Hitting the wall…

I believe this a phrase used by marathon runners around the 20 mile mark when they reach the end of their resources (especially their glycogen resources, I’m not sure anyone has been hit by the sudden loss of HR mid-run). At this stage I should make clear that I have not taken up the running of marathons, indeed my running has dramatically declined since the pandemic struck. The pandemic and its consequences may lie at the root of this post but it has not yet affected my sanity that badly (or at least not in that way). My only reason to run, given the sterling work our ancestors did on the wheel, is to catch an almost missed train or bus and I have not used public transport since mid March. Cyclists also experience a similar phenomena but they, more entertainingly, call it the ‘bonk’.

As I am more of a cyclist than a runner, and more of a reader than either, I will state that the bonk (or a form, thereof) struck last night, from around 19:30. In fact it also struck on Sunday afternoon around three o’clock. I don’t think I can claim depletion of my glycogen stockpile on either occasion as I had taken in more than enough of the necessary raw materials and expended very few of them in the form physical exertion: I feel my body had a lot more phosphorylation to give.

No, I feel the issues lie in my head, as so many of my issues do: without being tethered to the deadweight of my brain, and its associated ‘personality’, I feel my body would have an absolute ball. I feel my approach to COVID, developed without access to a Defence Against the Dark Arts Master (which, to be honest, was probably an advantage based on the written evidence of the recruitment policies pursued by Hogwarts) has been to throw myself with ever more vigour into an ever expanding range of activities while achieving ever declining quantities of recuperative sleep. I think I may well have exhausted the ability, and indeed desire, of my body to grant yet further extensions to the overdraft my brain has been running up.

The last week or so has been more than usually trying as well, which may not have helped. During the week, it moved from a likely outcome to a dead cert that, for the first time since birth, I will not be spending Christmas with what remains of my family. While for me this represents the loss of a familiar ritual, important in the ordering of any human’s mental health, it is not in itself that great a loss for me. To some extent, at the age of almost fifty-five, I’d been looking to start a new ritual: though this was absolutely not the year to do so. However, I feel really bad that I can’t (safely, though at the time of writing I could legally) spend time with my Dad who has had a really tough past 18 months and lost his partner of 60 years back in September.

Then on both Sunday and Monday mornings last week, I woke to discover that one of my bikes had been stolen from a locked bike shed, despite being protected by the most solid Sold Secure Gold locks that money could buy: locks of different types in an attempt to defeat even the fairly serious well-tooled felon . Not a sign of bike or lock remained: to such a degree, that I began to doubt my own memory of cycling home on them from their last excursions. I then spent the first half of the week desperately searching though old receipts and photographs trying to find the necessary proof that I owned both the bicycles, their accessories and the locks. Somewhat miraculously, by Friday my claims had not only been processed but approved and the money is already in my bank account. Truly astounding performance by ETA (the insurers, rather than the Basque terrorists – so far as I know). Nevertheless, not a series of events which were conducive to quality time in the embrace of Morpheus.

I have now acquired the most solid motorbike chain that I could find which is proof against any commercially available bolt cutters, the use of liquid nitrogen and lump hammer and will even hold off an angle grinder for a significant number of minutes. On the downside, it does weigh more than any bike I have every owned (in fact, roughly as much as two bikes) and so is only practical to use when at home or by a fitter chap – but this does seem to be the main area of weakness in my current security arrangements. Acquiring replacement bikes at this time of year is a more time consuming process…

Then, of course, we have the ongoing substrate of anxiety that is the never-ending, clown-car crash of our current government. Not just the ever growing pile of corpses that may be laid at its kakistocratic door, the steady destruction of most of what I hold dear and continuing impoverishment of many of my friends but, despite four years to plan, we can look forward to further accelerant being added to the insordescent, nefandous conflagration in a fortnight.

I feel the combined effect of these events, coupled with the more general diminution of my usual coping strategies and the short dreich days of December has somewhat overwhelmed mind, body and joie de vivre. Last night, despite 11 hours of lying down in darkness, coupled with total exhaustion and a sleeping tablet, I struggled to obtain even one cycle of REM sleep. In consequence, the author is even more of a gibbering wreck than usual (and will be blaming all and any errors in this post on this circumstance).

