Friday 30 May 2014

You Again

Certain images in certain places have a personal significance that it is difficult to convey without explanation, and yet one is compelled to remake and revisit them over and over. They appear to be mere repeats of the same old same old, with minor variations: I expect musicians feel the same way about certain scales, chords and arpeggios.  The scene above, for example -- a tapering, convex island of organic debris emerging from a still, reflective pool, like the back of a whale-- is a picture I have taken dozens of times over the past 20 years.  It speaks to me, eloquently, but is probably fairly silent to you.

I can be pretty certain that no-one else will ever "own" the way I do the 80 square metres of water I came to call the Pentagonal Pool, and which formed the subject matter of one of my first coherent photo-projects in the 1990s.  Making this series of photographs, using colour negative film in a Mamiya C330f twin-lens reflex camera, was the first time I had really pushed through the barrier that separates boredom and over-familiarity from the deep and enduring fascination of a true engagement with the mystery of "place".  It may sound a little mad, and perhaps it is, but for a year or so I lived for the moment during my lunch-hour when I could revisit that pool, to see what new disguise it would be wearing today.  I still pass it most days, and still sometimes take the same pictures from the same place.

Similarly, the puddles that form on a particular expanse of car-park tarmac and gravel have become a benchmark for me.  I have often stopped on my way to or from my office, and made a quick photograph of whatever mood was reflected in the illusory abyss of sky opening at my feet.  Again, there are dozens of such pictures in my files.  To another person, they are simply many very similar "puddle pictures"; to me, they are a kind of diary.  And, like most diaries, they are compelling to their creator, but impenetrably cryptic to anyone else.  Trying somehow to bridge this gap between what is intensely personal and what can be shared is, I suppose, what the creative impulse is about.  To leave one's diary open on the table isn't enough; some art, some disguise, some reworking is required.
Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!
Charles Baudelaire

Saturday 24 May 2014

Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen -- a well-known figure here in the UK among the bookish, but probably less well-known abroad -- has had some timely UKIP-related posts on his blog in the lead-up to this week's European and local elections.  This, for example:
Fascism: I sometimes fear...

"I sometimes fear that
people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress
worn by grotesques and monsters
as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis.

Fascism arrives as your friend.
It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud,
protect your house,
give you a job,
clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you...

It doesn't walk in saying,
"Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution."
And this:
 Miliband, UKIP and the 'I'm not racist but...' people.

Am fascinated
by these 'I'm not racist but' people they show us.
They say things like 'it's all got too much'
and 'there's too many of them' etc etc
So what do they think UKIP is going to do for them?
Put people on trains and ship them out?
And how will these people be chosen?
And who is going to do the choosing?
And if the people refuse to go?
Will UKIP have special police to do that?
And this is not racism?
And UKIP isn't deliberately holding out hopes for people who say those things that that is precisely what they would do?
And Labour can't say that about UKIP?
And that Labour should keep saying that 'people have concerns' instead of saying what I'm saying here?
For f.sake Miliband, it's what your parents fled from.
Say it. Say it. Say it.
We need reminding of these things.  Labour held our council here in Southampton, but my cousin Sandy stood as a Labour candidate out on the Norfolk coastal wilds and lost to UKIP.  I see the pictures of those grinning, beefy men in suits celebrating, and Rosen's words seem very appropriate.  Fascism does not arrive in fancy dress...

Friday 23 May 2014

Pictures at an Exhibition

OK, so here is the invitation to my upcoming exhibition.  It's a sheet about 21cm square, which has text on the front, and an image on the back, which is then folded about a third in from the left to make an asymmetrical A5 leaflet.  Pretty cool, eh?




The title?  Rupert Larl, who runs the gallery, seized on my blog post from April A Tourist from Mars and ran with it.  I had thought of calling the show "England and Nowhere", but the Tourist title is better, I think.

