The other place

Hello again.

I left Twitter over seven years ago.

I’m not quite sure why I’m writing this, or if anyone will care, but Twitter meant a lot to me and I feel like it’s worth writing something about my absence. It isn’t a very interesting story – more of an update than anything else.

I should point out that I didn’t mean to leave; I just thought I’d give myself the week off, and it’s turned into a very long week (my final tweet: “Twitter is no place for a human being.” wasn’t meant as a savage indictment of Twitter. It was just a slightly irritated tweet at the end of an evening).

I kept meaning to return, but as time passed, my life and Twitter headed in different directions. And when I’d peek in on Twitter, I’d see furious arguments and counter arguments about issues so microscopic that no-one I knew cared about them; whole memes and subcultures would rise and collapse in a day. It was dizzying. And the more time I spent away from Twitter the less appealing it became to have an opinion on every subject under the sun, and the more weird it felt to be some kind of Supporting Character in Twitter’s ongoing soap opera. I became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that random strangers thought they knew me. I needed to spend more time being Greg and less time being themanwhofellasleep.

Part of the reason I stayed off Twitter was the disparity between my online life and my real life. On Twitter, I had 25,000 followers and could spend the day hob-nobbing with celebrities, but I was also a jobbing freelance copywriter barely making any money. And it became too easy to fill the long gaps between paid work by sitting around in my pants all day on Twitter. (In a parallel universe where I stayed on Twitter, maybe today I’d have a hundred thousand followers but regularly eat cold beans out of a shoe. I do like beans.)

So, what have I been up to in the meantime? I fled north London and moved in with my girlfriend in Walthamstow (yes, it’s about as close to north London as you can get whilst not actually being in an N postcode). I finally got a 9-5 job – as a copywriter in a creative agency; I have accustomed myself to a daily commute and making smalltalk in the kitchen. The job is fine, but I miss writing funny things.

It’s not all been easy. In 2015 my father and his wife were killed in a car crash in his hometown of Buenos Aires. That was hard, and I’m still dealing with it (or not dealing with it. I can’t tell). I could write hundreds of blog posts about it and probably not cover it all. It is a constantly shifting absence. On a happier note, I’m now a dad to a lovely three-year-old girl, which is as brilliant and exhausting as everyone says.  In short, my life bears almost no resemblance to the life I had seven years ago.

The traditional narrative when someone leaves a social network is that they talk about how much better they feel. How their digital detox made them realise how much of real life they were missing. I don’t think that’s true for me. Or rather, it would be a gross oversimplification. In the absence of Twitter, I’ve spent much more time on Facebook, where I never quite know who I am supposed to be, and on Instagram, where I am spectacularly boring. My life is still a clutter of online personas – I’m just sticking to other social networks and keeping a more private profile.

Of course, it’s tempting to return, but when I look in on Twitter these days, it’s mostly horrible, and I don’t think my skin would be thick enough for it. I’m not going to say it’s bad for everyone – I know millions of people thrive there, but I’m not convinced it would do me any good.

Do I miss Twitter? Sometimes. I do think that I was very good at it (you are free to disagree). I’ve never found anything else in life I took to so naturally. My brain is better in short bursts than I am over long distances, and Twitter was perfect for that. My ego certainly misses Twitter; it’s very nice to spend the day bathing in the glow of retweets and praise. I miss being at the centre of things.

But In the last year or so, I’ve started writing for pleasure again; little micro-stories on my public Facebook page. Some are better than others, but there are one or two of them I’m really pleased with. At some point, I’m going to try to find some kind of hook or angle that wraps them together, and I’ll see if I can turn them into a book of very short stories. I’m still scrabbling around trying to work out what I want to say; I’m trying to be less dependent on humour and seeing what else will emerge.

I have no idea if I’ll ever return to Twitter. Maybe Twitter will change; maybe I will. I’d like to think this isn’t the end. But if it is, I’m proud of what I did with it.

