Wordshore

Writing in the long form
October 21st, 2014 by John

Winter, arrives, in England

Observations of the outside, this evening. As tweets, originally.

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That warm autumnal yesterday, shunted, fronted away by the tail of the storm. Winter enters, for the clocks to fall back in a hundred hours.

The fourth quarter slides in. The quiet countdown to Christmas, the silent worries of relative visits; that micro-social etiquette of cards.

Dinnertime darkness. Signs for bonfires protestingly tug at fastenings with each gust. Cyclists slowly strain and wince into the headwind.

Crinkled, bronzing leaves, twirling in mini-tornados. Swaying, unbroken, trees that have seen this and worse, and darker and wetter, before.

Draught snakes deployed; duvets togged up and heating notched up; ubiquitous white plastic garden furniture shedded; hatches battened down.

Coated commuters and headsunk shoppers. Gloved. Scarfed. Minimal exposed skin; minimalist conversation. Crocs and sandals replaced by boots.

Halloween tat vies with Christmas tat for shelving. Duffel coats are “in”; summer fashions “reduced to clear”. Mince pies “use by December”.

Less salad, more soup. “Summertime specials” culled by “Winter Warmers”. A modest stack of pumpkins where the “value barbeques” once camped.

Mittens for the young ones. Chocolates for the wife. Socks for the husband. Eggnog for the elderly. The commercial Groundhog Day of gifting.

“Where’s the saffron?” “This is Tesco, not Waitrose; you’ll be wanting bloody myrrh next”, bicker the identically attired couple in aisle 5.

Outside, still England. Just a damper, darker, version of a recent self. A lonely, early, firework ascends the sky. Pop. Szzzzzzzz. Sparkle.

But it’s quieter, fresher, sharper, newer. A trade-off in ambience. No drunken raised voices, now brushed away by that cleansing cold wind.

The near-identical glow of a terrace of televisions; the same living room corners, the same channels, beginning their sedentary winter eves.

The courtyard cat, now the fireside cat, tracks a floating leaf from the other side of the glass. Still a curious cat, but now a warmer cat.

A few more steps, key in lock, inside. Door closed against that outside. The unwinding relief of being “In for the night, now”.

Winter.

August 13th, 2014 by John

True Librarian

Phil Bradley, library advocate and activist, writes about libraries and Internet things (he’s particular good on search engines). He’s on the ball, open-minded, and tends to – sensibly – avoid many of the zero-win library arguments on social media. His website.

His latest post, A response to “This Librarian Is Not Impressed With Your Digital, No-Books Library”, is worth a read. I’ve posted a comment, though I can’t help but think I’ve written the same before in various places, about public libraries and librarians. Several times. Diminishing returns. Maybe it’s time to reluctantly acknowledge there will always be entrenched, opinionated, media elitists who favor one type of information container over another, or over all others. And leave them to their book sniffing, or techno-lust.

I’ve repeated the reply below as Typepad and me don’t get on, the reply lost the external links, and the grammar (I so need an editor) is a bit better.

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Yes; a thousand times yes. The grocer that sells only apples, even the finest quality apples, is soon a bankrupt grocer.

The extremists on both wings of the information access spectrum are just that; extreme, and selfish, and lacking in empathy. The “book sniffer” who only reads print, fetishes paper, and looks down with false superiority on those who use the library computers as being of a lesser, less intellectual and intelligent mind. The “techno bore” who parrots the lie that “everything is online”, ignores the many millions with no IT skills or experience, and looks down on those who read print as feeble, old-fashioned and just old (as they too will one day be).

There’s snobbery on both wings, and both weaken the standing of libraries and librarians with their intolerant, narrow and narrow-minded “I find information this way, therefore everyone else should” agenda.

This is particularly pertinent this week. Everyone has heard of the death of Robin Williams. Depression, mental illness and suicide are being debated and commented in varying degrees of enlightenment across print and digital media. Many on social media, in real life, are choosing this time to declare past and previous problems, battles in the mind. These are not rare, and easily remedied, conditions; these are common, but complex and individual conditions.

But where does a person who wants, or needs, quality information on these issues go? And go to, right now? Friends and relatives often give worse than useless opinions, masked as advice. “Pull yourself together”, “You’ll get over it”, You have a job; count yourself lucky”, “Get a job”, “Go and have a drink”. Does this advice work? If not, where else does someone go?

The A and E hospital department? Overwhelmed with people in stages of trauma, and frightening. The CAB? Again, busy and overwhelmed, and it doesn’t solve but sends the person elsewhere. The police station? Frightened of being sectioned or detained. The council’s social services? Overstretched, underfunded, and the paradox of requiring a tenacity to navigate that is often missing in those who need it. The GP? Again, needing the tenacity to get an appointment, wait, get seen too, maybe get mysterious medications, maybe get onto a mental health waiting list. With a heavy emphasis on waiting – and what does he or she do while they wait?

