A day at the office

I don’t write about work very often, other than vague allusions to “the man” – and I guess there are a number of reasons for this.  Primarily, I am yet to be independently wealthy and so should probably try (at least to a modest degree) to avoid getting myself fired.  However, I also feel that it would be quite the challenge to make sitting in front of a laptop playing with models (of the mathematical/software variety) entertaining (yes, I know that such concerns have rarely stopped me before).  Those who worry about my posture, given the nature of my working life, will be pleased to know that I have invested in a 23″ FHD screen and decent keyboard-and-mouse combo – so that in conjunction with my vertebrae-friendly chair this particular workman can no longer blame his tools for any back problems in later life.

Anyway, yesterday I had to make my way to the intermittently sunny environs of Woking where the office resides.  A few mildly diverting incidents occurred during the day, just sufficient unto a post – and so here it is.

Inspired by Neal Caffery, I have taken to sporting the jauntiest of my hats on recent days, and yesterday took it with me to the office.  The hat offers several advantages to its wearer: it protects my head from both light rain and light of the ultraviolet persuasion.  It also, I think, makes me a little more acceptable to the gods of several major world religions (as previously discussed) – though, frankly, any god worth his salary should still be able to see the top of my head despite its stylish millinery.  Finally, and most importantly, I believe it makes me look somewhat raffish – a constant objective in my life.  In addition to my hat, and offering further UV protection (and disguise potential), I wore a pair of shades.  These items were still being worn as I approached my desk – too few hands to disrobe whilst also fumbling for my pass and working various doors.  Apparently, I was the very spit of a character in Breaking Bad – which may be true, but as I have resisted the lure of BB (despite being both middle-class and possessed of Netflix) I couldn’t possibly comment (I can only assume that the part in question is of a chap with raffish – or perhaps merely Slavic – good looks).  I shall try and resist the urge to start putting my chemistry A-level to less than legal utility.

My office is on the ground floor, but the building does possess a lift.  By the ground-floor doors to this contrivance it stresses the fact that it should not be used in case of fire.  Since the exits are also on the ground floor, I am unclear as to why I would want to use the lift as the building burns around me.  Is there a belief in Woking that, like the daleks of old, fire cannot climb stairs and so one should seek higher “ground” for safety?  If so, people are in for a very nasty surprise and there should perhaps be an additional warning posted on the staircase to prevent tragedy.

The office lies next to a canal and yesterday I noticed a narrow boat moored right outside.  Very handy for work, thought I, but probably not a very practical choice for yours truly.  The combination of low ceilings and a narrow space would not sit well with my height, long limbs and severe lack of physical grace.  Even operating in far more generous spaces I carry a permanent record (in the form of cuts and contusions) of my inability to safely navigate my body – I fear life on a narrow boat would need to be accompanied by a frequent flyer card for the local A&E department.  I often wonder what future archaeologists will make of my skeletal remains: given the number of blows to the head and limbs I have accumulated over the years (all self-inflicted), they may suspect I was some sort of 21st century gladiator.  Certainly one never hears the archaeologists of today positing that any of our distant ancestors were just seriously clumsy when explaining the remodelling and scarring on their ancient bones.

My final vignette from yesterday in the office will be one of delight.  Perhaps to maintain some thematic link to the canal, the office is entered by crossing a water feature – more a pond, if I’m honest, replete with goldfish.  Not sure if the entry bridge can be used to dump the unwary visitor into the pond – as is so popular with Bond villains – but I’m pretty sure they were just goldfish and nothing more toothsome.  The water feature also has some modest planting based on some pretty undistinguished plants – or at least I’ve never really noticed them.  Yesterday, the container was a riot of colour provided by a dozens of native orchids, probably the common spotted variety (though I am no expert).  Not sure if they were planted or had just seeded themselves, but what an unexpected joy at the end of my working day.  Well, almost the end, I did still have to trek back home from darkest Woking…

Growing up

Despite having reached a position on the great journey of life which would only be considered to fall within my teenage years if you use base 25 (or higher), I am still awaiting the day when I feel like a grown up.  Whilst I can pass for an adult for extended periods of time – usually sufficient to convince Joseph Q Public – I know that my inner child is still firmly in charge.

