Dangerous Reading?

Let me start with an attempt to reassure the people of Berkshire.  I have no specific reason to believe that either ravenous wild animals or violently felonious persons have escaped from local incarceration and are now wandering the streets looking for victims.  Nevertheless, it is always as well to be prepared for the unexpected when leaving the relative safety of your home.

As so often, I refer to the imbibing of the written word by way of the optic nerve (and a whole bunch of ancillary equipment: or ‘my brain’ as I like to call it).  I am currently reading The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker: a very entertaining guide to the art of better writing.  If we are all very lucky, this could lead either to a marked improvement in the quality of blog posts or to the complete cessation of the blog as I am too ashamed of my terrible style to further subject it to public scrutiny.   The most likely outcome is probably ‘business as usual’, but with the author being rather more self-conscious about his soi-disant style for a couple of weeks.  Still, I think we should all take a moment to savour my commitment to an improved experience for you, the viewing few.

Almost the first imperative quoted in the book is ‘Omit needless words’ – a phrase which would mark the death-knell of GofaDM (in which, frankly, all the words are needless) – but fortunately he is quoting from an earlier sage and seems to soften this view once the reader leaves the introductory shallows for the abyssal deep of the book proper.  I currently live in fear of Chapter 6, where our hero will discover how irredeemably he has mis-used the humble comma over the last 690-odd posts.  Still, comma-abuse isn’t (yet) a crime under the Laws of England and Wales (though given the rate at which recent governments have been issuing new statutes, it may only be a matter of time).

As a counterpoint, I am also reading Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (in translation I would stress) which is a collection of his works.  I’m not sure that any style guru (past or present) would wholly approve of his work: though some of that may be down to the translation.  Rarely have I had so much recourse to Mr Collins to look up new vocabulary.  The short stories are commendably brief, but rich with unsettling ideas: I spend much of the day befuddled in one way or another (so no change there, then).

Before this latest wave of book-based befuddlement, I read David Adam’s The Man Who Couldn’t Stop: a fascinating insight into OCD.  From this, and despite my regular forays into somewhat obsessional behaviour, I can be pretty sure that I do not have OCD.  It did, however, suggest that I might be a psychopath.  Sadly, my reading in this field has been limited and nothing further is currently scheduled, so for some time I shall remain in a super-position of psychopathy and relative normality.  In my defence, I would note that, in recent years, my 8.25″ cook’s knife has only been used against targets from the Plant kingdom: so I probably won’t run amok in the near future.  Once again I must stress that I have no reliable foreknowledge of an imminent threat to the people of Reading.

Despite the dangers to both this blog and my mental equilibrium, I can thoroughly recommend a little unsettling reading.  Let’s hope it produces an improvement in quality, or at least style, in time for the celebrations to mark post 700!

† Subject to availability

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Big Ink

I believe that conspiracy theories are popular, or certainly have a cult following rather greater (if possibly stranger) than GofaDM, and so I thought I’d try and launch one.

As we all know, printer ink (as opposed to printer’s ink) is, gram-for-gram, one of the most valuable (or, at least, expensive) items on Earth.  Woe betide any developing country which discovers massive deposits of printer ink beneath its soil as it will find an American-led coalition delivering democracy through their bomb bay doors before it can say the local equivalent of ‘Jack Robinson’.  I do find myself wondering whether intense aerial bombardment has ever delivered a fully-functioning, representative democracy to its beneficiary?  I believe the military will talk about bombing a country ‘back to the stone-age’ but have never heard any equivalent about it bringing the fruits of the Enlightenment.  Perhaps democracy isn’t a human invention at all, could it have arrived on a comet during the Late Heavy Bombardment of Earth some 4 billion years back?  Did the Attic Greeks merely stumble across some which had been exposed by coastal erosion?  Still, this is not the conspiracy theory I’m trying to start: though it could make for an interesting addition to the whole panspermia idea.

In my daily life, I often find myself booking tickets on-line: either ‘to ride’ or to enjoy some sort of cultural event.  Often these can be collected from the venue (or station), but sometimes one is required to ‘print at home’ – and so use up precious milligrams of ink.  In theory, a ticket could be pretty basic: a few details and a bar code, or similar, should be enough.  However, many issuers attempt to fill an entire A4 sheet (or several) with ink and use as many colours as possible: usually printing out adverts for miscellaneous tat and unwanted services.  The worst offenders used to be the soi-disant budget airlines, but they have recently had their crown usurped by another.

