not a new experience, just a familiar feeling in a new medium. I still get a lot of letters and requests to appear in charitable events, or sign pictures for auctions, or send books, or sponsor cross channel swimmers.

The charity industry, for that’s what it is, generates a massive amount of activity. It also generates a massive amount of money for good causes, it’s in the many billions of pounds a year in this country which says a lot about our nations generosity.

I am slightly uncomfortable with the psychology of wearing your charitable giving on your sleeve. I’m a bit Victorian about it, I don’t want to tell people who I give money to, it feels like showing off. I think it’s private.

I think it is worth considering how we raise money for charity. I believe passionately that it’s important we continue to do so. I take my hat off to the people who climbed the mountain, but what an adventure they must have had.

I can’t help thinking we could spend our time in a slightly more helpful way, killing two birds with one stone maybe. Instead of paddling a canoe down the Ganges, or walking across the USA, how about helping my sister for a week while getting sponsored. Why my sister? Well, she’s a care assistant in a hospital, she looks after terminally ill people. Her job is about as glamorous as a rainy afternoon in Wellingborough, but she works incredibly hard with total dedication. No one interviews her and asks her how she’s feeling. She is paid abysmally badly by the NHS, her job isn’t even being cut as it wouldn’t amount to any savings for the government.

So if some celeb off the telly was doing a days work in a cancer ward while raising money for children in Africa, I’d sponsor them, I’d do it quietly and without fanfare, but I’d be pretty impressed. It’s a tough gig.

One last thing. Every sentence in this piece made me ponder, I could hear the responses, the criticisms, the massive, selfish gaping holes in my argument. It makes writing a very different and interesting experience. 

Thursday
Dec302010

New Years Revolutions

I’m not planning on giving anything up or taking anything up for 2011. I’m not going to suddenly start long distance running or Bikram Yoga. I used to give up smoking every New Year for a couple of weeks, until it worked and I stopped smoking for 11 years. Easy peasy. But then I started again. How dumb is that? I’ve stopped again now, I don’t think about it because that’ll make me start again.

However, during the weird limbo between Christmas and New Year I do think about what I’m planning to do in the coming year.

I suppose I’m lucky in that I have a certain amount of choice in what I do, I’ve never had a ‘job’ but I’ve always worked.

 My work diary is utterly empty after the middle of January. I have absolutely nothing confirmed, no jobs, no income, nothing. I’m really used to that, I’ve been in much the same position for the past 30 years. I have to believe something will happen, someone will say ‘yes’ to one of the numerous projects I have knocking around, but it’s just as possible that none of my plans will come to fruition and I’ll end up doing something I cannot imagine at the moment.

It’s been my ambition for many years to take some control of my destiny, to decide to say no to some things that are offered to me and concentrate on what I really want to do and believe in. That is the hardest thing to stick to.

I’m currently half way through writing two books, one a work of gentle science fiction, the other a kind of disjointed comic autobiography.

I have tried to plan out my year to give me enough time to finish both these books.

It’s not like I’ve just started them in a breeze of optimism and enthusiasm in the last week or two, I’ve been working on them intermittently for the last 3 or 4 years, so they’re not exactly new projects.

But books take a long time to write, the world is bristling with distractions, there’s always something else to do but I really enjoy writing. When I do focus and get down to it, I lose myself totally in the process.

I plan to experiment with one of the books, I want to bypass publishers altogether and self publish and promote the book. There are now print on demand services around that mean I don’t have to print 10,000 copies in the hope of selling them and then feeling guilty about the paper when I don’t. I also want to release them as e-books, audio books and even, possibly, a graphic novel version.

This makes the whole project much more exciting, I’ve always had the feeling that there was something slow, stodgy and immovable between myself and an audience since I started working in telly 25 years ago.

Before that I worked on stage, there was nothing other than fear between my writing and performing and any potential audience. It was a very direct, visceral form of communication; there was no producing or editing third party involved. Either it worked and it was great, or it bombed and it was terrible.

I’ve worked in the traditional media business for a long time now, I’ve done loads of old school telly work and published 12 books through old school publishers. It’s been a wonderful experience and I feel incredibly lucky to have had that experience, however I’ve always been driven to try and find a different and new way of doing what I do.

