Thursday, 15 December 2016

La mort

I don't dwell too long on the thoughts of mortality which seem to come my way so much more frequently than they did when I was younger.  I don't consider myself old, yet I have reached the point in life where the remainder of my life no longer seems to stretch out in front of me like the endless path beyond the horizon I would amble along in my youth.

Recently, amongst the very old and gnarled apple trees in the garden, we planted a young quince tree.  It's about eight feet tall, and not yet fruiting.  It will get there eventually, but I won't see it reach the size and character of its neighbours even though I hope some day to be able to candy its quinces for Christmas.

When you're young, death for most people is a mercifully distant thing.  You know it exists and you see the impact it has on people around you, but until it starts to creep closer towards you, I don't think you fully understand just how final the end is when it comes.

Until the past few years, I'd only really seen one death close enough to me to full its full impact.  There had been bereavements of which I'd been aware but the first funeral I ever went to was that of a close family member.  I'd only ever felt distant tremors before, and now the firm ground on which I stood was being shaken by something much closer to home.  In the past few years, the reaper has appeared much closer to home on a couple of occasions (written about previously here and here).

The more times you see death strike people down close to you the more you realise that it really does come to us all in the end.  There is no avoiding it.  Every one of our paths will run out eventually.  Every one of us will one day take their very final step.

I've never thought of death as a subject to be avoided.  Of course I'd avoid it around people who've recently suffered a bereavement but only for fear of interrupting their grieving process not for fear of the subject itself.   There's a taboo surrounding death which has fallen away from subjects such as faith, race and sex in recent years.  But despite the shift towards a more open and liberal society in recent years, it seems that there's still a curtain hung around the subject of death which few dare to pull back for the world to see.

I don't find the fact that we'll all die someday as worthy of mourning; I'll let others mourn me when I'm gone rather than spending the finite time before then lamenting the inevitable.  I see the realisation that life is finite as a positive motivator to spend life well.  It's a limited resource and it seems a shame to waste it.  So let's remember those who have gone fondly, be sorrowful that we no longer get to make new memories but remember that it's not disrespectful to continue to live a full life when someone close to you is gone.  

When my time finally comes, I want to look back with as few regrets as possible.  
Living life well is the only way to make that possible.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Trying and failing to write a story

When some people see a crowd of dancers moving in time with each other, they are forced onto their feet by an urge to join in.    They start to move slowly in time and gradually pick up the steps as they go.  They watch the dancers around them and modify their own body movements to match as closely as they can those around them.  They become part of the thing they enjoyed to watch and so come to enjoy it even more.

I’d never do that; I wouldn’t dance in public if you paid me a million pounds.  Genuinely.
But I’m not immune to seeing something happen and deciding I’d like to get involved; whenever I read something I am pulled by an urge to pick up a pen and try to turn some thoughts into words.

I’ve always enjoyed writing and I write a lot.  I keep handwritten journals which I update most days.  Not for any reason other than the act of putting pen to paper and building forms with words.   It’s a challenge to take the ideas which live and breathe in my head and see if I can record those ideas on the page.  To see whether I can lay cold, flat words onto the page in a such that when I read them back, they jump from the page and play out my memories as colourfully as before.

I write blog posts too. I’m writing one right now, in fact.  And blog posts are about the only place I write using a keyboard; I still do most of my writing – cards, notes and even professional notes at work – with a fountain pen. Those disposable fountain pens you can now buy have helped to keep me away from succumbing to the scourge that is the Bic biro; I can still flourish my g’s and y’s at the end of a line with a swirl without having to carry a pack of ink cartridges around with me.

My writing thus far as almost always been relatively short.  In a blog post, for instance, I tend to take a small number of ideas, toss them into the air with abandon and then attempt to catch them one by one and bring them back together all within the space of a couple of paragraphs as though I grabbed three clementines from the Christmas fruit bowl and flung them into the air only to catch them nimbly and plonk them back amongst the walnuts and dates.  Juggling clementines rather than throwing and catching them is more demanding of dexterity, and the more clementines you try to juggle, the higher you throw them and the longer you try to do it for, the harder the juggling gets.  The temptation to let one of them drop or catch them all and put them down becomes greater the longer you go on; especially if you’re only used to juggling three pieces of fruit for only a few seconds at a time.

