Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Poster Boys

Last Friday it was the 13th. As an English teacher in Rome I always look for stuff that’s a bit unusual to discuss with my students. I have two classes on a Friday, back to back, that are adults and kids in their late teens. After I’d found a photo of Jason Voorhees on Google we had a brief chat about how the most recognisable symbol in 2018 for Friday the 13th isn’t a black cat, or a broken mirror but the hockey goalkeeper’s mask that Jason wore in the movies. I then showed them a brief clip from the intro to Friday, part 6 where Jason is resurrected as a zombie. The discussion that followed was based on the fact that Jason evolved from an evil villain in parts 2 to 4 (in part 1 his mother is the killer, part 5 it’s an impostor) to become an anti-hero along the lines of Darth Vader, or Seth Gekko. This is taken up to 11 in the opening sequence of part 6 where, after having been resurrected, the camera zooms in on Jason’s eye where he then walks on, in a pastiche of James Bond’s gun barrel sequence, and slashes the screen with his machete.

It was only after seeing this sequence again after so many years (the film came out in 1986) that I realised just how much I had idolised Jason along with Freddy, Michael and Bub. I fucking loved horror films. And I also remembered that, back in the late 80s, I had posters of not only Jason on my wall but also an exploding head and a zombie with its guts falling out.

Looking back now it seems odd. Back then (and I can still relate to this feeling) it was perfectly normal for me. My parents, my teachers and my fellow pupils at school thought, in the majority, that I was weird for my obsession with gore, guts and gruesomeness but for me it was no different to being obsessed with football, a particular band, or even fly fishing.

The extreme ugliness, brutality and violence of these films and their accompanying media such as comics and tie-in novels, gave me a release from the unpleasantness I felt every day as I was growing up.

To elaborate…

I was miserable from about age 11 until I went to university at 20. 9-ish years of bullying, loneliness and believing I was isolated. Always told to suppress my feelings (or at least, the negative ones) and that to display them was selfish. If you take a child and put a lid on his adolescence (what is basically a “breaking in” period for human emotions) then those feelings don’t change by creating a cocoon to emerge, a long time later, as a beautiful butterfly of happiness, gratitude and joy. They instead manifest in the foetid sewers of the psyche and find, grimy, foul outlets to escape through. 

My anger and sadness were extreme as a teenager. I had virtually no friends and lived every day in fear of the predators that stalked the playgrounds and classrooms of High school. Most of this was verbal bullying only, but that didn’t make the experiences any less real. The outlet I found was in safe, contained and easily controlled violence that you see in horror films. The darkness that resides within a lot of people (I am by far the only person to idolise Jason. The Friday the 13th franchise has made millions of dollars globally, despite the majority of films being utter shite. There was even a crossover in 2003 with Freddy Kruger called Freddy vs. Jason) can be dealt with by purging through other means. Some people play volleyball, others do Judo, some go for long walks. And some of us watch people getting torn apart by the undead or having their heads crushed by unstoppable killing machines.

The villains in the Friday and Halloween franchises were huge, hulking guys with massive childhood issues. Jason was born disfigured, and drowned as a child on a summer camp. He came back several times over the 11 movies, a vengeful, brutal mass murderer who only showed restraint when he was around little children (who he never harmed at all). Michael Myers from Halloween was a mentally disturbed 6 year old who grew up to become a serial killer in a scary, blank faced mask. While I also loved the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, the sequels got progressively more dire and there was something about Freddy you just couldn’t like. As cool as he was, as funny as his one-liners were and as inventive as his murders could be, you couldn’t get past the fact that he was a nonce and really ugly.

I seriously doubt that these franchises were set up to make heroes of mass murderers but as the franchises continued they played up the “cool” factor more and more of how these characters looked and moved. From a James Bond homage in Friday, to Michael Myers dolls, to Freddy Kruger releasing a song with The Fat Boys, the iconic status of the bad guys had tapped into a strange yet common gene in millions of people. 

I didn’t think that Jason was cool for killing people. I just loved the fact that he was able to do whatever he wanted, without hesitation, remorselessly. A line from the Friday 13th part 3 (in 3D) trailer had the narrator say “Jason! You can’t fight him!”. I repeated this over and over again like a verse from a song. Everyone could fight me, I was the exact opposite of Jason. Puny, scared and lonely. Jason was the personification of the rage I felt for the world I lived in back then. 

Similarly, I didn’t think a poster of a zombie with its guts hanging out was attractive. However, the poster was one of the few that existed for one of my favouritest ever films, Day of the Dead. I would watch this film over and over again, especially the bit at the end where the deranged, one armed Miguel commits suicide in order to unleash a horde of undead on the bullying, thuggish, soldiers. Seeing Torrez, Rickles, Steel and Rhodes being ripped apart was cathartic for me. I watched these scenes hoping in my darkest fantasies that the same fate would befall those who were making my life unpleasant.

