Friday, September 29, 2006


Music is so central to my life, yet I so rarely write about it (not that I’ve been writing much about anything of late, but that’s another story).

I sit in the office, listening on headphones to music by Gerald Finzi – his Dies Natalis – on BBC Radio 3, streamed over the 'net. Listening, did I say? No; not listening, but letting the waves of sound wash gently over me, permeating my outer layers, subtly reaching a deeper part within.

The announcer referred to this as one of Finzi’s most intensely personal works. I don’t hear it as programme music, not music telling a story, not expressing particular emotions, yet I feel its personal nature. It is beautiful, but it isn't simply for its beauty that it appeals. Somehow, that intensely personal inspiration shines through the music; it’s like looking deep into someone’s eyes and finding a connection with their soul within.

For a moment, the office around me seems a very, very long way away.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Andrew Bard Schmookler 

I’ve said before that I don’t do politics here. But every once in a while I happen upon something worthy of wider sharing. This is one such – the blog of Andrew Bard Schmookler; valuable reading for anyone concerned by the staggering arrogance and corruption shown by the Bush administration.

via Feathers of Hope

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Holding on to failure 

It was nearly twenty years ago. I was reasonably content in my job – adequately successful and well respected - but my employer was relocating, and I decided to stay put geographically, choosing family commitments over career, and so needed to find another job.

I moved from being a technical expert in a project environment with no real business imperatives – the workplace was more like a club - to being a front line operational manager in an intensely competitive and volatile telecoms business.

Without going into all the gory details, I fucked up in a big way. Deadlines missed, blame liberally shovelled. I grew to dread going to work; in the end it needed a task force to clear up the mess. In fairness to myself, it was a mess I’d inherited – my failure was in my inability to see it for what it was and do something about it.

I was lucky in a way; it was the guy who appointed me who carried the can for my inability to do the job – my inability to shout, bang the table, aggressively fight my corner, command my 23 staff – he nearly lost his own job over it, and to his credit almost succeeded in keeping that fact from me.

The really bad part only lasted about a year. The company was moving so fast, reorganisations were an annual event and I was able gradually to move myself into positions where I felt less threatened. By the time I left (through redundancy), six years later, I’d made some friends who understood my strengths and weaknesses and found a niche for myself where I was respected and so could begin to recover my own self-respect.

But the scars remained. Self-doubt, insecurity, a child-parent attitude to organisational authority – yet these were largely hidden from the world behind a well-maintained protective facade. They were largely hidden from me, too. There are still areas of work and relationships where my mind doesn’t go, the shutters tightly barred to contain the fear of what might lie behind them; defences so automated I’ve ceased to notice that I’m defending myself against anything.

But something must be showing; a look of panic that crosses my face in unguarded moments – the rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights look. It's been noted a few times recently.

I need to prise open the shutters and examine some of these fears. Twenty years is a long time to allow the chains to stay in place.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Lady sings the blues 

Hands up who remembers Elkie Brooks? She had a few hits in the seventies ( Pearl’s a singer, Lilac Wine, etc) and if you didn’t know better and heard she was still performing now, you’d be forgiven for imagining she’d be clinging desperately to those old moments of stardom, her voice just a thin shadow of its former richness, and filling out the gaps in the programme by doing covers of old favourites.

If you thought that, you couldn’t be more wrong. This lady is one powerful singer, writing and singing maybe the best songs she’s ever written. Singing classic blues with power and passion and an utterly engaging presence; I for one fell under her spell from the moment the curtains parted.

Image - taken just last month - courtesy of www.elkie-brooks.com

We heard her on Saturday at our local theatre. Wait… rewind… a singer who plays to thousands in major venues booked to sing to a full house of 400? Yup, and clearly loving every minute of it.

You’d have smiled if you’d seen the band; every inch the ageing rockers, complete with long curly hair, black waistcoats with no shirt and middle-aged spreads. Take a look here, but don’t be fooled by appearances. These guys are no slouches and could teach many a modern band a thing or three. A two hour show and not a single dud number the whole time.

