Labial kinetics

At some point, as they learn to read, the vast majority of children become capable of following a text without speaking out loud and then without even moving their lips.  Given that my childhood has now vanished, coughing, into the pea-souper of history, I had fondly imagined that I too had mastered this particular skill.  So it was that, yesterday evening, I suffered the most impertinent of awakenings.  On mature reflection (or as mature as my essential childishness permits), I realised that there had been portents in existence for some time for those with the wit to interpret them.

Before the few, tiny quanta of respect GofaDM readers still retain for the author melt back into the foaming medium of space-time, I should make clear that I can read the phrase “bottle of beer” without resort to the hard sound associated with the letter G and with my mouth remaining tightly shut (well, except as required for breathing).  Indeed, I can read the vast majority of novels, web-pages and many a treatise on science or the humanities without recourse to my oscular musculature.  However, there are three major areas of exception to my otherwise condign mastery of this somewhat basic text processing skill.

1.  Foreign vocabulary

The voices in my head are entirely confident when reading my mother tongue, but sometimes require a little help with words taken from another language.  When I was reading a lot of Spanish, this task could also be accomplished while my lips slept – though given its current, very rusty status, the language of Cervantes might require a little help these days.  For a really unfamiliar tongue, one where I am feeling my way through the words and experimenting with possible pronunciations, I may even need to give voice (sotto voce) to the sounds.

2.  Dialect and accents

If the text requires the use of a strong dialect or a strong accent, then the unaided voices in my head can struggle to do it justice.  Sometimes a little labial motion or even voicing of the text can help – though, anyone who has seen me attempt an accent will recognise that this voicing may be counterproductive.  I can produce accents other than my own, but normally I have no idea what they will be until they have emerged, blinking into the world of sound – and often, not even then.  Even if the accent is recognisable, it will rarely have been what was intended – and, as a result, I try not to reveal the nature of the intended accent and just claim any available credit for the one that eventually issues forth from twixt my lips.

The same issue can occur if I am trying to recapture the sound or cadences of the author’s voice, as I have recently tried with A L Kennedy, Adam Gopnik and David Sedaris.

3.  Poetry

The voices in my head are terrible reciters of poetry – perhaps a lack of experience tells against them.  They make a total hash of anything with metrical form, specific patterns of stress or alliteration or the use of caesura.  in consequence, to gain anything like the full heft of a poem, my lips must move and often my voice must be fully engaged.

Last night, I foolishly attempted to read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf in a relatively well-lit public space whilst waiting for a gig to start.  This, staying true to many of the precepts of Anglo-Saxon poetry, runs almost the full gamut of poetic devices and so my lips were in near constant motion.  An important lesson was learned!  In future, I shall only read this work in the privacy of my own home or while wearing a suitable poetry-reading mask: i.e. one which conceals (at least) the lower third of my face from view.  I wonder if this could be an accessory to accompany my earlier development of Bookshop Blinkers™?  From a branding perspective, I think I’d want my Verse Vail™ to avoid a look overly reminiscent of either a surgeon or dandy highwayman – then again, given that many a performance poet will stand to deliver his stanzas, the latter might be appropriate…

Chulerías

Despite learning Spanish twice during my life – once at school and then again, a decade-and-a-half later, for work – and acquiring a reasonably varied vocabulary, I did not encounter the title until yesterday evening.  It does not appear in my dictionary, and so I have had to rely on the web’s favourite translation aid.  As a result, I fervently hope that it does mean “cool stuff” and not something obscene and/or offensive (I can’t really afford to upset some 400 million readers at this stage in my writing career).

Even before encountering the title, my life yesterday had a somewhat Spanish flavour – despite no ham being involved.  The new day started with a new book, The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón which I am reading in English translation (Southampton library does not provide a long enough loan – even with maximum renewals – for me to tackle it in its original tongue).  At times, it does seem to be rather directed at me as a newly admitted writer and it is clear that Don Basilio would not approve of my style and its adjectival liberality.  At other times, its protagonist reminds me of my brother – but I am only up to page 70, so this may change.

Last night, I had my first full experience of live flamenco – at the Arthouse Cafe, as regular readers might have guessed.  I had seen a little flamenco-inflected guitar many years ago at the Meson Don Felipe in the Cut in London while I munched on tapas and consumed a glass or two of blude-red wine.  On that occasion, it was just a guitarist perched precariously above the doorway leading to the facilities.  Yesterday, Jero Férec and his Flamenco Group – fresh from Ronnie Scott’s – provided not just the guitarist but two singers and a dancer.  Yet another amazing guitarist – and even more depressingly youthful than those that had come before him – and another musical style for me to enjoy at the Arthouse.  The two singers were also extraordinary and I, at least, thought I caught more than a hint of the Umayyad caliphate in their slightly unearthly vocal performance – many years ago, I heard a small amount of a flamenco mass on CD, but it hadn’t prepared me for the reality.  As part of the evening, I also learned that any previously attempts at rhythmic clapping were mere child’s play compared to the rigours of the flamenco beat: performers’ hands must be red raw after a performance.

