The quality of mercy

is supposedly like the gentle rain from Heaven, though recent events would suggest that celestial mercy may be rather strained.  Recent precipitation brings retribution to mind rather than mercy, and suggests a vengeful deity with an itchy trigger finger.

In the last 15 days, I have been soaked to the skin on three days (though four occasions) and have have been rendered pretty wet on a further ten days.  This is despite attempts on my part to use intelligence from the Met Office to travel at times of lower risk wherever possible.  In an attempt to restore the much-missed drought, I never leave the house without being laden down with waterproofs and an umbrella.  I have also purchased additional waterproof clothing (which gives my existing waterproofs longer to dry after each drenching) and even scarified the lawn (which has always generated desiccating weather in previous years).  What more can any man do?  If reverse psychology has stopped working on the weather then we really have wrecked the climate.

A recent article in the Guardian (or at least its headline, I refused to read further for fear of raising my blood pressure) exhorted cyclists to enjoy riding in the warm summer rain.  With temperatures struggling to reach my age (in Fahrenheit) and with 10-40mph of wind chill to add to that, I don’t really feel the rain is terribly warm (though one of the Inuit or Saami might take a different view).  If warmth were on offer, I might consider an alternative approach and swap the waterproofs for an absolute minimum of clothing (though cycling naked strikes me as a very dangerous and painful choice) and some shower gel: my skin would dry quicker and I’d save both on time and my water bill.  The only downside is that arriving in little more than my birthday suit at a theatre, concert hall or railway station, I would probably be considered a tad under-dressed however clean and sweet-smelling I was.

Whilst recognising the dangers of solipsism, on several occasions the weather has been dry for an extended period before my journey, with the first spots only appearing as I leave the shelter of a building.  I begin to think that rain-generation is either a third, unwanted super-power or to wonder if the fact that I called God a lousy lay in a previous post might have returned to haunt me.  On the plus side, I suppose I could hire myself out to drought-stricken regions of the globe or join the Fire Brigade (though they’d have to relax their eye-sight requirements and I’m not good with heights) and, of course, I should only be used for some types of fire (adding rain to those involving electricity or very hot metal would not be advisable).

Unwanted super-powers

Superheroes seem terribly popular at the flicks these days and have been the mainstay of comics (though such pamphlets seem very short on the jokes that the name suggests to me) for some time.  Whilst the acquisition of super-powers does seem to cause some initial angst, the powers always seem to prove very useful: either for the righting of wrongs  or for their initial execution.  I believe I may be developing some super-powers – and whilst I have the associated angst, it is hard to see how they will ever prove useful: for good or ill.

My first power seems to relate the Victoria line in the vicinity of Seven Sisters (nowhere near chalk-based cliffs – must be a different sorority, perhaps the former site of a very small convent?).  I used to think that the effect was nothing to do with me, but reflected the fact that the Victoria Line Controller had been crossed in love by, or perhaps bought a dodgy second hand motor from, someone who lives north of Bishops Stortford.  I would board the Victoria line somewhere within the Circle Line of a late evening and the advertised transit time would suggest I should reach Tottenham Hale with 5-10 minutes to spare before my train back to Whittlesford was due to arrive (and, more critically, depart).  However,  more than 9 times out of 10 I would miss the desired train.  Instead, I would fritter away my time in a tunnel just before reaching Seven Sisters, and then spend further time admiring the tiling at Seven Sisters station itself.  Sometimes this would be explained as “regulating the service”, but more-often-than-not there would be no explanation.  It would seem that no Victoria line train is permitted to arrive at “the Hale” in the period from 10 minutes before a Cambridge train departs until two minutes after.  However, the effect now also appears to be occurring whenever I travel southbound as well – so my explanation involving a disgruntled line controller is looking rather shaky.  I am only left to conclude, in my solipsistic way, that I am causing this effect due to an unknown and uncontrolled super-power.  Do I subconsciously want to move to Seven Sisters?  Or spend quality time at Tottenham Hale?

