31 August, 2006

Shut eye

I'm suffering another bout of chronic weariness. No matter how much sleep I get I always seem to feel tired. I'd put it down to the changing weather and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) were it not the case that I seem to experence these symptoms regardless of season or climate and have done for years and years.

There simply aren't enough hours in the day to take for granted. Disposable time is what helps you survive - I've learnt that now - and not a desire to fill up every minute of the day with some kind of specific activity.

I remember an old English teacher of mine once saying how much she enjoyed going to concerts as it meant she wasn't spending her free time surrounded by the tools she had to wield during her working day, i.e. words. She was in a text-free environment.

Given how much of my life is governed by it, I could do with spending a bit more time in a time-free environment.

30 August, 2006

Leg it

There was an incident on the Underground this evening involving a group of youths, a businessman and an older bloke in a suit who ended up playing the role of honest broker and peacemaker.

It happened just as the train had pulled into Brent Cross and the doors had opened. Because of the inordinate number of bodies crammed into the carriage it was impossible to see precisely what happened, but it looked like the youths charged at the businessman, presumably in an attempt to relieve him of some of his expensive belongings, but got waylaid by the aforementioned older bloke and the sheer amount of people standing in the way.

I say presumably, but I can't think what other reason they would have for charging at the man, other than purely for the sake of it, which may have been true were we all in a playground and not an Underground carriage bristling with travellers festooned with all sorts of very obvious pricey accessories such as phones and MP3 players. Why folk have to make such a habit of displaying their costly wares is a mystery to me, rendering them as it does a walking invitation for pickpockets.

Anyway the youths ended up tripping over themselves, which was quite amusing, and then being made to stand in a group on the platform while the victim, the honest broker, and a few other people who joined in for the excitement, carried out some kind of inquisition. The behaviour of everyone else left on the train was absolutely shameless: desperately peering out to see what was going on, necks craned, eyes popping, tongues wagging.

Anything out of the ordinary, anything exhibiting the merest whim of scandal or controversy, anything involving somebody being apparently wronged by somebody else, and you can guarantee you'll have a train full of commuters agog. After all, it's why so many of them read the Daily Mail.

28 August, 2006

Positive charge

By way of a challenge, and as a counterbalance to all the moaning I've done on here about my time as a student, I've forced myself to come up with a list of ten good things about my first year at university.

1) It made me a vegetarian.

2) It taught me how to use a laundrette. This would prove vital over the ensuing (count 'em) nine years.

3) It warned me off becoming a member of a political party. The hair-raising fanaticism of the Socialist Workers was truly eye-opening.

4) Living on the edge of Sefton Park and going walking there in the middle of a snowstorm.

5) That gigantic bath in the communal bathroom on my floor in my hall of residence, of which I have already written at length.

6) Seeing some live bands, including Gene, The Boo Radleys and REM, none of whom I'd pay money to see now.

7) Getting the chance to have satellite TV in my bedroom.

8) Meeting a small handful of kind, interesting people, few of whom I was able to stay in touch with beyond my first year, and only one of whom I am still in contact with today.

9) Getting to see some ace films at Liverpool's various cinemas.

10) Learning to live away from my hometown for the first time. Albeit not particularly successfully.

27 August, 2006

Five years

Two video clips neatly show the kind of profound change received opinion in the US appears to have undergone in the last half decade.

One is from David Letterman's first show back on air in September 2001 after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

The second is from Letterman's recent encounter with the execrable Bill O'Reilly off Fox News.

Both make for highly illuminating viewing.

26 August, 2006

Around London IV

It being the bank holiday weekend, replete with one extra day to play with, there was no excuse for me not to complete another leg of my circumnavigation.

So I have, spending today walking clockwise from Falconwood to Crystal Palace, adding almost another dozen miles to the tally and in the process passing the halfway mark. This wasn't so significant, however, as the fact the weather was mercifully kind: cool, overcast, fresh and occasionally rainy.

Despite it only being a few weeks since the heatwave ended, it was somehow reassuring to see the grass in the various parks and town squares that I walked through already recovering its colour and vibrancy, while everywhere there was signs of autumn: horse chestnuts, leaves turning brown, wild blackberries and raspberries, a softer light in the sky.

Not that there weren't some grim and depressing stretches of the route; there always are. But one of the real joys of this entire venture has been the way the wasteground and graffiti and cascades of litter lurking round one corner are more often than not gone when you go round the next; and what is a resoundingly desolate part of London this half hour will always give way to something else, something different, half an hour later.

Day 4: Falconwood - Crystal Palace
Miles Added: 11.75
Total Miles Completed: 42.25
Total Miles Outstanding: 35.75

25 August, 2006

Electronic watchamacallit

It's always the way that the things which conspire to frustrate you in life swing from one extreme of magnitude to the other.

Today was a bit of a nightmare at work after I spilled some tea on my computer and, despite mopping most of it up, ended up with a right cursor key that no longer worked. Given the fact I only received this computer a couple of months ago it was all rather embarrassing, not to say deeply irritating at the way the malfunction impeded my normal tasks and kept sending my machine haywire.

What's doubly frustrating, of course, is the fact you can get so angry about being so frustrated by such a remarkably inconsequential and trivial thing as a computer key in the first place. It's a sobering reminder of how in the thrall you are to otherwise inanimate bits of plastic, metal and circuitry, and how they have the potential to render your life a torment despite existing only to do what you tell them to do.

I can only hope any remaining tea sloshing around inside the machine dries out over the bank holiday weekend. And I can only hope the weather outside doesn't do the same.

24 August, 2006

Holden Caulfield

"If you had a million years to do it, you couldn't rub out even half the 'Fuck you' signs in the world."