On any normal night, the guitar or singing would have been the highlight – but to my surprise that honour must go to the dancing.  Usually, dancing does very little for me – it usually seems at best pointless and often laughable.  Last night, no-one was laughing: we would have been too scared.  Despite being the very image of imperial Spanish hauteur, the dancer had a prosaically English name: Ollie Giffin.  His dancing was commanding and somehow very adult: tap which is perhaps a distant cousin appears rather infantile in comparison.  The dance is intensely physical and at time the rhythm seems impossibly fast for a tall man in relatively high-heeled wooden-soled shoes.  He did have very sturdy thews which may have helped but, on a sample of one, I can’t be sure whether this was critical to his mastery of the dance.  It is not just a physical experience for the dancer but also for the audience as the vibration is transmitted through both the room and your body.  I strongly suspect that flamenco is an art-form best experienced live – with something vital lost in its recording (while I believe gaming controllers can provide haptic feedback, I doubt this has yet been exploited in the context of dance music).  I feel rather privileged that I can experience some of the thrill of downtown Seville, just a brief stroll from my home.  You can catch a flavour of the experience from the Arthouse’s Facebook page or via the link supplied above.

Incredible though the dance was, I do worry about young Ollie’s feet.  The shoes looked less than comfortable and I fear that the combination of the violence of the dance and his sockless condition (his choice, I assume) would render his feet a mass of blisters, cuts and partially-healed scars.  He did, wisely I would imagine, restrict his dancing to brief, if very intense bursts.  Still, I have once again established my suitability, in all but the purely physical sense, for the role of somebody’s maiden aunt.

The title I came across when researching Jero after the concert.  When even younger than he is today – still just at school, even – he released an album and it provided the title for this post which truly covers “cool things”.

Mastered by mortification

Today, for the first time and after a mere twenty-three month residence in the city, I finally visited the Southampton City Art Gallery.  I cannot claim that it lies in an especially remote location – it is little more than five minutes walk from my home and lies directly above a regular haunt of mine, the central library.  Entry is also free, and so I cannot blame my much lauded fiscal responsibility.  It does have somewhat limited opening hours – though I can only blame those for twenty-two hours of my delay in visiting.  I did attempt my first visit yesterday, but in my successful attempt to avoid school parties arrived too late for entry.

If I am to find a sink for my culpability in taking quite so long to make my first visit, then I fear I must look to human psychology – and mine in particular.  As a result of its ease of access, I can always tell myself that I will visit tomorrow – an internal monologue which would seem to have worked for some 700 tomorrows.   You may wonder what finally broke this long succession of unfulfilled internal promises and so it would seem churlish of me to deny you that knowledge.

A little while ago, I think at an event at the Nuffield,  I learned that the City of Southampton boasts a rather impressive collection of art – though only a fraction of this is on display at any one time.  As a result, I resolved to visit – and so the weeks passed but still my resolution remained stubbornly unresolved.  Then, earlier this week, I was asked to take part in a customer survey about the gallery as I left the library, and it was the crippling sense of guilt about my inability to answer any of the questions in a useful fashion that finally spurred me to act.  Oddly, I do seem quite a popular choice to proffer my opinion on subjects of which I have little or no knowledge: relatively recently I have also been quizzed (on camera) for my thoughts on the Premiership relegation battle and (on mike) about hip-hop (I had very few useful thoughts on either but was persuaded to make some up – after a short briefing – for the camera).  I don’t think I give off an art gallery-visiting, beautiful game loving, straight outta Compton vibe – but perhaps my subconscious or face have other ideas?  I do feel that my experiences help to illuminate the general pointlessness of vox populi and hope they might help encourage the media to quietly (and quickly) ditch the whole idiotic idea.  Whilst the number of people who are well-informed on a topic are clearly massively outnumbered by those who are not, I still feel it is worth making a little effort to seek out the former.

Anyway, having now seen off the amuse bouche we should probably move onto the meal proper.  I must say that the gallery was rather a pleasant surprise – with a modest but interesting collection of works spread over substantial and almost deserted gallery space (I did cunningly arrived just after two parties of primary school children departed, which I suspect improved my experience).  I rather enjoyed the paintings of Southampton through the ages – and I now have oil-painted evidence that the city was once a Georgian architectural theme park, before the Luftwaffe and post-war town planners had their wicked way with it.  Pleasingly, in one such painting I’m pretty sure I could see my flat (a first for me – I don’t think I’ve ever seen my primary domicile portrayed in proper art before) – though in those days it probably hadn’t been subdivided.  Green as the city is today, it once boasted even more parkland in the centre and its suburbs were – as recently as the nineteenth century –  rather beautiful downland.  Seeing images of the city, painted over the course some three hundred years, does incline a chap of a slightly romantic disposition to see ghosts wherever he treads.  Still, knocked about a bit though it is, I have grown oddly fond of modern day Southampton over my tenure and find myself keen not to leave just yet.

