Acme: New and Improved

It always feels good to title a post with multiple oxymorons.  As is becoming a habit, this post will be made up of addenda to its predecessor.  As an artist, there is always the challenge of knowing when a work is finished – but I do try to keep to within 1000 words for a single post: just one measure of the compassion I feel (sorry, fake) for you, dear reader.

Among the candidates for summary crucifixion that I considered before breakfast was Wile E Coyote.   He was never going to receive my vote as he is a personal hero – albeit one let down by his supplier on numerous occasions.  Modern Olympians could learn from Mr Coyote’s dedication and commitment to his project, even after truly terrible set-backs his resolve never weakened.  An inspiration for us all, I think you must agree.

This started me thinking about the Acme Corporation.  Given the very well-publicised issues with its products, I would assume that it is languishing in Chapter 11 administration and in need of a white knight to come to its rescue.  I have for some time been seeking a way to monetise this drivel so that I can retire to the life of luxury I so clearly deserve.  Yesterday, an idea for a new product which could be the saving of Acme (and the keys to the gravy train for me) sprang, unbidden, to my mind – and as part of the viral marketing campaign (or should I go fungal?) to come, I thought I’d share the basics with you.

I found myself with a few minutes to kill before dinner, after unusually swift translation from West Dulwich to Oxford Circus by the combined forces of Southeastern and TfL.  As is all too common, I frittered this time away in Foyles – though frankly, it would be cheaper just to give my wallet to the first ne’er-do-well I encountered.  To minimise the fiduciary risk, I tried to retain crystalline focus on my objective – in this case the poetry department – and not fall prey to the temptation that lay, wantonly, all around me.

Why the poetry department, you may wonder.  Well I blame the combined forces of Ian McMillan and my blog-brother.  Perhaps luckily, they lacked any work by Francisco Serrano – even in translation (and I was after the Spanish) – but they did have the Selected Works of Fernando Pessoa.  I just sampled the first two stanzas of Tabacaria (the Tobacco Shop)  and I knew I was lost.  I learned that (a) I must own this book and (b) I must never read it in public.

Anyway, as I tried desperately not to be distracted from my “prize”, I realised what it was that I needed.  Every decent human being will sometimes need a set of Bookshop Blinkers™ to keep their eyes from straying from their target and towards all the tempting morsels immodestly left lying around by pimpish booksellers.  I’m thinking these would be offered in a range of colours and finishes and, perhaps for the more adventurous or shameless reader, in wipe clean leather or neoprene.

Am I a genius or what?  Easy Street here I come…

My weakness

The title should not lead you to believe that the author imagines he has but a single weakness.  For a start, I have no reason to believe that I am any more immune to gunfire, “fire” fire or ionising radiation than the next mammal.  No, the title focuses on a single weakness in a vain attempt to keep this post to a manageable length.

The weakness in question is books.  For as long as I can remember, I have had a lot of books and a strong desire to have more.  While other crazes have come and gone, the near infinite variety of books has retained my interest for more than 40 years.  It is rare that I travel more than a mile from home without at least one book – indeed, I am far more likely to have a book than my mobile phone (which may say more about my age than my passion for literature).  With a book, you always have a friend and a source of entertainment at hand – and a bulwark against the howling void of your own undirected thoughts.  Never underestimate the importance of divertissement to the avoidance of a one-way trip to La Suisse.

The recent arrival of a branch of Foyles at Waterloo station is a dangerous development as any free time waiting for a train can (all too easily) result in a new book (or books) being acquired.  The latest such entry to my library was Into the Woods by John Yorke.  This explains how and why stories work and so may prove beneficial to this blog in due course.  It also invaded my life (as books so often do), firstly when watching The Code (a recent and excellent) Australian drama on BBC4) when I found myself analysing how much worse things had yet to become for our heroes.  This was relatively harmless, but I have also caught myself trying to apply its principles to my own life, e.g. trying to precipitate an inciting incident in order to launch the hero (i.e. me) on a new journey.

As I drew to the end of that book, I wandered to Waterstones in Southampton, seeking books – but with no particular targets in mind (not even a choice as to whether they would be fiction or non).  I came away with four books – and iron self-control was needed to keep it down to four!  All have proved to be excellent, and less than half of the fourth remains to be read.  They have all been informative and entertaining, but have also made my look anew at my life.