Ultimately, I knew that these characters weren’t real. They were like Mary Poppins, the Pevensie children or Indiana Jones. Characters from a world of fiction. They were people that, if I had met them, would have killed me too but they also did things I could not. They acted upon their anger and dealt with people as they saw fit. No remorse, no guilt, no shame. 

I never liked the Child’s Play films (and only watched the first one) as Chucky wasn’t a cool dude like Jason. He was a doll and highly irritating. All the actors who portrayed Jason from Friday part 3 onwards were over 6 feet tall and massively built. Again, the opposite of what I was.

To have been so heavily into such movies is something that I look back on now and go “huh?” I still love Romero’s zombie films and some of the Friday the 13th films are good to watch, mainly for nostalgia. But I have lost touch with that extreme, isolated and raging part of myself that found its outlet through stories where a protagonist’s own anger would result in any secondary characters having a very bad day.

George A Romero once said that he didn’t believe horror films would make people go out and commit a crime and that, in fact, they would potentially act as a fuse and prevent people going out and committing  a crime.

I agree.

Because without my poster boys my anger wouldn’t have had a safe outlet and I don’t know what might have happened.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

The Avatar

A pleasant surprise last week was watching the sequel to Jumanji and finding out that it rocked. Thoroughly entertaining with some great actors, good plotting and a fantastic story.

Loved it.

The funniest part is that the teenagers, who are sucked into a modernised, computer version of the board game from the original movie, materialise in avatars of the characters they had selected when they began the game in the “real” world. The nerdiest one of the group gets incarnated as Dwayne Johnson, the Rock. 

What I liked more than anything about this story was that the actors playing the avatars were happily sending themselves up. Karen Gillan has been a masturbatory fantasy of mine ever since she was in Doctor Who and seeing her in Tomb Raider-esque gear and with the personality of an awkward, female adolescent was brilliant. The “seduce the guards” scene was hysterical, as was watching her and the Rock have a rather nauseating snog. The vain, smartphone-obsessed teen girl gets the body of Jack Black and explains “I’m a fat middle-aged man!!!” while finding that peeing through a penis is much easier than she was used to.

Each character comes to terms with who they are and while it was a great film it got me thinking about the avatars that the kids got to inhabit while they were trapped in Jumanji.

When I was a little boy I dreamed big. I was Batman (but not Robin), the Lone Ranger (but never Tonto) and, for a long time, a cowboy. Like nearly all little kids, I had fantasies about being a superhero and thwarting ne’er do wells, baddies and rotten scoundrels. As I got older these feelings expanded and I wanted to be Logan 5, Luke Skywalker, or Captain Kirk. Harmless fun and a crucial part of growing up. To be able to use your imagination to create worlds that you live in, in your mind. There is nothing in this world more creative than a 7 year old child at playtime.

As I got to about age 11, things began to become less fun at both home and school. I was bullied almost constantly and my parents moved me to a different school in 1982, partly to try and combat this problem. I was being raised to believe that all the ill in my world was down to my actions or inactions, and I deserved to be treated badly…most of the time. My heroes of fiction became a little darker than before. Instead of simply thinking Judge Dredd was a great comic strip I would actually want to be him. I watched Blake’s 7 and wanted to be like Avon, a cold hearted and ruthless anti-hero. By the time I was 13 my idols were Snake Plissken, Mad Max and Jonathan E,  and by the time I was 17 I had a poster of Jason Voorhess on my bedroom wall. 

The avatars we create in our minds for how we want to be are based on how we feel on a daily basis. From being a whiter than white hero as a child (Adam West’s Batman was in no way, shape or form like the darker versions from the 80s onwards) I had begun to idolise flawed, broken and unpleasant characters who nevertheless had a basic code of ethics. Jason Voorhees never murdered little kids; Snake Plissken was disgusted at how many people died to save the uncaring and ungrateful US President; Mad Max was the world’s biggest misanthrope but always kept his word. 

I was projecting my views of my life into my fictional world. This in itself is in no way wrong. I firmly believe that fantasy is a safety valve for reality. Stuff we do in our minds prevents that same stuff from becoming a reality. Watch Jason chop people apart, feel better yet know that this is not real and everyone shook hands and went home for a cup of tea afterwards.

When I got to university in 1990 I had many facets, most of them negative. I had a certain tenacity of character but, after 20 years of being told that everything was my fault and that I was ugly, stupid and unlikeable (amongst many other things), I was compensating for my lack of self esteem, self belief and confidence by creating the world’s most fucked up avatar.