Among the gallery’s temporary delights, I was rather taken with Spatial Objects by Dan Holdsworth (I fear the lighting in the linked photo does not do them justice) – though I’m not sure I have a home for them (even if I could have sneaked one out under my jacket).  My highlight was a photograph taken by an HND Photography student from Brockenhurst College (one Isabelle Orman) as part of her coursework.  It was of a rather mundane industrial-looking scene, but captured in a quite extraordinary light.  It took a view that most of us would have dismissed as rather ugly and made it truly beautiful.  If that’s not Art, I don’t know what is – the latter may, sadly, be true but I am trying to slowly educate myself.

I shall try and avoid waiting another two years before the difficult sophomore visit – but I’ve made unkept promises on GofaDM before, so I’d recommend you judge me on results rather than good intentions (which I believe make decent pavers for an express route to Mount Avernus).  Nevertheless, I am hopeful that the promise of seeing more of the gallery’s rotating collection (from which, were I a company, I could hire examples at a very reasonable rate) may help me to stay true to my once avowed intent.

Instanding fusion reaction

Just in case the English language were to be considered to have come up a trifle short lexically, I have invented my own word to launch the title.  I have decided that the antonym for outstanding must be instanding – I rejected outsitting as ugly and outlying is already in use.

In fact, I am being overly harsh to the fusion reaction in question: the churning maelstrom that constitutes our local star.  Without its efforts (though I’d question whether the unalive can be considered to be putting in effort), my own paltry existence would not be possible.  Indeed, without the work of its predecessors over some thirteen (and a chunk of change) billion years, many of the elements would not exist which have been brought together in the occasionally harmonious conjunction I like to call my body.  So, I think I can admit that I’m pleased that stellar fusion is a part of my universe – though if you want me to be impressed, you will have to move beyond slave-like adherence to the laws of physics (which, by definition I think, is impossible).  Shania Twain and I are as one in this (and probably only this) one area.

My objection is to the annoying tilting of my life towards the great celestial gasbag which occurs at this time of the year.  In common, I assume, with many others, I find myself, during the long dark months of winter, eagerly anticipating the return of summer.  Why?  I’ve seen fifty examples of summer by now – surely, given such an extensive catalogue of disappointment to draw from, I should have preserved some memories to insulate me against such expectations?  Apparently not.

Readers who share these soggy isles with the author may expect me to denounce the frequent rain and disappointingly low temperatures: instead, and ever the contrarian, I shall object to those summery conditions which are assumed to be a cause of universal delight.  I speak, of course, of that over-praised combination of a peerless blue sky, strong sunshine and temperatures rising well above 20ºC.

I don’t object to the vault of heaven being suffused by a universally cerulean hue, but one can fairly quickly have too much of a good thing and better people than I (Gavin Pretor-Pinney for one) have explained the vital interest that clouds can bring to the sky. I could point to the fact that aircraft contrails rarely offer the imagination the fecund raw material provided by a single healthy puff of cumulus.  Or we could consider the magical beauty of a sun-illumined land- or cityscape “popping” against the backdrop of threatening charcoal storm clouds.  As my final example in support of our unfairly maligned vaporous friends, just think of the glorious canvas they provide to the long-wavelengthed palette of the sun as its light encounters the horizon.

I have nothing against sunshine when its photons catch me with a suitably glancing blow.  For three seasons of the year, the over-excited ultraviolet rays (whether A or B) cast out by the sun are attenuated by a hefty thickness of atmosphere.  As a result, my ravaged epidermis and I can go outside without fear of further damage or precipitating uncontrolled cellular reproduction.  However, during the summer I am forced to coat any exposed flesh with greasy, titanium dioxide based gunk to avoid providing some free marketing for Messrs Farrow and Ball and the sort of wall-colouring they would recommend for rectory or “eating room” (their rather sinister words, not mine).  Use of this gunk is not without expense and it is inevitably transferred to my clothing and certainly encourages me to perspire more vigorously: a triple whammy of unwanted outcomes.