Thursday 22 May 2014

South Bank Gallery 2

I recently decided that I should broaden my photographic palette to include pictures of strangers.  I say "pictures of strangers" because -- like anyone else with access to a camera -- I take a lot of photos of friends and family, but these have never been intended to be used as part of my public photographic oeuvre, if I may put it that way; they're strictly for the album.  I probably have a pretty good album by most standards, it's true, but it's for private consumption only.  I might occasionally slip one or two such images into this blog, but there is not a single "album" photo among the 84 images I shipped out to Innsbruck for my upcoming exhibition.*

Photographing strangers is easier said than done.  It's one thing to pursue your own children or partner with a camera, for example, but quite another, these days, to even give the appearance of pursuing other people's children and partners.  Forget about it.  It's deeply unpopular and -- unless you're after a gallery of the limited but lively gestural repertoire that says, unambiguously, "Go away!" -- there seems little point in it.  I decided the easy way in for a beginner in the "street" trade was to look for people who either wanted to be photographed, looked like they might be pleased to be photographed, or were so busy doing something else (including being photographed by someone else) that it wouldn't occur to them to object.

I think it helps that the silver X-E1 is so friendly and unthreatening in appearance -- it looks just like an old film camera. It also helps that, if I set my mind to it, I can look pretty friendly, too.  Who would object to being snapped by some  smiling, grey-bearded old dude with some ancient relic of a camera?  Certainly not other grey-haired old dudes...

Nothing terribly exciting there yet, of course; I'm just feeling my way as a beginner in the art of stealing strangers' souls....  And, obviously,  you know where my heart really is:

Oh, yes!

* More about this very soon!

South Bank Gallery 1

You'll be wondering, of course, what sort of bag I brought home from my recent hunter-gatherer expedition along the Thames embankment.  The light was good but not ideal, fading rapidly from a nicely overcast sky to the threat of rain by lunchtime.  But, I'd far rather have had that than a blandly sunny day.

Appearing Rooms fountain, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Waterloo Bridge

Under Waterloo Bridge

I've pretty much decided to make the move from Micro Four Thirds to the Fuji X system; there's no arguing with the results.  As a preliminary, cautious move, I now have an X-E1 kit, as these can be had very cheaply (for a top-rated camera, that is) if you shop around.  The kit zoom lens is Fuji's clear declaration of intent:  mainly metal construction, f/2.8-4, image-stabilised ... It's a pleasure to use, if a bit heavier than I've become used to.

One massive advantage of the X system is that using Auto ISO up to 1600 is a genuine "set and forget" option -- any degradation in image quality (for my kind of work, anyway) is negligible.  I'm having to use JPEGs at the moment, as my versions of Elements and Camera Raw don't support raw conversion from the X-E1.  Nothing -- NOTHING -- would persuade me to use the supplied software, the egregious SilkyPix.  Why do camera manufacturers insist on bundling such cheap rubbish with their expensive cameras?  But it's barely an issue: the out-of-camera JPEGs are humiliatingly good.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Howl, etc.

Elevated expectation, stoked by hype, is a state of mind best avoided.  Not many things or experiences in this world can live up to the kind of hysterical pre-publicity that the media love to generate, and that unsatisfying, hollow feeling -- "Is this it?  Is that all there is?" -- is generally the result.  It's better to be pleasantly surprised or, on rare occasions, unexpectedly overwhelmed.  But it would be a sad state of affairs never to allow oneself to anticipate some of life's more reliable pleasures, simply to avoid the occasional disappointment.

The current production of King Lear at the National Theatre, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Simon Russell Beale, has been the subject of a certain amount of hype.  We went up to London on Monday to see it, staying overnight so that we could decompress at leisure, and also so that my partner, for once, could have an easy commute to work, and I could spend a leisurely day hunting photographs along the South Bank of the Thames.  Mission accomplished!  We enjoyed our theatrical evening, our hotel was fine, and I returned home yesterday with a nice haul of images.

King Lear is a notoriously tricky play to get right on the stage, and the National have not, in my humble opinion, got it right.  In fact, I think they've got it a bit wrong, and yet not many people seem to have noticed, or dared to say so.  Setting it in a vaguely fascist dictatorship, adrift somewhere between the 1930s and today was lazy, and a bit of a cliché.  It made more problems than it solved:  modern dictators do not have court fools, and any business requiring swords becomes absurd when everyone is standing around armed with AK-47s and automatic pistols.  If I wanted to be harsh, I'd say I'd seen an exceptionally good amateur production, with a massive budget, a superb stage set, and one actor of genius, but with no real sense of ensemble acting, and a rather uncertain take on the mammoth issues explored by the play, emotional, artistic, theatrical, and interpretive.  I say this feelingly, as I once carried a spear in a school production of Lear, watching a star actor receive intensive coaching, while the rest of us stood aimlessly by.

