Thursday, 19 July 2012

My Situation

If you are reading this, then you are doing so because I have asked you to, or someone else has pointed you towards it. You could be one of my closest friends or a total stranger who's never even heard of me. It doesn't matter either way. Please read this to the end, and if you can do anything, or know anyone who can, let me know, and share this with your friends. I know it's quite long, but it will only take a few minutes. The point of this blog is to get my side, my point of view, and my opinion of the events of the last two years out there in the hope that it gets other parties to act.
Three years ago this coming September, I moved into the flat I currently live in. My building has six flats inside it, and of the six, only one, mine, is not a council flat. My flat was purchased by my father, with me making payments to him every month to cover the mortgage he took out. It's in my dad's name, but I make the payments. In that sense, my father and I co-own the property.
When I first moved in, the flat above me was lived in by an elderly gentleman who I didn't really get a chance to speak to. He sadly died a month or two after I moved in. For another couple of months after this, the flat above me was empty. Then, around two and a half years ago now, Cardiff Council moved a new tenant in. This tenant was a young man, who at the time couldn't have been older than sixteen or seventeen, who will hereafter be referred to as Neighbour (I'm no expert on the law here, but I reckon using actual names is something which could get me into trouble). It wasn't long after he moved in before the trouble started.
At the time of Neighbour's moving in, his older brother was getting towards the end of a stretch in prison for stabbing someone. Only a week or two after Neighbour arrived, his brother came to live with him too. And as soon as he did, my home became a horrible place to live in. It started with loud noise, as all of Neighbour Brother's friends would be in the flat as well, all day and night, every day and night. They would shout and scream at each other, thump around in what sounded very much like indoor football matches, and shout abuse out of the windows at random passers by.
It got worse from there, as litter was constantly dropped out of the window, to the point where both my front and back gardens looked like a rubbish tip. And it wasn't just empty bottles and food wrappers, oh no. Anything and everything you can think of came out those windows, including lit cigarettes and human excrement.
They started trying to sell drugs and electrical items stolen from local Cash Generators out of the window to anyone who would pass by, and get into arguments with other Cardiff lowlifes, who would come around to the building late at night and shout abuse up at the flat above me. And if that didn't work, they'd start throwing rocks. The number of times my own night was interrupted by the windows above me being smashed is ridiculous.
Eventually, Neighbour's brother went back to prison, and we hoped that would be the end of it. But it wasn't. Nothing changed. The shouting and screaming, the drug dealing and selling stolen goods, the arguments with people outside, they all continued.
Did we inform the Council? Of course we did. Did we call the police? Yes, whenever we could. And sometimes, they would come out. But nothing seemed to actually get taken forward. The Council would give us incident diaries to fill out, which we did dutifully. Once the diary was filled up, we were just given another one to fill out.
And this is all that has happened in the last two years. The problem is, Neighbour himself has been away from the property for at least three extended periods of time. The first of these was for roughly a month, where I heard rumour that he was being made to live with his mother and wear a tag. Naturally, for this month, it went quiet, and no calls or complaints were made to the Council. So they closed their file.
When Neighbour returned, and we started reporting him again, the Council treated it as a new case, since the original had been closed down, and we had to start over from the beginning again, filling in diaries. The second time Neighbour went away was for three months or so, when he was sent to prison for unknown reasons. I mean, I know he was stealing from Cash Generator, I saw him going out at night once with a friend and overheard them talking about going to steal lead off people's roofs, and I also overheard him once talking about a time he stole a car, but who knows which of those he got sent down for?
The stupid thing about that period of time, which began in April of last year? The Council finally decided to put a microphone in my flat to record any loud noises coming from his flat. The fact that they would choose a weekend while he was in prison to do this smacks of either utter stupidity on their part (surely the Council should know when one of their own tenants is spending time in prison?) or they're doing everything they can to avoid dealing with the problem, and put the mic in my flat at a time when they knew there would be no noise so they could throw the case out again.
Which they obviously did, since there were no incidents for a few months. So, Neighbour comes out of prison again, everything starts up again (including the sounds of him revving a motorbike in his flat in the early hours of the morning, and arguing loudly with his new girlfriend, something which, from the sounds of things usually ends with him hitting her). The girlfriend was a new development, as was the dog the two of them got together. Screaming continued, litter was still dropped, and life remained miserable. The cycle began again.
Neighbour was sent to prison again earlier this year, but had left his keys with his girlfriend, so even though he wasn't there, the problems continued. She was staying in the flat, and had an almost unending sequence of male visitors who treated her exactly the same way as her convict boyfriend. Again, we complained to the Council continuously. Surely, if this girl wasn't the tenant, then they would have to evict her?
What did the Council do? They took her dog away. Didn't kick her out of the flat, even though they admitted she shouldn't be there, so everything continued, there was just less dog barking. Oh, they gave us new diaries to fill out too.
Neighbour's girlfriend was eventually kicked out, and the locks on his front door changed, but this wasn't done by the Council. No, rather, Neighbour's grandmother came around and dealt with it. She forced the girlfriend out, and had her husband, a locksmith, seal the flat. Only a week after this was done did the Council take any action. They put a screen over Neighbour's front door, so no one could access it (which they already couldn't anyway), and changed the key fobs we had to use to gain access to the building through the communal doors.
Unfortunately, the screen was put in place because Neighbour requested it from prison, probably in an attempt to get the Council on his side. He must have a clever parole officer. Oh, and the Council screwed up the changing of the fobs, as, in changing the back door, they reprogrammed it so it couldn't be locked at all. Now anyone could gain access to the building if they wanted.
During this period, the buzzer on the upstairs flat must have broken, because all of a sudden, I was getting numerous people banging on my window asking to be let in so they could go to the flat upstairs. Naturally, I refused. Unfortunately, on one occasion this led to me getting threatened with physical violence by one individual, who would be coming back with his friends if I didn't let him in. I, of course, called the police, but he somehow got in anyway. While he didn't come back, the event, which took place the day after I was attacked in an unrelated incident walking home from work, left me feeling shaken and afraid. On top of this, myself and my girlfriend have also, on a number of occasions, been awoken at three or four in the morning by people stood outside my bedroom window and shouting up at the flat above. And continuing to do so for an hour or so.
