Saturday, May 27, 2006

Time for a break 

I wont be posting for a while, but I hate to leave such a defeatist post as that last one sitting there as the first thing any visitor sees.

This, from last summer, I hope you find more acceptable.

Friday, May 26, 2006

“What do you do at work, Daddy?” 

Well, aside from the detail that my kids are getting too old to ask questions in quite such an innocent form…

I sit at a white six-seater tabletop – a sort of communal desk, cheaper and more space-efficient than a traditional desk, and eerily reminiscent of the Battle Control Room in Flash Gordon, only they haven’t welded the screens to our brains yet - and stare at a computer screen, cultivating an outward appearance of busy-ness whilst in reality inside I’m often frozen in paralysis – unable to engage with what I’m supposed to be doing, equally unable - for purely practical reasons - to do anything else; there isn’t anything else.

I listen in silent disbelief at what comes out of the mouths of some of my fellow Golgafrinchans, and wonder… We’re all just children playing a game of make-believe, only, like children, we really believe in the fantasy we’ve created and, also just like children, pretend that we’re really grown-ups.

I pretend the enormity of my decision to commit myself to staying here hasn’t yet swamped me; I’m not really drowning, I’ll soon learn how to swim here. I put from my mind all thoughts of another 3000 working days of this pretence, forcing down the nausea of rising panic at the prospect.

I wonder what happened to hope, and caring, and passion, and drive.

I drink far too much black coffee, simply for the excuse to escape the desk – sorry, table - and fill a few moments with some apparent purpose

I long to become visible; I long for some real human contact; I long for something to believe in, but these were never part of the job description.
That, my children, what I do at the office all day, and when the day is over and I’m finally home, if it’s a good one, I exhale and try and rid my body of a little of the tension before it all builds again the next day. Choose your role models carefully children; look far into their futures before you start to follow in their footsteps.

What’s brought on this bout of blackness? After all, once upon a time people told me I had enthusiasm, energy, optimism; my laughter was mostly light and sincere, without the cruel edge born of cynicism. But another of my colleagues leaves today. That’s four from my immediate area, all a similar age to me, who will never need to take paid employment again. Four people with whom I felt more empathy than anyone else around here.

Why don’t I follow them? What’s the difference between them and me, their circumstances and mine? They were good; they were loyal employees; they kept their noses clean and toed the party line when it mattered. I on the other hand, even though I had no dream, went off in search of one. Maybe I looked in the wrong place; maybe I was looking for the wrong thing; maybe I just gave up too soon. Whatever; I didn’t find a dream so I came back. But by then I’d already screwed my chances of a decent pension and a fat redundancy cheque.

I’ll get over it. Or I hope I will. Tomorrow’s another day.

All the same, this isn’t what I started a blog to write about. If I can’t think of anything else soon, I’ll know it’s time to call it a day.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Under One Small Star

My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity if I'm mistaken, after all.
Please, don't be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.
May my head be patient with the way my memories fade.
My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second.
My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.
Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths.
I apologize to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep today at five a.m.

Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.
Pardon me, deserts, that I don't rush to you bearing a spoonful of water.
And you, falcon, unchanging year after year, always in the same cage,
your gaze always fixed on the same point in space,
forgive me, even if it turns out you were stuffed.
My apologies to the felled tree for the table's four legs.
My apologies to great questions for small answers.
Truth, please don't pay me much attention.
Dignity, please be magnanimous.

Bear with me, O mystery of existence, as I pluck the occasional thread from your train.
Soul, don't take offense that I've only got you now and then.
My apologies to everything that I can't be everywhere at once.
My apologies to everyone that I can't be each woman and each man.
I know I won't be justified as long as I live,
since I myself stand in my own way.
Don't bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
then labor heavily so that they may seem light.

~ Wislawa Szymborska ~

Thanks, once again, to Joe Riley and Panhala for a poem that really made me think.

