I was in town yesterday and pleasure-bent, so the regular sufferer will be unsurprised to learn that a trip to 10 Greek Street for supper was involved.  I should perhaps make clear both that these regular mentions do not yield any benefits to the writer and that, in this case, it is somewhat relevant to that which follows.  Yesterday’s new 10GS discovery was straw wine – not wine made from straw, but made from grapes dried on it.  This leads to the most intense and viscous dessert wine I have ever tasted – and trust me, I’ve tasted quite a few dessert wines in my time.

However, this is not the main thrust of this article.  As well as playing host to yours truly, London also seemed to be hosting a street-based celebration by the homosexual (and broader LGBT, or some anagram thereof, btw. who chose the sequence of the letters?  Was there a committee and a lot of acrimonious dispute?) community.  This seemed to be aimed at breaking-down lazy stereotypes – or at least the idea that those drawn to the co-gendered were possessed of good taste and a tendency to be well-dressed.  Dearie me, I’m no style icon (or at least I hope not) but I looked positively dapper by comparison as I wandered across a small corner of Soho  in need of sustenance.  It also seems that the current trend for very skinny trews has led to many choosing the emaciation of their lower limbs which then look like recent escapees from a nest when exposed by shorts (held up by braces?).  Still, on the plus side, my own rather weedy legs now feel positively Herculean.

Talking of Hercules, to reach my supper from the Crossrail related mess that now surrounds Tottenham Court Road tube station, I have to walk along the side of Foyles (or oft times through it) and under the demigod’s Pillars (a pub, rather than anything related to Gibraltar).  Yesterday, this particular street was full of ambulances, paramedics, stretchers and medical tents.  I had no idea that those living at variance with gender choice heterodoxy were particularly accident prone.  However, with a little more thought, I recalled the proverb that “Pride comes before a fall” – and assume the ambulance service were firm believers in the truth of this wise old saw and were anticipating grazes and contusions galore in need of treatment.

In fact, I saw no-one in need of medical attention but many in need of relief, so perhaps it would have been more useful to provide extra WC facilities.  The disciples of St John provides ambulances for major public events, but where is the Saint looking after those with a need to micturate?  Google suggests it might by St Vitalis of Assisi, but where are his followers when you need them?

On writing

I believe that professional writers, once they reach a certain level of success, are asked how to write by those who believe that a novel (or film or sitcom) lies within just waiting to be unleashed.  To the surprise of no-one, least of all myself, I have yet to be so cross-examined: but will share my modest insights nonetheless (yes, I do recognise that if my insights were properly modest, I would not be broadcasting them to an unfeeling world: I’m just ignoring this fact).

Since starting this blog, and feeling the pressure to keep producing new content, I have written more than at any previous point in my life.  This requirement to write has intensified since starting my Open University course for which I have to produce an essay (or two) every month (now up to 1500 words).  This writing has to be produced to a rather higher standard than the blog and to stick to the point substantially better.  As a result, they take a lot longer to produce – and despite the evidence to the contrary, these posts take quite a period of time to craft from the raw material of language.

I believe the most common advice to the novice writer is to just write.  In my experience, this is very much to the mustard.  I find it very easy to spend many days, sometimes well over a week, thinking about an essay – but at some point, nothing moves forward unless I start to write it.  After the first draft, I tend to be cast into the slough of despond (nowhere near Eton, whatever one J Betjeman and his entreaty to airborne ordnance might suggest) as the writing seems awful, I’m over the word limit and have still failed to cover a number of points I feel are critical to include.  I then try and leave the abomination for at least a couple of days (not always easy) and then return to redraft.  This is usually much better and covers all the bases within the word limit (though I generally require most of my 10% allowance), but still not really there.  The second redraft a day or so later, usually allows the essay to reach its apogee – it is still not perfect, but I can live with it and it seems unlikely to improve to a material degree with further effort.  Earlier this week, my opus on the art of Benin finally reached this state and was submitted – only time, and my tutor’s marking, will tell whether it achieved the required standard.