Last week brought the first occasion I’ve ever had to use an organisation called Ticketmaster.  Using their website, one is immediately transported back to the 1990s: such is its retro feel in terms of slow response times, busy screens of small print and critical navigation hidden from view.  Given that supply of tickets would seem to be their primary (perhaps only business) and there are a number of potential competitors, their internet ineptness seems oddly shocking with more than a seventh of the 21st century behind us.  Their survival might be partially explained by the rather high booking fees they charge and the fact that they even charge for the option to print your tickets yourself (a first, in my reasonably wide experience).  Not only do they make you pay up-front to print your own tickets, but they then place an extraordinary quantity of useless ink on the printed ticket.  I am forced to assume that they (along with the budget airlines) are receiving kickbacks from Big Ink.  In return for wasting so much of our valuable ink, these companies are paid a fee by an evil consortium of ink cartridge suppliers and so bolster their business models.  It is time that we, the public, start the fight back!  I feel that with a little image-editing software I should be able to blank out all the spurious printing, while retaining those elements which are key to the ticket’s functioning – or will I then find myself falling into the commercial clutches of Adobe?

A very warm welcome to customers joining at Bad, our next station stop will be…

Those of you who know roughly how my mind works – well, I say mind and (for that matter) works, but we both know those two words are operating well outside their respective comfort zones – will realise that this post will be about verse.  Oh yes, he’s brazenly attempted to gussy-up the hackneyed old “going from bad to verse” pun in the hope of creating some barely viable click-bait.  Then again, if you’re reading this, it may have actually worked.  Go me!

The regular reader will be aware of the start of my unfortunate poetry habit and I regret to inform you that matters have not improved.  I currently seem to be consuming collections of poetry at the rate of one per day.  This may not be entirely healthy and is starting to impact other areas of my life.  It has been good news of J Sainsbury’s plc as their store is more convenient for Octopus Books, where I can go for a new fix of any poesy unavailable from the library, than is Waitrose.  In consequence, they have increased their share of my weekly grocery budget – though oddly, this seems to have coincided with a fall in their share price (should they be paying me to take my custom elsewhere?).

At one point, my need for poetry led to me reading Thom Gunn in the checkout queue.  Not entirely wise as supermarket staff are not trained to understand why tears may be streaking a customer’s cheeks after only a fairly minor delay in the process of paying for his goods.  I have now reverted to stewing in my own thoughts as a more socially acceptable form of waiting.

I don’t claim to understand every line, or even every poem: but enough makes it through my semantic barriers that I can recognise some very compelling writing.  Reading some poetry can almost feel intrusive, almost like reading someone else’s diary (and I don’t just mean a list of appointments), so personal does some of it seem.  There are also some lovely turns of phrase available, one of my favourites is “her petal-bright coat” (by Mark Doty): not sure why, it just feels so good in the mouth.  Actually, along with Thom Gunn, Mr Doty is one of my favourite discoveries – he seems to share a little of my style, with his poems full of the sort of asides that litter GofaDM like spots of used chewing gum.  I’m also rather the fan of Michael Donaghy and Philip Gross – but my range is still expanding.

In an attempt to control the poetry, and very much using the same pest-management strategy that proved so successful for the old woman, I am now attempting to ‘swallow’ some short stories.  I presume I will then have to switch to novellas, followed by novels in an escalating chain of reading that will no doubt result in my eventual demise after trying to tackle the literary equivalent of a horse.  Following a sudden memory restoration, I decided to start this counterattack with some work by Jorge Luis Borges (who I’ve been meaning to tackle for some time).  His works proved tricky to find in the library, being filled under neither L nor B.  Reference to the catalogue revealed they did exist, but were held in the Central Library Stacks.

[Cue spooky music: I’m thinking thunderstorm, heavy rain and some solid work on the organ by someone with a pale complexion, dark clothing and maniacal laugh.]

The library staff were a little reluctant to visit the stacks which lie in the crypt (OK, the basement) beneath the library.  There is some thought that they are haunted after the civic centre (including the library) was bombed by the Luftwaffe during the last unpleasantness and a number of children lost their lives sheltering in what is now the stacks.  There has, indeed, been a strange miasma rising up from the lower floor of the library, but I think this has more to do with recent flooding than an imminent assault by the undead.  Still, they did brave the trip and its potential for spectral complications, returning unharmed from Hades antechamber bearing a copy of Labyrinths for my future enjoyment.

This future enjoyment will be somewhat magnified as my reading glasses have arrived – so if you have any small print which needs reading, I’m your man!  The additional clarity (at close range) is taking a little getting used to – everything seems to be shouting at me – but I’m rather enjoying the blurring effect on my distance vision.  It does give everything the feel of those close-up shots of the female lead in a forties movie – as though through muslin or a thin film of vaseline – which lends an aura of romance to even the most mundane of vistas.

