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..

Thursday, 20 October 2011


How does one jump-start a brain? What can be used to jolt it from the comfortable but boring quotidian cycle of existence-consumption-sleep?

I can see how the notion of Muses came about. Its easy to attribute our flashes of brilliance to some capricious being with the power to bestow inspiration, and who, upon a whim, sends a flash of insight such that creativity is engendered in the recipient.
And then, when the Muse so wishes, she withdraws her favours, leaving us bereft of ideas and confused as to why the inside of our heads contain only lumpen prosaic tasks. That's muses for you! Changeable and mischevous. Indeed, inspiration does seem to be unfathomably mercurial. Sorry, I am mixing up my Greek deities now.

And so, inside their bony dome, 100,000,000,000 neurons all sit idly twiddling their axons and not a one of them is able to scintillate a thought into a creative act worthy of expression.

Time was when thoughts would strike me on a regular basis. It was as if they floated freely and formlessly through the air looking for a mind to occupy and finding one responsive, would fly in through the ear and head straight between the temples. There they would martial the imagination's resources like a conductor of an orchestra and before long a whole symphony of whimsy would be playing, longing for an audience.

And today: Silence. No ideas appear, no sparks ignite. Surely there must be material aplenty? Every day, humanity excels itself with heroic deeds and acts of epic stupidity. Autumn colours reluctantly appear on some trees following the examples of others who got the hint earlier and threw themselves into enthusiastic displays of dazzling oranges, reds and yellows. The world is full of that which ought to sparkle and inspire.
But no, Facts are appraised, trees regarded and still the mind won't fire.

Its dull. I bore myself. What can I do?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

A Banana Split Flight Delay Blog

Hanover Airport 7th October 2011, 8p.m.

I have been in this airport for four hours now. I have read most of my book and my two New Scientist magazines. Nobody of any note is visible on the whole concourse, so there is nothing much to look at.
Nothing for it then but to get out my laptop and do the nerdy businessman thing whilst keeping an eye on the monitors for updates.
Of course, I hope I don't look like the nerdy businessman, having uncomfortably changed out of my suit in the salubrious surroundings of a toilet cubicle whilst the Vietnamese cleaning lady hammered on the door telling me in broken German that she really needed to clean the toilet now.

So, now, suit stowed and clad in my cerise shirt with a big collar with a visible floral backing, I make my way to the Mövenpick restaurant for a good feed. I notice my reflection as I pass a mirror and it occurs to me this shirt is perhaps a little camp after all. I cough in a gruff manner designed to emphasise my secure heterosexual orientation, such is my desire not to give the wrong impression. It fails and I break into a hacking wheezing cough because I have had a chest infection for two weeks which refuses to go away.

The Mövenpick is an atmospheric restaurant, despite its Swiss origins. A huge window opens up onto the runway and the ambience is reinforced by the sight of airport machinery and aeroplanes standing somewhat stoically under orange light in the Film Noir twilight rain.

I order a Hefe Weizenbier and a smoked salmon rosti. It all arrives gratifingly quickly as one would expect from such an efficent restaurant. The Rosti has a huge dollop of rather mild and extremely tasy horseradish lying artistically on top. I don't usually like horseradish so, experimentally, I scoop some up onto a piece of smoked salmon. It is utterly delicious, so next time, I add a forkful of rosti and this is even better.

The beer calls to me tantalisingly and I take a good long draught. After the horse radish, the weizenbier takes on a distinctive vanilla aspect that I had hitherto never noticed in a drink of its ilk. This is, I remark to myself, a rather opulent and enjoyable feast, and given the day I have had, I think I deserve every bit of it.

A rosti is a strange dish. It is apparently grated potato, made into a kind of pancake and shallow fried in butter. Served with smoked salmon, it is rather rich, but I manage. It reminds me vaguely of the refried chips we had once on a camping trip when I was a kid, left over from the night before and fried in the breakfast bacon fat. Just the thing for a growing lad! Alas, I cannot see my dinner in this light due to my failing eyesight, so I have to put on my reading glasses, which brings the food into a somehow surreal and rather too sharp focus.

There are two loudly laughing German ladies in front of me in riding jodhpurs. They keep getting up to do various things, such as ferret about in handbags, throughout their meal, which seems strange to me as I have not have occasion to move for some time and after that main course, it is doubtful I even could.
I wonder momentarily if they rode to the airport on horses. Perhaps, next to the Hertz and Avis vehicle returns there are two palominos tethered to a post whilst an attendent examines every square centimetre for a scratch or dent in order to extract extortionate and disproportionate payment for barely visible damage.
Jodhpurs on the right form can stop a man in his tracks. They can hug a bottom and emphasise glorious feminine curves with mesmerising effect. Not so these. They are slightly too big for the bottoms they contain and a little baggy in the crotch. And they are brown, purple and pink check with white arse-padding. It seems a strange choice of garment to be travelling in on a plane. Two enormous ice-creams arrive and are added eagerly to the bottom girth in only a few minutes.

