30, at last!

Yes, the irresponsible years of my twenties are finally at an end and I must finally face up to being 30 (though still some distance from being an adult).  It’s been a long journey – at least partly because I have chosen to make it in hex – but today I must wave goodbye to 2F (whilst, obviously, retaining two Fs thanks to my corrupted Welsh roots).

After thirty, there’s not much in the way of a landmark birthday until the telegram from the Queen.  Actually, telegrams are long dead and even the telemessage (I think) has gone the way of the dodo, so I wonder what you now receive on reaching your century.  A Tweet from the Queen?  Perhaps she writes on your Facebook wall?  Anyway, I’m not willing to wait and so during 2014 I shall be switching to base 7 so that I will reach 100 in 2015.

Don’t say you miss out on changing number-base humour on this blog – well, I have the number-base bit covered at least.

You might ask what I am doing (or have done) to celebrate this milestone (or, millstone).  My day has yet to involve cake, alcohol or candles – though some of these may occur later.  I did slightly upscale my morning porridge by the use of stewed apple, blackberries and extra-thick half cream – but otherwise it has been a fairly normal day.  Once you have seen 2F birthdays come and go, the novelty value does start to fade a little.  I did go into town and treat myself to a new colander (the handle has fallen off my old one) – I went for the cheap white plastic offering (a snip at £3) and the only option made in the UK (so I’ve done my bit for the balance of payments deficit for the day).  Given how thrifty I’d been with the colander, I bought a CD (I do like a bit of physical media) – Drenge since you ask – which I am listening to as I type (some proper, dirty rock which I assume is aimed at those in their very early thirties).

For the last several years, my birthday has always had a bittersweet edge and not merely because my feet are that bit closer to the grave (or urn) and some much needed rest (though I do worry that my insomnia may pursue me into the next life).  I am much younger (and I mean much younger) than my brother-in-law (I need to give credit to my sister here, she could easily have found a younger spouse but forwent that option for me) – and I do like to bring this up in conversation from time to time (well, it is becoming increasingly hard to find other older people for this purpose).  This always becomes more difficult for the (roughly) six months starting from today as our ages – as recorded in years using the traditional rounding down approach – are superficially the same.  I have to wait until September until there is clear, blue, integral water between us again (though, I am still much younger even now).

Actually, I am going to the flicks tonight, which you might like to consider a celebratory nod to my natal day, where cake is virtually certain and alcohol possible (candles unlikely – though if I keep forgetting to charge my bike lights, I may need at least one for the purposes of navigation and safety).  I am going to see a movie about vampires – well, it’s good to have a plan B in case my other attempts at immortality don’t work out (OK, not entirely sure if acting childishly and keeping this blog really count as serious attempts at becoming immortal – but I had to start somewhere).  Let’s face it, I’m not really a morning person and avoiding sunlight hasn’t been a huge issue in recent years – especially given my proclivity to holiday on the Celtic fringes of this fair (but damp) land – and I am only (mostly) vegetarian.  Plus, I look really cool in black and like to wear shades (my eyes have always been a disappointment to me – and the presbyopia really isn’t helping).

A bridge too far?

I learned to play Bridge while at school – which may tell you something about my age and social background (or may not).  I did not live anywhere terribly posh during my school days and my schooling was provided by the State.  Perhaps curiously, I was taught by my chemistry teacher – which I suspect he did in his own time (Bridge certainly wasn’t on the curriculum) – or this may be entirely normal (a web search suggest this link between chemistry and contract bridge may not be entirely uncommon).  I have no idea whether today’s young people are exposed to the delights of Acol and Blackwood whilst in their teens – I fear they may have superficially more exciting things to do than we had in the early 80s.

Bridge is a very cheap hobby (unless you bet on the outcome): all you need is a deck of cards, three friends (or you could use complete strangers, but this may be harder to arrange without an inappropriate degree of coercion) and a pen and paper to keep score.  I played at school, at my grandfather’s and most recently on a holiday in Iceland.  I do find it is becoming harder to find people who are both able and willing to play Bridge, which is a pity – or perhaps I just move in the wrong social circles.

But why is the old fool banging on about Bridge?  Well, you should blame HMRC for I learned in the news today that the Courts have agreed with HMRC that Bridge is a game rather than a sport.  I think I’d always known this: it is clearly a card game (like cribbage, whist or Newmarket), I am not aware of any card sports (though this may be a result of my sheltered upbringing).  Confusingly, when I was forced to play sports at schools, the lessons were described in the timetable as “Games”.

