Sunday, August 31, 2003


Most of the routine of living is just that - routine. The next day is much like the last; events come and go and we all get a little older.

But every once in a while something unexpected and special comes along to surprise and delight. Today is one of those days.

Music plays a pretty central part in my life, and I've often wondered about the vast wealth of great music and great talent out there that I'll probably never get to hear. Not that I feel hard done by; its good to know that music represents a well of inspiration that will never run dry.

Anyway, today I heard for the first time the amazing voice of Eva Cassidy. I've probably been up a cultural backwater because although I'd heard the name I knew nothing about her and had never knowingly heard her sing.

What can I say. Words are inadequate. If I was a singer, I think I might feel the same way as Oscar Peterson felt when he first heard Art Tatum - according to the story, he cried and didn't touch a piano for six weeks; there didn't seem a lot of point in the face of such talent. But thankfully I'm no singer so I just feel gladdened to have had that particular little corner of musical mastery revealed.

Good on you, songbird, wherever you're flying now.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

On Identity 

I’ll apologise in advance. This is going to be a rather self centred post. Lately, I’ve been pondering the source of identity, and the only identity of which I really have much experience is my own, so that will have to be the source of my musings.

What sparked it all off was a minor back injury. Usually I cycle to work, but for the last fortnight I’ve joined the great commuting masses in the daily exasperations faced by users of the London public transport systems. I’ve noticed before that on days when I take the train I feel somehow less “me”, but after 2 weeks of it things have felt definitely out of place.

I think its because cycling reinforces many aspects of my identity that are important to me - independence, being “green”, keeping fit, being a little different, being in control of my own destiny. Taking the train makes me one of the crowd, just another caterpiller crawling inot work, subject to the vagaries of the transport system. It seems odd that such a simple choice of action can have such an influence on how I feel. Seeing cyclists as I walk along the Euston Road, I feel guilty, I want to say “I’m one of you really, its just that I can’t be one today”. So the link between what I am and what I do is a two-way link – not only does what I am influence what I do, but what I do influences what I am.

But perhaps that’s because other potential sources of identity are not so strong. Work for instance contributes nothing at the moment. I’ve never been completely comfortable with the idea of saying I’m a “something” – engineer, manager, consultant, whatever. That would seem in some way to reduce the value of the self. But right now work is pretty irrelevant in the identity stakes, because what I do has no value for me (other than a monetary value, which although useful isn’t all that important).

Another source is upbringing. Now I know that a tremendous amount of who I am derives from who my father was. His manner was never directive or overbearing, but just by quietly being who he was, always upholding his principles, always with respect and love for others, his influence was profound. But since he died, a few years ago now, I’ve become conscious of becoming more my own person, if that makes sense.

Family plays a big part of course. Father to my children; partner to my wife; general fixer of things that break; maintainer of the roof over our heads; joint breadwinner. All these are aspects of identity, but they derive from it rather than vice-versa.

But I’ve still not got to the source. I keep getting drawn back to the link between identity and action. In just the same way as, for example, the only real evidence for faith or love is in actions not in feelings, so perhaps identity is indeed in what we do, not in what we may think we are.

If that’s the case, I’d better start thinking very seriously about what I do for the rest of my working life.

Friday, August 29, 2003


Well, if anyone is interested, the universe is safe for another day.
I didn't get the job.
Maybe someone somewhere is trying to tell me something.

No, thats overly pessimistic.

But I think perhaps I don't know myself as well as I thought I did?

The person I appear to be
The person I think I am
The person I'd like to be
The person I pretend to be
The person I *really* am

Which is which? Are any of them real? Or are they all just faces?


Heart@Work reminds me that its 40 years since Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech.

Hearing the news this morning of the release of the 9/11 emergency message transcripts, I wondered what possible good could come from this action and was reminded or another of King's speeches:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction....The chain reaction of evil--hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars--must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation. ~Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength To Love, 1963

Let the juxtaposition of those two news items speak for itself...