The blog is a fish of a rather different feather.  No-one provides a subject, word or time limit for the production of a post.  Nor am I required to write in the academic style or quote my sources (though I could if there were pressure from the readership).  This freedom is all well and good, but my relatively incident-free life (by design) coupled with the desire to be funny (hadn’t noticed?  Oh well…) does lead to my life being dominated by the tyranny of the blank page (or web form) somewhat frequently.  I also feel I should try and be somewhat original – though seven billion other souls on the planet (assuming humans, and only humans, are possessed of souls) makes this a challenge (and rather hard to test) – but at least I can try and avoid the merely trite or clichéd (which is doubly a past-participle: would that make it a pluperfect, in Franglais if nowhere else?).  However, I may be hindered in these attempts by my general failure to understand how other (they might like to think “normal”) people ratiocinate: generalising from myself seldom leads to as much insight as hoped.  To my astonishment, I do still seem to come up with topics on which to witter from the minutiae of my existence – despite being well into the difficult second year of the blog – though I now find myself wondering if used this idea before (and am too generally lazy to check).

I tend to feel posts are overly long, without the discipline imposed by the OU, with too much text integument needed to link the key ideas together.  Perhaps with more time, I could produce more condensed material – with less extraneous detail, though that can sometimes provide a useful diary function for me (which could be handy if I ever decide to write my Memoirs).  Despite these reservations, when I look back over the 335 back-numbers – usually in response to a post being viewed by a reader – they do still make me laugh.  (If you will indulge me in a brief divagation, why are the good folk of India so interested in a Moppsikon Floppsikon Bear?  Is it on their national curriculum?  This blog is  receiving an unusually large number of hits from this search – and I’d never realised Edward Lear was so big on the sub-continent, and fear I am going to be of little practical assistance).  The occasional idea of mine really appeals to me, most recently the concordance between a rail journey and 2001: this is one of the few ideas that feels as though it could be worked up into a proper chunk of a stand-up act (most require far too high a level of general knowledge to ever work in public).

Still, it has never been my intent to rest on any member of the family Lauraceae (whomsoever claims ownership) and I seek continuous improvement.  As part of this drive, I found the excellent Comedian’s Comedian podcast: which is a series of interviews by Stuart Goldsmith (a man whose comedy and forename I admire) that provide a fascinating insight into how proper comedians come up with ideas and write material.  Reassuringly they face many of the same problems that I do; annoyingly they seem to resolve them rather more successfully.  This listening has also had the positive effect – for the world at large – of putting me off a career in stand-up: it seems to be seriously hard work with far too many late nights.  I think I shall stick to writing material for other poor saps to perform (while I am safely tucked up ‘neath a duvet): which reminds me of the very poor progress made on two other writing projects: the panto and the poesy post.  Must try harder…

May be disappointed

Recent news shows that June joins April in being the wettest month of its name since records began back in 1910 (before that, weather information was stored on wax cylinders).  This morning saw precipitation and flood-warnings galore – with much of the country promised more than one month of rain in a single day.  If the Met Office know their onions (which they may, though I’m less convinced by their powers of weather-related divination), today will be looking positively arid by the middle of next week.  So, July too would have been looking forward to meeting Roy Castle had it been around in days of yore.

All of which must be pretty humiliating for poor May.  In many years, it might have expected at least a decent place (and perhaps a medal) with its compelling combination of cold and damp – but it let itself down badly in the final week and in the context of such a strong field in 2012, it already looks like an also-ran.  I guess it has to look to stay injury-free, train hard and hope for better things in Rio in 2016.

Apropos of which, I find myself thinking about a giant, anthropomorphic letter “O” from an educational cartoon for children.  Like a person, it has a pair each of arms and legs projecting out from its ring-shaped body.  Someone (perhaps “R”) has taken a series of photographs, each capturing an arm or a leg with just a glimpse of the body.  Oh yes, I am thinking about “O” limb pics.  A ‘gag’ that I feel would have worked so much better if I were a cartoonist (or that is the excuse I’m using for its anticipated poor reception by the reading few).

London calling

Not to be confused with  2LO (or, even 2MT) or the excellent album by the Clash, but the lure of the capital.

