Finding Love in the Digital Age – How Far is Too Far?

On Friday, I went up to Edinburgh for a long weekend with some friends at the Fringe Festival.

Like any trip away, we were all filled with anticipation of what the weekend would bring. What was the weather going to be like? Which shows would we see that would make us laugh? Would we laugh so hard we cried?

For a singleton like me (currently in one of my I’d like a boyfriend phases) there was also the ever-present question? Would I meet someone? Would I get a cheeky snog or two? Would I fall in love?

Let’s get the first bit over with – the weather was quite lovely, it always is when I go to Scotland, so much so that I’m truly beginning to believe that the Scots are just lying to the English about the weather in an attempt to keep us out.

We saw:

  • Two slightly camp twins – Kane and Abel (think Jack Whitehall but better looking) performing magic tricks (very funny);
  • I saw Harry Baker the World Poetry Slam champion in an archway in a cellar under a bar (atmospheric, amusing and inspiring);
  • Gobsmacked, an acapella group comprising seven members who performed and sang using their mouths as their only instruments (impressive and infectious);
  • David O’Doherty (quirky yet spine-tingling when talking about the marriage referendum in Ireland)
  • Chris Ramsey (cute and hilarious in equal measure)

And a tear or two may have escaped when I was creased up laughing as Chris Ramsey played a disturbing game of ‘Would You Rather?’ with a shell-shocked sixteen year old in the audience.

Did I fall in love?

Well, Chris Ramsey was lovely, and the twins were definitely worth a flirtatious smile, but like most gay guys, my radar was pinging the moment I stepped on the plane on Friday.

Alan. Lovely, lovely Alan.

Sitting in the front row of the plane, we got have a little chat with the air stewards, but I thought nothing more of him after about five minutes having stepped off the plane.

It was only on the way back, after a particularly hellish wait to drop our bags that I suddenly wondered if maybe we would see Alan again. Standing on tiptoes, I to look over the queue of people waiting to get onto the plane…

There he was. I grinned excitedly, and stepped onto the plane, where he immediately raced up the other end of the plane to deal with another passenger’s problem.

We were sitting in the front row again, so I waited, and halfway through his safety announcement, he spotted me, grinned and waved.

A little bit of flirting followed (something which I’m shockingly bad at – but I had my wing-women around who were able to help, both in keeping the conversation going but also in giving me a little extra confidence) – and then peaked when the stewards came back down toward the front of the plane after handing out complimentary drinks.

Not only after two short flights did I have a usual at the on-board bar (Alan’s trolley), but we also had an in-joke which resulted in the remainder of a bottle of white wine being left with me to see me through the end of the flight.

(At this point, anyone who really knows me, will know that yes, of course I fell in love, the man gave me free wine!)

A little more flirting followed and I missed out an epic opportunity to take it to another level when he asked me (after hearing me refer to Little Gay Andy and Big Fat Ron) what came before Alexander – I should have replied “Well, you can if you want?” but I was slightly speechless as I realised he had been looking up my name on the passenger manifest (luckily my wing-women covered for me to save an awkward stuttering silence).

(And as I write this, I’ve decided to nickname him Sky High Alan – which if he’s reading this, I’m sure will thrill him.)

“Where is all this heading?” I can hear you shouting at your computer/phone screens. Did we fall in love and live happily ever after? Did I join the mile-high group?

No and No. I’m far too shy when it comes to people I actually like for something like that to happen. But I did leave my business card, with my mobile number circled and a message on the back.

I left it propped up on my chair, cringed inside when Sky High Alan instructed the remainder of the passengers to leave any newspapers and magazines they no longer wanted on round one, and  headed off the plane, shaking hands with him as we went.

I haven’t heard from him. Our love is obviously not meant to be.

Or is it?

On Monday morning, I found him on Facebook.

It took about a minute, even though I only knew his first name and the airline he worked for (let that be a lesson in internet privacy for you, kids), and I instantly… did nothing.

There was still a chance he had found the card and would get in touch with me, not wanting to appear too keen.

Or he had found it and thrown it away, laughing at my feeble attempts to invoke future contact.

But I did let our Edinburgh group on WhatsApp know that I had found it. Reaction from all of them was instant and negative. “Don’t add him!”, “Don’t message him.”, “Wait for him to message you!”