Outside in the rainy gloom, almost dark now, a plane takes of. It is a small jet, possibly an Embraer or similar. Take-off always seems miraculous to me, even now. I have worked on aeroplanes, I understand the physics very clearly and yet here is several dozen tons of metal leaving the ground rapidly with no visible means of support. A propellor implies motive power, as a wheel rotating on a car does. You can feel the notion of thrust from just looking at them. But a jet jut throws out gasses and this seems somehow too arcane to propel an object to thousands of feet in the sky.

My banana split arrives. It is positively sinful in its indulgence. A small pot of chocolate sauce is perched on the tray, for pouring over the ice-cream. I pour it all and scrape the remainder from the tiny jug with my finger, catching the eye of the waitress who twinkles a knowing smile at me as if to say "Everyone does that but its still cute".
It occurs to me that the Swiss are notoriously good at chocolate and I ponder briefly when in their history, relative to clockmaking, they aquired this specialisation. I know they have a lot of cows and alpine meadows give rich milk, but cocoa beans come from a very long way from Switzerland, whereas metalwork has been going on there for a very long time.
Nevertheless, I am grateful to whoever brought the idea to them as the sauce is utterly gorgeous.
Spent, my ice-cream devoured, I slump back into my chair, gesticulating feebly to the waitress for the bill with an air scribble. Mostly people don't use pens any more now that chip and pin cards are predominant, but since I am forced to use American Express by my employer and I refuse a PIN for it because I am a cantankerous luddite, I still have to sign a bill. This pleases me as it is one of the few times in these modern days that I ever use a pen.

Sated, I head out into the concourse of the airport, just in time to hear the announcement that my flight is now delayed an hour to ten o'clock.
The joy of international business travel...

post script: We eventually took off at 11:30 p.m and I got home at 2 a.m. on the Saturday morning.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Cultivate Serendipitous Connections

As so often, I stare at the screen and the widget stares back. Less intimidating than a blank piece of paper, its white space nevertheless conveys the sense of expectation to be filled with something.
As a piece of A4, ruled with a margin and faint blue lines is less forbidding than a truly blank sheet bearing no marks or implication of structure, the widget's friendly buttons for the addition of pictures, links or videos, hint at some kind of encouragement to put one's thoughts in a coherent manner within the space indicated. Once begun, the words come more easily, the space no longer being empty and the fear of despoiling it largely overcome.

And so, I wonder briefly why such spaces exist anyway. Why, all over the world, are people tapping away their days, writing thoughts profound or inconsequential, into small white spaces on a computer screen? Is it a form of narcissism? Possibly. Hypergraphia? Certainly words and concepts announce themselves to me, and hence compel me to release them upon a largely indifferent world. Perhaps the motivation does not bear too much scrutiny. Maybe we should just let the thoughts coalesce into words and see what happens.
Personally, it balances me to write here. The words I wield are tools which are refined through use, but also they are the currency of our internal dialogues and any improvement in our language and articulation must surely provide some commensurate improvement in the quality of our thinking. And goodness knows I need that!

A book I flicked through, by an actual writer, about the process and craft of creative writing, suggested we should "cultivate serendipitous connections". I think he had a different meaning in mind to the one I took from it, but isn't that my own connection? I take it to mean exchanging ideas with people who see things differently to myself. People. Yes, the people make the party, so to speak. In a roundabout way, I shall arrive at my thoughts on this, mainly because, until I have written them down, I won't really know what they are. Only that there are many and I need to explain this to myself on this rather difficult of days.

Today, I find myself beset with a heavy sadness with which I do not want to infect the world. Other peoples' moods are their concern and perhaps it is arrogant of me to think I have any effect on them whatsoever. However, the human condition does contain a large component of empathy (in apparently 98% of people anyway) so I hope my melancholy is not too contagious.

I have to go to a funeral in a little over an hour; a funeral of one taken very young as he was just taking his first steps to an independent life as an adult in the world. I shall not dwell on the details, only that he was as talented and magnificent a young man as one could ever hope to meet and that he succumbed after a long illness which I consider a very unjust stroke of fate. It goes without saying that this is a tragedy for all who knew him and also for the world which, given his particular gifts, would surely have benefited from his participation in it.

