Friday, 30 December 2011

Overcoming the Inertia

I am sitting in a wood writing in my van. The rain is falling on the metal roof and it is a comforting, friendly sound. I have heard it many times as I drifted off to sleep somewhere near the sea as I stayed that extra night hoping for an improvement in the weather when I awoke next day. It is warm enough as I have a very nice Eberspacher diesel heater, originally installed for the comfort of the chaps of the railway crew who previously inhabited the van in its previous incarnation. I have a cup of tea here, since I have all my home comforts around me as I sit at my portable desk.

The wood is called "Midger Wood" and is just off the the A46 between Stroud and Bath. It is one of a number of small wooded valleys that lead down from the scarp. There is Ozleworth, Tresham, and I suppose further along, Dyrham and Lansdown.
This is my favourite however as I used to cycle here from my tiny village about 7 miles away, to get the best catapult sticks when I was a boy.

It is owned now by a wildlife trust and is less impenetrable than it was during the derelict periods of the 70s and 80s when it was a largely uncared-for wilderness. Now there are paths and coppices but cleverly, the wild feeling has been retained. There are owl and bat boxes and little nests provided for dormice. But there are also secret places to be found down by the little stream where the water is so saturated with lime that it coats a twig or a snail shell in a stone crust in just a year ir so.
Interestingly, given the oolitic limestone nature of the geology hereabouts, I once stumbled across a piece of knapped flint in a drainage channel from a field above the forest. You don't find flint for quite a distance from here and so it must have been brought here by someone, probably long ago. That was a bit spooky, to hold a tool from an inhabitant from thousands of years ago when bears and wolves roamed these forests.
This another of my favourite semi-desolate places where I like to go to give myself space to think. Here there is no wifi, not even any phone reception. I am uncontactable and nobody knows where I am.

So, why am I here? Well....
An hour or so ago, I was at home, suddenly at a loose end and wondering what to do. Given my slightly ADHD tendencies, I find it hard to write when there is distraction since every noise, movement or passer-by-the-window tends to send me off down a small voyage of curiosity. It scatters the attention and I lose my train of thought.

But here, with the bare trees leading off down the valley, the rain now beating on the roof of the van and a small river developing in the road which falls steeply away to the large millpond at the bottom of the hill, I have peace.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoy distraction, I find it fertile. It provides a constant stream of stimulus upon which a brain may feed. Without it, the internal conversations grind to a halt to be replaced by prosaic dialogue about what to have for tea and how the garage really does need a tidy-up.

But when one needs to tease out an idea that has been forming for a while, distraction is not helpful. And so, here I am in the wilds of Gloucestershire, in the back of a transit van in the rain.

And the thought I need to articulate is brought to mind by the turn of the year. Oh, a tedious New Years Resolution ramble, I possibly hear you think. But it is slightly at a tangent to that. My thought is about Inertia.

We are all familiar with inertia in the physical sense. It makes us lean when we go around corners too fast or head over the handlebars on our bucycle when it collides with a solid object of sufficient mass.
But the inertia I describe is far less tangible. It is that force that allows us to watch life glide past as a spectator rather than as a participant. I note that in this inter-year week, such as the time between Christmas and New Year tends to become, the days have passed without regard. I could not tell you really what has transpired nor my attiitude to life and the passage of time was during that period. I was variously drunk, absorbed in a book, stuffing myself with turkey orjust staring slack-jawed at the television.
And so life goes, year by year. And each year I say to myself "This year, Pete, I must do more STUFF! I must get out more, meet more people, take part in more activities"
Indeed, at that moment when the clock chimes twelve on the 31st December, it all seems so clear! All I have to do is to get out more!

Yes, I think to myself: Its very straightforward. You just decide you want to do something, you perhaps research what is required and then, you do it.
So, why don't I? Here I am am, like so many people, with perfectly working limbs and faculties, articulate, "fun loving" and mostly open to new experiences. And somehow, I sit and think about doing stuff and just don't.
I have my splendid van, with its seats, its heater, its beds. I have bicycles, kayaks, surf-boards, musical instruments. And I could do so much!
"When the weather warms up, " I tell myself "I shall organise a grand picnic one sunny day in a park. I shall take a wicker hamper, a primus and a proper teapot and everyone shall wear hats and their finest Summer clothes!" How alluring the idea seems in thise dark winter months. Summer opens the world to us for our pleasure and indulgence. All we have to do is rake advantage of that freedom.

Every year for a decade I have thought thus, and every year, somehow I have failed to make it materialise. It can't be that difficult can it? Well, ok, there is the weather. It has not really been generally suitable for picnics, but some days wiuld have been perfect even so. So what stops me organising it?
Well, perhaps fear of rejection. There needs to be people. "The people make the party" it is said and this is undoubtedly true.
But given the haphazard nature of British weather, one would have to organise such a gathering on the spur of the moment and few people have the flexibility to do that. There would probably be a lot of people who are busy and would decline. But I could ask! If even two other people come along, it is a realisation of the idea.

No, something else is at work here. It's "inertia". We sit on our sofas or at our computers and information comes to us. It is not necessarily entertaining information, but it is sufficient for us to remain there awaiting more. A type of overriding gravity holds us in place and the thought of changing from this relatively comfortable state to something else - anything else - just seems unappealing, regardless of how much fun the alternative might be. Its just too much effort to physically or even metaphorically get off our arses and make it happen. A paralysis of the will overtakes us and we stay where we are. We sit, vegetating, prevaricating, doing what we have always done. And the great opportunities of life happen elsehwere, to other people or not at all.

This has to stop! A change must take place! No longer can time be wasted in the frittering away of moments awaiting the next email or status update. Picnics in sunny parks must happen. Dances must be attended and conversations over coffee must take place. Trips to wild sea or long sandy beaches will happen and sunsets watched with friends with a glass of wine or mug of tea await, ours for the taking.

Where an obstacle exists, it must be examined and a solution found. If there are no people, find some (ok, harder to do than to say, but this is the 21st century with all its attendant communications technologies). If no event presents itself, organise one! Phone LOADS of people. Surely everyone can't be busy or indifferent! Playfellows must exist somewhere!
Ok, family ties and commitments must be taken into account and I remember those from when the kids were small. But fun was still to be found within such constraints, rendering them less of a constraint and more something that adds flavour by sharing the experience.

But if what prevents action and fun is merely the difficulty of rousing ourselves to action from our fur-lined rut of discomfortless apathy, then this must be recognised and energy injected.
I have had this realisation several times before, but the quietness in my mid towards the end of this year has been so resounding and eventually full of despair, that this time, I have made this public statement that it will be tackled and persevered with. I ask sincerely for anyone reading this to suggest how the mind-numbing, resolve-paralysing force of inertial immobility can be overcome. Some strategy must exist for those times when we know delight is within our grasp but somehow we are too leaden to stir ourselves to reach for it. If you know how to do this, please help!

If colour and vitality is not to be drained from us to be replaced by drabnesss, lethargy and mediocrity, the nettle must be grasped and life seized by the ears and ridden like a wild horse. Texture, sensation, vibrancy can be our, if only we can overcome the lethargy.

So no more intertia! Let us as Zorba says "Suck the very marrow from life!"
See you in the Park in June. Wear a hat!

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Some Boxing Day Wilderness


Every Boxing Day for the last few years, we have walked off our turkey and mince pies by a walk up and along the lofty peninsula of Brean Down near Weston Super Mare (though somehow, in nature, not near Weston super Mare). I will not describe its features as the wikipedia page covers it perfectly in physical depiction as does this picture which I hope the photographer won't mind me linking to, but which shows it so beautifully that I just had to refer to it.

Brean Down is essentially a Mendip Hill which is in the Bristol Channel, along with the islands of Steepholm and Flatholm.

