Thursday, December 10, 2009

Making sense of Sicily

I awoke to see mountains in every direction, as far as the eye could resolve. Flying over the Alps was breathtaking. The jagged snow-capped peaks, the drifting snow, and the few low clouds that clung to them, made a scene painted purely in white, the contrast coming from textures alone. Colour would have been a vulgar addition.

Catania is a curious place, glowing of functionality over form. Perhaps there's something about living in a sunny, beautiful place that makes you careless about the details. The streets are littered with old fliers and remnants of billboard paper. The medians, even in the town, appear to be scrubland - left untouched since the road was laid - a handful of coarse plants cling to life in the rough grey volcanic scree that characterises the soil here. The buildings are extremely angular - mostly rectangular blocks, with balconies protruding like cancerous growths from their sides. The roofs are mostly flat, and (save the dome of the cathedral, which stands out like a nun in a crowd of Rangers fans) there's not a single curve to be seen. From up on the hill where the lab is situated, the city looks like a pile of pale Lego bricks carelessly discarded along the coast. By submerging oneself downtown, one finds an equally interesting environment. Old buildings, seemingly decaying, draped with time-worn faded flags. The only paint not peeling is the unskilled graffiti adorning the lower levels of the buildings. There are little dark courtyards and wide piazzas, the latter filled with stalls selling hundreds of magazines, roasted nuts and little stands selling beer and coffee. I'm reminded of the Italian Job - for little seems to have changed since the Sixties. The dimly lit backstreets are full of shops selling junk. Many sell old items that you'd expect only at a charity shop or car-boot sale. There are dozens selling nothing but cheap chains of coloured stones - each shop with an alleged theme (one claimed to be Indian, another Italian) but all appeared to carry the same tacky wares. How all these businesses survive is beyond me. The main street, which runs for well over a mile, contains almost exclusively clothing shops. The majority of these are either expensive looking designer boutiques, or else underwear stores. The people here are all 'beautiful' - well dressed, and meticulously presented - but are in stark contrast to the city itself.

Finding a restaurant was actually quite challenging. Whether I was in the wrong part of town for dining, or whether it is true that the local culture is much more oriented toward eat in peoples homes, rather than in restaurants, I cannot say. Eventually, I found somewhere to eat, and sat outside. I spoke but a dozen words of Italian, she no English, but we communicated sufficiently. I ordered some marinated seafood to start (sardines, octopus and prawns in olive oil, lemon juice and parsley) followed by a seafood rissotto. Both were quite acceptable, though neither outstanding. I finished with an interesting espresso - served sadly in a plastic cup (!), but so dark and rich that it reminded me more of pure chocolate than of coffee.

Food is, for certain, one of the main draws of the place. The morning break of the meeting is filled with coffee (served in short, fragrant shots - each one about half the volume of a typical shot of spirits), fresh fruit juice and the most delicious fresh, hot pastries (my favourite being one containing a warm orange preserve). Whilst everyone stands around inside, I take these out, though the little courtyard and its lime trees, up to the roof overlooking the bay, and sit in the sun. In doing so, this place finally makes sense.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A quick thought

It could be argued that the greatest leaps in human thought, and social/religious development, have been spawned by the crossing of different cultures. There's nothing like encountering a different people, who have different beliefs and values, to make you question your own. This being the case, what lies in store for us once all populations of the Earth know each other (and perhaps homogenise to some extent), and we can no longer be surprised and awakened in this manner?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sandy Speaks

Just a link to an article by in the Herald, in which Sandy was interviewed. He mentions us, too :-)

Friday, October 30, 2009


After working so late that I didn't get to the pub last night, I got home, poured a beer and put the TV on. Unsurprisingly, I found little of worth being broadcast, until I stumbled onto a programme on STV. Broadcast in Gaelic, it was documentary on traditional Gaelic singing, and featured two women - one young and in training, the other older and acting as tutor. The younger girl sang, unaccompanied, the most haunting song I may have ever heard - sparse, yet rich, rhythmically interesting, yet it flowed with such naturalness that every sound seemed utterly inevitable. Her voice was light, clear, but with a deep strength that was hard to define - tied to the land, to the sea, and a reflection of femininty in its purest form. That the song was in Gaelic, and I knew nothing of the literal meaning of the words, only emphasised the its content, and magnified its mysterious fairness. I sat transfixed, experiencing a beauty I've not encountered for some time. It recalled to me the words of Felix Mendelssohn that were recently brought to my attention. When he was asked "Do you write music to represent ideas that are too vague for words?" he replied "On the contrary - I use music to express ideas that are too precise for words."

