Bring back the owls

As my last post suggested, I have recently been holidaying in the delightful county of Cornwall.  I stayed in an inverted lodge-style dwelling in a remote rural location (though apparently there is a golf course somewhere nearby).  Whilst I was technically staying in Cornwall, I never fully committed to leaving England and spent time on both sides of the Tamar over the week (and a very small amount of time actually suspended over the Tamar – oh yes, I’m quite the daredevil if I have the support of one I K Brunel). Frankly, I often failed to remember which side I was on – though I believe this is a matter of some importance to the locals.

The lodge was surrounded by owls or, possibly, by owl impersonators – it is so hard to tell in the dark with only your ears to go on.  Around bedtime I could hear them calling to each other – or possibly to me, but sadly I do not speak owl and so was unable to provide a suitable response.  It is a rather lovely thing, even given the language barrier.

After a week away, I returned (briefly) to Fish Towers.  Whilst it’s nice to go away, it is rather pleasant to return home – where the kitchen is stocked with familiar equipment and foodstuffs and where the electromagnetic medium of 21st century communications is immanent.

Less desirable was the sonic chorus that greeted my attempts to go to sleep the evening of my return.  No owls, but instead the yowling of local cats (well, I assume they were local though I didn’t actually ask) indulging in nefarious night-time activities at very high decibels.  Not content with cutting a swathe through our smaller indigenous wildlife and defecating in my tubs, the feline menace is now responsible for serious night time noise pollution.  We need a modern St Patrick to rid these isles of the menace.  Could Hamelin provide someone?  I know they have more experience with rats (and children), but “cats” sounds very similar.  I might have a go myself with the clarinet I bought at a birthday party (well, who can honestly claim they have never done the same), but have yet to make much progress with my new career as the new Acker Bilk.  Not sure if my attempts at playing would encourage any puss (booted or otherwise) to follow me, but it could well frighten them off which would be good enough!

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Ready to retire?

After a weekend spent with folk a quarter of a century (and more) my junior, I sought balance by spending a week away with a couple who are twenty-five years my senior.  In fact, this latter is a tradition that has been going on for the last five years – and lest you think I am abducting pensioners against their will, I should make clear that I share close blood ties (and, in theory at least, all of my DNA) with this particular couple.

I am brought along as a sort of travelling chef, as a back-up for the satnav (I can read an OS map – younger readers may have to ask a grown-up about OS maps, but they work where WiFi and 3G do not) and as a token (comparatively) young person (just in case one is needed).  I am also brought along for my writing skills (no laughing at the back!) so that I can fill in the visitors’ book.   In return I am chauffered around and so can visit places that would be quite a challenge using public transport (obviously, I could drive myself – but this is something I try and avoid except under extreme duress).

As is traditional, the parents (mine, in this case) found a holiday location completely free of modern, manmade sources of electromagnetic radiation: no wifi and not even a hint of a mobile phone signal  on at least 3 of the UK’s 4 networks.  As a result, I can tell “the man” in all honesty that I was not available by phone or email during my week off.

I partook in activities suited to those in the early stages of their eighth decade, and so my National Trust membership card has rarely seen more use.  While I enjoy these more sedate activities (well more sedate than form part of my usual thrilling lifestyle – W Mitty has nothing on me), I have found my calves struggling to cope (I presume the muscles involved in slow mooching are underdeveloped) and I have also needed to go do bed earlier than normal and have been sleeping very deeply (which is not like me at all).  It would seem that retirement is much more exhausting than I had anticipated.  I did gain brief access to the internet towards the end of the week (in a gorge of all places) which allowed me to retrieve my work email and thereafter my insomnia returned to normal.

So, it seems that I will need to undergo significant training before I will be able to operate successfully in my seventies (I seem much better able to cope with life in one’s late teens or early twenties: I am apparently better adapted to my mental than physical age).  Still, I do have a little time to prepare as the current government seems to be working hard to ensure that my retirement date is receding at an accelerating pace.

Emerald cities

Barely had I returned from one Celtic fringe than I was off to another.  This time to Ireland for “the man”.  Actually, if I must go somewhere, Ireland isn’t a bad option: flights are pleasingly brief, they know how to keep time (and defer to Greenwich), my plugs fit their sockets, free wi-fi is surprisingly common and the locals are friendly (despite the somewhat chequered history between our two countries).

