Not laughing at the young

Well, mostly trying not to, I wouldn’t want to give them a complex but sometimes they do make it very hard to keep a straight face.

When I was younger myself, I could be pretty judgmental about the dress-sense and coiffure of young people – but now I am more relaxed and figure it is only themselves they are hurting.  As I was growing up in the 1970s – the decade good taste forgot – I was lucky enough to be dressed by my mother and so no blame can be attached to me for any fashion choices I may appear to have made (though I do recognise the “only following orders” defence has not always been 100% successful).  Today’s youth do not have this defence and are also subject to vastly more photographic and video recording of all their dodgy choices.  I sense significant growth in net embarrassment in the years to come – hence my plan to short embarrassment now.

Among the young and trendy (well, I may be guessing about the latter), the full beard seems to be terribly fashionable at the moment.  So clichéd has this become that entering a menswear department recently I was overtaken by a fit of the giggles and had to leave hurriedly.  Funny though I find it, in this cold weather it is a rather practical choice – but I’m not sure I’m willing to hazard one myself: the combination of itchiness and the large patches of white/grey that it now includes would be too distressing.  I shall continue to try and rock the scarf or buff.

However, it is in the trousers department that the young are most afflicted by the siren voices of the fashion industry.  Trousers have been growing ever skinnier for some time, to the extent that I presume some young folk are unable to bend their legs at all (and sitting down must be a distantt dream, unless one is looking for a career as a counter-tenor).  This trend is particularly distressing as for most of my time on earth, my legs would not have looked out of place in a nest and been ideal for skinny trews.  Sadly, the last few years of heavy cycling have caused them to beef-up somewhat (though not much) so that my thighs and calves are now too large for any slacks that would fit my relatively svelte waist.

We are now used to the “waist” of the trouser resting on the lower quarter of the buttocks with the crotch somewhere around the knees – I presume that like the nutrimatic cup, they are held aloft by Art (though unlike the people of Brontitor, our society will be destroyed by coffee shops).  As a result, despite my advanced age and singular lack of athletic prowess I am confident in my ability to out-run the young as my progress will be free of trouser-related hindrance.

However, recently I have noticed that the trousers worn by hipsters seem to end well above their shoes – even in the shortest folk of that ilk which can’t be easy to achieve.  Again, as I was growing up this was an issue that frequently afflicted me – but once again, I was before my time.

I sense a conspiracy: trousers are now starting several inches lower than normal, end above the ankle and are made of a much narrow cylinder of cloth, i.e. makers of trousers are managing to manufacture their wares with dramatically less fabric but at no reduction in selling price!  The only man getting value for money from his slacks is Simon Cowell – where they start at his armpits and go all the way to the ground – but he can well afford it; the rest of us need to start a campaign for fair prices for our leg-coverings (or move to Scotland where alternatives are available).

Advertisements

The End of Days?

OK, I’ll admit that I am not terribly au fait with the details of the Book of Revelations, I studied the slightly more sane ramblings of St Luke for my RS O level.  Still, many people struggle with their second novel so perhaps we shouldn’t judge St John too harshly.

No, it is in the fantasy works inspired by the mythology of northern Europe that the coming of endless winter is associated with the rise of the forces of darkness and the start of evil’s dominion over the earth.  For evil to be linked to fire and brimstone, I think we have to look to our more tectonically interesting Graeco-Roman heritage.

I was reminded of this recently while wandering around the Vikings! exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland.  This includes several figurines of the goddess Freyja, usually identified by her necklace known as Brisingamen.  Until recently, I had only associated this with its weirdstone and the book by Alan Garner – and as a result, I am starting to think that what we are currently experiencing is the fimbulwinter.  As any followers of Norse mythology will know, this precedes Ragnarök and the end of the world.  So, I’m changing my name to Lif and moving to the Hoddmímis holt (there’s a reference for the scholars of the Poetic Edda among you!).

