Saturday, December 31, 2005

Mid-term review 

Brian left me this thought in a recent comment, which has proved to be the key in unlocking my latest round of mental seizure:
“Whenever I feel a lack of direction and purpose, I like to look back to a point where I once was, compare it to the point where I am now, and then connect the two points and continue the line further to see the direction I am headed in. I haven't always liked the plotted course...”

You’ve hit the nail on the head, Brian - thanks. That picture of a continuing line expresses very succinctly the thoughts that have been bugging me lately.

Over the past few years I’ve been going through what amounts to the classic mid-life crisis. It may have lacked the outward signs - no Ferrari in the garage (although I do rather fancy one of these…), no shirts unbuttoned to the navel, no bit of fluff on the side - and it’s rarely had the urgency of a full-blown crisis; more like an ongoing mid-term review. At times intense, searching, full of expectations, doubts and fears; at times receding to a background rumble of discontent - but one way or another I was on that well trodden path of who-am-I-and-where-am-I-going questions that sound such a cliché, yet seem at the time to be the most vitally important questions to answer. It’s been going on for the past 10 years or so, through peaks and troughs of questioning and searching, and perhaps the most intense phase has coincided with the existence of this blog. So these years have seen their fair share of turmoil. Mostly introspective, mostly hidden – at least in its intensity - from just about everyone, but full of real soul-searching nonetheless, for all the outward appearance of calm.

My first 40 years followed a pretty straight line; the straight and narrow, you might almost say. Simple, straightforward, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other stuff. No great plans, no ambitions; conventional, non-controversial – and, frankly, rather dull. Then 10 years ago I began asking questions of myself, and felt for the first time the intoxicating effects of possibility – a belief in the idea that you could have dreams and bring them to fruition; that the future – mine or anybody’s – could be there for the taking – or rather, for the creating.

It was a time of a gentle – almost gentile - kind of turmoil; never any explosive change, but beginning to push the boundaries of my appallingly humdrum, mediocre existence, fuelled by a sure feeling of expectation, a feeling that something good was just around the corner; life was surely about to blossom in the most unexpected yet entirely appropriate ways. To use a well-worn cliché, I’d discover who I really was, and start living the life I was always meant to lead.

But over the last few months, something in me has changed. I didn’t notice it changing at the time, but looking back, I can see that it has. That long period of turmoil and doubt and hope seems to be drawing to an end. I entered it having followed a straight and simple track; I bounced around for a while (for example, changing jobs three times during this period) with hopes of finding a radically new, different, exciting track as my way out of the turmoil. But I can see now that the track on which I’m leaving it is essentially just a continuation of the track on which I entered it. You could plot a line right through it all and see barely a kink. And ahead now lies a steady downhill run to retirement. The trouble is, inevitable as it seems, is looks about as attractive as I’ve made the first 40 years sound.

I’d better digress a moment and explain something here, lest you get a false impression. I haven’t had what you might call a successful career, in fact I haven’t really had a career at all. I didn’t work my way up through the ranks, so I never reached that comfortable plateau from which to look forward to an easy retirement on a fat pension. I’ve changed jobs many times, always seeking that most elusive of things – a job where I really felt I belonged, where I felt I was doing the most valuable thing I was put on this Earth to do. In the course of that search I’ve moved down the hierarchy as well as up it, with the result that I’ve ended up in much the same place as any graduate just a few years out of university. But ladders never meant a great deal to me.

So anyway. That downhill run wouldn’t be with the warm glow of success behind me, so it wasn’t an attractive proposition. But then along came a chance to choose another course: I could apply for voluntary redundancy. The change – and the risks - would be huge. But I did the sums, and I think I had a fighting chance of making it work. I had the house valued, got quotes for early payment of my various pensions from my previous jobs, added up what the remaining bills for our kids’ university educations would be, and figured out that by cashing in on the equity tied up in our house and downsizing, we could just about scrape by on about half of what I’m currently earning, provided I was happy to commit to working on well beyond normal retirement age – which I am.