However, eventually, the Council fixed the back door. A week or two before Neighbour came out of prison, last Friday, and he and his girlfriend both came back. I was away for the weekend, but did return to my flat on Tuesday of this week. I had been back less than twelve hours before, at ten to eleven in the evening, Neighbour's Girlfriend started banging on my window asking me to let her in because she'd been locked out. I refused, since she shouldn't be living at the property in the first place.
An hour later, after my girlfriend and I had gone to bed, there was more loud banging on my bedroom window, and the voice of my Neighbour shouting at us to let us in, claiming we had to because he was the police. Yeah. Of course he was. We overheard him and his girlfriend having a screaming match outside my flat, and him threatening to punch her in the face. We also heard him saying there have been over one-hundred and twenty complaints about him since he's lived in the building. And now, whenever he and his girlfriend leave, they leave a rock wedging the back door open.
Of course, the Council know about all of this. I phoned them again yesterday. And what did I get? "Keep filling out your diary. And we'll send a letter out to all the residents asking them not to wedge the communal doors open." Yes, I'm sure Neighbour will listen to that.
What does it take? Every resident in this building has complained numerous times. Residents in other buildings close by and the houses across the road have complained. It's difficult to sleep here, I've been threatened, I'm scared that my flat is going to get burned down by a lit cigarette being thrown into the garden and I just don't want to be here. I spend as much time at my girlfriend's place as I can at the moment, because my own home, which I pay for, is a horrible place to live.
Maybe the Council are doing something, but if so, they're not keeping me informed, and I'm seeing absolutely no evidence of it. I just constantly get told to fill out my diary. Nothing else happens. The diary states on the front "Anti-Social Behaviour - Together We Can Tackle It". Together? Who's "we"? Because I've certainly not noticed them tackling anything. The Council also claims to be cracking down on anti-social behaviour and noise pollution. So why has Neighbour had over one hundred and twenty complaints against him and is still there, with no obvious action taken against him? Two and a half years. That's thirty months. Of those, maybe five have been quiet. That leaves twenty-five months of this happening.
I'm fed up of it. I'm fed up of not being able to relax in my home, and I'm fed up of the Council just telling us the same thing over and over again. Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. Please share it with other people you know. I want to get this out to as many people as possible, so that everyone knows what a sham Cardiff Council's "tough on anti-social behaviour" policy is. If anyone wants to contact me about this blog, and I want to hear from people, even if you think I'm overreacting and whining needlessly, you can do so in the comments section, or via my e-mail address (rhoberic@hotmail.com) or on twitter (@PJMontgomery).
UPDATE, 19th July 2012, After I posted this blog, I had a phone call from Cardiff Council. Apparently, Neighbour was in court yesterday (though that's all they would tell me), and they're going to tell him not to wedge rocks in the doorway.
UPDATE, 19th July 2012, I have now had a direct message from Cardiff Council on Twitter. They're going to update me at some point, apparently.
UPDATE, 20th July 2012, New incident. Someone just came and stood outside my flat and threw something at Neighbour's flat to get Neighbour's attention. There was then much shouting and swearing both ways. I put the incident in my diary, but the diary wants you to record everything which was said. That's not easy when you're half deaf (as I am) and they don't exactly enunciate.
UPDATE, July 20th 2012, I was invited earlier today to go on Good Morning Wales on BBC Radio Wales tomorrow morning. This is now not going ahead, and I don't know if I can mention the reasons why, so I'm going to play it safe, and not do so. Suffice to say, it does seem that action is being taken, but the fact I found out about it from the BBC rather than the Council is disgusting. The BBC are still interested in the story, and have asked me to keep them updated, which I will be doing. Watch this space.
UPDATE, July 22nd 2012, So, today I returned home to find my bathroom floor had become a large puddle, and water was leaking from the ceiling through my light switch. While I can't blame Neighbour for a leak from a pipe (probably), I don't feel at all comfortable going up there to talk to him about it. The leak has now stopped, apparently, and I reported it to the Council. The music that was so loud it sounded like it was coming from my flat (even more impressive given I'm deaf in one ear) was a different matter, and has gone on my diary.
UPDATE, July 22nd 2012, I phoned the Council about the noise. While I was speaking to them, an egg was thrown out of Neighbour's window. My own window was open, and the egg shattered on it.
UPDATE, July 22nd 2012, The music has stopped, but there is shouting, screaming and thumping upstairs, and more rubbish being thrown out the front window. Despite reporting it all to the Council and them promising to call me back, I've heard nothing.
UPDATE, July 30th 2012, The last week itself was actually quite quiet, though I was in work a lot, so maybe I just missed any new incidents which occurred. However, last night, my girlfriend and I were sitting in my flat trying to watch television when we heard loud banging and screaming coming from upstairs. Neighbour was arguing with his girlfriend, and we could clearly here such choice phrases as "Don't tell me to calm down or I'll fucking stab you" and "I'll bash your head in, you fat fucking slut" (forgive the language, I just feel I need to get across everything exactly as it happened). I made a phone call to the Council's out of hours noise pollution line, and was at first told that the information would simply be passed on. However, a few minutes later, I got a call back from someone at the Council who said he'd come out to try and hear what was going on. He also told me to call th police, something I was hesitant to do because I was worried Neighbour would know it was me. Still, call the police I did, and they came out ten minutes later. Instead of calming things down though, Neighbour started shouting at them and threatening them. It was while this was going on that the man from the Council arrived and also overheard Neighbour arguing with the police. It was at this point that my girlfriend and I left the property (around 22:00) to go and sleep at hers. I came back this morning and straight away phoned the Council to speak to someone for a full update. spoke to the person who is now dealing with the case, who asked me if any further incidents had occurred since Neighbour came out of prison two weeks ago. I was surprised he didn't know, but updated him fully. He then told me what the current situation is. Again, I don't know how much I can divulge, but it could be weeks now until we know what will be happening, if anything does. After this conversation, I then called someone working for Media Wales who e-mailed me last Friday. Again, this has yet to be confirmed, but it looks like something may be appearing in the South Wales Echo in the next few days. Finally, I have today set up a petition with the hopes that enough people sign it, then maybe it will help us build a case against Neighbour. You can find it here. This blog will continue to be updated whenever anything happens, so please keep checking back. As you may have noticed, updates will now be appearing in the blog itself rather than the comments at the suggestion of a couple of people.
UPDATE, July 31st 2012, Expect a larger update later, this is just a document of more litter being thrown out of Neighbour's window into my front garden, and another argument between Neighbour and his girlfriend. I couldn't make out exactly what they're saying, because I had the washing machine on and my own music in an effort to drown them out, but I could still clearly hear them. Someone from the Council is due out to the property around 16:00, and I have spoken to someone from Media Wales again. Look for more details on those either later today or tomorrow.