I've just finished reading The Catcher In The Rye for the very first time, and have no hesitation in declaring it to be one of the ten best books ever written.

I rue the fact it's taken me so long to get round to actually discovering it. I can't believe I've waited until the age of 30 to read something that would have made such an impression on me were I 16, the age of the book's narrator, hero, subject and everyman.

Still, it's moved me to tears and caught my breath and made me laugh even now, so either it has a timeless quality applicable to people of all ages, or I've still got too many blatant adolescent traits rattling around inside me for my own good.

So many universal truths are put into the mouth of Holden over what is, in essence, a fairly slim volume focusing on a very slim period of time. But what truths they turn out to be:

- "Anyway, I'm sort of glad they've got the atomic bomb invented. If there's ever another war I'm going to sit right the hell on top of it. I'll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will."

- "I thought what I'd do was, I'd pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn't have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody."

- "Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell."

- "That's something that annoys the hell out of me; I mean, if somebody says the coffee's all ready and it isn't."

- "But what I mean is, lots of time you don't know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn't interest you most."

And so on.

Holden is such a plausible character it's almost painful to believe in him. His relationships with his few friends, his parents, in particular his younger sister, are beautifully drawn and desperately poignant.

But above all it was writer JD Salinger's ability to imbue even the most trivial of instances and common of occurances with such poetic beauty and emotional resonance which so affected me. Running across a snow-bound road; standing in a rainstorm; watching people from a hotel window; walking through a park at night; travelling on a train - he elevates all these experiences into grand epihanies and personal revelations.

It's a masterful book with a masterful message, and if you've never read it, I urge you to do so as soon as is practically possible.

22 August, 2006

Fringe benefits II

As I was saying...

"We were supposed to go to an exhibition together but when it got down to it I wasn't interested, didn't have enough energy or money and wanted to escape. Which I did, by going up Calton Hill again, where my newspaper blew away so I had to spend more money on a replacement."
- 17/08/1994

My time in Edinburgh in August 1994 became witness, towards its end, to the resolution of an issue which had been assailing me for ages.

For the entire previous 12 months I'd been trying to figure out the nature of my feelings for someone in the 6th form who'd become a very close friend, who was in a number of my classes and who was now on this trip to Edinburgh.

The details are, I have to admit, somewhat nauseating in their adolescent angst-filled complexion. We'd both conceded that we felt something for each other, but always to third parties. Well, that's slightly misleading, because she'd intimated as much to me one evening backstage at a school concert, but I'd been too stubborn and blinkered to respond.

We used to flirt outrageously, and it must have been pretty clear to anybody else with even the smallest involvement in our respective lives that we fancied each other, but nobody ever tried to set us up or do the decent thing and bring into reality what seemed, at most, to only ever be a safely confined fantasy. I still wonder why this is.

Anyway, in August 1994, in Edinburgh, time was running out. We'd both be going our separate ways in a month or so. She wasn't seeing anybody else - she hadn't for ages and ages, almost as if she had purposefully crafted an opportunity that was there for my taking.

We were now, in theory, around and in each other's company, 24 hours a day for almost two weeks. We were 200 miles from our hometown. What more excuse, dammit, did I need?!

"On the way back from the Assembly Room me and Kate had another pathetic childish argument since she was limping from cramp and I wanted to get home as soon as possible. We ended up not talking at all on the long road back to halls, at one point walking on opposite sides of the street. But as soon as I got to my room I realised how stupid and damaging the whole thing was and went to apologise, as she did to me. Apologise, that is."
- 18/08/1994

Oh, the humility. With a cruel and belligerent hindsight which kicked in precisely 60 seconds after I left her room, I knew that this particular occasion, this precise moment, on the night of Thursday 18th August, following the day on which we received our A level results, should have been the point at which everything should have come good. It was obvious. It was nigh-on pre-ordained. It was all too good to be true.

So why did I walk away, just like I'd done so many other times? Why did I end up back in my own room, yet again, all alone? Why did I know, even then, that I'd blown it as on so many occasions, but this time for good?

I went and lay on my bed and cried - at the hopelessness of it all, of the emotion of the day and the whole last few weeks, of the sheer fatigue at spending the entire summer in unfamiliar places and contemplating unknown futures.

And at the fact that she should have been the person I was sharing a room with, not that other clumsy oaf.

In later years several people told me they were bemused as to why the two of us never got together. I am still bemused. For a while, after leaving school, I still saw her from time to time, visiting her in Leeds where she was at university and, sporadically, back in our hometown.

In February 2001 I even decided to use the pretence of an ordinary visit to set the record straight and pour my heart out to her, to what end I've no idea* given she was in a long-term relationship at the time and very patently had no interest in me whatsoever.

That turned out to be the last time I saw her. Or hear from her. She remains, for me, that forever elusive, forever self-denying, soulmate who in another world I would have ended up spending the rest of my life with.

Sadly, it was, and still is, a different world.

"Back home talking to others on the phone reminded me of how time has passed, how this summer has vanished through the power of new experiences and yet been an emotional and physical drain. And how there's very little time left with things as they are. And how much time remains for things to come. Not sure which one to praise, and which one to pity."
- 21/08/1994

*A lie. I knew full well what I wanted the end to be.

21 August, 2006

Fringe benefits

Heaven knows quite why I ended up being asked to take part in a play at the Edinburgh Festival, or for that matter how, because at this moment I can't remember the circumstances of either.

"After a sleep filled with nightmarish dreams of yet again being trapped in a smoke-filled room choking to death, I dragged myself out of bed and began to pack my bags."
- 10/08/1994

I wouldn't have said yes were it not for the fact three of my closest friends were going, and I knew a few of the others, and those who'd made the trip before testified to how it was well worth the time (a month's rehearsals followed by 12 days away) and the effort (ultra-concentrated line-learning, ultra-pointless warm-up exercises, ultra-intense expectations).