My second super-power is also related to public transport, and the strange effect I have over people of the distaff persuasion.  Sadly, this power only seems to work before they learn to walk or it could do wonders for my love life (pre-supposing that I also developed an interest in having a love life).  However, for this limited demographic, I am a source of total fascination when they catch sight of me on train, tube or bus.  Only this last week, a nipper caught sight of me on a busy Victoria Line train and was unable to tear her eyes away.  I have no idea what it is that attracts the young female gaze: I certainly don’t find myself that interesting to look at and generally eschew the reflective surface where possible (though that is probably a case of over-familiarity with the subject rather than incipient vampirism).  I don’t feel that I was particularly eccentrically dressed and whilst I am no oil-painting (yet! But I’m open to offers), I have yet to be played by a sack-wearing John Hurt on film.  So, I can only assume that this is also evidence of my mutant DNA.  I suppose I could (perhaps) raise an army of babies – but as they would all be pre-toddling, I’m not sure that I’m in any position to take over the world (but, perhaps N15 lies within my grasp).

All rather prosaic, but if anyone out there does fancy converting my life into a blockbuster or graphic novel, then I could be tempted.  However, I’d like to make clear from the outset that I refuse to wear head-to-toe lycra and that my keks will be remaining beneath my trews as God (or, Beau Brummel for the atheists among us) intended.

Recent reflections

No mirror required…

Over the long weekend, as I attempted unsuccessfully to remain dry, I saw several things that gave me pause.

As I walked down Piccadilly, I passed a branch of the sandwich shop chain that wishes to suggest, to any Francophone customers, that its wares are ready to eat (another similar chain dispenses with the foreign tongue and indeed the “ready to” leaving only the bald imperative).  This chain is also justly famed for its attempt to eliminate the EU mayonnaise lake single-handed.  Anyway, as I passed I noticed a sign on the pavement outside asking us to “Keep it clean for the Queen”. Now I know this country’s finances are not the Mae West, but surely Her Majesty has not been reduced to crossing Green Park in her slippers and purchasing a mayo-heavy sandwich when she’s feeling a little peckish? I’m all for cost cutting, but she is 86 – surely she must qualify for meals on wheels (or its modern equivalent)?

Walking through John Lewis on my way to the flicks (of which perhaps more in another post) to avoid the rain, I passed through the kitchenware department. There I spotted a range of saucepans which were copper on the outside, stainless steel on the inside and aluminium in the middle. The pans did not appear to be particularly thick sided, so each layer must have been quite thin. I suspect that this was very much a range to be seen, not hidden away in a cupboard – and one which I presume would need frequent polishing. However, my worry – or perhaps my interest – was how this trinity of metals, with different rates of expansion under heat, would stay together in the rough-and-tumble of life on the range (I’m assuming they were for the Aga-using public). I could easily see a very messy divorce on the horizon, with each pan slowly becoming three pans of very similar sizes. How would you stick three metals together in this way and keep them together? Perhaps my next OU course needs to be on metallurgy or materials science?

Wandering round the fruit and veg section of Waitrose, I added another item to the list of tasks to be performed when my merits are finally recognised and I rise to power in this land (don’t worry, I will be a benevolent ruler).  Buy-one-get-one-free offers will be banned on any item where the ‘best before’ (or ‘use by’ or similar) date is less than twelve months from today (I might be willing to negotiate the twelve down a little).  This is just encouraging people to buy more perishable goods than they require, leading to wastage.  I refuse to buy such offers, but as a result feel that I am being forced to subsidise other people’s waste. Of such little things is resentment built…

Finally, I should perhaps warn you that WordPress has changed the GUI (Graphical User Interface: yes I admit it, I am a graphical user) it presents me with as I craft these posts, hewing them from the raw stuff of language.  No longer does it offer a word count, so posts may start growing longer without the constraining effect of constant feedback on my text-based verbosity.

