Thursday, February 26, 2015

Long Distance

The beginning of Steven Spielberg's best film, Duel, captures the magic of driving in America. I like the process of transformation, from driving along a busy 12-lane freeway, with dozens of radio stations to choose from, to finding yourself alone, on a deserted two-lane stretch of road, with only a crackling Christian channel for company, broadcasting a melodrama about an alcoholic adulterer who finds Jesus.

A sign announces that Davis City is five miles ahead and you feel a wave of excitement, as if the promised land is around the corner. It doesn't matter that when you reach Davis City, it takes 15 seconds to travel from one end to the other. The pleasure is in the anticipation.

Sadly, Great Britain's motorways don't offer quite the same excitement:

There will always be three or four lanes and the view will nearly always be the same . You may feel a slight frisson as BBC Radio Warwickshire's diminishing signal segues into a stronger one from Radio Leicester. I can't say I did.

I had to make a 400-mile round trip yesterday, along a purgatorial stretch of motoway that seemed to be designed to sap the human spirit. At one point I stopped at a service station, hoping to restore my equilibrium. That was a mistake.

Where was I? I still don't know. Everything was identical to another service station I went to last week. Working men in hi-vis jackets huddled around the counter of Greggs Bakery, whilst middle management types in shiny suits hooked into the free wifi in Costa Coffe and checked their emails.

The design of the service station aimed at a reassuring uniformity, presenting the visitor with familiar brands. There was no sense of being anywhere.

Later, I stopped at Newport Pagnell and went across this walkway. Most of the windows had been frosted, but a couple of clear panes gave a view of cars and lorries hurtling past underneath. The movement and noise beneath me contrasted with the curious stillness of the bridge.

Further north, I noticed that the Waitrose in another service station was identical to the one at Newport Pagnell, right down to the three boxes of Lindt chocolate bunnies to the left of the till. It reminded me of a question that our philosophy lecturer asked us:

"If I remove my friend's Ford Cortina and replace it with one that's identical in every minute detail to the point where my friend has no idea that his car has been switched, is it the same car?"

At the time, we all groaned and said no, of course not. What a silly question. But actually it was a sly introduction to epistemology, forcing us to confront the truth that reality was simply what we thought we knew. Was I in the same Waitrose?

But then I noticed that the sales assistant had a slightly different accent and was a little friendlier. It was like unlocking your Cortina and finding furry dice that weren't there before.

After hours of driving, I reached my destination. The prospect of having to drive home wasn't particularly appealling. Perhaps I could just live here, I thought, as I drove past rows of semi-detached houses. I quickly spotted my new local shop, which had three men drinking cans of lager outside.

Whenever I go anywhere, I wonder what it would be like to have a life there. If I'd made different decisions when I was young, where would I be now? More successful, or drinking lager outside a corner shop in the north? Happier or sadder?

It's tantalising to think how many paths are open to us.

My meeting lasted for five minutes. He was a nice chap and we both agreed that we'd play it by ear. There wasn't much more to say.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Long Man

This morning began normally enough. My wife refused to get up until she'd read another chapter of the new Anne Tyler novel. I fiddled around on my phone, looking at a selection of pointless updates on Facebook. My older son remained asleep, while his brother crept downstairs to play on the computer.

I knew that with a little application, we could continue doing this until lunchtime, blaming the weather for our inertia. But a brief glint of sunlight from a passing car hinted at a morning that was too good to be squandered. A walk on the South Downs was the answer. I told my younger son to get his coat. 
We started here, in the shadow of the Long Man of Wilmington. The beauty of this hill figure, "as high as forty men", is that nobody knows anything about it. It may be thousands of years old or just a few hundred. We don't have a clue who built it, or why. 

Whether it's a fertility symbol, a warning to enemies or a simple work of art is anyone's guess. That's the beauty of the Long Man.

Erich von Daniken would probably assert that it's a signal to visiting aliens. As if.

I once had the misfortune to work in a bookshop with a large clientele of New Age fans, during which I met a number of charlatans and some people who probably needed more help than a quartz crystal could provide. As a result, I avoid visiting the Long Man when there's any likelihood of spotting a druid.

