Night rider

As the world continues in its perambulations around the sun, and we continue to live through different, in many ways, reduced times, I seem to have found that I have reached the end of myself. It is not that I am at any immediate risk (insofar as I know) of meeting my maker and finally having a chance of remonstrating with them as to their decidedly shonky workmanship but more that I am totally depleted of energy and (largely) joie de vivre. I seem to have temporarily (I trust) lost the ability to bootstrap myself from knackered revenant to the life and soul of the party (even if that is often a party of one) despite minimal sleep. Even my haemoglobin has lost its lustre, or at least reduced in concentration within my bloodstream, and so I have been benched for three months by NHS Blood and Transplant.

I feel lack of sleep is a major contributor to my current ennui as is the lack of the usual novelty that life used to provide before mid-March. I fear the seams of my personal mine are currently exhausted: to massively over-extend an already creaking metaphor, I need to sink new shafts and, perhaps, invest in more powerful pumps to keep the water out. The urge to retreat from the world is strong: which I suspect means that I should do the exact opposite as I have learned to distrust my ‘instincts’ (one of many conversations I shall be having with the All Father).

Hope is not lost; merely misplaced: I’ve probably put it somewhere “safe”. With my blood no longer in demand, I can take more serious chemical measures to force myself into the reluctant arms of Morpheus. We shall temporarily side-step the issue of consent in our rather fractious relationship: I fear he’s just not that into me but I am unable to move on…

This afternoon, after a failed attempt to return to bed for a nap that never arrived (leaves on the line?), I discovered the unexpected history of the courgette. At this time of year, and now safely into middle-age, the mini-marrow forms a significant part of my diet and, indeed, today’s second dinner/lunch. Apparently, the harmless veg we know today was tamed by the autochthonous Americans from a wild and poisonous ancestor. I shudder to think of the generations that suffered and died to bring us the modern courgette. One has to admire their single-minded purpose towards what is, in many ways, such an unimpressive goal: and they didn’t even have the option of grilled halloumi to pair with it!

Secondly, after many Essay-less weeks, Radio 3 have suddenly dropped a dozen into my podcast inbox. The first few are based on the Decameron and come from the fine folk at 1927 – who I have always seen accompanied by extraordinary back projections, which do not transfer to the radio but their essential nature of 1927 very much does – and they are weird and wonderful and have rather perked me up. The power of novelty: even if the source material was knocked out by Boccaccio in the 14th century, appropriately at a time of plague…

I have managed to accomplish one thing this week, a high point in the otherwise rather featureless desert of my accomplishments: very much the Ely cathedral punctuating the Fenlands of my inanition of the last week. For at least five years, I’d been intending to head into the imagined darkness of the New Forest on a clear night for a bit of stargazing (fair-haired lessie optional). As so often with my plans, nothing then happened for a long time. The original thought had been to go by car, but lockdown has taught me that arboreal astronomy is accessible by bike. So, at 9pm on Wednesday evening I took my bike, new binoculars and a fortifying pint of Steam Town’s Stoke to a heathland portion of the Forest. It was a joy to cycle through the dark streets of the city, past its illuminated docks and cranes and then out through the suburbs into the countryside. The roads and cycle paths were mostly deserted and my two-wheeled steed made short work of the miles.

Despite entering the deep, dark wood during the hours of darkness I was safe because I have read widely and know how it important it is not to stray from the path. I had picked a location to the south of Ashurst that seemed to be maximally distant from any sources of light pollution. This plan was mostly a success, though the amber glow of Southampton does extend quite the distance from the city. Nevertheless, I was rewarded with an enormous bounty of stars, plus Jupiter and Saturn, many visible with my naked eyes (well, I was alone and so partial nudity was an option) and even more through my swanky new binoculars. I am force to admit that I do make a rather shaky tripod (OK, bipod), but the ground was a little damp for sitting down in a more stable configuration. More stargazing will definitely follow and the hours of darkness, if not periods of clear sky, are only growing longer as the year winds down. For my next excursion, I need to do a tad more research so that I know what I’m looking at: for now, if it isn’t Ursa Major or Orion, I am basically clueless.