Alas, this programme shortly ended, and was replaced by the monstrosity that is a live night-time phone-in roulette game. I went to bed.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Ballad of Billy Kershaw

While on the subject of love and agape, here's The Ballad of Billy Kershaw, from the late Jake Thackray. As Yorkshireman and lifelong catholic, many of his songs (thought of typically as "comic") exhibit strong elements of humanism, and a reverence for the immanence of God within human behaviour.

He was small and baggy-trousered, he was nondescript and shy,

But in his breast there burned a sacred flame.
For women melted and surrendered when they looked into his eyes;
Little Billy Kershaw was the name, by the way,
He worked as a country ploughman, so they say.

Oh Lothario, and Casanova, and mighty Don Juan -
Those legendary goads of days of yore!
Billy was better with his eyes closed, on one leg and with no hands -
A trick that he could actually perform, by the way.
Spectacular, but dodgy, so they say.

He never did it for the profit of it, never the applause -
Only the silvery laughter that it caused.

There was a difference in that Billy Kershaw never picked the best,
The beautiful, the golden ones that most men would,
But just the ugly ones, the poorest, the despised, the disposessed -
Where else would a hunchback get a cuddle, by the way?
Harelips can kiss, or so they say.

And so the shop-girl with the whiskers, or the limping shepherdess,
The squinting barmaid - her with the pocky skin.
Even the horse-like countess with the teeth and meagre breasts
That in fact had often harboured Billy's chin, by the way,
Haughty, but snug, so they say.

He never did it for the profit of it, never the applause -
Only the common comfort that it caused.

Many a poor distracted Catholic, rating Billy over Lourdes
Came smiling down his staircase, all her frenzy gone.
And the husband, far from angry, would be chuffed that she was cured,
And buy him a pint in the local later on, by the way,
Horses for courses, so they say.

He responded to the Colonel's widow's desperate appeal
In the Colonel's house upon the Colonel's tiger skin.
In the potter's shop, the potter's wife upon the potter's wheel,
Which was steadily continuing to spin, by the way,
A right tour de force! Or so they say.

But never ever for the profit of it, never the applause -
Only the passing happiness it caused.

But soon the news of Billy Kershaw and his life-enhancing powers
Became across the county widely known,
And by his cottage gate, the coach loads waited patiently for hours;
The drivers made a bundle going home, by the way.
Their caps were full of silver, so they say.

And the village did a roaring trade in teas and souvenirs,
In ash trays and the local watercress.
Until Billy, disillusioned, simply ups and disappears,
Leaving no forwarding address, by the way,
Could be anywhere at all, or so they say.

But it was not for the profit of it, not for the applause -
Only the consolation that it caused.

If there should be a sad, neglected, wretched woman in your life,
It could well be that Billy's near at hand;
Perhaps your auntie or your daughter, or your mother, or your wife.
And when did you last see your grandma, by the way?
No genuine case is ever turned away.

He's no rascal, he's no charlatan, no mountebank, no snob;
Whoever you are, he'll treat you just the same.
He is small and baggy-trousered, and he does a tidy job.
Little Billy Kershaw is the name, by the way;
He worked as a country ploughman, so they say.

But never ever for the profit of it, never the applause -
Only the common comfort that it caused.

If you find that Billy's ballad is extravagant, or trite,
Offensive, irrelevant, or untrue -
That may well be, but here's a moral which will make us feel all right,
A moral which may well apply to you, by the way:
Takes one to know one, as they say.

If you're ugly, if you're weak, or meek, or queer - form a queue,
And the rest of us will travel from afar.
And systematically we'll do to you what Billy used to do -
But more regular, and always twice as hard, by the way.
Mea culpa! Mea culpa! - as they used to say.

Thoughts on love

[This is a response to some thoughts posted by Miss Atomic Bomb following her completion of a book on romantic love. Thanks for these - the thoughts are interesting and insightful, and have spawned much thought of my own. As my ramblings on the subject are too lengthy to post as a comment, I post them here instead. I premise this by stating I've not read the book, but am interested to do so, and will post more on this subject once I've read it. Thus, these comments may turn out to be irrelevant or a misinterpretation on my part.]

