31 March, 2006

On song II

A slight return to the subject of busking. As it turned out this week ended up offering a fair crop of budding troubadours, all of which were better than that violin woman, and all of whom stirred in me the desire to start performing again after too many years of silence. In no particular order I witnessed:

- a particularly robust and emotional version of 'Besame Mucho', replete with much nerve-jangling vocal acrobatics

- a bloke making a fairly passable hash of Eric Clapton's 'Tears In Heaven' (though I wouldn't want to have stayed to hear the whole thing)

- the inevitable 'Wish You Were Here', though frankly anybody can sing that better than Roger Waters nowadays, as Live 8 proved

- a man who'd frustratingly just finished playing a small harp (a proper orchestral harp to boot) who'll hopefully be back again next week

- and a man wielding some pan pipes and playing along to a tape machine. It sounded crap close up, but from afar it was quite evocative - especially as he was attempting this particular number.

Suffice it to say nobody was giving any of them any money, least of all the time of day. I guess one out of two on my part isn't too bad, though as far as the buskers were concerned, it was the wrong one.

30 March, 2006

Lens flare-up

As the days go by I'm being forced to confront more and more facets of a corporate culture I'd hitherto only read about in turgid newspaper supplements or seen made fun of on TV by Oxbridge comedians.

First it was words, and their use, or rather misuse, in the name of blarney and bluster. I'm still stumbling upon them, almost by the hour. Not only can things be "incentivised" but their seriousness can be "escalated" to a higher level or put out for "UGF" (user-generated feedback). Not only can decisions be "fast-tracked" but also "through-putted" or, if there's potential for dissent, "roundtabled". It's a syntactical free-for-all, basically, where any noun under the sun can be turned into a verb and to hell with the rules of grammar.

But today things took a different, even more unlikely turn. I had to have my photo taken, not for my ID card or anything understandable like that, but purely for the sake of having my photo taken. "We might as well do everybody, just so we've got everybody's photo," said the person "incentivised" with organising proceedings. Which is akin to saying we might as well jump off this cliff, just so this cliff has been jumped off.

So it was that I found myself being instructed to troop up to the top floor of the building to be "prepared" for the shoot. This turned out to involve a make-up lady wielding a powder puff in my general direction. I got out of there as fast as I could, with only the lightest of dustings to show for it. "Are you sure you don't want a bit more?" she rasped as I fled. No fucking chance. "It's only for the lens flare," she shouted after me, acting like I'd know what that meant (which I did) but hoping that I didn't (more fool her).

Then, caked in horrible brown powder, I had to go back to the office (the shame!) and have to wait to be called again, this time to troop all the way to the ground floor where a meeting room (right by the front entrance, of all places) had been turned into a makeshift studio replete with massive arclights and gigantic white screens.

Lurking inside was a professional photographer who made no attempt at smalltalk and lunged straight into a clearly well-honed routine.

"Sit down first. No, don't face me. Face the wall. Turn the chair so it's facing the wall. Now look at me. Don't look at the wall. But staying facing it. Face the wall and look at me. Look over your shoulder at me. Keep your body facing the wall and your face facing me. Now smile. Keep smiling. Keep smiling. Smile. It makes a difference when you smile..."

Oh, the agony. You try smiling, unnaturally, for anything longer than a few seconds, and you'll see how unbecoming and ungainly you become. You lose any trace of personality (something which these particular photographs were supposed to capture). Your mouth hurts. You feel yourself becoming more and more angry. And you're as self-conscious as you've ever been, yet there's someone shoving a camera straight up your nose.

It got worse, of course. I had to stand up and "pretend to be gesturing" at the lens. A two-fingered gesture seemed to fit the moment exactly, but I was far too polite for anything so predictable. I then had to lean on a table and hunch my shoulders, as if deep in thought. And so it went on. And on.

It all felt so absurd and humiliating. I know full well the end products of the session will never be used. And even if they are I won't tell anybody. I don't like having my photo taken at the best of times, but when it happens under such utterly pointless conditions in such completely unforgiving circumstances, whatever emerges can only be a Bad Thing. Heaven knows how much was spent hiring the make-up woman and the photographer. Heaven knows how more useful that money could have been if it were spent on furnishing our office with some decent computers.

Maybe I should incentivise myself to ask for the subject to be roundtabled so that everyone can throughput their opinion. Or maybe I could just be left to get on with my job.

29 March, 2006

Air apparent

The BBC has collated an ace gallery of photos capturing today's solar eclipse.

27 March, 2006

On song

They have licensed buskers on the Underground nowadays, but that doesn't mean they're any good.

I had the misfortune to walk past a woman the other day who was "playing" a violin. The inverted commas, of course, imply she was doing nothing of the sort. She was in fact scraping her way through some appallingly self-conscious 20th century composition that sounded like a cross between a violin being thrown down a flight of stairs tied to a brick and a tone deaf person trying to tune a washing line. Little wonder she only had about fifty pence in her violin case.

What was she hoping to make through the performance of such a shamelessly self-conscious uncompromising and inaccessible piece of music? It certainly can't have been much in the way of money. Far more pleasing to the ear and the conscience was a bloke I passed today who was valiantly picking his way through 'The Sound Of Silence' and making a rather good job of it. There's some uniquely evocative about the distant echo of a busker materialising in your ears from somewhere down a long tunnel - more so when combined with the rush of the wind that both precedes and follows after the trains themselves.

I must confess to having tried busking many years ago. Twice. It was an exercise in showmanship as much as generating revenue, I'd say, though me and my mate were certainly not unhappy with the takings we made from what was essentially a run through of Beatles and Rolling Stones covers. It was back in my home town, in a fairly small but bustling pedestrianised street, home to second hand record shops, pot pourri stores and, at one end, somewhat appropriately, a job centre. Both times we mustered around £10 or so from an hour or so's playing, which back then felt like a lot of money. I remember being thrilled when someone from the barbers just up the road walked past, half recognised us, and gave us a whole English pound. An old woman did the same. At the time it felt like one of the most generous gestures in the world.

