Thirtysomething years ago

I stuck my leg out.

And I’m still thinking about it. It was the last day before the summer holidays. Coming out of primary school everyone was excited and somewhat disbelieving – could those long-dreamt-of school holidays finally be here? Strangely, instead of rushing away from school, people tended to mill about – walking down the road slowly and then meandering back a little. I suppose this was a pleasure to be shared and its reality was more credible in company.

In the middle of that I remember lingering on a street by the school when a kid from the year below came past. I knew him, but not well, but well enough to make a friendly joke. And so in a jokey way I stuck my leg out as if to trip him up. But my timing was off, or he didn’t notice, or something, and he fell over. And started crying. Oh boy. I felt crap and, as I still tend to do when I sense that I have done something wrong, I ran away. I tend to conclude from that that the fear of being chastised was already burned into me. Except now I’ve learnt from my daughter that it ain’t necessarily like that. She has the same desperate aversion to being chastised and will hide the evidence and run away rather than risk being told off. And while I can’t say she’s never been told off severely, I’d strongly argue that she hasn’t had any experiences that justify the extent of her aversion to being told off. And since this behaviour of hers so identically copies my own, I have to conclude that I wasn’t taught to fear chastisement – I was just born like that. Yet again my kids show me that my understanding of the world is just plain wrong.

So anyway, I tripped the guy up, he fell down and cried, and I panicked. But it was the summer holidays, so I didn’t have to see him again for 6 or 7 weeks. Then, when I did, at the start of the next term, his whole leg was in a cast.

I can sit here now and rationally explain to myself that there is no way that his small trip, courtesy of my stupid attempt at humour, could have resulted in him still wearing a cast 7 weeks later. I can explain that til I’m blue in the face and I know I still won’t listen. It was my fault, I broke his leg, and thirty years later I still feel crap about it.

A week ago

I saw my world upside down.

We’ve been thinking about holidays for next year. We like to involve the kids in those kind of decisions, so we asked what they fancy. And Cambuslang said he doesn’t mind, so long as it’s not too hot and they speak English. Now, if that had coincided with my preferences then I don’t suppose I would have thought any more of it. But it doesn’t, so I got to wondering where his preferences came from. After a little bit of digging it seems to boil down to an occasion in one of our few jaunts abroad when someone spoke to him in foreignese and he didn’t understand, and another occasion when we had a picnic lunch on a warm day and there were wasps which he developed an irrational fear of.

So far so reasonable. But that foreign experience was at a ski resort we went to for a day, set in beautiful surroundings, where we had an absolutely fantastic day. It was spring so down in the valleys and towns it was almost summery (compared to Britain), and they loved the surprise of finding so much snow when we got up into the mountains. They loved the sledging, they loved the cable car, they loved the strange foreign lunch, they loved the gift shop (which is where their feelings diverged from mine, temporarily), they had an absolutely wonderful day. And that was one day of a weeks holiday where we visited many lovely places, all chosen for their appeal to our kids (who have slightly odd tastes, bizarrely, given how normal their parents are). And the holiday was a great success – they enjoyed every day, they loved the hotels we stayed in, the towns we visited, the things we did. Even their parents were happy. It was just brilliant – one of the most successful holidays we’ve ever had. And, because of it, Cambuslang doesn’t want to go anywhere foreign.

Shall I tell you about the wasps too? No, I can’t be bothered. The story is almost identical – one unfortunate moment in a great day in a very good holiday.

There’s lots of glum things to conclude from this, the genetic nature of depression being only one of the most obvious. But what has got me thinking most now is the fact that I hated my childhood. It was crap. Nothing good ever happened; at birthdays and Christmases I always got things I didn’t want and never the things I did. Holidays always consisted in doing unpleasant things that my parents wanted, or my brother. I had no friends, nothing pleasant to do. It was just one long painful relentless slog. My parents were fond of saying how childhood is the best time of your life, and I always found it unbelievably hollow. I suppose in that sense I was a born optimist – I refused to believe that the rest of life could be as bad as childhood. In many ways I blamed my parents – it’s undoubtedly their fault that I never fitted in – that I was born with such a wierd demeanour and such odd tastes and developed such a complete lack of social skills. Lots of other people and things were to blame too, but my parents were the biggest culprits.

That was my understanding of things; that’s the interpretation I made of the world – that’s how it seemed to be. How it seems to be, I should say, too. Except.

Except if I try and see the world through my son’s eyes, and try and reconcile that with how I see his world, I can’t help wondering if the way I saw and see my childhood is as utterly divorced from reality as that. Was it actually quite good, and all the badness was in my head? That’s such a disturbing thought that I can’t actually process it, or see where it leads at all. I simply can’t take that possibility in.

Two weeks ago

I was going to get blogging again.

A big project was coming to an end and, since it had been consuming all my time, I was expecting to have a bit of spare time once it had finished.

I was wrong – there now seem to be a thousand small things that are soaking up all my time. So maybe next month …

Not long ago

I realized I had autntism

Over the last couple of decades society has begun to recognize that a number of people find it hard to read non-verbal signifiers such as body language or vocal intonation. Such difficulties make it tricky to function in society, but the increased understanding, and the naming of the condition, help to alleviate some of the effects.

What I’ve realized lately is that I have almost the exact opposite condition. When people speak to me I seem to only respond to the non-verbal content, and seem unable to take in the actual words being said. A typical example was when a colleague asked me a question recently. The intonation he used made it clear that he expected me to know the answer because it was the sort of basic knowledge that everyone in our line of work should know. Unfortunately I didn’t know the answer, and I spent much of the rest of the day feeling like a worm because I was so clueless. His unstated expectations of my knowledge left me feeling a failure.

It was quite a long time later that it dawned on me that he didn’t know the answer either. Of course, at one level, I already knew that – I knew full well he wasn’t asking me the question as a trick or test, but he was asking because he genuinely wanted to know the answer and didn’t. And yet the full impact of that eluded me for ages, because I was so busy responding to the unstated assertion that everybody in my position should know the answer. Since he didn’t know the answer, I eventually reasoned, he probably didn’t expect me to know the answer, merely hoped that I might. If I ask someone a question and they don’t know the answer then I may be disappointed, but I’m highly unlikely to think worse of them as a result, and yet that is exactly what I was expecting my colleague to do.

And this is just one example of a regular occurrence. A friend can express gratitude for a present, but I’ll be listening out for the edge in their voice that says it wasn’t actually what they wanted, and all the gratitude then counts for nothing to me. A friend can compliment me on the way I did something, but there’ll be something in their intonation which shouts to me that I didn’t do it the way they would have done, or as well as they would have done, and their words then evaporate.

Just over twenty two years ago

I started struggling with struggling

It was a strange week. I was stuck, spending every waking and sleeping hour of 7 long days, with a bunch of young charismatics. Amongst many things I learnt the reality of “your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions”. I used to think that this was Hebrew poetic style, and the use of the two words “dreams” and “visions” was just meant to be two descriptions of essentially the same phenomenon, and that there was not some key distinction being made between the two. That week I learnt the fallacy of this view. I discovered that when your young earnest evangelical dreams, he takes it to be a vision, that everyone around him must be told about, because God has spoken to him, him alone, and clearly God thinks he’s special and has given him this special message for everyone. On the other hand, when the old man dreams, he has learnt enough wisdom to realize that it is a dream and nothing more.

One of the young men that week dreamt about struggling. He was striving to do something and never achieved it. This was clearly a vision from God that he shouldn’t strive and, since God had given this vision so clearly to him in such a personal way, it was obviously a message that he was duty-bound to pass on to everyone, to tell them that they shouldn’t strive. They should let go and let God. (Well, to be fair, he didn’t mention that cliché, but only, I’m sure, because he hadn’t heard it yet).

I suppose that episode falls into the category of things I was describing before – erroneous assertions accepted unquestioningly. For years I’ve been turning over in my head how to “rise above the gutter you are inside” without striving. If struggling to do better is wrong, then I have to lie back and accept how crap I am and just wait for this to change. That sounds attractive, and I could easily see myself acting despicably while explaining that’s it not my fault, I’m just waiting to be improved to a less despicable state. Unfortunately even I am not stupid enough to think that this is the right approach to life. So, to struggle, or not to struggle, that is the question I’m left struggling with.

Around 30 years ago

I learnt to ride a bike.

We spent a good chunk of Saturday getting my daughter over the immense hurdle of believing that she could actually ride by herself. She’s ridden without stabilizers before, but not enough, or often enough, to build up her confidence, so on Saturday we invested the time to keep her going long enough to trigger that belief. Hopefully. We’ll see when we next take her out on her bike.

And naturally it got me thinking back to when I learnt. Standing there, bent over my daughter at the angle best calculated to cause back pain that just had to be endured because there was no way I would let go of her and risk demolishing the confidence I was so carefully building up, I found myself wondering if this was necessarily a parent’s lot. And it came back to me that my parents didn’t teach me to ride, my brother did. (Along, to be fair, with one of his mates). That is the only memory I have of my big brother doing something for me, of the sort that big brothers are supposed to do. (Oh no, wait, there is another dim recollection coming back to me: my brother took me to the cinema to see Star Wars when it first came out. That time, I know, was because my parents pressured him into it, because they weren’t prepared to go. Draw your own conclusions about my parents from that. I wonder if the bike-learning came about in the same way).

Most of my friends that have siblings have similarly low opinions of their siblings. Actually not many of my friends have older siblings which, I suppose, makes a big difference. But I wonder how this stereotype of what the good big brother (or sister) should be like came about. The big bro is supposed to be cool, an expert on life ready to teach you the most important lessons, and ready to tell you what to think about this band or that film or this movie-star or that shop, and so on. Yet I wonder what the big bro thinks about this, and what he thinks he is doing. It can’t be too cool for the big bro to be hanging around with little bro (or sis). And it’s actually quite pathetic if the person big bro gets to influence is little bro. If the only person that big bro gets to persuade about how great this band is, and how lousy that film is, is little bro, then something’s not quite right, is it. And I suppose that’s getting to the heart of it. Big bro teaches little bro as a way of bigging himself up. In having that captive, attentive audience, big bro persuades himself of his own importance.

I could carry on, but baah, what do I know – I’m not a big bro. There’s a thousand older siblings out there who’ll tell me I don’t understand. And a thousand younger siblings who’ll start wondering if maybe I have a point but who’ll then go and ask big bro to tell them what to think. It’s a silly thing, but I’m starting to think that the world divides into younger siblings and older siblings. That your point of view on the world is shaped more by your birth position than many other factors, but that we don’t often remember that fact. I wonder.

Twelve years ago

I was somewhere else.

I have my computer set up to pick photos at random to display as my desktop. And every now and again it picks out some record of a trip to some obscure part of Europe or other. Sometimes it was a trip to a place quite near where we lived, somewhere we went to many times. Sometimes it was a one-off, a trip from a conference or holiday location. Often I remember the frustrations of the day – trying to find a bite to eat on a Sunday in a German town that actually turned out to be tiny village, trying to find something to see or do in a town whose location, buried in the middle of the Pyrenees, had misguidedly drawn us to it, or scouring every backstreet to try and find an acceptable menu del día in Toledo. But I look at the photos and almost swoon with the desire to go back to the moment they captured. It’s not that I’ve forgotten the rough side of life then, it’s just that the photos seem to arouse only the positive feelings.

With the places that were regular day trips, I’m also overpowered with the need to share the experience. I want to show my friends that place, I want to take my kids there (by contrast, I’m distinctly aware, with how my parents would have acted). I want, I suppose, to let people into what I see as a formative part of my background. It makes no sense that I would view a hill by the Rhein as a formative part of me, but I do. I suppose actually my response to it, my enjoyment of it, was and is revealing of me, a four dimensional Rorschach test. And I suppose that is why, when I once had the chance to persuade some people to visit one of my favourite places on the planet, I declined it. I didn’t want to take them all there and have them tell me it was hideous and that, by extension, I was crazy. And I suppose that’s also why, when I discovered someone else had been to that particular place, and enjoyed it almost as much as I did, I felt affirmed and felt closer to that person than I had before.

Some time ago

I was locked out.

For a long, long time, I’ve had a poor relationship with my parents. We haven’t lived in the same town for well over twenty years now, and my friends would oscillate between despair and bafflement when they discovered how infrequently I speak to my parents. Gaps of months and months between phone calls were quite normal, and there were much longer gaps between visits. When I did talk to them, I’d never actually talk to them. Words would pass from my lips to their ears, but they were words carefully chosen to have as little content as possible.

Most of my friends now know that this is the case and make no mention of it. But occasionally someone else will ask after my parents, or say something to draw my attention to the state of our relations, and cause me to ponder whether I can still justify it to myself.

And finally, on one recent occasion, I saw a deeper reason for the way things are. It is simply that my parents never spoke to me. All sorts of things that would be important to me about them and, thus, about where I came from, have been deliberately withheld. There are silly trivial things, like their politics. My parents would both determinedly take the view that nobody must know how they voted, especially not their own kin. The fact that the only newspapers that entered their house were the mail and the telegraph, whose content they took at face value, and the fact that they would frequently lambast Attila the Hun’s socialist tendencies, didn’t leave a lot of room for doubt about their views, but despite how obvious it was, they made a point of not telling me.

More importantly, I would have liked to know how they met. They came from different towns, different backgrounds, and quite different social outlooks. In retrospect it looks like the strangest man in the country managed to hook up with the loopiest woman, and become my parents. Some concrete information might have helped me understand better, and perhaps appreciate them better. But they made a point of not telling me. Evading questions (a familiar trait to anybody who knows me) and teasingly refusing to answer direct enquiries were their standard responses.

And there are so many things along those lines that they simply wouldn’t tell me. Now, they are both unable to tell me, and all of their friends are either dead, or don’t know, or also aren’t able to tell me. They locked me out of so much of their lives that it really is a wonder to me that I have any relation with them at all.

A few weeks ago

I understood Tchaikovsky.

As usual, of course, I don’t mean by that what you think I do. I remember reading about Tchaikovsky (at least, I think it was him, but it may have been some other composer, my memory being that unreliable) being so insecure that he would approach complete strangers and asked if they loved him. Obviously this is not behaviour that can easily be justified rationally, and when I read it I was struck with how sad it was (as the writer, no doubt, intended) and baffled how Tchaikovsky could think to do it, and not be restrained by the absurdity of such an act.

But recently I’ve been thinking about encouragement and how friends of mine can say very positive things about me and yet these seem to have absolute no effect. If I consider myself a failure, and those nearest to me, those who I value most, and those who know me best, tell me that I’m actually a success, then, while I will hear their words, they won’t mean anything. It is really as if I haven’t actually heard them at all. Like water off a duck’s back.

I was baffled by that reaction of mine (or, rather, that lack of reaction), but utterly bewildered by the contrasting reaction I would have if someone else said something positive about me. If someone I didn’t really know says something good about me, then I react quite strongly, feeling much happier in myself and generally being built up in the way that any compliment ought to. And I realized that it comes down to expectations and motives.

I know that if a friend says something positive, then it is not based solely on their assessment of me. It is also influenced by their judgement of how I will react, their judgement of whether I need encouragement or not, and their judgement of what they expect I will want to hear. Simply put, my friends are likely to say something positive to me because they want to give me the uplifting feeling of receiving some compliment. Conversely, if a non-friend says something positive about something I’ve done, then I know it is based on nothing other than their assessment of my deed. It is not influenced by any concern for me, or any feeling of not wanting to upset me. It is a pure reflection of their judgement of what I have done.

And so, I suppose, it was with Tchaikovsky. Approaching a stranger he knew he would get an answer that was not influenced by obligation or expectations, an answer that was more objective and, therefore, more valuable. Perhaps if I can hold my bafflement at Tchaikovsky’s actions in tandem with my empathy, then I may be able to see the flaws in his logic and mine, and better hear, respect and respond to the opinions expressed by my friends.

Twenty six years ago

Someone got under my skin.

That’s often used in a negative way, and I don’t know if I mean it here negatively or not, but I mean that they managed to plant something deep inside me. I’m a cynical old beast who listens to many things in the firm expectation of hearing nothing that I accept or, at least, nothing that I don’t already know. But the more I look at my school career, and the brief talks given in assemblies at school, the more I find that time after time something said has stayed with me and formed a significant part of my worldview on the subject. Damn them, but they’ve moulded me. They were nearly all wasters and scoundrels, thick and determined to keep everybody else down at their level, the sort of teachers who know they don’t know anything and are psychotically vicious towards anybody that they fear might see through them. But when they spoke I listened and, curse them, their ideas are still there deep inside me. When I think of Fauré’s requiem, I think it is the most profound musical depiction of grief, because I was told this at an impressionable age, even though the speaker was someone who demonstrably had no heart and whose only experience of grief was at someone else succeeding. When I think of the Beatles, I think they were one of the greats, because I was told so by someone whose stupidity was only matched by his propensity to bully. When I think about Camus, I think of him as an immense writer and philosopher because I was told so by, uh, well, actually by the most beautiful French teacher this side of the channel, so probably it’s true.

I suppose the cynicism is a natural response to this. Having established that I have no critical faculties, and will give a lunatic as fair a hearing as a genius, and will as readily take my cues from fools as from philosophers, so my best defence is to refuse to listen to anyone. Anyone care to make any comments on this post?

Around five years ago

I was ignored.

There’s a girl I know, used to live round the corner from our street, working for the council (well, as a teacher), for what probably feels like twenty years. She’s lovely, let’s get that out of the way. She’s caring and concerned about people, and is an all-round good person. But she drives me up the wall.

She has this little personality tic that makes her face you, make strong eye contact, and ask how you are in a way that makes you feel that she really wants to know, and that she really cares about how you are. So you answer. And before you’ve got five words in, she’s turned her head away, and is clearly thinking about something else. So you finish your answer, and then she’s back, with the eye contact again, and she asks you something else. With that same intensity, that same desperate desire to know completely how you are. And so, if you’re as much of a sucker as I am, you’re taken in again, and you begin to answer, trying to give as complete an answer as that intensity of questioning desire seems to require. And this time, if you’re lucky, you get six words in before it happens. And it happens. It happens exactly as before – having set you up she just moves her attention away from you. Like a singer on a stage, exhorted, encouraged, begged to perform but then, after the first few notes, the spotlight is turned off or, worse, turned to somewhere else.

And that really gets to me. It shouldn’t; I certainly can’t explain why it does, not to the extent that it does get to me. It makes me feel like nothing. I suppose I’m carrying some deep predisposition to viewing myself as worthless, that is triggered by such behaviour. All I know is it temporarily kills me. If I have the option, then I will hunker down into myself, and not speak again to anyone for quite a while. (Unfortunately, with that particularly girl, politeness compels me to speak again, and again, every time she asks me anything, so I get to experience the pleasure over and over until I can finally overcome my resistance to impoliteness and walk away). I won’t speak because a) nobody wants to hear what I have to say, and b) I don’t want to go through that experience of rejection again.

But I can’t seem to find a way out of that trap. The only answer seems to be to go on not speaking, not talking. At which point I might as well not be.

Last night

I went to a rave.

Well, ok, maybe that’s not the best term for it, but it’s hard to choose a word without making quite a strong value judgement that I don’t feel happy to make.

I have a friend who I am trying to introduce to things Christian. He and I are both musicians so when I was asked to play for a local gospel choir I thought I’d ask him to come along, partly just to give me a hand and some moral support. I knew the choir were going to be singing some stuff and then a woman visiting from Africa was going to speak. But this choir has a habit of forgetting to inform you of certain salient things. Like when the whole thing might end. Like the fact that the group organizing the event were at the extreme charismatic end of things. Like the fact that this was a woman’s group.

My pal, being sat in the front row, didn’t notice, as the room filled up, that the gender bias was, shall we say, somewhat unequal. Since I was on stage I pretty quickly saw that he was one of precisely two men in the auditorium, but I didn’t realize that he hadn’t noticed. So when I sat down next to him and said “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize this was just for women”, he did a cartoon-like look around the room and his face was a picture.

Still, he was man enough to cope with being almost alone in a roomful of women. And we both coped with the typically charismatic “word” that the speaker delivered. What struck me was how absolutely sure of herself she was. She began by informing us that she’d discussed with God what to say and that he’d made clear that this message was not for any of the other towns she was visiting, but was specifically for us. Quite why our particular town needed that particular combination of random anecdotes, incoherent exhortations and deluded rants was something I just put down to God moving in mysterious ways. But, as I suppose I should have realized, when her “message” came to an end, it needed to be consummated with people being slain in the spirit.

I’ve been to enough events where this sort of thing goes on to be slightly unfazed by it. Yes, we all know of the preachers who pray over someone, laying their hands on the person’s forehead and applying enough pressure to ensure the person falls over. Yes, there are undoubtedly charlatans around and yes, like the best liars, they first delude themselves so that they can act with complete sincerity (a point worth bearing in mind when considering the justification of recent wars this country has been involved in). But. I’ve seen enough of this stuff to see some good come out of it, with people being genuinely changed by it. So while I’m not entirely happy with it I absolutely refuse to dismiss it all.

Being, as I mentioned, in the front row, we were, unfortunately, rather in the way when people who had come to stand in front of the stage (yes, it was that kind of a “church”) to get prayed over started falling over backwards. And that proximity just emphasized my feeling of disconnection. There was a lot of talk about the spirit being here (with the distinct implication that half an hour ago he wasn’t here, and with the implicit consequence that the next morning, when we had to face the trials of this life, he also wouldn’t be there – giving a different denominational approach to ensuring the good of Christian meetings is contained within the meeting and not allowed to enhance the rest of our lives), but with people showing off so much effect of the “spirit”‘s presence, and me feeling nothing, it just left me feeling isolated. And of course my inclination to feel that it was my fault that I was feeling like this was only encouraged by the things people said.

The discomfort of believing there to be something good going on, and yet feeling quite queasy about it, was really pinpointed by a comment my friend made on the way home, which neatly encapsulated a vague thought that had crossed my mind earlier on. As he put it, “I’ve heard women make noises like that before. And I’ve been to church before ….” and I don’t think he got to complete the point before we both wet ourselves laughing.

A couple of weeks ago

I had a moment of lucidity.

Often enough I’ve sat in sermons and been told that how I behave on Sunday should affect how I behave during the rest of the week, and that I shouldn’t be like those numerous people who are all pious on Sunday but complete swines come Monday morning.

And those sermons never made much sense to me. I could never understand how one could even begin to think of being one thing in church on Sunday and something else the rest of the week. It always seemed obvious to me that God sees everything, and that his is the only opinion that matters, so there was no reason to behave differently one day compared to any other. It wasn’t that I consciously decided to live with “integrity” (the kind of bollox word used only by politicians to undermine people who haven’t actually done any identifiable thing wrong), it was just that being one thing at one minute, and being the same thing the next minute, seemed the obvious way of living.

But finally, during another of those bloody sermons, it all became clear to me. After sitting through a long service that consisted solely of ritual, and ritual that, as I described before, makes no sense at all as anything other than ritual, after sitting through all of that it finally became clear: of course you’d behave differently for such a bizarre ritual. Having created church services that make so little sense on a rational level, and bear no relation whatsoever to life as we live it, of course people are going to start acting out that ritual in a way that is completely independent of the way they live the rest of their life.

In short, when I wrote last time that we’d made our church services unhelpful, I was seriously understating things. We’ve actually contrived to make our services actively damaging to our Christian lives. Where meeting with other believers should encourage us and help us to live more godly lives, instead we’ve conspired to create such a theatrical charade as to encourage us to live the rest of our week in as ungodly a way as possible. Our services (a wholly inappropriate word, btw, “disservice” would be a much better one) depict godly-living as a bizarre ritual and something that cannot be connected, on any level, with our Monday to Saturday existence.

What a result!

Six months ago

I had to change my mind

One of my favourite hymns is “When I survey the wondrous cross”. Possibly I was influenced by Iona’s version of it, and I was certainly pleased to introduce a version based on their arrangement into our church’s music repertoire. For the first few times it always elicited a story from the preacher about how Isaac Watts was the first to use the word “I” in a hymn – personalising the sentiments and making them much more immediate then was previously possible. I took that as a very positive recommendation of the hymn and while unsure of the claimed history I was happy to buy into the story. Until

For several years I’ve been agonizing about our church services. “Our” in the widest sense, but most specificially referring to the church that I regularly attend, and that I would claim as “my” church, by which, of course, I am standing up and associating myself with it, not claiming it as my personal possession. I’ve written about this at some length here, and I’m starting to think I need to write at some more length in perhaps a more formal way.

I’m not sure where the dissatisfaction originated, but I started questioning everything that took place on a Sunday and before long I arrived at a stage where I could not intellectually justify any of it. None of it was done as a means of achieving a particular goal – all of it was done because traditions had to be perpetuated. Some of it you could, with a sufficiently twisted mind, come up with an explanation for. But any goal that you claimed it was trying to achieve could undoubtedly be achieved much, much more efficiently and effectively.

The singing of songs in church was a key area here. We talk of “worship songs” or “a time of worship”, which beautifully implies that this is the only time in the week that we acknowledge the worth of God. Many of the OT prophets, and many of Jesus’s actions and words, make clear that worship should primarily be our living our lives in a way that pleases God. Treating others fairly, resisting temptations, all those dull things that don’t feel remotely spiritual but which even most outside the church know are things we should do. Those are our acts of worship, and getting off on the latest great tune and clever words are not. But we like singing, and we like to think the emotional buzz we get out of it is deeply spiritual and is serving God. And singing “I” gives more of a buzz than singing “we”. Singing “I” allows us to forget that annoying bloke behind us with the halitosis, and it allows us to overlook that woman on our right who alway grumbles about everything, and so on. Singing “I” allows us to focus on God, without any distractions. In fact, singing “I” clarifies things for us so much that we actually wonder why we have to come along on a Sunday and put up with all these other people that just distract us from God. Letting our mind wonder along these lines (and I chose not to say “thinking along these lines”, because thinking is definitely not what’s going on) will lead us to get frustrated with the whole Sunday business, and start resenting the church services and the way they get inbetween us and God.

By that point we should know that we’ve gone wrong somewhere. And the where, it seems to me, starts with Isaac’s glorious “I”. For as far as I can see, I’ve got a whole week of just me and God – if I want to sing my own private song to him, then I can do it Mon-Sat without problem. Then, on Sunday, I get to join together with the other people that make up the church. I don’t “come to worship God” or “come to meet with God” on a Sunday – I come to meet with my fellow worshippers. Those who, like me, have been worshipping God, or at least trying to, all week. But who, like me, having spent a week on their own are, to use the cliché, somewhat weak. And we all need to get together and do a bit of mutual encouragement. And singing together, for all that it’s naff and reminds of ’70s cumbayah singalongs, is a good way of doing just that. But to do that, to actually sing *together*, we need to be singing “we”, not “I”.

When I survey is a great song of personal meditation. But because it’s precisely that, it’s really not a good song to sing in church. Meeting on a Sunday is of no value whatsoever if we don’t meet – meeting with our fellow believers, despite the halitosis, grumbles and whatever. Blocking them out is to block ourselves out.

Twenty Five Days Ago

I wanted to stir

A friend is, it seems to me, doing something that they shouldn’t be, something that could cause a lot of hurt and damage to quite a lot of people. And I find I want to sidle up to them and quietly point out that I can see what they are doing, and that I know, as they know, that they shouldn’t be doing it. I suppose I must be dreaming of myself as Nathan, and that my intervention will be acknowledged as wise and correct and that my friend will change their behaviour, and that heaps of gratitude will be poured on my head. But I am at least not foolish enough to believe that that will happen. Instead I know the best I can hope for is to be Cassandra and have any truth that I speak be despised and disbelieved. And that most likely my friend will be cross. They may never speak to me again, they may hold a grudge against me and turn many others against me. To this I should feel that it is a shame, but a price worth paying for saving all those potential casualties. But I don’t. I find myself savouring it that `price’. I find myself almost yearning to be maligned, to be shunned, to be hated.

That, at least, shows my motives to be quite wrong, and shows that I should definitely stay quiet on this subject, and not intervene. That much is positive. But why do I want to do it, then? What am I actually aiming to achieve? Do I just want to annoy? Do I want to show off that I can spot what, perhaps, few others can spot? (I’m certainly capable of enough self-delusion to believe that I have such a rare insight). I really do not understand myself sometimes.

Twenty Five Years Ago

I learnt not to talk.

Some years ago I heard a discussion about how people think, and that some people think first and then speak, as you might naively expect, but that others speak first, and can’t actually think without speaking. And I realized that I mostly fall in that strange second group. So many of my beliefs now only clarified themselves through the process of articulating them.

One such idea was articulated after the first few times that my now-wife but then-fiancee met my parents. I had been getting increasingly distressed by the fact that she would actually try to talk to my parents, and even say things to them, things that might actually convey some meaning, some content. At first I was too much in shock to be able to deal appropriately with this, but in time I got over that and took the step of explaining that this must not be done. And in the explaining I found myself saying that anything said to my mum would, sooner or later, be turned by her into a source of regret. Either she would twist it, or mock it, or use it to say the wrong thing to the wrong people at the wrong time, or by any of a number of other strategies that I’m sure I never fully discovered, she would make you regret saying it. As I think back, I see that this thought, while not articulated and so not coherent, dictated my actions from about the time when I was 14 or 15. I’m not sure if it was then that I made the connection between action and consequence, or if it was that around that time my mother started reacting that way, perhaps in response to my adolescence. But from that point on I never properly spoke to my mother, and won’t ever. (It’s nice and dramatic to be able to make such a definitive negative prophecy, but it’s simply that through the wonder that is alzheimers, my mother is already effectively dead and gone even though her body is still alive).

A lot changed around that time. I suppose this is normal, but I tend to think of my life as having been not exactly satisfactory, but at least mostly bearable and stable, for the first 12 or 13 years, and then massively shaken up for the next five years, until, at university, I was able to (re)build a life that I could be happy with, a life where I could be moderately content with myself, and where things were in order – the right priorities, the right way up – just in order. And I find myself thinking now, some twenty odd years later, that since most of my life has been in this orderly state, that most of my outlook on life, most of core beliefs, should be based on this state. But as those years have progressed, what I’ve found more and more, is that what I built was a facade, and what I really am is the disappointment of those first dozen years, compounded by the serious screwing up of the following five. So while on the outside things still seem to be in order – I seem to know what I’m doing, what I’m about, and why – I actually find that my needs and my deep beliefs are woefully different.

And one of the things that’s coming to the fore now is that I dare not talk. What my mum taught me all those years ago seems to apply to everyone. I seem to believe that everyone will twist my words and mock me and make me regret saying anything. I suppose the humour that I constantly resort to is a way of deflecting this and ensuring that nothing that passes my lips actually touches my heart. But in so doing I ensure that I connect with no-one, and no-one connects with me. So I find myself thinking that every man is, in fact, an island, and that the saying to the contrary is Leibnizian blind optimism.

Again, not so long ago

I was told I was wrong.

I wrote before about my problems with saying things that were wrong. I also have a problem with doing things that are wrong, but a different problem. I have an astounding combination of self-assurance and self-diffidence. If I do something, then I will have my own opinion on whether I did it well or badly, and it is very unlikely that anyone will change my assessment of it. Nevertheless, I am very susceptible to criticism. If I think I’ve done something badly, and get criticized for it, then although the criticism matches my own view, I will usually be very hurt by it. Not offended, since I believe just about anyone has the right to criticize me (the exception that springs to mind is when a German criticizes my English – that is something I do take offence at, for better or worse), just upset. My only understanding of this upset is the feeling that I’m criticizing myself enough already, that I don’t need anybody else ganging up on me as well. But I’m sure there is something deeper than that going on.

On the other hand, if I feel I’ve done something well, and get criticized for it, then I will be upset, but partly because I’m puzzled, which in turn makes me question all I know of this world (if I can do this, and yet that happens, then how can I ever be sure of the consequences of anything?), and partly because I then start to question my own critical faculties.

What frustrates me here is why I can’t simply accept criticism, whether I agree with it or not. If I do something that I know is wrong, and am criticized, then it should be the easiest thing in the world for me to respond to the criticism with “yes, I know”, and just respond to my own internal criticism. I suppose the problem stems from me valuing other peoples’ opinions so much more highly than my own. (Except, of course, on the occasions when I don’t value anyone else’s opinion half so much as my own!)

The problem has got to the state now where my wife hardly dares to voice criticism of me, for fear of how I’ll react. And yet, because I know she won’t state any criticism outright, I know read it into almost everything she says, and end up feeling criticized a thousand times more than she intends. Qué embolic jo soc.

Not long ago

I was wrong.

When someone asks me a question, I’m often torn between the impulse to want to help, by answering the question, and the impulse to be honest and admit that I don’t know. (There’s also another pull, which occurs every time I consider opening my mouth, which is to try to say something funny, regardless of whether it answers the question or not. Fortunately, after twenty years of practice, I can mostly keep this under control). Of course there are those rare occasions when I can actually be honest and helpful, if I actually know the answer. But those are rare indeed.

I suppose, as well as wanting to help, if I’m asked lots of questions (by, for example, someone who’s actually trying to get a conversation out of me), all of which I don’t know the answer to (because, let’s face it, the number of questions I know the answer to is dwarfed by the number I don’t know the answer to), it becomes tedious and frustrating for the questioner, so again my impulse is to try and give some variety by actually giving an answer to the question, with diminishing regard for its correctness.

Even when I do actually know the answer, it turns out that I’m often wrong. Frequently this is due to my hopeless inarticulacy – I seem to be able to specifically say that I’d like tea rather than coffee, and have this understood by everybody present as me expressing a clear preference for coffee. But often it seems to be because wires have been crossed in my brain, so that facts I’ve absorbed have become reversed in my head, so that what I know to be true is often the opposite of what is true.

For whatever of these manifold reasons, I often find myself wrong. And I don’t like it. I’m fed up with it. I can’t exactly put my finger on why it frustrates me so, but it does. Obviously some times it matters if I misinform someone, but even when it is totally unimportant my reaction is the same, so it is simply the being wrong that seems to annoy me, not the consequences of it. It often gets to the point now that if I’m asked a question then I’ll actually be reluctant to answer because it’s so likely that my answer will be wrong, leaving me with the same shoulder-shrugging feeling that I get when looking out the curtains in the morning, knowing to expect rain, and finding that indeed it is raining again.

That’s actually a good point of comparison. The likelihood of rain, and of me being wrong, is high. The actual impact of both is quite low – I spend most of my time indoors and have a good raincoat, and my wrong-ness rarely matters. And both really frustrate me.

Twenty three years ago

I found all the best cowboys have chinese eyes.

I’m a strong believer in serendipity. I think most people are – not all, definitely, but most. An awful lot of people are prepared to trust themselves to luck with the lottery. And on a more esoteric level a lot of artistic types rely on luck – there’s a prevailing belief that trying something new is likely to yield good results. And so I am often willing to take a lucky dip, and try something untested, with a fair amount of conviction that the result will probably be good. Sure it may just be that I remember the good outcomes in the past, but if so, then the fact that I do that seems to me simply to confirm that my faith in serendipity is strong. Whether it’s wrong or right is of less import to me – at the moment I’m finding that having any beliefs is better than having none, regardless of their validity.

So, all those years ago, I took a chance and it paid off. As well as my serendipitous faith I have a deep background in accountancy. I can’t manage money to save myself, but I can make lists and be as anal as anyone. And in my teens I was a compulsive lister, listing long, and listing boringly. So I would soak up information from books (wikipedia being then not even a glint in anybody’s eye) and collect that information in lists. Since music was my latest passion, I listed music, forming lists of albums that I should buy because I liked one song by the band, or because the artist was associated with some other band that I liked. A very inclusive approach to music, which again speaks of a blind faith in something – either serendipity or the infallibility of genius. I have no idea which.

With my lists I would approach my local dealers, particularly the ones that would supply my addiction cheaply, and seek out what they had. And thus it was that one time I found a very obscure record, by a one-time member of a not-so-obscure band. And I’ve always wondered since whether I found it or it found me. For it has always meant a lot to me. The music sure wasn’t what I was expecting – it sounds very little like the band the man was a part of – and in fact as I know now it was recorded by someone who had recently broken a serious alcoholism and was finding a way to do something that he had always done drunk before. Not a recipe for something great. It’s a record, I suppose, of someone who is crawling from the wreckage of one life and facing the prospect of building a new life. That’s something I can sure relate to now, and I suppose it would have connected with me even back when I first heard it, albeit for different reasons. But when I first saw it in the rack I had no idea of its contents, or its history, and no particular reason to expect it to move me, except for the fact that my lists had led me to a fair amount of music that did move me.

I would have no confidence in recommending that album to anyone else as something great – I suspect the effect it has on me is too personal for that. Yet, of all the albums I could have found and bought, by that man or his band, I’m sure most would have been closer to what I expected, and none would have made as strong a connection with me. And I suppose that’s one of the reasons I believe in serendipity so much, or perhaps that was just another occasion where that belief has contributed positively to my life.

Three hours ago

I finally noticed that I didn’t know when to stop.

It’s something you just learn, isn’t it? Or most people learn, at any rate. But it seems I just didn’t. And it’s more of an indirect problem than a problem in itself, because it means I’m constantly expecting to be told to stop. I’m expecting to have gone too far and not noticed myself, and to be pulled up short by those around me.

I only think I properly noticed this this morning when talking to Cambuslang about something I really love. There don’t seem to be too many of these things any more so I indulged myself a little and talked longer about it than my cautious instincts would have allowed. And then I realized that I was hyper-conscious of the other people in the room and nervous, and that that nervousness was precisely because I expected them to tell me to stop. I was expecting to be told that my enthusiasm had carried me away, and carried me into the wrong.

The obvious conclusion from this is that I have simply failed to learn where the limits are and where I should stop. But the other fairly obvious conclusion is that the reason I have few enthusiasms now is because I have trampled on all those I had for fear of them carrying me away.

Two weeks ago

I had an insight

It’s a familiar cliche with kids that they push boundaries. The pat theory is that they do this to check that the boundaries are there, and they gain reassurance from finding the boundaries good and solid. If this theory is correct then the kids need the boundaries there, but will do their utmost to destroy them. In other words, their ostensible aim needs to be thwarted, whereas the modish, lazy parenting technique that I tend to espouse is to give the kids what they want. Tricky.

Anyway, the boundary-pushing thing is familiar. What I hadn’t twigged until recently is how that same destroy-what-you-need approach to life shows up elsewhere. At the moment my daughter Airdrie is going through a tough time because her “best-friend” is pushing her away while also insisting that Airdrie play with no-one else. This, I’m told, is standard behaviour for their gender, but seems to me to clearly fit the pattern: the “friend” is attempting to destroy, if not my daughter, then at least her friendship, while clearly needing that very friendship. And it’s pretty tough on Airdrie, just like it’s pretty tough on the parents who try to defend the boundaries from constant attack.

But what really surprised me, and surprised me most because I hadn’t thought of it before, was how kids benefit from a stable family background, and so will, in the same way, do their utmost to destroy it. In other words, as I had observed but not quite understood, if their mother and father are still together, then the child will do everything it can to destroy their relationship. If their parents are married, the child will be working to make them divorced. Which is not hugely encouraging, but does explain why it’s such sanguineous hard work at times.

Some weeks ago

I realized I had a choice.

I’ve been reading a lot of self-help books lately to avoid feeling too helpless, and some are helpful and some are hopeless. And some I haven’t been able to categorize; I simply can’t work out if they’re useful or not, or bogus or not.

Anyway, one of these seemed to say, and I need to emphasize my role in interpreting it because this is almost certainly not what it said, that if you set high standards for yourself you are likely to set high standards for others, and be constantly disappointed. So far so plausible. But, consequently, it argued, if you try to be gentle to people then you are apt to get frustrated when people are not gentle to you, and if you try not to annoy people then you will be annoyed when others annoy you. As I distilled this down in mind it seemed that I have a choice: to annoy or to be annoyed, to be brutal or to be brutalized. And I still can’t work out if I accept that assessment of the world.

Six months and six days ago

I had an interesting evening.

I was in a roomful of friends with a nice balance of shared views and not-shared views. Of course if everybody thinks the same then there’s no challenge and no interest. And if everybody has extremely differing views then there’s no common ground to communicate through.

But that evening the balance was right, and one could expect to put forward a view and get interesting feedback on it. Some of that you would disagree with, some you’d agree, and some was so outside your mental framework that it would take some time to know whether you agreed or disagreed. In short, a good discussion took place.

It was particularly good for me, because I’d been starting to feel nervous about going out, starting to feel nervous about my own thoughts and whether my ideas and opinions were remotely interesting or trustworthy. That downhill process did, unfortunately, continue after that evening, but it’s probably safe to say that it arrested the process somewhat, even if only temporarily.

Six months ago

I felt isolated.

I was in a room full of people that I would term my friends, although to be precise I should say I’m using that term in its broadest sense, and I do mean broad and not just extreme. For in that room were one or two who I would count among the closest friends I’ve ever had, and some who I would be polite to, but would cross the road to avoid if I could do that without seeming rude. (I seem to have no problem being rude, but am pained by being perceived as such. What vanity!)

The point is that physically I wasn’t isolated, but intellectually I was, in that I found myself defending a view point which was not only not shared by the others in the room, but was being hostilely attacked by them.

I don’t like conflict, and I don’t like argument. The reality of that dawned on me some ten or so years ago when I was in the presence of someone who clearly thrived on argument and whose every sentence was aimed at stoking up disagreements. While he seemed quite personable I realized that I’d spent the whole time I was in his presence feeling on edge and more and more uncomfortable.

So I know I don’t like arguments, and as such I will try to find points of agreement where possible, or change the topic to something less contentious where this is not possible.

Which works fine until something I view as not contentious, and something on which I expect widespread agreement, turns out to be otherwise. And so it was that evening that I advanced what I thought would be a commonly held view and generally accepted common ground, so as to avoid an argument developing, and to calm things down, and I got torn apart. I suppose, to use a military analogy, it’s natural when on common ground to expect to be fired at from all sides, but I wasn’t thinking that way.

That night screwed me up royally, and left me unable to face any of my friends or anyone else for some time. Perhaps it’s also one of the reasons I haven’t blogged much lately. But was it that I was being disagreed with, or was it that what I expected wasn’t so? And is the problem the fact that I was mistaken, or the fact that that mistakenness disturbed me so much. In fact, did that night matter at all, or did it just reveal what was already badly wrong? Those are the questions I still can’t resolve.

Thirty odd years ago

I got upset by a lunch box.

It was a plastic lunch box, orange with a white lid, and small spikes on the lid with little straps on the side that fitted over them to fasten the box. I don’t think I had it very long, and I don’t recall being particularly attached to it – it was a lunch box, and nothing more. But one lunch time it broke. I can’t remember exactly, but I think the lid shattered on opening. And for reasons that completely escape me now, I wept. I remember being comforted by the dinner ladies who pointed out, entirely reasonably, that it was just a broken lunch box and no big deal at all. And I think even at the time I could see that what they said was entirely correct, and that it really was no big deal, but that didn’t stop the tears. In fact I think I was puzzled at the time at my over-reaction – part of me could see how disproportionate it was, yet the other part of me kept at it.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because my son has been doing the same sort of thing lately – blubbing about the most unimportant things, and dissolving in tears whenever anything goes wrong. I’ve been struggling to react appropriately, and my over-riding desire has been to get him out of this habit. I suppose I felt I did it too much at his age and suffered for it, and would like to avoid him going through the same thing. But then I realized I was doing it myself. Not crying, but reacting disproportionately to any setbacks. Any problem, no matter how minor, would leave me convinced that I could never succeed at anything. That seems a fairly typical characteristic of depression, and less worrying for being acknowledged as such. But if I can look back thirty years ago and see myself over-reacting in the same way then, well, I don’t know what to make of that. Perhaps I should have been popping prozac back then, or perhaps I should have found a longer-lasting solution to the over-reacting, that would have prevented me still being the same thirty years later. At least it gives me some insight into where my son is at, even if it doesn’t show me how to respond.

Maybe twenty seven years ago

I got a radio.