Going out on my bike does remain the one constant that brings my joy, however banjaxed I am and when all other joys have fled, and this weekend looks free of gales or lightning (at least at the moment), so I may will be out and about during the hours of daylight. Hopefully, the combination of some exercise and a chemical cosh at bedtime will restore me to a more normal (for me, and possibly Norfolk) state…

Transience

I have reached that stage in life when the last of the famous faces from my childhood are shuffling off their mortal coils.  At some level, this does feel somewhat as though my childhood itself is dying – though, in other ways, my inner child remains strong and vital.  Perhaps surprisingly given my current incarnation, it is not the loss of the musicians of my youth that affects me but people from the television and radio.  In my quondam days, music was little more than background (so far as I can recall), the main elements of my life were books (mostly speculative fiction), radio comedy and the television – mostly watching shows that will not have stood the test of time (and which I shall be careful not to re-watch to preserve the pleasures of my youth unsullied by the greater discernment of my middle age).

It was a few weeks ago that we lost Peter Firman, the last of the founders of Smallfilms, whose animated treasures were such a highlight of my early years.  This drove me to YouTube to seek out the first episode of Noggin the Nog and the Tales of the Northlands in which he starred.  This pre-dated even me – I must have seen rather later repeats – but even after more than 40 years it was so familiar and I had never forgotten Graculus.  I’m sure everyone has fond feelings for the television of their early years but I feel there was something particularly special and charming about the work of Smallfilms that later generations were denied.

Of course, with YouTube in front of me and my brain soused in nostalgia, I couldn’t leave it at just watching Noggin.  Eventually, I found myself watching one of the weirdest cartoons of my youth: Ludwig.  Adult me was unsurprised to discover that it was the brainchild of a Czech animator but I did find it much more luridly coloured than I remembered (probably because we only had a black and white television).  For those too young to recall this odd treat, Ludwig was some sort of admixture of an alien, Inspector Gadget, Loki and a classical music-loving egg who arrives unannounced in a forest and disrupts the life of its inhabitants.

It was only last week that we lost Jacqueline Pearce who played Servalan and Blake’s 7 and made such an impression on my pre-teen years.  Looking back, she was an extraordinarily strong female character for late 70s science fiction and rocked a rather unconventional look for the BBC of that era.  I can’t help wondering if she bears some (perhaps quite a lot of) responsibility for whatever feminist credentials I actually possess as she was an early example of a powerful woman (Supreme Commander of the Terran Federation, no less) with her own style – and it would be a very brave (and probably short-lived) character who would criticise her for it.

The deaths of these famous folk, many of whom are forever young in my memories, has helped to highlight the temporal distance from my childhood.  The feeling of having lived too long (in some ways only – no-one needs to stage an intervention or keep me away from sharp objects) has also been occurring more frequently of late.  I often find myself in front of the bathroom mirror of a morning thinking, “What, again?!”.  I think this is mostly down to the repetitions of life, and especially the need to constantly service the meat puppet which I have still failed to transcend.  I mean you feed it or shave it or wash it (or whatever) for the nth time (for large n) knowing full well that you’ll just have to do it again in a few hours/days.  By 52, there are certain activities that one has done too often to the same fleshy envelope and I find myself wanting some novelty.  Sadly, the technology does not exist for a full body transplant and I think I’m too old – and lack the inclination (and the wardrobe) – to transition to another gender.  I suppose I could get a tattoo or a piercing – but I am as inconstant as the wind and don’t really trust myself to want to keep the same image/text/hole into the medium (let alone the longer) term: I suppose I could have it somewhere I can’t see but that might rather defeat the purpose.

