31 January, 2006

30 something

A remembrance of times past has been haunting these last few entries, initially unwittingly but latterly with my full and unqualified blessing.

I'm turning 30 in a few days time and the significance of this landmark is only now beginning to hit home. All the flap and fluster of the past few weeks had provided a convenient distraction from the business of notching up three full decades - until now, that is, when all my thoughts seem to be flowing unfettered towards the subject of getting older, and leaving my twenties behind, and whether I should be more fussed about it than I am, and whether I should be fussing at all.

30. It looks worse written down. I'm sure it's something to do with my oldest memory of my parents being from when they were in their thirties. Consequently I'm approaching a point in age which I've only ever associated with my mum and dad, and hence with families and mortgages and cars and pensions and a slew of other things I've had no experience of whatsoever. Which makes it all the more terrifying.

By 30 you're supposed to have, well, settled down - aren't you? You're supposed to have roots, to have savings, to have prospects. Again, these are all alien to me. Not to some of my peers, granted, but then they're the ones who managed to find their way out of university straight into a career which launched them onwards and upwards into domesticity and family and joint bank accounts. By rights they should be settled by 30 - some of them are married, for heaven's sake.

I'm far from settled, and can see now how I wasted my twenties pissing about doing too much in the way of looking backwards and fretting about looking forwards, in the process totally ignoring the here and now. And yet...the person I was ten years ago feels a stranger to me today. Something must have happened between then and now to unpick whatever I once had by way of a continuous thread of existence. Something has ruptured time's fabric to make the person of 1996 as much as unapproachable as someone from 1896.

Maybe this is just temporary. Maybe some wheel of fortune or other will swing back round the other way and close the yawning gap I feel between the present and the past. I hope so. At this precise minute the past is as much a foreign country to me than any poetic statement or piece of classical verse could possibly convey, and I hate it. I can't stand it. Re-reading old diary entries is like picking over the scrawlings of a stranger.

This lunacy of a limbo can't continue. Before I consign my twenties to the dustbin of memory, I'd like to claim something from them that is of value; at the very least of value to me, but more importantly to others. Can I have wandered wisp-like through the last ten years leaving no imprint upon anyone else's conscience, memory or heart? What's a few million words written down in volumes of paper nobody else will see compared to a few spoken words of reassuring reminiscence from one to another?

If I close my eyes and keep on walking, perhaps I can make it to the other side without waking up on the day itself. The selfish in me feels that sometimes it's as much as anyone can hope in this life to find peace with themselves. The selfless in me feels that as long as everyone else has found that peace then why should I presume to protest otherwise?

Please don't let me fear anything I cannot explain;
I can't believe I'll never believe in anything again.

- Elvis Costello

30 January, 2006

20 something

The older I get, the less I find myself impressed by such feats as this.

Age acts as a check on impressionability at the same time as compounding instinct, and in this instance the two have combined to leave me resoundingly nonplussed by the sort of achievement that will quite probably be surpassed come another twelve months or so.

The curse of over-familiarity - of finding yourself revelling in the luxury of detecting echoes of the past in the sights and sounds of the present - just diminishes it further. There's nothing in what this band are doing that hasn't been tried and tested before, albeit not packaged in the same way. To adopt a phrase, it's the same notes but most definitely not in the old order.

If I was ten years younger I'd probably feel completely differently, yet that would be OK because I'd be ten years younger. But then what I knew of the world then was, well, a world away from what I know now. The same thing that qualifies 20-year olds to make music that can purport to be universal enough to go to number one is the same thing that qualifies other 20-year olds to send that music to number one.

What bemuses me above all is the eulogising of 40-year olds about the self same music, be it through a desire to appear cutting edge, to defy their own age, to claim pop music back from their successor generations, or to just kick up a bit of fuss. It's almost a case of protesting too much. The only thing worse than 40 somethings going on about people half their age is 40 somethings acting like people half their age.

My gut feeling is to just keep my head down and let folk follow whatever fads and fashions they like - so long as they don't presume that age confers upon them the right to be more right (let alone "right on") than their pubescent peers.

29 January, 2006

So young

At what point in your life does the ability to act unselfconsciously slip out of your personal armoury? What circumstances lead you to lose that precious gift of selfless innocence, of not caring or even thinking what others might be thinking of you?

There was a couple on the train earlier today who were completely lost in the moment of simply being together. Every tiny gesture, every smile, glance or thought, was intended wholly for themselves and nobody else. They were wrapped in their own intimate, impenetrable opaque bubble, allowing outsiders to see all the external manifestations of their relationship, but to only surmise on the extent of their internal emotions.

It was a desperately poignant display of what I'm guessing was either fledgling or endlessly renewable affection. Poignant because of it embodying something I've never experienced myself. Desperately so, because of it happening in such a blithely unselfconscious (but in no senses antagonistic or arrogant) way. They weren't doing it to rub anybody else's noses in it. They had nothing to prove to anyone. All they cared about, at that precise moment, was the fact that they were together. Location, audience, time, place - none of it mattered. She rested her head on his shoulder; he took pictures of her on his phone.

How does it happen? How do you unlearn the instinctive practice of adjusting your behaviour to fit in with those around you? What prompts such an inversion of social niceties? How do you train yourself not to care about any audience of any size anywhere, when all your life you've been drilled to pay attention and fit in and not be so selfish? When and where do you tumble back into that rich, beguiling pasture of innocence and recover the essence of being so young? Probably by not asking so many questions and just letting it happen. And it does happen. At least, I think it does. I saw it today from the outside. I've just never felt it inside.