Following directly on from my trip around Europe, it meant virtually my entire summer was eaten up doing stuff, which was itself a novelty, and which undoubtedly paid dividends in keeping my mind off the looming shadow of university in September.

But having done next to no acting at school short of helping out mates with their A level drama exams I felt, all the while, not just a shameless novice but also a complete fraud. I was really a stranger in a foreign country in which I couldn't recognise or comprehend anything, receiving very little help in trying to understand both the customs and the language.

Being cast in the role of a woman didn't much help either. But then this was the point of the play, it turned out, with all the female parts being filled with males and vice versa. An act of breathtaking pretension, sure, and one I'm quite sure 95% of the people who actually saw the thing being performed could make no sense of whatsoever.

However this was but one of the many whims and fancies of the director of the play, a woman who'd once taught drama at my school before leaving in mysterious circumstances to try and launch her own theatre company, of which this was to be the inaugural production.

Another all-too-tangible whim and fancy was the involvement of a bloke who she used to go out with, ostensibly a theatre 'professional' but in reality a pompous buffoon, present in the cast simply because of his 'experience' but who conspired to fall right out of favour with the director and hence make everyone's life a misery.

Especially mine, as I was having to share a room with him in Edinburgh, a stupid twist of fate given he was the person I least liked and knew least about in the whole cast. It could, it should, have been so different.

"Being introduced to a city at night is at the same time both an amazing and disconcerting experience. Especially if you end up in a pub surrounded by drink and smoke which you've no idea where it is or how to get back from."
- 10/08/1994

Edinburgh itself proved to be a revelation.

The city was, and is, a beautiful one, forever etched in my memory for having so much of itself open to the sky: broad streets, rolling roads, innumerable hills, empty spaces and imperial views in all direction.

Contrary to cliché I soon found it very easy to escape the hustle and frenzy of the festival, in particular by walking up to the top of Calton Hill, a place disclosed to me by my best mate David who'd been to the festival the year before and now graciously introduced me to some of the city's most beautiful nooks, crannies and hideaways.

Given the performances of our play - for the record, Blood Wedding by Federico Lorca - weren't until teatime, there was always the day to fill and initially I spent it purposefully watching as many shows as possible. But then my patience, energy and money all ran out, and for the latter part of my stay I saw very little, preferring instead to wander round the streets or rest up in the hall of residence which we were using for accommodation.

My roommate had more or less pissed off out of everyone's life, only showing up for the performances, and this suited me fine. His woefully eccentric habits - indulging in artsy physical exercises on the lawn outside every morning, strolling round our room naked, sitting on his bed staring into space, bawling swearwords out of the window - had quickly paled from the amusing to the deeply irritating.

"Because I'm on the less popular floor, I found myself, not for the first time, being left out/forgotten from the majority over what was happening. I decided not to fight the feeling and went shopping, a bit pointlessly since there was nothing I needed to buy."
- 12/08/1994

By this point, however, another issue was working itself through to a resolution. It was one that had been dogging me for the best part of a year, but the resolution which came to pass was, I realised all too quickly in retrospect, far from that which I had always desired.

To be continued

20 August, 2006

Perfect ten

20th August 1996

"There's just been the most amazing thunderstorm I think I've ever seen - more akin to a wild electrical tropical storm than the usual run of the mill brief burst of lightning that happens round here. It began while I was on the phone to David at 8.40pm with only very faint rumbles of thunder and steadily increasing sheet lightning.

"Then the rain began and all hell broke loose - thunder rolled and charged around the sky for at least the following hour with a perpetually flicking and flashing display of both sheet and forked lightning.

"The power went off twice; the rain became torrential and the power of nature was truly awesome. This was the world out of control, totally wild and primitive, with no man-made interference of possible supervision: amazing. We watched with the lights out from the landing window.

"Now, of course, the air has become wonderfully fresh, pure, light and clear after pressing down relentlessly for days. The storm has died down now, moved on east, but only since about half an hour ago. It was raging Lear-like for over 60 minutes. Once in a lifetime, I reckon."

19 August, 2006

Proposition situation

So there's this worrying new linguistic quirk that seems to have taken root at work, and unlike previous and existing instances of verbal violence, this one is proving increasingly difficult to avoid and to imitate.

So what it involves, in essence, is framing each and every sentence as if it were some kind of universal proposition following on from an unspoken preceding assumption. So in other words, that means starting everything you say with the word 'so' even though there's nothing to which the 'so' refers.

So what this in effect does is render each and every other form of opening a conversation redundant, chiefly because each and every conversation ostensibly follows on from some previous remark and hence is not an opening at all. So nothing is ever an introduction, only a continuation. So nobody can be bothered thinking of any other way of beginning a sentence.

So you see, this is a singular problem, especially when, as with this sentence, the use of the word 'so' is actually justified and correct but feels, following on from so many unjust and incorrect appearances, somehow out of place. And choosing to begin a sentence with something other than 'so', like the word 'and' for instance, now equally feels somehow contrived or gauche.

So it's yet another objectionable peculiarity spreading like a forest fire around the office, and all the worse for being the kind of thing you don't have time to stop yourself saying, coming as it does at the start rather than mid-way through a remark.

So much for the English language. So what? So that's all I really have to say on the matter, lest you think me an irritating and obsessive so-and-so. So long.

18 August, 2006

London's Chimney

"It's obscene what's going on," a passenger was berating a member of the London Underground staff the other day. "It happens every single time. Every time I want to go somewhere something is wrong. And we're never told why. We're never told when things are going to be sorted. We're just expected to go along with it. Cattle have more rights than us."

