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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An Augmented Verb

While I continue to doubt my credentials as a ‘writer’, I cannot deny that I have some sort of fetish for language.  Over the past weekend alone, I have found myself musing as to whether ‘rusticity’ and ‘vespine’ are words – or just word-like formulations of my own devising (as it transpires, I can lay claim to neither – despite the doubts of both WordPress and Google when it comes to ‘vespine’, Mr Collins is clear that they have existed for quite a while).

One of the many ways in which I indulge my fetish is by listening to The Verb via its podcast.  I was introduced to The Verb by its host: not directly, but via his Twitter feed (one of many introductions for which I must thank the blue bird of both happiness and truly hideous abuse).  In common with much of Radio 4 – or at least those parts I enjoy via podcast – The Verb is on holiday, but as a sop to those addicts among us is offering selected back-numbers to help us make it through the difficult, dog days of summer.

Usually, I listen to podcasts at home or on a train (or occasionally, a plane) but to celebrate what might have been the last gasp of summer (our canine friends will soon have to cede the temporal stage to another creature – the duck days of autumn?), yesterday I decided to indulge in a little al fresco consumption.  So I took my self, iPod, and a pair of headphones up to the Common to enjoy the sunshine and temperatures on the upper cusp of their teens.  After a pleasant walk around the Common, the obligatory soft ice cream (which, if I’m honest, was the primary reason for my excursion) and a little light butterfly stalking, I sat down on the grass and started a Verb from distant 2013 (before I became a regular consumer).

I rarely sit on the grass – perhaps an age- and height-related desire to avoid both the long way down and the even longer return journey – and I think I’ve been missing out.  The world looks surprisingly beautiful when observed from rather lower than my usual viewpoint – once again, being tall is revealed as massively over-rated.  Wearing my cloak of invisibility – OK, mirrored shades and a pair of headphones – I watched the (mostly) young people enjoying the Common in the sunshine.  As I people-watched, I couldn’t help feeling that I have had far too little fun with a frisbee in my life (though using one on my own would, I fear, look unutterably sad).

My tristesse was assuaged by the aural cosseting provided via my headphones.  The near-perfect line-up included Boo Hewerdine, the Listening Machine (who, with the help of the Britten Sinfonia, turn Twitter into audio gold) and David Sedaris.  Hearing Ian McMillan interviewing David Sedaris is almost too much: two such distinctive voices brought together in fascinating dialogue feels almost dangerous – like crossing the streams.

Some might imagine that these musings aspire to achieve the level of style and quality exhibited by Mr Sedaris’ work – but it wasn’t until yesterday that I had even considered making such a comparison (and then very hurriedly reversed away from it).  I feel an aspiration should at least have some vague hope of achievement, or at least offer the hope of reaching a destination in broadly the same time zone – and this would not be the case with Mr S.  In a similar vein, I recently spotted a competition to find a new comic writer – but this competition was named after P G Wodehouse.  Who would feel bold enough to enter a competition with the name of such a master attached?  When naming a competition, you need to find someone who has achieved greatness through obvious effort – rather than those blessed with an incondign mastery.

[BTW: Has anyone else noticed that WordPress seems to suffer from a diminishing vocabulary but imposes this with far greater vehemence on the unfortunate writer?  It frequently chooses to correct my writing after I’ve completed the proof-reading – which is less than helpful.]

Mr Sedaris was enthralling, with all manner of insights drawn out by Ian McMillan.  He keeps a diary in surprising detail (though still less than he finds he wants) and will keep material for years (the number seventeen was mentioned) waiting for other elements to arrive which will combine felicitously to form a ‘story’ (or ‘post’ if translated to my own life).  My poor brain can rarely retain an incident for more than a week or two – and so unless it finds a home in that time it is lost forever (or until a heavy night on the red wine which sometimes knocks old ideas loose).  This makes me realise that too many posts are rushed to press, when waiting a little (or a lot) longer would create a much improved product: less of a diary entry with mildly amusing asides and more of a proper piece of writing.  Still, I’m not convinced that I have the discipline to keep a diary or know what it should include – then again, that which goes unattempted must perforce remain impossible so perhaps I should venture in hope of some future gain.

If only this particular diary entry could properly capture the joy of people and nature watching in a sunny park whilst listening to The Verb – as close to the realm eternal as I am likely to manage in this life (or probably – subject to its existence – the next) – then I would be (temporarily) happy.