Ironically, they spoil the mystical atmosphere of the place.

My son, who is nine, looked very thoughtful and said "This is marvellous. You know, when I was younger, I preferred the city to the countryside, but I find that as I get older, I prefer the countryside."

A wise head on young shoulders.

I didn't have any particular plan, other than to walk to the Long Man, but my son seemed to be enjoying himself so much, it seemed a pity to stop. So we didn't.

The largest hill is Firle Beacon. Virginia Woolf regularly walked across it when she went to visit her sister Vanessa, at Charleston, which is probably a small dot in this photo. Beyond Firle Beacon is Lewes, where Woolf bought her baked beans and bottles of stout.

After walking for a mile or so, we saw a village in the distance. I realised that it was Alfriston and suggested that we'd better turn back and walk to the car, but my son was determined to press on and marched ahead, singing 'It's a Long Way To Tipperary'. 

My son loves singing. He has no idea that he is completely tone deaf.

The path that was supposed to cut through fields to Alfriston was flooded, so we took the long way round and walked past some idyllic, asymetrical cottages and solid, Georgian homes. It was almost the perfect, picture postcard village, but was spoiled by a constant stream of traffic.

I noticed that my son was extremely pale - he'd never walked this far in his life - so I suggested getting a taxi back to the car park. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a phone signal. The only answer was to either accost a kindly Morris Minor-owning vicar, or consume some calories.

We found the village store, where a nice woman made me a delicious sandwich that contained at least twice as much beef as I was expecting. Within minutes, I was beefed-up.

My son chose a Curly-Wurly bar and I watched the colour slowly return to his cheeks. I was unaware of the restorative properties of the Curly-Wurly.

As we left Alfriston, a pterodactyl-like silhouette circled above the flooded fields. My son had never seen a heron before and was impressed by the huge wingspan. "This is an adventure," he said. "We never know what we're going to see next. Those Disney places pretend to give you adventures, but you know what to expect."

Good, I thought, that's saved me several hundred quid and a weekend of hell at Disneyland Paris.

After a fairly steep climb, my son asked to stop and we sat down for a few minutes. I looked at the piece of grass next to me and saw that it was actually made up of many different plants, some of them barely visible, clinging on to a bedrock that was comprised of the bones of billions of prehistoric creatures. It seemed miraculous.

Then I noticed an odd, whorl-shaped object:

It was a snail, unlike any that I have found in my garden. I looked closer and realised that the whole area was littered with these tiny shells. I will be contacting the relevant authorities about the discovery of the Cochlea Steerforthum.

As we walked back, I thought of a conversation I had with a friend in the pub, yesterday evening. We both agreed that we had reached an age where we could no longer afford to squander time. We might live for another 40 years and remain in reasonable health for much of it. But we might not.

Going for a long walk on the Downs may not qualify as a 'bucket list' activity, but it had the sense of being what Frank O'Hara called the "real right thing" and that, I think, is all anyone can ask for.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lost in Translation

Today I did a 400-mile round trip for a 15-minute meeting. I think it went well, but I'll know more in a couple of months' time.

When I got back, I decided to work out the relative cost of hiring vans and drivers to transport my books, versus buying a van of my own. A quick search on eBay yielded this result:

But although the price was attractive, the description left me none the wiser:

"Hi, this is a me Van seling me freinds behalf :
this it's a very nice and clear van inside + outside, don't be more used, last year drived only 500 mileage !

Mot is valid for half off april 2015, this week be changed new front head lamps for passinger side. Car is no rast !

Engine and gearbox working smoothly, may be the gear shift need grease, start anny time every time.

Velcome personaly visit this van, bad don't be test drive if be engine cool. Too many ''mechanic'' it's less expirience for me self, don't put full gas to cool engine !!!

This is a IVECO which factory in Italy prodact is engine very top quality for a Vans and HGV truck, Long life engine and this is 89k mileage this is nothing !!! Engine live for good owner is ower 500 k mileage with standart trip service Iveco garage, used good quality oil and parts.

