For those in the know, there are a couple of memorable stories from the original ‘Star Trek’ series and the Jon Pertwee era of ‘Doctor Who’ in which Captain Kirk and the Doctor follow the same path by slipping sideways into parallel universes – ‘Mirror, Mirror’ and ‘Inferno’. What is now an over-familiar sci-fi trope still seems fresh and novel in these interesting twists on the respective formulas both programmes tended to rely on; the unnerving encounters with darker incarnations of regular cast members are one intriguing element – and the usual good guys are invariably evil when this freak occurrence takes place; just in case the viewer doesn’t twig quick enough, Spock is gifted with a sinister beard and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart has an eye-patch and a scar. However, it is the world these characters inhabit that provides the most fascinating aspect of the adventures.

The Enterprise looks roughly the same, but in this dimension it is a warship belonging to a brutal intergalactic empire, whereas the version of Britain Pertwee’s Doctor finds himself in is a militaristic fascist republic. Both stories play upon the ‘what if?’ factor, pondering on possibilities had global events taken a different turn; and, of course, these events were still fresh at the time ‘Mirror, Mirror’ and ‘Inferno’ were produced (1967 and 1970), when the world was less than 30 years away from the collapse of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy – warnings from recent history transplanted to an alternative present.

I only thought of these two classic examples of two classic series at their best because I keep noticing those movie posters you see pasted on the sides of double-decker buses. Normally I tend to roll my eyes when greeted by any sign of the latest multimillion-dollar dump Hollywood has decided to take on the world’s cinemagoers; but the current ones are catching my eye on account of them not being quite right. Whereas they usually change with such rapid regularity that one rarely sees the same poster on a bus for more than two weeks running, I recently realised the movies being promoted via public transport at the moment were either released way back in February – and have therefore already been forgotten and wouldn’t normally still be there – or give a release date in April/May that never actually happened due the lockdown.

It’s an extremely minor equivalent of suddenly slipping into a parallel universe, but seeing posters for movies still unseen that declare they were premiered at the nation’s picture houses on dates when they weren’t is a weird one, akin to the disorientating differences a character in a genuine parallel universe experiences. Well, it’s as close as I’ve come, anyway. That’s what happens when you queue outside supermarkets situated on a main road and aren’t distracted by a Smartphone screen. I can quite easily pass the minutes by simply pretending I am indeed in a parallel universe where buses don’t lie and those movies did indeed premiere as planned, showing now at a cinema near you; and then I contemplate the queue and the two-metre separation between each person in it and realise this universe is probably far stranger than a parallel one as it is.

Actually, the movies being plugged on those buses may end up representing an even greater financial disaster than they ordinarily would if they had been released and failed to break even at the box-office. Yes, many will be swallowed up by a costly black-hole courtesy of the pandemic, though lockdown aside, the fate that awaits the majority of the over-hyped bilge vomited out by Tinsel Town is generally down to the clueless halfwits behind them gambling everything on what the public will take to. It happens across all creative industries, of course – movies, TV, publishing, music; a hit suddenly appears from nowhere that the people running these industries didn’t predict and then there’s a rush to repeat it in order to capitalise on the success, a rush that swiftly tests the patience of the public with the new craze. There may be an entire army of experts employed by movie studios, TV companies, publishing houses and record labels who reckon they can both anticipate and manipulate what the public will or won’t buy, but the truth is that few ever accurately do. Even if I take my own humble example when it comes to this here blog, it’s near-impossible to guess what will provoke a response and what won’t.

Access to Winegum stats is a behind-the-scenes privilege of ‘Petunia’; they not only inform me in which countries on the planet I’m receiving the most views – India and Cambodia make regular surprise appearances alongside the more expected nations – but they also let me know which posts are pulling the punters in; and there are some vintage ones that keep appearing in the list with such regularity that I’m often baffled by their appeal. Yes, I’m well aware there are certain topics I might choose to write about that I pretty much know in advance will appeal to a particular Twitter audience because they happen to be a pet subject with a passionate crowd who Tweet a lot; equally, when Twitter isn’t especially interested, I may receive an above-average flurry of comments on the post itself without attracting a single retweet.