I remember Brean Down from my childhood when I played on the beach down below. It is a long flat beach and my memories of it are of the vehicles which were left rusting after being overtaken by the sea to the chagrin of the foolish people who drove them down there, doubtless enticed by the prospect of driving fast over a huge uninterrupted expanse of sand. Personally, I think this is madness from many perspective, not least mechanical, knowing what sand does to machinery.it's a steep climb up a flight of steps to the top of the down. When one is weighed down by a voluminous belly from several days of excess, it seems a never-ending toil to get to the top of the steps.

Once you get to the top, hacking and coughing your congested guts up, you are confronted by a view along the length of the first hump of the Down. There are several of these that you walk up and down along if you walk down the southern side. Its a walk along a spine of rock, a long drop down one side and shallower drop on the northern side with a view of Weston and up the Severn. Weston looks particularly ugly and incongruous given the ruggedness and beauty of the hill upon which one stands. But the view along the peninsula, with the Somerset Levels behind me, always fills me with a sense of adventure and wildness.
With the ageless moaning of the wind in the stubby hawthorns, I am the paleolithic hunter leaning on my spear and wondering at the gods that lived beneath the waves or I am the Victorian artilleryman heading back to the barracks wondering if the invasion will come and if I would be the first to spot it and raise the alarm.

There are the remains, in the form of long interconnected mounds, of the neolithic field system, though looking at the shape of the wind-stunted trees, it is hard to imagine any soil remaining there for very long, hence the walls I suppose.
There is also at the highest point (I have not really been able to see it but i think the rectangular depression in the picture might be it), the remains of a temple to Apollo build by the Romano British in the 4th century. This was purportedly built upon and older temple stretching back into prehistory. Given the eeriness of the place, high up on a long line of rock with water swirling grey and forbidding either side, you can see how ancient peoples might have attributed a specialness to the place and of course to many human minds, geographical specialness often equates to supernatural attributions.As you get along towards the end, the path gets very rugged and the steepness of the cliff accounts for a number of dogs every year who, chasing the goats or whatever else catches their hunting instinct, run over the edge to presumably pause motionless for the second or so before they realise they are above empty space, at which point the knocking of legs against air stops, accompanied by a surprised expression as gravity resumes its ten metres per second squared pull towards the sea.

At the end of the promontory is the fort. Walking down the steep hill towards the fort, you get a sense of how bleak it must have been to be stationed here in the 1860s when Lord Palmerston decreed it be built as part of a line of defences against invasion.
The fort is still in reasonable shape, though mostly without roofs and with the huge artillery guns now gone. Part of it was blown up when a certain Gunner Hains shot his rifle into the the powder magazine on July 3rd 1900. Nobody knows why. But perhaps the bleakness just got to him. I can understand that, though not the spectacular response.

There are rails which head down to the sea where boffins attempted to develop a ship-launched bouncing bomb in WW2. The bomb rolled off the end, stopped and exploded, terminating the rail raggedly and the programme promptly.The most atmospheric place feels to me to be the gun emplacement facing south west at the top of the hill. Derelict but sturdily made from concrete, they stand starkly against the skyline, hinting at the number of eyes that must have scanned the horizon over the years from their fortified windows. Even now there is a lovely view of Steepholm.
I stand in the middle of its graffiti-covered walls and attempt to imagine the soldiers pacing around on long winter wartime nights as the huge searchlights played out across the Bristol Channel looking for invading ships. It is not difficult to hear the tread of their boots or the grumbles at the inclement weather in between puffs on cigarettes.
On the North side, the going is easy. There is a rough road which traces its way along the hill for a mile and a half. It passes the house of Captain Cox from the 1800's, modified as a command post in WW2 and the gun emplacements from which bren or Bofors gunners would have rained down fire upon any invading tourists attempting to storm Weston beach in the hope of the last of the raisin muffins from the Edwardian tearooms.
It is a relatively easy walk round the back of the headland and back to the car park. Usually, here, we arrive windswept and cold and sit in the van cooking up the remnants of the Christmas dinner as we stare out to "sea". Its not really sea, I think, though there is seaweed, the fragrance of which is almost convincing. It is difficult not look wistfully out at the water as you eat your reheated turkey, stuffing and sprouts in rich gravy. Or the cheddar truckle and home made bread as we had this year.
Then, sated, as the light fades, we drive home through the twilight along the sandy road towards Berrow, listening to (as is my wont) Kate Bush "Hounds of love".
And that is Boxing day, atmospheric and invigorating!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Party Season

Every year at this time, the Sunday Supplements are full of such articles as "get in shape for the Party Season!", "Fashion must-haves for the Party Season!" and "Hangover cures for the Party Season morning-after!"
And initially I think "Yes! Of course! It's Christmas! There will be festivities! How exciting!"
And I look around and... where are these parties that comprise this "Party Season"?

Now it could be just that I am not terribly sociable or popular, but I shan't be attending any parties this Christmas. Indeed, I am not aware of any taking place. And every Christmas, this seems to be so. This vague cloud of indistinct festivities looms up at us from about October onwards with a promise of happy throngs of revellers enjoying each others' company with abandon in some social whirl of celebratory engagements.
And suddenly, I look up and its a few days before Christmas and, well, no invitations have been forthcoming, in fact, I haven't heard from anyone for ages!

Is it me? Do I smell? Am I just persona-non-grata in civilised society? Or do people just stay in and watch telly nowadays?

Ok, in an ideal world, it would be deeply exciting to be invited to, and attend parties where flamboyantly-dressed characters converse with much laughter in darkened halls where bands of musicians play evocative tunes and acrobats cavort in harlequin suits above. I would dance all night and hold quickfire bantering conversations with a man in a purple silk top hat and a lady in a burgundy velvet ball gown. And we would toast "To life and living it!" and jostle and laugh,
But a quick drink down the pub after work would be good too. Only.. everyone works from home now (as I do mostly) and face-to-face interaction seems a thing of the past.

I suppose I could hold a party. But I start to draw up the list and realise that, the kids are grown up and the link they provided to the friends of the last twenty years (i.e. those with whom we shared children of the same age) is broken now. The list of potential attendees is somehow strangely short and everyone we ever knew has buggered off somewhere. A few tentative phone calls and discouragement is complete. Despite there being no parties elsewhere, those few people I know are all somehow otherwise engaged.

So, let's hear it for the party season! We can pour ourselves a drink, put on our party hats and sit down to watch Christmas Escape to the Country as we toast to "Absent Friends!"

Sunday, 11 December 2011

A few Observations from my trip

Well, after my long avoided lightning trip to America, I have merely a few photos and some t-shirts bought from the outlet mall on I25 to show for it. It is 12 years since I last went to America and I confess this trip was easier than I had remembered. Passing through Denver airport instead of Washington or Chicago is much more civilised as it feels a lot less metropolitan and serious.

All that Americana was quite overwhelming since I think we are deceived by the seeming similarity of language into thinking the cultures are similar. In some ways perhaps they are, inasmuch as wherever you go, people are people.
And of course there is a cultural colonisation happening the world over through appealing American brands and retail meccas resembling the strip malls one sees on the outskirts of towns in the US.
Much fuss seems to be made about this here, but I suppose if this is what people want then there seems no reason they shouldn't have it.

But the unselfconsciousness of people is rather endearing. Upon hearing my obviously English accent, many Coloradians would stop and ask with genuine interest "Where are you from?"
"England" I would reply. And their curiosity would result in a cheerful and pleasant conversation ending in a heartfelt "Well, welcome to America and I hope you enjoy your stay!"
I find such generosity of spirit very endearing. You don't often find it here in England where we tend, on the whole to be polite but a little grumpy (Think "How are you today?" "Ohh.. mustn't grumble I s'pose..").
And I do so love American street names. Look at this: "Lady Moon". That same unselfconsciousness is apparent here and how lovely to call a street thus. Admittedly, the grid patterns of the other streets and the logical convention of numbering streets instead of naming them is a little less imaginative, but nevertheless, it has a systematic purpose behind it which makes sense. But a street called "Harmony" must surely e more interestingly named than "High Street" and "College" tells you, as does our most common street name "Station Road" precisely what to expect there. My hotel was on "Horsetooth" which apparently reflects the shape of the hill which runs parallel to it. That frankly tickles me.Sometimes however, one encounters the surreal in the enthusiastic... This struck me as a little "South Park"

Alas, the work that piled up in my absence, despite the tools given to me to make me constantly contactable anywhere in the world, is quite insistent. Hence I do not have time to elaborate fully on my observations from last week. I have another busy week this week with a trip to Stuttgart, stormy weather permitting, so I will probably forget most of them anyway. But for now, here is a photo from my hotel at twilight. You can see the mountains in the distance, perhaps 50 miles away. They are so huge and yet at this distance merely hint at that indescribably but evocative feeling of adventure one feels whilst looking at distant hills at dusk.