I was heavily into a band called The Macc Lads back in the late 80s and early 90s. They were a punk band from Macclesfield in England and had the same effect on me that seeing the Sex Pistols or the Ramones had had on people 10 to 15 years previously. I dressed like them, spoke like them and mimicked their sense of humour. While I knew that the music they performed and the image they had was just an act, I still had a whale of a time being a clone of them because it was an avatar. After all, no one would ever really like Lance Manley as he was a creep, so why not just be a pretend person instead? I even invented a name for my avatar and called myself Liquid Goblin (I have zero recollection of where the name came from).

I had a pen friend in Ireland in 1989 and when I went to see him I never told him my real name. It was years before he found out and it was a bit of fun, but more importantly it meant I could be someone else. Lance Manley was unlikeable, unshaggable, and above all a complete idiot. It was nice to be Liquid Goblin and have a new start.

Later on in life, once uni was over, the avatars kind of failed to work. When you have hours and hours of free time, then being someone else is possible. When you have to go to work in a poxy job for a bullying boss, then your avatar needs to be put on the shelf. The most painful memory of the jobs I did from 1993 to 1995, once I’d got my Law degree, was the realisation that I was insecure, socially awkward, had zero self esteem and never stood up for myself…solely because I didn’t have my avatar any more.

Later still and I joined the police force. First of all as a Special (volunteer) cop in London and later a full time Bobby with Kent. The avatar I had imagined was of a no nonsense bully hunter who upheld the law and was there to protect people. The reality was far from this and the only positive experience to come from my 3 years, 3 months on the beat was that I got my first book from it all.

As I’ve got older I’ve had less use for avatars but they still exist. Most of the time you don’t even know they’re there. Being yourself is one of the hardest things to do. When I was at school you would meet a multitude of little fuckers who would describe themselves as wizards of Karate, or Kung Fu. When Rambo 2 was out at the cinemas, lots of kids bought the replica knives and brought them to school. Their avatars in a comprehensive education system that didn’t care for its children and let them persist in a state of eternal misery, broken only by violent fantasies.

Living as yourself is never easy. We all feel we need at the very least a mask, and maybe a complete avatar to be happy and accepted in society. The truth is that an avatar is only good to protect you from feeling anything, be it good or bad. When you can teach yourself to feel then you will grow.

And the avatar will no longer be needed.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Blue Skies

About 3 weeks ago I had my phone stolen while I was shit faced in Rome at 2am. 

From that point forward I began to feel like I needed to move on and become less self destructive in my pursuits, less nihilistic in my visions of my future and above all to simply be at peace with my past.

For about 10 days this proved to be a turning point in my life. I no longer felt bitter about things and was able to see past events as mere turning points. 

But then my bitterness decided it wanted to remain, like a squatter.

I have spent the last few days fighting the desire to revert back to my old ways of procrastination, biting my nails until they bleed and generally moping that I haven’t always had the life I wanted. I was looking up John Hirst on the internet, just to read what a cunt he is for getting Strasbourg to tell David Cameron that rapists and paedophiles should be given the right to vote. I have looked at videos on YouTube of cops getting into arguments with those daft fuckwits who call themselves Sovereign citizens. I have seen films of US judges sending criminals to prison for decades.

The old ways are sometimes hard to beat.

Today I figured out why it has always been so hard for me to just relax and enjoy myself. 

Growing up I spent nearly every day of my life having my fun interrupted or spoiled. Some of this was normal such as being told to set the table while I was in watching TV. Or maybe that my parents wanted me to go and sit with them for a bit in the lounge, rather than spending my time alone in my bedroom. On other occasions though, it was simply to burst the bubble of fun.

My mother was and probably still is a control freak. She felt she absolutely HAD to be in charge all the time as other people weren’t as good as her at running things. She didn’t actually WANT to be in charge but she 100% knew that without her, everything would fall apart. A side effect of this attitude was that she expected to be the centre of attention at all times. So, if me and my father were chatting in the lounge and she entered the room, well we’d better ask her what she thought about the subject under discussion or she’d sit there for a couple of minutes watching us, and then remark that my father never made eye contact when he argued. Upon being told to shut up she’d then pout and say that it was a sign of weakness not to maintain eye contact when you argue and she was ONLY trying to be helpful!!!

Another by-product of this necessity at running the lives of less intelligent people and demanding their attention at all times was that she would intermittently decide to ruin our moods, just for the hell of it. Like a sandcastle kicker, she would always back up a compliment with a put down or a piece of criticism. If we argued back then she’d fly into a temper. If we were watching TV she would enter the room and say loudly “What’s this rubbish?” or change the channel without actually checking to see if anyone else was actually bothered…which we were…but we didn’t dare say anything.