But as I said, the risks would be huge, and there was no time to weigh them up properly. It was a take-it-or-leave-it offer, and it expired 3 weeks ago. If I’d taken it, I’d be out of work by June, with no savings, committed to moving our lives to an unknown part of the country, and no idea how I was going to earn a living. If I’d had a dream, now would have been a good time to follow it, but I never had a dream. Ambition didn’t run in our family.

So I let the moment pass; I was too tied up in the immediate pressure of practicing for the show, anyway. And so it is that now I can see how that line from the past stretches inexorably on into the future; I can even trace its source way back in my father’s life and I sometimes fancy I can catch future echoes of it in my kids’ too.

And that, in a rather extended nutshell, is what’s been bugging me. The thought that after ten years of gestation, of hope, of expectation, I’ve ended up pretty much where I started, just 10 years older.

It doesn’t have to end here though, (although this post had better do so soon); I’m not abandoning hope just yet. I’ve learned two important lessons from all of this. One: I said I don’t have a dream, but that’s not quite true. I don’t have one in the sense of following this or that career (after all, it’s a bit late for that) or achieving some great goal – but I do have a dream about how and where I’d like to live; a simple life, close to nature, as part of a close-knit community; somewhere where I’d want to put down roots. Two: I rediscovered that belief in possibility. We could make it happen, if we so chose, if we decide that the sacrifices are worth it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Year end blues 

The days go by, and still nothing. I had such hopes for this time, too. A rare handful of days with no pressure, no commitments; freedom to take my mind wherever it fancied. I thought that I'd be able to give time and space to those thoughts and feelings which for weeks have been pushed to one side whilst the matters of the moment took precedence. I thought perhaps I'd invite them in, those thoughts; befriend them, engage them in dialogue and maybe tell their story here. But now I've finally given in to their knocking at the door it seems they've given up and run off elsewhere.

Yesterday I went for a stroll by the fields at the edge of town to try and clear my head:

I failed miserably in that endeavour. Most of the photos weren't up to much either; although one or two did provide the raw material for further playing around with image manipulation software.

Photoshopping. Even though the software I use isn't actually the pukka Adobe thing, it seems that "photoshopping" has entered 21st century vocabulary as a generic activity descriptor in the same way as "hoovering" did in the last century.

African Dawn?

Playing around. Maybe that touches on the edge of the issue. Most of what I do comes under that heading - this blog, the photographs, music, even my work. They're all just playing around, with little sense of purpose, no ambition, little meaning, little lasting value. Perhaps that's why it's been hard to fill these few days usefully. Whilst the contents of almost every minute was prescribed, there was no requirement to have any deeper purpose behind those minutes; the days filled themselves to the brim without any need for anything as thought-out as a purpose or a strategy. The only purpose was to take action to reduce the immediate pressure of things-to-be-done. So when that pressure is removed, all of a sudden there's no motive, no purpose, no incentive - and no action.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

An unexpected find 

Today I bought the most extraordinary book,
in the most unlikely place.

“Book Fair” proclaimed the signs,
battered as they were from repeated use,
moving from this venue to that.

“Popular” works mostly; colourful, attractive,
but mostly shallow, mostly straightforward,
mostly designed for the coffee-table.
Not that I haven’t bought those too, but they were all I expected to find here.
Still, I went in: you never know…

Signs tacked to the walls with Blu-tack, or lodged amongst the volumes,
displayed the syllabus available for coffee-time study:
Travel, Military History, Films and Media, Childrens,
and off to one side, a particularly small section:

A stack of anthologies of popular verse, a few familiar names.
One caught my eye: Ted Hughes.
“How The Whale Became” sprang to mind;
I can’t remember the story now,
but I can remember that years ago I thought it was good
(that’s good as in having depth, having meaning, real)
and I had noted his name, although I read little more.