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Stage Fright 

In 84 minutes time, I go on stage.

I'll be parading my knowledge, my skills, my self, my worth, in that curious piece of theatre known as the Job Interview.

I've been around a while, so its not as if I haven't done this before, but I don't recall ever feeling quite as nervous or as wound up. This time matters to me. A lot. So much so that last night the thought even crossed my mind that I could withdraw and thereby avoid having to face rejection. Find the logic in that...

I thought maybe if I adopt the discipline of putting fingers to keyboard to try and express these thoughts in some semi-coherent form, I might get my head in some kind of shape for the interview.

79 minutes.

I titled this stage fright because right now my thinking - even my being - seems to have frozen in just the same way as an actor who waits in the wings and faces that "I can't go on stage" feeling. I've been feeling really positive about this job for the last week or so, doing all my preparation, networking, imagining how I'd do the job, the issues I'd face, the approach I might take, the strengths I'd bring... All that preparation seems like a memory now; like trying to recall the details of a film I saw 6 months ago. The storyline may be there but the immediacy has gone.

I never told you about the job. Virtually all my working life I've been in broad engineering or management roles, with a brief foray into property. I've learned a lot about people and organisations over that time and for the past 8 years or so I've been trying to migrate into something more associated with people and organisational development. This is the closest I've yet got. Leading a team to design and deliver a new support service within the organisation for which I work aimed at improving effectiveness at personal, team and organisational levels.

Its challenging, frightening, exciting, daunting, stimulating, ennervating. It may bring risk, freedom, exposure, the glow of success, the gloom of failure.

[59 minutes. This is starting to be useful. To exorcise a demon, you have first to recognise and then face it. A functioning brain is also a prerequisite to producing coherent text].

So why the nerves?

Two things. Firstly, its about being judged. That's the easy bit - nothing unusual there.

Secondly the job would put me in control. Although I've been there before, for the past couple of years I've marked time in a fairly quiet role with my head well below the parapet. I've become lazy and in danger of getting stuck in a rut.

Hmmm... yes... I think we're getting somewhere now.

...And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse...

From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T S Eliot

Do I dare disturb the universe?

42 minutes...

Friday, August 15, 2003

Emotion in the city 

Well, I may have been closer to the mark second time round yesterday. The city does indeed contain much to feed the soul.

There's currently a wonderful open-air photographic exhibition in Regents Park - the M.I.L.K. (Moments of Intimicy, Laughter and Kinship) exhibition. Over 200 photos from around the world, in huge weatherproof mounts.

I can't help but analyse things. Maybe it comes from having once been a scientist. As I wandered past the displays, I fell to wondering what it was about some shots gave them meaning for me, whilst I would walk straight past others.

Predictably perhaps, many photos brought together youth and age. Babies smiling up into grandparent's faces, that kind of thing. I have to say these did little for me; just a smile then I moved on. Perhaps it was because I felt them mostly contrived, composed for the benefit of the judges not the audience.

Internationally, the collection was broad. Very many depicted living conditions and a way of life very different from those I'm used to - a powerful reminder that, globally, the way of life I enjoy (?) is the exception rather than the rule. Much in these was of interest, but it didn't necessarily move me.

But after a while I realised there was indeed a common factor to all those that particularly caught my eye - those that I would linger over, becoming involved with them - they all captured emotion between people. The subjects were involved with each other, not the camera. An Israeli nurse and her elderly patient greeting each other with hands holding each other's faces; a father and son in energetic conversation; an 88 year old woman saying goodbye to her 92 year old friend since school days who was close the death. The communication of emotion was so powerful that some of these brought a few tears to my eyes.

At first it seemed surprising that so few fell into this category. But judging by the technical quality of the photos I'd guess that most were well prepared - and emotion is something that can't be turned on for the benefit of the camera. I love the photographs of Frank Meadow Sutcliffe which date back almost to the dawn of photography (he established his studio in 1875). His photos would of necessity have required considerable preparation (the earliest being on wet collodion glass plates) and I couldn't help but be reminded of them as I viewed this exhibition.