Which leads to: what if you need that information now? If the thoughts going through the mind aren’t good ones, and aren’t abated by hearing “The earliest initial appointment is in three weeks”. Or if it’s difficult, as many with mental health issues find, to deal with people and agencies, in appointment or on the telephone? People who want, or need, reassuring privacy to absorb information in their own way and at their own pace. What options are left? Often, only two are apparent, public, obvious and there.

…either, the pub. Alcohol is cheap, oblivion comes soon, and pubs are inviting; they want your money. Go in a few at opening times and find the many who chose, or had to choose, this easiest but non-solving and worsening of options. The cheap, chain bar became the default 21st century “Care in the Community”.

…or, the public library. Possibly. Print? There can be useful books there, which you can borrow and read, at your speed, in the privacy of your home. Online? There’s computers to get you to websites, some with up to date information, more information, and contact details. A library that provides both the analog and the digital maximizes the chances of providing essential and accessible information to those who really need it.

So long as there is the third component: the skilled and experienced librarian, who respects privacy and does not have a bias towards a particular media; who knows how to help and nudge people with complex needs in the right direction and into the appropriate media. Not the volunteer, well-meaning but lacking information and media skills, who may be judgmental, or not respect privacy, or not have the experience of encountering people with complex needs. But the true librarian, who can encounter an inarticulate, possibly frightened, probably emotional person, figure out what information they need, and help them to get it using the array of media in that same building. Who knows where an appropriate book is, or how to get it on loan; who knows how to get to an appropriate website.

True librarians, with their many information skills and experiences, can and do help, improve, and even save, lives. But they need, in their libraries, the diversity of information media – print, digital, book, online – to do so. The elitism and snobbery, the favoritism of a pet media to the exclusion of others, helps neither librarians, nor the patrons and members of the community and society, they serve.

August 2nd, 2014 by John

Nidificating

It’s the first Saturday of August. After being held prisoner all night with an overactive mind I’m sitting, surprisingly comfortably, in an empty, early morning, coffee place in an English market town. So guess it’s somewhat like my childhood, except with better coffee. And the money to buy it. And wifi. And the person making the coffee reminds me of Lena Dunham in Girls. And the coffee place has the spacious, relaxed, brick wall feel of a coffee place in an American midwest town. Okay, it’s nothing like my childhood then.

Thank God.

This last year has been frustrating, though not as much as the previous three which felt like going backwards, while the body relentlessly aged. Health, in a wider sense, has had knockbacks, but there’s been more positives than negatives. Some legacy issues have been sorted. Others are in the process of being sorted. Some remain, kicked into the long grass for probably another year.

I’ve written more in the last year than any of the previous ten, but most of it isn’t public. A combination of nerve, legal worries, a lack of editorial skills – I still cannot figure out how to do apostrophe’s – and wondering if there’s any audience for these texts means most of it stays in the digital vault. Yeah, I’ll come back to that.

People I know, or knew, have had children, gotten married, gotten divorced, died. Less family deaths this year, but there’s not many relatives left now. Planes fall from the sky, rockets fall on schools, tanks roll into towns, diseases wipe out communities. The news is a relentless reel of grim; there is no dog on a skateboard any more. Twitter isn’t significantly more positive, but at least there are cats there.

Always cats.

And no matter what you do, or what you don’t do, life perambulates on everywhere else.

I’ve cut back on social media and use it more sparingly and less like a sugar addict in a sweetshop. In both social media and real life most people have been quietly dropped. I’ve escaped the city, my biggest mistake of several big ones these last six years being to not realize, or remember, that I’m happier out of the city than in it. Though that’s tweet-simplistic and there’s a bundle of probably contradictory feelings, on Birmingham and Detroit, to unpack at some point.

I’ve walked a lot of miles and seen a lot of trees. One or two may or may not have been hugged when there’s been no-one around. It’s probably the beard.

But though these are fields and trees, they are slightly familiar fields and trees. The country of my birth, which I don’t love but have learned to tolerate, still holds me while its health service (one of the pluses) fixes me, a frustratingly long car service at the biological garage. Home, in heart and mind, are a long way away and I feel like a semi-detached visitor on this island of sixty million. The contrails in the sky are my route map; the sound of the wood pigeon a daily reminder that I’m still here, and not there.

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The most significant event this last year was a malfunction, several months ago. Though, on reflection the most significant event may have been my inability to properly pack a large glass jar of coffee in my suitcase a few days before. Yadda yadda yadda coffee grinds and broken glass in seemingly everything, including some tech.

Thus my backup drive, instead of purring in its usual digital cat manner, screeched in a high pitched and almost violent fit, then suddenly went silent. The air filled with the chemical smell of some kind of plastic-metal melting or burning. Instinctively I knew this, whatever it was, wasn’t going to be fixed by a software upgrade.

On contemplating the digital death of the apparently sentient drive, I realized what was on my computer was the only versions of many things. And that computer was over half a decade old and would one day unexpectedly keel over, perhaps in sympathy with the now-smoldering drive. I could have run out and bought another backup drive, but that would have continued my usual bad practice of dumping everything on there in a random manner, with the good intention of sorting it all out one day.