I’ve been reconstructing my life lately. It’s something I’ve done once or twice before, but on those occasions it was caused by dissatisfaction with what had gone before. Now it’s because it’s really necessary. Like when you’re living in a house and, maybe because you haven’t been looking after it properly, you suddenly realize that it’s not actually a structurally complete house any more, but is actually something of a ruin, maybe even just a pile of rubble. If you were more observant than me then you’d probably have noticed the state of your house sooner, but if not, then you’d certainly acknowledge that now it needs a bit of rebuilding.

I suppose if you’re of an optimistic persuasion then you’d view that rebuilding project with excitement, thinking about how your dream home could be realized at last. If, on the other hand, you’re like me, then you’d probably be wondering where you can find anything to build with, anything at all, and what you could possibly make with it that would have any chance of giving some shelter.

Without consciously entering into that process too much I seem to have arrived at the decision that music should be a key part of this house. This decision, though taken with little consciousness, was based on what parts of the old house seemed to be most solid, and most to my taste, unlike, say, the furnishings installed by previous owners and merely inherited, reluctantly, by me.

I suppose I knew that music had been a key part of a previous rebuilding process. Learning the guitar was an essential part of one of my earlier reconstructions, and one that I was pleased with. Tracing further back, although memories are getting very blurry, I can recall that listening to a walkman (cassette-based, of course, we are talking in geological timescales here) was a significant part of earlier, less comprehensive, reconstruction work. I am aware of some of the details that went with that walkman (I could tell you it’s colour, brand, which shop (no longer extant desde hace siglos) I bought it from, it’s price, and how I came to have that money, I could tell you about its silver plastic case with the blue velveteen lining, trust me, I could go on and on). But I had never really dug further back to find out why I wanted a walkman. “Find out” is obviously the wrong term, since I must once have known this. But that knowledge is locked in a person that I don’t think of as myself, so the me I am now really has to discover this as a genuinely new piece of information.

And the discovery process makes me recall that I acquired a radio. It was some kind of swap with a school mate, though I can’t recall what I parted with in exchange for it. What I can recall was the feeling that it set me apart. Not that I was special because of having a radio, and certainly not unique. But I listened to it alone, in my room, and for a long time never discussed with anyone what I listened to. In fact I’m not sure there are many people yet who know of the number of times I heard “Boy named Sue”, “Nutbush city limits” or “Cleaning windows” on a Saturday morning with Dave Cash. But in that solitude something spoke to me. I’d never really been exposed to much music before, but the radio gave me the opportunity and started something that is still going on.

So I can trace it all back to that radio. And I can say that the radio came to me by pure chance randomness, and therefore that’s an end to the story. Except it’s not, is it. I could have listened to the radio and been untouched by it. But no, the radio’s seed fell on fertile ground. So the next question I have to tackle is what made me so vulnerable to music. Hmmmm. I’ll probably get back with an answer in the next 10 or 15 years.

A couple of years ago

I stopped praying.

Not stopped completely, I should say, but drastically revised my approach to praying. As with most of my revelations this grew out of some things I read, and probably the roots lay in a comment, by someone I respect a great deal, that it’s very easy to attend prayer meetings as a substitute for actually doing things. Maybe he, or maybe someone else, prompted me to the idea that it is possible to pray too much. All such thoughts would have been heresy in the environment I spent my early Christian years in, and wouldn’t go down too well in many Christian circles now. So I’d better explain.

Actually, before I do that, I realize that the roots of this go much further back, and back to the basic explanation of how it is that God answers our prayers. Naively, the idea of God answering our prayers is absurd, suggesting as it does that the omnipotent creator of all should bow to our whims and fancies. And absurd, indeed, is that view of things. A key to my early understanding of this was the quote that the prayers of a righteous man availeth much. I forget which ancient said it, but somebody explained that as the fact that the righteous man prays for the right things, not the wrong things. In essence it almost boils down to the notion that if I ask God for what he already wanted to do, then he will answer that prayer, but if I pray for something contrary to his will, then he won’t. That makes it sound like God doesn’t actually respond to our prayers at all, and so there is a little more to it than that, but that sounds to me like a good starting point for understanding prayer. The essential thing is to pray for the right thing.

And so that thought grew in my mind, spurred on by comments of others much wiser than I, that we should actually be fairly selective about what we pray for. In particular, we shouldn’t pray for something if we don’t actually care about it. That doesn’t sound too unreasonable, does it, but it doesn’t match what most of us do. We have a gossip prayer chain in our church, whereby when one person hears some juicy items for prayer, they phone someone else who phones someone else and so on. And each member of the chain is supposedly going to go away and pray for this. Ignoring the problems of this appealing to our gossipy nature, and the problems of Chinese whispers, this seems calculated to ensure that more and more uninterested people harass God with the same (sometimes verbatim) prayers. Is that really a good idea? If, while chopping carrots, I suddenly remember that I’m supposed to be praying for what I heard on the chain, and so rush off a quick “Oh God help so and so” prayer, is that really any use to anyone? Is my utter lack of interest going to persuade God to act in a way he otherwise wouldn’t?

I suppose at heart what I’m saying is that we should feel our prayers. When news comes down the chain that someone I really care about has leukaemia or some such, then be assured that I pray with utter seriousness. And my feeling is that God responds to where my heart is on this matter, and not where my mouth is. Which is why I stopped praying unless my heart was in my prayers.

Seventeen and a bit years ago

I went to a gig.

Nothing so unusual about that, as I went to quite a few, even if not as many as I’d wanted or should have gone to. It was somewhat unusual being someone whose music I’d never heard; I’d only heard of him. Still, I was fairly adventurous back then and thought it worth a try. In some ways it makes the gig harder when none of the songs are familiar, but in others it makes it easier because you react purely to the music, and don’t have the kneejerk positive reaction to the songs you know and negative reaction to the songs you don’t know that you get with someone you’re familiar with.

And perhaps that’s why I find now that that was probably the gig that’s influenced me more than any other. I suppose I was listening to the sound as much as the songs, and I can’t now list definitively any of the songs that were performed, but I can remember clearly some percussion instruments and sounds that I’d never encountered before, and some guitar sounds that were completely baffling even though I’d been playing for a good few years by then. But most importantly the bassist was playing a fretless. I think that was the first gig I’d been to with a fretless bassist, and the sound and fluidity just grabbed me. It wasn’t a lightbulb moment, but I can look back now and identify it firmly as the key to why I stopped viewing guitar as my main instrument, and why I came to see fretless as really the only way of playing bass.

What’s funny is that it’s taken some digging in my mind to establish this as the cause. If you’d asked I could easily have told you that bass was my instrument and that fretless was best, but it’s a bit like when you’re driving and you suddenly find you’re on the A96 without ever having consciously turned on to it or noticed a junction. You find you’re there, and you don’t question. I find it really interesting how we can make big changes without even noticing the stimulus or that the change is taking place.

Thirteen years ago

I learnt about left and right.

Perhaps it was because of my parents having the political intelligence of a Daily Mail reader, or perhaps because of my own preference for ignorance, or perhaps it was because I’d spent most of my days in a mature democracy where tabloids dictated election outcomes and, consequently, manifestos were written by advertising agencies. For whatever reason I’d managed to live a full quarter century before I understood the principles behind the so-called right- and left-wings of politics.

So it was that a kindly friend could, without any great effort, massively expand my political knowledge, and point out that, in a nutshell, left equals big government and right equals small government. Now while I agree with that to some extent, I see the two sides now as having rather deeper roots, and that the size of government is purely a manifestation of deeper principles.

From where I stand now it seems to me that the principles underlying these two wings can be described in terms of how they view an individual’s destiny. To someone on the right, an individual is in control of, and has responsibility for, their destiny. If they succeed it is all to their credit, and if they fail it is all their fault. To someone on the left, society has a role to play in this – whether an individual succeeds or fails is greatly affected by their surroundings, so the credit or fault lies with society as a whole.

As with any two extremes of a scale, neither is likely to be particularly accurate, and reality is more likely to lie somewhere in the middle. Of course, a more moderate view in both cases would not lie at one extreme but would, rather, abjure the opposite extreme. This moderate position then, does not embrace one extreme, it merely rejects the other. A moderate right-winger might say an individual’s destiny is not purely down to environmental factors, and a moderate left-winger would say that it is not entirely within the individual’s control.

Naively, then, the conservatives are right-wing and the labour party left, and one might first seek to establish whether they are moderate or extreme in their positions. Well, the most recent tory politician to express a political ideology (as opposed to merely a desire to be elected) stated quite clearly “There is no such thing as society”, thus quite emphatically rejecting everything apart from the extreme, or shall we say “loony”, right-wing position. So, on the most recent evidence, the tories are loony right-wingers.

In the interests of political balance I should try and come up with an equally loony left-wing quote. Unfortunately I can’t because a) I’m not aware of anyone on the left (at least, certainly no-one of quite such a senior position on the left) saying anything so stupid and b) as you’ll know, I’m not remotely interested in political balance.

Of course we do not, theoretically, have a two-party system in Britain, and one might naively hope that where the conservatives form the loony right and labour form the extreme left, the reamining middle ground is taken by the liberal democrats. I have to admit that, on the basis of this idea, my political sympathies lie mainly with the democrats. Unfortunately this view does not fit remotely well with reality and I have to sadly confess that the lib dems seem to be scrabbling around for a clue as to what they should believe in even more than either of the other two main parties. Sigh.

If an individual’s destiny is purely within their own control then it becomes clear that government is an irrelevance and, being a costly irrelevance, is clearly undesirable. This coincidentally ensures (to my naive, non-loony-right-wing mind) that those who have power will keep power, i.e., those who have the most money. Of course those who have loads of money like to think that it is purely down to their own efforts (which, when that money is inherited, requires quite an impressive level of self-delusion; we can be proud of our upper classes that, while intellectually-challenged to olympic standards, they can nevertheless achieve that level of self-delusion without even breaking out into a sweat) so it is convenient for them to hold loony right-wing views, but the conservative (with a small c) outcomes of such views is also undoubtedly something they’re glad of.

To the successful, these views are comforting not only by reassuring them that they can take full credit for their success, but also because they can look at the unsuccessful with no feelings of guilt whatsoever. That tramp is in the gutter because he has chosen to be there, and I don’t need to help at all. The acknowledgement that the successful don’t need to help the unsuccessful, or indeed that anyone needs to help anyone, implies that the successful don’t need any help from anyone at all. Which is why, for example, you’ll never see a conservative politician claiming expenses from the state so that they can give their children some extra pocket money as reward for “research” work. It’s why you’ll never see right-wing supporters asking for help, such as claiming welfare benefits. It’s why right-wingers don’t believe in education, because passing knowledge on is a form of help. And it’s also (to explain a point I made to a friend when I was unfortunately too inebriated to have any chance of justifying it) why punk is innately right-wing, since it is music made by people who claim (ignoring the fact that most of them are lying) to have had, and needed, no musical education. Like the “self-made” millionaire, it’s nice to emphasize that you didn’t need any education or help, because it means you get to take all the credit yourself for your success.

On the other hand, if society has a role to play in ensuring a positive outcome of each member, then it seems reasonable to try and organize this in an effective way, i.e., a government is needed. Of course, such a government, with the aim of improving the lot of each member of society, is quite a different beast to a government under a monarch. Since a monarch’s primary aim is to use those same members of society to protect their (the monarch’s) position and possessions, the government must also fulfil that purpose. It does so by appeasing the populace sufficiently to a) prevent civil disorder/revolution and b) persuade them that the monarch is worth fighting for whenever the monarch needs an army to defend their (the monarch’s, remember, not the populace’s) possessions. But one could imagine that a republic could, conceivably at least, have such a government for the people.

But if you’ve ever tried helping anyone in difficulty (including, for example, bringing up children) you’ll realize that cooperation is rarely a high priority for the person needing help. Moreover, where some people do not cooperate, others take advantage. (Ah, yes, that’s why right-wingers claim benefits – because benefit-fraud is entrepeneurial activity for which they can take full credit.) That was one of the reasons why I could never fully buy the socialist ideal. It seemed to be based on a rose-tinted view of human nature which fits neither my experience of people (as a mixture of good and bad, with nobody completely one or the other), nor my theology. So I was intrigued to read a review of Raymond Aron which suggested he had developed socialist principles that acknowledged that people can be bad, and that socialism is about working with that to achieve good government. Since I haven’t myself read what he has to say I can’t see if this fits in a coherent or plausible philosophy, let alone one consistent with Christianity, but I’m faintly hopeful. Which is an unusual thing to feel after any kind of political discussion.

Two days ago

I got bored.

About seven years ago I discovered a talent for soothing babies and rocking them off to sleep. Either it has something to do with flexing the knees at exactly the right speed or it has something to do with offering to hold the baby at exactly the right moment – when it is susceptible to being pacified. I used to mostly think the former but in my cynical dotage I’m tending much more to the latter view these days. In any case I got to really enjoy holding babies. Partly I was enjoying challenging the stereotypes and encouraging other males to participate in childcare by setting an example, and partly it was the simple pleasure of providing comfort to the child, obviously, but also to their parent(s) since a calm baby is better than a screaming one. I remember being mocked (by a mother; I’m afraid there is a gender war on and it’s important to clarify which attacks come from which side) that if I really enjoyed it then I should do it full time. This was one of those incredibly rare moments when I had an answer ready because I’d already gone down that line of thought. And my answer was that I’d love to do that but I simply couldn’t afford to since hands-on one-to-one childcare like that is never going to pay anything like as much as I earn (and, I kid myself, need in order to pay the mortgage and support my family).

Five years ago that enjoyment of holding babies took a dent when my daughter made it abundantly clear that she hated being held by me (or being with me in any shape or form). But other babies still enjoyed my rocking and I still enjoyed holding them, so the feeling largely stayed. And I suppose it still does though I get to do it less often. But whereas that enjoyment of caring for babies developed along with my own babies, it hasn’t developed into an enjoyment of caring for primary school-aged children as my own kids have reached that age. I’m certainly not going to be volunteering to run a Sunday school class any time soon, and would rather do crèche any day.

Now, that all sounds fine and cool – different people have different talents, and of those with a talent for looking after kids, some will be good with babes-in-arms, some with primary-agers, some with tweenagers and so on. But it’s not actually fine, it’s actually a bit of a problem. Because it means, more or less, that I don’t actually enjoy being with my kids. And that’s not so cool.

This week I happen to be getting to watch a lot of TV, which is quite unusual and, consequently, a novel pleasure. And one thing I happened to see was a video of that cliché, the middle-aged dad who doesn’t understand his teenage son. It was an advert so it was fairly abbreviated, concentrated cliché, so we had the son playing loud music on his stereo and the dad shouting at him to turn it down. Then we had the son playing guitar and the dad leaving the room, and later of course we had the son performing a gig to an adoring audience to demonstrate how successful he was in his chosen métier. And of course, everyone watching that was screaming at the dad to see how stupid he was being and to stop and listen to his son and understand things from his point of view. (Why, incidentally, is it so clearly the dad that’s in the wrong? Is there no rôle for the son in the necessary reconciliation? Funny the things that occur to you once you become a parent.)

Now, of course, it’s all supposed to be symbolic and the music/guitar playing is just a standard symbol of teenage rebellion. The problem is I (and I suspect I’m not alone in this) have a literalist mind, so to me the son is actually playing a guitar, not performing some icon of rebellion. As such it seems easy and obvious for the dad to actually stop and enjoy the music and, thus, build up the necessary rapport with his son. What I can’t get my head round is how objectionable a guitar can be to someone of sufficient age. (Perhaps I’m biassed by the recollection of my mum listening to me playing music when I was a teenager and her saying “I can’t stand this guitar strumming music” when actually the instrument playing was an organ with no guitar in the mix at all. Or perhaps I’m biassed by being an occasional guitar player myself. Whatever). I can’t really comprehend the dad’s difficulties in this scenario. I can’t make the jump from literal to symbol.

But slowly I’m beginning to understand. To take one example, my son has a book about dragons. It lists dozens of different species of dragon, and details each one, pretending to be like those wildlife books that help you tell your great tit from your stupid tit and so on. For some reason (perhaps because of the association with RPGs, perhaps the proximity to science-fiction) I can’t stand this book. But my son reads it and then wants to tell me every conceivable detail about the difference between the kangaroo dragon and the kimono dragon, their eating, mating and toilet habits, and a thousand other things. And I can’t stand it; I just want to leave. As I said, that is one example and there are, unfortunately, dozens of others.

I can enjoy spending time with my kids, but (it seems) only if I get to be talking to them about science or music, or other things that I want them to know about. Ha – I almost wrote there “things that I think they’ll be interested in”. I stopped because even I can see the fallacy of that. Some of what I say they will be interested in, but my whole problem is that I have no patience for listening to them tell me about stuff they are really interested in, like dragons. I am a dad, I am that dad.

That cliché-ridden ad at least makes it easy to see the son’s point of view. My experience with the dragons makes the dad’s point of view overwhelming clear too. So, if the traditional view is right then I guess I have no choice – I either get with the dragons or slowly lose my son. Great. Ok, tell me about the wyvern again and I’ll try and fight my boredom.

Five months ago

I wanted to be happy.

There’s a song about happiness which I quite like but which my wife doesn’t, because, I think, she finds it childish. To my mind it’s about taking pills (probably legally, but possibly not) as a means of curing unhappiness, and it’s a reflection, or even a rant, about the shallowness that can lead people to doing that or recommending it for others. I hear the singer as a patient being offered anti-depressants and parodying the doctor as saying “Do you want to be happy?”, and rejecting the implied viewpoint that being happy is all that matters in life. This interpretation is partly based on knowledge I have of the singer and the fact that he’s struggled with depression. This knowledge leads me to interpret the lyrics one way, and read into them things which, objectively, aren’t there. Objectively it is simply a song extolling the virtues of being happy. That simple extolling is all my wife hears and why she thinks it’s rather less than profound.

To be honest I’m not so much concerned about what the song is supposed to mean. I am selfish so I don’t particularly care what the singer meant; all that matters is what the song says to me, and to me it’s an anti-happy-pill rant, and I’m happy(!) with that.

What interests me is how the context (my knowledge of the singer’s mental health) affects my interpretation of the song, and whether I’m then actually responding to the song at all, or whether I’m just responding to what I know of the singer. And does that make it, actually, a really badly written song? For surely a well-written song should actually say something itself rather than rely on other sources to communicate? If I write a song with a lyric that simply repeats the word “naminanu” then it probably wouldn’t mean much to you. But if I spread the word that “naminanu” is a word that American soldiers used in Vietnam to describe the moral vacuum they perceived in their intervention in that country, then the song would acquire much more meaning. But it isn’t actually the song that has that meaning, in the same way that the song which I listened to while reading about the deaths of 200 people has become a very sad song to me in a way that has nothing to do with the intentions of the people who wrote the song.

The happy song is a simple case but I’m mulling it over to shed light a) on various songs by a band I like which, I realize, are good songs ruined by awfully-written lyrics, and b) on why most chorus writers seem to feel no need to write a decent lyric, and c) on whether my inability to understand or even parse half the lyrics I hear is due to my ineffable ignorance or due to them simply being badly written.

Some months ago

I wrote a diatribe.

I didn’t publish it here, nor anywhere else. Not even a single person has read it because it is so bitter. It rants against what seems to be a fundamental cock-up in the way the world is, or evidence, as Depeche Mode put it, that God has a sick sense of humour. I don’t even know that it should have been written down. Writing things down often, for me at least, clarifies them and helps me see whether they are reasonable or risible. But this time it’s left me in a quandary. What I’ve written seems reasonable – the evidence of the situation seems fairly clear to me. But if I accept it and act on it then that would require flatly contradicting several other principles that I take as self-evident. If, on the other hand, I’m to keep those principles, then I should suppress these contradictory thoughts. So which is it to be – that which I believe in, or that which my eyes tell me? Put like that I can recognize an age-old dilemma. Well at least that gives me an excuse for not knowing the answer.

About thirty years ago

I read a book.

It was the scariest book I’ve ever read. I read a lot of “horror” stuff in my late teens (including, to my shame, Stephen King’s complete works up to that point) all of which I just laughed at – the only horror they contained was stylistic. The only thing that came close to being as scary was “How late it was how late” which was truly disturbing. (And brilliant, by the way. Jim Kelman comes across as a complete paranoiac in recent interviews talking of the London intelligentsia’s patronizing attitude to anything north of Watford, but when you read that book, and then compare it with all the fuss the press made when it was published about the language, then you see that actually he’s talking a lot of sense. And when the paranoids are the ones talking sense ….)

How late is actually a good point of comparison because the book I read those years ago, whose name or author I have no recollection of, was about a deaf lad. What felt really significant was this lad had the same name as me. I have always had a problem of identifying too strongly with protagonists in novels (except in those books which are so 1-dimensional as to prevent a 3-dimensional person getting inside any of their characters’ heads). That’s great for getting an emotional punch from a book, but not good for one’s sanity. Anyway, somehow the isonymous protagonist made the book more uncomfortable for me than otherwise – it felt like the book had become a prophecy – the idea of a deaf me was inescapable.

I could cling on to the objective facts that I wasn’t deaf, but they offered just as little comfort as the idea that when on a precipice I need not jump – objective and factual possibly, but meaningless and pathetic nevertheless.

And now that I have deficient hearing I find that book coming back to haunt me. I don’t know if my hearing is going downhill – it may just be a result of all the gigs I went to in my late teens (see, I did something worthwhile with my time back then (well, okay, don’t ask me what gigs I went to – I need to look after what little street-cred I may still have)), and it may just be that I’m noticing it now more than I used to, or even just that I’m less in denial about it than I was. Or it may be that it’s getting progressively worse and that that prophecy is coming true. That’s not a nice thought, but I wonder if this interim stage is actually worse. It’s really quite silly, but I’m realizing that a major concern of mine is how stupid I must seem to people, because quite often my responses to what they say don’t make much sense at all, or sound like I’m not all there. Whereas it’s simply that I haven’t been able to discern what they actually said. After you’ve asked people to repeat themselves once or twice, and especially if you haven’t had the nerve to ask in the first place, and you can’t understand, then what do you do? My answer, which is certainly not a great one, is you fumble. You mutter something inaudible, or vague, or you smile vacantly. That, at least, comes quite naturally to me.

Either way you get yet more confirmation of your feeling that you’re not connecting with people, that you’re isolated, that loneliness is closing in on you even in the times when you’re surrounded by friends. And you end up feeling that John Donne was quite wrong.

Twenty six years ago

I told a lie.

Truth is important to me. I prefer to be honest, partly because I can’t cope with the chess games of inventing a plausible lie and then making sure that everything else I say consistently fits with that lie, and partly because I struggle to tell when other people are lying. In fact I mostly get round that problem using quantum mechanics. Just as Schrodinger’s cat could be simultaneously alive and dead so, when certain people tell me something, my brain bifurcates and holds two conflicting notions – the one that I’ve been told, and the logical negation of that. If I ask person A who ate my cake, and they say it was person B, then my brain seems quite happy to hold on to both the idea that B ate it, and the idea that A is lying and so probably A ate it. Experience gives me a balance of probabilities to assign to these two outcomes – for some people I have a 90% expectation of being lied to, for others it’s a 90% chance of them telling the truth. And, just as in physics, sometimes the probabilities collapse and the truth is established. But often it’s not, and I just go on not knowing. I suppose that not knowing has become a very familiar state to me and I seem to cope with it very well. (Or maybe not – maybe this permanent dissonance is why I’m completely screwed up. I don’t know, so I’ll go on considering both options and their relative probabilities).

I don’t know if my dislike of lies dates back to this occurrence, or whether it was already present then, but there must be some strong connection, because this experience is so firmly etched in my mind. I’d done something silly and, to cover up, I’d lied to my mum about it. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, she’d been told the truth by someone else. So she challenged me, albeit half-heartedly I think. For various reasons I lied again – I said the other person must have been lying. So far, so depressingly mundane and so mundanely depressing. Now I don’t really know what my mum thought – maybe she believed me (and don’t mothers usually want to believe their own offspring?) or maybe she knew better. I’ll never know for sure now, but at the time I was certain that she didn’t believe me. So I knew my lie wasn’t convincing her, and yet I felt it was important for me to keep up my pretence. Somehow it seemed important for me to maintain the lie even though she knew I was lying, and I knew she knew I was lying. I remember feeling that very strongly, even though I couldn’t remotely understand why, and still can’t.

Perhaps it’s that incomprehension that’s why I’m still concerned about that occasion. But perhaps it’s the dissonance between what both parties believed and what they said. I often feel like I’m on the receiving end of that sort of thing – there were many times in my childhood where my brother would lie, either to my face or to my parents, and I would know that he was lying and that he knew it. And even when it was just me, if I told him I knew he was lying he would deny it. He knew, I knew, and he knew that I knew, but he would deny it. Of course he was sensible (in a way) to deny it: by doing so there was a chance he could convince me, but also it was a way he could achieve the usual fraternal aim of destroying his sibling. By creating such a clear cognitive dissonance he could mess with my head. After all, maybe that’s why I’m so screwed up now.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately not just because of searching for the reasons for why I’m in such a mess, but also because someone is lying quite vehemently to me at the moment. But unlike those earlier occasions, this time I know the liar is actually deluded. Which, I suppose, means he’s not actually lying. Hmm, as I write this I can see a further layer of irony to it all. As I said, I tend to interpret what people say to me in a quantum way, holding contradictory assertions in my head, just with different probabilities. That being the case, what would I say if you asked me who ate my cake? I’m not sure, but it seems quite possible that I’d give one answer one minute, and an opposite answer shortly afterwards, because I will have mulled things over in between times and quite possible adjusted the probabilities for each in the light of that mulling. Which is what I’ve observed my deluded friend to do quite often: many times I’ve seen him say two flatly contradictory things to different people within the space of about 10 minutes. And the thing is he’s actually something of an expert in quantum mechanics, so it’s really quite likely that he has the same approach to believing what he’s told as I do. So not only do my childhood’s experiences confirm the horrible thought that I am like (and as bad as) my brother, but I can’t escape the fact that I am also like my deluded friend.

As I said above, truth is important to me. And that is, of course, what any good liar tends to say.

Ten minutes ago

I misread tapes.

More specifically, I read the album title “tapes & tapes” and interpreted the first word as a synonym of cassette, and the second as the Catalan form of the Castillian word tapas. I was intrigued by the suggested mix of music and food until I realized that this was undoubtedly not the intended meaning. Am I the only person capable of reading the same word in the same sentence in my own native language and misinterpreting it so obscurely?

Thirty years ago

I was right.

At least I still think I was. We had been asked to write something, the details of which now escape me, perhaps it was a dictation although that doesn’t seem likely. Anyway, we had been asked to write something, and now we were asked to swap with the person next to us, and mark their work. So I marked the stuff my pal Sam had written. (At this point it seems worth pondering the fact that Sam was the only non-caucasian in the class and he was my best mate. At the time I thought nothing of that, but some years later, when I realized how unbelievably racist my parents are, I wondered at the seeming paradox that by being so pally with Sam I seem to have not inherited any of my parents bigotry. Maybe it really is a paradox (albeit one admitting a simple explanation, namely that racism isn’t genetic). Or maybe my parents aren’t actually as bad as I perceive them to be. Or maybe just racism is subtler than I’m giving it credit for. I suppose the typical racist holds that people of other races are generally bad (in racially-specific ways), but that there can be exceptions, and meeting one individual of a different race, getting to know them and like them and seeing that they are genuinely good, is entirely compatible with maintaining the view that their race are generally all bad. In other words maybe I’m just as unbearably racist as my parents.) So, I marked Sam’s work. And in one sentence he had written “slooped” where, clearly, it should have been “stooped”. The t hadn’t been crossed, so I put a red cross by it and docked a mark. That should have been the end of the story, but later when the teacher checked our marking she saw what I’d done and told me off, because I’d put a cross where Sam had correctly written “stooped”. I don’t suppose I’d remember this at all if it weren’t for the overwhelming sense of injustice I felt – injustice seems to be a fantastic aide-memoire. I was absolutely certain that the word had been “slooped” when I’d marked it, and either my memory was completely unreliable (a concept that, frankly, is way too hard to grasp for a primary school kid) or someone had surreptitiously crossed that t after I’d marked it wrong. It was such an easy error to correct, with no trace detectable, that I was pretty sure at the time that this is what had happened. And I think I still am. I think.

The trouble is that I’ve had this experience repeated in different variants fairly often in the intervening decades. I’ve had an absolute certain recollection of something which has later been contradicted by the facts. In that first instance there was another explanation (the t being crossed after I’d marked it), but in many of the subsequent times there was no such get-out. My memory was simply wrong. Somebody would ask me who did a particular job and I’d say it was Bob, because I know that it was. And then some incontrovertible evidence would appear to show that it was actually Fred. It’s not that I can’t remember – it’s simply that I remember wrong. It’s not an erasure in my memory, it’s a corruption. My memory supplies the answer with absolute 100% waterproof confidence. And it’s wrong.

I guess themes in my thinking at the moment are trust, and how to handle situations where you can’t trust people or things, and memory, and how memories can dominate for good or bad. So what happens when you can’t trust your memory, when it lies to you? Essentially memory covers everything I’ve done, everything I’ve learnt, everything I’ve experienced, everything I know and consequently, more or less, everything I am. And I can’t trust it. It’s not a nice feeling.

Two months ago

I was bursting with things to say.

The problem was that none of them were words. And none of them would allow themselves to be formed into sentences or even coherent thoughts. And unfortunately it’s still like that. My head is a jumble, a blur, a London-sized congestion of confused notions trying to fly around but just bumping into each other and getting nowhere. Partly as a result of the muddle and partly as a result of loads of other things that I can’t seem to articulate, I’m feeling pretty down most days, but unable to ever explain why. If you’re down, and someone, someone who you actually care about enough to admit how you’re feeling to, asks why, then just saying you’re head is muddled or you can’t explain tends to be a bit inadequate. And even if I can’t explain to anyone else I guess I’d like to have a clearer idea for myself why I’m feeling like this.

I guess I’ve developed an over-reliance on articulation. Some weeks ago I was trying to understand a bad situation I’d got myself into and spent some time on my own going over the details, even writing down a timeline of what had happened, in the expectation that it would clarify things, help me understand and, most importantly, get me out of the hole and stop me falling in it again. In the past that kind of thing has worked for me. But this time I just ended up with a page full of notes jotted down that made no connection, bits of a jigsaw that didn’t go together, parts for which the sum total was considerably less than the individual components. In short it got me nowhere. So, is that another symptom or a cause? I have no idea.

Twenty eight years ago

I thought Llandudno was full of arabs.

I thought it for a very, very long time and only realized that it was London not Llandudno when I saw a printed copy of the words a couple of years ago. I don’t think it even occurred to me before then that I might have been mis-hearing the name. It did seem a strange place to mention, but then there’s plenty else that’s strange (at least to a 10 year old’s ears) in that song, so why not Llandudno?

More recently I’ve been trying to understand why I didn’t hear the word London. And I think it’s at least partly because I have such a strange relationship with that place. And to some extent it’s that it simply doesn’t exist for me, in the same way that if you talk to someone from one particular village and ask them about their county, then they’ll struggle to answer because the county is not a homogeneous or coherent entity to them – it comprises lots of different parts each with quite different characteristics.

But this morning it came to me that actually my mis-hearing Llandudno in place of London just sums me up perfectly. It’s a perfect example of how I never understand anything anyone ever says to me because instead of the perfectly obvious and natural meaning that they intend, I hear some obscure variant that, with enough shoehorns, does actually fit to the words they’ve said. Just like the syllables of Llandudno do, if you try and make them, fit what is sung in that song. I guess it’s a kind of deafness (which reminds me of another story, for another day) and similarly infuriating, probably for the speaker who I’m misinterpreting and certainly for me. It’s difficult to understand where it’s come from, and very difficult to see how to shake it off. Any suggestions?

A couple of months ago

I moaned about the media.

It’s kind of a national sport isn’t it – complaining about the newspapers and the TV news reports. How they create scare stories and distort the facts to make things more interesting. Terrible really, but it’s inevitable because they’re just giving us what we, in our basest and most honest moments, want. Well, to be more precise, they put in what will sell. Mundane reassuring stories don’t sell as well as crises and dramas. If you’ve a lot of faith in human nature then you make demands that the media raise their standards and refrain from such market-driven journalism. If, on the other hand, you’re like me and somewhat pessimistic about human nature, then you’ll look to re-shape the conditions that make the media behave like this. And those conditions are, primarily, that we buy newspapers and, indirectly, TV news, forcing the media to make themselves more sellable. In other words, the fact that newspapers etc are businesses, and thus legally obliged to try to make money, directly causes the sensationalism that we moan about.

Put like that you can start to realize how good our news services actually are. After all, if they’re businesses, then to be fair we should be comparing their performance with other businesses. Such as Tescos, to pick one particularly prominent business. How would you feel about buying the Tesco Gazette, or the Enron Times say? What standard of journalism would you expect from it? As I say, put like that you can start to realize how good our media actually is.

Besides, what is the alternative – state-controlled media? Like the perfect two-word argument that Paddy Ashdown found (or maybe just promoted) against republicanism: President Thatcher, so there is a one-word argument against state-controlled newspapers: Pravda. Isn’t that how state-controlled media inevitably end up? If that is too remote then try looking at the `newspapers’ that local councils produce – full of inane babbling about how the £1bn they’ve just spent relaying the pavement on High St is the best investment ever and makes them the most wonderful council you’ve ever had. So our experience of state-controlled media is just as bad as the worst that the private sector can produce.

Or is it? Hang on a minute – isn’t there another example of state-controlled media that isn’t quite so bad? One that actually has quite a good reputation and standards to match? Yes, the BBC. By typical British fluke the powers-that-were decades ago found a model that enabled the corporation to be free of commercial pressures and yet sufficiently independent of the government to actually serve a useful purpose. And ever since then it has, despite the odd blip, provided broadcasting services of an incredibly high standard. Long may it continue to do so.

Something like five years ago

I found I was a clown.

Some of these reminiscences come with a distinct date stamp; such and such event happened at exactly 11:23 on this particular day in that decade. Others are rather more vague. And this one particularly so, because I suppose I’m really talking about the slow-dawning realization of my place in life. At some point it crystallized that I am a clown; my self-chosen purpose is to make people laugh, often at me, too often not.

It’s not a role I’m particularly embarrassed by, and especially with small kids around it’s a useful one. It helped me get over my natural fear of youngsters, and it saves me having to interact with the even-more-scary adults. But it’s also been a source of trouble. Nearly all of the nastiest things I’ve ever said have been said with the intention of provoking a laugh. Sometimes it’s worked and the saying has indeed been funny, but that was probably the worse outcome since it meant the nastiness was made more memorable and more lasting. Slur someone in a humorous way and the slur will stay much longer in people’s memories. Other times the jokes did not work at all. That was worse for me in the short term, since I just ended up looking like someone who was being cruel just for the sake of it (which is probably not all that inaccurate) and so rather than getting the unpleasant message across it will have made people aware that I was not someone whose words should be trusted. That would explain why so many who have had to put up with a lot of my company no longer listen to me. It should also mean it doesn’t bother me. Should. If only.

Two days ago

I found myself repeating myself.

I was walking home from the railway station late in the evening having had a long day mostly spent travelling. Walking through deserted city streets late at night I feel mostly safe but am aware that there is a risk, and that it’s not, fundamentally, something that normal, sensible people do. Which is perhaps what reminded me very much of a similar walk, albeit in a completely different city, almost exactly two decades before. Then I’d spent a weekend travelling home and back, including buying my first proper guitar, so the weekend was a good one, but still left me with a long walk home from the station very late in the evening. Doing such things is fine as a student; it’s almost compulsory to do slightly silly things like that. But twenty years later, oughtn’t I to have got out of the habit?

But what are the alternatives? I suppose I should have driven myself home (because sensible people don’t walk anywhere do they – they drive and then wonder why they get fat or have to go to the gym to get the exercise they otherwise avoid). Failing that I should have got a taxi. But both of those are troublesome to my mind and, at heart, I just like walking. I’d say that I prefer to walk and chose that of my own free will. But I’m also aware that I’ve inherited a penny-pinching genetic legacy; my upbringing tells me I should go hungry rather than pay for food, and walk rather than pay for a taxi, and maybe I need to accept that I’m not making any decisions of my own free will – all my choices are decided for me by my genes.

Whatever the reasons, there I was walking home. At least, now, I was not overloaded with ill-packed luggage, not carrying a box with precious cassette tapes spilling out. Some things improve. And it occurred to me that I’m in a kind of spiral. Round and round, repeating myself, but with subtle changes and, hopefully, improvements. Like the fact that while sat on the train, speeding through the blacked-out countryside, I was listening to Orgone Accumulator, just like twenty years before, but this time on CD instead of tape. Then again, I was now listening to something 35 years remote in time, as opposed to 15 years remote. And I was listening with rather more jaded ears than I did before. In fact I’m not really sure I was listening much at all. I suspect I was just thinking back. For a long time it was a ritual for me to listen to that stuff while travelling through the space-like dark. So many memories are overlaid on each other, but all of them good. And I suppose the music isn’t actually essential – nocturnal train-travelling is quite evocative in itself. Or perhaps that just me – I have done probably more than my fair share of it. I still remember, like it was yesterday, the lime green carriage in which I discussed the delights of Motherwell at maybe 3 in the morning with a young couple who were amazed at someone half their age off on his own doing essentially the same stuff as them. (And they were nowhere near as amazed as I was). And I remember the trip with my dad where we had to change trains at 4 in the morning, waiting for one of these odd trains at the crack of dawn that delivers the newspapers and post along its route. And I remember the chill a few years later when that same train crossed a bridge that had been washed away, killing the people sitting exactly where I had been. Statistically I suppose that sort of thing is likely to happen if you travel enough, but it was chilling all the same.

About three years ago

I was accused of theft.

It was a fairly minor theft, concerning only small amounts of money. The accusation this person made was that I was charging people for something that somebody other than me was paying for. The accusation was simply false – I was paying for the stuff and then charging people to recoup the money I’d spent, all very dull but above board and correct. So I was quite annoyed to be accused of such a crime.

But what quickly became clear was that the accuser didn’t think of it as much of a crime – he considered it entirely normal, and the sort of thing that everyone does. In fact he took my defence to be the sort of tongue in cheek cover-up that one makes when found committing a totally trivial misdemeanour. `What, me, spill water on the carpet? No, never.’

It was utterly impossible to get him to accept that I was genuinely denying the accusation or that I viewed it rather more seriously than he did. To him such theft was normal and he couldn’t believe anybody else would think otherwise. At the time I thought this marked him out as utterly immoral and unprincipled (which, to be fair, he’d shown himself to be on numerous other occasions). And I bridled at his casual assumption that I was as low as him. But I realize now that it is going to be a rare person who commits crimes while acknowledging and accepting that they are crimes. Most people do what they do because they think it is normal. A burglar views his thefts as the normal way of getting what he needs. Someone who attempts to murder people by driving above the speed limit views that as an entirely commonplace and legitimate activity. One who kills people for a living thinks he is normal if not noble in doing so.

How do you convince someone otherwise? Actually as I write this I’m watching just such a discussion going on electronically where one person has acknowledged performing one act which he states as normal behaviour. Dozens of people are now responding with their views that his behaviour is absolutely not normal, nor acceptable. I don’t know if he’ll be persuaded, but it seems the only chance. Only when the silent majority get up and say clearly that something is unacceptable will the message get through. And silent majorities tend, by their nature, not to speak up.

Three days ago

I saw a ghost

I suppose when you start looking for them you start to see them everywhere, but this was a rather different ghost to those I encountered a few weeks before. When Cambuslang first went to school there was a girl in his class whose mother was a single parent. And she struggled with bringing up her daughter, particularly because of her own childhood spent in foster homes feeling unloved and unlovable. Her daughter was to be her proof that she could rise above that and provide a real family home. She absolutely loved that little girl. Unfortunately those demons weren’t so easy to beat and whether it was mental health or substance abuse, she sometimes lost control. Being found in town, drunk in charge of a young child, is something many people find hard to forgive. And, of course, once you’ve decided it’s unforgivable then, well, that saves you the bother of having to understand it, doesn’t it. From the mother’s point of view it was very easily understood. Not accepted, not condoned, but understood. Probably not forgiven either, which brings its own problems, but there you go.

We tried to do our best to support both mother and daughter as we would any other friends. It was hard, because the mother was understandably determined to show how she could stand on her own two feet, and because she didn’t want anybody else meddling with her precious daughter. But we did what we could.

But, unfortunately, things didn’t go as well as they could. The drunken exploits still seemed to continue and the local authorities stepped in and placed the daughter with another family, firstly as a temporary measure, and later on a more permanent basis. To begin with we still saw the daughter at school, and she still seemed her same bright and bubbly self. Always a smile on her face, always pleased to see you. That was good and reassuring, but I kept worrying about the mother. I bet she wasn’t bright or bubbly, and I was pretty confident that it wouldn’t be a smile on her face. Her daughter was her reason for living, her motivation for conquering her past. Without her what could be the point of going on? Well, I’m aware that perhaps I’m projecting my own feelings onto the mother here, but I suspect not, going by the sort of things she said.

After a while the daughter moved school (possibly because she’d moved family, or maybe just because the family moved her to a school nearer to them) and I haven’t seen her for months now. And I hadn’t seen the mother for much longer, since the initial separation. Until a few days ago. And, to be fair, I was wrong – she did have something of a smile on her face. She was pleased to see us, or at least pretended to be. But she couldn’t stop; she was clearly very uncomfortable. My guess is that the smile was a response to meeting people she knew, but that it vanished very quickly as we reminded her of her daughter – she only knew us because of her daughter and we only ever saw her with her daughter.

I don’t know if she ever manages to put her daughter out of her mind (and I don’t know how she survives if she can’t, sometimes, manage that), but it seemed clear that our presence had reminded her of a very painful absence. I can’t imagine what that absence must feel like – I hope I never know. I just wished we hadn’t met that day.

Six days ago

I was vicariously bullied.

That’s overstating it, to be fair, but the brief exchange cut me very deep. I was with Cambuslang, him riding his bike, in our local park. Passing the children’s play area we noticed a couple of his classmates dangling on the climbing frame. And they both shouted in chorus that Cambuslang still had stabilizers on his bike, and one of them said “and my bike is much better than yours”. Yes, to be fair, Cambuslang does still have stabilizers, and some of his classmates don’t need them any more. So I suppose at least now I have a more serious incentive to work on his balance and take the stabilizers off the bike. But the “my bike is better than yours” comment really pulled me up short.

My first reaction was the rationalists’ one, to think what sort of bike this classmate had, and to objectively judge Cambuslang’s bike. And then to wonder on what grounds one could say that the other kid’s bike was better. At which point I realized the futility and the missing-the-point-ness of this line of thought. We could have gone to every shop in town and chosen the swankiest, coolest, funkiest and most expensive bike in the entire universe. And still that turd would have said that his bike was better. Because it’s nothing to do with the bike. It’s another of those damnable confidence tricks. That little sod has the confidence to say “mine’s better than yours” without thinking, without it even entering his tiny mind to consider, how his bike might actually and factually compare with Cambuslang’s.

It’s a rhetorical device (after all, what can you respond – “no it’s not” is a rather pathetic reply) borne out of an excess of confidence. Yes, it’s also designed to knock the other person down emotionally, and you could argue that that displays a lack of confidence – people with genuine self esteem don’t need to bully others – but that’s only half the story. It really displays a confidence and is ultimately one of those pointless taunts “I’m taller than you” that makes a virtue out of something beyond the control of either participant. Because of that it shouldn’t bother us – why should such an absurd boast/taunt have any effect on us? But it does.

I think what really depressed me about the whole event was the realization that I’d been kidding myself. Kidding myself that Cambuslang needn’t have as miserable a childhood as mine, needn’t spend his whole time at school trying to avoid the bullies, that the folk around him would be nicer than those around me at school, that he would be better equipped and better able to cope with what difficulties his schoolmates would throw at him. That he might even, dare I say it, enjoy some of his childhood? In those brief moments in the park all those delusions fell away, and I was faced with the responsibility for him suffering just what I had. The responsibility for blindly leading him into a series of traps when I should have been looking out for them and taking avoiding action.