I remark to myself how I came to know him, through my son's Greenpower Racing team. Such a tightly-knit and wonderful group of kids working together to make and race an electric racing car, with parental help and signficant, very enjoyable, social activities. It was one of those activities that brought together unlikely alliances of people who would otherwise never have met. As such, it was a very fertile and productive environment that benefited us all, I think, in ways both obvious and oblique.

And I recollect all the places I have been where I have met people who, in other times, in other ages, I would have had no opportunity to know. All that we are derives from what we begin with and the subsequent unfolding narratives of our lives. How people and events act upon us to produce who we are right now is unfathomably complex, weaving, in some cases, a rich tracery of intricate threads.

Other places I have met people are virtual. They may not exist in any physical geography, but the connections I have made there exist like golden threads through actual space, the kind an atlas can signify. These threads connect me, in my mind to places all over this globe, to people who have opened up my understanding of the world, brought perspectives I could not have otherwise had any conception of, shown me ideas I had not even suspected existed.
These people close and distant, are points on my spatial map of humanity. It makes the world somehow more accessible and the ideas in it available in a way they weren't when I lived in a small village whose only link to beyond the visible horizon was the news, the papers and the library in the next town.
I feel the richer for these threads.

Some of those virtual spaces I have left. Some forums, for various reasons, I have closed my accounts on, shut down my presence. Some had passed on, falling into disrepair and neglect, some I left for different reasons. But in my head, the map of the world is still populated by pins with small flags on, and though some of the threads may be now indistinct and sagging, the influence upon me as a person will remain.

People come and go in your life, through consequence, location and ultimately death. But whilst we are here, it's the other people who we surround ourselves with, with whom we correspond and share ideas, they are the ones who make us to some large extent what we are. And I am grateful to all of those who have left their mark upon this personality that I inhabit, good and bad, for surely both had some value. The people really do make the party.

In just over an hour, I will attend a funeral for one much younger than me. And it is deeply sad for all involved, but better he lived a short life and showed an example to some, which he so surely did, than never have lived at all. He passed by my aquaintance and left a mark. A good one.

Rest in Peace Alex. I am glad to have known you.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Seventh Floor

Its a strange reminder about how how a position can change perspectives. Yet again I am in that esteemed establishment, the Arosa hotel in Paderborn. This flying visit was requested a while ago but I have been reluctant to make the journey. This time, I am in the lofty heights of the seventh floor where I can see all of the town stretched out below me, as so often before. Only this time, the view is further and I can see more of the countryside beyond the grey conurbation.
I suppose I was aware of the surrounding countryside before. I just never gave it any thought. It is not really unlike the countryside at home except that perhaps the fields are a little more regular in shape. I have no idea whether there was an equivalent of the Enclosures Act in these parts.

So, once again, I am struck by the rapidity with which I am suddenly elsewhere. And after my rather unsociable Friday evening flight at 9 p.m. this evening, I shall undoubtedly be disorientated by the discovery that I am home again, without seemingly noticing the intervening process of transition. I have long since given up attempting to assimilate the amount of information that such a journey presents to my eyes and ultimately my mind: There is just too much of it and to attemt to do so just results in mild motion sickness.

But it does make me think very carefully about how rapidly situations change. That which seemed unthinkable can in moments become the only choice of action. Once I was berated for my table manners by a well-meaning if misguided soul, on the grounds they would let me down if I ever had to represent my company at dinner with customers. "Yeah, like that is ever going to happen!" I thought.

Lately, there have been too many sudden requirements for a change in perspective. There have and continue to be too may funerals for my liking too. Some of them are rather poignant, like the team mate of my son who, at 20, succumbed last week to cancer. We are all aware of the pointlessness of railing at Fate and the unfolding of the Universe, but this was a particularly bitter loss for anyone who knew him. The words of countless parents and teachers over the generations never rang truer: "No, Life isn't fair!"

And so, looking out from this window so high up, and knowing my vantage point will soon change again, I am suddenly unsettled. Certainties seem elusive and change seems to be constant. And in this we have to decide what to take with us and where to stand for the next transition.

My life has changed this week. Some things have been made clear to me about the attitude of how I approach life. I need to make some changes if I am to retain my sanity and that which I value. Deaths tend to do that to one, don't they? As does standing in a high place and looking out at the workings of humanity, nestled in a landscape.

Alas, I have a presentation to write and fifteen minutes in which to do it. So I must leave this here. It was, in its way, my own attempt to rationalise the processes that are happening in my head. It is not necessary that anyone actually read it, only, for the sake of rigour, that I feel someone could. That's hard to explain, but should you have struggled heroically this far, i am certain you know what I mean.

And now to get down to the nitty gritty of everyday life and to leave all matters whimsical in their proper place. Corporate head on, suit on, smile affixed.

More anon.