Still, the exhibition was quite interesting and I enjoyed half-price entry thanks to the Art Fund.  Actually, in this case, I fear my attempts to support the Arts may have somewhat back-fired.  As well as half-price entry, I was given vouchers for discounts on a number of activities – including dinner in the Tower Restaurant which sits above the NMS and offers wonderful views of the castle from your table as well as very decent eating.  Well, normally it offers wonderful views: when I took up the offer, the views came and went as the castle was intermittent obscured by the passing blizzard as late afternoon slid into night.  It certainly made for very atmospheric dining!  Bad weather can be a splendid thing if one is observing from the warm with good food and drink in front of you; less so on the subsequent walk to the Queen’s Hall to see the Brodsky Quartet.  Anyway, to return to my guilt: my 20% voucher discount represented more than twice the amount I’d paid to enter the exhibition, so I’m not sure how much more of my “generosity” the Arts can take.

There have been other portents that might presage the end of the world.  As a single example, last weekend the Circle line was actually running.  The dead rising from their graves would be positively mundane by comparison.  I’m not sure that St John specifically mentions the Circle line as one of the signs of the apocalypse, but he was writing nearly two thousand years ago, so he may have missed a few tricks (he barely mentions Twitter or kiwi fruit, for example).  Nevertheless, I think we should all prepare for the worst…

Comfy Chairs

A useful taunt to any marauding Weeping Angels (yes, I do assume a working knowledge of Doctor Who in my readership), but also an important part of life – though terribly bad for the back, I should really be working on squatting as my primary alternative to standing or lying down.

As should be clear by now, I spend quite a lot of time supporting the Arts and much of this time is spent sitting down (young people’s music and the visual arts being the main exceptions where a chair is seldom on offer).  These events take place in a wide range of venues: theatres, concert halls, cinemas, churches and comedy venues (and, at the Edinburgh Fringe, in any re-purposed space from a broom cupboard or urinal up to a sports hall) with a wide variety of permanent or temporary seating on offer.  I’m relatively adept at finding decent legroom – where it is available – and for some venues know where to book to offer my buttocks a slightly more padded experience.  Nonetheless, many venues are uncomfortable for any period longer than 15 minutes and some become almost unendurable before the first hour is up – or at least that is the case for me, there may exist a human being (or other animal) which has the appropriate biomechanical set-up to endure such seating in relative comfort (though I’m not convinced, I often wonder if chair makers ever actually test their products – when I rule the world -can’t be long now – CEOs will have to sit on their least comfortable product, which should drive quality up).

This past Sunday, at a church in Preston Park in Brighton, was one of the least comfortable seating experiences for a while.  I am assuming the suffering is supposed to bring me closer to God and that my time there will net me a few hours off my tariff in purgatory – though I do worry that in these days of declining church attendance the dodgy chairs may not be helping (unless the CofE is aiming to capture the masochist market – perhaps cashing in on the success of 5o Shades of Grey?).

On Monday night, I went to the Pleasance in Islington for an evening of comedy.  I arrived breathing like a steam train ascending a challenging gradient as I had elected to use the stairs at Caledonian Road tube station rather than the lift (it would seem I am not as young or fit as I like to imagine).  The chairs for the comedy gig were adequate, but nothing special – luckily the comedy stylings of Carl Donnelly and Tom Craine kept my mind off the state of my glutes.  I have reached the age where I am quite hard to embarrass and so sit at the front (effectively infinite legroom) despite the risk of becoming part of the show – though this is more fun if I’m with younger people who tend blush more readily.  My participation in the show was modest, though I did find myself publicly pondering whether the verb most commonly used to describe onanism (it rhymes with “sank”) was transitive or not (Mr Collins agrees with me that it cannot take an object, though I suspect we may both be somewhat more purist in this regard than Mr Craine).  In French, I would certainly expect the verb to be reflexive.  Still, I seem to have becoming distracted by thoughts of self-abuse.

Whilst the StageSpace venue chairs were nothing to write home about (though, apparently sufficient to blog about), the bar/waiting area outside, where I spent some minutes waiting before being were allowed in, has the most comfortable couch I have ever experienced in 47 years on this planet.  So comfy was it, that I am tempted to return to the Pleasance just to sit on their couch – tickets are cheap (a fiver), and I’m not sure anyone checks that you actually attend any comedy while there …

Parenting the self

They do say that the child is father to the man, or if they don’t I just have. There might just be more in this than first meets the eye…

I don’t work full time as some years ago I decided that rather than upgrading my “life” to have bigger and better examples of stuff like houses, cars, etc I would rather work less and have more free time.  I was lucky enough to be able to make this particular choice, and so now work down to a salary – if you pay me more per hour, I will work fewer hours.  I’d like to claim this came about as a result of some stunning, Damascene insight but it can, in fact, be explained by laziness.  I refused to register for VAT – if the government wants me to collect tax on its behalf, it can pay the going rate (something it seems reluctant to do) – and so this capped my maximum income for the year.  Having found this income  plenty to fund my fairly modest lifestyle I saw no reason to change when I returned to working directly for “the man”.