Freedom is Choice

After I had seen the the earth troll around the sun a mere twelve times, I read 1984.  I suppose I may have been a tad young for some of its thematic material but I felt there was a need to hurry before the eponymous year was upon me (and then forever consigned to the past).  I don’t think the experience has scarred me and to be honest I can remember little of its contents at this temporal remove.

A few years later (and safely post 1984), BBC Radio 4 produced a comedy series entitled 1994: looking to the future of our consumer society.  This has stayed with me to a much greater extent: I can still remember the importance of 73%, Sellingfield, Executive and Dreamer.  I’m not sure what this says about me – perhaps that if you want me take your serious message on-board, it had better by carrying a decent quota of jokes as ballast?  Anyway, it is from this series that the title is taken – and in particular, episode 2 where the illegal social experiment being performed in Cumbria without the knowledge of the Environment (or so they claimed) is revealed.

Recent governments have been much enamoured of offering we, the electorate and tax paying masses, choice.  I can see the superficial charm of the idea: the public sector is often considered to offer a poor and expensive service and exposure to the white-heat of competition should make them both better and cheaper.  The worst providers will go out of “business”, as bad companies are supposed to do, and the best will gradually take over provision of more and more services.  In this rosy world, companies in the private sector all offer an excellent service at a very competitive price.  It all sounds quite splendid, but sadly it does not seem to correspond terribly closely to the world in which I find myself.  

The introduction of competition also begs the question as to what is the basis of the competition.  How would someone with a letter to send know which mail service to choose?  It is all to easy to imagine cost being the sole, or over-riding determinant, subject to any minimum legal standards laid down.  If you are a business in central London, I’m sure there will be plenty of companies vying for you delivery dollars but if you are a granny in the Outer Hebrides I suspect you may have rather fewer choices (probably the poor sap who has been selected as the provider of last resort).  In the purely commercial sphere, companies tend to compete for business that is profitable: though they do, of course, make mistakes like any organisation which involves people.  The mail is one thing, but in the world of commercial healthcare you will definitely want to make sure you have a popular and profitable injury or illness.  Perhaps we could find some less commercial grounds for hospitals to compete on?  You can’t directly use patients cured, as this would encourage the tackling of easily fixed diseases and injuries – and be no help at all for those suffering with anything incurable.  We’d need an amazingly complicated scoring system covering every possible illness and injury and the value of improvements or otherwise in a patient’s condition.  Presumably, you’d also have to keep monitoring the patient in case they deteriorated (or improved) after check-out and manage the whole reversion-to-the-mean issue.  All somewhat of a nightmare to organise (and keep up-to-date), which brings me nicely to targets.

The alternative to choice – or sometimes an adjunct to it – are targets.  You set nice measurable targets for everyone to achieve.  This tends to work quite well, people tend to move towards achieving the targets quite quickly and indeed I saw some lovely Stalin-themed examples of this process in action on Tuesday evening.  Sadly, the targets are usually met by neglecting everything else or by exhibiting a certain flexibility with the numbers (constructive redefinition of terms is the target seeker’s friend) or both.

I feel that both choice and targets are over-rated: one needs a certain number of each or the world would be terrifically boring and inefficient, but they should (like the Scotch Bonnet) be used sparingly.

Experience of eating out over the last couple of years has certainly offered anecdotal evidence for some of the benefits of having only a rather limited choice.  Since becoming mostly vegetarian, I try and stick to the ‘vegetarian’ part when eating out at a restaurant or cafe (‘mostly’ I leave for visiting or entertaining friends).  Unless my chosen dining venue is vegetarian itself, there tends to be relatively few choices on offer to the aspiring veggie.  This has required me to make rather more exciting choices of meal, straying rather further from the comfortable and familiar, than would have been the case when I had the run of the entire menu.  I don’t think I have ever had cause to regret my straying – and, indeed, many of these choices have made it (in some adapted form) onto my menu at home.