Fortunately, perhaps, this tirade was interrupted by the arrival of, yes, a train, and more importantly one on which the complaint actually wanted to travel. The member of staff in question, meanwhile, had stood stock still during this rant, occasionally agreeing, occasionally frowning, mostly looking defiantly nonplussed and wisely indifferent.

I didn't hear what, if any, response he had to the charge of travellers being treated with less rights than a herd of cows. This was a shame, because in truth this was one of the most preposterous bits of abuse I've ever heard, and it more than deserved an equally hysterical comeback, maybe along the lines of cattle knowing when to shut up, or never talking back, or having at least one demonstrable purpose in life that isn't giving somebody else a load of grief.

Besides, the decisions placed before cattle don't involve exercising the kind of rights equable with Underground passengers (the right to moan, the right to put your bags on a spare seat, the right to selfishly close the window when the temperature is close to 40 degrees, the right to hold a private conversation at the volume of an urban festival sound system).

Such a volley of pent-abuse inarticulacy could only have happened on the Northern Line, aka the Misery Line, aka the Armpit Line, aka London's Chimney.

The network has had a terrible few weeks, with things breaking down, going wrong and falling over on a daily basis. Earlier this week the entire branch line which I use to travel to and from work was closed en mass after a train came to a stop just outside Mornington Crescent station and couldn't start up again. Several times a signal failure up at Edgware has shut a slew of stations without warning and indefinitely. Points failures down at the other end of the line have an unerring capacity to make the rest of the system seize up like an arthritic joint, so a glitch somewhere near Morden can have a knock-on effect as far north as, well, my neck of the woods. Which is about as far from Morden as you can get.

As far as I can see the Northern Line has suffered these kinds of afflictions for years, and as far as I can tell it has been blessed with a rotten reputation for just as long.

Neither will be remedied as long as the entire London Underground is run on the basis of making a profit rather than delivering a service, which, unpredictably enough, is a state of affairs now enshrined in law, not by a Tory but a Labour Government. This Labour Government.

I don't know if and when a change will ever come. The moment it does, however, will be the moment they stop calling us "customers" and start using "passengers" once more.

16 August, 2006

Final score

Tomorrow is the day when A Level results come out, and I will find myself, as I do every year, thinking back to the day when I received mine and the day when, to all intents and purposes, my school life came to an end.

The occasion was about a dozen times more potent than it needed to have been, thanks to me being nowhere near the school in question and instead at least 200 miles further north. I was in Edinburgh, in the middle of appearing in a play at the Fringe Festival.

This state of affairs, while in its own way profoundly enjoyable and assuredly memorable, was far from the ideal scenario in which I'd always envisaged I would receive those tatty scraps of paper and take my leave of comprehensive education.

I'd assumed, if not hoped, it to be similar to that in which I got my GCSE results: everyone all gathered together in a rather desperate noisy throng, jostling and japing outside in the late August sun, waiting to be let into that section of the school which had been specially opened up to dispense the good and ill tidings, everyone still in a holiday mood, nobody quite taking it seriously.

Of course when it came to my A Levels, it was, as Smash Hits used to say, nothing of the sort. While almost all of my peers were indeed standing outside in the August sun waiting to be let into the school 6th form common room, me and five others were not just in another place but another country.

I'd rarely felt more alone and more helpless on that grim Thursday morning, sitting alone in my bedroom (in, oh the irony, a hall of residence), wondering how and when the news would be conveyed to me. All I or any of us knew was that the teacher in charge of the trip, indeed the director of the play in which we were appearing, would somehow turn up in our rooms at some point before lunchtime and pass on our grades. The fact this teacher was at the least somewhat eccentric, at the most downright demented, did not make matters one smidgen easier.

Our play, about which I'll write more later this month, always began late afternoon so there was literally nothing to do and nowhere to go until the results arrived.

My roommate, who I hated, and who was about ten years older than me and only on the trip because he used to go out with the teacher, was thankfully nowhere to be seen. Neither, though, were any of my mates - few in number on that trip, for the cast was made up of both present and ex-pupils, and I only really counted three of them as close friends.

So I waited. And waited. I can't remember what precisely I did while waiting - listened to the radio, probably, because I do have a vivid recollection of being tuned to the Radio One Roadshow presented by Simon Mayo and feeling faintly petrified (though the two may be connected).

Eventually I saw the figure of the teacher striding stupidly across the long wide lawn in front of the building. I guessed she was on her way to put us out of our misery. Or into it, depending on what tidings she brought. She never said much to me at the best of times, and in this instance she simply knocked on my door, handed me a bit of folded up paper, and left. She might not have said one word.

When you're at school, every time you get a set of results, be they examinations, tests, swimming badges, musical grades, gold stars, certificates or even a special mention in assembly, you're made to feel, and to a degree you secretly believe, they are the most important set of results you'll ever get.

Until the next one, of course, and the one after that.

Back then, however, clutching that hopelessly tiny scrap of paper, I suddenly wanted to be with everybody else who had made that self-same journey to the end of the line, all of the people back home who I knew would be by turn celebrating and comforting each other and feeding off the babble of collective adrenalin and excitement which I knew from experience couldn't help but surface on such occasions.

Instead I had but a few minutes of ebullience with my close friends, immediately tempered by the fact not everybody present on the trip was getting some results, and among those that were lurked a couple of people who displayed such narrow-minded indifference to getting utterly crap marks as to leave me virtually speechless.

Later in the day I tried to ring a couple of people back home (using a payphone, naturally) to catch up on their results and those of our mutual acquaintances. At the time I dutifully recorded as many sets of marks as I could in my diary, believing it to be important for posterity and to provide a suitable epilogue to the preceding chapters of life in the sixth form.