As a result, I should have heaps of free time and a very relaxed and restful life – but somehow this doesn’t seem to have happened.  I seem to spend my whole life racing around like a maniac trying to “get things done”.   Some loss of time can be explained by my voluntary work for a local music festival, but for all the rest the only person to blame must be yours truly.

My obsession with travelling by public transport or bike and trying to buy local or somewhat ethical goods uses up a chunk of time.  This is getting out of hand, and is probably based on self-delusion, but despite owning a pretty fuel-efficient car I still feel guilty using it – all the more since seeing a cyclist wearing shorts in blizzard conditions in Edinburgh yesterday (I couldn’t help but be impressed and now feel that I should be trying harder).

I also like to cook two square meals a day – well, if I’m honest, what I really like is consuming the results of this process with the cooking being a necessary precursor (well, until the replicator makes it from Star Trek to reality) – and that takes a little longer than the “prick lid and microwave for 2 mins” school of dining.  The cycling (and gym visiting) means that I can eat these two cooked meals and the myriad other “snacks” that feature in a typical day without worrying about my figure (well, other than the risk of wasting away) but probably means that all the money I save on petrol, I eat (but surely that’s a lot more fun!).

Like many in today’s world, the internet and its various offspring waste quite a lot of my time – you’d be amazed how long these posts take to write: trust me the correlation between time employed and quality is very weak.  However, this is mostly the analogue of water one can still add to a vessel already “full” of sand.

No, I think the biggest consumer of my free time is my attempt to keep the Arts in this country going, single-hand if I must.  I’ve written about my addiction to theatre, but there are also the visual arts, music and comedy – even before we think about reading which provides one of the many reasons to use public transport: the Law takes rather a dim view of reading a book while sipping from a glass of red wine when driving (it’s health and safety gone mad!).

Last Monday, to help me copy with the loss of Being Human from our screens, I had a day off and took myself to London (obviously waiting for off-peak fares and my Network Card to kick in first – I’m not made of money).  This day illustrates rather nicely my slightly dysfunctional relationship with leisure.

Having arrived in town, I grabbed a quick bite of lunch and a particularly fine  hot chocolate (it may have lacked the marshmallows and whipped cream of some, but few could touch it for taste or beauty of presentation) at the Workshop Coffee Company in Wigmore Lane.  It was then only a short stroll to the Wigmore Hall for a couple of lunchtime string quartet courtesy of the Arcanto Quartet.

After that, a quick Jubilee line dash took me to the Hayward Gallery for the Light Show exhibition.  This is absolutely stunning – it brought out both my inner child (never far away) and my inner super-hero (rather more elusive) and I’d rather like several of the exhibits (albeit a little scaled down) for my home – it certainly makes you think about how drab and mundane most of our lighting is. It was the only exhibition which I have seen small children enjoying (some of them very small) and I would thoroughly recommend it to parents (though it wasn’t cheap – and I only had to pay half-price).

Cunning use of the tube delivered me (with a minimum of troglodyte meandering) to 10 Greek Street for dinner and tips on where my roasted celeriac patties had gone wrong.  They tasted fine, but lacked structural integrity as I’d missed out the need to double-crumb them.  I am turning into the Norm Peterson of 10GS – and am trying to view that as a good thing.

A quick tube dash then took me back to the South Bank and to the National theatre to see This House.  The play has received glowing reviews, but I wasn’t entirely sure if it would be my cup of tea – I find journalists are generally more interested in the world of politics (or celebrity, depending on the paper) than am I.  It is set in the Whips’ Offices during the Labour government of 1974-9 – and I am not hugely fascinated by politics and was a small boy during the period in question (though I do remember they had the audacity to hold a general election on my birthday which, in those dark days, meant no children’s television).  I needn’t have worried, like all good writing, whilst politics provided the context, the play was about people and their thoughts, actions and interactions.  It was fascinating, entertaining and unexpectedly moving – and three hours is soon gone (though that may just be my age talking).