I started in Cork – the airport code for which is rather delightfully ORK – which allowed me to renew my acquaintance with a couple of the locals: Murphy’s and Beamish. Well, I say locals but given the depredations of multinational brewing giants they may be brewed almost anywhere for all I know. Despite their perhaps uncertain current provenance, they still slipped down very nicely – and helped to distract me from the seriously heavy rain falling outside (still, to visit the Emerald Isle and not see rain does leave one with strange feelings of an experience only half-lived).

The following morning I was off to Dublin on the train – well, mostly on the train, but a replacement bus service took us as far as Mallow to allow emergency engineering works.  Shockingly, they allowed other people to board my luxury coach – you don’t get this with Greater Anglia, but I suppose Iarnród Éirann may be feeling the effects of the recession and thus unable to lay on a personalised luxury coach for everyone.  On the plus side, the bus did pass within little more than a mile of the Blarney Stone – I blew it a kiss, but I’m not sure this delivers the full effect of a physical smooch (only time will tell whether my tongue has been sufficiently silvered).

In Dublin, I was forced (for business reasons) to visit an outpost of the Starbucks empire (I can only assume Herman Melville is spinning sufficiently rapidly in his grave to power a small city).  The cup of Earl Grey I was given was large enough to float a heavy cruiser (though far from the largest vessel on offer) but tasted truly vile – a significant victory for quantity in its on-going war with quality.  Still, this painful incident aside, I had a very pleasant time in Dublin and the leaving of the city is considerably easier than used to be the case.  I can only attribute this to the completion of both the Port Tunnel and the airport since last I was there.

Upon my return to the UK, Greater Anglia were clearly anticipating winter once more closing its jaws upon us with some ferocity (which I presume to be an iron conurbation).  As a result, my train was heated to the sort of temperature normally associated with Scandinavian relaxation and which oft precedes running out into the snow or mild birch twig based laceration.  I was sorely tempted to go topless (or worse), but somehow resisted – though I like to imagine that my honed torso would have been greeted with quiet appreciation by my fellow, late-night passengers.  Perhaps this heat was part of a new service they are testing – no longer just a choice between 1st and Standard Class but on selected trains the new sauna coach will help stressed business folk relax on their journey back to Essex and Cambridgeshire.  I would applaud their creative approach to rail travel, but suggest they might need to spend a little more on the advertising budget before future trials so that next time I can come properly prepared.

Proverbial defiance

Or at least ignoring the advice implicit in Proverbs 26:11 and man’s best friend returning to the scene of an earlier gastric infelicity.

Over this past long weekend, I have been in Edinburgh to attend a wedding (not my own I should stress, before any of you let your well-funded imaginations to run away with you).  I did have a small role as one of the team of best men – mostly as the “responsible adult” with special responsibility for keeping the groom out of a Turkish greasy spoon on the morning before the ceremony.

I have not been to a huge number of weddings in my life (I will leave readers to theorise as to why) but the ones I have attended have been especially good – and this one was no exception.  The service was lovely, and I even enjoyed the religious component despite my continuing faith shortage.  The service and wedding breakfast (but timed as a late lunch) were held at Prestonfield House which is a beautiful venue (it would be my top choice, were I to marry in Edinburgh) with seriously good food and drink (the shots of strawberry juice, champagne and pink peppercorns were to die for, and possible, of).  It also provides (noisy) peacocks to chase which kept the younger visitors entertained during the photographs – I must admit I seemed to be in rather more of the photographs than I had expected or would consider entirely wise.

I couldn’t concentrate 100% on the breakfast as one of my duties as 20% of a best man was to give a speech about the groom.  Whilst I speak in public quite frequently, this is normally work-related and includes the psychological prop of a Powerpoint presentation – and so I did find this unexpectedly daunting.  Of the 52 attendees, I only knew 8 at the start of the weekend and only 12 by the time of my speech – so it was tricky deciding on how to pitch my talk.  It is also worth mentioning that I had consumed significantly more alcohol prior to my speechifying than would normally be the case when I am working for “the man”.

It is now time to release the unbearable tension I have built up and let you know that the speech was very well received.  Embarrassingly well received, in fact – I think that the alcohol consumed by the audience ay well have helped.  People laughed at the jokes (though Charles II remained stony-faced throughout), even the statistics one, and I have never had so many questions about Group Theory or what it means for a group to be Abelian.  So, if any readers of GofaDM are looking for an after-dinner speaker, with a penchant for maths-based quipery, I am available for hire (and will work for cake and dessert wine).