A good intention never carried out. And I’ve written several times about this good intention, of sorting out all my old ephemera, and the started and abandoned blogs (several) and social media (many) accounts online, and making it all neat and tidy and online and blah blah blah. But never actually got off my 45 year old English ass and followed through. Always a job for tomorrow. Tomorrow never came.

But now, in the gaps between medical appointments, work tasks, waking up and the first coffee working, it made sense to do the big sorting out and saving and backup. To “nidificate”, as Becky told me; to build a (digital) nest.

The first task, sorting through and backing up everything from the laptop in some kind of ordered fashion, is pretty much done; all 14,319 files. Various “clouds” (look, a cloud is just some remote place you FTP stuff to – no magic) now house my stuff. More clouds house backups of other clouds. I should be able to survive at least one security breach, or cloud owner going under, or laptop eventually joining the old backup drive in digital heaven, without losing my stuff.

The second, much longer, task is underway; moving some of this stuff into one “blog” or place. The name was supplied by Becky and is appropriate, so it’s eventually my home for previous posts – everything except for the long-form decent writing which stays here on Wordshore. And by everything, not just the conventional posts of extremely variable quality, but ephemera such as posts from the quirky BBC Island Blogging thing from the middle of the last decade, most of the posts from this site, some of the descriptors from Flickr pictures, diary entries of varying tones from current times to some years back (effectively a private blog), possibly some other stuff I’m looking at now that may cause the odd ruckus. A smorgasbord of often quantity over quality. And the ride won’t always be fluffy and pleasant; I’ll leave the fakery and the trying on of personal hats to social media.

Why, rather than delete it all and start afresh? An aide memoir. Some context for what I do. An experimental place for writing. Hopefully a reminder of previous mistakes so history doesn’t get repeated (yeah, right). A few records being set straight (“history is written by the one who remembers to backup his shit”). And a memory stamp when digital history, and the history of digital, is being silently removed at an increasing pace. To explain; all six UK academic organizations I worked at or for, doing digital library and informatics stuff, between 1995 and 2004 have closed down in the last five years. Some of these have archived their stuff; some have rammed it into one database; some have chosen to just wipe everyones work from over the years (seriously, CDLR; wtf?). Yes, there’s the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, and it’s great – essential, even – but it takes time to browse around historical timelines. And what happens if the volunteer-funded Wayback Machine itself stops?

So, Nidificate it is for much of my online texty stuff that’s currently scattered online and off. This will take a long time to do, as it’s the work that fits in the gaps between everything else. It’ll certainly take a lot longer than a year, so on the first Saturday of August 2015, I’ll hopefully be typing about what is done and what there is still to do. Maybe.

July 27th, 2014 by John

Archipelago days

An ‘archipelago’ is a group of islands, or a collection of bits of land in a sea, ocean, or stretch of water. Sometimes it’s a cluster of islands, sometimes a chain, sometimes a random sprinkling of tiny specks of land in a large expanse of watery nothingness. There are archipelagos with lots of land mass e.g. Indonesia, and lots of islands e.g. off the southwest coastline of mainland Finland, and archipelagos within archipelagos e.g. the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides) off the northwest coast of the main island in the British Isles.

But there’s another way to think of an archipelago: as a collection of ferry routes to be enjoyed.

Ferries are great. Some I’ve been on are tiny and precarious. Some smell of sheep. Some are just for tourists now. But it’s those that ply their trade between the islands of an archipelago, with their own nuances and quirks, that endure in the mind.

Sure, regular scheduled ferry services aren’t the only way to travel between islands, and there are often smoother modes of hopping from one to another. Norway have their road and subsea tunnels. Planes are much quicker, often hilariously so and usually more thrilling; Barra island beach airport is never dull to land in or take off from. Or live on an archipelago? You may have a neighbor, friend or relative with a boat who says he’s just going to pop over to that island over there while pointing at a small lump of rock some miles distant, and a few minutes later you find yourself in his boat, safety gear on, surrounded by nothing but increasingly deep sea. So outside of the five month Hebridean winter this kind of thing would happen:

Out tae sea

Or I’d spend a birthday on an island inhabited by just a herd of deer, courtesy of Donald and his blue boat:

Deer

There’s always something to look at on a boat or ferry trip. The scientific; how the boat moves, how the sails fill, distances and speed. The romantic; the moving land or lights on the horizon, the rhythm of the waves, spray, feel and smell of the water and air, dolphins, whales, the sense and thrill that you’re doing something that mankind has done for thousands of years but is still not quite natural for us land-evolved animals.

Though, not all ferry trips were thrilling experiences. In the summer of 1998 I spent a month in the (English) Channel Islands because … ah, why not. It’s a small archipelago whose main industries seemed to be tourism, agriculture and being the home of many extremely rich people and their bank accounts; an awkward blend of rural England, rural France, and the Cayman Islands. One day I had a ticket to go from Jersey to Guernsey by ferry, the boat being delayed by bad weather. Most of my stupid decisions are taken in the morning before three cups of coffee and todays was deciding, as I watched the boat pitch and roll around and struggle to dock, that I had time for a fry-up breakfast before boarding.