27 January, 2006

Friday and

For some reason, this giant polystyrene ampersand lives in my office. Underneath is a clue to what I'll be doing this weekend.

26 January, 2006

Bright eyes

Further to yesterday's post, some snapshots from my office first thing this morning (with a little help from iPhoto):

25 January, 2006

Chill factor

It's turned bitingly cold once more. I know tradition dictates the weather is more wintry after Christmas than before, but this time conditions seem more frostily potent than usual.

Perhaps it's the onset of that oft-mooted (on here as much as anywhere else) record-breaking Arctic freeze at long last. Maybe it's that everyone forgets what cold weather is really like, emerging from the festive fug enveloped in an extra layer of fat and chirpy indifference. Whatever, venturing out into this kind of chill first thing in the morning is, for me, a wonderful tonic following on from the thankless struggle of having to get out of bed in the pitch black.

At the moment, if I time it right, the sun is just rising as I step out of my front door. To allow my eyes to properly appreciate its selfless seasonal light, and attune my ears to only hear the birds singing reassuringly in the trees around me - well, that's when, for a brief time, I can permit myself to feel that everything's for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

24 January, 2006

Clocking off

I overslept this morning, waking up at a time that I instantly knew would make me at least half an hour late for work.

It's never happened to me before. I've often outwitted my alarm and my conscience for five, maybe ten minutes, but never for so long and never on a school day.

I had to ring the office and leave a message announcing my tardiness. I then had to rush about getting ready, in the process undoing all the good that had been done by my extended night's sleep. It meant I arrived at work already knackered, but mercifully nobody took the slightest bit of notice when I rolled in at 9.30am and no questions were asked. It's that kind of place.

To be honest, I could get away with deliberately going in late once or twice a week. There are some, for instance, who travel in from Manchester and who never make it for 9am, but still leave as I do on the dot of 5.30pm. Yet there's something inside me that demands I always turn up for things ahead of time and respectably early, even when I have the choice to do otherwise, and work is no different. Besides, my office has always been nicest first thing in the morning: no people, no noise, no expectations, no beady eyes watching you. A chance to compose myself for what follows.

Anyhow, as I crashed in through the door half an hour late I tried to act nonchalent and indifferent. Even this had no impact. Nobody else batted an eyelid. No-one looked at me. It was incredible. Talk about being damned with faint praise - this was being slated with bugger all.

I've still got to work three and a half weeks notice, but it's like I'm already gone. I wasn't expecting to be airbrushed out so soon. Ah well, perhaps it means I should turn up at 10am tomorrow. I mean, what are they going to do - sack me?

23 January, 2006

Rock steady

Ever since I heard this break on the midnight news on Radio 4, I've been following each surreal, not to say preposterous, twist with mounting disbelief.

Almost 24 hours on, I'm still none the wiser as to how, or rather why, this sort of escapade was ever conceived as a realistic means of conducting foriegn policy. It's absurd! A British spy ring in Moscow is bad enough (is that The Saint theme tune I can hear faintly in the background?), but utilising a battered hollowed-out rock as a means of transmitting secret intelligence? Were they hoping they'd be mistaken for amateur archaeologists and left alone? Were all the phone boxes out of order a la Clockwise ("it's eaten the money! I haven't got any more money!")? Did they think they could dress it up as Rowan Atkinson idly rattling off one last Barclaycard advert for good measure?

The Prime Minister made the elementary mistake of revelling in the fact he hadn't known it was going on, boasting of how he'd only read it "on Teletext" this morning. That's no good! The PM should always give the impression they know absolutely everything, but be sure to never expand upon anything. It's the old maxim: never complain, never explain.

I like the quote from the intelligence tittle-tattler: "In this business nothing is unlikely. Don't dismiss anything out of hand because far more bizarre things have happened than a recording rock." I guess the essence of the whole affair is that clandestine operations against Russia, whether real or not, are once again being treated as significant and everpresent, which given the increasingly singular and - by today's standards - unconventional way it practices government (blowing up pipelines, or switching off gas supplies, or arguing with its neighbours, or closing down newspapers) summons up all sorts of potent echoes of former decades.

And all at a time when Russia is chairing the G8. I doubt we'll be hearing much about Africa during this particular stewardship. Unless it accuses the continent of exporting hollowed-out rocks.

22 January, 2006

Sunday Sunday

It's the footnote of the week - always has been, always will be.

How you feel on a Sunday is entirely determined by how you feel towards what is waiting for you on a Monday. Forever in the shadow of its successor, the day becomes either an exercise in stretching time, eking out the last few precious hours of the weekend for as long as possible, or an all-too drawn out prelude to the main act lurking the other side of the curtain.

I don't think I've ever perceived a Sunday purely on its own terms. I've always approached the day in one of the two states just described, never once taking it on face value. These dual sensations intensify as the day wears on and night approaches, when all possible thoughts cannot help but turn to the unprepossessing obligations and routines a few hours away. As long as Mondays retain their status as a resumption of begrudging rituals, Sundays will always be shaded in grey. Fact.

It's indoctrinated into you at the earliest possible age, when you're conditioned to equate Sundays with bathtimes and "getting to bed early". Next comes the dreaded neverending association between Sunday nights and frantic last minute homework. From there it's either a variation on this courtesy of last minute coursework/revision for a degree, or the last few hours of freedom before the renewed call of the world of work.