UPDATE, July 31st 2012, I had a visitor from Cardiff Council come around. Unfortunately, I don't know if I can go into specifics detailing what was discussed, but I do now have some dates for when further action will be taking place. He also took my current incident diary and left me a new one.
UPDATE, August 6th 2012, Two small updates on new situations which have occurred first of all. Last night, after a weekend away which was the most relaxing weekend I've had in a long time, we got home to more loud banging and shouting coming from Neighbour's flat. It wasn't nearly as bad as the weekend before, but was still enough to make me feel uncomfortable once more. Then, today, there was an individual stood outside my flat shouting up at Neighbour's flat to be let in. Since the last time this happened, I was threatened in my own home, again, not too comfortable with this happening. The individual in question did leave after a few minutes. The big update today is that I've finally had an e-mail back from the Council. I find it a bit of a coincidence that this finally arrived on the very morning that a familiar story appeared in the South Wales Echo. Here is the e-mail I received, with names removed:-
"I have read your blog dated 19th July in which you express your dissatisfaction with the Council’s response to ongoing allegations of anti social behaviour by one of your neighbours. I am sorry to hear that you are not satisfied with the way in which these matters have been dealt with by the Council.
I can assure you that the Council takes matters of anti social behaviour very seriously and we are committed to doing everything we can to try and remedy the situation you are currently experiencing. We can only operate however, within the restrictions of the Council’s powers for dealing with such matters.
I understand that Officers from both the anti-social behaviour teams and Pollution Control have visited you during the course of the investigation and most recently on the 31st July, when you were given a comprehensive update including details of court dates over the next few weeks. I am also advised that additional assurances were made regarding your anonymity and I hope that this has been helpful.
Should instances of noise pollution or disturbance re-occur then I would encourage you to report them directly as discussed with Officers in order to provide corroborative evidence for any subsequent proceedings.
In addition to this, if you have any further questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to conatct XXXX, Anti Social Behaviour Officer on XXXX who will be happy to assist."
And here is the response I sent to them:-
"Thank you for your response, but to be honest, I'm still really not satisfied. I understand that action is being taken and that court dates are in place, and I appreciate this, but I was also told that this could still take weeks. Even if we do the get the desired result, it will have been close to three years since the troubles began once we get a resolution. I understand you have processes you need to follow, but I find it hard to believe that these processes can take years and allow people to live the way I have been forced to for so long. A more detailed account of precisely what actions the Council have taken, and when, to get us to this point would be very much appreciated."
I now await their next response.
UPDATE, August 9th 2012, This is a much larger update, and towards the end, it might get a little more personal than previous ones. I wasn't sure whether to put everything in here, but I promised myself that this would be where everything is recorded, so in it goes. First off, on Tuesday, I realised it had been 19 days since I lodged an official complaint with Cardiff Council. Now, the complaints process I was pointed towards was to lodge the complaint with the Council officially. They then have ten days to acknowledge the complaint, and twenty to respond. If they do not respond, or you are not happy with their response, then the next step is to contact the ombudsman. Some people did say that maybe the e-mail I received (detailed in the previous update above) might well be their response, though this wasn't something that I received as a result of my complaint, but rather from other councillors trying to help. So, either they hadn't even acknowledged my complaint, or I wasn't satisfied with the response. So, I lodged a complaint with the Ombudsman. Today, I have received a letter from the Ombudsman saying they couldn't uphold my complaint, as they didn't think I'd complained to the Council. I phoned them up to clarify, and advised I had complained to the Council, but hadn't heard back in, now, twenty-one days. They advised me that, until I do hear from the Council, I can't complain to the Ombudsman, since the Council have to be given a chance to respond to me. I asked if this meant that if the Council never responds, I can never take it forward, and didn't really get a proper answer to that. It's been left that the woman who rejected my complaint (who was out of the office) is going to call me back at some point.
Just for the record, more litter came out of Neighbour's flat last night and into my front garden. Joy.
Finally for this update, the more personal bit. For the last few weeks, I've not been feeling like myself. I've been feeling down, I've been getting regular headaches, chest pains and what feel like panic attacks. I've not been sleeping well, even when I'm not sleeping in my flat, and I just feel stressed all the time. This all culminated on Tuesday night with me missing a phonecall from my dad, and bursting into tears as a result. He wasn't phoning for anything special, just a general chat and catch up, as we do every week, but it just felt like the last straw, and it broke me. A few of my closest friends, and my girlfriend, have been worried about me lately, and after Tuesday, I had a number of people suggest I visit the doctor. So today I did. And it's official, I have depression. It's called reactive depression, which means it's depression, no different from clinical depression in the symptons or how I'm feeling. IT's just that it's depression with a very specific cause. I'm now on anti-depressants prescribed by the doctor in an effort to help me, as the doctor said, take the edge off, and hopefully get some sleep. The doctor is also going to write a letter confirming my depression and that I'm now having to be medicated for it. Neighbour and the lack of apparent action from the Council have now caused me to have a recognised medical condition. I can't continue like this.
Please, don't forget I'm also running a petition regarding this matter. Please read and sign it. It can be found here.
UPDATE, 10th August 2012, Just a small update today. I've received the following e-mail from the Council:-
"XXXX is away from work at present and I have been asked to monitor progress on your complaint since your e-mail of 6th August 2012. I am advised that officers will be holding a case conference early next week and as soon as we are able to provide a substantive response to the query raised in your e-mail, concerning Council actions, we will do so.
I would reiterate XXXX’s observations that the Council can only operate within the legal framework set down for dealing with such matters, but assure you that we will do what we can to resolve this matter promptly."
I have a mixed response to this. While I'm glad they're keeping me updated and that they do plan to give me an answer regarding the actions the Council have taken so far, I do find the bit about reiterating the Council's position vaguely patronising. I'm aware of the Council's position. That's why I asked for more info in the first place. I haven't responded to this one, as I don't really see the point. Another official complaint has been raised, however, via the Council's website, this time drawing attention to the depression I've been diagnosed with. Finally, I have today learned that one of my other neighbours has finally given in and applied to the Council to move elsewhere. I sort of wish I was able to do the same.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

