Dont buy the Sun.

Dont buy the Sun.
Hillsborough Justice campaign - Remember the 96.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

ROH 3: The Full English Breakfats

 I acknowledge that this final installment on the ROH eventuates quite considerably after said vacation. Notwithstanding, and with all the usual excuses, I shall plunge onwards , if only for the sake of completeness.

As a recap, we are somewhere hot with a pool.............

It may just be that I lack the necessary perspicacity,  but I cannot tell, at a glance, that the locals of  somewhere-hot-with-a-pool (SHWAP) are lazy, at least not without the benefit of a good meal inside me. The subject of a good meal crops up in the following account but we are all driven by forces and emotions we cannot control - or at least the Racists later told me - and one of my driving fears, at least as far as these accounts go,  is that a true(ish) record unsequentially told may miss something vital, so I will start at how it started.

It is one am and I am drunk. This in itself is not unusual, but more unusual is the RHB is also drunk, ditto Skarra, who I have seldom.....correction never......seen so regularly blotto. Perhaps that's why we engaged in conversation with the Racists, but perhaps it was just the good mood engendered by sunshine, exercise under said sunshine and satisfying food. Much to my surprise, the couple that join us at the bar appear drunker than us if their attempts to mount the adjacent bar stools, resembling as they do  those of eager puppies trying to climb a smallish step. That they can have achieved a more drunken state that us is surprising, and frankly a little offensive, but not nearly as surprising and offensive as thei introductory remarks:

"Fucking Hell" shouts the female version "My fuckin oldest daughter's just spent two hours holding  her sister's fucking placenta. Those Fucking twats in the National Health Service."

The Racists are from Hull.

I look at our Greek host, a family man who own the bar and the apartment complex. He smiles, perhpas a little tentatively

"Hi Angela, what are you drinking?" he asks politely.

"I NEED a fucking drink" says the elderly lady "Gimme a gin. Double".

She then proceeds to describe the chaos that the "Fucking twats" in the National Health Service have caused by not turning up to her younger daughter's unexpected early delivery of progeny until called, including repeating a gynaecological description of the birth until we all understood that it was a messy affair. Having offended our host via an entirely culturally insensitive disregard for acceptable topics of conversation, she slumps exhausted at the bar with a final "Fucking.........twats".

"You're from Hull, arent you?" I ask.

"Born and bred" she says ignoring that breed isnt just the physical process of development but is usually considered to include some instruction in decorum as well.

"We live in Hull" I say brightly " its great"

This is all it took for the Racist to launch into a well rehearsed diatribe on how Hull used to be great but is now crap. Lnes of 'argument' include:

"They get all the housing - and I should know I am responsible for allocating public housing in the North End"

"I lock my car doors when I drive down Newland Avenue - its like driving through a foreign city"
[Note:  estimated BME population of Hull is about 8% of the total population and we live in Newland Avenue near the University where there are quite a few international students.]

"I'm terrified of them burkhas - you dont know whether there's a man under one with a gun or a knife"
(This said in relation to local bus services).

"Why did they have to come to Hull? Arent there enough crap places in their own country?"

"I'm not racist but (yes the male version  did actually say this or an anlaog of) unless they (?) stop them (?) there will be violence on the streets just like there used to be."
(The logic of this, and the historical accuracy escapes me but it was said in response to my objections to their comments.)

Now it should be noted that early in the diatribe, RHB and Skarra with drew from the conversation, on reflectoin a wise decision and an option which was open to me. I however was drunk enough to think that I could use reason and logic to persuade them, in a non-confronatational way, that not only were their words offensive and ill-chosen, but that their thoughts were also offensive and ill-chosen with the additional handicap of being wrong. And it should also be noted that while  I utterly failed in my attempt, I maintained a calm demeanour throughout, sensitive to maintaining the appearance of harmony in our host's establishment. Unfortunately, this tactic had the opposite effect, so much so that eventually the female Racist screamed at me and told  me I didnt know what I was talking about because I was an immigrant too and "as bad as all them".

In an act of conciliation, and further  in the interests of keeping our hosts' establishment peaceful, I offered and olive branch

 "Ok" I said "Let's agree to disagree and I dont think we're going to persuade eachother. I respect your viewpoints and I understand your fears" (I dont and I didnt) "Lets talk about this place... you know it quite well obviously " (they had talked about previous visits and how lovely "the locals" where, while presumably simlutaneously being grateful that he same locals were'nt in Hull)

The male racist agreed, and chummily slapped my arm "Fair enough" he said " You'll change when you've seen a few things. But I can tell you about this bar - best food on the island"

"Oh really" I said, grateful he'd picked up the lead "We love food - we're a bit 'foodie' I suppose! What's on the menu here?"

"I can tell you, my friend" the male Racist said, apprently to me "you can get the Full English Breakfast - thats' sausage, eggs, bacon, beans, toast, hash browns and tomatoes - here for only six Euros".

I must have looked a bit blank because he re-phrased:

"Sausage, eggs, bacon, tomatoes, hash browns, beans and toast for only six Euros. That would cost about seven in Cyprus".

I must have continued looking blank, because he re-re-phrased:

"In Hull, the full English Breakfast - that's bacon, eggs, hash browns, toast, sausage and tomatoes - would cost about six quid (seven Euros) and no cup of tea included. That's how good the food is here"

I have to admit, I felt like restarting the argument about immigration again but at that moment, RHB and Skarra announced that they were even drunker than previously so we headed back to our apartments.

The next day, I recounted the 'conversation' I had had with the Racists to both. As the holiday progressed, two themes emerged as a result of the conversation and my account of it. Frstly, Skarra started laboriously  listing every ingredient of every dish, or edible substance, at every opportunity. For example, if we were going to have coffee and a small pastry, he would say  "I will meet you for a snack - that's coffee, yeast, flour, sugar, milk and suitable flavourings - at eleven am".  The second theme that emerged was that it was obvious that the Racists, despite the apparent detante of the evening, had not forgotten and not forgien and that Not only I, but RHB and Skarra, had been tarred with the same shameful brush of  being tolerant and not-Fascist. When any of us went to the pool, either communally or individually, the Racists would sit glaring at us, sipping gin and beer and eating bacon butties, chunnering under their breath "there's the liberals, look at them with their offensive beliefs in the fundamental equality of human beings".

It got so bad that none of us felt comfortable going to the pool bar which was sad becasue the host was very nice and it was close enough to our aprtment that even very drunk you could still get home. Thereforeone night, I attempted a reconciliation, heroically seeking to take the burden of being labelled as socially divisive from my fellow do-gooders' shoulders so that they at least could get drunker near to home. I approached the Racists - who none of us had spoken to for two weeks- at the bar.

"Hey Guys" I ventured "Erm...."

I was about to say, in the interests of reconciliation,   that despite our introductory conversation,  were werent really all that tolerant and in fact were all suspicious of Klingons (an identifiable ethnic minority), which nearly made us Racists too. I have to confess that this was a bit of a lie - Skarra has declared his respect for Klingons and an interest in eating 'Ghaa' on more than one occasion - but what the heck, I thought, we are on holiday somewhere warm with a pool - you cant fight fascism every day.

The female rascist interrupted me. "Its ok" she said " We were a bit over the top the first night. We dont really hate immigrants - not all of them anyway-and I think we might have got off on the wrong foot......."

{The English love of euphemism needs to be commented on here:  'getting off on the wrong foot' implies a regrettable, but mutual misunderstanding between two people who, it is implied, largely share values. If I were being pedantic, I would say that we didnt get off on the wrong foot, rather, a racist met and anti-racist and had an argument. Wrong footedness had nothing to do with it, the basic problem was incompatible world view or weltenschauung. }

I realised I had not been listening and the racist was still droning on about how she wasnt racist it was just that she could'nt tell if  the five foot one inch tall person dressed in a burkha she had once seen was a female or a strapping male and as she was in a vulnerable place subject to terror threat (the No15 bus to Orchard Park)  her hatred of everyone in 'ethnic' clothes was hence justified  ".................but despite all that I think its fear rather than that I dont like them as people" she said.