I would say that ‘Freedom is Limited Choice’, but that makes it sound like an exam where you have to select an answer from (a) to (e) – preferably on a basis other than the purely random.  These are very easy to mark – well, they are once you’ve managed to program the OCR successfully (trust me, I’ve done it) – but are a rather limited form of testing (though preparing the wrong answers when writing them is surprisingly enjoyable).  So perhaps I should go with ‘Tyranny is Too Much Choice’ instead.  Too much choice is also a terrible time-waster and so is probably harming our fragile economy.  So, here’s to less choice!

Russian bye

After the Jubilee, it’s all change here at Fish Towers.  The last few days have seen my Russian period come to a close: with AA100 you don’t spend a huge amount of time in any one area, and my declining mental faculties must now be devoted to a cultural encounter between Europe and the art of Benin.

The weekend saw the completion of my 1200 word epic on dissent in the string quartets of Shostakovich. This was time consuming and involved an alarming number of re-writes (if only the blog could boast such high standards), but rather enjoyable.  It also provided an excellent excuse to go to Brighton to see the great man’s 13th Symphony Babi Yar – a truly amazing piece of music, and with lots of work for the bass singer: I just need to work on my Russian (and my singing).

By chance, the weekend also saw me finish Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita: a book that had been on my to-do list for a long time (so long, that I have completely forgotten why it was added to the list in the first place).  Despite the loss of context, an interesting and worthwhile read and one that shared themes with my OU study of both Stalin and Shostakovich.  It also generates conversation if you read it in public: many people seem very fond of the work and I can see why it would appeal (I suspect like Monty Python it lends itself to excessive quotation).  So, it was entirely appropriate that last night I saw Collaborators at the National Theatre: a play about Bulgakov and Stalin.  It was jolly entertaining with a surprising number of laughs given the rather depressing subject matter: oppression and death.  It was perhaps fortunate that I was unaware until the interval that the playwright had previously been responsible for the screenplay of a very poor film based on Susan Cooper’s seminal Dark is Rising sequence or I may not have gone at all (to my loss).  I was certainly glad that I’d read The Master and Margarita fully, including the Introduction and all the Notes, as it provided important context for the play.  For example, I knew why so many people were living in one apartment and the importance of the fact that “manuscripts don’t burn”: though I doubt that either piece of knowledge is going to help at the next pub quiz I attend.  

Before heading to the National, I took in this year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy.  A very different hanging this year which added interest and it was pleasingly free of crowds: my theory that the tourist hoards may have been distracted by either the Jubilee events nearby or the heavy rain seems to have been on the money (or it may just have been coincidence, but I’m going to claim the credit anyway).  The relatively thin crowds meant no celebs spotted this year, though I think I may have seen Sylvester McCoy at the National.  However, I can’t be entirely sure as I was hurrying towards a rather fine slice of carrot cake at the time (one has to maintain the right priorities in life and you can’t eat a celebrity – well, not legally): he may also have been on my mind as I’d been listening to him play the Doctor on BBC Radio 4Xtra the week before.  An under-rated Doctor I have often felt: a victim of almost non-existent budgets and Michael Grade’s insatiable desire to finish off the series, luckily on the radio you can do so much more with almost no budget as sound is such a thrifty medium.

Still, time is ‘russian bye’ and I need to bend my head around the brass-work of Benin (and the arguments for and against its return to Nigeria), which I think should be a good excuse for a troll around the British Museum (the UK’s premier venue for viewing stolen goods) next time I’m in town.  Talking of the BM gives me the idea to begin a History of the Fish in 100 Objects strand here on GofaDM: it’s way past time I started curating my life a little more professionally…

He who makes things sprout

The second four day bank holiday of 2012 is upon us, and once again Tlaloc is giving unstintingly of his benison.  Perhaps stung by criticism that his previous offerings have not been wholly effective in delivering us from drought, temperatures have also plummeted. No longer will the water companies be able to complain that the rain is evaporating before it can enter their reservoirs.