Such is its power, though, that even during those periods when I wasn't studying or working, Sundays were still the bleakest day of the week. I could never shake off the legacy of so many nights before the morning after. When I shared a house Sundays were the nadir of the week, with everybody else refusing to get out of bed until early afternoon and time getting stuck somewhere in the middle of, to coin a phrase, the long dark teatime of the soul. Matters hadn't been helped by the previous year I spent in a hall of residence, when breakfast wasn't even served until 10.30am and lunch was missed out altogether. The silence about the place was deafening.

Of course if I did shiftwork or was employed from, say, a Wednesday-Sunday, I'm guessing all the basis for the above would change. Albeit shifting the malaise of a Sunday night to a Tuesday. Still, at least I'd be on my own, and wouldn't be sharing those sensations with the bulk of the rest of the country.

More recently I've tried to introduce structure and order into this otherwise featureless landscape, be it through housework, shopping, setting myself a piece of writing to do, or going out for a long walk somewhere. I've also established a new regular ritual to rival those that kick in on a Monday morning. Every Sunday evening I cook a proper meal, from scratch, taking around an hour or so to work up something that will not only restore some dignity to the weekend but will be large enough to supply food for a couple of nights. It's nothing special - a risotto, a curry, that sort of thing - and often stinks the place out, but it exercises a different part of the brain. And further distracts me from a lifetime's ill-disposition towards blue Mondays.

21 January, 2006

Quit it

The Liberal Democrats are in trouble again.

The phrase "errors of judgement" is almost as laughable - and lamentable - as "moment of madness", as used by the then Welsh Secretary Ron Davies in 1998 to describe his bizarre encounter and subsequent tryst with some Rastafarians on Clapham Common. Back then it didn't take the press long to uncover the full story - Gobblers Gulch et al - and the same will happen now.

Why MPs of all parties fail to ever learn from coverage of past scandals and to hence tell the whole truth upfront straightaway is continually perplexing. It always means the controversy lasts longer and becomes evermore lurid. It also has a cumulative effect, like it did on the Tories in the 1990s. Think of Norman Lamont, Threshers and Miss Whiplash. On second thoughts, don't.

It'll knock the Liberals hard, because they're already wounded following the culling of Kennedy. At least Mark Oaten has gone swiftly, if not tidily. Time was when resignation was always done this way. The first post-war Labour Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, quit on a point of principle when a few tiny details of his Budget leaked to the press. The entire Foriegn Office ministerial team, Secretary of State included, resigned en mass when the Falklands War broke out, not because they disagreed with the conflict, but simply because it had started in the first place and they took personal responsibility for putting British lives in jeopardy.

When was the last time a member of any recent Government took such responsibility?

20 January, 2006

Face time

Courtesy of the Photo Booth application on my new iMac at work, here's a suitably flattering picture of yours truly:

19 January, 2006

Here today

I've lived in Liverpool continuously, give or take a few months, since September 1994. This has happened by accident rather than design. I think I first wanted to leave the city in October 1994, having spent a dire few weeks in a hall of residence desperately missing home and friends and family, and finding no solace both in the faces and landscapes around me. But for good or ill I remained a resident of the city and have fallen in and out of love with the place more times than I can remember.

I'm not sure at what precise point my affection for what I perceived to be a kind of romantic gloom that suffused the city transformed into disenchantment with what I felt to simply be gloom. Certainly the further I moved away from the centre of the place - by choice - the less I was inclined to venture into its heart, hence whenever I did have to make the journey the more I found the centre a disruptive, cold and unwelcoming crucible of noise and clatter.

But I've also witnessed a huge explosion in the student population, and a frightening one at that. I'm guessing the number of students living in Liverpool in 1994 was roughly the same number that had been in the place for the previous few decades or so. But from the mid-90s onwards, as higher education increasingly became accepted as the pre-requisite for a decent career, and as new laws relaxed the number of institutions that could call themselves universities, the student population must have doubled at the very least.

It's the preserve of all ex-students to look down their noses at their younger equivalents, but for me this expansion in university culture, in turn fuelling a similar increase in the number of pubs, clubs, restaurants, shops and most pertinently halls of residence, caught me off guard. If it had happened more gradually, more incrementally, perhaps it would've been different. As it was I stopped going to places I used to go either because they no longer existed or they'd become too crowded.

I also found it uneasy walking through places where lots of students were present for fear of being mistaken as one of them, rather than a proper resident. It's laughable, I know, because they were perfectly entitled to consider themselves proper residents, as indeed I did when I was at university. Yet their faces, their attitudes, the way they carried themselves - it all seemed different.

The first ever house I lived in as a student had no central heating. Now the city was filled with billboards proclaiming the arrival of the latest student accommodation replete with broadband connections in every bedroom, en suite gyms and swimming pools, even a mini-Tesco store built into the ground floor.

This was change, real change, profound social and economic change, unfolding before my eyes in a way I'd never seen before. And I wanted to hide from it, to pretend it wasn't happening, to remove myself from ever having to think about it. I traipsed through a series of jobs that kept me tied to the city, ending up in a flat that started out looking and feeling quite nice and desirable but by 2002, after I'd been in it five years, was a shithole inhabited by, at one point, a bunch of drug dealers and a "care in the community" patient who came back late one night, smashed the front door in, barricaded himself in his flat and shouted at the dealers to "come and fucking have some".

Thankfully by then I'd finally got myself into a position where I could afford to find somewhere much better (and safer), and have subsequently spent the last three years in the nicest place I've ever lived outside of my family home: quiet, secluded, and shamelessly suburban. The most un-Liverpool like environment imaginable, basically.