You know how it is when you discover something special,
or make something of which you’re proud,
or achieve something notable, and want to tell everyone you meet?
I discovered Hughes’ “Birthday Letters”…

I wanted to share my secret with the world
as they thronged the bright December street,
intent on their Christmas shopping;
the secret I held that I’d discovered an astonishing book.
Full of power, full of unbridled feeling
(that’s as in a wild horse, one which has not yet accepted the social niceties of quiet domestication);
direct, raw, intelligent.
Published in the year of his death, and 35 years after her suicide,
looking both forward and backward,
everything pivoting on that event.

How strange; for days, weeks perhaps,
I’d been stuck in shallowness myself,
until the thought struck: “What I need is a Jolly Good Book,
something with Real People who present Real Emotions
and live Real Life;
something which will lift my eyes from this routine
and show me colours I’d forgotten.”

I think I just found it.

The Shot

Your worship needed a god.
Where it lacked one, it found one.
Ordinary jocks became gods –
Deified by your infatuation
That seemed to have been designed at birth for a god.
It was a god-seeker. A god-finder.
Your Daddy had been aiming you at God
When his death touched the trigger.
In that flash
You saw your whole life. You ricocheted
The length of your Alpha career
With the fury
Of a high-velocity bullet
That cannot shed one foot-pound
Of kinetic energy. The elect
More or less died on impact –
They were too mortal to take it. They were mind-stuff,
Provisional, speculative, mere auras.
Sound-barrier events along your flightpath.
But inside your sob-sodden Kleenex
And your Saturday night panics,
Under your hair done this way and done that way,
Behind what looked like rebounds
And the cascade of cries diminuendo,
You were undeflected,
You were gold-jacketed, solid silver,
Nickel-tipped. Trajectory perfect
As through ether. Even the cheek-scar,
Where you seemed to have side-swiped concrete,
Served as a rifling groove
To keep you true.
Till your real target
Hid behind me. Your Daddy,
The god with the smoking gun. For a long time
Vague as mist, I did not even know
I had been hit,
Or that you had gone clean through me –
To bury yourself at last in the heart of the god.

In my position, the right witchdoctor
Might have caught you in flight with his bare hands,
Tossed you, cooling, one hand to the other,
Godless, happy, quieted.
I managed
A wisp of your hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown.

~ Ted Hughes ~

Friday, December 23, 2005


Okay, okay, I know this is diabolically cheesy, but I couldn't resist. Think of it as an exercise in learning how to use photo manipulation software. Last one of pigeons, I promise :-)


The downside of having a camera that's not much smaller than an SLR is that it stays at home much of the time, unless I'm specifically going out with the intention of photographing something. So it was that I missed yesterday's stunning sunset, but the benefit of that was that I wasn't going to get caught out two days in a row, and so the camera was in my bag today, in spite of the overcast.

This corner of West London is pretty dreary at the best of times - this sight certainly brought a smile to my face as I walked past; I wonder how many lifted their eyes high enough to see it?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Just foolin' around... 

Later edit:
Another "winter's dawn" version now available on Flickr

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Poet with His Face in His Hands 

Oh, I smiled when I read this, which appeared in my inbox today from the Panhala poetry group. Smiled in recognition of myself, so full of mistakes and equally full of naïve resolve not to burden the world any longer with their exposition. Why worry though? My paltry whinings wouldn’t alter the balance one iota.

But why am I explaining? Mary Oliver says it so much better.

The Poet with His Face in His Hands

You want to cry aloud for your
mistakes. But to tell the truth the world
doesn't need anymore of that sound.

So if you're going to do it and can't
stop yourself, if your pretty mouth can't
hold it in, at least go by yourself across

the forty fields and the forty dark inclines
of rocks and water to the place where
the falls are flinging out their white sheets

like crazy, and there is a cave behind all that
jubilation and water fun and you can
stand there, under it, and roar all you

want and nothing will be disturbed; you can
drip with despair all afternoon and still,
on a green branch, its wings just lightly touched

by the passing foil of the water, the thrush,
puffing out its spotted breast, will sing
of the perfect, stone-hard beauty of everything.

