Wednesday, 30 April 2008


Who wonders? This thought has been on my mind a bit. At this time of year, the colours are so vivid and spring so beautiful that it feels like my eyes have been upgraded from a 1MP crappy phone camera to a Canon EOS450. The saturation of colur and clarity of what I see is breathtaking.

But I see it. It impresses itself on my perception and I find myself looking so long and appreciatively at the deliciousness of it that people look at me strangely.

And I say "Can you see it? Isn't it beautiful!" of a cherry tree, a hawthorn bush, a lawn, a dandelion.
And they reply "Yes. Pretty, isn't it." and I think to myself "No, you don't see it, do you! You say you do, maybe even think you do. But your mind is on other things and whilst you are dimly aware of it, you are nt really seeing it."

But occasionally, I stumble across another who takes that moment to really look and appreciate.
Imagine, if you will, that for years your eyesight was fading: That you had all but lost your vision and all you could see, if anythig at all, was dim, grey outlines.
And then one day someone says: "Hey! We now have cure for that! Let's cure you!"
And suddenly your sight is restored. How ecstatic would you be! What use you wouyld suddenly find for your eyes and how precious every image you took in with them, from daisies to rainclouds.

So, I try to live with that situation in mind. And all that I see is fresh and delicious.

And then there is ants:
I have written of this before. If someone made a toy, about say, September, and it was a small robotic device that was little larger than a pinhead but which moved around using some seemingly arbitrary but autonomous decision making criteria, then by Christmas, it would be all the rage and everyone would want one.
Lift up a stone, anywhere in Summer and there you will find such a thing. Ok, not man made (is that the deciding factor I wonder?). I had one on my desk. It fascinated me for ages until I actually had to do some work for a change.

Take a moment to really look. And look at the exquisite features of an ant or a beetle. Its something really impressive and worth examination.
Small joys are not really small.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

The best £300 I ever spent.

I made a discovery quite late in the day, but thankfully not too late.
There are things that make you completely alive. Most of the time, we are scattered, not mindful. We have a dozen processes of thought of differing levels of consciousness going on at the same time for most of our waking moments and we are not really paying attention to being alive.

I went to a lecture at work by the lovely Baroness greenfield on consciousness. It was really quite profound. Her contention was that consciousness is an emergent property of circuits of neurons working. The more neurons involved in the dominant circuit, the more conscious we feel at that moment.

She used a picture of a man leaving the platform for a bungee jump to illustrate the peak of consciousness with the comment: "this man is not worrying about his mortgage."
i concur, based on my own experience. I am very scatty by admission and reputation. Much internal dialogue happens continuosly And hence I am not really fully conscious much of the time.

And then I discovered surf.

I don't really get moved by standing-up surfing. I tried it and it was ok. You get most leverage standing and can manage tighter turns.
Body boarding is also fun and can be quite exhilarating in big seas if you go out far enough an get the right waves. Fins are a must though.

But then I bought my kayak. Well, I say kayak but that is usually an enclosed boat with a spraydeck. This one is really a "hybrid waveski" But quite a big one because I am heavy.

Sitting out beyond the break, maybe 200m out, the sea is calm with a healthy swell. Inshore, waves break every six to ten seconds. Out here, waves are more sparse, but bigger, cleaner, more enduring.
I wait, the boat bobbing languidly in the swell. Out to sea, the surface is grey-green with small-scale perturbations, I continue to wait.
Suddenly 100m away, a strip of sea changes consistency, more opaque, paler, as the angle of the water changes, reflecting the sky differently.
A Hope grows: This is MY wave and it promises much. I paddle forward until I am where I think I need to be to take off on the wave.

Neck craning behind me, excitement building, I see it growing as it approaches, calmly rolling toward me as it seems to grow to the size of a house. When it is ten metres behind me, I start to paddle furiously at an angle oblique to the travel of the wave, attempting to match its speed when it reaches me. My stomach tingles inside as I feel the back of the boat rise up and I heave myself forward.
Momentarily, I feel as if the wave will leave me behind as I lag behind its rising peak. But with every ounce of my strength, I dig in my paddle, the water hard and unyielding as I force it behind me, and I lever myself and the boat over the top onto the smooth downward face of the wave.
Now I am looking down a slope, a small water hill maybe ten feet high, but a hill that is gathering pace towards the beach, and now bearing me with it. I throw myself backwards until I am practically lying along the boat, to stop the nose digging in and the “take-off” begins.

The boat accelerates and now I am starting down its face going what feels like a hundred miles an hour.
I lean in and try a turn to my right. With a dip of the paddle, the boat responds and I am now travelling at 45 degrees to the motion of the wave. Behind me, it has started to break, curling over its peak in a point of white chaos. The point follows me just behind the boat.