I was temporarily staggered. I had just not-listened to the closest a biggot will come to admitting that the fault is not one of Other, but rather a trait that they themselves ought to 'deal' with . I remember thinking to myself that rapprochment would not get closer - at least not Somewhere warm with a pool. I bought them a drink and said something about 'well  that's good news' (at which female racist looked puzzled) and was enjoying the conversation dying as conversations do between people who have nothing to say to eachother, not even argument. The atmosphere reached a level of true tranquil serenity as the conversation breathed its last - it was so dead we may all have been utterly alone - then the female Racist said conversationally "Well, you know after all that fuss, we dont really know anything about you and your 'friends'...." she said (she and hubby harboured the idea that Large, self and Skarrat were in a menage a trois)  "...what do you all do , for work you know, and why did you come here?"   Despite the territoriality of the way she said "here' , the question was I believe well intentioned, the type of information she would need when describing to her friends back home the wierdos she had met. I answered for all of us, shorthand (and therefore I acknowledge not entirely accurately but I wanted to be back with my imagined lovers) :

"Oh we're academics, you know, RHB and Sk psychologists and I'm a kind of linguist..." I noticed a strange look developing on her face but  carried on   ".....and this isnt our type of holiday really... you know me and Sk usually go for a bike ride, last year we did coast to coast ..."

The explosion caught me somewhat by surprise "FUCKIN CYCLISTS !! AT THE  FUCKING UNIVERSITY !!! FUCKING .........................I HATE CYCLISYS.....FUCKING HI VIZ TWATS........FUCKIN UNIFUCKINVERSITY.....GET AREAL JOB......FUCKIN SNOBS..........."

I left shortly after and have not seen the World's Best racists since. The next day our trois (sans menage) flew home . One of the first things we did on arrival back in the UK was purchase a full English breakfast (vegetarian option).

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

ROH 3: somewhere hot, with a pool

By the time yrs trly reaches somewhere-hot-with-a-pool, it is too late: too late that is for the expectation that a portion of life would be spent not considering the emotional, psychological and physical needs of cats (which can be summed up as "feed me but dont expect gratitude"). The cats have taken over the balcony and the timetable. Now this may sound as if I am complaining for comic affect about RHB's disposition (which some would describe as 'obsessed') towards cats. And this claim is true, I am complaining toward such a comic effect. But I - like so many of us - am nothing if not hypocritical. i rapidly become obsessed with the cats and their welfare. On the second day, I enquire of RHB:

"Have you named them yet?"

She confirms that she has not. I regard this as an omission, tantamount to crueltly, so the cats are quickly named,  based on personality and probable future life experience. In the picture above, the mummy cat is called Hera and from left to right are Luna, Hercules, Loki and Persephone. A large male lurks around picking up scraps but is very shy and never gets close enough for me to photograph. We assume he is the father and name him Zeus.

The rest of the ROH3/vacation starts according  to plan. All of us present (self, RHB and Skarra) have had what soccer writers describe as a 'torrid' time since winter. The plan for this trip is to do absolutely nothing, to try to achieve a state of utter boredom. So the first few days are:  rise late-ish, eat leisurely breakfast, feed cats,  read book, swim in pool, eat lunch, feed cats, sleep, read, swim in pool, feed cats, go for dinner and drinks, feed cats. It is surprising how quickly a state of utter boredom is achieved using this technique and RHB and Skarra have been at it for days. If you consider that I arrive on what English people call 'the Monday', by 'the Wednesday', adventure is sought.

During  our trips to the small centre  where all the identical, built-for tourist bars and restaurants are located, we notice a number of people riding quad bikes. It is decided that temporary possession of such bikes would gain us access to the unexplored mountainous interior of 'somewhere hot with a pool' , and to the far coast (SHWAP is a small island). So we rent a couple of quad bikes for the duration of our stay and have some great adventures, buzzing round the island.

 Such activity is, of course, environmentally despicable and dangerous. Both dimensions give a small buzz - it feels naughty to be driving and it feels naughtier to be driving roads which the occasional massive lorry sweeps along. But we get to see some great things including a couple of ancient tombs that are unvisited by the mass of tourists  and which overlook a spectacular valley. Skarra and I spend half hour excitedly discussing the location and building a picture of the lives of the people who would have built the tombs 3500 years ago.

RHB is less enthused by our archaeolgical enthusiasm but assigns herself to scorpion and snake spotting duty while we blunder through the unbdergrowth
 We also explore some stunning bays and swim in (cliche alert) crystal clear waters

 It is an idyllic time and  utterly at odds with the experiences of the locals, who thanks to brutal neo-liberal policies of austerity are experiencing massive rates of unemployment, huge rises in the prices of staples and face a bleak future. These conditions, they have been told, have been imposed because they are lazy, have overpaid themselves in the past and because their Government has, egged on by them, added huge debt to the economy that they can never repay. It is via a discussion about this one evening at the poolside bar, that  we,   having fed the cats,  meet The Racists. But that discussion - and all that  arose from it - are for another post. For now, I will just end by saying that the conversation occurred at one am while we were being served by a local who had been working since before dawn that day and who didnt appear - at least to us - to be lazy or overpaid.

Friday, 2 August 2013


In the last chapter, I noted that Ride of Hope 3  (ROH3), in common with previous ROH's was, comfortingly characterised by disaster/and or chaos. That this pattern should feature was evident right form the inception. Following RHB's strict instructions, and teaming up with Skarra, I rode to Beverley (about 12km depending on route) to purchase a holiday via a travel agent. Neither self nor Skarra had ever done this before, but it seemed like the easiest way to get the process over and done. Online holiday booking can be, in my experience, a black hole. When I have attempted to do this in the past, it has led to some great holidays but only after hours, days, weeks of considering the multivarious options available. I usually compile an excel project  with seperate sheets on  every holiday within price range, accomodation options, preferences of holiday makers, travel time, onsite expense, political freedom in the destination (UK has often been ruled out as a holiday destination  because of this), distance to nearest airport, full UN reports on transmittable diseases in the locality, historical data, local transport sub-connections and full environmental report (I dont want to go somewhere they dont recycle, its very upsetting for some reason). Then I present the full report to my co-holidayers in brief report form which sometimes leads back to the drawing board and sometimes results in an even more complicated process of seperately booking planes, trains, automobiles and hotels. This time, we decided to make the process simpler.We would go to a travel agent, tell them we had 'x' pounds and our criteria were 1. hot 2. pool 3 baggage allowance and buy a holiday in the month of July.

Skarra and I found ourselves standing in front of bubbly, blond Kelly.

"We want to go on holiday" Skarra announced, with a degree of superfluity.

"What, the both of you?" Kelly sang back. [Note; "The both of you" is what many English people say when they mean "You" or in this context "Together"]

"Yes" we replied.

Kelly sat forward with apparently increased interest and said "Let me look at The System" for you. [Note "The System" is what travel agents and railway booking clerks call computers]. Kelly click furiously for a few seconds and said "Where do you want to go?". The screen display of  The System was turned away from us, but I noticed that a pink glow was reflecting onto Kelly's face.

"Er, we want to go with my wife" I said hastily.

Kelly looked at me, and clicked furiously and the pink glow disappeared.

"Where do you want to go? " she asked.

Skarra siezed the moment decisively "Somewhere hot" he said "With a pool. In July."

It is credit to Kelly that we actually ended up with a holiday at all, because this really was the only information we could provide her with. We reached agreement  and I paid with my card. As the transaction completed, my cellphone rang. It was RHB.

"Have you booked the holiday?" she asked

"Yes" I replied

"When" she asked

"In July" I answered

"Shit" she said

"What?" I asked

"Jody's coming" she said

"When?" I said

"In July" she exclaimed

"Oh" I said.

Ulitimately this Gordian knot was resolved with me on a  seperate flight than Skarra and RHB, four days after they left, albeit I had to arrange that flight independently so ended up with little idea of how I would get to them once I was "somewhere hot". In short what happened was  RHB travelled to Durham to work with CCP and Jodi four days before the start of her holiday then travelled back to Large Mansions with Jodi, stayed for a night then  flew out on holiday the next day with Skarra, Jodi meanwhile  flew out the day after (to Rome) and I travelled to Liverpool two days later, then back to Manchester then flew out.

I wont go into too many details today, because I want to get on to the ROH3/holiday tomorrow and I have run out of time because a paper is demanded of the joint second best academic in the UK, but while RHB was in Durham,I was looking after a nieghbour's cat while she (the neighbour, not the cat) was on holiday. At some point the cat got into a fight. This is normal for cats (Toshack is forever wandering home nonchalantly with battle wounds) and usually the best thing to do is let the wound heal, at most cleaning it with water. But Dave's wound wasnt healing. In fact, three days after he incurred it, it started to smell and turn black. [Two additional pieces of timing are relevant to note here: firstly, our own cats were due their annual booster shots and veterinary check up on the day that I would be alone in Large Mansions (ie the day after Jodi left and prior to my travelling to Liverpool). Also , the cats owner was due home on the day after that, in the morning which was ok because I was travelling to Liverpool in the evening. ] A decision was forced - Dave had to go to the vet, and it made sense to take him co-incident with my cats.

