Pilgrimage: cancelled

I should warn you that during this post I will be writing about poetry.  This may be uncomfortably similar to seeing a dog explain the Schleswig-Holstein problem through the medium of interpretive dance.  Still, nothing ventured!  (The saying does stop there, doesn’t it?)

My life (or at least some of it) is forged from the serendipity of discovered links, like a particularly flimsy chain.  This is part of broader attempt to escape the surly bonds of solipsism that can inflict upon the single life an excess of self-programmed activity.  Of course, the desire to follow links derives from the self, but its results seem suitably chaotic to satisfy for the time being.

On Monday I once again wandered up to the Common with my MP3 player to enjoy the autumnal sunshine (sadly, there was no soft ice cream to be had) and a little intellectual stimulation.  I returned with a need to read the poetry of Zaffar Kunail and The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (the blame for which respectively lie with The Verb and John Gray’s Point of View).  So yesterday, I visited the library to attempt to sate these needs (which, I imagine, lie at the very summit of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – probably perched atop a tall pole).  Sad to report that the library could supply neither work and nor, this afternoon, could Waterstones.

However, having found and then entered the otherwise deserted poetry department of Southampton Central Library, it seemed churlish to leave empty-handed.  Through Ian McMillan, I had encountered his son (Andrew) and I recently heard him reading from his first poetry collection on The Echo Chamber on Radio 4.  I was impressed and acquired the collection, entitled Physical, though through sheer devilment bought it as an e-book so that it was anything but physical.  I remembered that Andrew was a fan of Thom Gunn and so picked up a copy of his The Passages of Joy from the library as a little background reading.  I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy this and thought it might be heavy going, so also picked up Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis by Wendy Cope which I hoped might provide some light relief.  I thought I might alternate and so retain my current tenuous grip on the concept of joie-de-vivre.   One was marked as a Poetry Society Choice and the other as a Poetry Society Recommendation: which, I wonder, is the higher accolade?

I have generally found it tricky to read much poetry at a single sitting – perhaps because it is rather too rich a broth for me or (more likely) because I am a very poor reader of poetry.  In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, “he don’t know me very well, do he?”.  It was only by the application of iron self-control that any of the Thom Gunn was left to finish off this morning – and the last of the Cope followed very soon after.  Wendy was the lighter of the two writers, though still capable of seriousness, and did highlight my serious lack of general knowledge in the field of poesy (luckily, I’m a good guesser and had acquired some vague idea of The Wasteland by osmosis).

Thom Gunn was a writer of amazing power and his work managed to overcome its dreadful recitation (by me) to bring the occasional tear to my eye.  Against a very strong field, my highlights were probably Song of a Camera and Interruptions.  The book was an old one: it has been with the library since autumn of 1982 (and was looking good for its 33 years).  As a result, it still had a record of its early borrowings: a steady (if small) handful per year in the eighties but it went untouched from June 1994 to January 2002: were these dark years for poetry on the south coast?  Some side-shoot of millennial angst?  I don’t know its history since library computerisation, but I had been assuming mine were the first hands to touch it in a while. However, when I returned to the library seeking more of Mr Gunn this afternoon, I discovered that the only other of his works they held was “out on loan”!  Moreover, this loan should have ended on 4 June – I can only assume the borrower cannot bear to be parted from it and is willing to risk appalling overdue fines (and worse) to indulge his (or her) love.

I had assumed Thom was an American, but he was in fact born on these shores – at the other end of the 326 bus route to where I spent much of my own childhood (though I never took the 326 to the end of the line: Gravesend always had such a terminal sense of finality about it).  A sequence of poems recalled his time living in London as a young man and I had planned a pilgrimage to Talbot Road to see his digs.  However, by the end of the sequence I discovered that he had done the same and they had been demolished (clearly, no later than 1982) and so my literary excursion has been put on ice.

Still, I was once again in the poetry section and remained unable to leave without giving at least one of the works a day out.  The Andrew McMillan edition of The Echo Chamber was shared with Mark Doty, so one of his works (Atlantis) has come home with me (plus another Wendy Cope and a Helen Dunmore – well, the gaps in my poetry knowledge aren’t going to fill themselves).