I don't know whether our choice of material was the most subtle ('Help' for starters), but at least the stuff had a tune. And I'll bet we made more money in 60 minutes all those years ago than that violin woman made in however many hours she stood there scraping away. Give the public what they want, and they'll give you what you want. Most of the time.

26 March, 2006

Hot metal

One particularly onerous part of my job is to go out to a newsagents in the middle of every afternoon, buy a copy of the Evening Standard, then summarise its contents in an email which I have to send round to the rest of the office.

This perenially joyless task does, at least, give me an insight into a publication I don't think I'd ever read before moving to London (not that I'd ever have reason or means to), and I'm never less than bemused by its parade of obsessions.

Top of the list is the behaviour of Ken Livingstone, London's Mayor, who the Standard hates and never misses and opportunity to slag off. Then there's the plight of London's shopkeepers, which apparently is a "hopeless" one, full of "daily despair and hardship" in the face of big business (this from a right-wing paper that readily endorses competition and a market economy).

But there's also a preoccupation with the most trivial and frothy of celebrity-based shenanigans, neatly summarised by this rundown I made of the paper's main concerns on Friday:

1) Asda has mistakenly sold 10,000 Mother's Day cards for 6p each
2) Pete Burns has reportedly checked into a mental hospital
3) Gavin Henson 'confesses' he wants to marry Charlotte Church
4) David Hasselhoff's ex-wife claims he once broke her nose in a fistfight
5) Victoria Beckham's favourite designer gets a 14-month jail sentence for cooking the books
6) Which are you: an 'analogue' (e.g. Prince Charles, Wayne Rooney, James Blunt, Kate Winslet), or a 'digital' (Jamie Oliver, Prince Williams, George Lucas, Anne Widdicombe)?
7) Chantelle gets stuck inside the revolving doors of City Hall and tears her jeans

The thing is, because the Standard has a monopoly on the London regional newspaper market (again, somewhat at odds with its stance on economics), everyone reads it because there's nothing else to read. Travelling back every evening on the Underground, I'd say about 75% of commuters have got their heads buried in a copy. To have one unaccountable organisation exercising such a direct channel into people's lives is more than a little disturbing. Especially when those 75% are reading about Chantelle's jeans.

25 March, 2006

Daylight saving

All week long people were tweetering in the office about putting the clocks forward this weekend, and how it would be such a lovely thing to have an extra hour of sun to enjoy in the evening. I'm afraid I could not share their relentless enthusiasm. I hate putting the clocks forward. I feel almost affronted at having one hour of my life taken away, and worse, one hour of sleep taken away. It's horrible going to bed at, say, 11pm and having to teach yourself to think that it's already midnight. Or getting up at what reads as 8am but what is actually still, according to your body as it screams with fatigue, 7am.

I noticed there was a Bill proposed in the House Of Lords this week to not put the clocks back this autumn and simply carry on with BST through to next spring, when we would put our clocks forward once more, in effect introducing Double Summer Time. This would, apparently, ensure lighter evenings (but criminally dark mornings) all year round and ostensibly make the country a happier place.

No no no! It'd still be pitch black at 9am in the middle of winter! Whole months would go by when you'd never see the sun rise thanks to your being in work the time it came up! And what about the entire top half of the country? Scotland wouldn't see the sun until it was time for elevenses. It's a typical South of England-skewed mindset, the product of people with too much time on their ennobled, unelected hands. Though I read it has been tried before in the late 60s, and of course has its precedent during the Second World War when to compensate for the blackout the entire country had its time summarily shifted forward two whole hours.

We do get the hour back, I know, but it's not until October. And the state I'm in at the moment, I need every hour of sleep I can get. Grrr. Why can't they rob the hour from, say, a Friday afternoon?

24 March, 2006

Crowd control

Here's something I've always wanted to do but had denied to me thanks to the small matter of not living in London. Saying that, it's a pretty desultory list. Where are all the crowd-pleasing sitcoms, the light entertainment extravaganzas, the big budget game shows? And no, Strictly Dance Fever doesn't count.

23 March, 2006

...corrupts absolutely

I've just finished a book entitled The Liar, a history of the events surrounding the former Tory MP Jonathan Aitken's attempt to sue The Guardian and Granada Television for libel, only to be unmasked as a serial dissembler who was prepared to lie on oath (and get his wife and daughter to do the same) in order to safeguard his reputation, and subsequently get sent to jail.

It's been fascinating reading, not least for the way it vividly evokes those arid days of the mid 90s when the Conservative Government was staggering to the end of its 18 year life and when almost every morning seemed to bring fresh word of duplicity, corruption and sleaze at the heart of British politics. One of the best bits of the book is the minute by minute account of the day when Aitken was finally proved to be the fibber The Guardian always suspected he was, thanks to the sudden and near-simultaneous turning up of some credit card receipts in Switzerland and some archived travel documents at Heathrow. Aitken's libel action collapsed in a matter of hours, ultimately leading to The Guardian's wonderful and historic front page banner headline:


I remember at the time wondering whether this was the moment the Tory Government would give in to the inevitable and just bow out for good. Yet John Major and his coterie of where-are-they-now hangers-on, about whom I've already written, appeared determined to cling to power as long as constitutionally allowed, which meant a full five-year term after the 1992 General Election: five long long years of utterly tired, nauseous and rotten politics.

It was a bleak and barren time. The number of ministers who ended up resigning soon totalled over two dozen, but still Major remained, his rationale implying the longer he could cling on, the more he could put behind him the litany of scandal, and the more chance there was of catching out Labour and Tony Blair. Britain seemed to fossilise into a paralysis of self-defeating normalcy. Scalps were won, such as Aitken, but still the status quo remained in place.