I dont know if you have ever placed a cat in a cat box. Some cats enter meekly, others with less willing. In this case, Tosh, Calli and Dave were all reluctant. Now 'reluctance' is quite a mild concept when applied, as a description, to humans. "Reluctance' however turns when it comes to cats and boxes. 'Reluctant' becomes a knock-em-down-and-they-get-back-up, brutish, noisy scrap. Tails, legs, paws and fangs appear from nowhere, forcing lids off and preventing the door of the cat box from shutting. At one point, my arm was in the cat cage under Tosh, trapped in the door while he gnawed my elbow, so i sprayed his face with water, he bit down hard but at least then retreated and I slammed the door shut.  I repeated the procedure with Calli, a smaller, more vicious version of the same fight. Then I went to my neighbours for Round Three with Dave.

The taxi driver I had called refused to take the cats, so I set off the half mile walk to the vets with three cats in three boxes. The boxes swung from the handles, the cats miaowed and hissed, striking out through the doors. My flip flops (I have no idea!) flipped and flopped. AT the vets, Calli and Tosh passed muster, but the vet looked at Dave's wound and said "That's nasty". Three hundred pounds later, I took my cats home, returning for Dave that evening  after his treatment, and packed.

I will eschew an account of the career crisis which was running parallel with these events, suffice to say it has now been resolved. I will also provide no details of the nightmare flight, other than asking the reader to appreciate that of 238 souls on board, 237 of them appeared to be  members of a fraternity or sorority loaded up with alcohol, hormones racing, overexcited about their first vacation without their parents. Except they were British. And the journey to "somewhere hot with a pool " from the airport in an unlicensed taxi at four am on cliff hugging roads need not be described here. Suffice to say, that at five am, four days after RHB and Skarra, I arrived. RHB had not wasted the four days, because as I settled on the ground floor balcony, exchanging news with RHB, slowly, from amid the vinyard opposite, there was movement in our direction, which eventually coalesced onto the balcony. RHB looked pleased.

"Oh yeah" she said to me " I've made some new friends"

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Ride of Hope 3: Dont forget your passport

As I write, all in the world is back to something like normal: Burt and Grasshopper are back in NS, Joe and Anna are moving to another unfriendly city, the Legal Eagle is in Glossop. Further, RHB and I are impossibly broke, cats are smug and (self)satisfied, the UK weather's unpredicatable and its politics are predictably glum, Jody Culham's on her way to a conference somewhere, and I really have difficulty smiling with anything like sincerity with too many of the people I know. But the atmosphere at Large Mansions has changed, and not imperceptibly. This is probably the result of this year's Ride of Hope, the Ride of Hope 3: Dont forget your passport. (ROH3:DFYP)

It all started when  Skarra, my regular co-rider on the annual Ride of Hope informed me "I dont think I can be arsed with the Ride of Hope this year". Such lack of enthusiasm is not uncommon in the relationships between Skarra and I. As well as Riders of Hope, we are also  band members in Cheek to Cheek, a musical venture that more people have heard of than we have performed to, and few people have heard of us. In fact, since our inception, Cheek to Cheek  have recorded no music and performed once in public after three years of solid practice (and even then it was only me becasue Skarra was too nervous/busy/not bothered);  we have six songs written, three of them with words, and one where we havent figured out the chorus yet. But Skarra word were not uttered with the blithe lack of concern that usually accompanies our conversations about rehearsal, closely followed by an analysis of SBeyonce's latest track. His eyes were listless, his skin pale and wan. He spoke with a weariness that told a story of mental fatigue, physical stress and emotional turpitude. And I was familiar with some of the reasons for this through my proximity to RHB who is Skarra's colleague: it has been a hard year in academia in the UK, particulalry locally. It was clear I needed to adopt a sensitive line.

"Again" I said.

"What?" said P (his alternate acronym)

"You have to say 'I dont think I can be arsed with the Ride of Hope this year again'" I said, "Just so its clear who's fault it is. Not mine."

Such was Skarra's condition that he did not even rejoin with a comment about who's fault it was we had got lost in a bog, fully laden with panniers, just outside Newcastle that time because someone wanted to see what off-road,  fully panniered-up, mountain-biking-on-road-bikes, was like. Instead he just sighed:

"I dont think I can be arsed with the Ride of Hope again" he said, tiredly. The lack of rejoinder  on topic (or non-sequitur  rejoinder about Shakira not being as good and artist as Beyonce) was another indication that this was a situation where I needed to conduct myself with Theory of Mind fully engaged, cognisant of, and responsive to, my co-dialoguee's needs and unspoken message. Which appeared to be some sort of attempt to initiate a conversation about how he felt; matters close to the soul men dont often discuss between themselves as readers may know. Consideration was indicated in how I reacted.

"That's shit" I said "For me. I was really looking forward to a holiday this year. Specifically that holiday. It would have made me very happy. Now you've ruined everything. For me."

We went on to discuss   Beyonce,  the origins of agriculture, Game of Thrones Season Three Episode Ten (GOTS03E10)  before playing a few songs (it was a typical rehearsal),  and the topic was not re-addressed. But the seed was sown. Four weeks later we were in a travel agents booking a holiday to somewhere hot. Our party had grown  to include RHB because when I  returned home to moan to her that he had ruined my summer we engaged in discourse:

"Do you know that P doesnt want to do the Ride of Hope this year? Can you believe that guy?" I said "What am I supposed to do this summer?"

"I've talked to P. about this" she said, "I need a holiday.  So does P. Go to the travel agent and book it. The requirements are:
1. hot
2. pool
3. baggage allowance that lets me take lots of books

You can come if you want. Are you still here?"

At this juncture two issues need addressing. The first is that regular readers might object to my identification of what is clearly a holiday as a Ride of Hope because the Ride of Hope is an occasionally annual bicycle ride. In response I would argue that the rules of the Ride of Hope do not specifically declare that any riding must be by velocipede, all that is required is that either I or Skarra go somewhere for a reason. I realise that this means that a bus ride to the local shops could be nominated as a Ride of Hope, and to be honest I cant rule that out as a possibility. The second issue is that disaster or chaos features prominently in Rides of Hope. As readers will learn in forthcoming entries, this essential requirement was not omitted in this, The Ride of Hope 3: Dont forget your passport. Indeed, the opening scenes of ROH3: DFYP which find yours truly at home nursing a $300 vets bill for someone else's cat, while struggling with an urgent problem that had potentially career ending implications,  and entertaining JC on my own (not that I object to this - JC is brilliant) as a result of  RHB's not consulting a calendar,  while RHB and Skarra were jetting off to somewhere I had no means to get to and spending all our holiday money on feral cats, confirm this adherence to tradition. As did the rest of the holiday. But those tales are for the nest few episodes.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Strictly for the Boirds

At the moment there are two inevitabilities in my life - transcription and cats. Everything else is change and chaos - weather, friends, the city and country we live in, the texture of greying hair, the loyalties in  Game of Thrones, even our street. The change in our street is the type of change that is welcomed and is embodied in a public art project I have  been involved in for the past year called the Street of Birds and Shadows and was featured in a recent local newpaper story  I was, however,  reluctant to appear in the story for a number of  reasons related to both the changinging and inevitable circumstances I described above in that I knew the weather would be rubbish (UK and climate change is a bad combination), it would interrupt my transcription,  and a photo of my greying hair at the moment is a bad idea as I have not had the necessary, and dramatically sensuous, turkish head shave I usually have every month, and thus look a little 'wispy' in the bonce region. Finally, I really dont  want publicity in a country where  aggressive  right wing thuggery is gaining ground and I am actively and vocal in my opposition to those thugs/fascists because I dont want my personal politics and a art poject involving our feathered friends mixed up by said right wings thugs (who arent very bright) and same thugs consequently attacking a piebald wren welded to a metal bollard in a misguided attack on leftists.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Jeremiah's Universal Glasses

First of all, I know the frequency has dropped off again somewhat. Life, after threatening to become completely miserable - thereby inspiring another round of excellent writing - has become barely tolerable again thus the writing has suffered. Amazingly, this post is alomost completely positive.

First stuff is that as you re all aware, another reason for paucity of writing at present is that I will not write about my experiences in research - which give rise to many humourous/notewrothy incidents - because I am researching people.  I will not write about people without their fully informed consent in respect of many of the situations I find myself in because these situations very often reveal something personal or intimate about my research participants.