It would seem that in avoiding the snare of my nascent short story habit, I have fallen into serious poetry addiction.  Is there a vaping equivalent for verse?  Or will I be reliant on poetry patches or Gunn gum?

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The Exiles

Tomorrow, I am going on a Graham Park themed walk and so have been brushing up on my Walking on Glass (as discussed before, engrammatic collapse means that my earlier readings have been lost).  I have been using a PDF copy supplied by my blog soul brother, but am just returned from reclaiming my own physical copy.

As I may have been mentioned before on this blog (or, if not, on another) the vast majority of my personal library languishes in a storage unit some five minutes stroll from my abode.  This is costing me a small fortune and, had I been more organised, I could have had bookshelves in solid gold installed in the flat by now at lower cost (though I wouldn’t recommend it as the weight of the shelves would put a lot stress on the fixings and, indeed, the wall).

I try not to visit my black site storage too often as the books exiled there call to me and beg to be restored to their rightful place (by my side).  They are stored in cardboard packing boxes marked with the legend “BOOKS STORAGE” in a number of hands, none of which show any obvious promise in the art of calligraphy, in an almost (but not quite) entirely random order.  There is just enough pattern in the packing to give me hope, only for it to be cruelly dashed.  In consequence, I have to search through several boxes to find a specific volume – and so am brought face-to-cover with so many happy memories, so many old friends.

Every time I visit them, a few manage to worm their way into my bag, or secrete themselves about my person, and are re-patriated.   To counter my lack of willpower in the face of the literary, I only carry a very small bag with me when I visit the deportees.  This time a mere seven managed to smuggle themselves back with my intended target.  If I’d had a bigger bag, I would have struggled to keep the number of restorees into double figures.  Having been exposed to them, I just cannot resist their siren calls.

Also rescued from purdah was a physical copy of my earliest writing in the GofaDM style: dating back some twenty-five years (just be grateful blogging hadn’t been invented way back then!).  Looking at this example of my juvenilia (aka SSC814OP), I learn two things: (i) I still find myself funny and (ii) my style has moved forward very little in the last quarter of a century (which may explain (i)).  It can’t really be published here as the references are way too specific to my work at the time and some of the people mentioned are still among the living.  Frankly, I lack the time or financial backing to tackle a major libel prosecution at the moment.  I think that even under the Thirty Years Rule this particular document may have to remain under wraps – though I might be tempted to allow a selected few a brief glimpse of a time when my mind was marginally less disturbed than is now the case.

In defence of fiction

Sir David Attenborough famously does not read fiction, he has too many scholarly articles relevant to his areas of interest to read to permit him the time.  I can understand this, though it wouldn’t work for me – I’m too much the dilettante, when it comes to my knowledge it’s very much a case of “never mind the quality feel the width”.

From time-to-time, celebrities also admit (boast?) that they do not read fiction, though in most cases I rather doubt this results from their free time being entirely consumed by attempts to grasp the implications of quantum chromodynamics.  The most recent I spotted making this revelation was one Noel Gallagher – best known in this house for membership of a reasonably successful Beatles tribute act and not getting on with his brother.  I think his grounds for avoidance was that it was about things that didn’t happen.  His posturing spurred me to write a post in defence of fiction, albeit to write it several months later in a medium he will probably never see.

I am willing to “out” myself as a fan of fiction – and not just hokey TV drama as the last post might have led you to believe.  As this blog has previously established (at tedious length), I visit the theatre quite often and also the cinema but I probably consume the majority of my fiction through books.  The old-fashioned kind which fill all-too-many shelves with their papery goodness.  This is my longest running addiction, I literally cannot remember a time when I did not have over-flowing bookshelves (and I can assure you that I do know what the word “literally” means).

I think that fiction can fulfil at least two basic human needs – if we briefly assume that storytelling itself is not a basic human need.  The first is the same one satisfied by glossy TV dramas – the need for “bread and circuses” which I prefer to call divertissement (mostly because it sounds much more intellectual in French and less like I’m being distracted from more important issues by our evil overlords).  Sometimes I want to escape from my drab, wretched life into something more exciting, amusing or (frankly) just better written and plotted.  I suppose this is where genre fiction (that awful phrase) enters the frame – with my most common genres being science fiction and/or fantasy or detective fiction, though I am far from faithful.  Interestingly, music and art can achieve some of the same ends (for me at least) – albeit in very different ways – and are generally more highly regarded for some reason.

