Friday, 27 March 2009

A Lead Role In A Cage?

The alarm clock rings. It’s 6am and as I lie in bed and look at the ceiling I feel disappointed that neither of my cats came to join me last night. Over the past 12 months since I officially adopted them I’ve gotten used to waking up with them on my head, my throat, my groin: anywhere that’s warm including snuggled next to me in bed. When they chose to stay away I feel oddly robbed.

I swing my feet out of bed and catch Tiny (my small white Siamese) a glancing blow on the head. She runs off and I mutter an apology. As I pull back the curtain and take a drink from the glass left on the windowsill Furry (my big black ball of fur) sits up from his position at the bottom of the bed and demands in no uncertain terms that it is way past time that I fed him.

I look at the sky beyond the back fence and try to decide whether to cycle to work today or not. Since the beginning of March I’ve been building up my distances again: cancelling my bus pass and cycling first one, then two and now three days a week. This week has been hard-going. After the glorious sunshine of last week a cold, strong wind has settled in and the skies have been growing ever more ominous with the promise of rain.

After a moment’s thought (and yet another reminder from Furry) I decide that into each life a little rain must fall and get up, hoping that at the very least it will only rain on the way home. Rain on the way into work means wet clothes sitting wet in your locker all day, waiting to be put back on, whereas rain in the evening means an evening on the radiators. We have showers at work, which is very handy – but I live in fear of following my usual home routine of falling into autopilot and just wondering around butt-naked as I organise myself: or forgetting to lock the shower room door and finding myself in a compromising position with a Security Guard.

Back at home Furry follows me about as I organise my thoughts and myself, coming to heel like a well trained puppy. I take him downstairs and we have the daily conversation where I tell him “but there’s already food in your bowl” and he replies “ooh, yum: food!”

As I potter back upstairs and begin collecting my cycling gear I pause to wonder if God (if he/she actually exists) looks at humans in the same way that humans look at their pets. Are we, like Furry, forever crying to him/her saying “save us from hunger; save us from disease; save us from poverty” and is God telling us, in ways that we cannot comprehend, “I’ve given you all the tools you need: save your bloody selves”

It’s far too early in the morning for such thoughts, so I pack my saddlebags and pour some cornflakes into a bowl. Furry takes his familiar place on my lap as I eat and together we sit and contemplate the state of the world for a few minutes. I gently remind him that cat biscuits don’t just buy themselves and he slopes off into comfortable position on the sofa as I push my bike out into the street and check the doors.

The route is second nature by now: end of the road turn right, first left, follow the subway under the main road and then up and over the train bridge. On the right a circus tent is being erected ready for the Easter holidays: they’ve been coming here for as long as I can remember – but they stopped bringing the animals in the ‘80s. Caravans litter the grass; trailers and trucks with faded names of other shows painted over and replaced time after time.

The day stretches out before me with all the promise of road kill: I can feel the shackles of the endless excel spreadsheet that has become my life reaching out to claim me again and suddenly an idea begins to form in my head.

As I reach the half-way point I remember that if I turn right instead of left I can easily reach the canal. It means adding an extra four miles to the journey, but I’m in no rush to get to work.

I pause at the side of the road: think about my options. As Tolkien once said – every road is like a stream, with a tributary at every door: and when you take the choice to step out onto that road you have to be careful not to be swept away.

What the hell: I turn right and push up the hill and into the new estate, where I cross the bridge marked “residents only” and turn onto the towpath. It’s still early and there are no groups of 2-3 men fishing, no drunks (though one man passes me with a can of Special Brew in hand) and no vicious gangs of swans lying in wait to peck me to death. Despite the fact that we’re only one street away from a major road everything is quiet.

The sun reflects on the water, showing the ripples as the wind pushes the clouds across the sky. Everything is changing down here: the old, abandoned factories are slowly being replaced with town houses and “luxury apartments”. A few houses back out onto the water, their gardens stopping abruptly at the water’s edge.