The recent news has cast my mind (or what’s left of it) back to my school days and, in particular, to my English lessons.  I was never very keen on English at school, though most of my objections related to the English Language section which required me to write on fixed subjects which never (so far as I can recall) inspired my youthful muse in the slightest.  As a result, I was grateful to take my English language O level a year early, so that my final year of formal tuition in my mother tongue could focus on its literature.   Whilst I was less than keen on the mechanics of using the language, I was lucky with my English teachers and they furthered my pre-existing love of reading and expanded it into more serious literary territory.  They also taught me other useful life skills – Mr Owen taught me to play the guitar (a skill sadly largely forgotten, but I have plans for its resurrection) and Mr Adams kept from ever owning a motorbike (by explaining that he could think of more enjoyable ways to die).

Despite a generally positive experience of literature at school, I did take against some of the “standards” of American literature.  In particular, I found the work of John Steinbeck – specifically The Pearl and Of Mice and Men – extremely unpleasant.  Had I been made Secretary of State for Education at the age of 15, I would have had them off the syllabus quick and lively.  Despite my earlier self-deprecation (wasn’t it adorable?), I have grown up slightly and under my glorious rule Mr Steinbeck’s oeuvre would be safe: but I fear Mr Gove may still be re-fighting the battles of his mid-teens.

In my case, the “growing-up” was thanks to a holiday in the US – travelling from NY to LA through the southern states.  My guide was a humanities major (one Brian Groves) who re-introduced me to the delights of that subject area – re-igniting my interest in history and “serious” literature.  Soon after I returned, I read the Grapes of Wrath and all of Mr Steinbeck’s previous sins were forgiven – it is not a cheerful book, but I don’t think the Nobel Committee were wrong to honour it.  I also read the entire of Hugh Brogan’s excellent History of America – and I’m not even an American, what could I have been thinking?  I suspect that a little knowledge of other people from other places and times is no bad thing to have – especially in today’s soi-disant global village.  I was wondering if the tax-payer should buy young Michael a holiday with American Adventures to broaden his horizons (as they did mine) – but a quick web-search suggests that they may be no more.

Actually, I do wonder if the government is using reverse psychology on the whole nation as a novel new form of governance.  Presiding over the closure of so many libraries, “banning” books in prison, slashing funding for the arts and continually trying to make the curriculum as boring as possible while preparing young people for the challenges of the 1970s.  Have they finally learned the lessons of years of failed drug policies?  Make stuff really difficult, force it underground and it will become both very popular and wildly profitable.  I think we might be on the cusp on an unprecedented surge in reading and interest in the arts and humanities.  It’s been easy to mock, but are we all the victims of a classic “long con” – mere pawns in the Coalition’s cunning master plan?  Or maybe they are just as clueless as they seem – sometimes there is a very fine line between genius and total idiocy.  I should know: this blog exists entirely in that liminal space – or so I like to imagine!

Another disappointment

Life is, of course, full of disappointments – well unless you are seriously committed to your pessimism (and perhaps even then).  To try and keep the length of this post somewhat manageable, I shall restrict myself to those occasions where I have been overlooked and where so many others have not.

For example, despite the huge turnover in personnel over the years, I have yet to be offered a position in the Sugababes.  I even have quite a decent singing voice and some training in how to use it to advantage.  As a bass, I feel my voice would chime nicely with the apparent desire for low frequency music among today’s youth.  Perhaps the other “babes” were worried I would show up the paucity of their own vocal delivery?  Or is this yet another example of the sex discrimination which remains rife in the UK?