Monday, May 22, 2006


Oh dear… Why do get a hint of a feeling that I just sold my soul? You’d have thought I’d be ecstatic – a motorcycle must be the best boy’s toy ever. Of course, it is fun, and I’m amazed at how readily the riding skills come back, and the bike is great – just right for me in every respect; it feels an instant friend, easy to get along with.

But it marks a change, and like most changes, that involves giving up something as well as starting something new; an ending as well as a beginning. As well as giving birth to a new era, I can’t escape the feeling that part of my old way of life has died.

I used to feel proud of cycling a 30 mile a day round trip to and from work; when I began at about age 44, I wondered if I’d still be cycling when I was 50; it seemed a good target to aim for. Then when 50 came and went and I was still going as strong as ever, I wondered if I might make it to retirement at 65. I was proud of the identity it lent me, as someone who was fit, healthy, environmentally conscious and a little apart from the ordinary. I was proud of my skills too, being able to move fast and safely, handling a bike to be an equal partner on London’s roads with the rest of the rush hour traffic -once through the first couple of miles of leafy lanes and into the suburbs, I’d be averaging much the same speed as the rest of them. Ahead of anything but motorcycles off the traffic lights (although that technique does wear out chains rather fast - oh, better stop me there before I mutate into a total cycling geek...)

I know, I know; getting a motorbike doesn’t necessarily mean I have to be less of those things that were characterised by being a cyclist; but I liked the me I was, and I’m wondering whether in swapping super-light cycle gear for chunky boots, leather jeans, armoured jacket and uncool but highly visible white helmet I’ve also swapped out some less tangible but equally real part of me.

I have a plan in the back of my mind that I might brush the dust off the old velocipede every now and then – perhaps a day a fortnight, perhaps more often when the weather’s good – if for no other reason that I don’t want to give up all that healthy exercise. After all, it was the realisation that I wasn’t getting much exercise that got me started on it, although the economics also came in handy when I had two out of three children at university.

I guess though that the thought that’s niggling me is that my carefully thought out justification for getting the bike might have been flawed. Cost-wise, it would break even compared with the train after 5 years, but the clincher that swung me into getting it was the thought of winning an extra hour a day; the train takes an hour and a quarter each way, I can do it in less than that on a push-bike (by taking one side of a triangle rather than the two taken by the trains), and I was reckoning on the motorbike taking at most 45 minutes each way, and hopefully significantly less. Well, it was 55 minutes today, which I have equalled on a couple of occasions on its muscle-powered counterpart. So my primary rationale looks like being blown out of the water.

Oh well, who said you need an excuse to have fun, anyway?

Friday, May 19, 2006


It was in a museum somewhere, I think; quite a large museum with a major section devoted to the archaeology of the region. As a backdrop to the usual collection of artefacts – or fragments thereof – there was a lavishly presented series of pictures depicting the local landscape over the millennia. An imagined view from the same spot - a hillside overlooking a broad river valley - starting with the end of the last ice age where fur-clad hunters attacked a woolly mammoth, through a series of tableaux, to the bustle of a large present day town - and all this time, the essential shape of the land remained the same.

To begin with, it was the land that dominated. People lived on the land, but the underlying landscape remained unchanged. At first a Neolithic settlement, then an iron age fort, but if the people had gone away, after a generation or so the only sign of their presence might have been a ditch around the fort or an earth mound at its centre.

Then along came the Romans, and the land started to disappear under the first true town, for this happened to be at a strategic low headland at a point where river crossing was possible. For the first time, a man-made shape began to dominate a portion of the picture; within the town was laid down a pattern of streets and buildings, and outside of the town’s walls another pattern, where fields marked land taken over for agriculture. But beyond both of these, the landscape still remained much as it had over the preceding millennia.

As the centuries wore on, the pictures showed the town growing; the adjacent marshes were drained, more river bridges were built, dusty roads came into being and villages grew along their way – yet even as recently as a couple of centuries ago, before the days of motorised transport, concrete, and macadamised roads, the presence of the landscape could still be felt. It would still have been possible to feel a connection to the land – after all, in pre-industrial days, a sizeable proportion of the population would either have worked directly on the land or be only one or two steps removed from those who did.

