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Category: Writing

The summer of 2016

The summer of 2016

It has been a good summer; so far, anyway.

Lush grass

There have been meetings in nice towns.

Up the hill

Sunsets.

Sunset

Many walks in the countryside.

Nearing harvest

Some Nordic food shopping.

Haul

More walks.

Flowing

Trees.

Tree

Convivial conversations.

Pub

More sunsets.

Sunset

Moon rises.

Moon in the gap

Cricket.

Expectant home supporters

Some writing.

Hotdesk

And unexpected music.

Uh?

I have been, and remain (using that word pointedly), disinclined to “blog” or write much of a non-work nature. The EU referendum has poisoned much, and my thoughts and vision lie increasingly elsewhere. Maybe some other time.

In the meantime, my work website (which remains under permanent construction) is where to go to check I’m still around.

The wind in the barley

The wind in the barley

Today was a good day, as one of the projects I started at Halloween 2014 has come to an end; I have finally tracked down every account I can find or remember, and deleted nearly all of them. Though that’s with the glaring exception of half-a-dozen blogs that I still don’t know what to do with, apart from some vague idea about writing more or generally adding to.

Thus, a nice walk concluded the day, the pictures of which are scattered within this post.

Those accounts numbered in the hundreds in the end. Social media of a wide variety stretching over years; online shopping; forum and newspaper commenting; academic, public and private business websites. So many. And most of them now gone (with the precaution of deleting or changing my details within and changing the associated email address to a throwaway account). It’s good now that when there’s a news story about accounts or passwords being stolen on some service, it rarely applies to me anymore, and I have a much, much smaller number of services to regularly change my password on.

Heck, I’ve even quit MetaFilter so the community there will have to figure out US election posts for the next five months without my long-form attempts. The list of accounts on various social media, financial, work, forums, mailing lists and other websites now easily fits on one side of paper.

Buttercup path

Thus, apart from that annoying blog problem, the online life is a lot simpler. And speaking of blogs and associated posts, I have a folder of drafts, near-finished, half-finished, sane ideas, stupid ideas and other notes for posts which I’m tired of looking at. So, that’s one reason I’ve decided to (where practical) limit online activities to work-related things for a while; I’ve reached a never-ending point of editing, re-editing, but never hitting “Publish”, as the days go by. Alas (or perhaps relief), the epic post I’ve been promising on online medical record data, how superb the NHS is, and which is less/more uncomfortable of a endoscopy/colonoscopy (spoiler: the latter is fine, but the former is like swallowing a greased hosepipe), will have to wait for another day (or, year).

There’s other reasons to “cut back on the online”. The days (as in “sun” and “light”) are long here and in the here and now, and I’d rather, to be blunt, spend as much time outside than inside staring at a screen and banging on a keyboard as I’ve done for much of the last quarter of a century. Also, a piece of work I’m currently doing has some strict confidentiality clauses in it (there are understandable reasons for that; it isn’t a complaint), and I’ve already nearly accidentally tweeted things which would have caused severe problems.

Curve

And speaking of twitter, my eternal love-hate relationship with it continues. As a social “glue” it’s great, unbeatable in form and ease. And some of the funnies on it are funny, and DMs are often the best way of communicating with some people. But, my God, it’s still and probably forever will be a place to amplify outrage, relentlessly, about every bad thing that people are doing in the world. This is not healthy and I’ve repeatedly fallen into the “LOOK AT THIS BAD THING LOOK AT IT” retweeting cycle myself.

At the moment, with the EU referendum (especially), the unusual US election, and all manner of other things going on the world of a negative nature, social media and Twitter in particular are often not great places to be, unless you thrive on the outrage. I did once – I lived for it – but I don’t now. Life is short, and trees are more satisfying to look at than the violence of failed humanity. Heck, I thought 2014 was bad on news and social media, but since then…worse.

Oh, and mailing lists. Yeah. Nope. It’s a blue sky outside, with a vitamin-D enabling sun, and those trees, flowers and fields. Much healthier to encounter these than the latest whine/rant on certain mailing lists that could be mentioned (#NotAllLists, I know, don’t get huffy).

