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Monday, April 30, 2007

Are we sitting comfortably?

I would not like to have me as a pupil in my class.

Day 1 of the course for those people who have been out of work for six months.

The course members are a group of men from very different backgrounds. It is interesting to speculate on the different reasons for our little group to be unemployed for so long. It was notable that the differences showed themselves most clearly in the attitudes to their situations that the men had. I obviously include myself here, though perhaps I should disqualify myself purely on the basis of completed application forms sent off for jobs. Everyone else had applied for between forty and sixty jobs. I had applied for none!

My requirements are, to put it mildly, niche. In fact, they are niche in niche. And rightly so!

I suppose that I am in a different position from most of the others because when my CRB arrives it will be but a step to unlimited casual wealth. Ho! Ho!

The anger of some of the members of the group is real and unsettling. They feel that so-called advisors have done nothing related to their title. I feel from listening to them that this course is the first time that anyone has really listened to them and been prepared to give good practical advice. This is not good. If these people have been out of work and have been more than prepared to move heaven and earth to get a job, then they must feel properly cheated!

I have sat as a member of a small group for a whole day and I have watched and analysed. The group leaders have been vigorously defensive, acutely aware that their audience is not there by choice. One of the course leaders blusters and is too often floundering around in the safety of her anecdotal experience masquerading as solid advice rather than following the course programme.

I always think it a bad sign when someone says about a printed page which the course members have in front of them and announces, “I’m not going to read it out,” and then does exactly that. We’ve all done it; it passes time and almost seems like real teaching – but it isn’t.

I suppose if you write off the first day as a ‘getting to know you’ experience then the course may well have worked – but day two will have to be extra intensive to make the first day worth it.

It will be interesting to see how it develops and how the characters show themselves.

We will see.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Got to pick a pocket or two!


Everyone (or is it just the people I know) has his own list of the Three Great Lies. The only one which is common, and by the way the only one which is decent, is “The cheque is in the post.” The other two are usually racist, sexist and/or obscene; if you’re lucky!

In a similar way the injunction, “You should try everything once except for [add examples],” usually includes Morris Dancing (for obvious reasons) and some unnatural sexual deviation from the present norms. For reasons which will soon become apparent I would now include ‘car boot sales’ as the equal of Morris Dancing.

Today was the day when, with packed car, I ventured into Bessemer Road Market for my first brush with open air retail marketing.

I think that the most positive things that I can say about the experience was that when the official came around to take the entry fee of six pounds he castigated my neighbours for encroaching on the ‘common ground.’ This was the area along which the denizens of the area complete their passeo occasionally interrupting their peregrinations to bestow a few coins on the hopeful peasants lining their route with tables full of quaint rubbish for their delectation. My tables’ positioning was pronounced by the official to be “perfect.” One takes compliments where one can find them!

All human life was there. From eight in the morning to one o’clock in the afternoon I staffed my tables and watched the Cardiffian procession wander by. By their reactions, so may ye know them.

One of the object d’art that I set out alluringly on my tables was a more than usually hideous green, bulbous glass vase with a narrow, squat neck. People without number (well, lots) noticed this vase, picked it up and turned it upside down to glean what knowledge they could get from the little sticker on its base. I think that they have been watching too many ‘antiques’ programmes, but I bet that they don’t know what they are looking for. Presumably the ‘made for Habitat’ logo did not persuade them as the article remained unsold.

The parsimony that one and all displayed was breathtaking. Value for money took on a new meaning when trying to get filthy lucre out of that lot!

My conversations with customers ranged from frank mutual incomprehension, via a short interlude in fractured French, to a learned discussion about the auditory excitement of using an old Zenith SLR. But, these moments of interest were interspersed with long periods of waiting for customer involvement with the riches on display. Throughout my time ‘selling’ there was a raucous accompaniment from the butcher who was stationed on the periphery of the cars and was augmented with an unreliable microphone. His tedious, unfunny, homophobic, just plain rude and uninteresting commentary on life luckily became an ignorable irritation rather than an offensive screed. At once point he said that he had been at the market for twenty eight years and one shuddered inwardly for the weekly torment that must have meant for everyone within earshot.

The cultural diversity of Cardiff was clearly on display with the sort of cosmopolitan feel which in times past was only visible in central London.

I almost made triple figures from the takings for the morning’s work, but when I think about how much the original prices of the objects ‘given away’ were, I could weep!

However, I contented myself with counting the money!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Fortuitous accidents?

Serendipity.

I like words which have their origins in Literature (with a capital L) like the positive dictionary of neologisms ostensibly ‘invented’ by Shakespeare.

There are, of course, quibbles about Shakespeare’s sole authorship of words which cannot be traced to an earlier attribution, but, what the hell, give the guy his due, to have invented one word is more than most people ever achieve in their lifetimes to be credited with so many is something else! Say only 10% are his actual coinage, still impressive! You can check out the full list at:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_words_invented_by_Shakespeare While Shakespeare has given us some wonderful words like ‘incarnadine.’ This is a word which I am still waiting for to use in conversation: there are disgracefully few opportunities for regicide nowadays in our over regulated society!

He has also given us ‘accommodation’ which is difficult to forgive. The word, I grant you, is a very useful one – and for that Shakespeare should have all credit. But, given that Shakespeare himself spelled his name in a variety of ways, even on the same document, I very much doubt that he was consistent in his orthography.

When I was younger I was very much in the same camp as Owl [WOL] in Winnie the Pooh of whom it was said, “He could spell his own name WOL, and he could spell Tuesday so that you knew it wasn't Wednesday but his spelling goes all to pieces over delicate words like measles and buttered toast.” For me, the idea that one day I would be academic enough to spell ‘cauliflower’ with confidence and without blind terror seemed (like marriage) to be a consummation a few steps beyond possibility. 50% isn’t bad! Words [I just typed ‘words’ as ‘wrods’ but Word just corrected it for me – if only I had had a spelling program built into my young head!] like ‘accommodation’ seemed designed solely to be used against me by the arch villain, the hated nemesis of my early years Fred Schonell.

His Essential Spelling List (now available from Amazon from 15p – puts him in his place) blighted my life. I grew to hate the nondescript colour covered little book which haunted me throughout primary school. It was from that hated book that we were given lists of words to learn. Every Friday a test and a feeling of failure to take into the weekend!

In the last two years of primary school I was taught by an old friend of my father’s, a man I knew as Uncle Eric. Before I entered his class I was given a firm lecture by my parents that under no circumstances whatsoever should I make any reference to my relationship with him. I was to refer to him always as Mr Morgan and he would treat me like any other pupil.

To be fair to me, as a child brought up with two teachers as parents, you get used to parents talking and then suddenly turning on you with the injunction that, “You must not say anything of this to anyone else!” As a child growing up listening to things like this, you spend the whole of your youth wondering just who you could possibly tell who might be even remotely interested in the school ‘gossip’ you have just ignored.

With Mr Morgan, I only once make the mistake of referring about him as Uncle Eric and I was able to pass that off as a joke with my fellow school mates. And, by the way, you would have been hard pressed to see any favouritism in the way that I was treated. In the spelling tests on a Friday I was castigated as roundly as anyone else if my performance did not get up to standard. Indeed on one notorious Friday my performance was so poor that I was slapped around the legs as punishment! It later transpired that the list of words on which we were tested was a different one from the list that we had been given to learn. Such unfairness!

This incident gave rise to the most belligerent apology that I have ever had! It was, obviously, my fault that I didn’t point out to the teacher that the list was different. I probably deserved the smacks for other crimes undiscovered but, in the interests of justice I had a punishment credit to be used to cover further indiscretions. That credit did not last long! It was ‘spent’ within a few days.

I have much to thank Uncle Eric for. The somewhat laissez faire teaching of my first primary school teacher gave me an abiding interest in the fascinating digression and ‘unconsidered trifles’ in the world of knowledge, but it was Uncle Eric who focussed my attention on the basic necessities which got me through the 11+ examination and into the rarefied academic purlieus of The Cardiff High School for Boys on The Newport Road – and the rest, as they say, is history.

I would merely point out that my mother once said of Cardiff High, “That school has taught you nothing but arrogance.”