Despite these rather trying recent events, life is full of joys. Last Saturday, in particular, was unusually full of treats. In the afternoon, I took my surviving bike up to Romsey and the the nature reserve at Fishlake Meadows. (The surviving bike is being held in a top secret, secure facility and, at the risk of tempting Fate, seems to be fine). The weather was not too bad for December and, unlike my last visit, no insect life choose to feast on my blood. The low slanting light of winter looked glorious and the nature reserve was a haven of peace and birdsong. More excitingly, it was also a haven for at least one kingfisher which I saw not once but thrice. This was my first (and second and third) ever sighting of a kingfisher in the flesh (both mine and its) and it was quite magical: it was unbelievably colourful in real life, despite the number of times I have seen them captured on film. I was also granted my closest every encounter with a flock of long-tailed tits: always bringers of joy to my life.

After a Thai curry at the Guide Dog, by chance cotemporaneous with a number of friends who were doing the same, I walked up onto the Common to take advantage of the clear skies for some star watching. Despite my total failure to see any of the Geminids (I really must carry my distance glasses more often), the skies were a riot of stars and my constellation and star spotting is definitely improving. I have to say that some of our ancestors had quite the active imaginations when it came to naming apparently entirely amorphous collections of stars. At least insofar as their work has been passed down to me, the astronomers from the golden age of the Islamic Golden Age seem, more wisely and scientifically, to have stuck to naming individual stars – and certainly seem to have kept themselves busy!

The pandemic and its associated vicissitudes have given me a wonderful opportunity, when the weather permits, to indulge my real – but previously largely ignored – love of birds and astronomy. A few weeks ago, when an unsuccessful attempt to break into the bike store rendered my bikes safe but inaccessible, I gave my car a treat and/or coated it in some fresh mud and drove down to Keyhaven. The weather was not the best and I was the only person out who had chosen to wear shorts, but there were so many birds. I was particularly taken by the dark-bellied brent geese who looked quite stunningly dapper in flight, landing, swimming and take-off. A relatively short walk took the full two hours of parking I’d acquired (eventually, I have had no change since March and paying via an App is all well and good, unless your car park is in an area with no viable internet or even mobile phone signal) as I kept being distracted by fresh feathered wonders. My walk also revealed an enormous cache of sloe bushes still bedizened with sloes but, like the fool I am, I had no suitable vessel in which to gather them.

As the above suggests, I am really rather lucky in my place of residence: even if it is infested with rather too effective bike thieves. Still, a bicycle has been my primary mode of transport for approaching 15 years and these are my first losses – so I suppose I haven’t done too bad and the bikes were both well depreciated and successfully insured.

As I’ve just seen the word count, I probably ought to bring this post in to land. My hurt mind is in need of sore labour’s bath and perhaps the successful achievement of the death of at least one day’s life. So, the plan is a very early night – frankly I’m planning to take advantage to the early sunset and aim for a late afternoon. I shall couple this with a stronger sleeping draft: perhaps some dwale if I can source the necessary porcine bile, herbs and opium in the next couple of hours. I’m just off to Waitrose, I’m sure they should be able to sort me out…


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…

Maiden Aunt

Not alas, the sister of a parent who can keep a batsman firmly pinned to his (or her) crease – though surely such folk must exist – but instead a rumination on my role (or one of them) in life.

This blog has noted before that I would make someone (or ones) an excellent maiden aunt despite my total lack of ability at cricket and my possession of a volume of Y-chromosomes that would normally lead to instant disqualification.    For a start, I use far more allusions to the game of bridge in everyday conversation than is normal – especially as I haven’t played the game in more than a decade.  Of late, my inner aunt seems to have been moving ever closer to the surface and it can only be a short while before she is engaged in a knock-down, drag-out fight with my inner child for mastery of my declining years.

In my cultural outings, I often find myself able to observe young people “up close” and often for substantial periods of time.  This is not just my inate voyeuristic tendencies, but the fact that they are often performing on a stage (or where one should imagine a stage, though technically one does not exist) directly in front of me and it seems rude not to watch.