Rather than write an essay, here are some key points:
  • In this production, Lear gradually turns into Mr. Natural (a Robert Crumb cartoon figure), especially once reduced to wearing a hospital gown, an effect exacerbated by foreshortening if you're sitting upstairs in the circle.  This is more comic than tragic.
  • Beale rattles through the bulk of his lines at a hectic pace, blurring them into an all-purpose Shakespearian white noise, then puts on the brakes, emphasising single lines, especially if those lines can be given a contemporary, colloquial intonation (I suspect the text has undergone more than a little bending here and there).  It's a good trick, but he uses it too often.
  • Far, far too many lines in important scenes are played for laughs.  Several people die on stage like Monty Python spoofs. Gloucester having his eyes gouged is not a piece of camp.  In other productions, audience members have fainted; here, they giggled.
  • Playing the key scene on the blasted heath ("Blow winds, and crack your cheeks") with Lear and his fool on an elevated riser could have worked but, wot, no water?  No wind machine?  Recorded thunder cracks over the PA and some arm-waving don't cut it.  This is a theatrical "pull out all the stops" moment, and one the theatre techs must live for.  They deserve their moment.
  • Regan (Anna Maxwell Martin) is very poor.  I'm sorry, but screaming, growling and barking random words and giggling in between each line as you sip a cocktail is not a trick you can pull in every scene.  I was reminded of Miranda Richardson playing Elizabeth I in Blackadder.  It's also nice to be able to hear what an actor is saying.
  • Edgar (Tom Brooke) is also very poor.  What is a stoner in a hoodie with an estuary accent doing in King Lear?  Remarkably, the length of his penis when naked as Mad Tom sent a perceptible frisson through the theatre.  He had a lot of fun covering and uncovering himself with a blanket ("Poor Tom's a-cold!  Oops!"). But, again, you can't play this scene for laughs, as if it were an episode of a laddish sitcom.
  • Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) is the absence around which the play must turn.  As her character and relationship with Lear can only be portrayed in Act 1 Scene 1, due weight must be given to that scene.  There was some clever business with a microphone and giant folders of deeds slapped onto a table, but Cordelia's unexpected "nothing" is played, oddly, as defiance, rather than a tragic misfire, which undermines the rest of the play.  Her eventual return as a diminutive AK-47-toting rebel leader is, again, mildly humorous.  And having her troops land in a sun-blasted savannah, whilst the defending Britons are living in a land of perpetual gloom, is bizarre.  "You make your own weather" is hardly one of the key themes of the play.
Apart from that, it was very good.  No, really.  We enjoyed our evening very much, but not quite as much as we enjoyed kibbitzing and picking holes afterwards.  But that's our thing.

One tip, however:  avoid evenings when the National runs the text electronically on either side of the stage as an "audio-described performance".  It is very distracting, like a TV in a pub, and once you start reading you won't be able to stop.  And you will giggle when the scrolling text says things like "SAD VIOLINS" or "LOW RUMBLE".

Monday 19 May 2014


The tradition of college commencement addresses seems to be peculiarly American. The word "commencement" itself is used here in a uniquely American sense, equivalent to "graduation" in British English.  I suppose the idea is that you are about to "commence" your adult life; from here on in, the dress rehearsal, line-learning and costume-fitting is over, and the Real Thing begins.

Despite having somehow managed to accumulate several degrees (4.5 or thereabouts), I have never myself attended a graduation ceremony as I'm allergic to such formal occasions, so I'm not sure whether any speechifying generally takes place.  But I'm pretty sure there is no tradition here of writers or other prominent public figures being invited to deliver uplifting thoughts on Life, the Universe, and Everything to a congregation of freshly-minted graduates.