On the positive side, I’ve figured out some realistic long-term aims of late. I’d rather crack on with moving towards them, rather than being distracted because I’m too easily distracted by certain aspects of the online life.

And a final reason for easing off the social media, is having unwanted knowledge about a few specific funding-related things. Ignorance can, sometimes, be bliss. Again, I’d rather not accidentally tweet or write or whatever something that shouldn’t come from me, especially when it affects friends and colleagues. That never ends well.

Green shoots

Work is work though, and social media, the Internet, websites, and even a few specific mailing lists are unavoidable because of work needs. So I’m not totally disappearing from the net; that would be impractical. Anyway, amongst other unavoidable online activities, I need to rebuild my work website which has dated quickly, taking into account some changes in focus.

I daresay I’ll break and come back every now and then for a minute or two to catch up, like having your nose against the window of a house where’s a nice party going on inside. I am human, and therefore weak.

But no idea when I’ll be back fully on regular social media – perhaps at the end of summer in the longer sense of the word summer – nor where I’ll be in “real life” when this happens. Who cares anyway; it’s just letters and other characters on a screen, no more than that. Get outside and enjoy your summer, northern hemisphere folk, while you can :)

Hotdesk

Nidificating

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.

+ + + + +

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.

Writing

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

Death

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

All who you can’t leave behind

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

Blue Highways

Blue Highways

My favourite non-fiction book. And the answer to the “What one possession would you take with you if your house was on fire?” question. The author is also the person, if I could pick one, I want to be.

I’ve been fascinated, obsessed, delirious, about America since I could speak and read, possibly before. My earliest memory was of watching man – an American – land on the moon, being too young to understand the excitement of a packed room of people watching a tiny, flickering television.

rural road

Every influence, from Coca Cola bottles to West Side Story, the speeches of JFK (who my parents named me after), the Stars and Stripes and the Star Spangled Banner, the movies of the Coen brothers and the journalism of the Washington Post, Seinfeld and The Wire, the optimism and a thousand influences in between, flow through me. That growing realisation that I’m an American, born in the wrong country.

I’ve had a few adventures, briefly, in America. But the adventure, the journey – and it is always the journey, not the destination – that William Least Heat-Moon describes in this book, is over four hundred pages of often transcendental observation and reflection, of America and the author, the writer, within America.

In Blue Highways, William found his life changing drastically in his late thirties, his ties gone, and took the opportunity to make a move, setting off with the bare minimum and copies of Leaves of Grass and Black Elk Speaks. He stuck to the back roads, the two lane tracks, and the small towns, people who’d never been interviewed, traveled, seen beyond their horizon but were content. Several thousand miles of traveling, and he repeatedly finds places and people he didn’t know existed; but perhaps more importantly he “learnt what he didn’t know he needed to know”.

Life as a back road in Iowa

The journey. It’s always about the journey. And there’s possibly no better place, physically and spiritually, to undertake the journey than America.

It’s a beautiful book I’ve read many times, and it smells and feels like a well-read and loved book.

Lines from a Navajo wind chant which close the book, and reminds of why we write:

Then he was told:
Remember what you have seen,
because everything forgotten,
returns to the circling winds.

Hay-on-Wye: Beyond the long tail

Hay-on-Wye: Beyond the long tail

(Pictures from this trip are on Flickr, and there’s a Flickr group with pictures by other people)

I’m sitting in The Granary in Hay-on-Wye. It’s mid morning. Outside it’s a little damp but in here there’s a crackling log fire. Every table is taken. Everyone is either reading, writing, or murmuring quietly to whoever they are with. Hops hang from the uncovered joists of the ceiling.

At the next table an earnest man (pointy beard) is reading Sylvia Plaths “The Bell Jar”. On the other side – and by coincidence as I bought a copy yesterday – a 20-something lady with dreadlocks and a multicoloured sweater that looks hand-knitted is reading “The Catcher in the Rye”. The couple at the table beyond nod back; previously they’d commented on the “O The President” decal on Samantha, in a positive way. Someone I can’t place but know – think he is a BBC reporter – is eating scrambled eggs on toast at the corner table and throwing little bits to an appreciative spaniel.

Bookshop

I check Twitter. My pot of tea arrives and I respond to the waitress in Welsh, constantly surprised at remembering words unused in decades.