As a brief digression, this brings me to another one of my ragtag collection of unusual and not wholly utilitarian super-powers.  I seem unable to attend any theatrical production without at least one member of the cast getting their top (and often more) off.  To answer the naysayers who may think the old fool has wandered into a gentleman’s club (a place where I suspect one is very unlikely to encounter a gentleman, or at least one meeting my definition thereof) while not wearing his glasses, I can assure you that these are excursions to the proper theatre and not to venues where dancing takes place on the sort of surfaces normally used to rest a tray or mobile computer.  It may be that theatre is hoping that torso-based nudity will bring the punters in or that I am subconsciously choosing productions where stripping is required, however, I am assuming that something about my prescence must be causal.  Perhaps fortunately, this power only rarely shows itself outside the theatre, for now at least…

This leads us neatly to the first aspect of my maiden aunthood: the young and theatrically inclined really need to be eating more.  Every man-Jack (or woman-Jill) of them, almost without exception, seems worryingly close to emaciation.  They make me look overweight, something which would only be medically viable if I lost around a foot in height (I’ve tried just eating or drinking more, but it doesn’t seem to work).  We are told there is an obesity crisis afflicting the young (and the not so young), but most of my test subjects give the lie to this idea.  My other sample of young people, who could probably be described as music/jazz geeks, share this tendency to a willowy lack of physical substance.  I had even less flesh when younger than I do now – training as a middle-aged gymnast has helped place some minimal meat on my bones (though I fear I’d still make more of a low-fat starter than a main) – but I don’t remember being this skinny, even in my famine poster-child days.  I find myself worrying that these youths may inadvertently snap a limb live on stage should they be struck by a falling leaf or flying athropod.  I’ve started to wonder if I should be bringing a good square meal or two with me to each gig: or would this be viewed as odd?

The second indicator of my changing status relates to the idea of “feeling the benefit”.  I first noticed this at the Joiners – a rather famous local music venue which I’ve started visiting in 2017.  I have even used the gents, despite strong warnings not to (they really aren’t that bad, I’ve seen much worse).  During the cold January evenings, I noticed young people in the audience – and indeed on stage – continuing to wear their full outdoor clothing long after they had transitioned into the relative warmth of the venue.  My inner aunt was very concerned that when the music ends and they are cast back out into the frosty external air they wouldn’t feel the benefit of their warm(ish) clothing – an issue likely to be exacerbated by their general lack of adipose insulation.  I have, to-date, resisted tendering any advice in this direction (but it’s not been easy).

The third indicator came at an open-mike might at the Talking Heads.  By some distance the best performer on the night was a young lad sporting several haircuts, what I would consider an unwise volume and distribution of tattoos and lobe deforming ear ornamentation.  You might have thought that one of these aspects of his appearance might have brought auntie Stuart to the fore, but no, (s)he was far more worried that he didn’t seem to be getting enough sleep.  As an insomniac myself, I fear there was little advice I could offer the chap but still feel I should perhaps have given him a quick talk on sleep hygiene (not that this knowledge has ever done me much good).

So far, I have manage to resist spitting on my hankie and scrubbing a smut or simlar mark off the face of a stranger, but I feel it can only be a matter of time.  Is there some sort of Aunts Anonymous with a 12-step programme that I can join?  Or am I doomed?


Sore labour’s bath

No, don’t switch off!  This has nothing to do with the on-going attempts by Her Majesty’s opposition to devour itself (very much down to the lights by now): the title is taken from Macbeth and is one of a whole serious of poetic allusions to sleep made by our hero in Act II Scene II.  It just goes to show that mental collapse following regicide is no excuse for turning out second-rate verse.

If this blog has a theme, other than the author’s dual obsession with himself and cake, it is with sleep and my continuing inability to capture enough of it.  I’ve read more books and articles on the subject of sleep than many people have had hot dinners (though admittedly, most of the people to whom I refer will be babies), but despite having some of the strictest sleep-hygiene this side of an S&M club (where I presume Michael Saint is the presiding deity or demiurge) the balm of hurt minds continues to elude me on a regular basis.

I have even started eschewing any sort of screen time for a good hour before heading up the wooden hill (ok, across the carpeted hall) to the shire which hosts Luton Airport (a place historically oft confused with Paradise – though not, to my knowledge by Milton): but my abstinence availed me not.