You can guess the rest. The only time in hundreds of boat trips that I’ve been seasick, though this was more uncontrollable projectile vomiting. In a tiny bathroom seemingly designed that no matter where you vomited, the vomit would rebound and hit you. Little comfort that many other passengers and crew were involved in the same elsewhere on the ferry. Finally, arriving at the island, we were given complimentary food vouchers as compensation, the thought of which triggered secondary vomiting in some. The ride took three times longer than scheduled, I couldn’t face the trip back in any weather and purchased an expensive but quick and vomit-free plane ride back a few days later.

Ferries in the Caribbean were far more leisurely. Though, with the islands being more spread out, planes were the default method of island hopping. Side-point: Air Jamaica is still the most relaxed and friendliest airline I’ve ever flown on, and the only time I’ve been offered a spliff by a fellow passenger – during a flight. Despite much of that month being a blur of astonishing heat, cricket, really severe sunburn and rum to quell the pain of the really severe sunburn, the beauty of the islands, warmth of the sea and the laid-back friendliness sticks with you. Maybe it was the rum and heck I drank so much, constantly, on that adventure but the ferry rides between St Kitts and Nevis, in particular, were lovely in every regard. The smell of railings being painted as the boat sailed; the running commentary as some reluctant farm animals were eventually brought on board; the way people would nonchalantly indicate a whale swimming parallel to us while I was “OMG WHALE”; the random dispensing of food from total strangers. Good times, and good journeys, despite the searing sunburn.

In a rather different climate, a few years later found me on a ferry to the Gothenburg archipelago. Living in west (mainland) Scotland had the advantage of being between two airports with cheap flights to various European cities, which we used to full effect. “Nothing happening locally this weekend oh just found £9.95 tickets to Sweden and booked accidentally oh well”. One New Year (2002 or 03) we tried Sweden’s second city, as the capital was a bit pricey. Gothenburg itself was a strange mix of culture, port, industry, eateries, pretty coastline and second city inferiority complex; a kind of Swedish Birmingham-by-the-sea. Side-point: the New Years firework display was shockingly good, still the best of any display I’ve seen (sorry, 4th of July in the USA), with bonus participation by locals letting off fireworks at angles of madness degrees from the gaps between pavement slabs.

One surprise on this trip was the hundred or so tightly-packed islands just off the coast, connected by a Swedishly-efficient network of small ferries, one offering welcome but exhorbitant coffee in the subzero temperatures. We spent a day wandering the islands, walking on some, watching the residents motor around in their adapted Swedish island versions of quad bikes, looking at others from the deck of our often surprisingly close-by boat. Our last ferry back arrived ten minutes late, triggering profuse Swedish apologies and the insistence of a refund; got to love Scandinavian efficiency. From those pre-Flickr days I wish I had kept photographs, so here’s a nice one from someone else:

Stensholmen

And then there were the Outer Hebrides, home for half a decade and the destination of many trips (several for househunting) for a few years before those. The archipelago is long, as tourists who think they can “do” the place in a day gradually discover; from end to end it’s further than from Glasgow to Newcastle. Despite this, there are only two internal ferry services. A tiny boat makes the short hop from Barra (for me the perfect island if only it had genuine broadband) to Eriskay. Then it’s a collection of long roads and causeways up to my previous home island of Berneray, and then the crazy hour of zigzaging between the rocks in the shallow waters of the Sound of Harris before disembarking on Leverburgh.

Zig-zag

Time it right, have a decent car and no fear of single track roads, and with no weather or tidal delays you *can* do the Outer Hebrides in a day, but you’ll end up well over a hundred miles from where you started, and you’ll have zoomed past some of the most perfect beaches in Europe. But getting to the Outer Hebrides; that involves more leisurely ferry rides whether out of Oban, Uig or Ullapool. The Oban to Barra run, a good five hour sail, was a particular favorite, with much Scottish mainland and island scenery, the surprisingly good meals that Calmac can dish up, the airplane-like “Where you are right now” digital maps, the announcements that cheerily say “Caledonian MacBrayne” in that accent, and plenty of places outside and in to sit, write, ponder and watch the scenery slide past. Seriously top tip: Calmac ferries to the Outer Hebrides are usually busy, an increasingly problematic issue for residents in particular, and it’s a seriously good idea to book your place in advance.

There are many other archipelagos to consider visiting. The Faroe islands look interesting, as do the Åland islands. And for years, firmly number one on my personal list are the Lofoten Islands, off the coast of Norway and a little bit above the Arctic Circle. Because Scandinavia. And also because, well, these pictures by other folks who have been there:

Welcome to my world

Arctic Blue | Lofoten, Norway

p e r s i s t | lofoten, norway

But there’s one archipelago ferry service I’ve done before that am keen to repeat, which is the point of this ramble.