One might wonder why the judiciary and excise should be bothered by this difference – well apparently sports are not subject to VAT while games are.  Yes, it is the whole Jaffa Cake debacle again whereby cakes and biscuits have different VAT treatment and the courts had to decide into which camp the orangey treat should be placed.  I suppose I shouldn’t blame HMRC, they merely enforce the laws of taxation – it is government that creates these laws.  I find it hard to explain why successive UK governments have decided that sport and biscuits are good, but games and cakes are bad.

I suppose sport has supposed health benefits – though does also seem to generate an awful lot of injuries (everyone I know who played football in their twenties had totally wrecked their knees by their early thirties) which is not something which I would expect from playing Bridge.  I suppose sport might also have benefitted from the Victorian vogue for muscular Christianity.  However, I fear it does give the impression that the State is rather keener on brawn than brain and I’m not sure this is going to help us in the “Global Race” (which is apparently so important to the current government), unless this race is a rather more literal one than I had previously understood.  It also seems to reinforce the school stereotype that “jocks” are more lauded than “geeks”.

The preference for biscuits over cake is unfathomable – does the state have some issue with raising agents?  Was this an attempt to support British biscuits against an onslaught of imported cakes (a flood of gateaux and torte)?  I suppose baking powder et al work their magic through the production of carbon dioxide, so perhaps this is an early attempt at green taxation to tackle global warming?  Still, I can’t imagine that the baking of cakes is a major contributor to atmospheric CO2: even given my own consumption.

What other weird incentives is our VAT system giving to the good folk of the UK?  I seem to recall there is some strange difference in treatment between hot and cold food – with cold food favoured (very much not the position taken by generations of mothers – but I suppose for much of history they were not given the vote and even now are rare in government).

Many in this country (and probably others) whinge about the European Union and its supposed legislation on the curvature of bananas and the definition of carrots as fruit (so that the Portuguese can make jam out of them).  I really don’t think we need to look to Europe for such irrationality, perhaps we should focus our efforts on our own taxation system.  That way we could reduce the scope of confusion and expensive court cases and rationalise the incentives we provide to our citizens.   Let’s have a level playing field: whether it be of grass or green baize.  Let’s have fair competition between the cake and the biscuit!

GofaDM’s Weekly Heroes

I have observed, while listening to the radio, how useful recurring “features” or “spots” can be to the creativity-strapped presenter (or producer).  These allow new content to be generated on a regular basis with far less effort than creating something original would require.  You may be surprised that it has taken me so long to steal (sorry, adapt) this idea for GofaDM.

In a further act of homage, I have noticed that Twitter has something called “Follow Fridays”: apparently not a question to which the answer is clearly “Saturdays”.  I believe this is intended to give users of Twitter the opportunity to recommend other users to their coterie of followers.  This activity is indicated through use of the hashtag #FF – which frankly, in a better-run universe, would be mine and earning me a decent income by now.

So, taking these two observations – and in lieu of a protracted court case with Twitter over its use of an important part of my family name – I have created GofaDM’s first recurring feature: Weekly Heroes (please try and imagine a fanfare and/or drum roll as you are reading).  Well, I say “recurring” but for the time being it is a “one-off” but with an intent to recur (however, this statement should not be used to impute any warranty, express or implied).

Now, if I’m honest, I don’t really have heroes in the established sense, so instead this “feature” will offer an excuse to gather together vague recommendations and/or gobbets (goujons?) of approbation that I am too lazy to develop into a proper post.  This first outing will be even more of a cheat, as I have a backlog of “heroes” to clear.

OK, I think that should have managed your expectations downwards to a sufficient degree that I feel able to continue into the main body of the feature.

My first hero is Helen Castor.  She has presented a number of entertaining and informative BBC4 series on the Middle Ages – curiously, history does seem to be an acceptable place for women to appear on television.  She also had a small cameo in the “DVD Extras” which preceded the live broadcast of the RSC production of Richard II to my local cinema – actually, I wonder if it would be more accurate to say that these extras are in lieu of a programme?  However, it is for her use of the C-bomb, entirely unbleeped, on BBC4 that she came to the jury’s attention.  She was quoting from an historical source, but even so I wasn’t entirely convinced I hadn’t misheard or just imagined it – but I have subsequently been able to confirm the bomb was indeed dropped.  We, the audience, were actually treated like proper adults – and even I, a maiden aunt-in-training as earlier established, was merely surprised and impressed.

My second hero is Michael Brooks: author of 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense.  The book is really quite interesting, but he is a hero for the final paragraph.  This paragraph provides the best reason for why humans do science (and why they should continue to) that I have ever read.  I’d recommend the whole book, but if you are very short of time you could read the end first – and with no need to worry about spoilers!

Today’s final hero is Nate Silver, author of many a forecast and The Signal and the Noise.  As a professional prognosticator, I found the book really fascinating – though at times it does assume rather more knowledge of baseball or poker than I can muster (or was willing to DuckDuckGo).  It helps to confirm things I had previously suspected and gave me new ways of thinking about how I do my job.

