April 9th 2020
You know how we all thought we'd have more time to do stuff while we're in this lockdown? In many ways, that has not been true for me - although in some ways it has; I'll get to that - which is largely thanks to Zoom. Most of us hadn't heard of this video-conferencing software a few weeks ago and now everyone's on it; I'm using it for quizzes, home group, men's group, catching up with Uni friends, keeping in touch with family, improv... it's amazing. What with Zoom, reading Lord of the Rings in 24 hours (actually a little over 21 hours) and studying, I've had surprisingly little additional time. This perhaps explains why, for what I think is the first time ever, I've gone two calendar months without updating this page - although perhaps that can also be explained by my reluctance to spend too much of my evenings sat at my desk typing away at my laptop, given that's how I spend my working-from-home days already. Anyway, such is my inproductivity (unproductivity?) on some fronts. There is one big exception, and it's this:
I'm very pleased with how this has turned out (even if I'm currently in the phase that unfortunately accompanies most of my creative enterprises: over-thinking the things I could have done differently, and focusing on the single disobliging comment I've received), and it's gone down well with the entertainment-starved masses, so I thought it would be fun to do a kind of "behind the scenes" here.
Let's start with the idea behind it. Once or twice before I've rewritten songs with topical lyrics - I've banged on far too much in the past about winning a Boxing Day 2018 thing in the Times where we had to enter Christmas carols with lyrics adapted to be about events of the year; I rewrote Good King Wenceslas to be about England's Word Cup experience - and I thought it would be a fun thing to do during this Coronavirus nonsense. Others have picked My Sharona to adapt, but I hadn't dwelt on it too long before opting for Stuck In The Middle With You. It's a great song - it was my first song in an open mic / karaoke thing I did at the improv theatre last year - and I was initially thinking along the lines of Stuck In Because Of The Flu. Except, of course, C-V isn't the flu. Hmmm. Then I hit on Stuck In With Nothing To Do, and decided to base the song on being stuck at home and bored to death, rather than exploring too much the other aspects of the lockdown (hence no references to toilet rolls). Now, my view is that if you're going to rewrite a song, it's not enough just to keep the chorus similar and write any old thing that scans. I'm always surprised, in fact, that those Boxing Day entrants quite often follow this formula (possibly I can't talk, here: my 2019 follow-up was kindly rejected on the basis that everyone was doing Huawei in a Manger). No, if I'm rewriting something, I want to keep plenty of the original song. And what's the most well-known part of Stuck In The Middle With You, aside from the chorus? Surely it's the "ple-e-e-e-e-ease, ple-e-e-e-e-ease" bit. Having had to reject sne-e-e-e-eze on the basis that it's not a symptom of Coronavirus, the next choice had to be che-e-e-e-ese; easy enough to fit a food shortage gag around that. For the second time round I had to think a bit further outside the box. For the 'friends to the left of me, jokers to the right' I originally had 'Corona's affecting me' - matching the vowel sound of 'left', which seemed to be enough - and only later realised I could use COVID and match the syllables better. Anyways, I won't harp on too much about the lyrics, but if you find yourself at a loose end and want to compare my version with the original lyrics, you'll find quite a bit of crossover. In fact, I'm going to harp just a little bit more, because right at the end of the song I decided that, rather than just repeat the title three terms as Bob Dylan did when he wrote it, I'd vary it a bit. What rhymes with 'you'? June? Well, sort of, and "stuck in at least until June" makes sense. It's in. What rhymes with June? Spoon, famously. Not sure what to do with that, though. Hmm... I'm reading Dune at the moment, how about that? Yes... so I decided to use it, but it seemed a bit arbitrary if I couldn't show that I was actually reading Dune. What if... what if I made a video?
Yes, up until that point I had been planning to sing and record it, but it was only then that I decided to film some stuff to go with it. I quickly finished up the lyrics ("I don't know why I bothered to dress / There is nobody here to impress" was the last section I wrote), changed "beans and Spam" to "beans and naan" in order to fit in with the contents of my cupboards, and got ready to record the song. Having found a karaoke track on YouTube - there were three: one of them deviated far too far from the original track, one had backing vocals that were too loud (and obviously with the wrong lyrics for my purposes), and so I settled on the third - I recorded the vocals using Audacity. Two takes, plus a third take of the last few lines because I'd gone too loud (I don't have a very professional mic set-up so had to rein it in a bit), and I was ready to start filming.