Every people need fixing in GP doctors, car haved fixed from authority garage whitch understand everything.

Ok, yesterday i'm drived 50 mileage, big engine power i'm driving excelent 2450 rpm only 60 mil per hour with 5 gear. Me results is excelent big horse power van from towing heavy trailers.

New owner be very happy keeped this SWB van.

V5 and Mot certificate ready to go, half tank Diesel.

Finaly, excelent inside and outside, price for sell £1590

I wonder if Google Translate was employed, or whether it's just someone's unique brand of English? Either way, I know that anything I did in another language would be a lot worse.

Finally, on the subject of vans, here's a fine example of sensitive tabloid journalism, which I spotted in an abandoned copy of 'The Sun':

I wonder if he needs a job?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Dogfish It Was That Died

After a week of unremittingly grim, depressing weather, I didn't expect to be spending today lying on a beach with my coat off, staring at a dead dogfish. It's the little surprises that keep me going.

I was already planning to visit the Ladybird exhibition at the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill, but the Mediterranean weather was an added bonus. Standing underneath this cupola, it felt as if I was in Greece.

A 180° turn would have quickly ruined that illusion.

The exhibition was packed and instead of the usual quiet reverence, the rooms buzzed with the enthusiasm of grown-up children, recognising a once-loved but long forgotten image:

Seeing the original illustrations only increased my admiration for the artists. Even something as simple as milk being poured into a glass became a thing of beauty.

For several decades, the Ladybird illustrators were overlooked in favour of their more quirky contemporaries. But although realism of Ladybird may have been less interesting artistically, children preferred it. We didn't want sketchy drawings that alluded to the real thing; we wanted the thing itself.

As an adult, I might prefer Miroslav Šašek's London to the Ladybird one, but the child in me loves the clear, unambiguous world of the latter:

The world of Ladybird is an impossibly idyllic one. Daddy goes off to work at the office, the children walk to school, while Mummy enjoys a leisurely morning in town, chatting to the local shopkeepers.

Daddy is not having an affair and Mummy is not on valium.

Oddly enough, my early childhood was remarkably similar. The shopkeepers all knew me by name and train drivers smiled and waved when I stood by the railwayline. Terrible things may have been happening in the world at large, but not in Teddington.

Was it all the illusion of a small child? Was the real world more like this:

"Now bugger off and stop asking daft questions."

I'm not sure, but I think that Ladybird books reinforced the partial illusion that our parents tried to create when we were little: the world is a kind and safe place. Revisiting that vision can be a bittersweet experience, highlighting the disparity between our infantile hopes and the reality that awaits us.

The Ladybird world is a Platonic paradise, free of class conflict, religious antagonism or political strife. There are no terrorists, paedophiles or murderers. The occasional burgular appears, but is quickly apprehended by the local bobby on the beat. Order is restored.

What, if anything, will inspire the same nostalgia in the middle-aged of the 2040s? My older son is already nostalgic about computer games of ten years ago, so perhaps it will be dominated by obsolete technology and the characters of Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.

A friend told me that last week, the long-forgotten fax machine in her office suddenly sprang into life, after years of silence. As the ancient thermal paper slowly and noisily emerged from the rollers, my friend realised that none of her 20-something colleagues knew what a fax was.

In the corner of the office, a man in his 40s was quietly laughing to himself.

After the exhibition, we walked over to the beach and enjoyed the novelty of sunbathing in mid-February, wriggling until the pebbles reached a comfortably orthopaedic configuration. It was some time before we noticed a dead dogfish lying next to us, camouflaged against the stones.

It was as perfect as a Ladybird illustration.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Trains, Plays and Auto-Awesomes

This week I've spent more time in London than I have working. I feel as if I've gone through the motions of commuting without the unpleasant business of actually having to do a job.

This morning, I found myself here:

Google's 'Auto-Awesome' feature is continuing to randomly mess around with my smartphone camera photos, but I'm not complaining. The black and white version above is far better than the original below.

Perhaps there's a feature that automatically mutes the garish colours of hi vis jackets.