I have twice lived in London, once on each side of the river, on each occasion for around five years.  I found that after this period, the desire to escape became quite strong – though after a similar period was lured back once again.  I have now been away for seven years, but the last few weeks have reminded me of both the reasons to return and to remain in my current rural idyll.

Only yesterday, I found myself in Canary Wharf for much of the day.  I realise that the mining industry in this country is much diminished – a fact I find hard to regret given the appalling damage to human lives and landscapes that mining caused, though the needless continuation of the tribulations visited on our mining communities caused by the lack of planning (or caring) about what would happen after the end of the industry does provide a reason to lament.   Nevertheless, it seems hard to imagine that the UK ever required so many yellow song-birds that such a large area of docklands real-estate could be justified for their importation – especially given Sir Humphrey Davy’s sterling work with the safety lamp.  With the end of the canary trade, the area now resembles some slightly dystopian architect’s view of the future – with most human life consigned to great subterranean malls or vast towers of glass and steel.  Over the years, I have been into a few of the towers – but I can’t say that any appeal as a place to spend much time (and not just because of my quite rational fear of heights).  I recall one that had windows coated so that however strongly the sunshine was splitting the paving stones outside, inside the day would always appear overcast.  Yesterday, I visited a building which had a largely open-ground floor, with walls clad in shining marble, and of a scale to put most medieval cathedrals to shame.  However, it contained little more than a rather nice lecture theatre/cinema, very modest reception desk and the lift shafts.  I presume this was designed to make the owner’s clients feel that they were in the presence of greatness – though it only made me feel that such clients were being massively over-charged to finance such opulence.  In fact, I tend to view the whole of Docklands as a rather eccentric theme park: with the DLR riding through the sky like a monorail, the whole place has somewhat the feel of the Epcot Center.

Whilst on the subject of towers of steel and glass, yesterday saw the official opening of the Shard.  I’ve tried hard to like this new addition to the London skyline, but so far its charms elude me: perhaps I have yet to see it from the right angle?  I also remember that it used to be incredibly windy as one tried to leave London Bridge station for Borough High Street by foot, and I suspect this new addition is only going to make matters worse.  I can only hope that they have provided anchors for the merry commuters to grasp as part of the development, or they will start to collect in untidy heaps against the glass walls of the new billionaire’s gin palace.

As a new-made country bumpkin, I don’t miss the crowds that are so much a part of the city: especially when you are pressed up against them in a packed, but static, tube train (a privilege for which one must pay very dearly these days).  I also miss my usual travel companions: the skylark and yellow-hammer and, at the moment, the great swathes of poppies scattered like blood from an ex-sanguinating giant (which metaphor suggest a new TV series, CSI: Jötunheimr a franchise yet to be tried by Jerry Bruckheimer and which finally brings together the popular genres of fantasy and forensic procedural).

On the plus side, living in London reduces the need to worry about the running times of theatrical, musical or comedic productions to ensure that one can still make it home.  Very few venues seem to consider that many people’s visit will involve a day trip using the railways and that the last train for many departs soon after 23:00 (and often before).  Even where a last train is achievable, on a school night it is nice to be back in one’s trundle bed rather earlier than 01:30.  When the reins of power are finally placed in my deserving (but so far cruelly overlooked) hands, events will only be allowed to run beyond 22:00 in exceptional circumstances.  This would allow everyone to retire to their straw palliasse by a sensible hour, and could well see a dramatic improvement in the sleep and productivity of the nation (or is this just my age talking?).  At the moment, a disproportionate volume of my theatre going exploits the matinée performance as this allows me to enjoy both the live theatre and an early night (it also helps me to feel comparatively young).  Still, despite these concerns I have a theatrical marathon lined up for the weekend – with the play on Sunday covering eight hours (though there is an interval for dinner), recalling my days as a fan of the operas of Wagner (a man who was as much a stranger to concision as am I).  I may not be at my best on Monday…

In contrast, last Saturday, I was reminded of the joys of London.  Arriving at King’s Cross, a short bus ride brought me to a beautiful Victorian pub, in a quiet back-street area of Camden, with a fine selection of well kept ales (the Price Albert in Royal College Street).  Sitting with a pint in the small, peaceful beer garden in the sunshine made me feel that London-life could be really quite acceptable.