Yet I still carry with me fond, golden memories of fond, golden times and places which made me think Liverpool was the greatest city I could ever see: of a café behind Bold Street that used to serve the largest teapots filled with the nicest tea I'd ever tasted; a bakery by Liverpool Central station that, if you were lucky, would have the most gorgeous slices of caramel flapjack for 49p; a second hand bookshop on Lark Lane where I once found a heap of rare ITV and BBC handbooks hailing from the 1970s and 80s in pristine condition; and the wonderful 051 Cinema which had the nicest seats in the whole world but where, if you went on the wrong night (Fridays or Saturdays), your enjoyment of the film could be somewhat tempered by the thumping breakbeats emanating from the nightclub downstairs.

All these locations disappeared many years ago. And given the current student demographic most of the current population of Liverpool will never have heard of them, or have reason to. But once I've left this city for good, such is the way of things I shall probably miss being reminded of how these places have vanished from Liverpool more than I shall miss Liverpool itself.

18 January, 2006

Mouth almighty

At work, news of my almost-imminent departure has been more or less completely overshadowed by the recent shift in premises, which as far as I'm concerned is a wholly Good Thing. I'd hate to be the subject of endless cross-examinations over when I'm leaving (still not quite sure), how I feel (with my hands), where I'm going to live (London, of course), and what I'll miss most when I'm gone (certainly not these kinds of questions).

There's one exception, as there is to every rule, and that's the woman who sits opposite me and who's been one of the biggest banes of my working life for the last three and a bit years.

There's a back story here, and that is the fact she's announced to me loads of times how she's "about to quit" and "wants to leave" and "will be walking out next week". But she never does.

She's always there, each Monday morning, back again, quite prepared to behave as if her intention to disappear was a mere figment of my imagination. She gets more abuse and crap from the boss than anybody else, but never does anything about it. It's really beyond a joke. I'm afraid I have no sympathy or respect for her, and haven't had for a long time. But now that I've fashioned a means of escape, she's as bitter as hell and uses every opportunity she can to snipe and gripe and get one over on me.

She called me "obnoxious" the other day for simply reminding her I couldn't send her some document or other as the e-mail system was down after the office move. "You won't be able to pull that sort of face in your new job," she snapped today, after I'd visibly winced at the boss's latest demented decision. Well of course - and I won't be pulling those kinds of faces because I won't have those kinds of bosses or be surrounded by those kinds of fellow employees.

It's supposed to be a truism that there are people like this in every workplace, but surely not as relentlessly wearying or morally bankrupt as this. So much shouting goes on in my office that when I leave at 5.30pm the sound of people's voices echoes in my head for a good hour or so, yet it's always hers that rings loudest and longest. She's taken her toll on me - literally - more than she'll ever know, but more than I'd ever dare admit to her face.

17 January, 2006

Window seat

The view from my new office.





16 January, 2006

Lions, unicorns

The fallout to Gordon Brown's speech about Britishness continues to centre chiefly around his suggestion for a national UK holiday on a par with Independence Day in the United States or Bastille Day in France.

This somewhat overlooks the main thrust of his argument: exploring how to make being proud of your country a sentiment with which everyone can associate in a positive way, and to decouple patriotism from nationalism and the far-Right.

These kind of debates always seem to end up finding their way back to the writings of George Orwell (as did Gordon Brown), and how he managed to reconcile being liberal with being patriotic like nobody else before or since.

Any excuse, though, to reproduce one of the man's finest pieces of prose, from 'The Lion And The Unicorn', an essay Orwell wrote in 1940. It encapsulates a view I suspect has always been somewhere inside me, even though at times I've fought hard to deny and surpress it. I would argue there's nothing essentially ideological about endorsing the passage below; more a doffing of the cap to that fine tradition within this country of being affectionately critical and stubbornly emotional about the land we live in. And all of the following 66-year old text is still true, none more so than the closing sentence:

"There is something distinctive and recognisable in English civilisation...It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature...And above all, it is your civilisation, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time."

15 January, 2006

Past masters II

Time for another dip into that shoebox:

- 'School Jazz Band (live) 12/11/92'

This particularly gruesome recording hails from a time when my involvement with the eponymous ensemble was thankfully coming to an end.

After just over two years plying a thankless trade as pianist within something that didn't know much about jazz and even less about being a band, I was fashioning my exit through a mixture of unprofessionalism (not turning up to rehearsals), outspokenness (arguing with the band "leader", a decidedly non-hirsute, overbearing individual moonlighting from his job as head of Maths) and plain pissing about.

I hadn't been able to cut all ties by the time of this concert, staged in the school hall, and which comprised a run through of the band's entire repertoire. Actually, lasting a little under 30 minutes it could no way have been called a proper concert. It barely fills one side of the C90 tape. Still, at least nobody made any pretence about charging an audience to attend.

The tape was made by someone who was ostensibly doing a music technology course, but in fact the quality of the recording is shit. For some reason he mixed everything with far too much "top" - treble - so the finished thing sounds like there's no bass at all. Though admittely he wasn't working with dynamite material. The actual performances are all tired affairs, reaching their nadir with a reading of 'Feelings' taken at a pace akin to an ageing carthorse struggling up a particularly steep mountain range.

Looking at my self-made inlay card I now see that the concert was actually a double bill with, of all people, the Leicestershire School of Music Clarinet Choir. I can't remember whether they or we were on first. Either way the interval prompted a mass exodus of folk who'd wisely realised there were better ways of spending an evening than listening to a load of unpleasant droning. And that was just the opening speech by the head of Music.

- 'The Beautiful South: Live at The Fleadh, 7/95'

I taped this off Radio 1. It's a dreadful gig, and I reckon this was the moment I gave up on The Beautiful South after a couple of years of devoted following.