The second need I find satisfied by fiction is to understand the world, and especially the people, around me.  One can read as much neuroscience as you want, and I’ve done my fair share, but knowing that the “I” who thinks he is writing this blog does not exist in any meaningful sense is of little help in negotiating the vicissitudes of life.  It is from fiction that I have learned much of what I know about other people and why they might think and act differently from me – and that they may well have very good reasons for doing so.  I think fiction has made me a better person – and all while just sitting down scanning black marks on sheets of white paper.  An everyday miracle perhaps, but a miracle nonetheless.

Two (OK , three) things have spurred me to finally write this post.  Primarily a book I have just read, secondly why I had it on my shelf for several months before reading it and (thirdly) to try and restore my pseudo-intellectual street cred after the whole Arrow/Teen Wolf incident.  Oh yes, make no mistake, these last three posts were written in a very specific order – there is a very definite narrative arc going on in my head (if nowhere else).

The book I have just read is The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence – it is a wonderful book and I recommend it to you all.  Despite the title, this is not science fiction – an unlikely event occurs to young Alex and he forms an unlikely friendship and the book explores the consequences of these things.  It is funny and very moving and Alex is a wonderful character and a proper hero (a saint, even).  None of the things in the book actually happened, but the emotions, actions and thoughts of the characters are all based in the real world and tackle real issues.  The book caught my eye in Foyles many moons ago and went on a list of books to acquire.  Soon after moving here it was acquired, but its reading was postponed – several times.  The postponement I will blame on Southampton library – it lacks the scale of Cambridge Central Library and its opening hours are scarcely better than Sawston village library, but it does have new (to me, and in some cases the world) stock.  Each time I was about to start on Alex, I’d spot a new and desirable book in the library and feel I better take it out now or I may never see it again (regular readers will understand my fear that my library may be taken from me at any moment, possibly by fire).

One man was responsible for quite a large portion of the delay, despite having shuffled off this mortal coil a few years back: Robertson Davies.  I first encountered Mr Davies in my 20s, when I read the Deptford Trilogy (can’t remember why, but I bought the book) which was brilliant.  I always meant to read more of his work, but somehow never did, until a couple of years ago.  Cambridge library then allowed me to start work on the Salterton Trilogy, which I completed from Southampton library.  This was at least as good as I vaguely remember Deptford being, he manages to be both a serious (even scholarly) writer (I’m not sure I would have understood many of the references in my 20s) but still writes a great story and is very entertaining, with a wonderfully dry wit.  I just love his characters – several I really want to meet (though, sadly the whole fictional thing makes that rather difficult).  Soon after finishing Salterton, the Cornish Trilogy (in a single volume) became available, and so I was forced (yes, forced I tell you) to devour this as well.  I am now in the bittersweet position of having read all three of Robertson Davies’ great trilogies – but luckily he has written a few other books, so I can obtain a few more fixes more the well runs dry.

Over the years, I have very much enjoyed the books of Christopher Brookmyre, who I suppose you could say writes thrillers – some with a detective side, at least one positively science-fictional (though he still managed to get a dig at Daily Mail readers in!).  Some time ago, I discovered that he was also a big admirer of the work of Robertson Davies.  Reading the start of the Cornish Trilogy I discovered just how much, it is clear that Jack Parlabane is named after Mr D’s disreputable monk.  There is a strange joy in finding such connections for yourself and, indeed, books have often made connections for me to other books and sometimes music (and more) which I have then gone on to love.

I think fiction makes me a better and more productive member of society and it even helps to keep me economically active (which should please the government which does seem very keen that we should shop).  You can really never tell where a chance encounter in a bookshop or library could take you – so, I do worry where future generations will find these opportunities.  So much of the internet seems geared to showing you stuff you already like (although it is not yet very good at it), which if we introduce kids to it early enough will leave them with very narrow interests indeed (milk and breasts?  As you can see, I am no great loss to the field of paediatrics), whereas so much of the fun and value in life comes from things you don’t already “like”.  One of my next books (there is always a small queue as it is good to have targets and very bad to run out of reading) is well-reviewed, but tackles a serious subject and I fear might be “harrowing” – still, I can cope with it in the theatre so I should be fine at home and I will be trying something I don’t (yet) like.