I have a dream

Well, if I’m being more honest, “I had a dream”.  This did not involve the aspiration that people would cease being vile to each other on the trivial grounds of how recently (and, indeed, willingly) their ancestors left Africa: I fear humanity is rather too attached to its mutual hatred to give it up during my limited span upon this Earth.  In consequence, I seriously doubt that even a single US state will create a public holiday as a result of this post – though, if any are interested, please feel free to go ahead!  No, my dream relates to my attempts to sojourn in the arms of Morpheus this night just gone.

I am fully aware that other people’s dreams are, if possible, of even less general interest than their baby photos and holiday snaps (though Facebook and its ilk are a brave attempt to fly in the face of this particular, undeniable truth), so I shall try and move swiftly through the dream-world and onto the conclusion (I deliberate avoid the world “punchline”).

As I lay in my hypnogogic state, it would seem that I was on a train journey – but one which was delayed by an unspecified, or now forgotten, incident.  In an attempt to avoid the incident, my train reversed for some distance and then took to the sea to bypass the problem.  Obviously, it remained close to shore – a modern EMU rake is not designed for operation in the open ocean (even a dream must maintain some contact with reality).  High above the sea flew winged men (but no women – this may say something very deep about my subconscious views on female flight-worthiness or be an attempt to retain a PG rating for my slumber as all the flying folk were bare-chested). Their wings had more of the condor about them than the angelic, replacing their arms, and they flew in a manner appropriate to their feathery appendages – no doubt riding thermals from the nearby cliffs.  As well as these flying men, their were also swans which dove – gannet-like – into the briny.  They emerged from the sea in a manner more reminiscent of an ICBM than a bird – it was really quite a remarkable thing to behold.

Even now, I can remember what I thought as I dreamt – still believing, as dreamers often do, that the matters described above were real – that this fascinating behaviour, by a hitherto unknown member of genus Cygnus, would make for a great blog post.  It would seem that even when dreaming, part of my brain is working on content for GofaDM – perhaps there is even another, parallel blog which exists only in the dream world?  Sadly, of course, none of this was real and so I was left with no new material from which to form a post – and so the hunt for fresh inspiration must continue…

Après le Déluge

It has been a little quiet on here of late, and this is not entirely my fault.  As you will later see, I am placing some of the blame firmly with higher powers (or perhaps with a malicious butterfly).  Some portion of the causative liability does lie closer to home, and with the chronic insomnia that has afflicted the author, intermittently, for the last couple of decades.  My recent, prolonged estrangement from the restorative embrace of Morpheus has left me parted from my muse (or at least the get-up-and-go to translate limited inspiration to textual iron pyrites).  Some days, I do wonder if the bone-deep enervation, combined with such news as I fail to avoid, is nature’s way of telling me that I have passed my natural span and I should exit, stage left: it probably has been too long since last I visited the Swiss.  Still, last night I managed to achieve nearly eight hours of uninterrupted slumber for the first time in weeks and so will probably stick around for a little longer.  Annoyingly, when I did awake this morning, it interrupted a dream in which I was being effortlessly witty in front of an audience – something I rarely manage when awake (perhaps the jarring unreality of the hypnogogic state was what brought me back to reality?).

The last few days I have been lying awake in historic Cambridge: seeing friends and indulging in pursuits both cultural and physical.  It had been six months since my last visit, but the orgy of demolition and construction seems to have continued unabated (or even intensified).  Like London, it would seem that Cambridge is pricing out the claustrophobic young – but still offers reasonable value for any sardines seeking a flat share.  Do young sardines get given the key to the tin when they turn the fishy-equivalent of 21?  Or does that musing date me horribly?

In the wee, small hours of Friday morning, Cambridge was hit by a storm the likes of which I have never seen.  We had continuous thunder for several hours and a prolonged period over which the city was struck by 200+ bolts of lightning per minute.  I had a decent excuse for my sleeplessness, rather than the usual “cause unknown” (though having been between jobs for a little while, I think I must exonerate “the man”).  In the morning sunshine, the city looked rather beautiful with all the building and plants washed clean by the night’s precipitative excitement.    Sadly, this was not the only effect of the storm – with significant flooding across the city, including the basement parlour where my massage therapist plies his trade.  Luckily, the waters had been conquered by the modern day Knut by the time I had my massage later that afternoon and the (as always, odd) conversation with my therapist should generate several posts in the days to come.  The storm also took out the city council’s offices and had a rather serious impact on Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

I was staying in Sidney Sussex College – wisely on the first floor and so above any rising waters.  My room was perfectly comfortable – though with oddly few, badly-positioned power sockets, which must be an issue for the modern student – and the shared shower could offer a force of water to match the previous night’s storm.  The college is wonderfully central and offers a very generous breakfast – and, to-date, has always offered extremely stimulating breakfast conversation.  This time, with an american chap involved in the drafting of NAFTA, covering the Euro crisis and the different models of university on the two sides of the Atlantic.  I have never had a conversation in a proper hotel which can match those I’ve had in a Cambridge college refectory: it is almost worth paying for a night’s stay just for the breakfast.