However, this week I would appear to have found a solution to my night-time woes.  I have a Canadian cognitive scientist, Luc Beaudoin (as reported by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian), to thank for my currently well-rested state.  I will admit that I have slightly augmented his mental trick to take in elements of the ISIHAC game Word for Word and some elements of the old Ffoulkes’ family game of Bonio Boards.  Given that I am already in the dog house for failing to explain an allusion, I had better cover off that last sentence for those not lucky enough to both by fans of ISIHAC and cosanguine with the author.   In Word for Word, panellists attempt to come up with a serious of entirely unconnected words while Barry Cryer attempts to convince us that a word-pair was a popular beat combo in the 60s: I, of course, would suggest that they are playing tonight at the Dublin Castle (£6, £5 concessions).  Bonio Boards used the cardboard inserts found in packs of the popular 70s dog biscuits (well, they were popular with dogs and pokers: Poker, I should perhaps add, was a villain who would snaffle any chunks or crumbs of Bonio left unguarded by a foolish canine.  He did not wear a mask – which I now feel was missing a trick) to list a series of noun categories, e.g. countries, cheeses, famous dogs etc.  The players would then have to generate entries in each category beginning with a randomly chosen letter.  I presume this was against the clock and I cannot recall how the boards were marked – but it was what passed for entertainment when I was young and Pokemon had yet to be invented or released into the virtual wild.  So, younger readers, you may have no future and be unable to retire from your call centre-serfdom until you are 130, but just look at the improvement in entertainment options you enjoy!

I now lie in bed and start by choosing a letter: generally one which is worth more than 1 point in Scrabble.  I then attempt to come up with as many words (trying to stick to nouns) beginning with that letter as possible, while ensuring that no two adjacent words have any link.  If this proves too easy, I’ll add complication by also using Bonio Board-style categories or fixing the first two letters of the nouns or fixing the first letter and running through the second letter alphabetically or only allowing (or disallowing, as per Many a Slip) n-letter words (for suitable n).  This is suprisingly hard to do when tired and keeps any other unwanted mental activity at bay.  As a result I fall asleep quickly and, should I wake during the night, quickly return to the chief nourisher in life’s feast (well, if we exclude cake: but I expect cake was less readily available in Glamis in the distant past).  It even seems to work in the recent heat and when sunlight is streaming through my curtains.

I’ll admit that the trial is currently short, and that I lack a control-me who has been relying on older method to partake of great nature’s second course, but so far the results have been very promising.  In fact, it is almost too successful and it is becoming much more critical that I correctly set my alarm clock.  I wouldn’t like to say that I’m cured, but for the time being if I appear to be dozing off during a conversation it IS because you are boring and not down to a lack of sleep on my part.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not being sponsored on the number of quotations from Macbeth I can slip into a post.

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.

Enjoying genocide

I should perhaps clarify the title before I am bundled off to Den Haag to spend some quality time with the International Criminal Court.  I have not previously indulged in genocide, nor am I doing so at present and I have no active plans to pursue a career in the field either.  Nor would I wish to encourage others to view this as a valid lifestyle choice – in general, the fewer freshly minted corpses your efforts leave at the end of each day, the better.

Enjoyment is often wrongly conflated with “fun” and laughter.  I have heard (though prefer not to believe) that a UK literary festival has used face recognition software to identify whether its punters are smiling after events (presumably as part of planning bookings for future events).  I like to imagine that literature – even in a festive setting – has a rather broader remit than smile induction.  John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, to give a single illustrative example, does not generally leave them rolling in the aisles but is still great literature and I really enjoyed reading it.  Often at the end of a play, or a piece of classical music, I am left shell-shocked and usually need a pause to gather my thoughts before I want to begin (or hear) applause.  Nevertheless, the evenings so spent are ones that I treasure.

Having, hopefully, weaselled my way out from under the title we can now proceed with the post proper.  This continues the events described in Ground Zero and Awkward? and so we shall start by using the standard procedure.

Previously on GofaDM…

Dimitris and Stuart, blog soul brothers, meet for the first time in London and enjoy a day of conversation, literature and theatre before parting at Waterloo station to catch their respective trains home.  [Just think, two whole posts totalling some 2000 words could have been covered that quickly – but would that have been as much fun?  (I have my fingers in my ears – la la la la la – I can’t hear you!)]