In a city the size of London, it’s difficult to think in terms of landscape. Even living in a small town in London’s “Green Belt” – an area surrounding where development is strictly controlled so as to avoid urban sprawl – daily life is still lived out in giant bubbles of urban existence, joined by metal, glass and concrete containers of humanity known as roads and railways. Landscape is something remote, out there somewhere – usually a long way out there - but not here; an idea, but not a present reality. Even the overall shape is lost; the hills and valleys have become nothing more than a disconnected set of inconvenient slopes that do no more than impede progress.

And yet, and yet…

The land is still there. The rivers may have been diverted or sent underground, the forests felled long ago, the horizon dominated by rooftops, but just a few feet underneath my feet, below the surface layer of soil and the detritus of the recent centuries’ constant reoccupation, lies the very same clay that might once have vibrated to the passage of Roman feet, or shook to the mammoth's fall.

I stood on the railway platform waiting for the train this morning, trying to imagine that land under my feet, wondering what it would take to reconnect with it, wondering whether only its ghost remains, or whether it has life still – after all, it is only time which separates me from an ice-age hunter, a Neolithic farmer, a Roman soldier or an Elizabethan peasant – the land is the same land and we may all have stood in the same spot upon it.

Landscape may not be so far away as I imagined, after all.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Time machine 

Hanging on a rusty nail behind the door in the garden shed is an odd shaped piece of blue plastic. Flat, and a bit smaller than your hand, it has two curved ends, one large and one small, both a bit like a flattened spoon, but asymmetrical. I wasn’t quite sure what it was at first, but according to the packaging it was a scraper – for spades, forks, boots or any garden tools that might need mud removing from them.

It would have been eighteen years ago when I opened the birthday present from my son, then seven years old, and tried to hide my slightly bemused look. He’d chosen it himself and bought it with his own money – even then he knew I prefer practical things to unnecessary extras – and was watching with an expectant smile on his face - that bright, wide-eyed look only ever seen on the faces of children - and waiting for my response.

I was, of course, suitably full of thanks – although for the life of me I couldn’t quite see why it was such an odd shape. I think I felt embarrassed for him; he’d clearly wanted so much to give me something I’d appreciate, and in my supposedly superior adult wisdom I thought could see it wasn’t going to be particularly useful. So to hide my inner confusion and show gratitude I immediately went and banged the nail into the frame of the shed and hung it up ready for use.

Funny thing was, that odd shape really did turn out to be highly practical – excellent for cleaning the underneath of the lawnmower, and the narrower end was perfect for getting into the corners of the nylon line trimmer. It was good too for spades and forks; those odd curves seemed to fit just about anywhere. So it has hung there on its nail and gets used most weekends every summer when I cut the grass.

I noticed it the other day. Not just used it, but noticed it, and as I stood there holding this little piece of odd shaped blue plastic I remembered that birthday eighteen years ago; remembered that look of pure unselfish pleasure as a seven year old experienced for himself the joy of giving; remembered those expectant eyes and my own awkwardness – it was such a simple gift, but so lovingly given – and the memory brought tears to my eyes. Bittersweet tears; a touch of mourning for lost innocence, for precious childhood years now only a memory – but more than a memory; the physical presence in my hand was a tangible link, to the me and the him from eighteen years ago, like having a time machine and going back to meet yourself. The clarity of the past view, a direct link without the fogging of the intervening years, made the contrast between than and now seem so much greater. Eighteen years; I don’t suppose I have many other presents from that long ago that are still in regular use.

An old piece of blue plastic or a shiny new motorcycle; do you know, I’d be hard pressed to say which I value more?

Google wisdom 

Somewhere in Sweden, somebody types "Maintaining a busy life is a great way to avoid changing it" into Google, and finds this blog; I happen to spot it in my sitemeter stats and discover that it's the #2 link.

D'you think the universe is trying to tell me something?