It seems to me that "love," as defined by this book, is not really "love" at all. I guess I'm not clear one exactly what "romantic love" is in this context.

People often disambiguate lust from love, but this is insufficient - especially as lust has come to represent mostly physical (sexual) attraction. There is an equivalent attraction - one which is selfish (as in it is based around the desire of the lover, rather than care for the beloved) - but is not based around the physical. Instead, it is an attraction to be with them, to be in their company - perhaps to laugh and flirt with them - a lust of personality. It is something that has, at times, been differentiated by the concepts "to love someone" and "to be in love with someone." There is all the difference in the world to say "I love you" or to say "I'm in love with you." For the sake of clarity (by avoiding the duplication of the word "love") I call the latter phenomenon infatuation. It is not to be confused with what the author (I think) describes as adoration - which is remote, distant, and absorbed in the thing itself (to "love being in love", one might say). I don't think it is fair to describe love as an emotion. It is not something you feel. One may feel "in love," but one actively "loves." Whilst these things (lust and infatuation) are components of, and paths toward, genuine romantic love - they are in no way synonymous with love itself. Perhaps, in that sense, this book is really about infatuation, rather than love. But, if that is the case, then I'd argue the difference ought to be clearly stated, to avoid confusion over such statements as "I love you," and to avoid the devaluation of the greater and constructive force that is genuine love.

All those initial feelings that are usually described as "love" ought not, in my opinion, be so labeled. Love is something very specific. Sometimes I say "I love you." Sometimes "I adore you." Sometimes "I worship you." Sometimes "you look beautiful," sometimes "I fancy you" or sometimes "you look hot." All have different meanings. "I love you" is the most powerful of these, however - for it is focused on the beloved, and expresses a thing which is not "emotional," not fluctuating, not dependent on the lover and his/her surroundings. There can be situations where I cease to adore, cease to find beauty, have diminished sexual drive - but I do not cease to love. Take an external situation - say being within a burning building with your beloved. Feelings of adoration, attraction and desire all necessarily fade, but the feeling of love intensifies. In such a scenario, one would chose a course of action that reflects that love - to put the beloved before oneself, without thought or hesitation.

I think there need not be such a strong separation between romantic love and agape - they are both selfless, and focused on the good of the beloved (or recipient), rather than the fulfilling of some need in the lover. Genuine love delights in the beloved - in their very existence. The delights of fulfilling desire for that person is quite secondary to that dancing in the soul that is induced simply by experiencing the revelation that they exist. To thus equate romantic love with lust and infatuation is to devalue it. Romantic love is exceptional, as it contains two very powerful quantities: it has the potential to be all encompassing (by that, I mean that all aspects of attraction, desire, friendship, companionship, comradeship and intellectual stimulation are possible within the relationship) and it is equal (there is no hierarchy or imbalance of dependency). It is this uniqueness that makes it valuable, and that also induces fear and reluctance to love completely.

As for the nature of duplicate loves - I think duplicate infatuation is inherently possible (and it is perfectly clear that duplicate lust is possible). But love, by definition, puts the beloved first. If there is more than one beloved, one necessarily and inevitably has to rank them in some way, or at least make choices between them, thus compromising the love. Two concurrent loves divides the capacity to love, rather than duplicates it (again, infatuation and lust can both be duplicated). One can, of course, draw parallels between this and the love for children - where one parent may love several children equally. But this is a parallel that can be only taken so far: love for children is an imbalanced love, in some way like the love of a pet - there's an imbalance of dependency, and of responsibility. Again, romantic love is one of equals.

I recall an old film (probably pre 1950) that I saw when I was probably around 12 years old. In particular, there was a scene on board a large, grand ship (perhaps a Cunard ship crossing the Altantic). There were two girls on the ship - a blond and a brunette (of course!). Two guys were talking, admiring the girls from the deck above, and one of them asked the other "If the ship went down, which one would you save?" Being produced in height of the Motion Picture Production Code years, this was probably written in place of the direct question "which one would you sleep with?" that would be screened without thought in the modern era. Of course, the answer to this could easily be "both." But, as is so often the case when speech is restricted, the act of engaging in the dance with the censors spawned art of greater subtlety. Instead of making this question one of desire (simply answered) it brushed on something deeper. Of course, you'd probably desire to save both, out of pure humanity if nothing else. But, given the situation, you'd have to choose whom to aid first. Love requires choice. [I know all this is rather dated and sexist - assuming the girls can't swim or something - but I hope you can look past this to see the deeper truth being illuminated.]