I'd seen them live a couple of times the previous year, once as a winner of a Radio 1 competition to attend "an exclusive gig" in London, the other as an ordinary paying punter at Trentham Gardens, Stoke-On-Trent. Both occasions were ropey affairs, epitomised by lead singer Paul Heaton's grotesque appearance: fat, sweaty, boozed-up, rude…completely the opposite of the endearing image he'd fashioned as a Housemartin and in the early days of The Beautiful South.

The Trentham Gardens gig was also a bad night for other reasons. I'd volunteered to drive to the venue, a distance of 40 miles or so, with three of the people I'd been to Edinburgh with earlier that year. It was December, the roads were dreadful, there was fog everywhere, I got lost, none of the others seemed at all happy to be there (not helped by the fact I hadn't seen them for four months), I felt hugely ill-at-ease behind the wheel of my mum and dad's car, the parking at the venue was crap…

All in all a potent combination of malcontents and mayhem. Unsurprisingly, I didn't see or speak to two of my three companions ever again.

- 'Chris Evans 20/12/96'

I think I kept this as a memento of the man's legendary (at the time) tenure of the Radio 1 breakfast slot, which was to self-combust the following month when Matthew Bannister, station controller, refused to let Chris have Fridays off. The irony is that, by this point, the show had long lost the sparkling dynamism and impact it had boasted during its first 12 months. Sure enough this tape reveals a man obsessed with himself and his own lifestyle, devoting at least 15 minutes of airtime to a boring exchange of Christmas presents with his acolytes. At one point Chris promises to "show all of this stuff on the show tonight", a typically gratuitous reference to the equally self-obsessed TFI Friday. As memory serves he didn't.

- 'Demos - Spring 1997 (?)'

This is a tape of odds and ends I sang into my cassette recorder while sitting alone in my bedroom in the house I shared during my final year at university. Many an evening I spent upstairs in my tiny room, door closed, with a big mug of tea, my guitar, and some bits of paper upon which were chord sequences and random lyrics, in the hope some decent songs would emerge. What I'd do with the songs once they were written wasn't that important. I just needed some way of articulating myself in a way that was somehow more honest and substantial than the lazy banter and loaded jokes that passed for conversation with my housemates.

Listening back I have to admit to feeling a little impressed with the quality of the stuff musically, but the lyrics are just atrocious from start to finish. They're best summed up by this excruciatingly embarrassingly couplet, which I can only presume was my attempt at biting commentary upon the largely apathetic concerns of my fellow tenants and the student population in general:

"Every time I mention 'democracy'
It's just another can of beer and the fucking TV."

Ouch. Thankfully this never got a public airing. Until now, that is.

And of course in retrospect it's cruelly obvious that the people who were wielding those cans of beer and watching their "fucking TV" were having a much better time of things than I was.

14 January, 2006

Vision on

I've finally begun assembling an online archive of photographs.

13 January, 2006

Sunset clause

Every evening this week I've been so acutely tired I've had to fight to stop myself from falling asleep the minute I've finished eating tea. I've been through weeks like this before, but they seem to be coming round more and more often. I never know if it's to do with growing older, growing less self-conscious about how someone my age should spend the waking day, or periods of growing stress and mental exhaustion.

It's not like I do a lot with my life outside work that constitutes a bustling, hectic calendar - far from it. My mum and dad have more of a social life than me, and appear quite happy to follow up a day at work with anything from a meal out to a governors meeting. Indeed, I can't remember the last time I was out on a Friday night, and in a sense I'm glad I can't as it would undoubtely have been a profoundly unmemorable and invariably exhausting experience.

It often seems like I'm the only person in the world who feels and behaves like this. Everyone else at work, for instance, makes a point every day of detailing their activities for that evening. It's usually a veritable catalogue of hedonism. Where do they get the energy? One of them has spent every night this week out drinking somewhere or other. Admittedly he is seven years younger than me, but when I was 22 I was, even then, preferring to pass my evenings on my own terms, not somebody else's.

Still, my mind boggles when I read some of my diary entries from my last few years at school and see how I was cramming in all kinds of activities and shenanigans after hours on top of homework, revision and the like. Every week I seemed to be learning lines, composing or arranging a piece of music, attending some rehearsal, or embroiled in a performance somewhere. Perhaps I was trying to live every minute I could. But it didn't make me appreciate the preciousness of time, it just sped everything up.

Maybe I'm paying for that kind of jack-of-all-trades behaviour now. Either that or the prospect of moving is weighing more heavily on my mind than the dirt-black pre-dawn clouds outside my bedroom window every morning, which at the minute are so overwhelming they seem to be almost scraping the pavement.

Perhaps it's best to just sleep on it. After all, there's nothing I can do about anything when I'm so disposed.

Good night.

12 January, 2006

Running orders

Is there such a thing as a perfect album? One where every single song is equally exceptional? One where there are no weak links, no fillers, nothing that's merely tolerable, or good but not great?

I don't think so. I'm pretty sure I don't own any album that is flawless from start to finish, where every single track is unutterably superb and of the same sparkling brilliance.

I'm being honest, as I think you need to be when contemplating this subject. After all, there are slews of fantastic albums around that rank amongst the finest ever made, but which, if you're being sincere and candid with yourself, necessarily boast at least one clunker.