What if he doesn’t ever respond? I asked. What if he didn’t find the card?

Well, I did know that he had looked up my name on the manifest, so it was possible he might try and find me himself, but I know my privacy settings make it quite tricky to find me.

Surely I owed it to the Gods of “You Never Know” to send a hello?

“NO.” came the reply. “Finding him on FB is creepy!” “There are limits to YOLO – this is outside of those.”

So, I stopped asking my wing-women and their boyfriends, and asked a couple of gays that I know. Their responses were quite the opposite. Do it. Definitely do it. That’s how the world works now. Send him a friend request to make sure he sees it. Do it now.

And I found that very interesting. Could it just be a simple difference that deems what is acceptable and what isn’t? The straight people in my life find it unacceptable, while the gays find it an obvious thing to do.

It surprised me, the contrasting views, where people were drawing the line between what was acceptable and what wasn’t.

Personally, at first I found leaving the card a little creepy (the whole thing had a bit of a whiff of hitting on teacher about it) – but I went with it. I didn’t find finding him on Facebook as creepy, but actually then contacting him? In the message I drafted in my head, the first thing I did was apologise for being creepy, so obviously my gut reaction was that yes, this may be crossing the line.

The girls were able to clearly draw a line. The gays drew a line between sending a message and friend requesting him (well one of them did).

Where would you draw the line? How far is too far when tracking down a guy you like on the internet? How is it any different to hanging out in a bar you know your crush frequents, in the hope that you might get to talk to them.

Where would you draw the line?

Maybe this blog post is crossing the line?

Where did I draw the line? I’m not sure yet. Part of me thinks, despite what the girls said, it would be acceptable to message him today (the day after meeting him). However, it is very clear in my head that if I do message him, it would have to be today.

Thinking about someone for DAYS after meeting them, then tracking them down on Facebook to ask them out? Nauh.

So, there you go. I’m not sure where the line is, but it will definitely be drawn come midnight tonight. After then, the only hope I have of ever seeing him again would be to keep booking myself onto Virgin flights with the futile aim of bumping into Sky High Alan again.

Now THAT would be creepy.

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Underground by SL Grey

Murder mysteries are tricky things to write. I know this because the book I spent eight years writing that isn’t quite good enough to be published (not bitter) is a murder mystery.

The hardest thing about them, especially in a contemporary setting, is keeping all the characters in one place while you tell the story. If you’ve just murdered someone, the sensible thing would be to remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible, not wait around to be interrogated by an amateur sleuth.

That’s why most murder mysteries – and the hugely successful Midsomer Murders – tend to take place in villages. There’s an unconscious understanding that most people who live in villages are usually reluctant to leave the boundaries.

(Before any village folk come at me wielding pitchforks, I’m aware that I’m making a massive generalisation – but it’s true. The smaller the bubble, the more likely the audience is going to buy that the murderer hasn’t scarpered.)

When Agatha Christie did it, she locked a bunch of strangers on a train. When I did it, I locked a family in a remote mansion during a storm at Christmas (there was no way they were getting out of that house).

S L Grey – actually the combination of two writers – does it by bunging a bunch of strangers in a missile silo.

The idea is they’re a group of paranoid Americans who have paid for a room in the silo to wait out the end of the world – when a (generic) virus breaks out in Asia, they all head to the silo.

Once they’re all down there, there’s a death, obviously – and many arguments about who it might have been. Then there are more deaths, before near-on hysteria just before…

Well, I shan’t ruin it for anyone who does want to read it, but… this book is not what I was expecting at all. Because it was based in a silo, and with the virus happening outside, I thought we’d get something like Hugh Howey’s Wool – a more dystopian feel to the whole thing.

What we get, however is a silo that may as well be an apartment complex with a locked door and a virus that is dismissed fairly early on. The focus of the book is on the characters and the mystery. Which would be fine, except none of the characters are particularly likeable or intriguing, and the ones that are, are sidelined for the noisy rednecks.

Which leaves us with the mystery – I did keep reading on to find out what was happening, so the book succeeded in that respect, however the actual resolution is not very well executed. The answer to who/what caused the initial death is pretty much a cop-out and the reader finds out in what amounts to a footnote.

Plus, the end turns things on their head so that two of the survivors who are about the only ones you’re rooting for, actually turn out to be just as bad as all the others.