Hay-on-Wye has the extremely justified title of the “Town of Books”. It’s not a big place; you can walk across downtown (as American colleagues would say) in less than ten minutes. The streets are narrow, but the place isn’t choked with traffic; there’s nowhere to drive to within 20 miles of here, perhaps why.

Wall of books

The bookshops and the festival are why people visit Hay. This tiny town, straddling the border of England and Wales, claims to have “more books” (easily many million) “per square mile” (one?) then anywhere else. And it would be a brave town, even other book towns, which challenged this. I wonder; does this place have the largest concentration of non-digital knowledge in the world? Possibly.

The bookshops differ, from the small and specialist, to several buildings joined together with seemingly endless corridors of books. Shelving differs, from neat and orderly, to books taking up every conceivable space on walls and floor, in some places meaning you have to jump over piles of books to move onwards. In some places, the books are precariously placed. On day one, I pulled one off a high shelf. The shelf came down with it. And the shelves below. And the cabinet. It was raining books – unfortunately hardbacks. The irony of being killed by an avalanche of books (which some librarian colleagues would have found very funny) wasn’t lost on me.

Booth's

It’s apparently quiet at this time of year, but even so the bookshops were busy with browsers and purchasers. This isn’t a place where books come to die; it’s a place where books are given another opportunity of being refound and reowned. Hay-on-Wye is the global convergence point for used books; container loads from around the world go into the bookshops; purchasers (including me) wait patiently in line at the Post Office to send books back around the world.

Useful though amazon.com is, where it fails, Hay-on-Wye fills the gap. Obscure book? Book published in 1933 that Amazon says is “Unavailable”? That collection of Ladybird books that taught you, simply, about things and which you believed unswervingly in at age six? They’re probably sitting on a shelf in Hay-on-Wye. Somewhere. And here’s the thing – there’s no instant look-up online of where that book is on the shelf. You have to go hunt, and that is part of the fun. In some stores, the staff can help. In others they have a vague idea. In some you are on your own (literally, as some shops are unmanned with just an honesty box for payment).

The problem (is it a problem?) in my case is that, in the hunt for one book, I found and bought more than 30 others on the way. Which lead to several more trips to the post office for despatch, as a swathe of my American colleagues will discover next week.

And it’s not just the bookstores. There are books for sales in cabinets bolted onto walls, in gardens, on tables outside, under a marquee next to the converted cinema (converted, inevitably, into a bookstore), on cabinets in the grounds of the castle:

Cabinets of books

So that book you remembered about from your youth is here. If it isn’t, it isn’t likely to be anywhere else. J. R. Hartley wasted his time wandering around the local bookshops of his small town; he should have taken the bus across the Golden Valley to Hay-on-Wye and tracked it down here.

The Globe at Hay, a converted chapel, was a revelation and my base for several days. Entering takes you into the most relaxed cafe possible. Sofas, cushions to sit and lie down own, various tables. Free wifi and a formidable menu of excellent and well-priced food, tea and coffee. People tap away on laptops. More of them ask about the decal on Samantha.

Downstairs, the basement is used for classes, keep fit, and as a makeshift cinema where I rewatched “Mulholland Drive” one evening on a comfy sofa while drinking good tea in a proper cup. The Odeon this was not.

Comfy seating

The residents are noticeably affluent, in how they dress and shop. This is, to use the increasingly dodgy British classification, an upper middle class town. I suspect the newspaper demographic is about 80 percent Guardian, 15 percent Independent and 5 percent the rest. But whilst people who (tediously) revel in the “grittiness” of “working class” living will automatically assume that means snobbiness, it’s exactly the opposite. I don’t think I’ve visited a more relentlessly friendly, approachable and relaxed place in Britain.

It’s probably helped by the range of shops. As well as over 30 bookshops, there are many foodie shops, from delicatessans to cafes to restaurants to (several) grocers. Many of them selling high quality, organic, and varied, fruit and vegetables. And not at extortionate prices, so it’s not just for those affluent people. Hay-on-Wye isn’t near anywhere significant; Hereford is the local city, nearly an hour away by bus. It’s on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, a wild and empty place I distantly remember from childhood. The town is proof that, with effort and a positive attitude, a relatively ‘remote’ place can have a wide range of goods and services.