In America things are different, and a good commencement address can achieve a considerable afterlife of its own.  Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Neil Gaiman, Vaclav Havel and even Bono have all given addresses in recent times that receive millions of hits on YouTube.  You can even find a commencement "top ten" here.  I quoted a little while ago some words used in various such speeches to young adults given by Kurt Vonnegut ("If this isn't nice, what is?"), and there was an even more well-known -- but spoofed -- Vonnegut address that went viral in the 1990s ("wear sunscreen").

Not much call for sunscreen here...

Recently I read a piece in the always interesting Melville House blog on the commencement addresses of Wendell Berry.  I was particularly struck by this quotation, on the importance of what we would now call "localism":

What has happened here? By “here” I mean wherever you live and work. What should have happened here? What is here now? What is left of the original natural endowment? What has been lost? What has been added? What is the nature, or genius, of this place? What will nature permit us to do here without permanent damage or loss? What will nature help us to do here? What can we do to mend the damages we have done? What are the limits: Of the nature of this place? Of our intelligence and ability?
What an interesting set of questions to ask of the place you live!  What a useful way to orientate ourselves, in a world that increasingly encourages us to focus globally, which is, in effect, to ask us to focus on nowhere and nothing in particular.

Though, in the words of the fictional sunscreen address, this may be "advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young".

Saturday 17 May 2014


There's a nice piece by by Clive James in the current TLS.  You can read it here:  Poems of a Lifetime.  His comments on the obfuscating difficulty of "Miltonics" are well made.  As I have written myself in this blog a number of times, the days when we can assume, and play upon, a shared classical and biblical heritage have passed, and will never return.  Footnotes are not the stuff of a living, common culture.  Like the level of carbon monoxide in a room, once the necessary footnotes occupy more space on the page than the text, that text is toxic, only to be entered by professionals with the correct training and equipment.

Control: What can you see in there?
Operative: The riches of Croesus!
Control: Who?
Operative:  Croesus!  He whose riches far outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind! As when the Phrygian king...
Control:  OK, get him out of there!  He's gone Miltoxic!

It comes as a surprise to most Brits that Clive James is well-regarded as a player in the culture game.  To anyone over 50, he is indelibly associated with Saturday night TV, and a certain sort of wry meta-commentary on the idiocies of broadcasting and celebrity.  Those extracts from the Japanese game show Endurance probably blew more people's minds than anything else on TV; in retrospect, it was a sort of shock-tactic softening-up operation for the coming of multiculturalism and postmodernism.  Or perhaps not.  Maybe it was just us laughing nervously at the inscrutable Jap. That James' own father had been a prisoner of the Japanese in WW2 and died before returning to Australia was never mentioned, as far as I know.

That incessant shuttling between Highbow and Lowbrow -- now you see him, now you don't -- is very much Clive James territory.  If ever a man has done his best to fall publicly between a dozen stools of wildly different heights it is James.  Eventually, he succeeded: apparently, he kept two houses -- one in Cambridge, one in London -- and ran several simultaneous affairs.  It was the revelation of one these that caused his wife, professor of Italian Prue Shaw, to kick him out.  Sadly, he is now in a prolonged valedictory phase: he's extremely ill, and full of regrets about the breakup of his marriage, and -- like any other dying man -- the dozens of other loose ends that will now remain forever untied, the books that will remain forever unread, and the actions that can never be undone.

Occasionally, poetic bulletins on James' progress appear in the TLS, like this one:
Holding Court

Retreating from the world, all I can do
Is build a new world, one demanding less
Acute assessments. Too deaf to keep pace
With conversation, I don’t try to guess
At meanings, or unpack a stroke of wit,
But just send silent signals with my face
That claim I’ve not succumbed to loneliness
And might be ready to come in on cue.
People still turn towards me where I sit.

I used to notice everything, and spoke
A language full of details that I’d seen,
And people were amused; but now I see
Only a little way. What can they mean,
My phrases? They come drifting like the mist
I look through if someone appears to be
Smiling in my direction. Have they been?
This was the time when I most liked to smoke.
My watch-band feels too loose around my wrist.

My body, sensitive in every way
Save one, can still proceed from chair to chair,
But in my mind the fires are dying fast.
Breathe through a scarf. Steer clear of the cold air.
Think less of love and all that you have lost.
You have no future so forget the past.
Let this be no occasion for despair.
Cherish the prison of your waning day.
Remember liberty, and what it cost.