Now, I don't mean that those photos that didn't communicate emotion were necessarily any less worthy than those that did, but I found it intriguing that in an exhibition whose subject is so closely tied to emotion, so few shots had captured it.

Vision, skill, planning and patience - I guess these are all prerequisites at this level of photography. But maybe what tips the balance between a good and a great photo is a little bit of luck.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

A moment of whimsy... 

I was idly gazing out of the office window when my eye was caught by the sight of two white butterflies dancing together in the urban chasm formed by the office blocks either side of the busy dual carriageway of the Euston Road.

For a few moments my spirit danced with them; my desk, PC, office and the traffic outside temporarily fading into the background as my focus joined theirs in a column of space high above the road, until they rose out of sight.

I thought what a sterile environment for the spirit a city can be - or appears to be. Occasionally though, like just now, something breaks through into awareness and entices a response out of that part of me which I call soul.

I said the city appears to be sterile, but I know it isn't completely so - if my spirit was but awake enough to look I'd find other sources of sustenance hidden in unlikely corners.

Right soul, back in your box - time for more of the W-thing.

[Later... I think I may have been mistaken, in that it is the workplace, not the city, that is the sterile environment. Hence also perhaps my reference to work as the W-thing]

Monday, August 11, 2003

To delete or not to delete, that is the question... 

Once again, Shelley Powers provides much food for thought. The issue here is the deletion, or not, of blog archives. Here’s a few of my struggling thoughts which attempt to get a handle on some of the philosophy.

One of the unique features of the Web, and indeed of electronic communication in general, is that it allows timeshifting – dialogue can take place over an extended period, to suit the lifestyle, time zone and even speed of thought processes of the participants. Extended, but only up to a point, depending on the situation and application. The dialogue inevitably moves on.

It’s a bit like the frozen edge of a lake in winter. The ice already formed is the past – the ideas, thoughts (and even permalinks) that have been expressed, debated, written down, codified, related to other ideas. The free water in the middle of the lake is the made up of the embryonic ideas yet to be born and develop relationships with the other ideas milling around out there. The really interesting place is the boundary between ice and water, where the semi-random, semi-chaotic processes of interaction, both predicatable and chance, result in new ideas, new structures crystallising out of the fluidity of our thought processes.

I’m usually wary about taking analogies too far, but in some ways this analogy may be quite precise. Just as a free water molecule at the edge of the ice stops being chaotic and develops bonds with the molecules in the ice crystal lattice, so ideas being formed latch on to ideas already expressed and so themselves become part of the lattice. (If you want, you could develop it still further: editing posts becomes melting and re-freezing; broken links are holes in the ice – I’m sure the imaginative could think of more but I become less sure of the usefulness of the analogy the further it gets stretched. Analogies are useful in that they provide a bridge between the familiar and the unfamiliar, but only remain useful if the land at the end of the bridge is terra firma and not a mirage).

Ideas rarely develop in isolation; instead they grow through a process of dialogue, even if that is internal dialogue within one person. In normal conversation that development process is usually never recorded, but developing ideas on the web through the medium of a blog is perhaps unique in the way it allows the process – or as much of the process as the participants are willing to expose - to be captured and recorded. So there might just be an opportunity there to begin to find an answer to the question “Where does knowledge come from?”

We write in order to have influence – even if only influence on ourselves, giving order to a chaotic mass of semi-structured thoughts. If the writing is successful, in that it has influence, it is no longer an isolated object but becomes part of a wider web (in the most general sense of the word) of cause and effect. I think Maria is spot on when she says:

“Just think, by the fact that this piece of writing existed, by the virtue that it was read, it has helped shape some of the currents and it has made some tides rise, where there would be no currents, or where the sea would be calm as a lake. In this sense, the Web is never broken, and this sense, there is no taking away that which was once cast out there on the open waters of the Internet.”