As well as the “What, again?!” moments during my brief, daily, dalliance with a reflecting surface there are also the “Not you again!” moments.  When I was young, I was more than happy with my own company – I guess my novelty value had yet to wear off – and while I had friends at school never really interacted with them outside the school grounds.  In many ways, this broad approach to life continued to my mid twenties and the introduction of alcohol into my life and, more significantly, my bloodstream.  I would then go to the pub with friends, have people over for dinner and occasionally cultural activities would be introduced.  This was broadly how my life continued into my forties, enjoying having a social life with friends but otherwise living a solitary life with cultural activities generally enjoyed alone.  If I spent a whole weekend with other people, I would have fun but be glad to return to my own space and company: though for a brief period would miss the stimulation other people provided.

At some stage, while living in Cambridge, I started going much more regularly to events (mostly classical music concerts and comedy gigs) at a small number of venues – something which started by accident when I went to see a friend of my parents whose orchestra was playing in town.  I enjoyed myself and the West Road concert hall became a regular haunt.  This meant that I tended to encounter the same people on multiple occasions and so got to know them.  However, it is since being in Southampton that this process has really taken off.  I can now have dozens of friends I see regularly around the city and can rarely leave the house without bumping into someone I know.  It is a lovely thing to be able to go out and expect (without planning anything) to meet friends: though it does rather eat into my reading time.

I think that my friends are becoming a much more important part of my life.  It is not entirely clear why, perhaps I am finally maturing emotionally?  It is not impossible as, relatively recently, after reading still falling by Sara Hirsch, I started to understand why people might want to enter into a relationship with another human: better late than never, eh?  I think I may have said this before, but think carefully before you read poetry: you never know how it might change you!

However, my preferred theory is that I am now bored of myself – I have lived with, what is conventionally thought of as, the same person for more than 52 years and the honeymoon period is definitely over.  I now find myself dreading having to spend a whole day – or worse evening – with only myself for company.  It’s fine if I have work or something else constructive (or which I deem constructive – which is not the same thing at all!) to do, but if I am free of responsibilities the prospect of being stuck with myself is not as appealling as once it was (more appalling).  Could this be an explanation for GofaDM?  Is it all a terrible attempt to escape my own company by inflicting it on the unsuspecting internet?  Does the fact that in recent months I have had loads of human contact, including more hugs on some days than the preceding four decades had delivered in total (I assume my childhood was hug-rich, but sadly cannot remember whether this is the case at all), mean that I had less need for this blog and explain my recent neglect?

Having said that I fill myself with a feeling of ennui, current me is way more interesting and entertaining company than past mes.  I really wouldn’t want to be stuck in a room with teenage or early twenties me – in fact, in many ways I’m not convinced that we are the same person at all.  Just because I share some faded and distorted versions of his memories, his genotype and a decayed version of his phenotype does not mean we are the same person.  This does lead to the thought that “future me” will disavow “current me”: though will be stuck with a lot of written proof of his existence.  I suppose everything is transient (though no-one has yet seen a proton or electron fall apart – so far as I know) and we should try and enjoy it, and the self doing the enjoying, while it lasts – and not worry overly much about the judgments that will be made by our future selves (they will always lack a certain perspective).

Let’s get Quizzical

On Monday evening, I was sitting at home (I know!) feeling vaguely sorry for myself.  There are a number of reasons (or at least rationalisations) that I might present to explain the ennui which was gripping me.

Firstly, I had just finished my current book (of the fictional variety) which is always a bittersweet moment.  It is always nice to know what happened and achieve the dreaded ‘closure’, but I am also wrenched from the company of my new fictional friends and don’t know when we’ll be reunited.  In this case, I believe the next book in the series has finally been translated from French after a mere 20 years – and, before regular readers ask, no I was not left in charge of its translation.

Secondly, I think I am reaching my limit when it comes to coping with cold, grey and wet weather for this winter.  Sadly, winter has other ideas though, perhaps in an attempt to improve the morale of the wider populace, the Met Office are currently forecasting a degree of improvement in both temperature and the availability of sunshine for the denizens of Southampton over the next few days.  I haven’t even seen a single snowdrop yet this winter, though I have seen a lone daffodil displaying its cheerful yellow trumpet, despite the unfavourable conditions.