F1 in Bahrain



I’m a Formula 1 fan, and pretty much have been since I was born. As a very young child, I’d settle in on a Sunday to watch the races with my dad and, hopefully, if circumstances allowed, my granddad. My earliest memories of the sport coincide with what I consider to be its golden age, the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, when the likes of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet were racing wheel to wheel, and a certain Michael Schumacher first got behind the wheel of an F1 car.

I’ve watched every season of racing since then, even the, dare I say it, somewhat less interesting ones. I’ve had friends who are also into Formula 1, and am in the quite wonderful situation of having a girlfriend who also enjoys it and will watch races with me. But at the moment, it seems that everyone, fan or otherwise, is talking about Formula 1, with one question on their lips:

Should this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix go ahead?

No, it shouldn’t. The Bahrain International Circuit is a dull track, which more often than not leads to processional races which struggle to hold the interest of even the most die-hard F1 fanatic. The fact that boring tracks like this and the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi are holding annual races, while classic, exciting tracks like the Belgian circuit of Spa-Francorchamps are being phased out or only getting a race every other year, is an absolute crime.

But that’s really not the point here. The issue of the Bahrain Grand Prix is a human rights issue. Now, I’m not going to claim I’m an expert on what’s going on in Bahrain, but I do know what the terms “civil unrest” and “anti-government protests” mean. There are many who feel that staging the Bahrain Grand Prix, which, as of this writing, is still due to go ahead, is rewarding those in power, who are largely seen to be the cause of all the problems in the first place. As such, many are questioning the FIA’s, Formula 1’s governing body, decision to proceed with the race.

The thing is, it’s not like there’s no precedence here. Bahrain is hardly the first country to hold a Grand Prix while there are major human rights issues being argued. This year alone, China and the USA, two countries which have had serious questions about human rights raised at them in the last few years, are holding races. Did this stop the Chinese Grand Prix last weekend being one of the most exciting races of the last few years? No, it didn’t. Go back further, and in the seventies and eighties, South Africa held a Grand Prix at the Kyalami circuit while Apartheid was in full swing. Racing in controversial areas is nothing new.

But this isn’t the whole story when it comes to the Bahrain Grand Prix. There are fears for the safety of the drivers and teams, with many worried that the situation in the country will make the race a target for violent protests. Again, it wouldn’t be the first time. Back in 1958, the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio, widely regarded as the greatest Grand Prix driver of all time, was kidnapped and held hostage during the weekend of the Cuban Grand Prix by Cuban rebels. While Fangio was released, and even became good friends with his captors, it still goes to show what a high profile target a Grand Prix driver is, even as recently as last year when there was an attempt over the Brazilian Grand Prix weekend at Interlagos by an unknown group to kidnap the 2009 world champion, Jenson Button.

A Formula 1 race is always going to be a high profile target for misguided people determined to send a message, and despite the best efforts and assurances from the FIA that there is enough security in Bahrain this weekend, four members of the Force India team have already experienced problems when their car was caught up in a petrol bomb attack. Even after this, most of the drivers are giving us the quote that if the FIA says it’s safe, then there’s no problem (except Nico Hulkenberg, who, quite bravely, it has to be said, has spoken out against the decision to race). To be honest, until the race actually goes ahead on Sunday, there’s no way of knowing whether the FIA are right or not.

But that doesn’t answer the question of whether the race should go ahead or not. Formula 1 has always maintained that it exists outside of politics, and is only interested in providing entertainment for the legions of motor racing fans, who love watching the best drivers in the world compete on the most challenging circuits in the world. This has always been the case, and ever more shall be so. Only, it isn’t. After the 1985 race, the South African Grand Prix was removed from the calendar for seven years as a direct result of the country’s apartheid policy. And while twenty years ago the world was a much larger place, meaning political situations in other countries amounted to no more than a five minute piece on the six o’clock. You could easily tune them out, because you knew so little about them. It was easy to get away with not being political, because no one knew what the politics were. But times have changed, and in this day and age of twenty-four hour news channels, social networking sites and bloggers with strong opinions, there’s very little we don’t know. In this climate, something as big as Formula 1 saying it isn’t political is both old fashioned and na├»ve.

I love Formula 1, and will continue to do so until my dying day. But I recognise that there are times where it isn’t doing enough. Sometimes it just needs to pick a damn side and make some kind of statement. It has the power to do that. Just look at all the money the Japanese Grand Prix raised for the victims of the Earthquake last year for an idea of what F1 can do when it tries. The fact that, more often than not, it ignores this power is a real shame.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A Week In New York



Back in that long ago time of September last year, my sister, Charlotte, and her husband, Chris, moved out of their flat in London, and into an apartment in New York. Right on Fifth Avenue. They did this because the company Chris works for wanted them to. The company pays for their apartment. It also paid for them to fly out. First class. It's alright for some, eh? Sure, it's only a temporary move, and they'll (probably) be back in April, but still, not bad going.

Of course, when your sister's living in New York for seven months, it's only right and proper that you milk the situation for all it's worth, and fly out for a week to visit, and take advantage of the free accommodation your sister can provide. And so, on Saturday 28th January, my lovely girlfriend, Lisa, and I awoke and prepared for our lunch time flight from Heathrow Airport to JFK International Airport. At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately for us, we in fact woke up to the news that our flight was cancelled. Bugger.