Trust your mother for the truth!

But back to serendipity. You’d forgotten about that hadn’t you? Words from literature? Like ‘chortle’?

I was wondering if it fitted the world of discovery which came with the Great Sorting of possessions which has been prompted by the immanent dispossession of the house which contains them. Things not only lost but also forgotten leapt back into my world as finger pried deeper and deeper into the morass of wires, trinkets and papers which constitute ‘storage’ for me. Many electronic devices starved for so long of their nourishment have now been reunited with the lifelines and electricity has surged anew through their famished circuits.

Can it be serendipity if you start off wanting to find things to fill a few boxes and be paraded for the vulgar view with an end of monetary gain? Does the intention take away from the basic serendipity?

Such questions exercise me. Especially as I didn’t have a swim this morning.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

One of my favourite words!

The power of words! A single word. In the right context it can mean so much!

I know (in my head) that the mere word ‘sold’ on the agent’s board for the house means very little. Given the vagaries of the system which this country has for the selling of a house, anything can happen before I get my hands on the modest sum of money that is supposed to keep me in refined poverty for the rest of my life!

I have delved even more deeply into the essential possessions which I have cunningly kept behind from storage to ensure that our lives are at the basic level of acceptable civilization. I seem to have kept behind an inordinate amount of material, all of which will have to be sorted, weighed in the balance and I hope mostly found wanting, because I don’t want to take too much to Spain!

Once again the cleansing power of shredding has sustained me through a day which has drained me as a bewilderingly disparate selection of dated objects, which were once objects of casual desire, were paraded before me for judgement.

The option of a car boot sale is still something which has a sort of sick fascination for me. Richard has said that he is going to Bessmer Road to try and get rid of some of his stuff and it is an incentive for me to emulate him with the saleable elements from my depleted home.

I merely wonder at the motley collection that I will be able to amass. I suppose that the trick is not trying to remember exactly how much you paid for the stuff that you are selling for an embarrassingly small percentage of the original price.

I will have to remember that any further delving into the soon to be emptied cupboards and drawers must be self contained. The horror which greeted the chaos of emptied containers littering the floor before their final destination had been decided was a reaction that I do not want to observe again. Toni is a tidy person and the happy chaos which I can endure in the cause of eventual order is not something he can stand: in the interests of harmony I must tidy up the chaos at the end of the day before he returns from work – no matter what subterfuge I use to give the impression of superficial order.

The establishment of cleared surfaces and the presentation of tidied areas by the hurried hiding of extraneous articles which might hinder the appreciation of a potential buyer are second nature to me now!

I should remember my recent training!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Frail paper?


My past is in tatters and shreds.

Quite literally.

I am sure that there is supposed to be something cathartic about the cleansing which accompanies a sorting through of old papers, but it does take determination to start the process and see it through.

Assuming that the selling of the house is progressing satisfactorily (a dangerous assumption I know, but one that I want to make) it has become necessary to start one of the final processes: the sorting and destruction of Those Things Not Needed in Catalonia.

The ‘easiest’ part of this process is based on paper. Old documents, tax returns, letters and other codices – piled one on another like geological strata of my personal history. To use another geological term, there are also ‘erratics’ odd documents or photographs which are seemingly misplaced in their drift of documents and by their incongruity they create disconcerting juxtapositions.

I shredded programmes and information from my university days: memories of odd dramatic entertainments in which I played characters ranging from a surrealistic professor to an American father by way of a King. I can still remember the barely stifled mirth of my so-called friends as I assayed an American accent: some humiliation lives on long after the event! There were plaintive letters to the tax man asking for tax relief for a typewriter I bought. Refused. Books I bought. Partially accepted. Early attempts at well meaning work sheets reflecting hours of work and limited pupil effectiveness. Letters from organizations, bodies, associations, committees, firms, shops, friends, colleagues, unions and councils. All shredded.

Not all of those sheets of A4 were of equal importance, or of equal emotional force. It really is odd to look at something which refers to something important and deeply personal, yet it doesn’t make it to the storage container to go to Spain. There is something audacious and strangely liberating in destroying ‘unimportant’ aspects of a life; transient and fragile as a piece of paper, yet containing a key to memory as strong and immediate as a jolt of electricity.

And before anyone thinks that I have been cavalier with the past; I have destroyed nothing which is not contained in another, stronger document which is safe in the cardboard box of Catalan essentials!

As the days pass I will have to delve deeper and deeper into the intimidating mass of ‘stuff’ which still remains in Cardiff. Having just had yet another communication from the solicitors asking me all sorts of questions; one of which needed my response that I would leave the house cleared and tidy, there is a ‘moral imperative’ [Bob Geldof] that I start clearing now!

I have always found teaching advertisements interesting. Although many of them are militantly worthless and defiantly bland one or two of them have real intelligence or take presentation a step forward by producing something which is a little masterpiece of concentrated information. Two of the Barclay’s adverts which use the hapless youth with exploding machinery and interesting at each viewing, while the animation on the Citroen advert is extraordinary in its attention to detail in the presentation of the car as skater.

The advert which has occupied a few idle moments is neither of these, but the Gillette advert. Quite apart from the glorious inanity of the pseudo nuclear imagery of a sort of bicoloured particle accelerator to give added pizzazz to a very ordinary multi-blade razor, I do wonder at their choice of men as models.

Gillette seems to have a positive policy in using ostensibly handsome clean cut American men with zero sex appeal. I don’t really know how they do it; but time after time they people the screen with testosterone fuelled ciphers which seem to have no real existence outside the bright lights of the Gillette Universe. This is a good thing as, were the world to be populated with Gillette men, it would gradually lose its population as these chisel chinned, neutered pieces of superficiality would surely have ‘difficulty’ in producing progeny.


BT man seems to have a more convincing chanced to reproduce – and he would never make it to the gallery of gallants of Gillette. Thank god

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Saint Cecilia Satisfied?

As a person who is never knowingly under gadgeted and, following the moral precepts of my mother with regard to retail imperatives, I have found something else on which to squander my money. Which in my case I have not got – to paraphrase Reed!

Part of the (admittedly specious) reasoning behind the purchase of the all-singing all-dancing laptop on which this blog is being composed was that I could put all my 900+ CDs on its hard drive. Which I have done. The physical bodies of the CDs are now residing, zombie like, in the twilight world which is the Pickford’s storage facility, while their virtual souls flit easily among the electrons on this elegant piece of hardware playing carelessly in the ensnaring arms of i-tunes.

From Abba to Albeniz, Bach to Bette Midler, and Cher to Charles Ives – well, you begin to see the point; there is a wide selection of music contained in my collection. I obviously have pretensions to a liberal appreciation of music, but surely I must aspire to more than merely a parasitic leaching of the vitality of music as a passive listener; what about the creative act of music.

So, I’ve bought a roll up piano.

I have not, am not and probably will not be a piano player. The greatest musical height that I have scaled (ho! ho!) is a painful playing of Fur Elise. The opening played with winning legato while the more complex parts (requiring chords and other such extravagances) played in a most funereal lento.

Alas, I fear that my most accomplished performance was many years ago under the tutelage of Miss Cowley when I finally mastered the complex fingering of ‘Hunting the hare.’ This was a piece of fiendish complexity requiring the playing of as many as three notes together to render its haunting melody. Indeed its cadences were so much part of my being that my mother once looked in at my diligent practising and found a story book propped up on the piano music stand while my unconscious hands played ‘Hunting the hare’ ad infinitum!

The inability to play has not, however, blocked my wanting to play and the lack of a keyboard (locked with the zombie CDs deep in the heart of Pickfords) has occasioned considerable frustration.

Maplin – that store of unusually incomprehensible, yet strangely desirable electronic gadgetry, seemed to offer a painless solution when they advertised roll up pianos. At a reasonable price. They were, of course, good sellers (sic.) and of course soon went. When I finally decided that it was just the thing for me the cupboard was bare.

I have spent the last few months idly trying to find a roll up piano whose price did not stray into three figures. Maplin, while agreeing that they had sold them, adopted the when-it’s-gone-it’s-gone approach and virtually resurrected the old car mechanic’s low whistle of disbelief when asked to give an estimate of when they might be back in the catalogue.