I also think the heavy weighting and repeated common reference to the honeymoon period is ill-founded (or, at least, ill-applied). I can only understand this from a superficial view of desire. Of course, there is strong desire (both sexually and in desire for personality) in the initial stages of a relationship which, in principle, can decay over time. However, it need not - for interest is spawned from variety, and variety need not diminish with a single lover. Passion need not fade. We need not be "let down." Instead, lovers may grow together, becoming increasingly attuned to each others' personality and sexuality, becoming increasingly adventurous and experimental. Romeo and Juliet was a tragedy, a story of youthful desire and infatuation. Their youthfulness and death was a reflection on juvenile desire - it was never a monument to genuine romantic love.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

They say it changes when the sun goes down

This week has been dark, and this weekend a strange mix of introspection and relief. Having spent the weekend in York, going to pubs serving delicious Belgian brews, cafes selling delicious crepes and waffles, and being around normal people wearing normal clothes, enjoying living - I contemplate Paisley, its run-down streets, the population of neds, and my mind keeps returning to these lyircs (from the Arctic Monkeys):

Though they might wear classic Reeboks,
Or knackered Converse, or trackie-bottoms tucked in socks,
But all of that's what the point is not -
The point's that there i'n't no romance around there

And there's the truth that they can't see;
They'd probably like to throw a punch at me.
And if you could only see 'em then you would agree,
Agree that there i'n't no romance around there,

Don't you know? It's a funny thing, you know
We'll tell 'em if you like - we'll tell 'em all tonight -
They'll never listen, because their minds are made up.
Of course it's all OK to carry on that way.

Over there, there's broken bones
There's only music so that there's new ring tones
And it don't take no Sherlock Holmes
To see it's a little different around here.

Much of Paisley, and the inhabitants within, is depressing - decaying, and as ugly as sin. But that's not all there is to this town - a town which predates Glasgow, in fact. Paisley sits in the shadow of some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever witnessed. And Paisley contains some hidden gems - bastions of what once was, and what might be again. There are still local butchers. There is a picture framer, I recently discovered just around the corner from where I live - a talented, friendly and professional establishment, framing and selling quality pieces. And there's Sandy - Her Majesty's Sculptor in Ordinary in Scotland, based in the University - a champion of romanticism, and a friend of the Nuclear Group.

There is, in fact, hope.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Physics by the seat of the pants

I've long considered myself a 'seat of the pants' physicist, and have tried explaining the concept to a number of people. One way of putting it is to say I'm a 'first-order' sort of person. But that's not quite it. Another is to say that I have 'a feeling' for the physics, but that sounds like a pile of new-age bollocks. It's just that - sometimes - I know what the answer will be before I've worked it out. So, unless I have to, I don't bother working it out rigourously.

Today I came across these words of Feynman, who (of course) put it far more eloquently than my amateurish attempts:

"Mathematicians, or people who have very mathematical minds, are often led astray when 'studying' physics because they lose sight of the physics. They say "Look, these differential equations - the Maxwell Equations - are all there is to electrodynamics; it is admitted by the physicists that there is nothing which is not contained in the equations. The equations are complicated, but after all they are only mathematical equations and if I understand them mathematically inside out, I will understand physics inside out." Only it doesn't work that way.

What it means to really understand an equation - that is, in more than a strictly mathematical sense - was described by Dirac. He said "I understand what an equation means if I have a way of figuring out the characteristics of its solution without actually solving it." So if we have a way of knowing what should happen in given circumstances without actually solving the equations, we 'understand' the equations, as applied to these circumstances. A physical understanding is a completely unmathematical, imprecise and inexact thing, but absolutely necessary for a physicist."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

PC Punching

I stumbled back from my office last night, saturated with staring at computer screens. I cracked open a bottle of beer, made a quick cucumber and tomato salad to go with the bread, french cured duck sausage and Normandy cheese that I'd bought from the market at the Merchant City Festival over the weekend, and collapsed. Determined to focus my eyes on something farther than arms-length away, I turned on the TV and scanned the channels. It turned out that there was nothing on (amazing, for that never happens - ever) so I settled for the one film that was playing - Mr and Mrs Smith.