Twisting and turning, following the towpath, I cycle on: feeling free for the first time today. In a world where such beauty can exist so close to such decay everything seems possible. I feel like I could keep going forever, just following my nose and seeing where I end up: but all too soon the landscape becomes familiar and I turn back towards the road, heading back towards my office.

I arrive at work half an hour later than usual, but pleased with my little act of rebellion. The spreadsheet is still waiting, but just for the moment I don’t care.

Sometimes the weight of having to earn a living, especially when the money is spent before you can enjoy it, can pull you down. Sometimes the fact that you want to retrain but come home feeling like shit and too tired to think can make you feel that all hope is gone. Somedays you feel that the excel spreadsheet has come to define your life: that all you have to look forward to is a lifetime of pointless statistics and a tombstone saying “Hungry Pixies: He Didn’t Piss Too Many People Off”

But it’s those stolen moments that keep us all going: the few hours, minutes or even seconds where we discreetly raise two fingers to the world and proclaim ourselves still human.

Treasure those moments: don’t let anyone or anything take them away. Life is what happens whilst you’re busy making other plans.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Won’t Get Fooled Again

Once upon a time there were kings.

Not King, but Kings.

In fact they were Feudal Lords: some ruling great swathes of land, others only small areas of England. To make things really complicated Scotland and Wales had an entirely separate system of their own which existed alongside our own for quite some period of time.

After a lot of messing around, wars and bargaining it all came together under one King – however even before 1066 and all that the Anglo-Saxon’s established the Witenagemot (meeting of wise men) to aid the King with his Kinging (it was a bit more than sitting in a posh carriage, waving to the adoring masses back then)

There were many, many developments in this, which include Edward 1 setting up the first proper parliament in 1295 and King John signing the Magna Carta, however it wasn’t until King Charles 1 came in and Oliver Cromwell decided enough was enough that things got really messy and Charles ended up shorter in death than he had been in life.

From then on the real power was in Parliament’s hands. At some point (don’t ask me when) we established a multi-party system and started letting people vote (though by no means all the people)

There were initially two parties of note – both of which we will return to: however as my knowledge of the origins of Government are fuzzier than Elmo from Sesame Street we’ll skip this and cut to the chase by talking about what’s happening these days:

The New-boys in town: the Johnny-come-latelies, the pretenders to the throne: the Labour Party.

Originally they were presented as the Party of the people, with communistic leanings so heavy that Senator McCarthy would have wanted a serious word with their members. They used to sing “The Red Flag” and support nationalisation of industry (buying industries through taxes), as well as the various strikes we had during the 70s and 80s. Musician Phil Collins famously claimed that if Labour ever came to power he would leave the country. It is not known to what degree this has aided their unprecedented three terms in office.

Famous leaders of note include Neil Kinnock (Thatcher era). The Labour Party is currently in power under Gordon Brown.

During the 80s and early 90s there was a lot of in-fighting and confusion in the Labour Party that made them unpalatable to the British voter, however: in the early 1990s there was something of a revolution and the Uber-Thatcher (or Tony Blair, as he’s better known) took over. Someone, somewhere in the Labour party had realised that the only way to knock the Conservatives out of power was to become them. New Labour was borne.

The Red Flag was cast aside, we were told “Things Can Only Get Better”, Oasis were invited around for tea and all of a sudden talk of nationalisation was dropped. They moved so quickly towards centre that traffic coming the other way was forced to jump out of the way. Tony Blair leaped straight into bed with George W Bush and remained firmly there.

Things to remember when voting Labour: As the former Chancellor of the Exchequer their current leader Gordon Brown is the man most responsible for the lousy state of the National Health Service and the current collapse. Thanks to him it we are now more in debt than we ever were under the Tories (and oh – by the way – we’re nationalising again!)

The Conservative Party (or Tories).

Back in the day the Tories and the Whigs (Liberals) had it all to themselves and the Tories represented the right.

Most famous leaders include Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. Since Thatcher got the boot they have had a succession of leaders ending in David Cameron who is, rather ironically, the Uber-Blair. Cameron has a regular Web-blog with his family to show that he is “down with the kids” and “with it” and cycles to work to show his green credentials – but only on Wednesdays when the press are more likely to be following him (for Prime Minister’s Questions) and allegedly with a big car behind carrying a change of shoes.