Similarly, my name has yet to be linked with the position of England manager – an increasingly unusual boast on a planet of a mere 7 billion souls.  I’ll admit my footballing skills are a little rusty and even in my pomp these skills could at best be described as poor.  I will also admit to a shaky grasp of the rules of the game – but this seems pretty key for management today.  I can say that I have represented my school in the white heat of competition as a cornerstone of the defence – though, if pushed, will admit this was against a village primary school team so poor they would struggle to get past England on penalties and so team selection was drawn from a rather wider pool than would have been considered for more formidable opposition.  Talking of the soi-disant beautiful game, whilst at primary school I attended football practise every Tuesday for many years.  I think this goes to prove that while “practise” may make many things, it did not in my case make “perfect” (or even mediocre).

But, enough of reminiscence.  This morning I wandered out to exercise my franchise (and get my hair cut).  This gave me the opportunity to pick both a local councillor and an MEP (and so covering the full range of political representation).  For the council, I had a choice of five hopefuls – all representing political parties I had at least encountered in my life to date.  For the European option, I was given a telephone directory’s worth of names from a truly enormous range of political entities, many completely new to science (and, indeed, me).  Some of these were clearly aiming to split the xenophobic/racist vote – others were a complete mystery with their names and slogans giving no clue at all as to their political aims.  Clearly, at least one party (I think one of the more xenophobic) had taken its political strategy from the Yellow Pages and had appended the prefix “An” to the party name so that it would appear first and appeal to those too lazy (or tired) to scroll through the several pages of parties which appeared on the voting slip.  I was disappointed to discover that my own name was nowhere to be seen on this great roll of candidates – did I miss the memo?  I must be almost the only resident of Southampton not standing for a chance to enjoy a share of the monetary gravy doled out to MEPs.  Perhaps, the 60 or so followers of this blog mean that I am too well known to be an MEP – a role for which total anonymity appears de rigeur with one, very dishonourable exception who has had so much of the oxygen of publicity that he must surely soon be taken from us in the highest temperature example of spontaneous human combustion ever recorded.

Still, after a couple of hours of speed-reading I had made my way through my options and picked a poor unfortunate to represent my interests on the European stage (actually, I rather like Brussels – a city easily reached by rail and which offers good food and beer on arrival, what more could one ask for?).  My civic responsibilities cleared for another day, I returned home exhausted for lunch.

Quotable, moi?

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been going to the Nuffield Theatre to see Tonight at 8:30 – a sequence of nine one-act plays written by Nöel Coward.  They were presented in three groups of three and the first set really did start at 8:30 – subsequent batches started at 7:30, I think due to audience pressure for an earlier finish which I can’t see Nöel approving (but perhaps he was more keen on an early night than I imagine).

I’ve enjoyed Mr C’s songs for some time, but this was my first exposure to his plays.  I enjoyed most of them – preferring the comic ones to their more serious siblings, though one of the latter was the basis for the film Brief Encounter.  Pleasingly, characters were often terribly brittle and terribly witty (I hope you read those last words in an appropriate accent) – but there were also a couple of unexpected working-class themed plays.  In several, characters break into song for no particularly obvious reason – prefiguring Mamma Mia and its ilk by a good 80 years – but generally I feel they hold up very well and remaining entertaining.  On the subject of predicting the future, in one play a large cast of characters largely ignores one another to converse with characters-unseen via the telephone – admittedly, this was a landline but it did go to show that technology changes people far less than we like to imagine.

Last night, I found myself setting next to a lady who was writing a piece for The Times about whether Coward is still relevant to a modern audience.  As we had (sort of) been introduced as she made her way past me to her seat and given my convenient proximity she interviewed me for the piece in the intervals.  Obviously, I was pleased to be considered relevant to a piece on a “modern” audience: amazing what dim lighting can do for a chap!  Luckily, I am more than willing to bang-on at any audience (or in the case of this blog, little or no audience) and so had no difficulty rustling up some opinions which she rapidly attempted to capture in short-hand (or, perhaps, just really bad handwriting).  She seemed pleased with the mini-interviews and said that I was “very quotable”.  So, you may see my name in the Thunderer at some point in the future – the final nail in the coffin of a once august publication.