Still, the good offices of the Aztec God of Rain have not been beneficial to all.  The water companies’ gain must be balanced against the adverse effects on so many outdoor events, whether Royalist or Republican, planned to mark the Jubilee and into which so much work has gone.  It was obvious to me that planning to hold the Jubilee over a bank holiday weekend was going to be asking for trouble.  You’d think that after 60 years as monarch of these rather damp islands the Queen would know better – but, as she has never had a 9-5 job and famously doesn’t carry money (much like myself), perhaps the whole bank holiday concept has rather escaped her notice.

Then again, perhaps it wasn’t Her Majesty’s fault: after all, it was the government (only Her’s in name) who moved the bank holiday at the end of May from its traditional temporal location, a weekend of high temperatures and glorious sunshine, to its new date and the cold, wet conditions we are currently experiencing.  I fear the poor saps can’t even organise bread and circuses successfully (a failure which rarely boded well for the rulers of Ancient Rome) and sadly, unlike the taxes on pasties and static caravans, I fear it is too late for a U-turn to do much good.

Still, I’m sure my fellow countrymen (and women) will be able to cope with a little (or more relevantly, a lot) of rain – let’s face it, we are rarely short of opportunities to practice.  After all, is this not the country that invented the mac?  And did so long before Apple came along and claimed the name, making it far more cool but far less waterproof.

Medieval (k)night

Whilst it has been well established that my life is rather poorly written, very much hack work, it is occasionally well produced.  Having earlier made reference to 13th century Icelander Snorri Sturluson and his Prose Edda, I spent my evening enjoying the delights of that self-same era.

Tonight, the rather splendid series of Music in Quiet Places concerts – which bring music to the culture-starved villages around Cambridge – came to Duxford.  This is but a handful of miles from home, and a village which I have cycled through and around many times.  I thought I knew it all – from the Chapel (which is actually at Whittlesford Parkway station) to the Imperial War Museum – but it had kept at least one secret from me.  I discovered that Duxford, in addition to the Chapel, has not one but two churches – and a green.  The second, previously unknown, church – St John’s – was the venue for tonight’s performance.  It is a gem – if no longer used for its original purpose – with a beautiful Norman entrance, incredible roof, bent spire (bent on the last Diamond Jubilee in 1897 – as I say, my life isn’t just thrown together) and medieval (and earlier) wall art surviving in places.  It was the perfect setting for an evening of mostly medieval love songs – from the days of courtly love – by Joglaresa.  Musical accompaniment came from two fidels (neither Cuban nor a typo) and a medieval harp – which had hints of both the lyre and the cricket bat in its form.  While the modern concert harp is a massive beast, usually overly ornamented and covered in gold leaf, its more ancient counterpart is a much more modest, elegant, and portable, device.  It would grace any home – though I’ve decided I mustn’t buy any more musical instruments until I’ve mastered the clarinet (or at least dusted its case).

As well as music, we were also educated about the music of the period.  It would seem that the Pays d’Oc – source of so much cheap red wine – is the Land of Yes (Oc was to southern France what Oui was to the North).  What a wonderfully positive name for a region!  Sadly, whilst a surprisingly good red was offered by the Churches Conservation Trust (and enjoyed by yours truly) in the interval, it hailed from Spain rather than southern France.

The evening also provided my first opportunity to act as a stage hand, actually I think I may have been a grip as I was helping to set up the lights.  In these difficult financial times, it is good to have a potential fallback career: and one where I can dress in black is a bonus.

I believe this weekend will offer much bigger, more modern and expensive concerts to mark the Jubilee, but I doubt they will be better.

Inheriting the family business

Something which I might be considered to have done, insofar as I have spent much of my soi disant career working in the industry that brought my parents together.  Consider it some sort of pay back, if you will.

However, rather than myself, it was the forthcoming Jubilee weekend which caused me to think about inherited position.  Despite being 60 years in the making, it does seem to have come as rather a surprise – neither I, nor most of those I have spoken to this week, seemed aware that next Tuesday was a “bonus” bank holiday.  As a result, my planned trip to the National Theatre on Tuesday evening may involve proximity to both rather more people and a higher risk of encountering Railtrack at their worst than anticipated.

