Tuesday, October 31, 2006


The landscape of my childhood is being redrawn: what were firm strokes of the pen outlining clear shapes filled with strong colour are gradually fading. What used to be in sharp focus in the shallow field of my infancy has lost its definition. I feel more and more distant from the static pictures that populate my memory.

These images seem almost like those sepia vignettes that you can find in some Victorian books: fading out towards the edges, like little islands of coherence surrounded by misty fraying. The colour and movement in those monochrome depictions comes not only from pushing memory for the sensory information to animate your past life, but also from those who knew you who add the telling detail; the defining anecdote; the hidden link; the music of the moment which breathes life into a half understood early response.

The more I speak to my relatives the more I hear and understand. Each view of a fugitive event: a sight, sound, taste, emotion gains immeasurably from the perspective of an adult, viewing and explaining sometimes fifty years after the event. Sometimes the perception is not merely a piece of a jigsaw, filling in an otherwise blank space in a partially completed frame, but rather a piece from an entirely different puzzle. Casual reminiscences; conversations; photographs; books; letters: all part of the magic of creation which accompanies knowledge in depth and though time linking personal experience.

It was my uncle’s funeral today. Another link gone; another active, vital, articulate, intelligent man now only kept in memory; but a man who, because of his touching of so many lives, will be kept in a multitude of memories.

The religious content of the funeral was limited; the dynamic of the service was taken up with a series of addresses and readings. I was moved by the obvious emotion of those who were speaking about their links with my uncle. The range of memory covered more than fifty years of his life.

My contribution to the service was to read an extract from Meditation XVII by John Donne; something that I read in my father’s funeral and a piece of writing to which I respond strongly.

Funerals are rarely uplifting events, but this one seemed to satisfy people as being fitting for my uncle and passionate in its assessment of the character of the man who has gone.

I can think of no more suitable memorial to my uncle than to reprint the reading from Donne. (The selection, editing and punctuation of the extract are my own.)


The church is universal. So are all her actions. All that she does belongs to all.

When she buries a man: that action concerns me.

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume.

When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated;

God employs several translators.

Some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation,

And his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were.

Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls.

It tolls for thee.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Some things you can't avoid.

Pretend as much as I like, I cannot deny that I enjoyed reading The DaVinci Code. Everyone said that it was a real ‘page turner’ and I duly turned the pages: short chapters, big writing and action all the way through. At the end of the book I would not have gone to the block to defend it, but, not only did I respond positively to it, but also I read other books. Yes, they were formulaic; yes, they were thoroughly unbelievable; yes, character development didn’t, but readable, always readable.

So, we come to the film. The critical reaction was universally dismissive, so I was not tempted to pay money to be irritated by the ‘skills’ of Tom Hanks making an unconvincing portrayal of an unconvincing character. Toni saw the film in Spanish and was enthusiastic about the general effect. I was unmoved until today; I gave in. I watched.

Tom Hanks has not gone up in my estimation. I know that I have certain prejudices about Hanks’ acting ability (Who can forgive him for ‘Philadelphia’?) but as I always consider a prejudice to be something which is unsubstantiated by evidence, it therefore follows that my detestation of the acting ability of Hanks is a valid opinion (and indeed right.) To be fair, I do not think that the script is always kind to him: some of the inane lines he has to say would tax the ability of most competent and professional actor and Hanks . . .

There are plenty of set pieces to ensure that this could be a good adventure movie: car chases, graphic murders, exotic locations, fights, dramatic music, everything that you need to fulfil the needs of the formula: but it doesn’t work, it’s unconvincing and slack. If the picture had been more intelligently edited then the tension would have been sustained and the overall effect of the picture would have been improved.

In the novel, the character of Silas is an ever present, seeming invincible threat; an almost super and sub human character with a emotive back story which gives just enough credence on the page to substantiate his actions in the present – but in the film his effect is lessened by the mere fact of his visual presence and the fact that he is the only real ‘baddie’ to engage our interest; the cardinal and the secret group within the church is never developed enough to pose a dramatically exciting threat to the status quo and be the social earthquake that the script keeps telling us the divulgence of the ‘secret’ is going to be. Sir Ian Mckellen hams up the character of Teabing but he obviously enjoyed the portrayal of the character and I just lap up his acting anyway.

The ending of the film is cringe-makingly inept. I like the deceit of the tomb of the Magdalene being underneath the glass pyramid in the courtyard of The Louvre, but the final picture of the previously lacking in faith Hanks kneeling in prayer is mawkish and deeply unsatisfying.

Thank god I've got 'Ice Age 2' to look forward to!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

You expect me to believe that?

Coincidence, for me, is best expressed by an ex-colleague going back to the churned up mess of a rugby field in the dark to search for a contact lens lost in the middle of the match; bending over at random and picking up the lost lens at once. I was there, it was true! It’s the sort of thing that you just couldn’t put in a novel because, no one, quite rightly, would believe you.

Is that on a par with my experience of visiting the childhood home of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen on the remote island of Fyn, signing my name in the visitors’ book, flicking back a few pages and finding the name of a colleague I’d taught with two years previously?

Or perhaps losing my wallet in Upper Saint Martins Lane in Central London, continuing blithely on my way to Brixton where I was staying unconscious of my loss and, when I made it back, getting to the door just as Clarrie was concluding a telephone conversation with the man who had found my wallet; found my address in Cardiff; phoned my home; given my mother a huge shock (a stranger asking if I lived there? Obviously I was dead); got the phone number of where I was staying; phoned Clarrie to tell me not to worry, the wallet was safe and awaiting collection. Where was the coincidence? Why, in having the only honest man in Central London finding the bloody thing!

Coincidences, extraordinary coincidences, happen with such regularity that perhaps they ought to be considered normality, and the so-called mundane treated as exceptional. Imagine a world without coincidences; what a boring place it would be. If it wasn’t for Newton sitting beneath an apple tree ready to disgorge its fruit we would never have discovered gravity and we would all now be drifting aimlessly though space. Gosh aren’t we lucky?

All this came to mind as I was eating my lunch of baked partridge.

I would like to let that sentence stand by itself as I quite like the kudos or ethos that it seems to exude. But, perhaps I should explain that foul is not my usual repast and this bird was the fruit (so to speak) of my undignified scavenging of the ‘reduced’ section in Tesco. However, apart from being a little resilient to the teeth, it was more than acceptable. The coincidence aspect of my meal was one of those serendipitous occasions when the senses of sight, taste, touch, hearing and smell are all bought together in a completion which is judiciously apt: as I brought out the partridge from the oven, Radio 4’s food programme started to talk about pear trees - it’s the sort of thing that happens in badly produced TV shows when one character turns to another says something about the current situation and then turns on the radio for a seamless disembodied commentary on exactly that topic!

This is not the first time that this has happened. A while back on the way to work when I was telling Toni about the trauma which used to attend each departure from university during the vacations when all my belongings had to be packed, and my room in Hall left empty for the Conference People to use; the only way I kept my sanity during the packing process was to listen to a recording I had of insanely ‘happy’ music which dulled the horrific tedium of trying to get my possessions (even then) into some sort of portable mass.

André Ernest Modeste Grétry (an eighteenth century Belgian composer, usually linked with Gluck in compilation CDs) was the writer of the ballet music I used to listen to at these trying moments. I was just saying to Toni that I had found the actual cassette of the music I used in University which would come in handy for the upheaval of Pickford’s taking our stuff into storage, when, as if on cue, the familiar strains of Grétry’s music emanated from the Radio 3 programme that neither of us was really attending to! Now that is a significant coincidence in my view; though it would have been an even greater one if we had been listening to Radio1!

What a lazy Sunday this has been. Though, thinking about it, not quite as lazy as I thought. The adjustment of my watch last night meant that though I thought that I was getting up at a much laid back midday; because of my faulty adjustment I actually got up at a much more respectable 10 am. You see, even when I try and live a life of total indulgence, circumstances intervene to show me the right path!

I sometimes wish my guardian angel was a little more louche.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Words! Words! Words!

Which book have you bought most? For the majority of the population this is surely a nonsensical question: you buy or acquire a book, read it and then ignore it, or give it to Oxfam or place it in you library. Why would you buy a book again?

There are obviously lots of reasons. My little pocket version of the Oxford English Dictionary accompanied me through school and university, but eventually gave up the ghost through sheer use and had to be replaced when I started teaching. Some books simply explode: something to do with the brittle binding, which can disintegrate with a single reading. My edition of ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ by Susanna Clarke did not survive intact beyond page 393 – and that was just over a third of the way through!