Saturday, May 13, 2006


I got the Honda CBF600, the faired version with ABS, in pale metallic blue. And all the gear to with it... Go to pick it up a week today... Right now, I'm in some kind of state of shock - I've NEVER spent that amount of money in one go, and certainly not on myself. Once my head is a little clearer I may be able to write something...

Sunday update:
I slept badly last night. My wife was away on a yoga weekend, I only had the cats for company, and I kept waking with vague doubts (or a furry tail in my face...) But having irretrievably woken at 5.30, I got up at 6, started doing the cleaning (displaced from yesterday) before 7 and had a thoroughly busy day thereafter with no time for idle worries.

I think I pinned down the source of the unease of yesterday and last night; it came from not having had the chance to share the day's events. Something felt out of step yesterday, but once we'd exchanged text messages this morning a balance was restored.

Now, how do I distract myself for the next five days?

Friday, May 12, 2006

The knot tightens 

Oh dear. I know this is crazy, but I’m doing it nonetheless. Taking steps to tie myself ever more firmly to job that feels so alien to me, and a lifestyle that starves my soul so.


Because I can’t figure out what else to do.

Consider this. A human being needs to be committed to something, just as a newborn needs a mother figure to cling to. A cause, a relationship, a higher purpose, even just a hobby. Do we all need this? I don’t know; I can only speak for myself and make inferences from what I observe in others

So here it is. I have my work; I don’t enjoy it much, I find little fulfilment in it, but I have it and it fills my best hours. Like it or not, work is the biggest single consumer of my time and energy. For the moment, I can’t not have it.

In simple terms there are three ways forward: get on, get out, or do nothing.

I’ve tried the last; I’ve tried to close my eyes to it but that line isn’t getting me anywhere. Followed further, that will turn me – already is turning me - into a tired and bitter old cynic. I open my mouth sometimes and I’m appalled to hear what comes out; I hear the voice of a victim, of a given-up.

I don’t know where to go to get out, and the tension of wishing for one life but living another is becoming unbearable. I tried getting further up the ladder here (goodness only knows why, but it seemed like a good idea at the time), but the feedback I had from my interviews showed just how much my confidence in myself has withered; I’m totally incapable of “selling” myself adequately at an interview, barely even capable of conducting routine business.

How many people on their deathbed say “I wish I’d spent more time at the office?” I might hold values that are reflected in that question, yet I’m deliberately gearing myself up to become more committed to work– in spite of the fact that I resigned from one of my previous jobs here precisely because I could tell I was slowly turning into a workaholic. In spite of the fact that I feel like a spare part here.

Why, why, why?

It seems the least worst option.

I need to go home at the end of the day knowing I’ve done more than occupied my seat and looked busy; I need to know I’ve achieved something that someone, somewhere holds to be of value; I need to go home not feeling guilty that I’m receiving money in return for my pathetically meagre output. Even if I can’t feel part of something which I value, I need to feel valued by others - how else can I hold myself in high regard?

The motorcycle is part of this plan. It frees up time, it consumes less physical and mental energy (I must be getting old – cycling 30 miles a day is getting to me), but paying for it ties me to a salary for another 3 years – well, another 5 years; I can only justify the expense on the grounds that it breaks even compared to a season ticket over 5 years.

I suppose I should be grateful for having a job at all, and living in one of the most privileged parts of the globe. Some days, though, I feel I’d trade it all for the life of a hermit in some hovel somewhere.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


I did have something more soulful to blog about, but being less tangible it's been proving hard to get to grips with. So, since I've been rather motorcycle-obsessed lately, and Stu reminded me of one the most awesome motorcycles of all time, I went hunting in the old photo albums.

I thought at the time that this was a Vincent Black Shadow, but it may be a Rapide; I believe the Black Shadows had black painted engine casings. The photo dates from 1988 - taken on a 110 camera, albeit a Pentax, so the resolution isn't wonderful - and the bike is probably from the 1950s. Engineering way ahead of its time...