Most famous for refusing to budge during the strikes of the 80s, destroying the power of the unions, supporting privatisation (selling industries previously nationalised to “encourage competition” (for encourage competition read increase profit)) and for the deeply unpopular Poll Tax the Tories are now trying to recapture the ground they lost over the last decade, ironically by trying to make themselves accessible to the same voters that brought in the Labour Party.

The only other party of any real note is the Liberal Democrats. However, they should not be confused with the Liberals (or Whigs) that existed Back In The Day: although they share some of the same roots they are not the same party.

And again we have to go back to the 1980s when something rather odd happened in UK politics. A group of Ministers called “The Gang Of Four” split off from the Labour Party in 1981 and formed the SDP-Liberal Alliance. Around this time it became a very confusing issue voting for the Liberals because there were almost as many splinter groups as the Peoples Front Of Judea (or, indeed, the Judean People’s Front or the very lonely Popular Front of Judea (NB: for anyone who doesn’t get the reference go rent Life Of Brian NOW!!!)) and it was far too easy to accidentally tick the wrong box. However, after 7 years they merged and became the Liberal Democrats.

At the height of the unpopularity of the Tories the Lib Dems had a real chance to gain ground over Labour and in fact have taken many so called “safe” seats. However, thanks to the ineptitude of their then-leader Charles Kennedy (or Chat-Show Charlie as he was better known) they failed to capitalize on this – instead choosing to leap on whichever popular bandwagon was rolling through town.

Currently under the leadership of Nick Clegg the Liberal Democrats occupy an increasingly crowded middle ground in politics and support the introduction of Proportional Representation – which they say would be a fairer voting system and are the only party to openly admit that they would raise taxes. However a tiny problem with voting for them is that no one really knows the first thing about their policies or their leader. A comedy moment in their recent history occurred when they elected a leader with the nickname of “Ming”

Below the three main parties there are a whole herd of “one issue” parties and politicians. In many boroughs there are lone councillors elected to fight against hospital closures, or seats that went to people who disagreed with England entering Europe. The Green Party regularly does quite well and the Monster Raving Looney Party gets the occasional protest vote.

Most worrying of all is the recent rise in popularity of the British National Party. Although they have been keen to play down their racist credentials in recent years their main policy is still to Send Freeloading Johnny Foreigner Back Home in whatever form he or she may take. Sadly they have failed to realise that it is mainly British people too lazy or unwilling to do certain jobs that cause the problems in the first place, nor that we are essentially an immigrant nation and always have been (back to the Romans and the Normans and beyond)

In short I tend to feel that Douglas Adams was right when he said that anyone who is remotely capable of getting themselves into a position of power is, by very dint of that fact, the absolute last person you should allow to be there. Clearly this creates something of a conundrum. After all: who watches the watchmen?

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of

Wednesday night about three weeks ago and I’m working on a painting. It’s a very, very, very late present for a friend’s birthday and, with dutiful thanks to the members of the Art Group, is starting to finally look like what it is supposed to.

Most of the group are standing around their tables nattering: this is the dual purpose of the group – to paint in watercolours and to talk about your latest bunion treatment. Having no history with watercolours and no bunions I often find myself with nothing to say, or else making nice noises about each person’s paintings by way of introduction.

The Club Membership Secretary (at least I assume that’s what her role is) announces grumpily that membership is due for renewal at a rate of £10 for Full members and £5 for Associates. She makes this announcement with the kind of ill humour only mastered by guitar technicians pursuing a day job in a music shop, who take your money as if it is covered in arsenic and whose copy of the dictionary only includes one word: condescending (Unless you go in and start talking in technical terms about the A-grade multiplex tune assimilator, when their condescension turns to sneering and they assert “I think you mean the D-grade”).