The only real mystery left unresolved is how it took TWO people to write this book.

(And yes, I did put myself on a par with Agatha Christie – I’m a literary genius. Deal with it.)

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

“Winter is coming”

That’s what George R R Martin promised about a gazillion years ago. For those that are bored of waiting, winter’s here in Patrick Gale’s stunning new novel ‘A Place Called Winter’

Before anyone gets too excited The Game of Thrones series and Gale’s latest are about a million miles apart in terms of content, but I find inserting as many pop culture references into a blog post as possible (Justin Bieber, One Direction, etc) increases the potential reach of said blog post.

This book (and subsequently this blog post) deserves to reach as many potential readers as possible – so the bigger audience I can give it, the better. With any luck, I’ll be able to tell so many people it may break the Internet (thank you Kim Kardashian).

I’ll leave the references there (for now) and get on with telling you why you should read this book.

Now, don’t tell the others, but I do have a favourite book. I don’t actually name-check it much, although I have referenced it on this blog before, because it is inherently flawed.

Apart from being a wonderful and tragic love story that has moved me to tears before, there’s a large section of it that just doesn’t work. I couldn’t bear anyone telling me they didn’t like it.

A Place Called Winter is the closest novel to my favourite book, both in terms of content and in degree of favourite-ness that I’ve ever read.

Harry – because all the best characters in fiction are called Harry, including Harry Potter and my own hero, Harry Hicks – is a well-off bachelor, living his life in the early 1900’s, and he’s quite happy, with no job to speak of, but nor does he have any particular commitments either.

When he helps his brother court his future wife, he meets a woman of his own and quickly marries and has a child. Scandal soon threatens to hit however, when his affair with another man is discovered.

In order to keep it quiet and protect his wife and daughter from the news, Harry signs over his entire wealth and boards a boat to start a new life in Canada.

That covers the first third of the book, but I don’t think ruins anything, because it’s the last two thirds that are really the meat of the story.

I won’t go into too much detail on the rest of the plot, because I think this is a book that definitely delivers on the beautiful writing, and I won’t be able to do it justice, however I do want to talk about the title: A Place Called Winter.

Knowing I was going to do a review of this book, I spent the first part of the book trying to work out what this place ‘Winter’ was, what it represented.

I felt a little foolish when I realised that Harry’s new homestead in Canada was called Winter, and I nearly disregarded my previous thoughts, but they came back to me the more I read.

Winter usually represents an ending, a dark cold place, where things can’t survive. And that’s where Harry was heading. He had a wonderful life, he had money, no particular worries and a wife and daughter who he loved – despite his burgeoning attraction to other men.

And then he was banished, sent away across to ocean, penniless and alone. Hopes for him were not high and it was likely that having never worked a day in his life, he wouldn’t survive out in the coldness of Canada.

Life in the small homestead of Winter compared to the beautiful ‘Spring’ and ‘Summer’ of Jermyn Street in the early twentieth century was hard.

But because life was hard, everyone was just there to survive. They pitched in and helped, but ultimately everyone let everyone else live the lives that they needed and wanted to live.

Compare that to the civilised world of London, and suddenly Winter doesn’t seem so cold and inhospitable anymore.

Harry accepted his sexuality fairly quickly for somebody who had never even considered it before, but part of me wonders if that’s because it wasn’t a thing to consider back then.

Homosexuality, for many people, simply didn’t exist. Whenever news of it did start to surface because of scandal or rumour, it was quickly hushed, as it was in Harry’s case.

So maybe when Harry met this man, the confusion that he had probably felt, but had never been able to put a name to, suddenly made sense, and everything felt right, so he just went with it.

When I was growing up, it was ok to be gay. Perfectly legal, but still a bit of a taboo. Nobody was gay in school, nor did I know any real-life gays until I started at college. I was fascinated by them, but I also knew hundreds of stories where things had gone wrong for gay men who had revealed themselves.

It wasn’t difficult for me to identify what I was, because unlike Harry, I had been exposed to plenty of it over the years, but it did make it difficult for me, in a way that it wasn’t for Harry.