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Six years ago this month, I was at the end of a short break, and trip #19, in Scandinavia. Stockholm, my favorite capital city with its cafes, odd hipster culture, architecture, funky subway system, hotel lift signs, biggest Ikea, cheese markets, outside exhibitions, and its cafes. Did I mention those twice? Yeah; sitting outside with a coffee and some Swedish cake in a seafront, or old, part of the city? Bliss.

Stockholm itself is built on a bunch of islands. It’s easy to forget this when you’re busy or traveling on the subway; less so when you encounter the waterfront and the huge oceanic ferries that tour the world. But tucked away in their shadows are the local passenger ferries and, on a whim this day, I got myself a round trip ticket and boarded one.

Best travel decision ever.

The Stockholm archipelago is complex. Many of the islands are inhabited all year round, with communities or more individual buildings. Some are uninhabited, or have winter homes. Most are accessible, due to Sweden’s law that you can land in most places so long as you don’t hassle nearby residents. And some are even on part of Stockholm’s central integrated transport network.

The ferry I boarded had a mixture of tourists, commuters, and locals out for a day on the water. We zipped around a variety of islands at speed. At one small but particularly inviting island, I got off, wandered to the other side (which took less than two minutes), and came across a small beach with a barbeque in full operation. Offered cooked offerings, I stayed there until another ferry arrived. This one sailed a little slower, ambling through cold and clear and blue waters, past small islands of single and expensive houses, and larger islands of woods and little settlements, and bare rocks of no inhabitants but visitors, sunbathers, swimmers and picnickers. Ferry number two offered a variety of drinks, but only cake as food.

I stayed on the cake-ferry for a couple of hours, as tannoy messages announced additional stops at ports for mysterious reasons (at one, most of the crew disembarked, bought ice creams, and reboarded, so that was possibly one). As we chugged further eastwards, towards over-the-horizon Finland, there was a sense of moving into more open sea and leaving the shelter of fragmented Stockholm land gradually behind. I relented, bought cake, and watched a pair of fellow voyagers do things online, and wondered with envy how this was possible when my own island-based broadband didn’t even work at low tide (true story: another time).

Aware that I was on the equivalent of a stopper-train, I got off at an island – or chunk of mainland, it was sometimes difficult to tell which was which – and waited for a faster ferry. Which turned out to be the original ferry, possibly on its second or third run of the day. I boarded, was reunited with the hat I’d left behind earlier, and we were off again. Past more rich owner islands, and little tufts and rock, and a small island used by unabashed naturists – they waved, I awkwardly waved back – and larger islands, and clumps of land that grew larger as we headed towards Stockholm.

As the afternoon drew on, I looked out of the back of the boat, watched the spray fly behind us as we sped to home, and contemplated home. And realized that home probably wasn’t where I thought it was, and that emigration to … somewhere was not only possible, but inevitable in a way I couldn’t articulate, and personal change was coming.

Sweden

We passed larger cruise ships heading to lands distant, and yachts and smaller boats, and boats of an indeterminate nature. And other ferries, as we approached the port and I got off to go and find a cafe and scribble some notes and thoughts, that have ended up as this post. So, in life, boat trips, and exploring the Stockholm archipelago, there’s a lot of choice. And much of it is good.

And to finish off that boat ride, a lovely sunset:

Sunset

July 11th, 2014 by John

Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

Under a blue summer English sky, I continue this non-linear quest of Fellowship proportions to get my health back to something that won’t trouble the emergency room of a country without socialist medical treatment. You can probably guess which one.

This week just finished, one minor health setback but one major thing finally ticked off the medical list. In addition, and finally without giving up yet again, I’ve managed to back-up everything digital I still possess from the last 15 years or so to various clouds. And, I’ve made significant, possibly breakthrough, progress on rescoping my work plans for the long term.

So, a good week, ending with my favorite rural walk to date in this part of England. After the obligatory few miles of road and meadow and country lane, five miles of this route became a meandering well-worn footpath, a narrow hinterland between fields of barley and corn and a twisty, shallow, slow-moving brook that oft disappeared into copses and spinneys and woods. The evening was hot and cloud cover increasingly elusive, so the shade of many trees was quietly thanked, and the temptation, at stumbling across a shaded pool, of stripping off and jumping in was only narrowly resisted.

The footpath eventually turned away from the brook and trundled over a small hill, a copse to the right, becoming a bridleway of pitted, horseshoe-shaped ruts in dried soil. The path opened onto a road; houses, a church, rural English civilization. I cooled down in a gentrified rural pub, lemonade and ice rushing through me, and watched the sun set over a Nottinghamshire, or possibly a Leicestershire, hill of maize.

As the dusk fragmented into night, I strode to the next village, a mile and half again north. One footpath, a half-guessed jump across a stream in the increasing gloom, and wading up a hill of stout and unyielding corn. Behind me, the July harvest full moon, tinged pink but full and wide and slightly paler, a little more translucent than the previous, rose slowly above the ridge to the South.