So, for now, I leave the memories of a five thousand mile journey across the world by aeroplane, for a twelve mile journey to the office by bicycle.
Life is full of contrasts.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

How did I get here?

It's a bit odd really, where you find yourself sometimes. I am on a plane flying across the Atlantic. I have eaten a rather passable dinner and have watched "Cowboys and Aliens" which was a ripping good bunch-of-nonsense yarn, perfect for a long flight. Now I am settling down to appraise my situation objectively. Suddenly life seems very confusing.

Growing up in a tiny village in Gloucestershire, I was just "Our Pete": a proper scruffy urchin with a mop of unruly hair, the fringe of which covered my eyes and hid my default expression of cynical scepticism. I sneaked through woods, cutting sticks for bows and arrows, I pinched eggs from the hens in the old railway carriage henhouse a mile or so outside the village. Smelling faintly of wild garlic or cow parsley, I made dens in hedges and was generally a bit of a ragamuffin. It was a good life for a child but the horizon of my life was pretty much the extent to which I could walk from home, or where other villages' territories extended with their own ruffian kids who were generally not well disposed to interlopers.
Occasionally we would go to Bristol to visit the dentist or I would go to work with my dad on his milk tanker which took us all around the farms of North Somerset. I thought that was what life consisted of. School and our locality. Anything beyond was literally Terra Incognito and I only had the vaguest sense of what might exist beyond my everyday experience.

Well, I grew up, as one does, largely retaining the accent most beloved of those who play turnip-headed goggling yokels on telly and I got an education of sorts. It was not a terribly distinguished academic career, interfering as it did with the generally fascinating experience of being sentient. But amazingly I scraped sufficient qualifications to become employable (just) and somehow, yet again, I "got away with it".

Strange then that somehow I should be writing this at 37000 feet (as I began) over Greenland in a Boeing 777, seven hours in to my flight to Colorado. At home, my (missed!) dance class will just be starting on the intermediate section and it will be dark and cold.
Up here, we have experieced permanent daylight for an unfeasably long period as we have followed the day westward. Catapulted thousands of miles, in a few hours by almost inconceivable forces, it is light at nine o'clock home time. Implausibly, I am eating a double Gloucester sandwich (oh how far away Gloucester feels now!) several miles up over the North American Continent.

My juvenile self could not for a moment have contemplated himself up in an aeroplane. He might perhaps occasionally have glimpsed one high up on a summer's eve leaving golden jet trails in the sunset as it travelled towards places beyond his young imagination. But to fly? To Colorado?
Colorado was one of those places I saw in those glorious photos in National Geographic magazines. My grandfather used to bring them home from the childrens home where he was a gardener. They hinted at a world of exotic and enormous vistas, so different from the fields I was used to. They gave me strange feelings of atmospheres of places, how it might feel to be in them or smell them, or tread their rocky trails. To this day. when I hear the name "Colorado", I smell the smoke from a cowboy's campfire and see red sandstone buttresses and high snow capped mountains.

But I never thought I would actually go there. Why would I? I am "our Pete from Walkmill Lane" Who lived in isolated little Kingswood and was inseparable from his old parkha and wellies as he grubbed for fossils in the hills of Gloucestershire.

Looking down at Ice floes as we fly towards the northern coast of Canada, it seems odd to me that I should be here. My presence is required to discuss really, fairly mundane issues of technology with some engineers from a customer. I really cannot quite believe it necessitates this journey above the clouds to places I only saw on telly as a kid (and which were therefore in a way, no less mythical than Narnia or Middle Earth). Down there are people who speak like they do on films!
Outside the windows of the plane, the crystals of ice that form the clouds of those very exhaust trails whizz past the window, blurring my attempted photographs and possibly showing as long white lines in the sky for some (very cold) small boy to look up at and wonder.

It seems there is knowledge I possess that requires me to attend this meeting. But somehow, I can't quite believe it and it feels as if I might turn up to greet a roomful of people in Denver who will look up in puzzlement and say "What are you doing here?!"
And I will be rumbled.

They could, with seeming justification say "Didn't you used to be that kid who used to kick horse poo at the girl guides on their walks and shoot conkers at the cows' backsides with your catapult to see them raise their legs in the air? Why are you in our meeting?"
And I would say "Oh yes. So I am. I don't know what got into me. I will get my coat and go home. I don't know what I was thinking!"

Somehow, however, I will seem respectable and plausable. I will stand up in front of my customers and make pronouncements about this and that, and they will nod sagely in response with looks of considered concentration on their faces.
And me, I will be, in my mind, observing from a point ten feet to my right, looking at myself in disbelief, wondering if the words are coming at the bidding of some corporate demon who for that moment, is in possession of my vocal cords.
Will anyone guess, I wonder, what a fraud stands before them? Jargon and sincere opinion will spout forth from I know not where and these learned fellows with years of experience in engineering and technology will have no inkling of how implausible I feel. Surely, on my exit from the meeting, my boss will be there frowning, hand outstretched saying "Your pretense is uncovered! I have seen through your feeble disguise as a responsible employee! We demand all the money back!"

Well, perhaps somehow the knowledge has seeped into me unnoticed over the years. Maybe the conversations I have observed and the presentations I have sat through have actually sunk in and I do know my stuff. Could it be that all that I say will actually be correct and informative?
No, it can't be. I am "Our Pete" from Kingswood. All I know about is the best way to get to Hillesley Road from the Ash Path at Nind via Farmer Newman's fields. I can't possibly know what I am talking about.

And yet, somehow, I am here, sat on BA219 London Heathrow to Denver. I am looking down now at Lake Superior, en route to a meeting with customers, having left my Big-Grown-Up-House, my grown-up children and my wife back home in far-away England.
Sometimes, don't you just look at it all and hear the words of the song in your head?:
"And you may ask yourself 'How did I get here?'"

Monday, 5 December 2011

Dance yourself Happy!

It is my firm assertion that dance was the beginning of religion. Ok, I have no evidence at all to back that up, but it seems plausable to me. There you all are, a pliocene tribe somewhere in north east Europe 12,000 years ago or so and pickings have been a bit thin on the ground. Its the middle of winter and everyone knows the Sun has wandered off, as it does every year, and soon, it will reach the farthest point of its journey and head back again, heralding the gradual return of lighter evenings and warmer, more beneficent times.

But for now, its blinkin cold and the Head Man is a bit concerned that all the dried caribou might soon be gone. So, he thinks to himself "Crikey!" (in whatever proto-indo-european dialect they spoke in those parts) "This lot aren't going to make it to Spring in this state! They will all give up and die at this rate! What can I do....?"

So, he calls all his people together for a great pronouncement.
"Tomorrow" he says with all the authority one can muster when being eaten alive by fleas, "Since the ground is too hard for tubers and the birds have eaten all the berries, the god who lives behind yonder hill has told me I must lead you in a Great Hunt and that meat will be plentiful. But before that, to give praise, we shall have a great feast in His name and eat up all that remains of His provision. Gather wood. We shall have a great fire. Pull on your finest moleskin shoes and tonight, we make merry!" And doing whatever passed for crossing his fingers, he heads off into his tent to put on his ceremonial poncho, best antlered head-dress and facepaint.

