Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Sunday 27 January 2008

What to do?

I hate taking decisions. Or rather, I hate being confronted with choices when I wasn't expecting them, even when, in principle, they're entirely welcome. I'd rather stick to the tried and tested, comfortable (if perhaps somewhat limited) routine.

So when I got a letter telling me the deferred retirement benefits I'd assumed weren't coming until I'm 65 are in fact due to be paid on my 60th birthday (in about six weeks), I felt a certain amount of gloom. Coincidentally, I also have to make a choice about pension contributions in my present job, and whether what savings I've got are best organised.

So I'm having to spend a chunk of a very springlike weekend with a bunch of papers and try to work out how best to arrange - or get professional advice on arranging - my finances. For the rest of my life.

That's what does it: "the rest of my life". Time to lift my head from this cosy cocoon, and look around - and ahead to the inevitable.

But I might take a break to walk in the park and perhaps use the binoculars someone gave me: or more likely just go for the cream tea.

And don't even get me started on the ironing........

Saturday 26 January 2008

My how times change..

Off and on, I'm one of those people who does a bit of family history. One thing that struck me quite early on was just how many of my ancestors seem to have been shoemakers, back in the early nineteenth century (devotees of Cockney rhyming slang won't be surprised at the thought of a lot of cobblers in family history). I suppose, come to think of it, that people went to their local shoemaker until quite late in the nineteenth century before industrialisation took over. Globalisation came along even more recently.

There's a Clark's factory outlet near where I work: Clark's, good old Quaker family, industrialists with a social conscience, all that sort of thing. Plus, they've always done broad fittings. So I nipped over in my lunch hour and found some very comfortable shoes: one pair was made in Thailand, the other in Vietnam. A bit of googling tells me how things have changed. It's all in the logic of global capitalism, of course, and if it's helping Thais and Vietnamese to share a bit of our prosperity, all well and good.

But how fast things have changed: less than two hundred years since my ancestors couldn't even have imagined shoes being made the way they are now - and shipped from places they wouldn't have heard of.

Friday 25 January 2008

Ivy, privy, famous; clamour

Many thanks to Ché.l'écossais who, in a comment on Word du Jour, drew attention to this brilliant guide to English pronunciation. Try reading it out loud - I had to pause once or twice. And it was written by a foreigner, too.

Ivy, privy, famous; clamour: he couldn't have known how succinct a description that is about so much of the modern process of journalism....

Thursday 24 January 2008

On the bright side...

Definitely some twilight still in the sky when I came home tonight. And it feels like Spring in the air.

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Should I be worried?

On two successive days, my morning bus has had the same driver. On both days, a pair of glasses has been prominently on display on the dashboard in front of him.....

Monday 21 January 2008

That'll teach me....

Apparently, one recent visitor (from Leeds) got here by Googling "Autolycus meaningless character". This blog comes out top of the search results for those terms.

Oh, the shame.

Monday 14 January 2008

Five things

Claude says she's not a fan of memes. I know what she means - I've read a few and thought I couldn't possibly do them. Why would I tell complete strangers n things no-one knows about me (those would be either not worth knowing, or private) or n things to do before I die (I tend to be timid but impulsive rather than an ambitious planner)?

Of course, I could have started a blog in an entirely different personality - the lovechild of an oil sheikh and a filmstar, perhaps, who plans to tap-dance with the Dalai Lama and play the spoons at a Buckingham Palace banquet. But I could never keep it up. Fiction isn't me - I'd rather evade than invent.

Come to think of it, I have occasionally had a yen to learn to play the spoons (but then again, to paraphrase PG Wodehouse, a gentleman is one who knows how to play the spoons - but doesn't). That, and being the last person in Britain to talk about "listening to the wireless".

Strangely, the only memes I've tried have been those on Claude's blog, and now she's specifically challenged me to have a go at:

Five things in my life that I would never have imagined at the age of 25


25 - the mid-1970s, still finding my feet in my first job, not finding my feet socially or emotionally.. the whole idea of being nearly 60 was unimaginable, never mind trying to imagine what my life would be like.