But for me, the subject matter is more or less secondary to whether or not I personally consider the post a well-written one that makes its intended point as perfectly as I can manage it. There have been times when I’ve put one out and I look at it again and reckon I was too tired when I wrote it or I rushed it when I should’ve taken a bit more time and improved the prose. And then I find it keeps surfacing in the list of most-viewed posts, perhaps two or three years after it was published; just because I might not rate or care for a post doesn’t mean I’m necessarily in the right; if somebody out there likes it, in a way that’s all that matters. Indeed, there are many posts I rate extremely highly and think read just as well today as when they were written; and yet nobody else took to those ones. It’s completely random sometimes.

There’s quite an early one about corporal punishment called ‘The Back of My Hand’ that simply won’t go away, and one I wrote about the trans issue – specifically in relation to children – called ‘Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha’ has been achieving as many views over the past couple of months as anything new I’ve written. I’ll concede that I think the latter is perhaps as good a piece as anything I’ve written on that subject, but I still can’t quite understand why it continues to reel ‘em in. But that highlights my point, I suppose; you really can’t guess what’ll impact and what won’t. I’ve written books I (and others) thought would make my name and they never did – ‘Looking for Alison’ being the prime example.

I seemed on the cusp of recognition with that when I was interviewed for Radio 4’s ‘iPM’ show at the time of the book’s publication, and I recall after the interview I had a free cab-ride home laid on for me by the BBC. I exited said taxi without paying a penny and had a brief sense of what it must be like to be Alan Yentob. It’s easy and understandable to decry ‘how the other half live’ and, let’s face it, we all do it; but even the tiniest glimpse into that world makes one realise how easy it is to fall into its luxurious embrace. I know why there were cries of outrage over author Neil Gaiman travelling all the way from New Zealand to Scotland, but I equally know if I were in his position I’d have probably done the same. Why not, if you can afford it? Maybe there’s a parallel universe where we all can…

© The Editor


As someone for whom outdoor occasions are rationed even when the rest of the world is partying like it’s 1999, I didn’t anticipate the closing down of society would impact much upon my routinely threadbare social diary – and overall, it hasn’t; but I did have something pencilled-in for today that has sadly had to be postponed. Yet, unlike the roll-call of sporting events whose absence, though strange, can nonetheless be compensated for twelve months from now as this year is written-off as a unique post-war anomaly, I had something planned for today that won’t mean quite the same once this day is done. The personal significance of 3 April 2020 for me cannot be replicated a day from now, let alone a month or two, for only this day will mark a particular anniversary I felt I needed to observe in a specific way; and because of where we unexpectedly find ourselves, I can’t.

Ten years ago today, my friend Alison died alone of heart failure as flames engulfed her candlelit home. She was three weeks short of her fiftieth birthday and was living a breadline existence with no electricity and very little money; what money did pass through her hands was inevitably exchanged for alcohol to quench her long-time thirst for the demon drink, a curse that had left an indelible, destructive mark on her life and person. Alison’s sad story was comprehensively covered both in a blog I ran from 2014-17 as well as the book, ‘Looking for Alison’, which originally appeared in 2015. I stopped posting on the blog when I felt I’d more or less said everything that could be said on the subject; and I’d come as close as anyone could in constructing a biography for a life in which there remain numerous gaps that I filled with what I felt to be plausible conjecture.

What I now tend to refer to as ‘the Alison project’ occupied the majority of my time for a good couple of years and entailed exhaustive research of the kind we’re all accustomed to seeing in detective dramas but rarely turn our hands to. Nobody could have tried harder to piece together the fragments of a life that initially appeared to have left so few traces behind, and whilst the fruits of my labour are far-from perfect, I really couldn’t have done much more. I had a brief correspondence with Alison’s youngest son, who almost acted as a ‘Deep Throat’-like source of information to point me in the right direction, and by the end I felt I’d come to know someone far better than I ever did when she was an actual physical presence in my life. It was just a pity it took her absence for that to happen.