Although I am not inclined to buy a replacement for that book, some of my childhood editions of Great Works have been replaced. A A Milne (one of the great existential writers of the last millennium) has had the honour of his Works being repurchased and one is constantly amazed at how little (really) one has to pay for so much pleasure. Perhaps I am parading my middle class credentials in liking Winnie the Pooh and his ilk, rather than siding with Dorothy Parker (or Constant Reader as she called herself when reviewing books) who, as Marion Meade in her biography of Parker relates, "Constant Reader's best-known review was of A. A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner. Milne's whimsy had always nauseated her. When she came to the word hummy, her stomach revolted. 'And it is that word 'hummy,' my darlings,' she wrote, 'that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.'" I do have sympathy with that response, but I don’t share it.

There are also replacement purchases for those books bought when in school or university which Had To Be Read and which were purchased in the cheapest available paperback. Sometimes in the truly horrible Signet editions which were virtually impossible to open and which were printed with easily smudgeable text. Reading a hefty text in a Signet edition was little short of torture. The pages in the books had to be prised apart and they never lay down, it always needed considerable physical pressure to stop the damn things from snapping shut. So, the completion, in Signet, of a normal brick-like nineteenth century novel was often more physical than intellectual. What pleasure then, to buy a better edition and luxuriate in placid, responsive pages lying calmly for perusal? But that is only buying two copies, who would buy more?

Well, as the British man in the car advert says when he is trying to score points against the French woman’s attempts to show the superiority of her literary culture by using such names as Victor Hugo and Jean Paul Sartre, “Sssssssssssssssakespeare!” I have bought more than two copies of some of his works. Not only do I have multiple copies of the complete works, but I also have numerous copies of some individual plays. Being an English teacher of course, you can always justify the purchase of another copy of ‘Macbeth’ solely because of the different introductions and notes which are contained with the text of the play; and, if you are buying second hand, it becomes more than a pleasure to buy but rather a positive duty! And you do teach the play, so any attempt to increase your knowledge has to be a good thing.

But leaving aside the ‘Desert Island Discs’ staples of The Bible and Shakespeare, what would possess you to buy more than two copies of anything? The answer, of course, is the Missionary Impulse.

Book reading is truly one of the great pleasures. It is a deeply personal pleasure because print can do nothing until your imagination has made something of the individual words and phrases. I have just finished reading ‘The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society’ by Chris Stewart – the third volume of his descriptions of life as a farmer in Las Alpujarras in the south of Spain, which started with his book, ‘Driving Over Lemons.’ Apart from the fact that he and his family are actually living in Spain while for me this is still as aspiration, is a little galling, but his writing style is easy and his descriptions are vivid and engaging. The point though, is that while reading it, I have been sucked into another life and have been in Spain, not Rumney. When quotidian events like phone calls recall me to Wales, I am genuinely disorientated for a moment until I fully realise where I am. The amount of time spent reading is only a few hours, yet the experience gained bears no relationship to that expenditure counted in minutes. This is real time and space travel: both literal and figurative.

With this ‘drug’ so freely available, and in so many flavours, I behave like any normal addict and want to get others hooked as well. What better way than giving free samples to encourage total dependence? I do enjoy giving books as presents: sometimes they are weapons, especially to hardened non-readers; usually, however, they are a sharing of a discovery and a burning desire to have your enthusiasm matched by another.

In this sense I have bought one book more than a few times, one book which has my accolade of being something so special that everyone should have a copy.

Now my enthusiasms have not always been utterly dependable. “Old Saint Paul’s” by William Harrison Ainsworth – an historical novel set during the time of the Great Fire and Great Plague in the seventeenth century in London – was a book given to me my Aunt Bet over forty five years ago (in hardback so it has survived intact!) and cherished by me as a damn good read. It is not to everyone’s taste, but three friends of mine in College read and enjoyed, and each Christmas, as a special treat, we reread the chapter entitled, “What befell Chowles and Judith in the vaults of Saint Faith’s.” Gruesome and vivid and moral as well!

Another recommended book, which I thought was clever, witty, accomplished and of a high intellectual standard was ‘Cards of Identity’ by Nigel Dennis. I read this though the wonderful provision of interesting book by Penguin in the ‘Modern Classics’ series: modern classics usually short with excellent modern art on the covers and usually incomprehensible – at least to the strugglingly ‘intellectual’ school boy that I was then. I recommended this book to all and sundry, telling people that this was the book which I would most like to have written. Then I reread it and panicked, seeing the novel as pretentious, obvious and facile, nothing that I would recommend today. Ah well, put it down to experience.

So, the book that I have bought more than once is a volume which may be surprising given my stated opinions and one with a title which makes it seem like a mixture of ‘I-Spy’ and kiddies book. It’s ‘The Lion Book of Christian Poetry’ compiled by Mary Batchelor and published, amazingly, by Lion. The ISBN is 0 7459 5183 X. It is one of the best anthologies of poetry that I have ever read (though this is the paperback and I have the fuller out of print hardback edition) with one of the most stimulating selections of poetry that you can find. It is divided into sections which are further subdivided. For example the section headed, ‘The Pilgrim’s Way’ is subdivided into sections The Journey; Faith and Doubt; The Struggle of Good and Evil; Sickness and Suffering. This is, obviously, a Christian anthology, but any one of any faith or no faith can respond to the ideas, the passion and the belief in these poems. They are not all classics and not all of them are profound: they are as varied as the experience of Christianity itself.

As a taster I will give you my favourite poem, and the one which I read when looking at this book in the bookshop which persuaded me to buy the book.

John Tatum

It doesn’t come easy.

In spite of it all.
I can’t help pushing open
the doors of country churches;
shoving a coin or two
in the box by the wall,
paying twice over
for the leaflet I take.

It doesn’t come easy.

Wandering among gravestones
is irresistible;
departure is almost
impossible. I delay
It over and over
to hear once more the song of the blackbird.

It doesn’t come easy.

As I race back
into the modern
rationalistic world,
I think of cathedral towns
and country rectories
and gentle rectors’ wives
arranging the flowers.

Well worth buying more than once!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Faith me no faiths!

Facts and statistics too often get in the way of a forceful opinion. The indiscriminate use of the word ‘prejudice’ in discussion has unfairly truncated what could have turned out to be a productive exchange of views. ‘Mankind,’ as T S Eliot so perceptively said, ‘cannot stand too much reality,’ how unfair then to expect truth (the handmaiden of reality) to be paraded like some vulgar ringmaster when putting forward a genuinely naïf point of view.

Modern civilization has not developed by people having a solid base of evidence for their actions: faith, whim, desire, belief, instinct and muscular spasm are far more persuasive in the understanding of the history of mankind than anything else.

So don’t expect dry evidence to be used in the following observations; a partially overheard news story is basis enough for me to pontificate.

The government, yet again, appears to be adopting its usual supine posture when confronted by an eager coalition of opposition groups without power. Stalin is once reputed to have asked an aide, ‘How many divisions does the Pope have?’ when confronted by religious opposition, and the self evident answer allowed Uncle Joe to pursue his murderous path dismissing any whingeing voices from the Vatican. The Religious Right in the USA may seem to give some reason to doubt the unthinking continuation of this cavalier rejection by any person in power, but although seemingly united on issues such as abortion, capital punishment and homosexuality their instinctive innate conservatism usually ends up supporting the status quo and not really threatening the true power bases in their respective countries. And they don’t have divisions either.

Great Britain is a notoriously secular country with church going decreasing like the level of enjoyment in each new series of Big Brother, yet our government capitulates to opposition which wanted the non-religious quota in state supported so-called ‘faith schools’ to be made mandatory.

I can see no justification for the continuation of state funding for sectarian schools. If faiths want to have their own schools then good luck to them. But they should be funded entirely by the faiths themselves: buildings, maintenance, teachers’ salaries, books, toilet paper, everything.

The cost of building a school is nothing compared to the year on year costs of salaries and the day to day running of the institution. If faith schools had to bear the real cost of these schools then most of them would close tomorrow. We the taxpayers are actually funding the division of our society and funding it in countless millions of pounds every month.

OK I know that our society is riddled with absurd contradictions: we are a democracy with a hereditary monarchy; a secular society with a head of state who is also the head of the ‘established’ church of the country; bishops who sit in the second chamber of our legislature; an heir apparent who mouths vapid platitudes about ‘faiths’ which show his grasp of reality is tenuous, to say the least; and, of course, our wonderful system of law. We need a fundamental restructuring of our society; from the top (if that is how you regard the present Defender of the Faith) to the . . . what? Bottom? The 93% of the population who own 16% of its wealth? Get real!

One of the more sickening justifications for the continuation of the essential basis on which our country has been governed for . . . ever is that any change would unset the odd, idiosyncratic, essentially English way that we muddle through and somehow manage to survive. After all, they say, the one country in Europe that did not have a revolution in 1848 was Great Britain.