Indexing

It’s no surprise that the annual Hay Festival is a big success. Accommodation is booked up for (many) miles around; the B&B I stay in is booked for the festival week for the next two years. I went to an early festival and remember it being little more than a marquee in the town square. Now it’s a big thing, with speakers such as Bill Clinton proclaiming the festival as “The Woodstock of the mind”.

I wonder what other book towns are like? I visited one a decade ago in Mundal in Norway without realising it, but remember noticing lots of places selling second-hand books. I’m overdue for another visit to Norway and a stay in my favourite hotel there to date. And perhaps an exploration of other booktowns; there are 22 in Europe, ranging from Votikvere in Estonia to Valladolid in Spain. This could become a new hobby (glint in eye) if I can work out how to fund it.

But if you are serious about books and knowledge, you have to visit Hay-on-Wye at least once in your life. Go there. Buy a book for yourself. Buy one for someone else, and post it to them.

I heart Samantha

I heart Samantha

In response to a few comments and queries, Samantha isn’t a real person. She’s the name of my Asus EEE mini laptop which did the trip around the USA with me, and is pictured in various places (Arizona, Los Angeles, Oregon, Chicago, New Orleans) in this post. Samantha proved incredibly popular, and I must have been asked about her easily over a hundred times. From train travellers to people in hotel lobbies, bars and restaurants to very excited librarians, Samantha was the centre of attention on so many occasions.

Samantha at Tucson station

Why Samantha? It’s named after Travels With Samantha, probably my favourite work of American travel writing after Blue Highways. Travels With Samantha was one of the first major works produced, and put on, the Web. It subsequently won the Best of the Web award for 1994. nb if you have recently gone through a pet bereavement, then advise not reading the first chapter of TWS.

In TWS, Samantha was also a laptop which the author carried around the US with him on what became an epic journey. Rebrand More about Samantha. She’s the PC 901 model, running Windows XP and with Open Office installed. 1.6 GHz. Problems to date: zero. Improvements that could be made: more memory on the solid state hard drive; non-essential software removed before start-up.

Bench outside Klamath Falls library

One of my tasks on the trip to the US was to see how much work one could do on the road. And the answer is – a heck of a lot. The battery lasts for 6 hours on a full charge, probably because it takes less power to run a solid state memory than a hard drive. In the first few days, I managed to do a powerpoint presentation and a couple of articles; as the trip developed, I did both of my conference presentations from scratch. The small screensize can make fine detail a bit tricky to see; you’d also not want to do heavy SL development work on it. But for most other things; fine.

First drinks of GLLS2008 tagged :-)

Speed: fast; it’s very quick from starting up to getting in and doing things. Issues: the hard drive needs to be bigger. The keyboard can take a bit of getting used to. The Wifi pick-up seemed remarkably good (though others contest it may be weaker than other machines), as I picked up many, many wifi signals when travelling around the US (side-point: thank you, so many Americans, for leaving your wifi routers open. Especially those of you close to Amtrak rail lines).

Connie and Gumbo

Accessorise? Yes. I have three items. The Obama decal, which resulted in two people wanting to buy Samantha for more than she was worth. And the mouse and case, pictured below with her. The mouse is a Belkin one costing around 10 pounds which glows in ever-changing colours, and retracts. The case is a soft pouch which weighs virtually nothing. According to the kitchen scales, the computer, mouse and case between them weigh 2 pounds and 10.5 ounces. Hence it was one of the lighter items that I carried with me to the top of the 6,900 foot mountain in Montana.

EEE, case and mouse

Do I recommend it? Yes. They’re cheap; you don’t like it – put it up for sale on eBay and you’ll get nearly all your money back. It’s robust – my older, much larger and heavier laptop would not have taken the punishment Samantha has through America. But if e.g. airport security manage to destroy it, then you haven’t lost a fortune. Above all, the weight and the compactness of the whole thing (the mains adapter was also miniature) meant it could all be literally thrown into the backpack with other bits and pieces. Samantha went everywhere with me, except to the shower room on Amtrak trains or to the Obama presidential party. So we’re good mates now, and I’m glad I never sold her.