A quick phone call to Thomas Cook, who we had booked our flights with, and we were booked on a later flight. With a free upgrade to business class. Oh, yes. We were flying with the important people. What did we get with our upgrade? Well, we could hang out in the business class lounge pre-flight. They had free wine, vodka and gin in there. We took advantage, naturally. On the plane itself, business class gets you many wonderful extras. Plenty of leg room, so a lanky bugger like me can actually stretch out, more free wine, and proper food. Seriously, dinner was one of the juiciest pieces of meat I've ever eaten, and it was lovely. And it came on a plate! With proper cutlery! Business class is awesome. Incidentally, we did check on the way back how much it would be to upgrade again. $3000.00 it turns out. Um... No. But getting that for free on the way out? Pretty cool.

Anyway, we arrived in New York, got through customs pretty quickly and took a taxi (or a cab, in the local vernacular) to Charlotte and Chris's apartment building, arriving there around 9:30 in the evening, at which point the terrifying happened: my girlfriend met my sister for the first time. It wasn't too long after that we went to bed, being tired with all the travelling and stuff we'd done. Even if I did get an hours kip on the plane.

When we woke on Sunday, we made our plans. Chris and Charlotte joined us for a quick walk down to Grand Central Station, which is basically just behind their apartment, then to Times Square (barely five minutes from their apartment), then on to Rockefeller Plaza (another five minutes). We watched the ice skaters outside for a bit, then explored the Plaza. And by explored the Plaza, I mean I dragged everyone inside the Nintendo World store where I geeked out for 30 minutes. Nintendo World is easily one of my personal favourite shops I've ever been in. I'm a huge Nintendo fan anyway, so their massive display of Legend of Zelda merchandise (celebrating the franchises 25th anniversary), as well as all the various DS and Gameboy displays were... Well, I could've just stared for hours. There were also numerous DS, 3DS and Wii consoles set up for people to have a go on. But, we had to leave eventually, so after picking up a Metroid t-shirt and a copy of the latest Professor Layton on DS, we exited the store.


Me with the Master Sword. Alas, I'm not the Hero of Time

Next, we hit the Lego store in the plaza. It's infinitely more impressive than the one here in Cardiff, with not only the usual assortment of Lego Star Destroyers and Batcaves, but a massive Lego version of one of the Rockefeller statues,a giant snake, and a complete Lego reconstruction of the entire Rockefeller Plaza. We managed to escape the Lego store without making a purchase, and Lisa and I decided we'd head up the tower.

Despite this being my third visit to New York, I'd never been up Rockefeller Tower. I'd done the Empire State Building, of course, but in a way, this was much better. The view from the Top of the Rock is spectacular, taking in all of Manhattan, including the Empire State. A lot of people have said this to me before, and I'm now in a position to agree, but I think that, during the day, Rockefeller Tower actually offers a better view than the Empire State. That picture up the top, with the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty in shot? Yeah, that's from the Top of the Rock. The Empire State Building is something you simply have to do, of course, but honestly, if you don't do Rockefeller too, you're missing out.

The afternoon was a little more sedate. We took a quick jaunt to Midtown Comics (without doubt one of the best comic shops I've been in. If you're a comic geek heading to Manhattan, you need to visit) to try and sell them Stiffs (they have a copy, but I don't know at this time if they'll be stocking or not), the four of us went and got coffee from Barnes and Noble (might have bought comics in here too, but only because Charlotte and Chris get discount) and walked back down to Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library and right opposite Charlotte and Chris's building. We sat here, drinking our coffees, and watching ice skaters. Again. However, it got cold pretty quickly, so we soon retired back to the apartment for the day. Then we had Five Guys burgers with Cajun fries for dinner. If you're ever in New York, find a Five Guys. The burgers are really good, and those Cajun fries are amazing.

Monday started, as many do, with breakfast. We hit a nearby diner for ours, and I foolishly ordered the Griddle Cakes Deluxe. They bought me two full plates of food, one with a stack of pancaked on it, the other covered with sausage, ham, bacon and eggs. I combined the two, so it looked like this:-



Somehow, I ate the whole thing. However, I didn't need to eat the rest of the day. Seriously, I could only manage about half my dinner that night. The rest of Monday involved walking. Charlotte and Chris had both taken time off work to join us, and we started out by getting a train to the Brooklyn Bridge. We walked a way out on the bridge, then came back and walked around southern Manhattan, taking in South Street Sea Port, Wall Street, Battery Park (with a great view of the Statue of Liberty, which is currently surrounded by scaffolding), the World Trade Centre (we walked passed both the 9/11 memorial and the currently under construction Freedom Tower) and the Ghostbusters fire station. Oh, and I'm going to be on TV. We stopped off in a supermarket where the Food Network were filming... Something. Guess who wandered into the back of a shot and had to sign a release so they could use it? Yep. American readers, watch the Food Network! I have no idea when, but if you see a British guy in a Spider-Man hoodie in the background, it's yours truly.

And so to Tuesday, the first day Lisa and I were left to our own devices. The day started with us walking up Fifth Avenue all the way to Central Park (with a quick stop in the Nintendo World store as I... Um... Had forgotten my 3DS last time and wanted to collect any available Miis using Streetpass). We reached the park, and took an immediate right to FAO Schwarz. There, we looked at lots of toys, Lisa got attacked by a dinosaur, and I hd my picture taken with Spider-Man. Unfortunately, I was so good looking that day, the camera broke, and I never got my Spidey pic. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

After the toy shop, we hit the park itself, wandering around a bit until we came upon Central Park Zoo. We visited all the animal enclosures, including many birds (penguins!), snow monkeys, sea lions and a sleepy polar bear, but my personal favourites by a long shot were the red pandas. I'd never even heard of a red panda, but they were amazing. Around the size of a fox, and about the cutest creature you will ever see, the red panda apparently has a diet which means it likes to sit around conserving energy. According to the information board on the enclosure. No one told the pandas though, which were haring around like crazy things! They wouldn't stop moving, and Lisa and I were stood there watching, laughing and desperately trying to get a picture of them for a good ten minutes. We got 'em in the end.


The elusive, and seriously cute, red panda.

After the zoo, we walked further into the park, stopping to get a pizza pretzel from a kindly street vendor, exiting near the Natural History Museum. After looking at as many dinosaur skeletons and marine life exhibits as we could, we went back to the apartment.

That evening, we were visited by my cousin, Rhys, his wife, Anna, and their puppy, Ollie. We ordered pizza, then spent the rest of the evening trying to keep up with Ollie, who had far too much energy, and clearly thought the rug would look better elsewhere.