The film was exactly as I'd imagined - almost entirely lacking content: barely one-dimensional characters, almost no plot, and filled with flashy action sequences. No surprise there. However, one thing struck me as strange. The film was full of violence, directed fairly isotropically, for the most part. There were visualisations of numerous people getting shot. Bodies were flying from explosions. However, the interesting thing occurred during the centrepiece fight between Pitt and Jolie where, after almost blowing each others' heads off several times, they end up brawling. At this point, something curious happened in the realm of direction. They'd tumbled for some time, bashing each other against walls and objects, and Jolie repeatedly punched Pitt in the face. However, though Pitt didn't seem overall to be at a disadvantage, he very conspicuously never landed a blow to Jolie. It seemed that the director was deliberately avoiding showing personal, unarmed violence toward the woman. Then, to prove the point, Pitt wrestled Jolie to the floor and, though he kicked her several times, the kicking occurred out of sight, behind a sofa. After receiving several kicks she retaliated with a blow to the groin. The fight ended without a single visual instance of Pitt hitting her. I remind you - you'd seen Jolie hit Pitt numerous times, and would later see her hit a captive character around the head with a hotel-room phone.

I assure you that no one finds violence against women more abhorrent than I do. However, this was not a scene of a man taking advantage of his relative strength, and attacking an undefended woman. Throughout the entire movie, these two characters are portrayed as hardened assassins, of comparable abilities (in fact Jolie's character reports having killed 5 times as many people as had Pitt's). But, when the entire point of a movie is to show cartoon violence, when it's OK to show people being shot dead, or killed in an explosion, it strikes me as very strange that a deliberate decision was taken to not show a punch being delivered to from one skilled assassin to another, just because the latter is female. It strikes me as even stranger that, given the above, it's OK to show that the woman has been kicked repeatedly when she's down, just as long as it's behind a sofa, so no one actually sees it.

Am I missing something here, or does this really just make no sense at all?

Monday, September 28, 2009


I once participated in a rather heated discussion with an advocate of cold fusion. This debate, of course, turned out to be an utterly pointless exercise, as the advocate descended predictably into nonsensical argument, and what amounted to name calling, in order to defend his position. However, one of the points raised was that of academic freedom. This is something that proponents of pseudoscience (cold fusion, intelligent design, for example) frequently rely upon, in an attempt to undermine the arguments put forward by the populous of the genuine scientific community. That is, if scientists don't agree with what they're saying, it must be because the scientists are not open to new ideas, as they are hemmed in by the scientific stigma and oppressive regime of their university. To this, I simply reply with an extract from my contract, which exemplifies the attitude within the academic field:

"The University acknowledges and accepts the intellectual and academic freedom of academic staff to think, write, act, speak and teach, in order to be able to contribute to their subject areas and the advancement of knowledge. Academic freedom is defined as ‘freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial and unpopular opinions, without academic staff placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs’. The University commits itself to sustain an environment within which academic freedom can be effectively exercised. Within their institution or discipline, academic staff should be bound by proper regard for their colleagues, for the University’s interests, and by the usual rules of professional academic engagement."

Saturday, June 20, 2009

I travelled among unknown men

I have departed Tennessee - precisely five years, and three months to the day after I arrived. Moving has been an even bigger headache than I'd anticipated, possibly resulting in me having watched most of my worldly possessions being driven into the sunset, never to be seen again. Ah, well. Who really cares?
Driving the 1300 odd miles West to Colorado has provided opportunity to contemplate the move. The drive was enjoyable - a good run to bring Gladys back out West where she belongs. Today was the highlight - climbing low rolling hill after hill, the Rockies getting seeming clearer and crisper in discrete steps. The air felt wonderful, reminding me of summer coastal breezes back home. I didn't run the AC for the first time in days.

People have asked me (numerous times) what, if anything, I will miss about Tennessee. To the astonishment of many, the beer will be high on the list. Contrary to all my expectations, US beer is excellent (if you avoid the big breweries, of course - it wouldn't be fair to write off a Shepherd Neame by sampling a Boddington's now, would it?). For what is lacking from US brewing in the subtlety of marrying malts and hops is made up by the sheer enthusiasm and inventiveness of the brewing - and the US love of hops is to their international credit. Consequently, my home brewing efforts will be focused on reproducing Dead Guys, Anchor Steams, Highlands, Left Hands, Dogfish, New Belgians, Duck Rabbits etc. I'll also miss the quality of driving - the way that, if you're driving a small car, only your own life is at risk, for the only things you can hit are pickup trucks and trees.