Most of the time we can safely consider murderers to be completely different, mentally, from us. We can separate them and feel smug that “I would never do that”. Child-murderers are even more repugnant but, consequently, even more safely distant from us – we’re nothing like them – they’re nothing like us. In the sleep-deprived 2a.m.s of a child’s first months a parent might learn that actually the wall separating “them” from “us” is paper thin. When the child has been crying for hours on end and nothing will stop the wailing, when the parent cannot remember the last proper sleep they had, at that point the thought might enter the parent’s head that there is one sure way of finally stopping the wailing. That would be a hideous moment for the parent, and usually the realization of what they had just thought would provoke a flood of love for the child. That flood will wash away those evil thoughts and help the parent to get through the rest of the night. But they’ll know those thoughts were there, and they’ll be that much more ready to think “there but for the grace of God go I” when reading of parents who murder their children. And similarly when your child suffers, and a vision opens up of a life for that child containing almost endless suffering, then you just might find your mind entertaining the thought of murder and suicide. And then, when you next read of parents who kill themselves and their children, you might read with just a little more humility, understanding and, just a hint, possibly, of forgiveness. And possibly alongside the forgiveness for others you’ll feel a fear of yourself, and an earnest prayer for forgiveness for yourself.

One minute ago

I realized I lacked an 8.

I’ve got 1 ii 2, and 2 of Us, 3/5 of a mile in 10 seconds and 4th time around, I’ve got 5 more minutes and 6 gnossiennes, and 7 by 7 and 9th and Hennepin, as well as a 10 pound float and 11 mustachioed daughters, and I’ve even got 12 x u and 13 valleys. After that it gets a bit patchy although an apostrophical highlight is ’39 followed by 40 and 40′. I quite like the way 1000 umbrellas are followed by 2000 miles although sandwiched inbetween are 1951, 1963, 1995 and 1999 which disrupts the pattern but provides an interesting detour along the way. But what, most notably, I lack, is an 8. Any recommendations?

Two days ago

I learnt how to make diamonds.

Schools are quite impressive these days and seem to teach kids more interesting stuff than I ever learnt and at much earlier stages than I remember. So I was expecting my nearlyfive-year-old Airdrie to go on to tell me about the different states of carbon, and about rocks getting squashed over millenia etc etc. I was wondering if the curriculum had become a bit more adventurous in its vocational approach and was setting the kids up to rival de Beers before they hit GCSE level. So when she said “I know how to make diamonds” I just had to ask: “How?”

Apparently you take a square and turn it round a bit. Oh well. I guess de Beers are safe for a bit longer.

About seven years ago

It all fell into place.

I suppose it wasn’t that many bits that came together at once – just the steady job (that I’d been trying to get for about twelve years), the house (that I’d probably been wanting for even longer), the baby (that I really hadn’t been at all sure about until about a year before), and the incredibly good friendship group (that I hadn’t wanted because I’d never dreamed such a nice thing was possible) – but it was enough. The other bits of the puzzle were already in place – the steady relationship piece, and maybe others that I’m forgetting.

Either way, in short order the whole jigsaw was there, complete. Pretty much all the major components of what I’d wanted in life, I had. But it’s funny how our relation which those tangible things ebbs and flows. If you don’t have them (if you’re unemployed for example, or recently dumped), then they matter. But if you do have them, well, they so quickly cease to matter, and even turn upside down and become burdens rather than pleasures. Of course all this is well-known, so much so that we forgot how bizarre it is. What crazy creatures we are.

One week ago

I railed against repression.

I have a dark secret that I’ve kept completely hidden because I know it wouldn’t go down too well in my circle of friends, at church, amongst my work colleagues, my family, anywhere. But it is me, this dark secret. I’ve been pretending it’s not, and that it’s just an aberration, not truly me, but this has been driving me up the wall, and I’ve finally accepted that it’s better not to pretend but to accept myself as I am in my entirety.

My secret is this. I like women. But only ones wearing yellow trousers. I know it’s strange and unique. Among all the fetishes documented (and provided for, yeurgh) on the web, of which there is no small number, I’ve found no mention of this one, but there it is. Does that make it wrong – it’s uniqueness? I don’t think so, but I’m not very sure. Yes, I am, it’s not. It’s okay. That’s me, and that’s how I am. Even more unique, actually, because the women have to have brown hair with touches of grey (but no more than touches, anything more than highlights is grossly off-putting). Moreover they have to be new to me – once I get to know them personally the attraction disappears – it just vanishes completely. Like the morning mist, I’d write if I were trying to be a cheesy poet. They must be fresh, at least fresh to me. And of course I want to sleep with them. So there it is, that’s my secret. It feels very shameful to write, but I write in the trust that I have an accepting audience here. I trust I’m not going to get hounded off the wibsite for writing this, although I am still nervous even so. I haven’t dared write it before, and certainly haven’t dared tell anybody. But finally I feel the time has come to accept myself, who I am, and start the process of dealing with it, and dealing with how everyone else deals with it. I like to sleep with yellow-trousered women I don’t know. That’s who I am. Sorry, I just have to keep saying it, if only for myself.

I don’t really expect acceptance generally. Honestly, though I hope it will be otherwise, I guess I really know that when I go out to the clubs in town looking for women matching those criteria, when I start chatting them up (just enough to get them into bed, not enough to get to know them and lose the spark), I know I will be condemned. When I run into people who know me I understand that if I honestly tell them what I’m doing they’ll have no sympathy for me. They’ll probably explain why serial monogamy is so wrong. (For that, monogamy, is one of the rules I stick to – I never try to get two women at the same time). They’ll quote “enjoy yourself with the wife of your youth” and so on. (Yes, just one casual aside in the old testament is all they can usually find to defend their position). They’ll probably find some biblical passage explaining why the pursuit of yellow-legged ladies is wrong. But I’ve checked: there’s no such passage, so I know they’ll just be twisting the scriptures for their own ends. So really there’s no argument. It’s not acceptable to the general populace, but that doesn’t make it wrong, does it. That’s what I have to keep telling myself to avoid ripping myself to shreds. And I guess I’ve got to accept myself if I’m to persaude anybody else to accept me. Wish me luck.

Some time ago

I went from one extreme to the other.

This has been happening quite a lot lately in various forms which is why I’ve been so vague on the date: it seems absurd to pin-point one occasion when there have been so many. But one occasion stands out as the most extreme set of extremes that I’ve oscillated between.

It began when I started thinking about brushing my teeth. I was probably lying in bed – these things tend to happen while I’m lying in bed wishing I could be asleep. And I just thought of the prospect of having to brush my teeth every day for the rest of my life, and I just couldn’t face it. I couldn’t bear the thought of doing that tedious little chore every day, every single day, for ever. Somehow it was as if all those little teeth-brushing sessions were piling up on top of me, suffocating me.

And then one morning, quite possibly the very next morning (probably not if this is supposed to be an exact chronological account of a real life but, since it’s not, let’s say that yes, it was the very next morning) I walked to work through the park. The sun was shining, the kids were cheery when I left, I felt unburdened by pressure or work-stress. And the thought came to me that I could happily do this for the rest of my life. I have a job I enjoy in a very pleasant environment, with an excellent circle of friends both near and far, and with as good a family as I could hope for. I felt unreasonably blessed.

So, I might not be able to face brushing my teeth, but apart from that life felt great.

Three weeks ago

I tried to climb Kinder Scout.

I’ve attempted to recognize here that a certain fraternity of walkers will maintain that you haven’t actually climbed a hill unless you reach the cairn on the summit, and possibly even added your own rock to those already assembled. I did not, as far as I can tell, reach the summit of Kinder Scout so cannot, by those terms, claim to have climbed it. But I’ve realized lately that what interests me most about hillwalking is not getting to the highest point, but getting the best views. Often the two coincide, but when they don’t, it’s the views I’ll go for.

Part of me would like to say that I went up that particular hill in that particular year so as to celebrate a famous ascent seventy-five years previously. But to be honest it just happened that that weekend of that year was convenient for me, that that location was convenient, and that on that particular day, that direction seemed more attractive than the alternatives. No grand plan at all.

And when I think about it now I’m not actually sure that the famous trespass is such a great thing to commemorate anyway. To suggest that is, of course, heresy in the walking community, but I was born to question things, and that’s often a recipe for being branded a heretic.

That mass trespass of 1932 was supposed to establish that anybody could walk anywhere in the countryside that they wanted to. It was supposed to fight against the restrictions that landowners would place on access to the land. It was supposed to ensure that the poor working classes of Manchester and Sheffield could use what little free time they had to take advantage of the beautiful scenery that was so close and yet, through access restrictions, denied to them.

What the traditional story doesn’t really emphasize is that the trespass was driven by the local communist party, and while I’m sure they wanted it to achieve the goals already stated, the c-word should make you realize that they may have had a not-very-ulterior agenda in annoying the land-owners.

Still, mixed motives don’t always prevent good outcomes, and goodness knows that pure motives are rare indeed. So perhaps it’s best to judge the event by its outcomes.

Okay, at this point I have to plead ignorance. I don’t understand the precise subtleties of what land was accessible before and what land is now accessible under recent legislation that is supposed to grant what the trespassers were pushing for decades before. But if you walk around that area one thing will become obvious to you – the pennine way, and the erosion caused by an awful lot of people walking in the same area. That was one of the landowners’ defences at the time – let all the hoi polloi out onto the hills and the landscape will be damaged. A pathetic ploy, no doubt, and just an excuse to defend what they really wanted to keep for themselves. But they were right despite that – there is a lot of erosion that is due to the large number of people walking there, and I can’t pretend I didn’t contribute my little bit to it.

And, moreover, who are the people out walking on the hills where they wouldn’t otherwise have been allowed? Is it really the impoverished working classes from the local metropolises? Or is it the rather less impoverished middle classes from all over the country? I wish it weren’t so, but the answer seems pretty clear, and whenever I think about this I hear Jarvis Cocker’s painful but accurate words “My favourite parks are car parks, grass is something you smoke, birds are something you shag”. It’s a nice dream to think of all those poor workers in the cotton mills sweating from dawn to dusk six days a week but, on their day off, being able to head out to the Peak District, climb some hills and enjoy the views. But it’s a deluded middle-class fantasy. Those workers in the 30s would have had a genetic memory of the countryside as being the place their family sweated their brows off trying to earn a living from farming. It wasn’t the “great outdoors” – it was the hell they were escaping from with their nice dry factory job. And as that genetic memory faded, they didn’t buy into that middle class dream, they bought into a very different sort of escapism as Pulp document very well.

Personally I’m glad I had the opportunity to walk on Kinder Scout. But let’s be honest and admit that the mass trespass achieved a lot for only a few. There are many more barriers to those at the bottom of the social ladders than just selfish landowners.

Twenty four years ago

I met Owen Honeywell.

Not literally met, of course, but encountered. My brother had told me about him and said that I was bound to meet him soon and so it was amusing or reassuring, I’m not sure which, to actually encounter him. Anyway, there he was in all his glory, among a load of other people whose names simply haven’t stuck with me in the same way, I’ve no idea why.

And I’ve no idea why I happened to be thinking about him this morning (edit: actually, now I come to think of it, yes I do know why – I saw some workmen with hi-vis vests stating that they worked for a Mr Honeybun. I’m sorry but I find the idea of a building firm called “Honeybun” just ridiculously amusing. “Hey Honeybun, would you mind moving your bulldozer”… Sorry) but it turned out to be quite ironic, given that today was the day I ended up unintentionally typing rm *.*

Now I could argue that it wasn’t my fault, and that I was just doing what I was told, but you’d know and I’d know that that would be a little bit dishonest. Okay, mea culpa. Doh. So, okay, it was a big mistake. I could explain the simple error that led to that more catastrophic error, but that wouldn’t me very interesting. So instead I’ll just leave you with the smug thought that I have spent all afternoon trying desperately to recover files that I gleefully deleted in a moment of complete insanity. You can be smug that you’ve never done that. And I dare you to even go so far as to say “I’ve never done that”. And let’s see who gets away with tempting fate and who doesn’t.

One day ago

I realized how advertisements create happiness.

As with many of my realizations it is borne out of a strong conviction that is entirely opposite. I don’t, basically, like adverts. It’s not that seeing them is painful, it’s just that they are so pointless and parasitic. Look, take an industry, say a bunch of different companies making beer. One of them decides to pay a ton of money to advertise their particular beer. Their sales go up. So then every other company decides to pay a similar amount to advertise. Their sales recover from the dip they suffered when the first company advertised. End result: nobody’s sales are any higher than they were at the start, but everybody is now paying a wopping sum (a “tax” you might call it because that’s effectively what it is) to fund the advertising industry. All those adverts effectively cancel each other out, leaving no net benefit to the beer companies.

Now some clever soul is going to point out that, actually, everybody’s sales will be slightly higher than before because of those adverts. Well just expand this model to encompass all industries, not just beer. If beer companies advertise and people end up buying more beer, then that’ll be less cider or wine, or maybe books or clothes that they buy. What the beer companies gain somebody else loses – what comes around goes around. If you look at a big enough picture then you’ll see that there is no overall benefit from advertising.

That is my background view on advertising and I still basically adhere to it, but possibly only because I haven’t fully internalized this new revelation about happiness. Hmm, adverts and happiness – even talk of such a connection seems distasteful, let alone the suggestion that adverts actually create happiness. Yet that really is what I’ve come to think. Here’s why.

I’ve been thinking about getting an iPod. This is how I work: I think, and think, and think and think, and maybe a while later (a month in some cases, 10 years in some cases) I’ll actually go and buy the thing I’ve been thinking about. This gives me plenty of time for my snail-paced brain to chew over the pros and cons. Well, in this instance this thinking time enabled somebody to come in and question whether that was really the best use of my money and whether I shouldn’t be giving it to support some poor starving orphan in Africa. I wish I wasn’t, but I’m someone who takes those sorts of questions seriously. And on one level of course it’s a no-brainer – how could I possibly justify buying an iPod and leaving that poor orphan to starve. How could I possibly? I wish I wasn’t, but I’m someone who takes those sorts of questions seriously, and tries to find an answer. As an exercise in logic if nothing else, how would I go about justifying buying an iPod instead of giving the money away? Why on earth, in fact, am I even considering buying an iPod? Why do I want one? It’ll provide a means of playing music that I already have – the music is on CDs that I can listen to at home, at work, or on my walkman already, so it’s just providing an alternative device for listening to stuff I already have. It’ll be slightly more convenient in some ways, but that’s a minor gain. And then it came to me that it would give me pleasure to own an iPod. Pleasure that is not directly attributable to being able to listen to music in a certain way, nor attributable to the modest extra convenience that the device itself will bring. No, that shiny plastic box will, just by dint of being in my hand or in my pocket, or even just by being on my mantlepiece at home even when I’m not there, just by being mine that box will give me pleasure. I can see it now – that warm feeling I will have by thinking that I own such a thing. I have the same feeling about the last guitar I bought – even though I don’t have it here with me as I type, even though it’s in its case and out of sight most of the day – I still get pleasure out of knowing that it’s mine. It makes me happy. And why do I associate an electronic device for reproducing music with happiness? Yes, because of the adverts. And the point is that those adverts haven’t just translated that happiness and moved it from one context to another, no they’ve created that happiness out of nothing. Without those adverts that iPod wouldn’t make me happy. Thanks to them there is some happiness to be had which would not otherwise exist.

Happiness is an elusive thing; we all know that. We know how easily it can evaporate. What we tend to forget (in our negativity) is how magically it can also appear out of nowhere. And what is more magical still is that the advertising industry seemed to have come up with some tools for actually creating it. It isn’t an accident that those iPod adverts have created an association of iPods with happiness – that was craft not inspiration. The ability of adverts to create happiness is not quite straightforward or mechanical enough to be called a machine, but you can see how maybe they’re heading in that direction. Maybe one day the advertising industry will have matured to the point where they can claim to have a machine for producing happiness. But that’s making it sound like I’ve lost the plot even more than I had at the start of this post, so I’ll stop here.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering whether I’m going to buy an iPod or not …… so am I.

One hour ago

I despaired about despair.

Today my newspaper had a long report about gambling. Apparently the number of `problem gamblers’ is about the same as it was 8 years ago (about 0.6% of the adult population) when the last comparable survey was carried out. This is obviously not news, so the reporter dug a bit more to find a more interesting angle. Well, apparently amongst gamblers using the internet the proportion of `problem gamblers’ is much higher, apparently around 7.4% depending on your definitions. Since 7.4% is clearly much higher than 0.6% (a tenfold rise as the report has it, cunningly using the word “rise” with its implication of increase over time to insinuate a worsening situation) there is obviously a huge problem, which explains the bold headline “Britain’s gambling problem multiplies online”. Now re-read that first statistic (0.6%, same as last time) and try and reconcile that fact with this headline.

Oh dear, oh dear. On the one hand I despair of such pathetic misuse (I could call it misunderstanding but I’m not feeling so charitable) of statistics. But on the other, and I think more prevalently, I despair of our tendency to want to hear how bad things are and how they are getting much worse. Recent comment on the wibsite and elsewhere has revolved around the prevalence of `lads mags’, with their soft-core pornographic content. Well, I’m not a great fan of those magazines, but I recall equivalent magazines being available a quarter of a century ago. Those pornographic magazines are no longer available in most high street shops (which is surely a good thing) and the `new’ lads’ mags have taken their place (which is, admittedly, not such a good thing). This is no improvement, I agree, but it’s no worse, so I really don’t think it’s a cause for despair.

And so it is with those gambling statistics. When you think for a second about what they could possibly mean you reach the only sensible conclusion which is that problem gamblers tend to use online gambling sites more than non-problem gamblers do. Well, what a surprise! And once you’ve filtered out that completely unsurprising piece of information you’re left with the fact that the internet has not, in any measurable way, led to more gambling than previously. It’s not getting worse. On the other hand, there are a number of things that really are getting worse and that we should worry about it. There are many interpretations you could put on this, but whatever the background, it’s surely better that we worry about the things that really are worrisome, rather than getting distracted into worrying about things like this that really aren’t.

Four days ago

I visited a ghost town.

I hadn’t really thought of it in those terms when I was arranging my visit. I had started to work out that there was nobody living there as I mentally worked through my list of people I associated with that town and realized that each one of them was now somewhere else. But that left me expecting an empty town, so it was quite a surprise as I walked around the town to be accosted by so many ghosts. Ghosts with very definite, fixed locations. At times it felt like each building I passed had its own ghost who would leap out at me. I passed one house and was accosted by the ghost of the girl I knew for many years and who lived in the hostel based in that house just before she completely lost the plot, grew a beard and lived in a tent on the beach. Then I passed the boarded-up shop where the comic book readers would get their weekly fixes and the ghost of Jim came out at me, reminding me in turn of the funny time when he himself was scared witless by the apparition of a very different sort of ghost. Going down a flight of steps I had to step aside to avoiding tripping over the ghost of a broken student who was sat contemplating what his future might be having just had exam results which seemed to ensure that his university career was over. A little later I walked by another flat and was accosted by the ghost of the girl who spent a couple of weeks seducing me, culminating in her cuddling me in that flat, before she lost interest (probably despairing at the fact that I hadn’t remotely noticed what she was up to, but more likely because her approach to relationships was akin to a goldfish’s approach to its castle). Some of the happiest days of my life were spent in that town (though definitely not in that flat) and now it’s just ghosts. I guess that’s a sign of how I’ve moved on. Those good times did their job – they changed my personality in a very positive way – and now their work is done I don’t need to cling onto them any longer.

Some months ago

I realized I was a conservative.

If I’d had to put a capital C in that sentence then I think I really would have to kill myself but even as it is it was quite an unsettling realization. But I do really seem to like the status quo, or at least I seem to put in a lot of effort to defend it. That in itself is really quite bizarre – I clearly have a number of aims which I am actively pursuing and yet completely unaware of. Certainly if you’d asked me whether I liked preserving the status quo then, until those months ago, I would have said no. And yet that it is exactly what I seem to be doing, even to the point of bending facts or distorting my opinions in order to achieve this. As far as I can understand myself (which is really not much, not much at all) it’s not that I like the status quo per se (although Ma Kelly’s greasy spoon will probably always have a place in my heart) but that being positive about how things are at the moment is closely linked with being content, and that is something which I am a great fan of. I know that revolutions (both of the good sort, like Wilberforce, and the bad sort, like Pol Pot) are borne of discontentment and dissatisfaction with how things are, but my impression is that far more mental damage on an individual level is caused by discontentment than is alleviated by the revolutions arising out of such discontentment.

No, actually, that’s over-simplified. It would be better to say that we should be content on the small scale and discontented on the big scale. It would be bad news for us to be content with the situation in Darfur or Iraq, or with the damage we’re doing to the climate system. But on the more personal things it’s better to be content – being discontented about my job, for example, is more likely to lead to my having a nervous breakdown than to any positive outcome.

Seventeen or so years ago

I was asked for a lift.

So far so normal. But this was at 2 o’clock in the morning. And I was walking along a street. I didn’t own a car, and couldn’t drive, but still this woman, who I’d never met before, stopped me on the street and asked me for a lift to her home in a city that was about 60 miles away. Apparently she’d spent the evening at her daughter’s house, lost track of time and missed the last train. She’d left her daughter’s house, maybe in the hopes of finding a bus or some alternative transport – I can’t remember if she said why. In any case, by the time she saw me, as she explained, she felt it was too late to go back to her daughter as she would be asleep. So she asked if I could give her a lift. Now I’m a mug basically. It doesn’t take much to make me want to help someone. This is an impulse whose origin I do not understand at all. I distinctly recall an occasion in my childhood where I really wanted to help my big brother do something and, precisely because he understood that I wanted to help, he wouldn’t let me help him, causing me a great deal of frustration. Helping people is good, but I seem to have a desire to help bordering on the obsessive-compulsive. So anyway, I wanted to help this woman. But being a student at that time I didn’t know many car-owning friends, just one in fact. Stupidly I phoned him and felt bad enough at disturbing him at that time and worse at how stupid the story sounded. Fortunately he gave a categorical no, which served to clarify in my mind how wrong I was to have even asked, and is something for which all of my friends subsequently ought to give thanks at 2 o’clock every morning. Having no other suggestions I left her and headed on my way home, wondering, as I still do, whether what she had said was true, whether she was drunk or deranged, or whether I should just have crossed the road as soon as she approached. And whether or not she got home that night.

Around twenty eight years ago

I knew it wasn’t me.

Apart from that certainty I don’t remember much. We were in the playground and being called back into class. The teacher stopped us at the steps and wouldn’t let us further until she had had an apology from the person who said something very rude about her. So we all stopped and looked around with that growing sense of fear-excitement-anticipation as we waited for the culprit to give themselves up and as we increasingly admired their courage at holding out for so long. Gradually the admiration became mixed with frustration – waiting isn’t, after all, a lot of fun. What I particularly don’t remember is how it became clear to me that I was the culprit. Maybe the teacher was forced, after waiting so long, to give enough clues away for me to realize what/who she was talking about. Maybe the waiting gave me enough opportunity to remember what had happened previously and to stumble upon my memory of the `crime’. But that suggests that I would have had some awareness that I had committed a crime and I know I had no such awareness. I know that because that’s become such a common feeling since – the feeling that I’ve done nothing wrong in my eyes but that something I’ve done has been unacceptable to the people around me. And I suppose what is so unpleasant about it isn’t the sense of being in the wrong, at least not in the precise sense of having done something bad. I can live with that sense. No, what is really unpleasant is the sense of being so out of tune with other people that what is acceptable to me is clearly not acceptable to others. The realization that, yet again, I can’t trust my own perceptions – they’re wrong – and I have to scrutinise every one of my acts and options from the point of view of how everyone else might see it. It’s the effort involved in moving from my own point of view to what I guess might be other people’s point of view. Experience has taught me there can be a long distance between my view and others’ so it’s a long journey, requiring huge feats of imagination. At the end of the day I suppose it’s just hard work, and a pain knowing that that effort should be undertaken for every little thing I consider doing.

At times I’ve pondered the causes of this and realized that my out-of-tune perceptions can be largely attributed to my parents. On that occasion in particular I would have insulted the teacher because my family’s natural language is insults. I was brought up not to exchange pleasantries but to exchange insults. I suppose that was my parents’ idea of humour. And I suppose that experience in the playground was an early signal as to how badly this `humour’ would set me up for getting on with people in real life. So eventually I learnt to work hard at suppressing the natural (or perhaps `nurtural’ would be the better word) tendencies to insult, at least to direct the insults at myself – self-deprecation being a much more acceptable type of humour than insults are. Unfortunately, as life goes on, I found myself getting to know some people well enough to feel able to indulge in the odd insult-as-humour. And then I seemed to spend more and more of my time with people I knew very well and less with people I didn’t know so well. Leaving me feeling more often able to indulge in the odd insult. And so I can see the pattern continuing to the point that, before Cambuslang gets to the age I was in that playground, my natural language will again be insults, thus setting him up perfectly to be in exactly the same sorry position I was all those years ago. That’s progress folks.

Nine years ago

I heard of an urban myth.

You know it’s said that the eskimos (and I’m not supposed to call them that but if I call them inuits then I’ll have lost half the cultural baggage I’m trying to examine) have 32 different words for snow. And you probably know that that’s an urban myth. But you may also know that that itself is an urban myth, and that they really do have 32 different words for snow. Well, okay, maybe it’s 29, but you get the drift.

I’ve heard various generations of that assertion (the original statement, its denial, the denial of the denial, etc) so I don’t know whether it’s true or not. (And, frankly, I don’t care. I don’t need to know. It’s bad enough that I know the words to “Riding the scree” – I don’t need esquimaux linguistics filling up my very limited mental capacity too). It’s probably not true, but if you tell it to anyone (if you can find someone who hasn’t heard it already) they nod as they would to a previously unheard but entirely plausible and reasonable statement. It may or may not be true but it entirely chimes with our understanding of the world.

Which is fine, but the problem, or the start of the problem at least, is that it reinforces that understanding. It starts a positive feedback thing going and as any PA technician will tell you, that’s a worrying thing. Because only the slightest notion that the world is like that, after sufficient iterations of the feedback loop, will lead to an utter unshakeable conviction that it is so. It can, in short, make you believe anything. Black is white. White is black. White is cleverer than black. Anything you want to believe, and probably some things you don’t. It really doesn’t take much of a seed for the process to feed on. An off-hand comment from someone you don’t even trust, then another and no matter how you fight it, they coalesce in your mind so that when the next person you don’t trust says the same thing, it resonates, and grows, like mould.

And after you’ve gone through that feedback process things really do become worrying because beliefs, if they really are beliefs and not just wittering, shape actions. I don’t suppose any nasty deeds are going to come out of believing that an eskimo thesaurus is rather heavy on the snow section, but then I have a limited imagination. But I can see some nasty actions coming out of other beliefs that have grown in a similarly uncontrolled way. Like the belief that the victim of a crime should have a say in how the criminal is punished rather than leaving it to vastly experienced and objective judges who will take all factors into account rather than just one. Or the belief that, oh no, sorry, I’m not going to talk about the thing that is actually on my mind here. Although that would bring all this down to earth and make it intelligible, it would also reveal too much about the grey clouds floating across my mind these days.

I guess when you hear any proposition you have three possible responses: one is utter disbelief, one is to have heard it before, and the other is to accept it because it accords with what you already know. I’ve just been expounding the dangers of the third option, and the second makes you look like an arrogant know-it-all. So maybe the first is the only sensible option. But of course you shouldn’t take my word on that.

Thirteen and a bit years ago

I was on the receiving end of a random act of kindness.

Living in a foreign country and trying to get a better grip on the language it occurred to me that reading a book in that language might help me. I’d still recommend that provided that you have some grounding to begin with, and it’s a good way to maintain vocabulary if you don’t get the chance to practice much (as is my situation now). Choosing what to read is quite important though – you wouldn’t want someone to learn basic conversational English by reading Shakespeare for example. So I was looking for a book I knew and knew had relatively simple vocabulary. And so there I was browsing through a display box full of books when I found something that just about fitted the bill. I flicked through it and then started looking more intently, trying to read a few lines, trying to see if the level of difficulty of the task was right. And for reasons that I still can’t fathom, a middle-aged gentleman next to me said something that I understood as “I’ll buy it for you” and quickly dashed to the till, returned to hand me the book, and then vanished. (No, not literally, in case you’re thinking this was some kind of mysterious book-buying angel). I had just enough time to blurt out some thanks. And to this day I’ve been left grateful and puzzled in more-or-less equal measure.

Eight weeks ago

I closed a chapter of my life.

Normally if you talk about a period of your life ending then it’s a bad thing. I suppose we’re addicted to nostalgia so what’s past is always good. In this case it wasn’t, not at all. I wrote quite a few blog entries about it at the time but never posted them because they were all too bitter. Now it’s over the bitter taste is fading away.

Basically every morning for the last couple of years I would wake up and, first thing, get a kick in the teeth. Sometimes literally, always metaphorically. The routine was this: our kids would wake from their slumbers, come through to our bedroom and climb into our bed and we’d have a short interlude of all being together in bed (editor: am I going to get arrested for writing this?) before getting up and facing the rest of the world. Sounds idyllic, but for me it was hellish. Because every day the two kids would squabble about who could be furthest away from me. Both wanted to cuddle up to mummy and be as far away from daddy as possible. To make it even worse, it had been fine when we only had one child – he was happy to cuddle either parent. But when Airdrie came along she soon only wanted mummy, and by that strange but inevitable process of human psychology, Cambuslang started demanding the same. Because she rejected me so he obviously felt he ought to too. So every day for me started with my kids rejecting me. I’m tempted to say that it’s no wonder I was depressed, except that scientifically that’s demonstrably false.

So anyway, that was the state of affairs until those eight weeks ago. Then a change of circumstances effectively shuffled the pack. And now it really feels as if both kids value both parents equally. Now those `idyllic’ times in the morning are just that. The pendulum hasn’t swung the other way, it’s just stopped in the middle. Of course, having swung once, it may well swing again, but if I can hold on to the fact that dreadful things do eventually come to an end, then I may be able to cope better when it happens again.

About two years ago

I got jealous.

Jealousy is something I try and avoid – it’s not pretty and it’s not helpful. Unlike eating chocolate where there is a great deal of pleasure to accompany the vague guilty thoughts, jealousy is just ugly and unpleasant through and through. But unfortunately I’ve started feeling it more and more often lately.

I really noticed this when an acquaintance (not really close enough to be called a friend) applied for a job in another town. And let people know this. Of course she didn’t mind people knowing, because she was going to get the job. She knew, I knew, and everyone else knew that she was going to get it. I don’t know how good she is at her job, so I have no reason to suspect she is any better than average, yet it was completely certain that she was going to get the job she’d applied for. And she did. Of course.

I’ve applied for a lot of jobs in my life. Serious applications, where I had exactly the requisite qualifications, background and experience. And it would be accurate to a very large degree to say I’ve been rejected from every one. Accurate to a very large degree but not 100% completely true. Only about 99% true. For a period of about six years I applied for something like a hundred jobs each year. Some years I got offered one and some I didn’t. I suppose at least I never had the dilemma of having to choose between two offers – that was a silver lining I suppose.

So my experience of applying for jobs is simple. I apply. I get a rejection letter. I forget about it and move on. At least I assume I get a rejection letter most times – I’ve only actually kept the letters from my first year of job-hunting as they got a bit repetitious. That’s my experience, yet other people, like my acquaintance, seem to have exactly the opposite experience – they apply for a job, they get offered the job. When they say they’ve applied for the job they’re really saying they’re trying to choose whether to leave and accept the new job or whether to stay with their current job. Which is why when people ask(ed) about my job applications I was always cagey. If I happened to give away anything concrete, for example if I happened to say I was applying for a job in Unthank, then immediately people would assume that I’d get the job (because that’s seemingly what happens to normal people). After the inevitable rejection letter came through people would still be asking when I was moving to Unthank. And telling them that, of course, I got rejected, just got a bit tiring. So I stopped telling people I was applying. That was easier. And then I stopped bothering to apply. That was easier still.

Now I’m not interested in advice or guidance, I don’t want a CV clinic or suggestions about being more positive. But I do just wonder why my experience of applications is so opposite to everyone else’s. Presumably it’s me, and if so, well, tough, cos I can’t be bothered changing. But I do wonder. Am I just useless, or am I constantly overambitious and aiming too high. Am I stuffed by my lack of confidence or by my excess of confidence? And how is it possible to be cursed with both? What a cheery line of thought for a beautiful summer day.

Two days ago

I found a path to happiness.

Having done a fair bit of walking in the countryside in Britain, and some (but not enough) in Switzerland, I know that the word path can mean different things. A path can have very obtrusive signs guiding you along it, and a path can have very discrete signs. Those signs can do a good job of keeping you on the recommended path, or they can do a good job of helping you lose it and yourself completely. Naively you might think that discrete signs on a path will make that path harder to follow. But a few summers ago I learnt that the opposite is true. I spent a week walking in the alps, following some very discrete waymarkers which, nevertheless, marked the path perfectly and prevented any navigational difficulties. Straight afterwards I spent a few days walking in Britain, following an official long-distance footpath. This had very big, ugly and obtrusive signs but they failed to give very much useful guidance at all.

The path I’m talking about is firmly in the British mould, so I don’t have much confidence in arriving at my destination, but hey, this is one thing where I always thought the Americans had it right – you can pursue happiness, but don’t expect to actually achieve it.

A persistent, if sometimes implicit, thread to this blog has been that I don’t know what’s good for me; I don’t know what I enjoy. Frequently I’ve felt that what I really needed was just a bit of time doing something nice, and I’ve usually spent that time frustratedly trying and failing to think of what that would be. But the photo I posted about last time finally gave me the clue. When I look at that photo I am transported back to a very pleasant and happy day. And by looking through a few more of my photos I can find some other happy times that I’ve enjoyed. Which is one way of discovering some things that I have, at least in the past, enjoyed. Now, of course, not everything can be captured in photos (at least not if you have to get them developed in a public photo shop), and what I enjoyed in the past is only an imperfect guide to what I might now enjoy. But it’s a start, and that’s better than I had before.

Five and a half weeks ago

I was on a beach at the top of the country.

I took a few photos that day that are now on my computer in the directory it looks at when, every half hour, it picks a new picture to display as the background. So every now and again I get a snapshot of that beach on that day. I was there on my own with the kids (that’s a contradiction-in-terms, I know, but I know what I mean and am trusting that you do too) so the photos tend to have simply a beach and two very precious human beings. And it all looks beautiful; the skies are almost cloudless, the sand on the beach looks perfect (although probably not so good for making castles, but then we didn’t try), and the Kattegat is sparkling with reflected sunlight. Now what I could tell you is how the kids and I were actually really grumpy that day and in a bad mood with each other and how I spent all the day shouting at them, and thus how deceptive the photos are. I have some photos like that; they look beautiful to everybody else but to me they just bring up unhappy memories. But in fact this wasn’t one of those days. We were on excellent terms, all enjoying the trip, the beach, and whole day together, and the photos thus perfectly reflect the flavour of that day in my mind. My memories of that day sparkle with a warm glow just like the sea in those photos.

Twenty years ago

I was sobering up.

In the active sense, that is, not the passive. Surrounded by a number of people who had drunk rather more units of alcohol than their tender years had prepared them for I was actively trying to bring their systems back to normal. At some point in the early hours we’d decided to leave the house and walk in some nearby woods. Not a place I’d been for years, but I recalled from my childhood that there was a hill with, at its top, quite a large clearing. So there we were, as dawn was approaching, walking round in large circles (small ones would have induced a dizziness contrary to our aim) trying to get as much fresh air as is possible when surrounded by a metropolis. It had been a good night, I suppose. I was with a group of friends who I was not embarrassed to call friends, and who I did not expect to be an embarrassment to, and the novelty of this had not yet worn off. I was learning, not so much to stretch my wings, as just learning that I had wings. I’d left behind a quite horrible situation and was in a much better spot. I suppose I must have known even then that I wouldn’t be there long though and, indeed, within six months I’d lost all contact with all but two of the people there that night. Now I can’t remember the names of more than three or four of them, or the faces of many more. But it happened, that I can still recall. We walked around and around in the woods, and it was pleasant. You only get to have an eighteenth birthday once, and I hadn’t completely messed it up. It wasn’t perfect, but like the dim lightening glow in the sky as we walked, it was a lot better than what had gone before, and an indication of an even brighter future.

Twenty five and a half years ago

I fell in love.

Well maybe not actually love, but something like it. I was certainly mesmerized by the girl, couldn’t take my eyes off her, kept thinking about her afterwards. I even remember discussions at school in the days afterwards that would just end in us all gazing into space in awe. That’s one of the few memories where I recall being in-synch with the others at school. I’d reacted in just the same way as the them; for once I was normal. I suppose that was comforting because it meant I probably wasn’t going to get my head kicked in the imminent future. It seems important to point out that it’s the “because” in that sentence that is the key word.

I saw her again the night before last, for the first time since all those years ago. At first I didn’t recognize her, and when I did I impulsively started looking (probably unwisely) for any sign of what appealed way back when. Fortunately that gamble, albeit one I hadn’t deliberately taken, paid off – I couldn’t find any sign of attraction at all. And it’s not as if she’d changed, cos I was watching a video from the same quarter-century-old era. So it’s just down to me changing. Curious: one day a chocolate eclair appeals, another day it doesn’t. What’s the sense in that? I suppose it’d be more worrying if my tastes hadn’t changed in twenty five years. And I suppose only by sniffing at several different flowers do you learn which one you like best. Still it feels strange to realize that the same me is not the same me at all. In fact, what does the now-me have in common with the then-me? A few memories – is that all? And what does it matter? Besides, some Greek philosopher will have worked all this out if I could only be bothered to find out. But I suppose sometimes it’s the puzzling out that’s satisfying, not the knowing the answers.

Nineteen years ago

I did something shameful.

Of course that wasn’t the only occasion, not by a long way. A long, long way. And in fact I’ve only picked out that occasion so as to deliberately avoid others where the shame is fresher and more painful. Because much of what I’ve written about on this blog is highly personal in the sense that it happened to me and the only remains of the events are the traces left in my memory. I am the sole repository of much of this stuff. Some I’ve written down because I desperately want to remember myself, some because I particularly want to share it with others. In either case I want it to last and I don’t trust my memory for that.

So what about the stuff I don’t want to last? What about that feeling of shame aroused by thinking about those times when I’ve been the person I know I am rather than the person I’d like to be (and can sometimes kid myself that I am). I could write about them here and maintain them – keep them alive. Perhaps there’d be something positive in doing that – maybe I’d learn the lessons better that way, or maybe they could just serve as a benchmark – an example of something that I used to do but can confidently say that I don’t do know. (Ah – there comes that “confidence” word again, a constant source of concern for me. And I’m learning more and more the truth of something Ee quoted to me a while ago: “Confidence. Ah yes, that’s something you have when you’re young, isn’t it.”) But wouldn’t it be easier just to bury it? My memory will surely lose track of it sooner or later, so isn’t it better to help that process along and to move on? Isn’t it just flagellation to keep reminding myself of past failings?

A month ago

I dwelt on the downsides of democracy.

It seems to me that, as a country having had “universal” suffrage (excluding only the young, those whose views are too wacky, those who have been caught misbehaving…) for almost a century, we’ve got through the teething troubles that this brings and can start to see some of the long term effects. Only some, for I’m with the guy who, when asked whether the French revolution was a good thing or a bad thing, said it was too early to comment.

One of the effects I see is the belief that we, the people, run the country. Tee hee. If only. An Eric Hobsbawm book I started reading the other week put it well, although I don’t remember the exact wording. In it he said essentially that the powers-that-be only allowed universal suffrage once they had realized that it wouldn’t change a thing. Of course, to be precise, we do run the country, but we run it along the lines that we are told to. Like a worker bee acting completely autonomously yet doing precisely what the queen wants him to do.

A funny example of this came to me recently. Like many others who just about remember the seventies and were at an unfortunately impressionable age in the eighties, I assimilated the mantra that inflation is bad. And I also accepted for a while the corollary that unemployment is necessary as a way of keeping inflation under control. I actually think unemployment is evil. Yes, it’s not bad, not unfortunate, not dangerous but evil. Let’s call a spade a spade and say that it is a diabolic tool. What it does psychologically to a person who wants to work but is unable to, and who is rejected whenever they try, has all the hallmarks of evil to me. So I keep chewing over different ways of getting round the problem of unemployment. But I always hit upon the problem that unemployment is our main tool in the fight against inflation so it seems to be a necessary evil.

Until, that is, it finally dawned on me that inflation isn’t actually a problem. Now, let’s be clear, I’m not talking about the hyperinflation that has been seen from time to time in history – that certainly is a problem but, fortunately, a rare one. No, I’m talking about double-figure inflation of the sort prevalent in the seventies. So, let’s see, what exactly is the problem with inflation? Well, it means that my salary that is just enough to live on one year will, suddenly, become not enough to live on next year. Right? Wrong. The reason unemployment is a tool against inflation is that when there is unemployment people who have jobs are reluctant to ask for a rise because they know they could be replaced by the many unemployed people waiting to step into their shoes. Take away unemployment and people will demand salary increases which will cause inflation. In other words, the sort of inflation we’re worried about is caused by salary increases. So the problem is definitely not that salaries will not keep up with prices, since the link between salaries and prices tends to work in the other direction.

So what is the problem? Well, my savings will vanish – one day I have a year’s salary worth of savings (I wish!) and then next year inflation’ll shrink that to only a few months’ worth. Right, so if I have savings then inflation’s a problem. But – the amount inflation erodes my savings will be directly proportional to the amount of savings I have in the first place. Given that most people do not have much in the way of savings, it’s clear that this effect is not significant for a lot of people. In fact there is another very significant effect counterbalancing this one. For as inflation reduces savings, so it reduces debts. And Britons owe an awful lot of money. So inflation is surely a good thing as it will reduce this debt? Yes, inflation is good for people with debts. And it’s kind of neutral for people without much in the way of savings, but very bad for people with lots of money in savings. In other words, in a nutshell, inflation is good for the poor and bad for the rich. Hmmm. Let’s just say that again so we don’t forget it.

Inflation is good for the poor and bad for the rich.

So why do we all think inflation is so bad? Who was it that was telling us how evil inflation was? The easy and tempting answer is to say that it was the Conservatives who, after all, have always been the party of those who have lots and don’t want to share it. But that is to be a little too naive about who’s running the country. That is to suggest that party politics might actually be deciding what’s going on. No, the answer is more direct: we are hearing this message about inflation from the rich, through the media that they, almost exclusively, control. Either the newspapers (who ever heard of a poor newspaper baron?) or the television channels which are either owned by the rich, or controlled by the rich (who ultimately is running the BBC, and who decides who runs the BBC?)

On the one hand this realization was good – it takes away one of the barriers to solving the unemployment problem. But more significantly it reveals how this country is being run. Namely those with loads of money are actually controlling how we think. Put like that it sounds like something science-fictiony but it’s not – it’s straightforward reality. And it’s not really new either – Robert Tressell certainly recognized this a hundred years ago, which is what makes The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists a particularly depressing read. But I fear it’s a fact too little known. But then, it would be, wouldn’t it. It wouldn’t suit the people who actually run this country for us all to be aware of it.

Around a week ago

We got a joke machine.

Inspired by one of his books Cambuslang created a joke machine. Well, okay, the deconstructionists amongst you will look at it and say it’s just a box with some sheets of paper inside which have a joke on one side and the answer on the other, but hey deus ex machina. It’s the way you do it. The jokes are all of Cambuslang’s making and give quite an insight into his little life. So, here they all are:

Q: What do fishing birds eat? A: Fish.

Q: What does somersaults? A: Fish.

Q: What jumps? A: Fish.

Q: What did the red traffic light say to the red traffic light? A: Welcome to the town of Wales.

As a Rorschach test I’d rate this pretty highly. For example joke number 3 quite clearly reveals that this young lad has spent a good bit of quality time with someone who designs fish passes. Joke number 1 reveals a solid grounding in reality, an understanding of nature’s food cycles, and the knack of setting up a train of expectations ready to be twisted in jokes 2 and 3 and then thoroughly mocked in joke 4. (You didn’t answer “Fish” to number 4, did you? Shame on you for not guessing that one.)