By the way, I do realise that many will find it “sad” that I read things related to my work for pleasure: I like to think it shows I am lucky enough to do something which interests me (despite my occasional railing against “the man”) and thus contributes to my generally sunny disposish.  Anyway, if you thought that was “sad”, I probably shouldn’t tell you of the power station spotting fun that can be had on a rail journey on either of the east or west coast mainlines.  On my last journey back from Glasgow, by the time we reached the Midlands, I had the pensioner couple sharing my table pointing out Rugeley B to me as they had seen it first.  I like to think they are continuing with this new hobby – but then self-delusion has been a close friend for many years.

Leaving that digression (though in this blog, talking about myself is never truly a digression) and returning to Mr Silver, it is for his chapter on climate change that the academy has recognised him this week.  Wonderfully lucid and perfectly living up to the title of the book by separating the signal (arising from the scientific community) from the noise (arising from the scientific community, media, politicians, vested interests and the frankly barking).  It should be required reading, and requires no knowledge of American sports derived from rounders!

Confessions of Timothy Taylor’s finest

Those who know their onions (and, more importantly, their Yorkshire ales) will know that I am outing myself as a landlord (and not, for the avoidance of doubt, as Ram Tam or a Boltmaker).

I never wanted to be a landlord, it came about by accident – or more by an undetected lack of competence in others.  When I moved to Sawston, I bought a new house and this process is difficult to achieve when also selling a property – so I decoupled the two processes and bought the new house before the sale of my old flat was complete.  At the time, this seemed a pretty safe bet, the housing market was buoyant and I had a keen buyer for my flat in Cambridge.  However, the developers of the flat had made rather a major error in the drafting of the lease making it impossible to register and they took a truly inordinate amount of time to (somewhat) fix this.  This meant the sale fell through and a new sale was rendered effectively impossible for more than a year.

This misfortune was partially balanced by a stroke of good fortune.  Rather than using a bridging loan to handle the temporal gap between the two transactions, I took out a buy-to-let mortgage on the flat – but with no intention of ever letting, it was just a cheaper option.  As it transpired, a massively cheaper option.  With a sale looking impossible, I eventually used my option and rented the flat out while I waited for Laing to sort out their legal mess.  Sadly, by the time they did so the housing market was looking rather less healthy and frankly I couldn’t face further exposure to solicitors and estate agents – and so I have remained a landlord ever since.

My activities as a landlord are not going to make my fortune (nor allow me to tell “the man” what to do with his job), but – on average – they do pay for a few pints of Timothy Taylor’s finest each year (sometimes even enough for a whole night out!).  On the plus side, if I ever need to move back to Cambridge I always have somewhere to go – and, many years ago, a previous employer did teach me that “optionality has value” (I think we should perhaps gloss over the fact that this employer later went spectacularly bankrupt).

I try to be a decent landlord, but this is not always easy as matters are mostly in the hands of the letting agents and the tenants.  If they don’t tell me about something, I am reliant on the state of the tea leaves and chicken viscera to learn the truth (and as a tea-bag using, mostly vegetarian my day-to-day opportunities to scry into the future are limited).  The agents seem to be represented by a succession of girls in (at best) their very early twenties (at worst, I do worry about the truant officer).  There does seem to a rather sinister Logan’s Run scenario whereby as they approach 25 they vanish, to be replaced by another stripling.  Whilst I am sure they bring many admirable qualities to the role, I am not entirely convinced about their expertise when it comes to the more practical aspects of property management (certainly, I wouldn’t have had much to offer at their age).  Similarly, I have the impression that tenants are used to pretty low standards and could give politicians tips on avoiding long-term thinking.  So, while I have had things fixed when they break over the years and complied with new legislative requirements on landlords (my tenants live in much safer conditions than their landlord ever has), I have tended to worry about the state of the flat and whether it is still suitable to entertain paying guests.

For the last couple of weeks, the flat has been between tenants and this coincided both with me visiting Cambridge and the agents admitting that it could do with a lick of paint and that the bathroom carpet was rather worn.  (I must admit that I like carpet in a bathroom – nicer on the feet and less risk of slipping than the more traditional alternatives – but I am coming to realise that this is a minority view).  Even better, in a stroke of luck, Dan (the chap who painted my house in Sawston) was free and could undertake the redecoration.  This meant that I could rely on it being painted properly, using the right materials for the job – rather than the cheapest trade emulsion possible, which had graced the flat since new.  There is a slight risk to using Dan, as he does seem to act as a locum for the Angel of Death: a much higher proportion of people he knows have died long before their time than is statistically likely (still, I have life insurance as part of my job and I’ve had a good innings – by recent England standards, a very good innings!).