I finally made it home at 01:15 having left at 10:00 the previous morning and filled almost every point in between with incident and moment.  No wonder I am generally exhausted – if this is how I spend my day off, a day in the office can only be restful by comparison.  I am forcibly reminded of the time, some 10 years ago, that I was given responsibility for a friend’s 10 year old son for the day in London (** spoiler alert **  no-one died).  Having no parenting experience or skills, I planned an incredibly full day – which nearly culminated in me buying the lad a long island iced tea to accompany his dinner (I did mention I lacked experience, such a purchase was fine for my normal dinner companions).  The following day I was totally exhausted – but so, I discovered, was he.  As a result I learned an important lesson in parenting – it is good for both parties if a parent (or supply parent, in my case) allows their children some time to be bored.  I think it may be time I applied this important lesson to self-parenting!

Hand waving

The regular reader will have quickly realised that this post will be about economics – a discipline usually considered by mathematicians to be little better than hand waving (but given the state of the economy and the attempts at improvement this may be better equated with drowning).

I revealed that the somewhat maligned play, If you don’t let us dream etc, had made me think and this post is the fruit of that thinking made flesh. I should point out that I have not yet read the book on economics I purchased and the delay in producing this post does not indicate mature reflection – just a backlog (backblog?) of posts to send out into the aether.

The play made reference to Sovereign debt, in particular that of Ecuador (which probably doesn’t count as it as achieved at altitude), and who should be responsible for it. This made me think of the case of the oppressive, kleptocratic regimes which are all too common in the world today. When a people finally manage to dispose of such a poisonous form of governance – whether by revolution or a combination of patience and the ageing process – they are often left with huge debts run up by their former oppressors. It does seem, to me at least, somewhat iniquitous to expect them to spend the following decades (or longer) repaying those who helped to fund the rape and oppression of their country and its people. Rather, I might expect them to be entitled to significant compensation from these same financiers who had assisted their erstwhile rulers in their murderous rapine. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case in international law – if it were, I should imagine there would be some truly massive shifts in funds between the developed and developing world and quite possibly new impetus to responsible lending and good governance the world over. Somehow I can’t see vested interests letting this happen, but I would love to see at least one country sue those who funded their oppressors for damages (and win, obviously).

Following this thought, I went on to ponder states rather closer to home and that are nominally democratic and so govern for the benefit of a slightly larger share of their citizens. Even in such states, I do have to wonder what benefit some of the spending in our name gives to the citizenry at large – how exactly do we benefit from Trident or its replacement (for example)? It enables our political masters to feel important on the world stage but does seem an awfully expensive way to massage their delicate little egos – surely counselling to enable them to come to terms with the UK’s diminished importance since the glory days of the 1890s would be cheaper? I can’t help feeling that with a few more lasses in parliament, we wouldn’t be wasting quite so much money on dick-swinging – but I am digressing (hard to believe, I know).

The big complaint here is the cost of “bailing out the bankers” who seem to have been holed below the water line. This was not debt run up by the State, but by commercial entities operating within the State (though probably not paying much in the way of tax to it). Their size and embedded nature meant that government felt obliged to fund their debts, i.e. the State was providing an implicit corporate guarantee to the Banks. I say, let’s make it explicit! The provision of corporate guarantees (or irrevocable letters of credit) to stand behind a corporate entity is a normal part of “the market” – and can attract very significant fees, especially if the entity in question is indulging in risky business. I say we charge the Banks for the guarantees that the State is offering them at the going market rate. Clearly, we can’t trust the existing rating agencies to measure risk as they only seem to recognise the patient is sick some months after the corpse has been buried ‘neath the clay – but there are a fair few States with the issue, so funding an independent agency should be feasible (we can probably fund it from the guarantee fees anyway). Banks can either choose to pay for a guarantee or they can survive on their own, but in such circumstances they may be restricted from taking deposits from the retail and smaller commercial side of the business (or if they can, such investors would have to be made aware that their investment was highly risky – as should already be the case for existing high-risk investments). The “market” can then decide how much demand there is for very risky banks and how much for their safer brethren. Banks that want to attract investment from the more risk-averse would pay for the sovereign guarantee and manage their business accordingly. Any future bail-outs should have already been funded and the State will not end-up trying to run troubled Banks, plus the country will have made a nice income to pay for less sexy items like libraries, decent support for the disabled and the Arts.