The biggest impact the storm had on me (and, lest we forget, I am the important one here) was the damage to Cambridge University’s computing systems which meant that I was without internet access for most of Friday.  Even when it returned, it was generally slow and would not load the WordPress website at all (though was quite happy to serve any other site I attempted).  Is there some sort of long-term feud between WordPress and Cambridge University?  Have they published something slanderous about the VC?  Whatever the reason, I was actually unable to blog until I returned home: an enforced period of cold turkey (which I seem to have survived without obvious symptoms, so this is not an addiction – it must be a life-style choice).

It was lovely being back in Cambridge and I remember why I loved living there.  I also remembered some of the frustrations too: Saturday combined graduation with an enormous quantity of foreign language students and the usual shoppers making the city centre hideously busy.  I hid in a variety of bookshops, the Divinity School (aka The “Div” School – which gives a very different impression of its role) and a church before fleeing back towards the relative peace-and-quiet of London’s Southbank and thence home.  I think I could live in Cambridge again – if life were to take me that way – but there is now a lot about Southampton and it environs that I would miss.  My new city has quietly wormed its way into my affections and become home.

The title for this return to the blog, continues the occasional (and largely ignored) conceit of using foreign titles: on this occasion turning to the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (never played by Sly Stallone, so far as I know) and his thematically rather apt work of the same name.

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.

Marx’ missive anniversary

I’ll admit that I have not fact-checked the title, but there must be a fighting chance that Karl penned some sort of letter on June 28th.  However (and there’s one in the eye for Michael Gove), there can be no doubt that tomorrow is a red letter day for GofaDM.  One (of the many) alternative titles for this post was “When blogs collide!” for, in little more than twenty-four of your earth hours, my blog soul brother and yours truly will finally meet “in the flesh” at a location rich in historic resonance.

The most eagerly anticipated encounter since the Rumble in the Jungle, though hopefully with less bloodshed (I certainly don’t plan on going down in the eighth) and probably with a smaller live audience.  Every lifeform within the light cone of central London must surely be holding its breath (or local equivalent) for the first truly great event of the third millennium of the Current Era (and those beyond must be desperately seeking the tachyon).  A day that will go down in (and possibly on) history.

In my forty-nine (and a bit) years on this unfashionably damp lump of rock, this rendezvous is without precedent.  Given the extraordinarily wide-ranging interactions we have enjoyed via WordPress, in some ways I know my brother better than people I’ve known for decades – where more traditional conversation rarely takes such Byzantine pathways through language and the human experience.  There is definitely something to be said for each participant in a conversation being allowed a thousand words or so before their interlocutor is required to participate (and perhaps some preparation time and access to a small Reference Library): I, at least, can achieve a much higher level of superficiality and/or foolishness under such circumstances.

Heretofore, our passionate, literary affair has been pursued entirely in text (and some judicious application of his legendary Paint skills on the part of my brother), like some modern day, blog-based Abelard and Eloise.  Like them, our interaction has scandalised a community – and almost spawned a new Widget for WordPress (I believe A+E spawned more traditional issue).  I trust that unlike them we will both be left physically intact and free from constraining convent walls – one can take historic parallels too far.

Given the hype, today I find myself in a frenzy of preparations for the main event.  Is it too late for plastic surgery?  What should I wear?  At my age, I generally only meet new people when suited and booted – but this seems overly formal.  Following this week’s Thinking Allowed, should I affect the black roll-necked sweater with a Gitane(s) perched insouciantly between my lips (a plan which will be fine unless I light it, at which point my pretence at left-bank, intellectual sang-froid will be cruelly exposed by a coughing fit).  Alternatively, having massively enjoyed Victoria Coren-Mitchell’s recent series on How to be a Bohemian (if you missed it, you should really seek it out on iPlayer) should my dress embrace the avant-garde?  Should I go with the round glasses or the square?  (For the Playschool massive, I will admit that I have no arched glasses – yet).  Traditional advice would suggest that I should “be myself” (or avoid that altogether), but who am I?