Wednesday was a slightly more sedate day. In the morning, we went inside the Public Library, where there was an exhibition going on. There were many interesting items, including some original pages from Frankenstein and the original toys upon which AA Milne based Winnie the Pooh and his friends.

That evening, I had promised Lisa a proper date in New York, and I duly obliged. Luckily for us, it was restaurant week in New York, which meant many posh, expensive restaurants were offering a set, three course menu for only $35. This excluded drinks and service, but is still a pretty good deal. We went to Marseille, a French restaurant the other side of Times Square, and had a delicious meal. This was followed by the two of us taking in a Broadway show. It will come as a surprise to no one to learn that the show we went to see was Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

It was... Interesting. The show is camp as anything, and not all of it works. Some of the songs are quite poor, and I personally didn't like either the guy playing Spidey or the actress playing MJ. However, there was fun to be had, and the Green Goblin, who was clearly in on the joke, was excellent. After the show, we walked down Broadway to the Empire State Building, and took in the highest view of Manhattan at night. It's one of the most stunning views I've ever seen. When you do the Empire State, make sure you do it at night, as there really isn't anything else like it.


Manhattan at night from the Empire State Building.

Sadly, the date didn't end that well, as I managed to get a stomach bug that night. Fun. Thursday involved some walking around Brooklyn (once we got there, after the trains misbehaved and I inadvertently took my girlfriend to the dodgy part of town), and walking the high line (a park which used to be a railway line above the street), but I didn't enjoy them as much as I should've, as I still wasn't feeling great. Unfortunately, it looks like Lisa then caught the bug off me, as she began feeling unwell too, cutting our last night in New York a little short.

Still, we were both well enough on Friday to go to Shake Shack (a damn good burger, and another place I recommend if you ever go to NY) for lunch with Charlotte, before we began our long journey home. In standard class. Without the leg room. Or the steak. Honestly, $3000? Pffft.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Get Stiffed



Well, we did it. Stiffs hit its target. You may recall that myself, Drew Davies, Joe Glass and Gavin Mitchell have been trying to raise money in order to get our comic, Stiffs, out to the general public. We have a publisher, but there are plenty of other costs involved in putting a comic out, especially five issues of said comic. We've gone into this in more detail elsewhere, but suffice to say, it's not cheap. As such, we set up a page on crowdfunding website, indiegogo, with the aim being to raise $3000 so we coul make our comic. We offered some great rewards, including the chance to be drawn into the comic as a zombie by Gav.

As of this moment, with forty-two hours left on our campaign, we've surpassed our target. As I write this, Stiffs has been funded to the tune of $3020, and with time left to go, it's not inconceivable that we could raise still more, which would allow us to make Stiffs even better.

We've hit target now, so this isn't me asking for money, but if you did want to fund Stiffs, or simply buy it, and haven't donated via indiegogo yet, then it still makes sense to do so. Buying the whole series this way works out a lot cheaper than buying them all individually when they do get released, and aside from visiting us at a convention, it's currently the only way to get one of the t-shirts we're offering. You can do so here. I'm just saying.

But that bit out of the way, and I'm sure Drew, Joe, Gav and our colourists, Adam Cadwell and Kris Carter, will join me in saying this, a huge thank you to everyone who funded the comic. When we set the target at $3000, we weren't sure it was a target we would meet. But the people have spoken. You want Stiffs. And by gum, you're getting it.

We couldn't do this without you. You have made this possible. We're going to do everything we can to make sure you aren't disappointed. We think the story in Stiffs: The Apocalypse Party is a good story, and one worth telling, and it's sure as hell going to look fantastic. We really hope you enjoy it (and we don't offer refunds, so we'd better make sure you don't want one).

If you have funded, and are awaiting whichever reward you claimed, then they will be coming your way as soon as they're ready. This does mean that if you purchased the entire series, you won't actually receive your comics until the final issue is ready to go, but surely being able to read the whole thing in one go is worth the wait?

At this point, I do want to mention one funder in particular. A few people funded the comic more than once, and to those people we are indebted, but one in particular gave us a frankly ridiculous amount of money over the course of the campaign. Huge thanks to Payton Quinn for this. We're going to have to come up with something else to do for her for the amount she paid to help us publish our comic.

But at the end of they day, each and every person who donated, no matter how small an amount, is a legend as far as I'm concerned. You've shown faith in us. It's now up to us to prove it wasn't misplaced.

So, no pressure then.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Why Is Stiffs On Indie-Go-Go?

Yes. That's right. Stiffs now has an Indie-Go-Go page. For those who don't know, Indie-Go-Go is a website where creators can post a project, and ask the general public to help fund it. People can donate any amount from (in this case) $1 up to $100 to help get the project off the ground, and get rewards in return. In the case of Stiffs, rewards range from a thanks in a future issue, up to a complete set of the five issues and being drawn into the comic. Not bad, eh?

But, you may cry, why do you need donations of money to get Stiffs out there? Don't you already have a publisher who is covering all the printing and distribution costs? Well, yes, we do. Dead Star Publishing have been brilliant, and are, indeed, covering the printing and distribution, as well as the promotion, of our li'l comic. But these are far from the only costs incurred when it comes to producing Stiffs.

However, before we go into that, I'm going to do something surprising. I'm going to admit that I'm not one-hundred percent comfortable with sites like Indie-Go-Go, Kickstarter, Crowdfunder, or any of these other sites which allow the public to fund people's projects. The problem is, any hack can get their project on these sites with relative ease and start demanding money off you to help get it made. There's almost no end to the projects on the internet which are crying out for your cash, but really don't deserve it. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of projects on them which are worth your time, and I myself have donated in the past to a couple of them, but thanks to the sheer number of shit ones, there seems to be a stigma which has very quickly arisen around these websites.

They're the last resting place of people's vanity projects, which amount to nothing more than bad writers, artists, directors or producers wanking over themselves and how wonderful they are. As soon as someone gets a project on one of these sites, they do nothing but spam you with the link to it, annoying you asking you to fund something you couldn't give two shits about, but which they believe is the greatest piece of work since Michaelangelo did his last ceiling job. And the problem is, this is true of many of them.