A few people have asked me how long this all took, and I'm not sure - I filmed it over a few evenings, generally shortly after work when it was still pretty bright, and made sure I had more or less everything filmed before I started editing it together. The first set of shots were of me leaving my chair and walking downstairs, which required three separate camera set-ups - and, fun fact, I hadn't originally intended to use shots of myself walking back again, but realised they could work well and simply used the footage I'd got of me going back for a second take each time. For almost all the shots throughout the video my phone was elastic-banded to a Newton's cradle and placed atop a DVD rack, although earlier on I was using a folded-up camp-bed until I realised I couldn't get it properly horizontal. The only time I had to get really creative was for the shot of opening Friends DVDs, since I wanted to get an overhead shot but I also wanted to have both my hands free to appear; such are the perils of living alone in these lockdown times. The picture to the right shows what I ended up with: a number of DVD racks - and one CD rack - plus two elastic bands to hold the phone and, because one elastic band was longer than the other, an egg cup to try and make the shot level. My only regret from this is that the season 10 DVD fell over mid-shot and I didn't spot it until editing the video together. Any other anecdotes from the recording experience, you ask? Well, sure, since you seem desperate, here are a bunch. In my first take of the kitchen scene I knocked over a pot of garlic pepper. In the first attempt at the 'look, he's wearing shorts with his suit jacket' reveal, my shorts were too long and looked like trousers, so I had to change into some shorter shorts (you're welcome). In the instrumental montage I had to drop some of it because too much of my head was out of shot - activities including playing the flute, trying to juggle, and playing a different game with Pluggy (during which he fell over) all bit the dust, although I always suspected I'd shot more than I'd need for that bit. The final shot, when I was in bed, was done the morning after I'd read Lord of the Rings, and I'd genuinely slept in that shirt (sorry). The jigsaw is one that I've been attempting and will almost certainly genuinely give up on soon. For the Zoom shot I had to create a new account because, in actual fact, I did have Zoom meetings awaiting me. The computer background to that shot is from Crazy/Beautiful. For the shots in the garden I not only dragged my not-switched-on lawnmower across the whole garden, hoping my neighbours wouldn't notice, I also did some genuine weeding that I couldn't use in the finished video because I was directly behind the opaque middle of the doors. The wig montage was a pick-up - i.e. filmed later - because I had a gap that needed filling, although I had previously used those wigs etc. in the instrumental montage and realised I couldn't use them because, as before, most of my head was cut out of shot. Was the exercise montage (which I now kinda wish I'd done in split-screen, although that would not have been easy) only included to demonstrate that I can do chin-ups? Maybe. Is my chin-up limit the two that were shown in the footage? Definitely. In the end I shot in every room in my house except the downstairs porch and toilet, and was quite glad when I was finished because I could wash the clothes that I'd been putting on for several different evenings. The editing was all done in software called Wondershare Filmora, which is very intuitive and flexible, including some nice transitions and the ability to do things like split-screens, title cards, subtitles, and no doubt a load more stuff I didn't fully explore. It's many years since I made any kind of video (I don't want to exaggerate: I've only made a handful before, and this was by far the most ambitious), but I watch a lot of movies so I had some idea what I was looking for from montages and scene transitions, then it was just a case of trying stuff out and seeing what I thought worked. I reckon I probably spent at least 6 hours putting it together, including nearly an hour just on the subtitles - I decided they worked best when they were removed directly on a beat; I'm sure no one will ever notice that - and, apart from a nasty bit where something went wrong and everything went out of sync, there weren't too many hiccups. I exported the video, realised - as I'd suspected - that I had to pay in order to remove a huge watermark, and sent it out into the world. I'm pleased with the response, and (with the caveats above - don't worry, I usually move out of this phase) I'm rather proud of it. There aren't too many silver linings to the horror of COVID-19, but I'm hoping that I brought some joy to some people, and I'll look back with pleasure on this bit of it, at least. It's been nice to have a project, and creating stuff is always fun. By the way, since a few people are taking it a bit too literally - I do actually have plenty to do, because I'm still doing my job full-time from home. And, until this goes viral and I can live off the proceeds, I'm gonna keep doing it.
