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Thursday, 20 August 2015

Package Number 8168013267

With my new career comes new found wealth, and with that new found wealth comes the chance to indulge in conspicuous and extravagant consumption. Another way of phrasing this is to say that the second tier of Large Mansions (known as 1st floor in the UK and the 2nd floor in Canada) might, just might, finally be rewarded for its patience and be granted the floor-covering it deserves. This is not aesthetics - the floor in the second tier currently comprises a mish mash of broken planks held together more by theory than any physical force. Tony Monk would be proud.

I decide, after scrutinising the monthly accounts, we can afford the new floor. "About time" the assembled multitudes who regularly encamp at Large Mansions cry with one voice "We're heartily tired of losing small children and pets who have fallen through the gaps in the floor of your second tier!". " What type of flooring will it be? " they continue.

Well here's the rub, the first one anyway. We have enrobed Large Mansions floors in bamboo. Not only was it 'eco' (more on this) but it was also the cheapest hardwood floor. It is also the squeakiest floor that has ever existed, making -a remote possibility but one has to consider everything - that secret midnight tryst between occasional visitors is well night impossible. At least the 'secret' part is.  We decide to go for bamboo.

As far as the 'eco' is concerned, its true that bamboo, the plant, is pretty 'eco'. It doesnt need much in the way of nutrients, it mops up greenhouse gases as any other plant does and, the clincher, its associated with pandas and you dont get much more 'eco' than pandas. Well, ok, elephants and tigers are very 'eco' but neither of those critters have been as intimately involved in the creation of an ecosystem with the express intention of providing humans with hardwood floors. Admittedly, after the pandas' food has been chopped down for flooring, the 'eco' bit gets a bit fuzzy,  what with the special high energy demand drying process required, oil based glues and laquers involved, shipping across the world and its short lifespan as a product which is caused by  the fact that most people will remove it and throw it in a skip within a week of installation on account of being foiled in their trysts by the squeaking floor which makes secretive movement inpossible.

But, we're nothing if not self-defeatingly stubborn here at Large Mansions, so we decided to complete tier two using bamboo. In order to check compatibility with existing, we ordered a sample. I did have to pay a small sum for said sample, but given aforementioned consultation with the monthly accounts  (which is much more fun, and much less complicated to do after a few glasses of Pinot Gringio), the fee was paid to a company we had used before. The next day, I was sent a confirmatory email and an order number so I could track my order. As I am currently in the very final days of my thesis, doing the interminable job of formatting and correcting small errors (there never was the revolution in the UK in 2014 I predicted but so what, Alex Jones is always predicting doom and everyone thinks he's  a genius) any association with anything that is apparently associated with forward progress - like the idea of something moving through a factory - is a straw, or piece of bamboo perhaps, to be grasped. Grasp I did, and I bookmarked the companies 'track order' page.

The first time I checked my order, a few hours later, I was rewarded with the STATUS notification "ORDER RECIEVED".  "Great" I thought, "these guys are really on the ball". About two hours later, when I was trying to decide whether to annoy my external examiners by using the American 'z' in words ending '-ise' throughout my thesis, I checked again. This first  check told me my order had still been recieved. I was a little disgruntled, after all it was progress I was looking for, but if the thesis has taught me anything, it is patience, so I resisted the temptation to check my order's status again till that evening. I was rewarded for my patience over the two hours since check #2 on  check #3. On check #3, it was clear there was progress  as "WORK ORDER ISSUED" was proudly displayed in the STATUS box. I was immensely excited and subsequently returned to the STATUS page on a regular (by which I mean about four times per day) basis. It became my lifeline - a symbol of progress in an otherwise completely static world of daily exactly-the-same-thingness. The nest day, the status changed to "ORDER IN PROCESS". Excitement mounted.

Twenty three days later,  the status of my order changed to "DELIVERY IN PROGRESS". I have to confess, during the twenty two days in which my twelve inch long, 3/4' deep, 3' wide sample of hardwood floor was "IN PROCESS" I had begun to loose a little bit of hope. The fact that the delivery was now in progress re-ignited my optimism. I decided to use 'realize' throughout my thesis to give it that international flavour.