Ultimately, of course, the establishment decided their interests were best served by a change of personnel (though not a change of culture), and threw their lot in with the opposition, reasoning correctly that New Labour would be better safeguards of Thatcherism than John Major's Tories. And as it has also turned out, better safeguards of the kind of backroom financial skulduggery and business patronage which so flourished in the 1980s and led to the likes of Aitken strutting about the place mixing ministerial office with shady dealing and gigantic money transfers.

Political sleaze is as old as politics, and will never go away. Those that do their best to unmask it, just like The Guardian did back in the mid-90s concerning Jonathan Aitken, can but press on in the hope that their efforts will mean one day everybody who holds power in this country is properly and electorally accountable to everybody who lives in this country.

22 March, 2006

Catastrophic failure

A bad workman always blames his tools, of course, but what if the tools are, genuinely, a heap of shit?

These past three weeks I've been attempting to do my job in spite of rather than because of the technologies at my disposal. Both the hardware and software I've been expected to use has been absolutely hopeless - impractical, unreliable, unpredictable, and terribly terribly slow.

When you're in the position of trying to make a good impression and show you can carry out your job to the best of your abilities, to be blessed with such a pathetic plethora of resources is endlessly frustrating not to say deeply humiliating.

My computer takes about ten minutes to finish booting up, and needs to be restarted at least a couple of times a day so it can have a rest. As for the software I'm supposed to use to do my job, its ineptitude would be laughable were it not for the fact that I'm working for ostensibly one of the most famous computer manufacturers and developers in the world, whose "handiwork" you may very well be using to read this right now.

I was in the middle of something today when an error message suddenly flashed up on the screen warning of a "catastrophic failure". Apart from usefully summing up my present feelings towards taking this job, the warning was neither use nor ornament because it didn't say how or why the error had occured or what I should do about it. So inevitably I just restarted my machine. Again.

It all serves as a reminder of the fallability of machine compared to the relative culpability of man, and how the former, no matter how crap, will never have to answer for its faults while the latter will always have to take the blame.

20 March, 2006

Dictionary corner V



U is for...

It's a city constantly regenerating into half-finished versions of its former self. During my time as a resident, a cavalcade of initiatives, targets, deadlines and projects have come and gone, each blurring into the next with never a pause for reflection or respite. For as long as I can remember there has always been a crane on the skyline, always been part of a major thoroughfare restricted to one-way traffic, always been something getting painstakingly pulled down at the same time as something else is being equally laboriously put up. The next ostensible target is 2008, when the city enjoys twelve months as Europe's Capital Of Culture, but the building work won't stop. It'll just go on and on and on. Which engenders another problem: what to do with all the mess that's left behind. To which the answer, invariably, is: just leave it all behind. You only need to take a look at the sorry ruins of the Liverpool Garden Festival site to see proof of that.

V is for...

Because every city needs a dose of self-importance, but not without an equally proportioned dose of self-deprecation.

W is for...

Or, as any regular readers will know (a somewhat unlikely scenario, I grant you), what came to be my favourite place in the whole city. And I only discovered it a couple of years before I had to leave. When I went round taking photos a few weeks prior to departure, I was hailed from across the street by an old woman who'd suddenly appeared from behind a closed door to find out why I'd "chased the cat away". This wasn't, thankfully, some kind of bizarre euphemism, but was a reference to the way my snapping had inadvertently scared one of the local moggies that appeared to live on the village library steps. We fell to talking, she quite content to leave me standing in the pouring rain while she sheltered under a giant doorframe, ending up with her petitioning me to become a member of the Friends Of Woolton society. "We've got a couple in the Isle Of Man, and someone in Kent," she urged. I said I'd drop my contact details round later in the week if I was interested. Suffice to say, I strangely ran out of time.

X is for...

Somebody somewhere in the city has the job of approving advertising to go on Liverpool's public transport. Whoever it is either has extremely loose morals or a degree of ignorance that blinds them to the task in hand, because during the last five years there's been a huge increase in the number of adverts promoting sex shops plastered on the backs of buses smack bang in the eyeline of any motorists directly behind - and especially any youngsters taking a turn in the passenger seat. I'm not particularly prudish or censorious, but it always struck me as somewhat misguided (and counter-productive) to allow such exposure in such an unlikely place. The stores in question can't have done much trade on the backs of buses. Their clients, now that's another matter.

Y is for...

- aka an old World War II landing craft which journeys disconsolately around the city centre transporting tourists through various almost-notable centres of interest before (gasp!) driving into the MERSEY (QV) and turning into a boat. Not the best way to see the city (too rushed), or its river (too close), although you do avoid all those CRACKED PAVEMENTS (QV).

Z is for...

Finally, to one of the things with which I will forever associate Liverpool in my memory, and that is the temperature. I have spent the coldest days of my life in the city. Once it got so bad in my hall of residence that I actually started shaking uncontrollably and had to go and lie in one of the antique baths in the communal toilets (I put some hot water in it first, of course). Then there were the times I went to see various gigs at the Royal Court, each and every one graced by bone-chilling temperatures so bad that you could see your breath. I soon got to learn you had to dress up to go to events like that, and not in a decorous way; hats, scarves and gloves were the necessary armoury for those kinds of occasions. Indeed, when I saw Billy Bragg there in 1996 the only thing he was drinking on stage was tea to keep himself warm. Having no central heating in my first student house made for a ghastly wintertime which I had to spend permanently sporting at least four layers of clothing. Things got better after that, but even to the end the city would catch me out and suddenly rip through whatever I was wearing with an icy blast of wonderfully pure, yet thoroughly Arctic, northern air. And even though on many an occasion I would curse the unrelenting chill, already it's one of the things I miss the most. Cold? These willowy Londoners haven't seen, or felt, the like.