The American Dream

The American Dream

This particular adventure draws to a close; in a few minutes Pablo the limo driver (cheaper than a taxi) will return, hopefully with my luggage, and we’ll be off to LAX. The pictures on this page I took earlier today around the Getty Center. There are two American dreams. It’s ironic that I’m typing this while in Los Angeles, the magnet for people looking for the first one:

Dream 1. The shortcut to wealth. Be discovered, become a star; quickly build up a business empire and make millions. Protect your wealth through whatever means, be they economic or political.

Sycamore tree

Dream 2: Find someone special. Afford a house with a white picket fence. Raise a family. Grow old together, enjoy each others company. Stay healthy, stay out of debt. Read. Be optimistic. Live modestly.

I met plenty of people who were after dream 2. Some, like the couple at the last meal I had on an Amtrak train, had found it. Others were looking. Those two dreams; they partially but don’t totally fit the political scene. Many Republican voters would prefer dream 2; some Democrats have achieved dream 1.

Open plaza

What connects them both is opportunity and education. Learn how to find the opportunities. Give yourself the skills to take advantage of them. Whatever American dream you follow, unless you get extremely lucky or are born into money, you’ve got to go for the opportunities. And they’re there. If you want them and go for them. And you have a large slice of luck with things such as health. So Americans seem quietly determined; at least the ones I met. Perhaps this is a manifestation of their ancestry, with people determined to leave behind poverty and repression and make a better life. Maybe it’s a desire to get on in life. Connect with like-minded people. Move on, and build what is still a new country, make it better.

And maybe this is why the US has what I call The Hive. It’s an extremely intense network and community of self-driven digital library researchers and practitioners. They each make considerable use of Web 2.0 and other net technologies to what some may think are extreme degrees. They don’t *have* to do any of this; they just do. I met some of The Hive at #IL2008 and #GLLS2008; others online, through Twitter and Flickr and Facebook and email.

Roses

This doesn’t exist in Britain to the extent it does in the US, and I’m not sure it could. Work conditions, negatively, count against it. Americans would say “Just do it.”; Brits would say “Why on Earth are you doing it?” in that ever-cynical way I’ve gotten tired of over the last decade. Cynicism is not the same as intelligence, which is why Britain would never elect someone like Barack with a message of “Hope” and “Change”. By coincidence I had a late night twitter exchange with someone senior from the UK academic digital education scene, who made pretty much the same point about a lack of any substantial UK “Hive”. This needs investigating properly (RB: we need to talk).

What is America? It’s being in wonder at something without looking for fault or cynicism in it. It’s strangers saying hello. It’s trying at something. It’s having conversations that are never dull or predictable. It’s having an opinion. It’s making a cause, and voting, and elections, and not giving up when a hurricane washes away your house but going back and rebuilding it and making a home and starting again. It’s an utter diversity of landscapes, communities and people. It’s being awake, it’s realising what’s outside and what you want to do, and who you are. Smell is the strongest sense, and to me America smells of Amtrak diesel, pomegramates and lemons, strong coffee in a Memphis diner, badly made tea, gumbo, the dollar bill, hotel cookies, peanut butter at Graceland, Louisiana swampwater, Seattle breakfast fruit, rooftop swimming pools, bear poo, the sweat of a nervous taxi driver, the breakfast buffet at #glls2008, hot dogs on Santa Monica pier, fish feed at Monterey aquarium, Pike Place in Seattle, cheesecake, the Mississippi at sunset, deep Chicago pizza, the edginess of El Paso, hotel conference room carpets, the hair of someone hugging you who was a stranger yesterday and will be a friend for life today, a library in Montana, the tangiable excitement of a crowd counting down the seconds to their president-elect…

Walkway

But there’s only one colour for me and that colour is blue. Blue for the sky over the Getty Center in Los Angeles as I type this, of the sky over the Canadian rockies, of the Mississippi at dawn, of the sky over a Swedish-style house with a white picket fence I glimpsed in Minnesota and can’t forget, of the eyes of Brooke and Holly, of the winning party. “Soak it up – be inspired – let yourself be open – you don’t know what might come in.”

I did, and found America, and home.

Thank you.