Soon enough, however, thoughts turned to other matters; to the performance of the play that evening, to the nature of our stay in Edinburgh, to the things we'd won and lost while being there, our changing and unchanging relationships, our feelings for the city itself, and our feelings for home and everyone we'd left behind and - though we weren't minded to properly acknowledge it yet - everyone we would leave behind a second time in just a few short weeks.

Although my A Level results were the end of the road as far as school was concerned, and to me felt like a far more substantive achievement than my GCSEs, within a matter of months they too had ceased to mean a thing. Just as my subsequent degree does now, and indeed every single exam I have ever sat in my entire life. Indeed, the job I am in now I didn't get because of my A Levels, or my degree, or any exam.

Such notions are all relative, but I can't still but wonder why and whether those particular results should not have added up to much more in the grand scheme of things.

They were, after all, the end product of the two best years of my life.

15 August, 2006

Turn again

I'm sure I would not be mistaken were I to surmise that whoever looks in on this blog from time to time must think I am, by and large, pretty miserable. Or rather, that I always post about largely miserable things. And in particular that I lead a largely miserablist life.

I can't counter and criticise your opinions, of course. I can't argue that you have no right to hold them. What I can and will say in my defence, however, is that writing here, as I do, late in the evening, produces a particular kind of tone and style of blog that would assuredly be different were I to write, say, early in the morning.

I invariably add to this blog when I am tired, feeling low and in that bleak, washed-out period just before sleep. This is not good.

It generates posts which are snippy, sour and po-faced. It makes me look like a grouchy old man who sees no good in anything. It catches me when I am at my weakest and most intolerant. And it cannot help but, as with the daily written diary which I keep and have kept for almost 20 years, leave an impression of someone forever out of sorts with the world.

The trouble is, there is no other time of the day when I can write here. I simply don't have the time or the means to do so. There are some entries, true, which have appeared during daylight hours and which I've been able to compose with a clearer, fresher mind on weekends or in moments of snatched respite at work. But they remain in the minority. As, I suspect, they always will.

So as a change I am going to devote tonight's post to recording two instances of positive things.

I say devote, but I have as yet wittered on solely about wholly negative matters. So enough of that, and instead rewind back to 6.15pm this evening, when an elderly Chinese lady was having difficulty carrying her shopping trolley into Leicester Square station, asked me for help, and I happily responded, lugging the great unwieldly item all the way down two flights of steps and into the booking hall. And then I went back for the shopping trolley (ho ho).

Then, a few minutes later, a befuddled American tourist approached me for advice on navigating the Northern Line. I gladly offered up my four penn'orth, neatly and succinctly explaining the way the line separates into two at Euston and that he was on the wrong branch and this is how he could rectify the problem. He seemed very grateful, as did the Chinese lady, and in both instances I went on my way in the belief I had made two people's days that bit easier.

I have nothing further to add to these tales, other than to say if one good turn deserves another, heaven knows what two good turns merits. It'd be nice, though, were it to show up in my life pretty soon.

14 August, 2006

Animal tragic

It's taken me a while to notice, but there are precisely zero domestic animals anywhere in this borough of London. Not one. There are no cats, no dogs, no - so far as I can tell - budgies or cockatoos or any other fowl perching from people's windows, nothing. No pets whatsoever.

This, for a city that supposedly boasts the most number of cat owners in Europe, seems preposterous. It's also pitiful.

In Liverpool I lived next to a house owned by an elderly couple who boasted not just a dog but two cats who would, without fail, saunter past my living room window every day, and who were two of the two cutest felines you've ever seen. Once they even tried to climb in through my window.

No such luck here. I haven't seen one cat since I moved to London. Just consider that sentence for a moment. Not one cat. And that hasn't been through choice, or through being cooped up indoors in my flat the whole time. Quite the reverse, as my ongoing treks through the city's suburbs have hopefully made clear.

It's not like I'm living in a bustling, high-rise, car-dominated area. And it's not that I'm living amongst folk who, for want of a better phrase, don't look like pet-lovers. So how come I haven't seen any cats mooching around the place, nor dogs being taken for a walk?

Now that I've realised there aren't any to be seen, I'm missing seeing them more than I did when I hadn't noticed. It's as puzzling as it is regrettable. Losing the sound of the birds was one thing, I was expecting that. But seeing such a total disappearance of animal life is very depressing. It renders the outside world defiantly, uniformly, humanoid. There appears to be no room for anything else except people.

The sight of a cat going about its business isn't too much to ask? Is it?

13 August, 2006

For sale

Margaret Thatcher, butcher of Grantham, milk snatcher and all-round bad egg, once professed her one driving desire was to turn the nation into a land of owners.

Property owners, share owners, private pension owners, second car owners - pretty much anything went. This, she reasoned, was the truest way of giving her citizens a stake in their country - as opposed to all those state-run nationalised industries like gas, water, electricity, oil, transport, coal, aeroplanes and telephones, which we all owned anyway, but she conveniently overlooked that point.

What's happened, however, is that my generation, which endured its formative years cowering under Thatcher's beady eye, is going to be the one that journeys through life actually owning less than any previous generation in, say, the last 100 years.

We'll be the ones who, proportionately, own less houses than our predecessors, own less pensions than our predecessors, who certainly own less material goods than our predecessors, and who quite probably own less actual money (in the form of real, concrete, reliable savings) than all our predecessors combined.

I'm taking about ownership outright. Of really and truthfully owning your own house, car, pension, stereo system, dishwasher, whatever. Consider, for instance, how the amount of personal debt racked up in Britain topped the one trillion mark last year. More people of my age group borrow more and have larger overdrafts than any other demographic. We're a nation living on the never-never!