And that, nearly, brings us up to date. The day on which it was announced "DELIVERY IN PROGRESS" was 13/08/2015. On that fateful day, I was redirected to the courier's website. Once there, the first entry was promising "Pickup done". I presume this meant the couriers had picked up from the producer. It seemed clear  enough. In fact,  the first few entries, after some thought, seemed clear enough and were impressively thorough: 

13/08/2015:   CHINA  21:00    PICKUP DONE  
13/08/2015:   CHINA 22:20   SHIPMENT INFORMATION TO BILLING SCAN
13/08/2015:   CHINA  23:25    SHIPMENT DEPARTURE SCAN

Optimism soared  as the sample's journey was meticulously recorded, but the next day, the first entry caused me a little alarm

14/08/2015: UK 17:40 ARRIVED AT DESTINATION

"Hang on",  I said to the cat,   "Nothing has arrived at the destination, maybe we ought to contact them". Toshack (the larger of the two cats), disagreed,  taking the view, typical of cats, that if you want something, it will arrive. His theory, based on his knowledge of how doors open and how food is caught,  was that I should just stare at the screen for hours and the sample would get here. Having effectively done this already over the previous twenty three days, I was skeptical. Soon after, however, my faith was restored as the following entries clarified what was going on:
:
14/08/2015:    UK  18:26  CUSTOM CLEARANCE IN PROGRESS
14.08/2015:     UK  18:54  CUSTOM CLEARANCE COMPLETE
14/08/2015:     UK  19:45 SHIPMENT ARRIVE AT HUB

"Brilliant" I thought "Tomorrow I will have a sample of bamboo."

Inevitably, tomorrow never came. For three whole days nothing happened. Frustration turned to despair. Inevitably, my thesis tidying-up ground to a halt. "How?" I raged with exactly the same kind of logic displayed by both FOX news and Donald Trump, "...and why....are  pandas so intent on  ruining my whole career through the deliberate sabotage of my delivery thus making it impossible for me to do my entirely unconnected  work?".  I went back to formatting, this time trying to make decisions on whether to use ":" , ";" or "-" in sentences or whether to just leave the 3,456 'and'-s in place. Then, there was a status change:

17/08/2015    UK   16:45   DEPARTURE HUB FINAL DESTINATION

I was happy the status had changed but confused. What does "DEPARTURE HUB FINAL DESTINATION" mean? I wrestled with this. Did it mean there was a second HUB close to the final destination? Did it mean there was a section within the central  HUB called 'Final Destination'. I was puzzled but not alarmed as whatever it meant, my sample was getting closer. The next day, though, there was full alarm as the status read

18/08/2015   UK   13:25 ARRIVED AT DELIVERY LOCATION


"NOOOO!!!!" I cried "It has'nt!!!! Large Mansions is the 'delivery location' and there ain't no bamboo here!!! Damn you PANDA!!" . The cat jumped up, swawking in protest. I decided to protest as well. I  wrote an email to the couriers, requesting clarification. At 04.55, the company responded "The TEAM will contact you shortly". "Team?" I thought "What Team? And why do they need to contact me? They just need to either clarify the whereabouts of my sample or deliver it".

The next day, the picture murkened, if   you accept that  when I say 'murkened', I mean "became less clear". The status of my order was updated to

19/08/2015  UK  13:10  DEPARTURE FOR DELIVERY SECTION

"WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?" I screamed at the computer screen, frustration coalescing after twenty four days of cat like patience,  "HOW CAN MY SAMPLE HAVE ARRIVED AT THE 'DELIVERY LOCATION' THEN GONE BACK TO THE 'DELIVERY SECTION'? AND WHAT IS THE 'DELIVERY SECTION'? IS IT IN THE 'HUB'?". The cat, used to my screaming at the computer by now, did'nt move, he just continued to stare at his food bowl. I sent off a second email:
 
"Hello, thank you for your reply. The status on my tracking now says 'departure for delivery section'. Can you tell me what that means? I ask because if parcels are to be delivered I want to make sure I am here to recieve

SO can you just let me know where exactly, the parcel is and if possible, what day it will be delivered?
Thanks

Martin"

Underpinning this email was a knowledge of geography: (or ';' or '-' depending on which is correct) I knew that if the sample had arrived in the UK it's arrival airport was most likely Heathrow. Which is about five hours away from here by car or eight hours by Megabus. How is it possible for it to take four days for something to get here from Heathrow? Perhaps, I thought, I should have volunteered to pick it up - (or ';' or ':') the Megabus only takes eight hours and I could have left, picked up the sample and been back here in two days. Currently, I am awaiting either a reply, an updated status or my floor sample. Reluctantly, I have decided to go back to formatting.  But yesterday, something Large mentioned induced either minor trepidation or a full blown panic attack (like my thesis its all a matter of interpretation). She told me we were going to act as guarantors for a friend in a business matter then asked me if this was ok. Naturally , I agreed to this already made decision , and having checked the accounts sober, noted that as long as - in the unlikely event of a default  - the sum required of us was no more than £165.34 , we could cover any eventuality. This I was happy to do and is not the reason for the panic attack/mild trepidation. Instead, what caused me anxiety was that to confirm my willingness to act as guarantor, I have to log on to a website and enter some numeric digits. They start '81680....'