So deleting an archive will only delete the record of the words. The idea lives on in the influence it has had.

Mind you, deletion might prevent the words having further influence. The world is a strange and chaotic place, and isolated lumps of history have a habit of surfacing when you least expect them…

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Luck? Providence? 

Cycling home today I had a little incident. The front forks broke.

I'd noticed something amiss - it felt like the brakes were sticking or I had a semi-flat tyre. I stopped to check, found nothing obviously wrong, so pedalled off again (not too strenuously - at 35degC today is the hottest day of the year). Within a few yards, the front wheel locked solid, spitting me off the bike - and as my feet were clipped into the pedals I ended up laying sideways in the road, still attached to the bike.

I fell to the left. If I'd fallen to the right, my head would probably have gone under the car that was passing.

I'd just pulled away so was only doing a few mph. Most of the time on that route I'm doing about 20mph and at that speed an instantly-locked front wheel would have sent me flying straight over the handlebars.

I ended up with just grazes and bruises. It could so easily have been a trip to casualty, or worse. So although I had an hours walk, half pushing, half carrying the bike to the nearest station to catch a train for the rest of the way, I counted myself lucky. Or something.

Past, present and future. Linear? Circular? Spiral? All-in-one? 

I posted this earlier today as a comment at Burningbird, sparked by a question about keeping blog archives. It kind of ties in with the loose theme of olderandgrowing so I've copied it here:

A while back I had a bit of a life shake-up - a reawakening - and the past lost a lot of its importance to me. I threw out a whole load of stuff which I'd previously kept because it represented different periods in my life. I thought that past was irrelevant, because it can't be changed and shouldn't be allowed too strong an influence on the present or the future. I embraced the present and forgot the past.

Also about that time I started keeping a journal (on paper). I was doing a course in counselling and the journal formed part of the coursework. I learned a lot about myself through that course and especially through keeping the journal. Much of what I learned has now slipped back below the level of consciousness because I don't call on it very often. If I look back through those journals (several hardbound A4 volumes - I was a prolific journal-keeper!) I see someone who appears quite different to the self I see today - someone in fact I'd rather be now.

So I think I was mistaken to imagine that the past could so easily be discarded. I've just been reading Siddhartha (thanks to whiskeyriver for the introduction to a wonderful book) and become very aware that what I was and did a year ago, five years ago, twenty five years ago - and what I will do in twenty five years time - are as much (or as little) a part of me as the person that sits here now bashing keys.

Thats my take on it anyway.

"Did you," so he asked him at one time, "did you too learn that secret from the river: that there is no time?"

Vasudeva's face was filled with a bright smile.

"Yes, Siddhartha," he spoke. "It is this what you mean, isn't it: that the river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and that there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future?"

"This it is," said Siddhartha. "And when I had learned it, I looked at my life, and it was also a river, and the boy Siddhartha was only separated from the man Siddhartha and from the old man Siddhartha by a shadow, not by something real. Also, Siddhartha's previous births were no past, and his death and his return to Brahma was no future. Nothing was, nothing will be; everything is, everything has existence and is present."

from Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse

Friday, August 01, 2003

The power of the written word 

I've just started reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. (Thanks to whiskeyriver for the prompt). I was reading it on the train on the way to work this morning (unusual for me to take the train, but thats another story) and as I walked through Kings Cross station I realised I was seeing people differently.

Now I know its easy to jump to erroneous conclusions where cause and effect are concerned, but I couldn't help but feel that something of the way of being of Siddhartha had crept into my consciousness, giving me a much gentler, more accepting, more appreciative view of my fellow-humans. Whatever the reason, I certainly felt more at peace, more at one with the world than usual.

All of which made me think about the power of language and communication. How one man's thoughts from the last century, presented through a work of fiction, recorded in words on a page, translated into a different language can have the power to change how I feel and act today.

Happens all the time, I know. Its just that I experienced it in consciousness and it took me a little by surprise.