And so, a big pile of wood would be gathered, it would get dark quite early and then a big feast would ensue. At some point, after all the half-rancid venison was consumed, some men would appear with hollow logs and big sticks, and a stirring rhythm would begin. Before you know it, everyone with two remaining working legs would be stomping around the huge fire in raptures of stone-age euphoria where the world would start to spin (possibly on account of the spores from the fungus in what was left of the food) and they felt very happy and well disposed towards each other, possibly as if some divine hand had touched them from the spirit world. That's serotonin for you.
And so Head Man would look on approvingly and pray to whatever gods he believed in that there would be more meat to replace the huge feed that everyone had just consumed.
And everyone would feel very mellow and slapping each other jovially on the back, would proclaim that the Head Man was indeed a splendid and wise fellow who knew jolly well how to organise a knees up on a Midwinter's eve.
Two days later, hopefully, the men would return with some kind of large dead ungulate and everyone would feel happy for a bit.

Ok, as proto-dinner-dances go, probably it didn't happen quite like that. But you can see the point: Dancing can send you into an altered state where you feel very close to those around you and your spirits are uplifted. And hence, it endures and we still love it.

Perhaps some may claim "Oh, but I have two left feet! I am no dancer!" but apart from making one describe a large circle of perambulation in a featureless desert, this need not be an impediment. It would appear that everyone to some extent enjoys a little jig to the right music and is the happier for it.

I remember as a student, there would often be a disco. Being largely impecunious, I would generally buy one pint of Newcastle Brown and make it last all night. And yet, I could hop on to the dance floor with my friends and dance for endless hours in a state of euphoria approaching bliss, with no training at all on how to move my limbs and body apart from having seen Pans People (A 70s dance troupe) on Telly (yes, UK readers, I AM that old!)

It appears that a form of intoxication can take place whilst dancing. I am certain this cannot just happen to me. With suitable music, I could be off my head within ten minutes of psuedo-random rhythic contortions. Neurotransmitters must surely be implicated.

Now, I have had lessons for many years so my inherent clumsiness has to some extent been eroded. But performing a spirited jive with a responsive lady to "Shake your tail feather" or a slow bluesy smooch to Diana Krall's "Temptation" can take me to the same place, only more reliably so and with less bruising to myself and bystanders.
To dance with a partner is one of the most civilised ways I know to pass an evening and I do it quite regularly. It leaves me feeling so elated

Now, I have an issue with Chubby Checker, and I should elaborate: It is to do with his "Twist". It was the first mainstream dance that was advocated to be performed solo - alone. Without a partner. I believe this started a trend which has brought about a great loss.
To hold a lady in one's arms lead her around the floor in a dance is a lovely thing. Ok, it requires in general, a little training, but frankly, not that much in order for the performance to be competent.

To dance with a lady who responds so perfectly to one's lead, even to the extent of following your thought of a move, is akin to driving a fast and responsive sports car. It is quite a delight.

But dancing with a partner is a strange semi-intimate thing. One can dance with a complete stranger, press against their bodies, feel breasts against one's chest through the thin fabric of clothing, stare meaningfully into each others' eyes, and share a proximity usually only shared with romantic partners.
And yet, it's somehow not intimate. It is merely playing a part. To dance a tango, cheek to cheek, having a shapely thigh pressing against your own, or even raised and resting on your hip, would normally be either incredibly erotic or unbelievably embarrassing. And yet, in dance, it is neither of those. It is merely acting; doing what the music suggests in order to express the emotions it engenders.

At the end of the song you take the lady's hand, you smile, perhaps perform a small bow, and go your separate ways. But you shared three or four minutes when you had human contact and your existence in the world was confirmed rather than it being a debatable point of perception on your part.

Of course, I am sure that romances do spring from dance, and perhaps that is why it endures as a form of interaction. We are apparently very well able to judge reproductive fitness from a partners ability to dance. But in most cases, it is merely sociable, polite. And everyone understands that and can feel, if they wish, safe within the bounds of convention.

Every year, between Christmas and new year, I watch "Singing in the Rain". It is one of my favourite films and the dancing is superlative. In the scene with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, the intensity of interaction is breathtaking.

But one need not aspire to such heights of perfection in order to engage in the absolute delights of dance. So, if it so pleases, and you have always fancied it, I urge you to seek out a class and take Fair Terpsichore's hand.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Seasonal Procrastination

Today, I am in the office. I am looking at the telephone, putting off a call. I don't know what I expect to happen in the time provided by my delay in picking up the phone, but so far nothing has. The call is to book some business travel for a trip I really would rather avoid. I wonder perhaps if, during my procrastination, some event may intercede and obviate my requirement to be on an aeroplane for a stupid number of hours, cramped into an inhumanly small space for one with such an extensive frame.
I sit and look a the phone. I intend to pick it up and make the call, but somehow, I just don't. Some unseen but strongly felt inertia prevents me. I look to see the nature of this inertia. Is is chemical? I try coffee in the hope that the known benefits of caffeine may somehow stimulate my neurons and galvanise them into decisive action.
It does not.

The phone just sits there, impassive and yet somehow judgmental. "Go on you lazy bastard! Pick me up!" I don't.
I notice my apple. It looks so red and green and enticing. Possibly, at another time, it would just be an apple and its appeal would be merely calorific. But now, it is a welcome distraction. How long can I take to eat an apple I wonder? About two minutes it would seem.

Like a pudding, a lumpen stodgy collection of atoms who by common agreement, decide to assemble themselves together for a few decades to form me, I sit here. And so does the phone.
Dumped into my chair, like a formless sack of human indolence, like a man made from mud, I raise my reluctant eyes to the screen to see I have an email. I wonder if it will be interesting. I open it. It is not.
I type a quick reply and go back to being an apathetic blob. The phone seems more insistent somehow
Unable to put it off any longer, I reach for the damn thing. Somehow, gravity in the vacinity of my arms is higher than usual today. Taking my hand to the keypad takes an enormous effort. I force through it.

I pick up the phone. I am in a queue. Oh well, perhaps I will hang up and call back later.
A small, celebratory helium ballon floats past on the wind outside my window, perhaps a hundred feet up. I try to believe it had belonged to some forty-something lady, with a birthday and a bunch of lilies, who will not unduly notice its loss, rather than a now distraught and tearstained toddler seeing its favourite object of the day receding into the distance (where perhaps it may discover my lost motivation).
I don't succeed and my urge to go and find the poor mite and buy it another balloon to ameliorate its agitation, momentarily provides a spark of desire to do something other than sit and vegetate.
I watch the balloon dwindle to a dot. My empathy for the unkown, hypothetical toddler and his small personal tragedy subsides a little. I look back at the phone. Gravity increases again on my forearms. But I pick up the phone with reluctance.
And eventually I do the deed. Trip booked. Tedious details arranged. I am committed to my disagreeable journey.

So, why don't I feel better for having done that? Because I don't want to go. Why did my desire to not travel cause so much inertia? Surely, the unappealing nature of my unwanted odyssey is the same if I booked it immediately as it would be if I dithered. This is so. But we are not rational.

Is it perhaps a function of the season? Would it have been easier on a bright and sunny day in May? hard to say. But perhaps the greyness of November does something to the human spirit that makes everything more arduous. At a time when the nights are dark, the days barely brighter than twilight, when those small spirits of woodland and hedgerow, steal in from creeping unseen between the legs of the sheep in the field and into our houses to steal our sherry and hide our keys, is it more difficult to rouse oneself to action? I feel it is. Perhaps it is the desire to hibernate in a modern incarnation. Maybe metabolisms slow down to preserve energy till Summer and the return of times of plenty, impeding commensurately our brains and predisposing us to prevarication and sloth.

Or maybe I am just a lazy git who ought to just get off his arse and get on with it. Well, either way, I think I deserve another coffee and a kitkat now.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Incuriosity

George Bush reputedly has an IQ of 120. This is not dim by any stretch of the imagination. In fact it is quite a bit higher than average. But people who met him were struck by his incurious nature. I believe his speechwriter David Frum once remarked something along those lines.