~ Mary Oliver ~

(picture courtesy of Panhala)

I even got as far, a few months ago, as creating a second, anonymous blog which could have been my cave behind the falls, where I could roar and drip with despair to my heart’s content. Or should that be heart's discontent, coming as it does from a malcontent? That was just after I quit counselling, which itself is a story I might tell when I’m far enough removed from it to be able to see it all in a context that is something other than a landscape of mistakes.

I made two posts, but abandoned it. What’s the point of all that introspective angst? The thrush will sing just as sweetly.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Ominous Sky 

It looked like a weather front approaching; that long line of thick cloud against a clear sky, only this cloud had a strange funnel-shaped end to it, rather like a very fat tornado reaching down to earth. Odd, but then clouds do have some very odd appearances at times. I took a photo, posted it on Flickr, and thought little more about it.

Checking back a while later, I found Euan had left a comment – could he blog the photo? Odd, I thought, it wasn’t anything special. But then I checked his blog and the penny dropped – this was indeed no ordinary cloud; this was the result of a massive explosion at a fuel depot over 12 miles away.

Next thing, Martin leaves a comment and a link to his shots, and then before you know it, there’s a Flickr group tracking the immense pall of smoke across the country.

Interesting how this web linky thingummy spreads things around… I haven’t even turned on the TV yet.

More views from my window here.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Salesman and the Householder 

The Facts
A door-to-door salesman called at my house this evening, carrying a crate containing, I think, a selection of basic household goods. He began to introduce himself, offering me a card with some kind of official identification, but I cut him short, pointing out the notice by the front door informing visitors that we do not buy or sell anything at the door. We exchanged a few words clarifying each others’ position, then, when it was clear mine was not going to change, he left.

The Story
It was nearing the end of cold, damp, grey November day. As he walked up his driveway, the householder ran his gloved fingers over the water droplets on the rear window of his car – already turned to ice. Much colder than when he left home this morning; he was wishing he’d put a pullover on under his coat.

A few minutes later, another figure walked up the drive. Tucked awkwardly under one arm was a large plastic crate of household cleaning materials – dishcloths, brushes, tea towels and the like. He’d already been out for over two hours, and like the householder, hadn’t realised how cold it was going to get that night. The walk from house to house didn’t generate enough heat to compensate for the cold which crept into him every time he stopped at a doorstep, so he’d been getting steadily colder and colder until by now the cold had penetrated to his very core. He was young, fit and with a naturally bright disposition, but refusal after refusal on a damp, freezing November evening was enough to sap the morale of the most hardened salesmen – and he was young enough and enthusiastic enough not to have become hardened yet; when his enthusiasm did eventually give out, it was likely to do so with a tumble that would not be checked by the cynicism which comes hand-in-hand with experience. As he approached the front door, the thought flashed into his mind that he really couldn’t handle many more evenings of rebuttals like this – why didn’t these people even open their ears to hear what he was saying? The goods were nothing special, it’s true, but they were fairly priced - why did people prefer to give their money to faceless supermarket owners when they could buy goods of just the same quality from him and at the same time do something to help people who really needed it?

He did sometimes wonder exactly how much the organisers made on the deal – he knew they paid people to package the goods – indeed, to make some of them – in their homes, but he didn’t know how much these people were paid for their work. All he knew was that the organisers sold the goods on to him at a price that allowed him to make just a few pence on each item whilst still undercutting the supermarkets.

Just for a moment, he felt a sudden urge well up in him to give up and get back home – not that the hostel had anything particularly inviting about it, but it might at least be a few degrees less cold. But although the hostel charges weren’t high, they still had to be paid, and his meagre earnings did eventually add up to just enough to cover his basic living costs. He knew that a miserable face wouldn’t sell any of his wares, so dismissing the cold and his doubts from his mind, he pulled himself up straight, squared his shoulders, and marshalling every ounce of bonhomie that he could muster – which, under the circumstances of near-zero sales, was a surprising amount – put on his most engaging smile as he rang the doorbell.