I reached the bus stop, calculated the walk (9.5 miles; not epic, but not insignificant), and watched the moon inch upwards as the sky moved through the last few shades of blue before black. Tomorrow it’s back to typing and doing digital administration for a few days. But these walks, under a big sky, away from the babble of people and the industry of life, help; it’s not just the body that needs to repair, decompress, revitalize, rebuild, but sometimes the mind as well.

June 11th, 2014 by John

Overhead

The ISS appeared again this evening. No longer smothered by the glow of city lights, I watched it from the countryside as it rose and soared, bright and clear, floating silently, constantly, almost overhead. This sight will never pale; in a world that seems relentlessly broken it’s a reminder that, occasionally, our flawed species can produce something great.

And make the International Space Station we did; centuries of science culminating in an almost impossible craft. 240 feet long, 990,000 pounds in weight, 260 miles up and orbiting our little rock every 93 minutes. A solar-powered home to six of our kind, traveling at over 17,000 miles an hour. And if you watch it quietly pass overhead, who knows; one of those six crew might, at that moment, be looking down to where you are.

If you want to see it, use a site such as “Heavens Above” to work out when. Enter your observing location (you don’t need to login); check the 10 day predictions for the ISS. The more negative the brightness figure (magnitude), the better; a number lower than -3 in particular makes for a brilliant view.

Note the times and the directions to look (usually the ISS passes west-ish to east-ish). Pick somewhere away from lights, and things that may block the view. Wait for the object that seems to be an aircraft, that gets gradually brighter but never blinks, that moves silently.

And look. Because we made that.

May 27th, 2014 by John

Writing

You remember the sunrises and the sunsets, and in between the diners, the customers, the food, the coffee refills, the waitresses, the way the cutlery was arranged, the condiments, the font and laminate of the menu, the anticipation. The person opposite you, your reflection in their glasses and in their eyes. You see yourself, and you always look different to the person you think you were.

You watch the confidence and immortality of youth, the middle life struggle of definition, the eventual acceptance of the lot, the scars accumulated by death and grief on those who witness. All of us, we all collect them. You see the comfort in small things, small gestures, small words. New meaning. Different lives. Different futures, now.

You drift, and pause, and move, from room to room. And watch people play, the act of life, and party, and connect, and love, and break themselves and each other, then leave. The talk and the laughter and the tears and the silence. And remember those times, and record in head and on paper, in prose, in image, in poetic line, explicit in fact, or implicit and buried amongst fiction.

But, recognizable. Always, recognizable.

And you eventually write all of these things and times in the long form, and save and backup and edit and tweet and blog and story and book and publish. The thoughts and memories and emotions constantly work to find the weakest point in you, of you, out of you; punch a wound and escape, spew and gush as words, snake venom sucked from a wound, toxins expelled. A day, a month, a decade later. But always, at some time later. You erupt and empty, feel weaker but feel relieved, lighter, content.

It isn’t a calling, a hobby or a lifestyle or frivolity. Dear God, no. It’s a pressure reduced, an exorcism and a confessional, a dam bursting, a burden of witness to humanity shared, a bloodletting with pens and keyboards over leeches, a trepanning of your soul.

A necessity.

Dusk

May 20th, 2014 by John

An intermission of rural England

Rural England is a small place. All of England to start with is smaller than most US states, and can fit into Scandinavia many times over. Take out the cities, take out the airports, the motorways and main roads, the growing suburbs and industrial sites, and you aren’t left with a huge amount of area. Set your mind to it and in a few days you could walk across its width; in a few weeks, its length.

But, what there is still greatly varied in tone, color, views, flora and fauna. And it is a country to be walked in, not driven through or flown over. Rabbits and pheasants burst from their secluded places as they hear you coming, and leap or flap away. Herons move slowly from tree to riverbank. In the gloom of dusk, foxes trot quickly, sharply, on their routes across fields. Meadows filled with a million buttercups invite crossing. And there are thousands upon thousands of those fields, rolling and curving over hills; and hedgerows, and woods and copses and spinneys.

Yes. The trees.

So many trees.

It’s a safe place; there is little that can or will kill you. And it’s a gentle place, in weather and inhabitant. Everyone, no exception, I’ve passed this last few weeks on country lanes has nodded, given some variation of passing greeting, or observation on the current or coming weather. The invisibility cloak you are seemingly given on entering the city is not worn here.

But also, this is a visibly historical place, as you are reminded over and over. The way the country lanes either ramble off in dead straight lines (Roman), or zig zag around fields (Enclosure act), or make no logical sense at all (just … English). The buildings, almhouses and stately homes and passing a cottage called “The New House” with a date of 1573 above the front door, and the remnants of medieval or older settlements. The many churches, stone and bell; the place names, and the dialects.