But I was very conscious from the start that a great deal of what drove me to rescue Alison from unwarranted obscurity was guilt. Despite the sadness that casts its posthumous shadow over her memory, Alison in life was a uniquely entertaining eccentric – witty and unpredictable as well as endearingly sweet; she will always be one of the most original individuals ever to cross my path, quite unlike anyone else I’ve ever known. But she caught me at a bad time in my own life (as most people who catch me tend to do) and I wasn’t always in a position to help her when she needed it. The fact that I didn’t learn of her death until four years after it happened – we’d lost touch in the way that friends do – meant that the shock was immediately overwhelmed by feelings of guilt that I’d let her down and hadn’t done enough for her while she was still around. In all honesty, I don’t think anyone of her acquaintance could have done enough; but that didn’t stop the guilt on my part.

The guilt gradually subsided as I eventually completed a project intended to ensure Alison wouldn’t be forgotten as I applied my natural creativity to honour her memory. And I gave it my best shot. The blog is still available to view, the book is still available to buy, and her final resting place received a makeover I thought she deserved. It was this location I’d intended to visit today after a too-lengthy absence, accompanied by the kindred spirit and occasional Winegum commentator who goes by the name of Gildas when in his online guise. Alas, it wasn’t to be on the one day I really wanted to pay my respects; but perhaps the fact that I haven’t visited her grave for more than two years demonstrates that the living sometimes can’t help but be distracted by the one thing the dead are spared. Besides, Alison’s afterlife made arguably an even greater long-term impact on me than the eight years in which we shared an existence, and maybe that was her most significant legacy.

Alison’s afterlife began for me when I belatedly discovered she had died, and that afterlife acted as the catalyst for a seismic shift in the way I saw both myself and the bigger picture. She was the first person I’d made a connection with who’d left the stage, and when that happens, you invariably take stock of where you are and who you are. The determination to evade regret and recriminations in the future is an unrealisable aim, but it can alter your perception and imbue momentary courage. Such a landmark loss also helps prepare you for the losses to come, and I wasn’t to know more would follow far sooner than I’d anticipated. Everyone of importance who’d recently entered my orbit in 2014, and (even more so) those who entered it swiftly thereafter, are emotionally entwined with the memory of Alison in my mind now, and are just as irretrievable. It’s as though the ghost of Alison had placed us all on a celestial chessboard and directed the following episode – beginning, middle and end – from wherever her spirit resided. And when I speak of her spirit, I do so from a secular, agnostic perspective that nevertheless believes science has not entirely explained everything.

Today I can’t help but ruminate on all that Alison missed by passing away in 2010. As a person whose political leanings were very much to the left, she probably wouldn’t have been impressed by the outcome of the General Election that took place just a month after her death. She missed the Coalition and Austerity; she missed the 2011 riots and numerous terrorist atrocities; she missed Brexit and the election of Trump; and she missed Covid-19. Yes, one could say she timed her exit well, I guess; but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t criminally premature and tragic, all the same. I often play the morbid game whereby I consider the moments in my own life when I’d really had enough and then think of everything I would’ve missed had I done the deed. The first two examples that spring to mind would’ve robbed me of experiences which improved that life no end, whereas the most recent finds me struggling to think of anything that vindicated my decision (or cowardice) to stick around. But, hey-ho.

I guess what the loss of Alison taught me was the kind of life lesson everyone receives at some point. Not before time, I realised one has to cherish what one has whilst one has it, because nothing is permanent, however much we want the good stuff to last forever. Granted, even adhering to that truism doesn’t make it any easier whatsoever once the good stuff has gone; if it mattered, one never fully heals; there is always a hole in the heart that can never be filled in quite the same way again. The eternal optimist could say these devastating losses, which often appear totally random and without reason as they clear decks we were content to remain comfortably cluttered, happen in order to refashion us as a different person, but the trick is then learning to like that different person; and that ain’t easy. Perhaps it’s inevitable that we simply prefer the people we were when we were happy. And as Alison herself must have known only too well, the transience of happiness is what makes it so bloody elusive. That said, wherever you are now, Alison, I hope you found it in the end.

© The Editor