The householder muttered under his breath. He wasn’t expecting any callers, he’d had a long day at work without a proper lunch, he’d got cold on the walk home from the station, and all he wanted to do now was get his dinner ready and relax. When he opened the door and saw the salesman, the response came into his mind instantly and without conscious thought: get rid of him; politely but firmly, or if that failed, then impolitely and even more firmly - uninvited door-to-door salesmen do not deserve politeness.

As the door opened, the salesman launched into the words he’d repeated so many times already that evening – and the evening before, and the evenings before that, memory fading into a blurred jumble of doorsteps, doorbells, doorknockers, doors held half open just long enough to give polite refusals, doors slammed in his face without a word. At his first glimpse of the face that belonged to the hand that opened the door, his heart had lifted for a moment – this seemed a kind, open kind of face; he’d made many sales to faces less welcoming than this one. Yet even as he spoke his opening lines, he could see that he was mistaken – behind those apparently welcoming eyes was a mind that was already set against him. He may have been inexperienced, but he was learning fast how to read faces.

He did his best, tried to explain that this no scam, that it was a genuine council-supported scheme to help vulnerable people, but the householder kept cutting across him with flat refusal to listen. “We don’t buy anything at the door” seemed to be all he could say. Yet still the salesman hoped to reach the kindness he thought he’d detected in the householder’s face. He tried to engage the householder in dialogue to examine why he was taking such a rigid stance; such unwillingness to listen seemed at odds with the face he saw before him. But the more he spoke, the more distant became the householder’s eyes, and the more insistent those words, repeated like a mantra: “I’m sorry, but we don’t buy anything at the door”.

The apprentice salesman’s patter may have been someone else’s, learned by rote, but the crestfallen look of disappointment in his eyes, the droop of his shoulders as he turned to go, were entirely his own. The weight of failure seemed suddenly to descend upon him, crushing him and ageing him twenty years in an instant; his whole body displayed the form of the despair that was taking a firmer grasp on his heart with every such failure.

The sight of that stooped back sent a stab of remorse into the householder’s heart; even if the whole thing was a scam, wouldn’t it have been worth the purchase of some small and insignificant item – probably costing less than the price a Starbuck’s coffee – to have put smiles on the faces of two cold and miserable people that night?

Monday, December 05, 2005


I’d completely forgotten about this photo. I came across it yesterday whilst looking through some old slides for something else; it dates back nearly 40 years, to 1968 when I was just 13 and on holiday in North Wales.

I have no recollection of the location or of the photograph itself; nonetheless, I felt a shock of recognition when I placed the slide on the light box. I probably haven’t seen this shot for over 30 years, yet it undoubtedly formed the archetype for an image that has stayed in my mind and cropped up at several critical points over the years.

You see, it represents possibility, new horizons, adventure, hope, expectation, excitement, setting out for something new, a vision of a distant shore. Here we’re in darkness, but out there the sun picks out a way to a new world. At risk of becoming too wrapped up in the imagery, I might even say all we have to do is follow the light.

How curious that I should uncover it now…

Cropping is definately habit forming. Another version of this is on Flickr

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A new view through an old lens 

In exchanging comments with Jean a couple of posts back, I said that the hardest part of trying to make decisions about the future is trying to figure what really matters and what doesn’t. And all the while, the lens through which to view the myriad possibilities that the future holds was sitting here on my desktop, in the form of a link to a quote from Augustine of Hippo:

“Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt:
whether thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out,
through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether thou
spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root
can nothing spring but what is good."

When viewed through that lens, the ‘what’ element of the future assumes much, much less significance. Do, as Augustine said, what thou wilt - working for this or that company, or for no company at all, in this or that town, was never the real issue. No; the real issue is how to live out Saint Augustine’s precept wherever and whenever and with whosoever I happen to be.

Uprooting the family and living on a shoestring would have been a piece of cake compared to this.