I meander over to her and explain that I am not yet a member, nor am I yet at the stage where I could realistically submit three paintings for assessment: so I would like to pay Associate membership. I proffer a £10 note and she looks at me like I’ve just quoted an infamous line from the last fifteen minutes (give or take) of “The Exorcist”

Money, her whole demeanour says, why should I accept your money? As it turns out she has no change, so I am unable to pay on this occasion.

The next week comes around and I am fully armed and loaded with my £5 note. This time there can be no escape for her and she is forced to agree that I can, indeed, have one of her Much Prized Membership Cards, but demands that I provide her with a piece of paper containing my home address and my works mobile number (because I seldom give my home number to anyone). The card itself is suitably disappointing for the Herculean Endeavours I have apparently had to endure to be considered worthy.

I’m actually beginning to wonder if I really should be continuing to come to the group: I find them terribly unwilling to consider new ideas and there are several aspects of the groups membership policy that trouble me. My Inner Moral Compass tells me I should probably walk away, but the Voice Of Reason tells me that, despite everything I actually like a few of them and besides at £1.50 per session it’s far cheaper than going to class.

I sit down at my painting and try not to think about the Doddery Old Man (or DOM) to my right. The Membership Secretary I can forgive; there is something about the British Psyche that seems to attract grumpy teenagers to public service roles and make enthusiasts running a shop in something they love disapprove of anyone buying their produce: to the point where I feel quite wrong-footed if I go into a shop and am NOT served by someone with a scowl.
DOM is another matter. DOM is still on my list of Bloody Idiots I’d Like To Slap.

The reason being that after I had been going to the group for about three or four weeks DOM turned up for the first time and gave me the Curious Stare which is reserved for Young Interlopers before setting up his easel. He was thin in the way that normally only a pencil is thin and had wispy grey hair that looked like it had spent too many years being used as a floor mop. He was the owner of one of those faces that is best described as drawn, along with a pair of eyes that clearly announced to all who might be enquiring that Mr Brain was not at home to visitors.

I was pretty much engrossed in some project I had taken on just to give me something to do, so thought no more about him until the tea break.

All of a sudden the sun seemed to have fallen out of the sky in DOM’s world, as he was cluttering around his easel like a deranged chicken. A few of the other members, apparently more familiar with his ways, asked gently what the problem was.

After a few prompts along these lines DOM announced that someone had stolen the magazine he had been working from.

“Stolen? Are you sure?” The regulars were unwilling to believe such a thing was possible, “perhaps you’ve put it away?”

“No: it’s gone” more burrowing through bags “It must have been stolen”

Over the next five to ten minutes there was much rifling of bags and noise from my right, before DOM started a sedate round of the room, looking for the culprit. Finally he stopped in front of me.

He stood over me, glaring for a minute or so: clearly assuming that if anyone had stolen something then it must be the new boy. Part of me wanted to ask him why the fuck I would want to steal his magazine, but instead I looked him in the eye and asked “Are you OK?”

DOM seemed taken aback by this, and muttered something to himself before backing away to his stand. One of the other members finally seemed to lose patience with the game and came over to help, pulling a couple of magazines out of DOMs bag and saying “Are these the ones DOM?”

DOM grunted, seeming flustered as he realised that his magazines had been there the whole time, “Huh” he said, flummoxed by events, “Someone must be playing games with me”

And that was when he pissed me off.

The absent mindedness I could associate with, the confusion I could understand: even the suggestion that he thought I might be to blame I could live with – after all I was the new boy…but it was the refusal to accept the facts and back down that made me mad.

There’s a book in the UK called “Who Moved The Cheese” that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently. The basic premise being that if you run things in exactly the same way everyday in your life and refuse to move on then eventually you must expect the tide to turn and your audience to leave you high and dry.

I mention it now because despite the brilliance of some of the members, and (despite the niggles against some of the “characters”) the general nice and friendly atmosphere, it is a group that firmly has its head in the sand. Give them ten years and, unless they stand up and looking for new cheese soon, there will be nothing left but crumbs.

Sad but true.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Put A Tick In The Appropriate Box

For some months now, and as part of my Plans for 2009, I have been considering training as a Celebrant.