Be pleased that things are simple now, at least,
As certitude succeeds bewilderment.
The storm blew out and this is the dead calm.
The pain is going where the passion went.
Few things will move you now to lose your head
And you can cause, or be caused, little harm.
Tonight you leave your audience content:
You were the ghost they wanted at the feast,
Though none of them recalls a word you said.

Clive James
(published in the TLS, 28 February 2013)
It seems to me that here is a man who, watching himself watching himself die, has finally found his subject.

Friday 16 May 2014

Your Call is Important to Us


As someone responsible for delivering a service which matters a great deal to those who use it (it's not just me, of course, there are 200 or more of us at it) I understand the stress and difficulty of dealing with frustrated and angry customers.  Particularly for those on the front line, who have to cope with the sometimes outrageous behaviour of people who should know better.  For example, senior academic staff who are prepared to reduce a 19-year-old assistant to tears over a late-returned book (variations on the "Do you know who I am, young lady?"scenario).  This is not to mention the knife-wielding maniac who terrorised one of our reception staff, or the scary creeps and stalkers, or even the routine but breathtaking rudeness and arrogance of many students.

So, I try not to lose it when dealing with the front-line staff of other service providers (even cold callers, though I do tend to have a little fun with them if I'm in the mood).  They're just doing a difficult job, for very little pay, and no "job satisfaction" at all.  Today, however, I came very close to making an exception.

When I wrote the previous post, I fully expected things to sort themselves out.  I believed the story I was being peddled, about there being some mysterious technical problem with Orange customers upgrading to EE, which would all be sorted out mañana.  It is, after all, the same freaking company now, isn't it?  I could put up with the second upgrade handset they'd sent me (did I mention that the first one came with the wrong-sized SIM?), despite the fact it didn't really match what I'd asked for as a replacement, especially the bit about being able to use it as a telephone.  Then, yesterday, I received a letter from EE giving me my PAC code, because it seemed I had decided to move to another supplier.  What? Since when?

The fuse was lit.

I won't bore you with a blow-by-blow account, and cut to the chase. It seems that in one of the mañana conversations I'd had with tech-desk guys in between musical interludes, my interlocutor had taken it upon himself to cancel my upgrade (hey, because I wasn't getting any service!) and to return me to my original contract with Orange.  He didn't tell me this, and we didn't discuss this, though his "notes" say that we did.  My word against his, I suppose.  Yet, oddly, all of the other cheery Hibernians I dealt with subsequently kept up the reassuring fable that I was simply an Orange customer having difficulty "upgrading" to EE, not an ex-customer.  My, how they must have laughed!

And, somehow, just to compound the confusion, this had all somehow mutated in the paperwork into me asking not just to cancel the new contract (which I hadn't) but also to move to another supplier -- hence the PAC code.  Did I mention that Orange is the same company as EE?

Very, very carefully, I had to pinch out the burning fuse, which was getting perilously close to the explosives.

I get the strong impression they don't really want my custom.  Which is fine.  However, I will be keeping a very close eye on my direct debits over the next couple of months, just in case they want to have their cake and eat it a couple of times over.   So, does anyone recommend a UK mobile network?  Anyone use Three or O2?  Or are they incompetent, double-dealing brigands, too?

Thursday 15 May 2014

Thank You for Holding

I upgraded my phone service, recently.  I should know better, but did it anyway.  Upshot: so far, six days without a phone service.  Everything Everywhere?  Nothing Nowhere, more like...  I hope they're getting truly tired of hearing that obvious but bitterly-felt joke.

Anyway, this means that I've spent a lot of time on the landline, listening to the soothing lies of variously-accented folk, mainly Irish, whose main role seeems to be to put you on hold, pointlessly, for ten minutes ("I'm just going to go and check something with my colleague..."), racking up the cost of the call.  Must be a nice little earner for them.