1. Technology

This is so obvious - and diamondgeezer has written about it so well - that I thought to leave it out: but my memories go back so much further than his. We wrote letters and cheques; we queued at banks to pay money in and take cash out. Making phone calls away from home was a lottery: getting the door of the phone-box open could be a struggle, and what you might find in it a challenge - and that's assuming you had the small change to put in the slot. When I was 25, I didn't have (didn't expect to have) my own washing machine, and took the weekly visit to the launderette as a handy occasion to catch up on my reading; impossible to imagine the dishwasher I have loved but rejected as expensive and wasteful (well, that's love for you).

Most of all, of course, I couldn't have imagined I'd be working on the internet, without being one of those hidden acolytes of the humming roomful of card-readers and tape-drives known as The Computer and its arcane languages. (Let people have their own computer? On their own desks? Madness!). In one of my early jobs, I was in charge of the storage box full of the Gestetner stencils we used for form letters and updated every year till they fell apart: it's a wonder we weren't all high as kites on the fumes of correcting fluid. To think of working almost entirely without paper files, as I do, would have been fantastical.

2. Property

My parents always rented their home. I suppose I absorbed the general feeling of the 60s and 70s that all the financial advantage was in buying if you could, but at barely three years into my first job, somewhere I didn't really intend to stay, I really couldn't see where, let alone how, I was going to get a foot on the ladder. I did in the end, but in 1973, where I'm living now was a derelict factory, and the area would have been thought a slum.

That said, what would really have surprised me is that later generations would actually find all this a bit harder than ours did, notwithstanding the unstable inflation and interest rates of the 70s and 80s. On the one hand, getting some sorts of credit is far too easy now: but to think you would need to have saved more than a whole year's worth of more than the average salary as a deposit before you could get a mortgage!

3. Travel

I never expected to have a job that required international travel, but for some years, I did get to a range of places in Europe and Asia, and once to Buenos Aires. And before the Channel Tunnel and cheap flights, it was out of the question to think of nipping off to Paris for a weekend with as much ease as to Manchester. Even more striking would have been the idea that the Wall would be barely a memory, and all the capitals of central and Eastern Europe as easy to visit as, well, anywhere else. I saw the Wall from both sides. If there is one great moment in my life, it is that autumn of 1989.

4. Security without a career

I was raised to put a very high priority on financial security ("Never have more than two things on hire purchase at the same time" was one of my mother's sayings). Security lay in a permanent job with an organisation, though of course we were more conscientious than to "Sit on your arse for fifty years, and hang your hat on a pension.".

So I became a university administrator, with a secure (if not wildly generous) pay scale and a pension scheme that looks positively Utopian nowadays. And yet, at 50 I took a deep breath and left to do another degree and change my line of work. Not perhaps as dramatic a change as it sounds, since I'm now working on the website of a government department. But I'm a sort of permanent temp, a semi-detached fixture that might possibly become fully detached at a couple of weeks' notice. What makes that possible, of course, is having paid off the mortgage, and built up some savings. I may not sit at home caressing my bank books (it's a long time since I've seen one of them), but I'm a great fan of deferred gratification. Or at least, some careful evaluation of what might be really gratifying before parting with the bawbees.

5. Contentment

And this is the most surprising of all - and perhaps the most difficult to write about. I've always been relatively solitary. At 25, that seemed - felt - abnormal, and then and for some years afterwards I made myself quite unhappy about it; but through various ups and downs over the decades, I've arrived at a point where, actually, I'm comfortable with who and what I am. Smug, even.

Sunday 13 January 2008

Flights of angels?

If I said "museum of medicine", you'd be thinking pickled body parts in jars and serried ranks of gruesome surgical instruments, no doubt.