And so when a friend asked if I’d like to contribute something to a written project she was curating, I was apprehensive.   I have never written anything for publication before and wasn’t sure that I should make my first attempt at juggling in front of an audience.  I did take up the challenge though, and although I never got my work across the finish line, the journey to that point was interesting enough to make the expedition worthwhile.

I held ten thousand words as my target and I nervously watched the word counter creep up in Word as I typed.  Some of the chapters started on paper on train journeys and in hotel rooms and got typed up after the fact, and some chapters were born digitally and never knew the freedom of ink on paper.  I got to nine thousand words before feeling the story was told and I should stop.  But the work was far from done.

I have never written fiction before, other than song lyrics and the creative writing exercises back when I was at school so I had no choice other than to apply the same rules I apply when writing factually.   I’d start with the story.  The first priority for me was to get all of the story told.  It didn’t matter whether the prose was terrible or whether points were laboured with repetitive vocabulary; I wanted simply to get the story told.

Placeholders throughout the text set instructions for future drafts..



I was done with the first draft, at least.

But then came the hardest part – to take the plodding, pedestrian verbiage and turning it into a string of imagery-laden sentences of which I could be proud. I set myself the goal to avoid wastage in my wordage.   There should not be a word which didn’t carry meaning.  Not a single word should stand which wouldn’t impact the narrative should it be struck out.   I hacked away all the meat from the bones whilst watching the word count fall, shoring up any gaps I left on the way.

Eight thousand. Seven thousand. Six thousand.  The words slipped away without a struggle

I became ruthless with the fluff I’d written.  The entire subplot about the plant pot was carved out and thrown away; along with the pointless back story for the man who worked at the pub.  The words fell away like the deep vermillion leaves of autumn, forgotten and rotting to brown in a gutter.  What remained was stark and bare; shake it hard and there was not a single leaf left to fall.  Every word had purpose and reading through the story, the plot told hurtled like a freight train towards the conclusion.  I had told the story I wanted to tell, and nothing more.

But in my recklessness, I had thrown away some necessary distraction in favour of a soulless trudge towards boring resolution of plot which hadn’t been given chance to simmer.  I had stripped the burlesque dancer of feathers and fans which allowed only snatched glimpses of a nipple, and left a naked person standing there.  Nobody wants to see that.  And so I had to find some feathers and wave them around a bit to keep my secrets deeper into the act.

And so I set about adding smoke and mirrors.  Shops gained names, characters who passed by in the street gained height and sometimes hats and the world of the story became full again with the sounds and smells which serve not to progress the story but to cradle it as it finds its feet and marches forwards.  Plot points were left unresolved until slightly later and mysteries in the story given longer to smoulder away against the mind rather than snatching them away as soon as they began to burn.

The prose I produced was richer but something was still troubling me.  It took me a while to get there and many times reading through what I’d written to punch my fist through the chest and grab the heart of the trouble.

I had managed to conjure up images with the words and managed to string the words together in such a way that I enjoyed reading each sentence.  The story I had tried to convey had come across as bright as day and as dark as night with at least fifty shades between.  But I’d missed something much more fundamental; the story I was trying to tell was a really crap idea in the first place.


Saturday, 26 November 2016

The Trouble With Toilets

I have no idea how many times I've been to the toilet in my life.  But I'm going to suggest it's probably upwards of one hundred thousand times.  And yet it's something we never talk about.  When you watch TV or films, how often does a character say "I'm just popping to the loo", unless it's in order to remove them from the scene for dramatic purposes?

And yet we all do it.  Even though I have no direct evidence, I'm pretty sure that even The Queen uses a toilet.

But so shrouded by societal secrecy is the whole process of going to the toilet that the insides of toilets can remain something of a mystery.  I was was astonished, for instance, to discover that an adult female friend of mind had never seen a urinal.  Logic says to me "but why would she have seen one?" but the idea that something I've used pretty much every day of my life since a very young age would be such a mysterious object to someone else fascinated me.

In one of my previous jobs, the general manager of the company one day got a comfy chair for his office.  One of the women in the office walked in and said "that chair is just like the one in the toilets".  None of the men in the company were at all aware that the ladies toilets had a comfy chair in; there was no comfy chair in the men's toilets.  From that moment on, I had images in my mind that whilst the men's toilet was rather functional, although entirely sufficient in that function, the ladies toilet was an oasis of relaxing calm.  Probably with floaty drapes and scented candles to go with the comfy chair.