But what is most puzzling is the slightly surreal and, let’s face it, unorthodox, humour evinced here. Puzzling because although Dith was definitely part of his life to begin with, she left town some while back, so it’s really surprising to see her impact still so prevalent. I mean, it must be that, mustn’t it? Where else would he get those sort of jokes from?

Two months ago

I was called a hypocrite.

Of course it wasn’t phrased in that way but a much gentler statement which, nevertheless, had that thrust. And it’s an allegation I happily plead guilty too.

Hypocrisy is one of the worst crimes in the confused, sentimentalised befuddlement that passes for morality in our (21st century UK) culture. And while others’ hypocrisy can annoy me sometimes I can also see its positive side, and feel almost unique in this.

What is hypocrisy? It’s saying one thing and doing another. It’s saying “be good” but actually being bad. Well, think of the converse: that would be saying “do as I do”. It would be saying “I’m bad, so you be bad too”. It’s saying I have no aspirations to be better than I am. It’s saying I’m happy with my pathetic, deceitful, hurtful, manipulative, passive-aggressive behaviour. Well, I’m not. I do one thing and I don’t like it, so I’d recommend to you, as I do to myself, that you don’t do as I do. I’d like to be different, but if that’s not possible then at least, please, will you be different and better.

Eleven months ago

I was told I’d made a mess.

It was a difficult situation and so I’d thought very carefully, and consulted with a number of knowledgeable people before acting, so I felt moderately confident of what I’d done. But still one of my many superiors decided that I’d made the wrong choice and had made a complete mess. The ins and outs of that particular situation are neither here nor there; what really hit and hurt was that this particular superior started his attack by saying that I had a habit of making such messes, that I habitually made such wrong decisions. I can undermine his reasoning and probably convince almost anyone that he’s wrong about that, but the problem is that I know there is some truth in what he says.

It came up again when I tried to take some action earlier this week. Someone asked me to achieve something and I tried to do it in such a way as to minimize the work for everyone else. I failed, making a bit of a mess that someone else then had to sort out. So I got it wrong, as I usually do. And as I also usually do, I’d tried to make life easier for others and I’d ended up making it worse for them. This is such a recurring theme in my life. I’ll step backwards to make plenty of space for someone to pass and, in so doing, tread on someone else’s toes or something like that. Again and again and again.

So, the accusation stands, in my mind at least, that I keep getting it wrong. The decisions I make are bad ones. But my real difficulty is in knowing how to respond to this fact.

My instinct is to shy away from making these mistakes. Which means not deciding. Which means not acting. That was why those hurtful accusations eleven months ago screwed me up so much, because the only watertight reliable appropriate response was to do nothing – paralysis. So, in fact, that day I crawled home and hid under the duvet. It seemed the only safe thing to do. It was a while before I could face coming out from under the duvet, and it took me a good few days to overcome that feeling and become able to function again.

And the problem is that that still seems the logical and appropriate response. Given that I consistently make wrong choices and do things that are not only unhelpful but positively harmful, isn’t it better that I just hide under a duvet to minimize the damage? Only by forgetting these facts am I able to function at all. Good job I’ve got such a lousy memory I suppose.

About eighteen months ago

A woman was raped.

From the news accounts it seems that she was sexually assaulted, repeatedly raped and threatened with violence and blackmail. Usually victims of such crimes are granted anonymity, but in this case the woman’s name, age, job, town and even photo were made public. Why? What had she done that made it necessary to release so much information about her?

She was a teacher. That was her crime.

The rapist was a 15-year old pupil at her school and so he remains completely anonymous while she completely lost her privacy, even to the extent of having a video of her being sexually assaulted shown in public. Because of the age of her attacker she was actually in the dock, not him, for “abuse of trust” and having “sexual activity with a child”. Well, okay, it is right that the courts considered that possibility. But in considering a possibility you must consider the alternatives. As it is, the jury decided that the sexual activity was not consensual. In which case it was rape, so for public safety I would hope that we will soon see her attacker in the dock himself for a multiple rape charge. In fact, the case need not go to court, of course, because it already has been considered in court and it has been decided by a jury that he is guilty. But things don’t work like that, so this poor woman will probably have to go through the whole ordeal again, with that video being shown again, and all the other unpleasantness. Maybe she will be granted anonymity in that second case – what a farce that would be.

I have written before of my faith in our justice system, and how I’ve been impressed with its workings when viewed close up. And first-hand experience is a much better guide than what is written in the media which is my source for this rant. But even so I am struggling to understand why the judge would not grant her anonymity in what was de facto a rape case.

Two days ago

I wrote that things don’t last but memories do.

But sometimes memories don’t last. My mum has alzheimers. If I went to visit her today then by tomorrow, by this evening even, she would have forgotten. So what’s the point?

More worryingly, lots of the things that we do for our kids – taking them to a castle, or a park, or on a trip etc – will be forgotten by them. And if we’re only doing it for them, and they won’t remember it, then is there any point doing it? If we have a choice of spending a few hundred quid going to, say, legoland, or spending nothing and going to the local park instead, and if they’re not going to remember either, then is the expense justified?

Or have I just transferred my materialism to a slightly more abstract plane but maintained its essential nature? While I can put up with not having tangible things to show for my spending, I still want something, albeit intangible memories. I’m still not carpeing the diem and living for the moment, am I. And only after writing this much do I realize that I’ve essentially written this already in an earlier post. I’d forgotten completely about that until now. Did I say my mum has alzheimers? It’s genetic, you know. Her mum. My mum. Me. It’s only a matter of time.

Two months ago

I realized that to do is better than to have.

Put like that it comes across as some grand philosophy and exhortation to go and do good instead of being materialist. But actually I meant it as simply an observation from a fairly devout materialist. It’s simply that materialism doesn’t really work.

I was brought up to think that acquiring things was always the best thing to do with money. It was never stated quite like that, more likely it would be said that there’s no point spending money if you’ve nothing to show for it. And, like any other impressionable young child, I took it in. And I suppose only recently have I finally realized the fallacy of it.

I’d had some glimpses of this truth before, but the full strength of it never seemed to dawn on me, which I think is down to the amount of brainwashing I’d had about the virtues of materialism.

I remember once selling a precious possession in order to have enough money to buy a ticket to a gig. The possession would, if I hadn’t sold it, be gathering dust on a shelf now somewhere doing essentially nothing. The memory of that gig, however, is as vibrant as ever.

On another occasion around the same time I had the choice of buying a ticket to a different gig, or buying a book. The book was incredibly good value so I chose to forgo the gig and get the book. But before long it too was gathering dust, read and not really likely to get looked at again. I can’t remember even if I still have it, but if I do then I’ve only kept it as a tangible reminder of a wrong decision. For there have been so many times when I’ve regretted not going to that gig. It was the only chance I ever had to see that band and I missed it.

Unfortunately I’m doing the same again. A gig I’ve been waiting 23 years for is coming up and I’m going to miss it because I choked at the ticket prices. Silly, but then that’s me to a tee. When will I ever learn?

Fortunately, that at least is a dumb question. I have learnt. I might not always act out what I’ve learnt, but I have learnt it. Things don’t last. Memories do.

A week ago

I had a terrifying thought.

To anyone who’s read many entries on this blog it probably doesn’t need to be spelt out, but I’ll do it all the same: I’m somewhat left-wing in my views. In particular I strongly (ferociously, even) believe in the trades union movement. It even takes on a moral dimension to my mind, at least in the sense that if you have signed up as a member of a union and then that union takes a decision (e.g. to go on strike) then you have a moral obligation to act out that decision – not just go along with it or tolerate it, but to put it into practice. The union is, after all, its members, no more no less. A union whose members decide that they’ll opt in for some things and not for others is not, by definition, a union.

So, anyway, unions are something I believe in. They are something I see as a cause for good. Like most such causes, of course, from time to time they are used for less worthy ends and the power they have can be, and is, abused, but that’s like dismissing all of Christianity because of the actions of George Bush.

All of this is by way of explaining why it was such a terrifying thought to realize that Tescos and their ilk are, effectively, unions. Their strength, after all, comes from numbers in just the same way as unions. It’s slightly different because we don’t sign up to one supermarket in just a committed way (or perhaps this is where I’m wrong – perhaps I’d understand my fellow union members better if I assumed their approach to the union was that of a shopper to a supermarket), but still the number of shoppers a supermarket has is directly proportional to that supermarket’s bargaining strength.

Broadly speaking that strength is then used to obtain lower prices for us shoppers, in the same way that, ideally at least, the union uses its collective strength to obtain higher wages for its members. So it represents a rather perverse streak of human nature that we resent these lower prices by siding ourselves with the farmers and other manufacturers who are being squeezed by the supermarkets supposedly in order to get these prices down.

Such perversity is, certainly, a feature of human nature, and is more usually cast as that very desirable
quality of empathy. It is certainly a very pleasant facet of human nature that we can, all too infrequently, look at others and try and better their life while sacrificing our own. But you can hardly blame the supermarkets for being at least puzzled if not downright annoyed at this perversity.

Of course there are other reasons why people dislike supermarkets. The main one seems to be the way they pretend to offer a choice while actually forcing you to buy a certain brand of toothpaste and a certain size of cereal packet etc. Part of this is, undoubtedly, very devious marketing – the big pack being priced in such a way as to give worse value than the smaller pack for example, since most people won’t check the prices carefully enough to spot this. But partly it is simply reflecting the wishes of the majority, to the detriment of the individual. I can’t get the sort of shampoo I want probably because very few other people want exactly that brand, type and size. And the reality of any kind of union, or indeed any kind of human community, is that compromises are made for the sake of keeping that community together. It’s only paranoia fuelled by solipsism that prevents me from recognizing that the reason I can’t buy the shampoo I want is because nobody else wants it, and makes me think it’s just that the supermarkets want to restrict my choice. (This is a thought that keeps coming to me whenever there is debate over schools admissions policies, or school closures).

So, given all of that, why do I still hate Tescos so?

Two days ago

I was asked what I thought of church.

That was an unwise request. I’m going to have to rant now. But at least, maybe, I can get it out of my system here relatively harmlessly.

Being an extreme negativist, perhaps it’s easier to start with what I think church isn’t. Church isn’t sitting in pews. Church isn’t listening to a sermon. Church isn’t listening to a theological lecture. Church isn’t listening to some nice music. Church isn’t listening. Church isn’t a spectator sport. Sorry, some clichés were bound to slip in sooner or later. And church is not chewing a morsel of bread and a thimble or sip of rosehip syrup or whatever wine-substitute is currently deemed acceptable.

Church is “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another“.

Church is to “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God”.

Church is “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church”.

Church is “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread … in the same way, after supper he took the cup”.

Occasionally I consider the idea of inviting some non-Christian friend along to church. Most of my friends happen to be fairly intelligent, rational creatures. So I expect them to ask “what happens in church?”, “what do you do there?” and questions like that. And after answering I expect them to ask “why do you do that?” or “why is it like that?”

My problem is that the only answer I can think of to those last two questions is “tradition” – “that’s how we’ve done it for the last several hundred years”. Oh yes, I have some understanding of the evolution that’s led to where we are today and how we’ve come to do these things that we do. But I can only explain it in terms of a hapless evolution.

Most church services do not involve meeting together. They involve being in the same room together. This is not the same thing. It seems clear to me that meeting must imply some form of human contact – talking, hugging, or just communal activity. The only thing that we tend to do communally is sing, and I don’t think that’s enough.

Once I suggested that instead of our usual harvest meal we should have it on a Sunday as a regular service, i.e. the meal would be the service. That’s my idea of church. Unfortunately although it managed to happen (largely by getting somebody else, more acceptable than me, to properly suggest the idea and then run with it), guess what. After the meal they then celebrated “communion” with the special bread and the thimbles. Doh. What was the meal before if it wasn’t a holy communion?

Our services are typical hymn-sandwiches generally, and after the service finishes a core (note, importantly, not all people do, just a core) go off into the hall for a coffee and a chat. To me, that latter part is church. Where is the encouragement to be had? Which is more likely to be uplifting and leave me wanting to go on living? It’s the coffee and the chat.

People who have not been indoctrinated by CU’s or their ilk tend to congregate in social groups, often based around activities – choirs, hiking groups, role-playing groups, whatever. Each of these is focussed around one thing, but done in a communal way. Most people enjoy those groups (or not) because of the communal aspect of them (or its absence). Doing things together is, often, a pleasant thing and tends to make one feel more positive about life. I think church should have something of the same feel. It’s a Christian club in the best possible way – a support group where you meet together, discuss how things are, talk about difficulties, talk about ways to get over them, and generally have a good time. Together. What on earth is the point of getting together if when we leave we can’t actually tell who was there and who wasn’t? That’s why pews are, to my mind, a bad thing – they force you to stare at the front. The front shouldn’t be where things are going on – they should be going on all around you.

For some churches a housegroup plays much of the rôle I’ve described. Okay, but why then do we insist on turning housegroups into bible studies? Why do we find housegroups turning into sermon-centred mini-church services? I guess it’s just a natural tendency of some (most?) humans to be passive and of some (a significant minority) to want to dominant. But it’s a tendency we must fight against.

And some people, when faced with a church something like I’ve described above, fight back and say things like “that’s fine, but there must be a teaching element to the service”. Funny, cos I don’t see that emphasized so highly in the new testament quotes above. Sure, it’s mentioned, but “teach and admonish one another” doesn’t sound to me like “get one bloke, call him a priest/minister/pastor, and get him to lecture to you every week”.

I seem to be in a tradition now where “the word” (What the hell does that beautifully loaded but ambiguous term mean? Don’t dare ask) must be “preached” (not teached, not explained, not expounded but “preached”) by someone who is “called”. I’m sorry, but where on earth (because it sure was on earth not anywhere else) did all that loaded bollocks come from? Wouldn’t this sound like a sect if we weren’t so inured to it? Is it just me whose copy of the bible seems to have accidentally been printed without those bits? How does the priesthood of all believers fit with this cranky notion? And what’s the basis for suggesting that everything else in a church service can be cut as long as the “word” is “preached”?

I got shot down in flames once for tentatively suggesting that in a week of prayer, when we were agonizing about why the congregation didn’t seem to view prayer as a priority, that replacing the sermon by a prayer time might set an example of the right priorities as well as enabling more prayer time without demanding more time overall from everyone. Shot down in flames. The preaching of the word is central, I was told. Abandoning it would be a Catholic thing to do (probably the worst imaginable insult until my denomination discover Islam). Funny, cos I’d have thought letting people read the word and chew it over for themselves was exactly the sort of thing Wycliffe and co wanted. Exactly the sort of thing protestant churches were established to enable. But there you go, what would I know.

Can I stop now? Please?

A few days ago

I felt isolated.

I’ve often had the sense of nobody else agreeing with me. You can’t have my taste in music without getting used to being the odd one out. But then it started to become an issue in many different aspects of my life. The leadership team at church of which I’m a part seem to frequently agree on a position which is totally counter to my own. In fact my basic views about what church is and what church should be and do seem to run counter to most, so I’m getting used to just having to shut up on certain topics because I’m fed up with the blank puzzled what-planet-is-he-on looks that expressing my opinions provokes. At work my overall picture of what is important and what isn’t seems to be perpendicular to most others. Things my colleagues love doing are things I do just out of a sense of duty and of not wanting to stand out. And the things I love doing seem to be generally despised. And in virtual life too, as my previous post will almost certainly show, my thoughts are often well out of synch with almost everyone else’s. When a situation provokes a strong emotional reaction in me I often find no-one who can understand why I feel the way I do. My wife often talks about how as a teenager she felt like she came from Mars compared with the people around her. I was the same but got over it when I went to university and found lots of like-minded people. But now I find I’m out of kilter again. More and more I find myself back in that situation of understanding nobody and feeling that nobody understands me. So do I stop being the me that I seem to be, or do I just get used to this feeling?

A week ago

I was pondering prejudices.

Big Brother and the Verdict have provoked a lot of comment lately, and there’s even been some good stuff among all the dross. One was a very intelligent critic in, I think, the Observer commenting that Jade and her family weren’t racist because they didn’t think they were, they were just ignorant. (My paraphrase!) So if the reason my dad thinks all blacks are lazy is because he doesn’t know any better, then that’s okay is it? I rather think not. In fact, I’d have thought most prejudices of this sort and purely down to ignorance. Is there anyone who decides that although they know most blacks are not lazy, they’ll decide to think that they are from now on? Perhaps some BNP members who want to advance their career would be deliberately prejudiced in that way, but surely not many others.

Another comment on prejudices from a critic about the Verdict complained that the jury were throwing out prejudiced clich´s as if that was where they would find the truth of the case. At first glance that sounds like a reasonable complaint – yes, how stupid the jury are to think that their prejudices will lead them to the truth. But yet, that is exactly how we work, isn’t it? Our prejudices are the broad-brush strokes of our understanding of how the world works. My red-headed friend is quite calm and level-headed, so I know the cliché about red-heads and their tempers is not absolutely true – there are exceptions. Yet, my prejudice is to expect, until proven otherwise, a red-head to have a hot temper. My prejudice is borne of experience (direct or second-hand via books, TV programmes, newspapers or comments from friends) so that is the background to the secondary observation that “this isn’t universally true”. So if a red-head is charged with a hot-blooded killing, then my first instinct is to think that it’s quite likely. I’ll be open to evidence to the contrary, but in the absence of such evidence then my prejudice is what shapes my expectations. (Well, that’s what prejudice means, literally, isn’t it!)

Yes, of course, that may not be the actual truth. But how can I know? By being placed on a jury I’m being asked to use my experience of the world to judge the evidence presented in the case. That experience of the world is, firstly, summed up by my prejudices. That is the first approximation. It’s not the final word because my experience will also have taught me that there can be exceptions. But the only way I have of trying to discern the truth is to use what I have learnt about the world, and that means my prejudices first of all.

And then there’s all the debate about rape trials and prosecution rates. Wiser people than me would avoid commenting on such a dangerous topic, but my mouth is big and my skin likes to pretend it’s thick so here goes. Obvious fact one: you can’t judge the success of rape trials by looking at statistics. There is no statistical fact that says 70% (or whatever figure you want to pluck out of the air) of people charged with a crime are guilty. Therefore, you cannot logically argue that if the prosecution rate in rape trials is low then that means guilty people are being let off. The conclusion might be correct; the logic is not. Second obvious fact: a false conviction is a pretty unpleasant thing. The point that’s often made is how unpleasant it is to be raped and to see the rapist escape without conviction. Sure, that must be horrendous, but dare I question whether it’s actually worse than being wrongly convicted? Of course we don’t usually have to choose between those two options, but if they are the only two options, then which really is worse? The whole of our legal system has, hitherto, been based on the principle that convicting an innocent person is worse than letting someone guilty go free. That is not a popular principle these days but it is one I wholeheartedly believe in. Third obvious fact: a jury is going to find it hard to decide beyond all reasonable doubt what happened if they are to base this on two conflicting accounts of an event which no-one else witnessed. Combine those last two facts and you inevitably have a low conviction rate. A jury really is faced with that horrible choice that we considered earlier – release a rapist or put an innocent man behind bars and give him a horrible reputation to live down even after he is released. Our justice system really isn’t well adapted for this situation; I’m sure the conviction rates are lower than they should be even though I can’t know that for definite. But it is beyond my wit to think up a justice system that would increase these rates and still be a justice system rather than an injustice system. But I pray that someone can think of such a system, and soon. And in the meantime, I’m going to duck.

Eight years ago

I had my pin number stolen.

It was quite brazen really – whoever did it had got my pin number and printed it in large digits on the front of a passing tram. For a few moments I was really unnerved – everybody in the city would now know my pin number! Except, of course, nobody would know anything, and nobody had done anything, as I realized after those few moments of panic were over. It just happened that the serial number of one of the trams was exactly the same as my pin number. But it sure freaked me out to see my pin number displayed so publicly.

Seventeen years ago

I walked into a door.

It probably would have hurt more if it hadn’t been a glass door, but it would probably have been less surprising. The flat we were in had two glass doors – one which was always left open and which led into the hall, and the other which was the bathroom door. I’ve never really understood what sort of person would put a glass door in their bathroom, but that’s what we had in that flat. Anyway, it wasn’t that one that I walked into, which is perhaps just as well, because the only thing worse than a glass door on the bathroom would have been no door on the bathroom.

Anyway, it was a Sunday afternoon, and cold, and I was all alone in the flat, so I put the heating on a little bit and shut as many doors as I could. Which was fine until later when I went to go out and switched off all the lights and forgot about the unusually shut door and walked into it. I had, up to this time, always assumed you would feel a bump if you walked into any kind of door and that the door would bounce you back. It didn’t. It just broke. In fact, I could almost have done the cartoon move of just walking through the door and carrying on had it not been for the noise of it breaking. Which was just as well, because it meant I stopped there and then to pick up the glass and mess and generally tidy up, even though I was heading out to try to get to church on time. Here’s where my memory starts going funny. I recall there being a fair amount of blood, unsurprisingly. I recall changing my clothes for clean ones, and muttering about how what I’d been wearing would presumably be cut to pieces and blood-stained beyond repair, as I eventually left for church. (Carefully opening the door, not stepping through it despite the temptation – I was aware that my flatmates would probably return before I did).

And yet, when I later got around to checking out the clothes, I found a tiny cut – no more than a centimetre – on one leg, with just the tiniest line of blood along the cut, and no other marks whatsoever. And that wasn’t the only bizarre thing that evening. Despite all the time I spent tidying up all the glass and changing and sorting myself out, I still got to church on time. Which makes it almost as if nothing untoward had happened at all. Did I dream the whole thing? Well, no, because I have clear recollections of sorting out the glaziers to fix the door and paying for the whole malarkey out of my non-existent reserves of cash. So it must just be that time stopped still.

A week ago

I realized how much I like January.

Actually I’m not really sure if I like it or not, although it is a huge relief to have Christmas out of the way. Now that means less stress and in years gone by it meant being able to get back to where my life actually was (i.e. with my friends) and away from the place where life was suffocated out of me (where I was brought up and my family choose to still live). Either way this makes January good. But no, what really made me think about this was how many pleasant things have happened to me in January. The most important being a phone call that I wrote about last January. But there was the party I wrote about earlier this week, which I was thinking about in relation to another January where I spent a lovely week in Malaga. And, of course, two years ago I spent a great week in the South of France which I wrote a bit about last year. Ten years ago I did something similar albeit along the coast a little. In fact, perhaps what I really like isn’t January itself, but spending time by the mediterranean in January. It’s cold but in a good way. Perhaps it’s the fact that the heat is normally oppressive there, so cold is actually a good thing. Perhaps it’s that the place looks mediterranean so I associate it with heat and so imagine a gentle warming even though the actual temperature is low. Perhaps it’s simply not as cold as here. Certainly I like the fact that it’s mediterranean but without the hordes of sun-seekers you normally associate with the med in summer. In fact, perhaps I just like the med without the heat. Unfortunately that’s a rather depressing train of thought when you’re stuck here without any hope of getting any further South in the near future. Oh well, here’s to next January.

A few days ago

I had a weekend.

It’s often felt lately as if the weekend has just been cancelled. Too many things going on, none of which I particularly wanted to do (for myself; I mean they were mostly done for other peoples’ sakes, primarily my kids), the weekend has just past by leaving me washed up on Monday’s shore. But this weekend, by accident rather than design, was completely the opposite. On Friday night I went to a gig to see a great couple of Rickenbackers. Oh, and a pretty good band. On Saturday I spent the day out on the hills, or at least the nearest thing to hills available locally. It was soaking but great despite that. And particularly good was the feeling of being far less unfit than I feared – the climbing felt effortless and I felt I could easily have both climbed and walked for a lot longer. This was enhanced by not having any aches or pains afterwards (in stark contrast to the football game I let myself get talked into two weeks ago from which I had only just recovered). On Sunday church in the morning was a little bit fraught, but not too bad, and in the afternoon a good friend kindly looked after the kids while we popped out to buy some stuff for a DIY project I’m working on. That might not sound so great, but one of the last projects I had to do was replacing the handrail on our staircase. These come in 8′ and 12′ lengths and since our rail was 8’2″ long I had to get the 12′ length. Which entailed me walking to the shop and walking the two miles home carrying a 12′ length of wood. And if I’d needed anything else for that project it would have necessitated another trip. So in comparison, being able to pop in the car with wife but no kids, and load it up with whatever stuff we needed and then just drive home was a luxury. Then in the evening we had a little bit of entertainment laid on by Airdrie. Okay, so it wasn’t intentional, but it was hugely entertaining. Jedburgh had to go out. After announcing that she was getting ready to go, Airdrie asks: “what coat will you wear?” Jedburgh says: “I think I’ll wear a warm coat”. Airdrie says, imperiously: “I shall help you choose”. At this point I nearly lost it – something about the tone just cracked me up. But then Airdrie said “I wonder what Dad’s laughing at” and I lost it completely. It felt mean to have to answer “I’m laughing at you” so I’m afraid I just kept on laughing and didn’t answer.

So, a weekend of live music, hillwalking, DIY, and laughing with the kids – that’s a pretty good weekend in my book.

Seven and a half weeks ago

I made an unjustified claim.

I don’t think it was an unjustifiable claim, just one that I didn’t justify at the time. Ee called my bluff and ever since I’ve been frantically thinking how to explain the justification. So here goes.

I claimed that those 8-items-or-less (shouldn’t it be fewer?) queues in the supermarket were a manifestation of the thatcherite (no she bloody well doesn’t deserve a capital – the only capital she deserves is punishment) destruction of society. So why?

Now, in my line of work, if I’m trying to relate two things, it’s best and neatest to start with one and gently re-work it until you get to the other. But sometimes that’s too hard so you have to start with something else that, it will turn out, is kind of in the middle. Firstly you re-work that thing until you get one of the things you want to relate, and then you re-work that thing until you get the other thing you’re trying to relate. Thus both are related to your intermediary and so, consequently, related to each other. It sounds messy and it’s not as clean, but sometimes it’s the best choice. I think that’s what I’ve got to do here, so I’m not going to start with baskets or society, but with insurance.

Insurance is so complicated and yet so simple. Put simply, statistically it’s practically guaranteed that in the next 24 hours 200 houses are going to get broken into and have all their contents stolen. (Do I need to point out that I’m making these numbers up? No, I didn’t think so.) Option 1, which we could call the capitalist-fascist option, is that the 200 home-owners each have to pay whatever huge sum is necessary to replace their belongings, and nobody else pays a thing. Option 2, which we could call the socialist-“there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” option, says that the cost should be spread over everyone in the country. In fact, we could just do that now – it’s easy to figure out the average cost of the belongings in a house, so multiply that by 200 and divide by the number of people in the country, then everyone pays that sum into a pot and, over the next 24 hours, the 200 people unlucky enough to have their house broken into use the money in the pot to replace their stuff. So everyone is equally out of pocket and the 200 don’t suffer disproportionately. Some might call this fair, but some wouldn’t. But at heart we have a choice: we either take the point of view that society exists and we should look out for each other and try and spread the cost of unpleasant incidents, or we take the view that every man is an island, and why should I pay for your problems. Philosophically this is strongly tied to the dichotomy that a person’s fate is purely determined by chance (which underlies socialism) or purely down to their own choice (the Conservative view).

In fact, there are lots of reasons for changing this insurance model slightly. Firstly, if I spend the money to upgrade my security, then shouldn’t I pay less into this pot than someone who habitually leaves their front door open? And if I live in a country (such as, hypothetically, let’s say one called Selaw or Dnaltocs) where people are nice and less likely to break in and steal my stuff, then shouldn’t I pay a smaller premium than, say, the residents of that crime-stricken place Dnalgne. I have to say, I think we’ ve been accustomed (through at least 18 years of propaganda) to accept these arguments. But how about if the person who leaves their front door open has low-level Alzheimers and simply can’t remember to lock their door or even shut it? Should they be punished for having that disease? And aren’t the residents of Dnalgne being punished enough already – why should they also have to pay extra? I have to say, these counter arguments are consistently suppressed as part of the long-term thatcherite programme of breaking down society. As Major put it – “Condemn more and understand less”. What a lovely, simple world-view. Don’t ask whether the person has Alzheimers, just condemn them. Don’t ask if there’s a reason that bloke in the gutter is homeless (and certainly don’t ask if there’s any connection with the factory where he used to work shutting last year), just condemn him.

(Incidentally, insurance companies have an interesting approach to discrimination. In most walks of life it’s generally accepted that treating somebody more harshly purely on the basis of their gender is illegal. Not in insurance. On average female drivers have fewer accidents so I, as a male, have to pay higher insurance. Just because of my gender. Not because I am more likely to have an accident, just because males are more likely to. A charitable person would call that stereotyping, a less charitable person would call a spade a spade and name it sex discrimination. And is anybody raising a fuss about this, or the innumerable other such instances?)

And this philosophy manifests itself, albeit in a fairly tame form, in those supermarket queues. Think about it for a minute – there’s a basic notion of fairness underlying all queuing systems: if person A joins the queue before person B, then person A should get served before person B. Is that notion in dispute? Is it debatable? Can you argue that it’s not fair? Well, it would seem that yes, it is in dispute, it is debatable and, in fact, many people seem to think it’s unfair. For if person B happens to only need a few items (let’s say 7) and person A happens to need more (let’s say 10, and to clarify things let’s just suppose it’s because whereas person B is single, person A is looking after his mother who has Alzheimers), then we all now accept that person B should be able to join a fast queue and get served before person A. Why? What bloody justification is there for that? The only argument seems to be “Well, why should person B wait while person A is served and all 10 items are dealt with?” to which the obvious response is “Why? Simply because person A got there first – what more reason is needed?” The fact that there’s such an easy response shows that we’re not asking the right question. And the right question is why this system is accepted. And the answer is because we’re happy to view A and B as citizens of unequal merit – citizen B being more deserving than A because B inconveniences fewer people (by not slowing the queue down so much). Because we accept the thatcherite breakdown of society we are happy to view A as simply less important than B, and we’re happy to let A be walked all over so that B can get home sooner.

And what I hate is the fact that this needs to be stated. The fact that we’ve all gone and bloody well forgotten what fairness is. The fact that we unthinkingly accept B getting served before A and don’t even consider how unfair it is. What I resent is how successful that cow was in wrecking the society that had been built up so caringly after the war. Grrrr.

Thirteen years ago

I was taken to a party.

It’s more normal to be invited, but the circumstances were not exactly normal. I had arrived in a foreign country the night before, so as to work with someone who was there temporarily. Now that someone had, that morning, been in the bank. And he’d been having difficulty due to the language barrier and a limited comprehension of sign language. So a local student who had some English stepped in to translate. This student, it turned out, was living near me, so my co-worker asked him to look out for me. He took the task very seriously, although I have to say that this wasn’t because he was by nature serious or particularly conscientious. It was because he was 1) incredibly friendly and 2) an absolute party animal. So it was that about 10 that night he turned up at my flat. Now, bear in mind that this was someone I’d never met or even heard of. So at 10 my doorbell goes and this strange person says “You are Lanark. You want come to party with me” (no punctuation because the intonation didn’t permit me to detect if this was a question or an assertion). Well, what could I do? He seemed friendly (first impressions were absolutely spot-on there), so I followed him. The complex we were living in was just that, complex, labyrinthine even, so it felt like following the white rabbit as I chased after him along one corridor then up some stairs then through another, then round a bend etc. Eventually we came to another flat which turned out to be full of smiling faces. They all greeted me like some long-lost brother even though I’d never laid eyes on any of them before and they probably hadn’t even known of my existence ten minutes before. How can people manage to be so welcoming? My student friend introduced everybody and I tried to smile as much as everybody else was even though most of the talking was in a language I still only knew about five words of. My student friend was very kind in translating a lot but that’s no way to join in a conversation. In fact just smiling and drinking tends to be more effective. It turned out that my new friend had just returned from his home in Malaga with some typical sweet Malagueño wine. Strange stuff but nice, and probably a great way to get very drunk very quickly. Which may explain why I don’t remember so much of the rest of that night. But it turned out that Tuesday night was party night every week. So just like that night, about 10, or maybe 11 or 12, we would go round to one of the flats and listen to music, drink, and for those into that sort of thing, smoke something. Usually around 3 or 4 the local police would come round and ask the music to be turned down. Sometimes that would happen, but sometimes the person answering the door would ask the policeman or woman where they were from. And usually it would turn out that there was somebody in the party form the same village. Whereupon the policeperson would come in, have a drink, start chatting about the village, gossipping. And the volume might go down a little but would slowly creep back up. And the party would carry on until, well, I’m not really sure – I guess we would crawl home sometime before dawn. But funnily enough I don’t have any clear memories of the end of those parties. Strange.

Nine years ago

I bought a record the other day.

So, you see, it was like this. One day I read in a music magazine a review of some guy’s CD that made it sound quite interesting, and a little later I found it in the bargain bin in a local shop, because it was missing its case. I thought it worth a gamble of a few quid so bought it and gave it a listen. It was pretty good although the lyrics were often tainted with the poetry of someone who I generally feel is a twit. (I’m being polite by putting an i there – if I were less so I might give it an a instead). In fact, there really was some kind of magic in the music, some spirit to it that I couldn’t put my finger on but which was warm and encouraging and gave me a lift to listen to. Sometime later I came across another CD by this guy, in the second-hand section so again quite cheap and so I bought it. It was similar, and similarly good, with similar slight lyrical niggles and a similar warm feeling that outweighed the niggles. But there is something impenetrable or incomprehensible about both it and the earlier CD which makes them not quite as familiar as they could be. One aspect of this is that the song titles don’t usually bear much relation to the lyrics, so when I read the song list it doesn’t actually mean much to me, even though I know the songs – I just don’t know them by their titles. Perhaps because of this mysterious unfamiliarity it feels like I only recently bought the first CD and, consequently, bought the second one even more recently, like just the other day. On the other hand, I have a clear recollection of buying the first one – I know which shop, in which shopping centre, in which maldito town, and so that means I am very much aware that it was 12 years ago that I bought it. With the second CD I don’t actually recall buying it – perhaps because there was more going on in my life at the time (when I bought the first one it’s probably fair to say that there was nothing going on in my life – I remember days when I’d deliberately wait until late morning before indulging in the exciting activity of going to the newsagent and seeing if any new magazines were out that I could browse (buying being beyond my worldly means at that time)). For whatever reason, I don’t recall the circumstances, so I don’t have such a clear imprint of the time I bought it. So my mind is quite happy to accept that it was just the other day. Which was fine until I played it the other day and the receipt fell out of the CD booklet (I tend to keep receipts for CDs and books as an aide-memoire, exactly as in this case – I wouldn’t remember anything if I didn’t cheat like this) and showed that I bought it in Paris nine years ago. Nine years ago. So, for me, nine years ago is just the other day. Nine years have gone by and my mind has barely noticed. Blow me. Even for me nine years is almost a quarter of my life. How can it have gone so fast? At this point I find I want to indulge in the usual clichés – What have I done with my life? What have I achieved in those nine years? Well actually the answer there is quite a lot – two children, a book, a proper job, a huge number of good friendships made, lost, and more made, and loads more stuff. Perhaps the only thing I haven’t achieved is listening to those two CDs enough.

Nine months ago

I cried.

On my own. In a museum. First the disclaimers: it was cold, damp, and I was lonely and tired. I’d spent three weeks in what felt like solitary confinement, so I wasn’t exactly at my most emotionally resilient. But those mitigating factors aren’t really relevant.

The museum housed a boat. A big, impressive, very old boat. I’m not big on boats, but everyone had said this was the best museum in town and, sure enough, the boat was quite impressive as boats go. So, having been impressed, I wanted to share that with someone and tell them about it, even show them if possible. Preferably someone into boats. And the problem was that I knew someone who would have loved to see it, would have been really interested, and probably pleased by how impressed I had been. But he had died eighteen months before. And that was what made me cry. It wasn’t the first time, or probably the last, but I suppose there are many aspects to missing someone and when you come across a significantly new aspect it provokes some emotion. I had by that point learnt many of the ways in which I miss him, but this was a new one and it caught me out. Still, I pulled myself together, went somewhere warm (department stores are a good bet) and had a hot drink and felt much better. And tried to bear in mind how unimpressed he would have been at someone crying in public.

But now I keep thinking that this needn’t’ve happened. I should have been able to see the boat, go “wow”, and get on with life. The problem came because I wanted to share my enjoyment. And this is something I find more and more – I can only enjoy something through sharing it with others. If I hear a good band then I instantly try to think of who else would like them, if I hear a good story then I want to pass it on. I can’t fully get my head round this, but it’s as if I don’t exist and so my enjoyment of something doesn’t actually exist until it becomes someone else’s enjoyment. That’s mad, but it’s not so unfamiliar. A lot of people I know recently had the experience of hearing some news and not really being able to believe it or take it in until it had appeared in the newspapers and on TV or the radio. My reaction was actually the opposite – it was fully real when I first heard it and then some days later when I heard it on the radio in a shop it actually became surreal and less likely. I suppose the stuff in the media is not usually connected to anyone I know, so if someone I know appears in the media then it makes them feel less like the person I know and more like the remote and unknown people who usually inhabit the media.

Six years ago

I was glad.

At this time of year the verses from Isaiah “to us a child is born, to us a son is given” are bandied around a lot. I know what they’re about, but they inevitably put me in mind of the day six years ago when my son was “given” to me. He was born a week before, but he and his mother spent seven days in hospital before coming home on Christmas Eve. (No, there was nothing seriously wrong, just a touch of jaundice and the desire to make the most of the available advice on breastfeeding). For those first days my son was almost like a hobby – a thing of a couple of hours a day, fitted around the rest of life. I did spend enough time in the ward to have a Bob the Builder video imprinted on my brain (yes, it was that year), but the scales were still balanced somewhere roughly in the middle ground. Then on Christmas Eve my family came home and the scales went, well, off the scale. My life shrunk down until it became that little bundle of joy and screams, and nothing else. That night we were awake every hour. We fed him and then tried changing him, burping him, rocking him…. all the things that a new parent (i.e. someone who hasn’t a clue what they’re doing) tries. Nothing worked. I remember at something like 3 in the morning turning to Jedburgh and listing what we’d tried and agreeing that at least we knew it couldn’t be hunger cos he’d just stuffed his face with milk not long since. But we thought we may as well try again and, sure enough, he was ravenous. That process of confidently ruling something out as the problem only to find that, sure enough, we were wrong and the problem was exactly the very thing we’d ruled out, well, that seems to sum up my approach/experience of child-rearing.

Somehow we got through the night – bags under our eyes the size of airships, but I remained over the moon at this beautiful bag of life in my arms. At the service that morning the pastor asked who had been up as early as 7. Then he asked who’d been up at 6. Then at 5. Then 4. We stuck our hands up each time and I think by 5 or 4 we were the only ones with hands up. Whereupon everyone noticed that we were there, with the baby that they all knew was due, but not all expected it to be there on Christmas morning. What a lovely feeling to have the whole church smiling at our little one and giving us a virtual hug. But the warm feeling that engendered was, and is still, nothing compared to the joy at seeing that child arrive, and grow. One of the wonders of parenthood for me has been being able to look at Cambuslang as he his now, marvel at that, while also seeing kaleidoscopically, his 5-year old self, and his 4-year old self and all the earlier selves right back to that first “proper” (for me) night. I can see them all imprinted one on top of the other and if one picture annoys (he’s not perfect all the time, funnily enough) then most of the other pictures make up for it and show the many good sides that put the few bad sides into perspective. I could do with seeing other people that way too….

A little over four years ago

I found out what it was to be famous.

I’ve been thinking about this for a few days as there was another survey that revealed that what teenagers want more than anything else these days is to be famous. What bemused me was that in this latest survey they put “being famous” as more desirable than “being rich”. The thing is I’m pretty sure that they say they want to be famous as a short-hand for saying they want to be like the Beckhams or whatever other celebrity nonentity was on the front page yesterday. And the quality of life the Beckhams and their ilk have is determined by their wealth, not by their fame. I guess for most people that distinction isn’t very clear, whereas for me it is, because I’ve experienced fame and not tasted that level of wealth.

For me, the quintessence of “fame” is this: being known by people you don’t know. Being stopped in the street by someone who says Hello Mr Lanark and knows a fair bit about you, without you having a clue even as to who they are. I have had this happen to me many times. For reasons not worth going into I’ve been in a situation of regularly meeting with a group of 150-200 people, with me being the focus of attention. As such, those 200 people know me, but I can only get to recognize 20-30 faces and the rest are invisible to me. So the remainder know me, and will greet me if they see me, but I don’t have any idea where they know me from. It’s really not a pleasant experience. Okay, maybe that’s just my personality – I value my privacy a bit (obviously not too much otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this, but I do value it a bit). But do you really want the next random stranger you see on the street to know a lot about you and talk to you in a knowledgeable, but not necessarily friendly, way? Because that’s what being famous amounts to.

No, I really don’t understand the desire to be famous. I don’t really understand the cult of celebrity that we have, although it seems to be borne of a desire to have real-life soap operas acted out in front of us – Coronation street no longer works for us because we know the people aren’t real – we want real people to go through similar things and for us to be able to watch. Why do people allow themselves to be subjected to that? Apparently because they want to be famous – that’s what the media tell us. But I wonder if that’s really true. After all, it’s the media who are, effectively, providing this peep show. And just like the people who watch peep shows or pornography want the girls on show to enjoy what they’re doing, forcing them to pretend if necessary, so I think celebrities know that we want them to say that they enjoy being famous, so either they say it, or if they don’t then the media (their pimps, effectively) put those words into their mouthes. A nasty business, and very 1984.

One year ago

I provoked fate.

I wrote of how my work goes quiet shortly before Christmas, generally leading me to a time of slightly mournful contemplation. I suppose I should have predicted that, as a result of writing that, this year the lead up to Christmas would be manic. And so it has been – I’ve barely had a moment to think about anything for the last month. Having two birthdays to handle in the month before Christmas doesn’t help, but they’ve just been the icing on the cake – there’s been plenty else keeping me snowed under. I’ve gone beyond the stage of juggling hundreds of balls, and reached a point where each day I’m just wondering which balls I’ll miss. But at least once the ball is on the ground there is, generally, nothing more to be done about it, and that brings the nearest thing I’m familiar with to peace. So, at last, I’m finally getting something of the usual pre-Christmas lull, and the contemplation is more regretful than mournful (which, I suppose, just means I’m accepting my guilt rather than blaming others). Fortunately it’s not quite as bleak as that sounds – I have managed to catch some balls – most of my family will have presents for Christmas, some of which they might even like. And I have managed to remember every single party that the kids have been invited to, and provide food or presents as appropriate. But I do need a break now.

Two weeks ago

I inherited a midlife crisis.

My colleague who died set something up a few months back which was well-intentioned but was open to being misconstrued and, indeed, made his wife ask if it was him having a mid-life crisis. One of the upshots of his death is that I’ve taken this thing on. Which is why I was downtown drinking absinthe and attempting to disco dance long past my bedtime earlier this week. It’s hard to explain, but I had to do it, because for the sake of the people I was with I had to fill the gap that my colleague had left (he was such a fine dancer). Crazy as it sounds, I was dancing and drinking absinthe as a form of grieving and as a form of comforting to help others grieve and move on. Or am I just deluding myself?

One month ago

I felt the need to blog in invisible ink.

I’ve spoken before (I think) of how I’ve sometimes felt the need to gag myself because what I say is so clearly out of line with what everybody else thinks, to the point of causing great upset and offence that’s often totally unexpected to me since I thought I was just stating the obvious. And yet I feel the need to say these things. So perhaps the best thing would be to write a secret blog that no-one can read. Anyway, until I do that …. At the moment I feel a need to state the obvious so please be warned that this may be offensive or upsetting, particularly if, like me, you are in an emotionally-challenged state, e.g. grieving over a recent bereavement. Or two (no, that’s not a boast, just an advert). If that’s you, then go away and read something else. Really, no, please – I’ve lost enough friends already through my big mouth.