However, all of this persiflage is mere scene-setting to the important meat of this post.  My fellow members of the best man team were students in their late teens or early twenties.  I had met all of then before, but in some cases this was more than a decade ago and they had definitely grown (more significantly in some cases than others) and the beard was certainly new (I would definitely have remembered a bearded 9 year old).  Despite the age difference (I was old enough to be their father – in fact, quite possibly I was older than their actual fathers) we hit it off rather well.  We met up for a couple of meals the day before the wedding, and there is no better bonding experiences than being silly about hot towels and discussing the correct probability distribution to use to analyse neutron detection over beer and a curry.  I also established that innuendo and the double-entendre can cross the age gap very successfully.

The best men had breakfast together before the wedding in s suitably low-odour venue, looking not unlike a low budget remake of Reservoir Dogs (don’t worry, no ears were harming in the making of this post).  We hung-out somewhat at the wedding itself and a whole lot more at the reception.  Some of my fellow best men were tempted onto the dance floor – I myself was later forced to show people a few of my “moves” – indulging in a dance-off which is probably the funniest thing I have ever seen.  Sadly, I struggle to work the photographic capabilities of my iPhone in good light and while sober, so I have sadly failed to capture this even for posterity (I shall have to re-double my efforts to crack the secrets of temporal mechanics in order to have a second crack at it).  At the reception, we also indulged in some (perhaps) ill-advised experiments with alcohol (a scientific paper will be submitted to Nature in due course) but which might one day change the whole face of drinking (I can’t say more at this stage for reasons of commercial confidentiality).

After the reception we went on a brief pub crawl around Edinburgh – brief not for reasons of health or good sense, but because all the pubs seemed to close surprisingly early.  I had expected more of Scotland – I think all this talk we hear of early death, alcoholism and deep-fried everything may owe more to a well-tuned PR machine than to reality.  Still, perhaps it was for the best – as I was able to deliver the full complement of young people (or perhaps they were able to deliver me) back to our digs without major injuries.  I still didn’t make it to my bed until nearly 4am, but when I awoke later that day I was entirely free of hangover – though somewhat tired through lack of sleep and with a sore throat from too much talking (so nothing new there!).

I had a worryingly large amount of fun on this somewhat alcohol-infused night out, I seem capable of slipping back into the student life with very little trouble: though I should point out that my own student life was almost entirely teetotal (one small glass of sherry on my first day and one small glass of champagne on the last – I blame the parents, and more specifically mine).  My youthful partners-in-crime also claimed to have had a good time – despite being handicapped by having to drag around a man both well-stricken in years and possessed of a very dodgy sense of humour.  The media often rails against young people portraying them as some sort of feral underclass; my own (admittedly limited) experience suggests I’ll feel much more comfortable when they are in charge of our destiny than the current incumbents (largely selected from my own generation).  They seem so much more together than I did at their age (or indeed am now!).

At some point during the night of (always polite) debauchery, I took an action to organise a dessert wine weekend in York.  The only thing the wedding lacked was enough dessert wine – but that is true of so much of life – and I had fallen in among fellow connoisseurs.  This is a action I plan to take quite seriously – I have already started researching the options on this train as I head south   They do say that you should never go back (and, in particular, attempts to re-capture one’s lost youth are contraindicated), but in some ways it would be a return to someone else’s student days – so perhaps it will be OK.

Watch this space…

Low budget imagination

I am under few illusions that I am any sort of creative powerhouse, nor do I think that my imagination sets me apart from the low-browed troglodytes with which I share this world – in many ways quite the reverse, as the blog stands in far from mute testament.  However, the rather poor quality of my imaginative life was brought home rather forcefully to me a couple of nights ago.

Before I go any further, I should make it clear just how aware I am that hearing other people’s dreams is even less interesting then being forced to endure their holiday snaps.  Disclaimer safely in place, I shall now write about one of my most recent dreams…

As with many dreams, the context was not entirely clear or coherent, but it did seem to revolve around a rail journey into London – though at times I was also offered a helicopter overview of events.  For some reason, there was a huge volcanic eruption, followed by a massive flood which totally destroyed the railway for a substantial distance causing major delays to services (in case people are worried, I was uninjured).  I realise that this sounds quite exciting and involves a considerable re-think of the geological underpinnings of East Anglia – but the devil, as so often, is in the detail.  The quality of the special effects which were used to represent this drama of near-Biblical proportions was laughably low budget.  Jerry Anderson did better work on the Thunderbirds back in the Sixties.  Frankly, my dream made the Dr Who episodes of the early 1970s seem like Avatar by comparison (though I should perhaps note in the interests of full disclosure that I have never seen Avatar).  The volcano and floods were clearly made using a very cheap miniatures and were seriously unconvincing.