This brings me to the temperature itself.  As I have aged (it seemed the best available option), I find that life is at its best when the mercury is resting somewhere in the sixties, as defined by Mr Fahrenheit.  It can peep into the low seventies (just for a quick look, but no loitering), but anything above that seems to encourage my fellow bipeds to expose excessive swathes of their flesh (and sight of such flesh rarely rewards the viewer).  It also places severe restrictions on my own clothing choices, if I am to minimise my discomfort, and usually leads to a shortage of pockets.  In this country, any warmth above my optimum level seems to be accompanied by excessive humidity, further increasing the discomfort.  To strengthen my case still more, I would note that very little of the built or transport infrastructure of this country seems to have been designed or constructed with such warmth in mind – as with snow, it seems to come as a dreadful shock every time.  I’m not sure precisely how much DNA we share with the humble (and probably apocryphal) goldfish but, when it comes to engrammatic efficacy, it may be more than is commonly realised.

The one key thing in summer’s favour is the wealth of tasty local fruit and vegetables that it grants: either directly or by putting in the preparatory work for an autumn harvest.  However, I’m fairly sure this bounty could still be delivered with a few more clouds and less exuberant use of temperature.  For this writer, spring and autumn are the pick of the seasons: summer with its myriad flaws trails in a very distant third or fourth.  With a little luck, the mere creation of this post will spare me (and possibly you, dear reader) from fostering unrealistic hopes (how sad is it that so many hopes are abandoned by their parents?) in the short, chilly days of the coming winter.  It is as well to be prepared as the current scientific consensus suggests that summers (as rated by me) will be growing worse, rather than better, as the century ages (and us along with it).  Time to learn some Norwegian?

You’ll believe a man can cry

Not the author in this case.  As this blog has amply documented, I will weep on even the most slender of provocations (though in no way endorse such an unrealistic body image for any young provocations reading this post).  I suspect I shed a manly tear on the majority of days and laugh on virtually all: I like to test my full emotional range on a regular basis (just in case I need to deploy it).

Yesterday, I spent the day at ARGComFest in the less fashionable parts of Shoreditch Town Hall.  The festival is like a super-concentrated version of the Edinburgh Fringe – or at least some of its comedy elements – fitting 48 acts into three overly warm rooms across two days.  I only attended day two but, feeling I should get full value from my £25, did manage to take in seven acts over just under nine hours.  Unlike Edinburgh all the events take place in the same building, so you never have to go outside (and I didn’t) and can pack more into the time – though you do get a lot less exercise.

I was a little worried about my ability to survive quite so much comedy in one sitting (though given the rather uncomfortable chairs, I did allow myself the occasional stand and stretch) and the amount of yawning (mine) that accompanied my morning train journey into London did not bode well.  Pleasingly, when checking the route from Old Street tube station to the venue I realised it passed close to 8 Hoxton Square (the eastern outpost of the 10 Greek Street empire) and so took in some solid (and delicious) brunch there before events started – carb-loading is critical preparation for the serious comedy aficionado.  To avoid losing comedy value by having to leave the venue for subsequent nourishment, I had provided myself with a packed supper – which I thought might be a deeply shameful option but, as it transpired, I was far from the alone in my choice (and some of my fellow munchers seemed much trendier than I).

Each act was a preview of what its creator hopes will be wowing Edinburgh come August.  Each act was followed by a ten minute break for fluid transactions or room transfers and the whole thing was held together by an MC (or two, as they divided the day into two shifts) for each room.  Some people had rather more work to do in the next month than others (I think I now know who did their homework on the bus on the way into school), but all the shows were entertaining and provided plenty of scope for laughter.  Whilst I stayed awake in admirable style, the effect of quite so much comedy in such a short period of time is that I can remember even less of the content than usual (so no spoiler alert will be required).  I can remember that James Acaster was the highlight of my day – and I can remember thinking at the time that he is eminently quotable (but can no longer recall anything to quote) and a surprisingly skilled physical comedian. The title comes from Joel Dommett – a man less in touch with his emotions than I – who at one stage attempted to cry while reading a set of one-liners.  He came very close, he started to tear-up but then lost it.  Watching a man determined, desperate even, to cry and just failing is terribly amusing – the lad may wish to embrace his failure as I suspect it may work better comically than success.

I can also recall, for more traumatic reasons, that the final act was Simon Munnery.  Before he started, I found myself suffused with nostalgia as I recalled listening to him on the radio as Alan Parker, Urban Warrior or The League Against Tedium when I was but a lad.  As a result, it came as a terrible shock when, during his act, it was revealed that he is younger than me: not by much, but enough to take the wind out of a chap’s sails, I can tell you.  At least I could comfort myself with the knowledge that the years have been rather kinder to me than to Mr M (in terms of third-party visual amenity, at least).