19 March, 2006

Sunday night

In this perpetual nightclub
I'll be yours eternal;
Though the hours are long,
And the noise infernal.
Just one shameful act
Or sometimes two
We make believe
We're making do.
- Elvis Costello, 'Charm School'

18 March, 2006

Repeat run

I've always been far more of a morning person than an evening one, but the practice of getting up and all ready for work, only to have to slump back into a stupor for the half hour Underground ride to the office, is really taking it out of me.

It's not natural to have to go through the business of effectively waking yourself up twice in less than an hour. All the effort of doing it once and being out of the flat in time for the train is completely undone by the way I then have no choice but to sit hunched up in a ball for 30 minutes. The enforced hiatus encourages me to shut down again, both mentally and physically.

I've always got a book with me by way of trying to use the time productively, but some mornings (and evenings) I'm too tired to even move my eye over a printed page. Then, after unwillingly lulling myself back into a catatonic state, I have to all of a sudden rouse myself and fight my way out of the Underground and back into daylight. My limbs ache, I'm always shivering, there are people all around pushing and prodding, the noise is appalling...and by the time I've made it, gasping, into fresh air, I'm so knackered all I want to do is, yes, go back to bed again. Hopeless.

I wonder if the same circumstances afflicts other travellers. I guess most people have got used to the lurch between extremes of stupor and mania. I should probably try getting off the train a stop or two earlier and using the longer walk to give myself more time to try and wake myself up. Assuming I can remember how to make my legs work for that long.

17 March, 2006

36 months

Thinking back, hostilities had been openly anticipated for months, and tacitly predicted for at least the previous two years. But when war finally began all it seemed possible to take away from the wall-to-wall TV coverage, at least initially, was a feeling of something rather remote unravelling without anywhere near as much immediacy, or power, as you were expecting - and fearing. Because this caught me off guard, and felt wrong, it made for an acutely difficult relationship with the conflict that only began to make some kind of sense a week or so in.

In part this was down to the fact that establishing a few basics wasn't as swift a process as it should have been. Somewhat distractingly, there were a variety of attempts at giving the hostilities a name. The BBC switched between branding all their coverage as 'War On Iraq' and 'Iraq War' several times during the first 48 hours, eventually plumping for the latter. Over on Channel 4 Jon Snow opted for the more guarded 'War with Iraq', while my own efforts at catching the start of the conflict by setting an alarm for 2.00am on the Thursday morning revealed that the World Service had dubbed the campaign 'The Second Gulf War'.

As time went on, however, responding to the war became conditioned by memories and associations with what the World Service would call 'The First Gulf War'. Recalling the way hostilities were reported first time round back in 1991, it was near impossible to feel the same sense of imposing impact and domination that the coming of war inspired. Back then just the way the TV schedules fell to pieces was enough to set the pulse racing. Language, imagery, presentation - everything suggested that you were present at a once in a lifetime occasion, the defining moment of a generation. Quite simply, that war's significance seemed to be rendered on such a giant scale (literally, in the case of that ubiquitous colossal cardboard head of Saddam Hussein which decorated the BBC's studios). It left a residual impression in the senses, still strong today, that the whole world was turning a corner.

All of this was naturally to do with events being so unusual, even a bit exciting, at an age where teenage cynicism quite properly had the upper hand over any of your unwelcome, no-nonsense grown up pragmatism. And besides, there were only four channels, rather than four hundred, upon which to follow the campaign; accordingly, its character and capacity seemed all the more compelling.

The overriding and lasting impression of this second war remains a multiplicity of media offering up dozens of different, often conflicting, outbursts of 'breaking news' at any point during the day or night. It's also felt as if all the networks have adopted the belief that sheer cumulative quantity of coverage alone will deliver both audience and integrity. The upshot has been a nagging impatience with the coverage when you are tuned in, watching the same pieces of film and speculation be trotted out time and again, but (chiefly in the early days) a terrible feeling of isolation when you're not tuned in, for fear of being away from television for those vital ten minutes when something absolutely incredible goes down.

Amidst all the rush of information and insinuation, however, there've been times where the entire sprawling conflict unexpectedly resolved into moments of utter clarity that left me spellbound by the TV set. One moment in particular sticks in the mind: the first Sunday afternoon of the war, when for two solid hours BBC News 24 carried near continuous pictures of a search going on along the banks of the River Tigris in the heart of Baghdad. The footage arrived from out of nowhere, unannounced: a group of military personnel, bolstered by an increasing number of civilians, seeming to be hunting for something amongst a crop of tall reeds at the water's edge. The implication was all too clear, but the confidence to admit as much deserted the team in the News 24 studio, and their uneasy countenance became dangerously infectious. Proceedings ended up a deeply macabre yet almost infantile guessing game, as the ensemble of reporters and experts fumbled for a vocabulary to do justice to both what was happening, but also what might very well be about to happen.

To be a witness at that precise moment when a news story breaks is of course the chief criteria of a rolling news channel; yet to be present for those turbulent few seconds, minutes, even hours when just such a story appears to be about to unfold - and an all-too gruesome potential realised, at any moment, beyond anyone's control - is alien territory. Nobody knew what was going to be pulled out of those reeds. In any other circumstances to acknowledge and be swept up by the heightening melodrama would've felt undignified, or flippant, or foolish. But the tension was addictive.

Three years on, and the conflict has become wallpaper in the background of everyone's lives, sporadically calling attention to itself by spooling, tattily, into our eyeline, its morose countenance demanding attention and repair. Thousands of Allied troops have been killed. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis have been killed. And still TV feels like it's unable to accept that, while it may be able to effectively pre-empt the battle, it can only be confounded by the war.

16 March, 2006

Ttly. Fckd.

One thing that I've always tried to maintain in whatever point of my life wherever I may be is the practice of plain English. It pisses me off beyond reason to find myself in situations where people use ten words where two will do, or dress up simple propositions with fancy, fussy terminology, or who promulgate meaningless business-speak purely for the sake of it.