Sunday, 2 August 2015

Slap bang wallop

Slap, bang, wallop :  our luggage  shot out of the mysterious door onto the carousel and majestically sailed round. We were at Halifax International Airport, it was half past midnight. I shoved fellow passengers aside, snatched my luggage then gambolled down the stair and out of the arrivals lounge, eager to be on Canadian soil (Toronto airport does not count), eager to smell the air and eager to jump into a massive embrace with my great friends who I could see waiting just beyond passport control. I bounded down the stairs, leap across the slippery tiles and presented myself in front of Grasshopper, arms spread, crying with happiness. She looked at me blankly, then asked "Who are you?". I walked away crestfallen, and Nel and I spent the next ten days in the Comfort Lodge, just outside of the perimeter of the airport, watching day time tv, ordering pizza and drinking rum. 

Actually, although most of the above is true, the last bit  is not. Not at all. The fact is that like many of us who advance towards decrepitude, twelve thirty at night is quite late, and for some of us, aspects of our vision, which are'nt that great in the first place, are gradually getting worse. For this particular friend, she has the visual recognition skills of cave dwelling fish. Fortunately, unlike a cave dwelling fish, she is both a great friend and does not smell. And of course, we had a great re-union.

These are the pictures from our holiday.https://goo.gl/photos/1oP9fmcDm6zJGYQZ8

Thursday, 2 October 2014

A job................

In some senses the job of this blog is almost done - started when we 'returned' to the UK and documenting my efforts to get a job and the sense of frustration amazement and dismay at the overall state of Good Old Blighty. While a lot of our circumstances have changed, a lot of our sentiments have remained the same (and I say 'our' in the collective sense to include the cats who I know think the same but cant be bothered to blog). These include that when living in the UK you continually have to remind your self that you live in the eight richest economy in history in a era of untold glittering prizes. As humans we've walked on the moon, we're exploring Mars, medical science is phenomenal, and the dissemination of music, literature, information (real information not media)  has never been wider. Yet as it was when we arrived, England is a miserable place. Not, I hasten to add that we (and in this I include RHB as well as me and the cats) are unhappy. Far from it, for one thing, our relatively new found hobby of Lindy Hop/Swing dancing keeps us laughing. And secondly, I have finally found a job that I like. More of this in a bit, but what I mean by miserable is the public domain, or perhaps public demense would be more appropriate. Recent party political conferences have repeated the message (all of them!) that austerity will continue. The argument seems to be that England is on the brink of a disaster and being on this brink is what is keeping us all from being happy. However, the reason we arrived at this brink  was by being quite happy with the way everything was going. So we got too happy and this led us to the edge  of the chasm of happiness and we were in danger of falling in and becoming something like a Scandanavian country - permanently happy. This is bad because ...... actually there is never a reason given why its bad to be happy, it just is.  The argument continues that the only way to make us really  happy (in a non-Scandanavian way - remember, SCandanavian happiness is bad)  is to make everyone miserable for quite a bit longer. Furthermore, the argument goes, once we've been miserable for quite a bit longer, the only way to keep us away from the brink that is preventing our unhappiness, is to continue being miserable for ever so that we dont ever feel comfortable enough to return to the edge of the chasm of happiness. The problem with this - and something that makes me deeply unhappy, is that this mantra has been the pervading mantra in England ever since I can remember. Everything is always a problem, there's always been a disaster looming somewhere. Its all very well for outside observers to say "Well just ignore the politics" but you cant . At this point I will have to refer you to Polyani and leave it there except to note that at some point - and this is a long term plan - we will escape.