However, that is all by-the-by, the primary purpose of this post is for me to introduce another one of my cunning business proposals.  Yes, I am once again treating you, dear readers, as a veritable den of dragons and am seeking investment in my latest wheeze.   Here goes the pitch:

Given the expected (and realised) sauna-like conditions at the festival, I choose to wear shorts for the day.  I will admit that I felt somewhat underdressed walking around London in shorts and also upon returning to Southampton after dark.  When in Edinburgh itself, despite the heat of the venues I am usually forced to wear proper trousers both to cope with the Scottish summer and by the shame engendered by unnecessary display of the fleshy wrapping of my tibia and fibula to the kilt-clad natives.  It really isn’t practical to make the switch between shorts and trousers during the day given the absence of decent audience changing facilities at most comedy festivals.  A similar issue occurs when cycling to the concert hall or theatre on a sticky evening, I feel it inappropriate to wear shorts and so instead inflict my perspiration-soaked body on the rest of the audience.  Surely there must be a solution, thought I.

Well, I am sufficient worldly to know that male strippers have trousers which can be removed at speed and without troubling their shoes.  Something along this line would be ideal for the festival or concert goer – assuming they were as easy to put on (a part of the process rarely vouchsafed to the public) as to seductively remove.  Investigating the existing options this morning, I found that the leg coverings on offer were of a very inferior quality – and I don’t feel would pass muster in either concert hall or city street.  They were obviously aimed at the novelty market, not at the serious homme d’affaires.  There is clearly an opening for a sturdier, more formal trew (or better yet, a pair of them) that can be added or removed from a gentlemen’s ensemble with the minimum of fuss and bother.  These should be relatively generously cut above the knee – to avoid painful bunching of the shorts – but taper to the ankle to avoid conflict with a bicycle chain.  I’m thinking the range should include a chino, a dark formal (perhaps even black-tie friendly) and some denim based options.  Accoutred in such style, a chap can be comfortable in both the hottest of venues and the most formal of occasions without requiring access to a changing room or telephone box.  He would also be ready, at a moment’s notice, to provide any potential admirer of his unexpectedly hench physique with quite the performance – and any resulting tips thrust (demurely, I trust) into his waistband would help defray the day’s other, unavoidable expenses.  Trousers that pay for themselves!  Who could resist?

If this idea generates the level of interest I anticipate, the next stage would be to cost the product and get a Kickstarter (or similar) going and watch the money roll in.  I look forward to the day when an omi’s strides can keep his lallies at a bona temperature throughout the day.  Ooh, ain’t he bold?

Am I a writer?

This is terribly poor form, of course.  If I see a newspaper posing a question, I usually read no further: why are they asking me?  I am clearly an idiot.  Couldn’t the journalist (or sub-editor) in question have found an expert, rather than relying on the readership to do their work for them?

This is also not going to develop into a Poll – while these can be created within WordPress, it seems like quite a lot of hassle to set one up and I am not 100% sure that I want to know the answer.

No, once again we’ll all have to face the existential angst that lies at the dark heart of GofaDM and its author.  You will be fellow travellers on his quest to find some small speck of identity to grasp and call his own.  It’s his own fault, of course, he has rejected all the readily available identities that the modern world is willing to offer: he is clearly far too picky, no wonder he lives alone with an idiot.

Clearly, at the purely trivial level, I am a writer as a result of all the ‘stuff’ I seem to have written in this virtual space over the last few years (this would seem to be post 649 for any stats fans out there).  Indeed, I way well have written more material during the lifespan of GofaDM than many who would self-identify as writers.  However, unusually for this blog, we are not going to be satisfied with the trivial: we are going to worry at the cheap veneer with a fingernail to catch a glimpse of what may lie beneath.

Why, you might ask (and so indeed do I), has a chap who denies his writer-hood, produced quite so much text in recent years for no obvious reward?  My occasional dictum of “better out than in” might apply – once it is on the virtual page it has exited my cranial space to allow room for more significant work to go ahead (but, in practice, the space just appears to be used to generate more of the same).  A possible insight came on Thursday night when I bumped into someone I knew at the Nuffield Theatre (though this is almost unavoidable – I am becoming worryingly widely known there).  At some previous encounter I had, in a fit of marketing prowess, encouraged him to follow this unending river of utterance.  He evinced some enjoyment from this activity (perhaps through politeness) and remarked that it was clear that I enjoyed producing it.  He wasn’t wrong, I do enjoy hurling my words out into the void – in fact, it might still be fun if they never left my laptop but were left entirely for my own amusement (don’t worry, my innate cruelty means I shall continue to make my writing all too public).