Unfortunately I am now doing a job for an organisation entirely built upon all three of these demented principles, and even though I've only been there two weeks I'm finding the culture shock almost completely overwhelming.

It's been somewhat akin to arriving in a foreign country and suddenly being immersed in the din of an alien language - except in 99% of foreign countries you can more often than not easily identify what language it is that's being spoken, even if you can't comprehend any of the words. Here it's like being in a foreign land but not being able to classify or categorise the language at all. Well, not that I'd describe what I've been hearing as a language per se. I have honestly never been in a place where ordinary words are bowdlerised and butchered as much as this.

Anything that can be reduced to a pointless acronym or abbreviation is fair game. In a meeting I had to attend earlier this week I was solemnly informed the company is in the middle of FY06Q3. Nobody else took a blind bit of notice of this gobbledegook. Indeed, several other people parroted exactly the same phrase back at the speaker. It took me ages to fathom the meaning: the third quarter of the 2006 financial year.

Now what's wrong with saying financial year instead of FY? Nothing. It might take a bit longer, but what you lose in precious seconds you gain in humanity. Yet it seems notions of common sense and literalism have no place where I work. Tasks are "actioned" instead of completed. Ideas are "grown" instead of developed. Conversations between two people are officially billed as 121s. Feedback from members of the public is called Usr. Sats. (user satisfaction). There are things called CDPs, CTs, UUs and - worse of all - Net. Cal. As, about which I have only the merest of knowledge, but which seem to mean a hell of a lot. Then there are the meetings themselves, which revolve around the discussion of "green flags", "amber flags" and "red flags". Green is good stuff. Amber is so-so. Red is crap.

Have you ever heard the like? It's using words as tools to intimidate and oppress, to make outsiders and newcomers feel lowly and awed, to dress up the trivial as something thunderously important. And it's a load of bollocks. It's also dangerous, for along these roads lies the eventual death of a sensible, rational English language. I feel no part of this kind of culture. Unfortunately I am lumbered with having to work, if not for it, then at least surrounded by it. So I guess I'm Ttly. Fckd.

14 March, 2006

Folk tales

I have no idea who my new neighbours are. Where I used to live in Liverpool was the kind of place where you couldn't help but get to recognise the same faces, the same comings and goings, above all the same sounds as people left for work and returned at precisely the same time every day. Here I haven't a clue what's going on, who lives where, or even if the people I see from my window actually live here at all.

Unexplained bangs, rumbles and clatter echo up the stairwell at most hours, though mercifully it goes very quiet come nighttime. From what I can hear, I'm guessing I'm in the minority by dint of having English as my first language. Unlike before I'm living at the top of a three floor block rather than the bottom, which is just as well as the view from here (across the North London skyline) is just slightly more favourable than that down below (an assortment of extractor fans). A Chinese restaurant nonetheless does its best to pump the air outside full of potent frying smells at the most inappropriate hours of the day, something that panicked me so much when I first arrived that I over-populated the flat with Tesco air freshners. I'm not used to living in a place where, if you open the windows, you let fresh air out rather than in.

It all adds up to a rather chastening conundrum of faces and places, none of whom have the slightest interest in me or my business, but who can't help but call attention to themselves by virtue of - to my eyes - their complete indifference to their surrounding environment. What goes on outside their windows, outside their lives, doesn't amount to a thing. Yet ironically it's this which amounts to so much for me.

Still, I'll quite understand if I pass my entire time here without exchanging a word with any of my neighbours. Not even a friendly wave each morning.

13 March, 2006

Route master

Attempting a different route from work back to the Underground this evening, I found myself in Cambridge Circus, ostensible centre of Soho and sometime setting for the headquarters of MI5 in all of John Le Carre's novels. Indeed, the BBC filmed their adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in the area, back when the titular circus wasn't merely a battered junction encircled by sex shops and was actually a pretty grand entrance to the capital's theatreland.

I read almost all of Le Carre's novels when I was in my teens. Now, almost twenty years on, it was all of a sudden quite exciting to be passing through one of spy fiction's most illustrious locales, and I made a point of casting my gaze right around the intersection for any recognisable traces of potential anonymous musty bureaucratic bulwarks behind which the stuffed shirts of the British Empire once sought to do battle with the spread of international communism - a place where the very defence of the realm was entertained by the most consummately dressed of the post-war elite.

Then I had to swerve to avoid a bunch of Australian male tourists shouting "where's the pussy?" at the tops of their voices, and the moment, not understandably, passed. As Stephen Fry once said, never go back.

12 March, 2006

Northern sky

Sitting here under a defiantly grime-coloured linoleum of London clouds, this just makes me ache to be back in Liverpool again right this minute.

11 March, 2006

Mall rat

I went to the Brent Cross Shopping Centre today. It was a trip I'm not intending to repeat anytime soon, or liable to make willingly ever again.

The place is conveniently situated well away from the misleadingly named Brent Cross Underground station, and requires what feels like a never-ending trudge through a multitude of exhaust-filled subways, underpasses, walkways and flyovers to actually reach any of the shops.

It sprawls unhelpfully across titantic carparks, none of which boast any clue as to the nearest way inside, and looks appalling: several squat grey hangars decorated with grey lettering, grey awning and and to all intents and purposes grey lighting as well.

Inside are allegedly over 100 different stores. I could only see about a dozen. But perhaps I was already too tired to go looking for the other 90 odd outlets, having made the mistake of thinking everything was in easy walking distance - as is common in every other shopping centre in the entire country.

It isn't. You don't stroll from shop to shop in Brent Cross, you motor. I didn't see anybody else trying, like me, to walk between each of the buildings. In fact, I felt quite the fool struggling to cross acre upon acre of car park with just my two feet to rely on. This positively militated against me wanting to stay any longer than necessary in my chosen destinations, which in turn led to me to shrink inside a fiercely antagonistic mindset, which culminated in me accidentally jumping a queue and so incurring the wrath of an over-dressed middle aged harridan.