The bizarre thing is, save the goodbyes to a number of good friends whom shall be sorely missed, the saddest thing for me was parting with Charlie. She was my walking staff. I roughly fashioned her when leaving the base camp of the Manway, and many peaks (and a growing crack) later, she'd yet to fail me. There's a way that objects can embody the essence of places and, for Tennessee, she was it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Intercession or interference?

It fell from the sky, apparently. And as it lay there on the ground, occasionally twitching slightly, I couldn't walk away. The swallow was stunned, and bleeding from one eye. I watched it for some time, waiting to evaluate its condition and mulling over what to do. Without warning, it took to the wing and flew in a low, wide arc across the street. As it neared the far side, having reached a foot or so above the ground, its arc was abruptly truncated with a dull thud, as it struck the rear of a parked car. It lay sprawled on the hot dusty tarmac. I crossed the street, deciding that I could not leave the bird in such an environment, envisioning it slowly dehydrating in a gutter, else making another panicked attempt at flight, resulting in another head-on collision with a car. I carefully wrapped my fingers around the bird, wary of causing any additional damage. Immediately, it panicked and darted from my hand, heading underneath the parked car. Subsequently emerging, and lying statically in the sun, I decided to try again. This time I closed my fingers around it more tightly, carefully but firmly clasping its wings to its body in the hope of restraining them such that they would not be damaged if it struggled. It let out a few repeated cries, and as I slowly softened my grip it calmed its behaviour. I could still feel its heavy breathing. I was startled by the forcefulness of the thumping of its heart against my fingers. I walked over the street and laid it in the middle of a large lawn under the shade of a large, distant tree. After time it took to the sky, slowly circling and climbing, until another swallow descended upon it. They proceeded to circle, occasionally coming together and tumbling about some imagined centre of mass. It then became apparent to me that the cause of the bird falling from the sky originally was probably the outcome of a territorial bout.
At some point during this episode, a friend said to me that you have to let nature take its course. It's a fair point, of course, but it revived a question that I've pondered before. That is, where does our responsibility of stewardship of the Earth, of humanely minimising the suffering of others, give way to interference?

Monday, March 16, 2009

When did St Patrick get a sex change?

Wet, and with an unreasonably angry stomach, I arrived at the lab this morning and sat at my computer. As I finished my coffee I read through my emails. Briefly scanning the Lab news email, I stumbled with weary horror across the line:

Join the MFC, Buddy's Cafe for tribute to 'St. Patty's Day'

That's it. It happens every year; I can't take it anymore. As every reasonable English speaking person knows, the abbreviation for Patrick is Paddy, not Patty. Patty is feminine; the abbreviation for Patricia.

St Patricia, the patron saint of Naples, is said to have lived in Constantinople in the seventh century. Fleeing to avoid marriage, she gave her life to God and her posessions to the poor. Her feast day is 25th August.

I'm growing tired of this ignorance. Perhaps this lab, overwhelmed as it is with buraucracy and political correctness, would do well to get decide which saint they'd like to commemorate, and do so on the correct day. But that would make sense, so is vanishingly unlikely.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Things Behind the Sun

Please beware of them that stare:
They'll only smile to see you while
Your time away.
And once you've seen what they have been
To win the earth - just won't seem worth
Your night or your day.
Who'll hear what I say?

Look around, you find the ground
Is not so far from where you are.
But don't be too wise.
For down below they never grow;
They're always tired, and charms are hired
From out of their eyes.
Never surprise.

Take your time and you'll be fine,
And say a prayer for people there
Who live on the floor.
And if you see what's meant to be
Don't name the day, or try to say
It happened before.

Don't be shy; you learn to fly
And see the sun when day is done.
If only you see
Just what you are. Beneath a star
That came to say, one rainy day
In autumn for free:
Yes, be what you'll be.

Please beware of them that stare:
They'll only smile to see you while
Your time away.
And once you've seen what they have been
To win the earth - just won't seem worth
Your night or your day.
Who'll hear what I say?