Perhaps to answer the question we should look back into history – did the childish or youthful author show indication of what was to come?  I had thought not.  I found the obligation to write for English Language O-level terribly annoying and was glad to take it a year early and no longer have to suffer the need to write creatively.  English Literature, on the other hand, I enjoyed: I had no issue writing about the work of others – just generating my own ex nihilo.  As noted not so long ago, I thought my first tentative forays into what would become GofaDM were back when the nineties was still a mewling, puking infant in its mother’s arms and I wrote comic obituaries for colleagues when they departed for pastures new (and no, I was not working on a diary farm).  However, while chatting with my brother (no, he’s not my real brother – more my co-opted brother, try and keep up!) I suddenly remembered earlier excursions in the written form.

When I was at university, mobile phones lay in the realm of science fiction and calling home was a rare activity to be saved for emergencies.  Instead, I used to type – on a portable, manual typewriter – regular missives to my parents.  I seem to recall these had a stream-of-consciousness feel about them, and probably represent the source for my chronic over-use of parentheses and hyphen.  I suspect they may have contained the seed which one day grew into the monstrous, lexical plant you see before you.  I have a rather nasty feeling that these letters may still lie (like an unexploded literary bomb) carefully preserved in my parents’ loft: just waiting to be unleashed upon the world to its horror and my acute embarrassment.

This takes my career as a ‘writer’ back to the mid-eighties, suggesting thirty years of inconsistent authorial endeavour.  I think I am forced to admit that my brother is correct and confess that ‘I am a writer’ (and I may need some sort of patch to control the symptoms).  Some of my recent stuff has slightly impressed me on re-reading, even away from the ‘jokes’ (well, The Warder of the Brain did anyway).  My recent productivity also seems to have risen but that may just be down to having time on my hands (it is surprisingly tricky to remove, I may have to try swarfega).  My forms of writing are a tad limited: I can do business prose, write a half-decent essay on the arts for the Open University and then there is the rather limited palette I use to paint the canvas of this blog.  As a writer, I feel the need to expand my horizons and so have decided that I will write a short story (it may be VERY short) and it will not be about me or my life: though I may choose to write in the first person and it will have to be drawn from the well of my experience – probably using a manual winch and a bucket.  At the moment, I think it may have memory as its theme – but it currently lacks any characters, story or, indeed, words.  As and when it moves from the noosphere into the world of the real, I shall publish it here to universal apathy.  Consider this your one and only warning.

Look at that!  As I suspect also happens in the newspapers, I have answered my own question.  A less interrogative title could easily have been used, but instead the author hides behind false modesty – and we rightly despise him for it.

Εὐρώπη

On a day when tradition dictates that my countrymen and I celebrate the disposal of thirteen troublesome colonies (one of our more successful attempts to jettison a colony), ever the contrarian I will post about the continent which houses the site of my birth and in which I continue to live (showing a terrible lack of get-up-and-go in the author).

Europe, as a name at least, has been with us since the sixth century BCE thanks to Anaximander and his pals – though I suspect he may have been a little sketchy about its north-western regions, including the one where I reside.  Then again, it may be unwise to underestimate the Greeks (ancient or modern) and they may well have been better informed via networks of trade than I imagine.  I am regularly surprised (which probably demonstrate what a slow learner I am) how much that I consider modern is (much like myself) surprisingly ancient.  In many ways, as a species we have not progressed very far from the ancient Greek polis – and in some, any progress seems to have been retrograde.  I am far from convinced that possession of an iPhone makes us better people than our ancestors – though the technological society which permits its existence does mean we can do far more harm to our supporting biosphere than our antecedents could ever have dreamed (or desired).

I was somewhat disappointed to discover that the naming of the continent seems unrelated to any funny business between Almighty Zeus, in the form of a white bull, and a posh Phoenician bint.  Oh well, etymology can’t always come to the aid of the blogger in search of comedy gold.

In contrast to their Plantagenet precursors, many modern Britons view Europe with suspicion – and harbour positive hatred for the European Union and its evil plans to force human rights and low cost mobile phone calls upon us.  We folk of the UK wish to retain our age old rights to be tortured and overpay to use Facebook when on holiday – did Magna Carta die in vain? (To paraphrase Anthony Aloysious St John Hancock.)

On the whole, I approve of the ethos behind the whole European project – though frequently despair at its actual implementation.  I would far rather European countries indulged their desire for conflict with Johnny Foreigner via petty trade disputes than the laying waste of the continent.  As the conference I attended on Monday, and the events of Srebrenica twenty years ago it commemorated, reminds us, a continent free of bloody strife is far from a given: even in our supposedly enlightened times.  Sadly, in common with all large human organisations the EU is rife with inefficiency and bureaucracy and tends to attract those desirous of personal power and gain rather than with a genuine interest in improving the lot of its stakeholders (i.e. the rest of us).  This seems to be a problem which has been with us since not long after Europe was named (and perhaps even before, my Akkadian history is a little rusty) without a decent solution being implemented.