This is, ostensibly, a tale of two deaths. Except that, of course, it’s not. In the best traditions of blogging this of course has absolutely nothing to do with the events that ended the lives of two friends of mine, and is purely about the wierd goings-on between my two ears. But, well, you’re reading my blog so presumably you know to expect that. If not, then it’s long past time that you realized that nothing in this blog has anything to do with anything except my ever-disappearing marbles.

The bare facts are these: one colleague and friend died suddenly at a young age (younger than me, albeit only just) a little over two weeks ago. Let’s call him Mastrick. And another friend, Mike, died suddenly at an even younger age the following week. Mastrick led a fairly normal life – professional career, wife, kids, and was good at his job and at being a family man, but probably not exceptional in either way. (I’m avoiding the obituarial conventions of overstating everything, and trying to be objective – even though I’m aware what folly that is). Mike didn’t seem to have much of a career as yet, and no wife or kids, and yet lived an essentially exceptional life – hotfooting it half-way round the world to a continent where he could make a lot more practical difference to people’s lives than is possible in the west. (I’m trying to avoid underplaying the emotional difference he made here – evidence of which is all over the wibsite and in many other places, and will reverberate for a long time to come). He did things differently and, more to the point, he did things.

Those are the so-called facts. And I want to hold up my reactions and examine them in the light of those facts. I was shocked firstly about Mastrick, and dazed for a day or two during which the resulting workload piled up and saved me having to think very much about anything for a while. When I did get to think I just kept wondering how his family would cope without him. What is it like to grow up with your dad just an ever-decreasing memory? How hard is it to try and bring up two children to remember their dad while also trying to move on with life? I find it hard to imagine even being able to get up out of bed in the morning and face the world under those circumstances. And that was how I felt pretty much until the funeral, when emotion overcame me more. I shed a lot of salty water, and felt afterwards as if I had worked it through, got it out of my system. I feel calm and rational about Mastrick’s death now. It’s a hard unpleasant fact of life but not one that’s likely to lead me to jump off a bridge. What about Mike? I heard about him at the start of Mastrick’s funeral, which may have pumped up the emotional adrenalin running through my brain, or it may have been ignored because of all the emotions caused by Mastrick’s death. Either way I got straight to the calm, rational stage about Mike without any preamble. The stock cod-psychiatrist in me says I simply haven’t faced up to it yet and am in denial, but I know a load of boloney when I see it, even when it’s me spouting it. I just haven’t been affected by Mike’s death in the same way. Why?

Well, Mike’s was the more shocking death by virtue of his age, but perhaps less shocking overall – life expectancy in India is rather lower than here, likelihood of violent death are rather higher there than heart attacks at age 36 here. But I don’t think shock is significant here.

The main difference I can identify is that when I look at Mastrick I see potential – someone who could go further with his career, with his life and, in particular, someone who could be a useful husband and father for another 10, 20, 50 years. Potential, more than actual achievement. But when I look at Mike I see achievements. Sure there was huge potential, but he had already achieved more than most of us will ever manage in this life. There’s so much to celebrate in any life – but by most measures Mike’s life has much, much more to celebrate than most. He has been an inspiration to so many by his actions.

And then there’s the family issue. The old proverb/blessing is “Grandfather die, father die, son die” – that is the order we expect things to happen in, and that is the order we like them to happen in. In that respect, Mastrick got it right (by dying before his sons), but I don’t know. It’s a tragedy for two kids to lose their dad, and Mike doesn’t inhabit the same position for any of us that Mastrick did to his children. I’m sure Mike’s parents are gutted, and probably feel much worse than Mastrick’s kids do. But I’m sorry, I remain convinced that Mastrick’s is the bigger tragedy. I’m just glad I was able to know them both.

Nine years ago

I had a memorable herring.

It was a party thrown by someone who had lived many years in Denmark, and they had gone to the local Danish food shop and bought a large quantity of marinaded herring. And it was absolutely delicious. Amazing stuff – I really couldn’t get enough of it.

But you know how it is – memories can be deceptive – colours are brighter, smells sweeter, and tastes improve. All the bad tends to go and the good remains (he says, totally contradicting an earlier post). And, to be fair, that night there was a lot of alcohol flowing, so how much can I trust my ancient memories of that night?

There was a related experience earlier that same year, albeit in a different era, a different country and very different environment. It was summer and a mediterranean summer in a city – stifling in other words. And we knew the theoretical solution was to head for the mountains where the air was fresher and cooler, although we’d never tried it. Then I discovered a zip. The last zip in the country, in fact, although another one has been made since. And the zip went right up into the mountains – 2000 metres above sea level. So we had a day trip – a couple of hours on a train to the foot of the zip, with the countryside getting more and more stunning. And then up, up and up into some of the most amazing scenery I’ve known. The destination was a monastery cum tourist complex (no, you’re right, it’s not the most natural of combinations) set by a lake in a bowl surrounded by stunning peaks. An absolutely glorious spot and, yes, nice and cool compared with the city we’d left. I even needed a jumper for the first time in months. What bliss.

A year later I was in the same city, again in the height of summer, again roasting. I remembered the little oasis we’d found the year before and vaguely suggested it to some of the people I was with. But I was tentative because it was so wonderful that I’d started to doubt my memory. I’d started to think it couldn’t possibly be as good as I’d remembered. So I ended up going on my own. Still anxious – as I’ve discovered a lot lately it’s dangerous doing something you remember as being good because if it doesn’t work out then not only have you disappointment on your hands, but you’ve tarnished the memory that you used to treasure.

I needn’t’ve worried. It was still stunning. So stunning that, of course, I’m not going to actually say where it was for fear that it will become overrun with hoards of tourists as all my readers (yes, all three of them) rush there. (Except that if you know what a zip is then you’ll know where I’m talking about).

And the reason I’m writing all this now is that some weeks ago my wife went to Denmark and bought some tins of marinaded herring back. I’ve no idea what particular marinades they are in because the Danish labelling is completely impenetrable for me. And it took a while to summon up the courage to open the first tin, because of the fear I mentioned above. But, just like that mountainous retreat, I had no need to worry – the herring tastes just as delicious as my memory told me it would. The gamble paid off – because a treasured memory that you can relive and enjoy again just as much becomes even more special. So now I just need to book some tickets back to those mountains.

Two days ago

I was at a funeral.

It was at the end of a very busy day so made for an exhausting range of emotions squeezed into one day. Even the service itself evoked many different feelings – the inevitable sadness and shock combined with the happy memories. And just before the service I heard of another death even more shocking, about which others have written more coherently and expressed what I feel better than I could.

There were many children at the funeral service and I know people have differing opinions of children in church, many demonstrating their desire for the church to die out by preferring children to be seen and not heard. At this service in particular some of the young ones were quite vocal – one baby making its presence felt quite loudly on occasion. And it was wonderful to hear. I know that new life taking away the bitterness of death is a cliché but like all clichés it has something in it. And for me at least those screams provided much-needed comfort.

Three months ago

I finally got my revenge.

I was at a do that my brother was holding to celebrate something or other. Lots of people, lots of food, lots of drink, you know the sort of thing. It’s was summer and actually a nice sunny day so we were outside and eating salady-type things – cold quiche, potato salad, all that sort of stuff that is only tolerable when the sun is gently cooking your alcohol-marinaded head. There were also profiteroles, which are pretty much my idea of desert heaven. Eventually the afternoon passed, the guests left, and I helped tidy up. There was one profiterole left in the bowl and I thought that as a burying-the-hatchet kind of gesture I would kindly offer it to my brother to convey how much I’d forgiven him for all the innumerable things he’d done over the years that needed forgiving. Except that then I spotted the remains of the potato salad. And I was struck by the similarity between a new potato and a naked profiterole. I couldn’t resist it – I ate the last profiterole, and moved the last new potato into the profiterole bowl and covered it with the chocolate sauce. And then carried on with my original plan of generously offering the last profiterole to my brother. I managed to hand him the bowl with a straight face but had to quickly turn away and retire to the kitchen, from where I could watch him but without it being too obvious. He carried on what he was doing, leaving the “profiterole” sitting there for a while, and leaving me in almost unbearable suspense. Every time I played a trick on him in my childhood he could tell what I was up to and foil it. And every time he played a trick on me it worked and I was suckered. And each extra moment that he ignored the profiterole made me convinced that this time would be just like every other. Eventually though, he picked the bowl up …. picked up the spoon …. put the spoon into the bowl …. then into his mouth …. with the potaterole still on it. For two seconds. Before he spat it back out looking suitably gobsmacked. Oh how I laughed. Thirty five years of revenge in one instant. Happy days are here again.

Nineteen years ago

I was an absolute beginner

I was in my first year at University. To say I enjoyed Uni would be a gross understatement. To say that those were the best days of my life would be a huge understatement too. My life felt pointless and almost unbearable up to that point, and from then on it just felt like the sun had come up, or summer had begun. For me life began at age 18. (Which reminds me of a debate on abortion we had in a school – the teacher pointed out that views on abortion largely depend on when you think life begins, to which a classmate replied that life begins at 40). I sometimes think it’s never been quite as good since, but the sun has never come even remotely close to going down, and life has never remotely threatened to be as bad as it was before that time.

But the funny thing is that the actual specific instants that I can recall, particularly of that first year, are all painful ones: in a corridor outside a party (not being allowed in, or not in a fit state to go in, having just downed a bottle of whiskey) – feeling lovesick for someone who was just sick of me – worrying about a terminally depressed friend – embarrassing myself horrendously without even the aid/excuse of alcohol – getting hoity-toity about something I was completely wrong about. Yet despite not remembering any good specifics I know that the whole time was fantastic.

It puzzles me but I suppose the good side was that the whole framework of life had changed – I had moved to a land of milk and honey. (Perhaps literally if we allow a bit of extrapolation to interpret milk and honey as excessive dairy fat and sugar, but definitely figuratively). And when that happens well, you don’t tend to have specific memories of eating honey or drinking milk because they are everyday occurrances – instead all you remember are the negatives. Or is that just me?

Two days ago

I was quite upset.

Thanks to all those who commented – it means a lot. I feel fine now – suppressing the sadness entirely and just getting on with life. It’s not intentional suppression by any means, but it’s just what I observed my mind to be doing when, after several hours of shock and grief I just suddenly switched back to “normal” mode. It’s kind of freaky, but no more so than many of the tricks my mind plays on me.

Two and a half years ago

I was asked how I thought.

It had been explained that many people think non-verbally and then put that into words in order to express themselves, and, on the other hand, some people think with their mouths – like the person who says “How should I know what I think until I’ve heard myself speak?”. The quote sounds absurd but it actually summarizes how my mind works a lot of the time – only by putting something in words, and saying it out loud can I actually discover whether I think it or not. I suppose that’s why I have a (mostly suppressed) tendency to talk to myself. But recently I’ve discovered that my thought processes are not always like that. Sometimes, evidently, I think in a completely non-verbal way. Then I find myself saying things which require explanation and discovering that I’m completely unable to supply the explanation because the supplying process can only be done through words. So when I told someone how those supermarket queues that are only for nine items or fewer were a perfect manifestation of the Thatcherite destruction of society and they just looked like I’d gone mad and waited for an explanation, well, my brain started to explain by sending the right words to my mouth but then it realized that it didn’t actually have the words – it knew it had the thoughts somewhere but realized that they hadn’t actually been turned into words yet. In short I was left still looking slightly mad because I absolutely could not explain my reasoning. I still believe it though.

Four hours ago

I was made to think about death.

It’s not nice. I’m not a fan. A colleague and friend died in the night. A heart attack. He was 35, had a wife, two young kids. How can they cope? How will they cope? I’ll have to take on a fair bit of extra work because of this but, shit, that’s nothing compared to how they’ll be. A constant feeling of missing. To be honest it’s a struggle putting anything into words here, so please excuse it if I’ve put it badly. I’m just shocked, and disbelieving.

Ten or twenty years ago

I was walking on a wall.

An old city wall – wide, with grass-covered sloping sides and plenty of room on top for a group of people to walk side by side. It was a sunny day, bright enough to bleach the colour out of both the path and most of the surrounding buildings. Which proves beyond any doubt that the city was not in Britain – France or Spain is more likely. And the problem is I don’t know which, let alone which specific city it was, just like I don’t know when it was, or who I was with. All I have is a clear visual image in my memory. I know I was with some friends, but I have a feeling there was only one or two really familiar friends – the rest were friends of friends. Sometimes such groups can be very intimidating – particularly if they are, say, friends of your new girlfriend or boyfriend – you feel very much on trial and wary. But it doesn’t always have to be that way – some circles of friends are just naturally very, well, friendly. The Parisian dinner I wrote about a while back was with, essentially, friends of my wife, but they were wonderful people, really welcoming and relaxing to be with. (In extreme contrast with some of the other circles of friends that I’ve been introduced to through my wife, but anyway…). Well, that day on the wall the friends were the good sort – it was a relaxed group enjoying a gentle meandering afternoon stroll on a wall. Had we just had a fantastic lunch? That could certainly explain the vagueness – I’ve had many a good lunch of numerous courses (sometimes even involving more food courses than liqueur courses) followed by a completely amnesial afternoon. One memorable occasion was on a neatly planned outing where the afternoon’s activities had to be delayed until most of our party had walked around the town enough to get at least slightly sober. But at least I can remember that time (at least I think I can, I think it was the time we spent the afternoon in the cork museum. Yes, the things in the top of wine bottles – I really have been to a museum devoted to them. A good lunch was probably necessary though). The problem is the number of these dismembered memories. Some aren’t even so long ago – I remember spending several days this summer walking around with my nose in a book. Now I read a lot, but only when I’m sitting down. Yet this book was such a page-turner that when I left the house to walk to work I was reading it, and at lunch time I’d read it instead of the paper, and it would accompany me on the walk home from work too. And all evening. This is highly unusual, and it must have been not only quite a page-turner, but a respectable book too – I’m very conscious of what people will think of my reading matter. I was absolutely mortified a couple of years ago at an open day at the local University to see someone on the English department stand actually sat reading a Dan Brown book. Yes, that one. I mean, how shameless can you be? He didn’t even have it hidden in a pornographic magazine or anything like that – at least that would have improved appearances slightly. But my problem is I can’t remember what book it was that I was reading. It was obviously one of the best books I’ve picked up this year, and yet six months later I haven’t a clue what it was. Why do I bother living if nothing stays with me?

About sixteen years ago

I moved rooms.

Along with two other friends we’d rented a flat for just over a year and had decided that the flat was big enough to squeeze an extra person in and, consequently (and most importantly) reduce our rent by a quarter. The largest room in the flat had a sofa bed in it and was, we thought, big enough for two people to share. And the flatmate who had that room had an old friend from school who was looking for somewhere to stay, so it all seemed to fit together perfectly. Except that after not many weeks the original flatmate was being driven up the wall by the new flatmate. And he begged me to swap rooms. Now I really don’t like sharing rooms – I almost have a phobia about it and was fairly adamant early on that I wouldn’t be prepared to share. I probably made that a condition of getting an extra flatmate – I didn’t mind an extra body in the flat as long as he wasn’t in my room. So I said yes. Without any hint of hesitation I agreed straightaway. I could see that my flatmate (and best friend as he was at the time) was at the end of his tether and although I could see that I’d be putting myself in the situation that drove him up the wall (it was and is still pretty clear that the difficulties were all down to the new flatmate being hard to live with, not just a simple personality clash), and I hated sharing rooms, I didn’t even think of saying no.

I’ve often wondered why, and why I often do the equivalent – if someone asks me to do something (or pass up the opportunity to do something I want) then I’ll usually just shrug and go “ok” without pausing. There are so many ways you can look at this. Maybe I’m just incredibly kind (you can’t see my eyebrow almost going into orbit as I write this, or the vicious sarcasm with which I typed that, but trust me it’s there). Maybe it’s pride – I want to be seen to be doing nice things and known as someone who is kind, and it’s worth sacrificing things for that reputation. Maybe it’s one aspect of my faith that actually is vibrant and alive – I do these things trusting, knowing even, that things will work out, that God will take care of things (not necessarily making it all perfect, but at least giving me the forbearance to get through it). Maybe it’s the reality that I know from experience that if I refuse, and stick to what I myself want to do, that things won’t work out – that’ll I be left with a bitter taste in my mouth and that I’ll regret my selfishness. At the moment I tend to a more nihilist version of that reason – that it simply makes no difference. If I do this, or if I do that, then it’s not likely to make life better or worse – or more or less bearable – it simply isn’t going to change anything for me so why bother. (I probably read Camus at too influential an age, or maybe it was the fact that the pretty French teacher we had at school raved about him).

Whatever the reasons the outcome is the same. I said yes then (and I survived, although six months later I unofficially moved out and slept on someone else’s couch) and I’d say yes again. And if you ask me to do you a favour I’ll probably say yes to that too, but you’ll be left wondering just exactly why I’ve agreed. Just as I will be.

Six days ago

I thought about surnames.

I was in a rather undignified condition. I don’t really want to get into details here, but I feel I need to point out that it was not really my own fault, at least it wasn’t anything like the culpably drunk-and-falling-over sort of undignified state that you may be imagining. But it did involve me being significantly undressed in a public place, and so feeling rather vulnerable. Someone spoke to me, addressing me in a fairly formal way, using my surname: Mr Ark. Now, normally that is a respectful form of address and probably someone in a vulnerable position ought to be treated respectfully. Yet it made me feel even more undignified and miserable and angry at my situation. I couldn’t exactly understand why but I remember thinking that just using my first name, Lan, would have been more appropriate and acceptable. I realize now that by using the formal form of address it emphasized that we were in a public situation which reinforced how inappropriate and undignified my state of undress was, whereas by using my first name it would have suggested that the situation was not so public, but was more intimate, so that it was okay to be so “casually” dressed.

I suppose that occasion struck me because I’m far more used to being offended at people using my first name when I feel they have no right to. Sales people are particularly bad in that respect, although my annoyance there may be down to the psychological manipulation that I know they are trying to achieve. But objectively I can see that I’m quite often annoyed by people using my surname. One of my best friends almost always calls me Ark and even now it still grates. But there are many good logical reasons why he does it (e.g. Lan is the name of his brother) and the strength of friendship makes it easy to forgive. Unfortunately one of his housemates has started to copy him and since this housemate doesn’t have any of the same reasons, and doesn’t have the years of goodwill to mitigate the offence, I am left wanting to punch him every time. So far I’ve held myself in check but I fear it’s only a matter of time.

One of the most memorable letters I’ve ever had (actually, I think it must be the most memorable – I can’t think of another more memorable) started “Dear Ark”. It was from an ex-RAF, ex-private school, Cambridge professor, so probably was an absolutely standard opening for him, but having a completely different background it just struck me as amusingly absurd, and even now makes me laugh. Of course the fact that the letter was offering me a much-needed job in the mediterranean might have helped reduce any offence I might have been tempted to take, but I like to think I’m not bought so easily. Well, I might like to think that, but when I remember my friend’s housemate I have to conclude that I really don’t have many grounds for confidence.

Two weeks ago

I blurted.

It’s a good word that, and not one that I would be able to translate into any other language – the connotations are just too manifold. I sometimes feel my mouth has some sort of bipolar disorder because one day I am silent to the annoyance of all around me, and then another day I just blurt things out that really would be better unsaid. So on this occasion I said something that, on reflection, seemed to be calculated simply to make me look good and someone else look bad. Yuk. The fact that I said it to that someone’s mother probably meant it had no such effect (I hope!) but maybe makes it even less excusable. The someone had offered to do me a favour (a kindness which I showed through my blurting to be totally undeserved) and then, realizing that she couldn’t actually do the favour herself, she volunteered her mum to do it instead. Very kind. So why did I then have to tell her mum that this offer had been made without her consultation and that I had been so good as to refuse it. Blurt. Blurgh.

I know that often I’m living out the lyric “their deductions need applause” – I want other people to see how clever and perceptive I am. That was the case with something that’s been weighing on my mind for the last 24 hours and which I am in great danger of blurting out. Perhaps if I say it here in sufficiently abstract terms then I’ll get it out of my system without annoying or incriminating anyone. Someone did something innocuous. But they did it in a certain way that makes it less innocuous. And they did it at a time when circumstances, as they well knew, made certain consequences more likely than they would otherwise have been. So what at first glance seemed completely innocuous started to look deeply suspicious. It took me a while to make the connections, but once I thought about it I realized that 2 and 2 and 2 added up to a determined attempt to do something that really should not have been done. By chance the whole chain of events was derailed by a walk in the park, which is quite a relief. If you know what I’m talking about, it’s probably better to say no more. And if you don’t, well, please don’t ask because I’d rather not be provoked into blurting something out that, like so many other things I’ve said, should be left unsaid.

Last night

I watched a programme about Lord Longford.

Very interesting stuff and incredibly well made. It captured the ambiguities of human relationships perfectly. With Brady you knew that he was slightly unhinged and entirely unreliable and yet his barbs were so sharp that they still hit home. With Hindley you wanted to trust her and yet could never be quite sure that she was being straight. And with Longford himself he seemed to be motivated entirely by a deep understanding of forgiveness and a rock-solid appreciation of the extent of forgiveness that is available, and yet still sometimes he seemed out of his depth and deluded, possibly under Hindley’s spell, or even driven by his own pride in what he could achieve. It’s very tempting to believe that Hindley was mostly innocent, just affected by Brady’s spell, but there has to be doubt about that interpretation, and the film did a very good job of offering that view and yet subtly undermining it. It seems that if she had been released there is no way that she would have done anything like that again, and consequently a tragedy that she spent her life behind bars because of the feelings of a mob. But who can say if that’s right – who can know what was in her mind? Certainly not someone like me who never knew her. And was it a waste of Longford’s life to campaign about her case or a triumphal example of Christian spirit battling an evil and conceited (“I’m better than her”) world? I suppose the only positive note I can find in the whole thing is the comparison with the other I and M couple, Huntley and Carr. There the distinction between the behaviour of the two was much clearer and yet the tabloids still seemed to want blood from the female culprit. So I find it hugely reassuring that with that case at least things seemed to have moved on and we look like being at a stage where we can leave Carr to get on with what is left of her life.

Twenty four hours ago

I was given an unexpected poke.

Poke as in poke of chips, although that may not clarify things much, especially if you are one of those who think that poke is something that goes with peek. The other day I was reminded how my default language is a long way from standard English when someone referred to gambling tokens (poker chips) and I thought they were talking about a bag of fried potatoes (poke o’ chips). So anyway, the poke I received was the bag sort, but I should mention that there were actually 10 bags, not just one. And in total they weighed a quarter of a ton. Which is one way of saying that these chips were not fried potatoes. They were stone chippings. So yes, someone delivered a quarter of a ton of stone to my house yesterday while I was at work. Living in a student town one gets used to a certain sort of practical joke (like the day when all the cars on one street had a slice of bread stuck onto their aerial), but this was of the wildly inconvenient variety if a joke is what it was. Now there is another house along the street whose number is very similar to ours and whose post often gets delivered to us (mainly because the number is actually wrong, so for once the post office are not to blame). Since the surname on the invoice actually matched the residents of that house my first guess was that it was perhaps them. So I looked up their number in the phone book. Unfortunately 2 and a half pages of entries all have the same surname so it took a while and I eventually gave up and phoned directory enquiries. It was ex directory. Well, that explained why I couldn’t find it in the book. So when the rain finally stopped I went round to the house and asked if they’d ordered some stone. They hadn’t. Curses. So now I had to worry about the stone and about the embarrassment of going up to someone almost at random and asking if they wanted some stone. It started to feel like I was perpetrating some bizarre practical joke instead of being the victim. Finally, after hours of distractedly worrying, I remembered that another house on an adjacent street but with the same number was being re-rendered. It had to be them, but unfortunately the house was an office and charity shop so there was nothing I could do until this morning to check if I was right or not. I have to go past there every morning and I was just dreading getting there today and finding the scaffolding gone and all the work finished. I needn’t have worried – the work was clearly only half done, and looked as if they needed some more stone to finish the job. There weren’t any builders there to speak to, but someone in the office agreed that it was probably their stone and agreed to phone the builders to confirm. I left at that point, so I’m hoping that when I get home today the stone will be gone.

If not, I think I’m going to get some pva glue and start re-rendering my house.

A week ago

I switched from onions to clothes.

Of course I’m not talking about food or garments, but about the process of trying to understand who I am. (Yes, that again). I had previously thought that by letting go of the things I knew that I no longer was it would be like peeling off a layer of onion skin, and would reveal something underneath (that might be the real me). But when dressing the kids one morning I realized that it’s like peeling off a layer of clothing, and that if you keep doing that before you find some new clothes to put on then you’re apt to get awfully cold. Brrrrr.

Two days ago

I analyzed a song.

While listening to some music with some friends we fell into that old chestnut of a conversation about what it is in music that appeals and what makes some songs special. There was one song in particular that we were discussing, partly because we were thinking about performing it. We agreed it was emotionally powerful and the fact that’s it been used in various soundtracks confirms that. But since it has been used in very diverse settings it seemed to me that it couldn’t be evoking any very specific emotion, just a general emotional feeling. So I listened a few more times and tried analyzing exactly what it was making me think of. I deliberately tried to ignore the lyrics (something that comes fairly naturally to me anyway) and let the music speak to me. It was interesting. The music was quite cinematic, in that it made me think of what could have been clips from films, except that they are films that haven’t been made. That would explain why it’s been used so much as soundtrack music, although the fact that it has could of course have shaped my response. The chorus was making me think of someone racing to intervene in a desperate situation. Some loved one – a child or a spouse say – needed urgent action, but they were far away and so there was a prolonged rush towards them. And there was the uncertainty that the person running might arrive in time to avert the disaster, or might arrive too late and find only a corpse. Yet there wasn’t a feeling of suspense as there might have been, merely the frantic urgency. The verse was calmer, but in a way that spoke of the runner looking back on the event and being weighed down by sadness. Obviously they hadn’t got there in time, and they were looking back with regret and a wish that things had worked out differently. But what was curious was that although the verse resolved the uncertainty that the chorus posed (making it clear what the outcome of the race had been), yet when the chorus came round again there was exactly the same feeling of uncertainty that there had been before. That seemed illogical, but I suppose it was simply the music creating that feeling of uncertainty, and the music of the chorus after the verse was almost exactly the same as the music of the chorus before the verse, so of course my response was the same.

Forty years ago

A lot of children were killed.

Perhaps one could use the word murdered to emphasize the relation between cause and effect? Perhaps one could or should be more charitable. As I briefly explained to my kids this morning why there was a two minute silence I did ponder what the attitudes would have been of those ultimately responsible. My usual picture of the mine-owning classes and their ilk is one where they view their labourers with no more sentiment than they would view the machinery, the ground, or anything else that could serve to earn them more money. And their labourers’ children would only count as future labourers not as valued human beings in their own right. I tried to reach within me to find something that could feel that cold towards fellow humans, and I simply couldn’t. Which may, on the one hand, be why I’ll never own a mine and never vote tory, or it may be that I’m simply being too harsh. Maybe even those responsible did feel a little sorrow, or even guilt, on that day for the immense grief their greed had led to. Maybe.

A month or so ago

I started wondering about disproportionality.

One of my many annoying traits is that I’m a stickler for rules; I like bending them and breaking them and I like other people to keep them. And when they don’t, well, I get cross. In fact I get ridiculously angry, and that is exactly the appropriate adverb there. There is a crossing with a lollipop lady near my route to work, and this morning a car ignored her as she stood in the road – the car just drove on across the crossing regardless. And I found myself wanting to tear the driver from her seat and trash her car or something. Ridiculous, and totally disproportionate to the crime. But I know I’m not alone, not least because the Daily Mail has enough of a readership to survive 100 years longer than it ought to have done. The tenor of all of their articles is “this person has been bad, therefore anything terrible that happens to them is fine and no more than they deserve”. If a thief breaks into a house and gets shot and killed by the owner then, well, that is no more than they deserve for doing something bad. A crime deserves punishment, and no punishment is excessive. I am immensely grateful that our justice system is not based on such lines. I am very grateful that it recognizes that different levels of crime deserve different levels of punishment. But I recognize that this liberal justice system is not supported by large chunks of society. And sometimes I wonder if they’re not right after all. Put this in a Christian context: are there small sins and big sins? Is it more okay to steal then to murder? Is it worse to murder 100 than to murder 1? Like most serious liberals, I question my beliefs seriously, and sometimes wonder if I’m wrong. (Whereas, of course, most fascists people of a more right-wing political persuasion don’t ever question their beliefs and, as a result, end up in power more often). And I have to admit that even though I’m convinced that a murderer should receive a more severe punishment than a pickpocket, I don’t see much supporting evidence in the bible for this view.

Ten years ago

I went to a party.

This is one memory where I really start to feel old, because it is so vivid as to feel really quite recent, and yet it is now 10 years ago. How time has flown. Anyway, I went to a party, or rather, the party came to me. I had recently started properly at a University, and to celebrate the start of the year they threw a party, as they did every year. It lasted all day and took over the whole campus, so avoiding it really would have been hard. And it was great. They had some amazing bands, including one which really struck me in the way it mixed standard (american) rock styles with the indigenous folk music. I suppose it was just folk-rock done in the local style, but quite striking for all that. It was one of the few gigs I’ve been to where I haven’t heard the band before or known any of the songs and yet been so struck as to need to buy some of their recordings straight away. Actually I had a similar experience last week although I had heard a snippet of one of their songs beforehand, but the music was so good that I had that urgent drive to buy more. Unfortunately they only have one single so far, but it is fantastic all the same. Anyway, the folk-rock band I was talking about seemed to have only one CD available, and a short one at that. But it was good. And a few years later I scanned the internet for more CDs by them. I found an obscure internet shop selling a few and tried to order. The shop had some query and tried my email address but didn’t get though for some reason. So they googled me and found my webpage which had my address on. It also had a link to flying pig and in their email to me they commented on how they’d got my address and the fact that this link was “molt divertit” – a phrase that has stuck with me and still brings a smile. Anyway, I got the CDs eventually and they were even better, even if I only understand half the language they are singing in. And, of course, it all takes me back to that party, and I love music that can evoke a time and a place so powerfully. After the band had finished the party went on. One of the big features was a giant paella being cooked so everyone could have a bit. Everyone means a few thousand folk, but the paella was about 6 or 7 foot in diameter and, I think, being constantly topped up. It was quite a sight, even if it didn’t taste perfect. Great stuff. There was loads of other stuff going on that I don’t remember so well, but the evening ended with correfoc. Like the fireballers at Stonehaven this has to be seen – people dressed up in black as devils with fire on their heads while other people throw lit fireworks at them. As with many such traditional activities (Pamplona springs to mind as another perfect example of this) the inevitable injuries are considered as a price worth paying for the pleasure the whole event gives. It’s a different attitude, but sometimes I think it’s better than our ultra-safe, ultra-boring one. And certainly it makes for better parties….

One day ago

I pondered anew the difficulty of crossing cultures.

I was in the post office buying a stamp and overheard the guy in front of me in the queue. He was asking for change of a pound. More specifically, he asked for three thirties and a ten. His request was one of those sentences that goes into your brain, gets parsed and accepted as correct, and then gets passed on to the next stage for interpretation and only someway down the line does your brain register a problem. And the person serving him clearly processed things in the same order because just at the point where I was thinking I might have misheard she asked him to repeat himself. And he did. Three thirties and a ten. And although I was killing myself laughing (very quietly to avoid embarrassing him or myself) I really felt for the poor guy. What on earth is wrong in wanting a thirty pence coin? Why shouldn’t there be such a thing? I mean some bizarre countries have 20 pence coins, some have 25, why not 30? And some countries were even more attached to numbers like 12 and 60 than Britain was, so why not 30? And yet, what a silly request! And the point is, of course, that I’ve been in that situation so many times. Making a perfectly reasonable request that turns out to be perfectly silly in the country you happen to find yourself in. It’s not fun, but I guess it is funny.

Twelve hours ago

I thought again of the uselessness of words.

Having not slept too well lately I decided I’d take action by imbibing some whisky I’d finally recently been given, and by listening to a few good songs. For a recent birthday some very kind friends made a compilation CD for me of some songs they thought I’d love and some they thought I’d hate (with a picture of a marmite jar on the cover, which still cracks me up). And, sure enough, most of the songs I either hate or love, but not necessarily matching their predictions. One that I think they expected me to hate turned out to be one that really touches me. Firstly it talks of a son’s tear-stained face, which is an image the softy I’ve now become is hugely affected by. (And I’m frustrated that the song offers no explanation of what provoked the tears, but then the writer is under no obligation to give all the details, just like I probably annoyingly leave out lots of details in this blog; this is not the first time I’ve thought of blogging as an alternative to song-writing). And then it briefly describes a pleasant afternoon out, father and son alone together, where the father tells his son that he loves him. I can so relate to that, and the picture should be a lovely warm and fluffy one. But it’s not for me – it’s just sad. Because as the tears hint, there is a reason why the father needs to tell the son about his love. The father needs to say it, because he knows his actions don’t always communicate the same thing. Just like after I’ve been the grumpy shouty father I too often am, I coo sweet nothings to my kids to reassure them how much I love them. And which message will last? The unpleasant actions or the kind but oh-so-easily-said words? I have this burning need to tell my kids how much I love them, to even sing sweet songs to them saying the same thing (another song I’m listening to a lot at the moment simply tells a daughter she’s ‘my favourite girl in all the world’). But that won’t do them much good. Who ever looked back on their childhood and said ‘my parents were really cruel to me, but they were really great because they kept telling me they loved me lots’? In fact, if they’re to gain their independence some time then it seems almost like they need to disregard these statements of affection. Whereas the acts of love will always stay with them and, I think, always be understood as such.

I slept well last night, and tried to put my love into actions not words this morning.

A week ago

I had to say no.

As a parent I have to respond to lots of requests. Some are reasonable and some are not. But most are in between. Can I have some juice? That may be perfectly reasonable, or it may be that the request comes from someone who has just had a drink already and is showing signs of a sugar rush. But even that is clearer than many of the situations I find myself in.

Now I recall my childhood mostly consisting of asking for things and not getting them. I recall denial being a constant theme and it’s one of the reasons I look back so bitterly over those days (when I look back, and I try to avoid doing that much, even to the extent of denying that those days even existed sometimes). So I am determined to be a more indulgent parent, and to say yes as often as possible. So if, on a Saturday morning, one of the kids asks to do something, then I’m inclined to want to do it, if at all possible. But at the back of my mind I know that I’m giving in mainly because I want them to view my parenting more favourably than I viewed my parents’ parenting. I want to get better reviews at the end of the day. And it’s not going to happen, is it. Inevitably there will be some times when I have to say no, and deny my kids the very thing they are asking for. And inevitably those will be the times they remember, not the times when I abandoned all my plans so as to do the one thing they asked to do on a Saturday morning. They will only remember the times I said no. Which makes me wonder what the point is. Why try so hard when the end result will be much the same?

Just over fifteen years ago

I stopped working.

Well, technically I should say that I stopped the paid employment that I had. I carried on working but the financial set-up was rather different as, indeed, was the work. I had been working in an amusement arcade, spending most of the summer fixing one-armed bandits. As a human being it gave an interesting insight into the psychology of some of my fellow humans, and as someone who understands a little about probability it gave an interesting insight into how the abstract theory of probability interacts with the day-to-day throwing of a dice. Except that, of course, throwing a dice is random whereas one-armed bandits … well, are they or aren’t they? Can something that is legally obliged to pay out 73% of what it takes in be genuinely random? But then again, has that law ever been applied? How can you establish whether it has been broken or not – how many games do you have to play to see 73% of your money back? And how much does winning on one machine make it more likely that you will lose the next game? In theoretical probability there is no impact – rolling a six on a dice makes it absolutely no less or more likely that you will roll a six the next time. But that’s not what instinct says, is it? Well, if that’s what your instinct says, then it also says that losing on a one-armed bandit one minute makes it more likely that you’ll win the next. Combine that with the sense of a score needing to be settled that comes from losing money in gambling, and you have a very strong instinct to keep playing. And, of course, if you win, then, well, you’re obviously onto a winning streak aren’t you… I can see why people got very upset about gambling a hundred years or so ago, and I can see the same problems coming back now as society has forgotten the problems that we faced back then and as on-line gambling makes it easier to hide the action if not the losses.

There have been two occasions when I’ve been particularly scared by my fellow humans. One was in Germany – my office overlooked one of the main squares in the city and often there were protests where huge crowds would gather. Somehow I felt in my bones that what was a peaceful protest one minute could so easily turn into a riot. It didn’t while I was there, but I sensed the possibility strongly and have had almost a phobia of large crowds ever since. In a crowd there is some spirit which takes over the human beings that make up the crowd – there’s a form of possession (in the sense of demon possession although I don’t think it’s demonic) which makes people cease to seem human and is quite disturbing.

The other time was in that amusement arcade and also involved people ceasing to be human. It would often happen that one person played a lot on one machine, putting a lot of money in, waiting and waiting for the pay-off that they were certain would come soon enough. Often they would get a small win and I would end up involved if the coin dispenser malfunctioned in some way and the gambler didn’t get their money. As you would expect I would fix the machine and test it to ensure that it now functioned correctly. How do you test whether the machine pays out correctly? You keep playing until you have a win, so I would keep pumping coins into the machine and pressing buttons at random until it paid out. Coins would come tumbling out of the machine verifying that it was functioning fine. But then came the problem. The gambler would always, always turn to me and say “Give me that money that just came out of the machine – it’s mine”. At first I was bewildered by this – how could they think it was theirs? But then one of them explained – they’d been playing the machine all afternoon – putting money in and waiting for the machine to return the 73% that it was legally obliged to do. So the next money the machine paid out was clearly due to them, because if it had been functioning correctly they’d have kept on playing until it paid out to them. As I write it now I’m not even clear myself of the logic of this argument, or of my defence. But of course a logical argument is irrelevant in these circumstances – I was stealing their money and that’s all there was to it. And that naked greed for that money was not a pleasant thing to see. Not human, and not nice.

Nineteen and a half years ago

I got a haircut.

I was just on the cusp of being grown up (that cusp, by the way, seems to have been about fifteen years wide – this may or may not be normal for my species or at least my gender). And this was one of those occasions where I was trying out the water on the grown-up side of the fence. I’d asked my brother to recommend a decent (not poncey) barbers and was quite happy with where he sent me. I suppose that’s another indication of how grown-up the situation was – my brother was being helpful, genuinely helpful, and I appreciated it. How bizarre that was. Of course, the circumstances helped. Having spent two years getting more unkempt, making use of the liberty that came from leaving a school that insisted on at-most-collar-length hair, I’d finally decided that I fancied a clean-cut image instead. My family had become more and more embarrassed by me (what fools to be embarrassed by my hair – I’d given them so many good reasons to be embarrassed by me but instead they chose to be embarrassed by my hair – that says it all really), so they were overjoyed at me deciding to get it cut and, correspondingly, they were kind and helpful to me for a change. Fortunately I was oblivious to most of the implications of that – low expectations help you avoid disappointments. Anyway, what I was going to say about this was how Little Steven’s Bitter Fruit was playing on the radio as my hair was being hacked off. Funny how these things stay with you – what a useless thing to remember, but I suppose it gives that tune a certain set of associations for me, for better or worse. I can’t listen to it without being taken back to that time and the feeling that my improved appearance might make me a better me than I had been before.

Two days ago

I had a problem with a ladder.

I love climbing and I have vertigo. Okay, it’s only mild vertigo (and not just because it only affects me when I’m high up) but still it’s an odd combination. Ladders in particular give me a thrill in both the positive and the negative senses. And whereas when I’m climbing a mountain I’m nervous of slipping and falling, with a ladder I’m nervous about it slipping and me falling. I discussed this with a friend a while back and we found that I’m nervous of the ladder slipping sideways, whereas she’s nervous of its feet slipping backwards. I don’t know which is more likely, but at least now I know what happens when your ladder slips sideways. I don’t recommend it. Since I was half in the loft my elbows stopped me from immediately crashing to the ground, although my upper arms are quite sore as a result. And so, for a moment or two, I was that classic cartoon image of two legs kicking in mid-air trying to find something to gain purchase on. Unfortunately there was nothing, and after a second of trying to lift myself into the loft (which seemed a bit silly but would have left me at least more in control – trust me: when you’re holding yourself up by your elbows only there’s not a lot you can do) I realized I couldn’t and tried to ease myself down gently. That didn’t work either, but at least it got me out of the predicament, because my elbows slipped in the process and dropped me to the floor, fortunately without leaving me very much more sore than I was before.

Around thirty years ago

I lost a classmate.

I didn’t know her very well, but I remember it being announced that she was very ill, and then being told that we wouldn’t see her again. I don’t think the d word was even uttered, but that’s probably appropriate – at its heart, death simply means that you won’t see that person again, doesn’t it? So we had that put into language appropriate for our, whatever it would have been, 7 or 8 year old minds. I remember being slightly puzzled at the thought that this person that I knew, who had an existence (by which I mean a real existence, i.e. in my mind), no longer existed. I wasn’t particularly sad, I suppose because the sadness comes from missing someone, i.e. being unable to have their presence and yet wanting it. Because I didn’t know her very well I didn’t miss her much. I’m not sure – it’s a long time ago, I don’t understand myself now very much and I certainly I don’t understand the self I was then.

Two days ago a girl in Cambuslang’s school died. It seemed to follow the same pattern – an announcement that she was ill, accompanied by making get-well cards and the like, and then the announcement of her death. She would have been 5. I didn’t know her, and I don’t think Cambuslang knew her at all well. But I’m on the verge of tears whenever I think about her. I’ve gone soft since having kids – I’d never have been upset by this kind of thing before. And it’s not even that I’m imagining myself into the same position as this girl’s parents – I’m not imagining one of my kids dead and grieving over that. No, I’m simply very sad for the end of this girl’s life. Five. This shouldn’t happen. It’s hard putting things into words because the clichés keep rushing in – ‘what a waste’ I keep finding myself saying, even though that is not remotely what I’m thinking. I’m simply, simply thinking how sad.

Two months ago

I pondered my legacy.

I have a job, a profession even, and one which, more than most, has a well-known stereotype. If I told you it then you would form a pretty clear impression of how you’d expect me to be. You’d probably expect that if you asked me something it would take me a while to answer and the answer would involve lots of long words and be fairly incomprehensible and certainly any connection with the question you asked would be obscure. You’d probably expect that if you asked me to do something then I might well take a while and, before I’d really even started, I’d get distracted by something and would stand in a corner of a room staring absent-mindedly, having forgotten completely about the task you’d set me.

Those expectations annoy me. Now, I’m well aware that I do some of those things. But I’m saddened and frustrated if that’s the first thing people think of about me. I’m scared that when I die my kids will talk about their dad as someone who could never give a simple answer to a simple question, before they think of anything else that I did or was. Those behavioural quirks are not what I’m about. My life’s purpose, if it has any, does not consist in trying to stare into space. So if I live out my life and all people remember is me staring into space looking vacant, then that will be a frustrating distortion of what was really going on.

So I wondered if I should deliberately avoid such behaviour. (Could I change it? Oh yes. I’ve reinvented myself many times in my life and I’m sure I’ll do it many more times). Yes, it entertains people (while also annoying them) but if it’s such a distraction then maybe I should work to overcome it. Well, that’s how I felt two months ago. Now I read this and wonder what I was getting so worked up about. At the moment I suppose I don’t care what people think, and staring into space is a better trait than many that I could be remembered for.

Possibly fourteen years ago

I learnt of the Joyce-Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

It wasn’t called that, and it was only Joyce’s thoughts that I was reading about, but it put me in mind very much of Heisenberg and the two almost seem to be two sides of the same coin. Essentially they both say, in different ways, that you can’t have your cake and eat it. Heisenberg wanted to know where something was and where it was going (rather like the parent of a teenager) and found that the more precise answer he got to one of those questions, the less precise an answer he was able to get for the other. Joyce wanted to feel deeply and express those emotions, and he found that those who felt emotions deeply were unusually unable to express them and those that could express emotions didn’t actually feel much that was worth expressing. In Heisenberg’s principle there is an explicit play-off between the two – you can know a mix of both things but the more you have of one, the less you have of the other. Joyce just considered the two extremes, but I think there is a continuum between them – and it’s a continuum I feel I journey along quite frequently. Oftimes I find myself feeling something deeply (often a frustration, sometimes a love) and utterly incapable of articulating it. And at other times I find myself able to articulate well some things which are completely mundane and uninteresting. And probably most of the time I dwell somewhere in between, neither very interesting nor very well put.