Personally, I cannot comment on the former president's intelligence or lack of since I have no knowledge other than that reported to me via the flawed and unreliable news media.
But it does make me think about something that has been niggling away at me for a long time: Some people have an insatiable, driving curiosity and some, though obviously intelligent, do not.

I was moved to put fingers to keyboard over this idea by a conversation I attempted to have with someone who was obviously bright, but seemed to have no spark about them at all. The conversation I attempted to have stemmed from some research that I found fascinating enough to delve deeper into. I had mistakenly believed, given the background of the person I was talking to that he might find it mildly interesting. So I volunteered what I thought might be seeds of an interesting discourse.

The article said that neanderthals tended to be ambush hunters as their spears were not designed for throwing but more for thrusting. It went on to further say that most adult neanderthal skeletons that had been found showed many trauma injuries such as broken and re-set bones.

When positing the reason for this, one orthopaedic expert said that the only analogue in the modern world for such a pattern of injury is a rodeo rider. Hence it is likely that the standard neanderthal approach to hunting was most likely to jump out of a bush, jab a stout spear into a buffalo or similar, and to hold on for dear life until it collapsed from blood loss or sheer disbelief.

Now, to me, the thought of our muscular hero holding grimly around the neck of an irate ungulate, his brow set in firm determination his eyes pointing in different directions as hooves and horns battered and gored his formidable form, is mildly humorous to say the least. I find this line of thinking interesting and in my imagination and my research, feel therefore compelled to learn a little bit more about the assumptions and facts upon which it all rests.

Not so my companion. He merely replied, when I concluded my hopeful two-paragraph monologue, with "uh.. yeah..." and commented about how gloomy the weather is today.

Conversely, I read an article about how the organism toxoplasmosis gondii may be responsible for road deaths in countries where it is prevalent, as its reproductive cycle is usually concluded in a cat, after incubation in a rat. Hence, the rat is compelled by its parasite to engage in risky behaviours.
Since humans catch it too and have, in this respect similar physiology to a rat, it would seem likely that humans also exhibit risky behaviour. This was borne out by the graph showing correlation of road deaths per capita with incidence of T. Gondii infection.

When I mentioned this to a lady acquaintance at a dance, it sparked a look of intense curiosity and a series of very interesting questions which precipitated an hour's discussion. Now, I know this nasty little creature is quite fascinating, making it's way, as it does to the brain of its host and secreting chemicals that interefere with dopamine production, but who would have thought it would spark an evening's conversation with an absolute stranger?

So, why the difference in response? Why do some people wish to know more about things whereas others are happy to think about no more than that which is immediately pertinent to their lives?
Of course we know most human attributes vary with a standard distribution, but does curiosity? Can you learn curiosity or is there a set of genes for it? Ever since my astonishing conversation in a Cypriot supermarket, I have been dogged by this question.

Well, since we are all here, writing and reading material that nobody forces us to, I think I can safely make the assumption that our population here comprises more than the average number of curious souls. And for that I give praise and remark again to myself that time spent tapping on here is absolutely not time wasted.

And now I am off to see what is in the fridge as it feels like tea time. I wonder how my bread turned out.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Glorious Autumn

To see a dragonfly in November is very ususual. On Sunday, my dear wife and I found ourselves at a loose end and looked for somewhere picturesque in the locality to go for a perambulation. Perusing the "Walks in Gloucestershire" web page, we settled upon Woodchester mansion, which though local, was somewhere I have never ventured. So, we hopped in the van and off we went up to Nympsfield, where do lie many reminders of neolithic and bronze age habitation in the form of longbarrows, presumably so sited to give a lovely view over the Severn and thence Wales.

There is a long track down to the mansion itself. This photo looks as if I have taken it on an angle but actually the perspectives are a bit wonky in the valley itself. The valley is full of Welsh Black cattle who are sturdy little blighters and reputedly even more tasty than (and in their belted form, easily mistaken for) the belted Galloway with which our freezer is currently stuffed. The cows are good because they attract the flies that the rare bats in the belfry feed upon.The house was never finished. I don't know why. Probably the builders got distracted by a more lucrative client, or somebody died or something. It stands, unfinished, stark and beautiful, in the middle of the valley, a home to Greater Horseshoe bats and reputedly several spectral occupants which regular seances will put you in touch with. Personally, I find the gargoyles to be the most interesting feature. Bats are cool but ghosts never fail to disappoint.

There are a series of lakes, man-made by some Victorian landscaper, and it was here I saw an emperor dragonfly and another red one the name of which escapes me. It seems odd that with Christmas decorations in the shops, dragonflies are still to be seen. The elongation of both seasons seems to have brought together these two unlikely contemporaries. I tried to get a photo but they were too quick for me.
On the second lake is the boathouse. It is so very twee and you can just imagine atmospheric Summer trysts here, as the soft rain falls and Her Ladyship, freed of her crinolines, stares dreamily out of the window at the lake as the gamekeeper languishes, spent and disbelieving of his good fortune, on a pile of old horse blankets thinking socialist thoughts.
I think it is rather a lovely idea to have a boat parked under your floor. I wonder if there was a trapdoor, Thunderbirds style, through which one could drop down into a small dinghy for a quick getaway to the other end of the valley and the cover of the woods.
It was a beautiful day, unseasonably warm at perhaps 18C, but a breeze had been following us down the valley as we descended. The surface of the lake was initially covered in ripples until, suddenly, the wind dropped and...
I got a chance for an artistic shot of reflections and beech leaves. The sudden stillness was a bit spooky initially but once I got used to it, the place seemed full of peacefulness and I could happily have sat there all day, staring into the water. It was the middle of nowhere, remote, beautiful. The world surely could not intrude here.

After all these years of driving right on past this hidden treasure, I could not believe how extensive a place could be enclosed by the roads so familiar to me. There just didn't seem to be enough space.
Anyway, after a few moments of introspection, the rumbling of my stomach became too obtrusive to ignore and we headed back up the long valley to the van for a cup of tea and a kit kat. I confess that few things give me the feeling of peace as sitting in my van in a beautiful place, in the back of my van, with a cup of tea. Everyone needs a van or its equivalent, for peace of mind and mobile solitude. I have said it many times before but I love my van.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Atavistic Hibernation Instincts and Soup

I intended to write something profound today, not that such an intention, though common, ever bears fruit. But after a long walk in some glorious English beech woodland, I am afraid a glass of this years excellent plum wine and some winter vegetables seem to have captured my attention instead. I don't know why the shortening of the days and the long dark nights make me want to curl up till April in a huge ball of chewed up newspaper and crave thick wholesome soups made from root vegetables, but they do.

I can't imagine that there is an atavistic mechanism for hibernation because although we most likely do have rodent ancestors back in the creataceous, most of our subsequent evolution seems to have been around equatorial Africa where it would seem there is little requirement to hibernate.
So, I suppose, I am just lazy.

Leek & potato soup? Possibly. Or perhaps the more exotic stilton and brocolli. I will have another glass of wine and think about it.

Friday, 11 November 2011

A Useful Method to Remember Names

After my recent post about faces, I seem to have touched a nerve. However, it appears that people have more trouble remembering the names to attach to faces than they do remembering if they have seen the face before. I would therefore like to share with you a peculiar method I stumbled upon, which is probably very common, but which I developed out of sheer necessity some years ago: Mnemonics.

"Well", I hear some of you say "This is not new!" and indeed that may be so, but given the number of those who confess to being "terrible at remembering names" I feel it may be of use for me to articulate just how I personally employ this technique (and it may well be that this only works for my own peculiar brain-architecture, in which case, you will have to find you own method, but at least this may be a start).