I really do believe this to be the truth. Every single Beatles LP, for instance, has its duff moment, some more than others. 'Revolver' has the ghastly 'I Want To Tell You'; 'Rubber Soul' boasts the dreary 'What Goes On'; and 'Sgt Pepper' has both the insipid 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' and, of course, 'Within You Without You'. At least half of 'Abbey Road', meanwhile, is glossy production masking crap songs, whereas 'Let It Be', for all its crap production, sports a far higher number of proper tunes.

All of my cherished albums bear banana skins. 'The Queen Is Dead' would be 100% perfect were it not for the dreary 'Never Had No-one Ever' and the lyrically bland (but musically beautiful) 'Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others'. 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' would also be flawless were it not for the pointless live version of 'Bye Bye Love' squeezed in as the penultimate track.

If only 'Automatic For The People' had ditched 'New Orleans Instrumental #1' it would have been faultless from start to finish. The same goes for 'Highway 61 Revisited' and the meandering 'Approximately Queen Jane'. Ditto 'Fear Of Music' by Talking Heads and the rubbish 'The Overload'; 'High Land Hard Rain' by Aztec Camera and the stupid 'Queen's Tattoos'; and 'Like A Prayer' and the hugely objectionable 'Act Of Contrition'. With each of the last three the track in question is the last one. Whatever happened to the idea of going out with a bang?

Anyhow, should anybody claim to know of an album that defies this unwritten law, the floor is yours. As it is, I'm still searching for the LP that enchants uninterrupted all the way from opening to closing seconds.

And one I won't change my mind about or grow tired of after a week.

11 January, 2006

File under...

Somewhat ironic given the circumstances, we're all having to move offices at work this week.

My department's location is shifting from a prime site on the ground floor right by the front entrance a stone's throw from the canteen, to the very end of the longest corridor on the top floor at the arse end of nowhere. Anyone looking for clues as to our present status within the management's mindset would have a field day. Or rather they wouldn't, because it'd only take a couple of seconds. You see - you've worked it out already.

As it is the move has meant I've had to spend most of the week so far packing cardboxes boxes rather than doing anything more taxing, which is no bad thing. It's also unearthed various peculiar and singular items I never knew were housed under our roof. Expect some of the following to turn up on eBay all too soon:

- an A-Z of Cumbria, published 1995; nobody in our office has ever been to Cumbria

- a metal-tipped walking stick

- 'Freak Or Unique: a biography of Chris Evans'; delete the 'Or Unique' and you'd be bang on

- four pristine copies of a book about psychic therapy by some local mystic or other; surely he'd have been able to foretell nobody would ever want to read them?

- The Guardian Media Guide 1998; I've already nicked this once from the office, so how come it's still there?

- one bauble; I think this was put up as a token Christmas decoration in 2002

- a photo of Fenella from Chorlton And The Wheelies; there used to be someone in the office who looked like her but who everyone hated

- a swanee whistle

- a tatty giant-sized wall map of the London Underground; neither use nor ornament, it being too large to carry around and too battered to display properly

- thousands of blank CD cases minus CDs

- a calendar entitled 'Echo's (sic) Of Liverpool'; if there's one thing worse than sentimental calendars it's misspelt sentimental calendars

- a scratched CD by The Houghton Weavers

Any takers?

10 January, 2006

Formative years

Preparing some more of my photos to go online, I found these two almost-identical pictures I took of the last school I attended, between the ages of 14 and 18. Both conspire to make the place a) look completely deserted despite a population of several hundred students and b) the kind you always remember your school being like in your most nostalgic of daydreams:

09 January, 2006

Who's left?

The death of Tony Banks has robbed the country of yet another articulate, well-liked and tireless politician able to couch left-wing ideas and values in a thoroughly accessible and exciting way.

It means in the space of five months a trio of engaging and profoundly popular people, each of whom managed to keep some spirit of genuinely progressive politics alive inside the Labour Party, have passed away.

It might be sentiment talking, but when in recent times has any equally well-known figure of the right provoked similar kinds of testament? When Ted Heath died last year his tributes were kind but formal - a reserved praise for a remote if dignified figure, and one who made more enemies than friends during his lifetime. When Mrs Thatcher finally shuffles off we can only imagine what kind of potently mixed obituaries will surface. I guess only Enoch Powell's death almost a decade ago came close by way of "man of the people" epithets, but his populism derived from exclusivity and fear rather than inclusivity and hope - the watchwords of Banks, Cook and Mowlam.

Thatcher's passing will probably be a strictly unemotional affair; it's difficult after all these years to still work up the energy to get angry about what she did to the country. No, it's best to preserve your anger for ruing what people like Tony Banks never got to do to the country, and what, now, they will never be able to do.

08 January, 2006

Twelfth-ish Night

Custom dictates all traces of Christmas should have been banished from view on Friday, but when I was out today there were still a couple of houses sporting festive trimmings.

Typically, they were both from the National Grid-draining school of seasonal decoration: great hectares of illuminations ostentatiously shining out in a massive 3000-watt two fingered salute to the rest of the world. I hope it brings them bad luck for the ensuing 11 and a half months (more like nine, to be honest) until they make their official reappearance. Assuming they'll actually take them all down in the first place.

I hate having to tidy Christmas away. It's the novelty of being able to keep cards out on display, even after you've gone back to work and the holiday is over, which appeals. In this sense I'm glad I no longer get to witness the stripping of my mum and dad's house - the culling of the tree, the banishing of the tinsel and baubles, the jettisoning of all the other trinkets and ornaments. The ruthlessness they went about it was like some Oliver Cromwell-esque purging of non-pagan paraphenalia. It also meant it would shortly be time to go back to school. Stuart notes how this one particular act of ostensibly domestic convenience continues to embody all sorts of emotions, usually negative ones.