Its therefore fortunate that I have finally got a job, and it also provides some credence to my claims to be the UK's  joint second best academic. Indeed, I was getting a little concerned about the validity of these claims seeing as I dodnt have either an academic job or a PhD. Well now, one of those aims has been obtained, albeit that the job is 0.4 Lecturer and includes delivering some lectures about things I actively hate - children. Perhaps that's unfair and overstating the case - I actually quite like the children I know, I just dont see the point in knowing anything about them in the academic sense because usually they grow up and ruin everything good about being children by becoming adults. Still the job is paid, I have 1/3 of an office sometimes and I am now invited to lots and lots of meetings. I have to admit that the number and scale and subject matter of meetings deemed relevant to my job is somewhat a surprise. Indeed you could almost be forgiven for two assumptions based on a quick scan of   meetings since my appointment (the job started on Sept 12th). I am teaching on two programmes:

1: General Induction ( all new staff meet Head of Department). Half an hour of chat. crap coffee and biscuits.
2. New Staff meet established staff for Programme A.
3. New Staff meet established staff for Programme B.
4. Meet Dean of the Faculty
5. Meet Vice Chancellor of the University
6. Meet the Students (twice - A and B)
7. Meet the administrative staff
8. Departmental Meeting for the  start of a new semester
9. Meet my mentor
10. meet the head of International engagement

all the above  are the kind of half an hour of chat, crap coffee and biscuits meetings that take up two hours. Then I have had the following substantive meetings about details of the modules....

1.[empty]


Then I have had a number of administrative tasks, all of which I have been told, by administrators I must do:

1. Get photo taken
2. collect name badge ( I dont do name badges)
3. collect office key
4. small amusing personal bio for 'getting to know you staff circular'
5. formal bio for web page
6. health and safety briefing
7. donate to Angela's charity run (I dont regard this as optional based on tone)
8. Sign a leaving card for someone I dont know
9. Re-register with the payroll office for pay, tax, etc. This means filling in basic details forms such as name and address, where you want your money paid, tax declarations etc etc. I should add that this is particularly puzzling because the job is at the same University I have worked at on a 'sessional' basis for three years and when this re-registration was complete I had the same payroll number as I had before. Then when I received my first pay, it was wrong.
10. Re-register with human resources for criminal record check, proof of identity and proof of accreditation. See above except it was slightly easier because my original documents were still with Human Resources because I'd forgotten to pick them up last time I was asked for this information (for the sessional work). SO HR just re-scanned the same documents again and all was set.
11. Start thinking about the Christmas Party including whether I will be a vegetarian by then ( I dont know) , where I might like to eat on the last day before Christmas (very democratic but the answer is 'in my house, alone') and an amusing question for the quiz.

The two conclusions its possible to reach from the above are both quite far-fetched. The first is that I am extremely important. This conclusion is reached mostly because of the calibre of people who want to meet me - Vice-Chancellors, Dean, HOD's and students. In fact the only people I havent met is the bar staff in the students union. The second conclusion to be reached is that it would be possible, if one was extremely sceptical, to come to the conclusion that the purpose of a University is to fulfil administrative requirements. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.











 and the other day in a meeting I was asked my opinion on the basis that I was an expert. This was terrifying, so I put on my best expert voice and said "I agree with Ian". Ian is one of those very




Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Ride of Hope IV (TROH S04: E01-E05): The Bad, The Good and the Ugly.

As readers are aware,  the annual semi-planned "The Ride of Hope" (TROH) is  a series of disasters, or near disasters, interspersed with some enjoyable cycling, that for some unfathomable reason, its participants (who are also the members of  seminal folk-rock combo 'Cheek to Cheek') start talking about every Spring as a 'good idea'. A date for the ride is speculated on and a route decided based on as little information as possible. Then follows months of inactivity - equipment is unchecked, training rides are cancelled because a good footy match is on the tv, and hoteliers, camp site owners and hostels are left untroubled by enquiries about availability of accomodation. Finally, and usually about a week before departure, the participants realise that they either have to 'put up or shut up'. The results are invariably that  TROH comprises  a series of  encounters with strange people, unexpected diversions and wierd food....interspersed with great views, bizarre rambling conversations, hellish but brilliant ascents and unsuitable off-roading.   This year's TROH was no exception. Lets take a look at what a television documentary would call 'the highlights' starting, in a break from the normal order, with 'the bad'.

The Bad.