I believe without the EU we would have to invent something similar.  So many things today require transnational solutions, whether it be efficient delivery of low cost energy or the preservation of fishing stocks (to name but two).  Slow as the EU can be, it still manages to achieve rather more than the United Nations – albeit in a more modest geographical realm and much of it fairly pointless.  However, in a couple of years we could be out.  I have no idea whether the EU is a net benefit to the UK or not, even on a purely financial basis – and I’m pretty convinced that no-one else does either.  I’m fairly sure that leaving will prove rather expensive and disruptive in the short term, but have no doubt the UK – or the bits of it that remain attached (let’s just call them Greater London) – will continue, whichever way the referendum goes.

The one area in with I think the EU has gone badly awry is with the introduction and subsequent management of the Euro.  Don’t get me wrong, I find it dreadfully convenient when crossing the Channel or Irish Sea for either business or pleasure, but I’m not sure that this modest gain at the expense of Travelex and its ilk is really worth the rather serious costs.  I am reminded of A Third, the play I saw on Sunday evening, in which a couple want to be the sort of people who would enjoy a threesome and so act this out in the hope that this will make it true.  I feel Europe wanted to be the sort of place which enjoyed the benefits of a single currency, and so introduced one in the hope that acting out their desires would similarly make them a reality.  However, for a single currency – like a threesome – to work, the underlying fundamentals of the relationship have to be right – and this has been rather neglected.  In both the play and the continent, a bunch of rules were established before you were allowed to join in and then the scope of the activities grew and the rules were ‘adjusted’.  My reading of the play was that the original relationship was destroyed: we shall have to wait and see what happens to the EU.  I must admit that when watching the play, I did not think “gosh, this is an analogy for the Euro” – this rather dim epiphany came later (and aren’t we all glad that it did?).

I am far from convinced that a single currency makes sense for the UK (let alone the whole continent), and through my lifetime the pound which is run for the benefit of London (or so it has seemed to me) has been unhelpful for regions which are distant geographically and structurally from this single, dominant centre.  The same story has played out in Europe, where countries with markedly different economies from the dominant German centre have lost control of a critical economic lever (something which our government seems determined to do on its own with several of its levers) and suffered as a result.  Frankly, the Germans should have seen this coming given their own challenges (and costs) bringing the country together under the Deutschmark following reunification. Trying to do the same thing for an entire continent was always going to be problematic, though initially disguised by the apparent growth years at the start of the millenium.  As a result, my sympathy for the Hun is rather limited.

As I write this, I am starting to believe that I must be quite a decent economist – drawing lessons from both German unification and a play about increasing the team size for bedroom games.  Perhaps this is what is lacking in the training of modern economists – they need a little more history and drama in their intellectual diet.  Once again the Arts and Humanities prove their value: if only more people were paying attention.  Forget PPE, HDE should be the future educational choice for those seeing political advancement.  I could be persuaded to teach a module or two – let’s face it, my teaching is unlikely to create a worse shambles than the current Greek and EU leadership have achieved.  Of course, it is probably just this sort of self-delusion which has brought the world to the plight it is suffering today – though, to be fair to the author, he is only writing about it in a thinly-read blog rather than trying to inflict it on a continent of half-a billion people.

Slow learner

GofaDM is often used as a platform to berate the author for his idiocy.  A few readers, those who are almost suicidally charitable by nature, may still doubt whether this degree of censure is fully justified.  I think with just a couple of examples from the last few days, I can place the general contention beyond any reasonable doubt.

We will start with my fridge.  For the last few weeks, I have noticed that my single and pouring cream seemed to be going off with more than usual frequency.  The same entropic decay then started to affect strawberries.  I idly mused that perhaps the supermarkets of Southampton were employing a just-in-time system so that my purchases were already perilously near their expiration dates at the time of purchase.  This half-baked conspiracy theory managed to forestall any action on my part for some weeks, but eventually the thought struck me that perhaps my fridge might, in some part, be culpable.  More days passed whilst this arrant thought struggled to gain any serious attention from the higher powers that hold court between my ears.  Finally, I glanced at the temperature control in the fridge and observed that it had been accidentally knocked (or been subject to deliberate sabotage) and was at its lowest possible setting.  Since correcting this, the amount of fridge-based spoilage has returned to its historic, and very low, level.

I have noted before my very low usage of my car and despite promises to do better, little has changed.  These long periods of standing are not good for the battery, and I have worked out that my car last moved relative to the Earth on Boxing Day (2014).  It will shortly have to move in order to gain a fresh MOT certificate (in commemoration of the long dead Ministry of Transport) and so I wandered to its distant nesting place with only a few dregs of hope cluttering my stony heart.  As expected, the battery had less charge left in it than the Light Brigade after the Battle of Balaclava.  Last time this happened I carried the battery the mile(ish) to my home to be re-charged – and coincidentally fixed some minor back pain I had been suffering.  At the present moment (and tempting Fate), my vertebral region is pain-free – and I worry that further portage of a lead-acid pile may restore the original issue.  So, I have invested in a folding trolley so that my battery can be commuted to and from its distant charger in comfort (mine rather than its).

