Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A day in the country 

The view from our front door, of rows of 1930's semis and bungalows, could easily be suburban London, even though in reality it's a small Hertfordshire town. A rather featureless town though - it has no real history, since most of it has been developed since the second World War. It is neither part of London nor does it have any of the character of an English provincial town, but occupies a no-man's-land at the boundary of metropolis and countryside. Just a collection of dormitory housing with a smattering of offices and light industry.

Because so many of my waking hours are spent in urban surroundings, I tend to forget that it only takes half an hour's drive to reach a much more pleasant environment. Away from the influence of London, although the general feel is still highly 'civilised' - since over the centuries, the hand of man has touched everything you see many times over in this part of the world - at least there's a more wholesome balance between town and country. The two seem better blended, more complementary than at home where we seem to exist in a bubble of suburbia, surrounded by uninviting intensively cultivated fields.

In recent months - or perhaps for longer, it's hard to tell - I've been conscious that the energy and enthusiasm I once felt for so much has been draining away; everything seems such a struggle. So on Easter Monday I gave myself a choice. I could have sat at home doing stuff, hemmed in by walls and isolated from the world outside, making this holiday no different in most respects from any take course; no preplanning, just a spur-of-the-moment decision to get out there and spend a few hours allowing the elements to touch my senses.

It only took a few minutes of Googling to locate a suitable route for a walk - a seven and a half mile circuit over the downlands near Tring to Wendover Woods and back, following two paths which both claim to be the oldest roads in Britain, and crossing the highest points in both Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire in the process. I printed the directions, cut the two paragraphs to fit back-to-back in a small plastic bag (inkjet printer ink has a nasty tendency to run into an aesthetically interesting but entirely illegible abstract water-colour in the presence of rain...), found the appropriate Ordnance Survey map, realised I'd lent my compass to my son, figured I could do perfectly well with the electronic compass built into my watch, rounded up camera, water bottle and snacks, threw the lot plus boots and waterproofs into the back of the car, and set out.

Half way there, it began to snow. Small, soggy, wind-driven dollops of cold wetness spattered the windscreen. All the better, I thought; it adds to the sensation of being 'out there'. Curious though how the snow settles on bare earth, but not on grass; almost as though the grass, being alive, has some capacity to generate warmth.

A brief climb up a muddy path through the woods leads you up onto the Ridgeway - part of an ancient trading route linking East Anglia with the south west.

It's curious how so many of these ancient roads follow ridge lines. Were they chosen because ambush is harder here? Or because they are better drained? Or did those ancients simply enjoy the view?

On either side is evidence of woodmanship both ancient...

...and modern.

Just love those convolutions...

The next section of the walk is along the Icknield Way - the other track which lays claim to being the oldest road in Britain, and which follows a very similar route to the Ridgeway - indeed, the name apparently derives from the Old English word for upper. You'd be forgiven for not realising that this unremarkable spot is the highest point in Hertfordshire. It's not even a hill, not one that you'd notice. It just happens that all the slopes, imperceptible though they may be, all run ever so slightly downwards from here or hereabouts.

Given time, there would have been some marvellous photo opportunities amongst this wayside hoard of rusting relics, but I confess; the feeling of pressure hadn't escaped me, and my stroll was turning into a route-march. Not that I ever stroll anywhere, anyway. Just time for a couple of quick snaps, then press on, to the edge of the downs and a view over the Vale of Aylesbury.

There are clearly some well-heeled folk in these parts:

If not four seasons in one day, then at least two: no sign here of winter any more.

Did I achieve my aim? Perhaps; at any rate, it turned out there was more to post here than I had imagined.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


The first I knew about it, consciously, was when I heard the sound of a tyre skidding on the road. Then I noticed the black car speeding across my path, six inches from my front wheel. For a moment, my brain struggled to make sense of the data which my senses were receiving; real-time automated incident management procedures must have been taking 100% of CPU power, leaving nothing left for system monitoring. Then the pieces fell into place; the tyre I’d heard was my own front tyre, and the whole reaction process was so automatic – like a direct connection from the optic nerve to the first and second fingers of my right hand, bypassing conscious thought altogether – it had happened before I was consciously aware that there was anything going on which demanded a reaction.

I suppose I should have been shaken, but as it was a near-miss and I’d escaped unscathed, I was more intrigued by what had apparently been going on in my mind. I had no conscious awareness whatsoever of the black car until after I’d braked; one moment I’d just pulled away as the lights turned green, the next, I’d already reacted. And without even pausing to put my feet down, I was off again. Interesting too that it was auditory information rather than visual of which I first became aware. They say that when we lose consciousness, hearing is last sense to go, and the first to return when we awake.

I should have known better – this is one of three junctions on my journey to work where traffic of all kinds routinely jumps red lights. I’ve seen so many near misses, I always check, even though I’ve got a green light. Always, that is, except today. I must be more tired than I thought. But I suppose one genuine near-miss in nearly two years of London motorcycling is par for the course. Sobering though to do the sums and realise I was only about one-thirtieth of a second from a minor collision, a quarter of a second from a more serious one. In future, I’ll make sure that always is always.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Holding paradox 

This is possibly the first Easter Sunday for many a year on which I haven’t been to church. There didn’t seem a lot of point, somehow. How do you cope with the paradox which this day presents; the most significant date in the Christian calendar, indeed the event upon which the entire Christian faith is based? On the one hand, they - the congregation – will take the bread and the wine, symbols of an event so singular it divided time in two; an event which, if you accept it’s premise, is the most significant ever to befall the human race, and then afterwards they’ll chat over a cup of coffee about the terrible weather we’re having. If there’s any sense of mystery, of wonder, of uncomprehending gratitude then it’s well hidden. I could perhaps, with some difficulty, manage were it one or the other – a deeply spiritual experience or a pleasant social occasion – but how can it be both? And at the same time?