And now the conclusion…

Even before our momentous, physical meeting, my brother had invited me to an event at his university on Monday – perhaps as much for moral support as for my sparkling company (Warning: real company may not be sparkling) or in the expectation that the content would appeal to me.  I was slightly reluctant, not over fears about the content or the company, but as a result of the early start needed to reach Egham for the kick-off coupled with the strong probability of a late return home the previous night.  The prospect of paying for peak rail travel and the risk of being caught snoring partway through a serious, academic conference almost put the kibosh on the experience – but luckily less wise counsels prevailed.  With a little low animal cunning, I discovered that by breaking my ticket at Reading I could travel at peak for less money than an off-peak (don’t you love the insane ticketing of the UK’s railways?).  I also decided not to be such a wimp – I don’t get invites to many academic conferences and none with the subject matter in this case – I could manage on reduced sleep (and could always ask to be elbowed in the ribs if I started to nod).  To level the playing field with my much younger brother, I sabotaged his chances of sleep by lending him my copy of Into the Woods by John Yorke.  I thought this would catch his fancy and the temptation of reading a little further might trump the desire (and need) for sleep – and Mr Yorke did not disappoint.

We finished texting each other at 01:30 on Monday morning and I needed to be out of the house again by 07:45 (I think Dimitris had the scope for a few extra minutes of duvet-hugging before his departure).  I think it is safe to say that the two brothers who greeted each other at Egham station at 10:00 had been from their beds untimely ripp’d and so were deficient in a full complement of sleep.  As on Sunday, Southwest Trains ensured that only one of us arrived on time but you can put your thumbscrews away, I’m not talking.

We were bleary-eyed so that we could attend the conference entitled 20th Anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide: Denial, Commemoration or Reconciliation? staged in the Picture Gallery at Royal Holloway, University of London; and so is the title finally explained.  Not an obvious choice for a “date”, you might think.  My brother had a reason to attend, he is a member of the university and the subject matter relates to some of his writing, I was there because I thought it would be a learning opportunity that was unlikely to be repeated.  I wasn’t disappointed: the speakers were of variable quality but the conference overall was very interesting and covered an area I knew little about.  Whilst Srebrenica was the primary focus, it contained many lessons that could (and should) be applied much more widely – but which, in all too many cases, humanity seems to have forgotten or wilfully ignored.  Before going, I was slightly worried – given my tendency to lachrymosity – that I would spend the whole day sobbing uncontrollably, but this only became a major risk during one of the talks.  Perhaps surprisingly this wasn’t the one given by the survivor from Srebrenica and its death march but the Scottish forensic scientist, Robert McKee, describing the attempt to identify the bodies (often deliberately dispersed over a wide area).  The conference left me glad that I had torn myself from my unfinished (barely started even) slumbers.

After some hours of such harrowing, we decided to decompress with a cup of tea and/or coffee at a pub near Egham Station.  For reasons I cannot fully explain, this somehow morphed into me enjoying three pints of Harvey’s Best Bitter (surprisingly far from its Lewes home).  I did not enjoy these pints alone, but accompanied by a highly entertaining conversation with my brother in the sunny garden of the pub: given his greater experience of direct exposure to our local star, he sat in the sun and I in partial shade (had it been raining, our positions would have been reversed to play to my own climate strengths).  Actually, I must commend the pub as the garden at both front and rear provided free sunscreen for patrons to use – if only I had made a note of its name this recommendation would have been rendered so much more valuable.  Chatting about language and writing with someone who is both interested and well-informed was a lovely way to round off the afternoon – though I will admit that we did perhaps stray a little from the purity of thesis which the first part of this sentence might suggest.  Any time I can use the word idiolect in conversation, both correctly and without it seeming out of place, is time very well spent in my book.

After the third pint, the lack of sleep was catching up with us both and so we delivered ourselves back to the tender mercies of Southwest Trains and vague hopes of a pair of timely journeys home.  The difficult sophomore tryst having been a resounding success, I feel we have removed a lot of the pressure from any potential third assignation (and if you thought I was stretching the meaning of “tryst”, I have now snapped the sense of “assignation” in two).  As I have been writing this post – very slowly as a result of the crippling heat – it struck me that all three structured events forming the basis of our encounters to-date were essentially free.  I wonder how long we can maintain this tradition of holding such fiscally responsible conclaves?