I’m sure most of you will know this already, but a Celebrant is someone who officiates at non-religious weddings, funerals, namings and other civil ceremonies.

Why have I been considering this? Well many reasons: Firstly I have a background in communications and events which is currently going to waste, secondly I need a second income that can fit around my current work and thirdly because I think that I will a) be good at it and b) enjoy it.

Mostly though I feel that it’s important that people like myself, who have no particular religious or political beliefs, are able to have a ceremony that represents something about their personality without having to have the usual half-hour of speeches, readings from 1920s etiquette books, performances of the Macarena dance or sudden burstings into song about what a nice bloke Jesus is. So if they want a Hawaiian style funeral, a Tony Blair impersonator to officiate at their wedding or want to name their child 4Real then they can hire someone who is willing and able to make their day complete.

Having looked around at the organisations out there I have found two: the British Humanist Society and the Association Of Independent Celebrants.

Whilst the BHS (not to be confused with the chain store) is clearly the bigger and more organised group I have decided, for a number of reasons, not to join them.

True: their training is much more in depth – they offer ongoing support whilst you get up to speed, insist on an interview prior to signing up to a course and even send a trained celebrant to your first few bookings, but there are several drawbacks.

Firstly they want you to join the BHS and to take a 10% cut of your takings. Secondly their courses are more expensive.

Primarily though my caution over joining is that I am always reluctant to join any organisation that has any political agenda. I tried explaining my concerns to one of their staff – but couldn’t quite get them to understand.

One of their current agendas is to campaign for a change to the entrance requirements for religious schools. This is not a subject that I have ever thought about in any depth previously, nor that I can admit to having any strong beliefs either way about.

But by becoming a member I would be saying to the world that I also support these causes.

For the same reason I would be unable to get married in church with a vicar – for me it would be a lie, done for the sake of ceremony and tradition.

For the same reason I have never joined Amnesty International or Save The Whale: because whilst in general I agree that people should live free from repression and that sea bound mammals should be protected from hunting and extinction I cannot, in actuality, support the violent or high-profile means used by members of either organisation to effect these ends. By signing up and giving my hard earned money to someone like Animal Rights, whose members feel free to terrorise the families of people who work in the animal industry, I would be saying that I feel those means are justified – something that would not be true.

And ok – yes I did vote in the last election. I voted for a bunch of people that I have no particular faith in and whose policies I mostly don’t know or believe will make the blindest bit of difference: and I am not pleased with myself for doing so. My justification in this instance is that my vote, wasted or otherwise, is a vote that helps to stop the British National Party gaining ground and is a vote that is spent on the party that I feel most likely to be honest about telling me what they’re going to do whether I will like it or not. My only excuse is that if I don’t vote for someone then I really don’t have the right to complain about the shower of bastards that get into power.

BTW – whilst on the subject of following organisations or otherwise I would like to apologise to everyone who reads this blog that I have never elected to “follow” any of your blogs. This has nothing to do with any political or personal agenda – whilst I enjoy reading all of your thoughts and contributions I know myself well enough to know that I would get seriously annoyed with the constant emails reminding me that you have updated.

I’d rather take the time to take the pleasure in reading you and responding when my brain is at its most responsive

Any thoughts, organised or otherwise, would be appreciated as usual xxx

Friday, 6 March 2009

Last Night

And then there are nights like last night.

When nothing you do goes the way you want it to.

Where every kind, supportive word from the teacher feels like a leadweight on your heart

Where the crowd never goes wild

Where the guitarist never reaches that bit in the song where the hairs stand up on your arms.

Where you get so fucked off with yourself that you just want to walk out and never touch a pencil again

Where the Depression Cloud settles in and obscures your vision.

Where everyone else seems to be getting it, producing masterpieces, but you are not.

And it takes every inch of what makes you to keep on trying.

Still - fairplay to the model, who must have spent ten years studying the Tantric Karma-Sutra (Yoga Edition) to be that bendy!