Now, I only remember my dreams infrequently upon waking, so I do wonder if perhaps my unconscious mind had already blown the entire of this year’s SFX budget by early May on high budget extravaganzas that I have sadly forgotten.  I must admit I have no idea to what financial year my imagination operates, nor the quality of the financial controls and reporting being used – but if this hypothesis is correct, then I feel management heads must roll.  Or is it that the cold, dead fingers of austerity are now reaching even so far as my dreams?  If so, George Osborne has more to answer for than even his fiercest critics have imagined – though perhaps this may be because they too are afflicted by crippling underfunding of their imaginative faculties.

So, I find I must end with an appeal to the readers of GofaDM.  If anyone has some surplus left in their dream budget, would you consider loaning me a little?

Identification

Those producing drama often seem rather obsessed that the intended audience should be able to identify with the characters being portrayed.  So, for example, drama for young people must have young people as the main characters – or, especially in the US, actors clearly in their thirties playing teenagers.  I suspect this need for very simple-minded identification is far less true than is believed, though obviously I do focus on dramas where at least one principal character is a tall, thin glasses-wearing middle-aged and middle glass man who is more than usually gifted nasally.

Actually, I don’t think this is true for me at all – I can think of little more tedious than watching someone too like myself on stage and screen.  If I really wanted that, I could spend more time in front of the mirror – an activity I usually try and minimise as anyone who has seen my attempts at hair “styling” might readily believe (after about 10 seconds I work on the principle that it is (a) hair and (b) on my head and that is good enough).

At the theatre in particular, but also to an extent on the screen, I seek out dramas where the characters will be quite different from me and go through experiences quite unlike those that have informed my personal narrative.  Despite this, as a human being, it is rare that I cannot find some point of contact with a well-drawn character – whether they are male or female, positive or negative.  The plays that really stick with me are those that make me see a bigger world or learn something (often an uncomfortable truth) about myself.  Though, lest you think me even more pretentious than is in fact the case, I’m also more than happy to laugh my head off at a decent farce.  I am also a sucker for a bit of romance, despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of romance within.

Last week, after a day in London for work, I took advantage of my location to visit 10 Greek Street and then head to the theatre – quelle surpise!  This taught me that I am even less mysterious than I thought – Cam, head honcho at 10GS, announced that he could predict exactly what I would order from the menu and (unfortunately) he was entirely correct in this assertion.  I really am turning into a thinner version of Norm Peterson (still could be worse, I could be Cliff Clavin).

Anyway, after filling my face I headed to the Arts Theatre to see Beautiful Thing, a revival of a play written and set in 1985: so I “got” all of the references, unlike some of the younger members of the audience who must have been mystified.  The play was brilliant and really sweet and, to a significant extent, revolves around two teenage lads finding love – with each other.  To somewhat contradict my earlier assertion about identification, an unusually large proportion of the audience was comprised of men – mostly in pairs.  So dominant were they, that I did feel slightly out of place not having brought a man of my own.  Actually, I suspect the audience may have been less there to identify with the protagonists and more for the sake of nostalgia as many seemed past the first flush of youth (or even middle age).

The make-up of the audience did mean that at half-time, the shoe was very much on the other foot compared to usual theatrical events.  Those of the distaff persuasion could visit the Ladies without delay, but there was an enormous queue for the Gents.  For some reason I found this hugely amusing (perhaps aided by my incredibly strong and capacious bladder – something developed competitively in my younger days), but was sad that so few women could enjoy the experience (though this was obviously inevitable).  I feel there was an important lesson to be learnt here – though I am not quite sure what it is.