"You pulled a smart one there," she proceeded to bawl at me. "Didn't yer use yer flaming eyes, eh?" I could only offer my profuse apologies. But they did no good. She was revelling in the drama of the moment, and was not going to accept any form of reparation. "Oh no no no, you carry on, you stand there love, you have fun," she spat. The whole shop was watching. I wanted to die.

Once my transaction was over I hurred from the premises as fast as I could. Which, given its size, took about a whole fucking half hour.

Brent Cross was the UK's first shopping centre, built in 1976 but subject to renovation and expansion work ever since. What went on when they were planning the construction of this empire? That it would be easy for the pedestrian? Perish the thought. You need a full tank of petrol and nerves of steel to get anywhere. And that's before you reach the checkout.

10 March, 2006

Working title

A long time ago, I had a friend with whom I thought I would never lose contact, in whom I confided at length, and for whom I sincerely thought I would do anything.

He was one of a few new people I met when I was in the sixth form at school and ended up becoming quite close to, drawing inspiration from their interests, personality and opinions while hopefully offering some kind of companionship in return. I was never this person's best friend, but I liked to think I was more than simply an occasional acquaintance and not about to suddenly fall off his radar for good.

He, however, was one of those people who everybody seemed to like, and who made no enemies. He was popular for simply being himself, a state of affairs that sometimes led me to frustration, sometimes to despair: how come making friends was so easy for some and not for others? I'll never forget one occasion when he arrived unexpectedly at the end of some after-hours event at school, and on his appearance almost everybody in the room turned on cue and cheered. It wasn't insincere, it wasn't contrived. It was just the kind of response he always seemed to evoke.

Anyhow, I thought I would always stay in touch with him, and for a time, after I went to university, I did. He moved to London, I moved to Liverpool, I visited him a few times, he came up once when he needed somewhere to stay en route to an audition for a drama studies degree.

Then I remember trying to phone him around the turn of the millennium and him always being out, never responding to my messages, never returning my calls. I eventually gave up and waited for him to get in touch in his own time. Which he never did. And that was it. I never saw or heard from him again. A person with whom I shared two of the best years of my life and invested so much emotion, just vanished, gone, disappeared.

He's still out there somewhere, because I've spotted mentions of him while searching on Google. Just not in my world anymore.

Why all this, and why now? Because my new boss has exactly the same name as my old friend, and I can't handle it. I just can't deal with such a giant clash of the personal and the impersonal. This sort of thing isn't supposed to happen. You can't go through life seeing the names of once close friends being suddenly sported by soulless faces sitting at a soulless desk a few feet away from you in a soulless office block. It wrecks the equilibrium of your memory. It distorts the perception of your past. And it demeans the significance of the old in favour of the shock of the new.

I wish I knew where my friend really was and how to reach him. Reeling as I am from my first week in my new job, I could do with his wise counsel and comradeship more than ever.

09 March, 2006

Deeper underground

Further to yesterday's ramblings, it turns out that Geoff Marshall, the bloke who holds the world record for the shortest time to visit all the Underground stations in one day, is being given hell by Transport For London over using the tube logo and fonts on his site "without permission". Which given he does more to promote the Underground than most, and has raised a lot of money for charity on its behalf, is Kafka-esque in the extreme. It also means his collection of alternate tube maps might be about to go offline, which'd be a tragedy. Enjoy them while you can.

08 March, 2006

Commute witness

Travelling to and from work via the London Underground is going to take me a lot of getting used to. I've only being doing it since the start of the week, but I'm already reeling from the enervating experience of bookending every day with long listless journeys largely in complete darkness surrounded by strangers so close they're almost breathing in your face.

There's been a stroppy obnoxious art student who refused to move her baggage off the seat next to her to make way for someone else. There's been someone dressed like Tom Baker replete with curly-haired mop and long multi-coloured scarf. There have been several people who have thrown themselves into the carriage, desperate to get on board even if it means holding up the entire train while someone sorts out why the doors won't shut properly. I have seen numerous people with their noses deep in holy books of one faith or another. I have seen many more engrossed in copies of the Metro, the free newspaper that litters the Underground in all senses of the word. There are people sporting dinner suits, others in boiler suits. There are too too many passengers with their iPods at such a deafening pitch that you can hear every note of what they're listening to (oh for a resurgance of personal stereos, which were, by and large, personal).

And everyone, absolutely everyone, says nothing to anybody else. Including me. I'm just another mute witness.

It's not nice. I imagined using the Underground every day would be stimulating, even thrilling. At the moment I feel like it's just holding me up rather than allowing me to get anywhere. As happened earlier when I was trying to get through Leicester Square only to get caught up in the premiere of V For Vendetta. Heaven only knows what it was about.

07 March, 2006

Precipitation conversation

The only really decent bit in Douglas Adams's So Long And Thanks For All The Fish is the character who's a rain god and doesn't know it.

When I first read the book I was amusingly entertained by the conceit of a man upon whom it always rains but for whom life has never been any other way. At the time I nursed the notion of being able to hold a similar kind of sway over the climate; of what it'd be like to shape the weather to reflect my mood and so, if I wished, making it pour down continuously during periods of evocative personal gloom.

More recently the fanciful idea returned, and I used to dream of what it'd be like to be able to command it to rain upon an area surrounding me a mile or so in diameter, specifically so that when I was at work everyone else would get really pissed off and the car park would be turned into a mudbath and the whole place would have to be closed down. Yes, I know. But I had to vent my fury somehow, and dreams were probably the safest place to do it.

All this has been brought to mind today by the fact that it has been raining non-stop in London for the last 12 hours or so. It's the first time it's rained here since I arrived, and as such has been more than welcome, although it's not been a particularly nice downpour (and that's not a contradiction in terms, believe me). No, it's been a dirty rain, not one that feels nice falling upon your face or in your hair. These kind of showers don't wash away frustration and fatigue and malaise, like they did in Liverpool; they merely layer them on thicker.

In other words, the wrong kind of rain.

06 March, 2006

Dictionary corner IV



Q is for...

It takes a lot of guts to live in Liverpool and not like The Beatles - which is obviously why I have and always will be a big fan of the best group in the world, and why it's churlish to deny they didn't play some factor in persuading me to put Liverpool University down as my first choice on my UCAS form all those years ago. I soon discovered that contrary to what the various tourist authorities and council bodies and museum initiatives implore, it is possible to conduct your own relationship with The Beatles and live in their hometown at the same time. It's all a matter of choosing where and where not to go (The Beatles Museum at the Albert Dock - I don't want to see Yoko's white piano!), what and what not to read (The Liverpool Echo, always up in arms about Ringo's house being turned over to the National Trust) and when to do it. Which is any time nobody else is doing it, of course.

R is for...

"Capital of culture?" I once heard an old woman mutter as she walked past me down the street. "Capital of fucking litter, more like." It's better than it was, but Liverpool is still graced with more than an excusable amount of refuse blowing about its streets, chiefly in and around LIME STREET STATION (QV) but also anywhere there's a grass verge which rubbish collectors can't easily get to. And it's not small pieces of waste either. A full-size armchair was once dumped outside my front window and sat there for a week before anybody bothered to move it. The fact that the body in question was me, and the fact that I merely moved to somewhere further down the street where I couldn't see it, are both not important.

S is for...

Liverpool doesn't get much snow, which I've always rued and regretted given how beautiful the city does look on those rare occasions it is caked in white and all its harsh angles and grimy vistas are softened and diluted. From memory it's only snowed properly (i.e. settled on the ground) four times in the last ten years. I think it's something to do with being so close to the sea and the city being too low down or facing the wrong way to not get the kind of West coast blizzards regularly visited upon the likes of Glasgow, Carlisle and Manchester. A pity. When it does snow it never sticks around for long either. I remember last Christmas going to bed with snow tumbling down in sheets only to wake up and - the horror - find it all changed to rain and the ground covered in puddles of slush. Euucch. And now I've gone and moved to a place where statistically there's one of the lowest chances of snowfall in the country. Bollocks.

T is for...

The city was responsible for the lowest ever poll in the history of British General Elections, when in 2001 the constituency of Liverpool Riverside delivered a turnout of a pathetic 34%. I was living in the constituency at the time, and despite having voted and made sure (as far as I could) that everyone I knew did the same, I still felt shame at this appalling statistic. It rose to 41% in 2005, but by then I was living in the Liverpool Garston constituency, which scored 50% in 2001 and hit 55% in 2005. None of the other constituencies that make up the city of Liverpool made it above 50% last year or 2001. There are as many causes for this slump in voting as there are consequences. At least turnout is now on an upward trend. Reflective of the declining population of the city is the way the number of constituencies (themselves calculated on the number of residents) has halved in the last 50 years. Meanwhile Everton, once a constituency in its own right, used to be known as "the staunchest Conservative seat in Merseyside". In the council elections of 2003, the number of people who voted Tory in the Everton ward was just fourteen out of 6,840.

05 March, 2006

Time Inc.

I spend most days of my life largely wishing it wasn't. Wasn't that particular day, to be precise, and preferring it to be another, either in the past or the future. I'm writing this on the last day of my "gardening leave", but I sorely wish it wasn't. I'd quite like it to be the first day all over again.

Alternatively, I'd quite like it to be this precise time on Friday night, with the week over and done with. Even better would be this date in, say, two months time, when (hopefully) all is settled and work has become mere routine and the foundation, not the totality, of my life.

In other words, any day but today. And any evening but this evening, when it's impossible for me to not feel utterly overwhelmed with anxiety at the fact I don't know what tomorrow will bring.

Of course, always wishing it were some other day means the here and now is always disappearing before I have a chance to appreciate it. So I also wish it were, say, three or four months ago, when I thought I was going to be stuck in my last job forever and hated it vociferously. But if I could go back to that point, knowing I'd be out of that place come February, I could make far more of the business of bowing out than I did. And of course I wouldn't feel quite so hopeless and helpless.

I measure my life by hurdles to be scaled and obstacles to be overcome, not challenges to be exploited or opportunities to be taken. It's always been that way, and I guess it always will. It's what experience has taught me to be the safest course, the one that will bring me least pain and a lower chance of dashed expectation. The problem is, I don't know whether I've actually scaled the hurdle until after the event - by which point I'm focused on the next obstacle ahead, and it's too late to appreciate what, if anything, I've accomplished.

Gloomy Sunday indeed. If only the hours were numberless.

04 March, 2006

Heavens above

I'm afraid this sort of thing makes my flesh creep.

Whenever I hear people in high office start citing God as being in any way relative to the practice of politics, I can't help but recoil in horror. For one thing, someone's relationship with religion should be private and personal. If you are so inclined to believe in God, fine, but don't wear that belief in such a way as to castigate and denigrate all those who don't believe in the same God, or in any God, which by extension is precisely what Blair is doing. By equating and explaining the invasion of Iraq through his religions beliefs, he's intimating that all those who opposed the invasion are at odds with those beliefs and are somehow inferior.

He's also being sanctimonious and pompous in ascribing a decidedly non-humanist rationale to the brutally humanist business of sending people into an armed conflict, quite possibly to the deaths.

Worse of all, though, is the manner he relegates the judgement of us, the electorate, who put him into office in the first place, as inferior to the judgement of a (insert caveat to emphasise the arrival of a subjective viewpoint) made-up entity. If only church and state were separate in this country like in France, and politicians were both voted for and appointed to office purely on the value of empirical, enlightened agenda.

Ironically it was Blair who, on coming to power, assured us he had no truck with "dogma and doctrine". Yet it's Christian dogma and doctrine he's been trotting out ever since 1997, whether through carefully stage managed trips to communion, evangelical outbursts at party conferences ("Let us making this the giving age!"), or toe-curlingly embarrassing confessions to grumpy chat show hosts.

Meanwhile I think Stephen Pound is wrong to seek to explain away Blair's witterings by contesting "if this was anything to do with trying to appeal to the electorate, he wouldn't be so excruciatingly honest." He is trying to appeal to us, in the hope that when he goes we'll remember him in sufficiently regal and blessed tones to allow history to judge the war in Iraq not as an illegal occupation but a spiritually-tinged missionary quest.

God alone knows why anyone mixes politics with religion.

03 March, 2006

Hair apparent

I knew the day was fast approaching, but tried to put off thinking about it whenever possible. Time, however, ticked remorselessly onwards until my alarm went off this morning and I realized with dread that the day had finally arrived: the day I had to go and get my first haircut in London. In other words, my first haircut for just over ten years at a new barber's.

I'd spotted a likely venue soon after arriving here, conveniently situated not sixty seconds from my flat. This, I reasoned, would at the very least mean I could make a quick getaway and not have to go for too long with any obligatory hair-lined clothing still about my person.

All the same, I felt a curious sense of dread as I prepared to visit the premises. It's not like I have a particularly complicated haircut - quite the reverse - but the mere thought of some different people, some unknown people, attending to my instructions after so long made me really quite anxious. And just what would be the etiquette of the establishment? Should you wait to be called to a chair or sit in one as soon as the previous occupant has stood up? Would there be endless smalltalk all the way through? Should you specify what you don't want along with what you do? Above all, would it cost under £10 (well, it was all I had on me. And with it being £5 in Liverpool, I figured double that amount should suffice).

As it turned out it cost £9, took twice as long as usual, was mercifully free of any chatter, involved various peculiarities I could've done without (smearing the shaved hairline round the back of my neck with some kind of, well, lubricant; using one of those - erk - long old-fashioned single blades to trim around my ears), and almost resulted in me getting a complete shampoo purely, it seems, because I hadn't said I didn't want my hair washed.

It was also interesting to discover who else was waiting for service. My flat is within the part of the city that houses London's Jewish community, and as such it was instructive to find the shop busy with mostly Jewish men of all ages hastening, presumably, to get seen to before the Sabbath.

Anyway, the whole ordeal was over in less than half an hour. Of course despite my hair being stupidly boring it still looks weird and different now, and as such I feel like another part of the Liverpool "me" has been literally cut away.

Still, at least it wasn't as bad as the worst hairdressers in the world, who lived in the Liverpool University Student Union basement, and comprised a 70 year-old with a face like a fossilised walnut who smoked all the way through the cutting, and his assistant, a gay dancer who was always being interrupted to take bookings for private parties.

02 March, 2006

Old wave

There used to be a time when all political parties were led by, if not pensioners, then people well into middle age.

It was something only old folk did. Moreover, it was something for which only old folk were suited. After all, such a position could only be held by somebody at the summit of their career. It was the endgame of a life spent "serving your country" in a plethora of capacities from local councillor to cabinet minister. Nobody questioned why Thatcher couldn't be Prime Minister in her 60s, Churchill in his 70s, or even Gladstone in his 80s. Indeed, questions would have been asked had those kind of people not sought high office of such a nature at such an advanced age.

Today, however, there's been a welter of babble about the fact Menzies Campbell is already 64 and how if he stays around for two General Elections he'd be into his early 70s and, well, isn't that a frightfully delicate age to be practicing politics? A certain kind of politics, yes - the kind being tirelessly, and tiresomely, enacted by David Cameron, rushing about setting multiple plates spinning but not caring when and where they crash to the ground. But that's no way to run a party, let alone a country, and here's where Campbell has the edge on not just the Tories but Labour as well.

When the Liberal Democrats decided to oppose the war in Iraq, they made their case at their own speed on their own terms. Campbell, as foreign affairs spokesman, set that speed and established the terms. He and the party received (and continue to win) relentless flak and lazy insults in equal measure. But the outcome was a huge increase in the party's credibility and, when elections came, popularity.

If ever the moment was right for someone of lucidity, experience and above all composure to lead a political party in this country, that time is now. A few months ago when choosing their new boss the Tories skipped a generation and ended up with Blair Mark II. The Liberals have just skipped a generation in the other direction, and ended up with a 21st century Lloyd George. Which in my book can only be a good thing.

01 March, 2006

House call

My five homes during the course of my life in Liverpool:


I spent nine months in this hall of residence-cum-reform institution, holed up in that room in the top left hand corner. Not, as you'll have gathered, a happy time.


I spent my second year at university here, just off Penny Lane, in a dump that had no central heating, leaking pipes, slugs that used to constantly crawl into the scullery (yes, there was a scullery) and a front door that wouldn't shut properly. Now look at it. When I took this picture it was the first time I'd been back in 10 years. I was staggered to see how much it'd changed. If it wasn't numbered 33, I wouldn't have known it was the same place.


My third year at university, and a step up the property ladder. This was much nicer, with heating and everything, and looks almost the same now as it did then, although it's quite clearly become a proper private residence. Better still, at least one of the occupants is a Doctor Who fan (see the top left hand window).


I lived here from 1997-2003, on the top floor, in a flat that became increasingly destitute and knackered along with its tenant. This was the place that played host to, amongst others, a lunatic care in the community case, a band of drug dealers, two Ukrainian women, a mother and a constantly screaming baby, and a Deacon Blue fan. When I left it was about to be pulled down. That didn't happen. Now it looks like it's become a housing association place, and is even more soulless than before.


My last and final flat. A really lovely place, this, the best that I've ever lived in, and one that I'm heartbroken to have to leave. This is the view from behind the block. Mrs Noise is in the flat above, adjacent to her is the bewigged driving instructor, while the gay businessman is round the back. As it were.