And the, thankfully enduring, traditions and customs. Stumble into a pub of several centuries, parched after rambling across fields and through woods and over brooks and streams; pat the owners dog on the head, buy a drink and some pork scratchings then notice Morris Dancers preparing to shake their bells and clash sticks outside. Or wander past a village fete, decide to check out just one stand, and a few minutes late you wonder why you’ve just bought three cakes made by a 90+ year old, but you are glad you have as it’s probably made her day and you’ve contributed to some village restoration project.

Rural England is a seductive place. It’s better if you have the money, and the time, to enjoy and explore it (then again, so is everywhere). But above all, it’s a quiet place where nature has, at least partially, reclaimed the sounds. Sure, there is often the distant hum of traffic, or a nearby tractor, or a plane going overhead (and … so many planes, in recent years). But there are farm animals, and birds, and church bells near and distant, the sounds of water, morris dancers and cricket matches, and psithurism (look it up, then go outside somewhere and listen to it).

Though I was born in this rural land, and spent the first 20 years here and kept coming back, and I’m here again, wandering the lanes and fields, this isn’t home. That thing means something different now, and it’s a long way, physically and literally, from here. But I’m finding that it’s deeply satisfying, for a short while anyway, to wander down lanes, through woods and across meadows, again.

March 30th, 2014 by John

Death

Death, like its opposing force of love, comes in many forms and shades.

The physical, or cognitive, death of a relative, a partner, a friend or work colleague. Someone you knew; past tense, now. A pet, often as loved – if not more – than friends or relatives; a love strengthened through loyalty, no longer reciprocated.

The silence; the almost unbearable silence.

The death of a dream, an idea or a hope or a glimpsed future. Through redundancy, a relationship ending, bad news from the doctor, a permanent setback of some other kind. The death of carefree wonder, as we age and unpeel the stickers covering the truths of adult life and discover that, apart from sex and travel, the innocence of childhood was probably better after all. The death of the ability to write with clarity, or recite from memories.

The death of being able to communicate as the body fails, of being able to talk, or write, or remember.

And those small and transient micro-deaths; the vacation cancelled because of a sickness; the cake we had been saving as a treat, eaten by another; the anticipation of a TV show, killed by a social media spoiler. Death, and love, reminding us of their presence and power over us, daily.

It’s a little over five years since my mom died, in unpleasant circumstances following a long and destructive condition that is under-reported. (But, then again, us repressed English don’t really “do” death.) Bad enough. Around that time, and during the cremation, and afterwards, a few people severely, and disrespectfully (mis)behaved, solely in the pursuit of money. I wish karma on them, and at the least it’ll be something to write about in detail in some future year. In ink on paper, and text on screen, their shame will also be on those who looked the other way.

But, this is the first year since my mom’s death that I have not dreaded, nor quietly resented, Mother’s Day. I’m guessing this is good; acceptance, progress, a duller sharpness than before. The environment is noticeably varied in bright and deep color, not the greys and blacks of before. Notching down the reading of social media helped, this year. As does time. That’s the truism about death:

Things do, eventually, get better – though they’re never the same again.

Introspectively and perhaps selfishly, I don’t fear my own death. Used to, but not now, and I regret the time spent, wasted, dawdling on it. Regrets are, in themselves, an annoying kind of meta-death, where we kill time we cannot replace by wishing things that cannot be repeated had not happened. If that makes sense. But having brushes with mortality on a few occasions over the last decade, from the serious to the ridiculous (getting hit by buses for two years in a row) and watching relatives, friends, school friends especially (those of the same age), pets and others die with a regular or increasing frequency over the last half decade, it becomes a strange, ever-present, background thing, with rites and rituals, and patterns of behavior amongst those left alive. Or left behind. Whichever you prefer.

But I do fear the death, or mortality, of a loved one, or being in permanent pain, or the cruelness of a degenerative cognitive condition corroding the memory or means to communicate; deaths of different kinds. These are sharp fears, the kind that lie in your pillow at 3am and whisper to you when you just want to sleep.

And I do fear, or at the least am aware and wary of, the death of useful but unfulfilled days. The quietest, and perhaps the most insidious, death of all. Through fears, or circumstance, or the mind being in the wrong place, not reaching the potential of a day, week or month. A time where less was achieved than could, or should, have been. A time that is, has, gone. Dead time, now.

Perhaps that’s too morbid. Like many people, I still have the cliched “lot of living” to do. A heck of a lot to write; it feels like this is just starting, middle-aged though I am. An awesome partner to love and support, as she has loved and supported me. A close group of great friends to have good times with. Northern lights to see, fireflies to hold, cats to stroke and cheeses (in moderation) to sample, both raw and deep fried (seriously in moderation).

I am the product and the legacy of my parents, Jill and William. They lived, and loved, and died. Too early, and with unfulfilled potential. So fulfilling my own potential, whatever the heck that is, seems as good a nod of acknowledgement to them as can be done.

Better get on it, then. And if – or when – the Grim Reaper unexpectedly appears one night for myself; that’s okay. Just, not for a long time yet, thanks.