Hey, this is turning into a manifesto – albeit a rather unachievable one if I only control a single nation state, I think I need to be aiming for world domination (or at least a decent chunk thereof). Does anyone know of a hollow volcano (preferably extinct) coming up for sale (I would consider a long-term rental) in the near term?

It was the best of TOCs, it was the worst of TOCs

For the uninitiated, a TOC is a Train Operating Company – one of the menagerie of new entities created when the railways were privatised in a particularly idiotic manner a few years back.  The TOCs are responsible for running trains and managing some of the stations.  The TOC under the spotlight in this post is the Greater Anglia franchise, run by the Dutch group abellio which also runs the railways in the Netherlands.

In a recent Which? study, Greater Anglia was rated (almost) the worst of the UK’s TOCs in terms of customer satisfaction.  It was only the presence of First Capital Connect (the other TOC serving Cambridge, which I presume is only a coincidence) which kept Greater Anglia out of last place (and then only just).  In terms of the management of the franchise, and in particular its provision of reliable services and station management, I would suggest that Greater Anglia more than deserves its reputation at the bottom of the heap.  Though in terms of speed of re-branding the operation they were very effective – which must give some indication that their priorities lie more in self-aggrandisement than in running a railway franchise.

However, in terms of the staff one actually meets and interacts with as a passenger, I would suggest Greater Anglia must be one of the best of the TOCs and I could not ask for better.  My experience of their front-line staff has been universally positive – and this was strongly reinforced on my journey home last night.  I (only) just caught the 22:58 from Liverpool Street which I had expected to stop at Whittlesford Parkway (as all trains from London stop there) – but when we reached Whittlesford it kept going through the station at some 80mph (though it obeyed all the other normal station stops).  So, instead of being re-united with my bike I was delivered instead to Cambridge a little after midnight.  Chatting with the very helpful and cheery driver, I learned that for some reason the train was instructed not to stop at Whittlesford and that he had made frequent announcements.  Sadly, he was at the front of the train and I was in the eighth carriage – an antique example of Class 317/1 rolling stock – in which the PA system was clearly broken.  Actually, the 317/1s are older than the space shuttle and have probably racked up more miles – and so it is a miracle they work at all (in rain, I have seen water pouring into the coaches through the light fittings which can’t good).  Greater Anglia did away with guards years ago – so the driver was on his own and had no way to know I couldn’t hear him and I had no way to know there was something to hear.

The staff at Cambridge station were also really helpful and from them I learned why the 317/1s are in such a state.  The current franchise is only short, and so it makes no economic sense to do anything but the most basic cosmetic upgrades (well, I did say the method of privatisation was idiotic).  The next holder of the franchise (which will be for 15 years – well, unless the government make a complete mess of the tender process, again) will have some major upgrade costs to swallow.  I also discovered that useless as Stansted Airport may be for the business traveller (well, this business traveller), I still have cause to be grateful to it.  The airport funded much of the cost of the new Class 379 units which make some journeys a much more pleasant and comfortable experience (well, as long as there are no issues with the GPS).  Finally, I learned why all trains stop at Audley End: the farmer who originally sold the land to the railways made this a condition of the sale.  His wishes remain in force all these years later and it must be more than 150 years later!  So the 400 residents of Wendons Ambo (where the station lies) have a very decent rail service all thanks to that long-dead farmer.  You can learn so many things if you just chat to people – even in these days of the internet and search engines.

As my stranding could largely be placed at the door of poor carriage maintenance, or perhaps because they were just sympathetic to a chap with an interest in the railways, the Cambridge station staff put me in a taxi back to Whittlesford.  Once again, excellent customer service from their front-line staff – who no doubt spend much of their time fighting against the more senior management who have probably never seen a train, let alone a passenger (I refuse to be a customer).  Still, this situation is hardly unique to the privatised railways: I could tell you some stories from my own working life (but for the sake of what I like to call my career, I won’t).