But I can recount an incident, where the main thing that is revealed is something about yrs truly, namely, what an idiot one is and how everybody should be taken down a peg or two from time to time. Incident occurred during the course of what I will refer to as my fieldwork, although of course its not in a field and doesnt seem like work. Actually, the incident has a precedent which I am minded I need to tell in order to proceed. That precedent involved the demon drink, myself and my perennial friend JJ  (a former member of an otherwise, in too many cases, a  lamentable profession - see Obama's sickeningly 'matey' speech to the US Press Corps at the annual Whitehouse Press dinner - I remain convinced that good journalists are an increasingly endangered species). JJ's professional status incidentally, is incidental. Anyway, self and JJ met one evening  intending to consume a couple of beers while watching football and chewing the proverbial fat. Co-incidentally, both of us were experiencing work circumstances that were not ideal, so the football match watching was rapidly abandoned for a moan fest, and the couple of beers transmuted into buckets of the stuff - each drink a kind of  ante post   militant two-fingers to our respective employers the following day  "Another ? Why not ! F**k them  and so what if I'm hung over tomorrow".

Of course, it goes without saying that this kind of activity does absolutely no harm to the employer at all unless of course he is in a different pub cursing his workers with his friend PP, the ex-thought leader and getting similarly, but reflectively drunk but its unlikely that they are, because the type of people who rise to the head of the organisation we are both involved in,  are they type of people who have plotted and planned to get to the top of this tiny organisation, and who spend most of their waking hours working out how to stay at the top or improve their position. These little  bosses - 'petit boss'?-  have not time to go and get drunk because their work (which isnt work at all but is actually self aggrandisement) is too important to them to waste any time on socialising. (ref also to Nickson/Large's Theory of Sociopathic Leadership). And these people, these bosses, do this manoeuvering, this ruthless venal self promotion within the confines of  a tiny organisation that, when the corollary of "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" is written about Western Democracy, will not even feature in a footnote about a footnote. All of which is essentially what self and JJ were saying because one of our respective bosses had been caught in flagrante with a lady of the night. Which itself is not such a bad thing - I personally dont problematise other people's sex activities - but the bosses organisation is an organisation whose mission includes, among other things  stamping out the sex trade on the grounds that it exploits women. What we were railing against was hypocrisy, cant, hyperbole and hubris in the highest - and lowest - places. We were drinking the beer as a Socratic sacrifice in a fight that was fundamentally about justice.  Plus, we observed,  this particluar boss's breath smelt and he was ugly and stupid. And fat. And a twat.

After several hours of such revelry, we were extremely hungry, so we went to a local pizzeria, staffed mainly by migrants. It is not a particularly good pizzeria, but it is close. And it is not particularly cheap, but it is close. And , inaddition to being close, it is friendly. So it is friendly and close.  Inside the pizzeria, there is nothing apart from a counter, two chairs for waiting and an amusement arcade punch bag. For some reason (er Beer? - ED) we decided that we would 'play' this amusement arcade punch bag. So we entered a huge amount of money into the pay slot, the punch bag lowered and we each had three attempts to hit is as hard as possible. It is at this stage that the inherent contradictions in the condition of being  highly  (self) educated working class, skilled trade,  middle aged men, concious of too many cultural dynamics of liberalism that despise machismo but with enough remaining connections to background where the ability to punch was one with the ability to breathe as a survival skill and where one's friendships were also always predicated on the notion that at some point you might have to have a punch up between yourselves  emerge.  If you have successfully parsed the proceeding sentence, you will realise that what I am saying is that while pretending to take the game in a light hearted fashion, we were also, at the same time, deadly serious. So while my friend JJ pretended that his headbutting of the bag was just 'daft", on my turn, which came next, I felt obliged to perform a spinning drop kick - instantly lethal - 'just for a laugh'. Indeed this continued not for one ridiculously expensive 'go' but until our pizzas were ready. The pizza staff handed us our pizzas with broad grins - we had provided them with quite a show. Executed by a drunk, a spinning drop kick is not the seamless manoeuvre of a trained assassin, but is more like the stumbling chaos of an elephant recovering from a tranquilizer after emergency medical attention.

The next day, showered and excited, the booze melted away as I was, that day, supposed to be  addressing a local college about my work - all part of my participatory approach to research. The local college has a large ESOL (English teaching) provision and staff and students were to attend my lecture and so far the research programme in the college had gone very well. On the whole, my research is performed at a small level - groups, individuals etc etc. But I also like to report back to college where I have researched  the results of that  research (for obvious democratic and participatory reasons). The manner of report back is up to the college and on this occasion, the college had chosen a lecture setting - big hall, big screens, big powerpoint - as the most appropriate venue. Such an occasion demands some pomp, some ceremony (this is England after all) , so I was re-introduced to the assembled throng - ESOL learners, teachers, Head of School etc. - as the returning lecturer/researcher from Hull University. My research was described (correctly)  as a 'first', and internationally reported and presented. It was a big build up. I stepped on to the podium. I have to admit that I was somewhat inflated, in the sense of ego. While the introduction sounded like the type of impressive thing that is said about other people, it is actually  true, I thought to myself. Then I probably though "Wow. I'm great".  A quick glance at my notes, and I - the internationally renowned academic and lecturer stepped forward to deliver my brilliant summation. It started brilliantly. "Hi" I said. I started to talk.

After about five seconds I noticed three familiar faces in the front row. The familiar faces were grinning in a manner which can only be described as 'widely'. They were also miming a sporting activity. Collating the previous three sentences into a summary, the three faces were the staff of the pizza parlour from the night before and they were miming 'boxing' from their seats and grinning widely. They did not see a distinguished visiting lecturer, they saw a drunken bum imitating an intoxicated elephant. I was brought back to my earth properly and quickly. I managed to get through the lecture without 'corpsing' and my ego was deflated to the proper size. And I think the students enjoyed the whole research process - I am still getting emails from students who wish to be interviewed.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

What to do in Winter ...

Well here at Large Mansions, most of winter has been spent lying under comforting duvets eating. It has to be said that the phrase "lying under comforting duvets eating" is usually concluded with "...and watching television.." but this winter has been so crap that at times we havent even mustered the energy to watch television and eat. It was when we realised that we had actually been utilising out heating for six months of the year - last year it was barely three -  and that we had accomplished almost nothing of interest that I decided to act.

The question of how you know that you have accomplished almost nothing of interest is itself an interesting one: how do you actually know? I mean most people are not really interested in what other people say and most conversations are just spent waiting for the other person to finish so you can tell the other person about yourself.  This means that  when you meet someone, perhaps in the street, even if you have just returned from  the moon in a spacevehicle that you have built yourself  and tell your neighbor about this extraordinary escapade, your neighbour is just waiting for you to finish describing the Sea of Tranquility so they can can you how well little Ben is doing at school and while all the other kids in his class' reading is Key Stage Two his is already at the next Key Stage and they have high hopes that his younger brother will be as good because he can already say 'treacle' without a 'w' pronunciation and dont you like his cute hat and your wife is a psychologist isnt she so she will know all about how impressive Ben's achievements are. Even if you patently explain that the Sea of Tranquility is some  380,000 kms away (which is further away  than Ontario is) and repeat for the 2556th time that RHB is not a child psychologist (also knows nothing about Psychic powers, counselling or prisoner rehabilitation, teaching and does not regard the period that the students do not attend University as a 'holiday' and is therefore not 'off' all summer) and that neither of you are interested in child development (an entirely seperate and worthy but massively misunderstood by the authors of children academic discipline) it is futile. Note that I didnt , in the foregoing - qualify how far away Ontario is from what. Those of us who have been there will understand that this is because to do so is unnecessary.

How then do you know what you have/have not accomplished?  Self and RHB know we had accomplished very little because I am in weekly Skype contact with people who PG Wodehouse  describes a 'the ageing p's', namely my parents. The initail enquiry on both sides durng these conversations is "What have you been up to?" and the discovery that the answer from us  is 'much less than a pair of octegenarians' is salutory. If we cannot achieve at least the same level of activity of someone (my father) who by his own admission fully expected to be dead twenty five years ago, then we have problems.