I'd arranged to meet up with two friends whom I've known since I was 11. They were running late, so I popped into St Paul's and killed time by sitting in the Whispering Gallery. Stupidly, I'd forgotten how it had earned its name and wondered why I was hearing strange voices emanating from the bare walls.

Fortunately, the voices were only telling me to wave if I could hear them.

After a stroll around some monuments to forgotten 18th century heroes, I met my friends.

We have all gone off in very different directions during the last few decades, but there is an ease that comes with old friendships, perhaps because we know the child within the adult.

Today, we recalled our first trip to London and my near-demise at the hands of Duran Duran, who were speeding through the back streets of Knightsbridge and narrowly missed knocking me off my bicycle.

Would my death have been a price worth paying to stop hits like The Reflex seeing the light of day?

We talked about the career choices we'd made. One friend worked as a software developer and had watched three alpha male colleagues become absurdly wealthy and successful in their early 30s, only to pay the price for it ten years on, with broken marriages and heart attacks. All three were now dead.

Next time I'm sorting through a tonne of books in a freezing cold warehouse, I shall congratulate myself for not jeopardizing my health with a successful career.

After saying our goodbyes, I walked to the station platform and waited to board my train. Next to me, a small, dumpy woman in her late 60s was fussing with her husband's coat collar, as if he was a little boy. The train doors opened and we walked towards the one vacant table.

The wife pointed to some empty coffee cups: "You can clear those up before we sit down." The husband meekly obliged without saying a word. They then sat in silence until the tannoy announced that we were in coach number five of twelve. 'Ooh, "coach number five of twelve"', she imitated, in a sarcastic voice.

The husband asked his wife what she had said. "I'm not saying it again!" she snapped.

I looked at the husband. He had the air of a broken man and I was slightly disturbed to see the faint traces of a black eye. Almost as if she could read my mind, the wife blandly announced "As you sow, so shall you reap."

The husband remained still and silent.

Another passenger that caught my eye was this individual:

I didn't manage to get more than a blurred snapshot, but you get the general idea. I'm used to mad hair but the facemask, with its metal shield over the nose, was a little disturbing. Perhaps they had allergies.

However, the most offensive person was a young businessman, two days ago, who was talking loudly on his phone so that we could all hear how dynamic he was: "Yup, yup, I'm gonna be smashing into it over the next few days..."

'Smashing into' was a new one on me, but it falls into the same league as actioning and escalating. It's part of a growing trend in which people try to claim kudos for what they intend to do as a means of distracting attention from what they haven't achieved so far. The crude, macho metaphor was clearly meant to impress.

The call ended and the man dialled a new number: "Yeah, behind Sainsburys...okay...turn left...yep..." There was a paused and he sighed theatrically. "Look, I don't want options" he said, aggressively. Okay? Just tell me where I should go."

I could hear a woman's voice on the other end of the end. I wanted to take the phone and say "Don't do it. He's a complete plonker."

We were on our way back from seeing 'Treasure Island' at the National Theatre:

It was a competent production, but the real star of the show was the amazing set and beautiful lighting (by the wonderfully-named Bruno Poet).

Out of the circle below, a three-storey cross-section of a sailing ship emerged, with people sitting in fully-furnished rooms. It was quite stunning:

I'm more aware of the sets these days, as my father-in-law was a lighting designer and we always used to feel grateful when a critic noticed his work in a review.

His lighting plans for operas were incredibly complex, like a schematic for the Hadron Collider, but he was an artist by training and used his switchboard like an painter's palette. The results were stunning, but I wonder how many people noticed his work. 

I suppose we all see different things. I was particularly moved by a beautiful sea shanty at the end of 'Treasure Island', arranged by John Tams. My wife could barely remember it, but my younger son had noticed, as he's not a big fan of musical theatre.

Six weeks earlier, we went to see a friend's daughter in a production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I had promised my son that it wasn't a musical, but there was rather more singing than we expected.

Afterwards, I asked my son what he thought:

"It was good apart from the music. The poster should have said:  

Warning. May contain traces of songs."