Image courtesy of www.elkie-brooks.com

When we got home I checked out her biography. I was stunned to find she’s 61; technically speaking, that makes her an Old Age Pensioner. *Raps knuckles on head in puzzlement… inconsistent data… doesn’t compute…* - a great figure, a voice you could pave your drive with (well, actually it wasn’t quite that gravelly; I just like the metaphor)… and she’s 61????

She turns the conventional notion of ageing on its head. Forty five years in the business and not only is she still going strong, she’s still maturing as a singer/songwriter and gives the distinct feeling that the best is yet to come. And here I am, looking ahead (without much enthusiasm) to the downhill run to retirement. Makes you think…

Friday, September 15, 2006


This is fabulous.

Thanks to whiskey river for the link.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Urban beauty 

Early morning autumn light has a special kind of magic, enhancing the scene both in its presence and its absence; where its warmth reaches, even grey tarmac takes on a rosy hue; in those corners it has not yet touched, deep shadows veil ugliness, cover shabbiness, hide even the beginning busy-ness of the day.

There’s a hint of early morning mist in the air, a foretaste of autumn, creating an air of mystery, a distancing of observed from observer. Ahead of me, the sweeping curve of a concrete flyover stands silhouetted against a hazy golden blue sky; the road below bifurcates, one fork ascends, vanishing into the glare of the sun to join the concrete ribbon in the sky, the other twists away into the shadows beneath.

By one of those inexplicable flukes of randomness, the road ahead, normally bursting at the seams with rush hour traffic, is almost empty; doubtless it was busy a few moments ago and will be so again in a few moments time, but right now the scene is so quiet, it is almost peaceful; a momentary flashback to a pre-dawn city not yet woken up. I feel as though I’ve side stepped sideways into a surreal parallel world.

Even that concrete flyover – bold, backlit, purposeful - manages to look majestic. Yet two hours from now, in full light, the delicate warmth will have been bleached from the scene, the mystery will have evaporated along with the haze, shadows will no longer conceal prosaic details and it’ll simply look plain and ugly again.

But for now I’m so absorbed by the stark geometry – I can see the framing of a photo even though I have no camera nor opportunity to use one – that for a moment I don’t even notice the traffic lights change to green. But then my focus snaps back to the tarmac in front of me; as I ride off, I make a deliberate effort to store a snapshot of the image in my mind along with a few key words so that I might try and recreate the moment later on.

As I ride, I visualise myself at work, translating that brief experience into words on the screen, but the scene in my mind feels false; for months now, I’ve deliberately worn blinkers at work and kept to the straight and narrow path of commitment to the tasks at hand.

Yet here I am now, setting these words down before the image and the feeling are both lost. Why?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Moon Illusion Lunar Eclipse 


And I didn't even realise I was photographing a lunar eclipse. Just thought the gibbousness was a bit wonky. Doh!!

Friday, September 01, 2006

On Being a Tourist 

I’ve always resisted the idea of being a tourist – so much so, that in my mind I’ve distorted the word’s meaning so that it has mutated half way to being an insult. I have a repelling mental image of a caricature tourist – dressed in something wildly out of place, like a 1980s shell suit (hands up who remembers them?), camera slung ostentatiously around his neck, loudly berating the “locals”; a cultural misfit, determined to tick off all the “sights”, never straying from the established tourist trail and entirely oblivious to the country that lies outside those narrow confines.

Instead, I much prefer the notion of being a traveller –someone who blends in, properly equipped for the environment, largely self-sufficient, living according to the culture that surrounds him rather than waving his own culture like a banner in front of him wherever he goes.