Open up the broken cup;
Let goodly sin and sunshine in.
Yes that's today.
And open wide the hymns you hide -
You find reknown while people frown
At things that you say.
But say what you'll say


About the farmers and the fun.
And the things behind the sun.
And the people round your head,
Who say everything's been said.
And the movement in your brain
Sends you out into the rain.
[Major coda]

Nick Drake

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Shrovetide Football

I couldn't let Shrove Tuesday pass without tipping my hat to Shrovetide football in Ashbourne (UK). For hundreds of years, every Shrove Tuesday, a giant game of 'football' has been played on the streets. The two goals are three miles apart. The town devides into the Up'ards and Down'ards, several thousand compete on these two teams. The shops and banks are boarded up for the day. A colossal brawl ensues as the two teams try to get the ball to their respective goal posts. Oh, and muder is banned.

These videos (1,2) will give you an idea. Heaven!

There's a town still plays this glorious game
Tho' tis but a little spot.

And year by year the contest's fought
From the field that's called Shaw Croft.
Then friend meets friend in friendly strife
The leather for to gain,'
And they play the game right manfully,
In snow, sunshine or rain.

For loyal the Game shall ever be
No matter when or where,
And treat that Game as ought but the free,
Is more than the boldest dare.
Though the up's and down's of its chequered life
May the ball still ever roll,
Until by fair and gallant strife
We've reached the treasur'd goal.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Life on Mars

I walked out of the interview, out into the snowing streets of Paisley. A walk and a pint were in order. The interview was good; enjoyable, in fact. However, I needed to feel a more tangible reality, and wanted to explore the area.

The snow was fine – more like dust than flakes – and, rather than falling, was driven by the wind, round the buildings and horizontally down the streets through which I wandered without direction. Nonetheless, the streets were busy; wiry Scots with no outer apparel, dashing between house and pub. Old women, proud and staunch as the granite hills, scurried in their coats and scarves, trailing their shopping trolleys behind them. Most of them are Grans; they’ll live forever. The shops were universally interesting. A local butchers. A charity shop with a row of cheap shoes, old paperback books and a wedding gown in the window. A piano trader; the shop hardly wider than the keyboard of a full grand. Local hardware stores and electronics shops. Kebab shops, chippies and Indian restaurants. People from all walks of life were everywhere. A constant background of the whistling wind, snippets of conversations, traffic rumble. The smell of partially burned diesel from a town-centre bus drifted up my nose. Snow was blowing in my eyes. All my senses were alive. The place is gritty. Dirty. Real.

I followed this bustling street for some time, not knowing to where I was headed. Then, there it was. Through a gap in the stone buildings, as I crossed a railway line, was a grassy hill with a few trees scattered on its slopes, protruding from the surrounding town. A small path led past the railway station, and I began to climb
Saucel Hill, a natural mound which seemed to have been designed for the express purpose of sledging – just the perfect average gradient and undulations. The ground was clearly waterlogged, but the surface was frozen, so I crunched my way to the top. Through the low lying clouds, the town surrounded me in all directions, layered in shades of grey toward the distant weathered hills, starkly standing watch over the valley, still conscious of times before the self-consciousness of humanity had ascended to these lands. The grass of the hill was dusted finely with snow, looking like faded green denim. I stood for some time – a lone dark figure against the pale grey of the clouds above, the white hill underfoot – slowly lightening as the snowfall strove to integrate me into the landscape.

I descended, passing kids playing football in the street – their old foam ball with great chunks missing from one side. I stopped for a pint on my way back to the guest house, where I bumped into a friend and we went for dinner at a good local restaurant, in which I had a most delicious half of a wild grouse with wild Scottish mushrooms, with some potatoes, parsnips and carrots, and a glass of red. Suitably fed, we joined the locals of the nuclear group in the Bull Inn, an excellent 100 year old pub, with original interior and some first-class snugs. A Belhaven 80-shilling and a Caledonian IPA later, and then a few whiskies (Bowmore and Lagavulin amongst others) fueled an evening of excellent conversation. After kicking-out time, we bought some chips over the road (which, post drinking, tasted as fine as the wild grouse ever did!) and staggered back to the Ash Tree. We piled in, and were enjoying our feast when the proprietor materialised out of the woodwork. Apologetically, we asked if we were a disturbance. “Och, noo!” came the answer. “I just wanted to see if I could get you anything.” The word ‘whisky’ came up, and he returned a little later with a bottle of The Glenlivet. We stayed up another hour or two chatting amongst ourselves and with him. He’s converting the old coach house into a very special bar. It will carry 350 different single malts. Heaven!