My dictionary considers Twelfth Night to be on January 5th, as technically that is a dozen nights forward from Christmas night. But then it also talks about Twelfth Day, something I'd never heard of before, which is January 6th and whose evening can also be considered Twelfth Night.

As long as it's the Twelfth of something, it seems anything goes. And for those two houses that means, ahem, the Twelfth of Never.

07 January, 2006

Last orders

Charles Kennedy's resignation is one of the most astonishing events in recent political history - not so much because of the act itself, more the way it came about.

It's been over half a century since a leader has fallen on his own sword due solely to threats from his own party members. The last such instance was probably Neville "peace in our time" Chamberlain in 1940, who as Prime Minister had contrived to alienate so many MPs that half his Government announced their intention to resign unless he stepped down.

Unlike Margaret Thatcher, Kennedy hadn't just been subject to a leadership contest and found himself substantially short of enough votes to go through to the second round. Unlike Iain Duncan Smith he hadn't just lost a vote of confidence. And unlike, say, Harold Wilson, he hadn't simply got tired of people whispering about him behind his back and decided to call it a day.

Instead he was, right up to last night, insisting he was going to stick it out and face down all the malcontents and potential mass resignations by submitting himself to a fresh leadership election involving all of the party's thousands of members. In this he was also different to John Major's infamous - and hapless - "put up or shut up" contest in 1995, which only involved MPs, and the calibre of which was epitomised by Major's unique observation that "when your back is against the wall, it is time to turn round and start fighting".

The manner of Kennedy's departure is therefore of profound importance, in part thanks to it being so unusual and distinctive, in part because it serves as a useful reminder of how this country can still be completely sidelined from the democratic process whenever a few politicians decide to play party games.

It's safe to say a huge portion of votes the Liberal Democrats acquired at the last General Election (including my own) were down solely to the actions and declarations of Charles Kennedy on everything from the opposing the Iraq war to civil liberties to scrapping student fees to free care for the elderly to abolishing the council tax. That election was only eight months ago. The person we all voted for has now been kicked out, not by us, but by the collective strutting of two dozen individuals.

I'd quite like my vote back now, please.

Equally when Tony Blair "hands over" to Gordon Brown, we'll have a Prime Minister none of us effectively voted for, and whose policies we won't be able to do anything about until he graciously submits himself to a General Election.

At least Neville Chamberlain could hand over to someone everybody was happy to run the country: Winston Churchill. The irony is, in light of Kennedy's "drink problem", Churchill was one of the most pissed Prime Ministers this country has ever had - and everyone knew about it. Because there was a war on, however, it was OK.

There's a war on now, of course. And we've just lost yet another valuable opponent to that war.

06 January, 2006

Exit strategy

I've talked before about my unhappiness with my present job, and the amount of time I've invested in searching for a new one. What I haven't detailed is the number of miles I've clocked up on my quest for somewhere new to work, nor the amount of cross-country journeys this has involved.

I did another one of those journeys yesterday. But this one, hopefully, was the very last of its kind.

I had to go to London, a round trip of 400 miles, but a voyage I've done six times in as many months in the name of finding a new job. As such I've developed a routine and a series of rituals to make such an epic odyssey, if not bearable, than at least manageable.

All the way down to the capital I'm necessarily in a state of acute tension and unease, desperately looking over my notes by way of last-minute revision, reciting words and phrases in my head, and willing myself the good luck and the good sense to perform well. I then make the journey from Euston to the location of the interview on autopilot, so used am I to the practice of catching Underground trains and sussing out locations and killing time before the interview is supposed to begin.

After the ordeal I lapse into a complete stupor and wander around London for several hours in a daze, letting my feet take me wherever they want. I can't get a train back here until after 6pm - given the exhorbitant prices - so this meandering can last for some time. I then spend the return voyage mentally picking over the day, half-slumped into slumber, my shoes off, my mind addled.

Every time I undertake such a mission I tell myself it has to be the last. But each time - until yesterday - it hasn't. Or rather, by the look of yesterday, I won't have to make quite such a journey ever again. What precisely emerges from the events of the previous 24 hours is still to be sorted. But it finally looks as if, all things being what they are - and remaining as they are - I've got myself an exit strategy.


05 January, 2006

Elbow note

I haven't enough time for some proper ramblings, I'm afraid, for reasons that will shortly become clear. So instead, as they say when a TV channel falls off the air, here's some music:

And when the sunshine
Throwing me a lifeline
Finds its way into my room
All I need is you.

04 January, 2006

Subway sect

In the latest attempt by management to get their staff on side, on message and generally on the level, we were all treated to a free lunch at work today. Or rather, that was what we were told.

An email came round yesterday informing us that the sandwich company Subway would be on the premises from 12pm to 2pm, giving away some of their supposedly top-class range of bread-based snack treats at no charge whatsoever. We were welcome to help ourselves, entirely on the generosity of the company.

Well, you don't get something for nothing much these days, as Bob Hoskins used to say in those BT adverts, so I deliberately didn't take any lunch into work and instead looked forward to joining the hordes in a shameless act of taking the king's shilling. Except when I got to the place where the sandwiches were being given out, they were all of the same kind. And they all contained meat. Turkey, to be precise - presumably leftovers from 25th December.

"Well, that's no good!" I shouted feebly before exiting the premises with a couple of other fellow vegetarians. "What a load of bollocks," I more confidently declared, albeit out of Subway's earshot. But honestly - even the crappiest of corner cafes can rustle up a non-meat option if pressed nowadays. A bit of forewarning wouldn't have gone amiss, if only for giving me a chance to prepare my usual stuff and not have to go and pay for something extra in the canteen.