Although using the internet as a way of connecting to a potential audience is new and weird and unknown, it’s also very familiar. It reminds me of the first live shows I was involved in where we stuck up a screen printed poster and hoped people would turn up at a theatre.

I always lived in fear that no one would turn up so when people did it was incredibly fulfilling. Best example was at the Edinburgh festival in 1981, we only had 1 poster, the first night, 5 people, the second, 50, on the third night it was sold out. Now when I put a video up on YouTube and a lot of people watch it, I get the same buzz.

But what is exciting and revolutionary about the internet is the idea of collaborative creativity. This is something I’m diddling about with at the moment. I’m wondering about putting some bits of my book online now and asking for feedback, it’s a book about ideas and the future and I know a lot of people would have a lot of ideas in this area.

I don’t know how to do it, I don’t know if it’s a good idea, I don’t know if it’s fair to the people who suggest things or me trying not to get overwhelmed and confused.

It’s not something I did on stage, I didn’t say, ‘anyone got any feedback on how to make that last joke even remotely funny’ to a live audience. I can imagine the response if I did. Yes, it would have been a cruel and belittling torrent of criticism, all of which I would have deserved.

However, if the final product was better than I could do on my own, if instead of having one editor in a publishers office, I had 5,000 on the net, it could be incredible.

We are entering new territory and no one knows the route. I kind of like that.

Little update, had a few questions about this. Apparently on Wikipedia it only lists 8 books, this list is what I can recall being published.

The Reconstructed Heart

The Man in Rubber Mask

This He Was and Filthy Haired

The Man on Platform 5

Punchbag

Therapy and How to Avoid it. (with Nigel Planer)

Sudden Wealth

The Scrapheap book

Brother Nature

Sold Out

I originally said I’d published 12 books, I’ve checked again as I could have sworn that’s how many. It would be very embarrassing to admit you’d forgotten something you wrote but I’m pretty sure this list is right.

Monday
Dec202010

Australia and class. A half baked theory

I have spent a great deal of time in Australia over the last 20 years and it has consistently failed to live up to the narrow stereotypes I held about the country before I first arrived.

It’s the sports reporter shorthand, something I see as an essentially narrow conservative worldview that I believe needs challenging. Shorthand like, “All Aussies love cricket, barbies and beer.”

While it’s true that there is nothing easier to find than an Aussie bloke who is obsessed with all three, I have also met many Australians who are bored by cricket, are vegetarians and only drink wine.

But even that doesn’t really tell you anything about the place. It completely ignores the political history, it’s fractious relationship with ‘the mother country’

It also ignores the fact that Australia is a country that has radically changed even in the 20 years I’ve been coming here, partly because of immigration from Asia, Greece, the middle East and Eastern Europe, partly because a new, well travelled generation has taken over.

There was a certain red neck quality visible when I first visited. I remember sitting on a lonely beach in Queensland in 1990 reading ‘A Secret Country’ a book by the Australian journalist John Pilger.

He described his home country as;

‘The British working class raping paradise forever.’

Okay, fairly strident, he wrote the book in 1989, he’s lived in London since the 1960’s and has been a long time critic of Australia’s policies toward the Aboriginal community among many other topics.

I remember being very shocked when I read that. I have always admired John Pilger, he’s an amazing journalist (I’d love to record a Carpool with him) but when I read that, I was a little put off.

For a start, I generally preferred to blame the British ruling class, the public school pillocks who’ve abused the United Kingdom mercilessly for many hundreds of years as if it were their God given right. The bankers who fiddle their taxes, indulge in polite corporate corruption, hold bank accounts in off shore tax havens, all the fiddles and selfish con tricks we are so familiar with, of which of course they are proud.

And yet in Australia Mr Pilger blamed the British working class.

The Australia we know today is a country built by immigrants, for the first couple of hundred years the vast majority of those immigrants were white, working class British and Irish people, rightly sick of the cold, hopeless daily grind of earning a stale crust under the hand made boot of the British ruling elite.

What it appears they have done is create a society that in some ways is fairer, more decent and less riddled with class restrictions and assumptions than dear old Britannia.

My Australian nephews and nieces illuminate a clear example of that legacy; they have recently finished school and have got summer jobs for the first time.