Back to the decision, which was to rock our world with some noteworthy achievement or other. We both had our projects. RHB would take the unprecedented step of doing something domestic - baking. And I would fix a Newell post. I imagine that some are currently reeling in shock and confusion. Shock , because RHB's tolerance for domestic - particularly traditionally  female - tasks is legendary in its negativity. Even when attempting a standard cook of a single meal, I will often have to repair the kitchen wall (after eating a usually acceptable  meal) of stab marks from the kitchen knife. Actually I exagerrate - I say "often" when I have only had to repair the wall twice in living memory - although "twice in living memory' is also the amount of times RHB has cooked. Nevertheless, baking - on the grounds of providing us with lower fat and zero-processed-sugar cakes, cookies and so forth- is the task that RHB set.

Confusion may have reigned over my stated project which was repairing a Newell post because you may not kn ow what a newell post is. The image below not only shows a newell post it also shows why I need to repair it:

Thus a newell post is the most sturdy part of a stair rail / bannister/spindle construction. It is the first post you will find when encountering a set of stairs. often ornately carved it is built into the structure of a staircase -it cannot be merely decorative. which is why I could not simply rip this out and replace it, because it is part  of a structure that passes through two sets of (finished) floors and eventuates (I have the  Boris Johnson -  that c*** b******* C*** b888**#@!  who is also probably the most dangerous politician in the UK right now - to thank for the word 'eventuate') sub floor attached to the foundations. It is, in one sense, just a post, but it is a very important post.

Despite this post's importance, it had been viciously hacked by the previous denizons - or the landlords who owned - what we now know as Large Mansions. This had been done during some 'repairs' and fall under the general category of "architectural crimes of the Eighties". This activity was perfect. It was indoors, quite difficult but not impossible, indoors, satisfying and most importantly indoors.

We called a house meeting to notify the other inhabitants of Large Mansions of  possible disruption and negotiate the terms of said disruption. The inspiration behind calling  a house meeting came, perhaps surprising, from encounters with some people we have met in the street who consult and negotiate with their children on important family issues. I know of someone who wanted a weekend away, over a Bank Holiday weekend ( no work Friday to Monday inclusive for non-UK readers) ,  for some recreational hill walking and who had to hold protracted negotiations with his eight year old child to obtain permission for such an absence. When terms were finalised they included that my friend should bring back presents for the child on his return, spend extra time with it doing crap child things when he got back, promise not to go too often (this was the parents' first solo time away in eight years and was possibly the first and only time he would be allowed to do this in eighteen years), a nd cut his part of the weekend short  and change his planned itinery so as to be back in time to watch Mr Dibbles (or something) on tv on Sunday afternoon thus missing a whole two days hiking. The parent seemed quite relieved that he'd been allowed to go hiking  at all so was quite happy with his side of the deal.  The child obviously (presumably because of the negotiations) coped well with the absence because,  returning anxiously on the final day (while the rest of us enjoyed a glorious day in the hills) to watch Mr Dibbles with his child , the parent discovered that the child had fucked off to a friends to play football and would'nt be back at all that evening as the kids were having a sleep over.

Actually the house meeting was a bit of a damp squib. The cats didnt care have any particular objections to our plans and we were very impressed with the grown up way they not only attended the meeting but kept awake for a small part of it. People talk a lot about child development but in  the field of feline development a cat that has holds its  attention on one thing,  at someone else's behest, for more than three seconds is a remarkably focused, driven individual. With approval from the whole household, I set about restoring the said newell post over the next few weekends. It involved carving tiny little bits of wood to approximate sizes, gluing these on to the old post using matches as dowels, sanding and filling, resanding, filing. It was an intricate, three dimensional puzzle and utilised the finer skills I had accumulated over twenty years in theatre and furniture making etc. This is the process in some of its stages:

 Initially when we bought this house I did think that most of my work would be such fine work and the lumpen work would be subcontracted out to those more used to it. That didnt happen, we have done everything. The next stage is paiting which is RHB's job.

 I have to admit the photos arent the best and because of the differnet colours of filler wood and so on it looks very patchy, but I can assure you the post looks brand new. The best way to see what has been done is by looking at the second photo in the sequence of five above. It shows how near the top part of the post the urved detail is completely missing. The photos subesquent show that detail replaced and restored. Once RHB has painted I will post agian.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Red Letter Day

It is three weeks until the start of the cricket season. It is the time of year when you begin to think of summer and  sitting outside all day in a pleasant village green, sipping a gradually warming pint of Old Marsden's ale,  watching men in white flannel strike leather balls with willow bats. Mid afternoon you might have a snooze in the sun while butterflys flutter-by then towards evening, as swallows swoop over the field, and it eventually turns cool-ish, you slip on a light jacket, applaud the players from the field and return home, languished, pleasantly snoozy, civilised.

Toshack wakes me at five thirty as usual, mithering to be allowed out to play. Not for the first time, I curse the fetish for insulation that prevents me from installing a cat flap which would allow him a degree of autonomy, but I get up anyway, wander downstairs accompanied by a constantly miaowing cat (who seems to think that I might be in danger of forgetting exactly why he awoke me with a precisely inserted claw up the left nostril) and head for the back door. We open the door together, Tosh pawing at bottom, me using the handle and I chuck a few dentabite treats into the garden so he can forage. Three weeks before the start of the cricket season, the treats sail into the air before landing in four inches of virgin snow. It is not just cold in the UK right now, it is 'bitter' and it wasnt until we returned here six years, three months, fifteen days and seven hours ago that I truly appreciated (or perhaps remembered) what 'bitter' means. It is not cold, it is Cold.  The Cold in this part of the world, even at only minus 1 or 2C is wet, flaccid, heavy and slow. It does not make you want to go out and fool around, it makes you want to be somewhere else. If a door opens, the Cold floats in, like a bad smell, and hangs around - it is not dispelled by the warmth inside, it infects it, wetting it, cooling it and loading it. In short, it puts me in a very bad mood - Cold has a purpose, sure, but on March 22nd, that purpose is long gone. It is time for Warm.

Today though, I dont mind the bad mood, as I have some letters to write. In true British style, they are all letters of complaint and the bad mood will sharpen the words. As an aside, and in truth, I cannot remember the last time I wrote a letter that was not of complaint, although I am sure I have done so at some point. But while in the past , I would write letters of complaint at unscheduled (though hardly spontaneous) intervals, these days I tend to consider the task of  complaint letter writing a unitary activity - each letter feeds the other until the general mood reached can be described as apoplectic. It is very satisfying.

While the mood  has a unitary flavour, though, the technique for each complaint is slightly different. For example, I start with a letter addressed to a whole row of houses outside of which a driver attempted to kill me and (worse), damage the Crosstowner. The reason the letter has to be addressed to the whole row of houses is that the car that was driven (very badly) cut in front of me to access the driveway that leads to a parking area behind this row of house. In doing so, it cut across me, and the sidewalk at about twenty miles per hour, missing the front wheel of the bike by about five inches. I fell off, of course, but by the time I had regained my feet, the car had disappeared into the parking area which has residents only card access. So I could not reach the driver to talk to him or her about their idiocy. Therefore I decide on a tactic of writing to every house (about twenty) that has access to the parking area. The letter is deliberately handwritten, and (returning to a theme regular readers will recognize) will be badly photocopied - deliberately so that it will stand out from the junk mail everyone recieves. The technique here is to be angry and cold, definitely unthreatening, superior and matter of fact. Dont say "hazardous driving" when you mean "murderous stupidity". Dont say "I would advice you to consider your actions" when you mean "You should not be allowed to drive". There's no attempt at dialogue - you are just telling someone they are an idiot and expecting no return. Be offensive (as in 'this letter will offend someone's defensive sensibilities' but  not coarse and dont exagerrate) you are not trying to critique or engage in constructive criticism, you are simply pointing out that someone has irredeemably sinned because they are (objectively) a  dickhead.

The letter of complaint to the Rail company - First Hull trains in this case - needs a different approach. You want a response in the form of  compensation for their actions in cancelling every train  (without notice) one Sunday evening, effectively stranding you in London overnight. However, you dont want - because it infuriates you beyond apoplexy, beyond stratospheric,  and definitely beyond sanity - a marketing driven "Customer Services", mangled syntax (non-deliberately), mealy mouthed, insincere, meaningless...............[and yes, I know there is the occasional Philosopher, Scientist and anthropologist who read this blog and objects to the word meaningless but I would argue that meaningless - as in 'insensate and lumpen' - is entirely appropriate because  when these English customer services departments send these apologies, they may as well send a sample of laminate flooring instead, because the words bear about as much relationship to any action they may take, any emotion they may feel, any lesson they may learn or any message they wish to convey as an entirely unrelated, randomly chosen,  useless artifact would]............where was I... oh yes..... insincere, meaningless, drivel-atious, anti-poetic, generic plops of language apology, especially one that starts "We are sincerely .....".and includes the phrase "..for any inconvenience you may have ......" . I mean, of course, I was incon-fucking-venienced, I would'nt be writing if I was not. So the trick is to try to get the money and dissuade the rail company from apologising and/or thanking your for being a 'customer". So the letter here has to imply  that you will take the matter further through appropriate channels if you dont get satisfaction so thus has to have an air of authority and confidence. And it also has to be logical, evidence driven and factually correct. If it can also be sarcastic to the extent that the company doesnt want to apologise to you, that is a bonus, but  you also want to establish a dialogue - albeit a short one - in which you get some compensation. It is a fine balance and takes time but that is ok because the time it takes makes you more angry and the angrier you are, in preparation for the next letter, the better.