When I went out on school trips, or with the Scouts, I would come home euphoric after a brilliant day out and she would ask me brightly “Did you have fun today?” I would then excitedly tell her all about my fun day and she would sit there for 2 minutes pretending to listen before her face darkened and she would snap “Anyway, your room’s a disgrace go and tidy it!” As the day was ruined and I was almost in tears I stomped upstairs the first time she did this, shouting “THAT’S RUINED MY DAY!” She chased me upstairs and I had to lock myself in the bathroom until, 20 minutes later she finally calmed down. EVERY time I went on a trip she would do this. If I tidied my room then she’d tell me to do my homework. If both were done she’d find me a chore to do. On the one occasion I had done absolutely everything I needed to do before I went out she told me to go and practice my tuba, a school musical instrument she had, up to that point, shown zero interest in.

When, as a family, in 1981 we went to see The Empire Strikes Back, my father emerged smiling and said “I thoroughly enjoyed that film!” my mother snapped back “I didn’t”. When asked why she replied “Stupid, science fiction rubbish!” Years later she denied this conversation had ever taken place and told me “I think that’s a fib!” when I reminded her of it. She was so engrossed in her desire to piss on everyone else’s day that she couldn’t even remember specific incidents any more.

At home I wasn’t allowed a lock on my bedroom door (and was made to feel so guilty that I cried, the one time I asked for one) meaning my mother would just walk in unnanounced without even knocking. Forgivable when you are a small child. Unpleasant in the extreme once you’ve hit puberty. Reason? It was her bedroom, in her house (both of which she worked very hard to pay for) and she LET me sleep in it and she would go wherever she liked in her own house.  

It wasn’t just her though…

When I was at school, the bullies would wait to see if you were doing anything out of the ordinary to give them an excuse to make you feel miserable. I eventually stopped bringing books to read at break time as there was at least one occasion where a book was snatched out my hands and torn to pieces. Complaining to the staff achieved nothing as they would say “Well it’s funny that it’s always you they pick on isn’t it?”

Once I was at a summer fete with my then-girlfriend, having a great time, when a lad in my year sucker punched me in the kidney from behind, I turned around in pain to see him grinning and he said “Alright Lance”. When I kicked him back and went “Alright John!” he then proceeded to fight with me, resulting in the stall owner breaking it up, restraining me and yelling “WHICH ONE DO I THUMP?!!”

At college when I was about 17 or 18 a lad I knew took umbrage at me talking to a pretty girl from my class and introduced both himself and his mate Chris to her, and then told her “Last year Lance went out with a Paki!” which was both untrue and racist but he was only trying to make me look like a twat, the lack of validity didn’t matter to him.

I could never feel relaxed because I always believed that there was something, just around the corner, that was waiting to ruin it. The incidents I’ve described above didn’t happen very often but the ones with my mother did, meaning that I was attuned to expecting a shit storm to ruin my blue skies. I wasn’t able to stand up for myself or even voice an opinion and I remained miserable and unhappy for years, not wanting to let my guard down and just savour being alive or enjoy the moment. 

I used to read books sporadically, not wishing to commit to a project that might get ruined. I didn’t try new movies or genres because the little happiness I had, I wanted to keep and new things might disappoint. I eventually gave up trying to find out if there were blue skies out there as I was so accustomed to having to batten down the hatches and wait for the storm to pass. 

Today I finally realised that the reason the bad memories were fighting to retain a foothold in my psyche wasn’t some vindictive desire to see me suffer but rather as a protective mechanism. My sub conscious believed that 10 days of uninterrupted blue skies was dangerous as there MUST be bad storms right around the corner. My mind’s self preservation skills had become accustomed to being in a state of pure survival. Best to suffer a bit each day and have it rain and be grey most of the time, than to have clear, sunny days that could only be countered by torrential rain, gale force winds and bone chilling cold. 

Yesterday we had winds so strong that it blew the garbage bins off the balcony and the ping pong table in the yard (that is so heavy it takes two people to lift it) was pushed 10 metres away by a storm that swept this part of Rome. I cancelled my lessons as I cycle everywhere and it would have been beyond dangerous to venture out on a bike in weather like that. But there was a part of me that regarded the storm as in some way being there just to upset me. I had never realised before that I regarded bad weather as a metaphor for my own life but there it was. The storm personified the way I felt most of the time. The bad stuff was there day in and day out, broken only intermittently by blue skies. Being sent to tidy my room/ do my homework/ play my tuba at age 10 made me believe that I couldn’t just have fun, there had to be some suffering or unpleasantness attached to it all. 

This realisation has finally caused me to see why I have had so much trouble shaking off my bad memories for so long. They were a barrier or even an innoculation against worse feelings. My mind wanted me to be safe and threw up all this crap in order to keep the wolves from the door. 

Now I can enjoy the blue skies because the storms have finally passed.