Ten years later, I think things are slightly easier. We’re further away from the Thatcher years, and it’s even more ok to be gay. In fact, it’s almost cool. Kids come out in school now, and maybe that’s because of gay men like me. I’m not saying I’m any particular trailblazer, but I am gay, I came out and nothing bad happened. The more stories we hear where things are ok, the more likely young men (and women) are going to be comfortable in telling the world who they really are.

The winter that existed in London for gay men a hundred years ago has thawed, and while not exactly easy, things are easier. But we mustn’t forget about people like Harry.

There’s an extra emotional punch in the story – Harry’s a real man. Or he was.

He’s the author’s great grandfather, and though the story has been fleshed out from the notes and letters that exist, the first third of it is real. Harry lost everything and had to move halfway across the world, because, well… we don’t really know why. Gale has embroidered the story and he imagines that it’s because Harry’s love wasn’t permitted in the society that he lived in. We won’t ever really know if that was the case, because the likelihood is if it was the case, it was hushed up and never spoken of again.

Losing your entire way of life, just because of who you love… That’s a very sobering thought.

A Place Called Winter is published by Tinder Press in Hardback and eBook in March 2015 – and in Paperback later in the year.

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

In the acknowledgements for All the Old Knives Steinhauer reveals that the seed for this story was planted by the desire to see if it was possible to write a spy novel that takes place entirely around a restaurant table.

He admits that he doesn’t quite succeed, most of the novel actually takes place in flashback form tales told by the two people sitting around the table, and the beginning of the novel has Henry travelling to the restaurant, but it’s an interesting concept.

It’s a format that television drama does quite well and has done so for many years. Off the top of my head I can think of one or two examples from Star Trek: Deep Space 9 where shared histories, but differing viewpoints are discussed between two characters over the course of forty minutes.

Monologues, things like Alan Bennett – or even the episode of EastEnders that solely focused on Dot Branning – are other examples that show you can tell fascinating stories with a simple set-up.

But those all work in a visual format with a (hopefully) talented actor bringing them to life. Does the same work in a book?

To be honest, once I got to the acknowledgements and discovered that this was what he was trying to do, the novel made more sense.

The chapters are all told in the first person, so although the parts that aren’t around the restaurant table are technically Henry or Celia’s retelling of certain events, they don’t feel it. They feel like a novel told in the first person.

Any book from the first person viewpoint could be said to take place in the one location, the one time, an old man in front of a fire (yes I’m thinking of John Hurt in the Storyteller) delving into the past to tell a tale. What I’m trying to say is that the ‘flashbacks’ don’t make feel like I’m on the other side of the table to Henry listening to him telling me something. They just feel like any other book.

Perhaps it would have worked slightly better if the ‘present day’ sections around the table were told in the third person, so that the shift from third to first did feel more like a dialogue, however, it still doesn’t get past the fact that the flashbacks feel like the reader is being transported away from the conversation around the table.

I’m being picky, because I actually liked the story, however, one other constraint of the format is that in a tale of two protagonists at a table, one of them investigating the possibility of a spy amongst their ranks, there isn’t going to be much of a twist. One of them has to be the good guy, the other has to be the bad guy.

 

If All the Old Knives was a rollercoaster, it would be like one of the rickety wooden ones at the Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Still exciting, still fun, lots of ups and downs, but no twists – just a rather large turn at the end.

Speaking of the end… it felt to me fairly signposted, from around the time the waitress brings the two characters their main course.

It could be that the reason for this is because I’ve been on so many rollercoasters, I’ve become a bit of an expert in their rhythms and surprises.

There will be people who read this and don’t see what’s coming, but if you’re a seasoned veteran of thrillers, this will be just something to pass the time while you wait for the queue at the Big Dipper to die down.

Mainlander by Will Smith

No, not THAT Will Smith. This is the writer, comedian and sometimes star of The Thick of It Will Smith, and this is his first novel.

What did I expect knowing all this? Not a lot. His is one of those faces that I recognise, but would never really be able to place. Perhaps a comedic book, but not necessarily.

So, I opened Mainlander with no real hint of what was to come, except I knew it was about a man not native to Jersey, living on Jersey.

The plot, if you can accuse it of being a plot begins with our main character Colin out on a walk to escape an argument with his wife when he spots one of his pupils on a precipice. Colin climbs down and speaks to him, then gives him a lift home.

Only later, does Colin consider that the boy may have been about to commit suicide.