The re-flooring of the bathroom, I left in the capable hands of Sawston Carpets and Flooring – who had covered all the floors in my house in Sawston.  The new floor is in rather upmarket vinyl tiles (I know that phrase sounds like an oxymoron, but trust me), this is none your cheap rubbish but some of Amtico’s finest – which may be why my landlording is not making me rich.

I could have had the agents arrange the re-decoration, but one of the joys in life is giving more work to people who have done a good job in the past.  Also, while I am under no particular illusions about my ability to pick tradesmen (though I do seem to have been particularly lucky in recent years, I doubt that this is yet to be statistically significant), I reckon choosing people I know to be good based on their previous work (where, unlike the stock market, past performance is a good guide to the future) is going to beat anything someone in their very late teens could arrange.  It might not be the cheapest option, but I believe the work will last.

So, last week I visited my old flat for the first time in seven years (and a few odd days).  It is the first time I’ve returned to somewhere that used to be home, and it’s quite a strange experience.  Before the visit, I could recall very little about it – but as soon as I went in, it was all very familiar and did still feel like home.  Even better, I got to have a chat with Dan who I hadn’t seen in over a year.  I found I missed him when he finished re-painting my house, I grew used to having some company during the day.  This time, he made the tea for me which was a nice role reversal.  Actually, it was three chats (and cuppas) – one for each day in Cambridge.  Well, I felt kind of guilty leaving the poor chap alone in an empty flat, plus he is good company.  So, I’m not quite the dangerous loner this blog may have led you to believe – I rather enjoy company, though like Greta Garbo, at times I do “want to be alone” (and today’s popular culture reference is bought to you by the year 1929).

Anyway, yesterday the redecoration was completed and I can only hope the new tenant will appreciate my efforts (OK, the efforts of others – but funded by me) when they move in on Monday, though I shall probably never know.  The expenditure means there will probably be no celebratory pint of Landlord this tax year: hey ho.  Actually, my failure to profit from my landlording would be all the more shocking if you knew just what an excellent deal I obtained on the buy-to-let mortgage (none of my doing, all the credit – pun fully intended – must go to Charcol’s who organised it for me).  I think that, like the apocryphal French, I have no word for entrepreneur (which must mean between something) – and so if I am to continue to eat, I better carry on playing (at least somewhat) nice with “the man” for now.

A leading quality public transport provider?!

And people say corporations don’t understand irony!  This is the quote which a fairly well-known corporation uses to introduce itself to the web: it even goes on to claim it has the trust of 3 million customers each day (which leads me to believe it must have an awful lot more than 3 million customers per day!).  To maintain an entirely pointless level of suspense, I shall not reveal the name of this corporation (yet), but as I go on to slag it off you may (perhaps) be able to deduce its identity.

Living in Southampton has many positive aspects to it.  To name but one: three weeks ago I was able to take the train to visit Bristol for the evening to go to the theatre.  This still sounds mad to me, but in fact it is no further away (time-wise) than London – and both Bath and the Cotswolds are even closer.  Well, were even closer – I think by now this journey would require a replacement boat service – but I have high hopes that one day the waters will subside!  Just as one day, lemon-soaked paper napkins will once again be available.  Please return to your seats.  (And no, I am not going to be denigrating the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation).

The evening was great fun as the play, by (but not starring) the splendid Richard B Marsh (a favourite of GofaDM), was a work-in-progress: The Ministry of Secrets.  This meant that it was dirt cheap, had no set and minimal props and the actors were reading from the (much amended – and once dropped) script.  Despite this, it was very entertaining, thought-provoking and really well acted.  Equally, even I could see that there were still some rough edges to be sanded down (if that isn’t a metaphor mixed too far).  It was staged at the Bristol Old Vic, which is on the same street as the Small Bar – which offers a truly prodigious range of craft beer (and, at least initially, a worryingly hop clientele).  I can see that I shall have to return to Bristol, just as soon as the land-bridge to the west is restored.

To avoid adding to the already rising rate of cardiac infarction in the land, I shall now reveal that today’s target for my ire will be the Stagecoach Group, in particular, its guise as South West Trains.  In the interest of full-disclosure, I should make clear that I was pre-disposed to dislike Stagecoach even before I became a regular user of their rail services.  This pre-disposition had two basic grounds:

i) I am old enough to remember how unethically they acquired their initial bus empire.  Truly, to quote Banquo, they play’dst most foully for it.

ii) Recollection of the board-level homophobia of the company back in the dark days of Section 28 (strangely resonant with the current backdrop to the Winter Olympics).

Still, perhaps the company had managed to transcend the wickedness of its past – and I do like to travel by train and boycotting South West Trains from Southampton is quite tricky.