A teenager with a part time job in Australia is in a completely different position to their equivalent in the UK. The simple difference is they are paid a decent wage, a wage that means taking up what in England would be considered a dead end, low status job very much more appealing.

I’m talking shelf stacking, kitchen work, hotel and office cleaning. They are paid £10 to £15 an hour. This is part time casual work I’m talking here, not a full time job that requires qualifications; it’s what students do in the holidays.

The average wage for similar work in the UK is offensive, derisory, wicked, pathetic, cruel. £4 a hour, if your lucky, less in many cases. So why is this?

Is it just because the UK is far more crowded, after all, Australia is abut the size of Europe with a population roughly the same size as South East England. Is it that we have higher immigration and all those desperate asylum seekers lower the wages?

Is it because Australia is a much richer country without the massive debts we’ve been lumbered with by lazy, selfish management, short sighted politicians getting back handers from mobile phone operators to allow them to avoid paying tax?

I would suggest none of these arguments have anything to do with it. I would like to politely suggest it is to do with the jolly old class system.

It feels to me that in Australia it’s not seen as demeaning and hopeless to work in a supermarket, it doesn’t say that you are a sad loser if you work in a fast food outlet, or clean rooms in a hotel. Basically, there isn’t the same snobbism connected to jobs as there is in the UK.

We’re all guilty of this snobbism, it’s totally acceotable to make derisory comments about ‘losers’ working for Maccy D’s.

Of course, the Daily Mail argument would be the one most popular. ‘Well, if we paid people any more, the cost of living would go up. Tesco’s would be more expensive if people got paid a decent wage just to stack the shelves.’

Yes, it probably would, because our food costs are subsidised not by governments, but by the fact that all through the supply chain we exploit people by paying them ridiculously low wages.

The problem is, because we are still so class riddled in the UK, we think people who work for low wages are by definition stupid and unskilled, lazy, feckless and essentially, lower class.

But our shelves need stacking, hospitals need cleaning well, food needs cooking, why should people who do essential jobs we all rely on be paid so absurdly little.

More importantly, why are people who do wasteful, lazy, greedy jobs that fiddle about with other people’s money so ludicrously well paid.

Yes, okay, throw bloody TV presenters into that, but let me quickly point out that bloody TV presenters are not paid as much as they were, and nothing like as much as bankers.

‘Well, if we paid unskilled workers more, the shareholders would be up in arms.’ Say the charming corporate spokespeople. In other words they wouldn’t get the massive swollen dividends they’ve become used to. The subtext being the only way we can be as obscenely profitable is by paying most of the people who work for us the absolute least we can get away with. Obviously our management teams and shareholders need massive remuneration that far exceeds anyone’s needs.

So is what I’m suggesting communism, where we all have to be paid the same and all creativity and individuality is crushed?

I don’t think Australia could be considered a communist country. Australia exhibits rampant, U.S. style capitalism, the only slight difference seems to be that they pay people a reasonable wage for doing the essential jobs that require the least skill.

I think it’s because most people in Australia genuinely respect anyone who works. I’m also sure my arguments are full of holes, but show me a teenager in the UK working in a supermarket who’s earning £15 an hour and I’ll eat my lap top.

 

Wednesday
Dec152010

Guilt and Pleasure

There is no question about the pleasure. I am writing this overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it’s 6 in the morning and I am wearing a T shirt and a pair of Thai fisherman’s wrap around trouser things.

Yes, picture the scene, balding, slightly overweight middle aged white bloke in Thai fisherman’s wrap around trouser things. It’s not a good picture is it.

Now wash your brain, forget that, and just think about how warm it is.

Relax, feel the soft breeze, ahhh, lovely.

There is a gentle breeze blowing down from the North, where I normally live, you would never describe a Northerly breeze as lovely, it would cut you in half with bitter cold. But here, a Northerly is warm and soft, traveling in from the tropics.

23 years ago when I met an Australian woman in Edinburgh I had no idea what I was in for. Then, 21 years ago I first came to Australia with her and it blew my English socks off. Not an unusual experience, it’s a country which has drawn many 100’s of thousands of British people to it’s exquisite shores over the last few centuries.

Since then we have been here many times, sometimes for a few weeks but when my children were very young, often for 4 or 5 months. I wrote a lot of my books here, we would stay either in Brisbane, or on the Gold Coast or up near Noosa, which is a small town about 100 miles North of Brisbane on the pacific coast.