I'm actually vaguely uncomfortable with Stiffs being on one of these sites for both these reasons. I don't want us to be grouped in with these creators, and I don't want people to think we're using it to try and swindle you out of your money. When the topic of getting Stiffs on Indie-Go-Go was first raised, I was wary. I voiced my concerns to Drew and Joe, and in fairness, they listened. They then talked me around, and I am fully behind the decision. But there is still some unease, and before I start throwing the link out there asking you guys for money, I want to address this with you.

First of all, the costs. When it comes to making a comic, the printing is far from the only cost involved. You know who else needs paying? The artists. We have three very talented artists working on Stiffs. Gavin Mitchell's wonderful pencils and inks, ably coloured by Adam Cadwell on issue #1, with Kris Carter taking over for the remainder of the series, need some form of compensation, and much as we have tried to suggest it, the three of them just won't accept us paying them in hugs and high fives.

Artists in the world of comics don't come cheap. I'm not going to go into actual figures, but it's fair to say that, generally speaking, per page, artists get paid more than writers. And that's entirely right. Artists have to work harder than writers to get a single issue completed. Writing a few words on a page takes a lot less time than drawing however many pictures of various characters doing various things on the same page. You'll find that, within the industry, while there are writers putting out three or four comics a month, it's rare to find an artist with more than one. A few of them can do two a month, but I'd imagine they have very little in the way of social lives and haven't seen their families for a while. So, artists getting paid more than the writers is, when based on the workload, exactly right.

And we've had to pay our three wonderful artists all out of our own pocket. While, yes, Drew, Joe and I are contracted to Dead Star and will see a small pay cheque from Stiffs, Gav, Adam and Kris are not. Stiffs started with Drew. I then forced my way in, and the two of us later asked Joe to join us as well. We were just three friends writing a story together. But before Stiffs, we hadn't met any of the artists. We were put in contact with them, and we hired them to draw the book, long before we ever discussed publishers. As such, they required paying. While we have managed to cover these costs so far, none of us are by any means rich. We all work normal day jobs to provide us with the means to live, and the costs of paying the artists really add up over a month. So, if we can get funding through Indie-Go-Go, you would be not only buying yourself a copy of Stiffs (depending on how much you donate), you would be enabling us to pay our artists and create further comics.

There are other costs involved too. One way a creator needs to get his or her comic out there is to take it to a convention. Again, to attend one of these costs money. Plus, you need to have something there to sell. While Dead Star are printing and distributing Stiffs through their website and various comic shops, they're not just going to give us a load of free copies of the book to take to a con. They're a small publisher, they need to make a profit, and giving things away isn't really conducive to that. So, if we want to take a pile of comics to a con, we need to pay Dead Star to print them.

So the costs add up. There are other things your money would be going towards, small details which I won't bore you with here, but the crux of it is, when you're an indie creator, even if you have a publisher, there is still a lot of money to spend to get your book out there.

And finally, the bit where I try and convince you I'm not a pretentious wanker. Here's my honest opinion. Stiffs isn't the greatest comic the world has ever seen. Nowhere near. It's not going to change your life, it's not going to make you instantly more attractive to the opposite sex. But I do think it's good. It's a project I'm very proud to be involved in, and if you read it, I'm fairly confident that you'll find it an amusing diversion for a brief period. You'll enjoy the action, you'll laugh at the jokes and you'll like the characters. Especially Kenny. Did I mention we have a talking monkey?

I'm not going to constantly spam the link, and I'm not going to pretend Stiffs is something it isn't in order to get you to part with your hard earned cash. I'm simply going to tell you that it's a comic I genuinely believe has a place in the market. Is there hyperbole on the Indie-Go-Go page? Of course. That's how these things work. But at the end of the day, we love making this book, and I think that shows in the final product. The preview book had some good reviews, and we're confident we can keep the quality consistent. Maybe even get better, so that one day we do become a life changing best comic ever.

We'd like a chance to get there, and we'd like your help to do it. So please, if you like the idea of Stiffs, enjoyed the preview book, or just like any of the creators as people (ha!), then donate $1. Or more. Up to you. And if you don't like us or the book, that's fair enough. You don't have to donate a thing. I won't hold it against you.

http://www.indiegogo.com/Stiffs?a=258269&i=addr

That up there is the link. Use it, share it, ignore it. I'll leave it with you.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Worlds Apart

A friend of mine linked me to a writing competition recently. This happens on occasion, when you're a struggling writer. Someone sees a competition, thinks of you and hits you up with the link. It's a good thing. I've entered and, I suppose, lost my fair share of them. I mean, I don't have anything to confirm I lost, but I didn't win, so I must have, right? But I digress.

This particular writing competition though, something about it seemed a little off to me. Not in a dodgy way, by any means. It was linked through the BBC website for one thing, so I don't thing there'd be any shenanigans there (and my friends at the Beeb won't contradict me, 'cos no one enjoys the job center). More, it was what the competition was asking for that troubles me.

The competition was asking you to pitch a world. Not a story, not a script, not a TV series or a film, but a world where stories could take place. The competition lists some examples of worlds along the lines of what they're after. These included things like Star Wars, Doctor Who and the Marvel Universe. All very good examples of worlds where multiple stories take place, with hundreds of characters running around and amazing opportunities to entertain an audience. And they can all be pretty neatly summed up in a pitch type sentence, if the need should arise.

But, those universes weren't created as universes. They were universes which came into being as a result of a story. When it comes to the creative process, I don't necessarily agree that there are any hard and fast rules. As long as you're telling a good story, that's all that matters. But one thing I do think is a bad idea is attempting to create a world without having a story to tell in it. You can start with a character or an event, two key aspects of any story, but to jump straight into a whole world, head first? That's just asking for trouble, and in my opinion, could quite easily lead to some lazy story telling.

Don't get me wrong, a good story needs a world to be set in, but the world should form naturally around that story. And, chances are, once you've told one story in that world, you'll have an idea for another. The world you've created will grow and change naturally as the story evolves, sometimes to the point where the world changes the story you were originally looking to tell. But it's all in service to the story. Do Drew, Joe and I have a fully developed world built up for Stiffs? Yes, we do. We know all sorts of things about what has happened, what is happening and what will happen in that world. Will you ever see all of that? No. We hope you'll see a lot of it, but there's always things that just don't matter to the story. We know they happened, but they don't necessarily impact upon the events we're portraying in the comic. Did we create the world first? Of course not. All we started with was Drew's idea about a man and his monkey hunting zombies in the woods. Everything else grew naturally from there.