On reflection, the ship of first impressions sailed long ago and Vlogging a Dead Horse does rather reveal my lack of sartorial depth.  That is the problem with so extensively blogging my existence, there is little that the determined reader cannot deduce about the author by this stage (though I continue to remain an enigma to e-marketers – and myself).  So, I think I shall dress for comfort (rather than style – as if this latter were ever an option) in a manner compatible with the forecast weather conditions.

Unusually, readers may be offered two different points-of-view on the epochal events of tomorrow.  Or I suppose we could live-blogging the whole day?  (If that is even possible with WordPress). This could mean that I have a little less licence than usual when preparing the narrative for the GofaDM audience.  Alternatively, we might just both agree to lie outrageously about what happens in the desire to build the legend.

Eternity, here we come!

Muse musings

In days of old, it was not uncommon for artists to have a muse who would inspire them to achieve even greater heights in their chosen field.  The artists tended to be male and the muses female, and often of less than difficult virtue, so I suspect there may have been an ulterior motive and gland games were probably involved. It seems high time, after more than four years of GofaDM, that I provide some explanation for the term “gland games” that I tend to bandy about – usually in the context of my own lack of interest therein.  Readers may wonder what I have against having a little fun with the lymphatic system or a couple of rubbers of Contract Bridge with my pituitary.  The simple answer is nothing, except in the case of the ratites (birds of the infraclass Palaeognathae) in which the males use lymphatic fluid to raise their standard (as it were).  The phrase “gland games” comes from the 1984 movie The Last Starfighter and so I have been using it for some thirty years now.  It is coined by the beta unit – a simulant left behind to cover for the ostensible hero while he is off fighting Xur and the Ko-dan armada – while seeking to repel the amorous advances of the hero’s girlfriend.  In my view, Beta is the true hero of the film – he gives up his artificial life to save the day and create the conditions for victory, but his sacrifice is completely ignored by the rest of the cast.  If, in the future, our artificial children extirpate the human race it will be incidents like this that will have driven them to it – you mark my words! Suitably invigorated by that little diversion, let us return to the A-road of this post with the risk of falling asleep at the wheel much reduced.  Many of you may have wondered whether some muse sits behind the scenes, perhaps in a state of some deshabille, helping to inspire the relentless production line of foolishness that is such an integral part of GofaDM.  In all honesty, I must report that this person does not exist – or not yet, though applications from suitably qualified candidates will be considered. To date, GofaDM has relied solely on the slow decay of the brain of its author.  He has to hope that events in his life or things he has seen, heard or read will spark some slight glimmer of light in the slowly darkening twilight of his mind.  On a good day, a couple of neurones will stir from their torpor to induce some threshold level of axonal excitement and another post will burst forth to plague humanity.  On a really good day, the Muse will descend, from her Mount Parnassus based pied-á-terre, in guise of fire and deliver the precious gift of inspiration – but as regular readers can attest, such visits are rare indeed (usually, I just find a card through the letterbox to say she called while I was out). However, recently matters have changed.  I have started dipping the tip of my toe into the shallows of the ocean of social media and as a result the comments section of this blog is alight with input from beyond the author’s own empty head (well, assuming anything exists out there – but this is not the time for such philosophising).  I have even started commenting on other blogs – in a clear attempt to sabotage the opposition and reduce them to my level.  The written thoughts of others can be amazing and they go to such strange places: places I could never visit unaided (or not without the ingestion of proscribed substances or huge red wine intake).  The joy of the blog format is that ideas come in much more manageable chunks than when reading a whole book (for example) and can develop through interaction – something I believe I was hoping for in An Opening Salvo, but have done little to encourage heretofore.  I cannot see how the sentence “a statuette of the crucified Christ has yet to laser me in the forehead” in reference to St Rita of Cascia would ever have happened without this interaction, and the world (or my corner of it) would be a lesser place without it. As a result of finding my blog soul brother – check it out now! – in the last couple of weeks, inspiration has come not as single spies but as battalions (to abuse both Hamlet and Fatboy Slim in a single sentence).  I am now viewing even more of my life with a writer’s eye thinking: can this be shoe-horned into a post?  I even fondly imagine that my writing is improving with less of the purely diary-based filler and rather more of the conceptual killer.  If nothing else, my productivity has improved significantly which could be viewed as a good thing (I would suggest this viewing is probably best attempted from a distance – I believe EGS-zs8-1 is lovely at this time of year – and through heavily smoked glass). If any other reader wants to join in – and is not afraid to shoulder some of the blame for the consequences – I can assure you that I very rarely bite (and if I do, these are all my own teeth).