This year's Richard Dawkins Award for Sheer Awefulness undoubtedly goes to the food experienced on TROH S04. A high calorific intake is necessary when riding long distances and you need to eat constantly while riding as well - my friend's Canadian adage "eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty" is some of the best advice I have ever found out the price of ignoring. So we do carry food while we ride but mostly trail mix, jelly babys', granola bars and the like. At the end of the day however, something more substantial is needed in the form of a full meal. One solution may be that riders carry their own food but that seems (or perhaps bearing in mind this year's experiences 'seemed') unnecessary in this crowded, but occasionally sceptered isle as you are never really far from population centres and decent grub can surely not be that hard to find, spilling out of roadside inns competing for a dwindling tourist trade? While it may be true that grub could be found, the microwaved slush that was delivered about thirty five seconds after our order was taken in Berwick on Tweed's best Chinese restaurant, costing about thirty five pounds for two main courses, cannot be described as decent. The chicken I ate in Seahouses most popular fish and chip restaurant, rivaled BOT's Chinese disaster in how extremely bad it was,  having the texture, and taste,  of  paint brush bristles that had been left in paint long since evaporated, and practically every bar meal we had - almost impossible to get wrong I previously thought - brought on hallucinations caused by salt overdose. As TROH S04 progressed, I began to dread the evening meal, a dread that was only surpassed by the dread induced by contemplation of the following morning's fat soaked sausages (I stopped eating pork years ago as a rule but vegetarian breakfasts are even worse, usually consisting of a warm egg (which obviously isnt vegetarian anyway) sloshed round a cooling pan and presented as scrambled eggs.)

The food though achieved a narrow victory in the Richard Dawkins Award for Sheer Awefulness because sections of the route - which is advertised as part of the UK's national cycle network were spectacularly bad in specific ways. Some photos may help understand this, starting with a ford crossing near the sea near BOT

It does, I have to admit look picturesque but I should remind readers that this is a cycling route. The fact that the bridge is only passable if you have a unicycle with off road capacity as the bridge is too narrow for any handlebars so even a mountain bike is useless is one thing, but the really annoying thing is the regularity of gates on the route. In some sections, you repeatedly have to get off your bike, open the gate, close the gate then ride another 400 metres before repeating the operation.This goes on for miles.

The next problem with the route - called 'Castles and Coasts' (see the Sustrans website) is that an awful lot of it appears to be designed not to give an interesting or even safe ride, but to get bikes out of the way of cars. Thus a typical section in a town involves directing bikes through car parks, toilets, gravel pits, and abandoned roads on the undesireable side of town which look like the British Army used them to practice urban warfare techniques. The photos dont really do this justice as I was either too scared for my personal safety from roaming dogs, too concentrated on not getting punctured tyres from needles or broken glass or just too busy concentrating on not bumping into concrete bollards or rubbish to take many shots but here's a couple of images:
 The crumbling waterfront north of Newcastle that ended in ...........
 The abandoned road ...........


  This is a constant problem - even when cycle lanes near main highways are provided, many drivers see them as convenient extra parking spaces...
 And back to the gates............

  and the car parks ..........


What must be borne in mind is that these are not short-cuts. In fact the contrary is true as 'Coasts and Castles' frequently involves massive detours from the crow flying to divert the rider to these places. In fact, the route frequently appears to be designed less with the crow flying in mind and more  as an analogue of the nocturnal ramblings of a feral cat. Naturally, with two different academic paradigms on the Ride, this characteristic caused some debate, reminiscent of The Paradigm Wars. While we agreed that the inadequacies of the designed route suggested that  in road planning meetings when " "Agenda Item 3: Planning for Cyclists" was reached the  consensus view on cyclists among representatives present was probably "F*** 'em", how we should react to this was debated.  The scientist among us , Iceman (by the second day we had decided we needed Top Gun style 'handles'),  stuck with the scientific approach that took the route literally. For him, the route existed objectively, to be examined as a cycle route. The Critical Sociolinguist, Flamebearer (AKA yrs trly), thought that the route was there to be interpreted, and possibly with a twist of post-modernism, challenged  fundamementally,  ontologically and epistemologically. The result was a compromise wherein we interpreted some parts choosing better routes that would have been obvious to the route designers if they'd bothered to look at a map. let alone try the route out for themselves,  and took other passages where the route was, possibly as an oversight, really good,  literally. Which leads us to the whole point of the ride, which was the Good Stuff.

Good Stuff:

The views were occasionally stunning. The best thing to do is to just show a few pictures, although they do lack the smell of brine where we skirted the coast or the scent of wild garlic as we mountain biked through forests. Incidentally, mountain biking through forest trails with full panniers is not for the faint hearted but if it ever becomes an Olympic sport (and it should) I am stupid enough to enter as its an altogether different type of exhilirating, mostly terrifying.
 This trail started off looking dead easy like this, but it quickly got narrow and very fast...wild garlic everywhere .. just incredible.