When dealing with electronic goods you have to adapt the usual way of choosing an assistant to help you. It is my invariable practise to veer towards ‘women of a certain age’ in shops as they are more likely to know the stock, answer questions in a meaningful way and know when to ask others for help. This is not a method which avails you anything in a shop of electronics. Here the approach is to choose a youth, a boy, the more callow the better. They, after all, are part of the generation that do not need to refer to the instruction manuals for any electronic equipment. Or indeed for anything else, ask their teachers!

On each visit to Maplin I asked a different assistant and from each one I had a different answer. From ‘they are just seasonal’ through ‘they are out of stock and we don’t know when we will have more’ to ‘they have some at head office and they are available by post.’ There is something to be said for perseverance.

It has now arrived and it is a very odd beast indeed. Smelling strongly of the rubber of which it is made and four octaves to play with, the keys seem to be larger than those of an ordinary piano – I know that I find it difficult to stretch an octave, but perhaps I am out of practise.

Nothing loath to push myself to the limit, I have taken ‘My first recorder book’ out of the library and will ruthlessly attempt to emulate the six year olds that this book is aimed at and will pick out the single line of music on my rubbery keys.

I will do this, however, in the privacy of an empty house when Toni is at work. I feel that my creative genius needs nurturing gently with the ambiance that only solitude can bring, not being punctured by cruelly ironic remarks.

Well, I have attempted to play my signature pieced (the easy bit of Fur Elise) and it’s bloody hard on a piece of extended rubber. Chords (ha!) are especially difficult, but it is especially pleasant to pick out tunes and try and get back to level of mediocrity which I can live with!

An excellent lunch with Richard in the Bali in Caroline Street. I am getting used to being the only customer in an establishment, but I didn’t have a programme to read this time, so ordered a bottle of red wine instead: how fleeting is the attraction of culture! The fried potato cake as a starter was just that and, even with the fairly tasty dipping sauce, forgettable. The Singapore Noodles which followed was excellent making a very creditable meal for however much it cost.

The powers that be are being very quiet about the house. Paul Squared’s repeated assurances that no news is good news is not something which I find comforting.

I will continue to wait and worry!

Monday, April 23, 2007

To suffer for one's art!


Another milestone!
I'm not sure that, when I started this blog, I thought that I would be penning the 200th number while sitting on my sofa securely in Cardiff. I think that I had imagined that the writing of the blog would, by now, have become almost incoherent owing to (due to?) the excessive amounts of rioja and cava that would have been slipping down my gullet having been purchased as almost no cost in the local Catalan supermarket.


Instead, because God is nothing if not ironic, I sit typing to the accompanying tintinabulation of raindrops glancing musically off the roof of the conservatory.


As all the best moral stories say, "This too will pass." My wry smile is safe in the ambiguity of that sentiment!


The trouble with yesterday’s generation is that it lacks application. They pretend that they are au fait with the burgeoning technology which surrounds them but, when push comes to shove, they lack (as it were) the application.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I place myself in that generation. Going to London for just over a day I was accompanied by my PDA, my camera, my ipod, my DAB radio and a spare pair of glasses. I had my multipurpose solar power pack to feed any of the devices that were flagging. I was prepared: technology my servant!

It should not have been too difficult to pen (or pound) my blog. I was going to stay in a house hold were each house member had her own computer linked to the internet. It would have been a simple matter to log on and get writing. But I didn’t. Neither when I returned in the evening on Saturday nor when I rose upon the sunny Sunday morn. The lure of champagne and barbecued food with Pouille Fuisse was more than the temptation of logorrhoea in the ether. Weak, weak man!

Now the penance (or is it the reward) of making up for lost time.

The ostensible reason for visiting London was to take advantage of a rare opportunity to see a good production of Satyagraha by Philip Glass. The reviewer in The Indie dismissed the music and argued that the Opera had had a better production than it deserved. I am used to people being dismissive about the operatic oeuvre of Glass, dismissing it as repetitive rubbish. And even those who should know better have spurned my enthusiasm and forced me to go alone to productions!

This time I had the company of Mary who was as appreciative as I could have wished: all things come to those who wait!

The overpriced programme (£4-50) indicated some of the production ideas which were going to be incorporated into the finished work and gave an outline of the ‘narrative’ of the opera. To put it mildly, the narrative of Satyagraha is not conventional and I think it would be difficult for anyone, without a prior knowledge of what was supposed to be happening on stage, to understand the ‘action’ of the piece. As I have come to know the music from CD and have not bothered to read very much of the unilluminating booklet which accompanied the discs, it was not much of a disadvantage to discover that the dramatic accompaniment to the singing was more of a suggestive gloss on some parts of the libretto rather than a literal interpretation of the words.

ENO has collaborated with Improbable to produce this version of the opera. Improbable added a dramatic content which used stilt walkers, giant puppets, flying, fire, and a mass of newspaper to produce some set pieces which were genuinely moving and emotionally uplifting.

I was particularly impressed with the ‘fantastic’ appearance of Krishna with paper clouds of glory and wands used as manifestations of his refulgence. Paper was constantly employed in the visual and audio dynamic of the piece. The production of the Indian newspaper was simple and effective with sheets being handed from one person to another and pushed across the stage as if in a printing press. The transmogrification of the individual pages of newsprint into a continuous unwinding roll of paper eventually enabled the creation and breaking of barriers and a particularly effective maelstrom effect of thrashing lengths of paper which engulfed and disengorged the central character.

The singing (with the exception of Jean Rigby playing Mrs Alexander who was woefully underpowered) was uniformly excellent with Alan Oke being outstanding as Gandhi.

The music, inventive and engaging, constantly delighted with the intricacy of melodic style and for the first two acts the hypnotic power of the score gripped the listener’s attention. The last act is not as strong as the first two and, although powerful in its own way, it lacks the immediacy of the rest of the opera. Or perhaps it was the eventual effect of the wine in the intervals!

I am delighted that I made the effort to go to London to see this opera, well worth the effort. I have not changed in my opinion that Akhnaten is the stronger piece, but I am enthused enough to search out the final part of the trilogy that I do not have, Einstein on the Beach. More expense!

Clarrie and Mary’s house continues to impress, though the amount of money which is needed to bring this delightful residence to its full glory is daunting. The garden is glowing with colour and potential; the resident bluebells provide a colour base which will be augmented in the forthcoming months with the hidden riches that Clarrie has painstakingly planted as they burst through the chicken-shit enhanced earth which graces the garden (bindweed allowing!)

The lawn that Clarrie has laid is eventful in its topography, but, as they say in the older Oxford colleges, it only takes a little watering and rolling to make the perfect billiard table sward – as long as you are prepared to do it for a couple of hundred years! I am in no real position to speak as I am a devout follower of the Way of the Small Stone approach to flat areas of garden. And it makes weeding a doddle!

The barbecue was an (eventual) triumph with the fish kebabs being particularly fine. I must also admit that I am relieved that there is no branch of Waitrose enticingly near otherwise I fear that I would be living entirely on the micro dressed crab shells and the mini blinis with smoked salmon!

Friday, April 20, 2007

And another one bites the dust!

Isn’t it sad how quickly what in one film is breathtaking and spectacular becomes in another clichéd and banal. Having just watched ‘Eragon’ (Director: Stefen Fangmeier) the vistas that inspired in Lord of the rings here are simply boring and an excuse for lack of narrative.

This dreadful little film has the sort of silted dialogue that even Jeremy Irons finds difficult to say and poor old John Malkovich is woefully outside his competence in voicing the pseudo archaic claptrap that the script asks him to articulate. It put me in mind of The Man in the Iron Mask (1998 Director: Randall Wallace) where the Americans (including, as it happens John Malkovich assaying an eighteenth century nobleman) in the cast made the script appear to be unsayable, while the English character actors made is almost reasonable. Almost.

The story line had all the hackneyed predict ability of a fairy story without its charm. Actors who should have known better frolicked around for what I hope were large sums of money to make at least their bank accounts look respectable if not their curriculum vitas!