Does that make me a travel-snob? Reality isn’t as black-and-white as that, I know. My caricature image is rarely realised in quite such an extreme form; nonetheless, perhaps that image lurking in the back of my mind is part of the reason that we hadn’t been out of the UK for a holiday for 13 years. Oh, there are other reasons too of course – more tangible reasons like the cost in the days when we were travelling as a family of five; preferring to share our holidays with our dog (when we had one) rather than send her away to kennels; being married to a teacher and so being constrained to the busy, expensive school holiday period; and more recently my wife’s back problems meaning that she was waiting for or convalescing from surgery. But at the back of my mind I’ve had this notion of what a tourist is – and that wasn’t something I particularly wanted to be.

Silly really. Going on a package holiday doesn’t compel anyone to act like the stereotypical shirt-less, manner-less, gormless lout of a Brit on the Costa Del Sol. We both needed a break, so we made a last-minute booking – appropriately, through lastminute.com - and took a cut-price package deal to Wengen, Switzerland.

We became tourists – and it turned out fine. We saw the sights, and they were wonderful. Took lots of photos, too - some are already illustrating the posts below; a few more are on Flickr and there are more to come.

True, what we saw was largely superficial – the chocolate-box image of charming, quaint, chalets; snow-covered mountain tops; impressively engineered mountain railways that run impeccably to time; luminously green pastures and dazzling blue lakes, and all this to a background soundscape of lazily clanking cowbells (yes, really – the cowbells are ubiquitous; in that region you’re almost never out of earshot of them). But when superficiality has such delight… well, who cares? It was beautiful and restful and gave us just what we needed.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t honestly say that we truly experienced Switzerland in any depth. You don’t, as a tourist. You see some of the sights, take lots of photos, buy some souvenirs, speak almost exclusively in English (their English is so much better than my German) - and effectively walk around in a little bubble of Englishness, still attached by an umbilical cord to the home culture.

I did however get a little taste of what I was looking for on one day. Most of the time, because of my wife’s back problems, we undertook activities that didn’t require too much walking, making good use of the mountain railways, cable cars and gondolas. But to stay amongst such magnificent surroundings and not venture deeper into them would have been just too frustrating for me, so I took one day of the six to go on one of the classic high-level alpine walks, 16km from Schynige Platte to First by way of the Faulhorn summit at 2,680m, home to an historic mountain hotel.

What gave me a closer contact with the Switzerland beyond the tourist trail wasn’t just the intimacy with my surroundings; for two thirds of the way I shared the walk with a Swiss companion. We’d been sitting opposite each other in the carriage of the cog railway as it wound its up slowly up the steep curves towards Schynige Platte, both obviously equipped for a good walk, and although there are many paths, there is really only one classic walk from there, so it was highly likely we’d be going the same way. However, he’d stopped to visit the alpine gardens - which I’d already seen a couple of days earlier - so I set out alone. I was stopping every few minutes for photos (no surprises there…) so by the time I reached the Weberhutte mountain hut, he’d caught up with me. We recognised each other from the train, said hello (in English – although I swear I didn’t have a sign tattooed on my forehead saying “I am English”), and at his suggestion carried on walking together.

Maybe I’ll say more about the walk itself another time. Two features of that day stand out for me. Obviously, the scenery was impressive and the day fulfilled my desire to be able to take away some memories of the landscape that are more personal than can be achieved through merely gazing at picture-postcard views. But equal to that was the companionship of Peter, my one-day Swiss friend. Although I have a detailed memory of the landscape covered during the first third of the walk when I was alone, visual memories are more indistinct after that - unless we deliberately stopped to admire the view, it was our conversation which drew my attention. It turned out both of us were seizing an opportunity to do something we loved dearly but have too little time for, and both of us were beginning to feel that the time left for such pursuits was diminishing too fast.

I did try, briefly, to converse in German, but my German - studied 35 years ago at school - is more than a little rusty. Good enough to understand most of the signs and order a cup of coffee, but grossly inadequate to make any kind of connection with another human being.

It is dialogue, I think, which marks the real distinction between being a traveller and a tourist. You may tread the same paths, see the same sights, but until you engage in conversation – ideally in the language of the land – giving something of yourself, receiving something from another, you remain apart from the soul of the place.

Lunch with Peter

More web info about the walk here.