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London Tales

In 2006 my first novel, A Year in the Life of TheManWhoFellAsleep was published. A combination of material from my website and new writing, it was an odd novel, without much in the way of plot or characters. I liked it. It sold reasonably well for a first novel, particularly since the publishers The Friday Project were a new company, without a huge about of clout in the literary world. In 2008 the Friday Project went into administration (not my fault) and not knowing quite what to do, I bought up 300 copies of my book. (I could have bought 2000 copies but I had no idea where to store them or how to sell them). By chance, a few weeks later I stumbled upon The Big Green Bookshop, a local bookshop in Wood Green, pretty much where I grew up. I became friends with Simon at the shop, and we decided to sell A Year in the Life... through the shop, splitting the profits. It gave me a headache-free way of selling the book and gave them free stock and an exclusive grip on the all-important Stekelman market. Thanks to Twitter, there was a new-found interest in my writing and the book sold steadily, to the point where late last year we ran out of stock (I did make enquiries as to what happened to the other 1700 copies – apparently they were pulped).

Simon had been toying with the idea of setting up a small publishers, and he proposed that the first book be a reissue of A Year In the Life... I wasn’t sure. There was enough wrong with the book that I started totally rewriting it, which was taking ages. And I wanted to add new material, which meant that after a while it started to feel like a George Lucas revision of Star Wars, in which all loveable errors are erased and replaced by bad CGI. It didn’t feel right, so I stopped.

At about the same time, I started doing a little art project online. I was taking photos (mostly of myself and bits of London), screwing around with them in Photoshop, drawing on top of them and adding text.

They were stark black and white images, and they worked well. I put them on Facebook and Twitter and people liked them. Hooray. After a few weeks, a couple of people suggested I collect them all together in book form. Simon thought this was a good idea. I wasn’t sure, but decided to play along.

It was agreed that I would produce 100 images and we would collect them together in book form. The book wouldn’t have a story as such – it would be a moody collection of words and pictures.I had already produced about 40 images, but most of these were very low-res images – fine for the Internet but unsuitable for print. So I spent months writing and reworking the images, getting friends to take photos of me looking quizzical (thank you Matthew Carrozo). Finally, in July this year all the images were ready. End of story, right? Not quite.

Normally, when you publish a book, the author does all the high-faluting artistic work and some poor schlub does the technical side of laying it all out in print form. But in the case of Timeline Books (Simon had settled upon a title for his company) it was just Simon and I, and it fell to me to do all the layouts, including designing the cover. Now, when it comes to drawing stupid pictures I am good at Photoshop. But I’d never had any formal training in design and I’m notoriously lazy when it comes to details – and in design details are important. I got a trial copy of InDesign and with a bit of help from a graphic designer friend (Thanks Lee) I started laying out the book. I worked slowly and it took ages. I was constantly convinced I was doing it all wrong. In late August I finished, and had even designed a cover that looked pretty good.

Some early cover designs:

 

The final cover design:

Simon and I had discussed how we wanted to release the book. I knew from my experience with A Year in The Life... that I do not have a particularly high-profile as a writer but I do have a dedicated and loyal set of readers. It seemed silly to print thousands of copies of London Tales, particularly since my experiences selling my previous book had not been easy. It was decided that we would print 250 luxury hardback copies of the book, all signed and numbered. Rather than pitching it as a regular book, it would be a deluxe object of desire, accordingly priced. This made me a little nervous; I am cheap. I get my jeans in Primark. I own nothing worth more than £500. I was worried that no one would want to spend £40 on a book. I consulted the good people of Twitter and they gave me solid advice on pricing and told me to stick with £40.

Next came the challenge of putting the book together – selecting paper types and binding options. Again, this was not something I had ever considered before. Every few weeks Simon would present me with the latest samples from the printers and I would ummm and ahhh and bite my lip. I was sure it would be a disaster. Finally, having set aside my neuroses, we proceeded. Simon called the printers and told them to fire up the presses. I waited. And last week I finally got my hands on a finished copy of London Tales. And to my relief, it looks amazing. Even my mother, who normally responds to my work with a pat on the head and a sigh, was impressed.

Simon, being a marketing genius, started selling the book on pre-order earlier this week. We agreed that the first 50 orders would get a London Tales postcard, on which I would hand draw a little sketch/doodle (that will be fun!). To my relief, it is selling well. I must remember to put more faith in Simon. We’re also talking about doing a central London launch if we can find a sympathetic venue.

I suppose I should mention the content of the book itself. Despite the title, it’s not really about London. Or at least, it’s not about anyone else’s London except my own. It’s mostly my own wanderings around the familiar streets of north London suburbia – hence the cover showing a pollarded plain tree, rather than an iconic view of the city. There are lots (too many) pictures of me – but I’d like to think it walks the right line between self-analysis and morbid narcissism. Most of my writing walks a tightrope between silliness and self-pity. I try not to fall off.