I really aught to give my Depression Cloud a name. Trevor is the current forerunner, but suggestions would be welcome (on a postcard please)

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Chasing Rainbows

The day after my procedure and I’m awake early.

It’s Sunday morning, about 7am and any trace of sleep is gone – so I decide I might as well get up, get something to eat and go out.

The cats follow me downstairs and following me around asking for food. As usual Furry dives straight in, whilst Tiny sits politely waiting for anything that’s left when he’s finished. They both like to spend time during the night clambering onto my head or snuggling down by my feet – meaning that both have been kicked by accident on more than one occasion.

I fish out my cycling gear and pull my bike out of the kitchen and into the entry by the side of the house, checking the tyres and the brakes: it has been two months since I’ve ridden it. Before I start seriously riding it I will get it serviced properly, but the bike is in good enough condition for today.

Most days I just follow my nose unless I have somewhere specific to go: heading towards country roads, taking a left that I have never taken before just to find out where it goes. On this occasion I’m heading out with a Purpose (note capital letter).

From November 2009 our offices move to a new location. I had hoped (somewhere in the tiny corner of my brain that still believes in miracles) that we would move to a more central location, but it is now looking increasingly likely that we will be even further away from my home: and so I need to find a new cycle route. I decide to follow a route I’ve had mapped out in my head for a few weeks: one that goes as close to the crow’s flight as possible by cutting off corners, taking routes that run alongside country parks and over footbridges before arriving at my destination. In order to fully check the validity of this route I decide I will come home via a second route through a more built up area.

I clamber onto my bike and set off – surprised at how easy I find it: I’ve been on the bus to work since September (earlier than usual because of a leg injury) so am out of shape, but the bike carries me through the worst of it and its barely a few seconds before I’m at the end of the road and cycling down into the subway. The road nearby is quite a major one and there’s no cycle path on either route, so I stick to the pavement and watch for pedestrians as I climb the slow hill towards the local war memorial. There’s a road to one side of it that I follow, crossing another major road and wondering how realistic this journey will be at rush hour.

All around me the landscape is changing from the way I have known it: an old pub has been flattened by developers, new businesses stand where familiar names once were.

Down the hill and across the footbridge I see the local recycling plant and take what I believe to be the right route – only to find myself on a wooded path. I crouch down as I whizz through low tunnel after low tunnel, each barely enough to give me space to pass. The world is in darkness as I can’t stop to take off my sunglasses and I know I can’t follow this part of the route everyday. Nevertheless it brings me out somewhere I didn’t expect – somewhere very close to the new offices and I’m surprised that the journey is actually shorter than my current one.

I cycle back a different route, enjoying the thrill of the exercise and the complications of following the wrong route for a mile or so. It’s hard to describe the feeling that cycling on a quiet morning like this gives me: it’s like the moment when I’m sitting in front of a computer and my fingers are typing as fast as they can to keep up with my imagination, or the moment that I get so involved in a painting that everything else just swims away.

In that moment the world slips away and I’m free of the doubts and the insecurities. In that moment I can be the person that I want to be.

Many people I know talk about hills when they talk about cycling – how much of a pain they are to conquer – I actually quite like them. I like that feeling of accomplishment you get when you get to the top of a hill and are rewarded with the view – you can take your time and find your own path: something that we are sadly allowed to do so infrequently in our lives.

Now, with spring rapidly approaching, my cycling begins again in earnest. I’m hoping to build up my distances again to the point where I can easily do 40-50 miles in a journey. Maybe when I do I will take you with me.

On a separate subject, but in the vein of taking you with me – I have several ideas for novels at present: two of which I want to keep off line, but I have been thinking of sharing the third one on a separate blog linked in to this one.

However, before I start I would appreciate some (honest) levels of interest. The idea is based around a fading rock band who are trying to ride the wave of their one-hit-wonder for a comeback tour, but are forced to face their insecurities along the way. Each post would be between 3-5,000 words - which you may feel is a bit much to cope with

I guess I would post about once or twice a month.

If there’s sufficient interest I will go ahead – but please be honest with feedback on this.