All that means is that our ruling classes were fractionally less criminally and self destructively stupid than the inbred cretins who had power elsewhere. The meritocratic basis of English society, so the story goes, can even be seen in Tudor times when the butcher’s son from Ipswich rose to be the most powerful subject in the realm; but I seem to remember that one word from the bloated dictator Henry VIII and Wolsey was nothing. So much for merit.

Any attempt to tinker with the Heath Robinson system that we have will result, like an overdrawn Mr Micawber, in ‘misery.’ As if, in percentage terms, we weren’t living in financial, political, educational and moral misery now. Heath Robinson’s fantastic drawings were surrealistically complicated showing, in one case, machines for drilling holes in Swiss cheeses of fiendish complication which would have had William Occam weeping with frustration and reaching for his razor to start excising all the unnecessary elements.

We need William now, today, to come back to life and start looking at the way in which we govern and educate ourselves. It is just depressing to think that his philosophy has been around for over 600 years and, if you want to look further, you could say the principles that he advances can be seen in the writings of Aristotle who has been dead for over 2,300 years.

We don’t learn do we? Especially not in faith schools.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Love Labradors?

Never underestimate the ability of a relative to astonish and astound. I’m not quite sure how the conversation veered towards the luxury market for canines but when it did, astonishment was not the word to describe the nth degree of luxury lavished on some pampered pooches.

One colleague once told me that she felt that something was wrong in the domestic management of her household when she realised that she been to the supermarket to get something for tea and had bought steak for the dog and baked beans for the kids. To be fair she told the story against herself and vehemently denied that this was anything more than a glitch and the dog would soon be back to his normal feed of Pâté de foie gras stuffed lobster on a bed of caviar and truffle potatoes dauphinoise with Spillers Dog Biscuits crudite. Such a relief that I didn’t have to phone ChildLine!

My aunt was telling me about the kennels in which my cousin places his dog when he is away: a recent trip to Amsterdam saw his paying more for the accommodation of the dog in GB than for himself in Holland!

The kennels are called apartments and some apartments are suites, with names like The Elizabethan. The surrealistic (though in this country, easy to imagine) description continued with a list of ‘extras’ that owners could purchase for their dogs. These included things like films and videos for the fury inmates to the disturbing payment of a few quid for ‘cuddles’ which sounds worryingly like some form of shady escort service. The truly depressing thing is that given these as starting points you can fill in the more exotic details which are no doubt enumerated in astonishing detail in the high-gloss heavy-paper brochure (probably antique vellum) which is gifted to each besotted owner before the poor little doggie is left stranded, abandoned by his owner like a Getty on a yacht.

Anything that I can write from my imagination would probably be shown to be woefully inadequate to the fabulous reality.

I’ve not been able to find it (this canine Utopia) on the web (you probably need to be a high ranking member of some sort of Bilderberg Group to know the true location) but it is apparently called the Triple AAA Kennels – do let me know if you find it, and break to me gently the most outrageous extravagance that it contains.

I remember a Punch cartoon (god that dates me!) which showed the nameplates on the door of an office block. The drawing concentrated on two: the first a polished metallic plaque with elegant engraving displaying the initials RSPCA; beneath this expensive nameplate was a grubby scrap of paper attached to the wall by a drawing pin on which were scrawled the initials NSPCC. The point was clearly made, but facile.

It is too easy to be negative about the British approach to animals and, if they are little rat dogs (that is intentional ambiguity), it becomes a positive duty to be viciously vindictive; but what if the canine in question is, for example, a yellow Labrador bitch? All bets are off and luxury is the least you can bestow on such deserving animals. The Labradors in question, of course, would accept any little pleasures you could afford (in both senses of the word) with extreme equanimity and, as they lie in their exorbitantly priced rented penthouse having the canine equivalent of peeled grapes (specially softened Chews, in case you were wondering) one glance from those liquid brown eyes would make you feel guilty and inadequate.

And you have to buy them in the first place! And they are unbelievably expensive! It would be easier to buy yourself a ball and chain: at least you could take it with you on holiday without having it vaccinated and it having to have a passport. And it probably poses no rabies threat.

I’ve travelled with people going to Spain from Cardiff and Bristol who looked far more likely to be harbouring life threatening qualities than any Labrador that I have seen.

What was the point I was making about people and animals again? Gone! Gone: like a stick thrown for a Labrador who has no intention of indulging you by actually finding the thing, let alone brining it back to you. No wonder they take dogs to Old Folks Homes and Hospitals. When the ill and the aged see such smooth, placid examples of smug self satisfaction they surely have a real incentive to assert their humanity to try, at least, to emulate their doe eyed masters, return to the real world and become the highest thing to which a human can aspire: a paid companion (with no remission for supine behaviour) for a dog.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Cardboard Conundrums

I’m worried about the fact that I’m not worried about the fact that I am getting demonstrably older. I was musing on the tempus fugiting aspect of my life while perusing my birthday cards. As is my wont my musings became a little more analytical (or self indulgent as some people insist) and the results are here for your delectation.

Of the total number of greetings which were received on or about the Day, the statistics read as follows:

Cards: vaguely insulting and ageist 41.6%
Cards: winsome 8.3%
Cards: Romantic 8.3%
Cards: generic and complimentary 8.3%
Cards: Xmas with ‘Birthday’ written in 8.3%
Greetings: electronic 8.3%
Greetings: telephonic 16.6%
TOTAL 99.7%
[The missing 0.3% is the sum total of the Powers That Be wishing you well] {I would now expect Catrin Lloyd to work out the total number of greetings}

What is the earliest age at which it is acceptable for irony to be used in cards? When did I first appreciate irony? Like the shock of understanding death as a child, it should have been startling, a life changing moment – but I can’t remember it. Isn’t that ironic! And the percentages: when I was younger most of my cards were perfectly acceptable stereotypical cards for boys: racing cars; football player;, train drivers; the countryside; earnest and sinister junior storm troopers masquerading as inoffensive boy scouts; swimming and cartoon characters. No humour. No irony. And, as I recall, many of them with money inside: I am young enough not only to remember a crisp ten shilling note (10/-) looking impressive but also realising that it had considerable buying power (e.g. it would buy 480 Black Jacks!) What person now would ever get away with giving any relative (no matter how distant) 50p as a gift?

I suppose that there must be a certain moment in a person’s life when the giving of a sincere birthday card will be both disturbing and suspicious: where sincerity appears to be the easy option – no thought needed; the greetings equivalent of quorn. Irony (or real abuse) shows, paradoxically, that you care. No wonder so many people can watch ‘The Simpsons’ and merely laugh rather than weep with the realisation that the programme exudes weltschmertz more graphically than the collected works of Jean Paul Sartre.

The electronic greeting came a day late, but the sender assured me that it was still the day of my birthday where he was because of the time difference: a very nice point! Given the prevalence of computers and the way in which all of us are in thrall to the electronic dictatorship of communication around the world; perhaps there should be the internet equivalent of GMT – a sort of internationally recognized cyber time completely divorced from any terrestrial or snail time.

Everyone knows that time spent using a computer is like time spent looking something up in the Guinness Book of Records: you start with a simple evening’s get together being poisoned by vicious arguments developing over simple questions like, “What was the longest strand of spaghetti ever produced?” Before armed conflict breaks out in your dining room you have recourse of the Final Word on Trivia – the aforementioned book. But, it is only when The Book is produced that the real dangers of human interaction reveal themselves.

As the Holy Text is brought into the room each person shows themselves eager to be the devotee to turn the pages and discover the grail of truth. When the Galahad character deemed worthy by the company has wrested The Book unto himself (usually by physical force) then The Searching begins. The methods of find the answer vary from the Divine Intervention approach, that is, opening the book at random and expecting the answer to leap forth to following the helpful comments of whose the company regarding looking at something called the index which is ordered ‘alphabetically’ – a mystical arrangement whose intricacies are explained to the Galahad character by helpful persons reminding him that “’s’ comes after ‘r’ you plonker!” But this advice and information is far too late because the reader has now discovered that there is an entry called, “Road Kill: largest quantity discovered on a one mile stretch” and feels impelled to expound his discovery to others, to their mingled astonishment and delight. Taking heart from this response he goes on to “Retching: highest velocity in insects” and “Rattan mats: greatest number eaten by trained wombats.” At this point the initial question has evaporated from all consciousnesses and the evening is over. Time has gone.

So too with computers. Cyber time is not real; it has its own dynamics and should have its own terminology. Hours, minutes, seconds; they are all interchangeable in cyber space. They have no solidity they cannot be measured by mere clocks, they are the way we touch another universe.