But the Wellcome Collection, a recently-opened "white space" in one of those pompous 1920s office buildings on Euston Road, aims at the point where scientific and anthrological understanding of medicine meets the creative imagination. And the results can be quite fascinating.

Their current (until 9 March) exhibition, on Sleeping and Dreaming, takes you through both historic and current knowledge and research on things like sleep deprivation and disorders, hypnosis, narcosis, coma and faints, lullabies, sedatives and stimulants, the social contexts for sleeping, and the physiological and imaginative uses of dreams. The results can be
- entertaining (there is an apparatus for reviving people from unconsciousness by blowing tobacco smoke up their bottoms)
- surprising (apparently, dreams are claimed as the inspiration for the sewing machine, the periodic table, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Goya's Sleep of Reason)
- baffling (Un Chien Andalou is playing on a loop - I'm so disappointed that I managed to miss the eyeball-slicing)
- alarming (on the pressures to be alert and available for work at all hours)
- endearing (there's a case of Japanese aids to napping that includes pillows in the shape of a lady's lap and a gentleman's left arm and torso).

Of course, Shakespeare's Dream isn't overlooked (back to Bottoms again). Freud and his Wolf Man get a mention, but interestingly, there seems to be more about the Sigmund Freud Institute's current research on the physiology of sleep and dreams than on his Interpretation of Dreams.

Upstairs are two permanent exhibitions. One is Medicine Now, a display of current scientific topics (including a complete multi-volume printout of the human genome) and artworks inspired by them - this is Twenty-Three Pairs (of socks) by Andrea Duncan. On the theme of Obesity, there's a case of 600 diet books: you're asked to put them back if you look at them, but no sign that anyone actually has done so.

The other exhibition a sample from the collections of Sir Henry Wellcome (here are the gruesome surgical instruments, also a Chinese torture chair with a seat and footrest of sword blades, both erotic and obstetric models, and a mummified Andean body - so perhaps not the thing for an impressionable child).

It's all free - and there's a rather good café (I began to curse the toughness of the pastry on their pie, till I realised they were using an odd sort of bamboo dish) and bookshop.

Just to avoid any confusions, there is an entirely separate Wellcome Museum of anatomical specimens for professionals only; and if you really want pickled body parts, you could visit the Hunterian Museum.

Saturday 12 January 2008

Utterly trivial


Yesterday I had a lovely lunch with a really nice group of messageboard contacts - friends I hope.

Today, the books I'd reserved turned up at the Library.

I thought I'd lost my gloves, as I expected I would, went back to all the places I'd been to but couldn't find them anywhere.

But I got a warm glow of self-righteousness from swapping my last incandescent bulbs for energy-savers (can't you tell Mayor Ken's up for re-election?) - and celebrated by buying a pot of hyacinths that must have been forced with heaven knows what carbon footprint.

The gloves, of course, turned up in the one place I hadn't looked (yes, Alzheimer's definitely setting in).

And I made the first sponge cake of my life, and it was so good I scoffed the lot.

No wars, floods, tempests, plagues: aren't we just too lucky?

Wednesday 9 January 2008

Enjoy your trip?

Just recently, I seem to have taken a few unpredictable tumbles in the street. Once, simply hurrying across a main road while the traffic lights were at red (fortunately), several times catching my foot on uneven paving stones, most recently on a slightly cobbled slope that I've managed to step up without trouble more or less every week for ten years. The odd thing is, it reminds me that at about the same age my mother was doing exactly the same thing. We'd be walking along quite normally and she'd suddenly be sprawling at our feet (mind you, she had another thirty years of a busy life ahead of her).

Which brings on a fit of wondering which of the minor incidents of life are just that, and which are symptomatic of, well,.... you know... [whisper] getting on a bit?

That name that seems to have wandered from the tip of my tongue to some dark recess in the back of my mind: could it be - Alzheimer?

That strange crick in my neck of a morning: does that mean I need a new pillow, or is some muscle wasting away or some joint wearing out?

Which is the greater sign of ageing - all those physical changes or simply the fact of worrying about them?