I’m not sure where I read about Joyce’s thoughts (or Heisenberg’s, but that could have been in any number of science lessons or popular science books), but it was probably in the introduction to one of his books, and probably Ulysses. I remember buying that in a bargain bookshop at a time when the world of proper literature seemed like a new, exciting and inviting world for me. Now I feel the pressure of having to keep up with people who’ve read things that I haven’t, but back then I had more time and enough money to buy lots of books, so if I felt I needed to have read something then, well, I’d simply go out and buy it and read it. Ahh, such simple times.

Eight years ago

I had everything explained to me on a train.

This is one of those memories where the setting is at least as important as what happened. I was sitting in the buffet of a train from Paris to Strasbourg. It was a French train, except that the buffet car was German. I find it entertaining how different countries manifest their culture in such banal things as railway carriages, and how then stepping from one carriage to the next can feel like crossing a border. I distinctly recall the French carriages with their modern polished chrome and plastic surfaces giving way to the German buffet with lots of wood, even a wooden-framed door leading into it, all very 1950s (even though the coach would have been built in the 1980s or even 90s). Now you might wonder why a French train would have a German buffet, and what the implications were for the quality of food. In short, I have no idea as to why the buffet was German and the food would probably have been worse as a result, but fortunately I was just getting a coffee so it didn’t matter too much. (For those who don’t know, German coffee is much closer to British coffee, i.e. not worthy of the name coffee, but it is at least much cheaper than French coffee). I was on the train with a colleague and good friend. It’s bizarre, in fact, to think that at that stage I had only known her three years, because it feels now (and indeed felt then) as if I’d known her for ages. (I suppose when you’re young three years would seem like ages. Trust me, it’s not – three years is a blink of an eye). Well, we had been sharing an office and working very closely, which probably explains why it felt like we’d known each other longer. And we were travelling together to a conference in our field in an incredibly obscure location – the train to Strasbourg was the first in a sequence of trains diminishing in status, size and speed, as we wound our way further into the depths of rural Europe. So anyway, there we were in the buffet car and I happened to mention that I didn’t understand something, knowing that my colleague was an expert on it. It’s part of my job to not understand things – I’m really a professional ignoramus, for which I’m very well qualified. In fact, if I do ever start to understand something I can rely on my appalling memory taking away all the keys to my understanding and returning me back to a state of complete ignorance in a very short time. Still, sometimes I feel I would like to understand things and sometimes I even do something about this. This occasion on the train was one such time, and it proved very successful. My colleague explained the thing I didn’t understand and it’s connection to several other things I didn’t understand, which she also explained. I ended up actually knowing something and I still know it today despite my usual ability to forget. I tend to feel that if something is explained well enough and made clear enough then it will make sense well enough to stay in your mind no matter how bad your memory is. The problem is that usually I’m trying to remember things that make little sense and do not tally with other facts that I do know. So it was an instance of getting excellent personal tuition, and of seeing the benefits of that, and it was an instance of understanding something at a very deep, and deeply satisfying, level. I had a similar experience in 2001 during the protests about the price of oil in Britain. An editorial in the paper explained what was going on in a way that was different to what everybody else was saying, but in a way that made sense of every aspect of what was going on, and simply rang true. It was such a pleasure to feel that level of understanding. And all too rare.

Some time ago

I learnt how to toss a coin.

You know the scenario: you have to choose between two options and you simply can’t decide. Both look attractive, but as soon as you think you’ve decided in favour of one option you start thinking about all the reasons to choose the other. Your mind seems to insist on sitting on the fence.

Obviously, then, the thing to do is to toss a coin. But I noticed (at least I think I did, but I probably just read it somewhere – I’m amazed at how many ideas I’ve had that turned out to be things I read years before, but at least I know for a fact that I’m not the first person to notice that phenomenon, although I can’t remember who it was that said that inspiration is subconscious remembering) that once I’d tossed the coin I’d feel a reaction. I might find that the coin said I should go for one option and I’d feel really disappointed, making it clear that I really wanted to go for the other option. Or I might find myself relieved at how the coin toss had worked out. So it’s clear that my mind had come to a decision, it just wouldn’t tell me what it was.

All of which left me: a) dead chuffed at finding a way of making decisions, b) puzzled why my mind was so uncooperative, c) disturbed that I find myself thinking about my mind in the third person and d) wondering why I have to make tossing a coin so complicated.

Eight months ago

I came home to a bag of groceries.

I’d been at work, and had finished early to pick the kids up from school. And when we arrived home there was a supermarket bag on our doorstep. A few times we’ve come home to find things left there – usually bags with a few toys being passed on, or some clothes. But this had some groceries in. Luxury items really – biscuits and stuff that you wouldn’t buy if you were on a tight budget, but stuff that you’d really appreciate.

Up until two days before that we had been very short of money. Well, okay, not very short of money – a long, long way from the poverty line. But feeling short of money compared with our spending. For a few years we’d been feeling more and more tight, and it had been (along with a few other things) causing a lot of stress and tension in the family. So the gift of a bag of groceries was really, really kind. Even now I don’t know who it came from (possibly someone here?) because the few guesses I had turned out to be wrong. Part of me really wants to know who it was, because I really want to say how much it was appreciated. But most of me respects the right to privacy and I’m a big fan of anonymous giving.

But there’s also a profound irony. Just two days before the bag showed up, we had been given a huge sum of money. Well, not exactly given, but that’s more or less what it amounted to. The money was there, where it hadn’t been before, we hadn’t had to sell the kids to get it, and we were no longer short of cash which was very nice. And lately the money has just kept pouring in, with one bizarre thing after another swelling our bank balance. Just last week I got another very large cheque, more or less out of nowhere. It’s just getting silly. A few weeks ago I was writing a cheque and I had to stop part way through because I was sure it shouldn’t have had so many zeros in the amount. I was wrong. We keep thinking that it would have been so much handier if this stuff could have arrived a year or two ago when we were so skint. But I guess if we hadn’t had to learn to cope with a little then we probably wouldn’t now be so clueless about what to do with all our riches, and we’d have spent it before we noticed. I just hope I can spend it all before I start worrying about what to spend it on we can spend it all sensibly.

Some weeks ago

I got frustrated at all the secrecy I have to maintain.

I find it frustrating that I feel I have to say stuff in an oblique way here. I find it bizarre that I can’t repeat what friend A said to me about friend B because they’d never speak to each other again if I did. I find it strange that the biggest problems in my life are ones I simply can’t talk about. I find it curious that I can’t talk about the most amazing thing that happened to me at Greenbelt. And I find it odd that everybody else seems to cope with these rules about what can and cannot be said and they seem to handle these rules so well and so fluently whereas I always have to consciously remember the rules and remember to bite my tongue, sometimes only catching myself when I’m half-way through saying things I shouldn’t. (And often not catching myself at all until it’s too late).

But I suppose that’s part of what makes it special when these things can be said – there is no greater friend than the one you can say anything to. Except, perhaps, the one you have already said everything to.

About a month ago

I distilled the essence of mid-life crisis.

It’s quite simple really, but rather than tell you it straightway I’ll have to bore you first by explaining how I found it. And before I do that I’ll tell you how I didn’t find it. I didn’t find it out by reading Dith’s blog. If I had done (which would have required me reading something a month or so before it was written) then I’d have found this all out a lot quicker. But I didn’t. Instead I found it out this way.

Most of my spare time I spend feeling guilty. For a long while I had no spare time (if there wasn’t a baby needing entertained then there was washing-up to do, sleep to be slept, or a thousand other things needing thunged) and so when I have spare time I feel obliged to use it wisely. I know this is folly, because years ago when doing a summer job with long (eleven hour) shifts and short (half-hour) breaks I discovered that if I tried to do a lot in the breaks then I’d end up exhausted and hate the work, whereas if I tried to do nothing during the break (and I really mean “tried to do nothing”, not “didn’t try to do something” – my usual strategy was to sit on a bench staring at the sea) then I’d get bored and would be enthusiastic about getting back to work. And that made the next hour of work really quite bearable or even pleasant. So I know that trying to make the best use of time is something that’s guaranteed to make me miserable. But I do it all the same – I feel I must read that book that everybody seems to have read and which I haven’t got around to yet, or I must watch that DVD that I borrowed, or I ….

I’ve at least alluded to this before and to the fact that I know this is not how I should spend my time but am not sure what to do instead. I’ve mostly realized that what I need to do is throw off all obligations and just spend my time doing what I will most enjoy doing and not worry about anything else. (If you’ve been inside my house then you’ll know how seriously I pursue this strategy from the perpetual piles of washing-up, unbelievable untidiness, complete lack of cleanliness, mountains of ironing, etc). Unfortunately I’m not very good at working out what I would enjoy doing. So I tend to resort to things that I used to like doing. Things that, in days gone by, I couldn’t do either for lack of money or for lack of time. And the problem is that they don’t work. Most of the things I used to like doing simply aren’t a lot of fun any more. I don’t enjoy the same things any more. I’m not the person I used to be. And it was when I reached this conclusion that I understood that I’m not who I was, but I don’t know who I am. Which, I think, is really the essence of a mid-life crisis.

Twenty four hours ago

I realized why I like company so much.

And it’s because when I’m with someone else I can avoid being with myself. My wife often complains that I’m unbearably miserable until someone else comes to visit or until I’m with someone else, and that then I become happy and funny and bouncy and all other sorts of things that are (in small doses) easier to bear than misery. I’d long ago realized what was going on there was that I am, by default, unbearably miserable, but that I simply wouldn’t dare inflict that side of me on many people or, perhaps, on anyone who hadn’t gone to the extent of marrying me. (It’s all because of my childhood….). I knew that the happy, funny, bouncy face that I put on was fake and a cover. But what I hadn’t realized was that I prefer being with other people partly because I have to put that fake cover on, because that saves me from having to put up with my real self. The cover fools me (even if it doesn’t fool anyone else) into not seeing the grim side underneath, or at least it distracts me from it so it doesn’t impinge on my consciousness to such an unpleasant degree.

What I can’t quite reconcile with this is my firm belief in faking as a way of changing. I remember hearing ages ago that when you smile it changes the pattern of blood flow to your brain in a way that actually makes you feel happy. That’s probably a load of rubbish, but the idea that a superficial change can actually provoke a deeper change rings very true to me. And yet my faking it all the time doesn’t seem to be making me any happier. Or perhaps it’s just past my bedtime.

About eight years ago

I had a meal out in Paris.

Now you may have formed a mental picture of the evening I’m going to describe, so I should probably clarify that a student friend had invited us, and 4 or 5 other people, round to his tiny student room to cook for us. The first thing that comes back to me as I recall this is the heat. It was summer, in the centre of Paris and there were far too many of us squashed into a tiny room, with a cooker on.

The food was great – I recall a starter of deep-fried camembert in breadcrumbs (made as we watched) and it carried on in the same vein; I think there were 4 or 5 courses. Each course Fréd, our host, would cook, and then serve, and we would sit down and eat it together. And we would talk. Since Fréd was a great raconteur there tended to be a lot of talking. And then, after a long while, you could tell that Fréd would start to feel a little bit hungry. But he was talking and distracted, so the signals from his stomach weren’t really being processed by his brain. Eventually the signals would get stronger (and I suppose I could sense them because my stomach was also shouting out much the same signals and I gave them more attention because I wasn’t really following the conversation, my French not being that great). And at last, Fréd would realise that he was hungry. Being polite, of course, he wouldn’t do anything because, after all, you can’t really ask your host for more food because you’re hungry, can you? And so Fréd’s stomach would keep complaining until he couldn’t concentrate on the raconteur-ing anymore. And probably at that point he would really start to feel let down by the cook and then …. and only then …. would it dawn on him that he was the cook. So then off he would go and cook the next course. And that happened with each course.

It was hugely entertaining, even though it was the slowest meal I have ever eaten (and I’ve eaten some spectacularly slow meals in my time). But it was watching Fréd get more irate at the person responsible for the food and only eventually realizing or acknowledging that that person was him; that is what really struck me. Because I find myself doing that so often. For example after our services at church we serve tea and coffee in the hall. This past Sunday we had a lot of visitors so it would have been a good idea to make a good impression on them. But the chairs and tables weren’t set out in the hall as they should have been so the whole thing was a bit of a shambles (which, admittedly, is a more honest view of our church; one of our own elders, likened us in a sermon to Mr Bean). Watching all this I felt a bit irate and tracing things back to the source I felt that I really should say something to the deacon responsible for catering in the church as they were surely the one ultimately in charge. And it was me. Ho hum. As Sarte didn’t say, l’enfer, c’est moi.

Eight weeks ago

I got stuck on a chestnut.

And it’s happened again – I found myself lying in bed this morning pondering a question which almost everyone in the world must have thought about and worked out the answer to. Except me. So: how long do you keep trying before you give up? I mean, how many years do I try and learn what a Ddim7b16 chord shape is like before I just give up and accept that I’m never going to be Graham Kendrick? And how do I know when I’m just not trying hard enough? It seems like it’s partly a confidence issue again, because while I’m trying part of my mind is telling me that there’s really no point trying because I won’t succeed.

Ten days ago

I was offered a reward.

I was told that because I’d done something well at work I’d get a reward. (Now, as an aside, I hadn’t actually done anything well, but something that was my responsibility had gone well as a result of a thousand things entirely beyond and outwith my control, so I shouldn’t get any credit for it but, of course, that’s not how the world works and, on this particular issue, I’m quite glad it’s not. But anyway, that’s not I’m writing about). In fact I was told exactly what the reward would be and it’s something that I quite like although, if I had to buy it, I probably wouldn’t be prepared to hand over a lot of money for it. It’s something I appreciate a bit, but not hugely. But for reasons I cannot fathom, I desperately want that reward.

In fact, because I’ve hardly seen my boss for over a week now, he hasn’t had the chance to give me what he promised, and I rather suspect he will have forgotten, so I won’t ever get it, and I’m really quite disappointed. Really disappointed. And that is really bizarre because, as I was saying earlier, the actual item being offered isn’t so special to me.

It all reminds me of a period years ago when I would do a prize crossword in a newspaper every weekend. I even bought a thesaurus to help me do it and if I ever completed the crossword (which was not often) I would send it in hoping to win. Even though the prize was something I really didn’t particularly want. I wanted to win the prize that I didn’t want.

Sometimes I really just don’t understand myself.

Nineteen years ago

I learnt I was a shopaholic.

I think retail therapy is reasonably well understood and accepted. And although it’s obviously dangerous to get into the habit of spending money as a way of making yourself feel better, there seems to be a consensus that a lot of people (though not all) do feel better as a result of spending money. But lately I’ve been scrutinizing more carefully the thoughts going through my head as I shop and I’ve found some weird thoughts lurking around in there. Perhaps I should say here that my mental image is of my mind as a dark alley where, now and again, I am able to shine a torch and catch sight of some subconscious thought scuttling quickly back into the darkness like a rat running for cover. It’s quite disturbing that my own mind should feel like that, and even more disturbing when I get to know some of those thoughts. Here are some that I’ve managed to catch lately.

Browsing through a CD shop I realized that I had an impulse to spend money to buy an album that I already had. My mind tried to persuade me that it was worth buying because it was a new edition, but I realized that what I was really attracted to was the music that I knew and already owned. Stupid, eh? It’s as if I simply want to give away my money, but need to trick myself into doing it.

In bookshops I often look at the non-fiction section, and particularly at the books in subjects that I already know something about. Knowing something is a long way short of knowing everything and these are generally areas that I want to know more about, and what I realized is that I’m tempted to buy books because I want the knowledge and I subconsciously believe that buying the book will automatically give me knowledge. And this is despite my experience of having hundreds of books which I either haven’t read or have read and not understood. In either case little or no knowledge has been acquired.

I realized that I was prone to a more extreme version of this the last time I looked in the window of a guitar shop. I saw a guitar and felt a slight temptation to buy it, but as I felt this I realized that what was tempting me was unbelievably spurious. As I looked at the guitar I conjured up a mental image of someone playing it and creating some fantastic music on it, and I was subconsciously thinking that by paying the money and buying the guitar I would become able to make that music. My subconscious seemed to think that simply by paying the price of that guitar my musical abilities would magically increase. Incredible!

Four months ago

I realized my memory had been colonized.

Just over ten years ago we got a camera. We were living in a new country and knew we weren’t going to be there forever, and wanted to record some of the things we encountered. Implicit in that was an acknowledgment that we might not remember all the things we saw, and I know now how much of a self-fulfilling prophecy that unspoken thought was, because the photos we took with that camera have actually replaced my memories.

For example, when we lived in Germany we would quite often visit the Drachenfels, either walking or taking the rack railway to the top and eating kirschwaffeln in the restaurant at the top while looking out over the boats making their way along the Rhein. The portions were huge and delicious so those trips are something I think back to quite often. Of course, a few times we brought the camera with us and took some photos of the view in different seasons. One time, in particular, it was a very clear day and I took a photo looking north where we could see as far as Cologne, with the outline of the Cathedral being discernible on the horizon.

The thing is that now, when I think back to those times, the mental pictures I conjure up are not my memories of it, but the photos that we took. Those are the only pictures left and I carry them in my head even though I also have prints filed in an album somewhere. I only saw the view to Cologne once, but I’ve looked at the photo I took that day several times so, understandably, it is the photo I remember. But it’s frustrating to find that that’s all I’m left with. The photos have colonized my memory, wiping out most of the other things in there.

Twenty four and a half years ago

I bought a record.

It was called English Settlement and I bought it because it had a song on it that was a big hit and a very good tune, even to my young ignorant ears. I listened to that record over and over in the way you only can when you don’t own many albums. I memorized every word, every note. Being totally unmusical, I didn’t hear musical instruments, I heard sounds. The backing on Senses Working Overtime was the sound of rural England, Yacht Dance was boats floating in a lazy summer sea. And so on. A little later I got the first All About Eve album and one of the songs there has the sound of a lightning bolt on it. Later on I understood that it was a certain combination of notes played on a guitar with a particular type of distortion. But when I first heard it, it was a lightning bolt.

When I learnt to play a bit of guitar, I wanted to recreate the sounds on those records. So I had to listen to them in a different way and pick out the notes that were being played and analyse what effects were being added to make them sound the way they did. So now when I hear those tracks, I hear the notes and I hear the echo or distortion effects. I can’t really hear rural England anymore, or the lightning, just guitar riffs. The knowledge I acquired has taken those things away from me.

Four days ago

I had a close shave.

I was planning to take this week off to look after the kids (so that Jedburgh could work instead) and was quite looking forward to it, having the week’s activities more or less planned out. And then a chance comment made me double-check my calendar to see if there was anything I had to be at work for this week. There was: this was actually the busiest and most important week of my entire year. And I very nearly didn’t bother turning up. Oops.

Now, somehow, when you’re young there’s an element of excitement to taking risks and living dangerously. But when you’re old, and you find that you’ve taken risks and lived dangerously purely because you’re so senile as to not notice what’s going on, it doesn’t have quite the same appeal. Sleepwalking into danger doesn’t give quite the same adrenalin rush. Still, beggars can’t be choosers.

Anyway, the main reason for writing this is to explain why I haven’t written anything else lately. I’ve been on holiday and then I’ve been working insanely hard to catch up.

An hour ago

I found I was under constant surveillance.

I was recently given a new computer at work which was great because, being a Mac user, the latest ones always look really cool. (At least until the next ones come out, but hey, at least for a while I have a cool looking computer (and yes, I know I’ve omitted a hyphen there, but you’ll see why in a moment)). Then today we needed a photo of one of my colleagues. And somebody pointed out that we could just use my new computer because it has a camera built in. Huh? But yes, sure enough, there at the top of the screen is a small black square, a quarter of the size of a postage stamp, which has been spying on me for the last few weeks. I turned on the monitor to watch it and it is truly terrifying. There I am, calm to begin with, then shocked, then terrified, then running screaming from the room at the thought of all this being captured. And there it all is being displayed on the screen, bright and clear as anything.

I had noticed how excited my kids get at digital cameras and being able to see themselves on a screen, but I didn’t think it affected me as much. How wrong, how wrong. Theoretically having this spy in the screen thing is nothing more than having a mirror in front of me – I move and my reflection moves, I move and the image of me moves. But it is much more affecting. Mind you, a mirror can have quite an effect. I read once that you can trace all the differences between American pop music and British pop music to the fact that an American kid who wants to be a musician will spend all day with a guitar learning to play, while a British kid who wants to be a musician will spend all day with a tennis racquet in front of a mirror. But I’ve never yet been made to leave the room by a mirror.

Something like fifteen years ago

I got interested in interest.

The sort of interests that banks deal in. It’s a neat trick, loved by the rich, and hated by others who prefer the more emotive word usury. It ensures the rich get richer at the expense of the poor and that’s not a thought that makes me very comfortable. (Is that because, like the simplistic accusation levelled at most socialists, I think of myself as poor and thus likely to be better off if the rich would stop getting richer? A good question. Certainly on a conscious level I view myself as unspeakably rich. Not compared with the opulent standards shown frequently on TV and tabloid, but compared with the global average. But subconsciously I may still be fooling myself into thinking I deserve more. Who can say?)

So I take comfort in the condemnations of levying interest found in the old testament (although that seems to depend on your translation), and the thought that the jubilee concept was probably only necessary to correct the effects of interest. But that leaves me stuck when it comes to Jesus’s words (“whoever has will be given more …”) which seem to confirm that this is both the way of this world and of the world to come.

Some time ago

I stopped aiming for perfection.

I don’t know when it happened, but I really noticed it two months ago. We spent half a week on a canal boat with three wonderful friends (who, amazingly, are still on speaking terms with us). As tends to happen with lots of people cooped up together, there were the occasional sparks and frictions. After one of those incidents, one of our friends was apparently concerned that we weren’t having a great holiday. As it happened, the concern was absolutely unjustified – we were having a fantastic time. But what struck me was that our friends wanted us to have a great holiday. Because, at the same time, I was just hoping that we were making life slightly easier for them than it would otherwise have been. (The three of them had already spent a few days on the boat which, given that one of them was 7 months old, meant a lot of work for the other two). I suppose I would like to have helped them have a great holiday, but I wouldn’t dare even articulate that (in fact, it pains me now just to write it) because it seems too ambitious. So I wanted to make life a little more bearable. That’s all. I’ve sort of given up.

Just like I’ve given up all hope of being the best father in the world, or the best husband, or the best friend. It doesn’t seem reasonable to hope for anything more than to be an okay father, husband, friend, etc. Maybe I give up too easily (I’ve certainly been told that), but it doesn’t seem possible to change that. Giving up means being less hopeful about the future, doesn’t it? It’s an assertion of what I believe about the future. Can I change what I believe? Beliefs can certainly be changed by external circumstances (if you tell me you can levitate then I won’t believe you, but if you actually do levitate in front of me, then my beliefs will change), but can we change them ourselves?

Thirteen days ago

I realized that I just don’t know.

Realized might not be the right word – remembered is perhaps more appropriate. Remembered for the umpteenth time. Remembered and appreciated the significance of. I’ve been aware of how little I know for a long time. At school all the teachers really seemed concerned with was telling me how little I knew, how ignorant I was. The most bizarre example of this was when we were asked to write a paragraph or two describing ourselves, but anonymously. A few of these were then read out to the class to see if they could guess whose description it was. Mine was one of the first, and none of my classmates guessed it was me, which just confirmed that none of them paid any attention to me or realized that I existed (stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before…). But then the teacher couldn’t contain himself any more and burst out with “I know who it is, it’s obvious – don’t think you can hide – don’t think you’ve fooled me – I can recognize you straight away”. So yes, great, he could recognize me from my description of myself, but rather than applaud my self-awareness in writing a description exactly as he would have done it, he had to denigrate me and mock me for my inability to … well I couldn’t actually understand what. I suppose he probably couldn’t either, he just felt the need to put me down. (And he was one of the nicer ones). So school was all about convincing me I couldn’t do anything.

Hmmm, as I write that I appreciate now a delicious irony. You see I’m a teacher, and one of the things I view as a high priority is breaking down the conceit and arrogance of my students who think they know everything. In other words I make a determined effort to show them they they don’t know everything. I try to point out how little they know. Just as my teachers did to me. What a shit I am. If I were me I’d hate myself.

Anyway, that wasn’t what I was thinking about. What I was thinking about was how hard I find it having deep and meaningful conversations these days (which is probably why I resort to flippancy and insults so often – see below) – it’s that whenever any deep important question comes up I simply don’t feel qualified to say anything about it, because I simply don’t know. What do you think about free will versus predestination? Well, er, nothing actually – I don’t have a clue. And what should be done with old Mr and Mrs so-and-so who are too frail to live at home but don’t want to move into a home? Well, actually, I’m not sure.

I knew I was having trouble holding proper conversations, but I hadn’t figured out why. And now I know. Which is a comfort, because at least it means I know something.

Thirteen weeks ago

I was nearly murdered.

I had been to the local shops with the kids and was walking back home, just passing the police station, when it happened. I saw a police van pulling up outside the police station and commented on that to the kids, it being the kind of thing that interests them. And then I became aware of something behind me. I couldn’t see it as I was facing forward, but just like you can tell when someone behind you is staring at you, I could tell that there was something there. I turned round to see a car had mounted the pavement and stopped literally inches from my knees. Because of the angle it must have been even closer to Cambuslang who was on the road side of me, so it must have missed him by millimetres. I was more shocked than I can ever remember having been and, as is usual, my first instinct was to look down and memorize the car registration. I then looked at the driver with terror and hatred but, most of all, a desperate desire to try to understand why this woman had tried to kill me and my children. She got out and, to her credit, first asked if the kids were okay before apologizing profusely. By this point the policemen who’d been in the van got out and came across and asked what was happening. I couldn’t help answering that she was trying to kill me which, while clearly true, set them thinking that we must know each other and that there must be an explanation to her behaviour. Fortunately they seemed to accept my assertion that I’d never seen her before in my life, and after checking that noone was hurt they told me to go home which was probably wise as I’m really not sure what I might have done next. I only overheard a little of their questions to the driver which started off with “what happened” to which she said that her hand had slipped on the wheel. Even under the circumstances it was amusing to hear their incredulity at that: “what do you mean your hand slipped?!”

Of course I never found out what had happened. Maybe she really did just slip in which case I hope she never drives again. Maybe she was on drugs and lost concentration. Or maybe she genuinely wanted to kill me – either because she wanted to kill someone and I just happened to be there, or because she knew me (there are many people who know me who I don’t know) and wanted to kill me (I could understand that). It’s really slightly disconcerting not knowing.

Two months ago

I was attacked by a biscuit.

Ok, that’s perhaps overstating things a little, but I bit into an innocuous-looking chocolate digestive only to find that some swine had put something like glue inside it. At which point the person standing next to me burst out laughing because he had just had the same experience (there was a plate of these adulterated biscuits waiting to be eaten). And we discovered together that the biscuits were actually made that way. Some idiot has taken a perfectly good biscuit recipe and decided to insert caramel inside. So when you bite into it expecting that nice biscuity crunchy instead you get a horrible gooey sensation and the feeling that the rest of the damnable biscuit won’t let go of you. Now, I’m not an expert on biscuits, but they are obviously things that are cooked twice. To make them crunchy. So a biscuit which is not crunchy is wrong. Either it’s been left too long and it’s gone soft, or it’s been made by someone who has gone soft in the head.

Twenty years ago

I got my first guitar.

I’d borrowed one from a friend and convinced myself that although I couldn’t play it at all, if I got my own then I’d learn. So I hit the local pawn shop and got the cheapest electric they had. And learn I did. I was quite into libraries at the time and I remember borrowing every guitar book that my local library had, as well as trekking off to other libraries in the borough to find what guitar books they had too. I soaked up everything they had to say and, without lessons or any other guitarists around to learn from, I picked up the basics. It’s amazing what a bit of determination can do, aided by the thought that playing guitar was my escape from the dull life that I saw bearing down on me. In eighteen months I learnt basically everything I know about playing guitar. Which is to say that I have learnt practically nothing in the eighteen years since then. I suppose I’d be really quite good now if I’d carried on learning at the same rate as I did then. But I didn’t. I stopped learning and stayed, more or less content, at the plateau I had reached. Mostly I think this is a manifestation of my devotion to mediocrity, which I will write more about some other time, but while playing in a church service last night (no, honest, I was concentrating) it did occur to me that my limitations mean that I’m unlikely to distract any guitar-playing worshippers, whereas I often find myself distracted by unfeasibly good guitar players when I should be worshipping. Mind you, you may conclude from this that I’m very good at being distracted and if it’s not the guitar-playing it’ll be something else. You’d be right. Sorry, what was I talking about?

Two months ago

I got stuck on a chestnut.

It’s a hoary old one this one, so someone must have figured out the answer by now. You have a boss, i.e., someone you obey. They tell you to do something that you think is silly. Do you a) do it because they’re your boss, or b) not do it because it’s silly. If b), then what does it mean to obey someone if you only do what they tell you when you agree with them? If a), then doesn’t that mean you have no principles?

A few days ago

I was thinking about identity.

I suppose I mean the thing that makes me me and you you. There are a few tags floating around the blogosphere that work on the premise that if you know what my five favourite wildflowers are then you’ll know me. In fact blogs quite generally touch on this question of identity. By what I write you know something about me. By my choice of name you know something about me. Or at least you think you do. A fellow wiblogger has named herself after a pen, and then commented on the fact that it’s a silly name. But even so it tells us something about her – that she cares about pens, at least enough to notice the writing on them.

Unfortunately it tends to be the case that if you know something about someone, and that’s all you know about them, then you tend to think that they are that thing. I might be tempted to think that pens are the focal point of Fineline’s life. Or if I only know that so-and-so is an alcoholic and I don’t know anything else about them, then I will tend to think of that person as an alcoholic, even though it may only represent a tiny part of their identity. Many people I have professional contact with only know one side of me, but that defines their image of me and their idea of me. Even though it may only be a small part of what is really me. Mind you, if everyone has a certain limited idea of what you are, then eventually you can find yourself playing to that, and the other parts of you can fade away until they are no longer there. Which can, I believe, screw you up somewhat.

In the blog world of course we choose what parts of our identity (if they are parts of our identity at all – see my earlier entry) we project. But what exactly am I trying to convey by calling myself lanark? And what does someone read from that? Does it say anything at all about either me or the me that I want to pretend to be? And what about the stuff I write – do I choose that on the basis of what I want to project, or why? Well, there are many reasons of course, but I have been wondering why I’ve been laying into myself so much lately and writing lots of nasty things. (Actually it’s all a bit more postmodern than that – I’ve been wondering what you will think about what I’m thinking because of what I’ve written). I suppose one could construe them as appeals for sympathy or as complement-fishing – if I tell you I hate myself then you’ll tell me I’m not as bad as all that. But my best guess is that it’s not really that so much as trying to preempt criticism (again!). If I write here about how unpleasant I am then hopefully nobody will feel the need to point it out to me. What a silly reason to write anything.

Eighteen and a bit years ago

I was literally impressed.

I don’t know if English is especially bad in this regard, but as time goes by many words become devalued and lose their strength. I tend to believe that language is dynamic and it’s as pointless to complain about words changing their meaning as it is to complain at clouds in the sky changing. But occasionally it is nice to recover the original meaning of a word as sometimes that meaning cannot be conveyed better in any other way.

So I was impressed, in the way that a foot in fresh concrete leaves an impression – a mark that lasts long long after the foot has gone. Normally when I am impressed the feeling may last for a few hours, or a day or more, but rarely longer. Yet this impression has lasted nearly twenty years and will probably last many more. I suppose it has lasted because it was also inspirational – it was an example of behaviour I would now aspire to.

I was with a friend and her dad. Her dad is (or at least was) something high up in the Red Cross or St. John’s ambulance (or some such organization – I forget). And my friend asked some question about how to handle a particular medical emergency. He began to reply, of course, but very quickly sensed that I was not comfortable. I am, I should say, unbelievably squeamish. And although I hadn’t said a thing, or physically reacted, he had sensed this, and he immediately stopped without any comment and changed the subject to something utterly different. I know many first-aiders and medics (and I should admit my biasses and declare that there are few people I hate more than medics – probably a legacy of being at a university with a medical school and seeing the competition between the medics and the ulster divinity students to be the most childish and the most annoying) who love talking about their subject and, whenever they sense that someone squeamish is present, they lavish their attention on that person telling them ever more detail until they can provoke a response. So the contrast was particularly stark. And to be able to understand the situation and handle it so quickly and sensitively is a talent that I would love to have.

I was reminded of that occasion a few years ago when a group of friends got to discussing a certain topic and, after a while, one of them said that they were touching a raw nerve and could we change the subject. There was a deathly hush for a second before someone said “I’ve always wanted to have an orchid”. Everyone laughed and began discussing orchids and odd wishes. It didn’t have quite the same sensitivity but it was equally effective and much funnier.

Eight months ago

I invented an ancient chinese saying.

Most people know of the saying “May you live in interesting times” and how it’s generally held to be a curse although some people view it as a blessing.

In the same vein I found myself contemplating the thought “May your children grow up to be like you”. I’m sure there are some who would view that as a blessing of the highest order. I’m not one of those, and I find myself thinking this thought every time my kids do something stupid or terrible or really bizarre that I can so easily recognize as being exactly what I would have done in the circumstances, at least at their age (and sometimes without that last qualification). So it’s a curse, but a fairly safe prophecy as well. Sigh.

Two months ago

I heard of a gulf between reality and blogality.

Person A was reading a blog written by person B. The two people involved knew each other, although with less affection than there might have been. And A found that the description of B’s life in her blog was quite different from what A actually knew of B’s life. This was a source of deep concern to A, and yet seems totally unsurprising to me. Firstly different people tell things differently (often so differently as to be unrecognizable – many a court case will testify to that). In fact, even the same person often tells things differently as time evolves (I’ve written about that recently, and at the moment I’m watching an even starker example where one person’s description of certain events has evolved on an almost daily basis). But more importantly, surely blogs are not obliged to be accurate? Surely blogs are a fictionalized history that may have a greater or lesser amount in common with the life of the writer? Or is it just me that’s making all this up?

A few days ago

I was appalled at my reflection.

It’s always embarrassing when someone else has to point out how obnoxious you’re being, but it’s good to have friends prepared to do that. The tricky bit is persuading them to stay friends after they’ve discovered how unpleasant you are. (Perhaps I should have written “how unpleasant you can be” there, but that’s not how I feel – I think the unpleasantness is always there, like the drone of a bagpipe, and it’s just occasionally hidden by some more reasonable behaviour).

So, anyway, I was watching another DVD (yes, I’ve been watching a lot lately, but that’s deliberate) and one of the characters featured was a geek. Quite an extreme example – he was fairly tongue-tied but obviously very intelligent, and he looked awful – bad hair, bad glasses, terrible clothes etc. Ok, no deviation from the clichés there yet. But he was also obnoxious – foul-mouthed and bad-tempered. Somehow that’s not what I expect of a geek, and I suppose in a primeval way I see a troubling contradiction there. Obnoxious behaviour is, at heart, trying to pick a fight – if you’re obnoxious then you’re inviting someone to punch you. And if you’ve the traditional 7-stone weakling geek body then that’s a strange/foolish thing to do. Somehow (and this is probably very discriminatory, but I’m not in a PC frame of mind) the geekness made the obnoxiousness even more unappealing. Which made it quite unpleasant to recognize just how close I am to being that character. It’s not a huge surprise, being something I’ve been aware of off and on for a long time, but I suppose it’s a ball that I’d taken my eye off, and it’s a pain to have to handle it on top of everything else that’s going on. In the past I’ve dealt with it by biting my tongue, and that’s probably the best strategy still. So if you meet me in the next few weeks and notice that I’m quieter than usual, then you’ll know why.

Eleven days ago

I read an obituary.

It was of a Catholic priest in Northern Ireland. I’d never heard of him before but there was an interesting quote from him about brainwashing. I can’t recall it exactly, but it was along the lines of “People accuse us of being in the business of brainwashing children. Well, we are.”

Many of my acquaintances would just tut at that and go “Catholics! What do you expect?” but my instinct was instead to identify with him and thus feel slightly repelled at the implicit accusation that I was in the business of brainwashing children. Now, when I am accused of something, although I might hide it, I always take the accusations seriously and chew them over. (This may seem like a good humble thing to do, but given the effect it has on my mental [im]balance, I wouldn’t recommend it at all). So I pondered whether or not I was in the business of brainwashing. It’s a very emotive term, isn’t it? Washing is generally perceived to be a good thing but this is one of those phrases where such a word has become corrupted by context. Cleansing is similarly a good thing until you attach the adjective “ethnic” to it.

And, as usual, my conclusion was that I am guilty as charged. I am in the business of brainwashing. And so are you. Yes, I am using all the techniques I can think of to make my children believe the Christian message. Many people would call that brainwashing. And everybody does it. Because everybody has certain views on the world (e.g. that Jesus came to save us, or that religion is the opiate of the people, or that opium is now the religion of the people, etc) and pretty much everybody would want their children to take on the same views. Yes we spout rubbish about how we want children to arrive at their own conclusions, but all we actually mean by that is that we want children to arrive at the same conclusion as us but to think that they have thought through all the alternatives. In other words we want them to have the same convictions as us but to have them deeply held, not just inherited.

The problem is that if you mention brainwashing in a religious context then people automatically think of cults and have certain expectations. But brainwashing is not restricted to what is traditionally called religion. A perfect example is that well-known media-studies-professor-masquerading-as-a-scientist Richard Dawkins. I don’t know if he has children or not, but supposing he does, do you think he is going to encourage them to consider going to church? Or is he going to use all the techniques he can think of to persuade them that religion is a useless distraction? So if I encourage my kids to believe in God and Dawkins encourages his to dismiss religion completely, who is in the business of brainwashing and who isn’t?

One month ago

I was made to think about writing songs.

I haven’t tried writing any songs for a very long time (well, that depends on where you draw the line – if I said I was building a house then you’d expect to see some bricks, wouldn’t you, but if I was only working on the foundations then there wouldn’t be much evidence, but I’d still be correct to describe it as building, but how’s about if I was just drafting the plans, would that count as building? and if I was just dreaming about what the house would look like, without committing anything to paper – would that count as building? if so, then I probably have been doing some songwriting lately). But recently a friend mentioned that he wrote songs which was a bit of a surprise as I didn’t realize he was musical at all. When I spoke to him I was on excellent form at putting my foot in it and saying the wrong thing. And when he mentioned songwriting I blurted out my honest opinion at the time which was that I couldn’t see the point in it. To be more precise I meant that there needed to be an opportunity to perform the songs, or to get people to listen to them, in order that it be worth writing them. But, to be honest, even then, what’s the point? You could try and kid yourself that you’re contributing something to human kind and, given that some songs have given me some comfort over the years, there has to be something in that, but only for the select few. Most songs are never realistically going to do anything for anyone other than their composer. Which brings up the next most-cited reason – that it is helpful to write songs in order to sort out feelings and deal with situations etc. That may be true, although personally I’m starting to find that a blog is a much easier (and more effective?) way of achieving the same end. In fact blog entries seem to me a lot like songs but with less enforced structure – you don’t have to have a chorus in a blog and you don’t have to repeat lines over and over again. No you don’t have to repeat lines ov… sorry. But my bigger objection is that I can’t be bothered, I can’t bring myself to write songs just to clear my own head, if there’s no further purpose than that. (Whereas I can bring myself to write a blog for that purpose – it’s that much easier I suppose).

So I can’t see a reason to write songs, or at least not a reason that’s good enough. But that’s not why I don’t write songs of course, there are plenty of things that I do without any reason. But the fact that I’m telling you I see no reason to write songs is actually my way of saying simply that I don’t want to do it. Just like if you ask me why I don’t like Kylie I’ll say because her music is too commercial or some stupid argument like that which makes no sense at all. All I’m saying is that I don’t like her, and I can’t articulate it any more than that. And if I could understand why I don’t like Kylie, I might understand why I don’t write songs, because at the moment, frankly, I really don’t understand either.

Twenty two and a bit years ago

I looked at my watch and it was 11:23

I remember that in the last couple of years at my first secondary school we always had a double period of English just before lunch, from 10:50 to 12 noon. It was probably only once a week, but often enough for me to spot a pattern. The pattern was that the lesson would start, and get more and more boring until I couldn’t even remember ever having a will to live. And I would resist looking at my watch because I knew that would make the time drag even more. Eventually, of course, I would look. And the time was 11:23. Every time. It seems as if my mind could cope with 33 minutes of excruciating pointless boredom, but that was my limit and after precisely 33 minutes I would crack, look at my watch, and then have to endure the thought of another 37 minutes of this. Ever since then 11:23 has been a special time for me, and if I happen to look at my watch then it brings back all sorts of memories. Not entirely bad ones (boring lessons were, relatively, a highlight of school) but possibly not ones that my teachers would be proud of. At least I hope they wouldn’t. But actually, now I come to think of it, excruciating boredom was probably their aim. After all, you surely couldn’t produce such exquisite specimens of boredom as a mere by-product, could you? And the thought crossed my mind recently that being bored is better than being bad. Whether that thought is right or not is something I’ll chew over later.

Six months ago

I was firefighting.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience so I suppose I should be grateful that the fire is out now. But I have the feeling of someone who has won the battle but quite possibly lost the war. Although the fire is out it feels as if the house is now nothing but ashes and all that was invested in it is now lost. The fire is out so the urgency is gone, but the need for action, long-term concerted action, rebuilding, is very much still there.

In fact it’s not as simple as a single fire destroying things. The fire is out and the building is destroyed but, and here the analogy breaks down, the reason the fire happened probably was because the building already was in the state it is now. The fire was a distraction, or a reminder that things are in a dangerous condition, but it hasn’t really made things worse. In fact it may have even made things better in a way. Fire’s like that. It’s a strange phenomenon, although strange isn’t the word I would usually choose first. I always had a terrible fear of fire as a child. Frequently I couldn’t sleep for nightmares about being burnt. My parents attributed it to the 1978 fire on an overnight sleeper train that killed 14 people. Given how often I travelled on overnight trains as a child that event probably did affect me more than it might have. And it’s ironic that I should be thinking about this now given that I’ve just booked a bed on an overnight sleeper for the first time (in Britain at least) since almost that long ago. But just like my brother attributing my love of Scotland to their success in the 1978 world cup (an influential year, seemingly), I knew they were wrong because both the fear and the love had been around for many years before that.
But what is strange is that while fire is a destructive it is also constructive. Even as a towny I know that farmers burn stubble to make the field more productive, and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my particular fire may have helped produce something good (although it may just be coincidence). But let’s not get things out of perspective – it is far, far more destructive than constructive.

Twenty years ago

I was at an open-air concert.

It was a gorgeous sunny Saturday and fortunately it was possible to ignore the fact that it was Milton Keynes. Concerts always have (or, at least, should have) a communal aspect – part of their magic is a shared taste and the enjoyment together of something. In this case that was enhanced significantly by the shared pleasure that Wham were giving their last ever concert on that day, and that we weren’t there. In fact that still gives me pleasure even twenty years later. It’s just a shame that George Michael didn’t follow Andrew Ridgeley’s career trajectory. As for the concert we were at, the headliners were all we could have wanted them to be, and the support acts were, generally, very impressive, being mostly worthy headliners themselves. But, having said that, it was not outstanding or memorable in anyway, just a routine good concert. Probably the only relevance at all is that it was the first time I saw Jethro Tull, which of course has some significance for this blog. In fact, there’s no reason for any of you to be reading this, it’s simply an old man smilingly recalling a pleasant memory. Please forgive my indulging myself in this way, I’ll try not to do it again.

Two days ago

I remembered about fun.

I’ve been watching a 1975 Bruce Springsteen concert DVD a lot lately having got it as a birthday present, and it’s really good in a bizarre way.