 Fields of flowers like in a magazine (with a Newcastle housing project in the background to bring you back to earth)...

 A river somewhere in Scotland I think...
 A castle, of course..........
 Same river as above...

 Looking north to Bamburg castle ( I think) ...........



 Next few  (And one above) are from the final climb before Edinburgh - a ten mile climb, quite gentle, but we had miscalculated distance and the whole day was close to seventy miles with this climb the last thing we did before an exhilirating fifteen mile descent into Edinburgh. It would be pretty easy on a road bike, but on a loaded bike, you just have to slog up the hill. Iceman hates these climbs but I love them..


 Iceman at the top looking down on the Edinburgh plain..

Final word goes to buildings and friends.

On buildings : we only stopped at one castle Bamburgh Castle. It is magnificent in some ways ..





.... but the miserable-ist in me cant help but think that the craftmanship and energy on show also represent a mind set of exploitation - the beams of the ceiling of the great hall were hewn from a type of teak  (600 tonnes) that is now practically extinct as the tour guide - a definite enthusiast of Empire -  almost gleefully recounted. The same guy, describing a piece of furniture in another part of the castle, described how it constituted part of a dowry. He then went on to explain that the dowry wasnt just the furniture, gold and cattle a bride's family gave to a husband, it also included the bride herself as property . He appeared to find this rather "charming" but the resonances of a man owning a woman remain in Western cultue today in all sorts of ways so I left pretty depressed.

What didnt depress me was the wigwam we stayed in, our only night's camping.
 We lit a fire, bought a bunch of beer and just talked.
And finally what was best was the people, first of all Iceman........riding partners are not the easiest thing to find but we always quickly get into a rhythym, spelling eachother at the front, giving eachother space on descents and agreeing on rest stops without really discussing it..


 .. and secondly our friend Sarah who we met in Edinburgh on the night of the World Cup Final...Sarah is an ex-colleague of RHB and Iceman, a keen scuba diver, sportswoman and a great laugh.


 I have to finish by saying that The Ride of Hope is something me and Paul dreamed up as a jokey reference to the fact that whenever we told people we were doing a long distance ride, we would be asked "What charity are you doing it for?".  In fact a whole industry of sponsored bike rides, hikes, climbs and runs in support of one good cause or another has grown up in the UK. Its almost as if you cant do a bike ride unless you're supporting some good cause or another - some people look askance as if its somehow selfish of you just to do a ride for pleasure. I'd never de-cry a good cause but when you consider that commercial companies are now heavily involved in these events, requiring a minimum sum to be pledged, from which they take a handsome cut and are effectively  profiteering from say, cancer or mental health issues, the cynic in me wonders about the ethics of some of these events. It's true that these events raise awareness, but in many cases that's the best thing that can be said about them: when you examine the books (as I have done in the course of my research into the so-called Third Sector, an umbrella these companies fall under) they not only make profit from the participants ( who have to pay a fee)  but also from the donations the participants raise and  simultaneously they  take advantage of tax-relief for charities, thereby increasing their profits further. Simply put, they profiteer from misery. As for the participants, the activities are often things they would love to do, like sky-diving or trekking in remote places. I have to wonder whether, if the event was to spend an equivalent amount of time looking after a person with mental  health issues or involving experiencing the hardships of a condition in some way - a much more direct way of raising their own awareness  - as many people would participate. So I'm pretty sceptical of many of these events.

But not all of them, which is where my friend Reka comes in. Nel and I met Reka (her house is about fifty feet away) shortly after we moved into Large Mansions. She was among the first to welcome us to the area and,  as I soon found out,  was pivotal in local community action, including arts projects I later got involved in. She was also instrumental in integrating us in what is a truly unique local community based on our experience of living in two countries and numerous cities: :  summer barbeques, dancing at the Adelphi, house parties, sharing cars, helping with DIY - we became friends over the last five years -  Christmas parties, Halloween, mad arts projects, street festivals, just hanging out. She was also a keen cyclist who had cancer. As such she did participate in bike rides for a cause but for her it wasnt a 'holiday' or stumbling into making a  profit for someone else, she rode because she loved it and because she wanted to show the value of exercise and that you could live even as a cancer 'sufferer' (although she was never that). Her own awareness could'nt be questioned and at times she seemed as interested in getting people into cycling or fitness  as 'the cause'. We talked about bikes, about the advantages and disadvantages of using cleats, about climbs and descents and about food on the road. We even talked about my cynicism about 'sponsored bike rides' with Reka telling me off for being so cynical, although I (think/hope I) was clear that it wasnt her type of ride I was sceptical about.