Like the Pirates of the Caribbean this film came to no conclusion leaving a clear threat of another film or three.

I trust that the viewing public has given no indication that a continuation of this sorry saga will be necessary.

In the interest of fairness, I have to say that there were one or two set pieces which had moments of vague splendour, but they were not sustained.

A sorry saga of instant forgetability.

Tomorrow London and Philip Glass – as well as Clarrie and Mary.

Who could ask for more?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

If at first you dont . . . um . . .

Well! Overweening Man has been put in his place. Again! I wrote a scintillating, witty, provocative, intriguing and seminal blog entry. Microsoft (God bless it) though its program, Word, put paid to it all.

It will now never be written, except in the rogue electrons that have now made their way into the vastness of the uncharted universe.

Somewhere, on the other side of the dimensions, that only Hawking knows, something is reading it.

Not us, however, not now.

More tomorrow?

Microsoft volente!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Another day . . .

Another day, another story of breathtaking horror! Thirty two random murders in America one day, one hundred and sixty murders in Iraq the next. No wonder the parasitic pedlars of the apocalypse feel that things are going their way.

How tempting it is to look to religion and its manifest failure as the reason for the unreasonable actions of so many.

Have you noticed the links between religious apologists and the National Rifle Association? The mantra of the NRA is that, “It’s not guns that kill people, it’s people who kill people.” Religious thinkers who look at the carnage which their religious beliefs so often bring about say, “It’s not the religion that kills people, it’s people’s misinterpretations of religion that does the damage.” No wonder the image of Pontius Pilate washing his hands is such a strong one! And applies to so many situations in the world today.

As the bloody horror in Bagdad seems to be perpetrated by Islamic bombers on Islamic victims, it is instructive to look at the divisions within the faith that allow this murder.

The major division in Islam is between Shia and Sunni.

An informed discussion can be found at:
http://islam.about.com/cs/divisions/f/shia_sunni.htm but I was interested to read that the division is more political than religious in its historical basis.

The vast majority of Islam is Sunni and a small minority of some 15% is Shia.

The differences arose from the disputes which resulted from the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Who was to take over the leadership of the Muslim nation? The Sunnis agree with many of the companions of the Prophet who elected the close friend and advisor of the Prophet, Abu Bakr to be the first Caliph.

The Shia, on the other hand, believes that the leadership should have stayed with the Prophet’s family and therefore they believe that the succession should have passed to the Prophet’s cousin and son in law, Ali. Ali was the first in a line of Imams which Shia believes are divinely appointed.

I know that I am simplifying a complex historical, religious, and social mix, but the differences are instructive.

The Shia believes in divine appointment, venerate the Imams as saint-like characters and complete pilgrimages and ask for intercession. The Sunni reject a divinely appointed spiritual hierarchy and the concept of saintly intercession.

It is not difficult to see the parallels between the divisions in Islam with the divisions in Christianity. In both great divisions of religion there is a fundamental belief in the central tenets of the faith, but the differences which have evolved with the different interpretations of authority have made them infuriatingly distant.

As an Anglican atheist I can see some aspects of the Roman Catholic / Protestant split in the Sunni / Shia division, though the numbers are reversed. If you take the veneration of saints and the concept of divine appointment as the Roman Catholic position, and the more democratic Protestant stance then the position becomes a little clearer.

I feel that I am straying well outside my area of competence, but the vicious horror of the religious wars which have torn Europe apart over the centuries by combatants who all prayed to the same God should be a dire warning to other faiths which fail to unite.

The real trouble with religions is that they have to deal with human beings and that invariably brings all-to-human frailty into the equation and, in my reading of history – religion invariably loses out.

On a more digestible note, I had an excellent meal in the restaurant of the Macdonald Holland House Hotel on the Newport Road in Cardiff. The meal was quite pricey with a three course lunch cost £28, with a more than adequate glass of Rioja and a cup of coffee the total was £36.75!

I was the only person in the dining room for the whole of my meal, I felt rather guilty at arriving fairly early for my meal and interrupting the maître d'hôtel having his! In spite of the natural resentment that he should have been feeling, I had excellent service throughout the meal: attentive without being assertive.

The range of food was good with various appetising alternatives. I plumped for the crab tortellini on a bed of wilted etc etc etc. You get the general idea, but what intrigued me was the addition to the various listed ingredients of ‘crab foam.’ This is not something I have come across before and when the dish arrived looking very clean and elegant, the foam looked alarmingly like spit on top of the tortellini, but with rather more adhesive quality. And it tasted good. Nothing on the plate was wasted. I had already been provided with excellent onion bread with two types of butter and a small dish of olive oil. This was used to good effect to mop up the delicious foam and accoutrements!

My main course was medallions of tenderloin wrapped in black pudding and ham, set on a bed of mustard mash with a small lake of jus.

My other vegetables consisted of truncated baby carrots up ended and placed in a row looking like those contrived Chinese islands which you assume only exist in the imagination of Chinese scroll painters and then are astonished to see in reality. Rather like my line of orange incongruity!

Dessert was just as imaginative, but I plumped for the cheese. This provided the only discordant note in the meal, as; when it arrived it was rather chilled. The selection, however, was excellent with an adequate range of bread and biscuits with chutney and half a fig.

Why half? What do they do with the other bit? Does the chef eat it as one of his perks or is it placed to one side waiting another person to order the same? As no one arrived during the whole course of the courses I imagine that it must have been used as an unexpected ‘garnis’ for a startled guest!

As usual I feel a metaphor forming itself using the half fig as its basis, but, rather unusually, I will restrain myself.

Prepare yourself for an outburst later!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Irony is not enough

Blame is like a drug that promises so much and delivers so little.

As someone who enjoys every instance of irony that comes his way, I have been savouring the ramifications of the cash for confessions affair in Britain. How is it that the illegal detention of British sailors by a regime headed by a president who is a holocaust denier has resulted in the denigration of the Senior Service, the humiliation of a country and the near resignation of a minister?

The low comedy of the interviews of the returning sailors and their descriptions of their ‘hardships’ have given an air of unreality to the whole experience. One can well imagine the desperation of a group of Brits who find themselves in the disturbing position of being held by a government which regularly calls for the destruction of Israel and whose descriptions of our government do nothing to help one sleep at night. But their seemingly cheerful complicity in the audacious propaganda coup which the Iranians pulled off was, to put it mildly, depressing.

One could, of course, push the irony a little further by pottering back into the history of the relationship between Great Britain and Iran. Our complicity in ensuring the stability of the government of the Shah and our earlier cavalier behaviour in the modern re-establishment of the country ensure that an observer taking a dispassionate assessment of the country could point an accusatory finger at the high handed approach of Britain and the west. How fitting then that a country historically manipulated to serve the best interests of a country far away should now return the compliment.

How ironic too that that bastion of western idealism should now be rocked by a tragedy which surely must make that country question its very identity. The blood drenched campus in Virginia is an obscenity and the pictures we have seen can only remind us of the horror we felt when death came to another campus in Kent State. Leave aside for a moment that similar senseless slaughter is a daily occurrence in the land liberated from the bloody grip of a dictator by US forces, with the admitted complicity of other countries. Although 30 people dead is a starkly unpalatable statistic, if we are talking numbers then it pales into insignificance when compared with the relentless death toll from conflict throughout the world.

The images of the Vietnam War, thanks to the miracles of modern communication, enabled coverage of American soldiers’ deaths beamed directly into the houses of parents who could watch their sons die on live TV. In Virginia today we have the rough Cinéma Vérité of myriads of mobile phones taking their jerky pictures of an event whose horror can hardly be grasped. The internet was talking to the world from the dorms in the university to the world as the tragedy was unfolding. Students were calling electronically to find an explanation for their world being turned upside-down.

The ironies of this event happening in Virginia today stream from the tragedy like some obscene slinky effortlessly and jauntily flowing from step to step.

I’d just highlight two aspects which strike me at times like this. Gun control in the USA is a problem which for bemused observers in the UK seem to be rooted in the soul of the American people. I have never forgotten the American TV advert which showed national flags being shot through by the number of bullets which corresponded to the number of gun deaths in the respective countries. When it came to the American flag it was totally destroyed by the barrage that represented the appalling statistics which are associated with gun crime in that gun crazy nation.