It first came to me that it was most frustrating to not be able to have a name to put to a face when I was discussing, of all things, Tetley tea adverts in the 1980s. I could not remember the name of the character who did the staunchly Yorkshire voiceover for the Tetley Tea folk. I cannot remember why I particularly needed this name at that time, but having no internet to refer to then, I just had to wait till he came on the telly, acting in something and then examine the credits. This was difficult without freeze frame as we had no video yet.
And so, I discovered he was called Brian Glover (now sadly deceased). So, to remind myself of this, I imagined an enormous sheepskin mitten being slid over his shiny domed pate, him being not at all crowned with any hair. And it stuck. To this day, I remember his name.

When I started dancing, many years ago now, the format of the class was such that, being more or less equally-matched for gender (though I note there are usually about 15% more ladies than men and I wonder what the problem is with my gender if they are too slothful to drag themselves off the sofa to hold a lady in their arms for the evening), we formed lines with each man facing a lady. Then after a small part of the lesson, maybe five minutes, the ladies (usually) were moved on to the next man.
So, every five minutes, a new lady would appear in front of me, usually of a different size, shape and demeanour, which in itself assists in many aspects of the overall education that learning to dance provides. And each would introduce herself, and I would say my name and instantly forget hers.

After a period of time, they would return to you for a second time and it became increasingly embarrassing to keep asking their names, especially if they had remembered yours.
Then one day, a lady called Pam appeared in front of me, and into my mind came a picture of a time of Ye Olde Oake Ham from an advert in the 70s. Ghastly stuff as I remember, fatty and packed in salty gelatin. And I, in my mind's eye, imagined atop her head, a rotating tin of ham, like some advertising object on top of a building going round and round to catch your attention and make you buy... well, ham. And goodness me! I never forgot her name again. Each time she would appear I would say "Hello Pam!" and she would be astonished.
And so I expanded the idea. A particularly voluptuous but taciturn young lady called Nicola would always have her jeans hanging rather too low, thereby showing the majority of some very small and absolutely gorgeous pants, usually from Marks and Spencers, or occasionally Agent Provocateur (not that I paid that much attention of course.) Hence, it was easy for me to remember her as Knicker-la. Are you getting the hang of it now?
And so, it got easier. A lady called Diana strolled up one night to ask me to dance and I addressed her cheerily "Hello Diana!" and she replied abashed "How did you remember my name?" and I chuckled "Because of the bow and arrow!" which utterly mystified her. (I find it odd that someone should not have any idea of the origin of their own name, but the Huntress was a concept that she had never before encountered.) The image of her in my head was tagged with her in a chariot shooting arrows from a golden bow at some creature not included in my mental tableau.
Similarly, a nice lady called Helen took her turn to stand in front of me and when I remembered her name she asked how. "Oh, its easy!" I laughed "You have a ship on your head!"
Again the Greek myths provided me with the perfect attachment to remember her name by. Others followed: Gill had a pair of flappy ears behind which there were fish-gills, Vic has a biro behind her ear (no reason for the preponderance of ears), and Elaine has marmalade in her hair (complex synesthetic reason I shall not go into in this post. Names for me always have a synesthetic attachment. For Elaine, it is the taste, stickiness and colour of dark marmalade. I have no idea why). And all of theses "tags" accompany the face as it swims into view in the gloom of the Bath Pavillion. You would be amazed at how happy it makes someone to remember their name. Their confidence swells and they smile in the most gratifying way and it somehow makes the subsequent dance so much more personal.

So, I urge you: If you have trouble remembering names, add something relevent and silly to the image in your head of the face of that person. The more bizarre the better. Soon, you will be bringing smiles to aquaintances at every meeting!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

In a Sea of Faces

Pareidolia is the name given to that phenomenon that forces us to see faces in clouds, wood grain, the hills on Mars. So important is it to us that we recognise faces that vast amounts of our neural equipment is given over to the processing of facial recognition. Indeed, we even have a special brain area (which is interestingly non-functional in some people with a condition called prosopagnosia or "face blindness where they cannot recognise even close members of family).
It seems astonishing that in general, a face we have seen only briefly before will "ring a bell" even in a huge crowd of other faces. Scanning quickly across a group of people, generally we know those we have seen before and those who are new to us. We are good at faces.

And even when it is a face we have not seen for a number of years, some clever "morphing algorithm" seems to add in offsets for wrinkles, the continuing growth of nose length or the lack of hair. A face from school can suddenly leap out at us from within the aged features of a seeming stranger with such clarity that you are moved beyond the fear of embarrassment to ask "Excuse me, but are you....?". Usually, I find this to be quite reliable and only rarely do I come up with a false match. In those cases, strangely, interesting conversations usually result anyway and so I find it usually best to put oversensitivity to one side and just ask.

Today though, I had a different experience. Having had a rather heavy time of it lately with much travel on aeroplanes and when here, many late nights due to dinner with customers, I decided to take it a bit easy. A sudden desire for indolence overtook me and so, after chacking email for pressing issues and reassuring myself that the world can happily manage without me for a bit, I made myself a cup of tea and sat down to listen to the wonderful Melvyn Bragg on In Our Time.

Well, "working from Home" is all very well, but as I have described previously in a rather rambling piece, after a few hours, I start to talk to the furniture. So, after a curious exchange with the new coffee table, where I berated it for its inherent lack of stability, I decided it was time I took a wander up the High Street, possibly to buy a cake or a newspaper, and hopefully, I thought, I might enter into conversation with someone a little more animate.

Well, the usual pleasantries took place during my stroll but none notable enough to describe here. I wandered up to the splendidly sarcastic greengrocers to see if they had anything that took my fancy. Looking up from a fascinating display of Pink Lady apples, I espied a face that seemed somehow familiar. Male pattern baldness and gravity had taken its toll on the pallid features, but buried amongst them was the face, barely distinguishable, of that of a boy that in my mind's eye I could see only fresh-faced and clear-eyed by a cricket pitch in 1979.
At least, I thought it was. I didn't want to appear to be paying too much attention, but my curiosity and a smug satisfaction that if indeed it was him, then time had been far kinder to me, kept me serruptitiously sneaking glances.
And then he spoke, and all doubt was removed.

Never having been particularly fond of this character and not wishing to say hello and to then have the embarrassing situation of having no further avenues of conversation, I refrained form addressing him. After a while, slothlike and world-weary, his middle-aged frame receded down towards the clocktower clutching a cucumber and a 5lb bag of King Edwards.

Now, smugness aside, a thought struck me, a rather worrisome thought if I am honest: There comes a point at which the morphing algorithm seems no longer to be able to to compensate for intervening time. A face i remembered scribbling vast armies of cartoon stick men at primary school, in the back of his exercise book, was only just recognisable to me over thirty years later.
Up until a few years ago, faces from school rarely went unrecognised, but somehow in the last few years, another stage has been reached.

A face seems to retain its inherent features from fourteen or so, when the adult form initially takes shape and you can see how someone will appear for the majority of their adult lives. But at mid forties, it seems it passes on to another stage, which my brain cannot rectify into the previous familiar character. Most seem to get rounder and develop jowls. Hair recedes or disappears (in men mostly. Ladies often get more, at least in some facial areas) and a face becomes something completely different in justa few years.
It struck me that on a daily basis now, I may be passing old friends in the street who, because of the ravages of time, I may not notice. Something about middle-age distorts our features to a new form and a bosom buddy at ten might be addressing you in a queue about how the post office needs more counters, and you would not even know that we had shared hours of idle conversation sat in a tree in the churchyard in 1976.

As I wandered, pondering this, back down towards the bike shop, I saw a lady come out of a shop. She was my age, I know she was because I recognised her. At 15 she had been a notable beauty, one of those feted for her favours. That happens to the beautiful, I have noticed.
I remember the arrogance that beauty seemed to permit: How she replied to a small hopeful friend of mine that "No! I wouldn't go out with you if you were the last boy in the world!" crushing the lad's self-esteem possibly to this day.
eeing this mousy-haired, plump, plain lady of 45 or so, it occurred to me once more how we are all just passing through. We place so much value on appearance and yet it is so subject to change.