Beware: Christmas is not far away. There are cards involved in that festival too. Interesting, very interesting.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

UNO it makes some sort of sense!

Having a birthday on United Nations Day (the 24th of October) gives one an unhealthy interest in the doings of that organization throughout life. You feel a sort of belonging and always have a type of grudging admiration for the ethos behind it and resent the carping criticism of the United Nations by those people who not only do not have a birthday on the 24th of October but also by their vicious denunciations of the whole UN idea never seem to have heard of October itself!

As a secret Romantic (in spite of the brittle shell of ironic distain) you get idealism as an unexpected free gift, so the concept of the Whole World coming together to talk through differences and decide on policies for the betterment of humankind seems obvious and eminently achievable. It therefore comes as an almost personal affront when one country after another parades, demonstrates and vaunts narrow minded sectarian bigotry through the honeyed tones of smug UN ambassadors in the General Assembly. The obvious lies, half truths and cynical spin are breathtaking in their banal splendour as each tin pot (and platinum pot) country mouths some inanity as their ‘contribution’ to the squabbling which passes for debate in New York.

The Security Council, in its way, is worse than the General Assembly. We have Mickey Mouse nations (which, come to think of it is a metaphor which insults Mickey Mouse) taking their turn in the councils of the mighty, while the mighty (including of course the historical anomaly of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland pretending to be a great nation, jealously guarding its permanent status at the high table) browbeat, intimidate and generally push their weight around, while countries like China (how long did it take before their were even allowed to join the UN) pursue a policy of self-interest which makes the British Empire seem positively egalitarian, enlightened and philanthropic.

Soldiers from the contributing nations of the UN are sent into some of the most desperate trouble spots on the planet and are told that they must not, under any circumstances shoot at anyone. The squalid failures of UN ‘peace keeping’ are too numerous and shaming to enumerate.

And what of the Secretaries General? One is tempted to say that there hasn’t been a decent one since Dag Hammarskjöld – and we all know what happened to him.

What are we left with? A deeply flawed organization, constantly on the brink of bankruptcy (thank you USA) sending out inadequate forces (thank you all those countries that have not paid their dues) while bickering grown ups (thank you all the rest) present a picture of our planet which, if submitted to an Inter Galactic Commission of Enquiry would mean our vaporization in nano seconds.

I am reduced to weary despair but, in a very uncharacteristic moment, I turn to the words of that notable war criminal, Churchill, about democracy: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Ditto the UN. Happy Birthday!

Monday, October 23, 2006

We all belong. Don't we?

In the history of British advertising there is one advert and one campaign which are often cited as the perfect example of how not to do it. The art work for the adverts was moody and atmospheric, but as a campaign it was disastrous. It was to advertise a cigarette called ‘Strand’. Based on a Frank Sinatra film, the advert showed actor Terence Brook as the mysterious man lighting up a Strand cigarette on a street corner and declaring, "You're never alone with a Strand".

It was hugely popular and Brook became a celebrity overnight, with the accompanying Lonely Man theme reaching number 39 on the charts. Yet, much as people loved it, they didn't buy the product and the campaign was soon discontinued.

The theory was that viewers believed that if they smoked Strand they would end up as lonely as the chap on the deserted street corner in the commercial.
(For the record, Strand cost 3s 2d (16p) for a packet of twenty at the time.)

I like the irony of the fact that the use of the word ‘alone’ was more powerful than the sense contained in the full line of the advert. ‘You’re never alone’ merely emphasised the isolation of the person trying to pretend to connection.

I feel very much the same when I hear the repeated use in the news, television programmes and on the radio of the word ‘community.’

Everyone has a ‘community.’ It doesn’t matter what ethnic, sexual, political, religious, social, professional, aesthetic, sporting, aspirational, educational or nose picking style you adopt: there is a ready made ‘community’ to surround and succour you. It will be described by journalists; pandered to by politicians; analysed by sociologists; led by ‘community leaders’; and fleeced by the community of cynical entrepreneurs. It will form the basis for a photo shoot in ‘Hello’ magazine or ‘Heat’ and, eventually, the community of radio 4 producers will make an amusing programme listened to by the community of radio 4 listeners.

What, in the name of the living god, is, for example, the Christian Community? Especially, for example, in Rumney? Is it the total number of those people who go to church or chapel in this locality? Or the number of people who say they are Christians? Or the number of people who actually have views which can be related to any of the various religious creeds which are loosely lumped together as Christian? Or those people who have not been to church since they were married or someone died or a kid had to be christened but wouldn’t like to be thought to have no religion at all, even if their ‘theology’ is faulty, heretical and frankly wrong? Does it make any sense at all, in such a disparate group to speak of community at all?

I remember some earnest spokesman in the early days of Gay Liberation telling some frankly startled looking interviewer, “Well, you know, we’re all gay really.” What the hell does that mean? If the man was saying that the whole spectrum of sexuality may be seen as a line with exclusive homosexuality at one end and exclusive heterosexuality at the other and all people can be placed at some point on this imaginary line, then I don’t see any problem in agreeing with this, because it basically means nothing. Any statement about human behaviour which, whether it is right or wrong makes not a jot of difference to understanding of that behaviour is surely irrelevant?

Community, in the way in which that word is used today, suffers the same fate. Am I a member of a bewilderingly multifarious selection of communities? Yeah, why not, bring them on; they are, after all, meaningless.

And I speak as a fully paid up member of the Noble Community of Cynical Gits.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Pin dancing angels?

A question: Who or what links the following names: Domnus, Eusebius, Eustathius, Spyridion, Marcus and Athanasius?

Yes, you’re right, the answer is of course, the First Council of Nicaea. It was ‘Athanasius’ that gave it away, wasn’t it? Too easy.

Well, that wonderfully corrupt council which had so much to do with the modern foundation of the restrictive, authoritarian and repressive organization known as Christianity leaped unbidden to mind today when I, like a modern Hamlet, pondered the empty plastic carton resting lightly in my outstretched hand which had contained the minced beef that had been the basis for a version of fajitas (recipe courtesy of Paul Squared) for our late, late lunch.

Consider: the carton has a frame of plastic with a layered plastic and absorbent base for the meat with a taut cellophane covering the top. Having extracted the meat by making two cuts in the cellophane the problem is not the cooking, but the disposal of the rubbish. Given the Draconian edicts which now govern the lives of most hapless subjects in the Fiefdom of Cardiff, you take your life in your hands when you make the possibly life changing decision of where to place each individual piece of detrius produced during the course of the day.

The rules as laid down in the wording of the Refuse Decree, which was issued just before the Donation of the Double Bins, seems simple enough but, as is so often the case in so many aspects of life, the devil is in the detail. And this is where the significance of the Council of Nicaea and its snappily named participants becomes so relevant to modern life. Constantine called the Council ostensibly to consider theological points so abstruse as to be ridiculous to the vast majority of modern minds, but which were essential to the future development of the religion and the continuation and augmentation of imperial power. The point is that hundreds of theologians came together and worried the essential meaning from questions which seem abstruse to the point of idiocy today.

Those are the guys who we now need at the end of a telephone line in a call centre to give authoritative judgements on the worrying cruces of everyday life. They are the ones who would be able to tell me: given that the plastic frame of the meat container is clearly for the green bin while the plastic sheets are for the black bin; what bin is the correct one for a container which still has the cellophane sheet linked to one side of the container and in which the plastic pad for the blood is still on the bottom.

I don’t think it will be too long before the incorrect placement of rubbish will be seen as a major crime and the dilettante approach which governs most of Britain today towards the problem of waste disposal will be seen as an unbelievably feckless approach by people who, in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, seemed to think that they could get away with tinkering with the system instead of root and branch reform. I know that there have been prosecutions for the wrong placement of rubbish, but it is only a matter of time before the jokey, quirky response of most people is replaced by a very real concern and relish as malefactors are justly punished.

A similar situation governs the use of mobile phones by car drivers. Taking Toni to and from work I have never counted fewer than two drivers using mobile phones on each trip and, as I do sometimes look at the road rather than stare malevolently at evil phone users, I must be missing lots of others. White Van Drivers and Male Drivers Under 25 are the usual offenders which makes the implementation of instant decapitation of offenders all the more desirable. This, together with the ignoring of the 30 mph speed limit form the foundation of contempt for the law which permeates the whole approach of the majority of the population of these benighed islands. And then we come to insurance fraud, which is not even remotely perceived as a crime by most. Link that to the mealy mouthed chatter about the war in Iraq! Bah humbug!