Very quotable, eh?  Those of you who have mocked this blog, clearly didn’t realise the pearls that were being cast before you.  I have this from a professional writer!  Perhaps my dream of being the Oscar Wilde de nos jours (or at least the Neal Caffery) is not entirely dead.  Weeeee. “Clear!”  Bang. (For the assistance of those who find it difficult to follow my train of thought – warning: it derailed many years ago – you should just have imagined defibrillator pads being applied to my dream).  At the very least, Nigel Rees has to retire one day and I must be a shoo-in for the vacant chair of Quote, Unquote.

Clearly, I will be quite impossible from here on in and my ego is now so inflated that I have needed to widen all the doors in the flat – though that may have more to do with the width of my manly shoulders or my general inability to manoeuvre my body successfully through standard doorframes given my inherited clumsiness (you decide).  I did ponder whether I should continue to hurl my bon mots into the void for free, but ultimately decided I could not abandon you, my adoring public.

Unexpected Statements I

The title suggests that this could be the first of a whole new thread – however, given the capricious nature of the commissioning editors here at GofaDM, it could die the final death after this single outing.  We’ll all have to wait and see.

Anyway, during the course of going about my business today I came across two statements I never expected to see.

Statement the first

When I dropped my poor, cracked watch off to be repaired I noticed a much more expensive (though admittedly less broken) timepiece described in breathless prose.  This prose including a description of the watch as “timeless”.  Surely this would render the device a mere bracelet?  What are they teaching people on marketing and/or (or for the Boolean among you “or”) copywriting courses these days?

Talking of watches, does it please others (as it pleases me) that the second hand is very much the third hand in every practical sense?  I suppose that if you bought a used watch, you would have a second hand second hand, though not sure that would make it the fourth hand.

Statement the second

On the front page of the Guardian’s website was an article entitled “23 recipes for leftover cheese”.  I must admit I have never encountered the concept of “leftover cheese” before – is it a new oxymoron young folk use in the playground?  In my life, there is briefly cheese and then there is a state I like to call “no cheese” – I think it evaporates.  What next, recipes for hen’s teeth and frog fur?

To their credit, the story was quickly demoted from the front page – and I was forced to use search to prove to myself that I hadn’t just imagined the whole thing.  Nonetheless, it makes you think about the poor benighted souls that exist out there in the world beyond my ivory (or might it be Gardenia?) tower.  Probably the same people who would use “spatulate” as a verb.  We can only pity them!

CP Snow violation

The chemist and novelist C P (later Lord) Snow is nowadays mostly known for his lecture entitled “Two Cultures” – highlighting the breakdown of communication between the sciences and the humanities.  I am nominally a scientist – though as a lapsed mathematician, also view myself as a bit of an artist – but I do try and bridge the gap.  As but a single illustration, my recent trip to Edinburgh was divided between the science festival on the one hand and JS Bach and some art galleries on the other.

However, it is to another division between two cultures that I shall address myself today – that rather artificial and fluid border between high and low culture.  Some posts on GofaDM (including the last one) might give the impression that I am some refined, high-minded aesthete – aloof from the low culture enjoyed by the unwashed masses.  This impression might be reinforced were I to reveal that over the long weekend I have been to three plays and two chamber music concerts.  Some might imagine I do this to impress (though I’m not sure who) or to climb a little further up the social ladder (unlikely given my fear of social heights) – but in fact I do it for fun (which would amaze or horrify the youth I once was – though not as much as my current, uncoerced consumption of vegetables).  I suppose I may be trying to impress myself: if so, it really isn’t working – I still think I’m an idiot.  Anyway, to redress the balance, it’s time to admit to an entirely different, recent cultural pleasure about which I feel no guilt whatsoever.