Go on Noel, give fiction a try!  There is more to life than the literal enumeration of actual events or facts.

Intrusive technology

Over my many years trolling round the sun on this rocky planet, technology has slowly been intruding into ever more areas of the human experience.  When I was young, technology knew its place: generally tied to a wall by one or more cables.  It also never tried to out-“think” its operator as the very modest computers of those ancient days needed a large room to themselves and a dedicated team of nursemaids to keep the them in fettle.  How things have changed…

I well remember being issued with my first mobile phone by my then employers.  This phone was mobile in name only, as I tended to keep it my desk where it would not trouble me when I was “on the road”.  Eventually, my secretary started to insist that I lugged it around with me – and then that I actually switched the wretched thing on.  Over the years there have been ever fewer places to escape its demands – the tube is no longer inviolate and I fear it is only a matter of time before aircraft follow suit (thus removing one of the few pleasures of flying).  Luckily, I can use my age as an excuse to forget to carry it from time-to-time and regularly leave it on “silent” for days at a time which does spare me from its siren call.  I fear that the widespread use of mobile phones has had an adverse effect on my ability to properly organise any sort of physical meeting or to remember the contact details of friends and acquaintances – or perhaps that’s just the silken fingers of senility encroaching on my cerebellum?

Recent news has rather brought the more sinister aspects of technological intrusion to the fore.  Apparently, when we give our information to major corporations – usually without paying for the privilege but always without being paid for this valuable resource – they might not be treating it with quite the sanctity we might have imagined (though only if we were afflicted with an abnormally poor imagination).  Obviously, we knew that they would be using it to try and sell us stuff (either themselves or by selling it to others with similar objectives).  This should be very worrying, were it not for the completely useless nature of the attempted sales being facilitated.  I have yet to have anything even remotely relevant pushed at me by the supposed masters of this dark art (though I am often offered other examples of things I’ve just bought) – though I think by pointed at a discrete catheter by Facebook was possibly the low point.

In the days before one rather ill-considered blog post, I used to order my books from an online retailer.  This would always recommend further books for me to buy – but never once offered anything tempting.  Now that I visit real bookshops, I am constantly stumbling across desirable books – to the extent that my bookcase is no longer large enough and I have a Foyalty card (it’s like a supermarket loyalty card, but from Foyles).  The other major driver of book purchasing has been the public libraries of Sawston and Cambridge.  Rather than the soi-disant corporate giants of the internet driving a significant chunk of my economic activity, it is the old-fashioned and underfunded world of the bookshop and library – without them, the contents of my bookcase would remain under control.

With PRISM, it would seem that internet corporations are not just selling us out to the world of commerce but also to the intelligence agencies of the US (and elsewhere).  Not much of a surprise it must be said – but I think if our governments are spying on us, then we should remember that we are paying for this intrusion and should be getting something back.  The very least they could do is provide a helpline to remind us of our forgotten passwords – but I’d like them to go further.  As they are reading all of our stuff anyway, could they not provide some basic editing and proof-reading?  Certainly, this blog is crying out for that sort of input.  Perhaps they could hold texts or email sent in the extremes of anger or drink until more sober reflection has had time to kick-in?  GCHQ (or the NSA or local equivalent) would also be in a very good position to provide a back-up for all our files and would save all this pfaffing around with the “cloud” or external hard drives.   Was it not that doyen of modern philosophers, Stan Lee, who said that with great power comes great responsibility?  Perhaps oddly, I have more faith in our governments not to misuse our data than our commercial corporations – though this may only reflect my view of their even lower levels of functional competence.

Google, a serial offender, when it comes to take our data for its own nefarious (but not actually evil, at least according to their mission statement) purposes, is about to launch its own range of glasses (though these will not will hold a pint).  As a man well stricken in years, such specs have one very obvious benefit: they could remind you of the name of the person to whom you are talking.  Sadly, Google have said they won’t be used for facial recognition – so it would seem you will be spending your money to wear dodgy glasses and be advertised at.  Count me out – I shall continue to use my existing strategies for not revealing my nomenclative ignorance (one really doesn’t need to name one’s interlocutor anything like as often as you might think).