I think that this pondering has been brought on by the constant rain today which seems positively vindictive in its intensity. I feel the need to voice the same sentiment as Osvald at the end of ‘Ghosts’ by Ibsen (though, I hasten to add with vastly different motivations and in greatly different circumstances!) “Mother, give me the sun!”

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The sound of music!

‘Guys and Dolls’ is a no-fail musical: good story line; strong tunes; show stoppers; clever lyrics. Toni has to like it. Doesn’t he? Surely? And the sets: I remember the sets; the set for Act 2 got a round of applause. The dance routines were excellent and the ensemble work outstanding. See, it can’t fail to impress. I have to add that this is being written at ten past six, before curtain up at seven thirty with the music from the original National Theatre cast playing on the computer. The only reaction to the music has been, “I hope that isn’t the music for this evening.” But do I doubt the power of this musical to grab an unbeliever by the scruff of the neck and turn them towards the true spotlight? No doubt at all, it will work its magic again as it has in production after production.

. . .

Well, it did up to a point. Toni must be the only person in the whole history of the production of ‘Guys and dolls’ who came out singing a musical phrase to the words ‘guys and dolls’ which wasn’t actually in the show. Toni is a man who can listen to the show stopping number, ‘Sit down, you’re rocking the boat’ and come out singing his own composition. In fact he has gone on relentlessly singing that phrase so much that I found myself giving voice to it! Chico malo!

The production itself was fine: a worthy production of one of my favourite musicals. The sets were not as impressive as I remembered from the previous National Theatre production, though I think that I was probably easily impressed by the outline lights which made up the shape of the distant skyscrapers. I expect rather more these days!

The singing was generally underpowered and the male voices lacked character and distinction. This was particularly clear in the number sung by Sky, ‘Luck be a lady tonight!’ where the rendition was poor: the voice lacking in projection and a lack of definition in many parts of the limited register for that song. It was a poor vocal performance, though a cleverly choreographed scene.

The choreography came into its own during the Havana sequence which was a delight throughout. The staging was relatively simple consisting of a series of tables and a board topped bar stage left, but the way in which the tables and chairs were brought on and the way that the bar was utilised for some spectacular dance set pieces was imaginative and exciting.

I’ve seen better!

The Japanese take away at the end of the evening was more of an overall success.

Talking of food, I would like you to consider the simple act of eating yogurt.

I am old enough to remember a ‘Blue Peter’ programme presenter explaining how to build something which used an empty plastic yogurt pot, “if you have them in your area,” and, in Cardiff, we didn’t; except of course in Howells where they could be bought from the food hall, but not in plastic cartons and the yogurt was only live and wholesome.

Anyway, those were the olden days, and this is now. Now we have aisles loaded with different types of yogurt with a bewildering array of additives, some of which you can actually see!

What is it about yogurt that divides people so completely into distinct groups? It is, after all, a fairly simple action (or series of actions) which will lead to the consumption of yogurt.

But consider the decisions that have to be made and techniques which have to be employed before the completion of the eating experience.
First the choice. How do you choose your yogurt? Forget, for a moment about the fat content, the fruit percentage, the type of ‘extras’ etc; just concentrate on the flavour. What influences your decision? This is where the budding sociologist (or nosey parker) comes into his own.

There is a basic division between the ‘I don’t care’ type and ‘I only eat strawberry’ (and it always is strawberry) type. I am of the ‘I don’t care’ type though I do have a problem with banana yogurt. Y problem is that I don’t really like banana yogurt until I actually eat it, and then I am surprise at how tasty it is. And I respond like this all the time; this is one eating experience which I don’t really learn from. Even writing this down, I know the next time that I am offered a yogurt and might be given (because I will have said that I don’t mind which variety) a banana yogurt I will feel disappointment and slight revulsion, I will however start eating it and, yet again, be surprised by the pleasant taste. People who only eat one type of yogurt and like people with no music in their souls and should not be trusted; give me time and I will think up a quotation from Shakespeare to give credence to this prejudice.

The next level of difference is found in the way in which people take off the yogurt top. For the sake of this analysis I am assuming that we are talking about the simple, taut foil covering found on most pots.

There are basically three types of people designated by their chosen method of decapitation of the pot:
1. Careless rip
2. Careful pull
3. Composite
The ‘careless rip’ is the full blooded rending of the metallic covering which results in fragmentation of the lid and sometimes the splattering of yogurt over a greater surface area than would seem to be possible from the volume of yogurt contained in the small pot.
The ‘careful pull’ person looks for the small semicircle of extra lid which is designed for the thumb and index finger to gain a purchase to ensure, through steady pressure, the complete satisfaction of an entire lid extraction in one piece.

The ‘composite’ describes the immature and rushed approaches to yogurt consumption preparation where the person does not look for the little semicircle (see above) and uses heretical methods for removal including; punching a hole in the lid with the spoon; poking a finger through the lid; using a nail to find the edge of metal (painful) or use the nail to cut round the rim like a can opener (painful, bloody and ineffective); giving the pot to someone else with a winsome smile of engaging helplessness (pathetic); squeezing the pot to dislodge the lid (explosive).

Once the lid is in the possession of the potential eater, either in its complete (or ‘correct’) form of its fragmented (or ‘jagged’) form, the next discriminator is what you do with the yogurt on the underside of the lid.

Again there are three types of person:
1. The licker
2. The scraper
3. The waster

You are only a true ‘licker’ if you are prepared to lick the (quite surprising) amount of yogurt which adheres to the under surface, no matter who you are in company with. It becomes a sort of statement of your view of society and a defiant act of individuality.

The ‘scraper’ has obviously been “brung up be ’and” and is still hearing the Voice of Mother in his ear. This is of course no more polite than licking if you take three or four minutes to scrape every particle of yogurt from the lid, ignoring the disbelieving stares of anyone around you.

The ‘waster’ throws the lid away. Such a person is beneath contempt and doesn’t realise that there are lots of people in the world who would have been very happy to have had that and been very grateful for the treat.

Don’t get me started on how people actually eat the pot of yogurt! Especially when they have got all the easy bits out and there are only the ridges of yogurt left in those inexplicable grooves in the pot put there my malicious designers who like to spread misery where they can.

This is longer than usual because for the umpteenth night in succession there is football on the television and there is only so much a person can take. To morrow is Barca against Real Madrid. God help us all!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A place in the sun?

I am typing this to the accompaniment of the voices on the television discussing which house to buy on the Costa Brava. “Brits,” we have been told, “have been coming here for forty years.” A bit longer than that: I came to the Costa Brava with my parents and uncle and aunt in 1958. I think that my (full board) 14 day holiday cost the same as four coffees and two Belgian brownies in Costa Coffee today. Progress, eh?

Progress is the one thing that is not being applied to the house sale in Rumney. I think that the viewing yesterday was the last this season and we will be looking to next spring before any money finally rests comfortably in my bank account. I remain, defiantly, optimistic. In a way. Up to a point. A bit.

The programme on Archie Griffiths was delivered by Ceri today on a DVD. No problem there, not with the number of gadgets that I have which thrive on such gleaming discs. Which machine to use to be given the honour of showing me the life and times of this neglected painter? As it happened all of them. Not one of the bloody drives would even recognise that there was anything on the disc.

Many years ago there was a battle royal between apparently mature electrical companies who both had ways of storing moving pictures on magnetic tape. They both thought that their individual systems were the best, so . . .

Once upon a time there were kind groups of people who ran companies and they really cared about their customers and wanted only the best for them; they didn’t want to waste their own, or anyone else’s resources so, rather than fighting and squabbling they sat down like grown ups and discussed their products and finally said that one way of doing things was the best and that everyone would produce wonderful machines all of which would use the same system and no one would buy anything which would be obsolescent and then soon obsolete.

Now, that’s what I call a sentence! And if you believe that, then you’ll believe what that long winded sentence says and also believe that Apple Macintosh actually thought up their own operating system rather than stealing it from someone else just like the new version of Windows. Or you’ll be what we realists call childish.

Because, of course, the disc did not play because it wasn’t being played back on the system that created it and, in spite of the fact that my laptop plays just about any form of disc, plus or minus, divided or multiplied – it didn’t play this one. So, now I’ll have to go cap in hand to S4C to ask nicely if they can give me a copy of the programme. I look forward to the challenge! I’m sure that they won’t take the fact of my being a monoglot English speaking Welshman as in any way an obstacle. We will see.