I was then able to stroll along the banks of the Grand Union canal almost all the way to the Roundhouse for my afternoon’s entertainment.  Without the need to commute, and keeping away from the busier streets and tourist traps (which always seem to have caught a large haul of their prey, despite the apparent absence of cheese), living in the city looked surprisingly attractive again…


It is well known that some of the Scots (well, Alex Salmond at least) would like to leave the UK for the supposedly greener grass of independence.  I think he’s hoping to fund his new dominion from North Sea oil; I fear no-one’s plucked up the courage to tell him that most of it’s gone.

I also recall a famous recent incident where some part of the EU bureaucracy managed to publish a map of Europe which lacked the land of my fathers: Wales.  However, this was later revealed to be a mistake.

The forthcoming Olympics appears to reveal another coming schism in the realm.  Whenever talking about the sportsmen and women who will represent these Isles, they are described as “Team GB”: in which I presume the “GB” is a contraction of Great Britain.  Now, the country of which I am a citizen is called “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, to give its full title.  Odd then that our Olympic team seem to have dispensed with Northern Ireland altogether: perhaps this is intended as an indictment of the lack of sporting prowess to be found in Ulster?  No, I rather think that Mr Osborne has sold it to some foreign power in order to reduce the deficit.  When were they planning to inform the nation?  Presumably they are still plucking up the courage or maybe they are awaiting a suitable day to inter the bad news?

I’ve only been there once, and that rather briefly, but I’ll be sad to see Northern Ireland go.  It also seems unfortunate that we have sold it at a time when Eire is in such dire financial straits and seems unlikely to be able to afford it, thus thwarting once again their dreams of unification.  I wonder who bought it?  My money is on the Chinese, a middle-eastern investment vehicle or a Russian oligarch.

Free guilt

To fortify myself for the cycle ride home after a gym session earlier today, I partook of a “Fruit, Nuts and Seeds Cereal Bar”.  I kid you not, that is what it was called – obviously the naming or branding department of Marks and Spencer’s was not having one of their better days when it came to selecting this particular nomenclature.  In addition to having a name longer than itself, I happened to notice, in the few milliseconds that elapsed between me starting and finishing it, that it promised me “guilt-free snacking”.

I am a white, middle-class and middle-aged British man and I have to tell you that M&S have significantly underestimated my capacity for guilt.  I am not (knowingly) either Roman Catholic or Jewish – both of which offer their adherents a head-start in the guilt game – but I like to feel that my wide reading, good memory and tendency to worry have made good any lack that my somewhat atheistic upbringing may have occasioned.

For a start there is the plastic wrapper in which it was contained, and its possible destiny as landfill, and the fact that I had not make my own snack from basic ingredients.  None of the ingredients used are shown to be ethically sourced and so I am forced to imagine their cultivation and harvest under conditions of injustice and oppression.

The sultanas contain “vegetable oil” leading to the fear that orang-utans have been evicted to allow oil palms to be planted so that my sultanas are nice and shiny (a fact that I then failed to notice, only compounding my indirect criminality).  Should I really be buying anything which claims “plum flavour” as an ingredient?  Or Fructose Oligo-Saccharide?  This last is described parenthetically as “prebiotics”?  Does this mean that if left long enough (perhaps under suitable conditions) it would have developed into life?  Am I now responsible for genocide as well?

I feel that I must have a case in law against Messers Marks and Spencer Esq. under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 (as amended) for the unexpected mental anguish I have been caused by their rash promises.  Is it any wonder that I struggle to sleep at night (or during the day, though I tend to make less of an effort) when this sort of thoughtless pledging goes unpunished?

Testing Times

The testing of our children and young people is a popular topic for discussion by the media and intervention from our rulers.  I have always assumed that this is because everyone (or almost everyone) has had the experience of being educated (even if for some of us, it lies in the distant past) and so we all feel that we have a valuable contribution to make to the debate.  As this post will show, I am (apparently) no different.