Talking of Google, my mobile phone has recently started telling me how long it will take to get home.  I am far from convinced that it know where I live, though it clearly has some idea.  However, it does seem to think I will be driving up the M11 for my return (well, it does when I’m in London) – and in this it is sadly mistaken (or perhaps, it is planning to go home with someone else, a driver no less!).  Once again, technology tries to be clever but falls rather a long way short of the mark.  I think Skynet may be a little way off yet…

Despite my rather frivolous take on the subject, I do suspect that we should probably be a little more careful in guarding our privacy – or one day we will wake up and it will all be irrevocably gone.  Some might think that this blog has already rung the death knell for my own privacy, but frankly if the world’s “intelligence” agencies can learn any thing useful from it they will probably be doing a lot better than most of the readers.  In the meantime, perhaps I should retreat to the West (well, Cornwall) or Norfolk where modern technology does not yet seem to have intruded to quite the level it has elsewhere – it’s either that or buying a cave and some lead flashing to line it for my “private” moments!

Yesterday was a good day

I wouldn’t want you to think that most days are a veil of tears which I struggle to make my way through with wrists intact, but yesterday was particularly good.  This is despite some rather poor planning by the man in charge (me, for those in any doubt), which meant an insane amount of racing around and meals hurriedly grabbed.  So frantic did things become that I was forced to use the car in the evening, and worse than that to parallel park it.  I think this is my first attempt at parallel parking in the current millennium – and it is not a skill that improves through benign neglect.  Still, in fewer than 100 manoeuvers the car (I’m not saying how many fewer, but it was fewer) was acceptably close to the kerb – and my ability to achieve better positioning by use of the steering wheel and the forward and reverse gears was becoming a significantly less random proposition.

So, given the unnecessary stress caused by poor planning, and the concomitant rushed eating and need to utilise my limited abilities with a motor vehicle, why was yesterday so good?  (I hear the voices in my head ask).   Well, there are three main strands which made it such a good day which spanned a range of the Arts.

We start in the world of literature, well books anyway.  I finished reading the final 60% of the latest Harry Dresden novel by Jim Butcher.  This series is unlikely to trouble the Booker panel (many other literary prizes are available) but are great page turners.  I was introduced to them by the library and now own most of them – which just goes to show what an engine of economic activity your local library can be.  Almost all the books I own have been bought thanks to an introduction by my local library or via the joy of browsing through a real bookshop – recommendations from online bookshops are entirely useless (perhaps because the internet believes I am a pensioner as discussed in an earlier post).  Cold Days has really started opening out the mythology which means I need a new fix – though I fear Mr Butcher has yet to write one.  Still, patience is supposed to be a virtue – and a card-game for the solitary without access to a decent book.

Strand two took me to the theatre (come on, with my addiction you knew it was coming) and back to Downstairs at the Hampstead Theatre.  Hello/Goodbye was absolutely brilliant – really funny and it also made my cry (though many things do that, including some members of the allium family) – and did make me wonder why drama in the theatre seems so much better than so much that makes it onto our TV screens?  Is it the live nature of the thing or just being able to avoid layer upon layer of commissioning editors and focus groups slowly crushing out the creative spark?  I also remain amazed at how cheap off West End theatre is – this cost me a mere £12 (which you can pay for the cinema these days) and had I gone a few days earlier it would have been a mere fiver.   I suppose there were only four actors and relatively modest set (though it did have a fully plumbed sink and a working hob, kettle and toaster) – but even so, with only 80 seats the economics must be very challenging.  Based on the ticket, I think I should be thanking the late Peter Wolff whose Theatre Trust seems to have provided some support – a jolly decent thing to do with one’s surplus cash.

Strand three was music in Cambridge and involved the desperate race back from Swiss Cottage by tube, train, bike and the automobile.  The CUMS Symphony Orchestra gave a stunning programme including Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the Stokowski orchestration and Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto.  The only painful thing about CUMS is that as I age, they never do – each year those reaching their early twenties are replaced by those still in their teens in an orchestral take on Logan’s Run (though so far as I know, the leavers go on to living long and fulfilling lives) allowing the orchestra to remain eternally young.