Bring back the owls

As my last post suggested, I have recently been holidaying in the delightful county of Cornwall.  I stayed in an inverted lodge-style dwelling in a remote rural location (though apparently there is a golf course somewhere nearby).  Whilst I was technically staying in Cornwall, I never fully committed to leaving England and spent time on both sides of the Tamar over the week (and a very small amount of time actually suspended over the Tamar – oh yes, I’m quite the daredevil if I have the support of one I K Brunel). Frankly, I often failed to remember which side I was on – though I believe this is a matter of some importance to the locals.

The lodge was surrounded by owls or, possibly, by owl impersonators – it is so hard to tell in the dark with only your ears to go on.  Around bedtime I could hear them calling to each other – or possibly to me, but sadly I do not speak owl and so was unable to provide a suitable response.  It is a rather lovely thing, even given the language barrier.

After a week away, I returned (briefly) to Fish Towers.  Whilst it’s nice to go away, it is rather pleasant to return home – where the kitchen is stocked with familiar equipment and foodstuffs and where the electromagnetic medium of 21st century communications is immanent.

Less desirable was the sonic chorus that greeted my attempts to go to sleep the evening of my return.  No owls, but instead the yowling of local cats (well, I assume they were local though I didn’t actually ask) indulging in nefarious night-time activities at very high decibels.  Not content with cutting a swathe through our smaller indigenous wildlife and defecating in my tubs, the feline menace is now responsible for serious night time noise pollution.  We need a modern St Patrick to rid these isles of the menace.  Could Hamelin provide someone?  I know they have more experience with rats (and children), but “cats” sounds very similar.  I might have a go myself with the clarinet I bought at a birthday party (well, who can honestly claim they have never done the same), but have yet to make much progress with my new career as the new Acker Bilk.  Not sure if my attempts at playing would encourage any puss (booted or otherwise) to follow me, but it could well frighten them off which would be good enough!

Ready to retire?

After a weekend spent with folk a quarter of a century (and more) my junior, I sought balance by spending a week away with a couple who are twenty-five years my senior.  In fact, this latter is a tradition that has been going on for the last five years – and lest you think I am abducting pensioners against their will, I should make clear that I share close blood ties (and, in theory at least, all of my DNA) with this particular couple.

I am brought along as a sort of travelling chef, as a back-up for the satnav (I can read an OS map – younger readers may have to ask a grown-up about OS maps, but they work where WiFi and 3G do not) and as a token (comparatively) young person (just in case one is needed).  I am also brought along for my writing skills (no laughing at the back!) so that I can fill in the visitors’ book.   In return I am chauffered around and so can visit places that would be quite a challenge using public transport (obviously, I could drive myself – but this is something I try and avoid except under extreme duress).

As is traditional, the parents (mine, in this case) found a holiday location completely free of modern, manmade sources of electromagnetic radiation: no wifi and not even a hint of a mobile phone signal  on at least 3 of the UK’s 4 networks.  As a result, I can tell “the man” in all honesty that I was not available by phone or email during my week off.

I partook in activities suited to those in the early stages of their eighth decade, and so my National Trust membership card has rarely seen more use.  While I enjoy these more sedate activities (well more sedate than form part of my usual thrilling lifestyle – W Mitty has nothing on me), I have found my calves struggling to cope (I presume the muscles involved in slow mooching are underdeveloped) and I have also needed to go do bed earlier than normal and have been sleeping very deeply (which is not like me at all).  It would seem that retirement is much more exhausting than I had anticipated.  I did gain brief access to the internet towards the end of the week (in a gorge of all places) which allowed me to retrieve my work email and thereafter my insomnia returned to normal.

So, it seems that I will need to undergo significant training before I will be able to operate successfully in my seventies (I seem much better able to cope with life in one’s late teens or early twenties: I am apparently better adapted to my mental than physical age).  Still, I do have a little time to prepare as the current government seems to be working hard to ensure that my retirement date is receding at an accelerating pace.

More thrush, really

As opposed to uncle, obviously.

Yesterday I met my nephew (and his mother) off the HS1 at St Pancras International.  A busy day in London ensued taking in double-decked bus travel (rather slower than his earlier rail journey), a carousel, a variety of famous London landmarks and the Science Museum.  We didn’t do all of the possible events I had planned: a day with a 5 year-old is slightly less time-efficient than one where I’m operating in my more traditional role of lone wolf.  Nonetheless, I believe the young master enjoyed himself – though I didn’t have the presence of mind to prepare a feedback form for him to complete to be absolutely certain.