Likewise, when Doctor Who was first broadcast in nineteen sixty-three, no one had the first inkling that he was a Time Lord, that he could regenerate, that he would last on and off for fifty years, that there would be multiple spin-offs and storylines galore. It all came later as different writers told different stories using the characters, and it all came about naturally as a result of the storytelling process. Nobody pitched Doctor Who as a fully realised world. They pitched it as a TV series about an old man and his time machine. The world came later.

World building is a part of writing. It should happen, and it's a great feeling when it does. And yes, I have a number of worlds in my head to tell stories in, but it was always the story which came first. Asking people to pitch a world just doesn't work for me. I love some of the worlds I write in, but I wouldn't know where to start pitching them as worlds. Let me pitch a story to you first. The world will follow.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Online Friends, Real Life Hugs

So, with my weekly column now appearing over on www.sidekickcomicsuk.com every Monday, and with my occasional geeky musings being saved for that, this blog was fast becoming redundant. But I don't want it to be. I still have things to say! So, with that in mind, look to hear from me on the interwebs three times a week! Mondays will see my regular sidekick column, discussing comics, films, computer games... Whatever takes my fancy! Then, come back to this blog on a Wednesday or Thursday for a random piece on anything that comes to mind that particular week, and then, finally, at any point from Friday to Sunday, look for some kind of diary or update on what's going on with my more creative endeavours, once again to appear here.

So, what do I have for you today? It's a rant. I haven't had a rant for a while, so this should be fun. But what am I ranting about? The internet.

More specifically, the relationships we cultivate with other people through the internet, and how those relationships can be really weird. Internet relationships are strange things.

The advent of social networking sites such as facemypartyspacebook (or whatever) has absolutely changed the way we interact with our friends, as well as how we go about meeting new people and making that tentative first contact step. Nowadays, all you need to do is update your profile, change your status or post a tweet, and the entire world knows what you're thinking. You can post on facebook about how you're feeling down, and watch as any number of friends, family, oblivious women you have a creepy crush on or strangers ask you what's up. Put the same thing on twitter, and chances are you'll get a load more friends and strangers asking you what's up, and then some spam telling you how to earn dollars from home. The internet gives us a way to instantly let people know how we're feeling, and receive some kind of comfort. And mocking. Endless, endless mocking.

Is that a bad thing? Of course not. Having your friends send you internet hugs and well wishes is nice. But, it's no substitute for having an actual hug from an actual friend, family member or object of your creepy affections. It can be frustrating sometimes, that you apparently have all these people so concerned for you who are just that tantalisingly out of reach. The problem is, these people who care about you so have their own lives to lead, as they should. So while they genuinely want you to be okay again, and would very much like to hug you, they're just too damn far away in real life, and unfortunately, they have a prior engagement they can't miss. There's nothing wrong with that, but it can leave you feeling like you're not quite getting the comfort you wanted as fast as you would like it.

So, what about the staying in contact with people aspect? This, I have to admit, is a positive boon. I have friends all over the world these days. Phone calls to far off places like America are expensive, and letters take ages to get there. Through social networking sites, however, as well as other communications tools such as Messenger or Skype, you can have an instant conversation with anyone, anywhere at no extra cost. Awesome. It's easier than ever to stay in contact with your friends these days, and that's largely down to the internet.

That said, once again, the internet is no substitute for actual physical contact. What would you rather do, talk to your friends on Messenger and put up with the bastard who insists on using text speak and ends every single sentence with "LOL", or actually go out and have some food and a few drinks with your nearest and dearest? I know which sounds better to me. The thing is, the internet has made it perhaps too easy to keep in contact. Yes, great for the long distance friendships, but what about the people who live a few streets over? You can go weeks without seeing someone who lives close by, simply because you've been chatting to them online and don't feel the need to actually see them. That's a shame, because there's nothing like laughing with a few people you have an actual fondness for, and being able to look at the person you're talking to without them freezing for twenty seconds, or looking all blocky, or moving with the jerky motions of a drunk stop motion chicken. The internet is good, but it isn't, and should never be, a replacement for actual human contact. As a wise man once said, just need a little of that human touch.

And this brings me onto the main point which inspired this particular rant in the first place. Online relationships. Now, meeting new people on the internet is a good thing. A number of people who I now count among my closest friends are people I met on Twitter. The internet is a great place to make new friends. You can have a look at a facebook profile, and instantly be greeted with a list of that users favourite things in the world ever! Got some things in common? Strike up a conversation! Doesn't always work, naturally, as some people are lame, but still, it's a start. However, there's something I'm seeing happen more and more, and I'll be honest with you, I just don't get it.

Maybe it's just that I'm old before my time, but people who claim to be in a romantic relationship with someone they've met on the internet... Well, that just baffles me! I'm not saying you can't meet someone through the internet on a social networking or dating website, and start a relationship with them ever. I myself have had two girlfriends who I first met online. There is nothing wrong with that at all. But people who claim to be in a relationship without ever having actually met their "partner" in person? That's nonsense, surely! You can connect with someone, but how do you know you're attracted to them if you haven't met them?

Yes, I know, attraction goes beyond the physical and it's a shallow person indeed who suggests that's it all down to looks. That isn't what I mean. When you're attracted to someone, enough to attempt a relationship with them, it should be the whole package you're attracted to. The way they look, the way they move, the way they smell, the way they laugh... These are all huge parts of what makes someone attractive. You can click with their interests and their conversation all you like, but what if you look into their eyes, and that undefineable something isn't there? Surely you have to met someone before you can declare that you're in a relationship. You can talk to someone online and have a feeling about them, but you need that moment, that spark, in real life before you can safely say that they're someone you want to start calling your other half.

And don't even get me started on people who claim to be in love without having met their partner in real life. That shit just angers me!

Maybe I'm just old fashioned, but I'm not going to embark on a romantic relationship with anyone I haven't met. In actual person.