31 May, 2006

Leg it

I might be going out on a limb here, but I'd say the divorce has become something of a bone of contention.

30 May, 2006

Radio times

I spent most of 2003 being very ill indeed, though I kept it from everyone bar my closest colleague at work and my immediate family.

The symptoms manifested themselves inconsistently and never in enough of a tangible way to suggest an obvious cure, and I was never diagnosed with a specific disease or affliction.

I always suspected it was chronic fatigue syndrome; not one of the doctors or consultants ever said as much, or indeed said much about anything. Yet it made my life hell, and many was the evening I cried myself to sleep, wondering if the fucking pain would ever go away. I was put on a course of betablockers for around six months, and valium for one month, but after that I was left to cure myself, which I was eventually able to do through a mixture of somewhat quaint relaxation techniques and proper exercise. I've continued with both ever since, and they seem to have worked, though I doubt I'll ever be 100% well ever again.

Suffice to say my diary from 2003 makes truly grisly reading. On a couple of times I simply abandoned it because the effort to document what I was going through was too much. I'm rather glad these holes exist, however, for at least it showed my brain was still working enough to save me from the mercilessly pedantic business of documenting everything in my life for the sake of it.

But seeing the blank pages also reminds me of how I spent those dreadful days: lying in bed, rarely moving except to get another drink of water or some lacklustre meal, and listening to Radio 4.

Good old Radio 4. I'd include it in my list of the 10 best things about being alive.

The art of surrending yourself to a radio station (and it is an art) is something that can never be valued highly enough. While I lay there nursing a dozen unattributable aches and pains, I'd no idea what I was listening to most of the time, let alone what would be coming up next, yet the very fact the voices were always present, carrying on as normal, oblivious to my circumstances and instead chattering quietly about everything from - as I recall - Greek philsophers to 1930s cooking to the lost rivers of London to the recent invasion of Iraq was somehow deeply reassuring.

I would drift in and out of sleep, dreaming bits of what I was hearing and escaping into semi-consciousness before abruptly and all-too quickly jolting back into the real world. But the radio would still be there, still talking to itself, always in measured, calm, defiantly ordinary tones. It was my link with the real world, a lifeline if you will, and as far as I was concerned it was speaking to and for me.

Whenever I've been ill since (never as serious, thankfully) I've always been tempted to spend the whole day in bed and let the radio talk me through. Yet in the end I've never been able to justify giving up a whole day for such a pastime, always believing I should at least be up and about, even if it's just pottering from the sofa to the bathroom and back again.

The resonances with those dark days three years ago are perhaps too raw for me to seek parallel experiences just yet. Besides, the bed here isn't as comfortable as the one I had in Liverpool.

Only when you're really ill do you truly appreciate the value of being well and being able to go about your business without ever having to pause for thought. There used to be a time when I wasn't sure I'd ever be able to do the short 10 minute walk to work again. Strange the things that end up pulling you through.

29 May, 2006

Table salt

For two years I shared a house with three other people, all of us undergraduates at Liverpool University, all of us having first met in the same corridor in the same hall of residence.

Heaven knows why, in retrospect, the four of us ended up continuing a far from obvious association beyond the business of hanging around together because we'd been assigned rooms next to each other. After all, the only thing we had in common was our surname.

Thanks to the alphabetical allocation of first year accommodation, everyone down our end of the corridor fell into the J-M category. My actual surname (not Myles) being one of the commonest in the land, you won't be surprised to hear this part of the hall was crowded with similarly-titled students, which at least made for a talking point once the "what A Levels did you do?" conversations had been exhausted. But aside from this shared inheritance, none of us four had any particular common interests or bonds, and it was through expediency rather than anything more noble that we stumbled into agreeing to go into the second year sharing a house together.

If I had been a less timid, more confident person at the time I would never have consented to such an arrangement; indeed, there were a couple of people further down the corridor, again with the same surname, who looking back I'd have had a far better time living under one roof with, not least because one of them was doing precisely the same degree course as me.

But I had neither the foresight nor the courage of my convictions to do what I really wanted. I guess I also felt I'd thrown my lot in with my immediate neighbours from the start, and hence had to see things through to the end. After all I'd signed up for these friendships by being the one who, on day two (day one being too much of a trauma), had knocked on their doors rather than vice versa.

What followed was, perversely, two of the most solitary years of my life. I felt lonelier during that period of living with people than I have ever done since I began living on my own (9 years and counting). You could explain this away by reasoning that you only notice how less sociable and more secluded a life you lead when you are right up alongside others doing precisely the opposite; when you're completely by yourself you've nothing against which to measure things. You could also explain it, however, by assigning blame to the arbitrary system which had thrown us together in the first place.

I have already written something of my memories of housesharing just off Penny Lane. In effect the whole two-year period, both there and later at a far nicer place a few streets away, seems decades ago. This was a time before mobile phones, before digital and satellite TV; a time when none of us had personal computers, when none of us had a video recorder, when it was thought OK to not have central heating or a washing machine, when a bus ride anywhere in the city cost just 40p.

It was also a time when one of my housemates disappeared for half a year with a septic toe; when kids pushed fireworks through our letterbox; when all the pipes burst during the winter of 1995 flooding the kitchen and ruining all the posters I'd stuck up on the wall; when I tiptoed into one of the others' bedrooms at night to switch off their stereo; when our scullery was invaded by giant slugs and I used up three cartons of table salt to kill them; when my rent was £30 a week (it is now roughly seven times that amount); when I ate half of my housemates' birthday cake without telling him; when I agreed to accompany one of my housemates to see Cardiff City play away at Wrexham and at Chester and in both instances my feet shrank because of the cold; when the police once stopped me for walking down the street "suspiciously"; when all my fellow tenants fell in with regular girlfriends and the place became more like hotel than a house; and when I became a vegetarian to the ignominy of everyone else who'd just shelled out on a deep fat fryer.

There were good moments, of course, but in relative terms they always seem to be outweighed by the business of putting one foot in front of the other and counting the days until the next time I knew everyone would be out of the house and the place would be mine.

One of the three, Steve, I did get along with and have stayed in touch with, visiting him and his other half in Birmingham a few times. The other two, though, I haven't spoken to or heard from since the day they packed up their belongings and drove off in late June 1997. I occasionally wonder what they are doing now and if they ever occasionally wonder about what I am doing now, and why they chose to spend two years of their life living with me.

28 May, 2006

On record

The choice by Tory leader David Cameron of REM's 'Perfect Circle' as one of his Desert Island Discs feels as provocative a gesture as any the wannabe Prime Minister could make.

For a start, politicians aren't supposed to 'get' pop music. It's OK for them to like it, and to want to be seen associating themselves with it, but tradition dictates that when pressed on personal taste they reveal a hapless and clumsy inarticulacy bordering on the ridiculous. Witness Tony Blair turning up at the Q Awards back in 1995 and praising "the music of U2 and The Smiths and Morrissey" with the kind of conviction you'd normally bring to the recitation of a parking ticket. A more honest assessment emerged a couple of years later when he was asked to name his three favourite groups; the erstwhile Mick Jagger impersonator responded by listing M People, The Lightning Seeds and Simply Red.

From the other side of the fence, there was John Redwood's woeful attempt to co-opt The Lightning Seeds song 'Lucky You' into Conservative Party mythology because of the line "Everything's blue now, oh lucky you". Further back, Mrs Thatcher, of course, hated pop music other than, I quote, "that long-haired chap, what's his name, Paul Daniels, who sang 'When A Man Loves A...When A Man And Woman Loves...er...". When pressed she did concede her favourite popular song to be 'Telstar' by The Tornados, hailing from the hip-shaking mould-breaking year of 1962. But as for the hordes of young people clamouring for her exit from Number 10: "these people with their pink hair, their yellow hair, their punk hair; they say they want to kill me; they haven't even met me!"

No, by law politicians aren't ever supposed to 'get' pop music, which is why Cameron's choice of 'Perfect Circle' is a step too far in the wrong direction to be treated seriously. There's also the problem of it being a pretty obscure REM song, which again is wrong. Politicians are only ever supposed to declare their hands for the big hits. By rights he should have gone for 'Everybody Hurts' or 'Losing My Religion', though I doubt either of these titles would have gone down well at Tory Central Office.

'Perfect Circle' is a gorgeous song off REM's very first album from 23 years ago, the kind that only 'proper' fans should only know and like and boast about. In other words, anybody but a politician. Yet here's David Cameron singing its praises and bestowing upon it, ditto his other dangerously fashionable choices of 'This Charming Man' by The Smiths and 'Fake Plastic Trees' by Radiohead, patronage of a solely disingenous kind.

I wonder what he is hoping to invite by making such an oblique selection; credibility, presumably, along with backstage passes the next time any of the titular artists is passing through town. British politics is such a discredited art, though, it's impossible to treat Cameron's offbeat selection as any other than contrived and a calculated strategy to win today's headlines at the expense of anything of more direct substance and import. It's notable that, while he's been only to ready to expound upon the virtues of taking a husky ride to the North Pole, the pursuit of a better work-life balance and the merits of 'The Fastest Milkman In The West', Cameron has failed to outline a single policy on those otherwise trivial matters of education, health, the social services and transport.

When pop music ventures into politics the result is always more questions than answers; when politicians venture into pop music the result is even worse: the wrong answers to the wrong questions.

27 May, 2006

Going metropolitan

Sitting next to me on the train back from work yesterday were two well-spoken young ladies in floral dresses comparing how much each of them had spent during the day.

One was brandishing a notebook, into which she'd diligently entered each of her "transactions", as she called them, in order to ascertain the sum of money she'd disposed of so far. The notebook in question wasn't your ordinary spiral-bound or stapled white-lined affair, but a rusty-hued recycled pamphlet decorated with polkadots and splashes of luminous pink. Both were stuffing their faces with Oriental snacks from Marks and Spencer. Both conducted their conversation at the top of their already over-enunciated voices.

I note this here because it's surely a spectacle that is unique to London. I know full well you would never see such a sight in Liverpool. Two people of any description merrily comparing how much they'd spent over the past few hours is something you'd be hard pressed to countenance anywhere in that city.

But here in the capital the pursuit of wealth, and the shameless, vocal celebration thereof, seems just as common and provokes just as little interest as the chattering of a homeless man's teeth as he lurks in the rain waiting for another ten pence, or the inarticulate yet supremely loud protestations of a East European desperate for you to take one of their flyers for a Cut Price Tanning Salon.

It's all sound and fury, but forever confined - and confined forever - to the place where the streets are supposedly paved with gold.

26 May, 2006

January days

Life outside a Midlands hometown.

24 May, 2006

Table talk

The latest lunatic decision by my gracious employers is perhaps their most demented yet.

It has been announced that due to increasing numbers of personnel and a finite office space, as of two weeks time all the desks on the first three floors of my building (which includes the office in which I work) will become what are known in the trade as 'hot desks'. In other words, they won't belong to anybody, they will belong to everybody.

So rather than do something inordinately sensible like, say, invest in a few more tables and chairs, management have decided to turn the building into one giant free-for-all, where the first in gets the run of the place and the pick of the desks, and those who get held up or delayed or are late in for any reason have to wander around demeaningly waiting for someone to pop into a meeting or nip out for a cigarette then steal their place.

It is the height of absurdity. I have never known anything like it. So much for instilling notions of dignity, co-operation and professionalism into your workforce; here lies the path towards ruthless competition for somewhere to sit, spite and jealously over who has stolen so and so's desk, and ultimately a cruel and morale-destroying atomisation of all the various teams and department upon whom the company has built its operations.

If you knew the organisation for whom I worked, you'd either be shocked at the way such an ostensibly influential giant international corporation treated its workforce, or ruefully unsurprised at how this decision conforms to the company's traditionally unscrupulous and heavy-handed reputation.

At least having only worked there for just under three months I don't feel like I've invested so much as to feel any wrench of having to change places - once in a while. If, however, it becomes a nightmarish roulette of musical desks with my associates dotted about the building on various floors, I can see the whole place, along with my already limited store of well-being, going to rack and ruin.

And all for the price of a bit more office furniture. Such is the pursuit of profit over a couple more swivel chairs.

23 May, 2006

Syntax deductible

Words are always changing their meaning, it's one of the motors of cultural history. But recently some words seem to have altered their sense in a manner that doesn't seem to be motoring anywhere except backwards. Or else into a cul-de-sac.

A couple of examples have been rattling round my head for the past few weeks. One is the word 'random', which appears to have shed its proper meaning of being haphazard or lacking any definite plan or prearranged order, and is now used to refer to anything odd, offbeat or otherwise unexpected.

"Wow, that is totally random," someone will shout where I work, but it's not because they are expressing delight about an unpredicted sequence of numbers, but simply because they've received a particularly zany piece of spam on their email. "I had a phone call that was just so random," someone else will say, wrongly, because the call wasn't from a random stranger but a known colleague on a topic they know everything about.

I first noticed this trend in Liverpool, but it's far more prevalent in London, gripping even the highest of the lowliest middle management pen-pusher.

The other example, however, is far more objectionable. Referring to the need to make the website for which I work ultra-responsive and quick off the mark, various people have taken to stressing the importance of being 'reactionary'. "We need the site to be more reactionary," they cry. What, in the sense of reflecting conservative, right-wing and illiberal views? Because that's what reactionary means.

Of course what they mean and what they should be saying is that they want the site to be more reactive. But nobody picks them up on their mistake (and it's not my place to do so), and not one of them seems aware of their syntactical slip-up.

Is this sort of confusion and jumbling of thought and expression a good or bad thing? It has to be the latter, because in both these instances there isn't the need to create new words or alter meanings of existing words to convey the sentiments which the practioner seeks to express.

Unlike a genuinely new word, like, say, 'weekend', which emerged into common usage during the 19th century when the working week shifted from being seven days non-stop to five days on, two days off, there are already plenty of words to cover the notions to which the above examples refer. 'Reactionary' doesn't need to replace 'reactive'; 'random' shouldn't replace 'weird' or 'bizarre' or 'unexpected'. It's not invention or origination, it's laziness and simple error. Yet it appears to be sweeping the nation. Well, two ends of it. And we need to be reactive, not reactionary, in trying to stop it.

22 May, 2006

So cold

"I would have signed them if I had," said Major Major.
"With whose name?" asked the second CID man cunningly. "Yours or Washington Irving's?"
"With my own name," Major Major told him. "I don't even know Washington Irving's name."

It's been at least ten years since I first read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and it's been at least nine years too long since I read it a second time. I'm now halfway through and can confidently state it's the best book I've ever read. Since the last best book, that is.

It's certainly the only book I've read that has made me laugh out loud in a public place. Such a reaction took me completely by surprise, and most probably several of the other passengers sharing the same Underground carriage as well.

I knew from memory how the book was acutely hysterical as well as being profoundly moving, but the passage that made me cackle unashamedly to the alarm of my fellow travellers crept up on me totally without warning and was therefore, in a way, all the more enjoyable. It doesn't look especially funny taken out of context - see above - but coming in the middle of one of the author's trademark elongated epistles of contradictory doubletalk, surreal paradoxes and downright stupidity, its potency was all the more sparkling.

I love Joseph Heller's book because of its intelligence and endless, unrelenting imagination. Nothing is what you expect. Every chapter contains a surprise, a revelation, a moment of heart-stopping poignancy or eye-popping lunacy.

The structure is incredible: events and characters are introduced in chapter two to make a point that isn't resolved until chapter 20; a catastrophe is hinted at in chapter five, the consequences of which may have been alluded to in chapter one but whose causes have to wait until chapter 26 to be revealed. A new talking point, philosophical dilemma or ethical quandary is introduced every couple of pages, but always in as non-dogmatic and questioning a manner as is linguistically possible, so you never feel you're reading an essay nor some kind of ideological tract.

It has a character in with no first name. It has a character called Major Major Major Major. It has a character whose name translates as Lieutenant Shithead. It has a character who has flies in his eyes but can't see his has flies in his eyes because he has flies in his eyes. It has a character who likes popping apples in his cheeks but can't verbally explain why he does it because he has apples in his cheeks. It has a character who sees everything twice.

It continues to be namechecked and referenced in the most implausible of places - last Saturday's episode of Doctor Who, for instance, which lifted the entire "I'm cold, so cold" death of a character straight from Catch-22. It has also bequeathed the English language one of its most ubiquitous and enduringly relevant aphorisms.

Famously, it took Heller the best part of a decade to write. Incidentally, it will take me the best part of two weeks to read. Brilliantly, it will take me the rest of my life to enjoy.

21 May, 2006

Talking balls

After having somewhat promisingly imploded into a factional fracas and one almighty sulk, it saddens me to see that the mithering minions of Fathers 4 Justice are back.

Inevitably, its members don't appear to have learned one iota from the failure of their previous escapades, nor taken advantage of their sojourn to rethink their one idea of trying to promote the notion of responsible parenthood through the staging of irresponsible stunts.

By gatecrashing, of all things, the National Lottery draw to shout and bawl and generally do as much as possible to irritate and offend the country, the organisation has yet again provided a superb advert for precisely why you should not want to let children spend any more time in these men's company than is legally possible. Whatever message the protestors were trying to convey was lost, as is always the case with such chicanery, amidst the excitement of seeing a live television programme go wrong, and the business of watching how the various presenters sought to extricate themselves from the confusion in an orderly and dignified fashion.

You'll see that a spokesmen for the rabble tried to justify targeting the Lottery by comparing the draw to the process under which fathers seek to gain access to their children through, and I quote, "the secret family courts". Come again? What the hell is the man talking about? He makes it sound like we're all living in some kind Orwellian, or more likely David Icke-ian, totalitarian state. And just how does the random drawing of balls in order to raise money for charity and make a few people very rich equate with a parent's ability or inability to argue a rational case for access to their child?

Thankfully, the spouting of such bollocks merely accelerates still further the organisation's slide into ridicule. Any serious point to be made about the mechanics behind the operation of family law in the UK continues to get lost in the brouhaha whipped up by the means Fathers 4 Justice employ to seek their end. Meanwhile I like how Eamonn sounded so alarmed when he spoke of how he thought the men were out "to destroy the lottery machines." Heaven help us all were a plastic sphere and some ping pong balls ever to fall victim to the half-arsed machinations of a few pissed off dads.

20 May, 2006

Sudden death

On Wednesday 26th June 1996, I cried upon hearing the sound of 'Walk Away' by Cast.

Now if that doesn't make for an improbable, not to say alarming, opening salvo to a blog, I'm not entirely sure what does. At least not for the next five minutes or so. Yet such a grotesquely sentimental shuttle back ten years is not without cause or consequence.

I heard the same song on the radio earlier today, and while it didn't make me bathetically blub, it did transport me to that day a decade ago when I momentarily took leave of my faculties and surrendered shamelessly to the emotional resonance of John Power's nasal whining.

Before I go any further I need to stress this outpouring of grief was not prompted solely by sound alone. The song had been set to a very particular sequence of images on television, which were being screened following a very particular sequence of emotions, which had been generated by a very particular sequence of missed penalties.

For Wednesday 26th June 1996 was the night the England football team took their leave of Euro 96 after losing to, as I wrote in my diary, "West (sorry, Freudian slip) Germany." The BBC concluded their coverage of this nation-consuming, history-stopping, street-emptying occasion with a montage of the squad's progress through the tournament up to and including their seconds-old defeat, tastefully cut to the then-contemporary sounds of Liverpool's then-fourth best band. And the impact was overwhelming.

Up to that point, in any and every context, 'Walk Away' had been the kind of song to divert but not especially distract or absorb my attention; an inoffensive, borderline-dreary balled, topped off with John Power's usual reciting-a-shopping-list style of delivery. But suddenly, there and then, in a matter of seconds, it was methodically transformed into a eulogy for the country and a crucible of national shame and frustration. The effect was intoxicating, magical, and desperately moving. And I gave in. Completely.

Even though I was sharing a house at the time, I had watched the conclusion of the match alone. Cynically at first, I have to confess, then with an infectious sincerity that long afterwards surprised me in its all-encompassing fervour. Re-reading my diary now I am still struck by how raw my emotions were that night: "A cloud of inescapable gloom and regret seems to have descended over everything, and it's entirely football generated...England did deserve to win the match, not have to suffer sudden death penalties, despite my previous attitude towards the effect of the game on the nation*. I suppose I was just won over by the immense enormity** and scale of the whole thing, the fact that the entire population*** gave over their evening to participate in this."

There's something enduringly magical about the way a song can become forever associated with one moment in time. There's also something perennially maddening about precisely the same process (c.f. 'Candle In The Wind'). Which begs the question: what tune have the BBC lined up for when England go out on penalties in the 2006 World Cup?

*In an earlier entry I had written of how bemused I was becoming by the way one solitary event was obsessing every inch of UK media and culture in a manner not really witnessed in my lifetime. It would get far worse, of course, in precisely 14 months time.
**Ah, the perils of writing a diary in an emotional state. What else is "enormity" going to be if not "immense"?
***More histrionics. I doubt the populations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland were pretty much bowled over by the same bombastic flag-waving. Nor, as was subsequently proved, Armando Iannucci and co who'd spent the evening ostensibly robbing the Blue Peter garden.

18 May, 2006

Light fantastic

For a brief moment, about an hour or so ago, I saw a rainbow hanging low in the sky over towards Hampstead Heath. Winds had lifted the smog from view, a few drops of rain had tantalislingly come and gone, and the sun had caught whatever moisture was left in the air. I caught sight of the rainbow while doing the washing up. I turned away to reach for a plate, turned back, and looked to find the rainbow had gone.

Like the time I saw a shooting star from my bedroom window on a particularly depressed night when I was 18, or when I watched a thunderstorm last two whole hours on an especially wistful evening when I was 24, short outbursts of meteorological mayhem always seem to serve as a bittersweet distraction from the routine and the humdrum in my life. I just hope I don't have to wait six years for another one.

17 May, 2006

War games

The amount of fuss made about the discovery of an unexploded bomb in the Mersey yesterday was absolutely boggling. In our office there are televisions permanently tuned to Sky News (albeit with the volume down, thankfully), and as soon as word reached the channel of what had happened in Liverpool it slapped its massive BREAKING NEWS banner right across the screen, rushed a dozen reporters to the scene and dispatched the SkyCopter forthwith.

Sure enough, half an hour later live footage was being relayed to the nation of a load of grey featureless water with a single yellow buoy bobbing in the middle moving at walking pace out towards the Irish Sea. This devastatingly uninteresting scenario played out for a good few hours before even Rupert Murdoch must have got bored, phoned up and told his employees to find something else to broadcast.

Heaven knows what the coverage was actually saying. If it sounded even half as boring as it looked, then, well, it looked twice as boring as it sounded. And that's notwithstanding Sky's attempt to tell its viewers where Liverpool actually was, which amounted to a poorly realised map denoting the whole of Merseyside as one small dot somewhere on the coast of Lancashire.

Meanwhile the BBC was doing its bit, rustling up a story telling of "travel chaos" as "two passenger ferries were prevented from docking due to safety concerns." This was quite patently bollocks. How can the delayed arrival of two ferries be classed as anyway chaotic? "The Mersey Viking," the report continued, "which had 64 passengers and 55 crew, and the Dublin Viking, which had 81 passengers and 46 crew, arrived in the dock on Tuesday morning but were unable to dock until the afternoon." In other words, they were unable to allow their passengers to disembark for a couple of hours or so. Clearly this was tantamount to sowing the seeds for, if not wholesale rioting, then a healthy outbreak of looting and quite probably racial violence.

The way the south reports on the north is outrageous. It seems to be born of an almost 1930s-esque mentality that views anywhere north of the Home Counties as a foreign country where people do things differently, speak strange languages and behave in incredible base, primitive ways. In truth I'd bet nobody in Liverpool gave a toss about what was going on, apart from grumbling a bit about the travel disruption and taking the opportunity to wax lyrical about how badly the city was attacked during World War Two compared with the rest of the country.

The footage of the Mersey and the Liverpool coastline made me desperately homesick, despite the fact Liverpool isn't my hometown. I think this was largely because I could see skies that weren't bleached by excessive grime and air that wasn't saturated with a million fast food fumes. Of course, I know the reality is far from the perception. But at least I can control the perception.

16 May, 2006

Insert title II

I'm going to have to revise my list of the worst-named Morrissey songs, as I have just heard Oh Well, I'll Never Learn and have found it to be rather beautiful. Such are the perils of compiling inventories of things you secretly know nothing about. Although I should point out I have heard each and every one of the other titles on the list. Oh yes.

As regards a replacement, where to begin? So many choices (as opposed to illustrations, or indeed blank pages). I'll probably have to go for The Harsh Truth Of The Camera Eye, which I can confidently state is crap in both name and substance:

This photographer,
he must have really had it in for yer.

I ask you.

15 May, 2006

Parliament Hill

One of the reasons I chose to live so far out of the centre of London was to give myself a sense of space. I really wanted to try and avoid settling somewhere that felt closed in, be it by other houses, offices, tower blocks or just the sensation of suffocation that I know the heart of the capital can evoke.

Above all I wanted to be somewhere that allowed me to see the sky, to allow me a feeling of room if not immediately around me then most certainly way above me. I've been lucky enough to find it, I think, though living in London is all about the grisly art of compromise and what I've gained in choosing the outer suburbs I've lost in journey time into work and, more specifically, a flat that is high up - good - but not high enough to escape the extractor fans of the Chinese restaurant below - bad - nor, of course, the occasional outbursts of sound from my neighbours under the floor - even worse, but thankfully not as regular as I first feared.

I wanted to go somewhere this weekend which enhanced that feeling of space and which gave me a taste of the closest to fresh air which a sprawling metropolis can allow. So I headed for Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath, a place I have visited twice before in my life, once on a family outing a hundred or so years ago, again about ten years ago when I came to stay with my now elusive friend who shares a name with my boss.

From memory I knew it would make for a fantastic trip, but the reality proved somewhat less than agreeable. I got lost the minute I stepped onto Hampstead Heath, thanks in no small part to the absence of any signs or maps anywhere. I then contrived to walk twice as far as I needed to, ending up leaving the Heath way off target and having to double back in shame, discovering with stoical inevitably that the hill had only been about five minutes away all along.

The disappointment didn't stop there. Once I'd made it up, what is ordinarily a breathtaking view looking south right across the London skyline was almost completely obscured by a foul smog which hung, petulantly and persuasively, right across the horizon. I could make out the Telecom Tower, the dome of St Paul's and a couple of station terminals, but that was about it. I turned away, disheartened - to find myself staring straight into crumpled olive face of Bill Oddie. As if things couldn't get any worse.

Still, I felt reasonably invigorated for having tramped around the Heath regardless, and enjoyed mooching about Hampstead village afterwards, finding George Orwell's old house and the former residence of John Keats, tucked away in what could easily have passed as a country lane. It's these bits of London that I most like, i.e. the bits that don't look like London.

I'll go back to Parliament Hill on a sunny, clear day and make the most of what I know is an exceptional panorama down across the crowded, hemmed-in hub of the capital. And the rest of the Heath isn't that bad either, so long as you know where you're going, don't mind a blast of fresh air to clear out the soot of a hundred Underground journeys, and avoid bumping into C-list celebrities. And avoid bumping into Gobbler's Gulch. But then you knew that.

14 May, 2006

False start

I was late in yesterday evening thanks to delays on the Underground, meaning I missed the first two minutes of Doctor Who. And this was even after the programme had been shunted back in the schedules thanks to the FA Cup final. Even so, as soon as I saw the episode had already started, that was it. I had to switch off. I couldn't watch any more. Despite the opening titles having barely died away, the thought of me staying tuned and not having seen the whole thing was too much to bear. So I ended up missing not just the first 120 seconds but the full 45 minutes. And will have to wait until the repeat on BBC3 tonight to make amends.

You might think such behaviour pointless. But would you start reading a book two pages in? Begin listening to a favourite song by skipping a couple of verses? Dip into a newspaper column a couple of paragraphs from the beginning? These are experiences which demand to be enjoyed in full from the top, and cannot hope to do themselves justice if skimmed of their opening gambit. That's what openings are for, dammit!

So just like when Woody Allen in the film Annie Hall refused to go into the cinema once he'd discovered the screening has already started, I shunned 43 minutes of Doctor Who for something more boring instead. I just can't bear to have not been with a TV programme from the off. Stuff I've videoed invariably features a great deal of unconnected, unrelated airtime hailing from the minutes leading up to a specific show's transmission, simply because I couldn't handle having to watch something I'd taped with the start missing. Indeed, there's only one such instance in my collection, and that's the first episode of The Day Today, which is absent of the first 60 seconds due to me frantically trying to find a tape to record what I could already sense was going to be fantastic TV.

If only half the Underground network hadn't been shut down for engineering work, and if only the carriage doors hadn't stayed closed at Golders Green station thereby infuriating several passengers (all of whom, inevitably, were old women) creating a scene and hence a fracas and hence even more of a delay, I'd have been back in time to see the whole episode of Doctor Who and none of this blog entry would have existed. As it was I suddenly had a gap in the evening, neatly coinciding with a sudden outburst of heavy rain, which I was subsequently able to watch and savour and enjoy in a manner not possible had my attention been on a children's science fiction show.

Such is life. If Mussolini ran this country, it never would have happened. But as well as having trains that ran on time, we'd also have institutionalised facsism. Which, curiously enough, appears to be the theme of tonight's Doctor Who...

13 May, 2006

All change

Here's how my local Underground station looked the day it opened:

That was in 1923. The front edifice remains intact to this day, looking very impressive and noble amidst all the subsequently-added and efficiently-dirty adjoining shops and businesses. What has changed utterly, however, is this:

That's actual countryside with actual fields and trees, when this used to be the end of the line and indeed the end of habitation as far as London was concerned. Not one scrap of that view remains today. I couldn't get a comparison shot even if I tried; there's a car wash, "private men's club" and insurance firm in the way. Who said progress was necessarily a good thing?

Ah. It was me.

12 May, 2006

Splashing out

As the drought situation gets more serious, everyone across the Southeast of England is now being encouraged to sign-up to a kind of social contract or code to limit our water consumption. It's a fairly tame document, truth be told, chiefly because everything it lists is just common sense. However given the fact I'm continuing to see people flouting the hosepipe ban on an almost daily basis, maybe a gesture as mundane and functional as this will do the trick.

Something needs to happen, that's for sure; there are stupidly sinister mutterings doing the rounds about shipping water down from the north where it's supposed to be "all over the place", or building one huge pipe to siphon it all out of the Lake District when nobody is looking. I know, it's facile and far-fetched, but said with just enough menace to hint at real feelings of enmity building up inside the capital.

London is a terribly insular place, ostensibly plural and diverse, in reality fiercely territorial and snobbish. If the city hasn't got enough H20, so the argument goes, it's not because of the weather, it's because the rest of the country is being too greedy. The steady drip drip drip of this kind of talk is really doing no good at all, but it will go on, not least because there's precious else to flow in its place. Let alone water.

11 May, 2006

Lunar ticks

There's a full moon on Saturday, but looking out of my window I can see it's as good as there already. In fact I gathered as much last night, when the moon was looking in my window at me as I was in bed, shining directly onto my pillow with a luminosity that was, well, slightly unsettling.

I guess this was because the moon doesn't usually call attention to itself with such direct and sustained potency. Indeed, it doesn't usually call attention to itself at all. When was the last time you looked up into the sky deliberately to find the moon? In fact, when was the last time you looked up into the sky at all?

Symptomatic of the way we all live our lives with our heads to the ground, or buried in a computer screen, anything that lives up in the sky only finds a place in our consciousness when it interacts with the earth. Hence the psychological, as well as the physical, resonance of a plane crash, a chimney being knocked down, a tree being upended, and the moon on your pillow.

It was also unsettling because I don't think it's ever really happened before, in that until now I've never lived anywhere that allowed the moon to pass in such an arc as to illuminate the top half of my bed. In Liverpool I lived in a flat where the moon shone directly into the living room, and late at night, usually just before going to bed, I'd often stare at it for a minute or so, distracted by its eerily visible craters and mountains. It's the same moon staring down at me right this second, of course, but nonetheless it feels different, more otherwordly, more out of place, as if an uninvited guest peeking in at the window of a indifferent, exclusive soiree.

It's a truism that it never really gets dark in a city. It'd take a power cut to give London the kind of nighttime I associate with my childhood, where all the stars were visible (an exaggeration, naturally, but I'm fairly sure there was always something up there other than cloud and emptiness).

I remember a localised power failure in Liverpool last year, specific to the district of Allerton, and specific to where I was heading after work: Tesco. As soon as the sun had set, the stars were rendered more crisp and clear than I'd seen them for years - despite all the lights still being on inside Tesco, as if the store was served by its own power station deep underground.

The moon, however, is yesterday's news. They stopped the moon landings because everyone at NASA got bored and nobody was watching them on TV anymore.

I lay in my bed and dreamed I walked
On the sea of Tranquility;
I knew that someday soon we'd all sail to the moon
on the high tide of technology.
But the dreams had all be taken
And the window seats taken too
And now 2001 has come and gone
What am I supposed to do?

- Billy Bragg

10 May, 2006

Letters, prey?

Every month a document is circulated around my place of work detailing all the feedback received from members of the public via the company website. As you'd expect, it makes for both enlightening and enervating reading.

April's gems included one person accusing my employer of being obsessed with the "stupid face" of David Beckham, another moaning about the lack of coverage ceded to the Boat Race, and a third appealing for syndicated reports, over which my employer has no control, to no longer contain any references to kilometres and instead express everything in miles. Or rather, in their words, "WE ARE NOT IN KILOMETERS IN THIS COUNTRY - we are MILES!!!"

Slightly more obtuse was a complaint about a lot of Greek propoganda about Macedonia, a protest about the absence of a white sheep emoticon, and two separate pleas concerning the way a picture of the Queen was making the writer feel sick.

These comments were all anonymous, of course. However I fail to see the point in using this kind of feedback as a measure of your organisation's popularity (or lack of). The only people who respond to this kind of invitation to leave comments will be those who have a point to make or a score to settle. If somebody is content with the service they are getting they will never bother to write and say so. If somebody is really really unhappy, though, or exceptionally ecstatic, that's when you'll get the feedback. Hence it is always skewed towards the extreme. Hence it makes for a poor bellwether of how your organisation is performing. And hence it tends to leave you, the employee, with less rather than more clarity about what is right and what is wrong.

Plus a mental picture of someone throwing up over a picture of Her Majesty.

09 May, 2006

Down time

If ever your computer was trying to tell you something...

08 May, 2006

Oraface oratory

Before I moved to London, whenever I visited the city I would always find bits of the place got up my nose. Literally.

I'd find them emerging out of my nostrils, and indeed from my ears, for at least 48 hours following my return home. For the urban myth is true: your snot does change colour when you go to London, turning from, well, a reassuring ochre to a crappy brown or depressing black.

Whenever this happened I always thanked my good fortune to not be a permanent resident of the metropolis, given this would surely mean your nose constantly ran soot and you'd greet each new dawn by coughing up a bucket of phlegm.

When I found I had no choice but to move to London, however, I compounded my insanitary insecurities by opting to live on the Northern Line, aka the Misery Line, aka the capital's chimney. "You use the Northern Line?" mused my boss the other day. "That's the dirtiest, smelliest one of them all," he added, as if doing me a favour.

All of this is accurate and beyond argument - but as with all new environments, both physical and mental, you find yourself and your body adjusting in the end. I don't have black snot anymore. I don't cough up gallons of bile as soon as I wake up. I don't think I arrive in work stinking of soot. But I'm well aware of how my own appearance and general wellbeing has deteriorated since I moved here, and how the difference between walking to work through a leafy pleasant suburb and spending half an hour several metres underground shakes up your outlook on life.

If I left London now I'm sure I'd spent several weeks spluttering and choking on its grisly residue. As long as I remain here, though, I know I won't. Which begs the question, where is all of that bile presently residing? How is it hiding itself from view? It seems to me there's a whiff of conspiracy in the air. Or at least I think there is. My nose is too clogged up to really tell.

07 May, 2006

Insert title

By way of a sequel, ten of the most excruciatingly-named Morrissey songs:

1) King Leer
Deserving of extra special mention for its appalling opening verse:
Your boyfriend he
Went down on one knee
Well could it be
He's only got one knee?

2) Lucky Lisp
Songs about speech impediments probably warrant somewhat more subtle titles.

3) Ouija Board, Ouija Board
So bad he named it twice.

4) Roy's Keen
Later released on an EP with Ryan's Gig and Nicky's Butt.

5) Now I Am A Was
This doesn't even make sense.

6) We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful
I'm sure they feel the same, Moz.

7) You're The One For Me, Fatty
Unbelievably released as a follow-up single to no 6).

8) The National Front Disco
c.f. Bengali In Platforms, Asian Rut, This Is Not Your Country,...

9) Let The Right One Slip In

10) Oh Well, I'll Never Learn
You said it, Steven.

06 May, 2006

Over and...

The Cabinet reshuffle is the most momentous political event to hit the country since, well, the last one. Which itself says a lot. There continues to be at least one explosive revelation, indiscreet misdemeanour or unforeseen upset bubbling up in Westminster every week, as has been the case more or less since Christmas. The reshuffle, however, tops them all by dint of being the most extreme and malicious one of its kind for at least a generation.

Thatcher certainly never attempted a culling on this scale, preferring to stage manage a sequence of smaller clear-outs during the first half of her reign and a hapless procession of panic measures during the second half. John Major reshuffled almost every month, but that was only ever to replace the latest scandal-hit Tory minister. No, you have to go back to Harold MacMillan's so-called 'Night Of The Long Knives' in 1962 to find a scything of political friends and foes of anywhere near equal stature and bad blood. Though given he himself had resigned within fifteen months, fat lot of good it did.

Perhaps the most illuminating of Blair's actions was kicking Jack Straw out of the Foreign Office and relegating him to the post of Leader of the House of Commons - all the more so given this was precisely the same treatment meted out to Straw's predecessor, Robin Cook. Cook was removed in 2001 because he was a known critic of a military attack on Iraq, and given how Blair had secretly already signed up to just such an action, accordingly his Foreign Secretary had to go. Fast forward to 2006, and Jack Straw, who has been going around putting on the record his rejection of any kind of military attack on Iran, is summarily dispatched in precisely the same manner. And for precisely the same reasons? Time will tell, though whether Blair's still in charge to play Commander-in-Chief the next time we're taken to war remains to be seen.

It also remains in the hands of his MPs, who yet again are supposed to be cooking up a means to force Blair to fall on his sword. The bulk of the evidence suggests Labour's dismal performance in Thursday's elections stemmed not so much from local issues but its national standing and how a perception of incompetence (not something that could be laid at Blair's door for a long time during his period in office, no matter how much you disliked the man) is now rampant in the popular consciousness.

The reshuffle will do nothing to disabuse people of such a perception, given it has promoted more dull figures to the Cabinet, sacked a few decent ones (i.e. the ones who used to speak their minds), and implied that while John Prescott is not qualified to run a specific department anymore, he is simultaneously qualified enough to keep his Deputy Prime Minister title and therefore the right to run the country whenever Blair's on another of his holidays.

The whole thing reeks of multiple logics refusing to resolve into one clear and articulate way forward. What with more Labour MPs now being more outspoken than ever before, we're in a situation akin to the mid-1990s once again, with a party of government that is in office but not in power. Meanwhile the Tories are able to parade around mouthing environmental platitudes and notching up councils by default, and the Liberal Democrats seem to have vanished under the radar.

The entire Labour machinery of power is juddering to a halt, which could mean the next few years will be wasted ones (again, like the mid 90s) where the only legislation that gets passed is the least worst of its kind. Alternatively the reshuffle could be extended to include the only two members of the Cabinet still in the same jobs as the ones they had in 1997. At least that would mean a Prime Minister who didn't make out he had God on his side.

Though precisely which God is another matter.

05 May, 2006

Halfway house

This blog is now precisely six months old. The temptation to look back is irresistible, but also instructive.

I can see how this site has changed and evolved far away from my initial plan of campaign, and how the tone and personality has similarly shifted - in both counts, perhaps not for the better. In retrospect the blog started out with a lightness of touch and healthy cynicism that was born of difficult times and a stoical outlook. Updates ranged across a purposefully broad canvas. A lot of them didn't include mentions of myself or my own life at all. I placed a strong emphasis on links to other places and other people's work. I even used entries to plug particular books, poems and pieces of music.

All that now seems desperately long ago. Since I moved to London these entries have become fiercely personal and relentlessly introspective. Many of them, I see now, are also despairingly gloomy. I have always tried to write about aspects of life that are occupying my thoughts, but previously these would lead into discussions about other people, places, ideas and objects. Now they invariably lead back to my own predicament, and this must make for somewhat repetitive and lumpen reading.

It's difficult to know what to do about this. If I don't feel like using this space to record thoughts on, say, life's rich pageant or the wonders of the arts, why should I force myself to do otherwise and end up producing something that is blatantly contrived and transparently false?

Yet why am I even writing this blog if not to be read? Of those who do look in from time to time, I can probably predict which kind of entry you prefer to peruse, and also how you undoubtedly react when you stumble upon another update beginning "I did" or "I wonder" or, worse of all, "I hate". Alternatively I'm not asking for this stuff to be read (no, only desperately wishing) or, heavens above, commented upon. It's not a syndicated column, it's not paying the bills, it's not my day job, not even my main hobby.

What it is, I can state quite categorically, is 26 weeks worth of history captured (hopefully) for all time, one that began with a shameless reference to an old Doctor Who adventure and which is passing its half year birthday on the night before the transmission of another of the titular time-traveller's present ones. Much has happened. I've changed jobs and homes, I've discovered I miss many more things than I thought, I've realised I take just as many things for granted, and I'm dying to see a decent spot of rain.

Time is about progress, and progress is by extension a positive quality. If moving forwards were only about notching up more grey hairs, I'd be tempted to pack it in now. Instead there's the compulsion to keep going, if only to find out where you're going to end up. Perhaps, come 5th November, I might have a clue. You never know, I might have already got there.

04 May, 2006

Cross talk

I didn't vote today, not because I didn't want to, but because I wasn't able to.

The first day I'd spent living in London turned out to be last day for submissions to be added to the electoral roll - something I didn't discover until a week or so later when a poster conveniently advertised the fact. As such I missed out, and as such this was the first election I have not taken part in since I became eligible to vote.

I was really quite cut up about this. Not that my particular vote, in this vast ocean of blue that is Barnet, would have had any impact upon the constitution of the council. No, it was, as ever, the principle of the thing, and the sense of opting out - be it through accident or design - of the great democratic process.

Year upon year I have heckled apathetic friends and colleagues along the lines of how, if they didn't vote, they had forfeited the right to express any kind of opinion whatsoever about aspects of their everyday lives, be it the state of the roads, the level of council tax, the day when the binmen came round, the colour of the bins that were being emptied, anything. Now I find myself in precisely the same position, and it's like I've been neutered. I almost feel guilty about offering any kind of comment about the elections, even as an observer.

More painful is the way 2006 now marks the end of an uninterrupted run of voting which began way back in 1994, a couple of months after my 18th birthday, when me and a couple of friends went down to the local polling station after school (how weird does that sound?) to play our very first part in the centuries-old tradition of participatory politics.

It seemed an acutely sobering yet also strangely comical business. Here we were, straight out of the common room and into the voting booth, as potent an illustration as you can get of being caught between the worlds of youth and adulthood, straddling that all-too notional divide of innocence and experience, wielding the pencil stub on a ballot paper with the same hands that an hour or so earlier had wielded a biro in an exercise book. I remember leaving the polling station - a local junior school, as they always are - feeling both proud but also disappointed at how that was all there was to it. No instant sense of cause and effect. No immediate dispensation of justice. Just another statistic to be added to a column and tallied up to amount to...well, nothing in this case, and my vote did nothing to change the status quo.

Which has, indeed, always been the case. Or so it feels. I took great pleasure in using a postal vote in 1997 so I could help kick the Tories out of my home town, but then as it turned out everyone seemed to have done the same thing and the novelty, such as it was, evaporated. But aside from that I always voted in Liverpool, which I guess did make me out to be something of a rarity and a unique case, especially during the time I was living in the constituency with the lowest turnout in the whole country.

As a useful illustration of this, I once encountered a bit of good old-fashioned rival canvassing down the road from where I used to live, wherein the sitting Labour councillor was holding forth a mere few metres from a Socialist Labour candidate. Naturally nobody was taking a blind bit of notice, and quite rightly, because both practitioners were far too busy trying to shout each other down than articulate anything of note to the passing voter. Fittingly neither of them won the seat.

There was one time I went to vote in a local election and I couldn't find the front door of the polling station. Another time the electoral officer couldn't find my name on their list of registered voters but let me "have a go" regardless. I love all of this. I love the antiquated nature of having to go along to an unlikely building and hand in your card to some unlikely person who ticks your name off a very long printed out list and who hands you a piece of paper which you then have to take over to a primitive, hastily-constructed freestanding booth with a bit of tatty curtain partitioning your from your neighbour, and then put a big, simple cross against the name of your choice.

I love the fact you can't do it online. I love the fact you can't do it by phone. I love the sense of accomplishment all the business of going to the polling station and placing your cross on the paper invokes and instils. Which is why I hate the fact I haven't been able to do it this year.

Those council bastards. How dare they deny me the right to vote! I'd do something about it, except I can't, because I'm not able to vote. Funny that.

03 May, 2006

Sweet dreams

There are two kinds of tiredness: decent, and thankless.

The former is born of constructive labour and productive graft, whereby you've given your all, both physically and mentally, to the extent that you've no unfinished business rattling around your brain to prevent you from falling asleep the moment you rest your head on a pillow.

The latter, however, is born of fruitless and frustrating tasks that sap your energy through tedium and joylessness rather than a sense of accomplishment. You feel drained, but on somebody else's terms; a third party has been responsible for leaving you wasted and withered, and you've given your all but got nothing in return. As a result you're as weary as hell, but can't enjoy the sleep of the just. Indeed, rarely do do you enjoy any sleep at all, waking in the morning feeling just as dazed and wretched as you did the night before.

It's been a long time since I enjoyed the first; less than 24 hours since I last embarked on the second. London militates against deep and peaceful sleep, that's no secret; but on top of that has come a profound unfulfilment with the present course of my life and the nature of my work: supremely transitory, frustratingly insecure, eternally beyond my control. Each night I fall asleep in spite of, not because of, what I've done during the day, and as a consequence I feel like I've aged 10 years. Which is roughly the same length of time I also feel like I need by way of sleep.

So good night. At least, I hope it is.

02 May, 2006

Pest watch

A giant bee flew into my carriage on the Underground this morning. There was, as you'd expect, repressed uproar. Old women shifted uneasily. Young businessmen narrowed their eyes and began to sweat silently. A couple pursed their lips and attempted to stare straight ahead. A mother turned a page of her newspaper. Her child, meanwhile, screamed and ran about.

As for me, I got out at the very next stop and moved down a carriage. I wasn't going to have my journey terrorised by such a lumbering, petulant pest. I wasn't too keen on the bee either.

If ever you wanted a sign that summer had almost arrived, here it was. The bee was one of those enormously fat, stupidly angry types, the size of a small potato, utterly disorientated at having arrived in an environment from which it could detect no obvious exit, but resolutely set on making everyone's life a misery by zooming in the least predictable directions all the same. It could even have been a hornet - the nastiest, most uncompromising, least sympathetic of all the aero-insect brood.

The dopey creature had only got into the carriage because the windows were open. But the irony was it wasn't actually that warm inside. First thing in the morning, most Underground trains have yet to acquire any trace of the stuffy, sweaty, suffocating fug they possess come early evening. If the windows had stayed shut, the bee would never have arrived and the ensuing kerfuffle would never have, well, ensued. I trust such instances of winged invasion are not common. Given the temperature in London is supposed to hit the mid-20s by the end of the week, I fear I am about to find out.

01 May, 2006

Mayday, mayday

Nine years ago today I woke up to the news that it was destined to be one of the warmest days of the year so far and that this meant turnout was likely to be even higher than expected.

Three weeks away from the start of my final university exams I should have spent my time compiling more sets of revision notes and re-readind old essays. Instead I pored over The Guardian's verdict of the past six weeks of campainging, finalised my own lists of target seats and marginals which I was intending to have to hand throughout the ensuing 24 hours, spent an inordinate amount of time tuned to Radio Five Live (the only place to get rolling news in these strictly analogue times) and, begrudingly, had to leave the house to go to a boring lecture in the afternoon about Renaissance love poetry.

A canvasser called round early evening who got terribly confused by the fact we were all students and had already voted, not here but in our respective home towns, and that meant no, we couldn't vote again even though we'd all received polling cards for the local constituency. At 9.30pm BBC1 showed, by way of a prelude, the hustings-tinged episode of Blackadder The Third ("A hen, in her late forties"). Then just before 10pm the drums rolled, thunderous music played, and David Dimbleby's face swum into view predicting a historic night and, on the chimes of Big Ben, a landslide majority.

Maps and papers to hand, a stack of teabags waiting in the kitchen, my housemate and his girlfriend for company, I settled down for what I sincerely and unashamedly expected to be the beginning of a brilliant, untainted and thoroughly optimistic new dawn in the history of my country.