It has been estimated that there are more guns in the country than there are inhabitants. That is a problem. But we can still expect the apologists to troop out the ever youthful Charlton Heston to voice the platitudes which seem to convince the population to keep their amazingly self deluding belief in the safety which the gun apparently bestows on America. The guns, we are told, are not dangerous; it’s the people who use them.

We can also expect the reiteration of the misreading of the ‘constitutional’ right to carry a gun. Perhaps that is reasonable in a country whose more extreme Christians like to parade their faith by insisting on a literal interpretation of the words of the Bible - leaving aside, of course, some of the more tricky prohibitions in the Book of Leviticus! How often the militant anti-abortionists look to the gun as a natural part of their unnatural world.

It is difficult not to look at the situation with a bitter grimace and realise, as the final irony, that the multiplicity of images held in memory, sound, tape, phone and god knows what other forms of recording material will provide conspiracy theorists enough raw material for generations.

Welcome to information overload where, as in the library which is the Bible, you will be able to pick and choose, cut and paste, and be satisfied with your belief in the Answer.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Cardiff?

The simpering, gyrating ‘weather person’ on BBC Wales has just used a weather map of Wales on which the most obscure places that he could think of are given prominence while the centres of population are ignored. If the News is an informative programme, surely there is some necessity for it to reach and inform the majority of the listeners.

This sort of playful politically correct idiocy with the national recognition of the few at the expense of the many is part of the un-stated policy of some aspects of our so-called national institutions in the woefully misplaced implementation of that most misused of concepts, ‘inclusion’.

I do not, for a moment, believe that the ‘weatherman’ is using odd hamlets on his weather maps as his own weak wave for ‘inclusivity’ (if such a word exists) it’s just his camp take on Andy Warhol’s apercu that in the future, “Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” The weather man is, like some condescending spotlight (secure in his base in Cardiff) giving all the little people in their little villages, their own little moment of prominence as a named spot on his map. “’Tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished.” Dream on!

For me and the way I see attitudes in Wales developing, it is yet another sign in the fear and terror than some have about the position of the capital city in the life of the country. The carping criticism of Plaid Cymru as spokesperson after spokesperson emphasises the danger of putting any institution, museum or attraction in the City becomes more than irritating, it is directly insulting.

Not content with condemning the National Library of Wales to a location where the vast majority of the population will never see it, let alone visit it is, in my view, a national disgrace. The scandalous treatment of the Industrial and Maritime Museum which was hijacked from its base in Cardiff Bay and given to Swansea is an issue which has never been satisfactorily explained.

I do not begrudge Swansea a museum which demonstrates and illustrates its industrial history, but its foundation in the city is one which is another chapter in the denigration of the Capital.

It is often said that Cardiff is Europe’s youngest capital; with the expansion of the countries in the European experiment that is no longer true, but its status is still something which has to be earned by its constant development and in its role as an iconic symbol for the country something which should be supported by the population as a natural extension of national pride.

I am not so naïf to believe that Cardiff has not siphoned much which should have gone to areas in the country which are much more deprived than many in Europe. It is also true that physical geography ensures that it is easy to show how divided the nation is north from south; east from west, and the centre from everywhere. How often do the majority of delegates to an ‘all Wales’ conference have to trudge up from the south east to the tedious ‘fairness’ of a location in Builth or Llandrindod Wells, only to find that delegates from the north have decided to stay away. I speak anecdotally, but from repeated experience.

On the Gabalfa interchange on the road going towards Llandaff there is an art installation on the walls of the road which consists of simple geometric shapes in primary colours. It has all the hallmarks of a department store’s attempt at something arty. At the time of its installation I welcomed the impetus of the Welsh Arts Council in embracing the concept of public art, but I loathed the ‘cheap’ look of the end result. I did not at the time, regard the money spent on this art as being wasted, even if I did not much appreciate the work. I have come to enjoy the burst of colour and form which characterises this small stretch of otherwise unremarkable road. It has survived and now become a valued part of the colour of city life.

It works. It’s worth the money. Yes, there are other things to spend money on and any hard faced politician could reel off a list of ‘worthy’ enterprises that would command public approbation. But art has its place in something like the same way that the status of a city can have its place in national regard.

The Sydney Opera House was one of the star chapters in the wonderfully entitled book, “Great Planning Disasters” by Peter Hall. If you follow the story of the Opera House it is one humiliating debacle after another, with public loathing and contempt following every stage of the project. Now, the Opera House is a proud symbol of a nation, let alone the city. Wembley Stadium (a worthy successor to the Opera House) will soon become the iconic masterpiece that it looks and the chaos of its construction will be forgotten in national pride.

With the rubble at the heart of Cardiff as redevelopment flattens its way into our sight, the city has a golden opportunity to restate its credentials as a worthy symbol for the country – with the country’s support.

It’s worth it.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

It's the waiting!

I am waiting for the Job’s Comforters to start relating their stories of how they (or more likely people they know or knew of) almost got to exchange of contracts when the buyers decided to pull out. I’m not sure that I will be able to listen to their anecdotal horror stories with anything approaching equanimity. I have discovered that my stress levels have exponentially risen now that the process of selling the house has taken another step forward.

I must admit that, like Doubting Thomas, I will not believe even this small step until the sign saying ‘SOLD’ has been tastefully attached to the board outside my home.

With something like an organic appreciation of the pathetic fallacy the (expensive) vegetation in the front garden has decided to burst forth in bloom, as if in relief that another stage has been reached. The woefully mistitled ‘White blizzard’ trailing plant which was bought as an alternative to the missing alyssum is at last living up to its name, albeit in more of a scrappy partial slush drift rather than the torrent of white that I was expecting. The trailing multicoloured lobelia is still getting its roots settled in and has not yet deigned to blossom forth, but its greenness is vigorously encouraging. Wherever I look there are buds or swellings or growth indicative of future colour.

Going on the (optimistic) time scale given by the estate agents the maximum colour coverage should be at completion! Such is the possibility of metaphor exemplified by a garden. I’m sure that, probably in the eighteenth century, some gentleman gardener wrote an elegant little treatise on irony and gardening – with six hand coloured engraved plates.

As is usual at this time of year there is the traditional double (or sometimes triple) bluff played by flowers on the neophyte gardener. This game which plant delight on playing (sometimes at the risk of their own fragile existence) consists of the plant pushing up ambiguous foliage to tempt the nervous gardener into weeding mode and thus consigning it to the green organic recycling bin. Alternatively a plant may suddenly develop multiple shoots which look like precursors of flower stems, thus staying the hand of the enthusiastic and wanton pruner. In one case, speaking from personal experience, this led me to water, tend and nurture a large pot of what turned out to be grass! It was then used an a colour design way as a foil to more colourful pots to make it seem as if it were all planned.

The present plant prevaricator sending out possibly mendacious shoots is a plant in a pot in the front paved area. It is indisputably healthy and has developed what look like tightly closed buds promising a profusion of colourful flower heads. I am, however, beginning to suspect that these promising buds merely hold yet more greenery and the hint of colour in the tip of the bud is merely evolutionary camouflage for the confusion of the urban gardener. I shall pander to its virility and feed it plant food and report back on any spectacular floral developments.

Yesterday to Eleri’s 50th birthday party held in the salubrious surroundings of Cardiff Yacht Club. That title is perhaps a misnomer as my new little device for finding my way around the world did not recognise its existence. I have yet to use this device for any real journey but I bought it as a sort of good luck charm to ensure the sale of the house – buying the version of the machine that had maps of Europe at street level. You see my point.

Cardiff Yacht Club is in the Bay at the Windsor Esplanade. This is near a row of houses that at one time were in a very shady position (and I don’t mean sheltered from the rays of the sun) but now must be very desirably property indeed. The building of the Club House is of that type of modern architecture which looks temporary and designed by sticking together bits of other projects’ plans. The upstairs bar, still smelling of cigarette smoke (so pre-April my dear!) does have the advantage of panoramic windows. The full effect of this sweeping vista was somewhat lessened by the lack of daylight, but the night merely served to open up the view of the bay and surrounding area to an abstract interpretation of light on water. Even though we have summer weather the illumination of the various facets of the city deserving of optical highlighting has not yet persuaded the city fathers to squander the requisite electricity. So swathes of the shore line are dark and churches like St Augustine’s in Penarth are not yet shining out against the sky.