The Queen has now been on the throne for 60 years – you’d think someone would have introduced her to the prune or senna pod by now – and is surely due for parole or time off for good behaviour.  I suppose the promotion in the field of monarchy is still very much a matter of dead men’s shoes.  Why anyone puts up with being royal has always baffled me: I’m sure the role breaches the European Convention on Human Rights and heaps of money (or the Civil List as I believe it’s more officially known) only compensates for so much.  A gilded cage is still a cage.  However, people do still seem willing to sign themselves and their gluteally-favoured siblings up for the whole shebang.

I feel I should be doing more to infuse my life with the spirit of the occasion: either covering everything in bunting and flags or becoming consumed by republican ire – however, I am merely covered in, or consumed by, apathy.  I would appear to be far from alone in my languor in this corner of East Anglia: there is a serious lack of bunting to be seen (with one honourable exception, a house which has more bunting et al than every other I’ve seen put together).

The problem with handing control of the family business down to the eldest son (or daughter) is that one is  at the mercy of a random blending of inherited genes coupled with a sprinkling of mutations.  This fact must have been brought home quite forcibly to Rupert Murdoch of late, with his male heir proving to have a far from fully functional hypocampus and/or amygdala.  Actually, given the amnesia that has also afflicted Murdoch père the trait seems positive Lamarckian; thinking more broadly, the very widespread of symptoms consistent with exposure to the water of the river Lethe afflicting those who came into contact with New International suggests some sort of airborne pathogen might be to blame.  If you value your marbles, I suggest steering clear of Wapping…

I was also reminded of the dangers of primogeniture when viewing last week’s offering from Lovefilm: Thor.  This provided a certain degree of entertainment, but Odin was left with two rather unsuitable children to carry on the Asgard corporation.  Luckily, barely twenty-four hours as a mortal and some associated affection from Natalie Portman was enough to set one son back on the straight and narrow (obviously, her earlier failure with the young Darth Vader has led Ms Portman to up her game significantly).  Sadly, she was quite unable (in the time available) to do anything about his atrocious accent – I’m not quite sure what Chris Hemsworth was aiming for, but it did not sit well in the context of Northern European mythology or with the accents of his parents and brother.

For the mythology connoisseur, there were some indications that the writers had carried out a little basic research, however, there were a number of disappointments.  For a start, the horses of Asgard were very deficient in the leg department: Odin’s steed, Sleipnir, is famed for his eight-legs but only 50% of these were provided to the cinema-goer (presumably the feat of co-ordination of so many limbs at a gallop was beyond the skill of the CGI artists).  In a piece of admirably colour-blind casting, Idris Elba (perhaps best known from The Wire) played Heimdallr: who has many talents (apparently he had nine mothers – which must make for a tense and expensive Mothering Sunday in Himinbjörg) but is described as the whitest of the gods.  It was also disappointing to see the rather limited use made of Yggdrasil, the world tree: it’s all very well equating it to a collection of wormholes but this misses out on Ratatoskr, the squirrel that carries insults from the dragon that lives at the base of the tree to the eagle that lives at its top (and vice versa).  Who cannot help but love a mythology which includes an insult carrying squirrel!  The monotheistic religions may all be well and good, but where are the bad-mouthing rodents?  I am seriously tempted to become Viking by religion: the stories you are expected to believe in are so much more fun and I reckon it would be able to see off even the most determined atheist (Dawkins doesn’t know he easy he has it, plying his “trade” in the 21st century).

But, my biggest gripe, and the one which made me wince whenever it occurred, was the word chosen to describe the inhabitants of Asgard, viz Asgardians: a truly horrible word.  As Snorri Sturluson could have told them way back in the 13th century, the inhabitants of Asgard are the Æsir.  I expected better of Kenny Branagh but perhaps he was over-ruled by his North American paymasters, fearing audience incomprehension in their home market.