Reka died three days before I left for this years TROH. I did think about her a lot on this year's ride and will miss her an incredible amount. I never went with Reka on one of her long rides only  going  for a couple of trips locally, which ended up in the pub. We almost never talked about her illness although she did  raise my awareness of cancer - I never imagined someone as ill as her could ride from Lands End to John O'groats while having chemotherapy.  But most of all she raised my awareness of how much difference a brilliant  person with a warm heart and  mad enthusiasms can make. This one was for you Reka.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Cats, sheds and transoceanic exploration

At first glance this post may appear a bit of a mish-mash. At a second glance, this post may also appear a bit of a mish mash. Frankly, its the best I can do as I nurse an enorgantic hang-over after a BBQ which finished a  week which may be described as bearing less than good news (of which more later) ..first up cats. Here's a few pictures of the cats Kali and Tosh,  who we shipped to the UK from Ontario. They themselves are transatlantic voyagers:



Cats have a very obvious point besides being rodent killers and mice suppressors, which is that they make people happy. They dont do anything else and they probably dont intend to make people happy (although how do we know either way?) but the fact that they do is why we flew them from Ontario. Next is a few pictures of a  shed that me and my friend Jeremiah James have built in some spare time for another friend in her massive and very beautiful garden. Even if it doesnt look like it, this shed is heavy on improvisation as it was constructed from discarded parts of another shed - it took considerable wood wrangling to make everything fit together and we are both incredibly proud of the result. In a way, the shed is a transoceanic thing because  Jerry (he grew up in a pretty remote village in Jamaica) and I crossed the Atlantic twice for settlement (and hope to do so one more time Westwards one day). In the pub the other night, Jerry and I were saying that we didnt know what to do now that we'd finished the shed.




Finally, last night we had a barbeque in my garden , largely cooked on a barbeque that we are looking after for the RHB's sister, Nysa. (NOTE: You all should know her name isnt Nysa but everyone on this blog gets a nickname and Nysa is norse for 'to seek') .We made far too much food and did nothing but eat, drink, sing and dance  until the early hours in the company of   people  some of who we will not see again. The people at the BBQ were from all around the world.  The reason we are looking after the barbeque is that Nysa is currently in Tonga (or thereabouts) in the middle of the Pacific an an adventure, sailing round the world on a sailboat. She really is a transoceanic explorer - she was gone for the best part of last year and will be about another year and a half travelling West before ending up in Italy or thereabouts. Its an incredible expedition for all sorts of reasons. I dont know exactly why our transoceanic explorer is doing what she is doing other than I know it is not for money: if I had to guess, I'd say she wanted a challenge.

Next time any idiot talks to you about 'human nature' in association with competitiveness or  rationale  economics and the application thereof to macro-economics, or alternatively talks to you about  immigration and its  problems (this is a dual use post) ask them to read this post before 'unfriending' them on Facebook.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Bad Back

BAckground: "I've got a bad back". A ridiculous piece of language when you think of it  - firstly the bodily area in question isn't a unitary thing, secondly it would be better to use a possessive pronoun,  and thirdly the back has'nt done anything wrong. Nevertheless, and ridiculous as it is, the phrase is accurate - to whit, I have a bad back. Or rather I have had a bad back in earnest  since about 1995 although even prior to that time, the back was suspect.  Suspect is another ridiculous word to describe a body part, used in soccer as follows:   'The boy Rigby has a suspect hamstring' (younger members of any given team are referred to as 'the boy...(name)'. Actually the more I think about it, the more ridiculous any and every language continues to be and a good part of me wishes we communicated in binary, with politicians limited to unitary. 

Anyway, the back (mine) has been bad (damaged not misbehaviour) probably the result of a combination of factors including yrs trly being long and stringy, damage caused by badly performed but  repeated physical actions (such as carrying  and lugging), bad posture and inappropriate or reduced exercise. The most recent bout has been the result of both inappropriate and reduced exercise but it has been in a good cause. This good cause has been the rapid writing of academic papers for publication which has seen me planted at the desk for much longer than normal.