But, there's an upside to this.  I get to hear music I wouldn't otherwise hear.  I don't know whether all mobile phone suppliers are the same, but Orange/EE have obviously put some thought into the demographic of the captive ears desperately awaiting the return of a human voice ("Sorry about that, Michael, my second coffee was a bit too hot, so I cooled it down by taking a walk to the bank to get some cash, and bumped into my old friend Seamus, and ... well, you know how it goes.  Hope you didn't mind listening to a loop of upbeat, quirky indie music for twenty-five minutes?  Grand!").

Of course, the sound quality isn't up to much, and there's no DJ telling you what's coming up next, as it just careens from one track to another, occasionally interrupting a good bit with insincere recorded apologies ("Jesus, are you still here?  We've been like TOTALLY overwhelmed with calls this morning, so we're like really, really sorry about that, you know?"), and I do miss the original Orange girl with her throaty, smoker's voice.  We had a thing going: I could tell she was genuinely sorry to keep me waiting, you know?  But, the music is not bad, and completely new to me, aimed as it is at a rather younger audience.

I amuse myself by googling the lyrics to identify the tracks.  This week has figured "Brave" by Sara Bareilles and "Millionaire" by Scouting for Girls quite heavily.  I like the first a lot (in another life, I am clearly an angsty-but-feisty teenage girl) though I liked it better when I had misunderstood the lyric as accusatory and ironic (as in, now it's your turn to be brave, heartbreaker!) rather than merely charity-marathon uplifting.  "Millionaire" is annoying but catchy, and makes me feel my age.  That white-boy-cute indie style, with its self-conscious glottals and hint of a Jafaican slur, is, I fear, exactly where I'd be at now if I were 40 years younger.  Which I'm not.  Which is also annoying.

But... Wait, what?  Sorry, Fergus is back on the line...

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Early Morning Mystery

A tale of two JPEGs, this.

Yesterday, as I arrived at work, there was a sweet, early morning light casting its spell over everything.  The chestnut tree beyond the wall in the Old Dairy car-park looked fine against a blue sky.  It photographed very well, with those excellent Fuji colours.  The JPEG file you see above is a fair representation of the final, processed TIFF file.

As alway on a sunny morning, there was a nice scatter of reflections from the east-facing escarpment of the Biological Sciences building.  I was very interested in a combination of reflections and shadows that was making interesting shapes on a green steel utility cabinet.  Again, it photographed nicely.  However, what you see below is not much like the final, processed TIFF file at all.  In fact, it's downright ugly in places.

My initial assumption was that I had accidentally converted the JPEG from the heavily-doctored version of the image I use for printing (i.e. brightness and contrast turned up, saturation turned up, shadows and highlights adjusted with curves) which prints nicely, but looks horrendous on screen.  So I converted it again, and the JPEG looked fine on screen.  I imported it into Blogger; it looked terrible.  So I did it again.  Still terrible.

It's a mystery, and something I've not seen before.  Now, I do know that Blogger imports its images via Picasa (without realising it, you are building quite a large file of images on Picasa -- around 2000, in my case).  So, I had a look in Picasa, wondering whether I had managed to select the same original "bad" version each time, but there are three identically weird versions of this image in there.

Odd.  The only guess I can hazard is that Picasa and the colour space of this image didn't like each other much, for some reason, with the result that a palette of subtle dark and light greens gets corrupted into the sort of thing you might see in those light-headed, buzzing seconds before losing consciousness.

Something that has been on my mind today, as I had to submit to a blood test, and I am not a brave boy when it comes to nurses with needles.

Sunday 11 May 2014

A Swift One

We spent a blustery, sunshine-and-showers afternoon in the water-meadows beside the Itchen today.  The swifts, swallows and martins have now arrived in force, following a few trailblazers who arrived in the last few weeks, and there was a mayfly hatch this afternoon, so things were buzzing.  The swallows seem mainly to prefer to cruise up and down the river, but if you stand in the middle of a meadow, swifts and martins zip all around you at great speed.  It's a wonderful spectacle.

How they avoid crashing into things or each other is a mystery. I don't think they have anything as sophisticated as echo-location, though they do shriek a lot as they go careering around.  It reminded me of a house we used to rent in Brittany, which had a bright outside light that attracted moths.  If you turned it on in the early evening, you could watch through the french windows as bats of various sizes screeched around the house like floodlit speedway racers, snatching up moths as they went.