I guess I became aware of Springsteen in about 84 or 85 when he toured Britain. There was a lot of press coverage suggesting it was his first ever time in the UK, while also emphasizing how much of a following he had, suggesting that he’d been around for a while. (What cunning salesmanship: tell the customer that this is their first ever chance to catch something that they really ought to have seen by now! And yes, it was on the news but even twenty years ago advertising was passed off as news.) At that time I guess I was put off by it being popular enough to be on the news.

A couple of years later I shared a flat with a big Springsteen fan, and although I shared and respected many of his musical tastes (he got me into the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band for example), I couldn’t get into the Springsteen stuff. It just seemed so earnest, which the Jon Landau quote (“the future of rock’n’roll”) reinforced. (And my cynical alarm bells rang really loud at that quote being bandied about so seriously given that Landau was Springsteen’s manager – of course he’s going to say good things about his act). It was not long since they’d released that 5 album box of live Springsteen and although some of the songs were good, the whole thing was so dry, so serious. Years later I picked the boxed set up when it was going cheap in a second-hand shop, but I only rarely listened to any of it, and probably some of it never got played.

So that’s roughly how things stood until a few months back when I got a Whistle Test DVD which had a live clip of Rosalita on it. There’s a lot of good stuff on that DVD, but that’s probably the bit I like best and it just makes me smile every time I watch it because the band are simply having such a laugh. Yes, they’re incredible musicians and they’re playing really tight, but they are also having a ball. I’ve been to a lot of gigs in my time and although the music was always what I wanted it to be, the bands usually looked like they were either bored or so serious they were carrying out self-enemas. More recently I’ve started only bothering with gigs where I know there’s going to be some humour or, dare I say it, fun. John Otway was possibly the first, Belle and Sebastian were definitely another, and King Creosote was one of the most impressive at simply giving me a good time, some entertainment. (I guess I never used to accept that music should be for entertainment – I thought it ought to have some “higher” purpose. What a twat.) Although I enjoyed them, at most of the other gigs I was watching the clock and waiting for things to end. With Otway, B&S and KC, I really didn’t want the gig to end at all.

And I’d kind of assumed that that approach, of playing serious music with humour (as opposed to humourous music like the Bonzos), was a novel thing. Yet here was Springsteen doing it thirty years ago. And the DVD gives me two hours of it.

All of which is great except (I always have to have a “but”) that it almost puts me back where I was twenty years ago – wanting to learn guitar, wanting to be up on stage having a ball. It reminds me that I don’t get to play music with other people enough, and how much fun I’m missing as a result. It also reminds me of the difference between musicians playing together who are practised and know what they’re doing and are almost telepathically in tune with each other, and musicians who aren’t. If I’m not careful I find myself listening more to the latter than the former.

Some time ago

I realized that my life can have been gold.

I always used to think my life was unutterably dull. I always knew people who had done more things, read more books, owned more records, lived in more countries, played guitar better, owned more guitars (well, ok, maybe not), seen more of life than me. So I always thought I had nothing worth telling.

It’s still true, but after having moved a lot I now know it doesn’t have to be. Each time you move to a new country or a new town, you meet new people. And each time you have to tell people about yourself all over again. The same things you’ve told so many times before. And they change in the telling. They evolve. You don’t want to say exactly the same words over again because you’ve heard them before (even if the person you’re talking to hasn’t heard them) and so you pick different words. And different words inevitably mean something slightly different. There’s no intentional dishonesty, but what you say now leaves a different impression to what you said the time before, or the time before that. And over the years you find that your humdrum life has suddenly become something of interest. Something worthy, perhaps, even of a blog. A wiblog even.

And which is the most accurate version of your life? The one where you downplay everything or the more interesting version? Is it even possible to ascribe some meaning to that question?

Two days ago

I threw up.

I’d been feeling slightly rough during the morning but couldn’t tell if it was because of eating too much or because of eating too little. I guessed wrong, and forced my lunch down only for it to come back up quite spectacularly. If you’ve a nervous disposition you should skip to the next paragraph now, but if not then let me tell you that projectile vomiting is not restricted to babies. The thing was I managed to make it to the toilets at work, and I managed to get inside a cubicle before it all came out. But unlike the usual tiny ones it was a big cubicle specially for disabled people and the toilet pan was three feet further away from the door than it would otherwise have been. My body must have been assuming it would be a normal one because I was about three feet short of the pan when my mouth opened and a stream of vomit came arcing out. It was at least in the direction of the toilet, and most of it went in there, but a lot didn’t. So I had to very sheepishly ask a cleaner to sort out the mess. I felt terrible.

I got through the rest of the day ok, thanks to the help of some wonderful friends, but felt the need for a very early night. Which had the advantage that I was better prepared for being woken up at 5am by Airdrie complaining that her bed was wet than I might otherwise have been. I sorted that out and managed to get her and me back to sleep just in time to be woken by Cambuslang getting up. All of which was God’s way of saying Happy Birthday. (Yes, it’s that time of year again). Without wishing to be picky, I preferred Cambuslang’s way: his first words were “Happy Birthday Daddy” and he gave me a big hug.

That was the highlight of the day, but a close second was in the evening when a surprise party turned up at my door. My wife is away at the moment but before she left it seems she had been busy organizing behind my back so lots of friends came round bearing presents and wine and cake. Lovely. And since I’d already been organizing my own birthday party for this Saturday it means I get two parties for the price of one birthday. Or does it mean that I’ll be two years older by the end of the week? To be honest I can hardly keep track of the years anyway so it won’t make much difference.

Twenty years ago

I thought I was invisible.

I’ve been told that I am a bit secretive, that I don’t give a lot away. That’s one of those funny things that surprised me when I was told it, but then made perfect sense when it was explained – I saw that I probably do come across like that. But I’m not trying to be secretive. It just doesn’t even occur to me to tell people things, and I think it’s because I think I’m invisible and that people don’t realize I exist. (Here I go talking about my non-existence again. Again.)

I remember in my first year at University I went through an unpleasant situation. (Probably it was entirely of my own making, but I’m not even going to bother thinking about that – it’s so long ago and so unimportant). And one evening I found myself in a café with two people I vaguely knew (I fear it might have been a MacDonalds, but if it was I didn’t eat anything – honest, guv’, I didn’t inhale. (Actually, now I think about it, I know for sure I didn’t eat anything, but that really is another story)). They were “pomming” – talking about difficult situations they were each in, and generally going “poor old me”. I listened and offered what little advice I could (probably much more than I should have done given how young and ignorant I was). And then, after a while, one of them turned to me and asked how I was coping with my situation. I was gobsmacked, because I hadn’t remotely thought that either of them would be aware of my situation. Because, I think, I didn’t really believe that they were aware of me. I assumed I was kind of part of the wallpaper for them. There, but not impinging on their consciousnesses. I guess now that they thought I was selfish in listening in on all their secrets and yet not opening up myself at all. But I really just didn’t think they’d want to know. And in so many other situations I see that I behaved oddly because I assumed I was invisible. Even now I don’t tell people things when I should, because the things relate to me, and I can’t imagine that they are interested in things about me. (This is one reason I get myself into trouble so often). In fact, the idea that someone might be thinking about me and wondering about me strikes me as really bizarre – both funny and unlikely.

A lot of my personality quirks I can easily link to aspects of my childhood. I hated growing up, and hated the way I was treated by my parents, my brother and everyone at school. So it’s easy to pin blame on different people for me being as screwed-up as I am. But this one is different. I can’t find anyone to blame for my invisibility complex. It really must be my fault.

Two days ago

I got off a boat.

And I’m still rocking from side to side. I remember a mother telling me that years after her babies had grown up she would still find herself in a supermarket gently rocking the trolley backwards and forwards like she used to when the kids were small enough to ride in them. For some things it seems that our bodies just don’t have an off switch.

Four days ago

I had a Tom Jones moment: a strange woman threw some underwear at me.

It was while I was dropping Cambuslang off at school. To be fair, although the woman is strange, she is a friend of ours. And her son had come round to play the other day when we had the paddling pool out. So he had borrowed a pair of swimming trunks from us… Still, it attracted some funny looks from other people in the playground. They will now, no doubt, draw an obvious conclusion from our exchanging underwear, and have a very low opinion of our morals. This will, in turn, undermine any Christian witness we attempt to give. So, er, I suppose we shouldn’t have got the paddling pool out?

I was once in a church where such thinking was compulsory. For example, if a young bloke needed accommodation then no female in the church could offer to put them up, for fear that the neighbours would think that some sexual immorality was taking place.
At the time it struck me as absurd, and I still don’t think it’s right to be as paranoid about appearances as they were. But is it totally inconceivable that neighbours might see a young male leaving the house and come to the wrong conclusion, and so assume that all Christians were hypocrites and not worth listening to? (Actually, my view on Christianity is that it’s a hypocrites licence, in a very positive sense, but that’s another story).

A while ago

I noticed that I don’t like to be contradicted.

There are some things which you encounter and realize straightaway that you don’t like. And there are other things which you go through hundreds of times before realizing that you really don’t like them. It took me a long time to notice what exactly was annoying me in certain conversations, and it was that everything I said was being contradicted immediately.

Now, with some people if you say something, then they will find something in it that they can agree with, and they’ll respond positively. But some people would see that as a dead-end, so instead they look for something they disagree with and will express their different opinion on that point. Sometimes this becomes a habit and every sentence starts with “No”. This can be quite amusing when they go on to state exactly the opinion you have just put forward. Mind you, if you point that out to them, they are apt to say “No it wasn’t.”

Two days ago

I was reminded of a bad joke.

I heard Tommy Cooper tell it, and it’s really quite succinct which is probably why I can manage to remember it. It goes like this: dodgy bloke approaches respectable bloke in street and says “Have you got any nude photos of your wife?” Respectable bloke looks disgusted and says “No, of course not”. Dodgy bloke says “Do you want some?”

What reminded me of this was my daughter giving another of her prophesies. It was, as usual, in the middle of dinner, while my wife was out somewhere. “When I am a lady I will have a wee yee”. Being small, her pronunciation is sometimes a little unorthodox. Usually I can guess from the context what she is trying to say, but this time I had to get her to repeat herself a few times before I understand. She can’t (won’t?) make the sound “ll” and makes a “y” sound instead (which will be fantastic when she learns Spanish, but ain’t so great for English). So I finally understood that she was referring to a part of what is traditionally thought to be solely male anatomy. So of course I replied “No, boys have willies, girls don’t”. Hah, that was easily dealt with, I thought. For two seconds. Then she says “But Mummy has a weeyee”. With a sinking feeling I had no choice but to say “No she doesn’t”. “Yes she does”. “Er no, actually, she doesn’t”. “Yes she does”. “Er, no, no really, trust me, she doesn’t”. “Yes she does”. At which point I felt the need for some proof for my assertion … we’ll draw a veil over what happened next.

About six years ago

I began to sell my body.

It’s something I try and keep secret although word inevitably gets out. With as many clients as I have it’s hard to keep it hidden. So, okay, I use my body to do things I wouldn’t otherwise do, and someone gives me money for this. Occasionally I tell myself that it doesn’t matter because I enjoy doing what I do. That may well be self-delusion because I know I wouldn’t do it if I weren’t given the money for it. And, even if I’m right, is it ethical to do something I enjoy and take someone’s money for it? Surely I should do it for nothing if I don’t mind doing it? And surely I should do something unpleasant if I am to be rewarded financially.

Anyway, without letting such concerns get in the way, I do what I do and I get given money. It seems to be a deal that satisfies all participants. We haven’t exactly made a contract beforehand, but there’s an understanding about what’s expected and what would be deemed unreasonable.

I’ve been in other situations where there wasn’t such understanding. I would give what I thought was appropriate and it definitely wasn’t appreciated, it definitely wasn’t what was wanted. I was giving what I assumed would be wanted, but my assumptions were wrong. And I suppose that I made those assumptions because, fundamentally, I was giving what I myself wanted. And not only was what I gave inappropriate, but I was being rewarded in ways that I didn’t find satisfactory at all. I wasn’t being given money but other things which I didn’t really want. In retrospect what I was being given was what that person wanted themself. Looking at it from the outside I can see the aweful symmetry. The two people involved were trying to meet each others’ needs. To do this they each had to guess what the other one’s need was and they guessed that it was the same as their own and so attempted to meet that need. But their needs were not the same, so their attempts to meet these needs utterly failed. A beautiful symmetry but a sad situation.

Nearly seven years ago

My wife left me.

You could call it a trial separation, although neither of us had any intention of it being permanent. It was simply that the perfect job for her came up in one country while I was still contracted to stay in a different country for another four months (and had no other job prospects). So we lived apart for four months. We’d done it for a couple of weeks before (for much the same reasons) and survived, so weren’t particularly worried. Weekends became pressured but precious, and weekday evenings became incredibly free. And we became connoisseurs of Belgian trains. (For those who ever have cause to travel between Brussels and Cologne, don’t take the Thalys – there’s a slow train that leaves before it, takes only half an hour longer, but is empty (because everyone is herded onto the Thalys) and has huge comfortable seats with loads of space – a much more luxurious experience than the Thalys cattle trucks. Mind you, this advice is 6 years out of date and things may have changed). Looking back I can remember the positives – the spare time and the precious weekends, and although I know that the loneliness was terrible, my recollection of that is much less vivid than the good things. It’s well-known that memory accentuates the positive, but why does it do that? If I don’t cling on to the memory of that loneliness I could find myself wishing to be alone again, and what good would that do? Is my mind secretly conspiring to destroy what contentment I have? Actually that sounds quite plausible ….

Four months ago

I wondered whether or not I exist.

I feel like that again, so my instinct is to write, again, that I feel like I don’t exist. But then how will you respond? You won’t want to say exactly the same things again because you’ve already said them. But what else can you say, because you said exactly what you thought last time and your thoughts haven’t changed. What options are left? Well, I suppose you could ignore me and not respond at all. Or you could grumble that my feeling of nonexistence is something that has already been dealt with, implicitly saying that I shouldn’t speak of it again.

Alternatively, to save you this dilemma, I could just say nothing about how I feel, since I’ll just be repeating stuff I’ve already said. After all, if your response was to comfort me then I should allow myself to still be comforted by what you wrote before. And if your response was to act to help me feel differently then the result has obviously only been temporary so it hardly seems worth going to the effort of doing it again for such a temporary relief. And if your response was advice to help me stop feeling this way, then either I have failed to take the advice, in which case I should take it now, or the advice has failed me, in which case by speaking now I will be rebuking you for giving poor advice, and how can I then expect you to give better advice now?

As you can see, I find it hard to deal with recurrent problems, and easy to talk myself round in ever-decreasing circles that achieve nothing.

About fifteen years ago

I got quadrophenia.

I must have been exposed to it earlier because I’ve seen the film and I guess that must have been around 20 years ago. Still it took me a little longer to appreciate the magic of the music. The Who have always been a bit of a let down for me. They are always labelled as “maximum R&B” and yet it always struck me as a bit half-hearted and far from maximal. Their early stuff makes great pop, but it doesn’t have much punch to it. I suppose the label “maximum R&B” conjured up a pretty clear notion in my head of music that I definitely wanted to hear, and the songs the Who produced definitely did not match what I heard in my head. Probably if I’d seen them live it would have been a different thing, but I’m not that old.

Once they’d kicked off their pop origins then the next big thing was supposed to be Tommy. What a lot of rubbish – it’s got one good song (yes, that one) and a half-decent coda, and the odd good guitar riff (and if you’ve got a Rickenbacker, you can’t fail to make some good guitar sounds), and 65 minutes of pointless tosh. A stupid theme, and not very good songs either.

Still, it seemed to kick-start the band as the next few albums actually had some oomph, culminating in Quadrophenia where almost every song is electric. Every song makes you want to get up and do something, even if it’s not to go down to Brighton and fight with some rockers. Of course, it helps that all four of them were virtuosos – the guitar is stunning, the bass constantly throws punches that you’re not expecting, the drums just keep coming at you, and the voice, well, it just has that strength to it.

I certainly couldn’t identify with the desire to fight that the protagonist feels (I was a pacifist then) and nor could I identify with the doubts and confusion he feels (that came later for me) but somehow the music carries the words beyond their obvious meaning.

I don’t know when and where I bought the album but eventually I replaced it with a CD. That I bought second hand from Gibert Joseph in Paris. There’s a lot to hate about Paris, but with a carte orange and a dozen Fnac shops to explore there was always something good to buy. And if you’ve an eye for a bargain then being able to go to the huge second-hand section in Gibert Joseph (which is bigger than any CD shop here) is an absolute godsend. I hope I was more self-disciplined, but it felt like every working day ended with a detour to one or other of the shops and the solace found there helped wipe away the day’s unpleasantnesses.

Seventeen and a half days ago

Nothing happened.

It’s been going on for a while. First there was one day where absolutely everything went just like the day before. And then, the next day, the same thing happened again. Since then it’s been pretty much constant – every day like the one before. It’s not Groundhog day (what an awful film) because where we have a cheese sandwich one day it’ll be a ham sandwich the next, but really it’s all the same and nothing happens.

At least, I think that’s what’s going on. Either way, the outcome is the same: nothing to blog about, nothing on my mind. Well, okay, stuff on my mind but nothing worth wasting time on. My boss told me I was completely useless and dangerous at my job, but I got over that by reminding myself (and getting several other people to verify) that he hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about. And I’ve spent every spare hour for the last three weeks trying to pretend to be an accountant, but even I’m not going to sink to the levels of dullness that writing about that would lead to.

So I’ll dig deeper in the past and try and find something to fill this empty space where I used to talk.

Nine years and one day ago

I heard that my country had been liberated.

I was in Toledo as we were doing a brief tour of Spain. We were staying in Madrid and our guidebook said that if you could do one day trip it should be to Toledo and if you could manage two, then do Toledo and Segovia. Idiots. We had time for two trips so we went to Segovia one day and Toledo the next. Segovia is the most amazing town in the most stunning setting you could imagine. On the way there you get to see the Valle de los Caidos – Franco’s impressive, and largely successful, attempt to be Ozymandias. And if you go in Spring you’ll see snow on the mountains forming the backdrop to the amazing aquaduct, the bizarre castle that Disney copied, and dozens of gorgeous little towers and churches that look as if someone has collected them from all over just to form a beautiful little gallery. The place is really quite small and the density of stunning sights is just incredible. And then, having decided that Segovia might just be the most wonderful place in the whole of Europe, on the second day we went to Toledo because the guidebook had said it would be better. What an absolute let-down. The railway station is beautiful, but when the station is the best sight in a town you know something is wrong. Yes, if you want, you can be impressed with the alcázar that Franco successfully besieged, but no sane person likes to dwell on the bad guy’s successes. And apart from that, there’s nothing but dozens of tacky tourist-trap shops selling knives. Like Sheffield but with less culture.

So it was that the day was redeemed only by reading the newspaper to find that, for the first time in twenty years, the British public had shown that they did want such a thing as society, that they didn’t want to always be selfish b******s, that their consciences hadn’t completely atrophied during 18 years of being told that the only way to get back the money that was being stolen from them was by trampling over their neighbours, that occasionally they wanted a break from being exploited by the same old ruling classes that had been exploiting them for over a thousand years.

Now the good guys certainly don’t look so good. An illegal war with endless casualties certainly wasn’t something we wanted or expected. But even in the blackest moments it’s still easy to look back and know that, whatever happens, it’s a million times better than the bunch of maggots that were thrown out nine years ago. And, seeing a prat who attracts the cameras by riding his bike while his Hummer chugs along behind carrying his shoes, it’s good to know that that hasn’t changed.

Two weeks ago

I was given a vision of the future.

It was in the middle of me cooking dinner, as these things are wont to be. My daughter Airdrie came through and said “When I am an adult I’m going to be an artist of scribbling. Because I can do scribbling.”

I just love the mixture of ambition and realism in there.

She’s been quite a source of interesting quotes lately. Before I left the country she told me I should watch out for the bad camels in Sweden. Unfortunately I didn’t see any, unless they were masquerading as deer. And a few days previously she had told us that an alien had landed in her school. Life can be quite eventful when you’re three.

Two weeks ago

I stopped writing this blog.

Basically it’s just because I got a life instead. I took a chunk of time off work to be househusband and reacquaint myself with kids and cooking and cleaning and stuff. I really wish I could retire, because being at home and doing all that stuff is so relaxing compared with being out working. Mind you, it’s probably helped by our kids being, as a friend put it, “Stepford kids”. They can be mischievous when noone else is looking but they’re pretty good in company.

But if I have to work, then I may as well keep blogging. After all, you wouldn’t appreciate the other wiblogs half so much if you didn’t have this one to compare them with.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago

There was this couple, Mr X and Mrs Y. Mr X was prone to getting a little bit down (nothing worthy of the name “depression”, just “a little bit down”) and found that life was easier if he could see things in a positive light. So he tended to talk things up and if change was coming he would talk as if he assumed it would work out as well as it could because otherwise he would curl up in a ball under his duvet and not be able to face anything. Mrs Y on the other hand was afraid that unless she looked at everything in the worst possible light, she would be disappointed. If change was coming she had to repeat over and over that it was going to be as bad as it possibly could be, so as to prepare herself for whatever happened. After all, if things went well she’d be pleasantly surprised, but if they went badly she’d still know what to do.

Mr X and Mrs Y are married. They try to talk about things. [Stop sniggering at the back there – some married couples do that]. When change is about to come they try and talk it through beforehand. Mrs Y says it’s all going to go horribly wrong. Mr X counters this and explains how it’ll all be fine. This doesn’t go down well with Mrs Y who gives specific reasons why it can’t work out. Mr X, facing such an unpleasant prospect insists that it’ll be better. Do they ever reach agreement?

Farcical, isn’t it.

Fourteen years ago

I circumnavigated my city.

The city was bounded on one side by the sea and on another by the river that gave it its name so it was more a square shape than a circle that I walked. I would head out on the Great Western Road until I reached the ring road, then follow that round until I hit the sea, and then come back in along the coast. I suppose it was only around 12 miles, but that’s a long enough walk when you start at 9 or 10 in the evening.

I don’t know why I did it, and I’m sure I understood even less at the time, but I remember doing it several nights in succession. I guess it was stress partly brought on by unbearable housemates. It was one of those sad situations where you agree to share a house with two lovely friends and then one pulls out and a few months later the other has to move away, and so, instead, you end up sharing with two despicable psychopathic pieces of dogpoo. So I guess I just needed to get out of the house. Certainly one evening I can remember feeling the need to get out so I paced the streets for an hour or two trying to find a direction to go in, and then I persuaded myself that no, I really must be able to sit in my own house and relax, so I came home. But very quickly one of my housemates made his presence felt and I had no choice but to go out again.

Fortunately, after about six months I was able to move out and move in with the most relaxed housemate (and landlord – he owned the house) I have ever encountered.

Two days ago

I started to doubt myself (even more than before).

I really want something. At least I think I do. (But maybe I’m just telling myself I do). I am even convinced that I should want this thing. And I know there is a huge gap in my life that this thing should fill. But as it gets more likely that I will get what I want, I find myself fearing more and more that it won’t be what I want when I actually get it. When that time comes I worry that it won’t satisfy any of this yearning that I feel. And then where will I be?

I’ve been round this circuit loads of times before (and vaguely blogged about it) with things of lesser importance. And mostly convinced myself that I don’t really want them, and that they won’t do me any good. That was great in some respects (it sure helped cut down my expenditure), but led me to evaluate almost everything as worthless. That has its downsides, like if you then look for some values in life and find that everything is valueless.

I suppose I trained myself (deliberately: we were skint so I needed to avoid spending anything) into seeing everything as pointless, and am now finding that habit hard to break. How do you train yourself to see the value in things?

Ten days ago

I took part in an extended alternative worship service.

We began at an uncertain hour with a meditation on Easter Saturday and Christ lying in the grave. This is a part of the gospel that often seems to be skipped over in the rush from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, so we spent an extended period lying down contemplating Christ’s body lying there in the grave. After several hours we eventually emulated his getting up, although this was taken at a more circumspect pace, with a fair bit of yawning. At this point in the service it was decided to break for coffee and breakfast.

After breakfast there was a time of confession where, in a sense, we gathered up our sins and put them in a sack. To symbolise this, we gathered up our dirty washing and put it in a laundry bag. We then took the laundry to the laundrette just as we take our sins and give them to the Lordrette. With the bags on our shoulders we walked the long slow walk to the laundrette meditating on Jesus’ long slow walk to Calvary with the cross on his shoulders. At the laundrette we selected a hot/warm/synthetic cycle on the washing machine each according to his/her own particular sinslaundry.

While the machine was doing its stuff (hallelujah), we made a chronological leap back to the garden of Gethsemane. For this we walked to the nearest thing to a garden locally – a bench looking over the Baltic. We stayed there and prayed, just like Peter and the Sons of Zebedee stayed and prayed in the garden, following Jesus’s command. And just as they fell asleep, we too fell asleep in the warm spring sun.

We awoke with the guilt that is perhaps special to those who fall asleep during worship services, but also with the concern of those who have left their washing in the laundrette.

Upon quickly returning to the laundrette we found that, sure enough, our sins were white as the snow outside (well, a little cleaner actually, with less dog poo), which is to say that our laundry was clean. However, we observed that just as we can be cleansed of our sins and yet not fit for anything until we feel the warmth of God’s holy spirit inside us, so our laundry was clean but not yet fit for anything until it had been through the tumble-dryer. We prayed over the washing in the dryer and, sure enough, in being filled with the spirit it fell over. And over, and over, and over, although we didn’t watch it rolling over for the full 90 minutes of the cycle.

With our bodies and laundry cleansed and filled with the spirit, we proceeded to the teaching part of the service. Here, through the wonders of modern technology, curate Robert Smith gave a multimedia presentation. Although not a biblical exegesis in the strictest sense, he covered a range of topics relevant to the Christian, including the question of war, with reference to the old testament battles and the moral implications or not of killing an arab or not, and the subject of emotionalism, and whether it should be a concern that, generally speaking, boys don’t cry.

After this the service drew to a close. Amen.

Thirty eight years ago

A namesake of mine was killed.

As with so many deaths and, especially, murders, it is not possible to understand why it happened, despite, in this case at least, huge amounts of investigation. I’ve just been reading about this killing and another that happened the same year. And as I was reading I found myself desperately wanting the author to give a reason, to explain why those people had been killed. But there was no reason, and there was no explanation. And I know that partly I wanted that explanation because if I knew why the murders had happened somehow, I would feel that it was possible to prevent them. In some wierd confusion of past and present I want those deaths not to happen, and that confused part of me feels that understanding them is a step towards making them not have happened. Certainly, by not understanding the reason why, I feel completely impotent in the face of these deaths, and that is not pleasant. And maybe by understanding I (we?) feel slightly less impotent. Unfortunately I think that feeling is mistaken – we humans are still quite impotent before death.

About three months ago

I watched TV.

We were watching an adaption of a famous book which I’m glad I haven’t read because it concerns a bunch of people living a life of luxury and doing not a jot of work between them and, basically, complaining about their lot. That I could cope with, but they weren’t presented as lucky or evil as they should have been. No, instead, we were made to feel sympathy for them because their life was not more luxurious. That may be how they saw themselves, but I would have preferred a more objective depiction.

The events of the programme took place in the 1930s, and yet every scene somehow had a much more recent feel. The style was recent, and the dialogue sounded like a recent take on 1930s speaking rather than authentic dialogue. Sometimes there was just a certain something that you couldn’t put your finger on that gave away its recentness. But most often it was the focus of attention that shouted out loud that this was a recent production. Essentially the focus was on sex and sexuality whenever there was any opportunity.

Now, I don’t think I’m a prude, and I don’t have a problem with depictions of sex or of sexuality. But I felt they were misplaced in this programme because they screamed out 21st century attitudes and morality in a 1930s setting, drastically undermining the credibility of the whole show (not that there was much).

Maybe the makers felt the sex was necessary in order to sell the show to a current audience, or maybe they would deny there was any such bias towards sex. All I know is that in years to come, if people watch this adaption they will be struck by how dated it is. What I’m curious about, is what the unwritten assumptions will be then, when the current obsession with sex and sexuality passes away. What focus would be given to an adaptation of this book made in 50 years’ time? Of course, the worst imaginable outcome is that our current obsession doesn’t pass away, it only gets more intense. In that case I suppose people looking back will be shocked at how repressed (I nearly wrote restrained, but that’s probably not how they’ll see it) we were. But I’m more hopeful than that.

Three years ago

I found myself in court after a particularly rough night.

I was asked to serve as a juror and told to turn up at the crown court at 9am on the Monday morning. Since the court is only a 10 minute walk from our house that would normally be no problem at all. Unfortunately, I was already booked to go to a conference in Göttingen until the Sunday. And the only flight I could get arrived back at Heathrow at 10pm on the Sunday night. Fortunately the coaches to and from Heathrow run all night, so it was actually possible to get home, albeit at 3am. The coach was fairly packed and the guy I sat next to was grumbling about all these people catching the coach he was on, when surely they must have arrived at Heathrow earlier and so could have caught an earlier coach. I gently pointed out that I had just arrived, and that planes would probably be landing for a while yet, and he just grunted. He then got his revenge by talking to me for half the journey home, until he got off at 1am, kindly preventing me from sleeping.

Anyway, eventually I arrived home and after carefully setting the alarm clock (they make it sound really scary if you don’t turn up), I slept for 5 hours, before heading down to the court. It was slightly embarrassing when I went into the building because there is a security check, which detected that I had a mini-Swiss army knife attached to my keyring. Whoops. (Did I take that on the plane to Germany and back? I’m not sure).

Once they had let me in I had to sit for a couple of hours before getting called. The waiting area is a bit strange – a cross between a supermarket café (you can buy some food and drink there, even lunch, of about the same quality as a supermarket café) and a station waiting room – which tends to make you forget that this is a place that decides people’s futures – whether they go to prison or not. After that I’m legally obliged to say pretty much nothing, but what struck me most forcibly was how the whole thing was set up to try and let the judge and jury do their job as well as possible.

The days were short, because longer days would have lowered our concentration, so we wouldn’t have been able to judge things as carefully as we should. If there was any problem, then the day was adjourned, because to carry on would have meant not doing things as well as they could be done. And after the one case, which only lasted three days, our jury service was ended because it was felt that that case was unpleasant enough that we shouldn’t endure more.

In short, I gained a lot of faith in the justice system. It’s not perfect, and when the judge summed up the case and, I felt, missed out some key points, or gave an emphasis which I felt wasn’t right, I realized that there is a human role and that humans are always fallible. I would not like to be a judge – although the jury theoretically decides, it is clear that the judge is responsible to a large extent for helping the jury reach the right verdict. I suppose in all cases the judge has made up her or his mind, and probably sighs when the jury disagrees.

One result of this is that I am even more suspicious than normal when I read reports of legal cases in the papers. They are usually presented in a very biassed manner and frequently try to make you feel that justice was not done. But now I believe that generally the press will not have been following the case as carefully as the judge and jury, they will not have the legal knowledge of the judge, and so if they think there was injustice, then it’s probably because they have misunderstood what happened. Unfortunately I have several close relatives in the media (and some fellow wibloggers!), so I’ll probably get told off for saying this.

One issue that the media often focus on is how juries are not allowed knowledge of previous crimes committed by the suspect. In our case we were told, after we had given our verdict, that the defendant had committed several similar crimes in recent years, which, of course, made us all certain that the defendant was guilty. But I think it would have been terrible to be told that beforehand – how could we possibly have taken an unbiassed view of the evidence if we had been told that the defendant had a history of doing such things? I hope I’m preaching to the converted, but it can’t be said too often that if previous prosecutions are allowed to be brought up in court, then when, for example, a house is burgled, all the police (if they are corrupt, e.g., distracted by targets that have been set for them by a government in fear of the media) would have to do is find someone local who has been caught for burglary before, and a jury is practically guaranteed to convict them with no further evidence.

Although it is absolutely forbidden to talk about details of the jury’s deliberation, I can’t think of this story without laughing. Because, despite the case concerning some rather unpleasant activity (or maybe because it did) we spent a lot of our time in the jury room laughing. There were some very funny jokes, unfortunately unrepeatable because they hinge on details of the case, but it made the whole experience a very good one.

Three years ago

I spent eight hours in an airport.

I don’t recommend it. But it was a Sunday, and I was in Germany. I’d tried entertaining myself for some of the day, but everything was shut, and it was cold. I’d walked two miles through an avenue of trees looking for meaning, or at least the means to kill half an hour, and still eventually, desperately, sunk to the conclusion that maybe there would be more excitement at the airport.

I was wrong. The airport was as dull as anywhere else. And then they went and delayed my flight. No, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it.

Twelve years ago

I fainted.

I was living in Spain and my girlfriend had been to visit and I’d just taken her back to the airport for her flight home. That was on the Sunday afternoon, and some friends who saw me heading back to my apartment said I looked a little bit rough. As indeed I felt. When I got back I just lay on my bed and fell asleep. I was awoken a while later by the door buzzer. As I got up I was slightly puzzled because my clock said it was 9 o’clock and yet it was pitch black. I opened the door to see a friendly neighbour and managed to register that 9 o’clock in the morning was an odd time for him to be calling, before I fainted.

Because Spain is quite hot the apartments are designed to be cool, like having marble floors and stuff. It’s always struck me as amazing that the human head can fall six feet onto marble and not be hurt at all. I can’t figure out if that’s a design feature, or a design fault that when the body decides it can’t stand up it just drops like a stone rather than commencing a careful descent procedure at gentle speed, like sitting down.

Anyway, I came round after a few minutes to find that it was 9 o’clock Monday evening; I’d slept for nearly 30 hours, and was unsurprisingly a bit too weak to go doing adventurous things like standing up. My friends were so kind as to call a Uruguayan doctor who spoke a teeny beet of eengleesh which was fun, and they all chastised me for being so silly.

Well now, the worrying thing is that the circumstances at the moment are remarkably similar. I’m in a foreign country surrounded by people I only vaguely know, none of whom are close enough to really be looking out for me. And I’ve got a nearly lethal dose of man-flu, much as I had then. (It really is a tribute to the male body that it can survive so many near-lethal illnesses and pull through). I’m trying desperately to stay awake long enough to eat now and again, but really I just want to go to bed. Hmmm. Bed. Nice bed. Please can I go to bed?

Fortunately, a friend has just indirectly told me something which has really cheered me up, and given me the will to stay awake/alive a little longer.

About twenty years ago

I had a genuine sense of déja vu

For a certain reason I had to go to Ayr. Not a very good reason, to be fair, but a reason. It was the first time I’d been there since I was four when we had had a family holiday there. The only thing I thought I remembered of that holiday was that my birthday happened during it, and my parents gave me a little corgi dumper-truck that was a funny shade of yellow (kind of mustardy, but definitely funny). I hope I’ve misremembered that, and that they actually gave me something else as well, but I can’t be sure. They are certainly the most miserly people I know (even including myself, and that’s saying something). In fact, when their gas fire died a few years ago and they got a replacement called a “misermatic” I nearly killed myself laughing at how appropriate it was.

So after the train had pulled into Ayr station and I went out through the main entrance, past the car park, I was amazed to find myself knowing that where that car park was now there used to be railway sidings instead. Not thinking that, not imagining it, but knowing it. I had subconsciously remembered it from all those years before. So that holiday had left not just one but two lasting impressions: the yellow truck that I was conscious of having remembered, and a subconscious memory of some old railway sidings as well. I bet my parents would be pleased to know that the holiday was so worthwhile.

Several years later I had a very similar experience of déja vu. As before that was the appropriate phrase when understood literally, but this time it was even more appropriate since it was in France. While we were living in Paris my wife’s boss offered us the chance to spend the weekend in her marina apartment in Deauville. Since it was the weekend of the World Cup final being held only a mile or two from our flat we were very glad to have the chance to escape, although even there (as, probably, everywhere in France) it was possible to tell the result just by the shouts even without turning on a TV or radio. Anyway, the point is that the first afternoon when we went for a walk in next-door Trouville, I saw a big hulk of a building on the sea-front and knew instantly that it used to be a casino. Because eighteen years before, on a school trip, I’d seen that building, and at that time it had a huge sign on it announcing its business.

Frequently I wonder what my head is filled with – obviously the answer is knowledge of the history of obscure station car-parks and seaside buildings. No wonder I can’t remember anything useful these days.

Eight days ago

I got lost while on a coach.

I had left town A, where I usually live these days, and was passing through county B, heading for airport C. From that airport I was flying to city D, which had been occupying a lot of my thoughts the last few days. But I was also listening to a band, who I associate firmly with a certain road E in a different city, singing about a tube station in city F. Since I’d had a pretty early start, I was also a bit sleepy, so was dozing off from time to time. And after one such doze I woke up and tried to work out where I was. I had to go through places F, E, D, C and A before concluding that I was in B. It almost made me travelsick because it felt like I had travelled through all 6 places. I suppose in my mind I had.

No, sorry, there are no prizes for guessing where A to F are. You should know.

Nineteen odd years ago

I thought my life was over.

What a thoroughly dull story this is: there was a girl; I wanted her; she didn’t want me. It wasn’t the first or the last occasion like that, but it was probably the first time where I tried to do something about it. And that probably made the failure so unpleasant. I remember putting a pillow over my head and actually pondering whether I wanted to end it or not. Maybe that was the closest I ever came to taking my life. Maybe. Either way, I realized that I didn’t want to die, and just by expressing the wish, life began again.

But in recalling this story, another one hovers at my shoulder. There was one person who witnessed some of my worst humiliation in that business and mocked me for it. He was justified in having a laugh at my expense, but it left quite an impression and became the first thing I would think of whenever I thought of him. Even when, many years later, I’d heard that he had killed himself. In my mind, his epitaph will always be that cruelty he showed to me.

What a strange word “life” is. When it’s a life lost, we think of it as a huge thing, although possibly not as big as death. But when we tell someone to get a life, it’s tiny – an annoying quirk in a personality. Or are we really telling them that they are dead? And for those who say “my work is my life” – what do they mean? I suppose life really is just what you make it – mountain or molehill, something or nothing.

Sixteen and a half years ago

I thought my life was over.

I’d picked a bad subject to study, and although I’d worked hard at the exam, I knew I was out of my depth. Still, I needed to pass the exam in order to carry on at University. But I failed. I remember reading the result on the noticeboard outside the registry and just sitting down on the steps trying to work out what to do next. My university life was over – everything I’d planned had just fallen apart. Would I have to go back to live with my parents? That would be more than I could bear. But there seemed to be nothing else. I just sat there.

I can’t remember anything more of that day – I know I didn’t get drunk or anything like that – I think I must just have wandered around in a daze, avoiding my friends since they wouldn’t be my friends for much longer if I had to leave. But the next day I spoke to my tutor and found that I could change from a BSc programme to an MA and carry on without redeeming the failed course. It would just be forgotten – wiped from the records. I couldn’t believe it, but life had started again, and to celebrate I went and bought an Arts faculty scarf.

Eleven years and nine months ago

I thought my life was over.

We’d been engaged for around a year, and were fairly well advanced in planning the wedding. Then a mature, wise, Christian friend of my then-fiancée’s told her that she thought we shouldn’t get married. My fiancée apparently had shown huge potential before I showed up, and since then I had been a bad influence and caused her to go off the rails. In short, we should stop the relationship there and then. Obviously flustered, my fiancée couldn’t think what to do, but thought she had better tell me at least that she was having second thoughts, prompted by this wise woman’s words.

Unfortunately, I was living in Spain at the time, not entirely sure of my surroundings, and so feeling a little lost. In fact, I didn’t even have access to the few support mechanisms that I had built up in Spain, because I was away at a conference, trapped in a small hotel, in a small village, surrounded by lots of successful, intelligent people who lived for their work in a way that I knew I never could. So every day I was being fed a dose of insecurity by not being able to keep up with these people, which probably didn’t leave me best placed to take a phone call from my fiancée saying she was thinking of leaving me.

I think I kept my composure during the phone call, but I remember locking myself in a toilet afterwards (I couldn’t go to my room as it was shared so I would have no privacy) and crying my eyes out. Eventually a friend noticed my absence and sought me out, consoled me and helped get things in perspective. I am still grateful for that. And even more grateful that my fiancée decided quickly that, wise and mature though that friend was, she was wrong about me. So life began again.

Six and a half years ago

I thought my life was over.

I was nearing the end of my contract in Germany, having spent the 12 years since I left school training for one particular career. Lately that had meant a series of one-year jobs where the first few months had to be spent applying for the following year’s job. But now at the end of one such job I had nothing to follow it. All the applications I’d sent (around 20 that year) had come to nothing. The 12 years of training looked about to reach a dead-end of unemployment. My wife had left me four months before (I’ll say more about that another time, but I suppose it would be unkind not to say that this was a mutual, temporary separation so that she could take a very good job in the UK, and we were spending most weekends together), so I was on my own in a foreign land, staring down the prospect of having to start my working life from scratch all over again.

Being unable to face up to that, or unable to think of what else to do yet, I crawled back to Britain and, although unemployed, carried on doing what I had been doing. And after a few months I was offered the job that I’d been waiting for all those 12 years. Life began again.

Twelve and a quarter years ago

I landed in a foreign country.

I’d been abroad once before, as a child, on a primary school trip. But that was a long time ago, and I’ve nearly finished the job of wiping my school years from my memory, so that time doesn’t count. (Except for one thing: the casino, but I’ll come back to that another time).

So this was really my first trip abroad. And also my first time on a plane – I still find it funny how blasé I am now about the whole business of going through airports and onto planes, and how terrified I was then – not through any fear of flying, just that the checking in and security checks etc made for such a complicated process that I was sure I was going to go through the wrong door sometime and never escape.

I knew little of the country and nothing of the language so when I landed I was desparately searching for the familiar face of the person supposed to be meeting me. When I finally saw them it struck me how quickly a terrible desperation can turn into huge waves of relief. But the next morning I was on my own again, and faced with the most simple of tasks becoming infuriatingly hard. I wanted breakfast from a cafe, and there was one nearby. They had the cute idea of labelling their various different breakfast options with suitably breakfasty names, like “good morning” and “nice day”. Which, I thought, would save me having to rattle off a lisit of things I wanted. Except that, when you go up to the bar in a cafe and say “good morning”, even pointing to the menu is not going to be enough to convey the fact that you are trying to order the thing they’ve called a “good morning”. In fact, they’re liable to say “good morning” back at you. Infuriating.

Most times since then when I’ve been in a foreign country I’ve known enough of the language to avoid such hopeless situations. Up until now. Today I’ve again felt that complete inability to communicate but, with 12 years more confidence, I feel greatly more relaxed about it. Oh, and there is the fact that everyone speaks English. For once I’m somewhere where that’s actually true, not just something that pathetic little Englanders say to each other to justify their despicable laziness about bothering to give other people the basic respect of learning to speak their language. Rant? Me?

Ten minutes ago

I discovered God in a scarf.

You know how sometimes someone does something so incredibly kind for you, at a time when you are weak or down, and it means so much you almost want to cry? And at the very least you want to tell other people about how kind that person was and how much you appreciate it. Well, okay, today God is that person and you are that audience.

As you may understand, I’ve been digging out my warm clothing. One cherished item I’ve been looking for is my woollen university scarf. It has particular sentimental value as it symbolises how a disastrous fail in a major exam was wiped off my record by a quirk of the university’s rules. Anyway, I’d lost that scarf. I’d searched everywhere, for months and months, and turned the house upside down without finding it.

And now, at work, I was just about to put some papers in a bag to carry home when I decided to use a different bag instead and … well, you’ve guessed the rest, haven’t you.

It’s stupid to be so worked up about a piece of cloth, but I have a huge grin in amongst the choked-back tears.

One year ago

I was invited to spend a month in Sweden.

I had been under pressure from one of my bosses to enhance my “esteem factors”, and wangling an invitation like that was the sort of thing he wanted to see. Well, the month starts this Sunday. From being something far, far in the future, it’s now something that I’ve frantically got to be ready for and, to put it bluntly, I’m not. It’s cold here now but it’s going to be very cold there. I would say “freezing” but that doesn’t do it justice. Apparently it’s -4 in the day and “at night it gets cold”! So what do I wear, what do I pack? And what needs to get done before I go… a month is a long time if I forget to do something and it has to wait until I get back. Argh.