The next, and for today, the final letter, is a letter that addresses an issue wherein I have not been paid for work done. Not being paid for work I have done is an issue that drives me past apoplexy, beyond stratospheric anger and into the realm of searing contempt (for the non-payer), while not loosing the aforementioned apoplexy and anger. If it is not immediately obvious to a reader why non-payment for work is about the worst thing you can do to someone - outside of illegal activities like violence and murder- then you, dear reader, are probably living in the kindom of searing contempt as a contemptee, although having said that, the kingdom of searing contempt is quite big and includes provinces where contempt is also focused on people who have made others unjustifiably redundant, denied wage rises or dub themselves 'thought leaders'. Here though, it is doubly complicated, because you also want, need actually,  to work for the person on subsequent occasions (employment does not grow on trees even three weeks before the start of the cricket season), and you want/need the money. It is a horrible letter to try to write:  do you go with the  apology approach, whereby you apologize for any misunderstanding and offer to take whatever the contemptee will give you? Or do you try to draw a line in the sand: the "I'm worth something to you and this is the way its gonna be.." approach? In my experience, neither work (with any reliability) because the reason the contemptee hasnt paid you in the first place is a reflection of what they think of you ( which is not a lot) and anything you write either puts you in the position being someone who is thought of as 'not-a-lot-and-a-pushover' or 'not-a-lot-and-a-pain-in-the-ass'.  I half consdier going with apology when RHB announces she is going shopping, and can we afford to buy 'X". The anger rises "Why the F*** am I apologizing to them c***?" , so I draft a work of art full of righteous anger. The result  is beautiful, dripping with sarcasm, vague references to the legal position (actually in the UK there is nothing you can really do if someone choses not to pay you), commentary about the social contract, allusion to the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It is angry, full nostrils flared angry, rising from the sea and smiting angry, Hammer of the Gods angry. And it is contemptuous - 'how petty over such a small sum', 'doubtless their dentist bill is paid' (they have very bad  teeth), and it threatens social sanctions - 'surprised because I had heard they were good community members'. I am about to send, when RHB returns and I read it triumphantly.  "Well, that gives them every reason not to pay you doesnt  it?" she notes. I re-read, she is right - it is brilliant but it is a declaration of war. I go back to the letter and , exhausted by Cold, apoplexy, photocopying and the action of actually using a pen to write something, I draft an  'apology' for putting myself in the position (by dutifully doing work over a period of three months) where I had placed them in the very awkward position of having not to pay me for the work I had excelled in, and an apology for not understanding that they were not going to pay me, a misunderstanding (on my part) that led to me unnecessarily provoking them with requests for the money they had no intention of paying which  I had (mistakenly) thought I had earned. I press send.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Broken Beliefs

The knock on the door is either a welcome or unwelcome distraction. Actually, in these days  people seldom knock on eachother's doors unannounced.  Text, tweet, IM, Facebook have replaced this for people who are geographically close and close kin  and, in other 'circles' where kin are distant and  social diaspora is a fact - for example myself and RHB where our  nearest friends are in Aberdeen, Bristol, the Wildings of Shrewsbury, London,  Canada and New Zealand - the geographical seperatedness means that chums popping in for wet Wednesday and a biscuit is unlikely. Actually, given the geographical and linguistic diversity of our friends, if they did just pop in for a wet Wednesday and a biscuit, we would have to spend quite a while explaining what they were being offered, which would tempt me into a discussion about linguistic diversity, which would probably end up in a critiue of determinism which would spar RHB into an retort about anti-science and things would escalate from there.The cats would take sides and guests would be drawn into the debate.  Four hours later, there would be a group of Interpretivists barricaded behind our table (which I would have mentoined that I had made personally) exchanging rifle fire with a group of Scientists who would be behind the couch. Truth and objectivity bombs would be thrown by the interpretivists, backed up by ontological mortars (which having been launched would land four hours later and open to display a nice bouqet of flowers) and epistemological surface-to-[experienced]-surface missiles. The Scientists would have reams of data fired from  an SPSS cannon and hard-copy shrapnel grenades which upon bursting would shower the opposition with numbers although sometimes the numbers would just refuse to operate.

It is a scenario I wish to avoid happening, for obvious reasons, so when there is a knock on my door - and when, like Schroedinger's cat, I am neither "not in" nor "dead"  and can therefore answer the door, and perhaps more importantly,  be observed (by my own cats)  in the act of answering the door - I hesitate for a second. Then I consider - this might be a delivery of books, a neigghbour needing assistance that Facebook cant help or "like", or a police officer with some important information. So I carefully "save" the transcript of the interview with a teacher I was pretending to be getting on with (while actually watching "Cats can be jerks" on You Tube), and answer the door. The answeree is a short woman, densely black hair, suntanned and sunworn face, stinking of cigarettes wearing a tweed skirt, green tracksuit top and massive furry boots. She has a woven basket full of what I can only describe as crap. Not real crap in the sense of animal waste products, you understand, but just rubbish 'stuff' that is a lot less useful than fertilizable manure.

"Godblessyasir" she says "howareyoudoingI'msellingsomecharmsforyerwifeGodBless"

She pauses and I nod, leaning forward about to deliver a killer smile and a "no thanks", a technique perfected over years of easily dismissing earnest Christians who are trying to sell God. Her pause is microseconds however, timed to perfection


At this point, there are a few things going on. I am thinking "The stuff in this basket really is a load of crap".  I am also thinking "Nel will kill me when she finds out how much I spent on this crap". The lady - who is a traveller (travellers are also called "gypsy", "tinker" but I will stick with  'traveller') is hovering expectantly, an expert in reading people.

"Well" I say " I do need a pan scrubber"

""Two for four pound fifty" she says.  I hand over four pounds fifty pence (approximately 100 times the going value of these articles) in exact change.

"A charm fer yer wife, cross yer palm I will, God Bless. Only three pounds each, fiver for two".

She has slowed down in delivery, the need for speed is gone. Now she needs only to be precise, patient and perfect - an angler at the top of their game judging when to haul in the fish. [Incidentally, I am not exagerrating the dialogue here it is about as word perfect as I remember].

I look at the 'charms'. They are Chinese made plastic key rings all with the letter "Y" at one end, or 1cm diameter polished stones in turqoise, green and orange - the type many people empty onto the surface of the soil in  potted house plants to preserve moisture. They cost about one pound for a bag of twenty - a fact I know as I have recently purchased a bag.

"You have no "N" 's ? " I ask delving through the keyrings. The traveller lady looks confused and I think, based on the way she reacts - which is to just pick up the key rings (all "Y") one by one  and show them to me -  that maybe she cannot read. I am anxious to assert myself , so I trimuphantly state "Well, I cant buy a key ring. You dont have my wife's initials!" I have to admit that I actually feel, for a brief second, quite virtuous that I have managed to resist the temptation to buy a useless, overpriced, ugly item.

Following this triumph against the hard sell, I am keen to continue demonstrating that I am a man with a mind of his own, not someone who buys junk will-nilly! 'No' I think to myself  'when I buy junk it is because I am in control. It is for Good Reasons and I know what I am doing' so when a  couple of crappy little glass stones are forced into my hand  with "Fiver only there you are God Bless", I bargain hard. I pick one out of my hand and firmly hand it back.

"I only want one of these" I say, proferring a ten pound note.

"Gotnochange" says traveller lady.

I look at her with what, in some circles, is called 'askance'.

"I just gave you four pound notes and fifty pence in change" I say.

"Gotnochange. GodBless" says the lady and snatches the ten pound note from my hand, gives me the additional charm and a key ring and smiles "God Bless you sir".