As has been pointed out many times, I am a terrible salesman of my own work. My natural talent for self-deprecation means that whenever someone asks me about my writing I shrug awkwardly and list all the reasons they won’t like it. And yet, despite knowing that London Tales will not be to everyone’s taste, I think it’s good. That’s the most you’ll get out of me.

You can pre-order a copy here.

I’m not Gandalf or Magneto

Oh, the Internet and its memes. You cannot stop them.

About a year ago, Sir Ian McKellen took part in a Stonewall protest march in London. He was protesting against the pope’s visit to Britain and the homophobia of the Catholic church. He (and many others) wore Tshirts that proclaimed “Some People Are Gay. Get Over It.”

I saw a photo (by Dhruti Shah) of Sir Ian wearing the shirt and with my lightning wit, I decided to photoshop the tshirt so that it read “I’m Gandalf and Magneto. Get Over It.” It took me 15 minutes. I didn’t do it as a piece of political satire or to attack either Stonewall or the Pope. It was just me being silly. I put it on Twitter.

Then people started retweeting it. A lot. The comedian/actor Simon Pegg didn’t realise it was a photoshop job and retweeted it to his hundreds of thousands of followers, giving the impression that Sir Ian was actually wearing a Magneto-related tshirt (he later realised it was a fake and correctly attributed it to me. Thank you, Simon). The Internet went crazy. Most of my twitpics are viewed 300-600 times. In two days it was viewed over 250,000 times. Amusingly, people loved the tshirt and thought it was great that Ian McKellen was wearing it. I tried to make it clear that none of it was real, but by this stage it was out of my hands. The picture was no longer merely on my Twitpic account – it had been copied onto thousands of blogs and tumblrs. A cursory google of Ian McKellen Gandalf Magneto tshirt reveals page after page after page of pics.

Then, as these things do, it all died down. Some months later I was amused to read an interview with Sir Ian in Vanity Fair in which he talked of his disappointment with the tshirt and the fact that it undermined the serious issue of homophobia. I don’t blame him. (also, it is a dreadful, dreadful interview. The guy asking the questions is absolutely clueless)

And then all went quiet until this week. Because someone else has photoshopped Sir Ian McKellen wearing a Stonewall tshirt that reads “I’m Gandalf and Magneto. Get Over It.”

Here it is:

Now, when I first saw the pic I thought for a brief second that it might be genuine – that Sir Ian had seen the funny side of things and decided to wear a shirt of his own. But a cursory check on TinEye reveals the original pic:

And now this pic is sweeping the Internet. I’ve seen it across Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, and once again people seem to think it’s real. And those who know it’s fake have tweeted me to ask if it’s my work – it isn’t. I can’t see the point in doing the same joke over and over (unless someone missed the joke in the first place. And in this case, they didn’t.)

The odd, and somewhat frustrating aspect of this is why someone would bother to photoshop Ian McKellen with a slogan that isn’t even their own. I half expected my photoshop job to turn into a meme in which everyone inserted their own slogan, which at least demonstrates some creativity. But why someone would go to the trouble of repeating my “joke” with a different photo, I just don’t know.

Anyway, it’s nothing to do with me. Now, as with so much on the Internet, it belongs to history and to excited Brazilians leaving enthusiastic comments on Twitpic. The eerie thing about all such memes/phenomena is how quickly they spin out of your own control. You just have to sit and watch it blow over.

UPDATE: It’s January 2012 and the meme has mutated. Over the last day or so people have brought my attention to a photo of Harrison Ford that is sweeping The Internet.

“I’m Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Blade Runner. I’m Fuckin’ Over It!”

Unless there’s a hidden side to Harrison Ford and he has an unexpectedly nerdy sense of humour, I assume it’s a Photoshop. Also, the fact that it has three roles in it (Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Blade Runner) as opposed to two in the Ian McKellen pic means that eventually these spoofs will be like IMDB entries, with full lists of every actor’s roles, all in chronological order.

Given the way these things go, it’s inevitable that one day in 2015 a minor celebrity will wear an actual tshirt based on the Gandalf/Magneto meme. (I’m betting on a haggard Steven Seagal wearing a “I had a ponytail. Get over it!” shirt.) I may have to strangle them with my bare hands.

UPDATE: Here’s the original Harrison Ford pic. It was a grey tshirt all along! Thanks to the people who commented on my earlier blog and pointed me towards this pic…