I guess my point here isn't so much that I think ladies' toilets really are more luxurious than men's toilets.  Rather my point is that I have no idea what the inside of a ladies' toilet would look like and so my observations on toilets are only the product of spending many minutes - and pennies - in the gents.

When going to the toilet in a restaurant or pub or whatever, the first issue you face is what lies beyond the door.  Is there just one single toilet in a room or is the door the way into a group of toilets, each with their own little room?  The only way to find out is to push the door.  But what if it's just one of those toilets with just one in there.  Second only to the utter horror of walking in on someone who's sitting on the loo is having to stand outside having wiggled the lock and having to exchange awkward glances with the person as they come out and search for the person who was wiggling the handle whilst they were doing their business.  Pushing the door is fraught with risk.

Once in, of course, the situation is then clear.  Except if you find yourself in a two-door toilet.

This has sprung up recently in many places; the toilet where you go through one door, and there's a second door into the toilet itself but only one toilet in the facility.  Which door do you lock in this situation?  Also - what is the point of the inner door.

My view on the point of the inner door can be summarised by a description of a toilet I find terrifying in a bar in Seattle, which I've outlined below

Ostensibly, this is just a single room toilet, but it plays to what I believe to be one of the most fearful experiences.  The experience of sitting on the loo more than arm's length away from the door.  And in this room, the door is a LONG way out of reach.  So I wonder whether the inner door is a kind of lavatorial comfort blanket within arms reach that you can lean against should the outer door start to waggle.

Worse still, actually, is the one below, which is a workplace toilet at one of the places I worked

You can't even see the door from the toilet here.  Buy maybe worse, the layout of the room is such that when you first walk in, it's not clear whether there's just one toilet in there, or a row of them - so your instinct isn't to turn and lock the door as soon as you get inside.  And if you're anything like me, that leads you to wonder whether you locked the door at all when you're in a - how do I put this - inconvenient position for getting to the door quickly to check it's actually locked.

But what if you can't even see the cubicle door right in front of you?

What's particularly disturbing about this toilet - another workplace toilet - requires a little explanation.  In line with eco-friendly policies the toilet lights come in when you walk in and set off a motion sensor and then turn themselves off again when the sensor hasn't detected motion for a particular period of time.  All perfectly sensible so far.

Except if you don't think about where you put the sensor.  I've shown the position of the sensor with a yellow star, and the cubicle doors go from floor to ceiling.  One thing I do like about British toilets - is that the cubicle doors close fully.  It's very unnerving for a British person to use one of those American toilets where you can be sitting there and notice that there's a half inch gap all the way around the door.  But that's not the point.

But the point is that once one is attending to one's duty in the cubicle, one is out of view of the motion sensor.  I'm not sure whether the limited jiggling possible whilst on the toilet would set off the motion sensor anyway; but it certainly won't detect motion with a solid wooden door in the way.  So that means that there's a very good chance that, presuming it's not a busy time of day for the toilets, the lights can go off whilst you're sitting there.  And you'll notice from the picture that two of the cubicles don't have windows at all, meaning that the only thing you can do is sit there until someone else walks in and turns the lights back on.  At which point, you'd walk out of the cubicle revealing to them that you've been sitting on the loo in the dark.  Or can you attempt to complete your use of the facilities in pitch black and hope that when you emerge from the cubicle, set off the sensor and get blinded by the renewed light, you've tucked yourself back in sufficiently.

Nobody wants to be suddenly illuminated  to find they're not properly dressed.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

What makes a concert so good..?

I've been to many concerts over the years.  In fact, before starting to write this I tried to work out how many I'd been to. I couldn't even count how many times I've seen the Pet Shop Boys previously...

I suppose that exposes me as a bit of a fan.  Which is true.  I've seen them doing small gigs - including doing the tour for the album "Release" when they went all guitar-y.  And I've seen them doing Arena things.  They've been camp.  There've been lots of lots.  And it's always been loud.

And then there was "Inner Sanctum".

Not quite a tour, "Inner Sanctum" is for four nights only at the Royal Opera House.  Es Devlin again coming up with the stage design and promise of something unique.  Something "special".

And so it was.