I let her go with no further argument. I suppose I could have tried to strike a deal but suspect that I would have ended up handing over a lot more cash. And I dont blame the lady. I have cycled extensively in this city which is a hub for travellers. You hardly ever see them, particulalry the women and the sites they live in are in the worst, smelliest, dirtiest post-apocalyptic post industrial contaminated places imaginable. One traveller site I know of has a polluted silt filled river on one side that continuously smells of hydrogen suplhide, a paint factory on another and a tannery on the other. The way travellers are treated in much of Britain is effectively "Go away, we dont want you but we have a legal obligation to accomodate you so why dont you try living in this toilet". Its retrospective justification to say that I was trying to help because travellers are oppressed, and it would also be untrue. I was, by most measures, ripped off. But this isnt the traveller lady's fault - a combination of superstition and social conscience, guilt and solidarity, softness and pliancy on my part was responsible. In this case, I ripped myself off.

I dont tell RHB where the new dish scrubbers come from - there is no need because they both break the next day as I am using them for the purposes they are allegedly designed for. I give the key rings and charms to a neighbour's children who are respectively three, four and five years old. The kids are delighted to have "gypsy treasure' although I feel a bit guilty giving them this crap. I chat with the kids and their dad about the frogs in our pond which have just started emerging. The next day there is a knock at the door just when I am trying to SPSS some survey data. The children have come back, and drawn a picture of a frog, some treasure and a princess (I dont know where the princess comes from). The picture has the primitive brilliance of kid's drawings and is signed by them all in sprawling signatures that go along the top then down the side of the page. Lucky charms indeed.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Crossing cultures

As anyone reading this blog is aware, I am a lapsed atheist. That is, I dont believe that there is a Higher Power but also, and unlike those like Dawkins who think it is terribly important, I dont really think that this belief (for that is what my atheism is) or more accurately  lack of faith, is really that important or significant. Sure, there have been huge benefits to religion: most of Western science that has not been purloined from the ancient  Greek, Arab world or China,  was facilitated by  religion if only in the sense of  it (religion)being kind enough to not execute or imprison  every  pioneer of science (with a few notable unlucky exceptions such as Galileo).

I should, as is the wont of this blog, to digress here. The tendency of Western Culture  to ' borrow' mentioned in the previous  paragraph, is well established  and is not a feature of an illustrious past that features a cultural pattern where we once borrowed but have moved on since then. Indeed the cultural meme that claims that 'this pattern (of stealing/borrowing original ideas form elsewhere and passing them off as your own) did exist but does no longer and is justified because it unequivocably led to greater things' (such as using Arab and Chinese pilots to sail us round Africa in the days of sail,  then taking that knowledge and 'improving' it so that 'we' got to the Americas first) is a vital part of the West's self image that eventually arrives at the justification for the West's self-perception that it   "leads' the World.

Perhaps the central notion of this meme is that such stealing/borrowing is "in the past". A quick glance at the twentieth century tells you that "in the past" (related to borrowing ideas from elsewhere) as a pillar of faith is wildly inaccurate. Think of the space programmes (Soviet and German technology), surfboards, katamarans (Polynesia), the concept (but not the practice) of 'democracy' (Greece), the notion of 'social cohesion' (Kaldun/Africa), riot police (Rome/Zulu), the worship of cats (Egypt), ideas about holisticism ('Eastern Mysticism), industrial organisation (Japan), the Scout Movement (Maasai), Vygotsky and 'scaffolding' (never his term), underfloor heating (everywhere), Universities (Greece again). And prior to the 20th century the list is much, much longer : guns and gunpowder, steam power, navigation, three masted ship construction, mining, bronze work, iron work, solar power..........

I should make it every clear that this is not a criticism of the fact that the West has stolen - I am sitting, relatively happily, in a comfortable house partly because of this tendency.  And there is no claim that other cultures do not beg, steal or borrow because  they quite clearly do  -  think of Meiji Japan and, perhaps,  contemporary  China and India. No, the issue in focus here is the idea that "we in the West" are particularly innovative, somehow - genetically or maybe structurally or politically - "we" are inevitably innovators. And I would argue that concept is ridiculous and not supported by historical fact. However, I will not dismiss this false notion of Western-innovation-as-an-exclusive-property without providing a replacement hypothesis. This replacement hypothesis/half baked notion is fully consistent with "Civilisation -Why?" and can simply be illustrated by directing you - if you are a Western reader - to your own email. I would bet a considerable sum that you have a calendar associated with your email and that you regularly update it, consult it, amend it, get reminders from it. You probably re-format it every year in the post New Year doldrums. Prior to a computerised calendar/diary you probably had a paper journal, assidously recording everything, making appointments and lists of things to do. A person I know even makes 'to -do" lists for social evenings out, reminding herself of conversational items she wants to 'achieve'.

It is this cultural feature, planning rather than innovation (which is a universal human condition), which is specific to Western Culture. Planning  is rationalisation taken to the nth degree, a belief system that has eradicated religion (which was only useful for as long as it gave a reliable framework for planning) and a style of thinking that says "We can achieve anything as long as we write a long enough "to do" list" or that we have a good enough computer programme that allows us to 'project manage' efficiently enough. And when our plans are destabilised, we tend to act erratically - our God has deserted us.

I have recently found myself in this very predicament. I am currently engaged in 'fieldwork' (I dont really know what else to call it although I am not in any fields) associated with my PhD. This fieldwork is complex and multi-faceted. If I may blow my own trumpet for a moment, I would say it is real mixed methods (ie I actually use sciency stuff with real statistics, descriptivey stuff with proper observations sheets and a technique for impromptu observation, interpretatitive stuff with a series of in depth interviews that have arisen from relationships that it has taken me about eighteen months to forge and the critical stuff of in-depth discourse analysis which is a bit sciencey and a bit critical) rather than ad-hoc and it is very exciting. In fact the diagrams I have drawn up to explain the work, and how it has all been planned to dovetail together have elicted gasps of admiration (from me) and nods of understanding from really clever people  in research seminars and conferences  where I have presented my approach. As a plan it is beautiful and is exactly what everyone wants to see.

Of course, as an intact construct, said plan lasted about a week in the field when a regular informant withdrew from the research. Then a class time in a college changed. Then funding was withdrawn for another programme and finally, after revisiting the pilot studies, I found that one idea which was central to my working hypothesis was a load of old codswallop. Grief stricken, I returned to my office, fondly gazing on my plan  (which occupies one wall like those cop shows where there are loads of lines connecting pictures of dead bodies, shop fronts and mug shots) for one last time. Then I photographed it (why ?) took it down placing deceased elements and unsolved loose ends into cardboard shoe boxes and drank a bottle of tequila. The next day, and in a night of passion and urgency, I made another plan - using much of the same materials and all of the same ribbon to connect things. I had realised I could not live without a plan, even if that plan is only to have a plan. 

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Urban Riding With Flannuering

It feels like an eighteen pound weight is pressing down on my forehead - not suddenly, but with an inexorable pressure. The reason it feels as if  an eighteen pound weight is pressing down on my forehead is because an eighteen pound weight actually is pressing down on my forehead. Said weight is also furry and pinkish ginger. It is five am and once again I am in a desperate race to wake up before aforementioned eighteen pound weight abandons its policy of gentle pressure, and with an accompanying loud "Miaow" commences to claw at the tip of my nose. When the unimaginably sharp tip of this particular cats's scimitar claw - for by now you should have realized the eighteen pound item  in question is a cat - hooks under the leading edge of one's nostrils and flicks ever so gently, it can cut like a razor. Strangely enough, it does not hurt at the time, but days later, you may have occasion to sneeze violently. When you do so, the lining of the nostrils come under some pressure and when a healing cat-inflicted paper-cut re-tears as a result of the odd sniffle, the pain is indescribable.

[NOTA BENE: I feel it is incumbent on me to point out that at this stage, I am not now going to go on and describe the pain which I have just categorised as "indescribable". It is necessary to mention this because I read so much bad science fiction where the writer says something like "The pain was undescribable. It was as if .... etc etc". Frankly I am thinking of launching a campaign to stamp out this sort of stuff].

All of which explains why I respond to the animal, desperately,  and quickly,  at five am every morning. Difficult as this may be for non-cat owners to believe, getting up at this unGodly hour is the best course of action available to me, and arguably, to all of humanity.  This  is because there is  nothing that will stop him (the cat) in his morning rituals. I cannot even physically confine him, because he can open most doors, so he simply paws at door handles of closed rooms until the door opens. If he (the cat) cannot open the door, he miaows loudly and repeatedly and claws at the door.  Once, I him (the cat)  an a cage overnight (for other reasons) and he (the cat) overturned the cage (it)  by sheer brute force (the noise of which woke both self and RHB).