The Blind Giant by Nick Harkaway was picked as I had read and enjoyed his fiction.  A very interesting and well thought-out take on the digital world and our place in it.  My interactions with the digital world may shift in future – but don’t worry, GofaDM is going nowhere!

Deep Sea and Foreign Going by Rose George was chosen following last year’s winner of the Thinking Allowed prize for ethnography (about shipping) and given the fact that I now live in a container port.  A very interesting introduction into modern shipping and the container business.  When did any of us last think about the ships – and the (mostly) men that crew them – that bring most of the stuff we use?

Justice by Michael Sandel has already been mentioned in this blog.  I’d previously read his book on markets and have downloaded (but not yet listened to) his Reith Lectures from a few years back.  He really makes a chap think – and the book is also an excellent introduction to philosophy.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos is a book about translation which sounded like an interesting topic.  So indeed it was, I now have rather more respect for the poor souls who have to subtitle films and TV shows – I will perhaps mock their efforts less in the future.

Sadly, there is only a little fish left in my ear and so more books have had to be sought (and indeed bought).  I have just started on The Undivided Past by David Cannadine, a chap introduced to me by A Point of View or BBC Radio 4.  It had started very strongly, so my hopes are high.  aPoV has also prompted me to download Adam Gopnik’s memoir of his time in Paris – a few eBooks are useful when travelling abroad with only hand luggage, though for me they aren’t going to replace the real thing any time soon.  A book needs no battery and its use during take-off and landing (the most important times to be distracted) is entirely unlimited.

It remains astounding to me that some pressed vegetable fibres covered in dark marks can take you to a different world and return you safely to this one.  However, you are often returned a changed man with new ideas, different ways of looking at the world and even a desire to change your life (hopefully for the better).  So, I plan on hanging on to this weakness for as long as I can – and to Hades with the storage issues!  Hooray for books!  (If only it were National Book Week – but I’m only a month or so late).

The tyranny of English

I talk, of course, of the language and not the breakfast.  I should also make clear that I love English for the ridiculous quantity of words it contains and the truly vast amount of content those far more (and far less) talented than I have created using those words.  Perhaps, most of all, I love it for the scope it gives for word-games and humour – though readers of this blog will have to take this last assertion on trust.

However, as an English speaker in the home of English, the language, its tones and cadences can come to dominate one’s aural landscape.  I do treasure an accent (and have acquired small bits of ones not my own) and, as I may have mentioned before, I’m a sucker for almost any accent from Scotland.

I don’t watch Borgen – I watched the first episode at which point everything was going swimmingly, and I couldn’t bear to see it all, inevitably, fall apart.  As a result, I had been missing any dose of Danish – or other Scandinavian tongue – until I visited Foyles over the weekend.  Foyles does seem to be magnet for those of Viking heritage and I spent a pleasant few minutes eavesdropping on conversations I couldn’t understand (lacking subtitles) but just enjoying the sound of it all.  I feel I want to join in, but fortunately have so far resisted the urge.  In a similar vein, I can usually resist the urge to listen in to conversations held in English, but hang on any word of an overhead conversation held in Spanish.

A few weeks ago I watched several French films in a relatively short span of days.  Across Heartbreaker, Populaire and In the House I fell in love with the sound of French – a language I understand a little (just enough to criticise the accuracy, and clear US-centricity, of the subtitles).  In the House, as well as being a splendid film, has the most beautiful French speaking in it – I feel it would be my first choice as a pronunciation guide if I were ever to dust off my all-too-rusty French.

Montalbano, and especially Young Montalbano, made me want to speak Italian – or better Sicilian.  I don’t speak much Italian, but can sing some thanks to Nicola Vaccai and his Metodo Practico (where I am currently tackling the mordant: please insert your own joke about dyeing/dying here).  Young Montalbano has, like Endeavour, managed that most unlikely of things: a prequel that is the equal, if not superior, of the original.  It is also a joy to see so many ancient, character actors in one show – why is this so uncommon in the UK, where both witnesses and suspects are so relatively young?

Sadly, my own language skills have declined over time.  Google Translate is very handy for a chap (or chapess) in a hurry, but means I no longer put the effort in to understand websites in the original language.  I also rarely have the chance to practise my spoken language skills as so many business meetings are conducted in English – even if it is the mother tongue of only one (or, occasionally none) of the participants but just the only one shared by all.  Even if everyone else shares the same language, meetings are often held in English so that they can practise – and I lose out as the minority wanting to speak in the local tongue.

Maybe it’s time to learn Mandarin – the tyranny of the future? – if nothing else, there should be plenty of speakers available.  However, I fear to do it justice I should have started more than 40 years ago when my brain was more plastic than it is today.  Perhaps I should just accept my linguistic limitations, and enjoy the odd foreign language movie or series when I can – supplemented with a little surreptitious eavesdropping…

Be careful what you write…

In my recent outing as an (unqualified) economist, I came to the conclusion that Amazon was not a good corporate citizen and that to drag this country kicking and screaming out of its n-dip (where n=2 at the time of writing) recession we should be spending our money elsewhere.  This conclusion was by no means a foregone one – when I started writing I had no idea what the conclusion would turn out to be.

It struck me that if I was going to “talk the talk” then I had better “walk the walk”, as our American friends would say (well, the more clichéd among them).  Some readers of this blog have ditched Amazon, so I could scarcely do less.  This has meant Amazon and its ilk have not been a part of this year’s Christmas shopping.  So I have sought out UK tax paying alternatives – looking for smaller companies and those without major operations abroad.

For many of my online needs, it was reasonably straightforward to find more exchequer-friendly alternatives to Amazon, and even ones that use the Post Office for deliveries (though this latter may not entirely have pleased my postman!).  (Oh yes, for me shopping involves both economic and social policy considerations).  However, in a few key areas I was forced to bite a rather unpalatable bullet and actually visit a real shop.  Not just a shop, but a shop during the month of December – which I’m sure must be somewhere in Dante Alighieri’s masterwork (though, I’ll admit I haven’t actually checked the Inferno).

So, last Sunday I girded my loins and headed into Cambridge on my bike. Having cleared the gauntlet of cars waiting to enter the Grand Arcade car park (a queue which I think runs continuously from late November until Christmas day and fills several nearby streets) it was surprisingly easy to find a space to park my bike.  John Lewis was busy, but still readily navigable and the staff were astonishingly cheery.  Buying stuff was a breeze and queues were relatively short and moved quickly.  I may have to do this whole “shopping” thing again.  As an added bonus, shopping in the real (as opposed to the virtual) world also provides an excellent excuse to partake of a little fortifying cake (these loins don’t just gird themselves you know!).

Whilst in John Lewis, I noticed that they were stocking formal shirts made in England – rather in the land of our soon-to-be economic masters – and felt I might partake.  I need some new work shirts as my current stock are rather too voluminous for my svelte frame so that I tend to feel like I’m wearing a kaftan or small marquee beneath my suit.  I’m also finding myself making rather more use of shirts at work given my sudden rash of both client contact and international travel, and so the lack of fit is more often brought to my attention.  At this stage, I would like to make clear that even when working from home, I do dress fully – if informally.  No working in either the buff or PJs for me!

With a little help from a sales assistant, one reason why I was drowning in my shirts became apparent – my current shirts are all 17.5″ in the neck, whereas my actual neck is only 15.5″.  It would seem that my neck was much fatter the last time I bought shirts or very poorly measured (or both).  Is this (the shrinking neck) one of the infamous seven signs of ageing?  Still, whatever the cause, I can now dress formally in a little more style (once – but more may follow), rather than giving the impression of waiting for a friend to join me in my chemise.  Again, a benefit of the real over the virtual.

Another side-effect of my blog post is that I now feel the need to support real bookshops (as well as Greenmetropolis).  My favourite London restaurant is only a stone’s throw from Foyles (and we are talking my stone throwing ability here, so that means pretty close).  Despite some modernisation over the years, Foyles remains delightfully quirky and it is still quite possible to get lost when trying to find the exit (I can tell you this from recent personal experience).  I’ve been to 10 Greek Street twice since that fateful post and so have bought two books.  At this rate, I’m going to need a new bookcase worryingly soon.

So, the moral of this post is to be careful of what you write:  the need to maintain a modicum of internal consistency can have unintended consequence for one’s life.