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Lost Idyll of Ladybird

One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my mother's lap, looking through the 'Ladybird Book of Nursery Rhymes'. The insistent rhythms of the verses made a lasting impression:

"Fiddle-de-dee, fiddle-de-dee, the fly shall marry the bumblebee..."

But most of all, I loved the illustrations: 

Perhaps the illustrator of the Dan Dare science fiction comic-strip wasn't the natural candidate for a collection of nursery rhymes, but Frank Hampson turned out to be an inspired choice. His pictures are some of the most evocative in children's literature.

In his illustrations,  Hampson created an idyllic, pre-industrial England of villages and market towns, without a single Satanic mill in sight.

The fashions and buildings were (like many of the rhymes) mostly 18th century, but sometimes a steam engine, Victorian top hat or Tudor ruff would add a note of temporal discombobulation.

I often wonder whether these illustrations inspired my later life. I do seem to have ended up living somewhere that's remarkably similar to this illustration for 'Hot Cross Buns'. Is that Lewes Castle in the background?

Of course in the real world, the hot cross bun man would have been driven out of business by Caffè Nero and I'd have to resort to a pain au raisin, served by some over-familiar barista.

Many of the verses are of unknown provenance, but the occasional obsolete rhyme points to their antiquity. For example, in 'Tweedledee and Tweedledum', barrel rhymes with quarrel.

 And in 'Goosey Goosey Gander', wander rhymes with gander:

This was one of my favourite illustrations, from an age in which Gloucester was synonymous with Doctor Foster rather than Fred West. A contemporary version would probably end with Doctor Foster suing Gloucester City Council or, at the very least, phoning the Potholes Hotline.

I also loved this idyllic, Devon-like scene of rolling hills, unpolluted rivers and falling children.

The rhyme, which appears in the second volume, has the benefit of a little-known additional verse to 'Jack and Jill', in which "Dame Dob...patched his nob." A line that would have caused no end of sniggering when I was at school.

Some of the nursey rhymes have a rather melancholy tone. When Old Mother Hubbard discovers that her cupboard is bare, there is no hint of any possibility of redemption. Something that my three-year-old self found quite hard to take.

I preferred the world evoked in 'Tom, He Was a Piper's Son', with its blue sea, brightly-coloured clothes and the prospect of sailing off to exotic lands. Sadly, if you search for it on YouTube, there's a strong possibility that you'll stumble across this very disturbing Japanese manga version. I had to exorcise myself afterwards by listening to the Carpenters.

My least favourite illustration was the slightly harrowing image of a little boy waiting to be beaten in 'I do not like thee, Doctor Fell'.

The Wikipedia entry for Doctor Fell, which is said to date from 1680 (the rhyme, not the Wikipedia entry), is a fascinating read. I had no idea that Fell was a real person, or that Hannibal Lecter used the name as a pseudonym.

Today, boys aren't encouraged to hang around harbours and chat to sailors, but in this counting rhyme we're presented with a far more innocent world. I seem to remember my son being given a tape of children's songs, which included "One, two, three four five. Once I caught a fish alive..."

It met with a mysterious accident. My son didn't complain.

This illustration for 'Jack Be Nimble' is pretty straightforward, but some of Frank Hampson's pictures make me wonder what he put in his pipe. This bizarre vision of 'The Man in the Moon' is wonderfully bonkers:

'The Old Woman in the Basket' is also rather odd, with its depiction of a blue space. Intriguingly, the Ladybird book has a version that uses "quoth" instead of "said" - a word which has been out of use for at least 250 years:

How do you draw blind mice? Hampson's solution is rather novel. However, the prize for the most eccentric illustration is the one for 'This Little Piggy':

Quite why Frank Hampson suddenly went all 1960s, with a moped and television, I don't know. The perspective is also rather odd.

Proust had his madeleines. I have my Ladybird books of nursery rhymes. Just one look at any of the illustrations is a bittersweet experience, recalling a happy time in my childhood, but also reminding me that I don't live in a carefree world of endless summers and tricorn hats.

I don't think I've ever quite recovered from the disappointment.