My criticism of South West Trains falls into two broad camps.  Firstly, that they are never knowingly on time.  It was many months after living here before I used any train on the main London line which actually arrived on time.  In recent weeks, the rail network used by SWT has borne the brunt of the somewhat Biblical (albeit, stolen from earlier Mesopotamian sources) weather.  Oddly, this does seem to have improved the punctuality of the services they actually manage to run.  Perhaps there is some Dunkerque spirit buried deep within Stagecoach, which only emerges at times of national emergency?  If only this spirit could be harnessed under less extreme conditions!

My second gripe is with their war against sitting-down.  Now, I do realise that sitting-down is very bad for the back and posture, and that we really should be encouraged to squat as our ancestors did.  However, I’m not sure that its should be the role of a train operating company to enforce this lifestyle shift.  Now, you might expect there to be people standing on a rush-hour train, especially as it approaches London – and, indeed, you would not be disappointed.  However, you will also find people standing on off-peak trains – pretty well any train out of London after 21:00 will have people standing, at least as far as Woking and often most of the way to Southampton.  This is not, I would posit, as a result of the unquenchable desire to see midnight in Southampton but rather due to the lack of rolling stock provided by SWT.  The generous among you might think that perhaps they are short of EMUs, but I’m pretty sure that is not the case.  The 5-car Class 444 unit which is generally used for these evening journeys, tends to empty out on arrival at Southampton with only a few hardy souls going on to the fleshpots of Bournemouth or Weymouth.  So it, of course, makes perfect sense that it is at this stage that a second 5-car unit is coupled to the train – presumably to allow each of the surviving passengers to enjoy a carriage to themselves.

On some particularly terrible evenings, our 5-car Class 444 unit is replaced by a 4-car Class 450 (from the same Desiro family, made by Siemens).  I don’t like these units, and nor it would seem do other passengers or the staff: I think for me it is the 2+3 seating.  The Class 450 is very much the 4-VEP de nos jours – a unit which seems to have been preserved (there’s one at Clapham Junction to my certain knowledge), while the vastly better 4-CIG and 4-CEP units have been allowed to drift into extinction (and what of the 4-REP and 4-TC?).  This blog is not the place to find financial advice, but perhaps now might be the time to pick up a Class 450 unit on the cheap, before their value rockets on retirement.  It seems that, in the absence of steam, what train enthusiasts really relish is the discomfort of yesteryear.  Then again I was perhaps spoilt by the Class 379 units which sometimes conveyed me from Whittlesford Parkway.  I view these very much as the prince of current EMUs, despite the occasional issue with the GPS – and the under-stated Stansted Express livery, both inside and out, one of the best currently gracing our tracks.

Anyway, I seem to have digressed – and perhaps revealed an unhealthy obsession with rolling stock.  What I really want to make clear is that I am not one of the three million daily passengers who trust the Stagecoach Group – or, more accurately, I trust them only to be late and to provide insufficient rolling stock for the journey in hand.

I did it!

Some of you may have doubted that I would go through with it (I know at least one person who did) but having come up with the idea there was no way I wasn’t going to carry it through to completion. I am committed to the integrity of this blog!

As background, I should mention that I am back in Cambridge for a couple of days, ostensibly to give my blood for the use of others (in exchange for biscuits) but in reality to renew auld acquaintance (with both people and places}. Blood safely given yesterday afternoon, this morning I treated myself to the traditional post exsanguination massage.

Some may recall one of the finest posts to this blog (in many ways, a critical triumph) which referred to the last such session. If not, you may wish to remind yourself as to why I shouldn’t work with the public. Here, after some discussion as to why my massage therapist averted his eyes while I disrobed, I promised at the next session I would strip to suitable musical accompaniment. This was no idle threat, with the aid of some research, YouTube, an iPad and a 3G phone I arranged what I consider to be the traditional music to be used while stripping to play whilst I divested myself of my clothing. I tried to make something of the act of stripping – and certainly having the music helps to set the right frame of mind. I retained my scarf, to substitute for the more traditional boa, and tried to bring an (in)appropriate degree of sensuality and louche abandon to the act of undressing. I like to think I pulled it off – though I like to think if I ever perform the act professionally it will be accompanied by less laughter. Actually, I think I might have a real talent for stripping, and this coupled with my gymnastic training (the looser hips were definitely a plus) and buff middle-aged bod might open up a whole new career as a Chippendale (or at the very least, a Chesterfield)!

Apparently, I was the first client who had ever performed thus for my therapist – and despite the published threat, it was rather unexpected. Still, I’ve known my therapist for several years – so it can’t have come as a complete surprise. I understand from the lawyers that after only a few months of counselling the nightmares and screaming should cease and a resumption of a normal life is a definite possibility (for my therapist, for me there is clearly no hope).