Colin begins to investigate when the boy disappears, but at the same time must contend with a dependent neighbour, a crumbling marriage and a career on the brink of ruin.

I spent much of the book wondering two things – why specifically was the book set on Jersey, and why specifically was it set in 1987?

In hindsight the answer to the first question is obvious, the island, in the English Channel belonging neither to England or France, but historically attached to both of them, is representative of the characters themselves. All of them standing alone in the conflict that surrounds them.

This is particularly noted when the island’s history during the Second World War is touched upon.

As for why it was set in 1987, the only answer I can seem to suggest is that it is for one of the characters – Colin’s neighbour – to still be around, but have been an adult during the war.

The ‘denouement’ to the plot also makes particular use of the geography of the island and the descriptions of it are quite vivid, making the reader feel they’ve visited the island*.

*Note: I say that without ever having been to the island. It may be that the descriptions were shit.

My point, however, is that both the timeframe and location for much of the book are distracting and add nothing specific to the plot. Take them away and the plot that you are left with is… weak.

Indeed, one of the subplots doesn’t actually cross over with the main plot at all, and could quite easily be removed from the book altogether. It’s almost like someone felt the book wasn’t quite thick enough, and needed to add some more material.

The storm that makes up the climax of the book, finally leaves all of the characters in a more interesting place and then abruptly the book ends.

I was harsh at the beginning of this review about the plot, but only because there is a wonderful beginning and middle to the story, but no ending. The characters are well drawn and intriguing, but we seemed to spend most of the book getting to know them and then just as it’s about to get interesting we’re asked to leave the party.

This could have been so much more, but as it is, it’s three hundred pages of a nice prose that says:

“No man is an island, huh? Well, actually, they kinda are.”

Disclaimer by Renee Knight

If you loved The Girl on the Train you’ll love this…

 

Those of you that have read my last two reviews might wonder why I picked up a copy of Disclaimer by Renee Knight since it was emblazoned with a sticker recommending it to fans of Girl on a Train, since I am anything but.

(If you haven’t read my Girl on a Train review you can find it here. In short, it’s ok, but over-hyped)

I’ve actually had Disclaimer in my sights for a while now since Claudia Winkleman recommended it a few months ago. It was the premise of the book that sold it to me.

Imagine reading a novel and discovering that the story is actually about you. A story from your past that threatens to destroy the present and predicts your horrific death, pushed from a bustling underground platform.

That completely sold it to me, but it took me a while to getting a copy. When I finally got hold of one, I started it with a little trepidation. A book with a premise that really appealed to me, but pitched at fans of a book that I didn’t enjoy made me nervous. Would it live up to my expectations? Would I go into the book expecting not to enjoy it?

The story is told alternately by Catherine – our main character who discovers her life in a book – and by Stephen, a retired teacher whose wife Nancy has recently died.

The interesting thing about this book is that Stephen’s sections are told in the first person, and Catherine’s are told in the third person. As such, we never really know what Catherine is thinking and she remains distant to the reader, whereas we know everything that Stephen knows, he’s not hiding anything from us.

It means we empathise with Stephen immediately, while our sympathy for Catherine is stalled by what is perceived by us to be her coldness.

I completely understand why it’s been written in this way, over the course of the book it causes us to re-evaluate what we think of the two characters, but I do think it detracts from the fear that Catherine feels. We’re never truly inside her head, never really experiencing the fear that she is, while we do feel the grief that Stephen feels.

There’s one section where Catherine is on the underground waiting to catch a train and she starts to fear being pushed under an oncoming train (the ending of the book about her) – which is tense, but could be so much more if told purely from her point of view.

I think that’s my one criticism of this book – the choice of structuring it this way is a trick to make us take sides, to make sure we don’t learn the truth of what happened too soon.

But it stops us from really connecting with someone whose life is in danger. For me, it slightly takes away from the urgency.

I’m not saying that both parts should have been written in the first person, or both in the third – but the contrast between the two styles in this book is purposefully designed to stop us knowing Catherine too much, but the trouble is, it stops us from caring too much as well.

It’s a small criticism – I wanted more from that one scene, I wanted a heightened sense of danger – but other than that, it’s a great book. It’s much better than Girl on a Train, and has an ending that ties up all the characters into a place where we feel sorry for them all. None of them are bad, none of them are good, they’re all human, and they’ve made mistakes.