We passed a rather nice house for sale down near one of the river channels, one of three in a converted mill.  When I got home I checked how much they wanted for it:  guide price, £800,000.  Yikes.  Winchester prices remind me why we live in Southampton.

Thursday 8 May 2014

Thank You for the Days

I've had one of those elusive Good Days, today.  Not that my days are generally bad, or even uniformly mediocre, but a genuinely good Good Day is a thing to be noted, enjoyed, and -- if your toothwork is better than mine -- shared with the world by wearing a smile on your face.

Well, all right, let's not get carried away, but I'm put in mind of what Kurt Vonnegut said about his uncle, in various graduation addresses:
He said that when things were really going well we should be sure to NOTICE it. He was talking about simple occasions, not great victories: maybe drinking lemonade on a hot afternoon in the shade, or smelling the aroma of a nearby bakery; or fishing, and not caring if we catch anything or not, or hearing somebody all alone playing a piano really well in the house next door.

Uncle Alex urged me to say this out loud during such epiphanies: "If this isn't nice, what is?” 
Well, yes, and why not?  Let's see:

Today, I finally got my package of 82 photographs off to Innsbruck, having found exactly the right size of protective polythene wrapper in the Post Office to keep the whole monster assemblage dry.  I'd been worried about that.

Today, I had a medical appointment, expecting an unpleasant experience (the last nurse to water-board my ears was a sadist), but had a pleasant one instead.  Another worry gone.  And I can hear again... What a relief!  Then I discovered what I suppose I ought to have known all along: that prescriptions for over 60s, even those in gainful employment, are free.  Yes!

And, talking of gainful employment, today I spent a pleasant hour or two passing on the latest installment of my accumulated wisdom of 30 years to a junior member of staff, in anticipation of my retirement later this summer.  Few things are as satisfying as realising, yes, I do know something worth knowing about this  business, after all, and, for once, I can remember what it is.

Then I discovered, to my astonishment, that -- according to the real, final statement I received today -- all previous quotes of the pension I should expect to receive after August had actually been too low, which had me reaching for the phone in anticipation of a really good argument with the idiot who'd obviously sent someone else's inflated bloody salary to our pension provider, rather than my own.  After all, as is universally acknowledged, after a couple of hours of pleasant pontification, a really good rant can set you up nicely for the day.  But, instead, once the nature of the situation had been explained to me -- patiently, and several times, as I'm dense when it comes to money matters -- I came off the phone with that glow of benevolent well-being that can only be brought about by the discovery of a couple of ten-pound notes in a coat pocket (one's own, ideally). I may not be rich, but I'm better off than I had expected to be.

So, put it all together, and by lunchtime I was on a natural high that even the insistent downpour could only enhance.  I queued for the cash machine in the rain with a song in my heart.

If this isn't nice, I was thinking, what is?

I'll have what she's having, please...

Friday 2 May 2014

Senior Moments

I forgot to say, I had a remarkable landmark experience last week.

When we got to the head of the short queue, the young woman selling entry tickets for Stokesay Castle went through her usual, well-polished spiel: entrance is so much, with reductions for seniors and under-18s, and membership for a whole year is a mere so much -- have you considered membership? No? -- and a printed guide is so much, but the recorded tour is free.  I started to count out the cash, when it struck me.  No, wait!  How old is a senior?

Sixty? Bingo!

I grabbed back and rapidly started recounting the cash.  My very first senior concession!  Amusingly and endearingly, the Prof -- who is young in appearance but an infamous tightwad -- was visibly conflicted.

It is a conflicting thing, this crossing of the threshold that leads, inexorably, to the great anti-climax that is Old Age.  There's a nice piece by Jenny Diski in the London Review of Books which is worth reading (anything by Jenny Diski is worth reading, I think).  It's a wry meditation on ageing, framed as a book review, that is several cuts above the usual "You know you're getting old when..." routines.  I'm sure she's right in predicting an upcoming deluge of "How to Be Old" books, written by boomers for boomers.  Worse, these books will all be tainted with that neoliberal, hippyish optimism that insists that all negative experiences are, at root, an attitude problem, and probably a consequence of a bad diet.  That the infirmities of age and, ultimately, death itself, are lifestyle choices.