Adding to my generally high level of grumpiness was my repeated attempt to try and get in touch with Vodafone – wait for it – Customer Service. I pause to search for the right word to describe the designation of ‘Customer Service’ when applied to 191 on the Vodafone network. ‘Misnomer’ has a good ring to it (pun) but sounds too well mannered; ‘Paradox’ seems to link philosophy to prosaic ineptitude; ‘Irony’ – no, that ascribes a sense of humour to a system which is automated and, when it cuts you off, manages to say, with a bright and cheerful voice, “Thank you for calling!”; ‘Deception’ seems to be on the right track, but too gentle; LIE – yes, that’s it! ‘Lie,’ stinking lie! That has the ring of truth to it! God rot them all to the pits of hell. If anyone out there has phoned ‘Customer Services’ on Vodafone and got through, do tell. I have spent the better part of the day making spasmodic efforts to contact the Masters of Telephonic Deception. It is a good thing that I have discovered the loudspeaker feature on my new mobile otherwise I would have had to waste the whole of my attention on the futile task of trying to GTAH (get to a human) in this automated universe.

Speaking to Gaynor, who was looking for reassurance that she was on the right lines in her approaches to her teaching of English (she was by the way) brought back some of the snap on attitudes of my past life. Odd. Not unpleasant, but not something which tempted me to jump at (more away from) Gaynor’s suggestion that I could find any amount of teaching from the various agencies which exist to keep our rickety system in place. That was shudder making! Not for me, not here, not now.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Cover up

Thank God for friends like Ceri who phones up to let me know that Peter Lord’s programme on Archie Griffiths (the painter) is on S4C, translates the programme blurb for me and has offered to record it for me. Why, you may ask, do I, an eager cultural dilettante, have to have the programme recorded for me? Why can I not record it for myself? I have, after all, a video recorder.

The answer to this situation is to be found in Stamford Bridge – where Chelsea is playing Barcelona. Toni is, at this moment, with shaking hands, making a milk shake with all the nonchalant calm of Attila the Hun trying to decide which burning village to use to roast his marshmallows before dunking them in his sanguine Ovaltine. He is, it must be admitted, a little tense.

For him it is very simple: Barcelona are the Chosen Ones of God while José Mourinho is the anti-Christ and his team a rag bag selection of cheaters and overrated, unprofessional nonentities. The fact that I also have an opinion about this game and the relative merits of each manager and of members of their teams; that I know the colour of Barcelona’s away strip; that I can name and defend my choice of favourite Barca player [Puyol by the way, though I am not unimpressed by the brilliant skills of Messi and Ronaldinho, but Puyol is constantly impressive and dependable]; that I have watched more football in the last few years than I have in the whole of the rest of my life – is more than astonishing, it is, um, uncharacteristic, but, it is something that I will have to live with. You never know, in time, I might even begin to like football. (Only joking, Toni!)

The continuing debate about the wearing of the full face veil is constantly interesting. The quality of debate is not scintillating but the political background and the desperate positioning of various politicians (who are obviously paranoid about being wrong footed on the wrong side of a divide that they don’t really comprehend) is little short of farcical. I can’t help feeling that this question is not the most pressing in Britain today but, being cynical, it does allow a populist twist away from the main debate on the Iraq war so that the essential elements in this wrong headed conflict are swamped by a ‘which side are you on’ debate in which vital considerations are reduced to the bicycle shed/atomic power station level. You know the sort of thing. Parkinson in one of his laws said that the amount of debate on a particular subject is in inverse proportion to the number of people who have any technical knowledge about the matter being discussed. So, everyone knows about bicycle sheds and everyone has an opinion and a strongly held point of view which they express at great length, whereas the complexity of a nuclear power station leaves most of us behind, so the whole complex is passed through committee on the nod.

The Islamic veil for women is obvious and clearly visible. The links with masks, balaclavas, and hoodies: all covers associated with negative sometimes criminal, certainly anti social activities. The choice therefore, for most the population is relatively simple: hiding the face means something to hide means danger.

From what I have been able to glean the full veil is not stipulated in the Koran; it is not a statement of the Prophet it is not an undisputed piece of Islamic tradition. I further understand that there is a considerable amount of debate within the faith about the veil. With an open display in an open society, discussion by non Islamic folk is not prejudice, it is a right.

Like so much of women’s clothing: tight skirts, very short skirts, delicate stockings, corsets, cramped shoes, high heeled shoes, the use of cosmetics, the growing of long fingernails – all of these, seem to me to be yet another way of subjugating women in making their ‘appropriate’ appearance something which limits their movement and freedom. The blatant differences between the dress of men and women in some Islamic dominated societies emphasises the dominant position of men and the subordinate position of women. I do not find it strange that some Islamic women embrace the hajib and burka and paradoxically claim that they are liberating; didn’t some women organise themselves against the suffragettes who were fighting for votes for women when women were lumped with criminals, lunatics and the House of Lords in not having the vote.

I was interested to listen to one British woman who had taken to wearing the full burka in spite of the fact that her own mother did not wear it. One commentator suggested that it was the fact that this woman had grown up in a liberal democracy that had, paradoxically, encouraged her to become more restrictive. A society which allowed her to consider her own sense of identity in a society of multiple identities, where individuality is encouraged, allowed her to assume a more demonstrative version of a position that she felt could be more central and help her respond to the challenge of an open society.

To be frank I find the burka sinister and restricting; it does suggest a complete rejection of a whole way of life and society. It reminds me of the arrogance of the English in India who defiantly dressed as though they were in the Home Counties; a complete rejection of the values and importance of the people they were among. I relished reading an account of a viceregal ball in India where the ladies were in full evening dresses and the men in full evening dress and both sets of them dripping in torrents of sweat almost immediately as the evening commenced. An absurd assertion of irrelevant

How is the wearing of the burka different? A defiant assertion of difference? A provocative rejection of a different version of society? A glaring sexism? A symbol of devotion? This easy-to-join-in-debate will run and run.

I am reading an excellent book called “When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple” (ISBN: 0-918949-16-5) a compilation of writing and photographs of “women living in their later years.” The title is taken from the opening line of Jenny Joseph’s poem ‘Warning.’ It is edited by Sandra Haldeman Martz and has contributions from a whole range of people I have never heard of, but have much enjoyed reading. As an example of the little delights that await in this volume, take the poem ‘In Conclusion’, the last of a series of short poems in a sequence entitled, ‘A Place for Mother’ by Joanne Seltzer.


Not wanting to be a burden
on your children
you sign yourself into a nursing home.

You become active
in every group
and serve on every committee.

You are voted
a role model.

Mother would be proud of you.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Fallen Idols

The future viceroy of India, George Nathaniel Curzon, as part of his failed attempt to become leader of the Conservative Party was advised to try some of the things which ‘ordinary’ people had to put up with. So he tried to catch a bus. He hated it because, as he told one of his colleagues, the driver wouldn’t take him where he demanded to go. Didn’t really understand the principles of bus routes and was antipathetic to the whole idea of the common herd. I felt something of the same rejection travelling by bus myself today.

Before you get too aerated about my snobbishness, I am perfectly aware of bus routes and payment and having to stop for other people etc. No, the cause of my discomfort was an elderly gentleman wearing jam pot glasses, with dirty grey hair and whose right arm and hand were grasping a crutch. No, again, nothing to do with disability but everything to do with proximity.

Finding a seat on a bus is a very specialised skill. Not all seats are the same, as Orwell wrote; some seats are more equal than others. Choose the wrong one and you invite people to seat themselves next to you. Some seats incorporate the wheel arch of the tyres into the floor and thereby limit your leg room; some seats are at a different level to others and are not as comfortable; some are narrower, but two seats are excellent. These seats are the ones which are at 90˚ to the rest of the seating facing the luggage storage area. These seats have vertical bars, are elevated and relatively spacious. I took one of these seats at once and, as any boy brought up by a mother like mine would do, looked back along the bus to see if there were spare places which would tempt passengers to sit and not stand, thereby demanding a polite offering of my seat to them. Safe. Plenty of seats, though some of them had people sitting on the outside protecting their inner space.

So, the old guy got on, ignored the spaces further down the bus and parked himself opposite me. What could I do? I offered him my seat at once. And he refused! So, for the majority of the journey I was sitting down with a disabled person standing opposite me.

This is exactly the situation which the phrase ‘exquisite discomfort’ was invented to define. Stop after stop came and went with aged people (it was after 9.30 in the morning so the grey free bus passes were out in force) seeing me sitting down with crutch user swaying gently in my vicinity. He also engaged me in totally incomprehensible ‘conversation’ or monologue as I am used to defining it, to which I smilingly added, from time to time like a Greek chorus of one, the word, ‘yes’. This word has stood me in good stead throughout the version of the world that I have travelled. Thinking about it, it has also got me into some tight spots from time to time, but generally speaking, I come out on top. Which may also be related to some of those tricky situations, to which I alluded, but, let it pass, let it pass? I even pretended to be asleep to avoid eye contact and gibberish translation. It was positive relief when he got off.