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Blowing away the cobwebs 

Who’d have believed it? That neural pathways which had been neglected for a quarter of a century, left to become choked with mental garbage and lost in the ever thickening undergrowth of abandoned thought-patterns could have been cleared so easily of all the cobwebs and relics and brought back into life; that once more the synapses would fire, instinctively routing from senses to brain to muscles message patterns that hadn’t been carried in all those intervening years. I imagined flashes of electrical energy, flickering and faint at first then stronger and brighter, as those long-dormant synapses awoke from their slumbers, like someone throwing a switch on the bridge of some derelict starship, watching darkened control panels spring into life, hearing the hum as energy flowed once more in control circuits as they got on with a job they once knew so well, but hadn’t practiced for half a lifetime.

I’m hatching a plan, and part of that plan involves resurrecting skills that were discarded twenty four years ago, six months after our first child was born. In short, I intend to get another motorcycle.

I went for an afternoon’s refresher training on Friday, four hours on a bike rather bigger and faster than anything I’d ever ridden before. I hadn’t a clue how well I’d take to it after all those years away so the natural excitement was tempered by a fair degree of apprehension. And what would some big hairy biker make of li’l ol’ me trying to act out some mid-life fantasy, which doubtless involved dreams of shiny black leather and knee-down cornering on a race replica machine?

I wont bore you with a blow-by-blow account. Well, not that there were any blows, other than those of the wind roaring past my helmet. Suffice it to say that we covered around sixty miles in glorious sunshine on all kinds of roads, from suburban side-streets to busy town centres to twisty lanes to motorways – and I came back grinning from ear to ear. Sure, I still have a lot to learn, but the basic mechanics of control are all there still, and of course road-sense is pretty common across all modes of transport. My instructor seemed genuinely pleased too and said some quite complimentary things. Good job he waited until after I’d got my helmet off, otherwise my head might have swelled so much it’d have got stuck.

I had never amassed a huge amount of experience in those earlier years – I was only riding on and off for about seven years and much of that was on much smaller bikes – but it’s remarkable how the software stays stored, uncorrupted so it would seem in the memory banks, just waiting for the call to execute the code. Goodness only knows what other bits of programming are tucked away in quiet dusty corners of my mind, waiting patiently for a chance to be loaded and run.

As to that Grand Master Plan I referred to, I’ll leave the explanation of that for another time.

Oh, and for anyone who is interested, the bike is a Honda CBF500.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Know thine enemy 

There I was, sitting tapping keys on the computer, and there not three feet away on the other side of the patio doors, purposefully chewing away on the hostas, was...

Merciful soul that I am, I found him and his companions a part of the garden where they could do less obvious damage. Maybe I shouldn't have been so forgiving.

Have you ordered your copy yet? 

Yesterday morning I was working from home, as I had plans for the afternoon – of which, more later - so I happened to be in when the postman came. From upstairs I could hear a prolonged rustle as he struggled to push something bulky through the letterbox, followed by a definite thump as whatever it was hit the floor. Packages that like are usually for my wife, so I didn't get too excited, but then I saw that this one had my name hand written on it - and then when I saw the inscription "Fred First.. Goose Creek..." I felt a very distinct thrill of anticipation - I'm sure my pulse quickened a few beats.

Wrapped in familiar Amazon-like packaging, this was my copy of Fred’s book, Slow Road Home. So far I've only had the chance to look at it from the outside, as an object as it were; but even without passing through its pages into the delights of life following the slow road – a path which, in my mind’s eye, I will always see lit in the kind of misty, magical, fairy-tale light which Fred is so adept at capturing in his photos - the book is a joy to appreciate purely as an object, and doubly so knowing its provenance. It's satisfyingly weighty in the hand, the cover and layout are inviting to the eye and the paper has a lovely springy quality that makes it a pleasure just to flip the pages!

There’s another way too in which, without even opening its pages, this book carries immense meaning for me; it is a tangible, irrefutable example of just how far a slow road such as Fred’s can take you, when you allow heart and soul to lead the way for you, one step at a time.

My own road has been anything but slow of late, so I intend to take this volume as Fred intends – slowly, and savouring each moment.