A good book, an excellent play and the day rounded off by some great music – what more could any chap (or chapess) ask for?  The whole day was even pretty budget friendly given strategic use of my Network Card.

Austerity Max

The last 30 hours or so have seen the UK lashed by heavy rain and strong wind: it feels just like summer!  Sadly, this has all come too late for a great Sawston institution.

On Saturday morning, I wandered into the village to take a book back to the library.  When I arrived, the library was gone.  Not closed, but totally gone.  Apparently, it burnt to the ground – not sure when, but I’m hoping while I was away or I am even less observant than even I thought.  I know councils are trying to cut costs – but this does seem a bit extreme.  Perhaps it represents some canny work to make our council tax go further: it not only saves the cost of the library but will also bring in some much needed cash when the insurance company pays up.

Before lawyers become excited, I don’t think it was the council “arson” around – though unlike the Prodigy, I don’t imagine most twisted fire-starters admit their guilt quite so publicly.   There did seem to be some building work going on adjacent to the library last time I visited (pre-combustion) and I suspect this may be implicated in Sawston’s loss.  Either that or someone had a rather disproportionate response to an overdue book fine.

Given these difficult financial times, I suspect we may have lost our library for good.    I fear it’ll be Shelford or the Central for my storage-free reading needs from now on.  If I had one, I’d sport a black armband – or perhaps a minute’s silence would be a more appropriate mark of respect.  Shhh!

It’s no Cricklewood

In this blog, I have tried to give readers brief vignettes of life in the high water mark of early 21st century civilisation that is Sawston.  However, my current reading has brought into sharp focus how far I have yet to go.

I have heard it said (probably via Malcolm Gladwell) that 10,000 hours of commitment is needed before any skill can be considered mastered.  This blog has yet to achieve 10,000 elapsed hours – and only a tiny fraction of those can be considered “CPU time” – so I fear you will have a long wait, but it has also been said (this time by Robert Louis Stevenson) that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive – which may offer some crumb of comfort.  However, I notice that this post seems to have turned into an episode of “Quote, Unquote”, so let me try and wrest it back on track.

I have borrowed The Cricklewood Tapestry by Alan Coren from the Central library.  Avid readers might wonder why I have not turned to Sawston library for my reading matter given my previous writings on the importance of (not just being Ernest, but also) supporting your local facilities: well, I will tell you (and them).  Sawston library was recently closed for a week while it was automated.  No longer do you hand your book or books to a nice lady to have them checked in or out: you now do all of this yourself using a machine (though the nice lady is still there to prevent anarchy).  I presume the machine must have been very successful (at least in its checking-out mode) as the number of books within the library seems to have declined quite dramatically around the time of its installation.  Either that or the heating has failed and the remaining human staff have been forced to burn the books to keep warm.  I suppose I should view the new robot librarian as a positive commitment to the future of Sawston library, though I can’t help feeling that this is somewhat balanced by the disappearance of so many of the books (that many, myself included, would view as a rather critical element of the whole library concept).

Anyway, I have allowed myself to, once again, become distracted (and to split an infinitive in a most egregious manner).  The late, great Mr Coren wrote extensively throughout his career about the North London suburb of Cricklewood.  As a result, Cricklewood looms large in my (and probably the collective) unconscious – a stature it shares with, for example, Mornington Crescent – but which is probably quite at odds with the reality “on the ground”.  This is down to the skill and wit of the sainted Alan’s writings, and reading them has made me realise just how far I have to go if Sawston is ever to take its rightful place in the British psyche.  I suppose The Times may also have given him access to a rather larger readership than I suspect this blog is yet achieving – but I’m not looking for excuses.  While I have found it safest to read The Cricklewood Tapestry at home, as the outbursts of spontaneous laughter it engenders can cause one to be viewed askance if they occur “in public”, I doubt public perusal of GofaDM would give any such cause of concern.

Still, perhaps fresh exposure to a master of the genre of spinning the minor events of quotidien existence into comedy gold will lead to some improvement, so that I might achieve an incondign mastery of the blog-form before the last of my un-dyed hair turns grey.  Either that, or you should come back in a couple of decades and hope that Mr Gladwell was right!