I said hello to her with my warmest winning smile and saw her momentarily cheered by the attention. I wondered if she remembered the long-haired ragamuffin from all those decades ago and his crestfallen friend and could translate, herself, his features onto this man who passed her in the street. I don't think so.

It is not something that concerns me unduly: The passage of time and its effect upon my face. Laughter and smiles made small deltas appear at the corners of my eyes. Frowns of concentration have furrowed my increasingly hirsuite singular eyebrow.
My wrinkles tell more about me, I hope, than the symmetry of my features or the length of my (several times broken) nose.
And I am happy with that, whether I am recognisable or not.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Autumnal Atmospheres


Waking strangely early on a Sunday morning, and feeling no ill-effects upon my physical or mental state from last nights tipple, I sit pensively in the dining room and contemplate the garden. In Summer, it is a welcoming place of different vantage points where one can take a different view of what is actually a relatively small space. From the top patio, it is possible to peruse the whole of the tichy garden, to see wriggling frogs in the pond or the mother wren popping in and out of the ivy teaching her young brood, bodies no larger than a 10p piece, to fly with insistent but encouraging ones. In Summer, the garden is a room where one can wander in and out of without a change of clothing.
Suddenly, in the space of a month, it looks a bit sad. Ok, the bamboo retains its verdant foliage and the hawthorn hedge has yet to lose its leaves. But in my laziness, I have yet to clear away the tomato plants which now black and withered, still hold some red fruits, and the birch trees have deposited hundreds of leaves on the lawn almost obscuring the grass in places (which still needs cutting. How strange for November!).

It seems the once comfortable space must now be yielded up to Winter. Soon, it may be underneath a layer of snow and not only will it be a place I do not step into for months, but also something which will not even enter into my consciousness except when occasionally I look through the transparent but isolating barrier of the patio doors with their large panes of insulating double glazing.
And yet, the garden is the same place. It hasn't moved! (Well, technically, on a cosmic scale, it has: To a place further from the Sun, but this is not evident from the placing of the penstemons or the alignment of the clematis.
So, the same place, with different temperatures, different light, different moisture levels, is a different place. Where we sat and drank wine on hot days as late as early October (and it was hot too! 29C on the first weekend), now one would look quite eccentric to sit upon the damp wood of the bench with anything other than a steaming mug of tea and a big coat.

Sometimes, I just can't reconcile standing in the same place and being overpowered by how different it feels in two different seasons.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Inconsistent capabilities strike again (verbose and possibly tedious)

Oh, look at all these people! All shapes and sizes, all going somewhere. Some in excited anticipation: The reward of a year or more's saving up for that dream holiday somewhere exotic or warm. Others, Like me, in the more indifferent anticipation of a meeting in some distant faceless conference room.

Once again, I find myself in an airport awaiting a delayed flight. It is not onerous, or even boring. I have plenty to do. But it has rathere scuppered my plans for a four o'clock meeting in Augsburg. I doubt now that I wil actually make it to my destination before my customer goes home for the day.

I sit on one of the many serried ranks of adequate chairs provided (as they are not always in airports) and do the dull thing of getting out a laptop. Only, i am not working. I am writing this which I feel is a much worthier passtime than looking through some dull presentation on the predicted storage market for 2012.
I do however refuse to conform to the usual businessman stereotype of dull or pinstripe suit, preferring, between the months of April and November (if the temperature is above 15C) to wear my "travelling suit", much as you see in my profile picture. I find it much more comfortable to travel in linen, even if it is as crumbled as an old elephants arse by the time I arrive. I can always change. Usually something more corporate is called for, unless I am poking about inside a computer or something.

Sitting opposite is a young girl, dressed also comfortably, but pretty as a bag of dolly-mixtures in what I perceive to be a rather individual and lovely 1940s style dress with make-up to match. We smile politely and then we write each other out of our indivisual universes. At least, she writes me out of hers.
I watch as tourists, travellers and air crew go by. I remark to myself that I could never have been an airline pilot, even had I possessed the requisite skills, as I cannot grow stubble in the appropriate facial areas.

Since I now have an hour I did not expect, I feel it is a reasonable idea to go and find some sustenance. Pret a Porter is not a place I would normally be seen starving at. There is too much packaging waste for a start. But hey, I am not paying and there doesnt appear to be anything else that appeals. A ham and mustard toastie will do just perfectly.

Next to me in the queue is a distinguished chap of probably late 60s. Bald and dapper with a look of bright intelligence, he inquires of the smiley girl behind the counter if they still serve food on aeroplanes or if he would be well advised to buy some now.
It seems that to ask a purveyor of food whether or not one should purchase some seems likely to elicit an obvious response but she possibly does not have enough vested interest to be anything other than honest.

Standing there looking like a hatless Man from Del Monte, only today without the tin opener, I remark to him that usually you have to purchase a drink and food, but that some airlines still offer a complimentary cotton-wool sandwich and a cup of tea. it seems, I continue, that even after purchasing breakfast air-side, it still feels incumbent upon us to eat what is given gratis lest we appear ungrateful.
We pass a few other lively and interesting pleasantries and go our separate ways.

Now, in this exchange, something struck me: I found the conversation easy to hold and reasonably insightful comments seemed to appear quite unbidden in forefront of my brain in preparation to be uttered. It flowed neatly and conversationally and lit up a small part of the day for both of us, i think. It was a nimble little exchange and the social interaction felt good.

So, strangely, I felt this contrasted with an experience I had on Saturday night in a pub in Burton on Trent which left me briefly disquieted.
This particular town seems to be very friendly compared to where I come from. Bristol appears to have become minor suburb of London in recent years with much of the cultural angst that accompanies large populations of aspirational people.

Converation in my area seems to be fraught with discomfort. Hesitant encounters with contemporaries seem dogged by anxiety (on their part, not mine) in case your car is "superior" to theirs or your child is doing better at school than theirs or in case something they let slip shows them to be your social or material inferior. Their angst is palpable and uncomfortable and makes me not want to talk to them. I find this deeply sad and not a little disturbing when the implications for social cohesion are taken into account.
Anyway, I digress.

In the pub in Burton, everyone was in fancy dress, what with it being the nearest Saturday to Halloween. My own outfit conssited of a khaki shirt and shorts, a pith helmet and an actual arrow sticking out of my chest, the technical construction of which I shall spare you.
Various revellers, in their own outfits, would wander up to me and initiate conversations, which I was pleasantly surprised to find.
And yet, I could find no replies! Me, who, sitting in restaurants all over the world has to make small talk with people of all nationalities in the name of business, could think of nothing to say! Why not? Was there a cat lurking behind a curtain somewhere in the establishment playing with my disembodied tongue? Had some vital part of my brain been deactivated during the previous day by too much wine or not enough sleep? What was going on? I couldn't think of anything to say!
Abashed, I stumbled clumsily through some pleasantries and one by one, small micro-expressions of boredom and disappointment flashing across their faces, they made their excuses and wandered off with their drinks to more fertile interpersonal encounters, leaving me feeling thick and socially inept. Words felt like glue in my mouth and my brain felt like it was made of plasticene which had been kept in the fridge for a few days. I determined to keep myself to myself and watch the band.

And yet, standing in Pret a Manger in Birmingham airport, dressed for another world, words appear by magic in my speech-buffer, awaiting the unconscious signal to express them to a receptive fellow traveller. How does this happen? How can one person with the same kilo and half of interesting cranial lard be so different under such different circumstances?

It seems to me that we mostly seem consistent to ourselves, at least from the inside. But really, circumstance, tiredness an especially company enable different aspects of us. feeling a bit of a stranger in a Burton pub, some kind of automatic mechanism seems to have been invoked to unconsciously take stock of my unfamiliar surroundings (and alas, pubs are becoming unfamiliar to me now beer is over £3 a pint). This leaves less mental bandwidth for spurious conversation of a witty manner.