Finally (for now), I have acquired an odd subcutaneous lump in the palm of my right-hand.  At this stage, it is unclear whether this is a physical injury I don’t remember inflicting upon myself, my body’s response to some sort of infective agent or whether I have been drugged and some sort of tracking device has been fitted by a curious spying agency or alien power (it was always only a matter of time!).  Until the forces of medical orthodoxy take a look at it on Friday morning and deliver a diagnosis (I’m hoping for something other than murder), I have had to suspend training for the human flag as a precautionary measure.

Having established the emotional state and underlying motivation of our hero, I can now reveal that it was at this point that my mobile phone rang.  Yes, unusually, I actually had the sound switched on and so I heard it call out (terrible attention-seeking behaviour which I probably shouldn’t encourage) rather than letting it sob silent and ignored in whichever location I had last left it languishing.  Taking this is an omen, I answered and was greeted with a question which I shall paraphrase (sadly, my calls are not recorded even for the all too necessary purpose of training) as ‘are you coming to the quiz?’.  The distant voices also seemed keen for me to generate a name for their team using my basic skills with the pun.  I hadn’t planned on going to the quiz (though I’m always up for a pun), but I had nothing particular planned and the rain was temporarily in abeyance and so agreed to haul my sorry ashes to the Talking Heads for some light-hearted interrogation.

It is quite a while since I last went to a pub quiz and I will admit that my hopes were not high.  However, my re-casting of my mother’s advice (dating from when I was reluctant to go to school) to propose that I will feel better if I go out was once again proved to be on the money.  I had a really great evening out – and my team (‘Natural Quiz-aster’) came within a gnat’s crochet of winning, if only I’d been more confident about my guess as to the name of New Orleans International Airport!  I don’t need to expound upon the cruelty of the penalty shoot-out – or in this case, sudden-death anagram.  Still, this last gasp defeat in no way prevented me from having a jolly good time.

If I were to analyse why I had so much fun, I might start by pointing to the replacement of my fictional French friends with some live, real British ones.  There was also a much lower risk that my real friends would be topped by a psychotic failed opera singer than their virtual counterparts.  I would also have to admit that the pub quiz format certainly offers an excellent opportunity for me to show off the vast morass of useless knowledge that I have accumulated (and failed to lose) over the last half century or so.  Sometimes even I don’t know where the answer comes from, I’ve just learned that I should usually trust the source.

Finally, I can point to the return to the bar of a real ale from a source other than Palmers: a brewery which fails to bring joy to this drinker’s heart, except by its absence.  Even better, the guest ale was Mosiac from Red Cat: a brewery which has brought a lot of joy into my recent life with an almost infeasibly good range of decent ales.  I think they may be my favourite brewer of the moment!  In researching this post, I have discovered that Red Cat do offer tours of their Winchester brewery with what looks like unlimited ale included in the ticket price.  It is way past time that I found 5 friends (or, at a pinch, total strangers) and availed myself of this opportunity!

 

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The tragic last pint of Mosaic!  I’m drinking the line pack…

I was also the recipient (or victim) of a portrait by one of my team mates.  This was drawn without looking at the paper or removing the pen from the paper – but with lots of eye contact with the sitter.  I, naturally, enjoyed being the centre of attention!

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An uncanny likeness of the author?

Following the quiz, my team repaired to the green room of the Talking Heads (a place I have never visited, but will obviously be returning to with my band and our rider in the not too distant future) to watch the last episode of the current series of Inside No. 9.  This really is a consistently well and interestingly written 30 minutes of television.  However, it was only the following day that I realised that the series has a connection to my own life…

I shall leave you to ponder the baroque, often macabre, twists of my life that might connect it to the works of Messrs Shearsmith and Pemberton.  Instead, I shall leave you with the thought that going out with friends is an excellent cure for accidie.