The Yacht Club seems to be situated on the shores of a swamp; which I’m sure is designated as a wet reserve for wildlife. In the darkness however the scraps of light illuminate scraps of vegetation fringed pools while the actual waters of the bay are filled with the reflections of the gaudy life of the restaurants and walkways. At night the view is most impressive, and there is even a balcony so that the nicotine addicts can indulge without infecting the wholesome majority!

A good time was obviously had by all and, perhaps reflecting the average age of the participants, the festivities ended at a more than civilized hour whatever the more raffish elements were intent on doing!

Late to bed and late to rise makes a man lazily content. Who can ask for more?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Small rooms big secrets!

“What,” asks that clever little advert on the TV, “does your toilet say about you?” What indeed!

One is inclined to say that it graphically indicates which room it is that one uses for one of the less pleasant bodily functions, and that there may be olfactory indications which point to this conclusion. The masking ‘fragrances’ that are sold point just as unequivocally towards the reality of defecation; just as the knitted dolly toilet covers (do they really still exist?) emphasise the presence of a toilet roll rather than allowing it to blend in with the rest of the knitted accoutrements of the well stocked smallest room!

We Brits have been chuckling, snigger and downright laughing at toilets since the time that time began. We have it on reliable authority that even than grim dwarf Queen Victoria WAS amused by lavatorial humour: one imagines Disraeli’s weekly audiences with Her Imperial Majesty (Empress of India) talking about the State of the Empire being enlivened with witty little farts to emphasise relevant points of national importance.

The sea side humour of postcard artist Donald Mcgill continues to delight viewers, and the toilet was one of his staples resources on which he lavished his art. The Cheeky Chappie, the comedian Max Miller captivated audiences with jokes from his ‘Blue’ book which also relied on the bathroom for much of his humour. The toilet is a vital part of our national life.

What if it does smell? That is part of its enduring comic appeal: stinks and laughs – that’s what bodily chemistry is all about.

But if the toilet can speak volumes about you, what about the rest of the contents of a normal bathroom?

The world is divided into two camps: those who put away and those who display. This is not necessarily applicable to all aspects of life – though the more I think about it, the more I believe that I might have stumbled on one of the great secrets of life. I am applying the division to the impedimenta that makes a bathroom the interesting place that it is.

I am referring to the oils, the unguents, the balms, the lotions, the pastes, the perfumes, the medicaments, the fluids, the potions, the bottles, jars, tubes, packets, sachets: the evidence which allows you to paint a true picture of the inhabitants who own the bathroom. The bathroom, viewed carefully, tells us more than any guarded conversation can. Here is personality stripped bare (!) where each bottle and jar shouts the truth about the inner personality of the user.

Too often the open display of tasteful accoutrements is only a surface truth which can clearly be discovered when the bathroom cupboard is open to critical view. Do not be deceived by a seemingly artless confusion of bottles and cartons scattered along grubby shelves. Dig deeper in that hard to get at drawer partially hidden by a cunningly draped towel and the truth will leap out at you.

God knows the perfumery companies have spent countless billions in persuading us that the right name on the right bottle is the only accompaniment to socially acceptable smelling. They have lavished obscene amounts of money and talent in producing bottles which are works of art. Take, for example, the sailor’s torso which is the packaging for Jean Paul Gautier. Admittedly the ‘sailor’ is nearer to Genet than Grimsby, but the elegantly homophile kouros-like mini sculpture reeks of style.

I had thought that the toothbrush was outside this area of snobbery. You were either a manual up-down-side-side etc labourer or you invested in one of the many electrical versions. All of the electrical versions of the simple toothbrush are bulky and speak more of the dentist’s surgery than of the artist’s studio. The problem, of course, is the energy. Or, as so many have asked in different situations, where do you put the batteries?

Some electric toothbrushes seem to need their own power station to generate enough power to bring the thing to life, while others seem to have wedded the idea of the garden hose to hi-fi to get the molars clean.

As a self-confessed gadget freak I have worked my way steadily through the (cheaper) range of electric toothbrushes and, stashed away (in one of those hard to get at cupboards) are probably enough dead carcasses of passing electronic fancies to fill a small display case in the V&A. They are dangerous mistresses, and you have to beware of falling to their sensual promise of effortless frottage. You know you have to stop when you teeth become transparent and enamel is a thing of the past!

Imagine my horror when, today, in Boots, I discovered a toothbrush which eschewed the clumsy bulk of a battery operated toothbrush, had no power lead, and yet was svelte as a young manual toothbrush. Behold the ‘Pulsar’ – as thin as a normal brush yet with the power to shudder and probe. This, surely, is the only time in the history of the world when developments in multi-bladed shaving have had a knock on effect on tooth brushing!

This masterpiece of design is even cleverer than one might think. The instructions tell us that, “No need to change any parts. Includes non-replaceable, disposable Duracell battery.” The hell with carbon footprints, this is conspicuous expenditure write large by being so cleverly small.

And because humans are humans and always will be, there is a little diagram showing how to open the device to get at the battery. Because we think that we can break the cycle of disposability by correct thinking and slip in a battery of our own. But, alas, we will not have read the small print which states, “Product is not designed to be opened unless for recycling.”

Our curiosity and parsimony drive us to explore, and that very exploration destroys.

I can’t help feeling that, were I a vicar, there might be a sermon (or two) in “Product is not designed to be opened unless for recycling.”

Amen!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Apostate!

“Stephen,” Mike Ross once said in an NUT meeting, “It’s not that we want you to agree; just don’t speak.” It was one of those times when I found myself in the position (not for the first time) when in the words of the Queen in one of the Alice books, “I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” If not impossible, then at least contradictory. It was the usual debate in the NUT when we went from the national to the parochial. I have been a long time member of CND and passionately opposed to the use, production and flaunting of nuclear weapons. Well in keeping with the most radical ideas of our noble union. The second issue was one of corporal punishment.

Here, I carried the legacy of generations of real teachers and was (at that time) whole heartedly in flogging ‘em till the blood flowed! I spoke passionately on the subject and was well received by the more reactionary elements who had been generally dismissive of my anti nuke attitude. Hence Mike’s despairing ejaculation at the end of the meeting.

Going to get Toni just before five pm today and listening to Radio 3 I had another one of those moments when I could hear some misquoted version of Wittgenstein’s dictum ‘Whereof We Cannot Speak, We Must Remain Silent’ which seemed to be translating itself into a sort of admonition to the effect that ‘You don’t know what you are talking about, so shut up before you make a fool of yourself.’

The occasion was a piece of music which I listened to with growing irritation. It had all the self indulgence of a composer who knew he had a massive number of musicians obeying his baton. It was a mish-mash of disparate musical forms ill stitched together. The portentous gave way to the melodically trite; the simple to the bombastic. Percussion was used with the subtlety of the neophyte orchestrator who felt that everyone had to have his moment of glory. The repeated motifs were ploddingly pedestrian and made one scream for the obvious conclusion that one hoped, yet feared, was waiting at the end of the score.

And I knew that it was Mahler. I didn’t recognize the symphony, but all the tricks of the trade were in tedious evidence.

It was the last movement of the Seventh. And I take back nothing!

I do like Mahler, especially the first and the fourth. The fifth passes me by somewhat, and the eighth is only overwhelming when experienced in concert. But that period in the car really showed up the qualities of the composer which allows others to dismiss him as a self indulgent poseur. I know that listening to part of the last movement of a symphony on a car radio is hardly the fairest way to listen to the work, but surely if the work is great then even under difficult circumstances the essential quality should shine through. And my car radio isn’t bad, you know.

I think it was the sense of virtual blasphemy is thinking these treasonous thoughts against such an iconic composer that livened up the waiting period of Toni to step towards the light and home. The sacrilegious thoughts coursing through my mind and the chuckling frisson of knowing that my dismissal of such a canonical work would case something like physical pain to a number of music aficionados that I know were, I think, a great part of the pleasure.