And suddenly all is still. Aquaplaning on the flat hull, there is a sudden moment where everything joins in absolute perfection. There is a sound, like that of a scoop through sorbet and everything is in perfect balance. I have no thought. I just am.

The moment lasts for that odd period of time which is both instantaneous and an eternity. My mind holds nothing. All thought stops. Pure joy and euphoria suddenly fill the space where the chattering thoughts usually reside. I don't know how long this lasts but it is perfection and the moment I live for. My mind is empty of thought but saturated with sensation. I don't have to think about how to direct the boat: It's all instinct and a dip of the paddle here and touch into the face of the wave there and the ride seemingly carries on without conscious direction from me. There is calm and there is exultation, normally improbable bed-fellows. But in this instant of time, I am an empty vessel being filled with the perfection of the moment.

Another point of breaking wave is fast approaching from the other direction, squeezing the clean peak smaller and smaller. When it seems barely the length of the kayak, I dig harder into the right and hop neatly through the remnant of clean unbroken wave. The two points of turbulence close behind me, turning the wave to boiling white soup and using the clear slope of the back of the wave, I paddle furiously to get myself back to my starting point, to wait again for my wave.

Many waves and two hours later, which feels like ten minutes, I drag myself and my boat back up the beach. I lie in the foam of the margin, exhausted.
Above me, the towering hill is so green and crystal clear in my eyes that it might have been engraved upon my cornea. The gorse is so yellow that I can almost taste it. The clarity is like I have never had eyes before. It is like life up to this point, except for similar such moments, was lived with a dirty windscreen and suddenly the screenwash has been filled and the screen cleaned properly at last. It is so VIVID!

In my mind, there is no sound. The voices have all silenced for a while. Like the cacophony on the shortwave bands has suddenly been silenced by a worldwide power cut. There is just a gentle "shushing" inside, like small waves lapping the beach on a windless, surfless day.
I float on the untroubled surface of my mind.
That is enlightenment. The clamour has gone and I am properly calm.

© Pete Earlam 2007

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Trade shows

I am in Seville, writing this in between customer inundations. Trade shows do amuse me. Mostly, people are interesting, because, I suppose, they have all come from far away, out of curiosity. This implies that a. they are quite intelligent and b. they have the drive to go finding things out. Some of the questions have even taken me to the realms of the quantum mechanical level: Not something you expect at a computer industry trade show.
I rather like it. I do however find great amusements at the response of people to my giveaways. I wont say what they are but they are worth about two quid and are actually pretty cool. But the furtiveness or brazenness of the approach is really very funny.

I draw giggles from the girls conscripted as always at these things, for the fact that I cannot stop dancing. I do this when i am bored, restless or happy. It is a cross between salsa steps and tap. I can't help it. I suppose this is what keeps me thin.

It seems odd that, once, my academic performance was hit hard by my preference for going busking with my banjo, to the extent I pretty much failed my first year and so couldnt get a degree.
And here I am all those years later, busking, just in a different way (for all you kids reading: This is not an exhortation to muck about and not get your qualifications. I was just very very lucky with how things turned out).

And so, here comes another wave of jovial, affable punters. I suppose I had better open another box of freebies and earm my crust.
Tap dancing shoes on again.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

what happened to wonder?

"I paid business class for this seat!" said the stroppy german passenger in front of me, when told he had to pay for his drink. I turned to the flight attendent and smiling said "of course: its your fault9? She was very good though and without a flicker of indignation, smilingly pretended concerned interest in his ticket stub. Havng thus been duly listened to, he settled back into the same cramped seat that I and the rest of the thirty or so other passengers are occupying on this ten foot wide flying aluminium tube. Subsequent passings of the cabin crew elicited twinkling, barely perceptible smiles to me. He was, as far as I could tell, a sarcastic arrogant ingrate, but then who am I to judge?
The large formless posterior of am american Edna Everidge was then thrust unwittingly into my face by its owner, exhibiting a huge degree of unawareness of personal space. It wasn't a very nice bottom, but nonetheless I was momentarily overcome with the urge to sink my teeth into it. Tossed between the two horms of revulsion and humour, I averted my gaze.
Outside the window, the blue of the sky exerts some kind of profound calming wistfulness in me. Something about the shade of blue of the cloudless sky goes into the brain directly, triggering some mechanism in the deepest oldest part of my humanity.perhaps it was from the association of idle musing in my earliest recollections as a pre school child on siston common as my grandparents slept a very English afternoon sleep (the only other kind of such sleep being that on a rainy saturday afternoon when BBC2 would show black and white melodramas and unwatched by my sleeping guardians, I would light little illicit fires in the grate).
I love the way that up here at, 35000 feet (as we were just told) the blue fades so seamlessly into the band of white and subsequent grey below.
On!y when I see a plane below, dteaking along at the same speed in the opposite direction, do I realise how fast we are going. 500 mph or so is about usual, so combined, our relative speeds are just on the edge of my comprehension. Walking to work wold take over two hours. By bike 30 mins. By car 16 on a good day. At 1000 mph, 36 seconds. It just about fits in my head.
And hpow we take this for granted! To the extent that old Grumpy Business-class-fool can stand up here in our fantastic machine and moan about the price of his ticket.
Wonder is so fragile. Time to land.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