The downside of the reading glasses is the ever-present reminder of the temporal transience of existence (and, in particular, mine).  Here, poetry can be a comfort (so I shall probably stick with it, albeit aiming for a lower dosage): in the words of the aforementioned Mark Doty, “that flower wouldn’t blaze if time didn’t burn”.

What can I say, darling!

Any actor – or acquaintance of such – worth his or her salt (and with a position to keep up in the world of luvvie), must maintain a repertoire of phrases which whilst superficially seeming to praise a play or performance actually do no such thing.  This allows the social niceties to be observed without the need to stray into falsehood and perjury.  The title is one example, but I’m sure the late Ned Sherrin could furnish many more – sadly, the task of finding others has proved to lie behind my own meagre internet searching skills.

This fact was brought home to me yesterday, not as a result of any theatrical trauma but as a result of seeing a couple of corporate slogans emblazoned on their owner’s assets.  Both of these seemed superficially to promise much, but could be read as promising a negative outcome just as validly as a positive one.

First Group, purveyors of privatised rail and bus services, seem to favour the slogan “Transforming travel” – sometimes augmented with an additional adjective to indicate the type of travel which is to be transformed (I saw it on a yellow bus as “Transforming school travel”).  Unfortunately, they do not promise that this will be a positive transformation for the traveller (or anyone else) – which, I guess, in an ever changing universe (curse you, entropy!) makes it a very easy promise to keep (requiring, as it does, absolutely no effort on the part of First Group).

Later in the day, I passed a gym run by Fitness First which promised that we would “Never have an average workout again” (I assume as a consequence of patronising their establishment).  As before, there was no indication that any future workout would be better than average: just a commitment to avoid the mean (or perhaps the mode or median, the promise was unclear on this point).  A trickier promise to deliver given the well-known tendency of reversion to the mean and the habit of the average to change over time.  This could require a programme of continuous deterioration (or improvement) in workouts: or a need for gym visits to vacillate randomly in terms of outcome.

I suspect this wheeze is not only employed by companies with the word ‘First’ in their name (and some of whose assets I happened to pass yesterday).  Are teams of writers employed to come up with slogans which seem to promise something but which, if read properly (or challenged in a court of law), actually commit the companies using them to doing (or worse yet, delivering) little or nothing?  Does GofaDM need such a noncommittal mission statement to move it to the next level in terms of customer engagement?   If so, I’m sure I could draft an equally vacuous slogan to deliver my empty promises to you, dear reader.  Your wish is, very occasionally, consonant with my own desires and so could (from a distance) be confused with my command.

Front of House: An Usher

With apologies to Edgar Allan ‘iddle-I’ Poe.

Last Monday I was at the Nuffield Theatre for their regular Experiment night where four incomplete theatrical fragments are given a run-out in front of a live audience in the hope of constructive feedback.  I find this does place quite a lot of pressure on me, as an audience member, trying to come up with something vaguely insightful to write.  As so often, there was a clear winner – this time St Jowan’s Tide by Felix Legge – which I really want to see made into a full play.

This Monday (or ‘tonight’ to its friends) will offer a somewhat different experience as I am off to the Soho Theatre in London to see Andy Zaltzman’s Satirist for Hire: the combination of the news I (eventually) awoke to this morning (frankly an open goal for Zaltor the Magnificent) and the fact that Southwest Trains is offering discount tickets to London again made it an irresistible prospect.  I think I should only be expected to laugh: a feat of which I am quite capable, even in the absence of yoga (though, experiments yesterday afternoon suggest that I still find myself doing yoga terribly funny).

After the theatre had finished and I had scribed such feedback as my limited critical faculties could muster, I found myself chatting to one of the Nuffield team.  It emerged that they were short of ushers for Saturday and in a fit of public-spirited engagement, I volunteered my very unskilled services (still, at least no stapling was required).  So, at 0930 on Saturday morning I found myself reporting to the theatre clad neck-to-ankle in black: as close as my wardrobe could approximate to the usher ‘uniform’.

Pleasingly, I was issued with my own little torch and a hi-viz waistcoat (or vest for any American readers) for use in emergencies.  I tried to contain my disappointment during the fire drill training when it became apparent that there was no role for Inspector Sands: the poor chap seems to be out of work, austerity-based cutbacks are clearly biting deep.  For any interested parties, I would note that it is still considered de trop to scream the word FIRE at full volume into the auditorium.  I was not entrusted with the ice cream tray – but that was mostly down to the lack of an interval rather than any concerns about my ability to keep my hands (and tongue) off the stock.