Sunset

February 7th, 2014 by John

All who you can’t leave behind

It’s early February.

I wake up in a different place, these days. South Birmingham, as opposed to the tiny part of Balsall Heath that became a base for a gradually lengthening period of time, as months collapsed into seasons, gave way to years.

It’s quiet here. My room looks out onto the bowling alley shaped back garden attached to terraced houses such as these. From the wobbly window there are views of many other gardens; trees; no roads; houses of differing interest; sheds; the occasional distant sounds of gleeful rabbit enthusiasts; an upper working class suburbia that the English made, tinker with, and continue to cling to.

Abridged

This house itself is … unconventional. There are trapdoors, hidden cupboards, windows in peculiar places, and an unusually large bathroom that can only have been designed by a retired, sex-addicted pirate. It’s somewhat different, floating in a bathtub and surrounded by pebbles and candles and dimmed lighting, with eyes wandering across paintings of Naiads in various stages of undress and amorous desire. This is not Birmingham. Not staid suburban stereotypical Birmingham, or minimalist, cheap and functional Ikea-England, but something else. You suspect, or hope, that this bathroom has previously been enjoyed for salacious purposes involving many people at the same time, and if you found out it wasn’t, then you’d be disappointed.

That long and narrow garden invites exploration. It’s not eternally, horseback ridingly long, but just lengthy enough to get a small fragment of a sense of wilderness, albeit only three miles from the centre of England’s second city. Three cats patrol this hidden country; none live in the house. There are trees, a variety of trees, blossom starting to push outwards on one, but maddeningly no fruit trees. I stare with some envy, and more than a little disgust, at the splendid apple tree in the neighbour’s garden, where a full crop of hundreds of apples lies on the ground; unused, uncollected, uncherished, uneaten, rotting, a banquet for crows and squirrels but not for the ignorant people who shout and slam their way in and out of their house. I look back, to here, this place, follow the converging parallel lines to the end fence. A shed, a gate under an arch of ivy, a pathway, seats and benches, stepping places fashioned from tree stumps and placed in a pool of mud, a second garden with a second shed, a secluded area with signs of previous things created, things burnt, memories forged.

Gate

And things burnt inside the house. A fireplace that functions; metal, tile, grate, a clear chimney. Joy, and the recall and reminder of years and lives past, of peat fires in a Hebridean cottage for half of one decade, and coal fires in a rural Worcestershire cottage for two. A few memories amongst the many that this place, and the time it occupies, stirs. This fireplace has become my domain (perhaps a good thing, as the kitchen bemuses and baffles me); experimentation with wood and log and smokeless coal (hot, but aesthetically dull) and other inflammable materials. The flames and the colors and the glows and the embers to stare at, in late evenings, and remember some things and forget other things.

There are other aspects of this house and quirks within. The set-up for working is the best I’ve had since Hebridean years; an antique writing desk that perfectly suits the MacBook. There’s a downstairs toilet with a transparent glass door. The built-in bookcase occupies a corridor. Paintings of a paganistic and fantastical nature jostle with candlestick holders. So many different wooden surfaces, furniture, with grain and color and texture to distract and follow, and tactile hardwood floorboards that invite barefoot walking when the fire is lit. A quiet place, illuminated sometimes by just the light and crackle of fire flame and candle flame. And in the daytime, the sunlight. The way it creeps and peeps through the gaps between the wooden slats over my window. The red and the green and the blue beamed through the stained glass windows. The dust and soot and particles caught, embarrassed, when clouds scatter and that sunlight pours through the kitchen windows.

Fire

And this house is quiet because of the people within. My housemate, her wont to never stray too far from the jar of tea bags, is one of the loveliest people you could ever meet. She busies with her work while I frown at mine, interrupting myself occasionally to poke at an unburnt log or lump of glowing eco-coal while I listen for the inevitable sound of a kettle. She counters the aesthetic background of Boards of Canada by cheerfully humming Rolling Stones tracks from a different time, in a different room. This works, and this place works.

But in three weeks, I have had a grand total of zero visitors. That suits me fine, having quietly “unfollowed” 72 out of the 81 Birmingham residents I’d ended up connected to on “social media”, ignored all local social events, and stopped answering emails and messages from many of those people. Transition through shades of isolation. Though, having said that, it seems almost comically ridiculous and shallow, when looking into the flames of the fire that has warmed my (and your) species for millennia, to give gravitas to the oft-fleeting nature of “online connections”. Whatever the heck they are.

And while not a complete hermit – I’m back up to following 11 Brummies, albeit four (and soon five) of them related – the slightly-trimmed beard and the long, occasionally ponytailed and greying hair are perhaps appropriate for the demeanor of a person who both wants and needs this silent time to finish considering what else and who else to leave behind; and to sorting out his head, his possessions, his gradually repairing body and the next “stage of life”, whatever the heck that is, as best he can.

It’s early February, 2014. It’s spring time. This, for a short while, is a quiet place and it is my place.

Office