The Job Centre person was, as last time, not at his post, so I plonked myself down and waited. He soon bustled in, still wearing that dirty coat, put down his cup of tea, ignored me (again) and went through the lengthy process of changing his glasses, starting the computer and, as a small courtesy gesture today, burped.

Not a penny has passed from the coffers of the state into my humble bank account and, after listening to the only enthusiasm that Dirty Coat Wearer allowed himself (another paean of praise to the Welsh radio personality that he listens to in the morning) and then his only piece of real advice to go to a telephone and press ‘E’ and speak to the disembodied voice. This done and a further telephone call to another disembodied voice in Newport and it turns out that the fault of the lack of cash is to be found in the tardy attitude of my past employers. Though, when they were contacted, they denied any communication with the Newport office; backwards and forwards with myself as the go-between. I think that I have now put these two organisations in touch with each other and I await developments with interest but little hope.

My purchase of The Big Issue was, as usual, a good buy with variety being the spice of life once again. One article that I read with interest and fury was entitled, ‘Battle Royal’ and concerned the ruminations of Jeremy Paxman about the monarchy.

Once a committed republican he now seems to be wavering in his opinions: “Of course I think they [the Royal Family] are democratically indefensible, utterly illogical and a product of history; all these things are true. But among other things, what are we supposed to replace it with if we ever get that far? It seems to me that most of the stable countries in Europe are monarchies. Where is the great model that’s out there? Do you want a president? Do you want the idea of our state wrapped up in a flag, religion or a slogan? Is it not better to have a figurehead that’s removed from the grasp of politicians wanting to satisfy their own ambitions?”

I find this depressing, he is using facile arguments which, as he has already highlighted the element of the illogical he feels that that is a point made and conceded. The Royal Family keeps this country in an almost infantile condition, as exemplified by Paxman’s “what are we supposed to replace it with” a plaintive cry of a frightened child frightened by the dark of a lack of political imagination. I do not take my understanding of whom or what I am, or what my country is by reference to a dysfunctional set of arrogant, overpaid parasites. Whatever their personal qualities their supine acquiescence in the costly charade of monarch damns them irremediably.

He also responds to the nauseating outpouring of saccharine grief on the death of the Queen Mother by suggesting that it is our ‘familiarity’ with the Royal Family that encourages this identification. The Queen Mother never gave interviews, apparently after some impertinent reporter was rude to her in the 1930s, she maintained this breathtaking stance of studied superiority throughout most of her life – and, astonishingly, was loved for it. Going to London at the time that her body (one almost feels that one should capitalize those words, Her Body, sounds so much more appropriate) was lying in state, the sight of the meandering crowds of people waiting to get a glimpse of her coffin made me ashamed to be British. I do sympathise with the family in their loss, but that little woman meant nothing to me or mine, except for the very real symbolism of a false distinction between the adulation given to her generally empty life of sterile ‘duty’ and the world in which the vast majority of her so-called subjects live. As I have always said, much as I hate and loathe Margaret Thatcher (the candle I have of her is waiting to be burnt on the occasion of her death) I have infinitely more respect for her and her real achievements than for any member of the British Royal Family. British people demean themselves by citing spurious justifications for their continued existence.

That’s better!

Tomorrow a viewing: so much depends on what happens in these next few months that, were I to think too closely on it, I would go mad, my masters.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Consumers fight back!

I start with this web site address because it is the way that you can stop unwanted telephone calls from companies which are trying to sell you something you don’t want. It says it takes up to 28 days to activate, but if it cuts down on those nagging calls from foreign call centres asking you about you mobile phone. The process is very simple and takes a couple of minutes. Do it!

If only all my other grumps were as easy to foil! I suppose that I am being naïf and believing that it will work. I live in hope – which also goes for the people who are coming to view the house this Wednesday: well, hope on my side anyway! If they buy then I could be in Catalonia by Christmas. I shall gaze at the picture of the sea in Castelldefels again!

In spite of having had to visit the dentist today for the replacement of a chunk of tooth which cracked away from the molar just as the dentist was closing on Friday, I still feel optimistic. Perhaps it’s the drugs, though I am not sure that ‘euphoria’ was one of the side effects listed for blood pressure medicine!

Tomorrow is my ‘sign on’ day again. At least I have (at last) managed to get the doctor’s letter (which was written on the 5th of October) so God knows what it has been doing drifting about the in trays of the administration in the surgery; that grey never-never land in any organization. For me, when I was working in Cardiff Planning Department as the lowest of the low, just before I went to University, I had my own little grey area of administration. As a filing clerk all that I was supposed to do was check the numeric designation in the right hand corner of any official letter and then place the letter in the appropriate numeric file. This was a simple and foolproof system - as long as the people in the office actually used it. Of course, they didn’t. So when a letter arrived in my demesne and my eager eyes lighted on the right hand corner and searched in vain for a clue as to where I should put the bloody thing, I had to make an executive decision about the content of the letter and then place it in the appropriate file. Considering the fact that I had only just joined the Planning Department and knew nothing of what it was doing, having the communications system of the place in the control of the person least qualified to understand what was going on was not, to say the least, the most intelligent piece of placement in the history of the administration of Cardiff.

Not being totally stupid a cursory glance at the heading of the letter might sometimes give a gentle clue so, for example, a letter headed, ‘Car Parking in the CDA’ might, fairly safely, be placed in the car parking file. Others however were not so clear cut and I resorted to photocopying some letters and placing them in multiple files to cover, as it were, my options.

It soon dawned on me, however, that this approach was tripling or in some case quadrupling my work load. A new method was called for, so I instituted, a la De Vinci Code, les dossiers secretes, or the bottom drawer of my desk. So any difficult letter that arrived for me to file went straight into the bottom drawer and I waited for someone to ask if I could work out where a certain letter could be. I would wait for them to leave my office and then les dossiers secrete would be consulted and then the letter would be magically produced. As far as I know that bottom exists still, probably integrated into the new system in a completely new planning department! Probably the whole desk had to be carried to its new venue complete and intact.

I wonder if I will be subjected to the unreconstructed worker again in the Job Centre. I will be fascinated to see if he has developed over the last two weeks. Perhaps he might say hello this time, you never know, he might have had some in service training since the last time. Of such small moments is my life made up now!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Keep or discard?

How much does a wooden spoon cost? Not much, surely? So why does it take such an effort to throw one out when it is cracked or broken? Today I have finally relegated (to the recycling bin) an ancient, blackened, disfigured and frankly slimy wooden spoon. I am not from West Wales, or Scotland or any of the other racist inspired stereotypically mean locations, why do I find it such a major deal to throw away something which is, finally, easily replaceable? God knows.

But, thinking about it, there is a whole series of other domestic necessities which also have inordinately long shelf lives.

Take tea cloths: not a major expense, yet I’ve seen threadbare examples in homes where the owners would think nothing about discarding the tail end of the salmon and the ends of the cheeses at the termination of a meal. Tea towels which seem to have negative capabilities of soaking up water from dishes are treasured by families that throw away Christmas cake before the alcohol in it has allowed them fully to mature – the cakes and the families! Flannels too: surely people can tell that when a flannel is more like the feel and consistency of a flat fish, then it is probably time for a change, but not, the DNA treasuring scrap of cloth is prized in the same way as the Shroud of Turin!

Then we come to clothes. How often to single straight men buy their own underpants? If it was left to them they would probably still be struggling to wear the last pair bought by their mums.

And cutlery: when the stuff that you use day by day would not look out of place in a greasy spoon restaurant then perhaps it is time to consider changing one of the ways in which others judge you. The first and most important way in which you are instantly judged (and inevitably, never forgvien) is, of course, how many and what titles of books you have in your living room. If you have none, then you should be cast into the physical outer darkness that obviously mirrors your already existing spiritual one.

And lastly sheets. I know that, somewhere, there exists either upstairs, or in the possessions now in the careful charge of Messrs. Pickfords, a sheet with the utility mark on it. If you have to ask what that mark actually signifies, then you would be far too shocked to know what it signifies in terms of age. If you too have such sheets then you will be familiar with the, “it may be a sign of age but it is also a sign of quality” argument [a varient on the "they don't make them like that any more" defence] which allows you to keep it proudly as an icon of class and prudence. Isn’t semantics a comforting thing?

I’m sure that you have your own (justified) keepings. I wonder what they are.

I have just watched ‘Geisha’ and have been mightily disappointed with it. If you discard the Japanese setting and concentrate on the basic story line then it is little more than ‘poor orphan girl goes though hardships but eventually gets her prince.’ The sententious voice over did not make the narrative thrust any more convincing. There were elements of almost gritty realism which could have made a much better film, but the cherry blossom was never very far away from this saccharine take on Cinderella.