I have recently replaced Lovefilm (or Amazon Instant as they seem to have renamed it) with Netflix – always good to keep tax-dodging US corporations on their toes.  Talking of which, I could try and determine how much tax such companies (who have no obvious tax-paying competitors) should pay and then give that amount of money to an appropriate charity to try and redress the cosmic balance.  This change of service gives me access to a slightly different set of films and television shows I can watch – and cuts out the mail altogether.  As a new Netflix subscriber from the middle-classes, I should have been bingeing on the critically-acclaimed Breaking Bad – but that is all a bit obvious and, I fear, not a bundle of laughs and so I have gone in a very different direction. A long time ago, for reasons long since forgotten, I added a TV series called White Collar to the list of desired future rentals Lovefilm insisted I keep well-stocked (Netflix seems less demanding, so far).  They were never able to supply this, but before I departed I made a note of my undelivered list and checked which (if any) were available from Netflix.  And, so my addiction began…

The basic premise of the show is fairly simple: con-man and master criminal (Neal) escapes from jail and is soon re-captured by the FBI agent (Peter) who put him there.  He (mostly) avoids going back to jail by using his knowledge and skills to help Peter (and by extension the Feds) solve crimes.  Given that the crimes are white-collar in nature, there are very few corpses for a detective show and not much violence – Neal does get punched from time-to-time, but frankly he usually had it coming.  Like the Doctor, Neal dislikes using guns and prefers to rely on his wits to get himself out of trouble (and often into it first).  There is a strong buddy element, complicated by some trust issues, and a lot of laughs and wise-cracks.  It has just enough story arc to keep you interested, but not too much to get in the way of the fun.  Neal is unfeasibly pretty, though unusually this is actually important to the plot, but despite this is rarely seen even party undressed: indeed, he is usually seen in a tie and an expensive suit – and often a hat.  There is a vague hint of Lovejoy about the series, albeit in a much slicker, better dressed New York form.

So, why have I become so fond of this show – so much so that I have managed to watch 18 episodes in only 10 days?  I think a lot can be explained by the fact that it is just so much fun – and as a result, like so much of the culture I consume, it helps to keep afloat the rather unseaworthy hulk that is my sanity.  There is something about Neal’s expressions of innocence, mock or outraged, that crack me up every time.  He also spends a significant amount of time researching stuff in actual books – not something you see very often on the television which presumably fears the competition.  I fear that I also secretly want to be Neal (and always have), despite my almost total lack of aptitude for such a role in the real world.  There is something about the life of the gentleman, master-criminal that has always appealed – living the high life, trading quips and living off one’s wits has always been an aspiration.  Sadly, despite the huge range of course offered by today’s universities and the alleged keenness of the government to encourage the entrepreneur, there really is nowhere to train for such a career.  This unfulfilled want may explain my tendency to intellectual dilettante-ism and, indeed, my poorly sublimated need to show off.  I also like to imagine that my current gymnastic training could help with the need to make a hurried escape if things gang aglay (to paraphrase Mr Burns) – I’m just worried that my hereditary clumsiness will be a major issue if I do make a career switch.  Still there are five series of White Collar to enjoy – though only three are currently available in the UK – so there is an opportunity to obtain some training via that route.  I can also take up drawing which could act as a useful precursor to my new vocation – and could well be fun in its own right.  I suppose I could also source a cool hat and a decent suit (something rather too good for my current life of indentured servitude to the “man”) – that way I might look the part, even if I remain somewhat deficient in the area of actual performance.  I’m fairly sure there is a saying that one should dress for the job you want, rather than the one you have – though I suspect there may be more to a successful career shift.

Still, while I remain in training I shall continue to enjoy culture both high and low – caring not a jot for who is impressed (or horrified) by my choices.  It’s my fun and it doesn’t seem to be obviously harming others – well unless you count the readers of this blog, and they really only have themselves to blame!

Decomposing

Some may worry that my trip to Cambridge was somewhat of a waste, given my shortfall in the haemoglobin department.  Fear not, dear reader, the letting of a surfeit of blood is the excuse rather than the reason for me to visit Cambridge.