I have attached a link to the music, if any readers wish to imagine the event. For one (un)lucky reader, the challenge will be stopping the memories resurfacing in series of erotic PTSD-style flashbacks

Of course, I am now wondering how I can top this opening at my next session in a scant 10 weeks time. Any suggestions considered…

Perhaps unsurprisingly, after this opening the remainder of the session took a somewhat unusual course (conversationally, the massage itself was as professional as ever). This conversation will lead to more posts and might take GofaDM in an exciting new direction with new opportunities for reader participation. Watch this space…

Old and Peculier

Well, the Greeks did used to say that one should “know thyself” – I believe they went so far as to carve it in stone near the Oracle at Delphi. Given the somewhat ambiguous nature of much of her prophecy, I suspect it was rather sensible advice (though famously ignored on at least one occasion).

Some may question the spelling in the title. This was chosen deliberately on the well-established principle that “two wrongs make a right”. It seems to work in politics and finance, so why not on a blog. If it looks like it might not be working, I am willing to go as far as three wrongs – but that’s my final offer!

The last post mentioned Old Peculier, once made by Theakston’s but long since swallowed up by a multinational. This led me to reminisce about similar experiences in the past. I remember a number of night walks across the North York moors fortified by knowledge that a pint of OP and a steak sandwich awaited the happy wanderer at the Lion on Blakey Ridge.

I do have some form with the sweeter beer. Back when I lived in Tyneside, a night at the Theatre Royal often included a bottle of Mackeson’s in the interval to accompany my ice cream. Not something I’d recommend with a more traditional bitter.

I alluded to the relative elusiveness of OP in the UK, but this is as nothing to its lack of availability overseas. The one (almost) exception was Canada and the town of Halifax, Nova Scotia. This used to have a brew pub (and it may still be there) which made a very passable (and potable) substitute which I enjoyed extensively on my one visit there (during a bus strike, which limited my mobility).

Halifax (the Canadian one) is a port of call for cruise ships from the US (so far as I know, the Yorkshire original cannot make this particular boast – but perhaps an enterprising liner captain could give it a go!). As I sat at the bar one afternoon, I small group of American “seniors” who seemed to have stepped straight off the set of the Golden Girls entered. They were after a sweet beer and seemed rather taken with my OP tribute act. However, given the notorious weakness of much US beer (and its similarity to kayak-based reproductive games), I did feel it was my duty to warn them of its strength alcohol-wise. I like to think that, in my small way, I reduced alcohol-driven foreign pensioner crime in Halifax that day.

In unrelated news, I quite like to imagine that in a few years (though the rate George Osborne is going this may be many years) I might be able to personally make good this liquor-based pensioner crime deficit – though I may not wish to hike all the way out to Nova Scotia in order to do so – as part of my plans to grow old disgracefully. But for now, I’m off to my straw-filled palliasse for some much needed Zs!

May you receive what you want

The title sounds like I’m being nice, but I do wonder if it is more of a curse – along the lines of “may you live in interesting times”.

Our consumer-driven society is always telling us that we should want more things; bigger things; better things.  It also likes to suggest that we shouldn’t have to wait – easy (or really quite hard) credit is always available.  Long ago, in a Puffin book of jokes (the exact title eludes me) I remember a cartoon strip of  boy who wanted a big cat (lion or tiger – his want was specific, my recollection isn’t).  After much badgering of his parents (though no sign of TB), they relented and the cat was duly granted – at which point it ate the foolish child.  Not obviously a joke in my retelling: more a morality tale to beware getting that for which you have wished.  Whilst receiving the things we want doesn’t usually results in our own consumption, it does often lead to disappointment and some small erosion of the soul (or its secular, humanist equivalent).

I also recall an aphorism that said that “experience is what you get if you don’t get what you want”.  This does seem to suggest that if experience is your goal, you will never leave empty-handed – though this may not be the intended message.  However, I have found that many of the best things in life come not through instant (or near-instant) gratification of a consumer-focused want – though that can happen with a nice glass of something or a slice of decent cake – but from a more unexpected event or a long-striven for outcome.  I would not wish to suggest that something unearned is unappreciated (I do try and avoid anyone leaving this blog with a moral education), but sometimes waiting does add savour to things.  Even planned things can also be unexpected and so particularly pleasing – a night of fringe theatre often does it for me.

Last night, following a rather busy period at work and in some of the more work-like aspects of my home life, I went out for the evening – to an event booked several weeks ago.  The evening proved to be exactly what I needed, though if I was satisfying a want, it was not one I knew I had.

