Sunday, 26 July 2009

A sobering coincidence

So there I was with a handful of friends last night, having retired to a pub for a quiet couple of pints so as to give our ears a rest from the punishing but compelling onslaught of a bewildering variety of sounds and noises. Oddly, the conversation turned - I don't quite remember how - to discussion about World War 1 (possibly because I very boringly seize any chance to discuss the war when I've had a few drinkies).

I recall talking about my admiration for Harry Patch's simple but cogent denunciations of armed conflict, and how much extra weight and authority it seemed to carry coming from someone - the last one alive - who had been there, seen so much horror and futility with his own eyes, and very luckily lived to tell the tale so many decades later.

So it was rather sobering to get home around 1am and to see the news headlines.

Saturday, 25 July 2009


Just got back from a fabulous (I know I've already used that word in the previous post) first evening of the music festival.

I'm just very, very pleased that, in the events programme, my name is there under the section headed "Special Thanks." I hadn't expected that.

Time for bed.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Right now what I am savouring and making the most of, with this weekend being spent at a festival of fabulous, challenging and downright out-there music (I've bought a fresh set of earplugs especially for the occasion); followed by a week well away from anything to do with work, and to be spent in glorious countryside in a remote, one-street village, with a nice pub just down the road.

The drinks and the pub food will, of course, be well-deserved after miles and miles of walking and/or cycling: that's the idea anyway.

It all starts right now - it's all ahead of me - as I write these words, and I intend to make the most of every single minute of it.

The rain has ceased, the sun is shining and it's a pleasant evening.

I should be relaxed more often: sometimes at least, it suits me.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

When the phone rings

...I get very nervous. When the phone rings at a relatively late hour, that is: let's say just after 10.30 pm.

I know that's hardly a rock n roll definition of late, but in terms of people phoning me, well it hardly ever happens. Not during the week.

So when it rang last night, the ringtone was like a panic button: who is it? What's gone wrong? Is somebody ill/had an accident/missing/dying/dead? Those kind of thoughts, all in an instant.

I picked the phone up and heard my mother's voice, and those italicised worries amplified themselves a little in my mind.

Mum: Ah - you're still up then.

I steeled myself as I replied in the affirmative (stating the reasonably obvious), whilst inwardly wondering what what wrong.

Mum (taking a deep breath): Right...

What was the name of the character in
The New Avengers, the one played by Gareth Hunt? I think it was just one word.

Me: *deep sigh* Gambit.

I wish she wouldn't put me through this: but then I ought to know by now that when the phone rings at a relatively late hour, my mum's been doing crosswords again.

Sunday, 19 July 2009


Whoever first developed the idea of mobile phones doubling up as portable music players should be sentenced to a punishment of being forced to travel on public transport for several hours a day, each day, until they can no longer endure it without screaming in terror or getting beaten up for having the temerity to go up to someone and suggest that if they don't turn the music down then they run the risk of having their mobile shoved down their throat.

I'd got on the train yesterday evening and managed to find a quietish spot in one of the carriages: it was one of "those" train journeys which seemed to be populated by blokes who'd downed substantially more than a couple of sips of lager and who were shouting and chanting about anything and everything. I presume there'd been some trouble too, since there were plenty of police ready and waiting on the platform as we were pulling into the station at the end of the journey.

Still, in my section of the carriage, we were shielded from most of the noise and whatever else might have been going on.

How annoying, then, that one of the three lads sat at the adjacent table decided to listen to some music on his phone. It was shrill and extremely irritating and I found myself getting wound up rather quickly. After a couple of minutes I spoke up.

Me: Whichever one of you is playing the music, do you mind turning it down please?

Lad: Why?

Me: Because I've got a headache, I'm really not in the mood for it and it's irritating.

Lad (indignantly): Why don't you go and sit somewhere else then?

Me: Look - I've not even asked you to turn it off, I've politely asked you to turn it down. Please.

Woman opposite me: I second that.

Lad (to his mates): oh, we might as well just turn it off.

Which they did.

Kids today, they've got no respect I thankfully didn't mutter, or even think of - but I did feel annoyed at just how primed for verbal confrontation some people seem to be. I sometimes feel frustrated at the times when I don't speak up in such situations, because of the risk of escalation or confrontation. It just doesn't seem worth it.