Where else could I sit in a café having an emergency cake-based snack and discuss the difficulties of playing the trombone and the variation in the necks of double-basses whilst my interlocutor accompanied the conversation on an octave mandolin?  Many thanks to Jack at the Indigo Café for this excellent – and very Cambridge – experience.

Much of my other leisure time was spend in the pursuit of music.  Thursday night (after my traditional dinner trip to Fitzbillies) I spent in the chapel of King’s College listening to a curious concert.  Part renaissance mass (by Josquin) and part serialist (maybe – I am no expert) electronica from Karlheiz Stockhausen and others.  This latter segment was delivered through a series of speakers positioned around the chapel and, given the lowered lighting, did somewhat bring to mind a successful séance at which some very unquiet spirits came to call.  The final piece of electronica, Mortuous Plango, Vivos Voco by Jonathan Harvey, was by far the most successful for me – it had definite hints of being music and I would not object to hearing it again.  I realise my difficult with Mr Stockhausen’s oeuvre may be a failing in me – but, the sound of inept DIY in action would be more musical to my ears than Gesang der Jünglinge.  However, well worth the very modest price of admission for an interesting evening of music and sound, including some beautiful singing.

However, the real musical treats of the visit were free – part of the Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Chamber Music.  Obviously aimed at students and academics but they also let in the great unwashed (and even me).  The visiting “prof” was pianist Angela Hewitt and she was a revelation.  I made it to two sessions (sadly returning home before her chat with John Butt, of the Dunedin Consort, on the Art of Fugue): a lecture-recital on performing Bach and a masterclass with some of the university’s finest student musicians.

After the lecture-recital, I am even more impressed by concert soloists and the amount of work that has to go into preparing a piece for performance.  Bach really only gives you the notes, so the player has to worry about dynamics (volume) and tempo (speed) – as well as play the notes successfully as written (which is the part I largely fail to do).  The pianist also has to work out her own fingerings – rather than my approach which is to hope that a finger happens to be near the target when required (big hands can be a boon) – and split out all the voices in the piece and choose the force to apply to each finger to bring the right voice to the fore.  I am trying to play pieces where each hand is required to produce a different volume – and this is often more than my ageing brain can manage, let alone varying the force from multiple fingers on the same hand.  I have a very long way to go (even with the somewhat limited portion of the lecture that I can claim to have fully understood) – we can only hope that the heat death of the universe is rather further away than currently believed or I have no hope (even should I happen to be immortal).

A further vastening (a word denied by WordPress and Mr Collins, but I’m sticking with it) of my musical horizons came in the masterclass.  First we heard what seemed to be an excellent rendition of the piece to be studied by 1, 2 or 3 students – and then we saw Angela take it to a different level, even when sight-reading a piece she had never played before.  The most extraordinary session was with Liszt’s Dante sonata – on first playing by a very fine student pianist this seemed typical Liszt: see how hard and often you can bang the keys, very much an endurance exercise for the alpha-male pianist.  Then Angela played it, and it became so much more – the dynamic range and emotional content was on another level altogether, you could hear the souls crying out in Hell.  I may have to re-visit my thoughts on Liszt – but will need to find the right performance.

I was also rather captivated by her effortless erudition on matters musical and well beyond.  She brought so much historical and literary context to bear on her preparation for performance.  For the Liszt, she referred the student to a document which provided very extensive notes on the piece – then off-hand mentioned that she’d only seen it in French but was sure an English translation must exist.  Would that I could manage such a thing, in any field of knowledge, but I am far too much the dilettante to ever acquire the necessary depth.  I fear I shall have to continue my attempts to dazzle from the shallows.  Within the last fortnight alone, I’ve wanted to study music (see above), microbiology and group theory to at least a post-grad level – but sadly have failed to make a start on any and by tomorrow I will, no doubt, have a new obsession.  I am too much the (lazy) intellectual butterfly – but perhaps the world of MOOCs may rescue me from my superficiality (or just broaden it even further).  Watch this space for further attempts at intellectual showing off:  look at me!  Look at me!