You Do Not Sound Like A Pleasant Person

Saturday 21st February 2015.

Late morning, at home. I receive a phone call.

Me: Hello?

Him: (pause, heavy foreign accent) Hello sir. I am from Microsoft. Your computer has been identified as vulnerable to hackers, so we are phoning to help you solve the problem.

ME: Riiiiight…

Him: Now can I ask you, what make is your computer?

Me: (wary pause) How do I know this isn’t a scam call?

Him: (sudden anger) How do I know you’re not a scam call? You do not sound like a pleasant person.

Me: Which one of us is going to hang up first?


Me: What are you wearing?

Him: I am going to call the police.

Me: You’re calling the police?

Him: Wait half an hour. You will receive a call.

Me: I’m going to be arrested over the phone?

Him: (Hangs up).

(I do, in fact, wait by the phone for half an hour. But it doesn’t ring. Men!)

After a quick Google, I discover that the ‘Microsoft Phone Scam’ is quite common. Which makes my caller’s ease with which he gave up and broke character all the more strange.

‘Are you a scam?’ must surely be a frequently asked question for a scammer. Yet it completely threw him. All he could do was blurt out whatever piqued gibberish came into his head. No Best Actress award for him.

I wonder if one gets the scammers one deserves.

* * *

Evening: to the Barrowboy & Banker pub in London Bridge, for my brother Tom’s 40th birthday drinks. We stay till closing time at 11pm. As we huddle outside, a drunken young man among the other drinkers comes over, suddenly fascinated with my appearance. ‘When did you dye your hair?’ he asks. Not ‘why‘, ‘when’.  As with the scam caller, I do seem to bring out nonsensical responses in strange men.

I offer him some minimum-risk answers, but he won’t leave me alone. He fires off comment after comment about my blondness. There is clearly a menacing and intimidating side to his ‘banter’, of course. So I’m relieved when Ewan, Tom’s friend, who is much braver than me, suddenly jumps in and thrusts his hairless pate into the young man’s face. ‘OR!’ Ewan shouts, ‘You could be BALD!’ And the lad is frightened off.

The realisation that at the age of 43 I can attract the same sort of Alpha-Lad attention that I had when I was a teenager, leads me to two responses.

I can either think: ‘I am doomed to always be one of the Not-We.’

Or I can think: ‘Still got it.’

* * *

Monday 23rd February 2015.

‘I enjoy reading on paper and screen equally, but I do cherish the way print doesn’t suddenly open up mid-page, to try and sell you a Volvo.’

This is an idle thought I had after reading an article about print versus e-books. Today I put it on Twitter, thinking it to be a mildly entertaining point. Within hours it becomes my most popular Tweet to date. By Friday it receives 602 Retweets (as in people passing the tweet on through their own accounts), and 453 Faves (people marking that they like it). Although this is by no means ‘viral’, for me it is something new. To send a quip into the world and see it take purchase in the minds of hundreds of strangers is an undoubtedly pleasing experience. While I realise that all it takes to be Big On Twitter is to circulate photographs of inadvertently amusing kittens (or as this week proves, ambiguously coloured dresses), I am nevertheless buoyed up by this spike of mass connection. There may be hope for me yet.

* * *

Another scam today. This time, a paper letter in the mail. First class postage too – they must have a budget. This one’s known as the ‘SmartStamp Inheritance Scam’, and has been going for years. The letter spins some tale of a relative dying in China and leaving me – just me!all their money. No address or phone number, not even an official ­letterhead; just an email address. I reply: ‘Dear Sir, how wonderful that you have found my long lost relative! You’re not one of those naughty scams, are you? China indeed! The last I heard of Great Uncle Charles, he was convalescing at ‘Dun Twerking’, Power Bottom, Wilts. What are you wearing?’ No reply yet.

* * *

Tuesday 24th February 2015.

Class at Birkbeck: Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama, as part of the ‘American Century’ course (mostly literature, but with a few humanities texts like this one). More defensive prefaces. This time Obama adds a 2004 introduction, pointing out how he wrote the book in the mid-90s, when he was a law teacher. Certainly his admittance to taking drugs at college is not the sort of thing a budding President is meant to publish, and his refusal to censor that section does him credit. It’s well written, though his ventriloquism of other people is a device I’m not keen on – it suggests a perfect memory of dialogues heard decades ago. This particularly falls down when he inserts ‘bleeding’ into the utterances of an English passenger, whom he meets on a plane. A touch of the Dick Van Dykes, there. Still, his drive to find the good in complex situations seems heartfelt enough. I also enjoy his details of growing up in Hawaii, finding them just as interesting as his pilgrimage to Kenya.

* * *

Wednesday 25th February 2015.

Have written 5058 words for the 8000 word project, not including the footnotes. On schedule so far.

Birkbeck class: a lecture by Roger Luckhurst on 1970s culture. When I get home, I’m fired up enough to re-watch the Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and The Fury. What shocks the most is the footage of uncollected rubbish piled up in the streets, and the attendant dead rats. I also realise that I now know where one of the enraged council busybodies in the archive footage gets his insults from. In an interview he refers to the Sex Pistols as ‘a band that would be enormously improved by death’. This is, in fact, a direct steal from a Saki short story, ‘The Feast of Nemesis’ (1914). Actually, given his often daring content, Saki was a kind of Edwardian punk rocker too.

* * *

Thursday 26th February 2015.

Two pieces of good news from Birkbeck. I have my last meeting with my project supervisor, Jo Winning. She’s read my draft so far and is happy with it. Very much relieved to hear this. I’d cranked up the theory side of it since our last meeting, and was worried that I was just adding theory for the sake of it. Theory has to power the work, rather than sit on top of it like an afterthought.

In the cooking up of essays, theory must always be the spice, and never the garnish.

The other news is that I receive the grade for my essay about post-war resentment in Waugh, Wyndham and Amis. A mark of 80: my fifth High First Class. It’s also worth 50% of that particular module. So after a slightly shaky start to the final year, I’m feeling a lot more confident once again.

* * *

Evening: to the ICA for Citizenfour, which won the Oscar this week for Best Feature-Length Documentary. It’s the background story of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing against the NSA, which emerged during the summer of 2013. The most chilling moment is not the revelations about governments spying on their populaces. It’s when Snowden becomes the big news story worldwide, and he is shown watching this news, while in his Hong Kong hotel room. In fictional films this is something of a cliché: a character turns on the news, and the story they hear has direct relevance to the plot. But this is real. Snowden is also a fascinating figure to watch: completely calm, articulate, careful with his words, and searingly aware of how serious it all is.

* * *

Friday 27th February 2015.

To the Prince Charles Cinema to see another Oscar winner: the Polish film Ida, which took the Best Foreign Language Film this week. Made in the tradition of 60s European arthouse: black and white, square ratio, yet the credits include ‘digital effects’. Presumably the highly subtle sort. The story is frustrating – not quite enough information as to what’s happening, characters speaking in detached, brief, unreal ways. But the photography is stunning – one can imagine the film being pored over by students for years to come. The main actress’s face has a unique air of cinematic stillness one sees so rarely – Tilda Swinton has it, as does the lead in The Colour of Pomegranates. A kind of serene remoteness.

I walk through Leicester Square. One of the megaphone-wielding street preachers is quick off the mark with his topicality, adapting today’s internet talking point, about an ambiguously coloured dress. On his placard is written: ‘What colours do you see on this dress? White and gold, or black and blue? The answer is JESUS.’

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