Of course it wasn't really something for nothing, as the money that went on funding Subway's ostensible giveaway will have come out of another budget. Presumably the one set aside for fixing that lock on one of the cubicles in the men's toilets that's been broken for three years. Still, I felt hard done by and cheated all the same.

More feud for thought.

03 January, 2006

Look north

One of my five favourite places in the whole of the country:

Calton Hill, Edinburgh, August 1994.

02 January, 2006

Now '87

Radio 2 mounted a big poll this afternoon to determine the best ever year for British popular music. The winner, perhaps unsurprisingly, was 1967. Indeed none of the top five hailed from any later than 1973. Bizarrely 2005 was one of the ones you could vote for, and how that made it through to the final round I've no idea - especially as it edged out the one I would've voted for if I could: 1987.

I have no truck with people who say the 1980s were shit for music; quite the opposite. I always say it was the best decade for music, because it was the one I grew up in. And I reckon, deep down, the same goes for everyone. The best decade for music, for TV, for film, for anything, is always the one in which fell your formative years. Admit it! This was the stuff that made you, and hence the stuff of which dreams are made. And the soundtrack of those years were, to shamelessly nick another phrase, songs that made you cry and the songs that saved your life.

01 January, 2006

Siren sounds

To begin the new year on a cheery note, I'm currently reading about how Britain once planned to respond if attacked by a nuclear weapon.

The evidence is all laid out in one of my Christmas presents, 'The Prime Minister - The Office And Its Holders Since 1945' by Peter Hennessy. It's a fascinating book for all sorts of reasons, but the section on what would happen in the event of nuclear war is one of the most striking of all. It was Hennessy, for example, who first uncovered the fact that the way Britain's submarine fleet would "test" to see if the country had been destroyed by a hydrogen bomb would be to see if the Today programme was still being broadcast on Radio 4. If there was no sign of it for a few days, then armageddon had most definitely arrived.

The whole subject reminds me of the time when, much younger, I set to drawing a map of how we could build a nuclear bunker in our back garden.

Whenever there was a thunderstorm over our town, a routine of grim predictability would be instigated with militaryesque precision by my mum. With a carefully contrived hysteria that merely succeeded in making everything all the more noisy and frantic, me and my sister were to dash downstairs from where we'd been watching the lightning from our respective bedrooms, and each disconnect one of the two TV aerials that were wired into our house - one in the living room, one in the kitchen. Given these were located down the back of awkwardly-sized sideboards, it was naturally the job of us kids, not the parents, to risk electrocution and fiddle insanely with bits of wiring while thunder boomed around outside. We couldn't reconnect the aerials for ages after the storm had obviously ended, in case "it came back".

Of course this whole business would always rob what should've been a dramatic meteorological occasion of all excitement, replacing it with drudgery and a feeling of having our enjoyment of the thunder and lightning compromised by archetypal fussy mumsiness. The one time I mounted a half-hearted protest against disconnection, arguing that I really did have to watch this episode of Scooby Doo to its conclusion, my mum retorted by making me stand on the other side of the room a good few yards from the television screen, so while the picture was hopelessly miniscule, "at least I'd be safe from the set blowing up."

Anyway, during one particularly bad storm, denied children's programmes for what felt like hours, I decided to pass the time drawing a map of how the family could construct a nuclear fallout shelter in the back garden.

This was in the early 1980s, I was still at primary school and through what I'd picked up on the teatime news and idle talk in the playground it was obvious to me the world was teetering on the edge of complete destruction. Fierce-sounding rhetoric emanating from America and the USSR portended a showdown sooner or later, I reckoned; I'd proudly drawn the route of the Iron Curtain on the tatty map of the world that was pinned to my bedroom wall. Well, if we were all going to go sometime soon, it was best to appear knowledgeable about from which direction the bombs would be launched. Besides, although we lived in a moderately-sized town, there was a university on our doorstep: an obvious target.

It took me most of a weekend to complete the plan, which I painstakingly drew to scale after going out and pacing around our small garden measuring out dimensions and distances. I decided the fall-out complex - for this was to be no mere single room - could be accessed via a small service lift akin to the kind I'd seen once on a visit to my dad's work. A lift somehow seemed more appropriate than a flight of stairs, even though the latter was, in retrospect, more sensible: if the sirens went off, we'd only get to use the lift once before the surface world was destroyed. The shelter would naturally just be for the four of us. The neighbours could fend for themselves; they should've built their own shelters, like I'd done.

Besides calculating just how deep I reckoned we'd have to dig before we were safe, I made sure there were rooms allocated to store provisions, house the generator, and above all somewhere to put the piano which dad had inherited from some distant relation and which at the time I was learning to play.

Then, once the drawings were all finished, I pointedly put them up on my bedroom wall where someone passing the door might be able to see them. Forget watching Hanna-Barbera cartoons on a screen the size of a matchbox; this was a gesture intended to say look what I'd done to safeguard our family's future.

Inevitably nobody took the blind bit of notice, and I was, to be honest, too timid to parade my achievements in front of their faces, or anybody at school.

Nonetheless I took content from the fact that when the balloon went up, I'd been the one who'd thought beyond simply propping a few doors up against a wall and grabbing the nearest can of beans.

I lost the drawings a long time ago. I most likely threw them away when I got older and decided what a naïve and stupid kid I'd been. And anyway, I later discovered there was too much clay in the soil of my parents' garden to barely dig a big enough hole to bury my sister's guinea pigs.