Or maybe I’m mistaken; maybe it’s not so hard after all to hold that paradox – isn’t that what I’m doing in every waking moment? Living a life of external trivia – cups of coffee, office banter, daily routine - whilst inwardly I try my best to avoid the questions that so persistently parade themselves through my mind. “Meaning of life” kind of questions; who am I, why am I here, is there a reason at all or am I just a chance collection of molecules, brought together for a brief spell only to disperse again into nothingness? Is there something else I ought to be doing? Someone else I ought to be being? Some place else I ought to be doing and being it? That sort of question; hardly original, but no less requiring of an answer for all that. Or if not an answer, then at the very least the understanding which accrues through the quest for an answer. Yet I undertake no such quests. Not any more. There are other questions too; less spiritual, more personal and immediate, yet still unvoiced, and unanswered.

It seems I’m an expert after all in holding paradox.

But the paradox is only held by keeping the two sides apart; the outer, physical everyday side and the inner spiritual one (for want of a better word). Or perhaps the paradox itself only exists because the two are held apart. But if they are to be joined anywhere, wouldn’t you expect that to be in a church? Yet the church, for the most part, seems complicit in this division. God may feature in hymns and prayers and sacraments and sermons, but in ordinary everyday conversation? Surely not.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sort of like monkeys and typewriters... 

You may well ask why, but you can't deny it's a perfect example of the kind of collaborative effort only possible in a world connected via the internet.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


(As with nearly every photo you see here, click to enlarge).

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Ministering Angel 

I almost fell in love the other day.

My laptop at work had finally given up the ghost; after four and a half years of sterling service – including being bounced around in the panniers of both push-bike and motorbike - the USB port had failed; to rectify it would require a motherboard replacement, rendering it ‘beyond economic repair’. After enduring an infuriating few days trying to navigate using the mouse-substitute nipple (there being no functioning orifice into which to plug mouse or keyboard connector), the replacement arrived, born in the fair hands of a ministering angel from our outsourced IT partners.

Now, it’s not often that you would hear the words ‘ministering angel’ and ‘IT department’ in the same breath (sorry, Winston!), but my view in this instance was only partly coloured by the imminent arrival of lovely shiny things and the consequent return to full operational status of the humble desktop mouse; how true it is that you don’t miss things ‘til they’re gone.

[Aside: whilst I’m at it, there’s an even more infuriating feature of the old Dell laptop which had me threatening to smash it into a hundred pieces the moment its successor arrived. The ‘touchpad’, with which it is also fitted as an alternative to the nipple, isn’t strictly speaking a touchpad at all. It’s a proximity pad. So whilst you’re busy typing away, already mildly stressed by the ergonomically less-than-ideal laptop keyboard, should part of your hand stray too close over the aforementioned and most deceptively and erroneously named touchpad (the former action is almost impossible not to do, and the latter feature can’t be disabled in the customised version of XP which we have no option but to use), without realising it the cursor will jump to an entirely different part of the screen, dropping parts of words at random in the middle of earlier work, and those stress levels ramp up several notches. But back to the plot…]

I don’t know why I notice these things, but I do. Her movements – her arm reaching across in front of me to the mouse, eyes flicking between the screen and mine – made me wonder if there might not be some fairy blood in her (if indeed fairies have blood at all; most probably a fluid altogether more magical circulates in their veins). So light, so delicate, balletic, almost as if weightless; as if unencumbered by mortal flesh and leaden bone; movements like a bird suspended on a breath of wind; every movement a perfectly choreographed flow. Watching her long, slender fingers on the keyboard as she set up a few parameters, I was tempted to ask her whether she played the piano –and if she didn’t, maybe she should.

And before you ask, as it happened, yes, she was relatively young, but characteristics like this are ageless; whether they’re found in a 27 year old or a 72 year old, the effect can be equally charming. (Not that you find many 72 year olds in IT departments. And I guess my attempt to convince you that age and gender were irrelevant is doomed to failure, so maybe I shouldn’t even try but just go with the flow…). Even her voice sustained the illusion, which was doubtless reinforced by her accent (judging by her name, I guess she was Turkish). I’m in danger of dropping totally into cliché-speak here – if indeed I haven’t already - so I’ll stop short of talking about tinkling silver bells, but you get the drift. I didn’t dare look to see if her feet were actually touching the floor when she left; even if they were, I’m sure it would only have been part of the disguise.

Suffice it to say that she brightened my day considerably. Oh, and so did the new laptop. When can I have another one?

Friday, March 07, 2008


They’re missing the point. Or rather, they’re inadvertently illustrating the point rather well.

It always seemed to me that what Adams was saying, if indeed he was saying anything at all rather than just poking fun at all and sundry, was that we spend way too much time looking for answers when we’d learn a lot more by looking for the right questions.

(Unless of course they’re way cleverer than I give them credit for and the illustration is not inadvertent at all but deliberate…)

Thursday, March 06, 2008


Astonishing that the origin of this ethereal instrument is not, say, ancient Indonesia, but 21st century Switzerland.

Thanks to Michael for the link. More than thanks; my gratitude for showing me something so enchanting.

More here and here.