The story: It all started with a visit from a famous academic in January. This particular academic is so famous that major parties consult him, he is frequently on tv and radio and now he was coming to my town to give a talk. I went along, not because I was impressed by the fame, but because I was interested to see that this guy's work had wandered into territory I cover in my research. I say wander, because the talk, although good, gave some impression that the speaker's interest in the topic was quite political and probably temporary - a kind of ideological diletante visiting 'immigration', possibly because every politician in the UK is obsessed with immigration at present, so the issue is 'current' (and we are obliged to swear in blood that our research will be current) . Equally however, the speaker's interest may be burgeoning and a lifelong commitment to researching immigration may follow. Whatever the speaker's motivation,  for me, and as being an immigrant is what inspired the PhD in the first place and because  I think processes of migration warrant further study rather than political visiting, the speaker's attention was welcome if, by dint of making a serious, academic and professional point at the conclusion of his talk, I could impress on him the need to make his visit (to the topics of migration) slightly longer and therefore have several important facts about migration relayed to senior politicians (who seem utterly unacquainted with facts of any type). That was the hope anyway, and if you think that the sentence immediately preceding this one is complicated, requiring a coupla reads before you understand what it says, you want to be there when I ask a question at academic conferences.

The problem is that I am so utterly out of place at academic events. No, really, this is not false modesty, I just dont belong at these things. Its not imposter syndrome either - I've discussed this with my good (newish) friends Riccardo and Cecilia and  they clearly  feel that someone will find them 'out' as new academics. If anything, I have reverse-imposter syndrome -  I believe I have found out the world of academia - a lot of it is constructed and stage managed so carefully  because some  people are terrified of (good)  radical new ideas . And this puts me out of place at academic events because although I recognize  the complex mirage-dance of manners, I just cant do it very well. Take 'the coffee bit' for example. I know that after you've grabbed your inadequately sized cup of shit coffee, you're supposed to chat, usually in some type of foyer, completely unsuitable for chatting. I havent got a clue what you're supposed to chat about , only that you're supposed to look intelligent or interested with a very controlled demeanour that should be pre-set somewhere between polite smugness and vaguely amused interest both with a dash of appraisingness while you drop names. In no circumstances ever  should you be "abso-fucking-lutely furious" (as I am about the immigration policy of the UK), and you should definitely not describe it in terms, or manner which indicates that you are abso-fuckin- lutely furious. You also should'nt find anything "brilliant", "really funny", "dead sad" or "a load of w***" all of which I have uttered during various 'the coffee bit'-s. If you do commit the crime of actually saying what you think, or talking about last night's footie or expressing strong emotion, there is a sideways glance and/or an imperceptible but perceptible shuffle on the part of your conversant and you find yourself alone-among-people in a large foyer that is completely unsuitable for being alone-among-people in. One solution to this is to take a conference-buddy, which is a bit like a f**-buddy (and may also be that as well), so that you dont have to endure 'the coffee bit' alone but this still means that if you ask a question within the talk, and you are not in the (or 'a')  'in crowd' you have to do so solo.

This was the point I was trying to raise about three paragraphs ago,  and that its taken this long to get 'there' may also be an illustration of why  I hate asking questions in academic situations: I find it really difficult to have  enough thoughts of the right standard while listening to an academic talk, let alone formulate coherent questions. Thus it is embarassing to feel that I have to ask a question at some point.  My accent - which is notorious  in the UK -  also doesnt help , threatening  (the accent that is) as it does,  through various social constructions of 'scousers',  to tell a joke, issue a threat of violence and be radically politically Left Wing simultaneously in a whiney nasal tone  in any question I ask even though I might'nt say anything which suggest any of those things with my words. The result is that when I do ask a question meant as a genuine enquiry it is wildly incoherent because I'm conciously trying to avoid sounding funny, threatening, Left Wing  or whiney but instead am trying to sound academic.

The result of asking my rubbish question is a bad back months after the event.  This is both a surprise and a problem because much to my surprise my observations strike a chord and I am identified as something of an expert, refreshingly regional and radical,  a bit dangerous perhaps  but academically sound. This is good for my research field, so is welcome, but is also a problem because having been identified in certain quarters as someone with something to say, I now have to say it, rather than (as was the current condition) say that I am going to be saying something (at some unspecified point). Thus much time has been spent writing furiously, glued to the laptop where I have had to concentrate on removing the word 'clearly' from everything I have ever written and replacing it with evidence. And such writing has reduced exercise significantly which has resulted in a bad back.  I've already resolved for the sake of the back never to ask another question in an academic conference again.

THe BA\d