Or consider how my generation has had to complete its education only by amassing thousands of pounds worth of debt in the bargain. Luckily I've made it this far through life without ever earning enough to have to start paying back my student loan. Unluckily, I breached the cut-off point when I moved to London, and now have month upon month and year upon year of deductions coming out of my bank account.

Which, incidentally, is the only account I have. I don't have a building society account, I don't have an ISA, I certainly never had what were once ludicrously called PEPs and TESSAs, I don't own any shares, I don't think I have any premium bonds (though I'm not grumbling if I do), I don't even - get this - own a credit card.

This isn't through some Luddite aversion to new-fangled gimmicks and gizmos. It's just that I've never felt myself able to embrace, never thought myself in need of embracing, any of them.

Equally I've no idea when I'll be in a position to open a private pension, though fuck knows I'll need to given the way the economy is being run. I've never had a work or company pension either. It's not the sort of thing that keeps me awake every night - just some of them.

I hate being in debt to someone - something - else, from my landlord to my bank to my mum and dad. Neither a borrower nor a lender be runs the saying, which is a pretty puritanical, not to say selfish, creed. At the same time I wonder what level of respect my generation will, in time, come to show towards a country and a political establishment in which it has precious little invested, of which it can own even less, and with which it has practically nothing in common.

12 August, 2006

Western wind

There's been a hint of autumn in the air today.

When I was out earlier not only were the skies grey and heavy with rain, but leaves were falling off trees and beginning to collect on the pavement and in gutters. A breeze was blowing, different to the ones of late, in that it was tinged with a chill. People were wearing coats and making a point of not walking slowly. Their faces weren't turned up to the sky, but cast down to the ground. A mournful, subdued atmosphere leaked out of shops and businesses. Very few voices could be heard.

I'm tempted to declare here and now that summer is over, but I know that if I did I'd be proved wrong within a week and we'd suddenly be plunged back into blistering sun-drenched hell.

Indeed, I read that one of the few responsibilities ceded to John Prescott in Tony Blair's absence is that of co-ordinating the government's response to any likely future heatwave (along with taking charge of a new report on Britain's stock of seabass).

Hopefully this was done out of jest at the fact, or the hope, that there most certainly will not be another heatwave ever in this country while Blair remains in office. Fingers crossed on that score.

Still, given it gets dark around 8pm now, and the mornings aren't so fiercely light quite so early, even if the hot weather did return it wouldn't be anywhere near as relentless as last month or have such a punitive grip on nighttime temperatures. The August bank holiday isn't that far away either, and that's always a symbolic marker between the vast barren wilderness of the summer and the onset of the evocative, wistful sirens of autumn.

A portent of sorts was in evidence on the Underground last night, where the carriages weren't just a lot more empty than usual (I've no idea why), but a great deal more cooler as well.

It's been a thankless couple of months, and the sooner they're over the better. I know I'll have to go through it all again next year, but at least then I'll know what to expect.

11 August, 2006

Love is...

As befits the received image of life in the sixth form being somewhat formless and freewheeling, I will never forget one English A Level lesson spent, in part, discussing the nebulous question 'what is love?'

This was about 13 years ago, so what time has done its best to muddy and mollify it has equally rendered more wistful and wishful. All the same, it was a hopelessly ambitious topic for a bit of conversation, coming as it did off the back of a rather ponderous discussion of a section of Margaret Attwood's 'A Handmaid's Tale'.

This was also but a few months after that never-to-be-remembered vocalist Haddaway scored a top ten hit single with a song forwarding the accusation, "What is love?/Baby, don't hurt me/Don't hurt me/No more!" If he couldn't find any answers, what hope did we, a bunch of disparate and flippant 17-year-olds?

From what I recall, we were quick to pin down was love wasn't. We weren't so hasty or indeed willing to hazard a guess at what it was.

In retrospect it was a preposterous discussion to be having at all, and boasted more than a little of that faux-articulate, faux-mature, anything goes attitude which seems to thrillingly pervade much of your life when you're that age. Still, at least we were willing to have a go. Trouble is, even now, I still don't know what the answer is.

If love is, as some conventions dictate, that sense of knowing instantly and compulsively that you want to be with someone else for as long as possible, and that when you're with that person you are, quite literally, overcome with emotion, it's news to me. I don't think I've ever felt such an extreme response towards anyone.

If love is, however, formed out of regrets and resentments for not taking the time and effort, or having the wherewithal, to realise you could have made something out of what you once casually and fussily sought to treat as nothing, then I have been there and felt that and wondered why. Why I couldn't bring myself to make something of it at the time, and why I still linger over that resentment so many years down the line.

One of the reasons I've never liked the song 'Regret' by New Order is its central theme, to me a seriously selfish and arrogant one, of denying the singer exhibits any of the eponymous sentiment whatsoever. I cannot believe that anybody anywhere passes through life not regretting something. What I can believe, though, is that less people pass through life not regretting someone, and that more people have the courage of their convictions than me, who is, at heart, a fatally shy, forcefully solitary and often acutely lonely person.

More of this burdensome waffling another time, because it ties in with another story to which I have promised to return, that being the summer of 1994. In the meantime, upon the subject of 'what is love?', I suppose a couple of verses from Adrian Henri's titular poem is, at least, something to go on.

Love is feeling cold in the back of vans
Love is a fanclub with only two fans
Love is walking holding paintstained hands.

Love is the presents in Christmas shops
Love is when you're feeling Top Of The Pops
Love is what happens when the music stops.

10 August, 2006

Face time

Since moving to London I've chanced to spot a number of celebrities strolling around the West End close to where I work, most of them defiantly C-list, a few quite possibly edging towards E-list.

Within a few days of starting my new job I happened to spy tousle-haired funnyman Neil Morrissey schlepping along the street looking discomfited. Shortly after that I spotted erstwhile TV wife-of-a-jailbird Linda Robson appearing equally riled clutching a few bags of heavy shopping. At this point I thought I was going to be in for a parade of stars nigh-on daily.