In 2001 we lived in Balmoral in Sydney and my kids went to school there. They both hold Australian passports and because my daughter learned to talk when she lived here, she has a very good Australian accent which she uses to great effect when the need arises

This year I’m spending Christmas with my wife’s family, in all a fairly large collection of people, I heard yesterday that there will be 25 people at Christmas lunch, me and the Mrs are doing the cooking, I’ll love it although there may be some stress. Well, 23 years, there’s bound to be a bit.

So that’s the pleasure, what’s all the guilt about? I think it may be the wrong word, maybe deep anxiety inducing concern is the more accurate term. I know we are incredibly lucky to be able to do this, I am an optimist, I believe the human race is essentially slightly more good than bad, but I can’t help feeling this kind of indulgence will be short lived.

I don’t mean personally, obviously anything one individual does is short lived by definition. I mean the ability for a fairly average family to be able to travel from one side of the planet to the other for a brief 3 week holiday may be a short lived concept.

It’s not even to do with having the spare cash to be able to pay for it, and I’m particularly enjoying this trip because I didn’t pay for it, the Mrs did. And she organised the whole thing, the flights, the apartment rentals, the cars, the transfer gubbins, she’s done a top notch job.

No, it’s to do with the sustainability of the whole set up. The incredible infrastructure we’ve developed which makes it not only possible, but relatively simple to fly from England to Australia with nothing more than a heightened risk of DVT and a stiff back by the time you get here.

We stopped in Singapore for a couple of days on the way, breaks down the jet lag a little bit.

Our transport is so reliant on fossil fuels, I know I drone on about it, but it is fairly obvious that we should have some concern. We aren’t producing any new fossils, well not for about 30 million years anyway. We are using an unsustainable amount and all I know for certain is, the gap between demand and supply is widening by the minute.

I went down to the little grocery shop last night and two young lads were walking by, one heavily tattooed. I overhead this brief moment of conversation.

‘’This whole global warming thing is bullshit mate.”

There it is, summed up in one simple phrase. ‘I’m not going to worry about it, it’s bullshit anyway, all the scientists are lying.’

You know what, he might be right, the global warming thing might be a massive load of bullshit, I truly don’t know but on the whole I tend to side with 75,000 scientists who seem to agree something is changing, with some fairly big indicators that we may be having something to do with it.

However, as far as I’m concerned the whole ‘global warming’ thing is irrelevant. We have to change our technology anyway, even if it turns out the whole world is about to enter another ice age.

We can’t go on relying on a fuel source that is going to run out eventually, okay, not next week or next year, but certainly in the next 100 years. So there’s the OZ as boy with the tats stomping along in his thongs (flip flops, not the other things that ride up your bottom) would say ‘who gives a stuff about 100 years mate, I won’t be around to worry about it.’

Very true, neither will I, but my grandchildren might.

I don’t now about you, but I don’t often look back to my great grand parents and think, ‘those Victorians, weren’t they a forward thinking group, always taking the long view.’

I do think they were innovative and clever with their steam power and exploitative colonialism, but so much of what they did has come back to haunt us, their descendants.

Imagine a teenager in 2111 walking down the street with his mate. ‘Thank God those Obamarians made a bit of an effort mate, otherwise we’d be living in the bloody dark ages now, mind that flying hydrogen car.’

 

 

Sunday
Dec052010

Meat eating and hypocrisy

When I was 19 years old I spent a period in the far South West of Ireland, County Cork. Utterly beautiful summer of 1975. This was before Ireland joined the EU, it was like going back to England before the Industrial revolution. You really did see people riding along the roads in carts pulled by donkeys, not as a hliday hobby or jaunt, that’s what they used.

One day I spoke to the farmer who lived opposite where I was staying, he was walking along the road with a cow. He had a rope around its neck, just strolling along the lane. I walked with him, my scruffy Lurcher dog trotting along beside us.

After about half an hour he stopped outside a pub, he asked me to hold the cow while he went inside, so I held the rope and patted the cow, it was a very placid beast. 10 minutes later the farmer re-emerged with a hearty looking fellow and we all walked to the far end of the village.