Still, the three lads were getting off at the same station as me and I wondered if they were going to come out with some smart comments or similar. The one I'd spoken with, however, waited and said after you, gesturing in front of him without any hint of sarcasm.

I said, no, it's ok, carry on, and let him past, feeling like it had actually been worth speaking up on this occasion.

Saturday, 18 July 2009


Is it just me or is that word vulgar and offensive?

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

On the edge

I was out walking for a couple of hours on a new route I've been taking, which finds me right on the edge of one side of town for long stretches.

There's an irresistible combination of bleakness and beauty, lots of juxtapositions which seem to enhance certain elements of one's surroundings rather than to drown them out.

The silence, when encountered, is both surprising and pleasantly eerie. A jolt after all the shouting voices, and the heavy bass sounds emanating from stereo systems secreted in tower blocks or passing cars.

The space is expansive - not despite, but because of the tower blocks, pylons and power lines which frame the skyline.

The last road, on the very border: towerblockaftertowerblockafterestatehousingaftertowerblockthentheroad
andthen.... grass, fields, the presence of a breeze as indicated by the fact that things such as trees are there to sway in it.

I love the sense of being on the edge of something, there's a certain allure or romance to it. The proximity of something different. The closeness of something often presumed distant. When walking through these places, my imagination similarly wanders, and I often wonder what it would be like to have witnessed or experienced places which, at certain times in recent history, were really and substantially on the edge or at intersections - whether geographically, politically or both.

Trieste, or maybe Vienna in the early post-war years. Or perhaps Vladivostok.

Then I remember I'm within a relatively short walking distance from home: perhaps just as well, I can easily imagine experiencing sheer information overload otherwise.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

What makes other people tic?

Me. I do. Make other people tic, that is.

Not in the way that Inspector Clouseau caused his superior, Chief Inspector Dreyfus, to fall prey to all manner of stress-induced tics: though I'll allow for the possibility that I might well have that effect on some people (no, don't all rush to disagree at once).

I'm sure that many of us, at least to an extent, create caricatures in our minds of certain people we know, by focusing on - and perhaps exaggerating - particular traits that form part of our perception of that person. Such caricatures might, I guess, be affectionate or a little cruel, just as an impressionist (not of the Manet variety) will be able to elicit sympathy or scorn for a person - all to comic effect - depending on what elements of a person's character and being they choose to amplify.

Well I don't know about anyone else, but I've somehow managed to find myself doing something substantially different to that. Up there in the darkest recesses of my mind there exists a grotesquely absurd menagerie of people I know, onto whom I've transposed a whole repertoire of surreal and often nonsensical movements, actions and speech.

None of these traits that my brain has imposed onto them bear any discernible relation to their real-life idiosyncracies. No, they seem instead to have a life of their own, and through this rather strange filter in my mind, each person is haplessly subject to these involuntary aberrations.

For example, we had a new colleague at work. For some reason, that person seemed out of place for a while, in my perception: there was something just not quite right. I assumed, as one reasonably might, that it was precisely because they were new: hence, they were still very much in the process of adjusting to their change in circumstances, just as me and my colleagues were making our own adjustments and accommodations accordingly (do excuse the alliteration).

But no, that wasn't it. At a certain juncture, I remember hearing a certain piece of music, and then in my mind's eye I pictured our new colleague doing a rather odd and frankly bizarre dance to it, all disconnected limbs, uncoordinated and quietly chaotic yet still in time to the music. The expression on their face was that of sheer concentration, interspersed with the occasional look of frantic bewilderment.

My first reaction was to laugh at this rather strange image that I'd conjured up, but this was followed by no small amount of horror, since this was the point at which I realised that said colleague now fitted in: I'd found a tic for them, and now they could take their place amongst all the others up there in the gallery, so to speak. It then occured to me just how extensive and developed that gallery is: people have been up there for a long time, their repertoire of externally imposed oddities remaining constant or gaining novel variations.

If you've ever heard Tension by Orbital, with its frantic and comic cutting up of Papa Oom Mow Mow, well: there's someone up there in my head who, despite themselves, can't help but constantly recite that absurd vocalisation. They've been doing it for a while.

(I shall not furnish you with any further examples: you get the idea by now, perhaps.)

Thankfully, it's not incessant, but there are certain triggers which bring such characters and their attendant tics into the forefront.