April 16th 2020
This is a selfie I took at about ten past four in the morning of Sunday 5th April. I look tired, because I am. Possibly you can detect some triumph behind the weariness: if so, this is because I have just completed my aim of reading Lord of the Rings in 24 hours.
Let me go back a bit, to the first time I read Lord of the Rings. It was in year 9 - so, sometime in the year 2000, I believe - and in English class we were told to select a book to read. The idea was to encourage us to read in our spare time, I think, but we also had to report back to the class at the end of a month (I think it was a month). "You've only got a month", said Miss Boulter, "so don't choose Lord of the Rings". Being rebellious in a very studious kind of way, my choice was clear. The first time I read it, I don't think I took to it terribly, seeing it more as a mountain to climb than a story to enjoy. When, a couple of years later, the Lord of the Rings films were on the horizon, I remember being in the cinema with some friends and turning to one of them as the Fellowship of the Ring trailer began - to tell them that the book wasn't great. By the time the trailer had finished, I'd remembered how good the book actually was. I read it several more times in the next few years - as well as loving the films - and it was comfortably ensconced as one of the best novels I'd ever read. At that time I'd half-heartedly made the suggestion that it could be read in 24 hours. Without getting around to organising anything, I think I even suggested to a few friends that we gather and give it a try. Nothing came of it, but it remained at the back of my mind - way, way at the back - for years, until I came to put together a list of 40 things to achieve before 40, and I slotted it onto the list in 40th place. When the coronavirus lockdown began, it seemed like now was the time to bite the bullet.
It's fair to say that not everyone believed in me. My brother openly told me he didn't think I could do it, saying that he couldn't read for more than about two hours at a time, and various friends and relations seemed dubious. My friend Pete - whom I invited to join the attempt from across the globe, but who was unable to, due to work - cheered me on. Lots of people, in fact, expressed support either explicitly or through the 'Like' button when I said on Facebook that I was giving it a go. Here are some photos I took of me holding the book, only one of which found its way to Facebook but all of which ended up on Instagram.
Before kicking off this marathon endeavour, I did some spreadsheet calculations to plan my day. I trialled reading a page, which took almost exactly a minute, so I gave myself a bit of leeway by starting off at 1.1 minutes per page (mpp) at first, getting slower throughout the day. There are six books to Lord of the Rings, and my plan was 1.11, 1.21, 1.30, 1.53, 1.67 & 1.93 mpp respectively (the un-rounded numbers being because I adjusted so that every book began and ended on a quarter-hour). I didn't plan in any breaks, working on the basis that I'd probably be a bit ahead of schedule and could get my breaks that way. Starting at 7am, this plan took me through to 6am the next morning, giving an hour's breathing space if I needed it.
I woke with my alarm at 6.20am, had a shower, prepared a sandwich for lunch, ate some breakfast (porridge if I recall correctly) and started bang on 7am, lying on my sofa with my laptop playing my music library at random net to me. Most of the day was spent like this, in fact, with only a couple of hours outside in the sunshine, and a stint at the end in bed, to mix things up.
It was probably about a decade since I last read the book, but most of it remained familiar to me - with a strange mix of book and film memories to support the journey - and I was pleased that it didn't seem too much of a struggle throughout that first book. The story and characters were wonderful, the writing was beautifully done by a true lover of language, and in short it remained clear why this is routinely voted the nation's favourite book. It is a work of towering genius. I don't think I could have got through any lesser work; this was genuinely a pleasure, at least at this point. At 10.20am I finished the first book, ten minutes ahead of schedule (1.06 mpp), and took a break of only five minutes while I got my lunch together, before proceeding to read on while eating. The second book, being the second half of The Fellowship of the Ring, was just as good, and I completed it by 2.08pm, just seven minutes ahead of schedule. The strange thing was, I wasn't in any way using the plan as a target: I was just reading naturally, and it so happened that I'd guessed my reading pace - and the slowing of it; 1.20 mpp for the second book compared to 1.21 in the plan - very accurately. I'm putting that skill on my CV as we speak.