Then it all went quiet. A sighting of that grumpy one off of The Office, the one who went on to play Arthur Dent (my ignorance is, of course, calculated), did little to improve matters, nor did a glimpse of veteran troublemaker and gay activist Peter Tatchell in a tasteless glittery shirt.

I thought I walked past John Hurt a month or so ago, looking about 85 years old. Him, not me. When I noticed the same gentleman the following morning strolling down precisely the same street, however, I concluded it must be a lookalike. A very crap lookalike, sure, but enough to get me wondering.

Then yesterday I was going down the escalator at Piccadilly Circus station, when who should pass me coming up the other side but former angry young man turned middle aged balladeer James Dean Bradfield.

He was completely alone with only a rucksack for company, and he looked very hassled. Still, he was making no attempt not to catch your eye, as he did mine for a couple of seconds. Nobody was talking to him and nobody seemed the slightest bit interested in troubling him for, say, an autograph.

For all I know I might well have passed him many times before, such was his affable nonchalence. And for all I know I might well have passed his former bandmate Richey James many times before, despite him being missing for over a decade and despite the demented assertion of Noel Gallagher than Richey is simply "with some bird, and he's lost his passport, and he doesn't know where the fuck he is." An affliction with which Noel obviously has a great deal of affinity.

London is no less filled with stars as it is paved with gold. I'm not so fussed about the former, but I'm most put out about the latter. They'll be saying Father Christmas doesn't exist next.

08 August, 2006

Post #250

360 degrees, clockwise, 10pm:

1) right hand typing this
2) postcard from Mortehoe
3) London A-Z
4) pad of A4 ruled paper turned upside down
5) coffee table
6) two clean T-shirts waiting to be put away
7) four remote controls
8) sofa
9) double glazing with condensation on the inside
10) dining table
11) new Radio Times
12) CD tower
13) TV et al, replete with two pot plants, empty video cases, carriage clock and TARDIS
14) clothes horse
15) bookcase #1: history, politics, music
16) door
17) bookcase #2: TV, radio
18) bookcase #3: autobiographies, comedy, annuals
19) electric fan
20) printer
21) Virgin Megastore receipt
22) open CDs: 'OK Computer', Radiohead; 'My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts', Brian Eno & David Byrne; 'Something To Remember', Madonna
23) telephone
24) mouse
25) left hand typing this

07 August, 2006

Choking apart

Having just got nicely settled into the business of not having to worry about the neighbours in the flat below, thanks to there not being any, my period of joy has inevitably been curtailed.

Someone who I'd previously thought was only visiting to look round, or possibly popping in to check up on the premises until a proper tenant was found, now seems to have moved in for good. He's an old man, smartly dressed, very respectable and hardly makes a sound. The one problem, however, is that he smokes.

He smokes a pipe. Out of his windows. Directly underneath my windows.

Great clouds of noxious fumes are now irregularly wafting into my flat. At the merest whiff of an oncoming fug, I have to face around shutting all the windows, regardless of how hot it is outside.

He also smokes possibly the foulest smelling pipe in the known world. The stench is vile and inescapable. How it can bring him any pleasure whatsoever is beyond me. How he thinks he can bring pleasure to anybody else by smoking out of his window, thereby funnelling all of his pollution directly into my lungs, is equally mystifying.

Such a practice is surely the acme of anti-social behaviour. You are presuming not to want to dirty up your own premises with the odour of your own tobacco, but at the same time generously infecting someone else's abode with the self-same cancerous miasma.

There's only one other person I know of who smokes a pipe, and that is one of my uncles. I haven't seen him for decades, but the two most vivid memories I have from my youth of going, as a family, to visit him in Chesire were a) his astonishing fondness for casual swearing ("I've had an arse-ingly bad day at work, my boy!") and b) his filthy pipe. He had a pipe "chair" in which he always sat to ingest the thing, directly above which on the ceiling was a large patch of yellow. I don't know how his wife put up with everything; she hated it, and said so, regularly.

Anyhow, wisps of reminiscence are now floating back whenever I catch another whiff of the petulant pipe man below. Wisps, plus a load of dirt, dust and pestilence.

Still, it's a step up from Chris De Burgh.

06 August, 2006

Washed up

I haven't had a bath since 2003.

This is not through laziness or poor hygiene, but by design. The last bath I took, and will probably ever take, was followed about 30 seconds later by an alarming attack of flashing lights inside my eyes, a rush of blood to the brain and me staggering through to my bedroom in order to ensure that if and when I did pass out I wouldn't bang my head by falling onto the floor.

The experience was so traumatic, even though it had passed in about half an hour, that I resolved to never put myself willingly into a position where I might suffer such an ordeal again. And luckily, given showers exist and will assuredly continue to exist for a good many years to come, there have always been alternative ways to keep clean that don't involve lying down in a tub of hot water.

It's unfortunate, because I always used to like baths - even when I was really young, when convention dictates you're supposed to hate them, especially those on a Sunday evening in order to get you spruced up for a return to school the following morning.

One of the happiest aspects of my one year in a university hall of residence (and there weren't many) was the discovery of quite the largest bath I had ever seen, in which I used to soak for a good hour or so of an evening while my neighbours were carousing in the junior common room downstairs. I don't think they ever found out about this. In fact I know they didn't, because one time I head them sincerely pondering my "absence" just outside the bathroom door, unaware I was a mere two metres away.