The play in question, which I ushered through two performances at 1030 and 1330, was What The Ladybird Heard by Julia Donaldson and was aimed at a younger audience and I’d guess that most of its non-parental members were aged 0-6 (years).  This was my first exposure to theatre aimed at such a youthful demographic (except the odd pantomime four decades back and an excerpt at Monday’s Experiment) and they seemed to enjoy it.  For the parents and ushers, I’d suggest it could have been a great deal worse – and I did find new ‘stuff’ to enjoy in my second viewing.  I would note that in addition to her important aphid-eating duties (unmentioned in the play), the ladybird proved unexpectedly capable at foiling a planned robbery.  Her method, in terms of its complexity, had more in common with the Hooded Claw or a Bond villain than you might anticipate.  Apparently, there is a sequel: I’m hoping that the ladybird continues with her crime-fighting exploits and once again thwarts the ne’erdowells by involving her farm friends in a suitably labyrinthine scheme.

Despite some strong lobbying by nearby parents during the 1330 performance, I was not required to play the part of Lanky Len: I like to assume this was a comment on my athletic build rather than their view on my innate criminality.  I left the audience participation to the paying audience, being unwilling to sacrifice what limited air of authority I possessed.  Still, all seem to go well and no-one died on my watch – which I believe is the gold-standard for ushering.  I may even volunteer my services again, one day…

A bit of a stretch

After my return from Edinburgh, it became clear to me that the one thing holding me back (OK, one of the things holding me back (OK, one of the many things holding me back)) from my dream of a life under the big top was a certain deficiency in the flexibility department.  In response, I have been trying to make good some of this deficit – at least in part by augmenting the role that stretching plays in my exercise regimen.  In some ways this was not too difficult, as I have always been decidedly reluctant to stretch – somehow expecting flexibility would arrive unbidden – upping the volume didn’t require very much (starting, as I was, from such a low base).    In others, years of neglect of this (possibly boring) area of endeavour has made my sudden Damascene (of the north) conversion quite the challenge.

Perhaps fortunately, this coincided with Alice Roberts’ excellent book The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being.  This is a wonderful read and full of fascinating nuggets of information.  As the (not particularly) proud possessor of a human body, I have always found rather puzzling the idea – beloved by some who struggle with the concept of evolution – that it should be the work of an ‘intelligent designer’.  Worse than that, it is – apparently – his (or her – though rarely her, in this case) meisterwerk.  As a user, I would contend that the human body is clearly a rushed-job, bodged together as a supposed upgrade to an existing platform and clearly in need of a lot longer in beta test (and when are the patches coming?).  To the extent any design was involved, ‘intelligent’ is pretty low on the list of adjectives I would select to limit the noun.  Alice further hardened me in this view, particularly when it comes to the wiring loom.  If this was designed, then it is the work of a madman: it wouldn’t even pass muster for a third-rate electrician in a hurry, let alone a being with an impressive range of omni-skills on his CV and all of eternity to work on it.  It makes far more sense if you know about Mother Nature’s slow re-purposing of the now redundant gills left over from an earlier model – along with a bunch of other compromises arising from having to make the best of some now very old, and poorly documented, code.  This has made me suspect that AI will not come from the many very bright folk working hard to achieve it, but will instead appear by accident in a much patched, expanded and re-purposed IT system lying deep in a bank or airline (and probably written in COBOL – so perhaps the makers of The Terminator were more prescient than they knew).

Anyway, I seem to be stretching the already taut elastic of your forbearance rather further than even I might hope to get away with, so back to pliancy (mine).  It would seem that many features of our tree living cousins which had been assumed lost, are still available to humans: in particular, I recall that the idea that our feet are not capable of bending very far towards our shins is complete nonsense: we are in fact more capable in this regard than most of our ape-cousins (it’s just that very few of us put in the necessary commitment to tree-climbing from an early age).  Somehow, this gave me hope that, despite my antiquity, there was still hope that I could become much more bendy than has been the case for many years (possibly all years, though my actual childhood bendiness has now passed beyond recall).  So for a good month now, I have been surprisingly diligent in trying to become more lithe – and this is starting to bear fruit.

It would seem that unlike most of the great apes (and me, as of six weeks ago) my lumbar spine is not fused but does in fact retain some degree of mobility.  My shoulders, hips and even wrists are also demonstrating rather more flex than I have grown accustomed to.  It would seem that I am slowly undoing 40+ years of neglect and this became apparent in the shower a couple of days back.  I was innocently spreading the cleansing citrus foam of my shower gel to my body when I suddenly discovered that my hands were accessing regions of my back where they had not been for lo these many years.  Filth that had lain undisturbed for decades (or at least untouched, except by ad-hoc back-scratching tool) has finally been exposed to the direct action of cleansing soap and probing digits.  Who says circus skills have no place in the real world?  So much scratching to catch up on!