I comfort myself with the idea that this trolley can also be used to transfer books from their expensive languishing in storage to my garret if I ever arrange to have some shelves fitted to hold the returning exiles.  At least, so far, my stupidity has only affected one person (viz myself) – nevertheless, I really must try and do better.

Regrettable repercussions?

I’m sure Jeremy Hunt must have some admirable qualities.  If nothing else, his gift for concealing these qualities from the casual observer must be commended – though he may be taking his natural modesty just a little too far.  I have reason to believe that he might be a viable choice of translator on a trip to Japan, but a much poorer one if the purpose of the trip is the sale of marmalade (or other preserves) to the indigenes.

I strongly suspect that PPE followed by a career in teaching english to Johnny Foreigner and then PR may not have fully equipped him for his role as titular head of the Department of Health.  The placebo effect, along with its evil twin the nocebo effect,  are notoriously tricksy to come to terms with – even for those with the qualifications to do so.  My own knowledge of the field comes from Daniel Moerman’s very readable book Meaning, Medicine and the ‘Placebo Effect’ – so I am far from expert (but still massively over-qualified for the role of Health Secretary).  This makes very clear that the impact of medicines on a patient can be impacted by rather unexpected factors.  The size, colour and shape of a pill can all alter its clinical effectiveness, as can the number of pills taken (as with heads, two pills are better than one – even if the active ingredient is exactly the same).

The latest policy wheeze dreamt up by Mr Hunt (or his minions – but as our health Gru he must carry the can) is to print the price paid by the NHS for more expensive drugs on their packaging.  It strikes me that this information is likely to have some psychological effect on the consumers of the drugs and this suggests that some unintended clinical consequences could easily arise thanks to our spooky friends placebo and nocebo.  Will we suddenly find that cheaper drugs lose some of their effectiveness?  Could this cunning plan actually force up the NHS bill for drugs?

Even without considering such weird consequences, basic psychology might suggest that some patients taking more expensive drugs could reduce their intake out of a mis-placed sense of civic duty.  If this occurs with antibiotics, for example, we might be unwittingly feeding the growth in resistance.

Surely some drug prices will reflect better or poorer price negotiation by the NHS or on the level of competition in the marketplace.  I’m not sure this data should really be informing either prescribing or subsequent patient behaviour – it should rather be informing procurement within the NHS or regulation of drug companies or the market.

Finally, I cannot help but notice that drugs do not come in normalised quantities such that every prescription contains the same number of days (or doses) of treatment.  As a result, cheap pills bought in large quantities might appear more costly than expensive ones sold in only small doses.  This is going to hopelessly muddle the financial signal we are trying to send to patients, even if by chance they do latch on to the desired response to the new price data.

I strongly suspect that the results of this new initiative will bear little relation to those planned – always assuming there is a plan rather than just implementation of the ravings of a power-crazed buffoon – except to the extent that we live in an infinite multiverse and by random chance we may be living in the one of all possible worlds where Jeremy gets lucky.  However, as no-one will probably bother to measure the results properly – or honestly report them if they do – we will probably never know.

Oh, what a time to be alive!  (And preferably in good health…)

Barnet bravery

My hair – primarily that on my head, but more widely distributed examples should not become too complacent – has always been rather a disappointment to me.  It has been consistently obstreperous for as long as I can remember, rarely being content to follow the very reasonable dictates of its titular ruler.  I say ‘ruler’ as I recently discovered that one of the reasons for this bad behaviour is the rather eccentric location of my crown (it is still on my head, but only just).  For the last decade-and-a-half, it has further blotted its already ink-stained copy book by gradually losing its melanin – which I ascribe to outright carelessness on its part (though some might make reference to genetic factors or my antiquity).

I never really feel that I have found a satisfactory, or indeed consistent, style for my barnet.  I suppose this may not have been helped by my unwillingness to spend more than a handful of seconds in the daily attempt to form it into a less embarrassing shambles.  However, at the gym this morning I saw a choice of coiffure that didn’t so much take the stylistic biscuit as guzzle down the entire packet and then look for more.  The young lady in question had bleached her hair blonde – fair enough, we’ve all tried it – but had then added splodges of blue dye of a very particular hue.  As a result, her head gave the appearance of having been tupped by an extremely myopic ram or one perhaps one with a desire “to go where no ram has gone before”, but who had been handicapped in his amorous desires by a rather poor grasp of human anatomy.   Rest assured, I shall not be trying this ‘inattentive shepherd’ look any time soon.