I don't know why it was so good.  It's entirely possible that a combination of my mood, and the level of expectation meant I was going to enjoy it.  But even once we got a few songs in, I knew this would be a gig it'd take me a long time to forget.

We were sitting in the front row of the balcony, directly facing onto the stage.  A clear view, no silhouette'd heads bobbing around in front of us.  And what a view.  I'd never been inside the Royal Opera House before, and it's certainly quite a venue.  So much gold and so many lights.  Fabulous, you may say.

Anyway, on with the show.  It was oomph-y in the way that the Pet Shop Boys should be.  Adding a few extra musicians lifting the percussion tracks from sequencers and placed some of the rhythm into the hands of two fantastic drummers.  The sound was crystal clear.  No muddy merging of bass and drums.  No fading of vocals into synth lines.  It was clear and sparkly but with a bass running understand which made your stomach throb.

And then there was the set list.  A song from almost every album.  And not the obvious choices at that.  For instance, "In The Night" which - I'm informed - had never been performed live before, despite being the best part of 30 years old.  And in this show, given a driving beat which lifted it from being an extended remix of the Clothes Show theme and into a driving anthem which could've been written yesterday.

And then there were the lights.  I've seen light shows before. I've seen impressive lightshows before.  But this was on a different level.  Photographs don't do justice the way the lasers were used and just how spectacular they looked.

I've been to many concerts.  But this was the best.  Genuinely.

Sunday, 29 May 2016


(J'ai réécrit cet article en Français ici)

We recently got a place in the countryside.  So we're now splitting our time back and forth between the house out here and the flat back in Wapping.

And so that means the guinea pigs come back and forth with us too.  At first they weren't so keen on the idea; previously the cat basket had been associated with trips to the vet and the ensuing prodding and poking, so they didn't take too kindly to it.  But now, after only a couple of months, they've settled into the routine of going back and forth between two cages.

Given we moved into this house when it was still cold, their cage was in the sun room.  I wouldn't call it so much as a conservatory; it's just a simple building attached to the back of the house with lots of windows, and heating and lighting - so ideal for the guinea pigs in winter when we wouldn't really be using the room anyway.

Also in there are the gerbils.  They don't always come back and forth with us, as they can go a few days without daily attention.  They are in a glass tank with a metal attachment at the top that they can go up into when they want to get out of the burrows they've made in the tank below.  The burrows are so extensive in all the substrate that it's not unusual that we only see the more adventurous mother of the group every day; the others only put in an appearance now and again when we're out there.

A few days ago, I was out feeding the guinea pigs and I saw what looked like a mouse scurry under the cage.  It's not surprising that there are mice out there; the other day I saw next door's cat wander past proudly carrying a mouse in its mouth, so it's no surprise the lure of food would bring mice into the sun room.

So today, whilst preparing the guinea pigs to move them into the summer house at the far end of the kitchen lawn, I thought I'd have a look for the mice.  I looked down into the hessian bag where we keep the gerbil food and noticed a hole chewed in it.  As I moved it around, two shapes darted out and underneath the guinea pig cage.  Obviously the mice had made a nest in there where there was both a supply of bedding and a supply of food.

And so I decided to try to catch the little buggers.  I lay down on the floor and looked under the guinea pig cage and a little brown face was staring back at me.  A very familiar little brown face.  In fact, it was our little brown gerbil's face.

And so, it turns out, we didn't have mice after all.  But the two younger (and slimmer) gerbils had managed to create a hole in their cage just big enough for them to squeeze out and had spent however long since they'd got out living a rather wonderful life in our sunroom with open access to food and bedding.

Devious little sods.  Round one to them.  Time to buy a stronger gerbil house!

Monday, 1 February 2016

Crime Museum Uncovered

This weekend, I went along to the Crime Museum Uncovered exhibition at the Museum of London.

I wasn't really sure what to expect.  I guess I was expecting it to be a little bit gruesome and disturbing.  It wasn't really either. It was interesting and thought-provoking.

One of the first exhibits is a row of nooses, hanging from a beam.  In front of each one is little label giving you the name of the person who was hung using the noose.  Just beyond is an "Execution Box".  A box of the necessary equipment for hanging someone was arranged in a glass case.  The hood to go over the head.  The weighted bag used to test the noose overnight before the execution.  And the noose itself, of course.