Over the last week, the examinations we inflict on those in their teens have once again been in the news.  Firstly, the Education Secretary seems keen that we re-instate the O-level (I’m not clear if he also favours the return of the CSE – or just plans to write off those that are slightly less academically inclined at 14 to save time later).  This appears to be on the basis that exams are becoming easier: an idea that is trotted out every few weeks, and usually without the bodyguard of evidence which might have been anticipated (if only by the inveterate optimist).  As a chap of more advanced years, and who took – and passed – a frankly ridiculous number of O-levels, I would quite like to believe that we had it tough in my day.  However, as a chap who also spent a little time (but almost certainly more than Mr Gove) working in evidence-based research on education this is quite hard to demonstrate.  The evidence is rather confounded by the switch to both continuous assessment and modular examination from an approach based purely on final examination.  I ought to declare an interest here, as I owe a lot of what I like to call my success to being able to recall information on various days in June during the 1980s.  Nevertheless, I suspect that real life works rather more on the basis of continuous assessment (though come the Day of Judgment I may be proven wrong) – though, as I’ve said before, a good memory can be quite handy too as it is often mistaken for intelligence or thought.  The switch to modular examination means that far fewer exams are either failed or completed with poor marks than in days of yore, as students rarely carry onto the final examination stage if the earlier modules went badly.  This would tend to increase average marks, even if the exams had remained exactly as difficult as before.  I suppose the difficulty of making comparisons might explain why folks rarely bother to provide evidence for their viewpoint but (presumably) rely on faith, which means that rather more of our education system is using faith-based schools than the official statistics would suggest.

The desire for soi-disant harder exams, often goes hand-in-glove with a desire for such revolutionary Victorian ideas as learning more dates in history (other dried fruit did exist in the past) and memorising poems.  These ideas tend to be pushed by folks with a Y-chromosome, which I think smacks of self-interest.  As a fella myself, I’m pretty sure that men feel they have the edge when it comes to collecting and obsessing over lists of facts: be they football results, the combat effectiveness of chaos marines or details of rolling stock.  The approach can be useful, particularly in a pub quiz, and a few dates with a bit of basic chronology does help give events in the past a little context.  Personally, I think it would be quite nice if I knew a little more poetry off-by-heart (though the people I chose to recite it to may be rather less grateful).  Then again, as I managed to waste a fair chunk of Sunday evening reading about Isaiah Berlin’s thoughts on positive and negative freedom – not for work, nor even the OU, but just out of curiosity having encountered a tiny fragment of the topic on the web – I may not be the best person to ask.  I suspect, in general, the need to squirrel away loads of “facts” in the brain is far less relevant now than when I was a boy, given how much easier it now is to look things up (though it is also far easier to find things only masquerading as facts).  In these modern times, perhaps the study of history is best seen as a method to understand the human world and how it came to be this way and how to evaluate the usefulness of different sources of information.  Perhaps by understanding history, rather than memorising when it happened, we might be slightly less prone to repeating it?

Those not suited for these new harder exams are, at best, pushed at vocational qualifications.  The government, spurred on by “business” (whoever they might be), always seems very keen on vocational qualifications – and on specifying what they should be.  Unfortunately, the choices foisted on the young are generally for the vocations wanted today (or more often yesterday) and fail to recognise that needs might have changed by the time they actually acquire the qualification a few years down the line.  This is where I feel education triumphs over training: a decent education should equip one to cope with a whole range of possible futures, whereas training can leave one ready only for a “future” that no longer exists.