In the familiar surroundings of an airport departure lounge, and having in my head that I am being sent to meet people purely on account of my knowledge and intellect (ha! I hope they feel they get value for money!), I suppose I felt more at ease with myself and my smooth-talking module was loaded into memory.

So, it would appear we are nowhere near as consistent as we think and it is only when we examine ourselves or our capabilities from a disembodied standpoint that it becomes apparent to us. But how is it that when talking to one person under one set of conditions we can be eloquent and sparkling with words aplenty and unusual angles on everyday concepts popping into our heads to adorn our conversation with a memorable quality, when under other circumstances we feel leaden of wit and hopelessly inarticulate? What makes the difference? Do the "people make the party" as seems to be becoming increasingly clear to me in other aspects of human endeavour? Or is it just us being a bit dim on some days? I favour the former hypothesis and wonder then what it implies for being the person we most enjoy being.

So, if only I could be verbally eloquent upon demand and not based upon where I am or who I am talking to. That would be useful! But how to do it.... Aye, there's the rub!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Unintended Recipients


Today, my hunter-gatherer brain is struggling with the modernity of the tasks it is forrced to deal with. Given the capabilites it developed for stone-age survivial, it is very good at directing me where to throw a rock in order to anticipate the location of a fleeing and edible animal and excellent at judging whether the other human I have encountered is well disposed towards me or is likely to club me to the ground with a blunt object and boil my head as a belt adornment. We are generally good at things that help us avoid being genetic cul de sacs.

What mine is not good at however, is juggling the many pieces of information that pass rapidly through my attention, requiring adapting, redacting, interpretation and disseminiation to a particular audience.
Similarly, it was never designed to deal with the proliferation of material objects in a modern house and their distribution to their various correct places in the home. This is why the credit card bill gets discovered in the fridge and my keys end up in the microwave.

Today, a number of very technical or political emails need writing and sending to the correct people. Try as I might, I cannot escape that feeling after I have pressed send, that I have dispatched the wrong email to unintended recipients. I read and reread the headers, scanning the To: fields and the CC: fields, knowing full well that these are the people I need to send this information to.Prompted by the knowledge that a small moan about someone would be at least embarrassing to go to the wrong audience, I peer suspiciously at the email addresses and finding no mistakes, I send the message. And yet, not trusting myself, I keep checking the "sent items" to make sure that in my renowned dippyness, I have not created a howler that will bite me painfully upon receipt.

I am reminded of a particularly arrogant sales rep once who wrote a scathing email about a customer being childish and unreasonable on a certain point and then promptly sent it to them, instead of to his boss as he had intended. That is sphincter-clenchingly embarrassing.

And today,in my head, my communication commitments all go round and round as a big cloud of information, waiting to be sifted into knowledge and fired off to be read by someone who will discern its significance.
Only somehow, I feel there is too much of it and like a tornado in a midwest trailer park, a maelstrom of stuff is circulating incoherently in my head, only instead of pants, small surprised dogs and minor household items, it is ideas, concepts and data that swirl around to be snatched wriggling and unwieldy from the confusion, and stuffed into the appropriate place. What if I accidentally send the sensitive financial stuff to a big distribution list of hard-bargaining customers? Imagine if the arcane technical secrets of particularly clever accomplishments are received by a customer with leaky allegiances instead of one of our own techies? It could be the end of me!

Like some scatterbrained postman, that delivers The Greenpeace membership package to Grumpy Daily Mail reader ar number 29, Mrs Wossname's Ann Summers toys to the crusty dowager at Rose Cottage and the Slipknot CD and Knock-off viagra to the evangelicals at the Old Rectory, who knows how much consternation my own disorganisation might cause.

All around is a vast sea of information which at the touch of a button, could bring about a disaster through accidental, careless or haphazard misdirection.
And most days, I feel this can all be routed happily and safely to the right places.
But somehow, today, confusion reigns and i just know that at some point, I am going to hit send and someone somewhere is going to cough coffee all over their screen in shock or outrage. Today, my poor paleolithinc brain is just not up to it. I am going to do something epically stupid.

I think I had best go for a walk, get a haircut, buy some digestive biscuits and see if I can get a grip on my errant attention before I do something to get me fired.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Sorry. I haven't got me glasses on.

Its not as if a human body has a documented specification. Oh, more or less we know what it should do, what is acceptable average performance, the same way we know most cars should go up any hill on a motorway in at least fourth gear. Ok, some will go up Toghill (a notorious long hill north of Bristol historically used by 1960s bikers to test the power of their machines) in fifth and still accelerate, whereas others, like my old van, may struggle embarrassingly in third.
Bodies are similar. Generally it is accepted that it is vaguely symmetrical in distribution of limbs and sense organs and most should allow the owner to run for the proverbial bus if required.
But some bodies are not built to this plan, or end up through misfortune being unable to perform the tasks a "healthy individual" is expected to be able to perform. There are various opinions on this and it is not my intention to wander into that particular minefield.

Being one of the lucky people who had my full quota of legs, arms and ears, and being reasonably aquainted with the use of them through the medium of dance and other physical passtimes, I suppose I always came to expect this machine that comprises me to do more or less what it was "supposed" to do. And generally it has. Ok, I find running long distance hard, but then I am a large lump of mobile meat with mostly fast twitch muscle fibres. But in all else, I more or less conform to the spec.

So, when I found one day that, sat in a foggy layby on the A9, just outside Munich, I could not read the map, I was initially mildly confused. "Gosh!" quoth I to myself "Its a pain in he bum the way google puts a blue line on your route so it obscures the road numbers!" And I blundered my way to my hotel via my own natural and somewhat flawed navigational skills.

But then, the jibes from the kids about how I was holding books further and further away at arms length starting ringing some bells and I was reminded of a morning in Plymouth once when we finally persuaded my own dear father to buy a pair of reading glasses as they made him "look like Harrison Ford". And his resultant "Bloody hell! I can read the paper with these on, Em!" to his very patient wife, was a revelation to him and a relief to us.

And now, suddenly, here I am, eyesight failing, squinting at my screen because "I forgot me glasses!" Pitiful!

So, now, and I know this is not a good long-term strategy, I buy +1.25 reading glasses where ever I see them cheap, and I leave pairs of them in all the usual places. It's something else to remember, but it does obviate that tiresome lack of detail that otherwise bedevils any close-up scrutiny of books or objects requiring tiny screwdrivers. As yet, the attrition rate of my reading glasses is quite high: pairs sat upon, pairs sliding off onto the garage floor and smashing, pairs lost in hotel rooms. But at a fiver a pair, its not so bad, even if some of them are a bit naff in design (especially the letterbox black framed pair that was £2.49 from lidl which make me look decidedly "continental").

And function is restored. Ok. I can cope! Some have glasses from birth and can never see properly without them. I was lucky.
But! This is the first sign of the inevitable decline into incontinence and delapidation. Ok, I have most of my own teeth (I lost one during a less than honourable exchange in Gloucester in my callow youth. careless of me certainly. But porcelain is pretty close to tooth enamel in appearance and few would know).
Of course, there is the sudden intrusive growth of eyebrow, standing like the spears of Xerxes army as they marched out of Persia. And the ear hair thing. Why do I need hair in my ears suddenly at 35. Surely infants need to keep out insects too? But so far, everything still works.
And now my eyes ar eletting me down. What next? Erectile disfunction? Male pattern baldness? I don't like it one bit! It's the thin end of the wedge as i am now old enough to be qualified to say.
But as my old mate Dave, philosopher and natural scientist he is, "I am 48 . I have most of me own teeth and I can sleep through the night without having to get up for a wee!" so we should be grateful for small mercies. A couple of hundred years ago, I would have been dead by now anyway, through TB, small pox or the ague.

So, I squintingly accept the inconvenience of my specs and assign a pocket in my jacket accordingly. And if the increased definition that they bring should alert me with unnerving clarity to the extra wrinkles I can now see in the mirror, then so be it. Cough hack wheeze grizzle moan..