Finally, on the subject of relief, I found myself at a very fine restaurant in Edinburgh last night and was directed to the “rest rooms” (as our US cousins would say) by a member of staff.  I did think the facilities were rather more palatial than I am used to, and they were the pinkest think I’ve seen (with the possible exception of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre of days gone by) but merely mentally commended Rhubarb for their breaking of gender stereotypes.  On trying to leave, the knob (to the door) did come off in my hand (oo, err, misses) and so I felt I should note this to a member of staff.  It was then I discovered that I had been directed to the Ladies: now, I like to think I am as in touch with my feminine side as any chap, but I really don’t make a very convincing woman (even when I am trying).  I think the member of staff doing the original directing was new and presumably had not been paying all that much attention when told were the facilities were located.  So, just to be absolutely clear, I am not taking any of the blame!  The food – you will be pleased to know – was truly excellent and included a very find rhubarb-based dessert.

The age of the train

Would probably explain the state of the suspension – though it is a lot better than the HST I took north back in March.  Still, it does make my touching typing a tad less accurate than normal – well, I say “touch typing” by which I mean I “typing” which requires me to “touch” the keyboard (I have no handy dragon).

Nonetheless, rail is my preferred mode of travel for almost all occasions – frankly, the railways already having invented, I have no idea why Messers Benz and Wright bothered with the car and aeroplane respectively.  There are few things more pleasant, on a lovely day like today, than rushing north admiring the beautiful, if flat, countryside of the eastern UK as East Coast ply me with food and drink.  To be honest, the flatness of the country cannot be blamed on the weather and may be fixed in time – but only geological time so I’m unlikely to see the Lincolnshire Alps in my lifetime

 

Rail travel isn’t perfect, boarding at Peteborough you usually find the vegetarian cooked breakfast has run out, as today had the brown toast.  It would seem that folk are healthier than East Coast realises.  Nevertheless, I’d still recommend East Coast and today’s crew are particularly lovely.  In a week or so I shall be travelling with First Great Western (of whose name I believe one – and only one – adjective is generally believed to be an accurate description of their work) to another of the Celtic fringes of these Isles.  They provide a much less substantial free food offering to the First Class traveller and no wifi to any traveller – so I am enjoying the delights of East Coast while I can.

The rail traveller also has to keep his (or her or its – this blog does not discriminate against its neuter or hermaphrodite readers) wits about them.  I have written before about the low animal cunning need to obtain the best ticket prices for your journey.  A little while ago I went to Brighton from London and found (by chance) that I could pay £10, £16 or £25 for a return to travel on exactly the same trains – naturally, I went for the tenner option but I’m sure many had to pay £25.  This could be considered either an upside or downside of privatisation – depending on how much free time you have to devote to the purchase of rail tickets.

Last Monday I returned to Fish Towers from London relatively late in the evening.  After my recent experience, I checked the detailed stopping points for the train and discovered that once again Whittlesford Parkway (alone) was omitted from the usual roster.  I am beginning to think Greater Anglia have a vendetta against the denizens of Whittlesford and environs – perhaps one its burghers had been beastly to the Dutch in days of yore.  As before, there were no audible announcements of the omission and the matrix display on the train gave no clues (or none that I could discern).  Nor was it mentioned on any of the posters listing all the engineering work for the month of April  Still, I disembarked at Audley End in the hope of a replacement bus back to my velocipede.

I was in luck!  Greater Anglia had laid on a luxury (no, really) 49 seat coach to take me (and no-one else) back to Whittlesford (it then picked up the no-one waiting at Whittlesford and took them on to Cambridge).  I hate to think of the cost – and I really didn’t have time to make use of more than a very few of the seats.  The driver was great fun and he and I swapped stories of my childhood days as a bus spotter, discussing the buses of yesteryear.  This provided further confirmation of my advanced age as his employer runs several Leyland National buses – apparently, they are now considered historic vehicles and are taken to rallies. This really isn’t on.  I don’t think anything should be allowed to be considered historic until everyone who remembers them as new is safely interred ‘neath the clay.  There’s a vote winner for whichever political party has the courage to tackle this vital issue.

Still, despite the intimations of mortality, I really enjoyed my bus replacement service (oddly, the driver lived in Hastings and just worked in Essex) – I now want a luxury coach to pick me up whenever a train or my bike is not available.  Sadly, I don’t think this makes much economic sense – though no less than it did for Greater Anglia.  Not stopping at Whittlesford must have saved the train less than 90 seconds on its journey to Cambridge – but I assume this meant it passed some vital point on the network before the entirely arbitrary time of midnight. It would seem that Network Rail has more in common with Cinderella’s fair godmother than anyone had realised –  I just hope the train made it back to Cambridge before it turned back into a pumpkin piloted by a white mouse!