And what if they knew that I liked (I mean really liked) the music of Philip Glass!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Another little step to the sun!

Have you any conception how many small handprints I found waiting for criminal handprint experts to dust to find the culprit? Let me short circuit this investigation and point the finger of accusation towards the 18 month palm of a certain young Catalan! I think for some of his work he would have had to have jumped or stood on a chair! How inventive are the ways of the less than adult!

The frantic work at removing the legacy of youth was as a result of the estate agent phoning up and informing me that the couple who viewed the house informally yesterday were coming back for a second more serious investigation. Hoovering, polishing, dusting, tidying, sweating – the usual accompaniments of unusual activity. This took me until about one o’clock with the visitation set for one thirty.

Vacating the house and making for the Pauls was but the decision of a moment, because I was hoping that Paul Squared would be able to tell me more about the six monthly interview in the jobcentre. While with the Pauls, one thirty came and went with nary a musical interruption from the Motorola. Depression set in and I eventually wound my heavy way to town. A desultory wander through W H Smith and a weary decision to have a ruinously expensive cup of coffee before the interview settled the slack time before I had to present myself in Charles Street.

The interview was taken by a substantial lady with one of those heavily ‘amusing’ and confiding senses of humour. How I smiled. I was given the exciting information that I had been waiting for: thanks to governmental instruction I was not obligated to go on a three day course to teach me how to write a CV and find a new sense of purpose and confidence. I can hardly wait. I pity the poor teacher who has me in her class.

I wonder how the groups are organised. When I look around on my fortnightly visits to the Jobcentre, I cannot fail to be impressed by the cross section of society that I note milling around telephones, job computers and the Jobcentre employees. It’s not a mixed ability class that I would like to take. The 30th of the month will be day one; I will keep you informed.

While I was talking to my personal advisor the mobile went off. I normally loathe and despise those people who break off conversations (especially when those conversations have been prearranged) to talk into an insubstantial piece of metal. However, I considered what the estate agent had to say of more moment than the platitudes of my advisor. After a little haggling which stretched through the interview, out into Charles Street and was finalized on the central reservation of Churchill Way – I accepted the viewer’s offer and the HOUSE IS SOLD.

I realise that I am tempting all the fates which lurk in the darkness of men’s minds when I state that the HOUSE IS SOLD. I am well aware that the offer of an offer and its acceptance is just the start of another long and drawn out process which is fraught with danger and not a little expense. But, surely, there is nothing wrong with indulging oneself with a little self congratulation that the process of living up to the title of this blog is a step (at least) nearer to completion.

Wish us luck!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Eggs is nice!

Fractured blog writing is a direct result of the aftermath of the Catalan invasion! It was delightful having Toni’s relations and experiencing why child rearing is best left to other people! Today was the Washing Experience – nothing to write home about, I keep harping on about the number of machine loads of washing that I had to complete, but the key and magic word is ‘machine’: sorting and loading is hardly the hard work that I remember my mother completing with the single agitator top loading machine with a wringer. I also seem to remember a Flatley dryer – which was a heated metal box with wooden slats on which to drape washing. Now that was something to carp about!

I have also neglected the garden. The mini daffodils have finally given up the unequal struggle. We cannot complain about our money’s worth, but when daffs have gone, they’ve gone and so we have to find something as flamboyant to replace them. The lobelia is slowly establishing itself and the alyssum is not quite ready for planting. We are relying on pansies and violas for display and, at long last, a new trailing plant called ‘White Blizzard’ has yet to live up to its name.

We have problems with upwardly mobile magpies that see the vegetation of our front garden as a sort of IKEA on demand and are establishing their domiciles at our expense. Their favourite wall basket looks as though someone has been stamping through the flowers with baby boots! I shall replant with holly – that will give their omen laden presence something to think about.

Talking of thought, I was watering the garden (ever conscientious when I finally get started) when a disembodied head drifted along the swell of the garden fence and diffidently asked me about the house. It turned out that the head belonged to a lady who, with husband and child was looking at houses without the benefit of the house agent who was not available for viewing. This is an ominous piece of information which I will need to look into. Invited in, she was all expressions of delight, up to and including the pool in the back garden as it turns out that she has a (named) fish which has travelled with them and they were looking for a home for him too. It’s funny how an element in the house which is usually a negative one suddenly becomes a selling point!

We will have to see whether enthusiasm is translated into an offer. As they have already sold their house and they are under some time constraints to ensure that they have somewhere to live, it could work out very well. We will have to see.

The saga of the Easter egg continues. Toni having made the sweeping assertion with an airy wave of the hand that I could buy myself ‘any’ Easter egg, and with the injunction, ‘Choose one!’ ringing in my ears – I restrained my consumer impulses and said that I would wait for today and the inevitable reduction in prices before squandering his money.

Tesco’s did not let me down and, after a little searching, a disappointingly small selection of remaindered eggs revealed itself to my view. As I was watching, so the assistant was putting up the half price stickers. Rejecting with scorn the cheaper eggs I concentrated my attention on eggs which had originally cost £10 (well, £9.99) and were thus, refreshingly, reduced to £4.99. You were, as lascivious eyes drifted over ingeniously flamboyant packaging, seduced by the sheer show. So I decided to be more scientific about the whole affair.

Some people would obviously look at the different makes of chocolate on display and decide which one gave the greatest taste promise; some might look at what ‘extras’ might be tucked into the bulky packaging; others might be tempted to go for a more exotic make.

None of these is the correct approach. Tesco, very helpfully (and not a little shockingly) show how much per 100gms the eggs cost. I have already noted that the usual cost of chocolate at between 24 and 55 pence in its normal bar form, is magically translated into as much as more than four pounds in its egg form – a triumph of capitalism and commercialism. Hooray! Therefore, the correct approach is to look at the new amounts of price per 100gms and buy for quantity rather than the packaging. Using this criterion good old Cadbury comes out on top; to be specific, the dark chocolate eggs which is stylishly packaged as a cylindrical container containing a purple mesh covering ornamented with ribbon inside which is an egg, containing and egg containing small foil wrapped eggs with a small packet of candy covered eggs as the extra. And very tasty too.

I’m still waiting for my money from Toni to authenticate his grandiloquent gesture!

C’est la vie!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter workers!

BBC Broadcasting House in Llandaff was a ghost building this morning with only what appeared to be a skeleton staff enjoying triple time. A rate not enjoyed, I might add, by the contributors to the programme!

The security guard was engaged in a conversation which appeared to be a monologue from a deranged person maintaining that he had been poisoned. Such is the lot of the front of house in broadcasting!

The news room was deserted, apart from Patrick ploughing his way through the verbiage of the Sunday papers. After both of us signally failing to make the thermos devices containing boiling water and coffee work, I started to work my way through the rejects already viewed by Patrick.

‘Wales on Sunday’ yet again took the accolade as the most fatuous of the Sunday papers and you have to bear in mind that it was competing against such heavyweight opposition as ‘The News of the World’; ‘The Sunday Express’; ‘The Sunday People’; ‘The Sunday Mirror’ and ‘The Mail on Sunday’. So a considerable achievement!

I was reminded of Jimmy Porter in ‘Look Back in Anger’ who asked the question, “Do the Sunday papers make you feel ignorant?” Those were the days! Even the so-called ‘quality press’ can sometimes tyrannize by trivia – and that’s after you’ve weeded out the supplements and extras that you have not intention of reading.

The programme went well, especially as we discovered a small (but perfectly formed) cream egg in front of each microphone! Now that’s what I call attention to detail.

The drive back to Rumney was made a little more exciting by the read out on the information panel on the hired Zafira telling me how few miles were left in the tank. It is unnerving to have a precise number of miles indicated together with the inexplicable word ‘Range’ flanked by six exclamation marks and a petrol pump icon flashing ominously – as well as the ordinary petrol tank indication needle reading empty. ‘Twas almost as if the car was trying to tell me something.

I worked out that I might just have enough petrol to get to a petrol station on the Newport Road if the Tesco in Pengam was closed. At a push!