But perhaps I shouldn't stay for an answer and just get back to the gym, as I've been meaning to for weeks. Once the latest set of grazes has healed up, of course. Till then, tea and cake, I think.

Monday 7 January 2008


Riding to work on the top deck of the bus, I became aware of a disgruntled child's voice from downstairs - well, it is the first day back at school.

I wasn't sure I'd heard it correctly, but when I came down the stairs to get off, the smiles all around confirmed it. Granny was obviously taking her to school, so a very determined six-year-old was chanting "I want to retire! I WANNA RE-TIE-AH!!!"

Friday 4 January 2008

If on a winter's night....

I stop myself, just in time, from simply copying out the best part of a page and a half of Calvino's litany of all the different kinds of books that seem to waylay you in the bookshop. I've evidently come very late to this particular cult, and it would be rather gauche to do something so obvious, however amusing it is to read it for the first time.

Instead, I'm following up a meme based on it that I found on Amy Nelson-Mile's Books blog. Here's what I'd fit into Calvino's many categories:

Books You Needn't Read
Instant celebrity memoirs

Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading
Coffee table books; I have given - and been given - some beautiful ones, but somehow I don't think they get looked at very often.

Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written
Most of those would-be humorous books that are only produced for the Christmas market.

Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered
Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback
Luscious cookery books (I confess I didn't buy Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries till I saw it at half-price); and large and important history books (Peter Ackroyd's London: A Biography, for example). An alternative Calvino doesn't mention is Books You'll Put On Reservation At The Public Library - are public libraries not so useful or available in Italy, or was he hoping to encourage book sales?

Books You Can Borrow From Somebody
Well, that answers my question about public libraries - they'd be my Somebody.

Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them, Too
Catch-22. I tried, I really tried, but I just couldn't get into it. Likewise more or less the entire oeuvre of Martin Amis (I can't stand all those "Look, Daddy, no hands" metaphors).

Books You've Been Planning To Read For Ages
Don Quixote - somehow I think I may never get round to it - and Dickens's Our Mutual Friend.

Books You've Been Hunting For Years Without Success
This is a bit of a cheat (because I could easily buy it any time), but I've been waiting for ages for someone to return to the public library Carmen Callil's Bad Faith, which I've now reserved by inter-library loan, so I might get it fairly quickly.

Books Dealing With Something You're Working On At The Moment
These would be exactly the kind of thing I'd look to the library for. But I still occasionally turn for reference (and because it's lovely to look at it, if a bit dated now, to my own copy of Darcy DiNucci's Elements of Web Design.

Books You Want To Own So They'll Be Handy Just In Case
A remainder store occasionally has a book sale where I work, and I actually bought The Times Complete History of the World from them very cheaply. If I ever want to know about the Alans, the empires of Asia or pre-colonial Africa, this will be the place to look.

Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer
Assorted detective stories, and assorted prize-nominated and newspaper-recommended novels I've never caught up with. I might be looking for A Thousand Splendid Suns, The Yacoubian Building, What Was Lost, Wildwood, The Wild Places.

Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves
More of EF Benson's Mapp and Lucia, and Orlando Figes's The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia. That's a weird-looking juxtaposition, but I suppose the former reminds one how lucky we are to be in a position to laugh away some pretty horrible human characteristics.

Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified
I picked up a German overview of "digital literature", complete with CD, when I had some time on my hands and was fascinated by interwebby-techno developments. Still haven't really got into it, let alone follow up on the authors it discusses, and it's probably been long since overtaken by events.

Books Read Long Ago Which It's Now Time To Reread
Tristram Shandy (hmm, compare and contrast with If on a Winter's Night), Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster stories.

Books You've Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It's Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them
A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. I had to read the first two books as set texts once - I keep meaning to catch up with the more louche bits. I even bought a nice new edition in Paris a few years ago. I avert my gaze from it on my shelves - as with quite a large pile of other books waiting to be opened.