It's easy to become distanced from execution.  Here in the UK, the last capital punishment happened way back in the 60s.  And don't believe those people who tell you that you can still be executed in the UK for "murder in a dockyard" or "high treason".  Not true I'm afraid.  The death penalty in the UK is gone.  Even in wartime.  It's gone.

There's something quite sobering about looking at the plain wooden crate which was shipped around the country by train.  It connects you to the person whose job was to kill other people.  Within the memory of many people around today, there were people whose job was to legally kill other people in this country.  Seeing the instruments of the profession really brings that home with a thud.

Around the corner into the main room of the exhibitions.  Guns. Knives.  Secret weapons hidden in every day objects. Terrorist bombs.  More paraphernalia of death. But this time deemed illegal.

We all see crime dramas on the TV, and we've all seen a gun being pointed at someone on a screen.  But it's different being so close to guns which really were used to kill people.  Looking at the gun Ruth Ellis used to kill David Blakely and knowing that she pulled the trigger, and in return for which she was then killed by the state.  It causes you to stop. And think.

The side wall was a line-up of cases each representing an individual case.  Cases which raise questions of the nature of diminished responsibility.  The first time fingerprints were used in a case.  Cases where the murderer was caught despite there being no body available.

And then finally, at the end of the room, a row of cases with bombs.  IRA bombs.  Bombs from the 7th of July bombings in London just a few years ago.  Nail bombs.  The scientist inside me looking at the (mocked-up) Semtex and thinking "That's a much smaller quantity of explosive than I would've expected". But throughout the whole exhibition it's hard to remain distant from the tangled lives of those people who were on both sides of each of the crimes explored.

I'm not sure what I expecting from the exhibition.  But I can honestly say that I've been thinking about it a lot more after my visit I expected to.   I'd recommend a visit.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Farewell to Chiswick

Soon, I'll no longer be making my weekday trips over to Chiswick.  For the past four-and-a-bit years I've been coming over here Monday to Friday.  I've learned every bump on the District Line from Tower Hill to Gunnersbury and recognise quite a few of the faces of the people who have an overlapping daily routine.  I don't know them, of course, but the faces of a few people who travel to Chiswick Park every day are familiar to me.

I didn't really know anything about Chiswick before I started work here.  Years ago, when I used to play badminton regularly, I used to sometimes play at the leisure centre in Brentford after work.  I didn't work over this way, but it was halfway between work and where my friend against who I played lived and so it made sense to make the trip out here.  After playing, he'd quite often drop me back at Gunnersbury in the car, and then I'd take the District Line all the way back over to home in Wapping.

At the time, I didn't really notice that there was an office building over Gunnersbury station; I certainly didn't think that one day I'd be working in that office building.

When I came over here for interview, it seemed like a long way west.  I suppose it is a long way west.  I remember getting off at Gunnersbury, way before the start of the interview - I'm always early for interviews.  I walked along the High Rd, not really knowing where I was going but given that I had half an hour until the start of the interview, I thought I'd walk for ten minutes, turn around and walk back, and then I'd be an acceptable "ten minutes early" for the interview.

I only got as far as the junction down the road; I never got as far as Sainsburys and Waitrose.  So my view of the area wasn't great at that point.  It was miles away from home, and there was nothing here.
One thing led to another, and I ended up being offered and accepting a job here, so a few months later I made the journey over here "for real".  This wasn't a trial. This would be my commute for the next four years.  As the lunchtimes progressed, I ended up exploring the area a little more, and realised that had I pushed on just a minute or two beyond my pre-interview walk, I would've known that Chiswick isn't actually all that bad.

I found myself a gym too.  There's a subsidised gym in the business park, but I found myself a little independent gym (West4 if you want to Google it - I'd recommend it).  Away from the hoardes of colleagues and office workers, it's set in a small residential street.  For most of the four years, it's acted as my lunchtime escape from work and from being surrounded by the same faces.  Nobody else from work ever seemed to be a member there. I guess the free Starbucks vouchers for going to the Virgin Active in the business park were just too much to resist.

It's easily to malign Chiswick.  It's easy to write it off as a place full of people living in expensive houses and driving expensive cars to expensive shops.  And there's a lot of that going on. But actually, I've enjoyed calling Chiswick my place of work for four years.  I don't yet know where I'm going to be going next, but I do know that despite the pain of the District Line every day, I'm going to miss good old Chiswick.