So, inspired by my progress date, I now find myself in temporary possession of The Yoga Bible: on the hunt for routes to still further exploit the topological potential of my body.  I must admit that I have always avoided yoga – it always seemed too middle-class and cod-spiritual: the stuff of sitcom and celebrity, rather than real-life – and so had never expected this to happen (many younger versions of me will be very disappointed).  The only time I have previously attempted it (many years ago), I was accompanying the wife of a friend, as he refused to go, and my primary response (and hers) was uncontrollable giggles whenever we caught sight of each other (and so two promising yogic careers were over as soon as they began).  However, now I can see a use for the thing and hope to be able to better control my need to laugh.  According to the Bible, apparently, anyone who can breathe can do yoga – and certainly, I strongly suspect those unable to breathe would struggle with yoga and, in fairly short order, with anything much else which smacks of the living – so I should be in with a chance.  It would also seem that I have actually been doing yoga for quite a while without realising it – what other ancient skills might I have accidentally acquired and remain unaware of?  Might I be an absolute whizz at kung fu?

For now, I shall stick with acrobatics and yoga and eagerly anticipate a future in which all my dogs are downward facing and my positioning regularly lotus (or would that be Excel these days?).

Hamwic: Redux

Sad to say, this post will not be about the ignitable core of my new pork candle: not a euphemism!  That particular product remains stuck in development (and at odds with my mostly vegetarian lifestyle – I’m not sure ‘facon’ would work as well).

Hamwic (aka Hamtun) was the name of the original Saxon village which over time has migrated westwards but somehow gained the prefix ‘south’ to become Southampton.  The city has a surprising amount of surviving heritage – the Luftwaffe and subsequent town planners failed to destroy it all (though they deserve some sort of commendation for their efforts).  I must admit that I have only really discovered this ‘hidden’ heritage through the need to find somewhere novel to take visitors (once I’d exhausted the possibilities offered by the Common).

The city has a surprisingly complete and solid city wall: built, as you might imagine, to keep the dastardly French at bay (though they may have had some justification for their raids: dodgy, biased scales and the export of Plantagenet troops to reclaim their French holdings might have riled them, just a tad).  Until surprisingly recently, the western and southern walls gave out directly onto the sea (I’ve seen the painting to prove it!): today it overlooks the docks, an ugly dual-carriageway and a range of retail parks (I’m not entirely sure this is progress – but the cruise ships would have struggled to moor against the old quayside).

The city also contains some surprising survivals: including merchant’s houses from the 13th and 16th centuries – but has buildings (or sizeable fragments thereof) going back to the Normans.  The Medieval Merchant’s gaff was ‘revealed’ when the bombs cleared away many of its neighbours – though I couldn’t, in general, recommend aerial bombardment as an archeological tool (it lacks the discernment of hand trowel and brush).  Both contain museums and a variety of local artefacts of which my favourite was a hot cross bun in the Tudor House.  It was described as ‘very old’ by a visitor who visited when the museum opened in 1912, so it is now exceeding old and does look a little wan and rather hard: it certainly isn’t hot and has lost its cross (if ever it had one), but it is still clearly a bun (and has been preserved, incorruptible – which may make it a saint among buns).

Perhaps the city’s most distinctive (if most hidden) feature is the extensive vaults which lie beneath the old town.  In ye olden days, Southampton was the main centre for the import of wine for much of the country (at least as far north as Nottingham) and many properties had vaults beneath to keep the product fresh.  I believe twenty or so (from an original 50 ish) survive and I have now been to seven (and peered into the gloom of a couple more).  Five of these came on the excellent Vaults Tour which leaves from the Tudor Merchant’s House and provides a fascinating insight into the city’s past: I think these happen only rarely, but are well worth catching if you can.  Fascinatingly, many of the vaults came as the Medieval equivalent of a ‘flat-pack’ – though it must be said that not all the builders were of the best quality and the instructions have not always been followed to the letter (or at all).  One vault, and the one in which I have spent the most time, has clearly been recycled from an earlier vault and is decidedly gerry-built: though as it has outlived most of the rest of the city, one can’t be too critical.

Several of the vaults can be hired for events and, indeed, the upcoming Music in the City festival (OK, day: how many days make a festival, I wonder?) will use many as venues.  A chap with a significant anniversary on the horizon could consider using them for some sort of celebration (or wake), but they are unheated and lacking in anywhere to recline which might make them a challenge for less hardy celebrants in February (even in balmy West Hamwic).