There was a small red brick building standing off the road, the ruddy faced chap went inside and opened a large door, he beckoned me, I walked forward, leading the still placid cow. The man popped a nose bag on the animal, it started munching hay, standing chewing away quite happily. He gestured me to stand back and then with a speed of movement which was as surprising as it was sudden, he swung a 10 pound lump hammer in a large arc and brought it down on the cows forehead. The animal slumped down almost without a sound and the ruddy faced man then put two big hooks through the tendons in the cows back legs and with the use of some hefty looking pulleys, hung the beast up from the stout rafters.

I will spare you a detailed description of the rest of the process, save to say it was very bloody, very gutsy but very economical. Nothing was wasted and the ruddy faced man worked fast, within 30 minutes the animal was butchered into manageable hunks of meat. At the rear of the building was a cold store room, by far the most modern thing in the village. Here he stored big chunks of beef. He gave the farmer a carrier bag full, he offered me the head of the cow, ‘for the dog.’ It was in a hessian sack. I thought it would be rude to say no, so I carried it back to where I was staying. I just want to say here, a cows head, even one that has been skillfully butchered, is a bloody heavy thing. Walking over 5 miles on a hot day with a cows head which is dripping copious amounts of blood though the hessian sack is not something you forget quickly. When I offered it to the dog, and this dog was used to the rough side of life, she caught and ate rabbits regularly, when she was confronted with a whole cows head, she gave me a look. A special dog look which communicated the following. ‘You are fucking joking.’

The following day I buried the cows head in the garden.

So, that experience is not something that you forget quickly. I had worked on farms as a young person and knew where meat came from. I had caught and skinned rabbits for my dog, but they are small, this was the first time I’d witnessed the slaughter of a large beast. I was quite shocked, it was quite brutal even though from the point of view of this cow, it was very quick with very little time for the creature to become alarmed.

So I got to thinking, I ate meat but I was disturbed by witnessing the slaughter, how hypocritical of me.

But I had also been at dinner parties and summer barbeques where the meat eaters made fun of the vegetarians, teasing them about the “ickle wickle moo cow” that had been killed to make their burgers. Belittling the vegetarians for being sentimental about animals.

Meat eaters like to try and poke holes in vegetarian’s viewpoints by asking them about the leather in their shoes. But there is in my mind nothing more hypocritical than your average, urban meat eater. So far removed from the source of their high protein diet it’s not true.

Meat in supermarkets, we all know it’s hypocritical but we just carry on buying it. I do, I’m as bad as anyone.

I’m fairly confident that about 70% of the meat eaters I’ve met would freak out if they actually saw a cow being killed, and 90% of them would not be able to do it themselves.

Then I thought, what about a carnivore license?

Okay, it’s a daft idea, but seeing as we live in a world with diminishing food resources and a massive human population, a carnivore license is making more and more sense.

To get your carnivore license you have to pass a simple test. You’d have to go t theory night classes for a couple of months, learn about the basics, nothing that complicated. Then the test is carried out in controlled conditions with professionals on hand at all times. You enter a special room, it will be white tiled, well lit and kitted out with state of the art tools. It’s all very hygienic and controlled. An living animal is then brought in, it might be a pig, a sheep or a cow, you then have to kill it humanely, butcher it correctly and store the meat safely.

If you pass the test, you get a license and you can buy and eat meat.

The percentage of the population who would eat meat after the introduction of this unlikely piece of legislation had been made law? 10%, maybe 15, at the most. A huge proportion of the population would not even consider taking the exam, they would happily remain vegetarians for life.

A massive amount of money and resources would be saved by not breeding the millions of animals we eat each year, a huge amount of land currently devoted to growing food for these animals to eat could be used to feed us, and could be used less intensively.

Basically, although I am a meat eater, I don’t think it’s a truly sustainable part of our lives. I can kill animals, I have done it many times. I don’t’ enjoy it, but I have done it. Only chickens, rabbits, a duck once, a couple of turkeys. Never anything as big as a cow. It’s a messy business, it makes you very aware of what you’re eating and I think, if you love eating meat, get out there and kill something. In a controlled and humane way of course.

I now wait with relish to hear from hunters, shooters, fishers about how they are happy as Larry to top the odd rabbit, carp or deer. Like I said, 10 to 15% max.

A kind fellow called James sent me the link in the comments to this wonderful Ted talks video which I thought was worth including.