I wonder why I do this. My first thought was that it was to develop and maintain a level of irreverence for certain people (they're mostly people connected with work, after all: so any bloggers I've met who are reading this, it's ok - you're not up in the gallery) - it's difficult to take someone quite so seriously when you've recourse to the absurd images I've hinted at.

I still think there's something in this, but the whole thing has taken on such a life of its own that it's way beyond that. Plus it is, of course, entirely a reflection of the vagaries of my own thought patterns and processes, rather than mirroring any idiosyncracies of the people in question.

Maybe it's just absurdity for its own sake: I remember reading Spike Milligan's war memoirs, and one thing which stuck with me - because I found it bloody hilarious - was how, when he was getting increasingly into the entertainment division, he rewrote a play that had been put on for the forces. It was transformed from a serious drama into a surreal and slapstick mixture of chaos and pathos, and he managed to get several of the original actors to walk on stage throughout: they would start to recite their lines then burst into tears and wander off again in apparent confusion. I wonder if there's an analogy there at some level.

I've been meaning to write about this for ages, and hinted at it here, but I wonder if I've held back because of what anyone might think.

Sunday, 5 July 2009


I've been thinking a lot about the place recently. Despite the fact that I'm trying to put pennies aside to finally head across the pond, I do feel the urge to head back to Italy.

I'm sure it's a different place in many ways than when I was last there: and I'm in a different place in many ways too. Nevertheless, there are many resonances I presently feel aware of, which bring my time there to the forefront.

I'll just share a memory for now, one which begins some hours before I first set foot on Italian soil.

RM and I were heading there after a few days' stay in Geneva. We were at the train station waiting in a queue, a little groggy from a lot of alcohol the previous night, and getting increasingly anxious: the station was a large and confusing place, and time was ticking away steadily - as it tends to - making us worry that we were going to miss the train we wanted to catch. If we missed this train, then the next one wouldn't deliver us to Genoa until way too late in the evening. The journey was due to last several hours, including changing at Milan for the connection to our destination.

We had been moving along in the queue at a pace which inspired a certain level of confidence that we would just be able to make it - as long as we could find our way to the right platform without delay. However, as we reached just one place away from the ticket window, the chap in front of us seemed to be taking an extraordinarily long time going about buying his ticket. He was chatting away to the lady behind the counter, and it was with absolute fury that, when I listened in, I came to the conclusion that he was practicing his French language skills, making nothing more than small talk.

We had little time left. He continued waffling on to the lady behind the counter. RM and I were getting flustered.

I'm not religious, but I was in that place following a recent bereavement, in which one seems to suspend one's normal rules of engagement with the world, and to apprehend it in an altered way. Therefore, I lowered my head, closed my eyes and uttered a silent prayer that we would be able to get on the train and get safely to Genoa.

The bloody idiot in front of me was still enjoying the sound of his own voice. Oh well, that didn't work then.

At which point, I noticed that RM was now being ushered by a very kind person in the next queue along, into position in front of her, right up to the respective ticket window. Within moments we had tickets for Genoa in our hands, and a mad dash ensued which saw us get to the train platform in lightning speed. The brilliant sunshine dazzled us, reflected as it was on the surface of the platform. I paused only to shout to an attendant on the platform: C'est pour Milan? He nodded and waved us on.

Our relief turned to partial bemusement when, unbelievably, the dickhead who had held us up for so long in the queue, sauntered onto the train mere seconds later (at the precise point at which the train started to pull away and on the long journey to Milan) with his family in tow, still waffling on, though now in his native English. Words of pure tedium uttered forth in a seemingly interminable stream: fortunately he moved through to the next carriage with glum-faced family members trudging in his wake.

We soon forgot about him (though we continued to remark on the act of kindness by the person who let us into their queue) thanks to the astonishing journey through Alpine scenery, our arrival in Italy signified by a stop at the marvellously-named Domodossola: the scenery as we passed the great lakes of Northern Italy was just as breathtaking. By late evening we were sat on a forecourt atop a hill in Genoa drinking a well-deserved glass of beer. We watched the lights on the ships which were like beacons: they sailed languidly out of port and headed south, their silhouttes shimmering against the glorious evening haze.

We wondered whether they might be heading for Corsica, Sardinia or North Africa: it all seemed tantalizingly romantic and exotic.