I phoned the Carphonewarehouse (is it all one word?) about the non gleaming of the required blue backlight on the Motorola phone and was told that there was a ambient light sensor on the phone which will stop the backlight coming on to preserve battery life. A live test in the darkness this evening has proved that the light does come on when the darkness is profound, but I would want the light to come on during twilight too, what with my eyesight and everything.

I am getting nearer to my second ‘signing on’ experience. So the weeks pass and nothing, not a single penny is thrust in my direction. I wonder how long they will take before they come to any decision on my case? The story continues.

For dinner this evening we had as a main course what is usually an accompanying vegetable in Spain. It was delicious so the recipe follows.

2 tins broad beans
1 small black pudding
pkt of smoked bacon
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
vegetable stock cubes
small onion
four cloves garlic

Put a little oil in a saucepan and add the bacon cut into smallish pieces. Allow to cook for a short time then add chopped onion, chopped garlic and the fennel seeds. Stir and cook over a moderate heat
Dice and add the black pudding. Cook until the onion is transparent.
Add the stock cubes mixed in a cup of boiling water. Stir the mixture ensuring that the bottom of the saucepan is clear. Add the broad beans and lower the heat. When the beans are fully warmed, serve in a bowl with fresh bread.

Serves two as a main meal, or six as a starter or tapa.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Food and futility

Basque broth: sounds good, especially in a restaurant like Le Monde where the deliberate policy of the place is to push the price up a bit so that the lesser breeds without the law go to the other two places rather than pollute the expenses account eaters of the upper stories.

The basic ingredients of the soup were calamari, chorizo, tomato, onion, celery, pepper. You can’t really go wrong. Except they did. It was supposed to be a starter but we had it as a main. The chorizo (according to Toni) was not Spanish (he suspected German) the calamari was hard and rubbery; the surrounding sauce was bland, though perhaps a hint of smoked paprika. Disappointing. I could make better: fresh calamari, addition of diced potato, a few small shelled prawns and I thought two or three capers. With a glass of white Rioja and French bread we still ended up paying a tenner each. I think we resented it.

We passed the time studying the Christmas menu: how much (How much?) and what you get. The key expense is always the wine. In general, if you compare British with Spanish meals then, because the wine is always included in the price in the Spanish version, you are always better off in the peninsular. And if you drink enough the food is irrelevant. So I’m told.

I’ve been reading ‘The Gods of Mars’ by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of Tarzan etc. I knew that he wrote sci-fi stories as well, but this is the first time that I have actually read one. This is one of a vast series, it was written as a serial in the All-Story Magazine during 1913 from January to May, and published as a novel in book form in 1919. It is absolute rubbish, though I have to admit that I didn’t actually stop reading it and I was actually interested to know what happened in the end. Not so much to find out if the hero survived (the story is told from notes that the hero had given to his nephew before he returned to Mars after he had apparently risen from the dead – don’t ask!) but rather to find out how the plot was resolved.
The hero of the story is John Carter a Viking like superman subject to fits of bloodlust, but deeply moral in a muscular Christianity sort of way. The thrust of the story is of a discovery that people of Mars have been hoodwinked by religion for thousands of years and the redoubtable John Carter is the one to break superstition and bring a new freedom to the population of the planet. The myths are takes on well tried religious stories using Christian and Classical elements to bring interest to the narrative.

The true interest is centred on the approach to the different racial aspects of the protagonists in the novel. The lying priestly caste turns out to be composed of self seeking indolent white supremacists; they turn out to be only one part of a further layer of exploitation by a race of black pirates, who in turn are held in thrall by a hideous black hag pretending to be a goddess; they are also cannibals, eating the white girls that they steal. 1913 – Makes you think. The heroes of Mars are, of course, red – while the original races (formed from the mutated Tree of Life) were white and yellow with the green people being savages. It’s all very complicated and I’m sure reflects more of Burroughs society and mores than any literary influences. All the blacks are wiped out, and the priests and the hideous hag is thrown to the people she has duped. Haggard does this sort of thing so much better and Gagool in ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ is a much more satisfying creation than Issus, Goddess of Death and of Life Eternal! Having said all that, I do want to know what happens when the Temple of the Sun finally revolves for a year to open the cell into which Dejah Thoris, Thuvia and Phaidor have been placed. Did Phaidor manage to drive her dagger into Dejah Thoris, or did Thuvia manage to interpose herself in a particularly selfless fatal act of love? Sad, isn’t it?

Talking of sadness, the much vaunted new mobile of a certain Catalan has not been performing with the correct amount of luminescent blueness that had been expected: the backlight, the blue backlight, is intermittent and does not leap into action with the touching of the keys. We have tried everything and nothing is working. He is ready to give it back: bad news!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Pleasure is based on pain

Teachers are often forced to use the term ‘peer pressure’ to try to explain away to indulgent middle class ostrich-like parents some of the ways in which the blameless fruit of their loins behave when placed in the hell holes known as schools. It allows parents the barrier of hiding their naughty kids behind the excuse which involves the seemingly irresistible effects of evil hordes of other people’s children forcing their little angels into anti-social behaviour which is so different from that which they habitually exhibit at home (sic).

Too often it is an effortlessly easy method of using a reason which satisfies all parties in a disciplinary situation from actually making an effort to discover the real motivations.

I know that I sound a little Manichean and heretical, the thoughts after all do suggest a ‘dyed in the wool’ innate, badness of character in the human (especially in the young human) condition. Far be it from me to bring upon myself the wrath of an anti-Albigensian crusade (the Languedoc has bled enough) but, surely, there is enough imagination left in the world to consider that some folk must just accept their responsibilities and admit that sometimes we just do wrong because we do.

Forget looking for an infinite number of sociological, psychological, physiological, historical, cultural, religious, or any other reasons – we’re bad because we are like that for some of the time; and then we’re not. That is the Human Condition; pure and simple.

All of that has been brought on by mobile phones. Now my linkage with the evil little gadgets goes back some time and, as soon as they were within the bounds of reason to buy, I bought one. Unfortunately, I bought it as a gadget icon rather than as something which was actually useful. I remember that I was pleased with the svelte beauty of the thing (compare with the utilitarian massiveness of the GPO attempts at mobile phones of yesteryear, but I think that I rather thought that they should sort of run themselves and not need any sort of maintenance, or power, or top up, or telling people that I actually owned one of them. The fact that I knew that I owned one was enough. And, I have never lost my detestation for people actually using them in public; for which they were designed. I know, I know: illogical, counter intelligent etc.

But I do believe that the law which states that people cannot use their mobile phone while driving should be extended to all those in the car and all those who are in public. All ring tones of public phones should be banned at once and only the vibrate setting be allowed.

I think that there should be padded, enclosed phone kiosks for those people who, knowing by the vibrations that someone has tried to reach them, feel the need to contact their caller before returning to their domestic havens.

Any public misuse of a mobile phone (that is, any public use) should be punishable by immediate confiscation of the phone and its public burning by a specially appointed Savonarolaesque custodian of morals.

The owner of the phone should also be heavily fined (the fine being the equivalent of the full price of the mobile phone or the full cost of a 12 month contract; whichever is the higher) and be prohibited from owning a mobile phone for five years, or, in the case of a person of over 25 years of age [as they should have known better] 10 years prohibition from ownership. {Not sure about the use of the preposition in that sentence.}

So I am in the paradoxical, contradictory situation of owning a mobile phone while not actually approving their existence. Thinking about it that goes for much of modern life. Consider for a moment the sheer weight of possessions by which we surround ourselves and which we resent: irons, Hoovers, toilet brushes, spare rooms not used as libraries, road tax discs, umbrellas, dinner jackets, fish ponds, washing machines and oxo cubes – the ordinary stuff of life. Yet we put up with it all.

As this screed moves to its conclusion I am finding the strength to combat the almost overwhelming pressure that I am coming under to replace my little Toshiba mobile. Although my phone is unusual, it is, perhaps, prosaic. It does not have the sleek beauty and ergonomic elegance of, say, a Motorola SL7 Red. It also does not have the 5% donation to charity that the previously mentioned phone possesses. I am too scared to look too closely at the range of features that the phone has in case the case for my acquiring one becomes too much. I am resisting now with a supreme effort of will, not helped by the gleeful boasting of my partner who is rejoicing in the flaunting of the phone with a smugness which makes the normal domestic tabby look like Albert Schweitzer. Unfortunately, tomorrow is, as they say, another day and the day after that is also a day in which I will be able to satisfy my gadget longing.

It’s going to be a long, long weekend – not least because I have broken a tooth and the first appointment I can get is 10.30 am on Monday.