Somewhere around 8 years ago

I lost my appetite.

You know what canteen food is like – the problems of mass catering leading to everything being under-prepared and over-cooked and then left on a hot-plate to dry out completely before getting anywhere near your plate. And you know how exquisite French food is, requiring very careful preparation, cooking and serving.

I was forced to eat a three-course lunch, every day, at a University canteen in a dingy suburb of Paris. Eating the canteen version of French food.

At least in a British canteen you know they are not aiming for a high standard of cuisine, so when they fall flat on their face, well, at least it doesn’t hurt too badly. But in France if you cook you aim to produce the most delicious food ever. And when you reach for the stars and then fall flat on your face, well, it is really rather painful.

So somewhere during the year, and without my noticing, I lost my appetite. Before then I would eat immense quantities given any opportunity. Whatever was served I would have space for seconds, thirds … at an all-you-can-eat buffet I remember having five full platefuls of lasagne. But then in Paris I lost my appetite, and could hardly stand to eat a single plateful. From loving food I went to hating it, gaining no pleasure from it, and resenting the energy that I had to spend moving my jaw in order to eat.

Fortunately, 8 years later I’ve mostly got over the experience, but it really has taken that long. And when I see someone who really enjoys their food and can eat like a horse, I realize that I’ve still not recovered completely, because that’s how I used to be, and not how I am.

One day ago

I was tagged. Oh well.

Seven Things to Do
1. The washing up. 2. Write a paper. 3. Enjoy life. 4. Write this. 5. Read all the things I haven’t got around to yet. 6. Take aspirin for the headache that I’ll get from all that reading. 7. Sleeeeeeeep.

Seven Things I can’t Do
1. Drive. 2. Swim very well. 3. Think quickly enough. 4. Figure out what to do with my life. 5. Get as much done as I’d like. 6. Motivate myself to do anything. 7. Sleeeep.

Seven Things that Attract me to my Mate
1. Her mind. 2. Her body. 3. Her soul. 4. Er. 5. That’s it.

Seven books I love
1. Lanark (I have to say that). 2. My own. 3. Dieudonné’s History. 4. Ulysses. 5. The third policeman. 6. The Gruffalo. 7. The King James Bible I got at my first baptism.

Seven Things I say
1. So. 2. So-so. 3. Sosoisimo. 4. Like. 5. Fit? (meaning “What?”). 6. Fit like? 7. Dreich

Seven movies I’ve loved
1. Wilbur. 2. True Stories. 3. Life of Brian. 4. Todo sobre mi madre. 5. Er. 6. That’s it. I don’t do movies.

Seven people to tag
Is there anyone left? Stupendous Cat Adopting ex-Morris Dancer

About 8 years ago

I learnt the meaning of the word companion.

It was while we were living in Paris. I was coming home from work and, as we usually did, I went into the local bakers to buy a baguette to eat that evening. But the lady serving refused to sell me it because, as she said, my “copain” had already been in and bought a baguette. I was amazed that she had noticed me, or my wife, let alone the fact that we were a couple (we hardly ever went to the bakers together). But she had and, as somebody pointed out to me later, she truly understood the meaning of the word “copain”.

A month and a half ago

I was watching a DVD of music videos.

It was a collection of all the videos made by a certain band, dating from 1976 to 1996, and it was fun to watch the development from simple performance videos in the early days through to mini-films which seemed to be virtually independent of the music.

I can hardly stand watching any of the later ones, and much prefer a straight video of the band playing.

But what really struck me is how absurd the whole notion of a music video is – music is something we listen to, and nothing else. And yet, because television came along, somebody felt the need to broadcast music on television, and so there needed to be some pictures to go along with that. Of course at first they just showed the people playing the music, presumably because somebody thought that the reason people go to see live music is to watch the musicians playing (as opposed to enjoying the experience of hearing *live* music and the communal experience of hearing music together with hundreds of others). Soon people realized how boring that was and decided to show films instead. Is it any wonder that music on television is not as popular as it was? And is it perhaps just a natural consequence of the development of TV that music is now dying out – record shops practically don’t exist any more and those that still exist now sell more DVDs than CDs. I wonder if this was all entirely predictable from the development of TV, but simply took a little longer than was expected, because music managed to find a few tricks to delay its decay.

Having also been watching footage from Live8 and T in the park lately, it also struck me how much gigs have started to emulate music videos. Having been told by TV that there’s no point just listening to music and that there has to be something good to see as well, bands now have to put on a show, and if they can’t do that then they beam their latest video onto a screen behind the stage that dwarfs the band themselves.

And you know what? I think it’s all really quite a good thing. Getting music off TV is great because then we can get back to what music’s really good for – listening to. And as the big gigs get sillier and more confused, there’ll be a market for more modest-sized gigs where the band and audience are completely clear about what they’re doing – playing music for people to listen to and enjoy the miracle of music being created live. In fact, I rather suspect this is already happening. You might even say it’s been happening since 1976.

Ironically, two days ago I was at just such a small gig which was absolutely fantastic and reminded me why I love live music. The irony is that I had seen the band on TV just a week or two beforehand.

Three months ago

It snowed overnight. This is rare – I can only remember one previous occasion here in 5 years. So when the kids got up, rather grumpy, we gently nudged them towards looking out of the window. This is not hard, as their morning routine usually consists of getting out of bed, going to the toilet, climbing into our bed, then climbing out to peer through the curtains and do a weather forecast. Quite often it can be sunny with blue skies, and we’ll be told that it’s going to rain later. That’s a fair bet, and it’s probably how the BBC weather forecasters work out what to say.

So anyway, this morning the curtain was pulled back and … all of a sudden two little grump-monsters turned into excited, bubbly, charming kids. And we rolled over and enjoyed the extra space in the bed, and a warm fuzzy feeling inside. A nice way to start the day.

Forty eight days ago

was the first day of the rest of my life.

The cliché says that this is true everyday, but that leaches the meaning out of the statement so much as to make it utterly vacuous. Whereas this day really was the start of something. Our second (and final!) child, Airdrie, started school. Okay, so it was only an afternoon session in the pre-reception nursery class, but it means she’s out of our hands, being looked after by very competent professionals.

So she’s started on that long dark windy road called education, that will lead to all kinds of intolerable stuff including, ultimately, having to work for a living. But it also means that we’ve started on that long bright sunny road towards getting a life again. Without having to pay a penny for the privilege Jedburgh and I met, during the day, and talked without having to worry about looking after the kids. It’s pathetic how much that means. And even more pathetic that pretty much the only thing we could talk about was the kids. I guess there’s more to freedom than simply not being in prison.

Twelve years ago

I was confused by an ambilogoglot.

Okay, I made that up, but the word ought to exist.

I spent a large chunk of my youth searching out old vinyl. Second-hand record shops were manna from heaven to me, and finding obscure 60s and 70s stuff at bargain prices was what made my life worthwhile. (Getting a copy of Sgt Pepper with all the inserts for just 80p was probably one of the highlights of my life at the time). So, whenever I was in a new town, if I saw a shop with the word “records” on its sign, then I would be in there like a shot without a moment’s thought. It became second nature – my shopping list was engraved in my brain and, since I didn’t have any kids, I could actually remember which records I owned and which I didn’t.

So it was that when I first visited Montserrat (the one in Catalunya, not the volcanic one), I found myself instinctively heading into a shop and then being utterly puzzled. The place was just full of tourist tat – souvenirs and stuff. I’d gone in without thinking about it, and I left with a feeling of disappointment that also only barely reached conscious level.

It was only several years later that it dawned on me what had happened. Although I knew enough Catalan to know fine well that “recordar” is to remember, and hence that “records” meant souvenirs, some part of my brain had just registered the word “records” and instinctively gone in search of vinyl. Hence the word ambilogoglot – a foreign word which is exactly the same as an English one but with a different meaning. (Okay, in this case the meaning is not so different: both Catalan and English records are ways of remembering things, but that’s beside the point).

Six and a half years ago

I used a tie as a passport.

It’s a little known consequence of growing up in an island nation that you don’t associate going on a train with needing a passport. Of course you wouldn’t need a passport if you’re going somewhere by train, would you? Unfortunately, that all changed twelve years ago, but we (or at least I) haven’t necessarily adjusted to it.

I was living in Germany but having to travel to the UK almost every weekend (for reasons that I’ll probably get around to explaining some other day). The cheapest and most civilized way was by train from Cologne to Brussels and then Eurostar to London. And if you do the same trip so often then you get blaisé about things and that’s when you start forgetting things. Like passports.

So it was that one day passing through Aachen (about mid way between Cologne and Brussels) I realized that I didn’t have my passport. Oops. Fortunately on a moving train the immediate options are rather limited, so I had time to think through the available courses of action before having to choose.

The sensible plan was, of course, to get off at the next station, buy a ticket back to Cologne, go back to my flat, spend the night there (because the journey to the UK takes most of the day), book a new Eurostar ticket (the cheap ones being non-transferable) and start again the next day. The alternative was to stay on the train, arrive at Brussels and hope to blag my way through passport control and into England, and then worry about getting back to Germany later. So that is what I did.

More precisely, I arrived at Brussels and explained to the Eurostar passport control people what had happened and they were very reassuring and said I would have absolutely no problem getting into England without a passport because I was British. (I can’t help thinking that being racially white was relevant as well, but let’s not be uncharitable). They almost persuaded me that I should just get on the train to London. And I didn’t need much persuading. And sure enough, when I got to passport control at Waterloo and babbled as much as possible as quickly as possible (to show my flawless grasp of that flawed English that only natives speak) about what had happened, they just waved me through.

That just left the problem of getting back into Germany after the weekend. Which is where the tie came in. I was fairly confident of getting into Britain because I knew fundamentally the passport people would be sympathetic to someone of their own nationality. And British immigration officials are, no matter what people say, infinitely gentler than European ones. (They don’t have sub-machine guns for a start, and they look old enough to know how to shave). So I needed a strategy to get through passport control at Brussels. I thought that my best hope was to be dressed as smartly as possible, so I took a trip to Tie Rack at Waterloo (not a shop I had ever used before, or since) to buy the most respectable tie I could find. I almost went to the assistant and said “I need the most respectable tie you can sell me” but I thought that would seem too suspicious. Eventually, I settled on a very sombre silk tie which set me back a fair amount but which I considered money well spent. And I got on the train and spent three very anxious hours. What language should I use at Brussels? If the official was a French-speaker then they would be offended if I use anything but French. But if they were Flemish-speaking then French would be the most offensive language I could use (and Flemish wasn’t an option unfortunately). So should I use English, and guarantee equal offence? I decided finally that if I spoke French and babbled then, at least, my British accent should sound loud and clear.

At last, when I got to the head of the queue, I was faced with one of those wonderful European officials who says nothing but just stares at you like you are the most despicable criminal they have ever seen. I babbled. I wittered. I talked more than I had probably talked in my entire life before. And he just stared. And stared. And then waved me through. I never forgot my passport again after that.

Five weeks ago

I remembered what a hopeless liar I am.

Of course, when I actually want to tell a lie that’s really frustrating, but it serves to remind me that I probably shouldn’t be trying to lie in the first place. So most of the time I’m quite glad of being so bad at it. (I’d like to think that the people around me also value the fact that I can’t lie because it should mean that they can trust what I say utterly. Unfortunately it doesn’t work out like that because my cluelessness and misunderstanding ensure that nothing I say is particularly trustworthy.)

But lately I’ve been asked a few questions which, because of my preference for honesty, have got me into trouble. One memorable occasion where I told the truth got me into a situation that I felt I had to lie to get out of. What’s the morality on that – refusing to tell one lie made me have to tell a different one? If lying is wrong, then which lie should I not have told?

It reminds me of Walter Scott’s book Waverley. The guy Waverley is faced with a series of choices to make, and each time he appears to make the honourable and decent one. Yet all these decisions have the effect of making him leave the King’s army in which he had been serving, and switch allegiances to the rebels who were trying to overthrow that same King. In short those honourable decisions made him become a traitor. Several rights seem to add up to one big wrong (at least from the point of view of the law of the land at the time; I don’t want to get into a discussion of the morality of the Jacobite rebellions). Curious.

Three days ago

The worm tried to turn.

There is a person in my life, let’s call her Beelzebub, who has made it her goal to make my life intolerable. For just over three years she has been constantly trying to undermine me and destroy my confidence, and to destroy my marriage as well. In trying to handle this I find myself contemplating suicide, contemplating just running away, and even contemplating murder, but all have unfortunate side effects. I’ve asked Beelzebub’s mother for help but she just says that she’s sorry but can’t see that there’s anything she can do and that it’s simply my problem to deal with.

All this time I’ve tried to be decent, kind, even loving to Beelzebub, and things have only got worse. But after a couple of particularly horrendous days, the answer came to me. Having been kind all this time and got nothing but increased nastiness in return, I should obviously start being nasty myself. So I need to ignore her even on those rare occasions when she talks to me. If she asks for something I must give her nothing, and preferably give her no indication that I acknowledge she even exists. I must learn well every lesson she has taught me over the last three years.

That’s the plan. But, unfortunately, I can’t quite do it. I ignore her once, even twice, but on the third time my heart wins out. When she reaches out her hand to me I can hold off for a second or two but no longer.

I guess I’m doomed – nothing’s ever going to change.

Half a year ago

I discovered a paradox of aging.

This is particularly relevant to married couples, but I think it’s something that occurs in many kinds of friendships.

As I get older, I recognize and accept more and more of my failings and flaws. The things about me that really annoy those who have to put up with me. And I work on them. I try and improve, and, to my mind, I definitely do improve. There are several character traits that I used to have which were really unpleasant and which I’ve managed to kick. One is that if anyone ever asked me a direct question I’d always answer back with a crossword-clue type answer. Ask me whether I want tea or coffee, and I’d answer back something like “I’ll have what Churchill always used to have at this time of day”. Annoying as hell. Several incredibly placid and laid-back people have come close to murdering me for that habit (which, incidentally, is thoroughly congenital – my family do this to a terrible degree. That makes me wonder if I will pass it on or if, because I got out of the habit before procreating, it won’t get passed on because I’m not like that now. Oh how I kid myself). Anyway, the point is that I don’t do that any more. (Well, at least, not any where near as much as I used to. Trust me.) I’ve improved. I’m better than I used to be. I’ve grown up a little.

And my impression is that there are lots of things like that. Problems in my personality that I’ve become aware of and dealt with and become a nicer person.

Except that I know I’ve become harder to live with. Those around me don’t find me easier than I used to be, they find me harder and more unpleasant. I’ve not become nicer, I’ve become nastier, grumpier, grouchier, and generally more difficult.

So what’s going on? Are my improvements completely illusory? Or am I just getting worse at such a rate that my small improvements are completely outweighed?

Half a year ago

I discovered why I say the things I do.

You know how it is – somebody says something other than a direct question and you’re called upon to respond and it’s polite to do something other than just say “uh-huh”. There are many different things you can say in such a situation, so what decides what you say – how do you choose?

I realized that the thing I choose to say is always the first thing that comes to mind that might possibly be funny. As many people will tell you, it is usually not funny, but funny is at least what I’m aiming at. (In an official audit of our department, the only complaint that the auditors could get from our “customers” was that my jokes weren’t funny. Unfortunately that didn’t make it into the final audit report, but it was one of my proudest moments). Ha – you see – there I’m doing it again. You didn’t need to know that stuff about the audit, but I thought it would make you laugh. Might make you laugh. Could conceivably in a different universe make you laugh. Okay, I’m not very good at it, but that’s what I’m trying to do.

But why? That’s the question. Well, that’s the first question. Why do I always want to try and make people laugh? The second question is why do I keep trying when I’m no good at it? Why bother? Why not try and say something profound instead? (Well, okay, that’s easy to answer – I’d be even worse at that than at trying to be funny). But why can’t I think of something else to say?

Half a year ago

I discovered that I have a fear of talking.

I don’t mean standing up in front of groups of people and talking – that’s actually something I love doing, unlike a lot of people. No, my problem is at the other extreme – I hate talking when I’m with just a few people.

A typical example is this: rather than ask someone if they want a cup of tea or coffee, I would much prefer to just quietly make them a cup. Of course I then have to guess which they would prefer (although with some people it’s pretty easy to guess). In any case, I would usually prefer to guess than to do the necessary asking.

And the thing is that I recognized that pattern of behaviour a while ago, and can see that I’ve done it for a long time, but it was only very recently that I noticed that what I’m trying to do is to avoid talking. I have no idea why I would want to avoid talking, and wasn’t even aware that I don’t like to talk until I saw that I am doing things that can only be explained that way.

As I say, I can see now that I’ve been that way for a long time, and I recognize that my dad is the same. He will do all sorts of silly things to avoid opening his mouth, and I’ve inherited the same disease.

Now that I know, I can force myself to ask people if they want a drink. But force is the right word – it takes an act of will to get the words out of my mouth instead of just running off into the kitchen.

When I think about facets of my personality like this, I find myself thinking that it is probably murder trying to live with me. And then I remind myself that there is no probably about it. I have to live with me, and it is murder.

Fifteen days ago

I had to umpire an argument about protein.

We are trying to encourage our kids to understand the need for a balanced diet by explaining what different foods contain. (Or rather, Jedburgh does that because, frankly, I don’t have a clue. A mars bar in each hand sounds like a balanced diet to me). And they have at least grasped the mantra that a meal should contain some protein.

So it was that Airdrie decided she was going to “cook” (on the plastic kitchen they got for Christmas) something for Cambuslang. This being just after school both are tired and irritable, and Cambuslang grumped back that he didn’t want anything because he had just cooked himself a carrot. Whereupon Airdrie, with the sort of precociousness that only a 3-year old girl could manage, said that a carrot was not good enough because it didn’t have any protein. Clutching at straws Cambuslang argued that it did and appealed to me to support him.

In such situations it is, of course, important for parental authority that one should be able to come up with a clear and comprehensible answer and confirm that parents always know everything. Unfortunately, I hadn’t a clue. And while trying to guess, I was also thinking – why am I doing this? They never told me at school that I would need to know this stuff in order to successfully bring up two barely school age kids. (Not that I would have paid any attention if they had – domestic science at school was ineffably boring except for the actual cooking bits which were just a laugh. At least until you had to taste the results). So, the moral of this tale is: if you’re thinking of having kids, make sure you know whether carrots contain protein or not. Or face the consequences.

Last night

I was reading a self-help book.

You know the sort – here’s how to avoid the problems, and here’s what to do if you have problems.

It was a good one too, written by someone I know and respect. But unfortunately, as I read it, it just became clear to me that I’m doing almost everything wrong. And when I actually looked at the “and here’s what to do if you have problems” advice with the careful scrutiny of someone who’s actually about to put it into practice, it just didn’t seem plausible. I was left with the feeling of someone who’s found themselves on the wrong side of a fast-flowing river, with only a scraggy old rope bridge to use to cross over. Although I want to be on the other side, I just don’t trust that rope to hold me and get me over.

I suppose if I trust the writer (and I think I do), then the point is that that bridge is all there is; I shouldn’t be on this side and if I’ve been so stupid as to land myself here, then I can’t expect an easy way out. Unfortunately most of me is inclined to view that as confirmation that I’m going to be staying where I am, on the wrong side of the river.

So the self-help book helped me hugely. It helped me to get hugely depressed.

A few days ago

I had a lesson in sensitivity.

Being sensitive to others seems to involve worrying about things that seem to you to be nothing to worry about at all. Even something which you see as positive is something you need to worry about if it is something which upsets someone you wish to be sensitive to. So something which you might otherwise feel obliged to do (the something which is positive) can become something which you are forbidden to do (because someone else sees it as negative, and you want to oblige them). This leads to some puzzling guilt-related feelings, and a confused conscience. And some quite abrupt volte faces.

I’m sure everybody else knew all this before, but I’ve only recently encountered such conflicts of interest, and am finding the whole thing strange. Some of the problems are, I know, down to me deluding myself and failing to see a genuine difficulty. But others aren’t, and really are just down to two people seeing the same thing in very, very different ways.

To put it in an extreme way, it’s almost as if one person is admiring a beautiful sunset and another says “Yuk, why are you looking at that, that sunset is disgusting!” This is going to take some getting used to.

Two months ago

I went to the chaplaincy.

I mainly wanted to escape my workplace which was going mad with preparations for some visiting bigwig, and I was vaguely in search of one person who turned out not to be there. Instead I found a couple of other friends which was a pleasant surprise, but they left and I ended up spending most of my time talking with some people I’d never met before, but who were very easy to talk to. Why is it that some people just click, and some just don’t?

Thirteen years ago

I had a drink with a couple of friends.

It was late on a Saturday night and we were in a cellar bar called the Howff. I had a yellowdrink, either to be sophisticated or just to indulge my sweet tooth. Whichever it was, I was mocked for having a “wifey’s drink”.

We’d just been to the cinema to see “The Crying Game” which was pretty good, as well as rather surprising in an entertaining way. One particularly memorable scene contains a surprise which causes the main character to throw up, and it seemed to have the same effect on half the audience. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I’m talking about, and if not, well, I’d recommend it.

But none of this would have stuck in my mind so, and I certainly wouldn’t have remembered the date of it, had it not been for the phone call I had before we went out. It was from a girl I knew at uni who had since moved a long way away. We hadn’t ever been all that close, although several years before when I broke up with a girlfriend she was the one who showed me some genuine sympathy and concern while it seemed like nobody else gave a damn. After she moved away she had come back occasionally to visit old friends, and she must have been up fairly recently because I had found myself thinking a lot about her. So when she phoned up and asked if we could become an item (the term “going out” just doesn’t seem remotely appropriate when you’re living 500 miles apart) it was completely out of the blue and yet didn’t surprise me at all. Which is probably why I was able to answer without needing even a moment’s thought. It’s funny how the most momentous decisions can be made so quickly and easily.

Last night she phoned a very good friend of ours who we were both rather concerned about. And as I listened to her speak on the phone it seemed that everything she said was exactly what I wanted to say only she put it much better, or things that I wish I’d thought of to say, and I was really struck by how she demonstrated our love and concern so much better than I could ever do. It was a fairly long phone call and during it I fell head over heels in love all over again.

Twenty three and a quarter years ago

I made a bid for freedom.

Having had the misfortune of being born in exile, and forced to live in exile, I finally took my chance to escape, and spent a wonderful 24 hours visiting my home country, all on my own.

I got some strange looks as a school-age lad wandering around since it was not half-term there even though it was at my school. But more than that I found the most incredibly warm welcome from both people and place. My upbringing had led me to believe that it was utterly impossible for someone you passed on the street to smile or say hello if they didn’t already know you. Yet here people would smile, talk, laugh, joke, help you out … all the kinds of things that I now know that humans do, except that they don’t in the place where I was born. (It takes an effort of will to convince myself that there, in that hideous place, they are, nevertheless, humans. It’s just that there is so little evidence.)

I loved it and it absolutely confirmed, as I knew already, that this was my home, no matter what my birth certificate said. I got to know a different climate, a different tongue, even different money, and a different way of living. And from then on, every holiday or half-term break, I would travel the 400 miles to my homeland. On my own. Free. In love with the feeling of being at home.

Thirty years ago

I was bemused.

It was in the playground at school and something had happened that really upset me – I was in tears. And one of my classmates said “shall I go and get your big brother over”, knowing that he was a couple of years ahead in the same school.

Part of me realized, even at the time, that the person asking obviously thought this might be comforting and that it would be nice having my brother over. But the other 99% of me was just bemused. Bemused like I’d have been if an alien had just landed and asked if I wanted elephant shoe ice cream poured down my neck. Too bemused in fact to put my thoughts into words, but if I had done they’d have said something like “Look, life is unpleasant enough as it is, why would I want something that’ll make it so much worse?”

That incident just seems to sum up my relationship with my brother (and probably my whole family), at least until about 10 years ago when things began to slightly improve.

How I pray that my kids don’t fall into the same pattern.

Just over two months ago

I began to wonder whether or not I existed.

Someone mentioned me in their blog and it gave me such a boost that it made me wonder if I’d really existed before. Now I find quite often that as I look at other people’s blogs half of me is just wanting to see if I’m mentioned. It’s not that I think I should be, it’s just that I desperately hope that I am. And if I’m not (which is most of the time), I feel diminished in a way which makes me think that maybe I only exist when documented in a blog (except this one, which obviously doesn’t count) or elsewhere. Maybe I’ve shrunk into some blog-only state, like a genie shrinking into a bottle, and I can only be called into existence by someone talking about me. Or maybe I’m just completely self-centred and egotistical – like Oscar Wilde when he said the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about.

Five hours ago

My life became intolerable.

As usual, that’s an exaggeration because, after all, I’m still tolerating it. But I began a process which is excruciatingly unpleasant and which will last all week. It might even provide an answer to my post of 5 days ago.

Latest news (Friday 2:50pm):Life has just become tolerable again – the task is finished.

One week ago

I found myself saying “this is very important” a lot.

I fall into spouting clichés very easily, but each time I was consciously using the phrase because it exactly represented my thoughts – each topic I was discussing was very, very important. The problem was that there were so many of them. As I remembered one it would blot out the others, meaning that they were not being dealt with as urgently or as carefully as they needed.

Of course, there’s an adrenalin rush to be had from trying to juggle so many balls which rather compensates for the lack of sleep, but it did lead me to one interesting thought – is having too many very important things a definition of being stressed?

Two and a half days ago

I lost my hair

It was a bit of a shock at first, but I got used to it very quickly. And now life is so simple – if I want a warm head I put a hat on, and if I want a cool head I take it off (the hat, not the head). And to think of all the shampoo I’ll save….

I really don’t understand why people are so attached to their hair.

One year ago

I had a run in with the French Foreign Legion.

I don’t know if it was just my upbringing, or if the same is true for everybody, but the foreign legion is a hugely evocative and romantic concept. I remember the toy soldiers with their funny hats that had to be painted white, and the stories that my mum would tell me of people who had behaved so badly that they really ought to go and join the legion. (Presumably this was meant as punishment but if so, why make the legion out to be so romantic? I wonder how many people did despicable things just so they could go and join it.)

I was on the early morning train from Toulouse to Montpelier, gently easing between wakefulness and sleep, as we pulled into Carcassonne. There the platform was filled with these white hats. Having never seen them in the flesh before it had something of a dream-like feel to it. Was I awake, or was I dreaming this? To add to the dream-like predictability, they all sat down in my carriage, filling every available seat.

I spent the rest of the journey looking around at their faces. The romantic in me wanted to believe that each face hid a dark story of a life gone wrong that had led them there. Of course that’s crazy, but the fact remains – what would drive you to go and join an army of a country that’s not even your own?

That touches on the other point. The legion is famous for its fierce discipline. It was obvious who the boss was (he gets to wear a hat that is the same shape but not the same impractical colour) although he didn’t say a word. But it was clear that all the legionnaires were attentive to every facial twitch, every muscle he moved. If he wanted one of them to move seats, he did little more than move his eyes, and it happened. If one were looking too relaxed, it took only the slightest glance for the culprit to straighten up. As discipline goes it was impressive. As a way of relating to your fellow humans, it was not pretty. What would drive you to subject yourself to that?

I suppose the legion is something of a secular monastery – joining up is a way of escaping the cares and troubles of everyday life. And where a monastery has God and love, the legion has Patriotism and fear – not the same at all, but they approximately fill the same holes in human hearts.

As you can tell, I wasn’t planning on joining up any time soon.

One year ago

I fled to the South of France.

I was aiming for Montpelier but the best flight was to Toulouse arriving late in the evening and, rather than book a hotel in advance, I thought I would just arrive and see what I could find.

As I’ve said before, I’ve some fond memories and some odious memories of France, but I was in a fairly positive frame of mind at the time. After all, the South of France is almost Spain, and in January that’s exactly what a body needs.

I always find it a little unnerving travelling without everything planned, but I’m starting to develop a taste for it. And arriving in Toulouse with just a small rucksack (I hate having hold baggage so avoid it whenever I can) I really savoured the chance of wandering around looking for an appetizing and affordable hotel. In fact I found one pretty quickly, with a good room and a receptionist who, despite my ropey French, I had no problem understanding. So after checking in I even asked him for advice about where to eat. He recommended a (posher) hotel over the road, so I asked if it was expensive. His reply joined a select few phrases I’ve heard that have lodged themselves verbatim in my head: “Non, non, non, c’est correct”. For some reason I just love that phrase. Some French phrases are just beautiful (I remember someone in a lecture describing something as “un problème trés vache” which also rates as one of my favourite phrases), but also the way they use English is lovely. And the implicit concept that food has a specific, measurable value, and that one can state confidently whether a price for a meal is correct or incorrect, speaks of a sure and reliable world that I wish I inhabited.

As it was, I looked at the other hotel and wasn’t too impressed so looked elsewhere and eventually got myself an incredibly filling cassoulet (it’s almost obligatory in Toulouse). I was practically the only person in the restaurant, but with a full belly and a glass of very cheap (but perfectly drinkable) wine in my hand I just enjoyed the wonderful sensation of being in a country where eating is one of life’s most important pleasures, and eating on your own in a restaurant is a perfectly acceptable and delightful thing to do. I then rolled home to bed ready to catch the 6am train to Montpelier.

Twenty two and a bit years ago

I discovered music.

As I will mention elsewhere, I did a lot of travelling when I was a kid, so before long it seemed natural to have a walkman to accompany me. Funnily I don’t recall being interested in music before then, but after I’d got it (one of the handful of presents from my parents that actually was what I wanted) music started to take over my life. My tastes were not what one would exactly call good, and not the sort of thing one would talk about in public for fear of contravening obscenity legislation, but it meant a lot to me.

Music became one of the two touchstones of my life (the other was the discovery of my real home, which I’ll write about another time). My musical tastes grew and varied and, most would say, improved. But the importance remained – a life without music would be something I couldn’t imagine. When I moved to a different country the first thing I did was to buy a ghetto blaster. When my girlfriend visited, I asked her to bring out a guitar that I hadn’t been able to take with me.

If I were to finish the story, I would tell of how this love affair with music withered and is now on life support (CPR is currently being administered by Arcade Fire and King Creosote). But that would end things on a sour note, and I’ve already been told that this blog is too depressing. So instead I’ll just dwell on how important it was to me, and how many good things came about because of it. (Although I never had the experiences that led Lemmy to claim that learning to play the guitar is a good way of attracting the opposite sex. Perhaps there are some other ingredients I’m missing….)

Two thousand, six hundred and fifty seven days ago

We played snails for a day.

We had to move from Paris to Bonn and did so by train, carrying all our possessions in rucksacks and assorted bags. It’s probably not a healthy way to travel, but it was more relaxing than driving would have been.

I have fond memories of both places although we kind of hated Paris and there was an element of shaking the dust off our feet as we left. And arriving in Germany was wonderful. It was so civilized and friendly. Even though we could hardly speak a word of the language we felt a tangible welcome from nearly everyone, particularly the person in Bonn station who, when we dropped one of our bags, bent down to pick it up almost before we had noticed that it had dropped. The third reich had its bad side for sure, but part of me can’t help thinking that there might have been some benefits if Germany had taken over the world. Kaffee und küchen anyone?

Two weeks ago

I reminded myself how unpleasant I can be.

I could blame it on external things – stresses of life leaving me weak, overwhelming temptations, powerful addictions and so on. But I’m too good at shrugging off blame and I need to accept that I did things I shouldn’t have.

So, okay, I accept that. And, being me, I analyze what made it happen. What circumstances made it inevitable? Well, that’s all fairly easy to answer, so I can kid myself I understand it all and so, theoretically, can avoid it happening again.

Except that, no, I know avoiding it is not so simple. Because the fact is I crave the circumstances that made it happen. I know their consequences, but I want to be in that situation again. Craving is exactly the right word – we’re talking addictions, we’re talking base urges that I know are dangerous and destructive but even so I’m virtually powerless to resist. Like the fisherman craves the siren, so I crave what I know will lead to trouble.

Other factors meant that I was unable to indulge that craving for a week or two. That should have been good – it meant I wasn’t going to get into trouble. But it hurt – a small taste of cold turkey I suppose.

And that’s the problem – the pain of not getting what I want hurts so much more than the guilt I feel after giving in and indulging myself.

One month ago

We had bought presents and cards for two young friends of ours who have birthdays about that time. We’d left them (the presents and cards, not the friends) in a bag in the “adult” living room but, later, when I came to wrap the presents and write the cards, the two presents were out of the bag in the middle of the floor, and the cards were nowhere to be seen. Puzzled, I asked Mrs Lanark (shall we call her Jedburgh?) if she knew where they were. No, the last she’d seen of them was in the bag.

So then I asked the little Lanarklets, Cambuslang and Airdrie if they had any information. Cambuslang looked coy and said Airdrie might know, and Airdrie then started rifling behind one of the chairs and retrieved the cards. So now at least I know what was going on when, earlier in the day, Cambuslang had disappeared and when I asked him what he was up to he replied, with a very cheeky smile, “I was being sneaky”.

If I ever get arrested and asked what I’m up to, I think I’ll try that line.

Ten years ago

We drove home for Christmas with half a pig in the back of the car.

As I recall, we started mid-morning one day, stopped overnight part way, in a motel where our travelling companion distinguished himself by dressing for dinner, made the ferry midway through the following afternoon, and arrived home later that evening.

In fact we weren’t driving home at all – we were driving to my parents’ house, and that certainly wasn’t home then even if it had ever been. In so far as we had a home at all then, it was probably the place we were leaving. But I don’t think that really felt like home either at the time, although it came very much to be home later. And if home is where the heart lies, then I suspect a bit of my heart is still lying there.

And the half a pig? Simple: salted hams (consisting of one entire leg) are very popular and cheap in Spain, so our travelling companion was bringing a couple to his family.

Sixteen months ago

I discovered a strange form of vertigo.

I was walking on a long distance footpath along a river. There used to be a railway line along the river valley and, since the river zigzagged a lot, so the railway had to cross the river quite frequently. When the line closed they lifted a lot of the bridges, leaving just the stone abutments on either side of the river, with a gap in the centre where the girders would have been. When I passed the first few of these broken bridges I had no problems. But as I passed more I found myself imagining walking along the trackbed towards the abutments, and carrying on oblivious to the fact that the middle of the bridge was missing. I would then imagine how I would cope with falling into the water. Since the river was moving quite fast and I can hardly swim at the best of times, and I had a 15 kilo rucksack on, the outlook wasn’t good.

But it was like a dream (or, rather, a nightmare) in that I couldn’t stop myself, or turn round; I could only carry on walking onto the bridge. And this sequence of events just ran through my head over and over again.

More recently I had another variant of this experience. I was standing at the top of a mountain on a beautiful day, looking across to another mountain on the other side of the valley. It was so clear that it felt as if I should be able to reach across and touch it, or even step over to it. And that set off the same train of thoughts – I found myself imagining stepping from my mountain across the valley to the other mountain. Since the valley was about a mile wide, and I has half a mile above the loch below, even my legs would not have made it, again with disastrous consequences. But the imagining was so powerful that I feared I might actually try it – the boundary between reality and imagination was getting so blurred.

Three days ago

Somebody recommended hedonism as a solution to my problems.

Of course, that’s a slight exaggeration – they were much more modest and merely recommended it as a solution to one of my problems. (Thanks go to birdie’s big sister).

But actually, I think it might be the answer to most of my problems – I’m starting to think that the root of my difficulties is simply that I’ve forgotten how to have fun. Most of the obvious things that used to give me a lot of fun have just stopped working for me, and I haven’t figured out what to do instead. The only things I can think of are either illegal, immoral, or too expensive. Or all three. Any suggestions?

Four years ago

I was listening to El cant dels ocells.

It’s a Christmas song, about birds excitedly telling each other about the nativity ("la nit mes ditxosa"). But it’s a very mournful tune.

(In fact my all-time favourite Christmas song also has a pretty mournful tune – which tells you something about my attitude to this time of year.)

The nature of my work is that things build up and up before Christmas, but stop a week or two before the actual day. So there’s then a lull, and that swing from puffing to nothing always catches me out and leaves me in a reflective frame of mind. That tune seemed to capture my mood perfectly while the words captured what I should have been thinking.

Four months ago

I was reading Don Quixote.

It’s long. Very, very long. There’s two volumes, and they’re both very, very long. Still, it’s a fun read, although it’s not as easy a read as War and Peace. But when I finished it, I started wondering why I’d read it.

When I was growing up I didn’t read at all. That didn’t really change until I hit university. Then, surrounded by people who did read, and listening to lots of music that had literary allusions, I think I felt intimidated. So I started trying to catch up, and read all the "important" things that I thought I ought to have read.

A lot of it was fantastic – East of Eden, Lanark, Ulysses, War and Peace are absolutely amazing reads. I’d read them again and again. But I don’t know why I read them. Was it just to pass the time? Was it simply so I could boast (like I’m doing here)? Or was it to "better" myself, whatever that means?

I used to think it was that. By reading this great literature I was expanding my mind and building my understanding of the human condition. Reading helps you think and understand. Well, hell, now I’ve done plenty of thinking I realize how over-rated it is. Thinking makes me question things, and questioning things just seems to make me stop doing things until I understand why I do them. Since I never reach that understanding, I end up not doing anything.

And so it was that, after Don Quixote, I kind of stopped reading. I don’t need any help passing the time – it goes fast enough. And I don’t want to do it so that I can boast – that’s not pretty. Maybe if I have a long rest from reading I’ll manage to kick the habit of questioning everything. Then later, maybe, I’ll be able to start reading again. And then the whole cycle can start again.

Last night

The church leadership team (of which I am currently a part) came to a decision. This is not newsworthy in itself, and has actually happened before.

Despite minor reservations, I agreed with the decision. This is also not newsworthy in itself, and has indeed even happened before.

The decision was to do something now, before we have a chance to discuss it with the whole church. There are good reasons why we must act now and cannot wait, but it is obvious to me that this will annoy many people in the church who have already complained about a lack of communication and consultation. So I pointed this out to the rest of the team and …. nobody seemed to agree with me. They replied that it was for the leadership to lead and that that is what we are doing.

I used to think that there was a communication problem and that the leadership team simply need to explain more and listen more, but I now see that this won’t happen and doesn’t happen because the team (with one or two exceptions) don’t accept that there is a problem. It’s like an unhappily married couple where the wife says `You don’t talk to me’ and the husband says `Rubbish, I’m talking to you now’.

I’m cheered by the fact that a much-needed decision has been made, but rather depressed that a fundamental problem in the church is going to remain because of too many heads buried in the sand. It makes me want to have nothing further to do with the leadership, but that would then necessitate moving churches which I don’t want to do. So I suppose I just have to carry on being the Cassandra on the team. Oh what fun!

Some years ago

I watched a programme monitoring how families bring up their kids. It had lots of uninteresting points, but one thing that got my attention was how the children of the advertising executives had loads of confidence, and the children of the christian couple had very little. Lack of confidence was, of course, a Very Bad Thing according to the programme. But something which advertising executives have, and Christians don’t (and let’s be clear – the programme was all about judging the parents by their children) is usually something I don’t want. So, I ask you, is confidence desirable?

The word confidence makes me instantly think of two scenarios: one where somebody else (for example, an advertising executive) has buckets of confidence and is consequently unbearable, and another where I am unable to do something because of my lack of confidence. This suggests that I want more of the stuff and want everybody else to have less. To be sure, I don’t like being held back by my lack of confidence, but nor do I want to turn into the person annoying everybody else (any more than I am already that person (and there speaks my lack of confidence – preempting criticism)). And I’m not even sure that I do lack confidence – I’ve got myself into plenty of scrapes which, in retrospect, I can’t believe I thought I could handle (like marriage, having kids, writing a blog…)

Am I confused? Err, I’m not sure.

A week ago

I had just had one of the worst weekends of my life. It was appalling on Saturday, picked up slightly on Sunday afternoon, then went disastrously wrong in the evening before finally recovering at the eleventh hour (literally). Much of the trouble doesn’t bear speaking about, so here are the edited lowlights.

Things started to go wrong when I had to buy four presents for three different children in the company of another child, Cambuslang, who wasn’t getting any presents (and was consequently grumpy). In one shop I drove myself to distraction scouring the shelves for suitable things (while pulling a grumpy child away from extortionate things that he thinks he wants) and finally found two suitable presents.

Great!

Except that when I got to the counter the cashier cheerfully pointed out that there was a three-for-two offer on.

I did appreciate the funny side as I trogged suicidally back to the shelves to find item number three, but then Cambuslang announced that he had a pain in a place which, as a fellow male, I am guaranteed to feel particularly sympathetic about.

This led us to the emergency GP clinic at the local hospital (within 2 hours of first phoning any part of the NHS – I was impressed) at the time when we should have been at birthday part number 1 (of 3 of the weekend). Still, we got out quickly and rushed to the church whose church hall was said to be housing the party.

There was no sign of a church hall attached to the church.

We circumnavigated the church without finding a hall, or a sign to where the hall might be, or any hint of a children’s party in the vicinity, or indeed any sign that anyone had been anywhere near the church in the last 200 years. Result: I had to drag a sad deprived child back home with no good answer to the repeated question of why aren’t we going to the party?

I then found that our oven was not working, causing big problems for the birthday cake that needed to be made for the Sunday. I also discovered that: along with the four presents I was supposed to buy four cards (I knew that bit), but the four cards were not "from" the same people as the four presents. So buying a card "to our favourite Granddaughter" was not helpful when said card is supposed to be "from" the parents not the Grandparents. <Anglo-saxon omitted>. Still, if we keep it for, ooh, about 30 years, it’ll come in handy.

Despite all that, we managed to get Cambuslang to birthday party number 2, and even managed to organize birthday party number 3, thanks to a lot of help from nearby friends. And the kids even seemed to enjoy it. At the time I knew that that should have been more important than all the negatives, but it didn’t feel like it. A week later it does.

Five months ago

I had just got back from my first ever holiday.

There’d been a conference in one of the most beautiful places in the universe and I had decided that I would spend an extra few days there, despite the fact that I was leaving my family behind at home.

As it was, I didn’t stay there exactly but moved on to a campsite in another of the most beautiful places in the universe. And so I came to spend several days on my own with nothing to do. Of course I did some hill-walking and saw some gobsmacking views, but I also spent a lot of time doing nothing, interspersed with working while sunbathing. It was the first such time I’d spent alone since, well, since I got married and became the me that I am now. Which is why it was my first ever holiday.

A week ago

I was challenged to go to a different church for that Sunday. I knew I wouldn’t, because although there was a very good reason why I should, there seemed to be lots of reasons why I shouldn’t, which although smaller, added up to more.

But I couldn’t shake the thought that it was just my laziness or conservatism preventing me doing anything new. I’m certainly afraid of having my life changed, and that is a frequent consequence of being exposed to something new/different. I think that’s mostly because of the impact it would have on those around me, and that part of me would love some change. But I wonder if I’m just kidding myself. Either way, the result is I feel trapped, but don’t know whether someone is keeping me trapped, or whether it’s just me trapping myself.

About three years ago

We stopped playing chess.

We still play it from time to time, but it’s not the same.

The thing is, I’d only ever played it with one person (despite some comically desperate attempts to interest others), and it seemed to bind us together. But three years ago my chess partner just didn’t seem to be so keen on it any more. Nothing was said, but other things always seemed to get in the way. A while later they admitted that they didn’t enjoy it, and simply didn’t want to play any more. So now I’m not even sure that they ever enjoyed it – maybe they were just humouring me all along.

And now when we play I feel like the smoker who has given up, but still has the odd puff now and again. It gives no pleasure, and only serves to remind the addict that they are addicted, and pathetic.

Fifteen years ago

Margaret Thatcher ceased to be prime minister.

For those of us of a certain age it was one of those moments where everybody can remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard.

I was standing outside a lecture room waiting for a class. A passing lecturer told us the news and the whole class just smiled at each other – that peaceful smile that says "All is right with the world". Of course all was not right with the world, but at least the rot slowed down for a while.