I love this place. I love these people. It's Life on Mars. The only problem is, Annie’s not here.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Travelling Fight

Traveling has upsides and downsides, which are rarely more keenly demonstrated than on Tuesday. After much of Britain was hit with significant snowfall (the most in the past 18 years) in the last 48 hours, Southampton airport was closed that morning. Their website stated this, even for some hours after it had been reopened (as I was more reliably informed by phoning them). Not knowing whether my flight was running or not, I decided to take the Cat and cab to So’ton in case. I entered an airport in disarray – most flights were cancelled, a few were delayed, there were people all over the place and a queue as long as the terminal trying to reschedule cancelled flights. After a minor battle to check in, I had time to down a coffee, a sandwich, and start on a pint before being called to board.

We stood on a bus for ages. Then we boarded the plane. Then we waited. And waited. Then we were told we were waiting even longer for de-icing. We waited some more. We were subsequently informed that the flight was cancelled due to the weather, so we’d be moved to the 18:15 flight. It was fine outside, and other planes were flying. We piled back into the bus to return to the terminal. They wouldn’t let us off the bus. “We’re trying to convince the pilot to fly” was their excuse. Convince the pilot to fly! That sounded like a great idea. Their powers of persuasion failed, it would seem, as we were soon kicked off the bus and asked to wait around to collect our checked bags, so that we could check them in again. There was, at least, a friendly atmosphere of comradery amongst the passengers, who were generally taking things in good spirits.

However, after queuing for some time to get assigned to the later flight, things kicked off. The handling of the entire situation was erratic at best. Some people were given tickets for free food in the terminal. Others were not. It culminated in a confrontation between a very mild-mannered Scottish guy and the airline. He wished to take in violin on as carry-on luggage. He’d done it many times before with this airline, on the same planes. But this time, he was told it was not possible. After talking with them for some time, he said something awful – something utterly and unbelievably offensive. He said: “This is stupid.” They called the police. The Special Branch, no less! He was asked, at one point, to stand back because he was offensively close to a staff member. When, later, a staff member stood that close to him, I was pleased that he said the same to her. The copper was very reasonable, but in exasperation said that the easiest way to get out of this is to cave and apologise to the staff.

So, it seems that in this country we are no longer allowed to express an opinion about services for which we pay. It won’t be long until we won’t be allowed to return a poorly cooked meal to the kitchen, or a faulty TV to the shop. Just in case we offend someone. Which would be awful. Just awful.

Friday, January 30, 2009


I'm home. And it is strange; a bizarre mixture of the familiar and the foreign. I have been away long enough that certain aspects are becoming more striking than they once were. The density of the towns, the wet, gritty nature of the streets. The accents seem thicker - strangely, particularly so for those of the South (where I spent most of my life, before moving abroad).

I arrived on Tuesday. We descended through the cloud cover toward Gatwick - clouds at 1000 feet or so, which were slowly diffusing in the frosted fire of the morning sun. The fields were still dotted with patches of fog, clinging to the sides of the little undulations in the Sussex terrain. Beautiful.

The railways are in their usual state of disarray; icy tracks early on, diversions due to engineering works on the fast line and a broken-down train near Barnham conspired to thwart my direct jouney to Pompy, and I ended up changing trains at my maternal hometown of Horsham. I asked there for details of connecting services. I was told by the Staionmaster: "You're going to hate me, mate, but there's a bus service replacing trains. It's stop-start all the way. But there's a train in 14 mintues which may or may not be running. It's your call, but I'd wait to see if the train arrives, if I were you." The guard on the train - an ex-army man, betrayed in stature and shoes before he even opened his mounth - also complained resignedly about the state of the railway system. "The train to Portsmouth Harbour is due in 13 minutes. It might run all the way, but they might turn it around at Fratton to try to get the up-service back on time. As usual, I'm the last to know." During the rail journey, he called in on his personal phone to try to get information on how various services where running to inform passengers where and when to change. The train terminated at Fratton, of course.

I'm growing more deeply in love with the British winter; the decay of one year becoming transfigured to the fuel of the next. A purging, a recharging, before growth begins again in the spring. A rebooting, if you will. Or if you won't. I don't care. Gazing from the train window I watched the fields pass - some flooded almost beyond recognition as arable land, all showing traces of frost in the shadows - stalwart bastions of the frigid night. The odd single bird, alone in a vast field, is startled by the passing train and takes flight. A pair of swans in a reed-lined fen are drifting lethargically in the icy water. The cold of winter reduces life's motion to a minumim; all movement costs.

I'm simultaneously excited and ill at ease.