So, somewhat after 00:30 I was reunited with my bike – and it was properly cold out (-3°C feels like -10°C, with the wind chill, according to the Met Office).  So cold that the hub gear wouldn’t change – its vital fluids had solidified – but luckily I had left it in a low enough gear to make it home.  I was not cold, largely because I had slightly overly prepared on the warm clothing front (I am not at home to Mr Frostbite) though the wind did blow icy cold air past my gloves and up my sleeves.  I think I need arm garters or perhaps I should just drive to the station like a normal person?  I will admit that I do try and avoid this (driving rather than being a normal person – though some would say I avoid that too) as I feel NCP charge an extortionate (and ever increasing) amount to park at Whittlesford Parkway.  As the owner of the only car park within 2 miles of the station, I feel they are abusing their monopoly position and they certainly aren’t using the income to maintain the car park or its one ticket machine.  I wonder if I could interest the Competition Commission in the case?  This is far from the only such abuse of position – just look at the costs of hospital parking (though one can at least hope that this is propping up the NHS, despite the very real fear that it is just be lining the pockets of the car park owners) – perhaps it’s time I started a crusade…

Yesterday was a good day

I wouldn’t want you to think that most days are a veil of tears which I struggle to make my way through with wrists intact, but yesterday was particularly good.  This is despite some rather poor planning by the man in charge (me, for those in any doubt), which meant an insane amount of racing around and meals hurriedly grabbed.  So frantic did things become that I was forced to use the car in the evening, and worse than that to parallel park it.  I think this is my first attempt at parallel parking in the current millennium – and it is not a skill that improves through benign neglect.  Still, in fewer than 100 manoeuvers the car (I’m not saying how many fewer, but it was fewer) was acceptably close to the kerb – and my ability to achieve better positioning by use of the steering wheel and the forward and reverse gears was becoming a significantly less random proposition.

So, given the unnecessary stress caused by poor planning, and the concomitant rushed eating and need to utilise my limited abilities with a motor vehicle, why was yesterday so good?  (I hear the voices in my head ask).   Well, there are three main strands which made it such a good day which spanned a range of the Arts.

We start in the world of literature, well books anyway.  I finished reading the final 60% of the latest Harry Dresden novel by Jim Butcher.  This series is unlikely to trouble the Booker panel (many other literary prizes are available) but are great page turners.  I was introduced to them by the library and now own most of them – which just goes to show what an engine of economic activity your local library can be.  Almost all the books I own have been bought thanks to an introduction by my local library or via the joy of browsing through a real bookshop – recommendations from online bookshops are entirely useless (perhaps because the internet believes I am a pensioner as discussed in an earlier post).  Cold Days has really started opening out the mythology which means I need a new fix – though I fear Mr Butcher has yet to write one.  Still, patience is supposed to be a virtue – and a card-game for the solitary without access to a decent book.

Strand two took me to the theatre (come on, with my addiction you knew it was coming) and back to Downstairs at the Hampstead Theatre.  Hello/Goodbye was absolutely brilliant – really funny and it also made my cry (though many things do that, including some members of the allium family) – and did make me wonder why drama in the theatre seems so much better than so much that makes it onto our TV screens?  Is it the live nature of the thing or just being able to avoid layer upon layer of commissioning editors and focus groups slowly crushing out the creative spark?  I also remain amazed at how cheap off West End theatre is – this cost me a mere £12 (which you can pay for the cinema these days) and had I gone a few days earlier it would have been a mere fiver.   I suppose there were only four actors and relatively modest set (though it did have a fully plumbed sink and a working hob, kettle and toaster) – but even so, with only 80 seats the economics must be very challenging.  Based on the ticket, I think I should be thanking the late Peter Wolff whose Theatre Trust seems to have provided some support – a jolly decent thing to do with one’s surplus cash.

Strand three was music in Cambridge and involved the desperate race back from Swiss Cottage by tube, train, bike and the automobile.  The CUMS Symphony Orchestra gave a stunning programme including Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the Stokowski orchestration and Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto.  The only painful thing about CUMS is that as I age, they never do – each year those reaching their early twenties are replaced by those still in their teens in an orchestral take on Logan’s Run (though so far as I know, the leavers go on to living long and fulfilling lives) allowing the orchestra to remain eternally young.

A good book, an excellent play and the day rounded off by some great music – what more could any chap (or chapess) ask for?  The whole day was even pretty budget friendly given strategic use of my Network Card.