The event was a concert of piano music played by Piotr Anderszewski, though not the one I’d expected due to a late programme change.  For once, it was briefly dry enough for me to cycle up to Turner Sims which is always a good start to a night out (though, the Uni-Link bus service is also excellent for times of more Biblical weather).  I arrived a little early and so there was time for a beer (I feel it is important to support arts venues any way you can, so very much a selfless pint) – better than just beer, they could offer me a bottle of Old Peculiar (which you don’t often see this far south, or at all).  With this inside me, the first half of Bach and Schumann saw all my stress just drift away on a wave of divine music.  After a tub of rum-and-raisin ice cream, the second half was some glorious Beethoven.  I thought it was a really good concert, but I make no great claims for my musicality even without a pint of OP inside.  However, it would seem it was objectively a good concert as today’s Guardian gave it a five star review.

I wish I could claim credit for having selected such a great concert, but my picking involved the fact that it was near home and involved a piano.  The best I can say is that I allowed the possibility to exist and was then lucky.  I was fortunate to obtain something I needed (but had not sought), though I’ll admit as needs go it was quite near the top of Maslow’s famous pyramid.

So, perhaps I should hope that you all get what you need – also perhaps a two-edged hope, but one with less malice is involved.  I should also work on wanting less and leaving more space for life to deliver me some “experience”.  I also really need to put in some practise at the ole 88-string guitar: one day I’d like to make it to exercise 3 in Mr Hanon’s book of 60 exercises for the virtuoso pianist.  Nonetheless, even if I live to be 1000 I don’t reckon Piotr has anything to worry about, competition-wise.  Still, I am enjoying the journey: slow though it may be!

Getting my leg over

I like to think that I am in pretty good physical shape (I’d make no similar claims about my mental state) for a man of my age, after all I am shortly to reach the milestone age of 30 (and I’m doing it in hex which is definitely tougher than decimal.  Pleasingly, given my name, I am currently 2F!).  However, my day job is essentially sedentary requiring many hours to be spent hunched over a laptop.  This does have a deleterious effect on my posture and especially on my flexibility in some modes of movement.  I’m not even single-jointed, let alone double-jointed.

This inflexibility manifests in a number of ways as I go about my soi-disant life.  I find it quite tricky to look behind me when driving especially when reversing (luckily something I do very rarely) and I also find it hard to get my leg over my bike when I come to mount my metal steed – I normally try and use a kerb (or similar raised area) to gain a few inches.

Having somewhat successfully tackled my fear of heights, I decided this lack should also be tackled and so since the end of last year have been taking regular personal training to try and make myself more lithe.  This has meant the folk at Brightside PT have been making me do things while out-of-balance and often on one leg in an attempt to make me a tad more mobile.  This has been a slightly disturbing process, at least partly because the left and right sides of my body seem to belong to entirely different people: my body does seem to have been built from two previously written-off bodies in a surgical cut-and-shut operation (which does explain quite a lot, if I’m honest).  However, it is having results and I can now mount my velocipede without any difficulty (even when the rear panniers are full!).  Still, there is some way to go before I can consider myself as lissom as I would like.

As a some-time project manager, I know the importance of setting objectives – which should be SMART (readers will have to check for themselves what the mnemonic means as I have forgotten: suggesting it is rather a poor tribute to Mnemosyne).  Most folk when training set objectives based on increasing the weight lifted, the number of ‘reps” performed or the speed or distance one can cover in a particular sporting activity (or poor simulation thereof).  But, I am not “most folk” and this approach struck me as boring and so I decided to set some more interesting targets to achieve.  So after a little work with a search engine, I came across a number of objectives which I thought it would be amusing to achieve (not to mention, providing me with some unexpected and impressive capabilities for a man in his very early thirties to be able to showcase).  I produced a fairly decent shortlist in the hope that at least one of them might be achievable.  All the exercises would be considered functional, good for flexibility and my core – so meet my general requirements – though even I had my doubts about the achievability of the “human flag”.  My teachers, however, seem confident that I should be able to achieve three of my targets in time for the summer (subject to its availability) which should, in turn, act as a good basis to move on to more difficult manoeuvers.

So, by Wimbledon you can look forward to me performing one armed press-ups, one-armed pull-ups and pistol squats at any and every opportunity.  Just try and stop me!

This will all be great preparation for my future career as a rather tall and elderly gymnast and, in conjunction with my climbing, opens the door to a life in parkour.  I will also be in a strong position should I misplace any single limb – despite my avoidance of quasi-military organisations as a child, I always feel that it as well to “be prepared!”.

Who am I?

Fear not, I am not going to get all existential “on yo ass” (a much less successful restaurant concept than the superficially similar Yo! Sushi).  This is largely down to the extreme superficiality of my knowledge of the subject, not so much a veneer as a monomolecular layer laid down through some form of knowledge-based epitaxy.