I love my van

I love my van
I am sitting at kemble Airfield where the boy bids me to bring him in order to race his RC car. An assemblage of characters, all male and aged anywhere seemingly between 14 and 65, are watching intently as scale models of fast-looking cars are zipping around a small track. There is serious intensity of concentration as levers are twiddled and either near-silent, or irate-bee-sounding cars career in their miniature competition. Electric motors or nitro-methanol (internal combustion engines that would fit in your hand: Beautiful pieces of engineering) send these tiny objects of expenditure and devotion at outrageous speeds, into bends and along straits. I wonder at the enthusiasm. I remember toy cars as a boy; Imagining the tiny drivers in their adventures as I sent them to places only existing in my own mind.

But this is something different; A possibly almost exclusively male fascination with specific area of human endeavour.
And being bitterly cold, snow still clinging to the northern sides of the trees, I sit in my van, where it is warm and I can make tea and eat ghastly noodles from the Chinese supermarket, quickly reconstituted in a bowl.

I love my van. It used to belong to my father and I bought it off him for £1000 when his alcoholism made it no longer possible for him to drive. I have two photos of him on the wall in here, in homage to him not because I am a great ancestor worshipper or sentimentalist although there is a part of that, I grudgingly admit. No, mostly, it because I am grateful to him for his handiwork.
For it was he who took a standard 1992 semi-hi-top long wheelbase ford transit, and saw its potential. And using materials, mostly stolen, sometimes gathered and when no alternative means of sourcing was possible, bought, he turned it into the most significant form of escape ever.

The walls are of tongue and groove pine, covering the sides and the ceiling and giving the feel somewhere between a sauna and a cabin in a 19th century passenger ship. There are two beds in which all the means to live an indefinitely comfortable nomadic existence can be stored. They can be arranged as two single or a double bed and the bedding - a king sized duvet, sheets, covers and pillows, all sourced from my favourite german surprise emporium - lives permanently under one. Two mattresses purloined from a certain west-country budget holiday camp years ago, grace the tops. They are very comfortable and regularly hoovered, scrupulously cleaned and freshened with fabreze.

And here is where i shelter from the biting North wind, with the sun streaming through the windowns, thoughtfully fitted at quite some expenditure. A newly purchased leisure battery and an inverter provides my 240VAC for this laptop and could even power hair straighteners, a telly (god forbid!) or a soldering iron for those little home-improvement jobs needed from time to time.

Thus equipped, it is always ready for a getaway. Indeed, in 2006, i arrived home one evening and said to the family "C'mon! Pack! we are going to Cornwall!" And off we went, bikes on the back, boats on the roof, to Bossinney where we stayed for two and a half weeks of glorious carefree unplanned holiday. Whilst other campers sat in their tents and boiled up quick-cook rice and pasta with jars of sauce, I pulled out my big cooking pot from under the bed and made beef stew with beer, puy lentils and chorizo cassoulet and lamb korma.

On a day when there is surf, I look at eyeball surf-check to see the North Devon webcams and if I am so inclined, off I go with any rare friends brave enough, to Putsborough or Saunton to catch some waves. The kayaks, boards, wetsuits, all the other paraphernalia, goes into the back or on the roof, and within hours we are in the sea, and later, blue and thawing drinking steaming mugs of hot, sweet tea in the comfort of my van, looking at the breakers and feeling the wind rock the bodywork, we sit snug and mellow inside.

Or when the boys have a race for Greenpower ( we put the racing car in the back and off we go to Goodwood or Darley Moor or Castle Combe where the team use the van as a base for tea, bacon sandwiches or a quick snooze, or as a workshop to affect mechanical repairs to our racing car.

And always, I am looking at my old dad's crap carpentry and reminded of how his lovable just-good-enough pragmatism left his character clearly displayed for anyone who knew him to see and smile at: Crooked lines of screws, poorly hammered and bent-over nails, wonky shelves full of mugs. Sometimes, when it is raining, I go outside and sit in my van, under the guise of repairing something, and I just listen to the rain, and I talk to my old dad and tell him what's been happening. Then I can hear his wry laugh and his almost-useless but well-meant advice and I can feel like he is there again.