Later, when I lived in Aigburth in Liverpool, I would purposefully run a deep bath on Sunday nights, especially during winter when the place was always bitterly cold, and lie in it for ages, usually listening to a sequence of easy listening programmes on Radio 2. I acknowledge that this kind of behaviour, for a twentysomething, was hopelessly anachronistic. But I was living alone, and I did it because I could. Besides, I needed some way of keeping warm.

Now that pleasure is denied to me, and the same way some people can't drink beer sitting down, I can only wash standing up. Given there's a drought on, it's probably just as well. But what I've gained in efficiency, I've undoubtedly lost in quality of life.

05 August, 2006

Around London III

After a break of several weeks, I was, at last, today able to resume my attempt to circumnavigate London on foot.

I say attempt, but there's no way I'm not going to do it - bar the end of the world, or I lose both my legs, or something equally trivial. Still, I'd been itching to get back out and carry on walking, having previously been prevented in doing so by the unreasonably hot weather and work commitments.

Yes, even on a weekend I have been unable to escape the office of late, thanks to a system whereby members of staff take it in turns to "look after" the website out of hours for a week at a time. My shift ended yesterday, hence the recent markedly infrequent (more markedly than usual) updating of this blog.

Anyhow today I was able to pick up where I left off - West Ham station - and press onwards in a clockwise direction, notching up my biggest daily tally so far: no less than thirteen and a half miles. I know this is peanuts when set aside the accomplishment of those John O'Groats to Land's End veterans like Sir Jimmy Savile and Ian Botham, but it felt like a hell of a distance to me. Especially as it had suddenly got hot again. And especially as the route was particularly thankless.

The problem was precisely down to the period of time between today and the last time I walked. Specifically what has happened in the interim. Namely, sun. Where once I was able to enjoy strolling through very pleasant and agreeable forests of green, today I found only mile upon mile of brown. And when you've seen one patch of burned grass, you've seen them all.

I really couldn't believe how much dust and straw there was. It made great chunks of the route boring and thankless. I know - I hope - I would have enjoyed it more in cooler, more temperate climes. As it was I kept pushing on in the belief I would get to another bit of shady forest or quiet suburbia. Hence the higher than normal tally of miles.

Highlights included approaching and then crossing the River Thames, which I did via the Woolwich free ferry; getting a wonderful view of the North Downs; stumbling upon a flock of white doves; and finding, yet again, most of the route entirely deserted of people.

I'm now heading west for the first time, and feel like I'm making real progress. Indeed, the next leg, I reckon, should see me pass the halfway mark. As long as there's not too much sun. And something other than parched earth under my feet.

Day 3: West Ham - Falconwood
Miles Added: 13.5
Total Miles Completed: 30.5
Total Miles Outstanding: 47.5

03 August, 2006

Busted flush

If Tony Blair were President, not Prime Minister, and there were nationwide elections due to be held tomorrow for his position, I have no doubt whatsoever that he would be defeated by one of the largest majorities in history.

If there was a General Election tomorrow, however, run on precisely the same rules as all past contests, I'm minded to conclude that Labour would probably squeak home by a tiny margin. A victory, but a minute one.

The fact is that, as far as I can tell, public discontentment with the Government isn't being applied to the Government as a whole, but a specific and marked coterie of individuals who have made it their business over the past few years to identify themselves as the only people of any importance in the country.

These aren't the people whom voters will have met on the streets of their villages, towns and cities over the past nine years, canvassing, dealing with problems, supporting local causes and throwing open the doors of their surgeries to try and sort out a hundred and one squabbles and complaints. And these aren't the people who get regular access to the national airwaves.

They are the people who have so removed themselves from the day-to-day life of the country that it's no longer possible to believe or trust anything they say. They are the people who seem happy to hitch the UK to the back of the clapped out station wagon that is the US and get towed this way and that regardless of what the rest of the world thinks and says.

They are the people who so rushed to identify themselves with Labour's early successes that they cannot help but completely associated with Labour's more recent string of failures. And they are the people who fall into line behind Tony Blair every single time.

I despair of and for the state of the world when a country such as the UK, once perceived as something of a honest broker on the global stage, is now not part of the solution but a whacking great part of the problem.

But what can I do about it? Come the next election Labour will lose a whole swathe of seats, culling scores of those decent backbench MPs who've worked tirelessly for democracy and freedom and proper constitutional government, but will stay in power clustered around the same old craggy faces and even craggier policies. And so it will continue.

Rarely has there been a more apt moment for a new kind of politics, even a new kind of political party, to emerge and tap into the vast well of anger seemingly boiling up across Britain at the practice of power and the misuse of privilege. For the dam to break, however, everyone first needs to know how to swim.

Which is either a profound aphorism or a glib sign-off. Take your pick!

02 August, 2006

Water cycle

It's raining outside at the moment, a stubbornly quiet, effortlessly falling rain which reminds me of how it used to rain for hours on end in Liverpool and I would sit by the window and watch it tumble down, hypnotised by the monotony and the sound and the way it would change the world right before my eyes.

I remember one particular evening, round about this time last year, when I came back from an absolutely horrendous day at work spent in one giant non-stop meeting, and after having tea I sat on the sofa in the living room, opened all the windows and just stared at a downpour that seemed to last forever. Water splashed in onto the floor and all up the walls but there was something cleansing and theraputic about allowing it just do what it want and for me to half-lie there and let it.

This rain didn't give a fuck about my day or anybody else's. The noise it made as it carried on falling, hour upon hour, almost helped to numb me from all the ludicrous business to which I was having to devote so much of my waking day (this was when I was at a particularly low ebb, having just failed a series of job interviews).

It was an experience that stayed with me for a long time. I hadn't seen it rain that heavily in the middle of summer for ages. What I wouldn't give to see even half such a downpour now, here in this acrid, parched, dust and straw-filled city. The rain would remind me of other, older, times and places. The rain would help sing me to sleep.