[Another Nota Bene: you may notice that in the proceeding paragraph I have adopted the particularly  annoying stylistic affectation, to wit:    " he(the cat) " . Imagine marking fifteen five thousand word essays where practically all of one's students have spontaneously decided that this grammatical device is the correct way to write academically.].

I have to confess, I also have some sympathy with Tosh (the cat in question) as  his mission is simply to get outside. So every morning at five, after I feel the soft pressure of eighteen pounds on my forehead, and unwilling to risk a nose scratch, I arise and let him  (he ) out the rear door (I will ignore any comments about cat flaps - inconceivable because of heat-loss/security). He (him)  always gives a little "miaow"of victory as he (Tosh)* escapes, which I am convinced is - in his mind - the roar of the mighty lion as it exits its lair (Tosh doesnt read sci-fi but does read a lot of Sword and Sandals stuff about lions).  As winter has drawn on, an envy of Tosh has grown. He may be a cat with delusions of lionhood, but in that there is about a square acre behind the house of interconnected gardens and fields before you get to the next road,  he does get out into the equivalent of wilderness every morning. He gets away from the clutter and comfort of home and enters the wild spaces where there are foxes and squirrels, birds and beasts, dragons and snakes, relying on only his wits and (probably more useful to him as his wits are so small that if he had to rely on them, he would be in very serious trouble most of the time) the annoying "whine" he utters when he is threatened. This "whine" is supposed to be intimidating, and accompanies an arched back and fully bushed up tail, but in truth it is so irritating that I expect that when he does encounter another animal that he considers threatening (and he is so stupid that this has included hedgehogs, frogs and lawn mowers in the past) and therefore deems it appropriate to start whining, the threat rapidly retreats, irritated beyond sanity. None the less, the cat is enjoying himself in the great outdoors and the principle that  nature, red in tooth and claw is an experience that is good for the soul, holds also for humans.  According last weekend, we headed out, striking boldly for the coast, Crosstowner and Trek united on a mission to convey their riders (self and RHB)  to a location where we could all see some semi-rural industrial farmland.

 Above shows a section of track shortly after we set off. The picture below shows the same section of track two hours later, and not on the return journey. In fact it is only when I went to upload these shots that I realised it was the same bit of highway  and that we must have ridden  it at least twice when we thought we were going somewhere else. .
In truth we did not make it out of the city. This does not mean that we did not ride for a relatively long time. It was on a cycle path that had looped recursively so that after two hours of riding we were closer to our own house (about 400 yards) than we were to our destination (about sixteen miles minus 400 yds) that RHB observed that I might have considered purchasing a map. I agreed, shamefaced at not being able to find my way out of such a tiny city and we went home for a nice cup of tea. However, later that evening in the pub, chatting to an acquaintance who had observed us - on our ride-  pass his house (several times), I could not face admitting that we had gotten lost in a perfectly flat signposted environment and instead claimed that we were part of a new 'urban riding' movement that had incorporated 'flanneuring' into its activities. Ashamed as I am of this deciet, I would also say that I would not be surprised if "urban cycling with flanneuring' becomes a 'trend' in social media.

*I added a few more examples in this paragraph just in case you didnt beleive how irritating it (doing that) is. 

Saturday, 9 February 2013

San Blas and I

I should write that this post is called SAn Blas for no other reason than to acknowledge the activities of RHB's sister (who for the purposes of this blog we will callلديها شعر طويل   ) who is sailing round the world and has now reached the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama.  I am, first of all,  of course mindful of the adventure embarked upon, and the "get up and go" it has taken to advance in sailing qualifications,  and break into a world of long distance sailing from an initial position of no contact with that world to one where her next step is the long haul across the Pacific.  لديها شعر طويل adventures are available on Facebook if anyone wishes to see some photographs and I would thoroughly recommend them to anyone who does a nice comfortable job and lives a very safe life (as I currently do) but actually likes the idea of being active or doing that great adventure (as I pretend to) - they will make you feel insanely jealous and completely inadequate.

لديها شعر طويل 's photographs though prove that once the current austerity at Large Mansions has worked (as it surely must based as it is on that creation of the finest minds available to all humanity - David Cameron and Gideon George Osborne) we will also be able to embark on our own adventures, as long as we can find someone to feed the cats while we are away, of course. Training for such adventures starts this afternoon with a reconnaosiance mission to a secret trail we know which enables on to ride 18 miles straight to a wonderful coast without once hitting traffick . And the trail is not 'off road' in the sense of being bone shaking, it is off road in the sense that it is not a road. The Crosstowner and I attempted the ride two weeks ago in the snow and were defeated by a six inch layer of snow and no snow tyres. Today Crosstowner is joined by the TREK , RHB"s bike. If we can avoid black ice it will be a good day.

However , another string to the master plan is also to finish renovating this house , and here  we have some evidence that austerity measures  may not always be a brilliant thing. Our own bedroom stands as reminder of this. In the twilight of last year - about September of so, I assured RHB that we had sufficient bamboo planks  left (from our downsstairs) to start to complete a project that involved flooring our hallway , spare bedroom and our own bedroom in the middle level of our house. The phrase 'start to complete' is important.  Completion of the completion would be achieved by dint of simply laying all the flooring we had, then working out how short we were  in area for completion , then buying --at very small cost - the very minimal amount  necessary to finish this layer.  "You are sure that you have not miscalculated and we have no where near enough planks?  " insisted RHB "and that this wont be a disaster and we will be left with a half completed floor and you will fall over the half completed lip and break your neck and then I will have to cook my own dinner until you regain sufficient mobility or - in the case that you dont recover use of your limbs - are provided with programmable cooking prosthetics ?",  "Of course not" I laughed, rebuffing her suggestions while simultaneously having a nightmare scenario of immobility permanently etched into my mind, thus adding to the number of reasons Sonombulus is often an impossible dream " If I have miscalculated, it is simply by a tad, a smidgeon, a mere bagatelle. I have the finest powers of estimation of materials known to all humanity!"

 Unfortunatley, while my powers of materials estimation are quite accurate, my powers of estimation of budgetary matters lacks some of the same authority and the price of bamboo (or rather the price of the  shipping of the particular type of bamboo we had originally ordered) has become a matter related to the elevation at which the grass grows, rather than related to its status as grass: to whit, it has become very expensive. So we are left with a half-completed bedroom as the photos show. The good news is we will finish sometime in the next few months and I have laid a reddish, furry-type  bathroom rug down across the transitions where flooring is at differnet levels. Nothing can go wrong.

 Above: This picture shows a half completed bedroom floor. To the left is planks of bamboo, expertly laid. Then, in th emiddle is a greyish strip. This is carpet that we are recycling to use as underlay for the flooring. Then a strip of attractive packing tape , then at the right the original floor is revealed. This original floor is about one inch lower than the bamboo so at the transition I place and attractive reddish mat to avoid trip hazards. It mostly works.
 Newell post: This is not as bad as it looks. In fact, in a few weeks, this newel post will be completely restored. What looks like random pieces of wood stuck on to the newell post are actually carefully selected softwoods, pinned onto the post via wooden dowels (matches) which are deliberately oversized so that I can carve them down to match the exact profile and curve of the original post.
 This is actually nearly complete. It is a wardrobe in our bedroom, entirely made from recycled materials . It lacks only an upper door and handles. There are no legs for all of the furniture we have planned for the bedrooms - all the wardrobes and cupbpoards will 'float' . This is a design conceit, to do with my hatred for very heavy traditional furniture and the apparent desire, if building into an alcove, to fill the whole alcove, even the redundant spaces, with wood, or trim, or unnecessary fancy ness. This was a particular tendency in CAnadian homes - 'cabinetry' everywhere. 
  Below is another unfinished transition showing the original floor boards close to the camera and the bamboo further away. It will look good when finished.
 Unfortunatley, while my powers of materials estimation are quite accurate, my powers of estimation of budgetary matters lacks some of the same authority and the price of bamboo (or rather the price of the  shipping of the particular type of bamboo we had originally ordered) has become a matter related to the elevation at which the grass grows, rather than related to its status as grass: to whit, it has become very expensive. So we ARE left with a half-completed bedroom. The good news is we will finish sometime in the next few months and I have laid a reddish, furry-type  bathroom rug down across the transitions where flooring is at differnet levels. Nothing can go wrong.