But still, with probably only a year or so of life left in my van,i look to improve and refine the design of this mobile toy box. My addition of the rear seats, folding table, cargo nets on the ceiling for clothes, the big framed poster of the sea, these are all things that, in the original spirit of its construction, go to make this portable living space more comfortable. Thoughts occur on planes, in traffic, on aeroplanes. Improvements are always suggesting themselves. Such improvements give me an inordinate and possibly disproportionate sense of self-satisfaction on a deep existentialist level. My indescribable sense of a source-of-potential (which I shall paradoxically attempt to describe more fully at a later date) is invoked.

The wonderful and empowering thing is that in my mind, I always know that if the corporate life grinds me down just that little bit too far, i can come home and just go, for a day, a weekend, two weeks, or maybe for an odyssey across the world.
And that feels good.

Some have their RC cars, some do train spotting, and I have my van. And when it fails its last MOT, i shall get another one.
We all need our escapes.
And now I shall put the kettle on.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

My Favourite german import

No, not a car, not a beer, but a supermarket chain!

Now, some might find this difficult to undestand, this particular supermarket brand seeming to be at the lower quality end of the market (A point I dispute). But I am a great fan of Lidl. Firstly, you always know where yu are with a Lidl. Anywhere in the world you go, the layout, brands and stock are exactly the same. If it is gardening stuff in Southmead, it is gardening stuff in Amsterdam. If it is skiing equipment in Munich, so is it in Madrid.

I cannot go into a Lidl without spending at least twenty quid I had not intended.
Its cheerful germanic enthusiasm and misplaced happy pragmatism is a universal constant, like G or the speed of light. I always want to speak german in there and indeed, frequently do. And polish sometimes too. Oddly, I do seem to meet a lot of germans in there and this is strange since i didnt know there were that many around here. Its good for the practise and the looks on their faces when you address them in your best Hochdeutsch.

Over the years i have bought many splendid things there:
an inflatable kayak (very good actually unless there is surf)
A spade with a handle LONG enough!
Lebkuchen at Christmas (Oh joy! How germanically festive)
Cycling stuff galore (its very good, especially the SPD shoes)
Underwear! (yes! Really! And I can attest that it is VERY supportive!)
A blood pressure monitor and heart rate monitor (ten quid each!!!!)
A Dremel copy for 20 quid (fantastic!!)
A mini-greenhouse for my chillies (afermentioned in previous scribble)
oh, i could go on all day!

Oh a vast array of stuff have I purchased and NONE of it have i been disapointed with (although the fishing sonar for detecting fish apparently always registers the same four fish at 2m down).

I have two local Lidl's: one is a mile from home and one is in Bad Lippspringe near paderborn, Nordrhein Westfalia where i seem to find myself too often. The stock is exactly the same, the only difference being our prices are pounds where theirs is the same in euros.
But everywhere I go, if I see a lidl, I head for the middle aisle of undiscovered delights and always come away with something that really cheers me up. Retail therapy actually does work.

So, if you want good tools at prices which other shops only offer tools with the cosnsistency of Cheddar cheese, if you want real German sausages or a splendid stylish pair of shoes (well, alright, maybe i do get carried away a bit), some perfume reminscent of that which elderly female relatives gave away at long forgotten christmases, big thongs or a wakeboard (??), you know where to go.

Oh, and the prunes are really good, really cheap and bring perfect germanic regularity, if you get my drift.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008


When I arrive home from work, my house feels a certain way. If I come home via a different route. It feels like different place. If I come home from holiday, it feels like somewhere else again. If my mother visits, I have a party or its 2 a.m and I am alone, it provides a different set of impressions completely.

These, i suppose are what I would term "atmospheres": how a place feels to you.

And yet, we have no vocabulary for such feelings. The atmosphere of my dining room on christmas day, during lunch, has a flavour, a scent, some kind of set of sensations it engenders inside my mind. But there are no words for it. Ok, there is cosy and homely and comfortable, but nothing with which to describe the components of thses impressions.
Do we all have them? I am supposing we do. All of us feel spaces differently, i suspect, but we all feel them, of this i am certain.
But why no words? Is it such an elusive, personal feeling each time that we could not fit words to such an abstract concept? Why not? We have many other named abstract concepts.
And why are these sensations, engendered as they are by places and spaces, not really discussed the way that say, flavours are, or colours, or flowers?

For instance, as a boy, catching sight of a wooded, rocky hillsde would engender a sense of adventure; I would want to explore, build dens, make bows and arrows, just adventure! ANd as an adult, I feel the echo of this looking at exciting wild places, I just don't know why anymore.
Consider a set of hills in the foreground, on a summers eve at twilight. The wistful feeling it produces inside. We must surely have all felt something of this. How do we describe it?

I will be thinking of this when I move from place to place. Some description must surely be possible.