This is the point I went outside, having taken the official '40 by 40' photo of me reading the book, which you can see to your right. It was a nice sunny day, and I was only slighting distracted by one of my neighbours playing some terrible dance music and another neighbouring family (possibly the same one) shouting at each other. The dad was not happy that his daughters were squirting him, nor that the mum was doing nothing about it.
The day continued; my reading slowed further (1.23 & 1.26 mpp for books 3 & 4) but not as much as I'd thought it might in the plan (1.30 & 1.53 mpp), so by the time I finished The Two Towers I was 34 minutes ahead of schedule. The fourth book was tougher, involving descriptions of battles that I found the least interesting part of the story - both in the novel and the films - as well as lengthy diversions into landscapes and trees, which bore me in real life and are no more fascinating on the page. Every now and again I found that I'd scanned a paragraph without reading it properly; under normal circumstances I'd probably let it pass, but given the undertaking I was, well, undertaking, I dutifully went back and read properly every time something like that happened. 6.05pm was dinner time, but in order to use up as little time as possible this consisted of cold pie and raw carrots. Not unpleasant, and it seemed very much in keeping with the limited provisions that the characters in the story were having to survive on during their own challenges. Weirdly, perhaps due to what was happening in the novel, it felt like I too was battling to achieve something momentous. Rather than, you know, just lying down and reading a book. If you've seen the films but not read the books, you might be surprised by how little darting back and forth there is: broadly speaking, after the Fellowship is split up at the end of book two, each book either follows Frodo & Sam or it follows the others. I've always been captivated much more by Frodo & Sam's journey into Morder than by the escapades of Merry, Pippin, etc., and that particularly took its toll in book five, which took me 1.49 mpp - still short of the plan, but much longer than I'd been taking so far. It probably didn't help that I was pretty tired by this stage, finishing the section at 1.01am. I'd actually tried to get a few minutes' sleep between books four and five, knowing that power napping can be a good way to revitalise - something that the cast of the films routinely did on set - but I was unable to drift off, and if anything the partial attempt made it even harder to keep going. With one book left, and nearly six hours left to read it in if I wanted to hit the 24 hour goal, I was feeling confident. But tired. Very tired. I actually read it from my bed. At no point during the day did I suffer eye strain or headaches, which is what I'd really feared, but the last three hours were not terribly easy. Actually, that's not quite true: the part of the story involving Frodo & Sam in Morder, which is the essential part of book six, is always incredibly captivating and therefore not too difficult to read, even in the state I was in. The more difficult stretch came in the last 100 pages after that, when everything was neatly tied into a bow. Think the film has a lot of endings? You ain't seen nothing, kid. If I could meet Tolkien, the first thing I'd do would be congratulate him on writing an utter masterpiece. The second thing would be ask him why on earth he thought anyone would want such a detailed send-off for Faramir and Eowyn. In the long list of everyone's favourite Lord of the Rings characters, they are not cracking the top twenty for anyone, surely. Anyway, I powered through their gradual (and not entirely un-sexist) romance, through the slow journey back to Hobbiton, and through the whole reclaiming of the Shire from Saruman (a poignant part of the story, ignored on film, but not my favourite time of reading it) before triumphantly finishing the book at 4.09am. In my tiredness, I claimed on Facebook that this was 21h 04m since I'd started, having confused the 04 and the 09 on the clock (I corrected it the next morning), and I went to sleep. Before being woken up three hours later by my carbon monoxide detector telling me it needed new batteries. Urgh. Looking back, what have I learned? It is possible to read for over 21 hours of the day. Lord of the Rings is a phenomenal book that deserves every accolade it gets. Tom Bombadil is great. Raw carrots and cold pie actually work quite nicely together. The surprisingly frequent poetry only takes up the middle third of the page, which is wonderful if you're against the clock. And now, a couple of weeks later, I'm glad to say that I haven't - as I initially feared - decided never to read another book as long as I live. But I'm easing my way back in with P. G. Wodehouse, whose books I can read under any circumstances. Just don't start timing me.
what was I listening to?
what was I reading?
Tess of the d'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy