Saturday, 28 February 2009

A rude awakening

I'm writing this in the spare room of my best friend's house, we had a long-overdue get-together last night. We'd both envisaged lots of conversation - catching up, offloading, opining, putting the world to rights, and no doubt talking complete and utter shit too - but as it turned out we were both so exhausted we just sat practically mute on the settee in his shed, watching Big Train and drinking gin.

I woke earlier and wondered where the hell I was and thought about work and my mind started racing and, thank goodness, it's Saturday. The luxury of turning over and going back to sleep, able to submit to the crushing tiredness and have a good, proper lie-in.

A number of things - that sense of sheer discombobulation and disorientation when I first woke, and also reading this post - have served in their own ways to remind me of one Saturday morning back in the mid-90s, when I was living in a bedsit, adjacent to my friend Jean-Paul.

He used to give French language tuition to someone on Saturday mornings. This person used to turn up in his car at the downright ridiculous time of 7am: I would have otherwise struggled to accept that 7am actually existed on Saturday mornings, except that this caller had the unwelcome and downright annoying habit of ringing the bell for room 4 - mine - rather than room 5, which was Jean-Paul's.

So, I swished and bristled downstairs in a mire of annoyance, bleariness and a dressing gown, barely registering the sound of my door closing behind me.

Is Jean-Paul in?

His voice was raised over the sound of the car engine, still running since the tuition would take place over at his.

Yes I'm sure he is - but if you actually rang his room not mine! I'll go and get him.

Jean-Paul was just emerging from his room, keys in hand. I was asking him to tell this guy that I was getting sick of being disturbed at the non-existent hour of 7am, as I was subconsciously reaching for my own keys in my dressing gown pocket.

Not there. No keys.

I pushed my door.

Closed: locked.


Jean-Paul appraised the situation, and we both remembered that the landlord was currently out of the country.

Here, he said, proffering me his room, putting the stove-top coffee maker onto the Belling hob, simultaneously giving me the television remote. When I get back....

I nodded at the offer of help implicit in the unfinished sentence, and he parted with a typical phrase of his: no problems, only solutions!

So I relaxed until his return - as far as one is able to relax watching Saturday-morning television and drinking industrial-strength Gallic coffee whilst musing over the fact that I was locked out, with no obvious means of rectifying the situation without breaking in: something I definitely did not wish to countenance.

Jean-Paul's return, late morning (that'll be after 4 hours of Saturday-morning TV and industrial-strength Gallic coffee - I may have still been sat on the settee but as far as I was concerned I was on the ceiling), saw us try and work out a plan of action: with a definite no from me regarding the possibility of breaking into my room.

Here I was, sans keys, in dressing gown only, the landlord across the sea somewhere, and Jean-Paul repeating like a mantra: no problems, only solutions, the emphasis on the last syllable.

Fortunately, he had keys to the back door on the ground floor, which enabled us to access the back of the property and a view up to my window: enticingly, hauntingly open, though too narrow for any human being to fit through.

We had both spotted the ladder, and soon enough I was up there, peering into my room. The bed was by the window and beyond that, in the middle of the room, my jeans were on the floor: my keys would be in the left-hand pocket.

Jean-Paul had another appointment soon, so his mind was racing. I think his mind always raced, regardless. Whilst I was musing on the futility of the possibilities available, he had dashed back through the property and into his own room, returning minutes later, triumphantly holding plastic curtain rails, a wire coathanger and a roll of masking tape.

I descended the ladder and we fashioned a makeshift fishing rod, needing the whole roll of masking tape to ensure even the illusion of solidity.

He had to go. No problems, only solutions!

Indeed. Only that the solution involved me balancing precariously on a ladder 15 feet above the ground, clothed only in a dressing gown, and feeding an implement made of curtain rail and a coathanger through the narrow opening in my window.

The jeans were also a good few feet away. I made some exploratory attempts at hooking them: non-committal at first, more like a feasibility study.

What occurred to me, worryingly, was that if I was able to hook the jeans but then manage to drop them before lifting them up onto the bed, I would lose sight of them because the bed would block the view. This would cause real problems. I had also established that, as sturdy as we had managed to make the fishing rod, it bended and strained alarmingly (the sound of cracking plastic and ripping masking tape) when taking the surprising weight of the jeans into account, not to mention the sheer physics of the leverage involved.

I also had to make adjustments to the hook: if I could alter the shape so it could tag onto one of the belt hooks, life would be looking a little more hopeful.

45 minutes had already passed of this desperate, precarious activity, and I had made little progress except in terms of advancing the theory of the situation. My arms and shoulders were aching, and my feet weren't doing much better, jammed as they were onto the rung of a ladder.

I continued in my tentative efforts. A further half an hour had seen dark clouds on my particular horizon: I had managed to hook the jeans and drag them a little nearer, but each time they had just as quickly unhooked and dropped forlornly onto the floor, and reminded me of the danger that I might well drag them out of my line of sight.

I steeled myself, made further technical adjustments to the line and the hook, and tried once more. I got a bite (do jeans bite?), and knew that this was a crucial moment. There was much danger involved - I realised that I would have to use both arms to support the line if I were to lift the jeans onto the bed at least, which meant I would be standing on the ladder without any other means of support.

I did it anyway, heart in my mouth, sweat pouring from my brow. The weight of the jeans as I fished them up onto the bed was terrifying and I was sure the rod wasn't going to take it. A surge of adrenaline and a reminder - no problems, only solutions! - and in a blur of sheer effort, I had managed to secure the jeans onto the bed. I still had to fish them up from there and through the narrow gap in the window which separated me from them, but now it seemed so much more within my reach, almost literally.

I took a break for a few minutes - my arms were grazed from rubbing against the window frames as I'd strained through with the fishing rod/curtain rail, and my feet weren't faring much better. But I could now alter the rod itself: where previously it had required two segments of curtain rail taped together, I knew that now the distance from the top of the window to the jeans was short enough that I could take one of the segments away.

I also had the huge psychological benefit that, now that the jeans were on the bed, it didn't matter if I hooked them and they fell - they would only fall back to the bed and I could simply try again.

I ascended the ladder once more. By this time, almost 2 hours had passed since I had first climbed up and peered through to my then-distant legwear.

Thankfully it now took a mere couple of minutes to hook the jeans, lift them from the bed, and through the gap in the window. The only remaining heart-stopping moment was hurriedly checking the left-hand pocket - if my keys weren't actually in there, I was fucked.

Such was the joy on discovering that they were in fact in the pocket - and now in my left hand - that I almost forgot that I was perched up a ladder 15 feet above ground level dressed only in a dressing gown, and had to restrain myself from jumping and punching the air in sheer delight and relief.

On rushing through the property and blissfully unlocking my door, I realised just how much I appreciated being able to sit in my own chair, make a cup of tea if I wanted to, turn the radio on or listen to a cd - not to mention being able to get properly dressed.

Thursday, 26 February 2009


Most of the stuff I have on vinyl I don't often listen to these days, but I can easily find it on youtube. This one being a case in point.

Personally I recommend ignoring the visuals: not that I'm implying criticism of them, it's just I've always known the audio in isolation. It's more than evocative enough to conjure up its own images, because the sounds are just beautiful, exceptionally so.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The thing that keeps me sane the art group that I run on a weekly basis with a colleague.

To our delight, it's starting to get busy.

Depending how things go, we may have to run two art groups.

These things mean a lot.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Black Boxes: about time too

I bought a copy of Black Boxes by Caroline Smailes some months ago, as detailed here. I began reading it late last year but, owing to some rather trying personal circumstances at the time, I felt that it would be better to wait until I could properly give it the attention that it merited.

Actually, I may have been wrong. I think that if I had read on just a little further - literally a few pages further - at that particular time, then the choice would effectively have been taken away from me: for having read the novel in its entirety in the latter part of this week, there was a certain point, quite early on, at which reading it became a matter of sheer compulsion. That word unputdownable, so often used, is certainly true in this case.

For the most part, the novel takes the form of a searingly, devastatingly personal monologue as voiced by the central character, Ana, who has just taken an overdose: this monologue sifts through the detail of the now-broken relationship with the father of her children, and the twists and turns in their lives that have taken her to this point. At times this takes the form of an almost forensic level of enquiry, and never does she flinch from giving clear voice to her darkest, most unsettling thoughts. I found this to be often quite startling, perhaps because such words then intermingle with very delicate, gentle, warm moments.

One of the great strengths of Caroline's writing is the way in which she interweaves the main narrative with that of another voice, in this case Ana's daughter: in doing so she brings incredible poignancy to certain events already described by Ana, seen as they are in a different context, and at times carrying heartbreaking consequences. This tapestry of voices and recollections serves to render the characters and events ever more vivid.

In the immediate aftermath of reading Black Boxes, I'm also struck by just how real, how urgently human these characters are. Not only are their thoughts and observations expertly transcribed, so they are also sculpted as real flesh and blood: the stuff of them as living, breathing beings with all their beauty, flaws and blemishes is what really remains firmly in my mind right now. I felt that I could see, hear, smell and touch them, to the extent that I was intruding on their presence.

Powerful, emotive reading.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Staggering economy

I've stolen that phrase from a comment by a fellow blogger, but it seemed quite apposite when linking to this.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009


A friend of mine, during a very unsettled period of employment (probably truer to say that than to say a very settled period of unemployment) said words which stayed with me: it's not going to work that's the problem...and being on the dole is ok in itself: it's the transition from one to the other that's the worst part.

Those words have held much which resonates for me in the years since I first heard them, in the sense of a transition from one state to another.

Such has been on my mind this week as I returned to work after a break lengthy enough to afford a decent rest, various changes of scenery, time spent doing interesting things, and time pleasantly wasted (and a little time spent preoccupied with worry, which for me at least is obligatory). A break lengthy enough to be able to look back on the first few days of it and think, now that seems like a long time ago.

A break lengthy enough to be able to let go of the need to steel myself against certain things.

So it was a bit of a shock to the system to return to work and remember that I had to actually do stuff. At various points my train of thought has been as follows:



-and, as the situation in question presents itself, all those words fade away, or at least slow down (try juggling with three batons, and then with three pieces of tissue paper - that's the difference in the speed and intensity of thought process), and I'm then in the midst of what I was just worrying about. Being in the midst is calming because there's stuff to do, other people's stuff to deal with rather than to anticipate or worry about, and all those ...let's say, skills which I was worried had deserted me appear to have presented themselves exactly at the right moment, a bit like an airbag.

It's taken three days for that change from one state to another to feel a little more intuitive.

There's also a huge difference between being calm, and appearing calm.

I recall some years ago, following a - let's put it in the most charitable way possible - following a unique couple of years working within a unique set of circumstances, I'd taken some serious time out. I'd needed to, it was almost as though there was no choice in the matter. Fucking hell, I'd needed that time out.

Sometime later, following my signing up with a particular employment agency, I was being shown around a large building - my new place of temporary employment - a building which housed many vulnerable and/or challenging people at any given time. People with a whole range of needs, sets of problems, behaviours, circumstances, paraphernalia; things they had fled from, whether families, countries or other situations; conditions, diagnoses, prognoses and outlooks (I'll refrain from following that with - and that was just the staff).

I remember, on my initial tour of the's the canteen, here's admin, here's the maintenance department, the housing and support divisions, their respective offices, here's one of the empty rooms (someone should be moving in tomorrow) - oh, and here's the manager's office.

The manager's office looked very nice, if a little spartan. A couple of moments passed. I nodded, as if to say, yes, I can see that this is the manager's office. Where to now?

My tour guides looked at me, and looked over to the empty chair.

I nodded again, intending to give the same signals as just mentioned.

My tour guides looked at me again.

The second time they looked over to the empty chair, it hit me. The agency had sent me to manage this place. Oh bugger. Despite the fact that the previous couple of rather unique years had set me against the idea of managing anything ever again (at least in an employment setting), I went and sat down, to diffuse the awkwardness as much as anything.

If I don't like the way it's going I thought, I can always go back to the agency.

Before many days had passed - it was only a matter of time, given the nature of the place - I was stood right in the eye of a rather intense storm. A storm which involved physical injuries, broken implements, angry and shouting residents, the police, staff politics and so much more besides - and I was the one expected to take control and deal with it.

I remember standing there watching chaos and its aftermath unfold and unravel, and realising with great dread and fear that this was precisely the kind of situation I was meant to take control of, to manage. I remember sheer terror and helplessness, and my knees trembling (seemingly) uncontrollably.

Just as clearly, I remember thinking that if I couldn't manage to stop my knees shaking, if I couldn't control my own responses, then there was no way I was going to be able to deal with anything else.

The moments I stood there, amidst the vestigial remains of the violence and disorder of this particular incident, probably lasted 20, maybe 30 seconds, but felt like hours. The first few seconds were amongst the bleakest, the most challenging, I can ever remember experiencing.

The next few seconds weren't so bad. During this time I managed to calm myself (or at least, to reduce my outward symptoms), to take a few deep breaths, stop the knees shaking, stop the constant whatifs.

I strode out into the storm and began to tackle the situation, all its chaos and complexities.

Hours later - it took several hours of non-stop organisation, discussion, outright confrontation - I had thoroughly tackled the situation in ways I had never thought possible, energised by the necessity of the transition from one state to another, and the staff team felt they had a manager. The change in me was such that the staff damn well knew they had a manager, since I made sure of it.

I don't know how this post reads, I'm not going to edit it - but the memory described is a source of strength at the present time.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Safety First

Just occasionally, I wonder if it takes something really "crazy" to happen, to serve as a reminder of how "normal" one is.

Other times I find myself wondering if there's more truth in the converse.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Low battery power I was going to write a post today about some strange internal madness or something like that, but have postponed that for just now, in consideration of the following:

a) I have to be very careful with the wording, otherwise it might sound a bit weird.

b) I'm using wi-fi in a cafe for the first time ever - that's right, EVER and am stunned into a state of sheer paralysis at the novelty. Well I'm not, but given point a) above, I don't think I would be able to write as clearly, concisely and as sprawlingly beautifully as such a post would merit, since it would feel more like a race against the memento mori that is zero battery power, the crucial moment which draws nearer with every breath and beat of the heart.

So bollocks to it for now.

Actually that reminds me of another post which I ought to write about chess (the game, not the musical), although I stopped playing chess years ago thanks to that selfsame feeling of paralysis. My mate Jean Paul was the last person to challenge me to a game, and after he made the first move, I sat there in a state of ever-increasing bewilderment, unable to respond since every potential move risked unleashing fearful, uncertain and perhaps vicious consequences. In the end I had to apologise.

I'm sorry...I just... can't... do... this... were the words that I uttered in the tragi-heroic style of a thousand epic films in which the leading actor is faced with an agonising if not impossible choice which may have the gravest of implications for the whole of humanity or at least the future of the Post Office.

Ok, fancy some coffee? Came Jean Paul's reply, with a certain stern aspect serving to rebuke my melodramatics.

I'll go no further, for I'm also running the risk of drawing analogies between life and chess, and that would surely be an embarrassing new low.

So bollocks to that for now too.

In summation then, I seem to have written a post about things that I'm not going to post about, at least for now. You have my express permission to desist from gripping the edges of your respective seats.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Advert: proof of trousers

...meanwhile, I'm going to have a much-needed change of scenery for a few days - I'm not certain that I'll have internet access so it may be quiet round here til the end of the week: but that doesn't mean that I don't exist.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Golden Oldies

It's with a sense of mild astonishment that I suddenly realised, after almost two years of blogging, that I've never posted a link to this - ten blissful minutes of multilayered, perfectly poised guitars, and some of the most satisfyingly taut, insistent, motorik drumming you could possibly hope for.

Job done.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Winter: cold snaps

Yes, it was time for another dreadful pun.

Anyway, I've had a fantastic time walking about in the snow from the afternoon through to the evening, and taken dozens and dozens (as opposed to merely dozens) of photographs. It would have been difficult not to get some decent results on a day like today.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Autumn and Winter

I'll be alright
, she says to me, when the summer comes.
But summer's been, is my silent reply....

.....summer's gone.