I’m not sure in which circle of hell Dante Alighieri would place the Science Museum on Easter Tuesday – mostly because I’ve never read the Divine Comedy – but, if he had ever visited, I’m sure he would have wanted to include it in the Inferno.  I fear there were far too many visitors for much science to be learned and they seemed to have significant difficulty keeping either the lifts or the toilets operational – which did make for rather hard work for little legs (and, indeed, mine).

I learned a number of things during the day, primarily that I am not cut out to be a parent – though, to be honest, I had already suspected this and have worked hard over the years to minimise the risk of such a circumstance coming to pass.  Despite having to do very little myself, I was utterly exhausted after a mere six hours – how do real parents cope?  It seemed more tiring than my last experience as a temporary parent: not sure if this is down to the greater youth of the child or my greatly increased age (I’m now rather nearer Mr Waverly than Napoleon Solo).  I’d like to blame the former, but suspect it may be the latter.

After seeing the little treasure on to his bullet train and homeward bound, I headed to the peace and serenity of the British Library to peruse a few of its treasures.  My recovery later continued at the Wigmore Hall with the excellent Tokyo String Quartet.  Still, I would have to admit I slept a full eight hours last night without interruption – a very rare event in my life – though, on the downside, I also had to take to my bed again at the dentist’s favourite time (2:30, obviously) this afternoon for a nap as I was struggling to stay awake.

It would seem that I shall need to undertake some serious training if I am to uncle on a regular basis: it must use different muscles from my bike.

No moggy

Oh yes, definitely not feline – this post relates rather to an uncat.  Well, it probably does – though lawyers might argue the point.

This blog has previously mentioned my tendency to insomnia – perhaps one of the reasons I so enjoyed studying Macbeth for O level: he also had a rather difficult relationship with sleep after an unfortunate incident with some daggers (and Duncan, as I recall).  For the sake of clarity, I should make clear that I have neither met a triumvirate of strange women on a heath nor engaged in regicide and I have never been Thane (indeed, some would suggest that, on the contrary, I am inthane).

Generally, sleep deprivation does not have a positive impact on a chap (or, I believe, a chapess – though I cannot speak directly in this case).  Indeed, these negative impacts are what makes it so useful as a form of torture and thus fall within the purview of UNCAT (the UN Convention Against Torture) – although, as mentioned above, some would argue that it does not.

However, after several weeks of very poor sleep I have discovered a positive side-effect of my affliction.  I have suddenly become inspired when it comes to solving cryptic crosswords – a process whose pace can normally be compared with glaciation or continental drift.  Now I do love cryptic crosswords – or at least those from The Guardian – but only play with them somewhat infrequently.  I have a foxed and faded book of 100 of the Guardian’s finest: and on the current rate of progress I will never need to buy volume 2 (unless the human lifespan is significantly extended in the near future).  Solving a clue provides a triple pleasure: the sense of triumph in finding the answer, the joy at understanding the construction of the clue and the satisfaction from having successfully engaged another mind in single combat (the rude might suggest unarmed combat in my case).

Some clues prove particularly resistant to my mental assault – and puzzle number 13 (set by Rufus) had proved a particularly tough nut to crack.  However, in recent days, my addled brain has started to solve clues at an unprecedented rate.  I’m not entirely clear which of the myriad side-effects of sleeplessness might be providing this boost to my crossword solving skills – perhaps something in the confusion-hallucination space is allowing me to see the clues in a different and, as it transpires, helpful way?

Through the ages, artists have tried using a variety of drugs to allow them to think differently and as a result find inspiration.  Have I inadvertently discovered another, entirely legal, route into the Muse’s favour?  Is it time to write my first self-help book: one for the struggling artist?  Then again, would struggling artists be a particularly valuable market segment to target?  Maybe I need to wait for the self-help idea which will appeal to the struggling multi-millionaire…

Great as it has been to finally defeat Rufus (and much as I’d like to see off Araucaria’s No.11), I think on balance I’d prefer to have a few decent nights of sleep (as opposed to Knights of Sleep – a body of heavily armoured men who deliver sleep, each astride a nightmare, at the point of a lance).  So, I’m off to my palliasse with the plan to start counting Z’s or sheep or crows (though the last may not be entirely conducive to slumber).