Luckily disaster was averted by the garage being open, though there was a bad moment when the petrol pump that I chose refused to give me any petrol.

Lunch was provided by Toni’s mum and was Paella and Fideuá and we were able to utilize a good old Cardiff tradition and have ‘arf and ‘arf with generous portions of both washed down by an excellent Cava. If only the Catalan meal were taking place in Catalonia!

I live in faith and will put my trust in the opening of the traditionally intensive house buying and selling period which opens with the Easter Bank Holiday and stretches until the summer.

The CRB should be completed soon and I will have to think more seriously about what that will allow me to do. But before that there is an interview with the Job Centre people and a ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ meal.

It’s a hard old life!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Humph!

There comes a time when your city doesn’t seem your own any more.

The redevelopment of the centre of the city of Cardiff is making it at the moment look uncannily like all those depressing pictures of Beirut looking war torn and picturesquely destroyed. Office walls open to the sky; multi-storey car park floors slanting at crazy angles and jutting out into nowhere; piles of rubble; clouds of dust and Christo-like installations of polythene clad buildings wrapped in the way that he would approve.

All the lively, bright and colourful edifices knocked into a sort of subfusc rubble. Just like multi coloured plasticine which when you played with it as a child transformed itself from a bright rainbow of pigments to a muddy brown. That’s what the centre of Cardiff is at the moment: a place reduced to the unremarkable waiting to emerge from its chrysalis of clay into a . . . well, let’s face it, modern civic architecture which is prompted by easy gain is not going to astonish by its ground breaking, innovative and exciting modernity. It’s far more likely to be the sort of thing which subsumes Cardiff into the mind numbing anonymity of stripped down utility building with the odd cheap flourish. Rather like the Capitol Centre which is an ordinary shopping mall with certain Cardiffian features added to the façade like a piece of cheap scenery.

I don’t hold out many hopes for the look of the New Cardiff. I remember and experience of trying to show some friends a piece of furniture that I thought would go well in my home in a little shop in Leicester shopping centre. The only trouble was I couldn’t find the shop! I was reduced to wandering around the area where the shop was last sighted and plaintively bleating that it was there the previous week! It seemed at first like one of those films where someone’s life has been erased by the government and they have moved someone else in to take the place of the original inhabitant. Just before my mind gave in to a complete belief in the Conspiracy Theory of Everything, I realised that the shop that I was looking for was actually in a shopping centre in Northampton. The centres were so nearly identical that my confusion was just about understandable. The identikit approach to shopping in the centre of cities had taken a very firm hold, and that was during my first year of teaching – some years ago.

Now it’s just the order of the shops which interest the jaded shopper not their range. Standing in the centre of any British city it is possible to recite the shops that you can be certain of finding within a ten minute walk of your position with a 90% degree of accuracy. Cardiff’s last bastion of individuality is found in the arcades (which I always assumed every city had) and the small shops which still seem to make some sort of living. Good luck to them. I only hope that the new development will piggy back on the lucrative establishment of John Lewis and the obligatory money making residential development and encourage the establishment of small stores rather than allowing the bland the national chains to anchor another forgettable shopping experience in the centre of a once distinctive city.

Walking through the strangely restricted centre of Cardiff today I also sensed that the demographic of Cardiff has changed and that my age group are not the commanding presence that I thought it would be. Youth is taking over (and I thought that we late baby boomers were the dominant force in the land) comprising pretty (if over made up for my taste) girls and boys who seem to have brought dressing down to new depths as all of them seem to affect drably scruffy imitations of American grunge as their dress of choice!

All the foregoing are a way of limbering up for my participation in ‘Something Else’ tomorrow: the Grumpy Old Man approach is the only one which works on the programme, which is just as well, as it’s the only approach that I’ve got.

I’ll have to learn to be wide eyed and accepting, I’m sure it will make me a much better person.

And it’ll frighten the horses!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Ah, youth!

You know you have family staying with you when not only do you have to use the ‘value’ set of cutlery that you bought as a stop gap measure, but also, you don’t care!

And the plates! You get into a routine of using plates steadily so that eventually the dishwasher is filled up ready to go, but you are still left with as many plates as you need for normal meals. The sequence of washing, stacking and using is soothing in its timeless rhythm. But, suddenly, there are people; all of whom need plates and they use them and there you are (sooner than eventually) with frantic dish washing as the food is being served out!

And it goes on. Spoons, cups, mugs – all being used and things that you vowed that you looked forward to throwing out are all pressed into service in a logistical nightmare that, apart from certain times in the night, never seems to be containable.

And the children. Well, the child.

I remember reading Stephen Hawking’s ‘Brief History of Time’ – to be absolutely truthful, I know that my eye passed over all the words in the book, even if my brain did not always manage to fit the words together into coherent sentences – and wondering about the concept of the black holes. Having been in the presence of a small child for the past three and a bit days, I now fully understand the thinking behind the postulation. How an inchoate human being, weak, inarticulate and totally vulnerable can suck into himself the energy of six adults with seemingly effortless ease day after day is wonderful (if enervating) to behold. I think the fact that he has dimples has something to do with it. Cute always cuts the deepest!

As I am no expert of children under two, he is a constant revelation. Although his vocabulary is confined to a few (and I mean a few, like three) basic words, he seems to be able to understand complex instructions and will suddenly do just as you tell him; if you speak Catalan!

His mood swings are the stuff of casebooks. His appetite is eclectic and bewildering. His manner imperious. His confidence overwhelming. His mannerisms captivating. His capriciousness bewitching. His morality, non existent!

All of this is, of course, old hat to those who have dealt with very young children before, but this is all new to me and drainingly fascinating.

You can see experience begin to dictate responses. He already almost knows what is captivating and will nearly consciously behave in a way which will elicit positive responses. This, you might say, can be said for all of us. But we are more knowing; his knowing is almost entirely instinct with just a flavour of intent!

I now know that parents of young children live for The Depletion. That magic moment when full face manic behaviour gives way in an instant to the comatose. And then the period of quietude when, for the first time that day, a breath may be drawn without the worry of what may happen by the time the exhalation has begun.

My childhood was, of course, exemplary. I remember one time after I had committed some juvenile indiscretion my father saying to himself, although my mother was in the room at the time, “Well, we have to remember that he had to be woken for his feeds.” It turned out that for my first three weeks of existence I did nothing else of note but cry: day and night. At the end of that time after my father had “thrown” (his word to me many years later) me at my mother with words to the effect that I was her child and she would have to do something about me. I then shut up and, as far as I can make out, my parents had a (relatively) easy run as far as being woken up at unreasonable hours was concerned. I will have to authenticate this reminiscence by reference to Aunt Bet: the repository of all family history, dates, lineage and true anecdotes.

I certainly played on that early (and misleading) behaviour throughout my life, leading to my father’s equally revealing observation, “Stephen, I have been waiting for you to say to me, ‘Dad, you’ve worked for me all your life; go out and work for yourself,’ – I’m retired now!” What I say is that he got off lightly!

One thing I do remember was my inclination as a child to be ‘off into the blue beyond’ as soon as the parental hand loosened. I do not remember trying to escape as a point of principle, it was just as soon as restraint, however loose, dropped – I ‘wandered’. My mother was a great believer in reins and adopted them as the only means she ever found to keep me roughly in the vicinity of her, admittedly manic, observation. The time that my mother’s attention drifted for “a few seconds” (her words) from her very young son, I was well on my way to England, periodically being swamped by passing waves, as I left the coast of Wales and the resort of Pendine far behind.

I will not dwell on the aftermath of my cheery (if somewhat spluttering) greeting, “Hi Dad!” as my father broke several Welsh, British and World records in getting out to me, urged on by my mother’s helpful hysteria! I would merely point out that if Childline had been in existence at that time I would have been more than justified in phoning them. Parents can be so unreasonable. I maintain that I was not drowning; I was merely being submerged on an increasingly regular basis. It’s all (as I didn’t get the chance to tell Dad at the time) semantics.

Who knows what excesses will be effortlessly committed before the end of tomorrow?

But, on the positive side, tomorrow is the traditional day of Carmen’s paella.

[Sighs happily!]