Nor shall I dwell for too long on the flaws in the whole concept of identity which neuroscience seems to feel duty-bound to expose.  I have read a fair bit of neuroscience (as opposed to no Kierkegaard whatsoever), but feel they rather miss the target when attacking either the sense of self or of free will.  The seem to demolish places where I had never believed either of these things resided, as even a moment’s self-reflection should surely have made obvious (without the need for surrounding folk with incredibly powerful magnets to excite some cranial hydrogen atoms before watching them being slowly overcome by boredom once more).

No,  I shall – very much in keeping with the raison d’être of this blog (now on its 450th post) – stick to more trivial matters.

The nature of identity does seem to obsess both those who govern us (or would like to) and those who bring us the soi-disant news.  There have been two major areas of identity-based uncertainty that I have noticed in recent weeks – those of being British and being a man.  As I can personally tick both boxes, I felt at least somewhat qualified to comment – though, frankly neither of these particular areas of identity have ever caused me the slightest anxiety.

Our politicos do seem very keen to define what it means to be British – which I often feel is more of an attempt to define what isn’t so that those lacking this apparently vital essence can be blamed, disparaged or deported (preferably at enormous cost).  It does seem to be very much of a piece with the Manichean nature of so much public discourse – everything is either good or bad, left or right wing, causes or cures cancer (to name but three examples).  I’m pretty convinced life isn’t like this.  I like to think that all my qualities, both good and ill, at best exist somewhere on a scale between their best and worst possibilities – and, worse, move around on that scale over time.  Whilst I am clearly generalising from a sample of one, I suspect other people are much the same.  I’m sure we all have elements of Britishness – wheresoe’er we might happen to hale from – and elements of things not British.  This is probably true for almost any even remotely sensible definition of what it is to be British – not that a government is ever likely to produce such a definition.

The need to define being British seems to have gained additional zest with the potential departure of the Scots from the union of 1707.  So far as I know, I lack any Scottish roots and so no-one will ask me – which is just as well as I have no real idea which option is the better.  I suspect disentangling a union which has persisted for 307 years will be an extremely non-trivial (and so expensive and painful) exercise – but merely because something is tricky does not mean it should not be attempted if it is the right thing to do.  On the other hand, I suspect more local government is a good thing – if only from the frustrating experience of working for a vast multinational where the seat of “government” seems impossibly remote from my day-to-day working life.  Still, this blog is not trying to persuade folk north of the border to vote one way or the other.  Our politicians, of course, do not take this approach and campaign with some vigour either for or against divorce.  Living a long way south of the border, I tend to see significantly more of the NO campaign – which does seem to have been successfully infiltrated by the YES campaign and is basically doing their work for them.  Certainly, if I were Scottish I would find the work of the NO campaign a pretty convincing reason to leave.  I like to imagine that the YES campaign has a similar impact on boosting the desire to stay.  If so, perhaps both campaigns could agree to shut-up and save their money and allow people to make their own decisions.  Or perhaps the money could be invested in an independent body which would dispassionately lay out the pros and cons of leaving in the hope of producing a better informed electorate.  I believe flying pigs are very good at this sort of analysis.

There also seems to be a continuing debate about what it means to be a man.  Apparently, my fellow holders of a Y-chromosome are suffering an identity crisis.  It would seem that treating women slightly less disgracefully than heretofore cuts right to the heart of masculinity.  Or maybe it’s the ready availability of power steering and parking sensors?  I’ve never really felt defined by my ability to treat those of the distaff gender as second class citizens and I certainly hope I’m not defined by my ability to parallel park (as this ability, if it ever existed, has almost totally atrophied – actually, I did once do it astonishingly well but I’m pretty sure that was a fluke as it was more than 20 years ago and has never been repeated).  Then again, I may not be great example of manhood: I have very limited interest in sport, regularly cry in public (though, fortunately, usually in conditions of poor lighting) and have eaten (and enjoyed) quiche.  Still, I am pretty clearly a man – biologically speaking at least.  For example, I can count to 21 when naked (though these days I do need my glasses to make accurate use of my toes) – so I reckon how I live must be at least one representation of masculinity.  So, if any possessors of a Y-chromosome are reading this post in a state of gender crisis I am more than happy to share my tips on how to be a man in 2014.  They are also welcome to read this post’s 449 siblings for some evidence of my life as a man in the early 21st century – though this does create the worrying prospect of my mimetic clones slowly spreading through the population.

Talking of clones, on Friday night I went to the Nuffield Theatre to see A Number by Caryl Churchill.  An interesting and pleasingly brief play about cloning and what it might mean to have genetic copies of yourself wandering around.  The protagonists seemed to find this quite a disturbing prospect – but I would relish meeting a clone (of myself, obviously): (A) to see how path-dependent this version of me is and, much more importantly, (B) to find someone who would understand and laugh at my jokes.

So, send in the clones!