The final, current news item in this field is the story that exam boards are competing for students by dumbing-down their exams.  Perhaps not hugely surprising as students, teachers and schools are all led to believe that their futures depend on obtaining high marks at examination.  Even less of a shock when you know that exam boards are here to make a profit and so compete for entries.  We appear to have a system where it is in everyone’s interest (except the nation as a whole or those with an interest in learning) for the exams to be as easy as possible.  I wonder who can have created such a system?  I rather think it may have been previous Secretaries of State for Education acting on faith rather than evidence.  It is good to know that such a successful approach from the past continues to inform policy today (does sarcasm work in print?  Should it have its own font?).  I’m beginning to think Mr Gove might have a point about the poor quality of teaching (particularly in history and mathematics): though as he is my age (OK, marginally younger – but I’m much better preserved), it would appear his criticisms should be aimed at the system of O-levels and the old Exam Boards rather than at GCSEs!  The GCSE generation have yet to have their opportunity to wreck the education system with initiatives from above, so the jury will have to remain out for now…

Ynys Enlli

is what my forefathers (or at least the Welsh ones) would have called Bardsey Island,  a place I rather fancy visiting one of these days.  However, given the rash of productions of his plays and documentaries about his life at present, I think perhaps the whole of Great Britain could be considered “Bard see island”.  Given that 2012 does not seem to represent any particular anniversary for old Will, I assume this is driven by the Jubilee and/or Olympics.

Not that I’m complaining (about the Shakespeare: the Jubilee and Olympics themselves do little for me, but I don’t begrudge others their fun – which may make me unique in the blogging community) – for a start, I’ve enjoyed several of the documentaries spread across Radio 4 and BBC4.  Talking of TV history documentaries, I felt compelled to watch the first quarter of Simon Schama’s recent contribution to the oeuvre without being able to see the screen as I was fighting with a model at the time in pursuit of my day job (for the avoidance of doubt, the model was of the computer rather than the human variety).  This highlighted the extent to which many (if not, most) of the visuals from TV history documentaries are unnecessary: the radio with a fairly short, synchronised slide show would be sufficient unto the material, and probably rather cheaper to produce in these days of declining budgets.  Surely, this sort of approach should be readily achievable in this modern technological age?

As well as taking in a couple of productions the plays by each of the National and the Globe, I have also seen the RSC’s take on the shipwreck trilogy at the Roundhouse.  This wonderful building, I discovered yesterday, used to be an engine shed with a turntable to rotate steam engines (or to play very large vinyl records).  There is little need for such turntables these days as most modern rolling stock is symmetrical (and development of the MP3 player) – with no real distinction between bow and stern (to borrow the nautical terminology).  The only exceptions I could think of are the Class 91 Electric Locomotive and the Class 82 Driving Van Trailer (DVT) – and I have seen a 91 back-to-front – so I wonder how they turn these round?  Also, would a pair of DVT socks help when driving a 225 rake south?  (Yes, that was a joke for any train spotters who have stumbled here by mistake).

Back to the Bard, I saw the shipwrecked based plays in the order The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest and finally Twelfth Night.  It was rather interesting seeing three plays with similar premises, and sharing the same production, basic staging and cast.  All could be recommended, though my favourite was Twelfth Night and coincidentally this made the most extensive use of the ‘ocean’ which formed part of the set.  This also provided the answer to a question which had been puzzling me for some years.  In a piece about Greenfleeves (a passing melodious roundalay), Michael Flanders mentions a number of plays from the 16th century – including something I have previously interpreted as Gorba Duck (he introduced perestroika to many a pond, you know).  However, now I know it was the play Gorboduc (thanks to the surtitles provided at the Roundhouse for the hard of hearing, or in my case, understanding) by Norton and Sackville.  Subtitled Ferrex and Porrex,with hints of Antigone in the plotting (I’m thinking it wasn’t a comedy, for laughs you should look to Ralph Roister Doister) it was considered quite controversial back in 1562 – but sadly would not have been in existence (and neither would RDD) when Henry VIII (allegedly) took a brief break from wife-swapping to pen Greensleeves (yes, I am fact-checking the beloved dead).  Still, I’m willing to forgive Flanders and Swann for taking minor liberties with history given the enjoyment their output has given me over the years.

Anyway, documentaries and plays by the Bard of Avon are stacking up on my PVR thanks to the BBC and Humax, so I ought to watch some of them.  If the first 45 minutes of the RSC’s all black production of Julius Caesar is anything to go by – which were quite incredible, and not a sign of Kenneth Williams (whose portrayal I have relied on heretofore), though I have yet to reach the famous Infamy speech – I am in for a treat!